I Took an Overnight Train During the Pandemic — Here's What I Learned
After taking Amtrak's Coast Starlight train from Portland to Los Angeles during the pandemic, one traveler shares her experience of the 30-hour journey.
As soon as I stepped into the boarding line at Portland’s Union Station, I noticed signs of the times: masks and markers on the floor, instructing people where to stand. Masks covering your nose and mouth are required by Amtrak in all stations, as is keeping proper social distance from others. The same goes while aboard their trains. Despite these rules, the woman directly behind me left her nose poking out over the top of her mask as she carried on an animated conversation with her traveler partner.
But I reminded myself that I was booked in one of Amtrak’s private bedrooms, a space where I’d have my own sitting area, en suite bathroom with a toilet and shower, a sink, and, when I was ready to call it a night, a bed. In other words, unless I chose to, I wouldn’t have to interact or share space with any other passengers on my 30-hour journey from Portland to Los Angeles. For someone like me with immune issues that put them in a higher-risk category for COVID-19, having this option offered an off-load of anxiety.
As I approached the platform outside the sleeping car, I flashed my paperwork to a welcoming employee who managed to flash back a big smile, even with her face hidden behind a mask. “Hi, there,” she said before getting surprisingly excited. “Oh, look at that!” Her voice sounded like she had just won the lottery. “You’re in car 31 — that’s my car! I’m Linda, and I’ll be your cabin attendant taking care of you all the way to Los Angeles.” Linda’s cheerful spirit was contagious, giving me the first real feeling of excitement and adventure since my last trip, a food-filled exploration of Houston back in late February.
Everything I’d read so far about riding Amtrak in the time of COVID-19 seemed to rank long-distance train travel as safe, smart, and — dare I say — even relaxing.
“Is this your first time on the Coast Starlight?” Linda asked. It wasn’t. In fact, I had taken my inaugural journey on the bucket-list route back in early February, riding south from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo and then, a few days later, catching the train down again to the end of the line in Los Angeles. That time, I had bought a business class ticket, an upgrade that came with two free bottles of water, an onboard food credit, and even a free early evening wine tasting. The internet was spotty at best, forcing me to spend the hours admiring the scenery, reading, and making quick and easy lunchtime friends at my table in the dining room.
This time, I was in one of the private bedrooms located on the second floor of the train’s two-bedroom sleeper cars. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is a Superliner, a fancy term that basically means it’s a double-decker train — which, as I would find out, is great for views, but can get a little rocky in your private room.
We reached my room and I was immediately impressed. Although it’s already twice the size of a roomette, the bedroom cabins are much more spacious than they appear online. However, the room was almost remarkably dated — nostalgic even. The folding lounge bench and viewing seat were made of a fabric similar to what you’d find on an airplane. In fact, the whole room looked like what I would have expected to find in a first-class suite on an international flight back in the 1970s (if they made them this big). There was also a metal utility sink, molded plastic wall, and an airplane-sized bathroom with a handheld shower nozzle over the toilet.
Linda and her boisterous charm bid me adieu, promising to return to show me around my new digs after she was able to meet, greet, and guide her other sleeping car passengers to their rooms. And that’s when I got to work. After locking the door behind me and closing the privacy curtain, I immediately took out my tub of Clorox wipes. I’ve made a habit of giving every hotel room or Airbnb I’ve stayed in during the pandemic a solid wipe down for my own sanity and security. I also bring my own pillow.
Sometimes, doing all this extra work makes me feel paranoid, and I almost didn’t do it this time. I felt pretty confident that Amtrak was on top of their pandemic protocols, a collection of new and enhanced cleaning and health safety measures that they developed with their full-time medical and health safety team who has experience on the frontlines of COVID-19. These include things like cleaning every seat, private room, baggage rack, bathroom, button, café car, dining car, and other publicly shared spaces with an EPA-registered disinfectant before the train leaves — not to mention continuing to spray and wipe down all major touchpoints, including bathrooms, every couple of hours.
As I set my things down, the train rolled into motion. We were off. On pure reflex, I shot to the window to watch as we rode over the Willamette River. While the view itself wasn’t breathtaking, I found myself holding my breath. At first, the feeling was confusing and almost unrecognizable, but then it hit me: For the first time in seven months, I wasn’t just going somewhere — I was traveling. I was excited.
Up until this point, all of my anxiety about traveling during a pandemic had managed to drown out something I hadn’t even considered: the excitement of traveling. In my pre-pandemic life, I traveled for work two to three times a month — a far cry from the one-mile radius I had confined myself to in Brooklyn between March and August. Suddenly, taking an overnight train from Portland to Los Angeles felt like an adventure. And, for a moment, everything felt normal again.
As I plopped down on the folded seating bench and pulled out my phone to start taking pictures, I remembered reading about other overnight Amtrak experiences that detailed the freshly disinfected roomettes. However, my room did not have any signs of being newly cleaned, prompting me to do a thorough inspection and ultimately wipe everything down.
Upon reaching out to Amtrak, a spokesperson for the company said, "The health and safety of our riders and crew continues to be our number one priority. In fact, we have a full-time medical director and public health and safety team who have been on the frontlines throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. We have studied, analyzed, and made improvements to the Amtrak travel experience from beginning to end, focusing on the safety and health of our people and travelers."
I had 29 and a half hours to go. Curious what the rest of the train looked like, I put my mask back on and ventured out into the wild, opening the doors between cars by using the train’s hands-free, foot-level release button. I noticed signage stating that passengers and staff must wear masks at all times unless in the privacy of their own rooms had replaced Amtrak promotional posters on the walls. I also realized that absolutely none of the windows on the train were open, and frequent reminders over the intercom made it clear that passengers were not to attempt to open them.
Walking through the rows of roomettes, it appeared that people were taking advantage of a loophole in the mask rule — they were maskless while in their rooms as required, but their doors were wide open. (Amtrak declined to answer my inquiries on whether or not this violated their mask policy, but they did say that refusing to wear a mask in a public space will result in prompt removal from the train.)
By the time I reached the dining car, I was relieved to see that Sandy, the dining room attendant, was masked and wiping down tables. Every other table had a sign on it, instructing passengers to leave the booth empty in order to maintain social distancing. This left a total of five dining tables open (all of which must be reserved for a specific time in advance). And at any given meal time, I found that only three out of five tables were ever occupied. It is worth noting that masks are not mandatory in the dining car when seated for meals, nor are passengers required to wear masks elsewhere while they are eating or drinking.
Most passengers were respectful of the rules, though there was the occasional person who used this rule as a way to get around wearing a mask for an extended period of time in other sections, like the observation car. Employees are also required to wear masks at all times, unless in their private rooms. However, this was not the case on my train. I observed room attendants entering the private rooms of passengers who were not wearing masks.
Since my journey seemed to vary from what I had read about other pandemic Amtrak experiences, I decided to reach out to travel writer Ali Wunderman, who had journeyed overnight on Amtrak’s Empire Builder train, which runs from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. I wanted to determine if my experience was more the exception or the norm. “Over the past few months, I’ve taken four trains over three Amtrak routes,” Wunderman told me. “And while safety and sanitization were largely prioritized no matter which train I rode, the experience wasn’t uniform. I noticed that on the Empire Builder, my attendant was frequently sanitizing the car, my roomette smelled of disinfectant when I boarded, and the conductor sounded very serious about policing passengers about wearing masks.”
She went on to say that she never saw a room attendant without a mask on, unless they were in their own room with the door closed — and even then, they rushed to put on a mask before opening the door for her. “However, on the routes where the boarding announcements didn’t sound as intense about COVID policies, passengers seemed less inclined to follow the rules. For the most part, it seemed the protocols were being adhered to, but when staff seemed more lax about sanitizing and enforcing mask policy, passengers used that opportunity to be less safe themselves.”
As the sun set on my first day, I was ready to call it a night. I took a few last glimpses outside the window and wondered what views I’d miss as we passed by in the darkness. I’d spent the day watching the outside world flicker by like a silent film, a few minutes at a time. So far on the journey, I’d soaked in the wooded landscape of the Pacific Northwest, gluing myself to the window as we snaked through trees already painted with golden yellows, bright oranges, and fiery reds. I love autumn, so this was a huge deal and a big surprise — I relished every turning leaf, knowing it was the only glimpse of fall foliage I'd get this year. Sleepy small towns and vast stretches of farmland also whizzed by outside, blurring into one another and introducing stories and characters that existed only for seconds. It’s the ultimate transient experience: Almost as soon as you see something out the window, it’s gone, and then everything eventually fades to black.
I flagged down Linda, who promptly set up my bed, made sure I was set for the night, and then left me to listen to the audiobook I’d downloaded and text my friends during the on-and-off pockets of service (I didn’t attempt to join the Wi-Fi this go-around.) It turned out to be a rough night, full of rattles and rumbles.
When I finally made it to the dining room the next day, after official breakfast hours were over, Sandy and Linda greeted me. I grabbed a cup of freshly brewed coffee, and put in my order for lunch. One unexpected highlight of my train trip was the food — both tasty and filling. They even had a decent selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Instead of eating in the dining car, I took advantage of Amtrak’s new room service option and had all my meals delivered right to my room at a time of my choosing. Something to consider when weighing the pros and cons of booking a private room — they all come with free meals, including select soft drinks and your first alcoholic drink, plus you have the option of eating off the dining car menu or going with something more casual in the café car.
My lunch was delivered right as we entered my favorite stretch of the journey, when the scenery of central California expanded with the wineries of Paso Robles, then surrounded us on all sides with mountains. Somewhere after Santa Barbara, golden hour set in, and the tracks brought us nearly to the edge of cliffs running along the Pacific Ocean. Our timing was impeccable and lined up with the sunset. The curtain of my cabin was closed, and not wanting me to miss the view, Linda hopped on our car’s intercom to make an announcement. Even though the train runs parallel to certain sections of the freeway, these are vantage points that you can only witness from the train.
By the time I stepped onto the platform in Union Station — this time in Los Angeles — I was ready to go home, but already missing the train. While many parts of my experience failed to meet my expectations, there were others that exceeded them.