The slumbercoach is a hotel on wheels

Moderately priced hotel accommodations are becoming increasingly difficult to find in most large US metropolitan areas. Yet riding the rails every night between many of our Eastern cities are private rooms renting for only $18.50 single and $30.50 double. They are units of compact little hotels on wheels called slumbercoaches and come with private washroom facilities. Slumbercoaches operate on four daily Amtrak trains out of New York -- the Broadway Limited, the Lakeshore Limited, the Montrealer, and the Silver Meteor. The excitement of an overnight train journey is now within the budgets of many more travelers heading south, north, or west.

Most travelers know about the standard Pullman-type sleeping car offering quite luxurious roomettes and bedrooms at a premium price. But a recent poll I took showed that very few people knew about the inexpensive "slumbercoach," even though it has been around for more than 20 years. Knowledgeable train travelers often say that they will go no other way, and as a result this type of sleeper is quite popular and must be booked well in advance.

The slumbercoach car has 36 or 40 berths in small single and double rooms arranged off a central corridor. The compartments have beds that fold down at night and lounge chairs for daytime privacy. And while the bed is lowered for sleeping, the wash basin and toilet are readily accessible. The ingeniously designed space is full of little gadgets and useful amenities. There are hooks for hanging clothes, a shelf for placing valuables, a drinking water tap, bars of soap, and cotton towels, two mirrors, day and might lights, a window shade, an overhead rack for a reasonable amount of luggage, individual temperature controls, a small fan, and a call button for assistance from the sleeping car attendant.

Some passengers find the tiny compartments slightly claustrophobic during the day and spend their waking hours in the lounge car or in the dining car during mealtime. The lounge car on any train becomes the center of social activity even before "all aboard" is heard from the platform.

the venerable Broadway Limited leaves Penn Station every day at 2:45 p.m. and goes via Philadelphia to Chicago, arriving there at 9:05 a.m. the next morning. This well-known train, which has been completely refurbished inside and out in the last year, runs on classic overnight schedule, making it convenient for travelers wishing a full day at their destination. Before bedtime the Broadway will have passed through the heart of the soil-rich Pennsylvania Dutch country, crossed the broad Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, and followed the scenic Juniata Valley deep into the Appalachian Mountains. Amtrak is deservedly proud of this train, and while the roadbed is still a bit rough in spots, especially in Indiana, it is improving all the time.

Eastbound, the broadway gives its passengers on added threat, a daylight view of the Horseshoe Curve, a spectacular 19th century feat of railroad engineering sweeping around the side of the Allegheny Mountains about two hours east of Pittsburgh. Ask the conductor if you can open up the top half of the Dutch door to watch the train's twisting descent.

The Lakeshore Limited offers a second route to Chicago departing every night at 6:45 from Grand Central Terminal. There is probably no finer ride in the whole country than the winding rail line up the east shore of the majestic Hudson River between New York and Albany. For the best daylight viewing, beginning in the Mohawk Valley at Utica and continuing all the way into New York City, take the Lakeshore eastbound.

West of Buffalo, the train serves Cleveland and Toledo, where immediately across the platform connections to Detroit can be made, all at convenient morning hours. The Lakeshore Limited skirts Lakes Erie and Michigan and pulls into Chicago's Union Station at 2:40 p.m. Except for the shocking track conditions from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the old New York Central Railroad slogan "On the water level route you can sleep" still rings true. The Lakeshore, like the broadway, has completely rebuilt equipment offering reliable heating in winter and air conditioning in the summer.

With two fine trains operating to and from the Windy City, travelers may vary their itineraries to suit their travel requirements by taking one route out and the other income. The round-trip excursion fare on both trains is $124, to which is added the appropriate slumbercoach supplement -- $18.50 single and $30. 502 double. As a comparison, a roomette costs $70 or about the price of a first-class hotel room.

For skiers and vacation travelers to northern Vermont and Canada, the Montrealer now offers this same bargain sleeping accommodation. This overnight train leaves Penn Station daily at 9:48 p.m., having come up the Northeast Corridor from Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. During the night, the train bounces through Hartford, Springfield, and White River Junction and by morning, many passengers will leave the train at Waterbury for Stowe, Smugglers Notch, Bolton Valley, and other winter resorts.

About breakfast time, the Montrealer passes out of the lovely Green Mountains and crosses the international border, where customs and immigration formalities are carried out, reaching Montreal at 10:20 a.m. Good onward connections on Via Rail Canada can be made to Quebec City, the Laurentians, and the way across the continent.

Due to the late evening departure from New York, the dining car facilities are simpler than on the other trains. The Amdinette attendants serve precooked hot meals for dinner and breakfast in a car with eight four-seat tables. The lounge car is a lively spot, especially at vacation periods with all ages coming together in a party atmosphere. The round trip excursion fare from New York to all stations from White River Junction to Montreal is $50.

The fourth train to offer slumbercoach accommodation out of New York is the classy Silber Meteor bound for the sunny southland. The Meteor, as frequent travelers call it, departs from Penn Station daily at 4:15 p.m., running south through Washington, then racing overnight through Virginia and North and South Carolina. Savannah and Jacksonville are reached in the morning, and for the rest of the day the train makes stops near many of Florida's most popular holiday destinations, including Disney World and Cyprus Gardens in central Florida and the main beach resorts from West Palm Beach to Miami, arriving there at 6:40 p.m.

This well-patronized train, often running to its maximum limit of 18 cars, sometimes carries two diners and two club cars. The round-trip excursion fare to Miami is $154, and because the longer journey the slumbercoaches prices are slightly, at $26.50 single and $45 double.

Amtrak dining car prices will be a pleasant surprise if you have not travelled by long-distance train recently. Full club breakfasts begin at $2.95. For lunch, soup and a choice of sandwiches are priced from $2.10 to $2.75, a deluxe of cheese- burger is $2.95, and a hot turkey sandwich is $3.35. The dinner menu runs to five entrees with a Southern fried chicken dinner, salad, rolls, and beverage at $5.95 all the way through lake perch, pork chops, and roast beef to a New York strip sirloin steak at $9.95.

The best way to find out more about the trains offering slumbercoach accommodations, or coach and standard sleeping cars, is to pick up an Amtrak national timetable and study it for yourself. Then call your travel agent or Amtrak in New York City at (212) 736-4545. Be sure to ask about family plans and for your compartment to be as close to the center of the car as possible and not over the wheels.

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