Homeward bound: Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and Empire Builder

Train travel is not for anyone who just wants to get there. The journey itself is part of the pleasure, and it is helpful if you can allow some flexibility in case of unforeseen delays. On our 3-day, eastbound trip in 2013 we allowed an extra day before the Queen Mary 2 sailed. Amtrak was on time. We spent two nights at the Sterling B&B in Brooklyn, where we visited the excellent museum (twice). We also had time to share dinner with Jill and Jerry, whom we had not seen in 40 years. Westbound, we knew that the QM2 would arrive in New York on time, so we booked the train to Chicago for the same day.

If the Lake Shore Limited had been our first experience of traveling by Amtrak, we might not be such enthusiasts. Having traveled west to east in 2013, we knew that there would be problems: the ride is sometimes so jerky that it is difficult to read or write. Some people like having a toilet and sink in each tiny roomette. I grant that it is handy in the middle of the night, but I still prefer them down the hall, because they sit, unenclosed, next to the bed, and there are some things I do not want to share. The water pressure in the sink was so strong that water sprayed everywhere. Track work is underway on part of the route. One hopes that conditions will improve.

Despite the general conditions, a dysfunctional and unforthcoming crew, and late arrival in Chicago, we had a fairly pleasant journey, due to the dining car crew (though not the kitchen crew); the volunteer National Park Service Rangers (who pointed out interesting wildlife and some geographic, economic, and cultural features of the landscape as we traveled through the Hudson River Valley); and re-connection with Sandy and Sam, a couple we had met on the eastbound journey. We enjoyed another dinner with them.

The 19-hour trip took nearly 23 hours, which was stressful for the many passengers who were making connections or being met, especially since we were not kept informed of reasons for delays or given estimated arrival times. The dining room was closed, because the train should have arrived in Chicago well before lunch. We were hungry, and dinner was several hours away. We checked into the waiting room in Chicago and asked if there was time to grab a take-out sandwich at the deli in the station: “If you hustle!” We did, and made it back with minutes to spare. Craig, our car attendant, was standing by the open door holding a big sign with the car number. His consideration was an indication of things to come.

The Empire Builder that runs between Chicago and Seattle or Portland (it splits at Spokane) is a double-decker. There are several separate toilets with sinks, as well as a shower+dressing room, in each car (coach and sleeper; larger sleeper rooms have their own enclosed toilet/sink/shower). The train has an observation car, as well as the dining car, but, unlike the Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles) it does not have a parlour car for sleeper-car passengers. The Coast Starlight is also the only train with WiFi.  However, our Chicago-Seattle crew was efficient, pleasant, friendly, and cohesive. We were kept informed about delays, with worst-case estimates: psychologically, it is better to be pessimistic and be able to deliver better service than expected than to continually announce additional delays. Passenger trains in the U.S.A. still take a back seat to freight trains, so we sometimes had to wait on side lines. The two-day trip was about three hours late arriving in Seattle, which for us just meant a shorter wait for the 1:45 p.m. Amtrak bus to Vancouver.

During the journey another pair of volunteer Rangers kept passengers in the observation car amused and informed about Minnesota and Wisconsin as we passed through. The latter is the nation’s top producer of cranberries. Several children participated in the information sessions and were installed as Junior Rangers, to the applause of the passengers.

The same food is served as on the Lake Shore Limited, but it was noticeably better prepared. Breakfast and lunch are always first-come-first-served, but one must make reservations for dinner. We chose the 7:30 p.m. slot. Tables for all meals are assigned as passengers arrive: if there are fewer than four in your party, you are seated with others. So far, we have never had a complete dud for a table-mate, and most conversations have been pleasant, amusing, and/or stimulating.

This trip we shared tables with several different people, including Harry, who was re-tracing a journey he had made with his father from upstate New York to San Diego more than 50 years before, and Elle, who had recently been retired (for health reasons, alas) after 14 years in the armed forces, during which she served in more than a dozen countries. For two other meals we sat with Cherie and Chris, nomads who have been on the road together for nine years, progressing from a Teardrop trailer pulled by a Prius to a 35’ converted Greyhound bus pulling a Mini-Cooper. How do they do it? Check out www.technomadia.com.

North America is vast. About half the trip from Chicago to Seattle was spent in North Dakota and Montana; there is a reason the latter is called Big Sky Country! Delays meant that we went through Glacier National Park in the dark, but we saw a lot of beautiful and interesting country, including the Cascades, during daylight hours. The final leg of the train ride was along Puget Sound. The entire coast appears to be open to the public, with many parks full of people on a sunny Saturday. Passengers were startled by a glimpse of sun worshippers (no tan lines on those guys!) waving to us from one of the beaches.
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>> The Great Plains. Montana: east of Glacier National Park …
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>> … taking on water in Havre … endlessly fascinating clouds.
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>> Washington: adding another engine before tackling the Cascades … boat harbour on Puget Sound.

We had only a few minutes to retrieve our checked luggage and board the bus for Vancouver. One of the suitcases did not appear, but Gordon quickly filled in a claim form, and we had one less item to haul off and on the bus for customs at the border. The bag was delivered to the station in Vancouver the next day.

We had talked with my sister Susan before leaving Paris and told her we would get a cab for the short ride from the station, since we could not be sure when we would arrive. However, we also had sent postcards to several friends announcing our imminent return, and our neighbor Steve was waiting for us. He and Anita invited us to dinner, but Susan and Dick were expecting us for a traditional Kelso repast: tamale pie and a big green salad, followed by plum (from their tree) crumble. The next evening we ate lamb burgers with Anita and Steve. A couple of days later we had early aperitifs with Pat and Bruce and dinner with them the next night. A couple of days later we met Danielle at The Bean. Next evening, barbecued chicken with Carol and Sandy, then Pam came to dinner, Gordon met Julie for coffee, I went to the Westcoast pre-staff-meeting potluck lunch… You can see a trend here. We are home!

Note: Amtrak truly appreciates feedback. Gordon wrote a calm and reasoned e-mail describing our experience on the Lake Shore Limited, comparing it to the Empire Builder. Amtrak’s response included thanks and a $250 travel voucher good for one year. Portland, here we come!

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