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.