ABOARD THE NIGHT OWL -- The Orient Express this is not.
Amtrak's sleeper-car service to and from New York City, called the railroad's "best kept secret" by one of its officials, hearkens only faintly to the image of luxurious accommodations on a train hurtling through the night.
Rather than a hypnotic clickity-clack of rails, the modern variant is noisy and bumpy. The "roomettes" are clean but cramped. The continental breakfast is precisely what you'd expect from the taxpayer-subsidized railroad: mine featured spoiled milk and a chewy bagel.
Nonetheless, the service provides a unique alternative for business travelers, shoppers or weekenders looking to extend a visit in New York without paying for a hotel. There are some nice extras, like the complimentary wine and shoe shine, and, under the right conditions, it even could be fun.
Amtrak's last regular train to Baltimore leaves New York at 9:20 p.m. during the week. If you miss the train, or if you want to stick around for dinner or other business in the city, you can still do so and make it to work the next morning with the sleeper service.
The "Executive Sleeper" receives passengers every day from 9:30 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. at New York's Pennsylvania Station, where the car sits guarded in a quiet, underground corner of the station. Then, at 3:45 a.m., the car is hooked up -- with a gentle bump -- to The Night Owl train coming out of Boston for the trip south. It arrives at Baltimore's Penn Station at 7:10 a.m.
The northbound sleeper leaves Baltimore at 11:30 p.m., arriving in New York at 2:38 a.m. with passengers allowed to stay on board up until 8 a.m.
The service is not cheap. A rail ticket must be purchased for each passenger at $55 one way or $77 round-trip. An additional, $45-per-night room charge is assessed for a roomette, which sleeps one person. A bedroom with room for two, costs $77 a night. To accommodate up to four people, two bedrooms can be connected by removing a wall panel. The charge for the larger bedroom is $154.
But the sleeper charge of $45 to $77 compares well with hotels in New York that run about $100 a night. For example, an overnight trip to New York from Baltimore, with a $77 round-trip rail fare and $45 roomette, would cost $122. The round-trip rail rate with an overnight hotel would cost $177.
All the rooms are tiny, with lights for reading and a narrow, fold-down bed. The roomettes make use of the toilet as a covered base for the bed, while the bedrooms have the advantage of a separate, narrow bathroom with sink and toilet (no shower). Each room has a window, small closet and ottoman. The bed folds into a chair in the roomette and into a sofa in the bedrooms.
Every inch of space is used, from the retractable coat hooks to the small panel of lighting and air-conditioning controls, giving the room's interior the feel of a brown-carpeted Gemini space capsule.
An attendant shows you to your room, schedules your wake-up knock and takes orders for snacks and breakfast. In both cases the choices are slim, such as coffee or tea. Shoes left in a special locker over the closet will be removed through a trap door, shined and returned by morning.
At night, there is a "Trak Pak" with a chunk of cheese and a small bottle of wine (1989 Fetzer California Johannisberg Riesling) like the ones served on airplanes. Breakfast consists of coffee or tea, juice, bagel and cream cheese, milk, and a copy of USA Today.
During the night, sleep is not difficult until the train starts rolling. Then sleep can be fitful, with stops and starts and the occasional roar of a passing train.
Sleeping on a moving train is an acquired skill and to the uninitiated the first trip can be like trying to doze in a hammock in a hurricane. On the other hand, some travelers say they relish the rocking motion and can sleep comfortably.
"You can sleep if you're tired enough," said Phil Fraulino, a State Department analyst from Washington who uses the sleeper service to get back and forth from alumni association meetings at his alma mater near New York.
"Most of the meetings are over after the last train out," Fraulino said. To avoid paying for a hotel room, he catches the overnight train home.
A member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, he said he wishes the service were upgraded with showers, as they are on some western Amtrak routes. Then more people would use it as a hotel, he said.
Clifford Black, Amtrak spokesman, said the Northeastern sleeper service, common in past decades, resumed in its present form six years ago and has held its own with very little publicity. It is inexpensive for the railroad because it amounts to adding some cars onto an already scheduled train.
"A lot of Americans have forgotten how to sleep on sleeping cars. . . . Don't expect a Holiday Inn or motel room," Black said.