Trip Report – Summer Grand Tour: Seattle to Chicago

Monday 19th June 2017

After a pretty relaxing morning and early afternoon Heidi and I were dropped off at King Street Station to check in for the train. This is where rail travel has it over air travel. There was very little in the way of hassle. We dropped our bags off, no ID check, no ticket check (though if you have it, that works as well). He made sure to confirm that we knew that we would not have access to our checked bags till we get to Chicago. I was surprised by this but he said that people think they deliver checked bags to their cabin… Nope! Baggage storage at the station was available for $10 per bag for 24 hours. Didn’t really want to do that so we just carried around our bags. Total time for check in, less than 2 minutes. Considering there is no security check you just walk straight out to the platform, man that was going to be an easy time.

Heidi and I went for a walk to get her a new water bottle as the one thing we left behind was her full water bottle. We took some time walking around the area and also sat outside in the sunshine to enjoy the last bit of outdoors for a few days. We watched as the train pulled into the station and then headed downstairs where boarding was about to be called.

Empire Builder
Seattle King Street Station to Chicago Union Station
Car: 0831 Bedroom: B

We followed the crowds out to the platform where we waited in line to get onboard. Our Sleeping Car Attendant, Mark, met us at the door, checked us off his list and then pointed us in the direction of our cabin. We had booked a Bedroom onboard and that meant we went upstairs and at the top of the steps we turned left (usually right but our car was reversed). The bedroom has a private shower and toilet and a large couch that spans most of the width of the cabin. That seat converts to a lower bed that is roughly the size of a large single bed. The upper bunk comes down from the ceiling. There was also a single seat opposite the couch against the window so that you could sit facing each other if you wanted.

We got acquainted with our accomodations and stashed all our gear. Compared to the roomette there was definately more space. Sure it was tight but it would be way more comfortable than being cramped in a tiny room. The good news with our room was that we would be facing the direction of travel, however because of that the views of the water on the way up the sound. Can’t win them all. I would rather be facing direction of travel than not as it is easier on th brain.

We departed the station right on time and shortly after were met by the Conductor to check our tickets, Mark to check on us and let us know functions of the cabin. Shortly there after we were met by Patti the Dining Car Attendant to take dinner reservations. All the meals are complimentary for sleeping car guests so we just needed to make a reservation. We took an earlier one so that we would be able to see things as we climbed up the Cascade range.

As we crawled north up the sound it was a great site to watch houses on the right and the water on the left. After picking up large groups of people in Edmonds and Everett the train turned east and off we went into the Snohomish Valley. A volunteer from the Trails and Rails program stopped by to say hello and explain how the program works. Two members of the Klondike Gold Rush National Park in downtown Seattle would be with us all the way through parts of Montana to give us commentary on what we would be going past. We talked about why we were going and why the train etc. The kinds of conversations you can have when you are stuck on a moving vehicle with people for 2 days. Most people we met were only going part of the way, to Whitefish or one of the stops in Glacier. We were going all the way though.

Not to soon later we were called to the Dining Car. You simply walked up to the dining car when your time was called and they would seat you at the first available table. It is community dining too so you are going to be seated with other people. Welcome to making new friends! We were seated with a couple from Bellingham who were really nice. Thankfully we hit it pretty good on the dining car roulette wheel tonight. The food was pretty decent to be honest. Is it going to be amazing 5 star dining quality on fine bone china. Nope! But the food was simple, delicious and of adequate size. Heidi likened it to Applebee’s style, I thought it was slightly better than some US Airlines domestic First Class meals (hi Alaska, i am talking about you).

We conversed over dinner as we climbed the Cascade range towards the top of Stevens Pass. Thankfully we wouldn’t be going over the pass but through it. Just as you pass under US2 to start climbing towards the pass the train plunges into total darkness. You enter the cascade tunnel and for the next 15 minutes, total darkness outside. At this point we were just finishing our dinner so it was fantastic timing. The people after us though, sorry folks, welcome to boring! Since we didn’t yet have the sightseer lounge (it was making its way up from Portland) the dining car was the only place you could see out both sides apart from the vestibules.

I had the Roast Chicken for dinner with a baked potato while Heidi had the Chicken and Bacon Fettuccine Carbonara. Both served with a salad and roll and followed by Dessert (of course I had some, who do you think i am!). It was a pretty decent dinner to be honest. The chicken was really moist and the salad although basic was pretty nice. Dinner was an enjoyable adventure, life was looking up on the train.

We finished off our night by having our beds made between Leavenworth and Wenatchee. The bottom bunk was large, it wouldn’t sleep the two of us comfortably but you could certainly lie together for a while. We watched a TV show as we approached Wenatchee and that is when Heidi decided to call it a night. I was planning on staying up till Spokane to watch the two trains get combined, but that didn’t happen. I took a stroll down the platform in Wenatchee but decided to call it a night. I did manage to wake up in Spokane and tried to get out on the platform but for some reason the doors were locked.

Tuesday 20th June 2017

We both woke up early. Sleeping on the train was a restful sleep, it wasn’t solid. The cabin got quite hot after all the power shut offs in Spokane and the pillows were not my style. Heidi slept pretty well, but i was on and off. Around 5am we both kind of woke up. We knew we wanted to be up early as we would be travelling through Glacier National Park for part of the morning after rolling out of Whitefish, Montana. We had planned to head to the Sightseer Car to enjoy the better views and listen to the Trails and Rails commentary.

This was where the morning was going to get interesting, time to use the facilities. The combined toilet shower is tight, really tight. I could barely fit in there but boy was it going to be interesting using it. I didnt do too bad but the water usage is funny. You turn a dial to set your temperature then push a button to ensure that you get water. It takes time to heat up but there isn’t anywhere to stand, so you kind of have to hope its not to hot or cold. The other thing you have to worry about is items that shouldn’t get wet. Towels are up high so that is fine, but the one that is most important is the toilet paper. Thankfully it has a plastic shield to stop it from getting wet, because otherwise you are in all sorts of problems.

After both of us had cleaned up we went back through the train to check out the sightseer car before breakfast. At this time (barely 630am) there was already people camped out in the car. More than likely people from the sleeper wanting more space. This was the first glimpse I had of coach. The leg room was massive! It sure puts even some International Business class seats to shame. Once breakfast started we moved up to the dining car to begin our first full day on the rails.

Breakfast options are very egg centric but it was still pretty decent. I went with a “Creole Grits Bowl” which was lacking shrimp but had eggs instead. Add on a side of bacon and you are in tasty town. Different server to last night but also a different breakfast companion. New discussions of course and after a filling meal, Heidi went to claim us some seats while I went back to the cabin to grab some stuff. Just as we were finishing up breakfast we pulled into Whitefish so I was able to step out for a few minutes and get some fresh air.

Once back onboard I went to join Heidi in the sightseer lounge as we started to go through the Glacier National Park. We spent a good few hours winding our way through the park, learning about the sights, the park itself and even a good portion of history. We made an unexpected delayed stop at Essex, Montana. Only meant to be there mere moments to let some people off but unfortunately we also had to wait for an Ambulance to arrive. It meant a good 40 minute delay. But it allowed me to read my magazine for a bit.

We headed back to our cabin after leaving Glacier National Park and settled in to some time alone, confined to the countryside passing us by. Heidi played games, I ended up working on the trip report. We were due to hit Shelby, Montana, right around lunch so we decided we would hit the platform for a few minutes and then have lunch. Just as we were pulling into Shelby Mark told us about one of the only wooden phone booths left on the Amtrak network. It can be found inside the station waiting room at Shelby. We ran down the platform as they only gave us 2 or 3 minutes and we were even told if they call All Aboard while we are in there to just go for the first available door. We made it back with plenty of time to spare anyway.

Lunch is a free for all, similar to breakfast, so no reservations were taken. Instead we apparently timed it right to get in lunch with no wait. We sat down immediately and a few moments later the whole car was full. Score! Lunch was pretty simple, I had a salad and Heidi had some quesadillas. Again a small chat with our lunch companions and back to the cabin for a small bout of TV and plenty of watching the world pass by. The next stop would be a large one as it was meant to be a catch up point, but I didn’t think it would be that likely. We were pretty consistently about 40 minutes behind.

We pulled into Havre around an hour late, but we were told we were not stopping long. Scheduled for a 20 minute stop to pick up supplies it was more like 5 minutes and then we would be back on the rails. But things were not going as planned for some people on the train. We already had a point where we had to offload someone to an Ambulance. Now we had a few people being taken off the train in zip cuffs by the local sheriffs. What happened!!! Our sleeping car attendant told us that the conductor onboard today has a reputation for no nonsense. They were not kidding, because to end up being kicked off the train is one thing, kicked off the train and in the hands of cops, wow.. What did you do!!

Sadly because of the cops we were delayed a good 15 minutes so by the time we got back going it was just not working out. We obviously had lost our right of way (or slot) across the tracks as we were now getting stalled a number of times. All we could do was just settle back and forget about it, this isn’t like in an airport where you have ways to perhaps get rerouted. Nope we were in it for the long haul.

We continued up the line through Montana for most of the afternoon. We should have reached the border to North Dakota around dinner but it looked like we were going to make it around bed time. Not a big deal to be honest as long as I had a chance to step off the train at some point. We pulled into Malta and there was a good crowd of 30 people waiting to get onto the train, all grouped together. Thing is, they were all Mennonites. I thought they were amish, but i was quickly corrected by Heidi and it was evident they would probably need to be split up. So that load took a while and put us further behind. It meant we had to back up, push onto the siding by the station and let a freight train go by. This meant we were blown. We would be pulling off the side for just about every freight train all afternoon!

By 430pm we were a good almost 90 minutes behind or possibly more! Guess its time to just chill out and relax! After a while we decided a change of scenery was necessary so headed towards the sightseer car. Sadly though all the seats were taken upstairs, but downstairs…. Wide open!! Downstairs in the sightseer car is the cafe, where you can buy snacks and drinks. A good option for people in coach who may not want a full meal in the dining car. Well we sat down there with a map figuring out how far we had to go. Helped out a few others as well.

Shortly our dinner slot was called and we headed to our final 3 course dinner of the train trip. Starting with a dinner salad while we worked out what we wanted. This time our dinner companions were the first we have had from outside the USA. A Swiss couple who did like trains, so we talked about that over dinner. This was the meal that I had been told I needed to get, Steak. The Amtrak Steak is probably the best deal for a sleeper passenger, as it normally costs around $25! They just added a Surf & Turf option too so that made it over $36! Well the fantastic thing was that it all came included. So the dinner came with a salad, roll, my steak, shrimp, veggies, baked potato and a dessert. Also my soda was free (first one of the trip, because we didn’t realise it was included). For dessert I rounded out my options and went with the Greek Yoghurt Cheesecake. I had managed to try all three desserts and by far the best option was the Lemon Tart, it was delicious.

We concluded dinner and headed back to the cabin for some more R&R. Shortly after returning from dinner though the whole reason for this trip finally occurred. We crossed the North Dakota border on approach to Williston. I was determined to get out on the platform but no smoke stop this time. As we were running behind they wanted to make sure we had as much time as possible on the rails, so it became a very short break. Instead we spent the next coupe of hours on the train watching as the sun set across the North Dakota plains. State #49 complete!!!!

We decided we would wait up till we arrived into Minot, North Dakota. This would be a fairly late evening by local standards (not by PST) but its not as if we had to be anywhere in the morning!! We still had a good almost 18 hours on the train still ahead of us. We even decided to sit back and watch a movie while we waited for the train to cruise east towards my first step onto North Dakota soil. When we pulled into Minot and I stepped down onto the platform it was all worth it! We walked around the small station for a little bit but jumped back on as they started to empty the lavatory tanks. The smell alone would make someone lose their lunch and considering most of the train was downwind it was better to be inside. When we started roll out, we both decided to head to bed.

Wednesday 21st June 2017

I awoke without the need of an alarm about 5am as the sun began to make a decent amount of light out the window. The full sunrise had passed but it was still in that nice light where it wasn’t too bright. I enjoyed watching the world pass by. I pulled out my phone to see if i could get a map location and it turned out we had just left Fargo not to long ago. That means we lost more time during the night 🙁 We were running around 2 hours late as we tracked through Minnesota. If we were running on schedule we should have been in Minneapolis St Paul before 8am. That didn’t look like it was going to happen.

I slowly made my way out of bed and after a while managed to convince Heidi that having breakfast before the crowds was worth it. This time I had a lighter breakfast than yesterday the crowds were not present. We ended up having a table to ourselves which was nice. Did not expect that at all! After breakfast we went back to the cabin and I watched the world pass by for a little bit. Being back closer to civilization meant I had the opportunity to catch up on the world, something I had not been able to do fully since we left Seattle. This would be a day of coming back to reality after spending the last day crossing a big chunk of the country.

Today’s route would be crossing the last parts of Minnesota towards Minneapolis St Paul (really St Paul as that is where the station is) and then heading South towards Chicago, following some of the Mississippi River as well. We moved down to the Sightseer car to enjoy a different perspective to some of the views as a change of scenery would be nice. The dining car still looked pretty empty as well so that was a nice change for them. I knew a few big groups were getting off in Minneapolis but others were going through to Iowa so that meant all the way to Chicago for them.

We apparently were not going to be too badly delayed as we started to pull through Minneapolis passing all the rail yards and the outskirts of the downtown area. Amtrak doesn’t use the traditional Great Northern Railways station in Minneapolis but uses the old Burlington station in St Paul. This old station has been around since the 20s and looked amazing! I left Heidi on the train (she didn’t want to hop off) and explored the station for a few minutes.

As we waited at St Paul there was a lot of people getting on and off the train. This meant that we were there a long time! It was a good 25 minutes while they loaded and unloaded bags to the train. Most of that time I spent on the Platform soaking up the sun! The craziest part of it all was the amount of people getting on and off. It took a good 10-12 minutes to get everyone off and they didn’t start loading people till everyone was off so they didn’t have traffic jams in the carriage doors.

As we pulled out of St Paul we were about an hour and a half delayed with about 8 hours on the rails ahead of us. It would be an easy day for us as we had no where to go and plenty of time to just relax. What was evident to me is that this is purely train country. Everywhere you look on the sides of the track in some of the towns was a lot of rail sidings. They were everywhere as you cruised along as well. Different companies, different kinds of cars as well. Must be nice!

Spent most of the morning in the cabin with Heidi playing cards or watching Macgyver. We had one off train stop in Winona and then before you knew it, its time for lunch! Our final meal in the dining car would be a free for all lunch. We didn’t mind waiting a bit so we put our name down once they called waitlist (after we crossed into Wisconsin). We ended up at a table with people we had not yet met, which was good. I finished off the trip with the famous Amtrak Burger, you can’t mess up a burger right? The burger was good but you could tell you were coming to the end of the journey when things started to run out. Dessert was one option, Vanilla Pudding. Dang (I still ate it).

We retreated to our room to while away the rest of the afternoon in relaxation as we came out towards Lake Michigan. From there we would cruise south through Milwaukee and into Chicago. We spent most of the time playing cards in the cabin. By the time we reached Milwaukee they expected us to be about an hour late. In the station as we pulled in was the Empire Builder heading West to Seattle/Portland, waiting to head out (mainly for us to get off the track). At the rear of the train were two private cars being hauled along the end. Next to us on another siding was another private rail car, this time way more flashy, an end of train observation car!

We pulled out of the station in good spirits, about an hour and a half from that point to Chicago. But little did we know that was going to change. There was one final stop before reaching the end of the line and about 15 minutes outside that stop we got bad news. We were stuck behind a Metra Commuter train 🙁 That train had to make every stop on the way in. Sadly we would have to crawl along behind him as there was no way for us to get past 🙁 In the end we would be just under 2 hours late.

As we got closer and closer to the city the bigger more iconic buildings could be seen. Willis tower was probably the easiest and you could see it from miles away. As we got closer and the peak rush hour took more into play there was so many Metra trains heading out. It was as if there was one going every minute or two. As we approached the station they announced the track to the staff so they knew exactly what side of the train to let people off and this also told them how close we would be to the station entrance. Thankfully for us our platform had us right by the station entrance.

We hopped off the train after finally arriving into Chicago. It was all over! The trip had taken a solid 48 hours! We were happy to be off, yet sad that part of the journey was over. We took a few minutes to check out the great hall of Union Station (and find the stairs from the Baby Carriage scene in Untouchables). It was a pretty magnificent looking building. Nothing like King Street Station. Once our bags finally showed up (they took a while) we claimed them and headed on out. Time to hit Chicago!

Current Location: Waldorf Astoria Chicago

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