Monday, July 26, 2010

A Tale of Two Trains

My very first real train trip, that I can remember, was as a Brownie and we went to Lansing to see the State Capitol.  (I, of course, am not counting the train at the Detroit Zoo as a real train.)  All I really remember is a bunch of us at a big train station and having fun.  I believe this was on the old Grand Trunk Western line, but I do not remember where we boarded the train, though it would make sense that we boarded in East Detroit.

Over the years I have ridden trains all over Europe, into Canada, and Amtrak to Chicago and Milwaukee.  I have just returned from another trip out west, this time on the train.  Two trains to be exact.  I took the California Zephyr on the way out

and the Empire Builder on the way back. 

It was an adventure, to say the least.

I flew to Chicago Midway to start my trip and then took the Orange Line train to Union Station.  Oh to be able to do something like that in the Detroit area, i.e. have decent public transportation.  We had a quick lunch in the station and headed to the train.

We had arranged to travel in a 'roomette' on both trains.  Think of 'roomette' like 'closette', i.e. 'mini-closet'.  Unfortunately, a sleeper car was not available, as these tend to fill up very fast.  So, not wanting to sleep sitting up, we booked what was available.  (The pictures on the website make the accommodations look more spacious than they really are.)

Both of these routes use the Superliner trains, but the trains on the Empire Builder have been refurbished.  So, let's compare the two routes.

The views on the California Zephyr far surpass those of the Empire Builder.  We took the Zephyr out to Provo, Utah, but I imagine the sights after that are just as impressive as it makes its way to Emeryville, CA.  Of course, the views I am referring to are of the mountains and canyons.  We could have done without the rafters 'mooning' us as we went along the Colorado and Green Rivers.  Apparently, this is quite the custom on the weekends.

Sometime in the middle of the night, in the middle of Nebraska, the train sat idle for an hour while a thunderstorm raged through the area and there were tornado warnings ahead.  In the morning someone asked what you do if a tornado is sited and I said you hope you don't get blown off the track.  While I was awake during this, I found many people who said they did not sleep, but never heard a thing or realized we had stopped.  Hmmmm.  Maybe they were sleeping?

At Helper, Utah, we pulled into a Union Pacific siding to get help with the engine.  It seemed that without service we would not make it over Soldier Summit at 7,000 ft.  If they couldn't fix the engine, we were told that a Union Pacific engine would be used to get us over.  Though the engine was repaired, we were delayed and were not able to see the actual climb in daylight over the switchbacks.  It also meant a very late arrival in Provo.

At the other end of the trip, the Empire Builder picked us up in East Glacier, Montana.  This train originates in both Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, meeting up in Spokane, WA before heading to Chicago.  The sleeper cars on this train have been refurbished,  not that we noticed anything other than painted walls and a better 'mini-closet' in the roomette.  The bathroom and shower facilities were greatly improved though.

On the Zephyr, the sign in the shower suggested that you might be more comfortable sitting down while taking a shower.  I stood there trying to figure out what they meant.  There was no stool, no bench, and no built-in seat.  Did they mean you should sit on the floor?  Who knows.  On the Empire Builder, the showers were new with a built-in seat.  So maybe they could only afford new signs for the Zephyr?

As for the scenery on this route, I might ask 'What scenery'?  Think lots of green, some rolling hills, and Canada in the north.  And Montana may be only the fourth largest state in the Union, but riding all the way across on the train, all one knows is that it is really BIG.

As for train food, overall, it was not bad.  I found the servers on the Empire Builder to be more pleasant than the Zephyr and the food arrived very promptly.  You could still remember what you ordered.

To be sure, train travel is not for the 'princesses' of the world.  Think of it as 'camping on wheels'.  Always moving wheels.  You will be jostled while sitting, sleeping and walking.  Hey, we are moving here.  But train travel allows you to view the scenery without trying to drive or reading a map while doing so.  You also avoid the 'lookie-loo' drivers who are busy watching the view instead of the road.  These people scare the dickens out of me.  And out of professional tour bus drivers too, as I have learned.

As for a route preference, the views on the Zephyr cannot be beat, but the Empire Builder actually arrived on time.  At least on this Sunday return.  And as for train travel, I am already looking at routes for my next adventure.

1 comment:

  1. Spouse and I are not quite retired yet, but we have also chosen to travel all over on exotic train voyages - China, India, Canada, across European borders etc. But the American tour was our first train trip in your lovely country.

    At 20 we might have travelled in a chair.. or roomette without private facilities, but not now :) Thanks for the link



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