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My wife and I boarded the Empire Builder at Chicago's Union Station on Sep. 29. Everything was clean and in good repair in the waiting lounge and on the train. We had a two-bunk bedroom all the way to Portland, OR and back to Chicago.
Rather than bore you with an hour-by-hour chronology, here's a rating (scale of 1-5 with 5 the best) and brief synopsis.
Relaxation = 5. The forced idleness of a train trip is great for a true getaway. No concerns about whether the motel has lost our reservation, vermin, noisy parties, etc. No concerns about finding a decent place to eat. It's all there and complete.
Sightseeing = 5. The views from the Sightseer/Lounge car were wonderful. No concerns about dodging oncoming vehicles. No survival-driving through road congestion. No peeking between buildings and billboards. Even the view through the picture window of our bedroom was very nice, even at 70-80 mph. Our timing was just right. In southern Wisconsin the mix of colors was enchanting. The cottonwoods along the waterways of the northern Great Plains were in peak yellows. Westbound, the 205 miles of the Columbia River gorge was majestic. Eastbound, we had great views of Glacier National Park and more northern Great Plains. Just afterward, they had a blizzard!
Other passengers = 4. Almost all the passengers in the sleeper car were retirees. We got to know some of them in the Sightseer/Lounge car and the dining car. They were all thoroughly enjoyable. We encountered some coach passengers the same places and they were nice folks, too. No concerns about obnoxious or unpleasant passengers.
Dining = 3. This is a combination rating. Food was a 4; the salmon and sauce were a 5; the prime rib was a 4.5. Service was a 2; friendly but with the determined efficiency of drink service on an airliner. Ambiance was a 1; the dining car was rock-and-roll with no places to grab support; one unlucky diner had a passerby stick their hand in her salad. There is a lot of regimentation in dining because the steward needs to feed a lot of people with limited resources. At dinner, you must be on time for your reservation. For any meal, the steward will seat you, be happy with his choice. No lingering over coffee and desert; the next seating is expected.
Bedroom = 3. Well, for a train it was a 5; for a hotel it was a 1. First, the train part. The bunks run across the car, so the train's sideways rock-and-roll was less disturbing than for the roomette and coach passengers. The bedroom included a private toilet, hand-shower, and lavatory sink. We tried to use them when the train was stopped, usually ever so briefly. The sofa and easy chair were comfortable, but not Lazy-Boys. There is room to stow three cases that fit under airline seats and one case that fits into an airline overhead compartment. That was plenty for us. Now, the hotel part. The mattresses were regulation dormitory without any underlying springs. When the bunks were in place, the ladder to the upper bunk blocked the door to the toilet. Being 6'3" tall, I had the sleeping car attendant remove the ladder and I had no trouble clambering into and out of the top bunk for my nightly visits to the toilet.
Station Lounges = 4. In both Chicago and Portland, the sleeper car (as opposed to coach) passengers have a separate lounge with upholstered chairs, complementary coffee and soft drinks, and a private attendant to ensure that you get on the train.
Photography = 1. I tried to get some images that we could hang on the wall. While the sightseeing is great, scenic vistas go by in a second or two. Between 70+ mph, often low-light levels, dirty windows, acceptable focus, and half the time power lines were in the way, very few of my shots were good enough. That's with my pro-sumer digital SLR with zoom lens; a pocket camera is just useless. For you camera buffs, set shutter priority at 1/400 sec or faster, ISO at 400, manual focus at infinity, max zoom, hold the lens close to the window without touching to avoid reflections and vibrations, leave the camera turned on, be very vigilant, and try to have fun.
Would we recommend it? Yes, if the above ratings suit you. We are thinking about taking train trips along the West Coast or throughout New England next fall.