Amtrak is our (U.S.) national passenger rail service. It tries hard, and is generally fine, but it’s not at all comparable to the better subsidized rail services in Europe, Australia, Canada, or the UK. Or to any boutique route like the Orient Express. Still, it’s the only passenger railroad we’ve got, it goes to some very scenic places where cars don’t, and we like trains, so we’ve done several long trips on Amtrak over the years.
In March 2017, we circled the U.S. on Amtrak with our longtime friends Wayne and Diane. Starting in Los Angeles, we took the Southwest Chief to Chicago, then the Capitol Limited to Washington DC, then the Crescent to New Orleans, and finally the Sunset Limited back to Los Angeles. Despite Amtrak’s known challenges with schedule-keeping, this trip went very well. We vowed to do another.
Plans were tossed about for another rail expedition but we got distracted. Plenty of time we said – allowing 2018 and then 2019 to slip past us. By 2020 we were ready for a return to the rails. Yeah, well, no (COVID). We tried again in 2021. Ah, still no (Omicron). In 2022, any thoughts of trains were scuppered by our big move.
In late 2022, we finally said we’re doing a train trip in 2023 – even if we have to walk! So we drafted a plan.
Wayne had not been on the Empire Builder, so he and Diane planned to take the Coast Starlight from Santa Barbara to Seattle, then the Empire Builder east to Minneapolis. We would join them there for the ride into Chicago where we’d all connect with the City of New Orleans heading south.
After a day in the Big Easy, we’d fly to San Antonio, spend a day there visiting The Alamo, then take the Texas Eagle back to Chicago. We’d fly back to Minneapolis from the Windy City, while Wayne and Diane went home on the California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight. We’d ridden the Zephyr before and were entranced by how it crosses first the Rocky Mountains and then the Sierra Nevada.
And so we proceeded to book train and plane tickets, reserve hotel rooms, fire-up Wayne’s Uber account, and generally get ready to once again ride the rails of destiny! Onward!
Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus. [No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.] ~ Helmuth von Moltke (1871).
The most important thing you need to know about Amtrak is that it’s schedules can change abruptly due circumstances beyond their control (but so can those of the airlines – think Southwest last Christmas). But, even knowing that, we were caught off-guard. The Coast Starlight was 1.5 hours late getting into Santa Barbara from Los Angeles and (due to a car crashed on the track and fallen trees) almost 7 hours late by the time it reached Seattle.
So, at 03.00 in the morning, Wayne and Diane found themselves trudging through Seattle’s Skid Row to their hotel, There they enjoyed a few hours of rest before trudging back to King Station to board the Empire Builder going east.
A day later, we made our way to the Union Depot in St. Paul to await the arrival of the Empire Builder. It was due at 08.50 but finally arrived closer to 10.00. But Wayne and Diane were aboard and we enjoyed lunch with them in the dining car as the train continued south along the Mississippi River.
Note that most of the photos that enliven this (and subsequent train) posts are of a quality generally obtainable only by being taken through the window of a fast-moving train, with the optics enhanced or obstructed by dirt or raindrops or glare or telephone poles or bridge spans or some combination of these. It’s either lousy photography or cinéma vérité or art or some combination thereof. 🤔
When we’d made our reservations, Amtrak had allowed a 4 hour layover in Chicago between the arrival of the Empire Builder and the departure of the City of New Orleans. Even allowing for Amtrak’s dubious schedule-keeping abilities, this seemed like plenty of time. But before any of us had left home, Amtrak shortened that 4 hour window to just 1.5 hours due to track maintenance.
So, as we trundled toward Chicago, we watched anxiously as the Empire Builder’s arrival times at various intermediate stations kept slipping and slipping. As we were approaching the outskirts of Chicago, our window to make the City of New Orleans had dropped from 90 minutes to just 15 minutes. But we could still make it! Yes, we could!
And then, just short of Chicago’s Union Station, the conductor announced that, due to problems with the national train routing communication system, Amtrak had canceled all its long-distance trains in and out of Chicago. 🥺 We got off the Empire Builder into a swarming mass of people trying to find another way to get where they wanted to go.
Despite our own travel travails, our hearts went out to the families that had included the train as part of their Spring Break vacation plans. Parents stood gamely in line as their kids grew bored, then tired, then melted-down. It was clear that some families were going to have to abandon their vacation plans in favor of just getting home. 😥
We made Chicago hotel reservations via phone as we stood in long line at the Amtrak counter. After more than an hour, we were almost to the front of this line when the Amtrak person shouted that because of (garble, garble, garble) we needed to go to another (garble, garble) line elsewhere in Union Station where we’d get (garble, garble). Which we did, only to find it longer than the one we’d started on. With no clear idea what this seemingly endless line would do for us, we bailed, going to our hotel to regroup and consider our options.
The next morning, our attempts to rebook on the City of New Orleans all failed. No Big Easy for us. 😕 Our trip was on the verge of implosion. What to do? After a long wander through Amtrak’s online presence, I found us seats on the Texas Eagle going south on Monday. We could go to San Antonio, spend a day there eating Tex-Mex and BBQ, pay the required visit to The Alamo, then head back to Chicago on the Eagle.
Since Wayne and Diane hadn’t yet been to San Antonio or The Alamo (whereas we’d all been to New Orleans before), we decided this Plan B was our best way to recover somewhat from the travel mess dealt us by Amtrak. So we set this new plan in motion with a flurry of new reservations, non-refundable cancellations, and requests for refunds.
With Plan B in hand, we extended our stay in Chicago for another night and went for a walk along the Riverwalk to stretch our legs and clear our heads.
Since the weather was cloudy and cold, a visit to an Irish pub (of which there are just a few in Chicago) seemed essential. 🍺 We found a cozy place just north of the Chicago River. The Guinness flowed, our spirits brightened, and maybe a genuine deep-dish Chicago-style pizza got eaten too. 🍕 😋 Who’s to say? 🙄 Anyway, we were soon enthused once again about getting back on the rails and going onward to The Alamo…😁BACK TO BLOG POSTS
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