To say our younger kid R (now 8) loves trains and buses is a severe understatement. His love started to show at age 2 when he nearly exploded with happiness every time he saw a train pull into the subway station and easily memorized the order of stops on the Red line, our usual Boston train. He had the rest of the T network memorized at age 3 and much of the MBTA bus network memorized at age 4 (route geography, key terminals, stop frequency for most lines). Angela and I have both spend more hours than we can count on all day “bus and train trips” to the far reaches of the city. He’s gone to NYC for the sole purpose of riding subway trains (and is begging to go again). The exact focus of his love and attention shifts over time. Over the last year or so, his focus has moved a bit away from understanding every last detail of the MBTA bus schedules, and toward Amtrak and Canada Via Rail long distance passenger trains.
In our family, there is a tradition that grandkids get to go on a solo visit to their grandparents (my parents) in Denver when they are age 8 or 9. This summer it was R’s turn to make this trip and sometime over the winter we were starting to plan timing and how we would get him there (in this case with an adult accompanying, he wasn’t up to flying alone). On the walk to school one morning he casually started a conversation about the trip, “You know, you can take Amtrak from Boston to Denver. The itinerary is actually pretty good. You take a train to Chicago and then another train to Denver.” I have had so many conversations about trains I just nodded along not really thinking anything of it. But then he continued, still ever-so-casually, “You know, it costs about $650 for one grown-up and one kid to have a sleeper car from Boston to Denver, how much does it cost to fly?” “About $500,” I replied and we left it at that.
That night I checked out his reported costs. It turns out he was slightly wrong. By that time it was about $750 for that exact trip, The Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Chicago, and the California Zephyr from Chicago to Denver. I booked the trip that very night. We had the wiggle room in the budget and $250 seemed manageable considering the happiness a trip like this would bring to R.
I booked that trip in February and we were leaving at the end of June, so R and I then had about 4 months to plan every last detail. He memorized the dining car menus. His Boston grandmother got him a book about North American Rail travel that he read cover-to-cover. We both watched more video tours of Amtrak Roomettes than I care to admit. He carefully studied the differences between the Viewliner Roomette cabins (East Coast trains) and the Superliner Roomette cabins (West Coast trains — our trip involved one of each). He made schedules of how we might spend our time on the train and memorized finer points of the scheduled interim stops. He made packing lists. We both spent so much time thinking and talking about this trip that we might have ever-so-slightly aggravated some other members of our family.
And then, mere days before we were scheduled to leave, I got a call from Amtrak that our train out of Boston was being replaced by a bus due to track work.
I knew that this was pretty normal for Amtrak, especially on the Boston leg of the Lake Shore Limited, but I also knew that R would be heartbroken and quickly started thinking through backup plans. When I called Amtrak back, and they offered to put us on this bus, I asked if instead we could route through NYC which has the other leg of the Lake Shore Limited. They were super-duper nice on the phone, didn’t seem to think it was very strange that we wanted to spend even more time on trains, and hooked us up with a (free) ticket to NYC on the Northeast Regional, and then a connection to the NYC leg of the Lake Shore Limited (which was not going to have track work). I was sure I had scored a major win. We were going to take 3 trains instead of two for the same money! (A practical word of warning: If Amtrak is going to rebook you like this, they are only extra nice to you ONE time — I tried to call later to make a slight schedule adjustment on the northeast regional train that would have been totally fine when I first talked to them, and they said that they couldn’t do it because they’d already rebooked us once — so if you are in this situation be prepared when you call the first time and think on your feet).
Leading up to the trip, we packed carefully. We had one rolling suitcase with R’s clothes and supplies for his 2 weeks in Denver, but everything else that we needed on board we packed in his backpack and mine. We had games, books, audiobooks, and train timetables for entertainment. We had snacks and two carefully selected small stuffed animals. I stashed a few hidden bits of candy in case we needed them to get through any dicey bits. We had my phone loaded up with the amtrak app for schedule and arrival time updates. We had a couple changes of clothes, pajamas and toothbrushes for the train. The morning of June 29th, we donned our matching Amtrak shirts and headed out on the very first Red Line to catch our 6:15am Northeast Regional at Boston South Station. We were on our way…