Does your character need to travel? Do you need more human interaction for your scene than what is likely to happen on an airplane, where everyone is crammed in and crabby? Try setting a scene on an Amtrak train. If you have never traveled on Amtrak yourself, here are some things to keep in mind to make your scene realistic.
The economy or “coach” section is like riding an upgraded bus.
Getting on the Amtrak train in the economy section feels like getting on the bus at first. Then you start to look around and notice that the seats are much more comfortable. They’re softer and a little wider. There is a little tray on the back of each seat that can be used as a table or desk, as on a plane.
Amtrak’s restrooms are also similar to those you find on a plane. They’re actual restrooms, rather than the outhouse in a closet you get on the bus. Some are even a little roomier, with space to quickly change a shirt or do a quick touch up on your appearance.
Most Amtrak trains are kept clean and neat. That strange odor that always develops on a bus isn’t common on a train. You may find someone’s bag left on a row of seats, or a tray down with someone’s cup or book on it, but the empty seats will be clear of the last passenger’s trash and the tray will have been wiped down.
Coach passengers are welcome to walk around the car, hang out in any lounge cars in their section, and eat in the dining hall during scheduled meal times. If you have a coach/economy ticket, you will receive a bill for any food and drink you order in the dining hall.
Sleeper cars are expensive, but private.
Upgrading to a sleeper car gives you, at minimum, a tiny private room with two chairs facing a small fold out table. At night, you can choose to either pull the fold out bed above the tables and chair down, or you can flip the table up, and fold the two chairs down into a bed. Passengers who ride in these small sleeper cars are welcome to use the shared showers. Only one person at a time can fit into the shower room, so the shower is private, but you have to wait your turn. Most Amtrak passengers pack full coverage robes they would not be embarrassed to wear in front of strangers, and slip on tennis shoes or indoor/outdoor slippers, as bare feet are not permitted outside of your room on the train.
Showers are available in the sleeper cars, but there is no room to do elaborate personal appearance maintenance.
Amtrak showers consist of a small area for you to leave your robe and shoes or slippers and a shower stall with a hand held spray. Taking a shower can be a challenge, as you can still feel the movement of the train. Experienced travelers use the restroom to brush their teeth, brush their hair, clip their nails, and shave their legs and anywhere else on their body or face they need to remove hair, since there is less room to knock around and more area to grab on to for balance in there, and then put their robe back on and go into the shower stall to shampoo their hair, use soap or body wash on their skin, and rinse themselves quickly.
Amtrak restrooms and showers can be used to practice only the most basic personal hygiene. You can brush your teeth, remove unwanted hair from your face and body, trim your nails, and remove dirt from your hair and skin. That’s about it. There are too many other passengers waiting for the space, and the train is moving too much to allow for elaborate morning or night time routines.
Some trains offer larger rooms designed to accommodate families. These larger rooms include private bathrooms and showers.
The dining car forces you to socialize.
Regardless of the car you are traveling in, you will be sitting with three other people when you eat in the dining car. If you are traveling with three other people, the four of you will get a table all to yourselves. If you are traveling with one or two other people, the rest of your table will be filled with strangers. Those traveling alone may be seated with three others traveling alone, a couple and another person traveling alone,or a group of three. If your character isn’t someone who would ever eat with strangers, it is possible to have food delivered to your sleeper car, or to take food back to your seat.
Amtrak dining car food is presented as though it is high quality restaurant food. You order from a menu at the table, and the waitstaff brings you your drinks, dinner, and dessert. Despite the nice presentation, the food is actually heat and serve. As far as heat and serve food goes, it’s actually pretty good, but it is still just the same heat and serve food you could get from the supermarket for about a quarter of what you pay for it on the train.
Drinks and meals in the dining car are free for sleeper car passengers. You may order any food or non-alcoholic beverage you wish free of charge.
Outside food is permitted in all cars in the train.
Those who do not want to eat or drink what is offered on the train are welcome to bring their own food and drink along with them in a carry on bag. It would not be unrealistic to write a scene in which a character sat in his sleeper car room and ate a whole large bag of chips while drinking a two liter soda. Bringing a fast food meal, sack lunch, or other substantial amount of food is allowed as well.
The atmosphere on a train is much more relaxed than on a plane.
People on planes seem to fall into two categories. The person next to you either thinks they must become your new adopted sibling, and proceeds to tell you every detail of their life, or they behave as though they already hate you the moment you stop near the seat next to them. Train passengers tend to be a bit more laid back. It isn’t uncommon to strike up a friendly conversation with someone over lunch, or turn around in your seat and start talking to the person behind you. I think I would have about fifty more friends than I do right now if I had just thought to give my contact information to the people I got along with on trains.
This is probably due to the fact that other than in the dining hall, you are not stuck crammed next to anyone unless your car on the train is full, and this is not common. I have only ever been in one full train car, between Pittsburgh, PA and New York City.
When you get on the train in a coach car, you can choose your seat. Most people choose to sit in the window seat of an empty row first. Then they begin filling in the aisle seats. People give each other as much space as possible.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere, there are car attendants around keeping an eye on things, and decency is expected.
Car attendants use little color coded tabs above the seats to keep track of how many passengers are getting off at each stop. If you change seats, they do expect you to take that little tab with you, and hang it above your new seat. This helps them avoid searching the entire car to make sure everyone got off when they were supposed to.
You are also expected to show respect to your fellow passengers. While it is okay to lean across the aisle or temporarily move to another seat to chat with a new friend, you will get told to go back to your seat if you appear to be harassing someone. Passengers have also been told to stop swearing loudly in a car where children were present, and people have been removed from trains for the same types of jokes and remarks that will get you removed from a plane.