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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder

It's 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday, February 5, 2002, and I've just returned to the King Street Station in Seattle with Matt Melzer in preparation for boarding the Empire Builder, which we will be riding to Spokane. After leaving the station earlier this afternoon, Matt, Chris, Dustin and I all rode the Seattle waterfront streetcar - the only light-rail transit currently existing in Seattle - to its terminus at the Broad Street Station, and then back to downtown. This line is more a tourist novelty than a real means of transportation, and it features restored trolley cars from the 1920s, originally used in Australia. When we returned to downtown, Chris and Dustin split off to visit an arcade, while Matt and I wandered around the Pioneer Square area, stopping for lunch at a restaurant and for coffee at Starbucks, and then visited a bookstore, where Matt purchased a paperback book on rail travel. Although it had rained for much of our journey to Seattle on the Cascades, by the time we arrived in Seattle, the rain had stopped, and in fact, when we returned to the King Street Station, the sun was shining!

Now that we were back at the station, I obtained from the counter the tickets for the second part of this rail extravaganza - Portland to Seattle, and Seattle to Vancouver and back. I had made the reservations for this trip some time ago on the Internet, and attempted to pick up the tickets from a machine when we arrived at the station earlier this afternoon. However, the machines have now been programmed not to issue tickets involving travel to Canada. Amtrak wants to ensure that all passengers traveling to Canada have appropriate documentation, so such tickets must now be picked up at the ticket counter. Of course, I showed my passport to the agent as part of the transaction. I then checked my phone messages and returned a few calls.

Chris and Dustin arrived about 4:20 p.m., after waiting for a few minutes outside. In the meantime, the arrival of northbound Cascades Train #752 was announced, so I used the opportunity to walk outside the station to record the consist of this evening's Seattle section of the Empire Builder, which had already pulled into the station. It includes two new P-42 Genesis engines #130 and #200, a baggage car, two Superliner I sleepers, a diner, a coach with a handicapped section on the lower level, and a coach with a smoking section on the lower level. Then I returned to the station to await the official boarding call.

I also used the opportunity to look around the waiting room of this station. Although built in an elegant, classic style in 1906, the waiting room has been defaced by an ugly dropped ceiling installed in the 1960s. Portions of the original decorative plaster ceiling are visible through clear ceiling panels recently installed, and signs indicate that a renovation of the station to remove the dropped ceiling and restore the waiting room to its original grandeur will soon be implemented. The signs are not consistent - one sign states that the dropped ceiling and fake walls may be gone by the end of the year 2000 (!), while another indicates that the renovation will not be completed until 2007. I recently read in a message on the Internet that the renovation project has been put on hold for now, since it is believed that increased rail traffic will require the installation of additional tracks beyond the current five tracks. In any event, it is nice to know that the original plaster ceiling still exists and can be restored whenever funds become available to do so.

At about 4:15 p.m., a boarding call was made for sleeping car passengers, and a few minutes later, coach passengers were permitted to board. We said goodbye to Dustin, who would be returning to Portland on Cascades Train #755, and the three of us boarded our train. As Spokane passengers, we were assigned to the last car of the train, the coach with the smoking section on the lower level. We found seats towards the rear of the car, with Chris and Matt sharing a pair of seats on the left side of the car, while I sat in a seat by myself on the right side.

To our right, on Track 2, a Sounder commuter train was boarding passengers. I noticed that the entrance to these commuter trains is via a bridge over the tracks that leads directly to the platform between Tracks 1 and 2. Although Sounder passengers presumably could use the waiting room of the station if they so desired, there is no direct connection between the waiting room and the bridge over the tracks. It seems that this arrangement is designed to separate the commuters using the Sounder trains from the Amtrak passengers.

As our scheduled departure time of 4:45 p.m. approached, I heard on the scanner that we would have to wait for a freight train proceeding through the tunnel north of the station. As a result, we did not depart until 4:50 p.m. I watched as we proceeded through the tunnel under downtown Seattle and emerged onto the waterfront, paralleling the route of the streetcar line that we had ridden earlier in the afternoon. We then turned inland for a short distance to go through a Navy base, but soon resumed our journey along the coast.

This stretch of the ride is really beautiful. Unfortunately, it was cloudy out, and it was beginning to get dark. But for the 30-mile stretch up to Everett, we run directly along the coast of Puget Sound. I spent some time looking out the back of the train - something that can rarely be done today on Amtrak trains, in light of the prevailing practice of these trains hauling freight cars in the rear. I also moved over to the left side of the train for part of the way. There are homes built along the cliffs that border the tracks, and pedestrian paths lead down, across the tracks, to beaches on the waterfront, where a number of people were strolling along. The conditions were not ideal for viewing this beautiful stretch of track, but I should have the opportunity to ride it once again on Thursday morning on my way to Vancouver.

We made two stops along the coast. First, we stopped at Edmonds, which features a modern station with walls of glass, at 5:20 p.m. Then, at the extreme northern end of our running along the coast, we stopped at Everett at 5:44 p.m. Everett also has a modern station, with a less attractive design. Both of these stops lasted for several minutes, providing Chris and me the opportunity to step off the train briefly.

Departing Everett, we depart from the line running along the coast and head eastward through a tunnel. Matt pointed out to me that a new intermodal Everett station was just opened yesterday, and I soon noticed this building - which features a high-ceiling central concourse, built out of concrete arches - to the right of the tracks. It seems that the track adjacent to the station, needed to serve Amtrak trains, has not yet been constructed, but a message I received yesterday from the RSHS list indicated that the station should start serving Amtrak patrons by the summer. The station is located just west of the junction where the trains to Vancouver diverge from the Empire Builder route, which continues to head eastward.

Once we departed Everett, it got almost completely dark. The route from Everett up through the Cascade Tunnel is very scenic, but we could hardly see anything from the train windows. However, I soon noticed that the ground was covered with snow, and I could hear from detector reports that the temperature was dropping. I did notice the old GN station at Skykomish, once the western end of the electrified segment of track that included the Cascade Tunnel.

Since there was little to see outside, I walked through the two coaches and counted a total of 67 passengers. Somewhat to my surprise, I noticed from the seat checks that only a handful of passengers were headed all the way to Chicago. Another handful were headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul, but the remainder of the passengers were destined for intermediate stations. This is a significant departure from what I have observed as the prevailing practice on Amtrak long-distance trains, where a very significant number - if not a majority - of passengers travel the entire route. It has been noted by many observers that the Empire Builder serves an area which has no other means of public transportation, and the use of this train by many people to reach these intermediate destinations only confirms these observations.

I also walked into the dining car, where I observed the arrangement in effect for sale of snacks, drinks and sandwiches to passengers not desiring to eat a full meal in the diner. Since there was no Sightseer Lounge car on our train (the lounge car is on the Portland section, which joins our train in Spokane), an array of these items was set up at the last two tables of the dining car for purchase by passengers. This was not the greatest arrangement, but it did seem to work okay.

It had earlier been announced that there would be two seatings for dinner - 5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. - and the three of us chose the latter sitting. So, shortly before 7:00 p.m., we all went to the dining car, where we were promptly seated and served our meals. The waitress was very pleasant and efficient, and we were pleased with our selections.

During dinner, we passed through the eight-mile-long Cascade Tunnel. Right before we entered the tunnel, we noticed accumulations of snow alongside the tracks that were several feet deep. We finished dinner about 7:45 p.m., just in time for Matt and me to walk to the back of the train and observe our train leaving the tunnel.

I resumed writing these memoirs, but my computer's batteries soon died. So I walked to the first coach and found an empty pair of seats right in front of an electric outlet. This enabled me to plug in my computer and continue working.

At 8:49 p.m., we arrived at Wenatchee, the first significant community we've encountered since leaving Everett. The three of us briefly stepped off the train during our seven-minute stop here. The Wenatchee station consists of nothing more than a concrete platform and a shelter. We were now at a much lower elevation than we had been when were approaching the Cascade Tunnel, and there was no snow here. When we departed at 8:56 p.m., we were 14 minutes late. On the way out of town, I observed an ExpressTrak boxcar on a siding. Although we did not have any express cars on the rear of tonight's train, this car was evidence that Amtrak's has begun the shipment of apples from the State of Washington via the Empire Builder.

Soon, I proceeded to the dining car. Now that dinner was finished, passengers were allowed to sit down at the tables and relax, play cards, etc. I joined Matt and Chris at one of the tables, where Matt and I brought our computers. Each of us read the other's stories of our trips, and we made several corrections. It was nice being able to use the dining car in this manner, especially since, by now, most of the coach passengers were sleeping, and we didn't want to disturb them by talking in the coaches.

We made a brief stop at Ephrata at 9:57 p.m. The station in this small town has a rather strange appearance, consisting of a circular shelter, with about five large rocks, resembling Stonehedge, in the center. After opening the door, the conductor had to go upstairs to find the one passenger detraining here, so that gave me and Chris enough time to step off the train briefly.

The remainder of trip to Spokane was uneventful. After spending some more time in the dining car, we returned to our coach, where I did a little more work on my computer and rested for a while. Before we knew it, it was about midnight and we were approaching Spokane.

We reached the station at 12:11 a.m. The Portland section of the train was already in the station, and we pulled in on the adjacent track. Then, after a short wait, we pulled ahead. Simultaneously, the engine from the Portland section pulled ahead on the next track, and after we cleared the switch connecting the two tracks, that engine pulled forward a short distance and then backed up onto the track that we had just occupied. We then backed up onto the Portland section, coming to a halt at 12:27 a.m. -- five minutes early. Subsequently, the engine from the Portland section backed up onto the combined train.

We detrained and walked downstairs into the station, and then went outside. For the first time, I could see that the station was, at least in some sense, an historic building. From the outside, it became apparent that the building has a classic brick facade. And a plaque attached to the entrance related that the building had been constructed by the Northern Pacific Railway in 1894 but had subsequently been remodeled over 60 times. Finally, in 1994, the station was rebuilt into an intermodal transportation center.

What astonished me about the whole thing was that, from looking at the inside of the station, one would never dream that it is an historic building. Hardly anything about the appearance of the inside would give one even a hint that the building was constructed in 1894. The only feature of the interior of the building that has even a semi-classic appearance is the wood-framed entrance to the trains. Otherwise, the inside of the building has a completely modern appearance and, at least in my view, has little character or appeal.

Interestingly, both Chris and Matt liked the interior, and compared it very favorably to the King Street Station in Seattle, the remodeling of which is agreed by all to have been an unmitigated disaster. But, to my mind, the remodeling of the Spokane station is not much better than the job done in Seattle. Thirty years from now - if not sooner - it would seem to me that this station will be due for another remodeling. The only thing positive that I can say about the remodeling is that, presumably, the inside of the station was in such bad shape in 1994 that there remained little or nothing of value to save. I don't know that to be the case, but the history related on the plaque indicates that it might be.

In any event, the station is a reasonably attractive place to wait. There was nothing much going on in downtown Spokane at this hour, so the three of us remained in the station for most of the time. I used the time to update these memoirs, while Chris and Matt went outside to take some pictures and walked to a nearby 7-11. Soon after the departure of the eastbound Empire Builder at 1:15 a.m., the westbound train pulled into the station.

Around this time, my online friend Patrick Christian came by. Patrick is an Amtrak conductor and, from previous online conversations with him, I knew that he would be the conductor of tonight's westbound Train #7 to Seattle. I talked to Patrick for a while, and at 2:05 a.m., when his train was getting ready to depart, I walked upstairs to the platform to record the consist. The Seattle section of the Empire Builder departed on time at 2:15 a.m., and soon afterward, boarding started for the Portland section. The conductors collect tickets from boarding passengers at a desk downstairs and give out seat checks. However, no specific seats were assigned, and passengers boarding in Spokane were free to sit in any unoccupied seat in either coach.

Matt, Chris and I - along with a handful of other passengers boarding at Spokane - went upstairs to board our Portland section of the train. Tonight's Train #27 is pulled by P-42 Genesis engine #154 and includes a Sightseer Lounge car, a coach with a baggage section on the lower level, a coach with handicapped seating on the lower level, the Superliner II sleeper Vermont, an MHC car, and two express cars at the rear. We boarded the first coach but found that it was quite full, and decided instead to sit in the rear coach - a Superliner I coach which has been throughly reconditioned with refurbished seats and electrical outlets at each seat. Since this rear car was nearly empty, each of us appropriated a pair of seats on the left side of the car - the best side for viewing the scenic Columbia River, which we would be paralleling for much of our journey into Portland.

We departed precisely on time at 2:45 a.m. I watched as we turned south and diverged from the line leading to Seattle, and then briefly started to work on these memoirs. But, as might be expected, I began to get rather tired, so I put away my computer, raised the legrest, and tried to fall asleep. I quickly succeeded in doing so, and did not wake up until about 5:15 a.m., when the conductor came through to announce that we would be arriving at our next stop, Pasco, in about five minutes. I had managed to sleep for over two hours straight!

We were not scheduled to depart Pasco until 5:35 a.m., so I decided to step off the train here when we arrived at 5:20 a.m., fifteen minutes early. Since my previous trip along this route in November 1998, a new station, identified by a plaque as the Pasco Multi-Modal Facility, has opened. It is an attractive modern building with a peaked roof, and -- like the station in Spokane -- it serves both Amtrak and Greyhound, with separate ticket counters for each. Interestingly, a Greyhound bus to Spokane had also arrived and was boarding passengers at this very early hour.

I walked around the station and its environs for about ten minutes and then reboarded the train, which departed on time at 5:35 a.m. Walking through the first coach, I counted 43 passengers sitting in the 60 available seats, while there were only 13 passengers in the rear car with 72 seats. For some reason that I could not comprehend, passengers boarding at Pasco were directed to the more crowded front car. I also attempted to walk into the lounge car, but found - as did Matt, who had tried to go into that car right after we left Spokane - that it was locked. I realize that no food service would be available at this early hour, but I don't understand why the car should remain inaccessible to passengers on this rather short train. Then I returned to my seat and watched our train cross the Columbia River on a long single-track truss bridge - the longest river crossing of our entire trip, as far as I could determine. After updating these memoirs, I decided once again to try to get a little sleep.

I probably slept for a little while, but by 6:30 a.m., I woke up. It was now starting to get light, and I could see the Columbia River immediately to our left. We continued running directly along the Columbia River, with little or no settlement visible in the area. The only town of any consequence that I observed was Roosevelt, where there was a yard in which containers were being transloaded. I think that most of the containers were being moved from ships on the river to trucks, but possibly some were coming off or on trains.

Matt woke up about 7:00 a.m., and we soon headed to the lounge car, where we purchased food for breakfast. I had orange juice, Cheerios and coffee. We had a Superliner I lounge car for this leg of the trip, so there were ample tables available on the lower level, and we sat down at a table on the left side of the train, overlooking the river. We remained there until, about 8:45 a.m., the lower level of the lounge car was closed by the attendant, whereupon we moved up to the upper level of the car.

Gradually, as we approached Wishram, more civilization appeared. When we arrived in Wishram at 7:37 a.m., an announcement was made that this would be a smoking stop, so I got off the train to look around. The Wishram station is a prefabricated metal building which is primarily used for offices by BNSF, with a very small room at the eastern end of the building set aside as a waiting room for Amtrak passengers. When we departed Wishram at 7:42 a.m., after a five-minute stop, we were 12 minutes late. Just west of Wishram, I noticed the railroad bridge that crosses the river, leading south to Bend, Oregon, with a wye that joins our line located right in the middle of the river! Soon afterwards, we passed the large Dalles Dam, which was constructed to generate electricity.

Our next stop was Bingen-White Salmon, where we arrived at 8:11 a.m. An announcement was made that this was to be a very brief stop, and that passengers not detraining here should not step off the train, so I decided to remain in the lounge car during our stop. As it turned out, though, the stop did last for two minutes, and Chris used the opportunity to step off the train. The station at Bingen-White Salmon is similar to the one at Wishram, but even smaller.

We now began to pass through an interesting section of the Columbia River, known as the Columbia River Gorge, due to the cliffs on both sides of the river. Soon, we entered a forested area (up to now, the area along the river was basically devoid of vegetation) and passed through a number of short tunnels. This was truly a very interesting ride, and I was glad that I now had the opportunity to see this line in daylight (the one other time that I had covered this route, I rode it eastbound, and it was dark when we traveled along the Columbia River).

Finally, the gorge ended, and we began to approach the Portland metropolitan area. I observed many new luxury homes being constructed in the narrow strip between the railroad and the river, and was very surprised to see that most of these homes were constructed on lots that were not much larger than the homes themselves. In some cases, there seemed to be no more than about ten feet between the homes. Such dense development of luxury homes is generally not allowed, and I could not understand why the local authorities would permit this type of construction here.

A similar announcement that passengers not detraining should not step off the train was made when we arrived in Vancouver, Washington, at 9:34 a.m., but I decided to step off, anyway. The stop lasted for three minutes, primarily because baggage had to be taken off the train (this was one of the few instances that I've actually seen the baggage space on the lower level of a Superliner baggage/coach used for its intended purpose).

Now I returned to our seats and prepared for arrival in Portland. We hadn't seen Chris during this whole time, and assumed that he was still sleeping and had missed all the beautiful scenery, but he assured us that he had woken up around Wishram and was awake for the remainder of the trip. Our trip from Vancouver to Portland was rather quick, and we arrived at Union Station in Portland at 9:56 a.m., fourteen minutes early. We detrained and walked over the tracks to Chris's apartment.

This completed our triangle trip from Portland to Seattle, Seattle to Spokane, and Spokane back to Portland. Everything had worked out just perfectly. I was able to cover the new mileage from Seattle to Spokane, and for the first time was able to see the beautiful scenery along the Columbia River between Pasco and Portland. I'm very glad that I decided to come out to the Pacific Northwest to take this trip!

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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