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Steve's Rail Travel
on the Amtrak Empire Builder
from Seattle to Spokane, Washington and Back

Travelogue and photos of rail travel on the Amtrak Empire Builder from Seattle to Spokane, Washington, and back.

I arrived into Seattle on the Thru-Way Bus (a Trailways Bus) at 4 PM, about 35 minutes ahead of schedule. Even though there was heavy traffic, I figured the small number of passengers on the bus and the short time that it took us to get through customs would have us arrive into Seattle early.

CH 70 161.160 Seattle - Snohomish (Everett), WA
07/02/98 04:50 PM PT Seattle, WA
07/02/98 05:22 PM PT Edmonds, WA
07/02/98 05:47 PM PT Everett, WA

The On Board Service Crew has been fantastic so far! My Sleeping Car Attendant is Eugene Montgomery. He came to my room quite early to introduce himself, explain things, tell me to take the 2 Empire Builder wine glasses home with me, and ask if I needed anything else. Eugene also explained that the beverage card was good for one free non-alcoholic beverage once the Sightseer Lounge Car was attached to our train in Spokane. However, that won't do me any good since I'm leaving the train in Spokane! Maybe I can use this on the return train.

Shortly thereafter, Cynthia Vaculin-Wise, the Chief of On Board Services stopped by to introduce herself and the Dining Car Steward, Randy Munski. She even gave me her business card without me asking!

There weren't too many people on the train yet, though the sleeping cars are 100% booked and there is a waiting list for rooms by people in coach if any free up along the way. I guess that means that there aren't that many people in coach yet. Also, there are only 2 Sleeping Cars on the train so far. Thus, they did not do dinner by reservations but instead had first come first served starting at 6 PM.

In case you are not aware of how the consists of the Empire Builder work, the westbound train originates from two different places. One segment of the train originates in Seattle and the other originates in Portland. The Seattle segment usually has a few coach cars, a couple of sleeping cars, one engine, and one dining car. There is no Sightseer Lounge/Cafe Car in the segment that originates from Seattle. On the segment that originates from Portland there is usually one sleeping car, one or more coach cars, one engine, and the Sightseer Lounge/Cafe Car. There is no Dining Car on the segment that originates in Portland. Once both trains arrive into Spokane, they combine them together forming one train with both a Dining Car and Sightseer Lounge/Cafe Car with two or more engines in the lead. On the westbound journey, the opposite division of cars takes place in Spokane.

Thus, the segment originating in Seattle does serve a full dinner in the Dining Car while the Portland segment has to make due with what they can prepare in the Cafe in the Sightseer Lounge Car.

I went down to the Dining Car on the first call at 6 PM. I hadn't eaten all day and was starving! I sat with a mother and her two boys, 13 and 11, who were on their return segment of a round-trip from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder. She had explored around Washington on this vacation and was considering moving to the area.

I ordered the Vegetable Lasagna plus a glass of red wine. Everything was delicious, including the salad and dinner role served before the meal! However, after not eating all day, I'm not sure you should trust my judgment. Things tend to taste better to me when I'm very hungry! I had a "Turtle" for desert. That was very good also, but it didn't look much like how it was described in the menu. It just looked like a piece of cake that tasted like it was made out of ice cream.

CH 66 161.100 Snohomish (Everett) - Spokane, WA
CH 66 161.100 MP 1690.0 07/02/98 08:02 PM PT Axles 36 66 Degrees
CH 66 161.100 MP 1654.7 07/02/98 08:41 PM PT Axles 36 81 Degrees

It is starting to get just a little dark out. The sun has set, but there is still quite a bit of light outside. I'm amazed that it is staying so light this late at night. The scenery has been almost constant beauty from the moment that we left Seattle. I'm on the left side of the train. That has positioned me on the west side of the train with views of the Salmon Bay Inlet, Shilshole Bay, Lake Union, Portage Bay and Union Bay. Further up, I had a continuous view of the Puget Sound for many miles. Eventually the train turned east which gave me a view of the Cascade Mountains north of the train and then we followed the Wenatchee River for many miles. I've had my video camera running right from the start of this rail journey from Seattle, so I have all of this scenery on videotape!

07/02/98 08:51 PM PT Wenatchee, WA

We arrived a few minutes early into this station. There is lightning outside, but no rain as yet. The Conductor put our departure time at 8:54 PM, but my clock says we left on time at 8:51 PM. I didn't expect to keep taping beyond this point, but through the miracle of modern electronics and a new video camera, I still see a bright clear image on the camera. Thus, I'm going to continue recording for now. I can see everything on the videocamera screen much clearer than actually looking out the window! The only disturbing thing is a million dancing red specs all over the screen. I imagine that has something to do with the camera's electronics trying to make night look like day! Lightning activity continues and some of that is also getting captured on the videotape.

I videotaped a nice sunset as we went over a bridge over a river, but then it finally did start to rain really hard!

CH 66 161.100 MP 1638.0 07/02/98 09:06 PM PT
CH 66 161.100 MP 1633.6 07/02/98 09:12 PM PT Axles 36 80 Degrees
CH 66 161.100 MP 1624.2 07/02/98 09:20 PM PT Trinidad
CH 66 161.100 MP 1622.2 07/02/98 09:27 PM PT Trinidad
CH 66 161.100 MP 1607.9 07/02/98 09:41 PM PT
07/02/98 09:48 PM PT Ephrata, WA

Right on time again! Next stop is mine, in about 2 and three quarter hours! I don't know whether to take a little nap between now and then or just stay awake until it is time to get off. I've set my alarm just in case I do fall asleep. There isn't too much to see out the window as it is pitch black. Not even the videocamera seems to be able to see much of anything anymore. Naturally when we go through towns the lights from the houses and streets can still be seen.

I just popped out of my room to make sure somebody will wake me up when we get to Spokane just in case I do fall asleep. Even though I had already told Eugene that I would be getting off in Spokane, he seemed to be unaware of it. That made me a little uneasy. Would he not have attempted to wake me up if I didn't remind him? Would he have checked the manifest before he went to sleep? Will he still remember to wake me? I will have to trust my alarm as I feel uneasy about relying on my Car Attendant to wake me.

I also asked if there was any bottled water or soda available. Eugene said he had ice. I asked if that was all he had, if there wasn't something else like soda or bottled water available. He said: "Not unless you go to the Dining Car and get some soda from there." He also mentioned that Randy was still down in the Dining Car. However, I didn't want to go down to get soda as they made last call for snacks and drinks from the Dining Car about a half hour ago. I just expected Eugene to offer to get me something and bring it to my room, especially considering there is nowhere that I can go to get anything to drink myself. These are the things that I use to determine how much of a tip to give a Car Attendant.

I've heard everyone on this trip who has had Eugene as a Car Attendant before say all sorts of wonderful things about him, but I was disappointed with his response to the only 2 things I'll probably want him to do for me on this entire trip: reassure me that someone will wake me to get off and get me something to drink. I assumed when I boarded that I would just give my Car Attendant a $5 courtesy tip since there wouldn't be much he would have to do for me on such a short trip. There isn't much further down to go below a $5 tip. I'll just have to see if I get Eugene on a future cross country rail trip on the Empire Builder where he will have more time to demonstrate the customer attentiveness that he seems to be noted for and then I can give him a tip that I will feel is deserved for services offered.

Just as a side note, I later left my room to see what I could hunt down to drink. I found that there was both Orange Juice and Coffee in the sleeping car's refreshment center. Why didn't Eugene just tell me he had juice and coffee? From his earlier response, I assumed there was nothing but train tap water available.

CH 66 161.100 MP 1580.2 07/02/98 10:09 PM PT Axles 36 69 Degrees
CH 66 161.100 MP 1555.8 07/02/98 10:38 PM PT Axles 36 73 Degrees
CH 76 161.250 Spokane, WA area
CH 23 161.455 Spokane, WA area
07/03/98 12:32 AM PT Spokane, WA

The Car Attendant knocked on my door at about midnight checking to see if I was ready to go. I shouted out "Thanks!" But, he knocked again. I responded even more loudly that I was getting set to go. Then, he knocked again! I gave it one more shot at responding loud enough to wake everyone around me! I've been woken by Car Attendants before and usually a simple "Thanks! I'm up!" is enough. Not sure what the problem was this time.

I put away my computer, videocamera and tripod and headed downstairs with my camera case and backpack. My suitcase was still in the luggage rack where I had left it. I dug it out and brought it out to the doorway. Eugene said he had to go upstairs for a couple of minutes to get my room ready as another couple would be getting into that room in Spokane. He told me not to worry about getting off the train as we still had a few minutes before we would arrive into Spokane.

We finally did arrive into the station right on time at 12:32 AM PT. Eugene asked if he could help with my bag, but all that was left at that point was to walk 2 steps off the train. I told him I could handle it and walked off without providing a tip. I can only remember 2 other times I have done that in all my dozens of rail journeys over the last 3 years. However, I did hear Eugene later all the way out in the Waiting Room gathering up passengers for his sleeping car and personally escorting them to their bedrooms.

The Amtrak Empire Builder section from Portland arrived a little late at 12:48 AM PT instead of 12:12 AM PT. I'm writing this from the waiting room in the Spokane Amtrak Station. I've got the radio on and can hear all the communication between the dispatcher, freight engineers, and the Amtrak engineers and conductors. It sounds like they are preparing to shuffle the cars from the 28 (Portland segment) and 8 (Seattle segment) and merge them together.

Spokane is an interesting station. The waiting room is well lighted and quite large with lots of seats. Oddly, there seems to be ticket counters at both ends of the station. The main ticket counter is down one end with lots of info about arrivals and departures. The other ticket counter is over by the baggage claim area and seems to only have the ticket agent terminals without any information on the wall. I wonder if the reason for this is that one agent has to sometimes man both the ticket counter and baggage window. The main ticket counter is so far away, he could not handle both positions from way over there.

There are soda and snack machines in the station, video games, plus lots of tourist brochures and newspaper racks in the station. There are also 3 pay phones that I can see from my seat. On the second floor there is a Kochi Teriyaki Restaurant and a Gift Shop. If I can find somewhere to stow my luggage, I might go explore the second floor to see if these places are open at this hour.

Actually, this station sees more action in the middle of the night than it does all day. It services 3 Amtrak arrivals and 3 Amtrak departures in the middle of the night and then sees no Amtrak activity during the daytime. Train #28 is scheduled in at 12:12 AM PT, train #8 in at 12:32 AM PT, and train #8 out at 1:15 AM PT. Train #7 is scheduled in at 1:53 AM, train #7 out at 2:27 AM PT, and train #27 out at 2:52 AM PT. That's it for all the Amtrak activity! Except for late trains, all the passenger activity occurs between 12:12 AM PT and 2:52 AM PT.

The radio channels used here seem to be Channel 76 (161.250) on the approach to Spokane, but then Channel 23 (160.455) was used part of the time by the Amtrak crew.

07/03/98 02:30 AM PT Spokane, WA

My Sleeping Car Attendant for the return trip on the #7 Empire Builder came into the Waiting Room in the station and said: "Any Sleeping Car Passengers here?" I said that I was one on #7. He then asked if I was Stephen Grande. This caught me totally by surprise. There had been no announcements in the waiting area that #7 had arrived yet and I hadn't heard anything on the radio. So ... I was very surprised to find out that it was in the station and almost ready to leave! For some reason, I thought it wasn't even near the time it was suppose to arrive yet. We left Spokane at 2:47 AM PT, just 20 minutes behind schedule.

The Car Attendant told me that breakfast would only be served between 6am and 7am, or maybe go to 7:30am. This was because they have to have everything cleaned up and put away by the 10:20 AM arrival into Seattle. I told the Car Attendant to wake me at 6:30am. I realized that I'm going to have to get up about that time anyway to change the 4 hour videotape.

For those of you riding this segment of the Empire Builder between Spokane and Seattle, Washington who are wondering what frequency to monitor with your scanner, monitor channel 66 161.100. That is the frequency used for almost all of this segment. Only a few miles near Seattle (Ch 70 161.160) and a few miles near Spokane (Ch 76 161.250 & Ch 23 160.455) use anything different.

The Car Attendant put me in Room 3 instead of Room 2. I thought that was great because it would allow me to videotape the other side of this route. Eastbound I had videotaped the scenery on the west and north side of the train. By being in Room 3, I would now be able to videotape the scenery on the south and east side of the train. The Car Attendant said he would have Room 2 ready for me by daylight so that I could view Puget Sound in the morning. He seemed quite surprised when I told him that I would rather remained in the alternate room that he was placing me in! I explained about the videotape and why I wanted to be on that side of the train, but still finding it hard to believe, he told me he'd have Room 2 ready for me just in case I wanted to go over to that side.

I did wake up at about 6 AM, but I waited in my room until 6:30 AM since the videotape was about to reach the end. After changing the tape, I headed off for some breakfast in the Dining Car. I sat with a minister who was traveling with a number of children. The children were still asleep in the coach car, so this was his chance to get away and have breakfast and a little time to himself. Also at our table was a couple that was traveling to Edmonds, Washington.

Everyone at my table was heading out to Washington for the first time on the train so they didn't know what to expect. Considering I had just come from that direction a few hours before, I was able to explain what scenery would be coming up and on which side of the train. Everyone, including myself, really enjoyed the scenery along this route. I've traveled the Empire Builder before between Portland and Chicago, but it was dark out between Portland and Spokane. Thus, I can't comment too much on the scenery along that segment of the route. All I can say is that the segment from Seattle to Spokane is absolutely breathtaking. Not only is it far beyond the beauty of the scenery of the rest of the route, but it definitely compares to the shoreline and mountain forest scenery of the Coast Starlight and the mountain views of the California Zephyr's route over the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains! I will be adding this Amtrak segment to my list of routes recommended for best scenery!

Having only had one meal yesterday, I was still pretty hungry this morning. No doubt my lack of sleep also amplified my hunger. I ordered the two scrambled eggs with hash brown potatoes and sausages on the side along with coffee. The food was very good, the coffee kept on coming, the breakfast conversation was pleasant, and the scenery was unbeatable!

There is impressive scenery on both sides of the train, but the best views are on the left side of the train on an eastbound journey and on the right side of the train on a westbound journey. I don't know if Amtrak keeps their Empire Builder Sleeping Cars oriented the same way on every train as is usually the case on the Coast Starlight, but on the two trains that I just took, the odd numbered sleeping car rooms were on the left side of the eastbound train (#8) and the even numbered sleeping car rooms were on the right side of the westbound train. Those are the rooms you would want to get if Amtrak uses the same orientation for most sleeping cars on the route of the Empire Builder. Family and Handicapped Rooms don't matter as they have windows on both sides of the train. Deluxe Rooms are on the same side of the train as the even numbered rooms, so the better view from the Deluxe Rooms may be on the westbound journey. You can actually look out either side of the train from the Deluxe Rooms, but to do so, you must leave your curtain open and look out the window across the aisle inside the train.

About an hour before we reached Seattle, the train lost power to the electric outlets. While we were in a tunnel, my videocamera screen went blank. I checked the power to my computer and that also had gone out. Since all the interior lights and reading lights continued to work, that would point to the problem being that the breaker to the outlet had blown and would need to be reset. This can happen if someone plugs in a high wattage hairdryer or any other high wattage device into the outlet.

Only the electric outlet went out. This can happen and you should be aware of it if you plan to use the electric outlet. The only way to test it is to grab something you definitely know works and plug it into the outlet. A second way to check to make sure it is a problem with the outlet is to find an outlet on the opposite side of the train and try it there. If there aren't any empty bedrooms on that side of the train, try a washroom on that side of the train upstairs or downstairs. Each side of the train has its own circuit breaker for the electric outlets. If your device works on one side of the train but not the other, then it is the breaker for the electric outlets on your side of the train that has blown and needs to be reset.

If neither the main cabin light, the reading lights nor the outlet work in your room, it is most likely that the train has lost the Head End Power (HEP) and it will probably be restored shortly by the train crew. This can and does happen sometimes either unintentionally or intentionally, especially when connecting or disconnecting cars from the trainset. Losing only the power to the outlet is much more rare. It has only happened to me twice in all my travel. You will have to notify your Car Attendant to reset the breaker and will have to hope that he knows what you are talking about and knows how to reset it! The last time this happened to me, the Car Attendant was familiar with the problem, but didn't know specifically how to fix it. He just started flipping electric breakers in the control panel until electricity was restored to the outlet in my room!

In any case, I had a fully charged battery for the videocam which would easily power the camera for the remaining hour of the trip. Also, all 3 of my notebook computer batteries were fully charged so I could run it off battery power. So, I went ahead and packed up the AC chargers and used battery power for the remaining hour of my journey.

I signaled to have the Car Attendant make my bed. He wanted to change the sheets no later than Everrett. Now that I had put away my computer and the AC wires, all that remained set up in my room was the videocam on the tripod. That wasn't in his way, so I figured it would be a good time to have him make the bed.

This is another ongoing complaint about Amtrak service which I will not blame on my Car Attendant since it is an almost universal practice among the Amtrak On Board Staff. That is, that they do all their final clean-up while the train is still underway. That often means that breakfast serving hours, as on our train, and lunch or dinner on others, has to be curtailed so that the crew has time to clean up and be ready to jump off the train as soon as it pulls into the station. On our train that meant that breakfast would only be served between 6 and 7:30 AM on a train that wasn't scheduled to arrive into Seattle until 10:20 AM! But I've even heard more ridiculous stories where one could only have breakfast between 5:30 and 6:30 AM because the train was arriving at 9 AM!

I've seen many crews arrive at their train early and start to set up their cars, but I have a feeling this same policy of not getting started until the train leaves the station might also apply to some Dining Car crews. Some trains that start at 4 PM often don't have their first seating for dinner until 8 PM ! In this case, the blame may not be with the crew. I would imagine they can't get started on the cooking until all the food has been delivered from the commissary, water has been supplied to the train, and electricity is being supplied by the head-end power rather than power at the platform. The reason power from the platform can't be used for cooking is that the yard crew might turn off the power for an indefinite period as they get ready to hook up the on board head end power. That wouldn't do very well if the Chef was in the middle of cooking something!

The part that annoys me the most, though, is when the Car Attendants come to make up the rooms long before arriving into the final destination. That means you cannot nap undisturbed, or in my case, work on my computer or videotape undisturbed, almost until arrival at the destination station. For the amount that is charged, it does not seem unreasonable to have undisturbed use of the accommodation from the beginning to the very end of the journey. I know it would cost more to pay the Amtrak staff to remain on the train for another hour or two to finish their clean up work. However, after paying them for a journey that lasts days, I wouldn't think it would cost that much just to add another hour or two to the end. That is just one of my little pet peeves. Not a big one, but one that I think would go a long way to pleasing customers and further making them feel first class in their first class accommodations.

We arrived into Seattle about a half hour ahead of schedule. Although I was only on the train for a matter of hours, I felt that my Car Attendant did everything he could to make those few hours enjoyable. I gave him a $5 tip and headed into the station. My wife and the kids are scheduled to arrive at 1 PM on the bus from Vancouver. I hope it arrives early like my bus did, but I suspect there may be more people on this morning bus than on the afternoon bus that I took.

If you get a chance to come up this way, take some time to look around King Street Station. It is not going to look like this for much longer. This used to be a very elegant station. But, it was running down and someone got the idea to modernize it for the World's Fair that was held in Seattle in the 1960's. Do you remember the popular architectural conceptions of the 1960's? Drop tile ceilings, simple in-ornate lines, florescent lights, and ticket booths that look like tables at a trade show. That is how they remodeled the station. Now there is a big effort underway to undo all that and restore the station back to its original beauty. The drop ceiling will be removed to once again expose the high vaulted ornate balconies and ceiling. The flat wall coverings and florescent lights will be removed to once again expose the original beauty and architectural design of the station.

    Onboard Staff of Train #8:
  • Cynthia Vaculin-Wise, Chief of On Board Services
  • Randy Munski, Dining Car Attendant
  • Eugene Montgomery, Sleeping Car Attendant

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