Minneapolis-St. Louis on Amtrak
IntroductionOn the Easter weekend of 2003, I went from Minneapolis to St. Louis on Amtrak to attend the baptism of my fourth grandchild. Fortunately, I made my reservations about a week ahead of time and I'm glad I did because a day later some of the trains sold out and I would have been out of luck.
Train 8 The Empire Builder St. Paul to Chicago
Looking at the schedules, the Empire Builder would arrive in Chicago at 4:30 p.m. and my connection, the State House, would leave at 5:15 p.m. This was the last of three daily trains to St. Louis. The short window concerned me and I expressed my concern about the connection when I bought my ticket. The agent said that it would be a guaranteed connection. Depending on the circumstances, Amtrak would do one of three things:
I followed the progress of the Builder on Amtrak's web site the day before while it was eastbound through Montana. It was running on time and I retired thinking that there would be no problem making the connection in Chicago. The day of my trip, however, I found out the train fell down overnight and was running a little over an hour late. Well, we could only hope.
The train made up some time into St. Paul arriving about 25 minutes late. While the train was being serviced, the private car Montana along with several mail boxes and roadrailers were added to the train by the Minnesota Commercial Railroad. When it was time to board, the conductor boarded passengers by destination. Beside family groups and the elderly, shorts (those not traveling very far) were called first, the Milwaukee passengers and, finally, those of us ticketed for Chicago. Tickets were lifted in the station before we could enter the platform area. There were no window seats in the car that I was assigned to so I took an aisle seat and sat next to an elderly lady from Grand Forks who was also going to Chicago to see her daughter.
As a railroad fan, I always bring my scanner along on Amtrak trips so I can listen in to the chatter between the crew and listen to the detectors. For those who don't know what a detector is, they are simply safety devices installed trackside at strategic points and their job is to scan the train when it passes by.. They warn of possible dangerous defects which, if one is found, means the train has to stop and inspect the suspected area for defects and the detector points out which wheel axle on the train it suspects a defect. One thing about scanners is that I always use an earphone so I don't disturb the other passengers. Also, in these days of increased security concerns, using an earphone won't accidentally "spook" the train crew. They won't know who I am, or that I'm an ex-rail and knowledgeable railfan and if I advertise the fact that I listen in, they might think I'm a security concern. More on security later.
I spent most of my time in the lounge car for the beautiful ride down the Mississippi River. Lake Pepin is an especially scenic and picturesque area. Bring your camera if you decide to take this trip. It is well worth it.
Departing St. Paul at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes late, we ended up using track 1 from the Oakland crossovers at St. Paul Yard to St. Croix on the joint line (BNSF/Canadian Pacific). At St. Croix, we leave the joint line for the rails of Canadian Pacific. Along the way, we met numerous freights along this ex Milwaukee Road main and the freight business appeared to be quite brisk with numerous meets. The CP River train dispatcher in Minneapolis did a great job of putting freights in the hole (on sidings) in both directions so our train could pass at full speed. Our first stop was at Red Wing and we arrived at 9:42 a.m. and departed at 9:45 a.m, 41 minutes late. We arrived Winona at 10:46 a.m. and departed at 10:55 a.m., 46 minutes late. We had to make a double stop or spot in Winona which is done so passengers don't have to cross streets or other hazards to get onto the train. Although I was having a great time, time wise, things appeared to be going downhill for my Chicago connection.
Amtrak changed train crews in Winona which was the end of the line for the St. Cloud crew which picked me up in St. Paul. The crew that got on in Winona goes all the way into Chicago. Today, we were blessed with two conductors, Dan and Randy. Announcements were made regarding the fact that the train was running late and estimated times of arrival in Chicago were given. The crew did a good job of trying to keep us informed of our progress or lack of it.
When our train passed each CP detector, the machine would announce the Milepost of the detector, the total axles, whether or not there are defects and the length of the train. Then a short safety slogan and it signs off. Every CP detector we passed gave a different train length. I'm not sure why that is or how the detector calculates train length but no two along the entire route were the same. Scanner chatter was kept to a minimum, very professional and the Engineer would always let the train crew know what was going on whenever there were signals displaying some sort of restricting indication.
There are numerous stops along the route in Wisconsin, LaCrosse being the first. LaCrosse used to be a railroad town of greater importance than it is today but the presence is still felt although to a lesser degree. We pulled into the substantial depot in LaCrosse at 11:27 a.m. and left at 11:32 a.m, 47 minutes down. At this point, I decided to ask Conductor Dan whether or not Amtrak would hold a train at Chicago for our arrival. He responded that it was too early to tell because we still had a long way to go and things could go either way, good or bad. He would know more when we left Milwaukee. He also pointed out that I was the second person concerned about the St. Louis train to talk to him and the more people needing to make the connection meant that it would be more likely the train could be held for our arrival.
We clanked over Grand Crossing leaving LaCrosse. Camp McCoy was pointed out as we passed and we saw some soldiers doing whatever soldiers do as we passed the military facility. Also along this portion of the route I could see the abandoned line of the Chicago & North Western railroad which paralleled our route since LaCrosse. Much of that right of way is used as a trail but other areas still have the ties in place and in the Camp McCoy area some portions of the ROW are used as a road. Many bridges of that line are still in place including the one that we crossed under. The UP (former CNW) now uses trackage rights over the CP to get to Winona.
After we went through the only active railroad Tunnel in Wisconsin at Tunnel City, I decided to visit the Diner. No train trip is complete without at least one visit to the Dining car. For lunch today, I had the Angus Burger with cheese and bacon along with dessert. It was very good and the service was great. I was in the Dining Car when we stopped at Tomah, Wisconsin Dells and Portage so I didn't record the times at any of those stations. My dining mates on this trip were a retired couple going to Kingman Arizona via Chicago and I don't remember where the fourth person was going. The Tomah station is a wood structure that was typical of Milwaukee Road depot design. It was clean and well maintained. The Wisconsin Dells depot was a beautiful brick structure, well maintained and a beautiful stop. As we left, my new friends pointed out some of the sights in the town. The Portage station is a brick shelter heated for winter waits and located right next to the Canadian Pacific yard office there. My friends asked what the devices laying on a rack by the yard office were and I briefly explained end of train devices and how they replaced the caboose and how we had one on our own train.
I was back in the lounge car by the time we got to Columbus, the last stop before Milwaukee. We arrived at Columbus at 1:47 p.m. and had to do another double spot. Departing at 1:51 p.m, we were now 53 minutes down. Not good for my connection. The Columbus station was another very nice station and appeared to be well patronized as were all of the stops along the route. A couple of other stations still standing that I noticed between Columbus and Milwaukee were the stations at Hartland and Brookfield. As we arrived in Milwaukee, the Conductor pointed out the Miller Brewing plant to our left and the new Miller baseball Park to our right. Evidently, we were right where Milwaukee County Stadium used to be. At that point, there was a big open area with what seemed like a lot of debris We arrived in Milwaukee at 2:53 p.m. and departed at 3:03 p.m. 33 minutes down. This was the first encouraging news I received regarding my connection. Maybe, I would just make it. But there was still another 86 miles to go.
As we arrived and left Milwaukee, we went over some sharp curves and both ends of the train were visible. I always think that's cool. Leaving Milwaukee, there was trackside evidence of a neglected, decayed and abandoned industrial environment. Rusted plants, intentionally broken rail connections into many buildings, broken glass in buildings, all spoke silently about what once was there.
We were now on the last lap into Chicago with one stop remaining at Glenview. And we were flying on the double track. The nice thing about double track is that you are less likely to get held up with meeting opposing trains. There weren't many freights along this section of track, at least I didn't notice as much as I did in Minnesota and west of Milwaukee. We met one Hiawatha Service Amtrak train and that was it.
I didn't time our stop in Glenview. The Conductor got on the PA system and mentioned several things. First of all, there was a possibility of a delay around Tower A-2 for track work and how Metra trains had priority over Amtrak going into Union Station. Also, he mentioned that the mail cars on the rear would be cut off and this might cause a brief power outage in the darkened area of the Union Station. He asked everyone to remain in their seats and wait for the announcement to detrain.
I wasn't particularly encouraged about the announcement but once we passed Tower A-2 without stopping, I knew we had beat the odds. There would be no delay this Good Friday and I would make my connection. Even the power didn't go out when the mail cars were disconnected. We arrived on Track 28 at 4:38 p.m. only 8 minutes down. Amtrak, you did a whale of a good job!.
As I got off the train, I noticed another train on track 26 ready to go. I didn't know it at the time but that train was my connection, the State House, for St. Louis. When I got inside the station, I asked an Amtrak station attendant where I would board the train for St. Louis and she pointed me in the right direction. There was a long line of people standing at the gate for this train as it was also sold out. I got the feeling that if the Builder was more than 45 minutes late, this train would not have been held.
Train 305 The State House Chicago to St. Louis
When I arrived in the waiting room, I immediately got into the long queue for the State House. Security in Chicago didn't appear to be as tight as I thought it would, but then I didn't have time to explore. It was much more evident on the return trip. In due course, the boarding call was announced and my ticket was viewed but not lifted. That was done on the train. We went to the same platform and passed the Builder still sitting on track 28 with the private car Montana on the rear. The State House was on track 26, a short 5-car single-level train consisting of one engine (125 in this case), a dinette, three coaches and a mail car. As it turned out, had the Builder been up to 45 minutes late, it would have been a simple cross platform transfer to the State House.
Anyway, the State House crew boarded passengers by destination and St. Louis passengers were assigned to the second car. We were advised to put our luggage in the racks as the train was sold out and there were no seats available for stray suitcases or backpacks. My coach was built by Bombardier and it was a nice, clean car and rode smoothly. Seats were spaced closer together than on the Builder so there was less legroom but it still was comfortable for a short-haul train.
I ended up sitting next to a lady from Alton, IL. One of the things about a train is that you never know who you will meet. We didn't talk for a while but finally the ice broke and I found out she was an author returning to her home in Alton after an interview on WGN in Chicago promoting her book. This was her first train trip ever. She mentioned that she never has been an Amtrak supporter but she really enjoyed her trip and has changed her mind because she enjoyed the quiet ride and peace that the train provided and not having to drive. That was good to hear.
As a person interested in Americana, I was enthralled with her book on the homes that Sears (Roebuck & Co) built. I never knew Sears Roebuck sold homes through their catalog in kit form but they did and her book is a history of that enterprise and was why she was being interviewed on WGN. I was very excited and my interest must have rubbed her the right way because before she got off at her stop in Alton, she gave me a copy of the book and autographed it. She mentioned that the book is doing quite well and I was pleased for her.
The route used by the State House has had a somewhat troubled history. It started out as the Chicago and Joliet Railroad and expanded to become the Chicago and Alton Railroad. It became the Gulf Mobile and Ohio when the C&A merged with the Gulf Mobile and Northern and the Mobile and Ohio Railroads and during this time period, the GM&O was a very prosperous and stable company. It was the shortest rail route from Chicago to St. Louis and, for the most part, was parallel to the Illinois section of old highway route US 66.
The GM&O was a solid, well-run and financially well-off company. It was also the main competition to the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago and New Orleans. IC succeeded in taking over the GM&O in 1972, and the merged company became known as the Illinois Central Gulf. This merger was not a positive move for the GM&O because IC's intentions were less than honorable, i.e. they wanted to eliminate their only competition between Chicago and New Orleans, the GM&O. To GM&O fans, this wasn't a merger but a pillaging. IC didn't have a route to St. Louis or Kansas City so the line we were riding on remained relatively intact. South of St. Louis, however, it was a different story. Much of the GM&O was abandoned, the competition eliminated.
By the mid 1970's, the ICG let the route deteriorate through deferred maintenance and, having accomplished their goal, they finally elected to sell what was turning out to be their liability to others. A new railroad was formed called the Chicago Missouri and Western. This company, however, didn't last long. They simply didn't have the resources to fix up the plant and, by the late 1980's the Chicago-St. Louis racetrack was but a shadow of it's former self. A savior was found in the Southern Pacific Railroad which purchased the line as far as Joliet which was a golden opportunity to give them direct access into the Chicago market. SP was basically a western railroad expanding into the Midwest and fans reported that it was just very strange to observe SP and Denver and Rio Grande Western engines in the Land of Lincoln. They just seemed so out of place. The SP itself was purchased by the Union Pacific in the mid 1990's. UP is a wealthy company that is rehabilitating and maintaining the old GM&O as a really first class railroad. South of Joliet, our track speed was consistently 80 MPH and the ride was a bit bumpy in spots but basically a very nice, smooth run. Oh yes, as an aside, the IC itself ended up being purchased by the Canadian National Railroad. I guess it can be said that what goes around, comes around. Railroad history is fascinating to the extent that the players are constantly changing.
From Chicago to Joliet, CN/IC still owns the double-track line which is also shared with three Metra commuter trains weekdays in each direction and it known to Chicagoans as the Heritage Corridor. From Joliet south to Alton, the line is owned by the UP and from Wann Interlocking in Alton to Granite City's WR Tower, the line is Gateway Western (also former GM&O). From WR to Q Tower in East St. Louis, we're on the UP (not GM&O but the old Missouri Pacific) again and then from Q Tower to St Louis we ride on the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis. Confused? I was until the internet helped me figure it all out but all transitions were smoothly made with no delays. The casual traveler would never know these details.
The State House departed Chicago on the dot at 5:15 p.m. which is one reason why I felt that if I didn't make the connection, the train would not have been held. The other reason is that I just couldn't figure Amtrak holding a sold-out train for two passengers off the Builder. It ran on time for the 185 miles to Springfield. UP detectors said our train had 24 axles (5 cars and the locomotive). These detectors were different from the CP detectors in that the train length wasn't mentioned at all but track speed and the ambient temperature outside was. Our Engineer was hopping right along at 80 miles per hour (highest 82, lowest 78) across the flat Illinois prairie which has a beauty all of its own. I didn't notice any meets with any freights or opposing passenger movements from my seat. The view, of course, isn't hi-level like the Builder and it was somewhat impossible to get good bearings. I did see some freights sitting in yards but it appeared that we didn't have any road encounters until west of Springfield and, by that time, it was dark and I couldn't see the meet.
We stopped at the stations of Dwight, Pontiac, Normal (Bloomington), Lincoln, Springfield, Carlinville and Alton. All of the existing GM&O stations, except Pontiac, were in fine shape. Dwight was a beautiful brick station, Pontiac looked worn out and it needed some maintenance, Normal was a brand new Amtrak station (brick) and was nicely landscaped. Lincoln was used as a restaurant with an outside heated/enclosed waiting room for Amtrak and Springfield was an absolutely beautiful station in a beautiful city. More on that later. My traveling friend mentioned that the station at Carlinville was a beautiful brick facility that was torn down because no one was interested in saving it. She seemed to be real angry and sad about that and I don't blame her. History is history and needs to be preserved. The Alton station was another well maintained brick station. I noticed that brick was definitely a construction material of choice throughout this whole region, not only on the railroad, but also in the cities and towns we passed through.
One thing that impressed me both about the Empire Builder and the State House is that they do not slow down for road crossings in small towns. These trains blast through at full speed. I'm sure residents there are well aware of the hazards of getting hit by trains going 80 MPH. The Engineer was blasting away on his K5LA and the drivers gave due respect to the hazard. Almost all crossings were protected by automatic signals.
It was getting dark by Springfield and it was getting difficult to see outside. Prior to leaving Springfield, the crew was congratulating themselves over the radio for the fine run so far. Bad move. I just knew that would be a jinx and it was. West of Springfield, I heard on the scanner the Engineer announcing an Advanced Approach (signal) which can mean many things but he was required to reduce speed to 60 MPH. Then, at the next signal, it was approach -- 40 MPH, prepared to stop at the next signal if need be/ With continuous yellow blocks in our face, I concluded we were following a train rather than meeting one. At one point, we had to stop at an interlocking and the dispatcher couldn't clear the signal because of the train ahead. Once we got moving again, our speed was more like 20 MPH. The conductor then made an announcement that confirmed my suspicions, we were following a freight which is why we were going so slow. After what seemed like an eternity of yellow blocks, we finally arrived at Carlinville for the station stop. Leaving Carlinville, we ran into more yellow blocks and agonizingly slow travel until we reached a siding in the Shipman area where the engineer called out clear block and we began to fly again. Because it was so dark, I couldn't see the train we passed but I concluded that UP dispatching wasn't very good tonight. We arrived Alton about 20 minutes late and I said goodbye to my new friend. We were able to make up some time into St. Louis with no further delay and arrived there ten minutes off the advertised. Before crossing the river, we all got a great view of the Gateway Arch lit up in welcome to our train and other travelers along the interstate. All in all, this was a good and interesting run. Too bad the latter part of the trip was in darkness as St. Louis/East St. Louis/Granite City area has an interesting industrial as well as a railroad complex worthy of study by industrial archaeologists and excavators.
Train 300 The State House St. Louis to Chicago
This train leaves St. Louis at the "ungodly" hour of 4:35 a.m. I woke up at 3:45 a.m. and my son took me down to the station. The train was the same setup as the one coming down from Chicago, one locomotive (#100), three coaches and the mail car trailing. Enough people got on to fill up one of the three coaches although the crew said that the train was sold out.
Once again, we left exactly on time and proceeded to cross the Mississippi a short distance away. There was one brief 2 minute delay just out of the station but, otherwise, dispatchers did not delay our train and freights were "in the hole" waiting for us to pass by. The gateway arch was dark -- evidently it isn't lit during the wee hours of the morning.
We passed by the interesting industrial infrastructure I noticed on the way in and proceeded passing the sites of Q Tower, WR Tower, Lenox Tower (still staffed) and through Wann into Alton. We stopped also in Carlinville. Standard Oil once operated a coal mine here and miners either commuted from Springfield on shuttle trains or lived in company-owned Sears & Roebuck mail-order houses. When the mines closed, the houses were offered for sale at $500 each with no takers. Carlinville's historic district now includes the nation's largest collection of these Sears & Roebuck catalog homes. Unfortunately, I couldn't see anything because it was dark outside. These homes were the subject of the book written by the person I sat with on the trip down. If you're interested at all in Americana, get a copy of the book The Houses that Sears Built by Rosemary Thornton. It's fascinating.
After our stop in Carlinville, I went to the dinette and brought back a large Sara Lee apple-cinnamon roll and a Diet Pepsi for breakfast. I began to notice the beautiful sunrise on the Illinois prairie. The trip had been somewhat gloomy with dark clouds all the way down so the sun was welcome. We passed the town of Chatham where I noticed the depot still stands and appeared to be in good condition, and arrived at the beautiful city of Springfield at 6:28 a.m. This portion of the eastbound trip was in daylight and I noticed as we pulled into Springfield that we did some street running to access the station which I didn't see on the westbound trip due to the darkness outside. A true railfan like me would love to own a house in a beautiful city on a main line passenger railroad just feet from the action down the center of his street. Getting up in the morning should be no problem. Our Engineer simply toots the Nathan K5LA for each street crossing and that would be enough to wake up the dead.
Approaching the Springfield station, I was able to get a good look at the Illinois Capitol just a block away and thanked God that the State of Illinois saw fit to support this passenger service for their residents and visitors. There was a huge crowd at the station to board and I'm sure most of the seats not sold out of St. Louis were filled here. We departed at 6:33 a.m., 5 minutes down.
It is said that the Springfield reminders of Abraham Lincoln are everywhere. It became the state capitol in 1837 as a result of a campaign by Lincoln. The only house he ever owned is here as well as the parlor where he was married, the office where he practiced law and the tomb on the northern edge of town where he, his wife, and three of their children are buried. Before he left Springfield for the last time, he said: "To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything."
Between Springfield and Lincoln, there was a 45 MPH slow order in effect for a while and that delayed us some more. We departed Lincoln 7:04 a.m., 9 minutes down.
The City of Lincoln is the only city named after Abraham Lincoln before his election as President. He christened the town at the depot using the juice of a watermelon taken from a nearby cart. A statue of a watermelon slice is at the south end of the depot commemorating the event.
Our next stop was Normal (Bloomington), where the shops of the old Chicago and Alton and GM&O were located. There was a lot of passenger activity here -- it's a college town, and we picked up a wheelchair passenger here as well. We left 9 minutes down at 7:39 a.m.
Between Normal and Dwight, I noticed that UP was doing a lot of new signal work and I also noticed several cantilevers due to be replaced when the new signal system is activated. I was uncertain whether or not we were currently operating under ABS rules or CTC.
I was also able to get a good look at old route US 66 which paralleled our railroad. It used to be a divided highway and the old southbound (west) lanes were taken out of service and the eastbound (north) section was now converted to a two lane highway. No longer called Route 66, the "mother road" is a shadow of it's former self., replaced by Interstate 55, but at least it's still there. By contrast, the old Gulf Mobile and Ohio is healthy and is emerging from a period of darkness in its own history when, at one time, it too was a shadow of it's former self.
At both Pontiac and Dwight, we still were 8 minutes down and we just couldn't seem to make up the lost time. By the time we arrived at Joliet at 8:58 a.m., we were back on schedule but that was to be short-lived.
The Joliet station is a great place to watch trains. Our train was on the closest track to UD Tower where the old Rock Island crossed the Santa Fe/GMO tracks The BNSF (ex Santa Fe) and UP (ex GM&O) parallel each other and then break away from each other on both sides. On the north end, the BNSF goes to the north side and the GMO to the south side of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal into the Windy City, the old ATSF main crossing over the GM&O again at Corwith. I'm not sure what the word 'Sanitary" means regarding this river. My first impression was sewage or waste but I'm sure there's much more to the name than that. What was noticeable, however, was a heavy industrial complex along the route. . Leaving Joliet, we passed "Stateville", probably the most historically famous of the Illinois correctional facilities. Among more contemporary executions in Joliet's history were those of John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck. John Brown was executed here in 1928, the first use of the electric chair in Illinois and, minutes thereafter, two more men were put to death for their crimes.
Around Justice, the Westward (southward) track was out of service and there was some chatter with the CN/IC Section Foreman on the radio. At 9:22 a.m. around Justice we met train 303, the Westbound Ann Rutledge waiting for us to pass and already late on their schedule of departing Joliet at 9:15 a.m. We were also following the BNSF 710 which was running on our tracks. I don't know why or what move this might have been but it definitely slowed us down. Then we were stopped and delayed more at Lemoyne interlocking.
Then there was another delay at Corwith Tower (still staffed) at MP 6.6 where the old Santa Fe main line out of their Corwith Yard crossed both the GMO and the Sanitary Canal. Our stop there was because we had to wait for a Santa Fe westbound to clear the crossing. Further down the line, we made the required stop and proceed at Brighton Park. Because the State House is a single level train with a mail boxcar on the rear, I couldn't get a good view of the ancient semaphores operated by the switch tender there but I did see the signal mast as we went by. We kept creeping along past 21st St and finally we arrived in the bowels of Union Station some 20 minutes down. It was a good run and a very interesting introduction to the railroads of Chicago's southwest quadrant.
The Layover in Chicago
The State House arrived on Track 22 and I proceeded into the station carrying my suitcase and luggage. I was looking for a luggage locker and the ones I found had signs posted that they were closed and would reopen soon. I didn't know that this was due to the high security in the area so I went to an Amtrak information booth and asked the person when the luggage lockers would reopen. She called someone and then told me that they were reopened so I returned to the baggage claim area where the lockers were located and the signs were still posted. By now, I was getting a bit irritated lugging my suitcase around so I went to Amtrak's Guest Services Office and was promptly waited on. That person said the lockers were closed due to security and there was a place in the grand waiting room where an attendant would watch over your bags for you and pointed me in the right direction. I found the attendant and left the one suitcase, keeping with me the bag containing my camera and scanner. I then left the station complex to explore downtown Chicago, specifically looking for a bookstore.
Someone told me that there was a bookstore in the Sears Tower and I walked a couple of blocks to that building only to find out that all bags would be searched and I didn't want anyone to get excited over my scanner so I didn't enter. I went back to Union Station and found a McDonalds restaurant inside. One of the locals came to sit and eat with me after asking permission to sit and eat at my table. During the meal, I asked her if she knew if there was a bookstore downtown.. She thought for a minute and all of a sudden she said to go to the Metra station at Madison and Canal streets and there was a bookstore there. I made the four block walk and found a Walden Books store. I was looking for a book on Chicago Street Names but they didn't have one. I did, however, purchase a Chicago map and a DeLorme Illinois topographical atlas. The bookstore was located on the site of the old Chicago & North Western Madison Street Station and as we left Chicago, we would cross under the tracks entering that facility.
Because the weather was windy and rainy, there really wasn't much opportunity for someone on foot to explore the railroad scene so I returned to Union Station and picked up my suitcase and went to the waiting area for the Builder and parked myself behind Gate A where I was able to observe Metra trains arriving and departing on tracks 13 through 19. That was enough to keep me entertained while I waited. At 1:40 p.m., the equipment for the Empire Builder arrived on track 21 and in short order, the boarding call was made, families first, then the elderly and handicapped, and finally the regular passengers. The ticket was reviewed by a depot employee and we were then greeted by a train employee who asked us for our destination and directed passengers to the appropriate cars. The train departed exactly on time at 2:10 p.m.
Train 7 The Empire Builder Chicago to St. Paul
Today's Builder consisted of a baggage car, 9 hi-level passenger cars, three mail cars and two roadrailers on the rear. We crawled out of Union Station, and under the Metra tracks going into the old Northwestern Madison Street Station where I bought my maps, thence past Towers A-2 and A-5, both of which are still staffed. After Tower A-5, we began to pick up speed. We stopped at suburban Glenview and left two minutes late. The Conductor (Dan Christian) was the same gentleman who brought us into Chicago three days earlier. At 2:45 p.m., the Steward came to our car to take dinner reservations. I asked for and received the 5:30 p.m. seating. There was no seat partner for me on the Builder today although the train was advertised as sold out. So I had some relative freedom to listen in as we rolled along. At MP 59, we met train 8, the eastbound Builder running late. At 3:10 p.m., we flew past the old depot at Sturtevant, Wi with it's neat turret on the northeast trackside of the building and six minutes later we met a southbound Hiawatha Service train from Milwaukee. South of Milwaukee, we had to slow down and cross over from track 1 to track 2 due to track work in the area. I think this was done at Lake station but I'm not sure. Then we continued into Milwaukee passing the decayed industrial area south of the station and at 3:35 p.m. we suddenly stopped on a curve where we could see most of the train on the winding track. Out of sight was a drawbridge over the Menominee River that was open for navigation and the conductor made an announcement to that affect. Even with that delay, we had made up enough time en route to arrive at Milwaukee on time. In the station was the private car Silver Ford.
We departed at 3:51 p.m. one minute off schedule with 215 passengers and an extra person who was on board as the train pulled out. The extra person evidently was saying goodbye to relatives and didn't realize that the train was about to leave. So we made an unscheduled stop at Wauwatosa at 4:00 p.m. where the man could catch a taxi or bus service back to Milwaukee and his car.
At 4:12 p.m., we flew by the Brookfield depot and crossed Canadian National's Wisconsin Central district at Duplainville at 4:15 p.m. At 4:25 p.m., we met a eastbound at Nashotah and we flew past a westbound in the hole for us at Cody at 4:32 p.m. We had to observe a slow order at MP 140 and emerged onto double track at MP 145 arriving at Columbus at 5:00 p.m. Because of a necessary double spot to entrain/detrain passengers at Columbus, we departed at 5:04, 4 minutes off the scheduled departure.
There was a sign on the Columbus station warning passengers that this was a double track main line and high speed trains could approach at any time. At 5:07 p.m., just three minutes after departure, we met an eastbound stack train just west of Columbus. I put my scanner away and went to the lounge car to await the call for dinner.
We arrived in Portage and promptly after the station stop there, the call for dinner was made. I proceeded 3 more cars toward the head of the train to find the dining car. I was seated with two ladies from Rochester, MN returning home from an Easter weekend in Chicago and another lady from Atlanta, GA who was going to Whitefish, Montana in order to attend a conference on literacy. The dinner was EXCELLENT! I chose stuffed chicken breast (stuffed with ham and cheeses), the baked potato, roasted corn and key lime pie, all for the very fair price of $14.25, beverage included. The menu had several entrees and choice of potato and vegetables to suite anyone's taste. Amtrak did themselves proud in the diner this afternoon.
While eating, we stopped at Wisconsin Dells back on schedule. This is such a beautiful area and I highly recommend the ride.
We ran into another slow order east of LaCrosse so we lost time there. We also met trains at Bangor (7:00 p.m.) and Medary (7:10 p.m.). We departed LaCrosse at 7:21 p.m., ten minutes off schedule and began our ride up the Mississippi, arriving in Winona at 7:52 p.m. The train crew changed here and a new crew from St. Cloud got on board. A sizeable number of people got off in Winona and delayed our departure and we were 14 minutes down when we left.
I was in the lounge car and as soon as we left Winona, the crew turned on a Harry Potter movie. This particular lounge car was the first one I had ever seen with a working telephone in it. A very nice feature to be sure. It was getting dark outside and not being that interested in the movie, I decided to return to my seat in the 8th passenger car for the rest of the trip. We had to make a double spot at the Red Wing stop and we left there some 16 minutes behind schedule.
I decided that I wanted to clock running times between Hastings and the Twin Cities for future reference in train chasing so I did. Between Red Wing and Hastings, we made up most of the lost time. We passed the Hastings depot at 9:20 p.m., St. Croix (Tower) at 9:22 p.m., and were routed on track 1 for the trip in. We passed Chemolite at 9:27 p.m. with a slow order in effect, 21st Street in Newport (and one of my favorite train watching spots) under another slow order at 9:34 p.m., Oakland at 9:37 p.m., Hoffman at 9:40 p.m., Robert St. 9:44 p.m., Chestnut St. 9:46 p.m., Fordson Jct., 9:48 p.m. Lexington (Ayd Mill Road) 9:50 p.m. and Merriam Park 9:55 p.m.
Right at the scale house across from the Minnesota Commercial, the three mail boxes and two roadrailers were cut off and we then proceeded into the St. Paul Midway Station arriving at 10:00 p.m. On time. Actually 25 minutes ahead of time. A masterful performance by Amtrak!! I was tired, but it was a wonderful trip that began when I woke up at 3:45 a.m. in St. Louis.
What a wonderful country we have!! Small towns, big cities, plains, rolling hillsides, mountains, all connected by two steel ribbons that go from coast to coast, border to border. What a way to live and what a way to see America, appreciate the history of the country you are riding through and meet interesting new people. There is no question that the airline traveler gets to their destination quicker but, they sadly miss the adventure of getting there on the train. What can be seen and done on the train cannot be done on an airplane. In my opinion, Amtrak must survive and those who oppose full funding for this great service have no vision.