Rich Kimmel's 2002 Train Trip
Part 6 - Seattle, WA to Chicago, IL
July 6-8, 2002
Train #8 Empire Builder
After my change into cooler shorts and my day at the Seattle Center, I was ready to continue on the train. I took a taxicab the short trip from Pioneer Square Hotel to King Street Station, and got there approximately 1 hour before the Empire Builder was scheduled to depart. King Street Station is apparently still undergoing renovation, but quite a bit has been completed since my last visit in 1999. I guess there is still work to be done. At the least, they should brighten up the inside of the station, in my opinion, but I do not believe the station is as “bad” as others think it is! As I was waiting, the maroon and green Talgo Cascade, Train #752, pulled in from Portland and parked at the stub track closest to King Street station. Soon the Empire Builder was pulled into the station and boarding was announced. One thing which I don’t understand is the boarding for the Empire Builder. The train backs in, with the sleepers at the front of the train and the coaches at the rear, the sleepers being north of the coaches. When the train boards, however, the sleeping cars are boarded from Door #2, the south door at the station, and the coaches are boarded at Door #1, at the north end. Seems it should be the other way around, but it was not a problem, since sleeping car passengers are traditionally boarded first; therefore, passengers are not running into each other going opposite directions on the platform.
I was in room 3 of Superliner II sleeper Oklahoma. Our sleeping car attendant was “Patrick.” For once, I was on the “right” side of the train to see the best scenery, at least for the first day and a half. I got settled and decided to arrange my suitcases differently for once. Typically, in Superliner sleepers, I pull down the top bunk and set my suitcases up there. I thought I would do it differently now, without having to lower the top bunk, to maximize the air flow and cooling in the room. I set my large suitcase on its edge and set it on the shelf between the seat and the wall of the room, and set my smaller heavier book suitcase flat on the floor between the two seats, thus allowing the lower bunk to fold down over the suitcase at night.
For some reason, we departed 8 minutes behind schedule. Patrick introduced himself to me, and we were soon traveling along Puget Sound heading north out of Seattle, where I had a good view of the Sound and the beaches along it. The Seattle section of the Builder does not have a Sightseer lounge -- the lounge is on the Portland section, which is combined with the Seattle section overnight at Spokane. The diner travels on the Seattle section. I therefore had no lounge to sit in the first day of this leg, so stayed in the room and shot my video from the room, using the AC adapter plugged into the wall outlet in the room. I was wondering how they handle the “snack and lounge” service on the Seattle section. They set up the two tables at the end of the diner as the “snack/lounge car,” and set out beverages and snacks. The snack service is attended by one of the dining car staff, sometimes by the dining car steward himself.
In the first 9 miles of this leg, we passed 3 freight trains, and consequently left Edmonds 8 minutes late and Everett 14 minutes late. Since I was confined to my room on this first day, I closed the door so my video narration wouldn’t bother the people across the hall from me, and so they wouldn’t wonder why some guy across the hall was sitting in his room talking to himself! From the Edmonds and Everett stations, there are excellent views of Mt. Baker, to the north, weather permitting.
The train soon climbed up into the Cascades and I got some very good video of the mountains, rivers, and small towns. It was a little cloudy again, but after we passed through the 8-mile Cascade Tunnel beneath Stevens Pass, it became sunny again. Right before we entered the tunnel, I videotaped a small group of railfans taking pictures of the train as it entered the tunnel. I had gone to the “snack car” a couple times to get a beer, then later I went to the diner for dinner. I was seated with an elderly lady from Seattle who was traveling to Whitefish, Montana, and a woman who was going to a class reunion in Missoula, Montana. I believe she too was getting off at Whitefish to meet someone who would drive her to Missoula. Many years ago, AMTRAK operated the North Coast Hiawatha, which took the “southern route” through Montana, making stops at places such as Billings, Livingston, Butte, and Missoula. But that train was one of the first to disappear during one of AMTRAK’s early fiscal crises in the early 1980’s. I wish they would reinstate that route (if the tracks are still there….). I had the New York strip for dinner tonight, plus my traditional glass of wine, and no dessert. While I was in the diner, we descended out of the Cascades and traveled across the western Scablands of the Columbia River Plateau, following the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers for a while. We departed Wenatchee approximately ½ hour late. After dinner I retreated to my room, then turned in for the night after the Ephrata stop. I did not record the departure from Ephrata. Overnight the Seattle section and the Portland section meet in Spokane, and are combined into one train. I think I may have awaken for a very short time while we were in Spokane, but I did not feel the cars from the two sections being coupled together -- unlike the relentless and endless back-and-forth coupling and uncoupling that takes place when the Texas Eagle and Sunset Ltd are combined in San Antonio, Texas.
On Sunday morning, I awoke in Libby, and we appeared to be pretty close to schedule. It was a sunny nice day, and I soon made my way to the Sightseer lounge, which had been added to our consist in Spokane and was several cars behind my sleeper. The join of the 2 sections in Spokane is a very simple one-coupling move. The consist of the train, from front to back was now: power units-mail/baggage-dorm sleeper (I think)-Seattle sleepers-diner-Seattle coaches--Sightseer lounge-Portland coaches-Portland sleepers (don’t quote me on this consist….) As I was sitting in the Sightseer lounge, a fellow named “Rick” approached me, who is a regular contributor to the AMTRAK “forum” located on this Train Web site. I had informed him before my trip that I would be on this train, and he had told me that he would be on the same train, only he was on the Portland section, and was detraining at Whitefish. We talked for a few minutes, and I showed him my railroad maps, then we were soon through the 7-mile long Flathead (I call it Elk Mountain) Tunnel and approaching Whitefish. We arrived in Whitefish early, so I got out and walked through the cool sunny morning mountain air for a few minutes. From the Whitefish station, you can get a good view of Big Mountain ski area, just north of the station. Although all the snow was gone now, several of the ski runs can be seen plainly. We departed Whitefish on time, and I found a seat on the north side of the Sightseer lounge for the first half of the trip along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. For travelers on the Empire Builder, the best scenery between West Glacier and Essex is on the north side of the tracks, and from Essex to East Glacier, the best scenery is on the south side.
I did not record the departure time from the West Glacier station. This station was formerly known as “Belton,” and, on the station building, just below the “West Glacier” sign, there is still a sign which reads “Belton.” For many years, every time I have been on this route, there has been an old orange “hippie van” parked at the West Glacier station, used to shuttle passengers from the station to various lodges and resorts. The orange bus was not there today, so either it was in use, or it has finally been retired after all these years! After we left the station, we began our scenic trip along the Flathead River along the southern boundary of Glacier Park. Many years ago, at one point between West Glacier and Essex, the railroad had installed several signs along the track pointing to various peaks and identifying them by name and peak elevation. I have not seen the signs for the last 2 or 3 trips I have made over this route, so I assume they were permanently removed for some reason. The next stop was Essex, which is basically a stop for people staying at the beautiful Izaak Walton Inn, which was built by the Great Northern Railroad to house railroad employees There is no station at Essex; passengers meet the train at a designated spot a few hundred yards from the Izaak Walton Inn. As we slowed to a stop, I saw a family of three standing at a spot in the dirt next to the tracks, with suitcases. They appeared to be waving the train down, and a few yards later, the train stopped. As the train stopped, an aqua-colored van from the Izaak Walton Inn pulled up to the family, and they got in and loaded their suitcases in the back. The van then pulled up toward the front of the train a few yards, and the family and their baggage got back out and boarded the train. A few minutes later, the train left the Essex “station,” within a couple minutes of schedule. After the train crosses the Flathead River just east of Essex, I moved to the other side of the Sightseer lounge, since that is where the best scenery for the second half of Glacier Park is. I continued my video as we wound high above Bear Creek valley and parallel to U.S. 2. At Marias Pass, the tall John Stevens memorial obelisk is plainly visible from the train. After we departed the East Glacier Station, 8 minutes late, I went back into my room for a while and took advantage of the AC adapter to continue my video. Upon departure from East Glacier, the beautiful mountain views stop quite suddenly, and we were now traversing the featureless dry prairies of Montana. The last remnant of interesting scenery is the trestle high above the Two Medicine River, just east of the Glacier Park station.
Between Glacier Park and Browning, we had a 15-minute delay for a freight, which could be soon approaching when it was still a mile or so away around a curved section of track, since there were no trees or rock cuts blocking the view down the track from my room. The Builder does not stop in Browning during the summer; it stops at East Glacier Park instead. During the winter, the train does not stop at East Glacier, but stops at Browning. The rest of the day would consist of relatively featureless scenery, except for a few areas along rivers and past isolated mountain buttes. I soon went back to the Sightseer lounge, and one of the passengers was playing a guitar in the lounge, but had no listeners. We departed Cut Bank 12 minutes behind schedule, and the next stop was Shelby, Montana. I was sitting in the Sightseer lounge preparing for our stop in Shelby, but the train did not slow down and went past the station for approximately one half mile. I thought maybe Shelby was now a flag stop, so I checked the timetable, but found that it was not identified as a flag stop. The station was on the other side of the train from where I was seated, and I did not notice whether there were any passengers waiting. After passing the station, the train stopped and backed up, into the station. This seemed rather unusual to me -- maybe we had to switch tracks, but if that were the case, we should have been able to switch tracks before the station. I never found out why we passed the station -- could it have been human error on the part of the engineer, who maybe was new or actually forgot to stop? Some of the other passengers told me that, as we passed the station, there were indeed passengers waiting, who had looks of surprise on their faces, to say the least, when the train passed them. We picked up the passengers, then left Shelby 26 minutes late. The next scheduled stop was Havre, which is also a servicing stop for the Builder. I did not record the arrival and departure times, but we were between 15 and 30 minutes late, I believe. Again, I stepped off the train at Havre and walked around. At the Havre station, there is an ice machine outside of the station. During our service stop, several of the dining car and lounge crew unlocked the machine and grabbed several bags of ice. The sleeping car attendants also got ice for their cars. I guess Havre is AMTRAK’s “ice commissary” for the Empire Builder. Also at Havre, the U.S. Border Patrol were strolling around, and a couple of them boarded the train to talk to various people. One fellow sitting in the Portland coach ahead of the Sightseer lounge, who looked to be Latin American, was being questioned by one of the Border patrollers, and when I passed through the coach after our Havre stop, the fellow was gone! Apparently he was removed from the train for some reason. I do not understand why the Border Patrol would be interested in searching AMTRAK at Havre, Montana, which is at least 50 miles from the border -- the Canadian border! I can understand seeing the Border Patrol in a place like El Paso or Del Rio, TX, or even Bellingham, Washington (closer to Canada than Havre), but why in Havre? And if they routinely inspect the Builder at Havre, why not also at Shelby, Malta, Williston, Grand Forks, or any other towns on this northernmost route in the AMTRAK system?
After the Havre stop, the diner was open for lunch, so I went to eat, and was seated with two ladies from Yakima, Washington, and an older gentleman from Tallahassee, Florida, who was planning on making the same connections I was. (Builder to Chicago, City of New Orleans to New Orleans, then the Sunset Ltd back to Florida). I had the Reuben sandwich for lunch today, and a glass of beer. Back into the lounge car after lunch, and the lounge was starting to get very warm. We left Malta 29 minutes late and Glasgow 24 minutes late. Later in the afternoon, two tour guides from the National Park Service boarded the train, and were giving a talk and demonstration to several people in the lounge car about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and they had several artifacts and items on display from that time in American history. I was more interested in continuing my video than in listening to them, but what I did hear seemed to be interesting. I then discovered that, somewhere on this train, I had lost the polarizing filter from my camcorder. It did not work very well, but I still would have liked to find it and use it for what it is worth. I spent some time searching the floors of the 3 or 4 cars I had been walking through between my sleeper and the Sightseer lounge, and had told the coach and sleeping car attendants about the lost filter. At one time, I even ventured into the lower level of the first coach ahead of the Sightseer lounge to the “smoking lounge,” and asked the passengers there if anyone had seen anything that looks like it could have been the round filter, but no one had seen anything like that. Since the lounge was getting warm, I decided to go back to the room for a while, which was much cooler than the lounge.
At the small town of Nashua, Montana, between Glasgow and Wolf Point, we were delayed for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. The conductor announced that we were stopped because a freight train ahead of us “was experiencing mechanical difficulties,” which could be anything from a flat wheel to a completely dead power unit, with no indication of what the problem was or how long we might be delayed. We still had a long way to go to Chicago, and I was beginning to wonder about my 3½-hour connection in Chicago the following day, but I had heard a rumor somewhere that the Empire Builder arrives in Chicago, then the same train goes out as the City of New Orleans. We’ll see -- sounds fine, but what if the Empire Builder is more than a couple hours late, and there is not enough time to take it to the yards, clean it, rearrange cars, then pull it back into Union Station? During our delay in Nashua, I decided to walk back to the lounge and watch the Lewis & Clark video the tour guides had announced earlier that they were going to show. I watched the video, and it was fairly interesting. While we were delayed, a westbound freight passed, then an eastbound freight passed, but we were still stopped for quite a while. If those 2 trains got past the train with mechanical problems, why couldn’t we? I finally found a conductor and “investigated.” Apparently the disabled freight train had a bad car in its consist, so had to set it out on a siding. The westbound freight that passed was apparently the disabled train heading behind us to a siding, and the “eastbound train” was actually the same train, heading back east after it had set out the bad car. After those moves were made, we soon continued on our way again, but would be delayed the remainder of the trip into Chicago.. We finally arrived in Wolf Point, Montana, but were now 1 hour 55 minutes late due to our delay in Nashua. By the time we left Williston, North Dakota, we had departed 2 hours late.
During our stop in Williston, I was again in the diner having dinner. I sat with the family who boarded the train at Essex that morning, and asked them how they enjoyed the Izaak Walton Inn. They said it is a very nice place, and was very enjoyable -- apparently there are no telephones at the Izaak Walton (http://www.izaakwaltoninn.com)! So you can really “get away” from it all at that hotel! ) I had the pork chops tonight, plus mashed potatoes and a glass of beer, plus one of my rare desserts -- I had the cheesecake. While we were enjoying dinner in the diner, we saw several buffalo on the ridges north of the train around Williston. After dinner, I retreated to my room, sat for a while and watched the scenery, then went to bed.
During the night, I awoke somewhere around Fargo, North Dakota, I believe, and we were stopped. After being stopped for approximately 45 minutes, the train backed up, then switched forward again, onto a different track, I assume. I did not bother to inquire about that the next day, however. I went back to sleep, then woke up for the day at the Staples, Minnesota, stop. We were approximately 2½ hour late, obviously still feeling the effects of the delay at Nashua as well as the overnight delay outside of Fargo. I made my way to the Sightseer lounge car for the day, and continued my videotaping. We departed St. Cloud approximately 2 hours 19 minutes late, and were soon slowing down for our arrival at St. Paul-Minneapolis’ Midway station, so named since it is “midway” between the downtown areas of the Twin Cities. Approximately 5 miles north of Midway station, there are several old orange and brown Milwaukee Road passenger cars parked on a siding, and a few more similar cars parked at the Midway station. We arrived at St. Paul 1 hour 53 minutes late, and removed the express cars from our consist. I got off the train and walked around the platform for a while, then got back onto the train as we departed 1 hour 45 minutes late. Just south of the St. Paul Midway station is a railroad yard with several freight cars and power units of the Minnesota Commercial Railway -- I have not heard of that railroad. I assume it likely carries iron and goods between the Twin Cities and the northern Minnesota iron mining area. If anyone reading this knows, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As I was following my maps, I then discovered yet another error in my maps -- it’s a good thing I take these trips, to verify the accuracy of my maps! I believe I had the wrong route through town mapped, and then, south of town, at the suburb of Newport, my map showed that the route goes along an eastern branch which heads southeast from Newport. In reality, the route of the Builder is the westerly route at Newport, which heads south and follows the Mississippi River for a few miles more than what my map shows. So I will need to make another correction!
We departed Red Wing 1 hour 50 minutes late, and Winona 1 hour 51 minutes late. South of the Winona station, the train passes a small ski area called “Mount Frontenac Ski and Golf.” Since I am a downhill skier (and yes, I still ski, even though I live in Florida!), I always take notice of things like that. I had been sitting in the Sightseer lounge again, and again it was starting to get warm in the lounge, so I went back to my room. On the Builder this day, lunch was not served in the diner until 12:30, so I had to wait a little longer for lunch than usual. I went to the diner at the first call, and was seated with a rather quiet family who were traveling to Wisconsin Dells for vacation. Today was steakburger day for lunch, as I had eaten the Reuben the previous day. So it was steakburger and a beer. While I was in the diner, we had departed LaCrosse 1 hour 45 minutes late. After lunch, I went to the room for a while, and the people who had been in the room across the hall had left, so I could shoot some video out the window on both sides of the train again. But, since the cord from my AC adapter does not reach all the way across the hall, I had to rely on the rechargeable battery packs again.
We departed Tomah 2 hours late, Portage 1 hour 50 minuets late, and Columbus 2 hours late. I did not record our departure from Wisconsin Dells. I eventually ventured back to the Sightseer lounge, but did not stay long, since the guitarist was playing again, and was now playing louder than he was earlier. And the lounge was not getting any cooler, so it was back to the room I went. We left Milwaukee 1 hour 50 minutes late, and I then followed my maps closely through northern Illinois, since I had lived in the northern Chicago suburbs for many years, so recognized quite a few of the locations. South of the little junction called Rondout, which is just east of Libertyville, Illinois, we passed several Metra commuter trains which operate between Chicago and its northern, western, and southern suburbs. In years past, when I had lived closer (one day away or less by train!) to Chicago, I would often ride the train to Chicago to visit my parents over holidays. From Chicago, I always caught the “North Line” Metra trains of the “Milwaukee District” (so named because the commuter service was operated by the Milwaukee Road (C, M, StP. & P.) for many years before Metra was created) So I have ridden Metra over this route many times. I have been away from the Chicago area for many years, and was surprised when I expected the train to pass the Glenview Naval Air Station just north of the Glenview AMTRAK station, and the Naval Air Station was gone! There are residential developments there now, since apparently the Naval Air Station has closed down.
We departed Glenview 1 hour 51 minutes late, and arrived at Chicago Union Station 1 hour 40 minutes late. The train pulled through the station to the south concourse, so, since the Seattle sleepers are at the head end of the train, I had quite a walk to get into the station. It was again confirmed to me that yes, this will be the same train that will go out as the City of New Orleans in a couple hours -- I did not think there was enough time to get the train out to the yards, clean it, rearrange cars (if necessary), and pull it back into the station in the next 2 hours, but apparently the train is not pulled out into the yards. In fact, it doesn’t even leave the station, but is cleaned right there. I walked into the station and checked my suitcases in the Metropolitan Lounge immediately, then walked outside to enjoy the warm, but somewhat windy, evening. I walked a few blocks to a McDonald’s restaurant at the corner of Jackson Blvd. and Franklin Street for dinner, then went back to the station and sat in the outside Marsh & McLennan Plaza by the river for a while, before boarding the next train, the City of New Orleans.