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North by northwest: The Empire Builder holds its own

  • An observation car window on the Empire Builder reflects the majestic views passengers get from Chicago to Seattle. Photo courtesy Amanda Baldwin

  • The Empire Builder leaves the Rockies behind. Courtesy of Amtrak

For the Monitor
Published: 10/13/2019 1:43:52 PM

At 2:15 p.m., right on schedule, the Empire Builder passenger train began its rollout from Chicago’s Union Station on a 2,205-mile, 45-hour trip to Seattle, Washington.

Approximately 3½ hours later, another train – also called the Empire Builder – departed Seattle’s King Street station heading toward the Windy City. Two trains with the same name on the same route going opposite directions.

The following day another two trains repeated the procedure resulting in four separate trains carrying the name Empire Builder simultaneously plying the ribbon of steel that stretches from America’s heartland to the Pacific Northwest.

Who, in their right mind, would want to subject themselves to a 45-hour rocking train ride when they can fly the same route in somewhere just over three hours? Lots of people. Last year the Empire Builder carried more than 450,000 passengers along one of the most scenic rail routes in the nation. Seven states, three time zones, every imaginable terrain. Looking out the huge windows of the Empire Builder Superliner cars, one gets a vivid and breathtaking overdose of the magnificence of this country. In the middle of the train is the observation car with floor to ceiling windows and comfortable two and single-seat captain’s chairs. If you want a snack, hit the lounge on the lower level of the observation car. Coach seats are wider than first-class seats on most airliners. They also have a significant recline and the spacing between rows easily allows passengers to slip in and out. And, there are just two seats on either side of a wide aisle.

At mealtime, the diner has multiple seating. Dining on a train is usually the most talked-about memory. You are arbitrarily seated at a table of four and strangers have now entered your private social cocoon - and you into theirs. Chat usually starts with a discussion of the menu items. It then branches out as various conversational probes search for areas of common interest. Our recent trip had us breaking bread with passengers who were returning home, on vacation, or visiting family. Included in those brief encounters were a retired Presbyterian minister, a teacher, a therapist, a retired op

tometrist, and a diesel mechanic. Once again we were reminded that there is much more that connects us than divides us.

The bonding that takes place in the diner repeats itself in the observation car as all are bound into one as the American landscape unfolds. The Empire Builder’s home turf consists mainly of forests, rock outcroppings, wheat covered landscapes, and, of course, the Rocky and Cascade mountains. What spectacular sights slipped by under the cover of darkness is soon mentally folded into what is being witnessed during daylight.

Our train started in Chicago with approximately 375 passengers. People are constantly getting on and getting off and train conductor Jim Mier, who has been with Amtrak for 33 years, stays on top of this activity with the assistance of a passenger manifest that is in a constant state of flux. Even in the sleeper cars the number of people that would be exiting the train between Chicago and Seattle probably equaled those who were going for the full run. Early in the trip we even encountered several coach passengers who were commuters, dashing from downtown Chicago to as far north as Milwaukee, 85 miles away.

In September ridership starts to decline as school is back in session and families are no longer on board. Also, the crown jewel in the middle of the route, Glacier Park, is slowly retracting its tourist talons for the season. However, a sizable number of passengers got off the train at the three “Park” stops. All of them uttered the same refrain “we wanted to get up here and see the glaciers before there weren’t any left.”

Because you can’t schedule the train to be at a certain place for viewing at a certain time we were rolling into Glacier Park just as the sun was setting behind the towering fir trees. However, passengers on the eastbound Empire Builder usually arrive at Glacier right about breakfast and get the full view. During the summer, westbound passengers will also see much more of the park because of daylight time.

The “view” issue is something that accompanies all long-distance trains – namely, which side of the train do you want to be on and when? It’s like trying to time the stock market, just as you set up camp for a good, strong, long view out the left side of the train, people on the right side come to life as someone spots herd of elk or a bear or a mountain in the distance. Drop the angst – the views are spectacular on both sides of the train.

Some train personnel are there for only part of the journey, while others go from end to end. Our sleeping-car attendant, Yanis, from El Salvador, was heading home to Seattle where he would get five days off before another round trip. He too had a manifest and knew all destinations, who needs to be awakened at what hour, and every other detail to assure his passengers that their trip will be a memorable one.

Aaron Hott, the lead service attendant on the train was in charge of lots of things but primarily the dining car. Scheduling multiple seating in the 72-seat car was a constant balancing act. Unlike earlier days, when meals were cooked right in the dining car, today some of the meals are pre-cooked and then reheated on the train. They have improved this technique significantly over the years and while the food choice was limited it generally passed the taste test. And coupled with the fact that you are making new friends at the dining table, the quality issue seemed to be subordinated to the new friendship linkage.

The Empire Builder, the most popular long-distance train in America, connects its riders with history, geography and each other. The train left Chicago at precisely 2:15 p.m., its scheduled time. Two days later it arrived in Seattle at 10:24 a.m. – one minute early.

(Ted Leach lives in Hancock.)

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