The United States has never had a train culture like so many other countries. And it’s certainly never had trains of the calibre and class of the greats around the world: the old Orient Express, the Royal Scotsman, the Maharajas’ Express. But all that is changing, and a renaissance of the glory days of train travel is emerging in the US, where it’s now possible to experience various excursions across the land in renovated sleeper cars with Pullman Rail Journeys. If getting to where you are going isn’t the point, but how you get there is, you’re in luck. New “luxury” rail services offer an up-close look at the American heartland in a way no aeroplane or highway ever could, enjoyed while dining on three-course meals or dozing in your bed.
I put “luxury” in quotes because these trains don’t sport the inlaid wood panelling, sumptuous upholstery, sparkling chandeliers and brass luggage racks polished to a high gleam of the grand old trains of yesteryear. You won’t be sipping champagne from a crystal flute in your tuxedo or evening gown. Compared to the Orient Express, these trains are rather basic. But compared to standard US trains, they are a cut above, with nicer cars, better service, all-inclusive amenities…and an open bar.
I recently took the Pullman train from Chicago to New Orleans, expecting an Agatha Christie-worthy experience. While Hercule Poirot and his style of travelling were nowhere to be seen, it still was a fun adventure and an enjoyable way to get from point A to point B without the hassle of airports or stress of driving. Instead I sat back and watched small town America go by, ate and drank well, and slept like a baby.
Pullman Rail Journeys operate train trips on reconditioned old sleeper, bar, and dining cars pulled by Amtrak trains (America’s train system) on certain regular routes. Customers in the standard Amtrak cars and sleeper cars cannot enter into the Pullman cars. The number of Pullman cars added to the Amtrak train varies depending on how many customers have booked. On my trip the group was small so there was not a separate bar or lounge car and dining car, one car served both purposes. There was also no special observation car as there might have been if more passengers were onboard.
Pullman Rail Journeys came about when directors of the company purchased some six out-of-service train cars – from the fabled 20th Century Limited (once known as the world’s greatest train) to cars used to move troops in World War II – and renovated them back to their original periods. I travelled on the Chebanse, whose period must be Depression office. The dining/bar car, for example, consisted of chairs that wouldn’t be out of place in a hospital waiting room lined up against the wall. Part of the refurbishment of the cars included new wheels, undercarriage and suspensions for a steady ride.
The Chicago to New Orleans route begins with checking into the bustling Amtrak waiting room in Chicago’s Union Station. While those travelling on the Amtrak portion of the train hauled their own bags, ours were tagged and taken to our cabins by porters. The train to New Orleans takes off every Friday at 8pm. Drinks in the dining car are served soon after departure, followed by dinner. In the morning, breakfast is followed by lunch before the train arrives in New Orleans Union passenger station at 3:32pm. In the other direction, the train departs New Orleans every Sunday at 1:45pm and arrives in Chicago at 9am the following morning.
While passengers are at dinner, the grey-upholstered built-in seating that takes up most of the guest room is turned into a cosy bed. Mine ran the length of the window; configurations in each car vary, but this seemed typical. There was a tiny alcove with three wooden hangars for hanging clothes, although most of the space was taken up by an emergency ladder. Hooks on the wall proved handy. Forget about cabinets or drawers – my carry-on rolling bag, which just fit on the only available floor space – served the purpose. The room itself was carpeted, with walls of metal painted beige. And those metal walls are thin. I could hear the occupant of the next room flush the toilet, talk on the phone, and snore through the night. The bed linens were white, the blankets yellow and supposedly woven in the manner of those on the original sleeper trains.
There is a shower down the hall, but on a journey of just one night I was able to avoid using it. There was a tiny bathroom in my room with only enough space to use the toilet – if your legs aren’t too long. LeBron would have a problem. There was a nifty metal sink that folded down, Murphy-bed style, from the wall over the toilet. A tiny bar of soap was provided, as were towels.
Four couples were travelling on my journey. Most were celebrating a special occasion: a birthday, an anniversary. One couple was headed to the New Orleans Jazz Fest and thought this would be an interesting way to get there. Although pre-boarding instructions requested that guests change for dinner – dresses or skirts for women, suits or sports jackets with dressy trousers and collared shirts for men – I was the only one who did. Smart casual, or just plain casual, seemed to be the preferred style.
To me the best part of the journey was sitting up in bed, reading, and looking out the window as America flashed by. Travelling in the Chicago-New Orleans direction means you’ll be seeing sleepy Southern towns smothered in Spanish moss and Louisiana bayous sprinkled with bait shacks in the daylight hours. As for sleeping, the bed was cosy and comfortable and the gentle rocking of the train was like being back in the cradle.
The meals were the second best part of the journey. Pricing includes unlimited wine and drinks, including local Chicago or New Orleans beers, and Grand Marnier or port after dinner. Tables are set with white linen and china – but don’t expect any Lalique crystal goblets or Limoges butter dishes. It’s nice dining, not fine dining. In keeping with the retro style of the cars, dinners start with a real throwback: a dish of celery sticks, olives and pickles. Main courses such as salmon, beef and chicken all come sauced, while chocolate mousse or strawberry parfait are the favourite desserts.
Breakfast might be French toast or eggs, lunch a salad or burger. It’s amazing how tasty and varied the fare can be, considering it is all produced in a room literally the size of most wardrobes. The dining car on my trip was set with tables for four, meaning that most travellers need to make instant friendships and conversation with strangers. The staff joined in the camaraderie. They were invariably extremely pleasant, proud of their jobs and their train, and a pleasure to spend time with if only for less than 24 hours.
How much does an overnight trip back to yesteryear cost? Here’s the good news: while a night on the Orient Express used to be thousands of US dollars, a night on the Pullman train is in the hundreds. That’s a steal compared with what a hotel for the night, a nice dinner and breakfast and lunch, and an airline ticket would be between New Orleans and Chicago. I would much rather spend my time reading in my bed with a Southern landscape out of the window than sitting in an airport waiting for my delayed flight, an increasingly common experience.
Packages including stays in New Orleans or Chicago are also available. New Orleans and Chicago are great cities to visit, so taking advantage of the special packages to explore the architecture of Chicago and charm of New Orleans would be a wonderful way to spend a weekend. Later this year, a Chicago to New York and New York to Chicago route, with stops in Washington DC, will be offered as well, with packages like autumn leaf peaking and holiday shopping. All aboard!