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Amtrak Empire Builder Trip Report

We booked our June 2014 trip on the Empire Builder almost a year ahead of time. The original plan was to spend the night in Toledo and catch the Capitol Limited to Chicago, hopefully getting in early enough for a short ride on Metra. We’d then catch the Empire Builder that afternoon and ride to Seattle where we’d catch the light rail to our hotel near the airport. That afternoon we’d take a short ride on an Amtrak Cascades train back into Seattle so we could experience that train and that part of the line, and then the next morning catch a Sounder commuter train to Tacoma where we’d transfer to the Coast Starlight for a first class ride to Portland. After an afternoon in Portland we’d catch the Portland section of the Empire Builder for the ride back to Chicago, and then spend the night on the Lake Shore Limited for the ride back to Toledo. The Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, and Lake Shore Limited were all flagship Amtrak trains with special amenities, so we figured this trip would be a bit more special compared to our earlier trips.

As our trip approached a number of changes happened. First, Amtrak decided to eliminate the extra amenities on the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, and Lake Shore Limited. We weren’t really all that upset by this, but it was unfortunate these were all trains we planned to take a few months later. The second change was that on the westbound trip we would follow a more direct route between Fargo and Minot rather than the usual route through Grand Forks. We were actually excited about this change since it meant travelling rare freight mileage westbound and the usual route eastbound. The third change was a schedule change for the Empire Builder. Heavy freight traffic and construction caused by the oil boom in North Dakota started to generate lengthy delays for the Empire Builder. To compensate for these delays, Amtrak temporarily made the Seattle and Portland departures three hours earlier. The chronic lateness into Chicago also meant that catching a same-day connection east was risky. Luckily we had already booked the last eastbound train of the day, the Lake Shore Limited, so we just had to hope for the best on that end. The early departure from Portland was a bit more problematic since the Coast Starlight was scheduled to arrive after our new departure time. While we might have been able to make the connection in Vancouver, Washington, we decided it would be much safer to take an early morning Cascades train from Tukwila to Portland instead of the Coast Starlight.

As planned, we began our trip from Toledo on June 27th, catching the Capitol Limited. Speaking with others boarding in Toledo, apparently some people use the train for day-trips into Chicago, with one gentleman heading in for a Cubs game that afternoon. The trip into Chicago was enjoyable although we were delayed a couple of hours in Indiana. Our roomette was on the north side of the train for this segment so we were able to see Lake Michigan as we approached Chicago (during our previous daylight trip we were seated on the south side). Because we were late arriving, we had less time than expected in Chicago, but still had the opportunity to go for a walk and get some lunch.

Our ride on the Empire Builder began with an on-time departure from Chicago. We left Chicago and made our way to Milwaukee where we stopped for a while before heading west across Wisconsin to Minnesota. Darkness fell soon after we crossed the flooded Mississippi River, though I stayed awake for our arrival at the new historic St. Paul station. There was a lot of flooding in St. Paul, with many roads visible from the train closed due to high water. Luckily the tracks were not flooded, but while stopped at St. Paul I heard that was a concern. After a few hours of sleep, I awoke to find us crossing more heavy flooding as we slowly approached the station in Fargo. After our stop in Fargo we reversed back into Minnesota and began our trip on the more direct freight cutoff to Minot. Daylight returned on a foggy morning a couple of hours from Minot as we rode through gently rolling farmland and very little else. By the time we arrived in Minot the fog had turned to a steady rain which stayed with us most of the morning. While we faced a few holdups on our way across North Dakota and Montana, overall we kept pretty close to the adjusted schedule. As we approached the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park, we were able to get a glimpse of the mountains just before darkness again enveloped the train.

Our last day on the Empire Builder began with the sun rising as we arrived in Spokane. At this point the train was split, with the Lounge car and those cars behind it heading to Portland while we continued toward Seattle. We ate breakfast while surrounded by a much more arid landscape, and then headed to the rear of the train to watch as we descended to and then followed the Columbia River. After a stop we began our journey up into the Cascade Mountains. Aside from plentiful wildlife viewing on this portion of the trip, another treat was the opportunity to ride through the nearly 8-mile long Cascade Tunnel. Once out of the mountains the train ran just a few feet from the Puget Sound, providing more spectacular views. While we encountered a few delays, we still arrived in Seattle only about 30 minutes late.

During the afternoon we were in Seattle on June 29th, we rode some of the local transit options. First up was the Central Link Light Rail, which we used to get from the King Street Station to our hotel out by the airport. After checking in to our hotel, we walked over to the Tukwila station and caught an Amtrak Cascades train back to the King Street Station. Between a baseball game and a festival in the area, there were a lot of people on the streets and on the trains that day. A couple of Sounder trains were set to leave soon after we arrived, and while an unexpected trip would have been a nice treat, there wasn’t enough time to plan a return trip (if one was even available), so we decided instead to head north to ride the rest of the Central Link Light Rail. We then saw the monorail so took a quick ride on that. After a couple of false starts, we made it back onto the very crowded light rail and rode back to our hotel.

On Monday morning, June 30th, we awoke early and prepared for our trip down to Portland and back home. We walked to the Tukwila station again and watched many trains come through while we waited for our Cascades train. When our train arrived we were directed back to one of the “Portland” cars where we found seats and waited for the train to leave. It was a beautiful sunny day for the ride down to Portland. We chose to sit on the left side of the train, which at first seemed unfortunate since it meant we missed the gorgeous views of the water around Tacoma, but further south we were rewarded with nice views of both Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. We arrived in Portland on time and made our way into the beautiful old station. We walked around outside searching for someplace to get a quick lunch, but unfortunately found nothing. Luckily, the lunch we got from the snack bar in the station was actually quite good.

Our ride on the Empire Builder from Portland to Spokane provided us with some spectacular scenery. We were now in the last car of the train, so although the rear window was filthy, we still had a nice view out the back. First we crossed the Columbia River, passing the southbound Coast Starlight as we crossed. After riding through some relatively uninteresting flat forestland, we made our way back down to the shore of the Columbia River where we were treated to miles of water, tunnels, and towering cliffs. As evening approached we spent some time sitting in the observation lounge car, enjoying the view from there before it was once again packed with people as it surely would be once we joined with the Seattle section of our train. We arrived in Spokane just after dark, and spent some time walking around the station while we waited for the Seattle section of the train to arrive. When it arrived we noticed it included a couple of private railcars and were saddened to watch as they were attached to the rear of our train, eliminating our view out the back.

The full Empire Builder left Spokane well after dark and headed east. We arrived in Whitefish in the early morning and watched excitedly as the two private railcars were dropped on a siding, giving us back a rearview window. Sunshine and blue skies greeted us as we made our way around Glacier National Park. The mountains and rivers in the morning light provided us with exceptional scenery as we made our way eastward. By late morning we had left the mountains and spent most of the day working our way east through Montana. In eastern Montana and western North Dakota we found ourselves stopped for quite some time as we waited for some of the heavy freight traffic to clear. We spent the night traveling through North Dakota, seeing dawn arrive while we were somewhere between Grand Forks and Fargo. We remained a few hours behind schedule as we made our way to St. Paul. We seemed to make up some of that time as we headed toward Milwaukee though, typically moving at nearly 80 miles per hour and rarely stopping. The one exception to this was near Wisconsin Dells where we had to pull onto a siding to let a freight train pass, then reverse back on to the main line to pass another freight. This worked well for us though since we were then clear to Milwaukee. The sunshine that had stayed with us for the whole eastbound trip turned to rain as we left Milwaukee. Still a couple of hours late, as we approached Chicago we found ourselves stuck behind a Metra commuter train, which due to the peak hour traffic we were unable to pass. This added another hour to our delay, causing us to arrive into Chicago well after dark on a rainy evening. We still had more than an hour before our Lake Shore Limited departure though, so after grabbing a quick dinner from the closing McDonalds at Union Station, we went back to the lounge and waited for our next train to board. We soon boarded, made up our beds, and headed off to sleep just as we started to depart. After nearly a full night’s rest we arrived in Toledo, ending our journey aboard Amtrak. We then began our long drive home.

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