What a day it should have been. It was around fall ’91 or ’92. A friend of mine and I were going to hop the train from our hometown of Ephrata, WA, to Seattle for that day’s Seahawks game against the Raiders. What an experience for a couple small-town teenagers, taking the train to the big city and fending for themselves for the afternoon. We had to be at the train station by 4am, which was a drag in itself. Sucks though. The train never came. We waited in that boring train station for 5 hours.
One might forgive me if, in the ensuing years, my perception of commuter rail efficiency was a little skewed. That was before my car broke down while I was home on the farm this last Christmas. Quickly realizing repairs couldn’t be completed before I had to leave for Seattle, I found the perfect opportunity to give Amtrak’s Empire Builder another try.
With such last-minute scheduling on the Amtrak web site, they couldn’t mail the paper tickets. They did, however, provide the option to pay cash on the train. So easy, I thought. The only inconvenience, if it is one, is getting to the depot in Ephrata by 4:20 am. As soon as I saw the train coming however, I could feel the excitement growing. I have no memory of riding a train prior to this occasion, so I was excited to get underway.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder commuter train provides service from Chicago to Seattle and Portland via Whitefish, MT, Minot, ND, and Minneapolis/St. Paul in just 47 hours. From Ephrata, the route goes through the North Cascades, stopping in Wenatchee and Leavenworth, then to Everett, Edmonds and arriving in Seattle’s King Street Station. The typical high-season train consists of two 4,200 horsepower diesel-electric locomotives, 3 sleeping cars, 1 sleeping car/crew dorm, 1 cafe/lounge car, 1 dining car, 5 coaches and a baggage car.
Maybe it’s not a surprise to anyone who has ridden a train, but I was VERY pleased with the smoothness of the ride. Rather than suffering the whiplash that comes with figuring out where other cars might be on a freeway, I could just sit back, read a magazine, book, or browse on my phone. Life is pretty good on a train, depending on the length of your trip or the level of comfort you’re willing to pay. For myself, the comfort of my coach seat was just fine. To my pleasant surprise, it was more than spacious enough. Maybe I’m just used to airplane seats. Now, if I were coming or going to Chicago I’d probably drop more cash for a sleeping car. Seeing as I was simply going Ephrata-Seattle, I only dropped $68 for the 4+ hour trip. What’s better, it was only $40 for coach going the other way a week later. $40! Peak holiday rates, I suppose.
Right around 5:00 am, last call was announced for breakfast in the dining car. A little hungry, I paid around $3 each for a croissant, blueberry muffin, and coffee. Considering the mode of transportation, I didn’t think the prices were too bad. I was happy to take my time, relax and get the layout of the dining car. Eating in style, baby.
Situated in my seat again we pulled into in Wenatchee then skipped over to Leavenworth. Not long after departure, the first hints of dawn started to arrive. Listen, I didn’t drive Highway 2 too much growing up, but when I did the natural splendor of the North Cascades never disappointed. This time I could take all the time I wanted to admire everything from the colorful hills and peaks to the winding, roiling Skykomish River running beside the tracks. I couldn’t believe how thin some of the trees were along the rail path. These trees were so tall yet so thin I wondered how they were able to stay standing.
Not all of the wonders were natural, however. The Cascade Tunnel, the 8-mile long concrete tube carved through Stevens Pass, is the longest such tunnel on the North American continent. Reading it’s history, the tunnel is one of the technological crown jewels of this part of the nation! A lot of men, time, and engineering genius went into building it.
We soon hit Everett, then Edmonds and dropped in to King Street Station soon thereafter. I couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant ride back to Seattle. Fortunately, a week later I had to get back to Ephrata to pick up my car. What to do?! Six days later I was very happy to catch the Empire Builder at 4:20 pm and arrive back in Ephrata at a not-too-late arrival time of 9:50.
There are a couple of areas in which I believe Amtrak should re-invest. The first of which is the public restrooms. Now don’t get creeped out, it’s purely a cosmetic issue. The bathrooms look pretty dated. From the color scheme to the perceived age of the urinals and wash basins, Amtrak corporate should consider coming up with a redesign plan. If they decide not to redesign the entire interior decor of the cars, then certainly the bathrooms.
The second feature is the lack of 21st century technology and communications capabilities. If Amtrak wishes to position themselves as a leading and dominant travel option in the 21st century, they need to be providing internet Wi-Fi in each car. WiFi and consistent cell phone reception is a modern-day, basic feature Amtrak should have addressed years ago.
None of the above should ever detract from the smooth, casual, and incredibly relaxing trip Amtrak provides. If you haven’t scheduled a ride yet, make the effort. You get the chance to see and enjoy everything you can’t when you’re swerving away from that car you barely saw on your blind side.