The Empire Builder

Photo credit: Jerry Huddleston from Hampton, Minnesota, US, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been three months since I made it back to Vancouver, but somehow I never got around to writing a post about my adventures on the final train voyage home. I think I just got a little tired of blogging, and the last leg left me a little down (for reasons to be revealed). Then the Kelowna and Maui fires reminded me of some of my experiences on the train. As I’m lacking for projects these days—and because I wrote most of this post while on the train—I felt I might as well finish it up. So here goes.


I departed Chicago on Wednesday, May 17th. Chicago’s Union Station is an excellent train station. Like most large train stations, it was too small for the amount of traffic going through it. There’s some interesting architectural stuff in the area as they managed to sell the air rights ABOVE the station, which seems insane to me. When I was there, they had a small market of sorts going on and a band playing. The acoustics weren’t the best for performance, but it was very fun.

Similar to the Canadian, there’s a lounge where you can hang out if you’re in a sleeper car. There’s an assortment of coffee/tea/snacks which is not particularly exciting. I mistakenly thought the coffee was actually out because the gauge showing the coffee level was broken. The lounge is substantially larger and roomier than the one in Vancouver. I actually completely missed the free snacks in Vancouver, because the lounge there is a U shape, so I’m unable to compare the food selection.

The wait there was very short. They lined us up when they were ready and escorted us out to our train. We left more or less on time.

Differences Compared to the Canadian

I feel obligated to point out the differences with the Canadian, which turned out to be fairly minor despite the dissing that Amtrak got from the Americans I met on the latter line. You don’t have to check your large baggage, which is nice. The cars are all two levels, so there’s a storage place you can drop it off in beneath the sleeper car. This is a big bonus in my mind, as I had to go out and buy an additional duffel bag to bring enough clothes with me on the Canadian, as my backpack wasn’t large enough, and my main suitcase was too big. To be fair, I would probably have packed much lighter if I didn’t have to factor in my stay in Montreal (which really destroyed my whole “travel everywhere by rail” plan, but I don’t regret it for an instant).

View of roomette on the Empire Builder
View of the berth

The beds for the roomettes (which are the equivalent of the berths on the Canadian) are narrower, but you have additional privacy as you have a door that you can close. On the Canadian, you have to rely on a simple curtain for the night time, and there’s no privacy during the day. If you’re just by yourself, you also get a lot more vertical space as they’ll only pull out the bottom bunk. You may also need to directly ask the attendant to make up your bed, while on the Canadian they just do it during the second dinner sitting.

There’s sit-down dining on both trains which is included in your ticket, but the menu on the Empire Builder is set and doesn’t rotate everyday like its Canadian counterpart. However, you do get a free alcoholic beverage with dinner, which is pretty great. Dinner reservations are made after you leave, while the Canadian makes you choose before you get on the train.

Finally the observation car is way better on the Empire. I spent a lot of time there. It’s almost entirely windows, and the seats are oriented so you can look out. Similar to the Canadian, this is usually where you meet everyone traveling economy. The only complaint is the odd seating where the third seat in each row is oriented half facing the other two. This is fine for 2/3 of the seated people, but the third person has to be a child—or be a person have short legs—to sit in it comfortably. Why they did this is beyond me.

Some Notes on Train Stations

On both the Canadian and American lines, most of the smaller stations look very similar. They’re short, squat buildings with one floor. Often they are not particularly modern. The one exception to this was Minot, North Datoka. For some reason their train station is super shiny. They even have a good selection of books to choose from! I forget if it was a library model or you had to pay. Maybe the Amish keep the station in tip top condition.

Also, even in the more rural communities, there always seemed to be some electric cars charging by the station. I guess some regulation forces them to have a charger and maybe it’s the only place for miles around? Kinda neat.

The Scenery

As with any long train ride, the landscape is the main attraction and what you spend most of your time looking at. I was a little disappointed at the views when we were leaving Chicago as similar to most cities you have to go through very boring or ugly industrial areas. Later in the trip, there was a lot of what I’d call Americana scenery. You know, the sort of stuff you’d expect from a 1990s National Geographic: trailer homes, old brick buildings in worn out towns, and crumbling grain silos. Until we hit Montana, I had Little Red Houses stuck on loop in my head

However outside the cities—and between the Americana—the scenery was often emerald green with the coming of spring. There were wetlands with herons; plains filled with antelope, turkeys, and geese; and deserts with the odd lama. It was refreshing to pass through such country, and those places gave me some hope that the earth would renew even if we destroy ourselves.

And destruction was on my mind because of the fires.

All That Is Hidden in Smoke

The wildfires in Alberta were in full swing while I was traveling back. What I wasn’t expecting was for the train to run into the wildfire smoke in Minnesota, fully two states over The smoke was bad enough that we had to stop for a little while for safety concerns and proceed very slowly after that. There was a fellow from Moose Jaw who was taking the train back home. He found this all very perplexing. “This isn’t real smoke!” he declared. “What will they do when they get to the real smoke?” He was very funny. Quite the character.

In North Dakota the smoke cleared up again, but it returned when we got into Montana’s Glacier Park. It was so bad it almost blotted out the mountains. I remember everyone tried to take pictures of the scenery all the same as we went through in the evening. It made me feel so very sad. We just keep on acting like nothing is happening when the very sun is blotted out, over and over again.

The People You Meet

First of all, there’s a lot of Amish. Like a LOT of Amish. I don’t know if it’s just that the Empire Builder goes through the communities they live in, or perhaps they have less restrictions regarding trains, but there were a lot of dudes with amazing beards and women with excellent head coverings. One older lady was reading a story book to a younger child that looked like it had been published in the 19th century it was so battered. I think I even caught a few words of Pennsylvania Dutch.

It felt like economy class was a lot more bustling. There were a lot of backpacker types and people with families (not just the Amish). This seemed likely due to the route being less of a land cruise and more of an normal working train line. More people get on and off on the non-major stations, and the route takes significantly less time which makes it more practical to take coach/economy class than its Canadian counterpart. Lots of folks got off at Glacier Park, Montana. I chatted with the mother of a large home-schooled family in the observation car. She asked about COVID in Canada. I didn’t go into too much detail, suspecting that they had strong feelings about vaccines.

The flavor of people in the sleeping coaches felt especially different. There are no non-train nerds on the Canadian, but there were a lot on the Empire Builder. Several people were taking a train for the first time in decades or their first time ever. This was no socialist paradise. The slightly gone-off taste of American politics was everywhere, and even conversations that started nice often ended on an upleasant note.

Nice Stories with Unpleasant Endings

Take the woman who sat next to me on the second day for lunch. She had been recently widowed and had decided to look up an old boyfriend about a year ago, only to find that he had also recently lost his spouse. She’d sent him a letter with a sympathy card, and then they got to talking and something new blossomed. They helped each other work through their respective grief, and then started a relationship. She’d gone to visit him on the East Coast, and they had wintered in Florida. He was going to come over to visit her in a month or two, but she was worried because they’d have to make a hard choice about which coast to live on, and one of them would lose their family network. It was a very touching story.

A little later, she started talking about the oil tankers passing us on the tracks. She mentioned how there used to be more going through before Biden. She also mentioned how Seattle was now unsafe because of all the homeless people. I was polite and did not pry more.

At dinner, I sat opposite this fellow named Mark. He commented on how we needed to have a 90% percentile tax rate to pay for things. This reassured me. He then suggested that the best government was a benevolent dictatorship despite acknowledging that none have ever existed. Then he mentioned how much he enjoyed Pierre Poilievre’s clips on the internet and asked me what I thought of them. I side stepped the question and said that Pierre was very good at social media. Then Mark told this story about going to a Chinese restaurant in Canada once, and…well the anecdote was insanely racist and obviously didn’t happen. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks. I just nodded and said nothing.

In terms of redeeming qualities, they both seemed to be good tippers.

Nicer People

On a more positive note, there was Charlene who was my cabin attendant. She had previously worked in IT and had decided to switch to doing this because she wanted to talk with people for her job instead of staring at a screen. I felt like there was more to the story, but she was great. Mike and Kim who were in the berth opposite me were also super nice and chatty. They were off to a cruise leaving from Seattle. And I met a nice engineer who worked on electric plane motors and was a fan of Not Just Bikes.

Also, there was Rosey the lady who went on knitting tours and did Reiki on pigs. She claimed to have accidentally attracted a coyote while doing the later one time.

The West Coast is the Best Coast

We crossed the Rockies in the night on Thursday, and on Friday we hit the green of the Cascades and Western Washington. It felt like coming home. The mountains that pierce the sky, the raging rivers, the evergreen forests, and the rain that washes away the dust. Nothing compares to this coast. It is worth going away just to come back to it again.

Amtrak recognizes this, and so this was the one section where there was a volunteer tour guide who pointed out all the sites and history as we went along. We went through the longest train tunnel in North America and soon slipped into Seattle.

I had underestimated how much faster the Empire Builder is (barely 48 hours travel total) and so ended up spending the night in Seattle when I probably could have caught a late Amtrak to Vancouver. All the same, it was nice to putter around that city for a day. I caught the train in the morning and saw lots of bald eagles on the way up. I chatted to my seat mate who was off to see his middle-school prom date in Tacoma (platonic visit as they’re both married), and then suddenly I was back home. Thus ended the train trip.

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