By Andrew Selden; March 24, 2019
In late February my wife and I undertook a three-week, 5,800-mile, great circle loop around the West, mostly by Amtrak. This was our annual “get-out-of-Minnesota” mid-winter mental health break. Others have made longer trips on Amtrak, and some have used rail passes to maximize their mileage or minimize their cost-per-mile on Amtrak. Ours was a simple, retail-price, multi-segment long trip. This is our story.
In years past, we have done similar trips by car, in epic road trips of 4,000+ miles, to Florida or the desert Southwest, stopping along the way to visit places or friends. This year we decided to try something different: a long rail loop around the West, with similar stopovers along the way. We booked, on all-Superliner trains: Empire Builder (No. 8) to Chicago, then our trip’s only connection, to the City of New Orleans (No. 59) to New Orleans; three days in The Big Easy; Sunset Limited (No. 1) to Tucson, to visit friends for three days; flight to Los Angeles (no train service available on Amtrak for days at a time); Coast Starlight (No. 14) to Oakland to visit family; back on the Starlight to Portland for another three day visit; and finally the Empire Builder (No. 28) home to St. Paul, Minnesota.
We recognized the trade-offs: we could go only where Amtrak went and when they ran; we traded the weather risk of driving in February for the uncertainties of Amtrak’s winter timekeeping; and the cost (including sleeping car accommodations) exceeded (but not by a lot) the out of pocket cost of driving, motels and food between stops on a road trip. For the most part, it all worked out.
We began with the attempt to book the trip on Amtrak’s website. In short, it can’t be done. The site just doesn’t allow long, multi-segment, multi-thousand dollar, trips like this. We are the passengers who—in Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson’s mind—don’t exist. After trying different on line approaches with no success, I tried calling the 800 number, but after two calls were immediately disconnected once I managed to reach a live agent, I gave up and drove to St. Paul Union Depot where two friendly agents stitched together my booking. It wasn’t easy or fast even for them. And, in the lowest of off-season periods, sleeping cars were already selling out two months in advance of travel (we took the last two Roomettes on one segment, and the cramped “A” bedroom on another—the last sleeper space available on these two trains).
No. 8(21)/No. 59(21) The day before our departure, I closely monitor the progress of our No. 8 as it crosses Montana, losing time steadily. I was worried about this FOUR-hour connection in Chicago when I booked the trip, and the concern was justified. At 5:00 AM the next morning, No. 8 is 2 ½ hours late and not yet out of Fargo, North Dakota, and gets later by the minute. At 8:30, with the connection now under an hour, we reluctantly decide not to risk misconnecting, and book seats on Delta (online, in about 90 seconds) to fly to Chicago-Midway that afternoon, and cancel the first segment of the train journey. In the end, No. 8 arrived Chicago with 40+ minutes to spare, but we would have worried all the way down, and made the right call to fly.
After a quick dinner in a nearby Chicago restaurant, we camp out in the large, airy, and mostly-deserted Chicago Union Station Metropolitan Lounge. Our 8:10 PM departure on No. 59 is called at 7:25 and we are sent to Track 18 on the south side of the station, where No. 59 is still backing in. The train has a deadheading Sightseer Lounge car, two coaches, an unstaffed Sightseer Lounge, a Cross-Country Café (diner, sort of, plus snack bar); and a sleeper, dorm and baggage car at the front, just behind the locomotive, making for a long walk on a cold platform. Even though dinner is offered in the Cross-Country Café (Car No. 37001), we pass and take an early bedtime in Roomettes in car 5909, the crew dorm and overflow sleeper. With the onboard service crew on No. 59 using dorm car rooms reduced to three (café server, snack bar guy, and sleeping car attendant), several Roomettes are available for retail sale in the dorm car. Apparently, all are in use. Overnight to Memphis, CN’s ex-Illinois Central track is very rough. CN needs to learn how to surface its turnouts. And whoever at Amtrak thinks the sleepers belong at the head end with the locomotive’s whistle shrieking all night should be slowly tortured.
In Memphis the next morning at Central Station, we observe significant gentrification of the once-scary area around the depot, and learn that a hotel is being built on the depot site. The café car (that serves as a diner) is staffed with only one person, who seats guests, takes orders, heats and plates pre-packaged “meals,” pours coffee, and collects payment from the very few coach passengers who use the service. Tobias is a very busy fellow, with—fortunately—a very cheery attitude. He makes the best of a very poorly-designed food service intended to limit Amtrak’s costs at the expense of serving its customers.
We leave 30 minutes late, and encounter terminal congestion in South Memphis, and a series of slow orders on CN due, apparently, to wet track. We repair to the unstaffed Sightseer Lounge car to take advantage of its great visibility. The snack bar is operated not in the Sightseer but at the short end of the Cross-Country Café car. The Sightseer’s lower level seats are blocked off for an unauthorized employee lounge. Most of the land we see in Mississippi is very wet-to-flooded by recent rains. In one shallow lake, we see a circle of fledgling white pelicans. But these are among America’s poorest counties (apart from the Indian reservations) and we see few people, many decayed towns, cars and rural buildings, and only some of the agricultural facilities appear to be new or well-maintained.
At 8:52 we pause very briefly at the new stop at Marks, Mississippi. At 10:41 we do a slow-and-go but no stop at the flagstop at Yazoo City, and later the same at Hazelhurst, another flagstop. The sleepers’ Roomettes are full to Memphis, but thin out afterwards. The Bedrooms stay occupied to New Orleans. Coaches are perhaps half full—a pattern we will see on every train we ride. When did Amtrak last advertise these trains in the off-season in online communities?
At 2:20, at MP 888, we stop to meet No. 58, then enter New Orleans and soon back through a wye into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal at about 3:08, 25 minutes early, thanks to schedule padding, not sharp operations. Because the train backed in, we get the long walk a second time. Three days later, the city, anticipating flooding, closes some levee floodgates, forcing Amtrak to truncate Nos. 58/59 at Jackson, MS and substitute buses (one of which caught fire en route).
The next morning, after a streetcar ride out to the famous Camellia Grille for a late breakfast, we run into and share a fun breakfast with George and Kathy, whom we had met at lunch the day before on the train.
No. 1(27) At about 8:00 AM, we find scarce seats in the Magnolia Room, a small, bare, anachronistic waiting area for sleeping car passengers in New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. The room, like the entire station, screams “1950s”; the facility, combining Amtrak and Greyhound, in fact was built in 1954 and appears not to have changed since. Today, it serves Amtrak’s Crescent, City of New Orleans and Sunset Limited, Greyhound, and MegaBus. We are the last of about 11 parties to enter the room; 22 people board the sleeping car at NOL. The train is called at 8:30. The Conductor demands to see IDs as well as boarding passes, but then doesn’t even look at the proffered driver’s licenses. This is the only time on the whole trip anyone asks to see ID. The Sunset has two P-42s, baggage, dorm, one sleeper, standard diner and Sightseer, and two coaches. Two bays over, we see a MegaBus loading for San Antonio via Baton Rouge, and a Greyhound for Houston. I wonder—who will get there first, the buses or the Sunset? At 8:59, we whistle and are off a minute early. Our sleeper is Car No. 32079, originally named “Georgia.” We have the cramped, slightly-smaller, “A” Bedroom. It is usually the last to be sold, thus ironically is always the highest-priced, of the Bedrooms. We walk back two cars to the Sightseer, and are alone in the car as we leave town.
We start off well with a slow, steady run through western New Orleans, and up the long approach ramp to the enormous Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi, which we crest at 9:27, on a southeasterly heading (odd for a westbound train). But the honeymoon soon ends, as we stop on the descending ramp at 9:37 and sit for an hour at CP West Bridge Junction. Nothing happens. At 10:10, a BNSF eastbound freight crawls past. It is by us at 10:19, and four minutes later—now an hour late—we are underway again. We crawl through the UP’s big Avondale Yard, where no activity of any kind is visible. Apparently, UP dispatchers held the Sunset for an hour to allow the BNSF train to cross over ahead of us. I send an email to UP’s Public Affairs office in Omaha asking why they did that, but UP must be very busy, because they never respond.
The Sunset has 24 coach passengers in two cars. A half hour out of New Orleans, the car attendant makes an announcement that the toilets in the first coach are inoperative.
At 10:45, we reach 70 MPH for the first time. At 11:07, we stop, so our Conductor can hand-throw a switch. At 11:58 we make the first of four stops on the main line “due to computer problems on the engine”—I ask the Conductor later, and he says the PTC system dropped, so they have to stop and reboot the system. Speeds vary widely, between 35 and 70, for no obvious reason. There is no freight traffic on the line at all. This is quite un-serious railroading. We have the impression that UP doesn’t care, because they know that Amtrak doesn’t care. We limp out of New Iberia 90 minutes late. The crew says we will make it up by Houston (we don’t).
Lunch in the diner is handled easily in two small sittings. The diner has two cooks, one server, and a hard-working Lead Service Attendant. I tell the LSA, Heather, later that hers is the nicest dining car I have ever encountered. This is our first exposure to Amtrak’s new menu (No. 59 used an abbreviated version because its food choices are sharply limited). It differs only slightly from the old one, but has color illustrations. The Angus Burger is still the “A” choice at lunch, but the big salad turns out to be really good, too. Surprising new choices at lunch include “chiliquiles” (an odd bowl of vaguely-cheese and hamburger taco-like ingredients, that tastes OK but looks like the dog’s breakfast; in other diners, the cooks embellish it with a garnish of lettuce and tomato on top, which helps, a lot), and “steamed mussels,” which I reluctantly try the next day, but am surprised to find are actually pretty good, especially on a train in the desert. Dinner includes salmon (OK, but dry), the customary steak, a very dry chicken breast with mystery sauce, a rigatoni pasta, and a bizarre, overpriced ($39), “surf and turf” combining the steak with some crabmeat topping. I wonder if they ever sell one of those to a coach passenger. Most crews will, if asked, serve up a kids meal, of mac and cheese or a hot dog.
We sit at Lafayette for 12 minutes while the crew looks for a passenger who is supposed to detrain here—this, in a train with just two coaches, now up to about 30 coach passengers. How hard can that be? East of Lake Charles, we reach 75 for the first time. But what’s the point? At 4:20, we stop and wait 20 minutes to meet our first eastbound freight of the trip since leaving Avondale Yard six hours ago. Speed up and slow down again is the order of the day, with mystery stops along the way. As it was in Mississippi, everyplace in Louisiana is wet. You know you’ve entered Texas when the landscape suddenly dries out.
Dinner is again done very casually with two seatings and no reservations. It is sparsely attended. The dining car staff is terrific. At dusk, we enter the Houston area, on unfamiliar track, stop, and back a considerable distance south to reach the Houston station, a small building perched under a cluster of very noisy freeway overpasses. We exchange a substantial number of passengers off, and on.
We retire early, and sleep through the long dwell and switching in San Antonio. Judging from the ride quality overnight, UP’s track needs work—a lot of work. The through coach and sleeper from No. 21, the Texas Eagle, have been added at the rear. We enjoy breakfast at 6:40 as dawn breaks over the desert. Breakfast is the best meal in the diner, since it is actually cooked to order; you can choose scrambled eggs or an omelet, since they carry only boxes of liquefied eggs, or pancakes—which we never see anyone order on the whole trip—or a fruit and cereal “continental” breakfast.
We sit in Del Rio for 45 minutes. UP has a big track project going in west Texas, replacing 31 bridges. Because of the project, UP demanded that Amtrak annul one weekly Sunset each direction, and add three hours to the schedules of the other two, for seven weeks in February and March. Why is not at all clear, since all of the work is in the stretch between San Antonio and Del Rio, which both Amtrak trains cross at night, and we strongly suspect that UP’s track crews aren’t out replacing bridges at 3:00 AM. Why we have to wait at Del Rio isn’t obvious, either, since we are now past the work zone. But it’s also impossible to tell if we are 90 minutes late or 90 minutes early, due to confusion over the modified schedule. Later, we decide that we got through the work zone faster than scheduled and sat at Del Rio waiting for our temporary departure time. This happens several times later on, too. Given the uncertainty, why didn’t Amtrak keep the normal timetable at least for its westbounds and just publish an advisory of possible delays, so trains could advance without sitting around if they got through the work zone faster than expected?
In sharp contrast to the rain and flooding in Louisiana, the desert in west Texas is bone dry and empty under a gloomy overcast. Our speed again is jumping around—60, 70, 45, 55, 70 again. But we are at least moving. West of Sanderson, we hit 75 for about 5 minutes. US 90 paralleling the railroad is a two-lane asphalt road posted at 75. Near Marathon, a dump truck runs away from us.
We cross the Pecos River (also bone dry) High Bridge at 8:11, leave Sanderson at 10:01 (and call it “Ft. Desolation” from its dreary looks), and double-stop Alpine at 11:40 (one stop for crew, one for passengers—is that really necessary? When the Conductors could walk through the train in order to hide out in the dorm car?). About the Conductors: except for the chatty, visible and helpful Conductors who took this train out of New Orleans, one Conductor west of Del Rio, and an arrival announcement nearing El Paso, for the entire remainder of our trip on No. 1 we never saw or heard from any Conductor. The two who boarded at Alpine were typical—they disappeared into the crew lounge in the dorm car, never walked the train, and never made any PA announcement about safety, “welcome aboard,” or station stops. They were completely useless. If Amtrak is looking for costs to cut, they could start here. And, why did this train have two Conductors between New Orleans and San Antonio when it only had three revenue cars and maybe 50-60 passengers on board?
Around 2 PM, west of Sierra Blanca, UP stabs us again for 45 minutes waiting on an eastbound freight. More ace dispatching by Union Pacific.
Approaching El Paso, we see the long-existing border fence as a black line slowly converging with us as we run up the Rio Grande valley. Pecan tree orchards bracket the track. At 3:10, we hold the main to meet No. 2, which appears to be about 90 minutes late on the temporary timetable. At 3:20, we are in the hole for an eastbound UP freight following No. 2. At 4:05, a half mile short of the El Paso depot, we stop for another 14 minutes waiting for a UP train.
At 4:25, we finally stop at ELP, and are happy to detrain to walk the platform in warm sunlight. But soon a Conductor calls “All Aboard” (we are relieved to see that a Conductor is still with us), so we can all get back onto the train—and sit for 40 more minutes to 5:24 before leaving. No announcement is made offering any explanation. Are we “waiting for time” again? We don’t think so—at 5:18, two very rotund Conductors slowly saunter up the platform to disappear into the dorm car. Are they late for work? In the hour we sit at ELP, no freight traffic moves by us.
After leaving ELP, we briefly follow closely the US-Mexico border, and see the massive fence—which has been there for decades—quietly doing its job of preventing illegal movement across the border, in either direction. After crossing the Rio Grande, we climb up to the flat desert plateau of southern New Mexico. We soon pass through the UP’s massive new en route train servicing facility, six tracks with engine servicing stations at each end of each pair of tracks. The Sunset is the only train in sight.
At dinner, we share a table with a retired Presbyterian minister and his retired schoolteacher wife. Last night, our dinner companions were a heavily-tatooed bounty hunter, and a woman from Belgium going to a conference in Los Angeles who says she just prefers trains to flying. One never lacks for interesting dinner conversations in an Amtrak dining car!
Long after dark, at about 11:15 PM, we reach Tucson, a half hour late on the very soft temporary schedule, due entirely to UP’s inept dispatching.
No. 14(04) Because of the way Amtrak disserves the Southern Transcontinental Corridor, no train service is available for days when we are ready to leave Tucson for Los Angeles. Richard Anderson’s fantasy that someone else will pay him to run multiple daily DMUs in this market will never happen, of course, but even if it did the 8 to 9 hour running time would allow only two or so daytime frequencies, and it is hard to imagine Anderson putting on a sleeping car DMU on an overnight trip. We fly to Los Angeles in a little over an hour, on time and effortlessly, at a time of our choosing.
The next morning, we head to fabled Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (universally called “Union Station”), venue for almost as many movies, TV shows and commercials as train departures. Union Station, completed in 1939, was one of the last new union stations to be built in the US. It is in a classic neo-Spanish Colonial style architecture. The facility has undergone a huge clean-up and restoration by LA County’s METRO, which bought it from the real estate successors to the Santa Fe and SP in 2011. It is also the hub of many new transit operations, including Metrolink Regional Rail trains, the Gold Line LRT, Red Line heavy rail subway, several bus lines, and, of course, Amtrak. When we enter at 8:15 AM, it is a busy, happening place.
We make our way to the relatively new Metropolitan Lounge. There is almost no signage. But there is a highly visible presence throughout the station of security types and other staff, and the famous wood and leather benches in the cathedral-like main waiting room are all roped off and guarded by signs and staff limiting access to ticketed Amtrak and Metrolink passengers within two hours of their departure.
The Metropolitan Lounge is hidden away upstairs in a back corner, up a set of industrial stairs or a freight elevator. It is small, brightly-lit, nicely furnished, equipped with an under-utilized conference room, snacks and beverages, and an enormously cheerful, chatty Amtrak lady. Two Amtrak police officers are sitting in the lounge drinking coffee. We park our bags and head back out for a self-guided stroll around the depot and its grounds. Back in the Lounge, at 9:20, we accept a Redcap ride on a golf cart to trainside. We load out the back door, and get another tour, this time around the end of the platforms, to get to the loading spot just in time to watch No. 14 back in to the platform at 9:32 for its 10:10 departure. The train carries two P42s, a baggage car, dorm, two sleepers, diner, business class coach, Sightseer and two coaches. Consistent with the pattern on all our other trains, the sleepers are mostly full, the coaches much less so.
Our Roomette is on the right side of the train, which is the wrong side to watch the ocean north of Ventura, so we head straight to the Sightseer. Two adults in the Roomette opposite ours wrestle with two huge rollerbags they have brought upstairs to try to fit into the tiny space of their Roomette. At 10:15, a PA announcement says “we are holding for a connecting train.” Hmmm…
Still holding in Union Station, at 10:42 the café opens, a half hour after the scheduled departure and a full hour (of lost sales) after passengers boarded. More un-serious railroading. At 10:44, I get a seriously stupid text from Amtrak advising of the delay: “Train 14 is delayed…Estimated arrival [sic] in Los Angeles is now 10:30 AM. Note: Trains can make up time. Please arrive 30 minutes prior…”. Huh? Prior to what? We’ve been sitting on the train for an hour already. At 10:50, a two-hour late Sunset Limited rolls in across the platform, and at 11:03 we leave, 53 minutes late.
The Conductor then makes a PA announcement that is specifically prohibited by Amtrak’s Customer Service Standards manual, telling passengers to stay in their seats or rooms until their tickets have been scanned. They do this simply to make their job easier. Too bad—we’re already in the lounge car and stay there. The announcement omits basic safety advisories and any “Welcome aboard” message.
Late trains get later, and 19 miles out at Van Nuys we double-spot the platform (due to construction for a new second track), already 9 more minutes late. The dining car LSA insists on using reservations at lunch to control the trickle of customers into the under-staffed diner. Ours is at 12:30. We enjoy our third train and fourth day of the same menu, now becoming quite tiresome, but in bright sunshine we have a perfect view of the Santa Barbara channel and the islands comprising Channel Islands National Park. My wife spots a whale breaching, species unknown.
Despite the stunning scenery, most passengers, even in the lounge car, are buried in their laptops, smartphones or books, or sleeping. Amtrak’s claim that long distance passengers are there “for the experience” is simply ignorant, and totally wrong. 99% of them are ordinary Americans trying to get somewhere, on their mode of choice. Richard Anderson wouldn’t know that because he never rides these trains.
The Starlight lost its unique Pacific Parlour Car a year ago—thanks for the downgrade, Mr. Anderson—but picked up a “business class” car, a standard Superliner 72-seat coach outfitted with leather-faced seats and a voucher for reduced-price meals in the diner. It is basically just a premium-fare coach. It has 14 passengers today, and its own car attendant, who appears to have very little to do. This train’s onboard service staff is the same crew that was on the southbound Starlight that was trapped for 36 hours the previous weekend in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon in a blizzard. We hear some of their stories first hand—the theme is that the passengers were bored but very patient while UP tried to rescue the train. The engines had sufficient fuel to supply HEP for lights and heat, and the diner had food to keep everyone well-fed.
At 4:15, just short of San Luis Obispo, we stop for a southbound Surfliner. We have not seen a single UP freight since leaving Los Angeles, and won’t, all the way to near Oakland. At 4:37 on the famous Cuesta Grade we roll by the southbound Starlight, No. 11, which is stopped waiting for us. We are still 53 minutes late. At 4:58 we crest the 2.2% grade near Atascadero and start the long run down the Salinas River valley, giving up every foot of elevation we gained climbing Cuesta. Beyond San Luis Obispo, the Conductors—if indeed there are any—are totally invisible and silent. At dinner, I am able to order without looking at the now-memorized menu. We arrive Oakland about 40 minutes late.
No. 14(05) After a too-short visit with family, we are back at the Oakland/Jack London Square station (“OKJ”) about an hour ahead of the scheduled 9:24 PM arrival of the Starlight. This is not a happy station. It looks and acts more like a big-city bus depot. Lucky for us, we know where it is. If you didn’t know, it would be hard to find—no illuminated outside signage, no illumination of the adjacent sidewalks, and deep in a scary part of Oakland’s warehouse district. The slowly fading commercial development at Jack London Square, a few blocks away, doesn’t help and you probably don’t want to walk between them at night.
Within five minutes of entering the station, we are panhandled twice and accosted by a passenger who appears to have a mild personality disorder. There are only a half dozen people in the station. The two Amtrak agents are secured behind solid barriers of bullet-proof glass. The huge Amtrak logos above the ticket counter and over the west wall both feature the old “pointless arrow,” abandoned by the company 20 years ago. The PA is screechy and indecipherable. Two big potted plants are sadly neglected and dying. Is it too dangerous for the Amtrak agents to come out of their cage once a week to water them?
Our No. 14 is shown on the screen as expected on time at 9:24 PM, but so is a delayed San Joaquin train. How will they work that? In the end, we board and go before the San Joaquin shows up.
In the morning, in the mountains in northern California, light rain over fresh snow creates a gloomy scene. The diner is very quiet at 7:30, and even fewer passengers than yesterday are in the business class coach. Our sleeper is still mostly full. We leave Klamath Falls down 22 minutes. Overnight and this morning there are many UP freights. Is this traffic backed up from the 36 hour line closure last weekend that trapped No. 11? At 8:55, we stop alongside Klamath Lake for a southbound UP train, led by the colorful UP heritage unit painted in early SP livery. At Chiloquin, we pass a large solar power farm, mostly covered in fresh snow. No power today! At 9:55, the diner LSA announces he will walk the train to take lunch and dinner reservations; dinner will be served only between 5:00 and 5:30, even though the train won’t reach Seattle until well after 8 PM. They are happy to inconvenience the paying, and mostly First Class, customers so the employees can race them off the train at the end point.
The snow gets deeper as we climb out of Chemult. One passenger has staked out a booth in the nearly-full Sightseer, blocking three seats with her luggage so she can sleep on the table. The Conductor ignores it. The run up the Willamette River valley is uneventful but slow, and we reach Portland at 4:17, 45 minutes late, but making the connection to No. 28, the Empire Builder, by 25 minutes. We are off to see friends for three days.
No. 28(09) The Empire Builder must create cognitive dissonance for Richard Anderson and his deputy, Stephen Gardner. They say that trains like this are used by “hobbyists” and tourists looking for an “experience.” They are dead wrong. The small throng that boards No. 28 doesn’t—to our eyes—include any railfan tourists. It is made up of a wide array of travelers, old and young, just as one sees at any airport, minus only the road-warrior businessmen. Anderson needs to get out of his cushy Washington, DC office and ride trains like this a few times a year so that he might know what he’s talking about concerning his own best “product,” which he clearly doesn’t. We wonder if these two executives even know that the Empire Builder is their strongest single train by all objective measures, including revenue?
Three days later, we return to Portland Union Station at 3:35 PM for our 4:45 departure. No. 28 is already spotted in its usual place, on the south end of Track 3: one P42, a Sightseer, two coaches and one sleeper, Car No. 32083, originally named “Kansas.” It is one of the last batch of Superliners built, so it is “only” 35 years old, but because it is one of the “new” cars, it has not had a heavy refurbishment like many of the first generation Superliners. Given Richard Anderson’s uninformed animus towards western trains, it may never get one. There are about ten other passengers in the small Portland sleeping car passenger lounge. The TV is blaring a completely obnoxious children’s cartoon show. Two women are riveted. We decide to head out for a walk down the main street towards downtown, and are panhandled repeatedly. It is a short, unpleasant walk. The lounge is full when we return.
At 4:01, the trainset leaves—oh, oh! Where is our train going? It quickly backs down on the next track, and stops on the north end of the platform. The Amtrak agent in the lounge says that will make connections from the Starlight easier. At 4:10 we are invited to board, and at 4:17 the Starlight stops across the platform.
The Empire Builder arrived on time this morning, but has not been washed during its layover at Portland and all the windows are filthy, some so much so that it is not easy to see out of them. Is this part of Amtrak’s secret strategy to drive away customers? And, once again, this tiny train with three revenue cars and fewer than 100 passengers has two conductors. Why is that necessary? What does it cost to add the redundant second Conductor? At least these two are visible. One makes a long welcoming announcement, including the familiar but Amtrak-forbidden demand to “stay in your seat or compartment for us to scan your ticket.” We boldly ignore that and head for the Sightseer, on the way asking our very pleasant car attendant if he would drop off our cold picnic dinners in the Lounge car whenever he gets around to distributing them. He agrees. These meals are a plastic tray with an entrée, salad and dessert, but no beverage. They are about what one might see on a three-hour domestic flight in first class. The passenger can choose among beef, chicken or seafood entrees. The utensils are the flimsiest grade of plastic knife and fork, but the food is fairly good.
We are away on time, and catch great views of Mt. Hood, and Portland, crossing the Willamette River, then the Columbia River before making a brief stop at Vancouver, Washington. Because the engine is coupled directly to the Sightseer, the Lounge car soon picks up the usual whiff of burned diesel fumes. The snack bar finally opens at 5:30, even though the train was spotted and staffed more than an hour before departure. As with every other Sightseer car we ride, this one has the only restroom in the car blocked off by the employees. Why do they do that? Why does Amtrak allow it?
The Columbia River gorge is spectacular in bright afternoon sunshine. Fresh snow highlights the cliffs on the opposite side. The ex-SP&S track is excellent as always, and our speed varies from 55 to 70. Darkness overtakes us around 7:30. Later, we are early into Spokane, and No. 8 is late, making for an unusually long dwell waiting for the two sections to be combined. We see the Seattle section in the morning—baggage, dorm, two sleepers, diner and only one coach (and it is far from full). We wonder again why Amtrak never advertises these off-season trains; it’s almost as if they don’t care, or even want it to fail. That couldn’t be true…could it? The Portland sleeper is still almost full, and the two Portland coaches perhaps 40% full.
Breakfast in the diner is very quiet, mostly sleeping car passengers trickling in. Despite the very light demand, the LSA still crams four people to a booth. We have had a once-a-year double-whammy overnight: we lost an hour not only on the time zone shift from Pacific to Mountain time, but also another hour to the shift to Daylight Time. We remind ourselves it is all arbitrary and imaginary—the sun is up and so are we, and the indicated clock time doesn’t really matter, except for the train being about two hours late on the timetable.
As we leave Whitefish and head up through Columbia Falls and up the Middle Fork of the Flathead River towards Glacier National Park and Marias Pass, the combination of bright morning sunlight and the now extremely dirty windows in the Sightseer Lounge makes it all but impossible to see out. We overhear other passengers commenting upon the dirty windows. Speeds vary from 35 to 60, but past Essex, where the grade rises to 1.8%, we slow to 30. But the three engines have no difficulty lifting us up to the Continental Divide at Marias summit.
The combined train has three P42s (per BNSF’s winter requirement), Nos. 72, 51 and 183. The Portland engine, No. 202, is presumably on its way back to Portland with No. 27. Even seasonally short one Seattle coach, the Builder is still Amtrak’s longest western train, with three and a half sleepers (including the extra Roomettes in the dorm car) and three coaches. Maybe that has something to do with this train consistently producing the most ticket revenue of any single Amtrak train. Just a thought…
Near the summit of the Pass, things go bad for the Empire Builder. After passing a stopped BNSF eastbound double-stack, we come to a stop ourselves, immediately west of the Divide. And sit there for an hour. The Conductor announces that we are waiting for some freight traffic to clear ahead of us. That turns out to be an understatement. After we finally get rolling again, we soon see that we have run into a big time traffic jam, involving no fewer than seven more BNSF trains. But it is also evident that BNSF dispatchers have been getting all of their own trains off the main so that the Empire Builder can have first shot at clearing the jam and getting moving. The rest of the day, we see another half dozen BNSF trains in sidings to allow us priority, and only once do we have to stop for a few minutes to get by a freight.
We take an early dinner seating, and discover that our table mate this time is an actual rocket scientist, which he takes obvious delight in sharing with us. He is a rocket motor engineer, who had helped dismantle old Soviet military ICBMs and dispose of their motors. Between Glasgow and Wolf Point, we meet No. 7, which is at least 4 hours late.
Overnight, we have the vague intuition that something is not right. The track doesn’t feel like the traditionally awful Valley Subdivision between Grand Forks and Fargo, and we don’t recall any stops after Minot. We hazard a quick shower (Amtrak’s showers in the sleepers prove that it is in fact possible to get a passable shower with about two quarts of hot water) and head for breakfast, where we learn that we have detoured overnight on the KO Sub, the so-called Surrey Cutoff diagonally from Minot to West Fargo, bypassing Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks. This is the route of the pre-Amtrak BN and GN Empire Builders, while the Western Star covered the Grand Forks/Rugby route. So far as I know, there was no warning or announcement, but Amtrak must have taken off at Minot the passengers for the bypassed stops and bused them overnight. We, nevertheless, are still two hours late—one due to the DST time shift, the other due to the traffic jam at East Glacier.
Between Detroit Lakes and Staples, we slow to 10 MPH, and are promptly overtaken on the left by a coal train! How humiliating! Both trains stop. Something is blocking us ahead. After about 6 minutes, we get a yellow and move out slowly, for about 5 miles, and pass two westbound grain trains, then quickly accelerate to 70. Another traffic jam, another sterling example of BNSF dispatchers keeping the Empire Builder moving.
Breakfast in the diner is quiet, again, with first light putting a tangerine-and-pink glow in the eastern sky. Despite all the snow, it feels good to be back in the farm- and woodlands of Minnesota. After a brief crew-change stop in St. Cloud, we enjoy a fast, uninterrupted run to Northtown, through Union Yard and by the University of Minnesota. We tiptoe through the Minnesota Commercial yards and pass the deserted old Midway Station building at 10 MPH, stopping twice to hand-throw switches. Europeans who experience this must laugh out loud. But in just a few more minutes we roll into St. Paul Union Depot at about 9:50, just over two hours late and just shy of three weeks since we left.
Observations: Is that much train travel too much of a good thing? No—we don’t think so, although we are sleep-deprived and wouldn’t want to do it again anytime soon. A little menu variety would be a huge improvement—allowing, as was the case years ago, chefs some discretion in sourcing food for their trips. Empire Builder chefs ten years ago could go to Pike Place Market in Seattle and buy fresh-caught salmon or halibut to serve on their trip that afternoon to Chicago. Our trip was unusually long, but many people we met along the way were embarked on two and three day itineraries, on which some relief from the standard menu would be a real treat.
As noted earlier, Richard Anderson and Stephen Gardner are either willfully ignorant or dishonest in their stated perceptions and characterizations of the nature of the interregional trains and the demographics of their customers (“hobbyists” and “experience-seekers”). These are hard-working machines that cater to ordinary Americans trying to get somewhere using rail. These customers are emphatically not “hobbyists” and “tourists.” There is some experiential tourism on the trains in the summers, but why is that bad, or dispensable? Those travelers are every bit as valuable and worthy as the heavily-subsidized Philadelphia lawyer riding Acela to a lunch meeting in New York, and they are only the tip of the iceberg of customers on interregional trains. (The massive, and still rapidly-growing, cruise industry thrives on “experience” customers.) The average trip on these trains is around 700 miles, not counting connecting passengers, who Amtrak still cannot count accurately. Count them properly and the average trip might be 1000 miles or more. (Amtrak’s systems counted us as five riders each, because we rode five trains, rather than two riders on a 5872-mile, five-train, single itinerary on a multi-thousand dollar single ticket.)
Host railroads don’t take Amtrak seriously on some routes, specifically UP on the Sunset Route (Norfolk Southern has a terrible performance record with Amtrak trains, also.) Either that or UP’s dispatchers just aren’t very good. What we observed was sloppy-to-hostile treatment by UP, but professional, respectful, excellent performance by BNSF—as always—on the Empire Builder.
In the off-season, sleepers run just about as full as they do in the summer, and an opportunity clearly exists to expand sleeping car capacity on all of the western trains. Amtrak turns away huge amounts of business by virtue of having fewer rooms to sell than people want to buy. The business class car on the Starlight is underwhelming, but the same concept in a car equipped with second-hand airline sleeper seats in a 2×1 configuration would have broader appeal for one-night trains like the Starlight and the City of New Orleans.
The coaches are an issue, but only a small one. Only an idiot or someone trying to kill off these trains would fail to act immediately on the opportunity to sell unused off-season seats through cheap, easy, small market print advertising campaigns in non-endpoint small towns where these trains call. When MinnARP ran such a campaign for the Builder in a small town in North Dakota years ago, we generated a 1,700% return (for Amtrak) on our tiny investment. Amtrak ignored the results and the learning. Another opportunity would be to put up pairs of “free” coach seats to small on-line town radio stations to give away in contests or sweepstakes. Cost? Zero. Benefit? Awareness and trial usage, plus favorable word-of-mouth advertising. There are a dozen other ideas that could be implemented to sell those seats, or to use those unsold coach seats to drive future sales; Amtrak ignores all of them.
Our trip was a great experience, both in terms of the trains and the people on them. It is a criminal shame that Amtrak fails to understand, exploit, or grow their best and biggest business segment.