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Siegmund

Whitefish to Portland

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Every November I have a work conference which rotates among Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, and my employer has been willing to buy me a sleeper berth on the Empire Builder instead of making me fly. (As long as the sleeper is available at the low-bucket price of ~$200 each way it's often the same price or a little cheaper than a flight, too.)

I always look forward to that trip, and typically sit up with my interior curtains drawn, and watch Montana go past by moonlight and/or starlight, and only go to sleep about Bonner's Ferry. I was happy that this year my sleeper attendant waited until I boarded and asked me whether I wanted my bed turned down - last year the bed was already made when I got on at 9pm and I had to turn it back into a seat (and into a bed for a second time at midnight) myself.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the sleeper is always about 80 degrees when I got on. First thing I do is turn the temperature knob to Cool and then go back downstairs for fresh air. It takes it half the night to cool down. I suppose if it's too cold it takes it half the night to warm up, too, and they've decided that turning up the heat in winter results in fewer complaints.

I didn't have moonlight this trip, but got great reflections of town lights off Whitefish Lake, and again off the river between Libby and Troy. I have to drive US-93 a few times a week and enjoyed watching (and passing) headlights in that first half hour after Whitefish. If you're a picture taker chasing the train, you have to pick your spot for your one shot - it's pretty much impossible for a car to overtake the train between Whitefish and Stryker (where the track curves away from the highway toward the Flathead Tunnel.)

Last year I discovered that I sleep poorly in a roomette: if I'm lying horizontally, I rock side to side and feel like I'm going to fall out of bed. This year I planned to try reclining one half of the bed only 3/4 of the way, and seeing if I'd sleep better reclining than lying flat. Nice idea, but turns out the cushions don't lock in place once you put them more than halfway down. When I tried to climb onto the 3/4-reclined bed, it zoomed the rest of the way down and I bonked my head into the wall. Ah well... it was a nice idea. Back to plan B - I had brought an extra pillow and blanket, mostly to wedge beside my head and make me feel less like I was tipping over.

Beautiful morning view of the Columbia Gorge. An odd east wind had flushed out the morning fog. Leaves were still turning along the tracks, while the trees at the top of the cliffs were coated in frost. The usual cold boxed breakfast for sleeper passengers. 

I had never realized before that the P42s stand several inches shorter than the F40s did. If you stand on tiptoe you can actually look straight ahead over the top of the engine, from the front of the lounge car.

 

But there's one thing that nags at me. Both last year and this year, I had the feeling that it was 1968. The Builder is short in winter - one sleeper and one coach to Seattle, one sleeper and two coaches to Portland (two only because they need a place for baggage and a place for handicapped seats, I expect.) I walked through the train before I slept. Five roomettes and two bedrooms occupied in the Portland sleeper. 13 and 14 people in the two Portland coaches. About 25 in the Seattle coach. It was comfortable and the service was great but I can only imagine what'll happen once the budget folks see just how empty the train is --- and this from, supposedly, the best-performing of the long distance trains. It's still very popular in Montana. We often have 20 or more people getting on in Whitefish, and a similar number getting off. But I guess nobody from anywhere else rides.

The yield management strategy produces some odd results. Last year I got a $200 sleeper both ways; the sleep was full and coach half-full on the way there; on the return trip they claimed the one coach was sold out and people were being sold first-class tickets from Seattle to Wenatchee and seated in the dorm rooms nearest the sleeper. This year I couldn't get a return sleeper unless I wanted to pay $425, though cheapest-bin coach seats were still available. Leaving Whitefish I (and one other passenger) were assigned to rooms that had just been vacated by people getting off in Whitefish; we sat temporarily in vacant rooms while we waited for ours to be cleaned. Why not just put us in one of those other rooms? We had a choice of eight or ten of them.

At least on the Portland side, the lounge serves until a civilized hour of the morning, and there is plenty of seating upstairs.

Going to Seattle, the diner closes "promptly upon exiting the Cascade Tunnel," at about 6:30 in the morning, 4 hours before arrival. You have to REALLY want your free breakfast to get it. The dining car staff absolutely insist that they pack people in four to a table at only four of the eightteen tables, instead of letting anyone spread out. Really? It's that awful to have to tear off a paper tablecloth from another table? Sure, I get that, in the summer when they have to seat 72 people at each of three sittings for dinner. I don't see the point with 16. The way the dining car was run last year felt like a deliberate attempt to drive away the tiny bit of remaining business that it had. The lounge attendant this year smiled and said something like "we aren't quite as uptight about it as they are on the Seattle section."

 

Given the expensive return sleeper, I had to fly home. I will reluctantly admit the Embraer 175 is more comfortable than the Dash 8s and Q400s Alaska/Horizon used to fly. But oh how I appreciate the ease of getting on and off the train, and the comfort while aboard -- and while waiting to board! -- compared to fighting with airport security. Next year will have to book farther ahead and make sure I can ride both ways. Even a full train feels so much more civilized. 

 

But if this is still the best-performing long distance train, Amtrak is in a lot more trouble than I thought. It only ran one car longer (a second Seattle coach) last summer. 

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