Wednesday, June 16, 2021
This is our first overnight train trip. We’ve enjoyed the short train trips we’ve taken in the past, and thought this would be an adventure we would enjoy.
Amtrak (a portmanteau combination of the words American and track) is celebrating 50 years of operation this year. The Rail Passenger Service Act was signed into law in October, 1970. This act created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) to take over responsibility for operating intercity service from railroads. At that time, 20 railroads offering intercity passenger service joined Amtrak. The number of operating lines were cut in half – from 366 to 184.
Today, there are 33 routes that operate in all but two of the 48 contiguous states in the US. Wyoming and South Dakota are the only states without Amtrak service. Over 300 trains provided service to 32.5 million passengers in 2019. Those numbers dropped significantly in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but the numbers are ticking up.
Amtrak has never been self-sufficient, and in 1997, after provided a $2.3 billion tax refund to ease Amtrak’s cash flow issues, Congress declared its intention to terminate funding of Amtrak’s operating losses. However, it was determined that Amtrak would not be able to function without federal subsidies, so pulled back from that declaration. Amtrak survives because of the benefits it provides to the nation, including energy efficiency, reduced traffic congestion and less air pollution, fewer fatalities, as well as providing an alternative method of troop transport if interstates and highways are damaged.
We are taking the Empire Builder route, which was scheduled to leave St Cloud, Minnesota at the insane hour of 12:24 am (just after midnight.) However, it was late getting to the station, so we boarded about an hour late. Then, we encountered a slowdown due to freight traffic. Amtrak rents the rails, so has to wait behind any freight trains.
We had booked a bedroom so we can sleep on the way to Whitefish, where we were scheduled to arrive at 8:23 pm tonight. Again, that was a little over an hour late, not too bad.
The sleeper room is cozy, but a pretty efficient setup, with one bed converting to a sofa during the day, plus an in-room shower and toilet. The upper bunk was as hard as a board, but the bottom bed wasn’t too bad. The bottom bed is a small double, and we can both fit as long as we like each other! The car was a little outdated, could use some TLC, but it worked pretty well. Masks are required to move about on the train, to sit in the lounge/observation car and the dining car. As long as we stayed in our little nook, we could spend the 20+ hours in maskless comfort.
Meals are included with the sleeper cars. In normal times, there are chef-created meals, but for now we are eating food that was prepared ahead of time and then heated up on the train (sort of like airplane food.) We learned from staff that whoever plans for provisions didn’t send enough food. No omelet for breakfast because they had run out already, no wine at dinner because they had run out already. There were few options but we didn’t starve. Staff was very apologetic about these shortages, and were encouraging riders to complain to headquarters.
We slept through Minnesota and part of North Dakota. The land is pretty flat here, but we started to see some changes in terrain about mid-morning. Mountains became visible in the afternoon. There are some nice views, but they are hampered a bit by the dirty windows.