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John & Elsa Dornoff's Trip on the Empire Builder

On May 19, I rode a long distance passenger train for the first time in many years. Although I had been on several short distance trains (such as the Cascades) this was my first opportunity for my wife and I to travel together and experience Amtrak's long distance trains. Although the trip was only 8 hours it gave my wife an opportunity to see what long distance trains are like.

Our journey actually started in Lincoln City, Oregon on the early morning of the 19th. We had called the taxi the night before to ensure that they would be there on time. However the guy was still running 10 minutes late and we where scheduled to leave town in only 5 minutes. Fortunately we arrived at the Greyhound bus stop exactly at 6:30am as the bus pulled up.

The bus was one of their newer coaches that have a wheel chair lift a few windows back on the right side. This was my first ride on a regularly schedule Greyhound ever. The only other times I had rider long distance busses was either Amtrak Thruway Dedicated busses or Charter busses in College. The bus had 12 passengers most of them asleep. I pick the wrong seat because the seat back was broken and kept trying to go into recline position.

The bus schedule has plenty of slack built into it. The route between Lincoln City and Portland can be bumper to bumper on weekends in the summer, so Greyhound wisely puts plenty of padding in the schedule. Every stop became a smoke stop, as there was at least 10 minutes before our scheduled departure. We arrived at the Portland Greyhound Station at 9:20am right on time. For those of you who are not familiar with the layout, the station is located a few hundred feet from Amtrak's Portland Union Station.

We had a 7-hour layover before the departure of the Empire Builder so my wife and I toured the Westside MAX line. I had been on the route to Gresham many a time but have never had the opportunity to ride the new Westside line, so this layover gave us the opportunity to try out the line. After riding Salt Lake's TRAX line so many times since it opened in December, the MAX line seems slow by comparison. We traveled to the end of the line in Hillsboro before returning to Beaverton and catching a TRI-MET bus over to the Washington Square Mall. After lunch at the Washington Square Mall we took the bus back to Union Station.

We arrived back at Union Station with about 2 1/2 hours to wait. I wasn't sure what the boarding procedure was so I went up and asked the station agent who said they board from gate 5 15 minutes before time to leave. Since we had plenty of time my wife decided to start reading a book so I went out and photographed the southbound Starlight and some of the local Tri-Met action.

There was some trouble with the 2nd genesis locomotive on the southbound Starlight. A truck was there to fill both locomotives up with fuel. Everything seemed to go fine with the lead engine, but the second locomotive took a long time to fill. The fuel truck drive kept checking the hoses and the gage on the side of the locomotive. He waits a few minutes and checks again. It looks like he was also checking to make sure fuel was going into the locomotive. Even though the train arrived 10 minutes late and there was problems fueling the second locomotive, the train left only 5 minutes late.

When the northbound Starlight time of arrival came no train showed up. Then about ten minutes after the train was due, the station agent finally made an announcement that the train was running about a half hour late. The new time for the Starlight was around 4:05pm, but at 4:00pm the announcement came that it would be at least 4:20pm that the Starlight would arrive.

The station was starting to get packed. Since I knew there would only be one coach car on the train I wondered how many people in the waiting room where going on the Builder. At 4:10pm the conductors for the Starlight had coach passengers line up to get boarding passes, but still there was no announcement of what was going to happen with the Builder. At 4:15pm my wife went over to the station agent to ask what the status was since the redcaps where letting people who tipped them to get on board. My wife was told that it would be about 5 more minutes and they would let us on through gate 5.

My wife and I moved our stuff into the foyer of the gate. There were many people in the area waiting for the Starlight. I was surprised how many people where using the Starlight between here and Seattle considering the Cascade left a couple of hours later and the Starlight had no connections.

Finally at 4:30pm they let us start boarding the train. At this point the Starlight still had not shown up. My wife and I where the first passengers to arrive at the door of the coach car, where the coach attendant was there to meet us. He told us, "Ok I am giving you seats one and two." So we walked into the car, put our bags in the luggage rack, and headed up stairs. Our seats where the first seats in the right side of the coach. When we arrived at our seats there was a blonde woman sitting in them. I told her those where our seats, her response was, "I am the first person on this train and I will sit where I want. I am not going to sit in the &^$* back of the train. I am going to talk to my father about this, this is BS." She then got up and headed down the stairs. Good riddance, but she would be back for more encore presentation.

Just as we began to settle into our seats I could hear the engines of the Starlight coming, and sure enough about a minute later it pulled along side of us on the far platform. The car attendant made an announcement over the P.A. system but no one could understand a word he said. We just assumed because the Starlight just pulled in we would be leaving late.

When ended up pulling out of the station only 10 minutes late. The Conductor and Assistant Conductor came by to pick up our tickets right away. Because there where more passengers than seats, a few people had to sit in the lounge car. After our tickets had been collected we immediately headed to the lounge car to have good seats for the scenic part of the trip. We traveled slower than normal through North Portland since they where doing track work in order cut travel time almost in half between Vancouver, WA and Portland.

We where in the lounge car for only a few minutes before the Psycho Women came into the lounger with her own food. She sat down at one of the seats and realized that she had no silverware. When a person walked up with some food from downstairs she told someone walking downstairs to get her silverware. It wasn't a request it was, "Get me silverware from down there." The person was a complete stranger.

Since we where on approach to the Vancouver station I decided it would be a good time to head downstairs and see what they had. I went in search of the hot dog my wife asked for and something to fill my stomach. I ordered a cheeseburger and I bought the hot dog my wife wanted. My wife did get the better part of the deal. The hot dog was ok sized, although you would expect more for the money, but my cheeseburger was a joke. The cheeseburgers where two bite sized things with no taste. They did not fill my stomach at all. I later went down and got a hot dog so I would at least feel a little satisfied.

My wife and I spent most of the trip in the upper level of the Lounge car. We did find out from some other passengers that the Starlight was delayed due to one of its locomotives failing near Oakland. They tried to switch out one locomotive for a California F59, but it took over an hour. The passengers from the Starlight stated they where happy to be on a train with fewer passengers.

After we where through the scenic areas we decided to head downstairs so I could do some work on one of the tables. Even though the car was an unrefurbished Superliner I, the upstairs was in good condition, however that was not true of the downstairs. The downstairs' tables where falling apart and the seat cushions falling apart. To make it worst, the Psycho woman was now down here, with another woman, and a couple sitting at one of the tables. A cowboy named Wes was sitting at another table. After a few minutes the two women convinced Wes to join them. Our coach attendant spent most of the time down here in the lower level of the lounge car.

The group with the Psycho women was loud enough as it was but then at 8:00pm they started the movie, and that was too much. My wife and I decided after about a half hour it was too much and we headed back to our seats.

At about 8:40pm the conductor announced that we would be arriving in Pasco in 5 minutes. I figured we had to be at least 25 minutes from the Pasco station and sure enough we arrived not five minutes later but 23 minutes later. We had made up all the time we had lost waiting for the Starlight but was going to have a smoke stop here so we would be leaving late. Since we where going to have a smoke stop I decided it would be a great time to get car numbers on our train. I went downstairs to wait for the car attendant to open the door. The Psycho Woman was down there making doing all kinds of strange things.

From Portland to Ritzville I gave BNSF a grade of A+. We encountered 13 trains in the hole for use, six of them heading the same way we where. From there to Spokane the grade went down. We pasted through Ritzville, WA running about a half hour early, but would arrive Spokane 20 minutes late. The first problem occurred just north of Ritzville where we went into the siding for freight for the first time. Then we had to go into the hole again south of Sprague, WA. Also from Ritzville to Marshall, we where stuck behind a slow moving freight heading the same direction as us.

The slow trip along Sprague Lake was not as noticeable as the moon was full and it was a clear night. The moon reflecting into Sprague Lake gave such a beautiful effect few people noticed we where crawling along. As I said, we pulled into Spokane 20 minutes late. The conductor was in the vestibule of the coach when my wife and I went downstairs to get off in Spokane. The conductor said it was the first time in 6 months they did not arrive Spokane a half hour early.

As I stated at the beginning of the long trip report, this was my wife's first trip on a long distance train. When we arrived Spokane she wanted to continue to Chicago, she loved the trip, and wanted me to plan more train travels.

Overall the trip was great. The lounge car attendant Lorenzo was fantastic. The lounge car needed to be refurbished especially the downstairs however the coach had been refurbished and road and felt fantastic. I had heard several horror stories about the Empire Builder but liked the trip, however I wish they still had tray meal service in the lounge car on the Portland to Spokane segment as they did the last time I had rode this particular segment. I was glad to hear that Amtrak put back on the second coach on this segment, since it is needed. The passengers where friendly on the trip, and the Psycho woman added a little bit of entertainment to the trip.

John Dornoff

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