Railroading North America

February 5, 2016

Amtrak’s Empire Builder / 47 hours 10 minutes Portland to Chicago

For the Empire Builder Seattle to Chicago, 2008, see “Seattle” Pages #19, #20, #27 and “Minot” #28 on right >>>>

Topics in this Posting
What you should know about Amtrak and the Freight Lines
What to take on the train and What to check
Dining and Snack Cars
What makes you think you know where your checked bags are?
Mixing it up in Minneapolis with Amtrak’s hired help
Bathrooms and Showers
People Dudes, including Pete passes on becoming a Pothead Dude

The Empire Builder / 47 hours 10 minutes Portland to Chicago

Route of Amtrak’s Empire Builder

The days before. (skippable)
Carol Anne and I flew to Los Angeles in early November 2010 on a tight schedule. We had been accredited to cover the STS-133 shuttle mission in Florida that was to launch at 4 pm Monday, November 1. But NASA ran into problems and first NASA pushed the launch back a day — then pushed it back three days more and eventually back, back and back again. Currently, NASA plans to launch the Shuttle Discovery on its final mission in February 2011. You can find the latest launch information here or here.

Once NASA missed its November 1 launch date, prior scheduling precluded our waiting any longer in Florida; we flew to California on November 2.

Hollywood, southwestern view overlooking the Kodak Theater, evening November 5, 2010

I had come to Los Angeles for several Motion Picture Academy events, among them: – a dinner honoring the 25th anniversary of the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships (I am a 1991 fellow of the program) and an annual alumni meeting of the fellows to be held the following night. I had built in extra several days to relax in Ojai at the comfortable Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, a 1920s atavism so decadent they even offer massages for couples together and have mud baths.

With Ojai and the Academy functions behind us, we set off on a circuitous route back to our winter home in Florida to re-inspect several trains I blogged about in 2008 (that blog is found on the right >>>). We first took the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland (scroll down) and then, late the afternoon on November 7, we boarded the Empire Builder for a 47 hour 10 minutes ride to Chicago, 2,225 miles east.

We planned to fly from Chicago to Orlando the night of November 9.

It would not quite work out the way.

Streetside view of the Portland Amtrak Station

What you should know about Amtrak and the Freight Lines

Amtrak does own some of its tracks, primarily in the east, and Amtrak does not operate at the mercy of freight dispatchers, although that is a popular misconception.

Amtrak has specific time slots allowing them free operation on freight lines and if they are able to abide by these time slots, the freight trains will stand aside. While hardly close buddies, Amtrak and the freight carriers do work together as they did the day I took the Coast Starlight in 2008 and we ran the Tahachipi loop arriving in Los Angeles an astounding four hours early.

Amtrak personnel is rewarded with bonuses for operating their trains on time so it is very much in their financial interest to enforce strictly the freight line time agreements. Here’s the practical importance for you:

You need to be waiting on the platform, baggage in hand, when the train comes, and you’d better get on promptly, especially across the northwest. Amtrak, often as not, will arrive (and leave) on the minute. This precision can catch the casual Amtrak passenger off-guard and get them left behind.

No, Amtrak will not hold the train if you dawdle. Yes, Amtrak will leave you behind.

That said, Amtrak does build flex time into its schedules which again helps it maintain its schedules, particularly in the northwest and midwest corridors through Spokane, Minneapolis and several other cities where the train must be provisioned or re-fueled. This extra time allows Amtrak, if off schedule, to get back on schedule — or quite close to it — unless they encounter other difficulties with weather, freight lines reclaiming their lines when Amtrak is late, or if Amtrak is forced to wait for a launch at Vandenberg Air Force base in California (which, whoa!, can take hours)

Learn more: Interesting Amtrak factoids.

The Empire Builder and me.

In 2008 I took the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago.

The eastbound Empire Builder actually begins as two trains in two different cities — Seattle (Train 8 ) and Portland (Train 28), depart their respective cities five minutes apart. The Empire Builders meet and are joined together in Spokane departing as a single train from Spokane (designated Train 8/28) about nine hours into its eastward journey. Coming west from Chicago, the procedure is reversed — the westbound Empire Builder train number 7 / 27 is split into two trains in Spokane about nine hours before the separated trains arrive in Portland (train 27) and Seattle (train 7).

When I took the train east from Seattle in 2008 it quickly became a ghastly train. Toilets stopped working in the sleepers. The stink became overpowering and the cabin attendants vanished. No effort was made to repair the train during its two-day trip east. And there was more which should you wish is elsewhere on this blog.

The question was – is the Empire Builder an awful train every night or did I just catch it on a bad day? I’m happy to say our experience on the Empire Builder in 2010 was much better and we had no complaints. But, again, did we just catch it on a good day this time?

Learn more: Amtrak’s excellent, downloadable Empire Builder Route Guide about towns and sights along the routes (right side below map)

The Metropolitan Lounge in Portland, OR, for Sleeping Car/First Class Passangers

Train 8 / 28 to Chicago

Amtrak runs small, if amiably comfortable lounges for its First Class customers in many trains stations, including Union Station, Los Angeles.

Unlike its other lounges, the Los Angeles Union Station lounge is like Brigadoon. It’s there, and then it’s not. The Los Angeles lounge is a collection of chairs and tables in a taped off area that creates a sitting area. It is located in and adjacent to the Bar on your right as you enter the main station entrance from the street – if it is there at all.

Generally, this lounge seems to be set up shortly before a train leaves, although it may remain there all day for all we know. There is coffee (but no Danish like Via Rail Canada’s lounges) nor are there other amenities except a cordial Amtrak employee who checks your vitae before he allows you inside the ropes, and then keeps track of you. He’ll also arrange for you and your carry-on baggage to be taken, free of charge, to your train on an electric cart, delivering you right to your Sleeping car.

But he is careless about including everyone.

He overlooked us (how? we were sitting almost right beside him). This caused him to dither and question whether we really wanted a ride to the train (and yeah, with all our stuff we did). Finally, he relented and chased down an electric cart for the remaining passengers, including us, and we rode out to the train.

The ride to the train is a considerable perk in Los Angeles, since the trains are a good distance underground and then up onto the platform.

The Metropolitan Lounge in Portland for Sleeping Car/First Class passengers is our favorite Amtrak lounge, although we have not visited too many. Comfortable chairs. Private clean bathrooms. Free fast Internet. Drinks, including soft drinks – no food. The staff is expecting you and checks you in by name, and then gets you and your bags onto the right car and into the right cabin at the appropriate time.

Baggage Car on the Coast Starlight where our bags weren’t; our checked bags were sent directly to Chicago and never traveled the trains we were on

And they are cordial. Presumably lounge class customers are on their own. However, this is a small station and the trains are just steps from the station, no more than two sets of tracks away. This is not a hardship station with longs walks, unlike Los Angeles, Chicago and, depending on where your car is. New York City and Washington, DC.

It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your checked bags are?
Our’s were lost in America.

In Los Angeles we checked two bags, and packed carefully so we would (and did) have everything we might need on the train for the next three days.

It never occurred to us that our bags would not travel on the same trains with us, but they did not – and checking these bags would present a big problem when, later as the Empire Builder ran further and further behind, we decided we would have to leave the train in Minneapolis in order to keep appointments we had to keep in Florida.

My previous experience with Amtrak was that their trains, especially in the west, ran on time (well they do not – ). We had planned to arrive in Chicago at 4 pm and catch a 7:45 pm flight to Orlando. I figured four hours to go from downtown to Midway Airport would be more than enough – and actually I was right.

Even leaving Union Station at 6:30 pm as I did, I was at Midway in a mere 50 minutes and had a difficult by do-able 20 minutes to navigate the airport and make my flight. What did me in was having to recover my checked bags which had been sent ahead on the Amtrak Chief and which arrived a full day in Chicago before we did.

With our checked bags in Chicago, someone had to go get them. Carol Anne and I split up in Minneapolis. She flew to Florida. I took the train on to Chicago to get our bags.

Sandpoint, ID, Amtrak Station. Okay, okay — this could have been a better picture. Actually: it couldn’t have been considering …

The Sandpoint, ID, Train Station

Last June Carol Anne and I biked the Hiawatha Trail in Montana and Idaho and then headed north to Sandpoint, ID, where we photographed a classic train station that, apparently is doomed. New roads are being built on both sides of it and it soldiers on atop of a narrow spit of land.

The question was: Would the station still be there when we passed through Sandpoint in November?

This is actually what the Sandpoint, ID, Amtrak Station looks like: June 2010 … in the daylight.

I was determined to find out, but it would not be easy. The Empire Builder stops only for moments in Sandpoint, and the eastbound train stops at 2:40 in the morning. Setting foot of the train was unthinkable and, worse, I was not even sure which side the station would be on — although I guessed correctly.

So there I was, in the middle of the night, watching and waiting and I was rewarded: My car on the Empire Builder stopped squarely in front of the station. There it was – looking as healthy as ever.

Time to snap pictures. The light was poor, but I got everything in focus through the window and LURCH! — the train was moving.

SNAP! … SNAP! again. I got off only two shots.

Look up and to left to see the better of the two shots, then lemme know how many 8×10 copies of it you want.

What to take on the train, and what to leave behind

If you are in Couch – the seats are surprisingly large with lots of legroom. This means you can keep your possessions close while not overly crowding yourself. Many in coach are not on for the entire two-day trip, but some are. If you’re going the entire distance, you’ll probably want at least one change of clothing, and of course will need to bring along toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, yaddadadda).

A break in Shelby, MT, for the smokers

Amtrak will provide you with pillows and blankets, but cross Montana in winter or summer might be cold. Amtrak doesn’t always get the heat/cold thing down. Be prepared to shed clothes and the put them on again. Be prepared to protect your ears with a ski cap and your feet with more than one layer of socks.

You can, of course, check your bags – but once checked, they are gone until you get where you are going. Amtrak also has space in both Sleepers and Coaches for extra luggage in the lower level of the cars. That’s good news, unless you are anal and worry about someone ripping you off.

Theft on Amtrak is rare, but coming out of Los Angeles someone did steal a pack of cigarettes, a religious book and another item from a fellow passenger in coach. We quizzed Amtrak personnel through the rest of our trip how common this was. All expressed surprise, and most were shocked.

And in Sleeper/First class it is unheard of.

On the other hand, if you are in coach or sleeper, keep valuables hidden and in sleeper, keep your doors closed and blinds drawn at least when you are not in your compartment.

Food: Dining Car and Snack Bar

Food is expensive on Amtrak and generally not worth the price. Twenty-two-dollars for a bad steak and cold microwaved frozen vegetables

The Empire Builder’s Observation Car, east of Havre, MT, November 8, 2010

served on cheap plastic plates? Come on. Price is a little better if select from the Snack Bar menu, and at least there, unlike the Dining Car, if you want Coca-Cola rather than Pepsi, you can get it. The Dining Car only serves Pepsi.

The price of the food actually puts the issue of whether to book a Sleep versus Coach into play. Here’s why:

All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, are included in Sleeper. That’s about $50 a day – and if two of you are traveling for the entire two day trip, that’s a robust $200 or so. Compartments add about $250 and up to the cost of your ticket, but if you discount the cost of food ($250 minus $200 for food), you’re getting a private compartment where you both can sleep, and very likely cleaner bathrooms which receive much less use than in Coach for $50 (or $25 a day).

Bathrooms and Showers

It is not clear to us who, if anyone, is responsible for keeping the bathrooms and showers fresh on Amtrak trains. We suspect it is supposed to be the car attendant (there is one car attendant for each car in Sleep class; one attendant for each two cars in the Coach), but we’re yet to encounter a car attendant who bothers.

Winona, MN, Amtrak Station, November 9, 2010

What I think happens is that crews go through the trains before they depart in Seattle, Portland and Chicago, clean them and again provision the toilet paper, cloth and paper towels – and then no one ever comes through the train again. For two days, passengers are on their own while car attendants have their own bathrooms and room in the transition car, never venturing into the bathrooms for passengers.

If this is true, Amtrak needs to work on it. Faced with filth, passengers often flee off the train into station bathrooms during smoke breaks which are not always much better.

The showers in Sleeper/First Class are large and, although soap used to be small and awful, Amtrak now provides decent bars or soap and plenty of towels. Take along flip/flops because you likely won’t want to walk barefoot in the shower, and you might consider showering during one of the lengthier stops so you aren’t swaying back and forth. But the showers work. The water does get very hot (be patient) and once adjusted it stays adjusted.

The bathrooms stay clean as long as you and your fellow passengers take a moment before you leave to run a paper towel around the sink.

But paper towels in the bathroom in Sleeper class didn’t last forever – and once gone they were not replaced. After Minneapolis the paper towels in our bathroom were gone, and within an hour the bathroom was quite a lot worse for wear.

People Dudes on Board the Empire Builder
As we travel, we always ask Amtrak personnel what their favorite stories are.

The Beer Cooler and Plasma TV Dudes
Within the past year two guys climbed on the Empire Builder, according to a car attendant, with two large ice chests and a plasma TV and headed for their Sleeping compartment.

Passengers embarking at the Havre, MT, station; none had beer coolers or plasma TVs to my knowledge

They set up the TV and began playing videogames, and soon enough traffic picked up in the Sleeper car. “That’s a sure sign that someone is dealing drugs,” we were told.

Police may not always be visible on Amtrak trains, but they are never far away. Soon enough police were talking to these guys (declining the opportunity to compete in a videogame that was underway), and not long after that they hauled the guys – and their drugs – off the train under arrest. When a passenger in an adjoining compartment objected, the police searched his compartment, found even more drugs, and hauled them away too.

The Border Patrol Dudes

At one stop three Canadian Border patrol guys passed me on the platform and climbed on the train/. Then they started through the cars. I asked what was going on, mistaking them for the TSA and was told that the Canadian police are frequent travelers looking for Canadian border violations.

I didn’t get it – and still don’t.

But if you have issues with the Canadian police, you might want to think twice about riding the Empire Builder. Otherwise you might be saying Hi to these guys.

Dude takes the fall for his Granny

When police pulled a suitcase off the rack in Coach not long ago, a young guy riding with his elderly Grandmother promptly claimed the bag and said, even before it was opened, “you’ve got me.” Indeed, they had someone because the bag was filled with pot. But the police were suspicious. Granny was old, and she looked sweet, but she also looked guilty.

Soon enough, police discovered the dealer was not the Grandson, but the Grandmother who had stashed suitcases every second or third car through the train.

“They’re really quite good at catching drug dealers on our trains,” an Amtrak car attendant told me with admiration – “even when someone is willing to take the fall for their elderly Granny.”

I’m invited to become a Pothead Dude

At longer stops I always amble off the train and begin snapping pictures. In the middle of the night at one smoke break in Montana or North Dakota, I discover the train was longer than the station platform so I head down the platform toward the front of the train to have a look. I begin smelling marijuana and a moment later am surrounded by 6 or 8 people. It is pitch black. They were a few steps back from the train and in the dark.

“Hey there, dude,” an unfriendly voice says.

Now I see them, and they see me. We stare, but a girl in the group decides that I look more like Pothead-Dude than Police-Dude.

“Get on in here, dude,” she says. “I’ll give you some of my grass.”

How to get left behind, with Bonus Credit:
How to get a Conductor to shout at you in Minneapolis

We had decided reluctantly to leave the Empire Builder in Minneapolis because Carol Anne had obligations in Florida the following day – and because it had become clear twelve hours before we would arrive in Chicago that we would not be able to make our evening flight.

Long before dawn, I made new reservations for Carol Anne and I to fly from Minneapolis to Orlando. We would claim our bags in Minneapolis and head for the airport. Minneapolis is an hour stop for the Empire Builder so, my car attendant assured me, the crew would have plenty of time to find and pull of two bags off the train.

Let the duck-waddle begin:

A search of the luggage compartment on the side of our sleeping car revealed our luggage was not there. Our car attendant, the Conductor and I headed for the baggage car. It too was nearly empty, but our bags were not there.

“This has never happened before,” the Conductor said (he must not fly much). But the car attendant was much more savvy. “Their bags probably went directly to Chicago – they must be in Chicago!” So off we went into the station to find a clerk who could call Chicago and confirm that our bags were there.

But there was a line and time passed. The Conductor began to fidget. The clerk once we got to him was uninterested. “The train is leaving,” the Conductor suddenly said, heading for the door. “ALL ABOARD!”

Uh-oh. Now our car attendant rallied, placing himself between the Conductor and the door leading out to the platform. The clerk suddenly grasped what was happening and came alive. He furiously dug and found the private number for the baggage room in Chicago and gave it to me.

Now the car attendant (who had my bags) was running for his life – and for the train – as was I. “Honk, honk!” went the engine which in Train-Speak means the train is starting to move.

Holy crap. Carol Anne was just standing there like a deer frozen in the headlights. “Go to the airport,” I told her.

“I don’t have the plane reservation number!”

It was worse than that: She didn’t even have an official reservation. She flies on Southwest as my “Companion” which means she flies free, but only it I’m with her on the same flight.

“I’ll call you in thirty seconds,” I yelled stepping onto the train and bumping into the out-of-breath car attendant. The train was moving.

Carol Anne was left in Minneapolis without a plane reservation. We still didn’t know if our bags were in Chicago. And the Conductor? “Don’t let that happen again,” he grumbled.

How to really get left behind

Amtrak leaves passengers behind all the time, I later discovered. In 2008 I wandered so far away taking pictures in the middle of the night that a car attendant refused to board the train without me as I ran flat out to get back on.

Another car attendant told me it depends on how the train is doing. “We get bonuses for being on time,” he said. “If we’re running behind we’ll leave you.”

He told me about a guy smoking cigarette on the platform exactly one step from the door. “I told him to get on, NOW,” this Amtrak official told me. “He took another puff, and by the time he looked up he was looking at the side of the train. He spent 24 hours in Whitefish, MT. I hope he had some extra cigarettes.”
My advice is ‘Whoa’: Don’t screw with these people.

This blog, including photographs are © Copyrighted 2008-2010 literary property of Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California. All rights are reserved.



  1. 47 hours on a train? wow that’s crazy. Sounds like you had a great trip.

    Comment by Portland — November 22, 2010 @ 11:19 am

  2. Well hello 🙂 I was the passenger who was across from you in the sleeper you occupied. I went from Portland to Wilmington and then returned with my daughter. She successfully completed 7.5 weeks in Coast Guard bootcamp and she has been delivered to her first duty station.

    I enjoyed your summary of the trip and look forward to reviewing other adventures you have completed. I found your description accurate anyway, in general, for this part of the trip. Being a “silver lining” type guy, you failed to mention you had access to an empty sleeping compartment for free 🙂 That was quite a perk in my opinion, considering all the other crap you had to deal with and as busy on the computer that you were.

    BTW, I stepped on the train to Washington, DC, from Chicago, with only minutes to spare. Anyone who did not go directly to the DC bound train missed it. I know of one for sure.

    This was my first trip on a train and I enjoyed it! I actually enjoyed the trip back better. I had my daughter with me on the return trip, that was great, but also the service was far better. Everything was maintained for the entire trip and the car attendants were available and gracious.

    If you are to travel on a train, I think it helps if you like to camp and are an outdoorsy sort of person. If you like that and enjoy meeting new people, as I do, it is phenomenal. I would not be in a hurry if traveling by train either. As I always do, I prepared for the worst, and left a 24 hour window to arrive. I am glad I did as I missed needing it by mere minutes.

    Comment by Glenn Thatcher — December 13, 2010 @ 8:19 am

  3. I’m delighted to hear from you, to hear that you had such a great trip with your daughter, to hear you made that Chicago train (whew!) and that you took the time to write. You’re obviously now a railroad guy — me too. I enjoyed spending time with you.

    Comment by petecrow — December 13, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

  4. […] it has a wall of windows looking out onto the tracks. Yep. Here's a trip report with pictures, another one, and a few more pictures. […]

    Pingback by Portland Union Station Lounge - FlyerTalk Forums — February 2, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

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