The lure of the train

One of these days, I’ve got to live-blog a trip on Amtrak.

Yesterday, MPR’s Dan Olson told the story of the difficulty of getting tickets on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the only Amtrak train that runs through these parts.

“The Empire Builder is our single most popular overnight train. Of all our trains in the system that operate over significant distances the Empire Builder is number one with upwards of 500,000 passengers on it,” Amtrak’s Marc Magliari says.

I get it. The whole “Woody Guthrie” thing. Oh, and flying is no fun anymore. But is train travel anything but “tiring” (a word The Current’s Mary Lucia used yesterday when I talked to her about this)?

Let’s swing down to Chicago to see how things are going. Says the Chicago Sun-Times:


Dozens of Amtrak passengers said they’ve been stranded at Chicago’s Union Station for more than 12 hours while their New York-bound train is repeatedly delayed. And another train scheduled for the snow-bound Pacific Northwest waited at Union Station for nearly 24 hours before departing for the west about 1:15 p.m. today, according to passengers. Passengers try to stay warm as they wait for their trains Tuesday at Union Station in Chicago. Many passengers said they spent the night in the station’s cold waiting room with little information from Amtrak officials.

The alternative to airplane travel sounds suspiciously like airplane travel.

  • Bonnie

    I’ve looked at those tickets…it isn’t cheap. Although flights between here and parts in Washington also are not affordable. Would love to take the EB to Washington one of these days. Will save up for one of those sleeping compartments. But that seems like more of a summer vacation idea.

    I’m just curious who all these holiday train travelers are…scared of flying?

  • Lily

    My husband and I took a long train trip to Glacier Park when we were first married. The trip was a nightmare. We didn’t have a sleeper car. The worst part was that the employees did not clean the bathrooms and the smell was so unbearable that we waited as long as possible to use the facilities. Of course, that was in 1991 and things have hopefully improved!! However, I have never had a flight that was anything close to as miserable as that trip! Every now and then we look at the photos and it brings it all back.

  • Jon Gordon

    My wife once attempted to go from St. Paul to Chicago for a 3-day-weekend trip. The train came to a stop in Red Wing (at least I think it was Red Wing) and just sat there for hours, with no explanation. Frustrated, we simply got off the train and spent a lovely weekend in Red Wing, taking the Greyhound back home. I’ve not been keen on Amtrak since. although I did take a successful trip from Oakland to Sacramento once.

  • Jon Gordon

    My wife and I once attempted to go from St. Paul to Chicago for a 3-day-weekend trip. The train came to a stop in Red Wing (at least I think it was Red Wing) and just sat there for hours, with no explanation. Frustrated, we simply got off the train and spent a lovely weekend in Red Wing, taking the Greyhound back home. I’ve not been keen on Amtrak since. although I did take a successful trip from Oakland to Sacramento once.

  • Corwin

    I’ve taken the Empire Builder three times between Seattle and MSP. The trip was just fine each time. The first trip taught me that I really don’t sleep very well sitting up, other then that it was great. That said, the Empire Builder is not for people who are impatient, or are discount-seeking. The price was comparable to the cheaper air-fares available at the time (peak summer).

    Who I would recommend it to would be people who like scenery, have the time to spend 2-3 days just getting there, and can either sleep well in a chair or can afford a room. Glacier National Park is gorgeous, as is the Montana prarie. If you travel during the time of year when you can get through the Cascades during daylight, that is another simply gorgeous hunk of land. Easilly half the train gets off at Glacier, and the same amount of people get back on as you leave Glacier.

    You choose the Empire Builder heading West mostly for the experience. I haven’t tried it east to Chicago. The tracks heading into Chicago are some of the most congested in the nation, with all the slow-downs that implies.