The Empire Builder - Seattle to Los Angeles
This train is near and dear to the hearts of northern railfans. Now our only link to the Amtrak system, the name is all that the present train has in common with the original Empire Builder run by Great Northern. The route is very scenic but a lot of the best is done in the dark especially in the fall and winter. The train itself often carries cars in need of repair back to Chicago so I've heard and that was our experience on this trip, we paid to ride in one of them.
We had a nice time during our brief stay in Seattle despite the still bad weather. I've always been impressed with the way this city maintains such balance building and preserving yet always improving. However King Street Station was in need of some attention at that point. The rain had stopped but it was cold when we left.
We traveled in room E, rooms D & E are my choice when available. Our attendant had placed a full ice bucket and candies on the table prior to boarding which was a nice touch. I have referred to this room as the duct tape special, the tape even held the bathroom door closed (I went back into the station and got 2 screwdrivers and fixed the latch before we left). For new travelers I must add that this was the worst I'd ever seen and doubt it will happen again to me or you.
Departing Seattle the train follows the Sound before turning east and eventually coming to the Cascade Tunnel. This tunnel is almost eight miles long and was an engineering wonder when it was built. It was dark before we entered but you could tell we were in it from the sound. At dinner there was another classic announcement about the time change that would occur during the night. Since we were moving from Pacific to Mountain time we should set our watches ahead one hour, however we would also be changing from Daylight to Standard time so...so I gave my watch to Teri to keep in her purse until we got home. Dinner was good.
In the morning we opened the shade and it was snowing, hard! Whitefish, MT looked all the better for it because it just looks like it should be a snow scene. The mountains surrounded the train making a wonderful view as we had breakfast. A lot of wildlife can be seen in the Glacier Park area from the train, we saw elk and deer everywhere that morning. The snow continued and the train pushed on but by mid-day it got worse. Here it was, October, and the wind-chill was -16 and we were in a heck of a blizzard. Soon the train came to the first of many stops, all the signals were out and had gone red. Our stop in Havre was long and a young couple actually went to a bar a block away while we waited, guess they saved about 50 cents a drink All day we would stop at various signals in the middle of nowhere waiting to be cleared to continue. By the days end we were seven hours late.
Having traveled this route so many times I knew anything could happen weather wise but this was as bad as I'd seen. The Builder runs pretty much on schedule during the summer. It's a long run, 2,200 miles, so an hour lost is no big surprise in the best conditions. In the winter no Amtrak train faces the elements like this one and delays should be expected.
We started a cribbage game with some folks in the lounge car that eventually involved about 40 people. Lasted well into the night and I have no idea who won nor who ended up with my cribbage board.
After the Rockies the route is boring for many though there is a lot of history in that flat land and still some points to be seen. I was glad I'd left our trusty yet ugly old 4x4 at the station when we left but the snow had stopped by morning when we entered MN. We arrived home very late but that was ok. It wasn't snowing just raining. We had traveled about 6,400 miles total and it was strange getting off the train for good.
During our trip we visited several old friends, met many new friends (we still keep in touch with a few). We saw desert, mountains, ocean, and the Twins won the Series. That storm we managed to get ahead of, the same one that began on the Starlight in OR, arrived just after we got home. 28" of snow fell in 24 hours, a record. It was nice to know that the weather problem on our vacation was one for the books, and as I said before, we'd always been lucky on the weather in the past.
I asked Teri (this was her longest Amtrak trip) if she'd do it again as we rode home from the station and by the time we entered the house she already had a list of stops and sights in mind.
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