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Hoping That the Train is On Time: Amtrak's Empire Builder with my Dad

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Old Nov 9, 17, 9:36 pm
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Hoping That the Train is On Time: Amtrak's Empire Builder with my Dad

Background

You remember us, right?



After 14 months since our last train trip (The Indian Pacific across Australia, detailed here: Into the Wasteland: The Indian Pacific Train Across Australia and QR J to Get There) and one year and ten months since our last Amtrak trip, the two Charles Kunzs were obviously more than ready for another train trip. Thanks to my new position as a solo practitioner I am able to arrange my schedule more or less as I please and as my birthday month is October, when better to ride the rails? If you haven’t done a sleeper car trip yet then maybe you don’t know where the fun comes from. You get to watch parts of the country roll by the windows that you’d never see otherwise. And if you’re with someone whose company you enjoy it’s even better. Plenty of time to chat, to play cards, relax, read and eat and drink to your heart’s content (did I mention it’s…BYOB?).

My dad and I have taken every long distance Amtrak train save the Auto Train (something I have no idea how I’ll ride but that’s another story) but we were missing part of the Empire Builder. In 2010 we rode it from Seattle to Chicago but it also has a stub from Portland to Spokane. As I love visiting Portland and hadn’t been since 2012, that’s where we decided to go. Thankfully, my dad has a generous balance of AA miles so we could suffer the indignity of a Standard Award Redemption without too much fuss.

Trip Details
Thursday October 12: AA (F) RDU-CLT-PDX
Friday October 13: Amtrak (Sleeper) PDX-CHI (+2)
Monday October 16: UA (Y) ORD-RDU

“There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going”
- Edna St. Vincent Millay

AA 1121 RDU-CLT 1609-1715 737-800

After a long day of playing lawyer I arrived at RDU’s Terminal 2, a terminal I am lucky to frequent





My dad was already waiting for me at the RDU Admirals Club (for five points, find him in this picture!) which as you can see was very crowded due to the evening LHR flight. That said, the bartender was excellent and made sure everyone was taken care of. When I ordered my usual Endless River Pale Ale he asked “would you like a complimentary shot of bourbon with that? Would I!





The 737-800 we were on to CLT was slightly delayed due to a late inbound but as we had a long connection we didn’t care. Especially as it’s much more pleasant to sit at RDU than CLT.



Despite the delay there were even PDBs which are incredibly rare on legacy AA flights. We’ll drink to that!



RDU even had a bit of a commotion that day after a C17 declared an emergency due to smoke in the cockpit. It’s pictured here with the 777 to LHR for scale.



RDU is Deltaland now which has been great for me as we now have TWO nonstop flights to Europe.





Thank you!





The flight was fairly nondescript though longer than usual for this 130 mile run (42 minutes aloft). For some reason there was no snack basket or glassware. I don’t care what anyone says, cocktails taste better out of real glasses.





One of these days I need to find an excuse to fly our resident EAS carrier. Thankfully our gate was open and we arrived close enough to on time that the delay didn’t matter.



AA 1787 CLT-PDX 2015-2046 A-321

The best thing you can say about CLT is that…well it’s…uh. Actually I don’t know how to finish that sentence. It’s an awful place to change planes. The gates are too small, the corridors are narrow and always teeming with people and the lounges are solidly below average. But hey living in Raleigh I at least have a nearby airport with a lot of connecting options.



This lounge for instance had people waiting to go to Europe. Someone we survived a couple of hours and eventually mustered the strength to make our way to our gate.



Which due to construction looked even worse than usual! Thankfully we’d been able to spend more of the time at the too small Admirals Club.



I would really have preferred this flight not be operated by an aging Legacy US Airways A-321 with no power ports or IFE but, well, the Stones taught me from an early age about getting what you want.





The important thing is that we had a good crew and we departed on time.





As I mentioned earlier the crew was good. How good? Unprompted doubles good. We both agreed it was more fun to take this trip with one long flight instead of two middle length ones. The transcon experience is a good time.



#Facts



Despite the evening departure a full dinner was served. As we only had a single flight attendant even with the single tray setup it took 90 minutes to get the food. Still, there was no hurry. I had a bunch of trade magazines to catch up on, my dad had his book and most importantly we had our conversation.



And it was apparently cooking that entire time we waited for it! Made me wish I’d gone with the other option of pasta instead of this so called beef filet.



As always this was the best part of the meal. Meanwhile, my dad’s gone quiet. What’s he up to over there?



You can have my wine when you pry it from my cold dead hands!



I stayed up for another hour or so and then decided my dad had the right idea and I went to sleep.





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Old Nov 9, 17, 9:38 pm
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Portland

Ahh it was good to be back here. Portland may be expensive and it may have some insufferable Hipster types (though what city doesn’t?) but I like its vibe. It has a feel to it I don’t find it other US cities. I don’t know why I let it go so long between visits frankly.



After an Uber ride where the driver did not get the hint that it was 1 AM our time and we really didn’t want to have a banal conversation, we were deposited at The Nines. I’ve wanted to stay here ever since I became a Flyertalker and discovered the Starwood Forum. It would also be our first Luxury Collection so expectations were high. The check in experience got us off on a great start, excellent service from the agents on duty who were happy to explain all the features and ask us what we’d be needing.









As you can see, the deluxe room we were in was very impressive. It had the nice little touches like gourmet chocolates but also the important things like comfortable beds, outlets next to the bed and a great shower.



Plus the hotel has a central atrium that is designed in a way that makes me want to say Feng Shui (do people still talk about that?).

Anyway, we both managed to fall asleep after some difficulty (nothing confuses the body more than a late evening nap and a changed time zone) and awoke the next day ready to explore.



Can do!



The area we were staying in, near Pioneer Square, sure was quiet on a Friday morning. I always feel smug when I’m playing tourist in a city on a weekday. Haha you’re at work and I’m not!



Thankfully, so was our favorite doughnuttery. I know it’s not the best doughnut in Portland and is somewhat touristy, but we came here during our first ever train trip in 2009 so traditions had to be kept. Plus they make good coffee, just make sure you have cash as they’re cash only.





Did I get the C-and-Bs?



Why yes, yes I did.







Why sit and eat when you can walk? And it was a lovely day to be on the river at Waterfront Park. I was happy we got a sunny morning though the day would turn to rain later so we did get the full PNW experience.



Yep, we’re definitely in Portland.



Unlike many of my generation, I still love reading and even more so I love relaxing at used bookstores. And where better?





Where else do you need a map to find your reading material? Though it’s fun just to wander and see where your feet will take you. Part of the appeal of used bookstores is not knowing what you’ll find.





Naturally I checked out the train section. And of course I couldn’t leave without buying a couple of books.





All that reading sure made me thirsty! Thankfully, this place was nearby.





To wives and sweethearts. May they never meet.



Keeping tradition alive, we went back to Huber’s where we’d dined in 2009.







Train trips are all about nostalgia so why not go to a classic restaurant that looks like something out of another era? Especially if they’re famous for the Thanksgiving turkey dinner every day of the year! Plus I love going to The Oldest or the First or the Biggest whatever when I visit cities.



Cocktails for lunch? Hey why not we’re not the engineers!





Now, who wants to tell the story of Squanto? Lunch was excellent and a great way to celebrate our successful and fun morning.





After dropping my dad at the hotel I went to the liquor store to get our provisions. As I mentioned before if you’re in a sleeper you can bring your own alcohol as well as your own food if you want. This obviously beats paying $7 for an airline bottle of Dewer’s on the train. Plus even in the rain I enjoyed my walk. Portland is a fun city just to be in. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the people all make for an enjoyable visit.





The building on the left is the hotel. We both snuck in a quick nap (drinking through lunch will do that to you) and when we woke up it was sunny which made for a nice walk to the train station. Thankfully there was no issue getting a late (4 PM) checkout from The Nines as a Starwood Gold. I seriously cannot say enough good things about the hotel. It really made the visit to Portland even better and I’d love to go back.
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Old Nov 9, 17, 9:39 pm
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As you can see, Portland has a gorgeous station. Especially compared to some dumps Amtrak long distance trains leave from (I’m looking at you, Charlotte).





There’s even a fairly decent lounge for sleeper car passengers, though there aren’t amenities beyond soft drinks and packaged snacks. Still, it beats the terminal.



The train has a short consist for its 7 hour run to Spokane where it links up with the longer train that comes in from Seattle. Only one sleeper, a café car and two coaches are pulled by the single engine.







Ah the Superliner Bedroom. We’ve covered over 10,000 miles in these and they’re always good ones. The design is obviously older and nothing compared to the luxury trains of the world but hey, it’s OURS and that’s what matters. Most long distance trains are still without wifi and the older nature of the cars means there aren’t many outlets. But it’s still incredibly comfortable.



On the train, it’s always Drink O’Clock.





We pulled out right on time and after a few minutes were in Washington with our first stop at the bedroom community of Vancouver. Thanks for the memories, Oregon!



We weren’t expecting much from this leg of the trip, after all the marquee part of the run would be the next day in Glacier National Park, but the journey along the Columbia River during sunset was also worth the price of admission.





As there’s no dining car, sleeper passengers are offered a box meal. The options were steak (pictured), shrimp or chicken. It was actually pretty decent though obviously a hot meal is always preferred. Thankfully we had our cocktails to pair it with.



Our sleeper was on the rear which gave us access to the beloved Rail Fan Window.



After dinner our SCA turned down our room.





The sun has gone to bed now so shall I!



My dad keeps telling me when I pay for the trips I’ll get the good bunk (the bottom one). Until then I get to play jail cell in my coffin. The bottom bunk is much wider and longer and if you’re an amply proportioned gentleman like me sleeping up top is not the easiest.



You also get the fun of figuring out how to get down the next day.



At least I’m rewarded with the Shoilet Experience. On this train the water never got hot which is a hell of a way to wake up at least! Sleeper passengers can also use the downstairs communal shower (which passengers in Roomettes have to use) but it’s easier just to use the shower in your room. We have a system. Dad gets up first and showers then goes to the diner and gets us a table. Then I shower and join him.





And now off to the diner for breakfast. I know the food isn’t restaurant quality but it’s still fun to eat while you fly along the rails.





All meals are included with a sleeper ticket so it’s your sworn duty to add as many sides and drinks as possible to get your money’s worth.





After breakfast we reached Whitefish. There are various stops built in that are provisioning stops or crew stops and of course…smoke stops. I always get out and enjoy the fresh air. In this case it was a beautiful fall day which was a relief from North Carolina where summer never seems to end.



Back on board I took a train walk. This is the lounge car which also has a cafe in the bottom level.



Coach which has a decent amount of pitch. This train was only half full so there was room to spread out at least.



After leaving Whitefish (a name now famous thanks to Puerto Rico and our government) we headed into Glacier National Park. The last time we’d done this train it was May. Traveling this time in October made for much different, and in our opinion much more pretty, scenery.







There was even snow (pictured via the railfan window) which added to the postcard quality views.



As you can see our train was now much longer than when we left Portland. During the night the Seattle to Spokane and Portland to Spokane segments are joined together and we were now running with two engines, a baggage car, a diner, a lounge/café car, three sleepers and six coaches.







As I said earlier…worth the price of admission.





And as I also said earlier, seeing things you’d never see otherwise and things which my pictures cannot do justice to.



See that long train running, and I watch it disappear!





Once we made it to the end of the park, Montana became more like you’d expect Montana to be. And yes, many a Hunt for the Red October quote was made.



And it was time for lunch! Our dining companion was well within the average age of Amtrak riders. Even my dad at 67 comes off as kind of young on these things. That said, they were a nice couple and we enjoyed our conversation with them. It’s “family seating” as the announcements always tell us and that means you get to make new friends at each meal.







In keeping with my train traditions, my first meal was the burger. The Builder gets better food than many of the other trains due to better kitchens though this meal is still kind of microwave-y.





Dessert options are worse than they used to be. I preferred when there were ice cream options. Also they were already out of the pumpkin cheesecake (damn Millennials) so I got the utterly bizarre option of Greek yogurt cheesecake. But hey, it’s included and you gotta get that money’s worth!



After lunch we rolled into another small town at which we were allowed to stroll around. Naturally I took full advantage of this even though this station was not much to look at.





Amtrak embraces technology better than any other transportation company.





Back on the train we continued east through very flat country. But who cares? We’re here for the company. And it’s not like we’d be seeing Montana under any other circumstances.





Here you can Havre your cake and eat it too! Once again it was nice to be out in the fresh air soaking up the sunshine and stretching the legs.







Back before Canada hated us.





I think that woman is on to me.



YOU CAN’T BE OUT OF ORDER YOU JUST GOT MY HOPES UP!



US 2 is the train’s friend for close to 1,000 miles. It’s fun following it, watching the cars and counting down the miles to the next town.



Ahh there’s the Big Sky I was promised by the promotional materials!



Dad: Don’t take pictures of me sleeping
Me: you didn’t say don’t take pictures WITH me sleeping!





Gin Rummy is our game on the train. In my opinion it’s the best two person card game. Also, this hand sucks.



Breakfast and lunch were first come first serve but dinner is by reservation only. If you’re in a sleeper the attendant comes to you and takes your reservation.





I love sunsets from the train. We always take in cocktail hour before we head to the dining car. It’s my favorite part of the journey. Sipping the beverage of choice, getting that little bit of a buzz, snacking, chatting and watching the sun go down knowing you’re about to have dinner. Moments like this are why we keep taking these trips.







As I said earlier, it’s all about getting your money’s worth. Woo, nearly $40 entrée! Amtrak actually does a good steak and it was certainly miles better than the awful one on the plane the other day. The wine by the way is not free, sleeper tickets only cover non alcoholic beverages but you can’t have steak without wine right?





Not sure why that couple in the back looks so angry but dad and I look good which is what matters.



So at this point we had reached Williston, North Dakota slightly behind schedule. And then we were given bad news. Due to a freight derailment the day earlier, the line up ahead was blocked. They also had no information on how long we would be delayed but it wouldn’t be until after the derailment was cleared and the tracks were open. In fact, the “helpful” conductor told us and I quote “it could be 15 minutes, it could be 5 hours”. I decided to stick close instead of seeing everything Williston had to offer which was a shame because when else would I be back here?



The clock is mocking me.







At least it meant limitless train pictures and some good conversation with other people milling about pondering how their life choices led them to being stuck in a rural oil and gas town in western North Dakota.

Eventually I got back on the train and went to sleep though it was less fun than usual as the train wasn’t swaying and lulling me off to Dream Land.



So the next day began with some suspense. Where would we wake up? How long would we be delayed? The answer was Fargo and about 5 and a half hours. Because of the possibility of issues like this we never plan to fly home the same night the train arrives so therefore the only question was…would we get to Chicago in time for dinner? Many others on the train with connections east had it worse. Plenty of them would reach their destinations 24 hours or more late. I felt badly for them not only because of that but because there was no little information. We arrived in Williston over 24 hours after the derailment but Amtrak seemed to have no information and nothing was provided to the train attendants. It was not a good look for Amtrak but as I said, it’s something you have to prepare for.





May as well make the best of it and enjoy breakfast. Amtrak has been getting more ambitious with its egg dishes recently and I’ve been enjoying them.



And then a little morning cap.





The delay did allow us to see parts of the country we’d have ordinarily either been asleep for or experienced in the dark. Though rural Minnesota didn’t have as much to offer as Montana had the day before.



Outside St. Paul we stopped to allow several private rail cars to be added to the back of our train. They’d been chartered by a group who’d be riding them down to Chicago. It was a little annoying as we were delayed and this meant more time but hey money talks.





The conductor was nice enough to allow those of us who cared the chance to take pictures of the hook up.



St. Paul was a smoke stop and I decided to explore the station. Amtrak used to use this awful concrete hole in the middle of nowhere but recently switched to the historic Union Depot downtown where the train connects with the Light Rail.







I wouldn’t mind renting out this area for a function. They didn’t have much in the way of facilities though, just a small coffee shop and no newsstand.



Quite the contrast eh?



Back on the train it was time for one last meal. Against my better instincts I decided to try the muscles which ended up being pretty good. Especially for a train. Amtrak’s marketplace specials are hit or miss but they are the best way to…you guessed it…get your money’s worth!





I really love when a train hugs the water. In this case the Mighty Mississippi as we cruised out of St. Paul.







Despite the delay our train was not provisioned with any extra food for sleeping car passengers. And scotch reserves had become exhausted. Our very survival at this point was in doubt.



We made our way into Wisconsin which due to both it being drab in general and the day being overcast did not provide much to see. That didn’t dampen our mood though not as long as we had things to talk about, books to read and cards to play.



The Milwaukee train station however is something to see. It’s been remodeled recently and as you can see is very impressive.
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Old Nov 9, 17, 9:42 pm
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Chicago

At this point we were still five hours behind schedule which would mean a 9 PM arrival instead of 4 PM. My dad and I love a steak dinner and going all the way downtown to our usual spot of Gibson’s didn’t make much sense, especially as we were staying at the airport and had an early flight the next day. We looked at a map and realized the penultimate stop of Glenview, IL was quite close to ORD and nearby ORD was the Rosemont Gibson’s location. We alerted the sleeping car attendant who made sure the door would be opened for us at Glenview.



We hopped off there and said goodbye to our train and after a short and cheap Uber ride



We said hello to our dinner!







And what a dinner it was! After two days of train food a little gourmet meat went a long way. Not to mention the excellent bottle of Chardonnay my dad picked for us. The guy knows his wine.



Father and Son Good Times, Complete. We’ve yet to have a bad meal here and the service is just as good as it is downtown, though the ambience is a bit worse.







As we had a six AM flight the next day, where better to stay? Not only did it keep with the throwback theme of the trip but you can walk to your terminal instead of dealing with a shuttle. The hotel is definitely pricy but I think it’s worth it to have the convenience. Sadly they don’t start breakfast until 6 AM.

UA 1517 ORD RDU 0605-0902 A-319

We’re American flyers first and foremost but United has a 6 AM to RDU and American’s first flight isn’t until after 8 so it would be a Flyer Friendly morning.







At least the United Club was open at 4:30 and not crowded. There was a line for the fancy coffee maker as you’d expect though.









Boo I miss the sleeper! We thought we were going to have a chance at an empty middle but some Basic Economy passenger got the seat between us at the gate. Fiddlesticks!



Damn gorgeous morning to be flying though, almost worth that early wake up.









Well we wouldn’t have THESE on AA would we? The flight was blissfully on time (as the first flight of the day often is) and I enjoyed watching a movie on my phone while my dad read.





Yay no traffic on I-40!



And now, there shall be justice!

Conclusion

Another wonderful time for C Kunz 3 and 4. It’s hard to do better than good flights, great meals and the best company. We even weathered the delay well. While we were at first annoyed we realized that the point of the train trip was to be on the train so we looked at it as bonus time. I was a little disappointed in Amtrak that they didn’t provision extra food, it was nearly 9 PM before we arrived in Chicago and the café car was very low on supplies, but it didn’t spoil our fun.

The only question now is…which train will be next?
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Old Nov 9, 17, 10:22 pm
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Thanks for the report! Got me considering something similar with the wife perhaps. I will have to do some research on best 2-ish day train trips for scenery, food and karma. Always appreciate it when someone gets me thinking! And nice to see father and son having a good time, no matter what their ages are.
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Old Nov 9, 17, 11:34 pm
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Originally Posted by xooz View Post
Thanks for the report! Got me considering something similar with the wife perhaps. I will have to do some research on best 2-ish day train trips for scenery, food and karma. Always appreciate it when someone gets me thinking! And nice to see father and son having a good time, no matter what their ages are.
For a two-day trip, might I suggest the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Denver? Leave early in the morning, get to see the Sierras the first day, and the Rockies the second. Get into Denver in the evening of the second day. Can't beat the scenery.
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Old Nov 9, 17, 11:55 pm
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Nice report! As I live 45 minutes away from Williston, and have an infant, the thought of Amtrak travel has been creeping on me more and more. It seems like it would be a good way to travel with the family for quick trips either East or West.
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Old Nov 10, 17, 1:03 am
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Thanks for another great rails report.

In 2008 we took the Capitol Limited WAS-CHI, then the Southwest Chief to LA, which arrived 6 hours late so we missed our connection to the Coastal Starlight. A week later from Portland we rode the Empire Builder to Chicago [arriving three hours late], connecting to a delayed Capitol Limited to WAS [arriving 4 hours late]. Would we do this trip again? Absolutely. We've learned that Amtrak is about destinations, not about schedules.

We fly when we need to be somewhere quickly. We take the train when we want to enjoy the journey.

Last edited by Glensea; Nov 10, 17 at 3:44 pm
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Old Nov 10, 17, 2:17 am
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Thanks for another great train report from you.

Nice choice of whisky too!
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Old Nov 10, 17, 3:46 am
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Wonderful trip report!

Seeing everything in Oregon made me a bit homesick, looking forward to visiting soon. Portland Union Station was a great reminder of when I used to take the Amtrak several times a week, great memories
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Old Nov 10, 17, 3:48 am
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Nice report, a long distance Amtrak has long been on my to do list. Just got to convince the wife why we need to do that over much faster and cheaper airlines!
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Old Nov 10, 17, 7:14 am
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Originally Posted by xooz View Post
Thanks for the report! Got me considering something similar with the wife perhaps. I will have to do some research on best 2-ish day train trips for scenery, food and karma. Always appreciate it when someone gets me thinking! And nice to see father and son having a good time, no matter what their ages are.
Originally Posted by HomerJay View Post
For a two-day trip, might I suggest the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Denver? Leave early in the morning, get to see the Sierras the first day, and the Rockies the second. Get into Denver in the evening of the second day. Can't beat the scenery.
I also think the Zephyr from Emeryville to Denver is a great start. Or you can start with the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles up the coast. You can alight in Portland in time for dinner or go all the way to Seattle. Or if you're like me and you like the desert, Los Angeles to El Paso on the Sunset Limited is also fun.

Originally Posted by UVU Wolverine View Post
Nice report! As I live 45 minutes away from Williston, and have an infant, the thought of Amtrak travel has been creeping on me more and more. It seems like it would be a good way to travel with the family for quick trips either East or West.
If only I'd known you were around during my delay! Definitely give it a try.

Originally Posted by Glensea View Post
Thanks for another great rails report.

In 2008 we took the Capitol Limited WAS-CHI, then the Southwest Chief to LA, which arrived 6 hours late so we missed our connection to the Coastal Starlight. A week later from Portland to rode the Empire Builder to Chicago [arriving three hours late], connecting to a delayed Capitol Limited to WAS [arriving 4 hours late]. Would we do this trip again? Absolutely. We've learned that Amtrak is about destinations, not about schedules.

We fly when we need to be somewhere quickly. We take the train when we want to enjoy the journey.
Well said. I too have had a delay experience on the Capitol Limited as well as many shorter ones on the regional trains. It's frustrating but like you said you're just there to enjoy the journey.

Originally Posted by nequine View Post
Thanks for another great train report from you.

Nice choice of whisky too!
Why thank you! Every man should have his bottle and The Glenlivet is mine.

Originally Posted by C W View Post
Wonderful trip report!

Seeing everything in Oregon made me a bit homesick, looking forward to visiting soon. Portland Union Station was a great reminder of when I used to take the Amtrak several times a week, great memories
Well I'm glad I could give you an excuse to go back, not that you need one for a city like Portland!

Originally Posted by 1010101 View Post
Nice report, a long distance Amtrak has long been on my to do list. Just got to convince the wife why we need to do that over much faster and cheaper airlines!
Just show her one of my reports and she'll get it. Hope you two get to take a train trip soon
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Old Nov 10, 17, 7:48 am
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Loved reading this. What's better than good food, good company and enjoying life on the rails. Looking forward to doing a similar trip one day myself.
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Old Nov 10, 17, 8:41 am
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Wonderful report - thank you. Your Portland photos brought back some memories, from Voodoo doughnuts to the bookshop.
Looking forward to the next trip.
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Old Nov 10, 17, 8:53 am
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Join Date: Mar 2001
Location: Detroit, Michigan USA
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Enjoyed reading. Thanks!
By the way, IMO the Auto Train is no longer bucket-list worthy. Amtrak has succeeded, with its repeated cuts, in reducing the Auto-Train experience from the semi-luxury (okay, this is an exaggeration) of the Empire Builder to something akin to Greyhound. And, of course, the route provides generally boring scenery, much unlike portions of the Empire Builder (or the even more wonderful "Canadian.")
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