Cross-Country America On The Empire Builder

2 January 2016
Read Time: 3.3 mins

“Thank you for ridin’ the rails,” announced the train conductor of the Empire Builder as it pulled out of Chicago’s Union Station.

As it turned out, we were only riding the rails for about an hour before a freight derailment up ahead delayed and diverted the 3,500-kilometre journey by about 12 hours, including an additional bus journey to complete the trip to Portland.

Delays on Amtrak are not uncommon and it caused havoc for passengers with homes, jobs and families to return to.

Chicago Union Station Journey's beginning - Union Station,Chicago

But for those not on a tight schedule, it added to the intrigue and fascination of the trip. It also greased the wheels, as it were, of conversation with fellow passengers most of whom were remarkably sanguine about the inconvenience.

Travelling any distance by train in the States is a lifestyle choice rather than a function of daily life.

Consequently, the attitude was one of wry amusement rather than anger. Most were wearily chipper and enjoyed the adventure, despite the uncertainty.

Steak And Pinot Grigio Ease The Tension

The only non-Americans we encountered were three Australians, including a couple from Adelaide who were on a mammoth train extravaganza around North America. They declared themselves great supporters of Amtrak and envious of the rail network.

Then there was Shawna and Bobby Jo, two women who’d never met before but decided to take advantage of the dining car once it emerged that their respective homeward journeys were disrupted.

Bottles of Pinot Grigio and a passable steak diluted any frustration they may have felt.

Glacier National Park, Montana Mountain high: a view of the Glacier national park in Montana through which the line passes. Photograph: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

Bobby Jo was “only” going as far as Wisconsin Dells, the fifth stop en route, and would in normal circumstances have been home for Sunday evening with her family after the three-and-a-half hour journey, ready for work as a nurse on Monday morning. Not on this occasion.

Shawna, also coincidentally a nurse, had a longer trip, to Grand Forks, North Dakota (one stop on from Fargo). Talk was of football, family and farming.

Not for nothing are the supporters of the legendary Green Bay Packers American football team known as Cheeseheads: we were heading across the Northern Plains – dairy country far and wide.

The train wasn’t full in mid-November, but the Empire Builder maintained the policy of “community seating” at meal times. Passengers were instructed to sit side by side with their travelling companion so one is obliged to make eye contact – and ideally conversation – with strangers.

Of the six meals we had, only one was conducted in silence opposite a guy on his own who was reading. The other five were all friendly and illuminating.

The two breakfasts were memorable for the locations. The first, as we crossed the Mississippi river along the state line between Wisconsin and Minnesota, was shared with a woman and her young son.

Michigan sunflowers Local colour: the Amtrak cuts through a field of sunflowers in Michigan, North Dakota. Photograph: Alamy

The following morning, as we chugged through the spectacular Glacier National Park in Montana, we had the perfect guides to the scenery: a retired couple from Havre, Montana (population 9,700, enjoying night-time November temperatures of -18C).

They were heading to Spokane to see their new grandchild. Spokane is where the Empire Builder splits for the last 500 kilometres or so to Seattle, or further south to Portland.

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The Journey Beats The Destination

They could have driven it more quickly, but given that we were on the cusp of winter in the frozen north they preferred to let the train take the strain, and enjoy the views: snow-capped mountains in the distance, rivers and lakes in the foreground with the odd bald eagle scouting for prey from an arboreal perch.

Viewed harshly, the edible fare is airline food on a plate, though in truth it’s better and more varied than that.

The “signature” steak for dinner was delicious and cooked as requested. Likewise, a burger was tasty and hearty. There have been wine tastings on board in the past, but given that the Empire Builder lost $34.8 million in the six months to March this year, it’s not hard to see why such luxuries might have been dispensed with.

Empire Builder train Ride those rails: the engine of the Empire Builder. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The accommodation was comfortable. We opted for a two-berth cabin with bunk beds and its own tiny toilet that doubles as a shower room.

There are other toilets and showers on the lower deck that offer more room and comfort. The seats in coach class looked roomy and comfortable, though the carriages had that permanent state of half-light like a teenager’s bedroom, where someone was always asleep regardless of the time of day.

The viewing carriage – seating upstairs, bar downstairs – was the perfect place to while away the daylight hours, scouring the vista for wildlife, marvelling at the passing landscape or just reading.

There is no WiFi on the Empire Builder, which is surely just a failure to upgrade facilities rather than a deliberate attempt to come between passengers and their digital devices.

This was my first long-distance train trip overseas and an experience to repeat. There is a mindset adjustment required to unlock the willingness to enjoy the journey rather than project forward to the destination.

But once that switch is flicked, ridin’ those rails is a lot of fun.

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This article was written by John Stern from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.