Railroading North America

29/ Chicago

29-1winona-mn-dsc06922-usemeDAY 29
Amtrak Train #8, The Empire Builder
Amtrak Train #30, The Capitol Limited
Arriving Chicago, IL to Washington, DC
Monday, November 17, 2008

The further east The Empire Builder, the worse it gets. Our car attendant informs all of her sleeping car passengers that the toilets no longer work on our sleeping car.

Then, near the end of my lunch on our second day I am told I must leave the dining car. Guests are told to take their ice cream, spoons and coffee and get out. The crew needs three hours to pack things up before arriving in Chicago.

Three hours?

I go back to my room to stretch out.

While I was at lunch, someone (the long-missing car attendant?) has changed the bedding and rearranged my things. Soon she will arrive to inform me I can sit in my compartment, but can no longer stretch out. Storing my luggage in the upper unused bunk is out too (“let’s not be rude to the guests who will be taking the train next”). So now there’s not enough room for me and my baggage in the remaining space.

I put my feet on my luggage and decide to hate these people.

Maybe this rail trip has ended and I haven’t noticed? No, countryside is still moving by my window.

I check my watch and do calculation. I figure about 8-percent of my paid trip remains.

Two hours before we arrive in Chicago, my car attendant comes around to hector guests again. She remains oblivious to the overpowering stink of the bathrooms, but she presses us to surrender baggage so we (read that: “she”) can scoot off the train faster in just two hours.

I seek clarificiation, “Isn’t this my compartment?” She ignores me and takes my pillowslips, including the pillowslip from a pillow I have been leaning on. I am not feeling the love here.
29-2ext-stpaul-sta-dsc06882-usemeI weight the negatives and positive:

The negatives — The toilets didn’t work. I spent two nights amid an overpowering stink. They served cold barely microwaved food twice. Two hours before arriving in Chicago, the crew had turned surly and vaguely threatening.

And the positives?

They got me to Chicago in one piece and did not physically assault me.

My companion directly across the hall from Seattle to Chicago is Katherine, a widow from Oregon, who is taking her first train ride.

Katherine spends a fretful first night then loses her glasses. When I learn that Katherine is a smoker I suspect she will be living from smoke break to smoke break and be desperate. I’m wary.

But I’m wrong about Katherine.

She passes up smoke breaks while I, not a smoker, race off the train and photograph everything in sight. By dawn of the second day, in St. Paul, during our hour stop, Katherine stays put on the train and has charmed me into bringing her water, juice and coffee whenever she wants it.

The crew on the Empire Builder is much chattier and more bossy than other Amtrak trains I have ridden.

“The reason we remain on time is because passengers come to the doors before we arrive and get off promptly,” one announcement over the public address says.
29-3chi-sta-111708-dsc06943-useme“We are your public transportation and out here if you get off and miss getting back on the train, there are no buses, no other way for you to get where you are going,” another announcement says early in the morning. They’re right about that, by the way — the trip across Montana, Idaho and North Dakota has been across barren empty, snow-swept land.

Marriot or Hilton did not school this crew.

A couple settles in at breakfast across from me. They are returning to Chicago from a conference in St. Paul and get on the train about 8 a.m. The train will arrive in Chicago at 4 p.m.

She is a dean at a university and he is a PhD student and former pastor. They are in their mid-40s. For awhile she fields text messages from her 18-year-old daughter who is enrolling in college and finally, I gather, tells the child she will talk to her tonight and turns off her phone.

They talk about their children. They have banned Internet from their home because their kids used to sit up all night talking to other kids. She thinks that the YouTube and Facebook are fast creating a sort of “Paris Hilton All-about-Me” generation that reads little.

She believes we are in the middle of a huge cultural disconnection and she observes college students today not only do not know history, they are not interested in it.

“Dumb and un-read is increasingly the accepted norm,” she says.

Eight days ago I stepped into the middle of the tracks in the Portland, OR, rail yards and took a picture of an engine straight on, from the front. This engine was heading north and sat one track over from my train. The picture was of Engine #201.

In Chicago as I exited the Empire Builder I walked the platform into the station past an Engine with the number 201 on the front.

I first thought, well, that must be the type of engine. But I was wrong. It was the same Engine I photographed in Portland, OR, 8 days earlier.

Engine 201 and I had traveled many miles in different directions in the eight days since I photographed it, but on Monday afternoon for a few minutes we were both in the same rail yards, just one track apart, yet again.

How likely was that?

I settle in at Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge in the lower level of Union Station. They check my bags, feed me unlimited pretzels and goldfish and have plenty to drink. They even have clean bathrooms that do not smell.

They also have free WiFi. Presently, my train is called and I board an hour before departure. Dinner at 8.

On board I immediately go and smell the restrooms. I discover the bathrooms on The Capitol Limited, Train #8 to Washington, DC, will leave Chicago clean tonight.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

(Photographs: Winona, MN, Amtrak station; trainside entrance, Amtrak St. Paul, MN, station; Chicago Amtrak station — on these steps the child stroller scene in the motion picture The Untouchables was filmed; interior, Amtrak’s first rate Metropolitan Lounge, free for First Class sleeping car passengers, located on lower level of the Chicago Amtrak station)


Distance today:
Seattle to Chicago: 2,206 / 3,550 kilometers
Chicago to Washington, DC: 764 miles / 1,229 kilometers
Distance Total: 10,486 miles / 16,875 kilometers



  1. Whoa. Hmmm. I was thinking manically about taking the train from Chicago to L.A. Thinking a lot less about it now. 🙂 Enjoyed your commentary.

    The kids these days really don’t care about history, but I don’t think the internets are the death knell for humanity. Though the authoritative voices in academia are more than uncomfortable that broadcasting has been democratized. /rant

    Comment by Sean — September 29, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  2. aw, come on, sean — live a little! … it’s only two or three days and will be a trip to tell the grandkids years from now …

    — more to the point, the people you will meet as you along the way will make any inconveniences, if Amtrak hasn’t corrected most of them by now, well reallyREALLY worthwhile.

    Comment by petecrow — September 29, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

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