All Aboard the Empire Builder

That’s it. I’m converted. My preferred mode of transport in America is now the train. Yes, Amtrak has its detractors but I’m certainly not one of them.

St Paul, MN  to Milwaukee, WI aboard the Empire Builder

Our first of two journeys on the Empire Builder that travels the route from Chicago to Seattle was the five-hour hop from St Paul, MN to Milwaukee, WI. We toddled up to Union Depot at the appointed hour, some 45 minutes before the train was due to depart. We checked in our bags (a very generous allowance of not one but two 50 lb (23kg) bags each – and all included in the ticket – no add ons).

The train was an hour late but hey, Union Deport is a lovely spot to be stranded in. The grand neo-Classical building is the second to stand on the spot. The first, built in 1881, was destroyed by a fire. The second was commissioned in 1913 but fell into disuse in the mid-1970s only to get a third lease of life when Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority began renovations in 2011.

Union Depot St Paul MN

Waiting room, Union Depot St Paul MN

Union Depot St Paul MN wall sculpture of a train

Union Depot St Paul MN

Seat aboard the Empire Builder train from St Paul to Milwaukee

All aboard, we had plenty of space – lots of room to work and a socket to keep charged. We broke for lunch, the only drawback being that every table is filled so you always have two others sitting with you. I’m not a massive fan of forced niceties and amn’t great at feigning interest in other people’s kids and grandkids – amazing what people talk about to strangers.

The menu was limited – I made a note to myself to only have breakfast and dinner on journey No. 2 – I’d skip lunch.

Watching small-town America pass by was a joy. From the old Mississippi steamboats to trackside granaries, it was like having a window to another world.

Portland, OR to St Paul, MN aboard the Empire Builder

Well versed in train travel by now, we turfed up in plenty of time to Union Depot in Portland for our second train trip – this one much longer. We left Portland Wednesday evening and arrived in St Paul on Friday morning. We had plenty of time to spare. After checking our bags and discovering to my inordinate delight that our sleeper status got us access to the First Class lounge where they were showing Willy Wonk’s Chocolate Factory (it’s the little things, folks, it’s the little things), we took advantage of Amtrak’s generosity and popped over to a local brewery for a heavily discounted snack and sneaky cocktail. It was quite novel watching the brewer at work as we sipped and nibbled, unaware until we got the bill and saw the discount listed as ‘Amtrak Delay’ that we’d be in for a wait.

Back at the station, Quelle surprise. We’d be leaving not at the advertised 4.45 but closer to 6:15. Now, had I been at an airport and received this news, I’d be apoplectic. But strangely, there’s something about train travel that is so calming. I wasn’t in the slightest bit bothered. As we’d miss dinner, they brought it to us. So very civilised.

Onboard, we were shown to our sleeper. Close encounters of the fourth kind came to mind. They’re not built for big. It was certainly cosy – but we had plenty of room to move around. And lots of viewing space. We crossed two rivers before heading up the Columbia River gorge. Simply breathtaking.

Our sleeper car attendant announced that she was going on a break at 10 pm so if we needed help bedding in, now was our chance to ask. Himself would never have made it up to the top bunk. With very little clearance it was impossible to sit up and even more difficult to climb on to. Imagine trying to sleep on an ironing board. And one that’s rocking around at that. I went to scratch my ear and got myself a bruised elbow. Thank the lord for sleeping pills. I hooked up the safety straps and made sure the curtain was velcroed shut. I woke myself three times when I hit the straps, my topple over the side stopped before it started.

When I woke, I got up. Those beds are not made for lie-ins. We were in the dining car by 7 am breakfasting (all meals included in the ticket price) and making pleasant (?) chit chat with strangers. Now, that was a particularly cruel form of punishment – having to make nice so early in the morning.

I spent a couple of hours working in the viewing deck, listening to a woman subject a couple of Amish passengers to her version of the Spanish inquisition. She was relentless. But they gave as good as they got. When Mr Amish told her that if any of their 13 children decided they wanted to go to university in the outside world, they’d have had to leave the family,  I just know she wanted to give him grief.  I’m sure I saw her husband pinch her under the table because all she could manage was a feeble ‘Our children get to be whoever they want to be’ to which Mr Amish replied, ‘And ours are happy.’ Food for thought there.

I retired to our roomette after the lunch I skipped to be sure I’d be there when the dining car guy came by to take our reservations for dinner. I was looking forward to my steak and crabcakes. It was one of the most productive days I’ve had in a long time and probably the most scenic office I’ve ever worked from.

Scenic view from the Empire Builder passing through North Dakota
Somewhere in North Dakota
Scenic view from the Empire Builder passing through Montana
Somewhere in Montana
Scenic view from the Empire Builder
Simply somewhere
Scenic view from the Empire Builder Minnesota
It’s a lake so it’s gotta be Minnesota

We passed through Montana and North Dakota, through the Rockies and Glacier Park. The names of the towns were strangely familiar. Malta and Glasgow stick in my head.

Another night on the ironing board passed without incident followed by another breakfast, more strangers to talk to, and finally, we disembarked, just 2.5 hours late, into St Paul.

For the princely sum of $575, we got two nights accommodation, two breakfasts, a lunch, and two dinners, with unlimited coffee and bottled water, and no baggage fees. And we got to see the Great Northern Goat. Tell me – how is this not a good deal? I’m sold on train travel. I have my Amtrak awards number and am all set to go next time I’m stateside.




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6 Responses

  1. I’ve been looking forward to reading this posting as I knew a big rail trip (or two) were on the itinerary. I love this way of seeing a country – particularly the vastness of Murca – and I recall the amazement of my first longish rail trip from Philadelphia to Cincinnati (although it was slightly less luxurious than yours!)
    Great evocative pix too!

    1. Wouldn’t call my luxurious, unless you compare it to last year’s epic 10-hour journey in Thailand 🙂 But it certainly beats air travel.

  2. Trip sounds like it was everything you hoped it would be, I’m going to start looking for the deal you got and our next trip N will be by rail. Hope rest of journey goes as well

  3. One little correction – The ‘It’s a lake so it’s gotta be Minnesota’ caption is probably North Dakota. Not enough trees for Minnesota 🙂
    It was a great trip, one I’ll not forget!

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