Riding the Empire Builder
August 16-28, 2007
On August 16th I left Chicago on ATK's westbound EMPIRE BUILDER. It had been years since I last rode this train, and I wanted to see if the improvements reportedly made could be discerned in the coaches, as I was as usual traveling coach class. The first change was quickly noticed as we sped through the Chicago suburbs towards Milwaukee. For soon after we left the Glenview stop, a couple volunteers of the National Park Services collaboration with Amtrak called "Rails and Trails" began pointing out supposed points of interest along the train's route or telling facts or fables about places along the route. This was done in the observation section of the observation/lounge car and could be heard nowhere else on the train. One problem is that since their speaker system wasn't connected to ATK's train system, ATK announcements sometimes drowned out what the volunteers were saying. The volunteers read from a prepared text so you would hear many of the same items going in either direction. However, volunteers did from time to time add their own comments. The first set of volunteers boarded at Chicago and stayed on the train to Winona, MN. Another two volunteers boarded at Shelby, MT, and stayed on to Whitefish. A third set covered the ride along the Columbia River on the Portland section. This is a summer time program as much of the route covered by these presentations would be traversed in the dark during the winter. As it is all volunteers coverage can be sporadic, and on any given trip there may or may not be volunteers covering a specific segment. I don't recall any volunteers discussing the trip along the Columbia River on the westbound run, but there was at least one volunteer on the eastbound run.
The next improvement I noted was a BIGGER pillow. Previously in the coach cars, ATK staff handed you a puny little puff ball called a pillow. It was hardly big enough to do anything with except perhaps rest an ear on it. This new improved pillow is still no larger than a typical sofa pillow (about 12" square I'd guess), but at least it's usable and was comfortable.
The train's consist was a bit different from what I usually experience, but logical given that the train splits into its Portland, OR and Seattle, WA sections at Spokane, WA. Behind the two P42's and baggage car were the Seattle sleepers, then the diner, then the Seattle coaches. Next came the observation/lounge car, the Portland coaches, the Portland sleepers, and then the Minneapolis/St.Paul coach.
The scenic high spot of the trip for the combined trains is without a doubt following the southern border of Glacier National Park, with second place going to riding along the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River after crossing that river at La Crosse, WI. Frankly, Wisconsin doesn't get enough credit for its scenery between Milwaukee and La Crosse. You pass lakes, go through marshes, see limestone cliffs, rolling hills, brief views of the Dells on the Wisconsin River (as well as a view of the facade of the Torture Museum while at the Wisconsin Dells station stop), and pass through the only active RR tunnel in the state at Tunnel City (UP's former Chicago Northwestern's line to Winona also uses this tunnel). This plus the ride along the Mississippi River make for an interesting first afternoon on the train.
Even the ride between Chicago and Milwaukee has its interesting aspects. Some of the nicest as well as largest METRA commuter stations are found on this line between Golf and Lake Forest, including the station at Glenview. A couple of these stations have restaurants and banks located inside. Lake Forest is the largest.
You also go through forest preserves and pass a landfill just south of where the line goes under UP's (CNW) Chicago - Milwaukee freight line and where the CP freight line from Bensenville Yard joins the passenger/commuter line (just south of Techny). That landfill is now being reclaimed and reportedly going to be turned into a golf course, at least on top of the hill. Your only glimpse of Lake Michigan comes as you enter Milwaukee. The volunteers pointed this out. This was just one of the many points of interest noted as we passed through that town. Others included the Miller Brewing Co. and the Milwaukee Brewer's baseball stadium. In addition, there are some private cars in NYC two tone gray paint scheme parked in the Milwaukee station. Alas, there is no light for good photography, and the train doesn't stay there long enough to allow detraining to photo them even if there were light.
The food and prices of same were about the same as on any other ATK intercity train I've ridden recently (in the last few years). Alas, the cost of soft drinks has risen by another quarter to $1.75 for a 12 ounce can. I had packed light, getting my camera gear and clothes for at least 8 days into one bag. So, I had no room for carrying along any sodas of my own and only enough room for a few breakfast bars. Fortunately, I was able to buy bottles of 20/24 ounce diet soda at all the main ATK stops for $1.25 to $1.50 per bottle. The lounge car attendants are still willing to give you free glasses of ice so you can always drink your own sodas while cold.
There are still a few good food values in the lounge car including a bowl of noodles for $1.75, an egg & cheese sandwich on a bagel ($3.25, $3.75 with sausage added), a gardenburger (veggie berger) for under $4.00, and a cheese or pepperoni pizza for $3.50. A bag of pretzels for $1.75 isn't too far out of line with convenience store prices either. The lounge was also selling a cold supper meal of roasted chicken (2 pieces), a salad, dinner roll, and dessert for $9. A fellow I was talking with bought one. We both agreed it wasn't worth it.
I had planned having at least one meal in the dining car while on this train, but in both directions there were enough passengers on board that the diner was always full at every meal. The folks to whom I spoke who had eaten in the diner said the food was good, if a bit pricey. Although dinner meals range in price from $11.00 to $21.00 (but are included in the price of a sleeping car space), reservations for coach passengers were hard to get, and the best I could ever do was to have been placed on a waiting list in case someone shouldn't show up. Guess how often that happened? [Hint: the number is somewhere between zero and zero]. The price for alcoholic beverages remained unchanged from my last trip - $4 to $4.50 for beer (domestic v. import), $5 for a cocktail, and $12 for the larger bottle of wine. The smaller bottle of wine's price was also unchanged, but I don't recall what it is.
At the Minneapolis/St. Paul station (think it's called Midway Station) the Minnesota Commercial RR (MCRR) removed the coach on the rear of the train. A U33/36B did the task. Even though we were running a bit late we spent the scheduled amount of time in that station. The schedule of this train has been lengthened. I think in part this was due to what appears to be more smoking break stops as well as to reflect a more realistic schedule. Given that there are in effect two trains both with coaches and sleepers, double stops at stations were common. These take additional time, not to mention taking even more time to load passengers. Both the increasing number of riders and the many who are elderly and thus slower have helped lengthen station stops. So, many stops that use to assume only a minute or two would be spent now last 5-10 minutes. Thus, smoking at more stops.
In the coaches the additional riders often mean playing musical chairs. Families or friends want to sit together, and ATK does what it can to ensure that family members at least can do so. This sometimes means that those of us traveling alone who grabbed that choice coach seat at the beginning of the trip have to give it up and double up with another person traveling alone so that two family members can sit together. One way I avoided losing my "choice" seat was to tell a couple traveling only a couple station stops or so to use my seat. I'd let the car attendant know what I did. Given that this eliminated one of the attendants problems, I was usually thanks for my "generosity". Later, after that particular couple had departed, I would reclaim my seat at their destination and not leave it until I saw who had boarded the car I was in. But even though there usually are fewer people boarding the train at the late night station stops, on the trip out I got a "partner" at Grand Forks going to Rugby, and on the trip back got another seat mate at Grand Forks going to Chicago. Only during the return eastbound trip through eastern Montana and western North Dakota was patronage on the train less than 90 percent.
Daylight begins somewhere in North Dakota east of Minot, depending upon the time of year and how close to the posted schedule the train is. The day ends somewhere in the mountains of western Montana, if you are not too far behind schedule. While we were behind schedule by more than an hour at this point, we still reached Glacier National Park in time to go from East Glacier to West Glacier (Belton) while there was still enough light to see out the observation car. By Whitefish it was dark. Due to forest fires there was smoke and haze covering the national park. One of the Trails & Rails volunteers was a RR buff and had a copy of a book of color photos on the Great Northern RR. He passed it around to show how the views should look were there no smoke or haze. The volunteers in both directions did a good job of covering what is seen while passing through the national park. But once again the views leading up to your arrival in the mountains (you really seem to get to them or leave them around Browning) is more interesting than might be expected. As a person living in a forest, seeing miles and miles of miles and miles is something I don't experience all that often. In North Dakota the first pleasant surprise was fields of sun flowers in bloom. In the Williston, ND area there are limestone rock formations more typical of the Badlands of South Dakota than the prairies of North Dakota. Nor is the land flat most of the time. There are ever more rolling hills, albeit with fewer and fewer trees the farther west into Montana you go (except around Havre). From treeless to forest changes in that 15 mile stretch between Browning and the East Glacier station. After all, as you go west you're getting more and more into the foothills of the Rockies. You cross over a neat RR bridge with a spectacular view of the river below at Cutbank, MT. This is before you cross over the Two Medicine bridge just east of East Glacier.
At Spokane the sections split (westbound) or join together (eastbound). Being on the Portland section we had the observation/lounge car. The Seattle section gets the diner. To me the Portland section gets the better end of the deal, but were I in a sleeper, I might not feel that way. ATK does the best it can, I suspect, by providing sleeping car customers with as extensive a breakfast as possible from what the lounge car carries, but it's nowhere near the variety of choices found in the diner. Still, I think ATK chose wisely because without a doubt the ride along the Columbia River and through the Columbia River Gorge is much more scenic than anything found on the route to Seattle, even the segment running along the Puget Sound (quite nice).
While we were a bit late, even had we been on time we still would have reached the Columbia River by daybreak (again, at this time of the year). Across the river you can view freights on the UP. Sometimes, like on the trip east, you may pace a UP freight for miles. UP trains can be photographed with even a small telephoto lens, depending on how you wish to compose your photo.
The eastern end of the ride along the Columbia River is more arid, again desert like, and virtually treeless. A PBS program "Nova" covered how this area was formed in an episode on the "Scab Lands." As you go farther west, trees eventually start to appear at about the same time you begin seeing Mt. Hood. Eventually, the view of the river will be blocked by trees, going through a series of tunnels, and buildings or dams and their associated buildings. Likewise, your view of UP traffic will also be more and more disrupted until you eventually no longer can see the line.
Our arrival into Portland was prior to the scheduled 10:45 AM. Typical of most ATK intercity train schedules, there is some extra time allowed between the prior and final station. For example, on the eastbound trip the schedule shows the time at Glenview, IL to be 3:12 PM and the arrival time in Chicago Union Station at 3:55 PM. That's 43 minutes to cover 17-18 miles. A crew member told me it's usually done in about half that time. So ended the westbound trip.
The trip east began at 4:45 PM from the Portland, OR ATK station. This is a classic old structure that has been renovated, but without changing its classic exterior. For the railfan who gets there early, there is a way to get trackside at the south end of the station via a nearby road that passes by what had been the interlocking tower that controlled train traffic through the station area. There is also a walkway above the station platforms and freight track that provides overhead views of trains in the station area.
It's been a few years since I last departed from this station so maybe nothing has really changed regarding freight traffic through the station area, but it seemed to me that UP was running more freights by the station than before. I caught one upon my arrival, and another one while waiting to depart. I don't recall seeing any freights on previous trips. There were also some private cars in the station area that were easy to photograph. Despite having two cameras hanging around my neck, at no time did anyone confront me about what I was doing, no matter where I happened to be standing.
The biggest difficulty with the station area right now is that nearby 6th Ave. is all torn up. A new trolley line is being put down that street. It will connect the ATK station with downtown Oregon and the other Portland trolley and LRV lines. Completion is due sometime in 2009.
Fortunately, there was enough daylight on this trip to see most of the Columbia River scenery while there was still some light. It was dark by the time we reached Pasco, WA. It was also fortunate that during the intervening week the forest fires in Montana had been brought under control. Thus, when we passed along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park, there was no smoke or haze to interfere with the view. Another thing I noted is that a group of mountains called the "Monarch Ridge" are much more noticeable and awe inspiring on the eastbound trip. It's due to the time of day. Westbound, you reach the eastern part of the park in later afternoon when the sun is BEHIND this ridge line. Eastbound, you go by this ridge in the morning; the sun is shining directly upon them. The ridge makes for a grand exit from mountain country back into the High Plains.
We arrived early into Minneapolis/St. Paul's station. I hoped we weren't so early that there'd be no light to photo the Minnesota Commercial RR (MCRR) adding a coach to the train, assuming that a coach would be added. Fortunately, there was both light and a coach being added. Also fortunately, a MCRR U23B was switching some cars at the west end of the depot complex. AKT personnel can get a bit touchy about passengers wandering around either end of the train (especially when engines are being fueled), but no one bothered me as I took some shots of the U-boat switching. A bit later a B23-7 came along with a covered hopper and the coach and proceeded to put the coach onto the rear of the train, and then left with the covered hopper.
I was a bit disappointed that one of MCRR's many Alcos wasn't running around. The only other engine I saw operating was a CF7, somewhat an exotic itself given that these were engines rebuilt from F's by the ATSF in the early to mid 1970's. This particular CF7 was running light with the aforementioned U23B, likely on the way back to the terminal located only a few blocks east of the ATK station.
Although there would have been time to walk down the tracks to the MCRR facility, the active GE's kept me busy until too much time had passed. So I did the next best thing. As the train departed the station (still on time), I stood by the right vestibule door window and looked to see whatever I could as we s-l-o-w-l-y passed MCRR's terminal. I was not disappointed. There was a slug, CF7, C424 power set in the terminal with some Alco C628's and other assorted power easily photographed from the coach window. I doubt I could have done much better had I walked there.
On our way into the Twin Cities it was evident that a severe rainstorm had hit the area the night before. During my time in Oregon, the Midwest had been deluged by numerous storms. Although I watched little news while in Oregon I did see enough to know that many parts of the Midwest were flooded. This flooding extended to Minnesota, and it wasn't too long after leaving the Twin Cities that we started hitting slow orders caused by the heavy rains. The most apparent of these was around Minnesota City, just north of the Winona station stop. Some railfan friends of mine reported that BNSF had been detouring trains over the CP (xSOO/xMILW RD) between La Crosse and Chicago that previous week. CP had also had a bridge washed out near Minnesota City, and the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern RR (DM&E) track that crosses the CP at Minnesota City looked more like a roller coaster than a RR. CP had gotten the washout repaired in time for our train to cross, but again reportedly had been busing passengers between the Twin Cities and Chicago. Glad I missed the bus.
Slow orders continued on and off until we got by the worst spot at a place called Reeseville west of Columbus. The water was still almost up to the ties. This has always been a problem area for the RR whenever large amounts of rain fall in the area. I was rather surprised (and delighted) that we were able to traverse the area.
Another cause for delay again attributable to the flooding was the backlog of freight traffic. Almost every siding held a train for us to meet. Alas, the dispatcher eventually ran out of possibilities, and the EMPIRE BUILDER had to follow TWO eastbound freights out of Portage, while another eastbound with a CP GEVO leading stayed in the yard. That really slowed things down. We eventually got around them, but not before falling more than an hour behind time.
Even with the padding in the schedule between Glenview and Chicago we still arrived 45 minutes late, just late enough for me to miss the 4:45 PM Van Galder bus for Rockford, IL, where my brother would pick me up. This turned out to be for the best because it gave me time to get something to eat before the next bus left at 6:30 PM. Also, as it turned out, the 4:45 PM bus gets stuck in Chicago's rush hour traffic whereas the 6:30 PM departure usually has an easy time of it. The result was that by the time we got to the bus station in Rockford, we had caught up with the 4:45 PM bus !!!
And so ended this train ride. All in all it was a pleasant and enjoyable train trip, even going coach class.