Today, on my birthday of April 21st, my wife and I set out for a trip from Seattle, Washington to Chicago, Illinois. We’ve chosen the Empire Builder for this trip, since we’ve opted to skip flying whenever schedulig allows. Which fortunately for us means we’ll be taking the train for the vast majority of our travels from now on.
As I start this post it’s 7:56pm and we’re approaching Leavenworth, Washington. This town is a moderately famous – at least in Washington – as a little town that dresses itself up as a kind of German mountain town. It’s cute, albeit I’ve still not been there yet. It’s on the “visit and have a beer or three” list however.
The Empire Builder leaving Seattle is one of the more scenic parts of this route, and overall probaby one of the more scenic parts of any route in the United States. It is simply stunning.
The Start, Urban Tunnels
The train departs, on time at 4:40pm from King Street Station. Within just a few dozen feet from the station we enter the tunnel which takes us underneath the actual city of Seattle. It’s a short tunnel built in the early 20th century. We gain egress just north of the downtown city core along the waterfront. Looking out of the train, from the west the view is over the magnificent Puget Sound, to the east one can see the Seattle Space Needle along with the surrounding hills of Queen Anne.
As we roll north the Empire Builder passed through Interbay, across the northeastern side of Magnolia. The route then goes through a cut gully with forrested sides and a wooden pedestrian overpass just before turning directly north to cross the rail bridge near the Ballard Locks and then make way along the waterline around Ballard, Edmonds, Mukilteo, and into Everett where the train enters another tunnel. This one cross the downtown core of Everett and allows the train to pull into the eastern side of Everett’s downtown core.
With the waterline edge and city tunnels crossed, we then enter the lowland areas between these coastal regions and the inland mountains of Washington. The train travels through a number of small towns along the way, where signs of industry that once was is evident. Eventually we start to rise up into the mountains, climbing grade after grade.
Amtrak, clearly a pseudo private public corporate entity with monopolistic enablement has a clearly confusing aura in many ways. The crew on this run are nice, enjoyable to talk to, and good natured all around. Over the years the service aspect toward the customer has been very hit or miss with Amtrak, confused even more so by it’s actual mission.
Our car attendent has a slight accent, which I can’t place exactly. He got us sorted right away upon boarding the train and has been quick to ask if he can help and has helped others on the train. I’ve actually handled putting the bunks up and down in the roomette, so haven’t needed much assistance at all. As for the baggae, that too, I just stowed myself.
The diner has a happy crew, the lead and respective wait staff team have smiles and jovially answer questions while taking orders and serving passengers. With this jovial spirit among the crew it makes it even more jovial among the passengers. As always, a deluge of conversations have started and continue throughout the trip.
Night Train into Spokane
Eventually we pass out, well before getting to Spokane. I’ve been having a helluva a time in the top bunk getting to sleep. The top bunk, being at the top of the swing back and forth of the car as it rocks along the tracks can be forceful. I reluctantly admit, I’ve got a bit of a wrenched gut trying to gain calmness and relax like I used to. The 501 derailment back in December isn’t fully out of my system. I might be back physically, but mentally I have some burned in muscle memory whenever I feel the train sway hard. The top bunk, is where all of the hard sway is.
However, amidst the fight I have to get some sleep we pull into Spokane. I noticed we stopped and I peak out the window. There the lights of the Spokane station eluminate the night. In a few moment after initial detraining the merging of the Portland Empire Builder will begin. Once connected we’ll be on our way again, but I decide to sneak downstairs and see if I can snatch a quick breath of fresh air. However, no luck, as the train starts moving again to get into position to get connected up to our other segment.
There in the night, with no visibility into what is going on I count the minutes in my mind where the train shifts into the yard. I pull up my phone and look into google maps so I can see the track layout and figure out our exact position in the rail yard of the station. I get that figured out and feel the train come to a complete stop. My guess is that the Portland segment is either arriving within minutes or already here since we’ve already manuevered into position.
Sure enough, in the dead of night the power drops from the train and everything is pitch black and eerily silent. Within a few seconds the initial coupler strike of the trains connecting is heard. Oddly, it appears they didn’t get it with that attempt. Another attempt is made. This seems to make the connection. Again power is turned on, oddly, and then cut off again. The other engine then traverses the length of the train and is connected to the front of the now combined train. We’re ready for departure.
Onward to Idaho, Montana, and More!
Sometime around 2 am I finally pass out and sleep like a newborn! The sleep is absolutely great! I’m relieved because sure enough, as with train travel, the next day starts real early. Just as we are running along Whitefish Lake the announcement is made over the intercom that we’re just minutes away from Whitefish itself.
We gather ourselves together after a topsy turning night of missed sleep. Upon gaining our footing we stroll to the diner and meet some tablemates to have lunch with. You see, Amtrak follows the old passenger rail tradition of seatting other passengers with other pasengers. Largely, this is to help with capacity and ensure they can feed everybody that wants to be fed.
Let’s Talk Track & Ride Quality
As we roll along, I’ve got this new perspective at this point in life on passenger rail. Two things have painted this new perspective for me; 1. The derailment of 501 that I was on and 2. having travelled on a number of trains in western and eastern Europe. With those two things in mind I feel compelled to discuss the quality of the ride.
It’s real easy to discuss the ride quality compared to trains in Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, England, Germany, and Denmark. The simple statement, is in the United States the passenger rail ride is garbage. It’s bumpy, often violent moves and bounces, and feels like the cars are working dilligently to jump right off the tracks. The ride is one thing, as I’m more than happy with a bit of a rough ride in spite of my stressed induced reactions to some of the jarring bouncing. But what really irks me is the fact, again, the America does so poorly at something. It’s not just that we have one of the weakest and least comfortable of all rail systems of all first world developed nations.
With all that jarring and bumping, I still need to add more context. Sure, rail in the US appears to be built with poor standards that leads to this ride quality. But overall, the ride quality is still better than flying, driving, or any number of other transportation options. Not a little bit either, but by a large margin. For one, let’s talk about the seats.
The seats in most of Amtrak’s trains are huge by any normal sized person’s standards. But these seats are designed to take care of 95% of Americans, which means they’re not a normal sized peron’s seat. Beyond the seat, just in front of it, for the Empire Builder and similar Superliner styled train service there’s a most excellent foot rest. It’s the kind of foot rest, when paired with the seat, one pulls it out and reclines the seat and it’s practically a bed.
You know those big reclining seats for flights across the Atlantic or Pacific on planes? Yeah, the seats that start at about $3500? Yeah, those seats. Those seats are junk compared to these “commoners” seats. Even Amtrak amidest it’s strife delivers seats that make those seats look like overpriced prisons.
That’s not all though, there isn’t just this magnificance that is the regular fare on Amtrak there’s often other options too. On the Empire Builder there’s the standard roomette, bedroom, combined bedroom, accessible room, and family room options also. Each of these have their respective space and comfort, with the added benefit of showers, folding out to beds, and all sorts of other niceties. All of these also include all the meals for the trip and more. Which in the end, turns out to be some pretty epic level service in spite of our ridiculously rough riding, 50s era, laggard train options.
Speed & Sleeping Food Combo Thoughts
Now some might say, well, the trian is so slow. Let’s take a few different vantage points on this. First, yeah, obviously the train is slower the flying. This is also America, were we have 50s era train tech out here on the rails still. This isn’t exactly high speed rail clocking along at a blazing 200mph or more. The Empire Builder for instance tops out at 79mph and averages somewhere well below that. But let’s compare this to what it really compares to however, because honestly only comparing it to aircraft on the speed measurement is just idiotic.
Let’s compare train travel to automotive travel for instance. If you’re trying to make this same trip it would be thousands of miles you’d put on either your own car or a rental car. It means you have to drive, and can’t do anything else while you do. At least you shouldn’t be doing anything else while driving if you’re a respectable person. Don’t even get on about stupid radio or podcasts, those barely count as doing something. So that’s a huge cost on your vehicle you’re going to undertake, many hours of unproductive time you’re going to throw away, and a host of other things.
I addition, if you’re going to actually get sleep and stay rested for your arrival you’d need to get a room, likely two nights for sure. This means you’ll rack up that cost well beyond merely gas, having a car on lock down to use, and start getting into the area of getting food and room. In the end, unless you’re really looking for a subservient, non-service focused, and time consuming way to get from Seattle to Chicago you could drive. But taking the train gives you your time to spend in a million different ways while enjoying all the scenary and staying rested. No actually far more because you get to go where you otherwise can’t while driving and you actually get to look at the scenary, unlike in a car when driving where you do actually need to keep paying attention to the road or you’ll die in a car fire.
In summary, if you want to relax, enjoy life, and see the country while en route to your destination then you take the train. It’s great, even when the ride is bumpy.
If you’re in a hurry you fly, if you hate the planet or want to smoke pot in a bunch of states then go ahead, I suppose you could road trip it. But whatever you do, enjoy the trip! 😉