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Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak Empire Builder’

After our Amtrak eastbound, seven hours late, 26 hour total coach trip (think steerage) we decided to change our return reservations to  “roomette.” No matter how much it cost. At least it sounded restful.

Shelby Ice Cream Stop © AME

Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder pulled into the Shelby MT station around 7:30 pm, a mere two hours late.

Empire Builder Arrives in Shelby © AME

In contrast to our coach experience, we were greeted by a helpful and friendly porter, Patricia, who escorted us to our very own private, albeit very tiny, space. Two seats faced each other with a drop-down-from-the-roof bunk lashed to the ceiling above. The door slid shut. Ta-da! private room!

Two trains make up the eastbound Empire Builder. One originates in Seattle, the other in Portland. They connect in Spokane for the remainder of the trip to Chicago. Westbound is the reverse. One of Amtrak’s selling points for choosing sleepers over coach is that meals are included. But because the dining car is attached to the Seattle train, heading east dining isn’t a white table cloth affair: we heard dinner had come in a plastic box. But westbound, the dining car was six cars ahead. Dinner was served!

The menus arrived. “Choose anything!” the waitress encouraged. I went for the “Signature Steak.” Not only was it excellent (it came rare), it ended with a flourish the few days I’d spent as a vegetarian in Canada. I even had cheesecake for dessert.

Yes, Amtrak does serve a delicious dinner.

In Our Roomette © AME

Later, Pat came to prepare our room for sleeping. With the door closed and the beds made, our roomette now offered exactly one standing-room-only space. No turning allowed. I drew the top bunk: Only a few inches from the ceiling I could not sit upright. A “seat belt” hooked to the roof, presumably to protect restless sleepers from falling out. Midnight or so, I needed to get up. It required some finesse. First I jiggled free the safety belt and then crouching, with legs dangling over the side, I hunted with my foot in the darkness for the ladder’s first step, many inches below. Although I effected a safe dismount, the adventure left me wondering just how many other passengers over the age of 12 had ever ventured into the upper bunk.

Still that night I caught a glimpse of the bygone romance I had imagined. No whispering silk down the passageway, no muffled screams, no Poirot….just being lulled to sleep by the rhythmic rocking of the Empire Builder hurtling through the velvet night.

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“As you set out…hope the voyage is a long one.” C.P. Cavafy

Union Station, Portland OR © SR Euston

When we booked our first overnight Amtrak ride recently, I envisioned an Orient Express experience: mysterious women in flowing silk dressing gowns disappearing into sleek sleeping cabins; fine dinners served on elegantly appointed tables by men in dinner jackets; the train’s rhythmic sway lulling me to sleep as we slipped through the velvet summer night. I imagined Romance! Luxury! Intrigue!

The trip began auspiciously enough. We left Portland’s Union Station on Amtrak’s Empire Builder headed for Chicago precisely on time at 4:45 pm, anticipating our scheduled arrival in Shelby, MT at 11:43 am the next day.

Along the Columbia River © SR Euston

Behind Bonneville Dam © SR Euston

Remembering the tart online discussions about the Empire Builder’s difficulties—one blogger even admonished “Get over it!”—I realized on-time arrival was unusual.

In the Lounge Car © SR Euston

Still I never dreamed we would spend five hours stopped dead on a siding near the Dalles and another two (I don’t even remember where) languishing. Granted a series of brushfires near the tracks stalled us up. Even so.

Out the Window: Grain Elevators © AME

Seven additional hours spent in a semi-upright position in a not-so-comfortable-for-sleeping coach seat with no dining car until Spokane did not make for the relaxed, re-vitalizing journey I had envisioned. By morning even the train staff were as cranky as the trapped passengers.

Yet, in retrospect, delay had its advantages. We saw sunrise over the Eastern Washington wheat fields. We could wander from car to car and get off at stations to stretch.

At Whitefish Station © SR Euston

We passed through some of the very best scenery in daylight, along the Kootenai River and later skirting Glacier National Park. We had two volunteer ranger/naturalists join us to point out the sights—a rare chance for them to describe locations mostly passed through in darkness. Even if (bedraggled, tired and hungry) we didn’t make Shelby until past 7:00 pm, it truly was an opportunity to slow down and look around. On balance, we had, not your standard high-anxiety airplane trip, but rather more a Cavafy-style voyage.

And we learned two important Amtrak lessons. Don’t expect to be (even remotely) on time. And always book a sleeper car.

(Part 2: The Return: Romance, Sleep and Dinner too!)

Greeting the Dawn © AME

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