Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder
It's 7:15 a.m. on Friday, July 2, 2004, and I've just arrived at the St. Paul-Minneapolis Amtrak station, where I will be boarding Train #8, the Empire Builder, on my way to Chicago. I've spent the past two days at the National Railway Historical Society convention in Minneapolis, and now I will be spending the weekend with my cousins Debbie and Aaron Kahn in Chicago.
This morning, I got out of bed at 5:40 a.m. and had a complimentary continental breakfast at the Embassy Suites Hotel at which we were staying. I left the hotel at 6:40 a.m. and walked two blocks to the Government Center light-rail station. After purchasing my ticket for $1.75 (the fare is normally $1.25, but 50 cents extra is charged during rush hours), I boarded a southbound light-rail train that arrived almost immediately. This outbound train, as might be expected, was nearly empty. I took the train one stop to the Metrodome station, where I detrained and made a quick connection to the #50 University Avenue express bus. The ride to St. Paul was very swift, and I arrived at Vandalia Avenue - the nearest stop that this bus makes to the Amtrak station - at 7:05 a.m. From there, it was a ten-minute walk to the station.
Located in an industrial area on the outskirts of St. Paul, the Amtrak station is built in the “Amshack” architectural style, typical of such stations constructed in the late 1970s. (Other stations of this type include Miami, Cleveland, and Richmond, Va.) It is a large, boxy building, with a high ceiling for the waiting area, but utterly undistinguished architecturally. This morning, the station is packed, with a large crowd waiting for the departure of the Empire Builder, and a line for the ticket counter snaking all the way back to the end of the station. As might be expected today, the beginning of the July 4th weekend, all coach seats were sold out when I checked last night on the Internet.
Although I will be taking a daylight trip to Chicago, I decided to reserve a sleeper. How this happened is another interesting story. I did not make my reservation for this portion of my trip until about a week and a half ago. At that time, the train was already close to sold out, and coach seats were priced at a very high level - about $87 for the one-way trip from St. Paul to Chicago. So I decided to check the pricing of sleeping car rooms. I found that a standard bedroom on Train #8 - the Seattle section of the train - cost about $150. But the same room on Train #28 - the Portland section of the very same train - was available for $112.60, which was only about $25 more than the coach fare. And for that extra $25, I would get not only my private room, but also two complimentary meals. So I decided to purchase the first-class sleeper ticket, rather than a coach ticket. This is only the second time that I have obtained a sleeper for a daylight trip on Amtrak (the other time was on the Coast Starlight, where I paid about $100 extra for the sleeper so that I could take advantage of the amenities of the Pacific Parlour Car).
When I walked into the station, I noticed that, at the rear (facing the tracks), there was a special First-Class Lounge for sleeping car passengers. The door leading into this lounge was closed, and the sign said to see the agent for admittance. That wasn't of much help, though, as there was a long line of people waiting for the agent. But the door opened a few minutes later, permitting me to enter (I subsequently discovered that you can also get into the lounge from the other side, right by the doors that lead from the station out to the tracks). This lounge is rather small, with only about 25 seats, most of which were already occupied by other passengers. But at one end of the lounge, there are two desks with chairs, and this provided a very convenient place for me to sit down, take out my computer, and start writing these memoirs. Except for slightly more comfortable seating and a television, the lounge offers no special amenities, but it is a brighter, more pleasant place to wait for the train, and it features a great view of the tracks.
About this time, an announcement was made that the Empire Builder, scheduled to arrive at 7:05 a.m., was delayed and would not be arriving until between 8:45 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. This was no surprise to me, as I had learned from “Julie” and from Amtrak's website last night and this morning that the train was running over two hours late. I was told by “Julie” this morning that the train would not be arriving until at least 8:25 a.m., but I decided to get to the station on time in any event and to wait there.
At one point, I went outside to record the numbers of the Superliner coach and the express and RoadRailer cars that would be added to the Empire Builder here, and to look at the six private cars that were parked here for the NRHS convention. Finally, at 8:44 a.m., an announcement was made that our train would be arriving in about ten minutes. I went outside to take a picture of our train, which pulled into the station at 9:00 a.m. (the conductor requested everyone to go back inside prior to the train's arrival, but he let me stay outside to take a picture).
Today's Empire Builder is pulled by engines #155 and #130 and (including the equipment added in St. Paul) is made up of a baggage car, a Superliner II sleeper serving as a crew dorm car, two Seattle sleepers, a dining car, two Seattle coaches, a Sightseer Lounge car, two Portland coaches, one Portland sleeper, two more coaches, two express cars and three RoadRailers. As the train passed by, I recorded the car numbers.
About 9:15 a.m., sleeping car passengers were allowed to board the train. I had been assigned Room #6 in Car 2830, the Portland sleeper, so I boarded this sleeper (#32051), where I stowed my luggage and went up to my room. This car is an unreconditioned Superliner I sleeper, with red seats. The people in the room opposite me (who also boarded in St. Paul) had already gone to the diner for breakfast, so I decided to do the same, even though our train had not yet departed the station. On the way to the diner, I noticed that there were quite a few vacant coach seats, especially in the Portland coaches, leaving a significant amount of room available for passengers boarding in St. Paul (I was subsequently informed by the attendant in my sleeper that 220 passengers - about half the total capacity of the train - boarded this morning in St. Paul.)
I was seated next to a man who was traveling in the Seattle sleeper to Milwaukee, and opposite Dale, who was traveling with his 16-year-old daughter to LaCrosse. Dale explained that he and his family had driven down to LaCrosse on Wednesday morning to ride a trip behind Milwaukee Road steam engine #261 to Minneapolis (using the BNSF line on the west side of the Mississippi River). They had left their car at LaCrosse and were now coming to retrieve it.
As usual, I ordered the continental breakfast, and was informed that they did not have Rice Krispies, fruit salad, or yogurt (the latter of which I did not want anyway). So I just got Raisin Bran, orange juice and coffee. (Of course, I already had something to eat at the hotel earlier this morning, so I was not all that hungry, anyway.) My three companions made for a very pleasant and enjoyable meal, and I was glad that I had chosen to eat at this time.
During breakfast, at 9:44 a.m., we pulled out of the station and started our journey to Chicago. We were now two hours and four minutes late, having lost another nine minutes during our station stop at St. Paul. I watched as we proceeded through the City of St. Paul, at one point passing a number of boats on the Mississippi River to our right, with a banner stretched across an adjacent bridge to welcome the Grand Excursion - a large collection of boats headed up the river to Minneapolis, culminating tomorrow with a major celebration.
About 10:15 a.m., I returned to my room. On the way, I passed through the two Seattle and two Portland coaches and noticed that while they were pretty full, with at least one passenger sitting in just about every pair of seats, there were a number of unoccupied single seats. This surprised me, as when I checked last night on the Internet, I found that the train had been sold out, so I expected to find just about every seat occupied. The mystery was solved when I continued beyond my sleeper to the end of the train. There were two coaches behind my Portland sleeper. The first one was the coach added in Minneapolis for local Minneapolis-Chicago passengers. The second coach had come from either Seattle and Portland on the Empire Builder, and according to the attendant in my car, it was being deadheaded to Beech Grove for servicing. In fact, when we arrived in St. Paul, this car was switched so that it would be situated behind the coach added in St. Paul. I had therefore assumed that this car would be closed off for the entire trip. It seems, however, that the car was in good enough condition that it could be used for revenue passengers, and a group of about 20 passengers destined for Red Wing - the first stop beyond Minneapolis - was assigned to this car (they would be returning to Minneapolis on one of the river boats participating in the Grand Excursion). Obviously, Amtrak's reservation system did not figure on the availability of this car, so these 20 passengers would ordinarily have to be accommodated in the empty seats in the other coaches.
With this extra coach. there were now 11 cars on the train that were open to passengers. Only once have I been on a Superliner-equipped train which had more cars open to passengers. That was in October 1993, when I took the Desert Wind from Las Vegas to Chicago. For the Denver-Chicago portion of the run, where the train consisted of a combination of three trains - the Desert Wind, the California Zephyr, and the Pioneer - there were 12 Superliner cars open to passengers. But most Amtrak Superliner trains are much shorter.
We had been proceeding rather slowly since we left St. Paul, and at 10:38 a.m., I noticed that we were passing Metro Transit's Park and Ride Lot in Cottage Grove, the southernmost outpost of the St. Paul side of the Minneapolis-St. Paul transit system. We had gone only about 20 miles in a little less than an hour - certainly not setting a speed record. We now slowed down even more.
As the explanatory booklet provided by the convention states, at this point there are two parallel main line tracks on the east side of the river - the BNSF (ex-CB&Q) line, which runs directly along the river, and the CP (ex-Milwaukee Road) line, which cuts inland, resulting in a shorter distance, but heavier grades. Nowadays, both lines are operated as a unified double-track main line. Today, we were taking the inland CP route.
Finally, at 10:54 a.m., we crossed the Mississippi River at Hastings. From here to LaCrosse, we would be running on the west side of the river. We now picked up speed considerably, but we had obviously lost considerable time by our slow running to this point.
As we approached our next stop, Red Wing, I heard on the scanner that we would be making two stops - one for the 11 car (which is the first coach on the train), and the second to permit the passengers in the rear coach to detrain. As we approached the station, I noticed a huge crowd of people on both sides of the tracks. It was not us that they had come to see. Rather, it was Canadian Pacific steam engine #2816 that was the featured attraction. This historic engine, built in 1930 and restored by CP in 2001, will be double-heading tomorrow's excursion along this line, together with Milwaukee Road #261, and it was on its way up to Minneapolis.
I had walked up to the first coach in the hope of stepping off the train here, but the attendant would not let me do so. Instead, I walked back to the second coach, where I got an excellent picture of the front of engine #2816, parked on an immediately adjacent track. Our stop here lasted for four minutes, and when we departed at 11:25 a.m., we were two hours and 46 minutes late. We had lost an additional 42 minutes due to our slow running on the way out of St. Paul.
After we departed Red Wing, I walked back to the rear of the train. On the way, I passed through the lounge car, where I was disappointed to see that a movie was being shown during daylight hours. When I got to the rear of the train, I discovered, much to my surprise, that the rear coach - which was now entirely vacant, as all passengers sitting there had detrained in Red Wing - had not been closed off. We were about to begin a stretch of scenic running directly along the Mississippi River, which was to our left. My room was on the right side of the train - in this case, the wrong side - and I had intended to sit in the Sightseer Lounge car for this part of the trip. But the movie that was being played in that car would interfere with my viewing enjoyment. So I instead moved back to the rear coach. One other woman also sat down there, and a few other passengers occasionally wandered in, but it essentially functioned as my “private car.” Even where the railroad directly follows the river, the view was often obscured by trees, but this was still a very scenic stretch of the route.
When we approached our next station stop, Winona, an announcement was made that passengers would be permitted to briefly step off the train here, as this was a designated smoking stop. I stepped off the rear Portland coach when we arrived in Winona at 12:27 p.m. and walked down the platform to the classic brick station, which is now located some distance from the main line tracks, but is still used by Amtrak (although the interior of the station has been modernized in a rather unattractive manner). Our stop here lasted for nine minutes, and I reboarded at the front sleeper. When we departed at 12:36 p.m., we were two hours and 47 minutes late.
As we neared La Crosse, where we cross the Mississippi River and enter Wisconsin, we were stopped for about five minutes at Bridge Switch, just west of our crossing of the river. Around this time, an announcement was made that reservations for lunch would be closing in ten minutes, so I walked down to the diner to put in my reservation. When we arrived at LaCrosse at 1:18 p.m., I stepped off the train and noticed several railfans with cameras on the platform. Again, it was not our train that they had come to photograph; rather, it was the Milwaukee Road #261 excursion, which had come down this morning from Minneapolis on the BNSF line on the east side of the river and would now be returning on the CP route on the west side. During our station stop, the smoke from the engine was visible in the distance.
As we pulled out of the station after a five-minute stop, I could see that #261 was now proceeding ahead towards the station. I got a great picture as the train passed by us, and continued by waving to the passengers hanging out of the open vestibules on that train - including fellow convention attendee Chris Guenzler. I felt really privileged that I was able to see both steam engines - Canadian Pacific #2816 and Milwaukee Road #261 - as part of this trip!
Since our running along the Mississippi River had ended, I moved my belongings back to my room, and then went to the lounge car to await my call for lunch. A movie was still being shown, but the sound was not all that loud, so it was reasonably pleasant to sit in this car. When 1:50 p.m. arrived and I hadn't been called, I walked down to the diner, where I was seated with a family of three who were traveling from Minneapolis to Chicago for a family reunion. This was the first time in quite a while that they were traveling by train, and they were enjoying the experience very much and looking forward to doing it again.
Just after I finished lunch, an announcement was made that our next stop, Wisconsin Dells, would also be a smoking stop, so I stepped off the train when we pulled into the station at 2:44 p.m. This stop lasted for five minutes, and when we departed, we were three hours and two minutes late.
I now returned to my room, where I updated these memoirs and fell asleep for a little while. On the scanner, I heard the conductor inquiring as to whether a customer service representative would be boarding the train to talk to passengers who would be missing their connections. The reply was that no representative would be boarding the train, but that arrangements had been made for people missing their connections. Soon, the conductor made an announcement to this effect, estimating that we would arrive in Chicago between 6:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.
At 3:32 p.m., we came to a stop at the small town of Fall River, just before Columbus. On the scanner, I heard that we had to stop and flag a crossing. As we proceeded through the crossing, I noticed that the gates were down, but two railroad maintenance trucks were present, so it appears that work was being done on the crossing. When we arrived at Columbus, we had to make two stops, so our station stop lasted for seven minutes. When we departed at 3:43 p.m., we were three hours and eight minutes late.
As we came closer to Milwaukee, we passed through an area with many lakes. One particularly attractive lake was visible just to the right of the train, with many boats and water-skiers on the lake. We continued making very good time until we came to a stop at 4:50 p.m., just outside of the Milwaukee station. When we started moving again four minutes later, the reason for our pause became apparent. Almost immediately, we were passed by the westbound Empire Builder, Train #7. The westbound train is scheduled to depart Milwaukee at 3:50 p.m., so it was running one hour late. Although there are five tracks at the Milwaukee station, the practice is always to bring the long Empire Builder in on Track 1, with a platform immediately adjacent to the station, so we had to wait for Train #7 to clear before we could enter the station.
We pulled into the dark and depressing Milwaukee station at 4:58 p.m. I detrained, briefly stepped into the station building, and continued down along the platform to reboard at the first sleeper. Our station stop lasted for eight minutes, and when we departed at 5:05 p.m., we were exactly three hours late.
My original plan had been to take the Empire Builder all the way into Chicago Union Station and to take a Metra commuter train back to Edgebrook, where my cousin Debbie would pick me up. But our train was running quite late, and I would get to Edgebrook more quickly if I detrained at Glenview and took a Metra train south from there to Edgebrook. A little earlier, I had called up my cousin Aaron to advise him of the delay.
I had hoped to make Metra Train #2150, which would leave Glenview at 6:03 p.m. and arrive in Edgebrook at 6:14 p.m., but it now looks like I won't be able to make this connection. The next train leaves Glenview at 6:33 p.m. and arrives in Edgebrook at 6:44 p.m., and it appears that that will be the train that I'll have to take. So I now called my cousin Debbie to let her know that I will probably be arriving on the 6:44 p.m. train, and that she should figure on picking me up then unless I advise her to the contrary. (I was very thankful that I had my cell phone with me!)
At 5:53 p.m., we passed Rondout, where the Metra line from Fox Lake joins our route, and we arrived at the Glenview station at 6:08 p.m. I detrained, gave my attendant a small tip, and walked down the platform to a waiting area, from where I would be boarding Metra Train #2152, scheduled to depart at 6:33 p.m. Glenview features a very attractive brick station, which was obviously built quite recently, but which has been constructed in a beautiful, classic design. The station is located on the northbound track, but there is a pedestrian grade crossing at the station, so I walked across the tracks and into the station. Even at this late hour, an agent was on duty, and I purchased a one-way ticket to Edgebrook for $2.05.
In my previous travelogue, I commented on the primitive ticketing system that Metra uses. The tickets for trips terminating short of Chicago are even more primitive. The agent had to take a blank ticket, manually use rubber stamps to imprint each of the two zones (C and D) between which it was valid, use another rubber stamp to imprint the date of sale, and then take a pen to write the value of the ticket on a stub which he retained! Now in possession of a valid ticket, I recrossed the tracks, took a few pictures of the station, and waited for my train, which arrived at 6:34 p.m., one minute late. Our ride to Edgebrook was swift, and we arrived there on time at 6:44 p.m. My cousin Debbie arrived a minute or two later, and we were soon on the way to her home in Peterson Park.
Despite our three-hour late arrival, my trip today from St. Paul-Minneapolis to Chicago was pleasant and relatively uneventful. As it turned out, I would have been able to secure a pair of coach seats (or even an entire coach!) for myself for almost the entire trip, but I'm not sorry that I decided to take a sleeper for this daylight trip. For an extra $25, I got two free meals (worth about $15), the opportunity to wait in the first-class lounge in the St. Paul station, priority boarding, and my own private room with an electric outlet (none of the coaches were equipped with outlets at each seat). An added bonus of today's trip was the opportunity to view and photograph two steam engines which we passed along the way. I'm very glad that I decided to use Amtrak for this leg of my trip.