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Trip Report: Amtrak Empire Builder Chicago-St. Paul

How about the train?

Way back in December I had already planned most of my 3-month summer tour of Europe, but I hadn’t decided on how I would return home. I narrowed my options to a flight from Europe directly to Minneapolis (boring, but the quickest), fly from Europe to Chicago and then Amtrak to St. Paul, or the very crazy and expensive idea of flying east through Asia to get back home. One cold night after work I took the bus to St. Paul to see my friend’s band at the Amsterdam Bar, but knowing I would miss them perform I decided to make a short trip to Union Depot as I knew the westbound Empire Builder was scheduled to arrive and depart around the time I was there. Sure enough the train was on time and around fifty people were waiting to get on. Seeing that trip was on time, and looking at Amtrak’s train tracker and seeing multiple times that the train was on time, I decided arriving in the Twin Cities by train was what I wanted to do. If the train were late it would be no problem for me as I had nothing scheduled for when I arrived home. To make sure I would be well rested after the flight, I booked my train for the day after I arrived in Chicago and booked a roomette so I would have a much better chance at peace and quiet recovering from jet lag.

Union Depot St. Paul waiting area

Its not often St. Paul Union Depot’s main hall gets some activity, but when the Empire Builder arrives the hall is used for what it was built for. This was taken on the night I began to seriously consider taking the Empire Builder after I would come back from Europe.

The Empire Builder Roomette Experience

The roomette was $185 including travel insurance, whereas business class or first class on a flight from Chicago to Minneapolis is at least $250 (keeping in mind that’s a random sample search I did and I’m not an expert on airfares between Minneapolis and Chicago). The perks with the roomette in addition to quiet and privacy were access to the Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station as well as dinner and dessert in the dining car included.

I arrived in Chicago from Amsterdam on September 30th. Extremely tired and jet lagged as I had to stay overnight in Oslo’s airport for my early morning flight to Amsterdam, I had good enough rest at a hostel in Chicago’s Greektown area. The train was scheduled to leave at 2:15 PM, and it was only a short walk to the train station so I had plenty of time to relax. I waited in the Metropolitan Lounge for a few hours and went on the internet catching up with Twin Cities news and trying my best not to look at the television screens with the latest news on the chaos in Washington. There was free soda, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, plus apples, a veggie platter, and a cheese platter. People traveling on the Texas Eagle and California Zephyr left to board their train, and shortly thereafter it was the Empire Builder’s turn. The only issue with the Metropolitan Lounge is that its not an easy route between there and the train platforms. There were a few turns and having to backtrack a little to get in line to board the train. Luckily my roomette was on the last car of the train so I didn’t have to walk far along the dark platforms of Chicago’s Union Station. With a heavy backpack and a large suitcase it was a bit of a struggle walking up the narrow staircase to my room. I could’ve checked in my bag, but after an airline lost my suitcase in Stockholm for a few days I kept my suitcase with me as much as possible (even though the chances of Amtrak losing your bag are probably slim especially just taking one train).

I had no expectations for when the train would depart Chicago and arrive in St. Paul. I was in my very comfortable roomette and was mentally prepared for long delays. The train departed Chicago on time and we slowly winded our way out of Downtown Chicago, and kept a good speed of up to 79 miles per hour to Milwaukee.

The roomette I was in was made for one or two people. The two large, plush seats can be folded to make a bed, and above me was a bunk for the second person. Since I wouldn’t be on the train overnight I didn’t have to fold out the bed, but if you plan to use the bed its best you check-in your luggage or use one of the luggage racks in the coach to make room. The coaches are called Superliners, and are between a couple decades old to four decades old. The interior of the roomette shows its age, but its still very nice.

The attendant went to each room to get our reservation time for the dining car. West of Milwaukee we were still moving at a good speed of 60-79 miles per hour. Near the town of Ixonia, Wisconsin we pulled onto a siding to let the eastbound Empire Builder pass, which was running a couple hours late. Through central Wisconsin there was heavy rain and so much cloud cover that it looked like the sun already set despite being only 4:00 PM.

Each reservation time for the dining car was announced on the PA, and people made their way to the dining car. For me the dining car was six cars away, but I walked over 10,000 steps almost everyday in Europe, so this was easy. On a few of the gangways connecting coaches the rain seeped through, so I was a little wet arriving for dinner. Since there is limited space on the dining car, some people had to sit together with random strangers. Me being an introvert this was a small step out of my comfort zone, but I was with nice people and we talked about our travels. There were eight meal options ranging from pasta or salad to a platter of steak and seafood. I chose the steak with mashed potatoes, green beans, and a salad, which were far beyond my usual cold sandwiches and salty snacks traveling around Europe. There were a few options for dessert, and I chose the chocolate cake, which was also quite good.

Throughout the rest of the trip we met a few freight trains, and the stops along the way had, from what I saw, a few people to around ten people getting off and getting on. There isn’t wifi on the train, so I mostly passed the time watching the scenery of rolling farm fields and pockets of forest, playing chess on my laptop, and every once in awhile using data on my phone to see where the train was at. I wasn’t stressed about being on time, but of course I preferred getting to the Twin Cities before midnight to get some rest. There were a few segments, besides station stops, where we slowed down below 60 miles per hour, but no nightmarish delays.

railroad crossing

A couple of the station stops required blocking the streets for a few minutes. The train is so long that after unloading and loading the first half of the train we would move a little bit to load and unload the other half of the train.

Unfortunately I was on the opposite side of the Mississippi River for most of the trip past La Crosse, but it was dark so most of the scenery couldn’t be seen. We passed the giant rail yards south of St. Paul, and crawled through the curve heading to St. Paul Union Depot. The attendant announced “Minneapolis and St. Paul”, and made it clear that this station was for both St. Paul and Minneapolis. There would be a 20 minute layover before the train continued west. I lugged my backpack and suitcase down the stairs and tens of people walked towards the stairs to the concourse. I checked my phone to see what the time was, and smiling to myself I saw that we were actually four minutes early. My mother picked me up at the train station and we headed back home to Bloomington.

Amtrak Superliner

At St. Paul Union Depot four minutes ahead of schedule.

European Train Travel and the Empire Builder

In terms of comfort and punctuality, the Empire Builder shockingly beat most of the train trips I took in Europe. Of course in terms of comfort the Empire Builder had an advantage with the roomette, whereas in Europe I was in coach (or a few times standing because I couldn’t find a seat in coach). However, the Empire Builder had more than just the roomette to make it a better experience over some of my European train travels.

I boarded the Empire Builder at its starting point, and got off at a station with a long layover. In Europe I boarded trains at intermediate stations, and there was very little time to find my coach and seat before the train began moving. In addition to that there were many people getting on and off at these stations, so it was difficult or impossible to find an attendant to see where my coach was. The European trains are also much smaller than the Empire Builder, so seating was usually full. European trains also don’t have baggage cars, so you either find a luggage rack, or occupy a seat with your luggage if the racks are already full, or if all the seats are taken you block the aisle with it and create a hazard. I was also unlucky enough to have multiple train trips requiring changing trains despite booking a ticket for a one-seat ride, one bus transfer due to construction, and one train detour that, if I hadn’t caught it early, would’ve made me go 200 miles away from my intended destination. That isn’t to say the Empire Builder never has bus substitutions, but as much as people like to believe European train travel is perfect, its not. No mode of transportation is immune to delays, detours, cancellations, substitutions, or other stressful situations.

European inter-city train carriage

The typical European intercity train with a locomotive pulling single-level coaches or a self-propelled single-level train, whereas the Empire Builder has double decker coaches which means more room for people, luggage, utilities, etc.

The Necessity of Amtrak

Unlike European train travel where people see it as successful, and a needed form of transportation, Amtrak is generalized as always being late, only for train fanatics, a waste of money, and not necessary in most of the country. It is true that Amtrak loses money, and there will probably be changes in the near future to reduce losses. My hope is that it becomes an efficient operation without resorting to the tactics of low-cost airlines. Prices may be raised to better represent the true ticket cost, but Amtrak will likely always lose money to an extent. However in our country, where we throw money at roads and airports, there should not be a double standard that Amtrak needs to be profitable.

The success of my Empire Builder trip from Chicago to St. Paul showed me that it can be a much better experience than flying, driving, or taking the bus. It deserves to be made even better with more trips along certain segments of the route, upgraded track for higher speeds, more track capacity to reduce waiting for other trains to pass, and new locomotives and coaches. If it can be a great experience in the present like I had, imagine how great it could be if we invested more in it.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.