Overnight train’s virtues put anxieties to sleep

By Rebecca Ostriker
Globe Staff / February 21, 2010

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Are we going to go nuts in there?

I couldn’t help thinking that as we walked along the platform at South Station, peering at the Amtrak train we were about to board. My husband, Ian, and I had overnight reservations on the Lake Shore Limited, bound for Chicago. We were sharing a Viewliner Roomette, the smallest sleeper space possible, and through the train’s wide windows we could see all the compartments lined up inside, looking tiny, even toylike.

Hoisting our bags through our room’s narrow door, we circled tightly on the available floor, the way dogs do before they somehow find order in the universe and lie down.

We had come a long way from the glamour days of sleeper trains. A century ago, the original Lake Shore Limited set the bar for deluxe rail travel, with an 1897 New York Times story reporting reverently on news of the train’s silk draperies, gold moldings, and inlaid woodwork. Later, the Twentieth Century Limited famously whisked Vanderbilts and Roosevelts, stars of Broadway and the silver screen along this route, offering cocktails made to order, fresh- and saltwater baths, and such attendants as a stenographer, valet, tailor, barber, ladies’ maid, and manicurist. You might sit next to Spencer Tracy at breakfast, or spot Gloria Swanson waving from the observation platform.

In those days, a train whistle was the high, keening sound of romance, with all its pains and pleasures. Think Bogart in the rain in Paris, Marilyn leaning into a bunk in “Some Like It Hot,’’ Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flirting as the landscape rolls merrily by in “North by Northwest.’’

Fast-forward to today’s cash-strapped Amtrak. Because of equipment problems, Amtrak eliminated sleeper cars from the Boston leg of the Lake Shore Limited in 2004, so locals bound for Chicago had to get off in Albany-Rensselaer and join the train coming up from New York to get a bed. Rensselaer? I can tell you: not glamorous.

Then last year, responding to a surge in overnight rail travel, Amtrak restored sleeper cars to the Boston line. We had been planning a trip out west. This would be a kind of test ride. Was the Lake Shore Limited ready for its close-up?

Room with a view
Once we were in our room, our perspective quickly shifted. A surprisingly spacious overhead storage bin turned out to hold all our bags and even a small guitar. Hangers on a wall kept our jackets neatly to the side. Freshly stacked towels, pillows, and water bottles greeted us.

With everything stowed away, we found ourselves in our own world, a model of efficient design. Ian took the seat across from me and stretched out, all 6 feet 3 inches of him. Between us, a table was folded flat against the wall under a broad picture window. A pull-down sink turned out to double as a step to reach the upper bunk, which was now raised to the ceiling. And under that discreet cover over there? A toilet - perhaps handy in the middle of the night, but far from ideal in more social settings. For now, it was a footrest.

A sleeping car attendant walked through the car, offering a good-natured orientation for each set of travelers (and helping one passenger who had accidentally set his thermostat to 93).

We had brought books, magazines, and a laptop with a wireless connection. But from the moment we rumbled off - through the Berkshires, into the night’s dark, and on past the fields of the Midwest - the main attraction was that picture window, and the river of images that flowed through it.

From a train, of course, you see the back side of the world, not the highway’s public face. Even if you have been there before, it is a new country, hitting your retinas, fresh:

In the Berkshire woods, leaves fill the window - russet, berry red, orange, citron - scattering over the surface of a rippled creek.

Empty brick warehouses and mill buildings line the tracks in a corridor, remnants of industry long gone. Locals can still sign up for the military, but the train doesn’t stop here anymore.

On a small-town street, a blond man cradles his baby boy at the end of his driveway, just gazing out on a bright day.

Deep in a thick forest, a white cargo van stands abandoned in a clearing, one door open.

An ocean of RVs swells across the horizon - it’s Elkhart, Ind., mobile-home capital of the world.

Towering steel plants - a vast dark trapeze - breathe smoke and rust, as blinking casino lights beyond promise salvation. That was Gary, Ind.

Meanwhile inside the train, there are practical considerations.

How’s the food?
It’s better than airplane food, and all meals are free with a sleeper-car ticket (alcohol costs extra).

In recent years, the Lake Shore Limited offered “Diner Lite’’ service, in which dishes were cooked elsewhere and reheated in modified Cafe Cars. That changed in December, when full-service Heritage Dining Cars returned to the line. These cars are decades old, with a retro look in shades of pink and green.

The Cafe Car is still the only option from Boston to Albany, so after setting off at 11:55 a.m., our lunch was a choice between asparagus salad and a cold sandwich. The latter turned out to be surprisingly good: grilled chicken breast with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, roasted red peppers, and spinach on a rosemary roll, served with a salad of chopped cucumber, chick peas, tomato, red onion, and parsley, with oregano springs for garnish.

In the Heritage Dining Cars, the menu has been expanded. Dinner choices range from roast chicken to stuffed manicotti with portobello mushrooms or flatiron steak, and breakfast could be a three-egg omelet, say, or French toast with blueberry compote. Adorable 4-ounce containers of Häagen-Dazs are one option for dessert, and Ciao Bella lemon sorbet, chocolate mousse, fruit, and cheesecake. One tip: Avoid the cheesecake, a sad, deflated mess on our trip.

Can you actually sleep?
Yes, if you can stop gazing out the window. When we returned to our room from dinner, the attendant had made up our beds. In a Viewliner Roomette, that means unfolding our two facing seats until they meet to form a bunk 6 feet 6 inches long, furnished with a mattress, sheets, and a thin blanket. The upper berth, at 6 feet 2 inches, pulls down from the ceiling. There are views above and below.

Tucking yourself into a bunk next to your own picture window, the landscape unfurling a wordless bedtime story, is a marvelous sensation. You hear the rumbling rails, the bells ding-dinging at train crossings, an occasional faint, distant whistle. As night falls, there are no more announcements over the loudspeaker, just the train rocking quietly. You linger on the views, even if all you can see are the black shadows of trees slipping away, silhouetted under the moon and stars.

Who takes sleeper trains, anyway?
One of the joys of such train trips is supposed to be meeting new people. Dining Car tables always seat four, so if you’re fewer than that, you’ll have company. Be prepared.

Be prepared for the anti-government tirade, for the pompous Kansas doctor and his mousy wife, for detailed comparisons between this and other Amtrak trains by retirees who are clearly connoisseurs.

Most sleeper-car travelers seem to be in their 50s or older - perhaps because they have more time to savor a slower journey - though we spotted a few younger couples and families with children.

You’ll surely find some kindred spirits. But it’s a funny thing, presenting yourselves to a new set of companions, one meal after another. How do you tell your own story? While you digest how others come across, you may ultimately find yourself reflecting on the show you’ve just put on. Who were we just now, for couples one, two, and three?

Last stop, Chicago
In the morning, we have time to try the shower at the end of our car (larger bedrooms have their own shower) and grab a quick breakfast. Then we settle in to watch as grain elevators give way to Chicago’s outskirts, and the big city’s skyline comes into view.

So many rail lines converge in Chicago, with all those grand old names: the California Zephyr, running along the Colorado River and over the mountains to San Francisco; the Southwest Chief, bound for sunny Los Angeles; the Empire Builder to Seattle and Portland. There’s the Texas Eagle to San Antonio, the Capitol Limited to Washington, the City of New Orleans. We could go from here to almost anywhere.

The brakes slow the train to a stop. We bundle up our things - our belongings and fleeting thoughts - and step out into Union Station.

Rebecca Ostriker can be reached at

If You Go

Amtrak 800-872-7245;

The Lake Shore Limited leaves Boston daily at 11:55 a.m. and arrives in Chicago the following morning at 9:45. One-way sleeper tickets, Boston to Chicago, start with the regular coach fare, then add the price of a room. For two traveling together, we found prices of $364-$549 for a roomette, $550-$921 for a bedroom.