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Portland to Chicago

Portland to Chicago



March 27, 1997 16:50 Portland, OR

The boarding call for all sleeping car passengers was made, so I picked my bags up from the luggage holding room and went out to the train, #28. The same trainset that I had seen when I got off the Coast Starlight that had been parked on the far platform was now on the same platform the Coast Starlight had been on earlier. Twenty minutes earlier I had seen Amtrak switcher, #552, moving the consist while I sat in the Metropolitan lounge My hunch was right, it was the same train that had arrived there earlier as train #27. The cars were still numbered 27xx! On my ticket I was assigned to car #2830, room #4, so I climbed aboard the car I was instructed to by the lounge attendant, though the car on the platform was still #2730. I had figured that someone would change the car number before we departed Portland.

In my room, there were two glasses and a bottle of Paul Thomas white Chardonney on the table. Fresh flowers and a white tablecloth added a nice touch as well. I had hoped there would be a toiletries kit but there was none. No sign of my car attendant either. He was not down at the door to greet me, so I boarded anyway. I unpacked my belongings and settled in since I would be on this train for two days and two nights.

I wanted to update this report since turning off the laptop in Eugene, but when I looked at the plug in my room, I knew then that it WOULDN'T WORK!!! This sleeping car was a Superliner 1 version. The AC outlet is surrounded by the vinyl casing surrounding the temperature and reading light controls. The vinyl casing extends about three inches ABOVE the AC plug, preventing clearance of the giant AC adapter plug that is required by this computer. The battery backup is non-existent and only works with the AC adapter. It appeared that I would have to jot notes into my micro-cassette recorder for this leg of the trip until I got to the hotel in Chicago.

18:11 Departing Vancouver, Washington

The train pulled away from the Portland Union Depot on time but then came to a stop on the bridge over the Columbia River! What a view! Due to the fact that the window was soaked with raindrops, any photos wouldn't look too good. There we sat for nearly 35 minutes due to very heavy oncoming Burlington Northern freight traffic ahead. By this time, I heard a man in the corridor with a heavy southern accent talking a mile a minute. This man sounded like my car attendant! It was and his name was Ruben. What a jabber jaw he was, but nice enough. I think Ruben had already chosen his favorite passengers and spent most of his time chatting with them and ignoring others. He must have spent over half an hour talking with this one woman about NOTHING before moving on to the next room. He was greeting everybody and opening their wine for them. Finally Ruben greeted me and opened my wine. Oh my, that's all I needed was more wine!

I noticed that the wine bottle cork was not removed very well and almost was split in half! I'm no expert in wine bottle opening, but I heard that if the cork, or bits of it, are lost in the wine bottle, then the bottle of wine becomes "corked" and cannot be consumed. There were no pieces of the cork missing but it was not a the cleanest bottle opening.

18:40 Between Vancouver and Wishram, Washington

Our dining car was on the Seattle-Spokane section of our train so cold boxed dinners had to be used. Despite this fact, dinner was very good! Our portion of the train between Portland and Spokane had the sightseer/lounge cars instead. I had the sirloin steak which came with potato salad, olives, tomato slices, fruit cocktail and some sort of peanut brownie with a strawberry and whipped cream on top. Tonight's movie in the sightseer/lounge car was "Dear God." I had never heard of it before so I decided to turn in early and listen to rail traffic.

21:30 Between Wishram and Pasco, Washington

We were on a siding waiting for a half hour for a BN grain train to pass us. That brought us to about one hour down already. It appeared it was going to be a long trip full of delays, but I didn't mind as I had no immediate connections in Chicago. Some people were very worried about their connecting trains. I was originally scheduled to connect with the Southwest Chief (#3) departing Chicago the same day as my arrival. This train arrives in Chicago at 15:50 CST and the Chief departs at 17:10, only a 1 hour, 10 minute difference which is much TOO close. I had heard that the Empire Builder has the reputation for being very late, sometimes up to 10 hours late, so I called Amtrak a few weeks before my departure to change my ticket so that I would have a day's layover in Chicago. This turned out to be a very smart decision! Read on.

March 28, 1997 01:36 Spokane, Washington

I awoke to bright lights shining in my face from the platform outside. I knew then we were in Spokane for some serious switching action! The train from Seattle, #8, had been waiting for us in the depot for nearly an hour. I got some interesting conversations on tape by using my scanner connected to my micro cassette recorder, along with using the VOX setting, so I wouldn't have to anticipate rail traffic. I monitored through my stereo headphones to hear what was being recorded. Our delay would be extended due to a "baggage door problem" we were having. As a result, we had to back up clear out of the station, switch to another track to the opposite platform so the other baggage door could be opened up. The door problem would have to be fixed en route, they said. I felt sorry for the baggage man who would have to work on it while the train was underway. It was very cold outside and the rain was coming down very hard.

While traveling on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, our train was not #8 but #1008, or pronounced "ten-oh-eight" by the dispatchers and crew. I wonder why they re-number them like that? Another difference on this railroad was that there were "portables" instead of "packseds" like on the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific. When I rode the Sunset Limited last year to Jacksonville, the Amtrak train number was #2. On the CSX Railroad, it was referred to as P002 or "P-double-oh-two." Very strange. Perhaps they have to enter this to satisfy the dispatchers' computers?

02:33 Spokane, Washington

With a sharp jerk forward, we were under way as one complete train! Uh, no we weren't! The baggage was not loaded from the depot yet! They decided to fix the baggage car door first then load the baggage from Spokane. The jerk I felt was the test pull to make sure all cars were attached properly. Then it was time for some air tests and baggage loading before heading out.

There was quite a bit of freight traffic along the BN line. In the time we had sat at Spokane (nearly an hour) there were three westbound and two eastbound freights! The main line tracks are to the south of the depot and do not have a platform in front of them. Passenger trains pull in off the main line and let the freight traffic through while the switching is done. Sometimes I wish I lived here so I could watch some serious freight action!

03:02 Departing Spokane, Washington

It was for real this time! Ten seconds into our acceleration, we came to a screeching halt! I mean it was VERY abrupt! "We've got a bad switch up here!" the engineer hollered. The conductor and a station yard worker went over to assess and correct the problem. It only took a minute to fix. We did the "running air test" before accelerating to full speed. I fell asleep for the remainder of the night.

09:08 (MST) Between Libby and Whitefish, Montana

I thought I'd get an early start on the day by getting up at 6:20 to go eat breakfast. As I was getting dressed, I heard a lot of activity in the hallway. I assumed that people like to get up early on this train. Then I realized it was 07:20 due to the time change that took place when crossing the Montana state line. My tardiness hurt me as the dining car was full when I got there! I had to put my name on a waiting list so I came back to my room and had a cup...two...three cups of coffee in my room. I should mention that my car attendant had coffee and all the associated items ready when I boarded in Portland and again in the morning. I really like it when a car attendant has everything ready without items (especially coffee stirrers) missing.

When I re-entered the dining car, I discovered that only the second half of it was being used! They said it was full? My hunch is that the dining car crew wanted to have everybody in a small area in order to give more attention to fewer passengers rather than to have the car completely full and have everybody wait longer to be served. That's my guess. For breakfast I had two eggs over easy, hash browns and sausage patties. The food was very tasty but the portions were very small except the eggs which were the usual size (AA grade). I'm surprised they didn't have small eggs to match the other portions. This reminded me of those airline commercials with the tiny steaks and eggs on a tiny plate! I sat with Wayne and Judy, a couple on their way home to North Dakota who had been visiting relatives in Phoenix, AZ. They had ridden the Coast Starlight all the way to Seattle the previous day and had spent the night. The connection cannot be made to the Empire Builder in Seattle on the same day. If I could have changed things around, I would have spent a day in Seattle to see the city. Also, I would have taken the Texas Eagle from Chicago to LA, because that train is scheduled for cancellation this Spring, unless funding is provided by states along its route. Just before I finished eating, an elderly woman was placed next to me. She was traveling from San Jose CA to Wisconsin. She had been visiting her daughter and was returning home.

09:20 Between Libby and Whitefish, Montana

The snow was falling very hard and this train began picking up nearly all BN locomotive crews along the way. I don't know why either. Maybe crews that are almost "dead" are picked up by the Empire Builder? All six crews that we picked up were dropped off at Whitefish. That would save some taxi fare! When I got back to my sleeping car, I went to the back and looked out the window. There was a Materials handling car behind us but since it was lower than the window, I could see over the top of the car and the tracks behind it! The window, however, was extremely filthy, so the two pictures I dared to take probably didn't come out very well. While walking by one of the deluxe bedrooms, I heard a BN detector going off! Was it someone with a scanner? No, it was one of the BN locomotive crews we had picked up, relaxing in the last deluxe bedroom!

We just went through a very long tunnel! I would guess it to be at least seven miles long! I know of a tunnel longer than the famous Moffat Tunnel between Spokane and Seattle but I was unaware of any real long tunnels along this route. With the mountain passes we have been going through, I would expect there would be dozens of tunnels along the way. While at breakfast, I noticed lots of mixed power along this line. With the merger between Santa Fe and Burlington Northern, this is to be expected. In one power consist, there were two newly painted BNSF paint scheme GP-60s followed by a blue and yellow Santa Fe and a Burlington Northern locomotive in its original green. Sure wish I had my camera! While eating my two eggs over-easy, sausage, hash browns and biscuit, I was really foaming when eyeballing all that mixed power and new BNSF locomotives!

As we began to descend, the snow thinned out and the skies began to clear! Joy, it's clearing up for the plains of eastern Montana.

On the Southern Pacific/Union Pacific railroad where I live, the man on the rear of the train is called a "packsed." On the BN railroad, they refer to him as a "portable."

10:08 Departing Whitefish, Montana, 2:27 down

We have been here nearly half an hour unloading and loading baggage and passengers. This must be a vacation hot spot, for there are many people getting on and off here. I'm very glad that I didn't stick to my original itinerary, connecting with the Southwest Chief the same day as I arrive in Chicago on the Empire Builder! The time we are down here would not be made up :(. In fact we would lose another hour along the way!

ACK, cough cough cough! Someone's smoking in his room! Ruben didn't do anything about it either. Smoke doesn't bother me too much, so I didn't complain about it. Speaking of smoking, there is a designated smoking section on this train in the lower level of one of the coach cars. It's this small room that holds about 14 people crammed together so they can light up! The on-board services chief said that the ventilation system is entirely separate from the rest of the train. I'm sure the smoke is vented immediately outside. There are photos of this room too. While I'm in complaint mode, a family of four got on and are in the room in front of mine. There are two of the noisiest children I've seen in a while. They are about four to five years old. The mother is kind of middle to low-class looking and she doesn't seem to have a handle on the situation. Those kids are definitely running that show! The father? He went to the lounge car for a drink I think. That's right, he ditched the family for the lounge car. He's probably paying for the trip, so I guess he thinks he's entitled. I think he's wrong.

12:43 between Browning and Cut Bank, Montana

After departing Browning at 12:38, a car attendant in one of the coach cars got on the PA and began shouting to the conductor that a passenger needed to get off at Cut Bank! He repeated this announcement a few times before being told by someone that the last stop had NOT been Cut Bank! The conductor referred to him as an "incompetent car attendant" to the other "portable" on the train. He was!

14:10 CST

Lunch was very good as usual. I had a bacon burger which came with potato salad and a Pepsi. For desert it was time for a chocolate sundae. What does Amtrak have against Coke? they used to have it. I ate with a middle-aged couple on their way back to Staples, Minnesota from Portland. More riders from the train's origin. The terrain has flattened and there are no trees. Farmland stretches as far as the eye can see. I assumed most of the crops were wheat. There are a few rolling hills here and there but it's flat flat flat! There are lots of lakes in this state! Hmmm, not lakes, but floods! According to what I was able to pick up on the local radio stations, there had been severe flooding in Montana and North Dakota. I'm surprised we got through, for there would be water all around us on both sides from time to time! It looked as though the tracks were built 12 inches above everything else.

21:26 CST Montana/North Dakota border

The tracks through here are very rough and we are flying along at 79 MPH. I think the engineer was trying to make up some time but his efforts would be in vain! For dinner tonight, I had the New York steak which came with vegetables and a baked potato. The cut I got was loaded with fat, but the meat I was able to extract was excellent. Desert consisted of apple pie. The dining car ran out of ice cream. Rats, no a la mode.. The couple I ate with had boarded in Spokane and were headed for home in Minnesota but forgot which stop they were getting off at. The other man at the table had gotten on at Eugene and remembered my making a mad dash to the front of the train to get photos! He was in room #9 down the hall and said his destination was LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

21:42 Williston (CHKSP), North Dakota 2:39 down

With another time change, I'd loose another hour of sleep. I decided to turn in for the evening. I noticed more snow accumulating as we headed East.

The mileposts decrease as the train travels east. Doing some simple math, milepost "0" would be near St. Paul-Minneapolis where we would change railroads. To which railroad I have no idea. Probably CSX or Conrail.

Where was Ruben tonight? I had to exert myself and make up my own bed. It wasn't hard at all but the car attendant is paid to do it. After all, I'm on vacation! My tip for him might not be as generous if he keeps this lack of service up. I rang for him twice and waited for over 45 minutes. I felt that it had been plenty of time for him to get to me. I think the car attendants are supposed to take only half hour dinner breaks, so he had his chance. I elected to turn off the scanner and not listen to the radio because I really needed serious sleep. I had stayed up very late the previous TWO nights listening to railroad traffic and I was determined to get some serious shut-eye. Rats again. It was such a clear night, this evening would have been perfect to view the Hale-Bopp Comet if I were located on the north side of the train. The stars were shining brightly indeed.

08:18 CST St. Cloud, Minnesota 2:50 down

My breakfast consisted of two eggs over easy, bacon strips (rats, ran out of sausage now!), and hash browns. Along to wash it down were a couple of cups of outstanding coffee and orange juice. At my table was this one guy who works for the phone company and who was all gung-ho about fiberoptics. The woman across from him (next to me) was very interested in what he had to say, so that cut me out since I joined in after they had "bonded." I tried to join in the conversation with a few comments here and there about faster Internet connections, but I didn't get much of a response. They were in the middle of the conversation and almost through with their breakfasts when I arrived. The man sitting across from me was silent throughout the entire meal. We nodded a good morning at each other and said good morning to the two chatterboxes. That was it for my contribution to the conversation! I wasn't invited in so I didn't press the issue. I could tell the woman was very educated just by her choice of vocabulary and manner. You can really tell a lot about people just by their use of words and intonation.

When I got back to my room stuffed with breakfast to the point that I could hardly breathe, Ruben and the on-board services chief (Dave) were both at my room waiting for me! Dave frantically asked if I was "Mr. Reynolds? Are you Steven Reynolds?" Oh my, has something happened to my family at home? I was really scared. Dave told me that I had to prepare to get off the train at St. Paul-Minneapolis, in order to catch a bus to Kansas City to meet the Southwest Chief! I knew he was wrong, but he pulled a list from his jacket pocket and said that I was on the "connection sheet" from the passenger manifest. I whipped out my ticket and laid it on him. "I'm so sorry to have bothered you, Mr. Reynolds. Have a pleasant trip to Chicago." Dave seemed rather flustered that I didn't respond to the train-wide announcement made for me to see him. Strange, I didn't hear it. The speakers were not on in the dining car. Talk about giving someone a heart attack. I thought someone had died. That's about the only reason to get a greeting like that from the on-board services chief in the middle of a rail journey! I then knew that I had definitely made the correct decision to change my ticket to a 24 hour layover in Chicago. For the past week, I had followed the status of this train on the Internet at Amtrak's reservation site. Every day it had been running at least an hour late. One day it was a whopping 10 hours late!

Ruben began to make up my room and in the process, I finally got to know him better. He had been working for Amtrak since its inception in 1971! He said he had stories to tell and "not to get me going as I won't ever stop blabbin' widduh mouth as I tend to talk too much, just in case you hadn't noticed none, ya know?" He was a scream indeed. Being in the customer service industry myself, we could easily relate to his people stories.

10:32 CST Departing St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota 2:42 down

It was good to get off the train and run around (I ran all right) the platform shooting lots of pictures of the station and train in the background. It took a long time to get into the station because we had to pass the depot on the far track and then back in on another track to hook up to three awaiting material handling cars (MHC). Boy did we back up into them hard! I was in the last passenger car next to our lone MHC car from Portland and I heard and felt the crunch.

13:50 CST

What a good lunch I had. I was very lucky to get any food at all because the dining car is about out of food! No ice cream again. The dining car steward said it "didn't make the train at St. Paul." I ordered a turkey breast sandwich but got sliced turkey in gravy with mashed potatoes and some vegetables thrown in. For desert I had cheesecake with strawberry topping. I sat with two college ladies on their way back to school at Wisconsin University at Milwaukee. They were quite friendly and we talked about college life in general, even though I've been out for nearly seven years now. One of the ladies majored in film and the other, biology. I began talking about cameras, at which point the other girl made a comment that everybody talks about "her major but mine is so boring and stuff..." Oh, she was jealous so I talked about botany and other related subjects to give her equal attention. I wanted to really talk about camera bodies, film speed, aperture and shutter speeds but I didn't want to bore her companion.

I had no idea there were so many hills in Minnesota! I thought it was all flat into Chicago, but I was mistaken. I remember watching Little House on the Prairie, which took place in Minnesota. I remember seeing lots of hills on that show. The weather is very depressing. Gray skies above, dormant brown twiggy growth followed by lighter dormant grasses below that! Yuck. I recorded lots of detectors along this line, which is CP Rail. I had heard of CP Rail before but never actually seen any power painted in the CP colors. There were lots of SOO cars along the route and later I was told that this was the old SOO railroad before being bought by CP Rail. The hotbox detectors say CP Rail but that doesn't mean CP Rail owns them anymore. Union Pacific absorbed Southern Pacific but the SP detectors are still in place.

The onboard services chief made an announcement about passengers to Galesberg, IL. I wonder why? Were they going to be taken to meet #3, the Southwest chief? I wouldn't have minded that as that station is a HUGE railfan station for hard-core train "foamers."

16:37 CST Entering Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Our lead unit, #31 which is a brand new P42 had to be taken off line due to loading problems. I've heard these new GE locomotives have been nothing but trouble. The engineer said that the unit "freaked out when dynamic braking is used." We had to use one unit for the rest of the trip into Chicago. Arriving Milwaukee was quite a site! Pulling out of the depot was a northbound train that had AMTK #500 on the point!!!! UNBELIEVABLE! That is my favorite locomotive paint scheme, too. Amtrak locomotive numbers 500-519 have a "Pepsi can" like paint scheme that I think is just terrific. See my photos page from last year's Amtrak trip of Denver and you will see what I mean. I took enough pictures of those locomotives. Amtrak #501 and 502 have been sold to Amtrak California, repainted, and renumbered to CTDX #2051 and CTDX #2052. AMTK #500 is still here and I saw it! Here's the consist of that train I saw leaving Milwaukee:

What? Are there some new F40PHs being made and numbered 90XXX? I saw two more in Chicago Union Station with that same number pattern. Wow!

Out went the power! One of our rear marker light was not working so they had to put a new one on which took about half an hour to do. Also, they were working on the lead unit to completely sever the power from it. An announcement was made about the marker light but NOT the locomotive loading troubles! It pays to have a scanner to get the inside dirt as it's taking place. The engineer that got on at Milwaukee had some choice words about the new P42 he had inherited for the rest of the journey! "What a piece of crap this unit is." Darn, I didn't have my recorder set up so I couldn't get it on tape.

While in Milwaukee, our sister train, #7 pulled in and out while crews worked on the faulty marker light on our train.

Consist for #7 in Milwaukee, WI

Sorry I couldn't get car numbers. I had to look out a window from the room across the aisle to see the train.

While leaving the depot, I saw three older Pullman style passenger cars that were painted in dark green and light yellow with the word: "CHARTER" Painted near the top. One of the cars had a platform on the rear! Impressive.

While waiting to leave Milwaukee, I came up with the crazy idea of jumping on the Capitol Limited in Chicago and riding it to Elyria, only to catch the westbound Capitol one hour later which would take me back to Chicago! I wouldn't be able to do this because I had a hotel reservation on my credit card and it was too late for me to cancel the room. I guess I have too much time on my hands to be thinking up crazy stuff like that.

19:21 CST Chicago, Illinois, Best Western, Inn of Chicago

It sure was nice to have my feet on solid ground again and to sleep in a stable bed! The ride from Milwaukee to Chicago's Union Station was uneventful. The crew chief made several announcements about missed connections and for passengers to see the awaiting ticket agent when they got off the train. Had I chosen to try to catch the Chief this same day, I would have been on a ten hour bus ride to Kansas City! The Empire Builder pulled into Union Station at 18:50 CST, exactly three hours late. I tipped Ruben and said our good-byes. He was in the twilight of his career with Amtrak and he seemed tired of the job.

Consist of The Empire Builder (#28) Portland-Spokane

Consist of The Empire Builder (#8), Spokane-St. Paul/Minneapolis

Consist of The Empire Builder, St. Paul/Minneapolis-Chicago

Union Station looked the same as it did last year except for the addition of a few new shops on the "Food Level" on the second floor. It was very busy in the station with Easter travelers. I exited the station at Jackson Street where there were roughly 30 taxis waiting to give me a ride! Actually, it's a taxi line in which one stands in one place and the line of taxi cabs moves up as people are taken away. I got into the next cab in line and told the driver where I wanted to go. I asked how much it would be and he said "Ten bucks." Hmmm, kind of steep but I didn't argue. I was a tourist in his town, so what did I know? This guy had the heat in his taxi up to 90 degrees and Reggae music turned all the way up! Looking at the driver from behind, his hair was long and braided! I got nervous wondering whether this was really a taxi or not. It was about a ten minute ride to the hotel, where I paid the driver and gave him a $2 tip. I'm not sure what the usual tip should be, but I was just glad to be out of that cab!

Check-in went smoothly and the hotel rate matched the quote I had received online when I made my reservation. I told the clerk I had made my hotel reservation online, whereupon he told me in a surprised voice that I was the second one to tell him that. My room was on the fourth floor, room 422. I wanted to be at least 20 floors up but I had no choice. ANY place with a bed and shower was acceptable at that point. The room was very clean and had two double beds, alarm clock, TV with remote, table with two chairs (yes, now I could work on this report) and the usual complimentary soap and shampoo in the bathroom.

When I checked in, there was a message from my sister's girlfriend, who lives in a Chicago suburb, instructing me give her a call when I arrived. Due to the late arriving train, she was too tired to come into the city and had a three-year-old daughter to look after. I made a couple of phone calls and continued to write this report until about 23:00 when I had to go to sleep. The only thing I had for dinner was a Diet Coke out of a vending machine down the hall ($1!) and some candy I brought along. I was too tired to look for a place to eat. I had eaten enough on the train the past three days to last me two weeks!

March 30, 1997 09:15 CST Chicago, Illinois, Best Western Hotel

I hadn't slept that soundly in a long time! It was 07:30 and it was time to get going. After a hot shower, I went to breakfast at a restaurant across the street called "The Cambridge House Restaurant." That was a typical Chicago diner, if there is such a thing. Everybody was in a hurry despite the fact that it was Easter. The diner employees probably wanted to get out of there! I was seated, handed a menu and no more than ten seconds had passed when an overweight, tough-looking waitress appeared at my table: "What can I getcha? Need another minute to decide here?" I told her I needed a minute and she left, only to return to the table within 10 seconds whereupon she said: "Ok, what'll it be?" Fortunately I saw something I liked so I ordered some pancakes, sausages and coffee. The food arrived at my table, along with the food check in under 30 SECONDS! Unbelievable! I felt guilty eating slowly, so I ate and left within ten minutes. I guess Californians are too laid back!


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