Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Amtrak: Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis

Last week, my girlfriend had to go to NYC for business. I didn't go with her, and because I had nothing else going on, I decided to go visit some friends up in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

It's only an hour on a plane, but when you include getting to the airport, parking (or transit), security, waiting, delays, weather, etc., it becomes a big ordeal. I'm not a huge fan of flying, though I am certainly grateful that I live in a big city (Chicago) with two airports and affordable flights just about everywhere.

But, since this was going to be for fun, I wanted a more relaxing way to travel. So, I turned to Amtrak. I took the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul last Wednesday.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. The train left around 2pm and arrived around 10:30 pm. After boarding from the "first class lounge" at Chicago's Union Station, I was ushered to my Superliner Roomette, a tiny cabin with two comfortable chairs that fold down into a bed (and there's another bed overhead). The accommodations were amazingly comfortable. There was free bottled water, and an offer of free champagne (which I declined; too early in the day for me).

The seats recline and were quite comfortable. There's not a lot of room to stand around, but that's okay -- a private room is a private room, and a quiet place to relax is to be cherished. There was a volume control for the train announcements, a power outlet for a laptop or razor, a heat control, and a tiny closet that could barely hold my coat. They leave you a couple of bottles of water, and there's kleenex and a garbage can in the room as well. That's about it. The restroom is down the hall, and I have no idea where or if you can shower if you stay in one of these overnight. I'll figure that out on a future trip.

I have a Sprint USB modem, so for a long while out of Chicago I was online checking email, listening to streaming radio, and killing time on IM as I watched the sites roll by. Lots of farmland, but it's still fun to watch. The internet lasted for somewhere around the first half of the trip, then started dropping out too much to be useful. I suppose we were outside of a major Sprint coverage area.

Booking a room apparently entitles one to a meal, so I had what I jokingly refer to as a "train quality steak" for dinner. It was perfectly fine. Not quite Morton's, but it was good and did the trick. The only downside to a sit down meal on the train is that you don't know who you're going to sit with -- the seating is communal, and you will end up sitting and talking to people you don't know. I don't consider that much of a relaxing experience, and it doesn't help that the trains are full of people who want to meet people and hang out and chat. I fended off questions about my job and what I actually do (you work with the computers?) while having dinner with a couple of random gentlemen, one of whom was older and probably not very technology savvy.

After dinner, I stopped in the bar car for a drink, which I brought to my cabin. I then watched a few recorded TV shows on my laptop to run out the clock until we got to the Twin Cities. It was quite relaxing.

After we arrived at the stop in Minneapolis-St. Paul, there were ample cabs available, and it was a short ride to my hotel in downtown St. Paul. (More on the hotel in a subsequent post.)

As far as booking my trip, I was hedging my bets because I wasn't sure what the train experience would be like. So I had only booked a one way trip. I was happy enough with the experience that I booked the train for the return trip the next day.

The eastbound train is supposed to come through very early in the morning (by my reckoning) -- it leaves at 7:50 AM. On Sunday morning, I dragged myself out of bed, had a minor freak out when a cab took forever to arrive at my hotel, then made it to the train station around 7:30.

When I go there, I found no train. The train should have arrived already and been there waiting for us. There were buses sitting there, which I didn't think anything about. I went inside and up to the counter, and found out that the train had been delayed far west of us, due to an avalanche. The train wasn't expected at Minneapolis until 3:30 pm, and I had no clue what to do.

It turns out that Amtrak had a plan -- they procured buses for us. They split us up based on destination, and then we left on big "Greyhound"-style buses instead of a train. On time, even. What can I say? It was disappointing. I was really looking forward to a private cabin and a quiet nap on the way back to Chicago. Instead, we're crammed into buses instead, with no room to stretch or walk around. Sitting next to some random stranger, trying not to elbow them the entire time.

On top of that, I forgot my book and my headphones back at the hotel. Meaning, no iPod, and no book to read. Nor was my laptop battery very charged, as I had intended to plug it in on the train, if needed.

Somewhere in the western side of Wisconsin, the bus stopped and changed drivers. A bit further down the road, at Wisconsin Dells, the bus stopped and Amtrak bought everybody lunch at Burger King. Then, we were back on the road, and straight through to Union Station in Chicago. We actually got to the station a bit faster than if we took the train, and as always, it was easy for me to catch a cab from Union homeward. I would've taken public transit, but I had luggage and was tired.

I was quite bummed that I didn't get to ride the train home on Sunday. However, I am amazingly grateful to Amtrak -- they had a contingency plan, and they executed on it perfectly. We left on time, they provided a meal, and we made it into Chicago safe and quickly. It wasn't my favorite traveling experience, but we were not left stranded or hungry. We weren't even delayed.

Verdict: I'll take Amtrak to Minneapolis again! Maybe with a contingency plan of flying home if the train is delayed.

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