Amtrak trek

Posted: January 30, 2014 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Following a three-week stay in Minnesota, where we became the first people to voluntarily vacation in the state in January for 21 days and also experienced a pair of polar vortexes — one when we arrived, another when we left — we declined the wonders of air travel for the romance of the train.

A flight takes less than three hours and our train trip took 36 but I’d gladly do it again, even though I’m certain we never will again.

I’ve never really been a big train guy, not as a kid and not as an adult. Maybe it goes back to childhood, when Janesville’s Hay Daze parade featured a ridiculous engine that terrified me and destroyed the hearing of anyone under the age of 10 or over 60. My dad’s a big train fan. If he gets bored during his retirement perhaps he’ll still find his way onto the rails or he’ll just hop onto a boxcar and head south to the warmth. But I have always thought it’d be fun to ride one for a long distance, as long as I kept that information from my lower back, which would likely object to the plan before I even had the chance to settle into my seat.

So Monday morning we drove two hours to Winona to hop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, which would take us to Chicago. From Chicago we’d climb aboard the Lake Shore Limited for the final part of the trip to New York City. The Winona station is quaint, the type of structure that would sadly be turned into a bar and grill if the train ever stopped coming through town and the building wasn’t on the National Register of Historic Places.

Amtrak station in Winona. Nice.

Obviously I did not take this picture from the outside. Humans didn’t go outside on Monday. When we arrived in Minnesota and rode down with my parents from the airport, the temperature reading in their van said it was -19 outside. When we drove to Winona three weeks later, the temperature reading in their van said it was -19. Once safely enveloped in the warmth of the station, we checked in and waited for the train, which was to arrive at 10:11, about a half-hour later.

The worker at the station told us it was running behind. A switch problem, most likely. He never said it was running late. He was careful with his language, precise. Instead the train was “an hour out.” The worker proved a delight, a helpful Amtrak veteran who always kept us informed of the train’s path. An hour out became…an hour out, even 20 minutes later. But then it was 30 minutes out and then 20 and finally it was going to arrive. If we’d spent three hours in the station he’d probably have told us the entire history of trains in America; instead he focused on trains in America from the 1970s onward, with detours on corporate greed, truck drivers, his father, oil in North Dakota and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

If you're ever in the Winona station, you'll always be well-informed.

If you’re ever in the Winona station, you’ll always be well-informed.

For the trip to Chicago we had a roomette on a superliner. These are tiny sleeper rooms in cars that are separated from the regular seats. They do offer privacy and the services of an attendant, who turns the beds down at night.

Small people fit better but a 6-3 person does okay as well.

Small people fit better but a 6-3 person does okay as well.

The best part of the Empire Builder portion of the trip? The lunch. We ate in the dining car and the burger was surprisingly delicious.

What to eat, what to eat? Or, maybe I should shave first?

What to eat, what to eat? Or, maybe I should shave first?

We made it to Chicago without much issue, but the walk from the train to Union Station proved brutal. This was a long walk, in bitterly cold temperatures with exhaust smells overwhelming us. At one point I looked back at Louise and saw her struggling five feet behind me and a few minutes later she was now 15 feet behind me but I had to save myself. We both eventually staggered into the terminal, wandered around the cold and then discovered the lounge available to those in sleeper cars. This was what we had paid for. Warmth, couches, free snacks — and beverages — Internet access. The perfect place to wait when we found out our train would be delayed two hours, pushing our Chicago exit to 11:30 p.m.

This is our Superliner train we took from Chicago. This is where we walked as we tried to make it back to civilization, or at least the inside of the station.

This is our Superliner train we took from Chicago. This is where we walked as we tried to make it back to civilization, or at least the inside of the station.

The Amtrak lounge in Chicago. It's like a place for movie stars!

The Amtrak lounge in Chicago. It’s like a place for movie stars!

Inside the lounge, we discovered we would be the youngest people in the sleeper cars by approximately 40 years. When we finally made the walk to our Lake Shore Limited train, Louise wondered if we should be embarrassed about this, which she asked as a man pulling a suitcase and walking with a cane eased past us as we struggled with our bags. No, I said, though we should be embarrassed by our pace and conditioning.

The train to NYC was a Viewliner and this time the bed came down, thanks to our attendant Tom. Tom, as we learned near the end of the trip, has worked for Amtrak for 36 years. He was one of the best parts of the trip, a source of great information and a touch of gossip who was always ready to help us out. For all I know he doesn’t even like his job but during our time with him it certainly seemed that he loved it.

As for the bed? I took the top bunk, despite my fear of heights. The Viewliner roomette was a bit different — the toilet is right out in the open, right next to the seats and the lower bed. I’ve read other people write about this odd engineering and it is strange to see and is a great motivator for holding it.

The straps keep you from falling.

The straps keep you from falling. In theory.

I actually slept pretty well up top, though the sounds of the train going over the track would become a part of my dreams. I felt a bit cramped, but I suppose it is decent preparation if I ever find myself falsely accused of a crime and in prison.

When we woke up the train wasn’t moving and I have no idea how long it had been in that state. We eventually fell about 5 hours behind schedule, although the delay had nothing to do with our train and everything to do with a freight train that had broken down in front of us. You can’t exactly roll through it or speed up to 150 miles per hour to make up time. The Lake Shore Limited goes along Lake Michigan, the Erie Canal and other pretty places, though I slept through much of the sites during the day as well. But there’s certainly something relaxing about sitting in your chair as the country rolls by. It would certainly be more colorful and striking during the summer. On our trip everything was snow and ice, the small towns and big cities all looking the same: Cold.

I had vowed to do some writing on the trip but that plan flew out the window somewhere around Sandusky, Ohio. Instead I read and napped, the sleep made much easier by the upgrade we received after we woke up. Instead of the roomette we went into one of the bedrooms, which are larger and come with enclosed toilets and showers. Those features weren’t available for awhile — the toilets froze when we were stranded, though they eventually came back to life — but the bigger space provided us with the equivalent of a couch and another chair.

Bigger room on Superliner, bigger windows.

Bigger room on Superliner, bigger windows.

Bigger room, couch-type thing.

Bigger room, couch-type thing.

For dinner I enjoyed the signature Amtrak steak. While not as good as mom Fury’s signature steak from a few days earlier, it was again quite good. Certainly beats the peanuts and pop on the plane.

We eventually got back into NYC around midnight, after going past Inwood. The train’s not for everyone, but I’d certainly recommend it for the experience and the adventure, although if you do take one of the sleeper cars I’d say pay a bit more and go for the bigger rooms instead of the roomettes. For younger people the regular seats, which come with a lot of legroom, are fine. Us older folks need a bit more. I’m sure my fellow elders on the Viewliner would agree.

  1. Kolbe says:

    I’ve always always always wanted to do something like this and I think this post might have pushed me over the edge to actually make it happen some time this year. Good read, Shawn.

  2. Rich Jensen says:

    Broken down freight trains are the bane of Amtrak’s existence. Not only will they block traffic on single-track sections of the line, they will be routed ahead of Amtrak trains to make up time once they are up and running again.

    One of the biggest issues with long-haul passenger train service in the US is that Amtrak lacks the ability to enforce their trackage rights.

    • shawnfury says:

      Yeah the guy in Winona was ready to deliver a 2 hour monologue about who owns the tracks, freight trains, oil, etc.

      Kolbe, you should definitely do it. And when you do and it goes horribly wrong and is a disaster and you’re cursing me, write a guest post for us.

  3. Nick Bhasin says:

    Where can I order some of those Falling Prevention Straps?

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