Thoughts on Amtrak

Unfortunately, this is not the train we rode.

Somewhat unbelievably, it’s taken me 30+ years to ride Amtrak.  I’m not sure if that says something about it’s viability, or something about my lack of cultural experience.  You be the judge.

After riding the Empire Builder to Chicago and back for the Memorial Day weekend, here are some initial thoughts:

  • Once you ride this route, you’ll yearn for high speed rail.  If it were only an hour or two faster, it would be competitive with the automobile and thus much more attractive.  I’ll leave the cost-benefit discussion of that upgrade for smarter folks and later posts.
  • It’s better than air travel (at this distance). No security checks, no arriving early at the airport, and much less of a cattle car feeling.  Seats are large, legroom is ample, and there is an observation car where a National Park Service employee gives you a guided tour of the landscape.
  • It’s slow. You just have to be ready for that.  It took 9.5 hours on the way down, because we left a little late and freight trains blocked us on a number of occasions.
  • I wouldn’t want to ride it overnight.  While comfortable, sitting in any seat overnight is not pleasant.  The looks on the faces of passengers getting off at Minneapolis from points west in the early morning confirmed my feeling.  A sleeper car would be a must.
  • The food is actually pretty good.  Just stay away from the prepackaged stuff in the cafe car.  Beer is even reasonably priced.
  • Arriving downtown is great, especially in Chicago.  The CTA system is one of the most uncomfortable transit systems I’ve ever ridden, so stepping off Amtrak downtown and avoiding the blue line from O’Hare is great.
  • It has too many stops.  Stopping in both Red Wing and Winona seems excessive and the Portage and Columbus stops seem like they could be done away with without a significant loss of ridership.  Perhaps these stops are an artifact of the historic route, or some requirement of federal funding, I’m not sure.
  • There are a lot of at-grade crossings.  This probably slows down the train (and car traffic).
  • Based on my two observations, there was lots of demand.  The train was very full both ways, and on the way back there must have been thirty cars total.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Amtrak

  1. I think Amtrak’s routes ended up being a hybridization of the historic express and local trains, so today’s Empire Builder has more stops than a historic express train, but fewer stops than an old local train (which might stop every 10 miles or so).

    I wouldn’t really advocate taking stops away from the Empire Builder unless there was something to backfill and possibly expand service to smaller communities.  It might just be a complementary bus route, but I’d prefer to see more passenger trains.   The semi-stalled enhanced-speed train plans for the MSP-CHI corridor will probably skip some smaller towns like Red Wing, but the Empire Builder will probably continue serving them at least for a while.

  2. I rode this route in one direction (from Chicago) in the late 1990s. It was during the time when Amtrak and United Airlines had a deal where you could take the train in one direction and fly in the return direction. I barely remember the train ride. I remember, though, stopping in some places just to let people have a smoke break (maybe passengers boarded and alighted, but it really seems like everyone just got off to smoke). 

    We visited MPLS because it was nearby and they had the Mall of America. My dad and I spent hours at Snoopy’s Park and had a lot of fun. 

    I returned to the city on Labor Day weekend in 2009 via Megabus (because it was $50 round trip booking 24 hours in advance). My couchsurfer host picked me up to go to his house and the next day I rented a bike and rode around the city for 12 hours (making lots of stops to take pictures of trains and stuff). 

    Here’re my photos:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/sets/72157622173604623/

    Here’re my posts (there’s a lot on the city beyond just my trip visit):

    http://www.stevencanplan.com/tag/minneapolis/

  3. From the times I took this route to Milwaukee in college I remember liking the train experience a lot.  The only things I didn’t like were a) getting to the station in St. Paul, and b) the times that the train ran.  a) is a solvable problem although it usually either requires a car and/or adds to the cost of the trip, but b) is usually a killer for me now, as those times it comes into and leaves MSP are not terribly convenient and really kill the flexibility of trip planning.  That one I don’t see getting solved without HSR.

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