Amtrak Cascades & The Empire Builder

Red road sign: "Warning: vultures may cause damage to vehicles."
This photo has nothing to do with this particular trip — it was taken on New Year’s Day at Lake Monroe, IN — but I couldn’t not share it.

My gift to myself for surviving December and January was to take the Empire Builder back home from Portland.

January was a crazy month: I taught workshops in Michigan and New Jersey. While in Michigan, I was rear-ended at a stop light during a hard snow, and my car had to be towed. (It’s fine now.) Then I flew to Portland to speak at Clicker Expo, a training and behavior conference (and one of my favorite times of year). There my brand-new computer decided to overturn its discouragingly predictable existence by freezing up and dying during my presentation. Twice.

So I was glad I’d planned ahead and booked the Empire Builder home. The Empire Builder is Amtrak’s premier passenger line, a run all the way to Chicago. I had a sleeping compartment, one of the small roomettes.

Portland's Union Station clock tower in the fog.
Out of the mist rises a more elegant form of transportation for a more civilized age.

(Rather than blogging by day, here’s my travelogue in one lump post. Because while I love train travel for its relaxing nature, that soothing pace doesn’t generally make for a thrilling play-by-play.)

While the Empire Builder does run from Portland, I’d actually booked my departure from Seattle. (Tip: sleeper rates can vary hugely depending on when you book and how many compartments are left — it pays to check all your options and to plan early!) So I took Portland’s light rail to their Union Station, where I boarded the Cascades to run up to Seattle. Trains leave from both cities and then join to become one for the long run.

(Yes, the trains have names. They have route numbers, too, but one of the charming things about train travel is that the trains have personalities rather than merely flight numbers. Arlo Guthrie and Steve Goodman didn’t just invent, “I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans…..”)

It’s not true everywhere — many classic train stations have been torn down, to the loss of both architecture and economic and environmentally efficient travel — but in many places, the classic train station is a great start to the journey. They are generally roomy, bright, and vintage-chic, entirely unlike the gloomy ’70s sheds which replaced many. Portland and Seattle both have lovely classic stations, with bright walls.

Comfortable, wide seat with my leather bag and a broad window.
Cascades, business class

A nice gentleman clerk at the Portland station not only gave me the window seat I asked for, but made sure I was on the water side of the train and gave me a route map for the more interesting features. I boarded the Cascades and settled in my Business Class seat. It was nice.

The Cascades includes not only power but wi-fi on the train. It’s not high-speed, but it was a little better than the airplane wi-fi I’d used on the way west. And unlike the airplane wi-fi, it was free.

The Cascades run was predictably lovely.

wooden cart with oversized wagon wheels bearing luggage
old luggage cart still in use by Amtrak

Many stations still use these old baggage carts, even if they’re pulled today by Gators or similar devices. I think they’re kinda cute.

We made it to Seattle in good time, leaving me several hours to eat my way through one of my favorite food cities. I started with the Pike Place market and moved on to Uwajimaya. (There are lots and lots of amazing restaurants in Seattle! but I didn’t have that much time, and I wanted to get some walking in.)

Amtrak Superliner roomette, from
Amtrak Superliner roomette, from

I boarded my train and found my compartment. I totally forgot to photograph my roomette, but I found a photo online to share. The roomettes are cozy in terms of space but I find them quite comfortable; I’d only want a slightly higher table for typing, but it’s perfectly adequate for reading or playing a game. The two seats convert to the lower bunk, and the upper bunk folds down from above.

The Empire Builder runs right through Glacier National Park and a lot of scenic country. It’s a great way to see the northern part of the continental US.

Not pictured: several ice fishermen. I couldn’t ever grab my camera in time.

Meals are in the white-clothed dining car, or in the lounge car if you prefer. There are some traditional requisites; passenger lines used to particularly compete for the best steak dinner or French toast, so you’ll always find those on the menu today. But I also had vegetarian lasagna one day and a burger another. Conversation is amiable over the tables as passengers exchange small talk or pass the butter.

It takes about two days to complete the run from west coast to Chicago. Amtrak has been getting a lot of bad press about delays, and indeed the Empire Builder has had a terrible track record of late — but it wasn’t really their fault. The tracks are owned by the freight lines and Amtrak rents their use, and the contracts specified fines if they pushed passenger traffic into delay, but during the height of the fracking traffic the Supreme Court ruled that Amtrak couldn’t receive the fines. Something about Amtrak receiving government subsidies and therefore being unable to take penalty money from a private company. Except pretty much everyone involved receives government subsidies or aid, so how did that apply? and with zero consequence for contract violations, the freight lines could push Amtrak trains aside for hours at a time, leading to six and eight hour delays.

But even with all that, we arrived into Chicago a full 30 minutes early.

I holed up in Chicago’s Union Station, because Amtrak’s Metropolitan lounge is nice (free wi-fi, free soft drinks, free snacks, a fireplace, etc.) and then caught the Cardinal home to Indianapolis.

Got a trip? Consider the train. Prices can be very competitive for commuter travel ($24 for a typical run to Chicago, compared to the cost of an equivalent flight), and there’s not as much difference in time as you’d think in flying, driving, or riding the rails. I’ve got no affiliation with Amtrak other than being a happy rider, but I think it’s important to keep such an ecologically-efficient form of mass transit alive and well. Maybe I’ll see you sometime!

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  1. That looks and sounds amazing. A-maz-ing. Now I want to go on a train trip! *pouts a little bit*

  2. I took the train out to New England a couple of years ago: it was the first time I ever rode a train in the US (twice in Great Britain and twice in Japan). It was a really enjoyable trip although I was less than impressed with having to board it on an isolated and station-less stop about 30 miles north instead of downtown Fort Wayne where it used to stop. I was not happy about leaving my car parked on the gravel berm for all that time.

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