Crossing western America by train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It’s been almost 40 years since I’ve ridden Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which means it’s been at least 35 years too long. The Builder epitomizes the long-distance train. It is Amtrak’s most-ridden train, and also the one gathering the most revenue (more than even the much-longer Auto Train). If there is an All-American Train, it is probably this one.

I choose to board the Portland, Ore., section, No. 28, a four-car stub (two coaches, a sleeper, and a Sightseer lounge). At Spokane, Wash., our train is attached to the rear of No. 8 out of Seattle. By then, it is after midnight, and I am asleep.
Early to bed, early to rise, I had decided. We are west of Whitefish, Mont., approaching the Rockies, when I get up shortly after 6. The locals call this that time between winter and spring: the mud season. It’s overcast, damp, and of course, muddy. Though we’re almost into May, leaf-bearing trees haven’t budded. So think dreary, and you’ll get the picture.
But the dreariness actually adds to the effect as we come down the gentle east slope of Marias Pass and make our way onto the western Great Plains. Here, in the north-central portion of Montana, there’s not a tree to be seen (they come a few hours later). Under that leaden sky, all you can gaze out upon is a sea of grassland or fallow farm fields, set on gentle hills. And all of this is tinted brown. The few farmhouses we pass are small and abandoned. It brings to mind western Nebraska, but it’s even bleaker.
Then, as morning turns to noon and we progress eastward through Cut Bank, Shelby, and Havre (pronounced HAV-er), little sprigs of prosperity rise up. The farmhouses are plain but inhabited. Grain elevators get bigger. There are county fairgrounds. The winter wheat pokes out of the ground. And to change our mood, the sun comes from behind the clouds from time to time.
If you wonder why I go on and on about the Great Plains, it’s because they interest me more than the mountains. Let me try to explain: The mountains are God, and humble man; the plains are man, and make me wonder at the possibilities.
One more word about what sets the Builder apart from the pack of long-distance trains: People really do depend upon it. Don’t look here, near the Canadian border, for parallel Interstate highways. At every stop, crowds get on and off. Coach seats will probably turn over four or more times before we reach Chicago.
Pre-recession, the train count through Montana on the single-track Northern Transcon was 30-35 per day. Today, figure 25 to 30, many of them grain trains headed to or from Washington ports. The westbound Empire Builder waits for us as we blast through Savoy, Mont., at 79 mph. The day is barely half over. — Fred W. Frailey


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