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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder
Portland-Chicago
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1998k27a/1998l01a.html

It's about 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, December 1, 1998, and I've just arrived at Union Station in Portland, Oregon via the Coast Starlight. I'm in the Metropolitan Lounge to await the boarding of the Portland section of the Empire Builder, scheduled to depart at 4:40 p.m. I made two phone calls, then decided to try to sign online with my computer. In a corner of the Metropolitan Lounge, I noticed a partitioned-off area with two phone jacks. Although there were no computers there, it seemed to me that I could use these phone jacks to plug in my computer modem. I found the area code for Portland, picked out two local numbers I could use to access AOL, figured out that it was necessary to dial "9" to get an outside line, and managed to connect onto AOL. Anticipating that I might be able to do this, I had already written (on the train) messages to some of my online railroad friends attaching the Coast Starlight travelogue, as far as it had been completed, so all I had to do once online was to send these messages. Then I downloaded both my personal and railroad mail, amounting in all to over 110 messages. Somehow, I succeeded in doing all this in a period of no more than about ten minutes. I must say that I am very grateful to Amtrak for providing me the opportunity to get online at Portland, the only time I would be able to do this until we arrive in Chicago on Thursday.

At 4:20 p.m., while still downloading the railroad mail, the attendant announced the boarding of the Empire Builder. I finished the download about two minutes later, put my computer away, gathered together my belongings, and went out to board the train. After putting my suitcases in the luggage rack on the lower level and my backpack in my Room #6, I walked down the platform to record the consist.

Tonight's Portland section of the Empire Builder includes a Genesis I engine #813, a Superliner II Sightseer Lounge, a 34000- series coach with lower-level seating for the handicapped, a 1000-series coach with a baggage compartment on the lower level, a Superliner I sleeper, and a material-handling car on the rear. The baggage compartment in the lower level of the second coach is actually being used for the checked baggage on this section of the train. This is only the second time I can recall seeing this car being used in its intended fashion (the other being the time when I took the Desert Wind from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City five years ago). Usually, even when a coach with a baggage compartment is included as part of a train, there is also a separate baggage car. But there is no such car on today's train.

I mentioned to the attendant, Kirk Collins, that I will be on the train through to Chicago, but that my ticket requires me to change to the Seattle sleeper in Spokane. He said that he will check and see if it is possible for me to remain in the same room for the entire trip.

In the meantime, two people, with badges reading "Amtrak Interviewer," were aboard to conduct a survey on behalf of Amtrak. Each passenger was given a survey form which asked, inter alia, which trains they were taking, how much the trip cost, and what alternative transportation they would have taken had Amtrak not been available. I filled out my questionnaire and returned it to them.

On this route, Amtrak has decided that, in lieu of providing passengers with card timetables and Route Guides, it would produce a publication entitled Empire Builder Magazine, which includes a timetable, Route Guide, a few short articles about places to visit en route, and some advertising. The articles are not exceptionally great, but I think the concept is a good one, and an ample supply of the magazines are made available to all coach and sleeper passengers.

After crossing three large bridges (over, respectively, the Willamette River, the Oregon Slough and the Columbia River), we reached the Vancouver, Washington station at 5:03 p.m. This is a small but attractive station at the junction of two rail lines. Since we were not scheduled to depart until 5:09 p.m., an announcement was made that passengers may step off the train to smoke. Although it was still raining, I got off and walked into the station. When I reboarded, I walked through the train and found that the sleeper was almost entirely full, and that most coach seats were occupied by at least one person.

About 6:00 p.m., I went down to the lounge car, where I was served my dinner. I ate the meal at one of the tables in the lower level of the lounge car. (Most sleeping car passengers chose to eat the meal in their room.) My beef meal was very tasty.

The lower level of the Superliner II Sightseer Lounge cars has two regular tables and two awkward, uncomfortable tables, with seats on only one side, which replace four regular tables on the Superliner I cars. These uncomfortable tables are designed to be handicapped-accessible. Unfortunately, they do not really serve any real purpose of aiding the handicapped, while they materially interfere with everyone else's enjoyment of this car. Some features required by the Americans with Disabilities Act -- such as the installation of elevators to tracks at Penn Station -- benefit everyone (I often use these elevators myself when carrying heavy luggage). But that is not the case with these tables. The irony of the situation is that there is no way for a handicapped person to reach the lounge car except by getting off the train and then reboarding the lower level of the lounge car from the station platform. And even though people who use wheelchairs travel on almost every Amtrak long-distance train that I have been on, I have never once seen such a person use the lower level of a Superliner II lounge car. (The lounge car attendant mentioned to me that he never has, either.) In the case of tonight's train, the crew had appropriated the two "good" tables for themselves, so that the only tables available for everyone else were the awkward ones at the other end of the car. That is where I ate my dinner. I think that Amtrak should give serious thought to redesigning these cars by installing tables that are appropriate for use by most patrons.

During dinner, we stopped briefly at the Bingen-White Salmon station, where a handful of passengers boarded the train. It was still raining when we stopped there, but by 6:59 p.m., when we arrived at Wishram, the rain had stopped. This was another "smoking stop" which lasted for five minutes, so I stepped off the train here. The Wishram station is a small modern building which is almost entirely used for offices by BNSF. There is a small waiting room -- with one two-seater sofa -- at one end of the station.

I returned to my room, read the e-mail that I had downloaded earlier, and started working on these memoirs. The train was very quiet, and it lacked the Pacific Parlour Car that made the Coast Starlight so special. I knew that we had been following the very scenic Columbia River gorge, but it was completely dark out, and my room faced the other side of the train. I did get some sense of the beauty of the scenery by opening the windows in the lower-level doors and looking out for a few seconds, but you could not see anything through the glass. I'll have to take this ride again sometime in the daylight (either going westbound or else in the summer, when much of the route would be covered in daylight).

At 8:57 p.m., we crossed the Columbia River, which we had been following all the way since Portland, and arrived at Pasco. To our left, as we crossed the river, was a very interesting cable-suspended bridge, which was brightly lit up. Pasco was another "smoking stop," so again I got off and walked into the station, a rather non-descript building with chain-link fencing in front. Here, quite a few passengers boarded the train. We left ten minutes later, essentially on time. When we left Pasco, my sleeping car attendant told me that he had checked, and I would have to move to the other sleeper after all. I didn't plan on going to sleep until we left Spokane anyway, so making this move will not be too much of an inconvenience, especially since my heavy luggage has been left on the lower level.

For the rest of the nearly three hours until we arrived at Spokane, I mostly remained in my room, working on these memoirs and doing some work. I walked down to the Sightseer Lounge several times, but hardly anyone was there. The train was very quiet. As we neared Spokane, I noticed that it was raining once again.

We arrived in Spokane at 11:48 p.m., 24 minutes early. Then, at midnight, the Seattle section arrived. It was nearly half an hour early. The Seattle section pulled forward and then backed onto the Portland section. In addition, the engine from the Portland section had to be taken off and then recoupled to the front of the train. This process took quite a while, and not until 12:40 a.m. was the power restored to the train. During this time, I remained in my room and continued doing some work.

In light of the rainy conditions out and the fact that there was no canopy over the station platform, I decided that I would leave my large suitcase and garment bag in the Portland sleeper for now, and just move my backpack and a bag containing some other small items to my new room. So I walked through the train, passing through the two Seattle coaches and the diner, to the Seattle sleeper. This turned out to be a Superliner II car, #32102, appropriately named North Dakota. I had Room #12 in this car, a lower-level accommodation, which had already been made up by the attendant, Thomas, for night occupancy.

Actually, I was now glad that I moved to the Seattle sleeper. This Superliner II car was in general nicer than the Superliner I Portland sleeper. My room in the Portland sleeper was either too hot or too cold, while the temperature in the Seattle sleeper was just fine. One small thing that I found very tacky with my room in the Portland sleeper was that the ashtrays had been removed, and there were simply holes in the upholstery where the ashtrays had been. Granted, it is appropriate to remove the ashtrays, in light of Amtrak's new policy prohibiting smoking in the sleepers, but why can't the resulting holes be filled in a tasteful manner? By contrast, in my room in the Seattle sleeper, pieces of metal had been neatly attached on top of the places where the ashtrays had been located.

I put my belongings in the room and then walked back to a coach spotted directly in front of the entrance to the station. I got off the train, and noticed that the westbound Empire Builder was pulling into the station on the opposite track. Like our train, the westbound train is also running early today. Then I went down into the station. The Spokane station is a very modern building which serves both as an Amtrak station and as a bus terminal. I made a phone call to check my messages, and then went back up to reboard the train. The stairway and escalators leading to the train are labeled a "restricted area," and tickets are collected from passengers by the conductors before they go up to the platform. In fact, when I walked by without stopping, the conductor came over to me and asked if I was already on the train.

I went back to my room and did a little work with my computer. We pulled out of the Spokane station at 1:17 a.m., and I climbed into bed a few minutes later. I fell asleep pretty quickly and slept through our stop in Sandpoint, Idaho. I did wake up at about 2:50 a.m. and noticed that the ground was covered with snow. Then I went back to sleep again, and slept through the stop at Libby, Montana.

I finally woke up for good at 5:45 a.m. Pacific Time, which was actually 6:45 a.m. Mountain Time (we having crossed the time zone overnight). It was still quite dark out, and I had no idea where we were, since I had not yet programmed the proper channel into my scanner, and no meaningful landmarks were visible. I stayed in bed for a few minutes, then watched as we slowed down and came to a stop at 7:08 a.m. in front of the large wood-and- stucco depot of Whitefish, Montana. I knew that we were not scheduled to leave here until 7:31 a.m., so I quickly got dressed and walked outside. It was drizzling lightly, but I decided that this was a good time to transfer my two pieces of luggage from Portland sleeper to the Seattle sleeper. So I walked to the back of the train, retrieved my luggage, and brought them over to my car in the front of the train. I noticed that an old Great Northern diesel engine was on display next to the station. Then I got my video camera, took a few pictures of the train and the station, and walked inside the station.

The station, built in 1927, has been restored by a volunteer group and features a refreshment stand that was open. On the walls, there were a number of historical pictures, and the original scales for weighing baggage were on display. The scales still worked, and visitors were invited to weigh themselves, which I did (my weight, including all my clothing, sneakers and the video camera, came to 167 pounds). I also made a phone call to the Trail Conference to see how things were doing there. Then I reboarded the train, and we departed on time at 7:31 a.m.

It was still rather dark out, but I knew that the best scenery of the trip would soon be coming up. I went back to the Sightseer Lounge car and spent some time there, watching as it gradually got a little lighter. The views were not all that spectacular, but mountains soon became visible in the distance. It now began to rain more heavily. I watched from the lounge car as we stopped at the West Glacier station at 8:00 a.m. This station, also known as Belton, has been restored by an historical association and presently serves as its headquarters. Two passengers boarded the train here, including one with a backpack. After we departed West Glacier, I talked to this passenger, who was headed back home to Hammond, Indiana. He told me that he had been backpacking for the last four days in Glacier National Park, and that it rained for most of that time. He said that he had a good time, though.

Now the best part of the scenery began. We began following the gorge of the Flathead River to our left. I had been told, though, that the last call for breakfast would be in about 40 minutes, so I decided to take a shower. The water in the shower was very warm, and the shower was delightful. About 8:35 a.m., the last call for breakfast was made over the loudspeaker. Then, at 8:40 a.m., we passed the Izaak Walton Inn, which is the flag stop of Essex, Montana. I had heard over the scanner that there would be no business here today, and we went right by without stopping. I noticed that, adjacent to the inn, there was a caboose painted with the words "Caboose 66@aol.com." I'll have to send them a message the next time I get a chance to go online.

I then proceeded to the dining car where I was seated opposite a couple who lived on a farm about 40 miles west of Minot, North Dakota. They were returning from Everett, Washington, where they had visited their daughter. They had a deluxe bedroom, and took the train because they enjoyed the ride, even though flying would have been much cheaper for them. They were a very nice couple, and we had a very enjoyable conversation over breakfast.

We were seated on the right side of the train, which turned out to be the right side to see the scenery from. I had hoped to be in the Sightseer Lounge car for this part of the trip, but the views from the diner were very good, too. As we gained elevation, the rain gradually changed to snow, and it was now snowing fairly hard, with several inches of accumulated snow on the ground. We watched as the train snaked around curves and through tunnels and snowsheds. Even from our seats in the dining car, which was the fourth car on the train, you could often see the three engines winding their way around the curves. The sights were truly beautiful, and the snow added a special touch.

At 9:17 a.m., we reached Marias Pass, elevation 5,213 feet. This is the highest point on our route, but the lowest Rocky Mountain rail crossing in the United States. Now the scenery became less dramatic, and soon the terrain became much flatter. For the rest of our way through Montana, the scenery would consist almost exclusively of open fields, with occasional rolling hills. The snow accumulations decreased, and the snow started changing to rain. About 15 minutes later, we passed the East Glacier Park station, which is adjacent to the famous Glacier Park Lodge. This is an important stop in the summer, but the lodge is closed in the winter, and Amtrak trains do not stop here then. After a delightful breakfast with the couple from North Dakota, I returned to my room about 9:40 a.m.

Although I did not get off the train at the next stop, Browning, I did watch as we stopped in front of the old yellow frame station, with a short strip of asphalt for a platform. Several passengers got on here, and a woman boarded for a ride to Havre. She didn't have a ticket, and she paid the $23 fare to the conductor in cash. We made two stops here, and departed at 9:53 a.m., three minutes late. Browning -- a stop for Amtrak trains only in the winter -- appears to be in the middle of nowhere, with only a few commercial buildings of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation visible from trackside.

I walked through the train and noticed that all four coaches appeared to be quite full, with about 200 coach passengers occupying the 250 or so available seats. There were even ten passengers in the lower level of one of the coaches (which accommodates 12).

By the time we reached our next stop, Cut Bank, at 10:26 a.m., the rain had already stopped and the sun came out. As we crossed the high trestle over Cut Bank Creek which leads into the town, the shadow of our train crossing the trestle was visible to the left of the train. Our stop here lasted for only one minute, but the sole boarding passenger had to walk a short distance down the platform, which gave me a chance to step off the train briefly. The Cut Bank station is of frame construction, similar to many other Great Northern passenger stations.

We arrived at our next stop, Shelby, at 10:56 a.m. This is a crew-change point, and we were not scheduled to depart until nine minutes later. The stop was announced as a smoking stop, so I again got off the train for a few minutes. The station at Shelby is also a frame structure built by the Great Northern Railroad.

About 11:20 a.m., we passed a long freight train to our right, and we slowed down somewhat. Over the scanner, I heard the engineer tell the conductor that we have a yellow signal, and he replied that the 967 (apparently, a BNSF freight train) is ahead of us. I guess we will probably lose some time between here and the next stop, Havre, which is a service stop where we are scheduled to spend about half an hour. So far, we have been almost exactly on time at every station stop. A few minutes later, though, we started speeding up, and then we passed the 967 train, which had pulled onto a siding so that we could go by.

At 12:00 noon, an announcement was made that the diner is open for lunch, and that it will close about 1:15 p.m., so that anyone who wants to get off the train at Havre should eat now. I went up to the diner and was seated next to a man from Little Rock, Arkansas who had been in my car on the Coast Starlight coming up from Los Angeles yesterday. Opposite me was a couple from near Mineola, Texas who were returning home after visiting their daughter in Seattle. Both the man and the couple were planning to connect tomorrow to the southbound Texas Eagle. The couple mentioned to me that they had hoped to board their train at Mineola, but subsequently determined from local newspapers and from Amtrak that the Texas Eagle stops at Mineola only to discharge passengers, and that they could not board there. This made no sense to me, and I checked the current Amtrak timetable and found that it still lists Mineola as a stop without restrictions. They insisted that their information was correct, so I will have to check this out. They also mentioned to me that they had found the service on this train inferior to that on the other trains they had taken on this trip (the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited and Coast Starlight), stating that last night it took their attendant over two hours to make up the room for night occupancy after they had requested him to do so. They also mentioned that on the other trains, the On-Board Chief had greeted them and made them feel welcome, while on this train that had not even met the Chief. (I did learn her name, Marcia Sears, from an announcement that she made, and I saw her once or twice, but for the most part she seemed to be invisible to passengers during the trip.)

We pulled into the Havre station at 12:47 p.m., just about on schedule. We had hardly lost any time at all following that freight train. Havre is a service stop, so all passengers were informed that they had the opportunity to step off the train if they so desired. I spent another five minutes finishing my lunch, and then went back to my room to get my video camera and stepped off the train. I walked to the front of the train to take some pictures (I noticed that the front of our lead engine #813 had obviously been in some kind of accident recently), then went into the large, relatively modern brick station and made a few phone calls. I got back on the train, and we departed on time at 1:19 p.m. (After we left Havre, I read that a large steam locomotive is on display next to the station. Somehow, I managed to miss seeing it!)

At 1:58 p.m. we passed the westbound Empire Builder, Train #7, to our right. The westbound train also had three engines, but it did not have a material handling car at the rear. It appeared to be exactly on time, as we were at this point.

Then, at 2:33 p.m., we pulled into the Malta station. Since we were not scheduled to depart until 2:39 p.m., I walked back to the first coach (the only car that had been opened) and, with the acquiescence of the conductor, stepped off the train and onto the short wooden platform in front of the station. It seems that one woman got off here and no one got on. Like many other former GN stations along this route, the wood-and-stucco Malta station is painted yellow. I walked inside the waiting room, with its linoleum floor, which was entirely deserted. Then I reboarded the train and returned to my room.

Several minutes later, an attendant announced over the loudspeaker that anyone who is smoking in the car should extinguish his cigarette immediately, since cigarette smoking is allowed only in lower level of one of the coaches. I didn't smell anything, but apparently she did. Then another announcement was made about the next movie that was being shown in the lounge car. I don't know why Amtrak shows movies in the lounge car during the day. I would think that the scenery outside should be the biggest attraction. True, the scenery along this part of the route is rather monotonous and not very spectacular, but if I were a coach passenger who wanted to spend a lot of time in the Sightseer Lounge, I would find these movies to be very annoying and disturbing. (Subsequently, the lounge car attendant mentioned to me that he, too, dislikes these movies -- especially since he must show the same movies day after day -- but said that if he didn't show these movies, many people would be so bored that they would be "walking the halls.")

After assisting a detraining passenger with a heavy piece of luggage, I stepped off the train briefly at Glasgow, Montana, which features a white-painted brick station with a new aluminum roof. It is immediately adjacent to the main street of the town, where the Montana Bar proudly proclaims that it has been there since 1899! When we departed Glasgow at 3:35 p.m., I walked back to the Sightseer Lounge and spent some time in the lower level of that car. The attendant mentioned to me that he much prefers the Superliner I lounge cars to the Superliner II cars, not only because there are more usable tables, but also because he finds it difficult to keep the sale items neatly arranged in the self- service cabinets in the Superliner II cars. He mentioned that the Empire Builder usually has a Superliner I lounge car, and said that he was surprised when he saw the Superliner II car on this train.

The sun was now beginning to set, so I took some pictures of the setting sun from the rear of the train. We made two stops at Wolf Point, our last stop in Montana, but I only succeeded in stepping off the train very briefly here. The station here appears to be newly constructed, but unlike some of the other stops which have a larger and more historic station, Wolf Point is a manned Amtrak station. We left Wolf Point at 4:22 p.m., just one minute late. Soon it got completely dark out. I returned to my room and did some work on the Jewish Law book. Soon, we crossed into North Dakota, and moved out watches an hour ahead as we entered the Central Time Zone.

Our next stop was Williston, North Dakota, where we arrived at 6:49 p.m. There is an attractive red brick station here, with the waiting room having been modernized (with plastic chairs). We left Williston on time at 6:57 p.m. I noticed that there was again some snow on the ground beginning around Williston

Promptly at 7:30 p.m., my 6:30 p.m. (Mountain Time) dinner sitting was called. I went to the diner and was seated opposite a man who was on his way back to Chicago from a small town near Glasgow, Montana, where he had gone to visit relatives. He lived in Columbus, Ohio and would be flying back from Chicago. Sitting next to him was a man traveling from Seattle to Minneapolis, from where he would travel to Wisconsin to visit relatives. He mentioned that this was his first train trip in 55 years! Both men were traveling in sleepers and seemed to be enjoying the trip. Although we had to wait awhile for our food, we all enjoyed our respective meals.

We arrived at Minot, North Dakota at 8:48 p.m. -- twenty- four minutes early! This is a service stop that is scheduled to take 20 minutes, so we would be sitting in this station for nearly 45 minutes. First, I walked into the modern stucco depot, which has some displays of historical photographs. Then I decided to take a walk around the local streets. Although the streets were entirely clear of snow, near the station I noticed a ten-foot-high pile of accumulated plowed snow! The station is located at the edge of the city, and at this hour of the night nothing was open, anyway. But I walked around for about 20 minutes, returned to the station, made a phone call, and reboarded the train. We left on time at 9:32 p.m.

Our next stop, Rugby, North Dakota features a classic brick depot, emblazed with the sign "Welcome to the Geographical Center of North America." Since we arrived here four minutes early, I was able to step off the train and take a close look at the interior of the station, which features the original tile walls. Only one or two passengers got off here, and we left on time (as usual) at 10:28 p.m. We also arrived four minutes early at Devils Lake, North Dakota, with another classic brick depot, and left on time at 11:22 p.m. I had wanted to step off the train here, too, but only one car was opened, and by the time I finally got there, the conductor had closed it up.

About midnight, I made up my bed and climbed in. I noticed that the linens from the night before remained in the upper berth untouched by the attendant, who had not bothered to straighten them out. Of course, I had not specifically asked him to do this, but one would think that he would be expected to do this on his own accord. I fell asleep pretty quickly, but woke up during our station stop at Grand Forks, where we arrived 12 minutes early and departed on time at 12:50 a.m. I went back to sleep again and slept through the station stops in Fargo, North Dakota and Detroit Lakes and Staples, Minnesota. Finally, at about 4:30 a.m., I woke up for good. I remained in bed for a while, though, and watched as we arrived at St. Cloud at 5:06 a.m. We made three stops here, to load both coach and sleeping car passengers, and still had to hold for time until our scheduled departure at 5:19 a.m. Then, at 6:10 a.m., I got up, took a shower, and got dressed.

We soon began to proceed through suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and at 6:41 a.m. we came to a stop at the Amtrak station in St. Paul. I got off the train and walked into the station, looking for my friend Rob Wukich (Rob110178), who now lives in Minneapolis and said that he might try to meet me, but he was nowhere to be found. So I went back to my room, retrieved my video camera and took some pictures of the train. I noticed that a Minnesota Commercial switch engine had removed the single material handling car at the rear of the train and replaced it with three other material handling cars, four new express cars, and three RoadRailers.

The St. Paul-Minneapolis station is constructed in the style typical of Amtrak in the 1970s. It is functional but not very attractive, with a protruding overhang along the outside of the station, and painted concrete block walls on part of the inside. Unlike the previous grand stations that formerly served the Twin Cities and were located in the downtown areas, this station is located in an industrial area on the outskirts of town. It does not seem to be conveniently located, and does not appear to be served by any public transportation.

Boarding of coach passengers originating at St. Paul began around 7:20 a.m., and we departed on time at 7:40 a.m. Now, for the first time in quite a while, the scenery was something other than relatively flat prairies. We started paralleling the Mississippi River on the right, and then in Hastings we crossed the river and continued along with the river to our left.

Soon, the last call for breakfast was made, and I went back to the diner, where I was seated opposite a man who had just boarded the train in Minneapolis, and would be connecting in Chicago with the City of New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi. We were soon joined by a young woman who was returning to her family near Grand Rapids, Michigan after having spent a year in Seattle. She had flown out to Seattle last year, but this time decided to take the train back, in coach. She mentioned that she found the trip quite enjoyable and had met a number of new friends on the way.

During breakfast, Ray, the lounge car attendant, walked by and mentioned to me that I was fortunate that I moved to the Seattle sleeper in Spokane. He told me that last night, several people in the car were sick and kept on ringing for the attendant, with the sound of the bell being audible throughout the car. I'm really glad in the end that I made the switch in Spokane! We also stopped briefly at 8:44 a.m. at Red Wing, with a quaint brick station that seems to have been expertly restored.

After spending close to an hour in the dining car for breakfast, I returned to my room, then walked back to the Sightseer Lounge. Unfortunately, they were already showing some kind of movie there, which disturbed the scenic viewing that the car would otherwise afford. Then, when we arrived at Winona, I stepped off the train from the first coach. Only two passengers detrained here, but about 20 passengers boarded the train. The conductor collected the tickets and gave passengers seat checks before they boarded the train. There is a quaint brick depot here, set way back from the tracks, and also an old freight station which still sports the faded logo of The Milwaukee Road, the rail line which used to operate these tracks, now owned by the Soo Line, a division of the Canadian Pacific Railway. We left Winona at 9:52 a.m., three minutes late.

I again went to the lounge car which, despite the annoying movie, offered the best views of the Mississippi River to our left. (My room was on the right side of the train, so it did not afford the river views.) Soon we crossed, in quick succession, bridges over the Mississippi, LaCrosse and Black Rivers, and pulled into the depot at La Crosse, Wisconsin. We were already four minutes late when we arrived here at 10:29 a.m., but there were about 15 passengers boarding the train, and it appeared that the boarding process would take some time. So I walked into the very imposing and beautifully restored large brick depot, which also features a waiting room restored to its original elegance. And, during our three-minute stop, I even had time to walk two car-lengths back to the Portland sleeper, where I reboarded the train.

When we departed La Crosse at 10:32 a.m., we were seven minutes late. (We had been delayed on the way by some 10-mile- an-hour slow orders due to track work.) Ordinarily, I would consider seven minutes late to be virtually on time for an Amtrak long-distance train. But the on-time record of this trip of the Empire Builder has been nothing short of extraordinary. This marks the first time on our 2,000-mile journey from Portland that we have departed any station more than three minutes late! Such punctual performance by Amtrak is virtually unheard of. Even the Coast Starlight, whose arrival in Portland was only a few minutes late, was as much as 45 minutes late at various stations along the route.

At 11:05 a.m., we went through a 1,305-foot tunnel, which was announced to be the only tunnel on the route of the Empire Builder east of the Rockies. We then passed through the appropriately-named Tunnel City, and soon arrived at our next stop, Tomah, Wisconsin. The train stopped here for two minutes, blocking a major grade crossing, and we left at 11:12 a.m., still seven minutes late.

I then went down to the lower level of the lounge car and obtained a cup of herbal tea, which I consumed along with a small package of snacks that I purchased yesterday from vending machine in the station at Havre, Montana. I sat at one of the two "good" tables along with a man who was going to Indiana from Tacoma, Washington. He made a living by driving new buses across the country, and would be leaving tomorrow to drive another bus back to California. He mentioned that he had taken a train from Tacoma all the way south to Vancouver, Washington, where he connected with the Portland section of the Empire Builder, and commented that he almost missed the train in Vancouver because he expected the train to arrive on the platform at the opposite side of the station!

I briefly stepped off the train when we arrived at Wisconsin Dells at 11:50 a.m. There is a quaint little station here which, according to the Rail Ventures book, was built in 1989 to replace the original depot that was destroyed in 1982 when hit by a derailed coal train. At our next stop, Portage, the train merely halted for a few seconds while the conductor and attendant assured themselves that no passengers would be boarding the train.

I returned to my room, on the way picking up a reservation for lunch. My number was called a few minutes later, but I decided to wait until after we made our stop at Columbus, Wisconsin. Several announcements had been made over the loudspeaker that the train would be "double-spotted" at Columbus, and that the first stop would be for passengers in the head-end sleeping car to detrain. This would be the first time on this trip that I would have the opportunity to get off the train at one stop and reboard at another, so I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to take some video pictures of our moving train.

We arrived at Columbus at 12:36 p.m. The line is double- tracked here, with the station on the western (southbound) track. Ordinarily, we would be coming into the station on this track, but today there is track work being done on the southbound track, so we pull in on the northbound track, and passengers have to disembark on the left side of the train, where there is nothing more than a brick platform. About six passengers got off from my sleeper, and I, too, stepped off the train from my car. After all the baggage was unloaded from the baggage car, the train pulled forward, and passengers gone off and on at the first coach. We left Columbus at 12:41 p.m., only three minutes late. As we left, I caught a glimpse of the attractive depot which, as the Rail Ventures book puts it, "is adorned with the city's name in raised relief above the front door."

A last-call announcement for lunch was made, so I immediately proceeded to the dining car for lunch. Since I was about the last one to eat, I was -- for the first time on this whole trip -- given my own table. My chicken meal was promptly served, and it was very good. We now were passing through agricultural country reminiscent of the scenery yesterday going through Montana. Lunch took only about half an hour, and when I was finished, I returned to my room.

About 1:40 p.m., an announcement of the next stop, Milwaukee, was made by one of the conductors. He also mentioned that Milwaukee is a crew-change point for the two engineers and three conductors (the operating crew), and that it was a pleasure for them to have been in charge of the train today from St. Cloud to Milwaukee. This is the first time that an announcement of this kind has been made on this train, and I thought it was a very nice touch.

At 1:56 p.m., we pulled into the Milwaukee station, which is situated under a highway overpass. I detrained and walked to the back of the train to record the numbers of two of the express cars that I had missed in St. Paul. On the way, I met the conductor, Shawn Klimpel, who had made the announcement I just referred to, and I complimented him for doing so. I then walked briefly into the large, modern station, and reboarded the train. We left at 2:03 p.m., one minute early.

In the lower vestibule of the smoking coach, I met the young man who had boarded with his backpack at the West Glacier station. I noticed that he had the very same backpack -- the Gregory Shasta -- that I bought a year ago on the recommendation of my friend Chris who works for Campmor. He told me that he had driven a friend's car out to San Francisco, took the Coast Starlight to Seattle, where he spent a week, boarded the Empire Builder to Glacier National Park, where he went backpacking for four days, and was now returning home to Indiana. I commented on the absence of a smoking room from the Coast Starlight, and he said that he preferred that arrangement, since smoke from the supposedly well-ventilated smoking room on the lower level constantly drifts upstairs to the coach seats. A coach attendant who overheard our conversation confirmed what the young man said. Indeed, earlier in the day, I heard one passenger say to another that if you want to know on which coach the smoking room is, all you have to do is walk through the coaches until you smell the cigarette smoke, and then go downstairs in that car. I guess I'm not super-sensitive to cigarette smoke, since I've never noticed this condition, but it seems that Amtrak needs to reexamine the effectiveness of the separate smoking rooms it has installed in the lower level of certain Superliner coaches.

Leaving Milwaukee, we proceeded very slowly, apparently due to track work. It took us over half an hour to cover the first 15 miles out of Milwaukee. We passed the white-painted wood frame station in Sturtevant at 2:46 p.m. Although the Empire Builder does not stop here, the six daily Hiawatha trains between Milwaukee and Chicago do. The station appears to be located in an industrial area.

At 3:16 p.m., we passed the Lake Forest station of the Metra commuter line. From here on, we follow Metra tracks to Union Station in Chicago. I decided to take one last walk through to the back of the train. While doing so, at 3:20 p.m., an announcement is made over the loudspeaker that due to our delays up to this point, we are now following a Metra train which makes all local stops. Metra, it was explained, owns the tracks, so their trains have priority, and we will therefore be proceeding at about 25 or 30 miles an hour for the rest of the way into Chicago. "If everything goes well," we were informed, we should be arriving at Union Station between 4:10 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. It is certainly ironic that after our long, two-day journey from Portland, during which our timeliness was exceptional, we should be delayed at the very end of our ride to Chicago. You just never know with Amtrak.

We finally arrived at the Glenview suburban stop at 3:40 p.m., and left a minute later. We are now 37 minutes late, but there is considerable make-up time built into our schedule from here to Chicago Union Station, and we might well make up some of this time. Then again, given our track record since we've left Milwaukee, we just might not. I gathered together whatever belongings were in my room. At 4:00 p.m., I heard on the scanner that our arrival at Union Station will be delayed until #7 clears. Then, about five minutes later, the conductor announces over the loudspeaker that there is "a little revolting development happening here." At this time, we are told, they have no receiving track for us at Chicago Union Station, and we are therefore being held here until one opens up. As soon as the announcement was completed, the train speeded up considerably. But then at 4:12 p.m. we stopped again, and again the conductor announces that we are being held pending the availability of a track for us at the station. While waiting here, Metra commuter trains -- proceeding in both directions -- continually pass us to the left.

Ten minutes later, the conductor announces that our wait to proceed the 2.7 miles to Union Station will be 40 minutes to one hour, since there is no room at the station for our train. This sounds completely unjustified to me -- it's hard to believe that the train couldn't be fit in somehow. Well, I should still get there in time to make my 5:30 p.m. Metra train to Glenbrook, or at least I hope that I will. And, in the meantime, I can enjoy the comfort of my private sleeper accommodation. But I'm sure that many other passengers are not very happy about what's happening.

Then, at 4:39 p.m., I notice an Amtrak train, with Horizon equipment, passing us to the left. Irony of ironies -- this appears to be Train #338, a Hiawatha train from Milwaukee to Chicago, scheduled to leave Milwaukee at 3:00 p.m. and arrive at Union Station in Chicago at 4:32 p.m. That train left Milwaukee nearly an hour after we did and will be arriving at Union Station in Chicago before us!

Finally, the On-Board Chief makes an announcement that it looks like our sister Train #7, the westbound Empire Builder, will be leaving the station in ten minutes, and then we will be allowed to proceed into the station. So, she says, we should be arriving in about 20 minutes. Now I understood what I heard on the scanner before. The reference to "#7" was not to Track #7, as I had thought, but to Train #7, which should have left the station at 2:15 p.m., and is therefore nearly three hours late before even leaving Chicago Union Station. Why this happened, I'm not sure, but I suspect it may have something to do with a late arrival of the City of New Orleans, whose equipment is used to make up this train. We had been scheduled to pass that northbound train just north of Edgebrook, and I was wondering why I hadn't seen it go by.

At 5:00 p.m., we start moving again, but the conductor made another announcement that they are still going to be holding us at some point nearer the station. Soon we come to a halt. Then, ten minutes later, we start moving again. The conductor announces that we are proceeding into the station and will be arriving in approximately six minutes. I quickly put my computer and scanner away and prepared for arrival at Union Station,

Finally, at 5:25 p.m., we pulled into Track 19 at Chicago Union Station. I had to wait two minutes longer for the attendant to unload all of the luggage from the car onto the platform. At 5:27 p.m., I quickly gave the attendant a small tip, retrieved my suitcase and garment bag, and ran over to catch my 5:30 p.m. Fox Lake train which I will take to Edgebrook. Luckily, I was in the first car of the train open to passengers, and since we pulled in on the through track, my car was spotted only a short distance before the concourse entrance. (Had I been in the Portland sleeper at the rear of the train, I'm sure I never could have made the connection!) Also luckily, the Fox Lake train was on Track 15, just two tracks over from the Track 19 on which we arrived. So I did succeed in boarding the rear car of the 5:30 p.m. train, and we pulled out about a minute later, right on schedule. As I had hoped, my cousin Aaron was sitting in the gallery right above me, and he offered me a soda, which I readily accepted.

So ended my journey on the Empire Builder. It seemed to be an ordinary, routine trip until the very end. But you never know what will happen -- or when. I doubt that, in the end, very many passengers were seriously inconvenienced by the delay. The only connection that might have been missed was the 5:20 p.m. train to Detroit, and even that train might have been held for connecting passengers. But it certainly was extremely frustrating to wait for over an hour in a train sitting less than three miles from Union Station, not knowing how long it would take for us to cover that very short distance and pull into the station.

It is tempting to blame the Canadian Pacific Railway or Metra for the delay. But it seems that the real problem was that our train had to pull into Track 19 at Union Station, which was occupied by a delayed Train #7. What if there had been no track work, and we had not been delayed by the Metra train ahead of us? Would we still have to wait an even longer period for Track 19 to clear? I don't know.

In any event, I did enjoy my trip on the Empire Builder very much. The crossing of Glacier National Park was certainly spectacular, and the rest of the ride was enjoyable, too. Although there were instances in which I thought their performance could have been improved, as a whole the on-board crew did a good job, and no one on the staff of the train was obnoxious or disagreeable. Now I'm looking forward to the trip back home Saturday night on the Capitol Limited.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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