From Washington DC to Chicago, with the Capitol Limited

Crossing the American continent by train, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is a fantastic experience that I completed in October 2022.

In this article, I recount the first part of my trip, from Washington DC to Chicago, with the Capitol Limited.

Crossing the United States by train: a childhood dream

Going from the Atlantic to the Pacific by train: a childhood dream that I was finally able to realize in 2022! I’d heard that the landscapes crossed by train are extraordinary and that the service provided by Amtrak, the American rail company, was top-notch.

I’ve been to the U.S. many times, but like almost everyone else, I’ve traveled around the country either by car on the boring “interstates” or by plane, which is efficient but not necessarily fun. So I wanted to experience train travel for myself!

My journey took me from Washington DC to San Francisco via Chicago. It was an extraordinary train journey, which I describe in two articles:

Chicago being a must-see, I’ve written an article to give you some pointers for visiting Chicago in a few hours or two or three days.

Practical tips for organizing your train trip are listed at the end of my article on the California Zephyr.

This transcontinental trip was sponsored! Not by Amtrak, but by my family and friends, who offered me this trip for my change of decade. Thanks to all of them.

Crossing the United States gave me a much better idea of its vastness than I’d ever had by plane.

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link.

Nicolas Clifford

My friend Nicolas passed away in 2021. These articles are dedicated to him because Nicolas was a train fan. He worked for Amtrak and Compagnie des Wagons-Lits in the late 70s. We met while studying in France, but also in Philadelphia. He went on to found Blue Marble Travel, a company that for over 30 years organized magnificent bicycle tours of Europe for Americans.

We had endless, passionate discussions about trains and planes. I so would have wanted to share with him that trip from Washington DC to San Francisco. I really miss him.

Nicolas

Amtrak’s transcontinental trains

Amtrak is the rail company that operates long-distance passenger trains in the USA.

Crossing the United States means passing through Chicago, which acts as a rail hub for transcontinental traffic.

It is possible to depart from Boston or New York with the Lake Shore Limited or from Washington DC with the Capitol Limited.

From Chicago, you can go to Seattle with the Empire Builder, Los Angeles with the Southwest Chief, or San Francisco with the California Zephyr.

I love Amtrak’s tradition of naming trains, whereas in Europe we now use non-poetic numbers to designate them.

I traveled with the Capitol Limited from Washington DC to Chicago and then with the California Zephyr to San Francisco. This is considered the most beautiful route, but they’re all worth it.

Some make the trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a single haul, connecting in Chicago in just a few hours. The journey is comfortable and far from boring, but if you have the time don’t hesitate to make one or more stops along the way.

For my part, I made a three-day stopover in Chicago, a city I love very much.

Amtrak network

The Capitol Limited from Washington DC to Chicago in a Superliner

I’m all excited when I arrive at the beautiful Union Station in Washington DC.

Union Station Washington DC

I head straight for my train platform. What a pleasure to avoid airport security checks, which are particularly restrictive and fussy in the United States.

The double-decker train, a Superliner that I’ll also be seeing from Chicago to San Francisco, is massive and its stainless-steel livery is beautiful yet understated. Yet these trains have been running for nearly 30 years!

Capitol Limited

On the platform, a steward greets me and checks my ticket. The entrance is on the lower level of the car. My cabin, a Roomette, is on the upper floor.

Discovering my little sleeping car cabin: the Roomette

I traveled in the same type of cabin on the two trains I took to San Francisco.

Roomette: The name sounds a bit old-fashioned! During the day, each cabin offers two comfortable armchairs facing each other. At night, they transform into two bunk beds. In daylight, the cabin is very pleasant, and you can isolate yourself thanks to a sliding glass door.

Roomette

Right on time, at 4:05 pm, we leave Washington DC for Chicago on the Capitol Limited. On this journey, the train is far from full. Many cabins will be empty for the entire journey.

On the road to the Appalachians

We quickly move away from the Washington DC suburbs, which aren’t very large compared to other American cities, and into the countryside, crossing the Appalachian mountain range. A name to dream about.

The Appalachians are old mountains, not very high, but crossing them from east to west is not easy, as the valleys are oriented from southwest to northwest. The train also winds its way through the terrain and along the Potomac, the river that flows through the Federal Capital.

It’s October and nature is magnificent, with trees of every color.

Our first stop is Harpers Ferry. It’s a little town that would be right at home in the Belgian Ardennes!

The train gives the impression of going at speed and regularly sounds its siren to warn of its approach.

Appalachians
Appalachians
Appalachians
MidWest
Appalachians

A train at a relaxed speed

The Capitol Limited takes 17 hours and 40 minutes to reach Chicago, with 15 stops. Not exactly an express, given that the distance is only 955 km, the equivalent of a Paris-Nice flight. By comparison, the SNCF, the French railways company, night train takes 12 h 30 to cover it.

Capitol Limited schedule

No traveler seems to attach any importance to this slowness. On the contrary! As one of my traveling companions would later tell me, he appreciates this slowness and dislikes trains in Europe, as they go too fast to enjoy the scenery.

Capitol Limited route map

Dinner and evening aboard the Capitol Limited

Around 7.00 pm, I head for the dining car. On this route, the diner is simplified with an industrial dish reheated in the microwave. I’ll have to wait until you travel on the California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco to discover the three-course diner for which Amtrak is famous.

The atmosphere is quiet with few people, so I don’t linger. All the more so as in October, it gets dark quickly, so I can’t admire the scenery.

After dinner, I retire to my cabin to watch a film I downloaded onto my tablet before leaving. This a very useful precaution, as wifi is absent and the 4G network is random.

Dinner aboard the Capitol Limited
Capitol Limited restaurant car

My first night in a Roomette

Before going to sleep, I call the steward who converts my cabin into a bed. He folds the two seats face to face and positions a mattress overlay on top. I can barely stand next to it, because the bed takes up most of the space. I should have undressed for the night before transforming the cabin because that would have been more practical. I’ll keep that in mind for the rest of my trip.

The bedding is a pleasant surprise. The mattress is comfortable and the pillows are soft and much more pleasant than those offered by ÖBB on my Paris-Vienna trip.

A sliding glass door separates the cabin from the corridor, with a curtain for privacy. However, earplugs and an eye mask would have been useful to feel completely in my bubble. As I had forgotten them, I had to buy some in Chicago for the rest of my trip.

There are no washbasins as in European sleeper cars, and passengers in this class have to use shared toilets and showers. However, their number is sufficiently large that I didn’t find it bothersome. Right up to the end of the trip, they remained clean thanks to the intervention of our steward.

It’s possible to take two airline-cabin-size pieces of luggage with you, which can be left in an open space on the lower level. It is also strongly recommended, as in the Roomettes, no space is really designated, and according to my steward, there is no issue of theft.

For larger suitcases, you must check them in advance at a counter, similar to an airport.

The main drawback of a night in a Roomette is having to go out into the brightly-lit corridor to use the toilet. At 3:00 am, it’s not very pleasant!

Sleeping together in a roomette?

My overnight experience in Roomette was excellent, as I was alone. With two people, it would have been very different.

Firstly, to move around, as the 2m2 cabin is very narrow.

On the other hand, the upper bed is far less comfortable. This is narrower (61 cm instead of 71 cm) and shorter (188 cm instead of 200 cm) than the lower bed.. What’s more, the ceiling is only 60 cm high, and with the air-conditioning vent so close, you’re sure to catch a cold during the night! And if you’re a bit old or corpulent, you’ll have a hard time getting into bed.

The Roomette is ideal for one person!

Roomette
Roomette in bed position
Roomette for two in night position

A gentle awakening after a good night’s sleep

Early in the morning, I wake up after an excellent night. The advantage of a train moving slowly is that you are less shaken during sleep. What’s more, the soundproofing is quite satisfactory, even with my forgotten earplugs.

I love that moment when I lift the curtain to see the landscape scrolling by while remaining comfortably lying in my bed. That’s the luxury of night trains!

As soon as I get up, I go for a self-service coffee available to passengers in the corridor. Americans spend all day drinking it !

Then it’s time for the shower, which I discover on the lower floor and which is a pleasant surprise, as the cabin is rather large, the water jet powerful, and at the right temperature. I also like the fact that it’s separate from the toilet, for reasons of hygiene.

I finally make my way to the dining car for a hearty breakfast, despite the profusion of plastic packaging!

I’ll be experimenting with this rising ritual three times until I arrive in San Francisco.

Self-service coffee in the sleeping car
Shared shower in sleeper car
Capitol Limited breakfast

Long live jet lag by train!

The nice thing about traveling west by train is that you save an hour every day. Our arrival in Chicago is scheduled for 8:45 a.m., which is 10:45 a.m. Washington DC time.

The advantage is twofold. This allows you to sleep in and still feel like you’re getting up early. And adaptation to the new time is very gradual. When I arrived in San Francisco, I didn’t feel at all jet-lagged, whereas after a plane trip, I would have had to endure four hours of jet-lag all at once. On the chart below you can see which segments I traveled by day (jour) and by night (nuit).

Rediscover the benefits of slow travel!

Time zone USA

Exploring the Superliner sleeper

After breakfast, I take the opportunity to explore my sleeper in detail. On the Superliners, which I’ll find on the California Zephyr, they’re all based on the same model.

Superliner

I’ll start on the lower level, where there are four roomettes. They’re quieter, as passengers move between cars on the upper level. Another advantage is their proximity to the shower and three toilets. However, the view is not as good, which is why I preferred a cabin on the upper level.

On this level, there’s a Family Bedroom for two adults and two children, and an Accessibility Bedroom for one person with reduced mobility and a companion.

A narrow spiral staircase leads to the upper floor. On one side, there are ten roomettes, including mine, arranged in the moving direction of the train, facing each other along a central corridor. An unusual configuration for a European, to say the least.

Sleeping car staircase
Central corridor of the Roomettes

On the same floor, on the other side of the staircase, I discover the five Bedrooms, positioned perpendicularly with a lateral corridor along the windows, just like in our sleeping cars.

I rather liked the layout of the sleeper. The fact that it’s on two levels, with different spaces, a staircase, and a non-rectilinear corridor, makes you forget the tunnel-like feeling you sometimes get on trains.

Inside, the materials used are solid and utilitarian, if not aesthetically modern.

Superliner sleeper

Discover the Bedrooms, the ideal compartment for two people

Luckily, on my trip from Washington DC to Chicago, one Bedroom was unoccupied, so I was able to get a good look at it.

These cabins have the same layout as night trains in Europe, only more spacious.

At night, two beds are bunk beds, and during the day an armchair and a sofa face each other. It’s like being in a private salon. Bedrooms are twice as large as Roomettes (4 m2 instead of 2 m2).

Traveling together in a Bedroom is undoubtedly more comfortable but for twice the price of roomettes! I admit that the choice can be difficult to make. But a European who travels on a Superliner is likely to do so only once or twice in his or her life. So if you’re travelling as a couple, treat yourself to a Bedroom, because you won’t regret it!

The shower and toilet are private, with the drawback that the two conveniences are not separate. After washing with plenty of water, the pot is soaked! One tip I’ve found is to use the shared shower, which has the advantage of being larger and, at the same time, lets you keep your toilet dry.

A private washbasin is located in the sleeping area. Another plus over Roomettes.

Dinner aboard the Capitol Limited
WC and shower bedroom

Discovering coach cars

The coach cars are located at the rear of the train after the dining car.

These are much nicer than the ÖBB seating cars I saw on the Paris-Vienna trip, as they are closer to the business-class seats on airlines in the 90s.

The seats are comfortable and soft, with an effective leg-rest, and the space between the seats is generous: fine for a few hours’ travel, or one night, but for 52 hours on the California Zephyr I wonder?

Coach seat

When you’re 20 years old or on a limited budget, it must be worth the experience to cross the continent by coach. If you’ve done it, tell me in the comments what you thought of it.

Superliner coach car

Coach car top level
Coach car lower level

Waking up in Indiana

During the night we passed through two major cities, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, which I couldn’t see in my deep sleep.

When I wake up, we’re in the state of Indiana. The vegetation is still in its magnificent autumn colors, but the relief is that of the immense Midwestern plains we’ll see all the way to Denver.

Then there’s the Chicago suburbs, with their industrial landscapes and aestheticism that I appreciate.

Indiana
Chicago's industrial suburbs
Indiana
Containers near Chicago
Chicago suburbs

Arrival in Chicago

On this particular day, the Capitol Limited arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule, at 8.50 am.

We descend onto a narrow, dark subterranean platform just like in New York, Philadelphia, or Washington DC.

Arrival in Chicago

I could have continued on the California Zephyr the same day, but Chicago being one of my favorite cities in the USA I decided to stay for three days.

Union Station is right in the center of Chicago. So even if you want to make the crossing from Washington DC to San Francisco in one go, you can plan a quick tour of Chicago. If that’s your case, I’ve put together a beautiful stroll of a few hours between the two trains in Chicago, based on my various visits, which you can read about here.

We’ll meet again with my second article on the California Zephyr en route from Chicago to San Francisco: an exceptional trip!

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