The last evening of my trip was quite relaxing and enjoyable. I picked up my rental car, pulled out my directions printed off the Internet a few days earlier while at home in Houston, and headed for my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn LAX/El Segundo. I had chosen this hotel due to its close proximity to Los Angeles International Airport, where I would be flying home to Houston the next morning. At check-in I was informed I had been upgraded to the hotel’s "university" wing. This meant I would be staying in one of the rooms that the Hilton Corporation uses at this location for testing new room décor and amenities, and for training its employees. My room ended up being a test room for Hilton’s Homewood Suites concept. So, instead of having the standard Hilton Garden Inn room, the room was a classic two-room suite with full kitchen, just like what’s usually found in a Homewood Suites location.
I settled in, unpacked a few things, and decided I wanted a real shower; at this point two and a half days had elapsed since my last shower with really good water pressure in a roomy space that was stationary. I took advantage of the suite’s spacious bathroom for a nice, long, hot shower, followed by a change of clothes. As much as I had appreciated having a shower available on the train, it just could not compare to the real thing. I decided that I was too tired from all of my travel to really go out that evening, so I checked out the room’s pay-per-view movie listings. I settled on Transamerica, which several friends had seen and enjoyed. The entertainment portion of the evening was now decided, so I got online and looked for dinner options. The hotel’s room service menu was the standard Hilton Garden Inn dinner fare, which is fine, but I wanted something better, and something totally unlike the Sunset Limited dining car’s fare. A quick scan of the hotel’s guest services guide indicated there were several nearby restaurants that had takeout available. I opted for PF Chang’s, and pulled up their menu online to make my selections before calling in an order.
After returning from PF Chang’s with my takeout Americanized Chinese food, I ordered my movie, and fixed a nice plate for myself using the dishes and utensils found in my suite’s fully stocked kitchen. While the food on Amtrak had not been bad at all, it was so good to have something completely different from what I’d been served on the train.
The next morning it was time to head home. I got up, returned the rental car, and made it to LAX with plenty of time for my flight back to Houston. Shortly after 10:00 AM I settled back in my BusinessFirst sleeper seat on a Continental Airlines 757 for the 1,300 mile trip back to Houston. While the trip from Houston to Los Angeles had taken nearly 60 hours from start to finish, the flight attendant announced that our flight to Houston would be a very quick three hours that morning. That alone was a shining example of why air travel had replaced the passenger trains of decades long past in the US as the primary method for long-distance travel. And then there was the cost; my Amtrak Roomette had cost more than a full-fare one-way economy airline ticket that came with an instant upgrade to first class had.
In retrospect, I am quite glad I opted to take this trip. It fulfilled a longtime desire for taking a train across the US. I saw many parts of the US I had never been through before; despite previous trips to West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, the train took me through areas of those states I had yet to visit. I also enjoyed my conversations with other passengers over meals in the dining car. Train travel brings together a very diverse crowd of people. There was Karen, from Austin, whom I’d shared several meals with, who was on her way to California to visit a friend. There was the elderly African American couple from California who was returning home from a visit to family on the East Coast; they did not like to fly, and were frequent Amtrak travelers. There was the couple from Southeast Texas I shared lunch with on the first day that had just taken the train for the thrill of it as part of their vacation, but had been less than impressed by Amtrak’s delays and the service cutbacks. They had said they were unlikely to take Amtrak again.
A few months later I would experience a different extreme of long-distance rail travel on my trip to France. I knew Europe had much better passenger rail infrastructure than the US. Unlike the Sunset Limited’s laboring 40 MPH average speed during my journey, the TGV I took in France whisked me from Paris to Narbonne, a track distance of about 530 miles, with speeds approaching 200 MPH in about four hours. While I enjoyed my trip on Amtrak, I had a hard time seeing myself taking it again for travel outside of the Northeast Corridor, where service was much faster and more reliable between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Yet, the experience left me disappointed that our government had let passenger rail decline so much in the US.
Despite Amtrak’s aging equipment, late arrivals, and service cutbacks, the trip was quite an enjoyable one. I would consider taking a similar trip again at some point in the future on Amtrak; routes like the Empire Builder from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest I find tempting. It’s definitely not a method of travel anyone would consider efficient, but it’s quite comfortable, and a good way to sit back and watch the world go by outside your window as you cross the US over a period of a few days.