The Empire Builder - a train in winter

As this particular dispatch goes public I will shortly depart on an overnight train from Chicago to NY. So I figured I should catch up and finish writing about my west coast train trip last January and February from LA to Seattle and then Chicago. Then, the only time I was on a train for an extended period was over the last leg, from Seattle to Chicago. That was on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Before that, the trip had been a series of short legs with stops in different places to get off and explore. Those frequent stops converted a long haul train into a series of short haul segments and so maximized the advantages which train travel enjoys over most other modes of transport. But from Seattle on it would be a 48 hour, two thousand two hundred mile marathon. I also left behind the moderate temperatures and climate of the coast. The ride across America was made during a winter storm which pounded the Rocky Mountains and the northern Great Plains. 

First, that particular trip wasn’t so much about the scenery. Riding on a train in a storm doesn’t really permit great viewing. And photography in general is hampered by being on a rocking, vibrating platform, and peering through smudgy windows. So I don’t think the shots in this dispatch are particularly good. Without being part of a story, they probably would not be displayed by me on their own.

But, there was in fact a lot of good stuff to see. Alongside Puget Sound before the sun set the first evening was pretty. When the sun rose we were in Idaho, shortly to arrive in Montana. There, the ride up to and through Glacier National Park was great. Though the rails seek out the lowest path possible and so miss the iconic parts of the park, it was still a beautiful ride. I saw a few stops that I would like to return to and spend more time exploring, such as Whitefish, just to the west of the National Park. The dramatic mountain scenery kept me in the observation car for hours, even when the weather wasn’t very clear.

Middle Fork of the Flathead River

And I really enjoyed the Great Plains. But then, perhaps alone in the world, I think that the prairies are astounding.

Slowly dropping in elevation in a flat river bottom. The original flat level of the prairie is discernible above.

Here in brief is my take on the Great Plains. Look sometime at the Rocky Mountains and try to imagine not what still is there now, but instead picture all the rock that has been removed between each rugged peak. Of all the rock that had once comprised a vast uplifted plain, what is left behind are only the relatively small portions that now are the mountains we actually see. And then ask, where did all that rock go? If the mountains are only what is left in a highly eroded landscape, where is the rest of it?

Well, its eastern half is all around you when you set foot on America's Great Plains. They are the massive downwash and sediment fields from millions of years of rains. These prairies look pretty flat but they are roughly a mile above sea level at the foot of the mountains, falling to around 400 feet by the time you hit the Mississippi. That is a lot of rock that washed down, spread out, and improbably, created a plain and nearly level landscape, with a slight tilt a little less than a foot a mile.

But consider just how big and wide a river has to be in order to make a flat alluvial plain this big and as wide as from New Mexico to Alberta. There is no precedent for this sized river (or really a wide sheet of moving water) in anything we might have experienced in the past few millions of years, and certainly not anywhere on Earth now.

When I try and visualize that thousands mile wide river, moving with such volume and force as to move all that rock, the magnitude of this landscape always shocks me.

Anyway, the gods were mindful that on this train was a person that actually appreciated the prairies. After rather suddenly leaving the mountains east of the National Park, we had several hours of clear skies over the high plains of Montana, which lasted until sunset. Sometime overnight the storm started up again. 



But as I said, it wasn't the scenery or photography that stood out for me.

For me, mainly it was just so relaxing. I could see cars driving on the highways that occasionally paralleled the train. They were struggling simply to survive in the competitive world of an ice slicked and truck choked Interstate. But instead, I was eating some fruit and cheese, drinking tea, having lunch, reading or just napping. It felt good. As others tied to their cars and the highway were thinking about finding a place to spend a brutal winter night for relief, being no closer to their destinations come morning, I was crawling into a bed that kept advancing steadily through the night. 

I realized that when people compare the train to airplanes, they are way, way off base. They don’t get what this is about. An airplane serves a wholly different purpose along our spectrum of transportation options. They are a means to simply get to another place. Not travel to them. All that matters on a plane is where and when it arrives. What matters on a train is the trip itself. 

The comparisons we should make to gauge the advantages or disadvantages of a long distance train trip are not to the airplane, they are to the automobile, the recognized king of our travel choices. And for long haul trips, the train wins. Easily.

In both (but unlike a plane) you see the world go by at a pace where you can feel and be part of it. In both it takes awhile to get there. In both you can sometimes get up or out and walk around. In both there will be overnights. In both you have to pay to get there, though more in the car, a lot more.

This same trip (Seattle to Chicago) in a car would cost about $1,100 in gas and including amortization of the cost of the car along with the pro rata allocation of routine upkeep. People always forget this extra expenditure and think a car trip only costs them the gas they put into it. It’s a convenient blind spot we all share, since it lets us continue to prefer our cars in our heads.

But it’s wishful thinking. Cars are anything but cheap. Conservatively, they cost 50 to 60 cents a mile. It’s likely more. So for every thousand miles, you are really expending something over $500. That math holds whether you are driving a brand new car under warranty or an old beater with over 100,000 miles on it already. The old car may be fully amortized as to its original cost but it still will require maintenance, new tires, transmissions, belts, suspension work, repairs, etc. And every mile driven is a mile closer to when you next will be spending a lot of money to buy another.

Also, this same 48 hour trip done in a car will require two or three motel bills and about nine or so meals in restaurants. You will have to budget very carefully to get there for under $1,500 for one person, and add a couple of hundred more for each additional person in the car just to feed them.

In contrast, this train ride can be had for around $450 for one person, including a bed in a sleeper car, and all meals. Adding more people will be cheaper on a per person basis. For two adults that same roomette will cost $630, or only $315 each, once again all meals included. (Caveat, those are winter and spring prices, not summer. In summer this trip might cost about $100 more. Still cheaper than a car by magnitudes.) Even a family of four in two roomettes is cheaper than one person driving, much less those same four people in a car (maybe even six in three roomettes is cheaper than six driving in one car). 

In short, if you would drive across America, and a lot of people do, then you should seriously consider taking the train instead. If you need a car once there, then rent one. Even that probably will be much cheaper than driving your own around.

(I do recognize that there are many trips for which a train is not practical, i.e. there aren’t any trains that go to where you want to go, or stop where you want to stop, and for these a car really is needed.)

But mainly I just liked the train. 

Here are some moments.

As I headed towards the dining car for hot breakfast number two we were crossing North Dakota and I heard that it was around zero degrees outside (Fahrenheit). Winds looked pretty severe. The air outside was filled with horizontal streaks of snow that had been picked up by the wind and probably wouldn’t be set down again until Wisconsin. I was very comfortable however walking from my sleeper car wearing my rubber-soled house slippers.

Outside, the cold and bitter landscape seemed to suck all colors from view. Even though you knew the colors were still there, somehow they became invisible. Inside having French Toast and sausages, we were still in a world of color, warmth and life. The main hurdle we had to deal with were our dining car attendant’s awful puns.

This is actually a color picture, the colors somehow just disappeared, as if my camera simply knew better than to waste pixels on anything but black, white and grey at this time of year. The same for the picture on the title page.

I met and had meals with a nice young doctor from Sweden who had attended a conference in Seattle and on his way back home had wanted to see some of America. A couple from St Cloud were returning after a vacation and we also shared a few meals. I had breakfast back in Idaho with a young couple that ran a mountaineering shop near Tacoma and were getting off, skis in hand, to spend a few days in Essex, up in a mountain lodge inside the National Park. 

We ended up being delayed around 5 hours getting into Chicago, which amounts to about 10% more time overall (the equivalent of driving at about 63 mph rather than 70 on average). This is of course one of the main gripes about Amtrak, delays. But consider all the cars we had passed on those highways, sometimes slowed to a crawl. If any of them were coming this far, I imagine they were delayed too by that storm. Maybe by a lot more than a few hours. Maybe by a day or so.

Would someone getting into their car in Seattle heading for Chicago into that storm even hazard a guess as to what hour they would arrive two days hence? Probably not. When was the last time you’ve heard someone say they won’t get in a car because they recall having once been late on a car trip before? Never? With a car trip we blame delays on the weather, not the vehicle. And we really shouldn’t blame Amtrak either. It is just part of what the trip entails. Allow yourself a realistic set of expectations.

Once again, a color picture

There was only one point where I decided to step outside and experience the conditions first hand. We were passing through southeastern Minnesota and the weather had moderated quite a bit. At one of the periodic stops lasting 10 minutes or so, I went downstairs and stood at the doorway, still inside the train but able there to get some fresh air. The train itself looked like it had been through some sort of winter apocalypse. The sidewalks and streets were either treacherous or salt-slurried slush, either way they were not inviting. People were boarding and a few were departing. It seemed to me that the lucky ones were those getting onboard.

Backing up inside, I climbed the stairs to get some lunch in the dining car - still wearing my house slippers.



©️ 2019 D Abbott