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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder
Chicago-St. Paul

It's about 1:25 p.m. on Tuesday, June 29, 2004, and we've returned to the Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station to await the departure of the Empire Builder to St. Paul-Minneapolis. After arriving this morning on the Three Rivers from New York, Gary Kazin and I met Robert Madison and Ed Sirovy of the All-Aboard List, and we took a Metra Union Pacific-Northwest Line train to Barrington and back. We then were joined by three other All-Aboard members, had lunch, and walked north a few blocks to photograph a few trains. Since we were supposed to be back at the Metropolitan Lounge by 1:30 p.m., we now returned to the lounge.

Gary and I claimed our luggage from the redcap storage area and went into the lounge, only to be told that no luggage may be brought into the lounge. So we went back out and rechecked our luggage. Gary then sat down on a couch with Robert and Ed, while I sat down adjacent to an electric outlet so that I could plug in my computer (whose batteries had died on the Metra train returning to Chicago) and continue writing the memoirs of our Three Rivers trip. Soon, an announcement was made that the boarding of the Empire Builder - scheduled to depart at 2:10 p.m. - would be delayed by about half an hour.

A few minutes later, Peter Laws - one of the All-Aboard members who had joined us for lunch, but who had left us on the way back to Union Station - appeared in the lounge, bringing along a copy of Amtrak's Strategic Plan, which had just been posted to Amtrak's website today. He had gone back to his office, found the plan online, printed out a copy, and brought it back for us to read!

At 2:15 p.m., an announcement was made that passengers needing assistance should go out to claim their baggage, and five minutes later, a similar announcement was made for all other passengers. We retrieved our bags and followed an Amtrak attendant to Track 30, where our train was boarding from the South Concourse. Trains heading north towards Milwaukee (including the Empire Builder) usually board from the North Concourse, but Track 30 is a run-through track, so it can be used to board a northbound train. As Minneapolis-bound passengers, we were assigned to the rear coach, which would be taken off at Minneapolis. On the way down the platform, we recorded the consist of the train.

Today's Empire Builder is pulled by engines #139 and #67 and includes a baggage car, a transition/crew dorm car, two Seattle-bound sleepers, a dining car, two Seattle-bound coaches, a Sightseer Lounge car, two Portland-bound coaches, one Portland-bound sleeper, and our Minneapolis coach. Behind us was the private car New York Central 3, and there were some express cars and RoadRailers at the very end of the train (although they were off the platform). (I subsequently determined that we had two express cars and six RoadRailers on our train, but I never had the opportunity to record the numbers of these cars.)

We boarded our Superliner Coach #34010, stowed our baggage on the lower level, and took seats upstairs. I chose a pair of seats directly adjacent to an electric outlet, and Gary took a pair of seats directly behind. That way, we could both access the electric outlet - the only outlet on the upper level of the car that was not blocked by a seat. We finally departed Chicago at 2:56 p.m., 46 minutes late.

Soon after the conductor came by to collect tickets, I took a walk through the train. The train was quite full, with only a few pairs of seats in one coach unoccupied, and most pairs of seats occupied by two people. There must have been about 300 coach passengers on the train. I also noticed that passengers bound for Minneapolis were scattered throughout the train, rather than all being assigned to the rear coach.

When we arrived at Milwaukee at 4:34 p.m., I detrained and walked into the rather large but very unattractive station. The Milwaukee station was built in the modern style typical of the 1960s, and it features a dark, depressing train shed. At 4:40 p.m., Hiawatha Train #337 from Chicago pulled into the station on another track. That train was scheduled to depart Chicago at 3:15 p.m. and arrive in Milwaukee at 4:44 p.m., so it was four minutes early, and it took the Hiawatha train 13 minutes less to get from Chicago to Milwaukee than it took us to cover the same distance. I knew that Robert Madison, one of the All-Aboard members who had met us in Chicago, was on that train, but there wasn't sufficient time for me to say hello to him.

We departed Milwaukee at 4:44 p.m., 54 minutes late. When I reboarded the train, Gary mentioned to me that he had walked over to the New York Central 3 private car and found that four of the seven people aboard were people that he knew (they were directors of the Tri-State Chapter of the NRHS, to which we both belong)! The car had been on the rear of the Three Rivers that had left New York on Sunday, but that train did not arrive in Chicago until 3:15 p.m. on Monday, thus missing the connection with the Empire Builder. [Subsequently, Barry told us that Amtrak had stated that it was unable in any event to make a same-day connection with the private car between the Three Rivers and the Empire Builder, so they were planning to go on today's Empire Builder in any event.]

The seat next to me was now occupied by a man who boarded in Milwaukee and, like us, was on his way to the NRHS Convention in Minneapolis. He was equipped with a scanner and a detailed listing of the mileposts along the line, and was particularly familiar with the route just west of Milwaukee, as he lived there. As we proceeded along, he provided a commentary on the features along the way.

At 5:54 p.m., we arrived at Columbus, which features an historic concrete depot. We made two stops here, presumably one for baggage, and the second for passengers. The stop lasted far longer than one would have predicted, partially because a passenger could not locate his suitcase, and we had to wait while he found it. We did not depart until 6:04 p.m., which made us one hour and four minutes late.

Soon, Gary came over to me and mentioned that another Tri-State member, John Fiorella, was in our coach. He and his wife had arrived this morning on the Capitol Limited and, like us, was headed to the NRHS Convention. I went back to talk to John, who mentioned that he lives in Cinnaminson and works in New Brunswick, and has been commuting daily to work on the River Line and NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor since the River Line started operating several months ago. John commented that the recent addition of service at 15-minute headways during rush hour has resulted in a significant increase in patronage on this line.

Soon, I decided to walk down to the Sightseer Lounge and spend some time there. I sat on the upper level and watched the scenery go by as I updated these memoirs. We made only a brief stop at Portage, but an announcement was made that the following station stop, Wisconsin Dells, was a designated smoking stop. This would provide me with an opportunity to detrain and take some pictures. As we approached Wisconsin Dells, the Wisconsin River, with interesting sandstone bluffs, briefly came into view.

When we arrived at Wisconsin Dells at 6:49 p.m., I stepped off the train and took a few pictures. The station here was built in 1989, but it was designed to resemble the historic depot at that location. Our stop here lasted for five minutes - not because of passengers getting off or on the train, but due to the smoking stop - and when we departed at 6:54 p.m., we were one hour and seven minutes late.

As we reboarded the train, an announcement was made that due to improper behavior on the part of the smokers, the next smoking stop might be cancelled. Some smokers had thrown their cigarette butts onto the platform, but the announcement stated that they should have thrown them under the train instead. Both Gary and I expressed surprise over this announcement; it seemed to us that throwing cigarette butts under the train could possibly set the ties on fire, and that if this station were a designated smoking stop for all trains, proper receptacles for the butts should have been provided by Amtrak.

After the 7:15 p.m. dinner call was made, a few people didn't show up, and Gary went to the diner to see if we could fill their spots (we had been scheduled for an 8:30 dinner sitting). Someone else had filled the no-shows' spots, but a few minutes later, an announcement was made that the two of us should come to the dining car. We were seated opposite two women, one of whom lived in the Minneapolis area and was returning home after visiting family in Chicago, and the other lived in Indianapolis, arrived this morning on a one-car Hoosier State, and was headed (in coach) all the way to Seattle on the Empire Builder. The meal was very enjoyable, and we remained in the dining car for over an hour, until about 8:55 p.m.

During dinner, we stopped for about six minutes at Grand Crossing, just east of La Crosse, to permit a southbound freight train to pass us. (Although we had met a number of freight trains on the single-track line west of Milwaukee, this was the first time that we had to wait for a freight train.) Soon afterwards, we pulled into the LaCrosse station, where our stop lasted for six minutes. I subsequently found out that about 30 people destined for the NRHS Convention boarded the train here, including the NRHS President, Greg Molloy. When we departed LaCrosse at 8:32 p.m., we were one hour and 21 minutes late.

We now crossed the four branches of the Mississippi River, turned right, and began to run along the river. Although it was still light enough that we could get good views of the river crossing, it soon got dark. The ride along the river is the most scenic part of the trip, but unfortunately, we won't be able to see much of it this evening. (I will, however, be able to see this stretch in daylight when I return to Chicago on the Empire Builder on Friday.)

I had hoped to spend some time in the lounge car after dinner, but as I walked through that car on the way back from the diner, there was a movie being played there. So instead, I returned to my seat, updated these memoirs, and made a phone call from my cell phone, it now being after 9:00 p.m., when my free calling commences. I fell asleep for a little while and awoke at 10:13 p.m., during our stop in Red Wing. We were now one hour and 27 minutes late.

I had not spent any time in the lower level of our Superliner I lounge car, so I now decided to walk down to that car. Somewhat to my surprise, the tables on the lower level were fairly full, even at this late hour, but I was able to sit down there for a while. Then I returned to my coach seat, where I remained for the rest of the trip.

It was dark out, and none of us were very familiar with the landmarks in the area. But when I saw a sign for Merriam Jct., my seatmate recognized that we were only about half a mile away from the Amtrak station. We stopped for four minutes to drop the express cars and RoadRailers, and pulled ahead to the Amtrak station, where we arrived at 11:20 p.m., 55 minutes late.

Everyone in our car detrained, and we walked down the platform to the station building, where we were met by convention representatives. After checking our names off on a list, we were instructed to proceed to a van located in front of the station that would be taking us to the Hilton, the convention hotel. We arrived there at 11:40 p.m. and then had to walk about six blocks to the Embassy Suites hotel, where Gary and I were staying.

Our trip to Minneapolis on the Empire Builder worked out quite well, and we are now looking forward to our train ride tomorrow in conjunction with the NRHS Convention.

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

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