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  • katherinearntzen

The Empire Builder

The Empire Builder is the name of the Amtrak train that George and I rode from Milwaukee to Seattle, a 46 hour trip. We are now almost a week into our bicycle ride, but I want to share my thoughts on the train while my memory is still fresh.

My pal Shannon and I had taken an Amtrak once before, the Palmetto, from New York City to Savannah. We rode in the coach car, which had big, comfy, reclining seats. We relaxed, drank gin and tonics, and made friends with other travelers, but the 18 hour ride took its toll and we were ready to jump out the window part-way through the Carolinas.

My recollection of that restless ride prompted me to book a roomette this time, so that George and I could really relax on the two night train ride. With the roomette, meals were included, plus a complimentary alcoholic refreshment with dinner in the dining car. The food wasn’t too bad either.

We also had a sleeper car attendant named Castle, who looked after the bathrooms, brought down the beds at night, and made sure all of his passengers were pleased. The roomette seats folded down to create a cozy bed, and a top bunk hinged down to create smaller, less-cozy bed, that had a harness to keep me from tumbling out in the night. The sleeper car had showers too, but the train constantly rumbled and bounced, thus, I avoided showering out of fear of an embarrassing accident.

During the days on the train, I had time to ponder how rail travel compares to driving or flying, the other obvious modes of transportation. Well, rail travel is basically a 180 from flying, not just in terms of speed, but it’s whole vibe. From the moment one enters an airport, to the point of disembarking the plane, there is great tension and suspicion. Travelers are considered guilty of heinous crimes until proven otherwise. To the contrary, there were no TSA security checkpoints to board the train nor agents probing through my backpack and shoes.

Furthermore, Amtrak passengers are allowed, and encouraged, to get off the train at stations to take “stretch your legs” breaks. You can stretch your legs inside too, since there are no seatbelts. You can sit sideways with your feet propped on the window, lay around and sleep all day, or get drunk while watching the earth speed past the window. Nobody cares!

The train speeds across the plains at about 80 mph, about the same pace as an automobile would, but there is no need to be on high alert about traffic, no worries about where to sleep, what to eat, which truck stop has cheaper gas, or where to relieve one’s self while stuck in a traffic jam.

There could be traffic jams on the Amtrak too, though. Most of the tracks are owned by freight train companies. For that reason, the train might not arrive on time. It stops frequently, yielding to freight trains, making regular station stops, inspecting the mechanics, and even manually directing the train across road crossings with signal malfunctions.

If time is of the essence, flying is obviously the first choice, and if determining your own rest beaks are top priority, just drive an automobile. Riding first-class on the Amtrak, though, costs about the same as an economy airplane ticket or a two day roadtrip halfway across the USA. So if the train is going where you want to be, consider riding it next time because rail travel is not just about getting from A to B, it is a journey itself and an experience to remember.


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