Late trains and keeping the faith

Posted by Justin Franz
on Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The scene from Justin's six-hour late Empire Builder. Photo by Justin Franz.
After an eventful weekend at Winterail in Oregon, I rolled into Whitefish, Mont., on the Empire Builder Monday afternoon, 6 hours and 41 minutes late. Unlike Assistant Editor Brian Schmidt, I didn’t give up hope on Amtrak’s ability to get me home.

Ironically, it had actually been Brian’s idea in to take the train when we first started planning this trip a few months back. A few years ago, when my fiancée was in graduate school in Oregon, I was a regular aboard the Empire Builder, thanks to the fact that I could get on here in Whitefish and arrive at my destination in the morning. No long security lines, no cramped seats, no problem. But when the Builder’s on-time performance began to falter dramatically back in 2014, I started to fly more. Sure, I wasn’t being lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the rails, but it was hard to beat a short flight that was almost always on time.

So when Brian mentioned he was going to take a sleeper back to Wisconsin, I decided I would too, not just because I hadn’t ridden the Builder in a while but because I had never gotten a roomette on Amtrak. It’ll be fun, Brian said, a few weeks before our trip.

But last Sunday morning, Brian’s tune had changed dramatically. We were never going to get home on Amtrak, he said, and if we did it would be on a bus. Just a few days earlier, multiple washouts on BNSF Railway in Idaho had shuttered the Northern Transcon and it was starting to look like the Empire Builder wouldn’t be running east anytime soon. Brian quickly booked a plane ticket home for Monday. I too was having second thoughts and briefly looked at flights but unless we drove straight to the airport that moment (and paid $600), the earliest I could get back to Whitefish was Monday night. I decided to stick it out; even if the train was replaced with a bus, I’d still get home on time for work Monday morning.

My luck began to turn not long after Brian called Amtrak to cancel his reservation. BNSF announced that the Kootenai Subdivision in Idaho was open again and it looked as if Amtrak would indeed be heading east out of Portland that night. After Brian and I parted ways at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center on Sunday afternoon, I headed downtown to Union Station to learn that the inbound No. 27 had not arrived yet and we wouldn’t be leaving until the train was turned and serviced. Not a problem. After dropping my bags in the Metropolitan Lounge (a perk to having a sleeper reservation) I did some railfanning around town before enjoying a few pints at a local brewery.

Upon returning to the station, the Builder had been turned and was almost ready to go about two hours off the advertised when we were informed that there was a mechanical issue and that it would be another 30 minutes before we departed. That issue was quickly resolved however and shortly after 9 p.m. we were rolling. After enjoying the sights for a little while, I drifted off to sleep as we rolled along the Columbia River Gorge about three hours behind schedule but gaining time.

At some point in the night, I looked out the window and saw that we were in Spokane. As I rolled over, pulled the sheets over my head and went back to sleep, I briefly thought that if they could quickly combine the Portland and Seattle sections of the train that we’d only be an hour or two late into Whitefish. But that dream quickly went out the window a few hours later when I woke up, looked out the window and saw that we were still in Spokane. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. We hadn’t even moved! I called my boss at work to explain that I was going to be much later than I had anticipated and got dressed.

As we finally began rolling east again, I walked to the middle of the sleeper to get a cup of coffee from the beverage bar that our car host had thoughtfully put out and then found the dining car. As the Spokane Valley rolled past our window, I enjoyed breakfast with a gentleman from Tennessee who just happened to be a railfan too. Afterwards, I returned to my roomette — which had already been converted back to a seat — and looked out the window, took some photos and read. A few hours later we were approaching Libby, Mont., the final stop before Whitefish. As we pulled away from the station, I got my roomette in order and decided to take a shower downstairs. After that I decided to head back to the dining car to get a light lunch before getting off in Whitefish and heading straight for work.

My decision to stick with Amtrak resulted in me being pretty late to work, there’s no doubt about that. But none the less, Amtrak gave me what I paid for, a ride home and a comfortable one at that. While Brian had to stand in an endless airport security line at Portland International Airport, I got to enjoy a pint downtown before leisurely walking onto my train. While Brian was cramped in those ever-shrinking airline seats, I was able to wander the train at my leisure. While Brian ate some stale pretzels, I got two meals served in front of a big picture window with ever changing scenery. Simply put, to steal a line from Amtrak’s Canadian counterpart, taking the train was a “more humane way to travel.” And there’s no doubt about that.

Will I fly on my next trip to Portland? Probably. But will I book another roomette aboard the Empire Builder when I know I have the time? Absolutely.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, the train Brian was supposed to take finally did arrive in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, 5 hours and 41 minutes behind schedule. Was Brian right that his train was going to be late? Sure. But what’s a few extra hours of looking out the window on a two-day journey?

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