Excited to explore a new continent by train I booked a ticket on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, the most direct train that connects the two major cities in the United States of America, Washington D.C. and Chicago. The journey takes seventeen hours and forty minutes and runs overnight, usually departing Washington Union Station at 16:05 and arriving in Chicago Union Station for 08:45 the following morning. The train departs every day in each direction and travels via the Alleghany Mountains.
A long distance journey on Amtrak like this really puts into perspective how vast the area of the United States is. Like many long distance train trips here, this isn’t a fast journey with an average speed of 93 miles per hour. This would be enough put most travellers off booking, however, once you’re onboard watching the world go by and making friends in the dining car, the speed becomes unimportant. You see more of where you travel and experience a feeling of relaxation to rival any other mode of transport.
Amtrak offers a range of accommodation options on the Capitol Limited, three types in fact. This varies from a reclining seat to a family bedroom. Reclining seats are often very good value on Amtrak, especially on overnight trains, but for those wanting to travel in more comfort, with a private compartment and a place to lie down, Amtrak will charge you handsomely for it. For this journey I found a way to have the best of both worlds – a reasonable price and the same accommodation that would allow me to get a restful sleep, as I will explain.
Washington Union Station
My journey started at the grand Washington Union Station, built originally in 1907. Today it is a true hub station housing not just Amtrak long distance services but also connections with the metro, buses and suburban rail connections. Amtrak services from here include the Capitol Corridor served by America’s fastest train, the Acela Express, that whisks you away up to Boston in seven hours, several times a day.
It is always recommended to turn up in good time for an Amtrak train, official guidance is thirty minutes prior to departure. While you can ‘turn up and go’ for most trains in Europe, Amtrak does have a more formal boarding procedure. Your train is called on the main concourse and you are filed onto the train through a departure gate. It’s not the best passenger experience, but one of many examples where Amtrak models itself as an airline and adopts elements of it that it really doesn’t need to.
One of the better policies adopted from the airline industry is the optional baggage check-in facility, where you drop your bag off before boarding the train. The bag is stored in a dedicated baggage car on the train and then turns up at the Baggage Reclaim at your destination. It was my intention to check-in a suitcase for this trip, however, I fell foul to not checking the dedicated page on the Amtrak website. In the general guidance at the time there was only mention of turning up thirty minutes prior to departure. I soon learned that the deadline for baggage check-in was actually forty-five minutes before travel, so having missed the deadline I would need to take my case with me onto the train.
Onboard the Capitol Limited
There is one type of seated accommodation on the Capitol Limited and that is Coach Class arranged in a 2+2 configuration on both the upper and lower decks of the car. This features a comfortable seat that reclines and one of the best seats for legroom on the rails in the world.
Amtrak doesn’t allow you to reserve a specific seat in advance in Coach Class on the Capitol Limited. On the platform there is a queue for boarding. In the queue, you are handed a coloured cardboard slip by the car attendant that contains your seat number. This is nothing fancy though – this seat number is scribbled on in marker pen and the slip has been torn from larger piece of cardboard. This specific seat becomes your base for the rest of the journey and you are expected to remain there, even if you don’t like your seat neighbour.
The attendant groups customers going to the same destination together and the staff are very clear that there may be seats free elsewhere on the train, but you must remain in your specified seat. There is method in the madness here, this is a train not a plane and there will be people, and groups of people, getting on and off the train as the train stops at stations through the night. This method at least allows them to sit together.
There are often very good value fares for travel in Coach Class, especially on these overnight trips. For many (and myself), however, sleeping in any seat would be a challenge and this one would be no exception.
Amtrak is in the process of refurbishing these coaches, so you may have a mixture of old, dark blue fabric seating, and the new, light grey leather seating for your journey.
Sleeping Car Accommodation
The cheapest of the sleeping car type accommodation is the Superliner Roomette (pictured below). The size of these are compact, but it can accommodate up to two people in each one. On arrival the room is set-up in daytime mode, which is two comfortable seats facing each other. These two seats convert to form a single bed for the night for one person and there is an upper bunk that folds down to accommodate the second person. Bedding is provided and the room set-up for sleeping by the car attendant at a time of your choosing. Shared toilets are available with one on the upper floor and more downstairs along with shared showers (including towels and soap), more roomettes and an accessible bedroom. The facilities were kept clean by the attendant throughout the journey.
The third type of accommodation on the Capitol Limited is the Family Bedroom, which are double the size of a Superliner Roomette. These rooms also have en-suite bathrooms with showers and can sleep up to four passengers – up to two people accommodated on a lower bunk and up to two on an upper bunk. I wasn’t able to get a picture of this class unfortunately but hope to review this in the future.
Reservations for any of these accommodations also come with complimentary coffee in the morning at the end of the car as well as complimentary lounge access at the departure and arrival stations.
Dining and Café Car
There is catering available to all customers onboard the train irrespective of the class you’re travelling in. The difference is which part of the Dining and Café Car you are able to sit in and whether your meals are complimentary or not. One half of the car is designated for sleeping car passengers who receive complimentary meals included with their tickets. The second half is empty tables where you queue up, order from the host and pay and take your food to your table, or your seat if you’d prefer.
Complimentary meals are available to all sleeping car passengers. Amtrak recently launched a controversial “Flexible Dining” menu on some eastern routes allowing sleeping car passengers to eat when they please. This comes with a downside, however, in that they are microwaved meals served on a plastic tray. Amtrak’s longer train routes in the western part of the country do retain the “Traditional Dining” menu which I hope to sample in the future. Pictured below is the substantial complimentary evening meal and breakfast for sleeping car passengers on the Capitol Limited. I was shocked when I asked for milk to go with my coffee that I was given a half pint.
The Capitol Limited route does have some very scenic moments as the route travels via the Allegheny Mountains. A particular highlight was going through Harper’s Ferry in the evening as the sun was setting. In the morning, the city can be seen in the distance with its tall buildings and riding alongside Lake Michigan is a treat.
What was my experience and how did I save $100 on the sleeping car fare?
Originally I was all set to travel in Coach Class for the trip on the Capitol Limited – the price for the full journey was a bargain $84.00. At the time of booking, 11 months in advance, the Superliner Roomette fare was $450.00 – a huge differential between the two classes.
Amtrak does have a “Bid-Up” programme where you can bid for an upgrade from your booked accommodation. I went for a fair bid of $250, however, I learned the night before travel that I was unsuccessful and presumably ‘out-bid’ by another traveller.
Following this news and me not being too keen on the reclining seat for the night time part of the journey, I decided to take another look at the Amtrak app to see what fares were being offered. The same fare was available for the full journey for the Superliner Roomette. I did some more searching and much to my delight I found the same accommodation covering the night part of the journey from Cumberland to Chicago for only $266.00.
My plan was to spend the first three hours of the trip in the Coach Class accommodation and then at 19:24, when the train would arrive at Cumberland station, I would move through to the Superliner Roomette. This would still allow me to benefit from the complimentary meal in the Dining Car available to all sleeping car passengers, would give me a bed for the night, breakfast in the morning and lounge access at Chicago Union Station – not a bad deal.
I sent a message to Amtrak on Twitter to confirm that my plan would work out ok before booking. As I wasn’t able to check-in my bag with my original ticket from Washington D.C. to Chicago, I decided to ask my roomette attendant before boarding if I could leave my suitcase in the sleeping car so I wouldn’t need to walk through the train with my suitcase before arriving at Cumberland. This was no problem at all.
I checked-in to the Coach Class accommodation with my original ticket. As the train reached Cumberland I moved through to the Dining Car where I chatted to the host and showed him my Superliner Roomette reservation from Cumberland and he was happy to serve me just before my station. My Superliner Roomette attendant came through to the Dining Car and asked what time I’d like my bed to be made up (any time before 22:00) so I opted for 21:30.
So all-in-all booking Coach Class for the day part of the journey and the Superliner Roomette for the evening part of the journey worked a treat for me on the Capitol Limited. I could’ve saved an extra $30 if I’d booked only Coach Class from Washington D.C. to Cumberland instead of Chicago. Naturally all prices are demand managed on Amtrak and it won’t always be cheaper to split accommodation mid-way through the journey, even on the Capitol Limited. But it’s always worth checking and I was very glad to have the roomette for the night.
Chicago Union Station & Metropolitan Lounge
The arrival into Chicago Union Station isn’t the most welcoming the same as the platform area at Washington Union Station on departure the day before. The platforms are underground and are poorly lit. This could be so as you spend as little time down there, but it does feel like an area you shouldn’t be in.
Once you’re on the concourse of the station, the environment is much nicer with a grand entrance hall. Chicago Union Station is the main hub of Amtrak and it’s certainly exciting seeing some of the great long distance trains being listed on the departure boards here including the California Zephyr, Empire Builder and South West Chief.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, it is certainly a competitive way to travel between Washington D.C. and Chicago being time effective travelling through the night and a journey experience in its own right – you don’t get views like that on an aeroplane that’s for sure. The Coach Class seat was surprisingly comfortable and the privacy and comfort of the Superliner Roomette bed was very welcome when it came to going to sleep. The food onboard wasn’t much to write home about in terms of presentation, but I did find it tasty.
|Journey Leg||Coach Class||Superliner Roomette|
|Washington D.C. to Chicago||from $84.00||from $450.00|
|Washington D.C. to Cumberland||from $54.00|
|Cumberland to Chicago||from $265.00|
This article was first published in January 2023.