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The Empire Builder — Amtrak’s train with a view

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IF YOU GO

The Empire Builder runs once a day every day of the year. It is supposed to take about 45 hours over three days and two nights, but is frequently delayed. Many travelers recommend leaving up to a day of wiggle room when you book either connecting trains or planes; visit www.Amtrak.com .

To go to one of several stops near Glacier National Park in Montana, one-way fares for two adults and two children under 15 in a family bedroom range in price from about $840 in off-season to $1,600 at peak travel times in the summer. (It’s only about $100 more to go all the way to Seattle or Portland.) Coach fares for the same trip average between $158 and $352 for adults; children are half-price. Check the website for special discount offers.

While there are a variety of sleeping options, there are only three family bedrooms per Empire Builder, so book months in advance if possible. You can change your reservation up to 15 days in advance with no fee; if you cancel, under a recent change to Amtrak policy, you will have to pay a fee of up to $100.

Cabins, including a half-dozen converted cabooses, at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana, range from $189 to $239; cabooses require a two-night stay. A converted locomotive costs $299 a night with a minimum of two nights. For more information, visit www.izaakwaltoninn.com; (408) 888-5700.

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:19AM



The warnings started days before we were to board the train to take us home from Seattle to Chicago.

“We are contacting you to advise you that the Empire Builder has been experiencing delays of two to five hours due to speed restrictions caused by extreme heat conditions and track work,” the email from Amtrak stated.

I checked Amtrak’s website to see what percentage of the once-daily trains on the 2,200-mile route that travels across the top of the Western half of the country were on time in July. The answer: 0 percent.

Uh, oh. Already, I had decided that spending more than 45 hours without a break was probably more than my family could handle. Especially because I knew there was a high likelihood of delays that might drive my 5- and 10-year-old daughters — and consequently, their parents — into various states of insanity.

So I booked a trip that would split the journey in two. The first leg took us overnight from Seattle, to Glacier National Park in Montana. Spending two days exploring the gorgeous refuge was not only the highlight of our entire trip, but the break from the tracks also made it easier to stomach what was to come: As it turned out, the second leg of the train trek — from Montana to Chicago — would arrive a whopping 12 hours late.

That’s not to say there weren’t dozens if not hundreds of very unhappy customers on the train, some of whom missed flights or other trains. From those travelers, we learned an important lesson: consider the train trip a journey, not a means of transportation. And keep your plans loose.

“Don’t expect to get anywhere at any certain time or even any certain day,” quipped Gail Anderson, a traveler from Maryland we met along the way, whose train from Chicago to Glacier National Park was 24 hours late.

After I got the email warning, I decided we needed to prepare even more for the possibility of a loooong time stuck on the train. I picked up a copy of the Hobbit on CD, to go with the multiple DVDs, books, art projects, stuffed animals and other activities my wife had packed.

Smooth departure

We had no problems leaving Seattle, where we had flown earlier for a vacation. For our train journey we had booked a family bedroom: a 5-foot-2 by 9-foot-6 compartment where there is enough seating for two adults and two or three children. There was plenty of room to play and stretch out along a bench seat and on the floor. As we left, our sleeping car attendant, Ryan Arvie, 27, of Seattle, reminded everyone over a loudspeaker about the many kids among the 700 passengers on board.

“This is a family train,” he said. “We ask you to keep your conversations G-rated.” If you buy drinks in the dining car, he said, “please consume in moderation.” (This was in slight contradiction to the message we got during the second part of our trip; more detail on that later.)

It’s a shame there is no windowed observation car for this leg of the trip because the journey immediately cuts through the Pugote Sound and is beautiful from the get-go. We enjoy dinner — I have a lightly breaded tilapia with a decent baked potato but some pretty bland vegetables. In general, we find the food to be pretty good and plentiful, and the waitstaff friendly and attentive.

Throughout the trip, we are treated to some pretty fascinating narration from volunteer National Park Rangers who ride the Empire Builder (and other popular routes) in the summer months.

Rather than listen or look out the window, my 5-year-old is having a blast launching her stuffed cat from the top bunk. My wife and I are thankful that she is not strapped to an airplane seat, or not about to get car sick while stuck in a carseat for hours or days. (But the straps that attach to the ceiling to stop you from rolling off the bunk don’t cover enough area for us to feel comfortable allowing her to spend the night up there — to her major dismay.)

As it turns out, she is paying attention to the scenery, too. As the sun sets over the Cascade Mountains in the Wenatchee River Valley near Leavenworth, Wash., she proclaims, “That’s beautiful. It’s so pretty.”

As I fell asleep in a fairly comfortable bed that would be big enough to share with a child, too, I found the sound of the blaring Amtrak horn — the same horn that is the bain of many suburban Chicago residents — actually soothing.

But at 5:15 a.m. I heard loud talking outside our door. The train had stopped in Edmonds, Wash., and picked up some new passengers, including an elderly couple who were taking the roomette right next to us. As I got up to use the restroom, a man pointed to my door and loudly asked, “What’s in there?” “My room and my sleeping family,” I mumbled. “Oh,” he said. He continued to talk in only a slightly lower tone of voice.

I had read that the shared bathrooms can get kind of filthy. I personally felt an obligation to clean the sink after using them (something my wife wishes I did more of at home) and it seems for that night, anyway, the bathrooms remained very clean.

As I’m finally falling back to sleep, about an hour later, an attendant proclaims, “Good morning, folks!” She goes on to tell us that breakfast will be served soon. Over the loudspeaker. I’m beginning to wonder if I really enjoy communal travel — until I peak out the window and see the dark silhouette of the Northern Rocky Mountains against the pink sky. It’s breathtaking.

I have crabcakes with tomatoes and potatoes in a hollandaise sauce for breakfast (very tasty), and head to the packed observation car as we ride through the highlight of the journey, Glacier National Park. We see huge pine forests, but also sections of mountains hit by forest fire.

Volunteer Leigh Wilson, 65, a retired principal from the Seattle area, gives my kids and I a science lesson about the importance of fire: “Fire is actually a friend to the forest. And fire is a major part of the ecological cycle of the forest. Fire that sweeps through the Rockies periodically burns the brush under the trees. It’s also required by [some species of] pine cones, the heat is required to release the seeds out of the cones so that new forest can regenerate.” My daughters seem impressed.

We arrive — on time, around 9 a.m. — in Essex on the southern edge of Glacier park. for a two-day stay at the Izaak Walton Inn (see sidebar).

Delays to come?

But at the Izaak Walton, the buzz started about the Empire Builder from Chicago that was supposed to arrive that night. A BNSF Railway freight train collided with a gravel truck near Tioga, N.D., tragically killing the driver and derailing 30 coal cars. Because Amtrak shares the tracks with BNSF, and about 40 other trains use the same tracks daily, this mean big delays. The unhappy passengers on that Amtrak train arrived a whopping 24 hours later than planned at Essex. Uh oh, I think.

Henry Anderson, 68, a retired aerospace engineer from Maryland, told of sitting on the tracks for hours, then taking a bus to the nearest station in Williston, N.D. Once there, the bus was parked for hours “near a rough bar with exotic dancers.” But it was uncomfortable on the bus, and several travelers got off,

“You know what kind of places there are near depots?” said his wife, Gail, 64, a social services worker. “No one told us how long we’d have to sit there. There were fights in the bar, some guy was lying on the sidewalk.” This is not something I’d want to watch with my children in tow.

Finally, at 4 a.m., they got on another train, which didn’t leave for another couple of hours.

“It was a very confused and frazzled situation,” she said. “That was wild.”

On our departure day, our train home shows up four hours late.

Although crowded, we immediately head to the observation car for the most spectacular part of the journey as we continued through Glacier National Park and across the continental divide. Beautiful views only accessible by train surrounded us.

We hit Marias Pass in Montana. “At 5,200 feet, it’s the highest part of our journey,” explains 13-year volunteer National Park Ranger Chuck Lazenby, of Edmonds, Wash. “But It’s the lowest and easiest place to pass the Rocky Mountains between the Canadian border and New Mexico.”

There is an obelisk and statute of John Frank Stevens, the principal engineer of the Great Northern Railway, whose tracks the Empire Builder now runs on. Along with James Smith, who raised the money to build the rail line privately, the two are legends to railroad buffs.

Rolling wine tasting

After a couple hours marveling out the window, the workers called us adults in to a wine tasting. I sat at a table with three people I don’t know — meeting new people is almost required on Amtrak, and a big bonus for those who enjoy rail travel.

The wine was much better than I expected, but the conversation was more surprising.

Amtrak workers give away bottles of wine to those who can answer trivia questions. After a question about President Barack Obama, I was surprised to hear Virginian Richard Lisenby, 72, who works for a defense contractor, say he thinks we should get out of Iraq and Afghanistan immediately.

Kevin Merrifield, 46, a webmaster at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who plays in a rock band, is also at the table. He has his long hair in a ponytail and looks more like a beer drinker than wine lover, but he then gives a tip on a red wine we should try.

“It’s an incredible Merlot,” he says.

He later won his own bottle of Airfield Estates Chardonnay after correctly answering the question: who was the first married couple to be shown in bed together on TV. Answer: Fred and Wilma, from the Flintstones.

Other questions included, how many trains does Amtrak run per day? The answer is 308, to which Lisenby quips, “And how many arrive on time?”

Definitely not this one.

I catch up with John Anderson, of Northfield, an Amtrak road foreman, who explains that our train schedule was doomed from the start: because of an earlier freight train accident along the route (Amtrak and freights share the same rails), our train departed 1½ hours late from Seattle. In Spokane, a broken spring on a sleeping car delayed our train a few more hours. There is a saying on the rails, Anderson relates: “Late trains get later.” The freights, which get paid extra if an Amtrak train arrives on time, figure the bonus for a late train is already lost, he said.

At various points of our journey we have to pull over and sit for 40 minutes at a time as fleets of 10 to 12 trains — with 70 to 100 cars each — use the track. And with aging and eroding track, we often have to reduce our speed from a maximum of just 79 mph. This is no high-speed train.

“There are a lot of problems with the track,” Anderson said. “That cuts into your time.”

I head back to our room, where my daughters are watching a DVD. Although we brought a half-dozen, they only ended up watching two throughout the entire trip — a parental victory, of sorts.

The delays do leave more time for the observation car, which is packed with people playing card games, doing puzzles, chatting — and drinking. I take photos through pretty dirty windows. There’s a drunk-looking guy wandering around, but he seems harmless.

The bluffs are beautiful, and later I don’t even mind staring for hours at flatter sections of farmland in so called Big Sky country and beyond.

We later pass a barn with the words, “No Meth,” painted across the entire side of a barn, clearly for train travelers to see. It’s a harsh reminder of both the beauty and pain of the plains.

Outside the station at Havre, Montana, where we arrive now five hours late, there is a statute of James Hill. Inside, a large sign proclaims, “Havre supports Amtrak and the Empire Builder.” While the train buffs pose for pictures by the statute, Ron Sandstrum, a Spokane envelope salesman, angrily declares, “This is the worst experience of my life.”

He showed up at the station in Spokane in time to leave at 1:30 a.m. — but the train didn’t take off until 4:50 a.m. He says his breakfast was screwed up, and then he couldn’t buy a drink in the bar car later when the attendant claimed they didn’t have a liquor license (Amtrak says it can’t always serve booze when passing through some areas that don’t allow it.)

“There is just a complete disregard for customers,” he fumes. That’s the opposite of what we found, at least as far as the attendants and wait staff.

In fact, our sleeping car attendant Robb Tatch seems to be able to meet all of the needs of those on his sleeper — including icing Merrifield’s bottle of wine and even washing his window so he can snap better photos. Tatch has a good temperament to deal with the legions of unhappy customers as the train gets further and further behind. While we are initially given mini-bottles of champagne when we arrive in the room, he offers a couple of extras later — which I drink with dinner and a delicious half-chicken. He later finds loads of extra Amtrak chocolates for my kids.

At 11 p.m. I drift off to sleep and … then I wake up — the entire bathroom compartment is rattling. It’s so loud I can’t sleep. I dig out my ear plugs, crank a noise machine, and this seems to work.

Of course, it works so well that the next morning when my wife starts pounding on the door so we don’t miss the last breakfast call (she slept with both of the little ones in the room next door), I just assume it’s the rattling cabinet and turn back over. I finally wake up with only a few minutes to spare and we get one of the last tables.

We are now 10 hours behind, which allows us to see Devil’s Lake, N.D., in daylight — and it’s a gem. The water seems to literally come right up to the tracks and birds fly off into the distance. As I munch a tasty veggie omelet and sip coffee, a carnation on our table, I again appreciate how much more relaxing this is then flying or driving.

Late morning, Tatch comes around with glasses of orange juice and champagne. The strategy of plying us with alcohol seems to be a good one. I take it, but save it for later. We pass through Grand Forks, N.D., and my older daughter says, “Look, a random herd of buffalo.”

Delays too much for some

At Grand Forks, many folks, including Carl Cowgill and his daughter, Willow, 4, get out to stretch their legs. He regrets getting coach tickets.

“This is our first big train trip — and our last,” says Cowgill, 32, a self-employed construction contractor. “A 10-hour delay is too much for a four-year old. This is ridiculous.”

And it’s too much for him. Although there is plenty of leg room, the seats don’t recline enough for him to be able to sleep well. He says the bathrooms in coach rate a “4 out of 10 for cleanliness,” which I later confirm.

I then decide that for the sake of this story, I will attempt to use the tiny shower in my room, which is in the same stall as the toilet. By this point I’m so used to the swaying and moving of the train that I don’t even need to use the grab bar as I stand with my nose two inches from the wall. But the water is so hot on all but the coldest position that I can’t even wash off until the water has slowed to a trickle. I dry off, but the bathroom is soaking wet for the rest of the day.

At 2:45 p.m., Tatch has the unfortunate job of dropping a bomb: Because freights are doing overnight track repair, our original trek is being rerouted, which means scheduled stops between St. Paul, Minn, and Chicago are no longer possible. Passengers hoping to get to Milwaukee, for example, are forced to exit at St. Paul and board a chartered bus to their destination. As the unhappy crowds wait to board the buses, Cowgill declares, “Amtrak is terrible.”

“We will add another hour of travel,” Tatch says. “We won’t arrive until 3 a.m. … We do apologize for the severe delay and inconvenience.” Gulp.

On the sleepers, I find a completely different response to the delays. “They’ve always been kind of late but it’s okay because I like that pace,” said Lois Anderson, who is traveling with her 5- and 9-year-old grandsons from suburban Minn. Others actually look forward to the delays: that means more time on the train.

New Jersey’s George Toell, who had planned a cross-country train trip all the way to New York to “cross it off my bucket list,” decides he will have to fly back from Chicago as he wouldn’t be able to get back in time to go to work.

This is not a problem for him: “I’ll have to do it in segments,” he declares.

I find myself slipping into that category: a late train means more time just sitting looking out the window, relaxing, and no temptation to drive faster, no ability to try and switch flights, no major stress.

An extra night on the train means more time in the observation car. Turns out by going down the east side of the Mississippi, instead of the normal route on the other side, we get to watch as the sun sets over the river. This is considered “rare mileage” by Amtrak fans, and makes the time go by faster. My kids work on an art project as I finally — for the first time — pull out a book.

At breakfast, our waitress gave me a tip on how to stop the “rattle boxes” by stuffing any number of the plentiful towels in the room into every nook and cranny conceivable. It works, and we catch about five hours of sleep (although once again, Amtrak workers kept coming over the loudspeaker to call for passengers who needed to change tickets).

I wake up to see parts of the dark skyline as we approach Union Station. It’s the middle of the night — but we are home. It’s 3:30 a.m., and in total, we’ve spent nearly 57 hours on the train over both legs.

Back home, my daughters declare they would love to take another train trip — just maybe not as long as this one.

“Oh, yeah! That was really fun,” my older daughter says. “Just to be able to sleep on the train is so cool.”

I later found out that Merrifield’s family spent the night in the first class lounge at Union Station — very comfortable, he says, and they get back to Champaign at noon the next day.

Despite the delays, his kids declare it the “best vacation ever,” he says.

And Cowgill emails me to say he has decided he would take Amtrak again.

“Looking back on the trip as a whole, it wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I will travel by train again. I don’t, however, think I will go on a trip scheduled for longer than 24 hours.”

That sounds about right.



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