The trip aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Whitefish, Mont., to Portland or Seattle (the train splits into two sections in Spokane, Wash.) takes about 14 hours, meaning it would actually take less time to just jump in the car and drive. But for me, and many others, the train offers more than just a way to get from Point A to Point B; it offers the opportunity to simply slow down and take in the scenery. The Empire Builder and other “long-distance” trains also provide a glimpse at what rail travel looked like before Amtrak’s creation in May 1971.
In recent years, Amtrak has touted the idea that its most successful routes connect cities that are 100 to 500 miles apart. Earlier this spring, when President Biden announced his new infrastructure plan, Amtrak released a map showing 30 new routes, most of which fit into that range, connecting Los Angeles with Las Vegas; Savannah to Atlanta; and Madison to Milwaukee. But a half-century after its creation, the backbone of Amtrak’s national system is still its long-distance trains, ones covering thousands of miles of land, with historic names like Capitol Limited, California Zephyr and Empire Builder, all of which predate Amtrak.
The Empire Builder — the train that normally rumbles through my town every morning and every night — first connected Chicago with Portland and Seattle in 1929. The train was named after the Great Northern Railway’s founder, James J. Hill, a Canadian-born rail baron known for his industrial empire that stretched from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. While other passenger trains came before (the Great Northern was built in the 1890s), the Empire Builder offered travelers unparalleled comfort, with spacious sleeping cars and a dining car offering up fresh fish, lamb and prime rib. There was even a barber onboard. In that era, railroads spared no expense in trying to lure passengers aboard trains and even worked to develop attractions along their routes to entice the public to take a trip. Case in point, after Glacier National Park was established in 1910, the Great Northern built lodges and funded an aggressive marketing campaign encouraging people to see the “American Alps.” Other railroads did the same across the continent and played a prominent role in establishing similar facilities at the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.
But the railroads’ monopoly on the overland travel market began to erode in the mid-20th century as the highway system was built and air travel came to prominence. By the 1960s, railroads were losing money on passenger trains and wanted out of the people-moving business. The government was reluctant to let railroads abandon passenger service, so in 1970, Congress created a quasi-public corporation called the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (later called Amtrak) to take over the responsibility of running passenger trains on a slimmed-down national network. Many believed it was a halfhearted attempt to save the passenger train, and at least one Nixon official backed that theory when he privately said, “The purpose of this bill is to get passenger service off the backs of the railroads, run the wheels off the existing equipment, and then put an end to passenger trains in this country.” Amtrak would begin operations on May 1, 1971. In an effort to create a slimmer network, many redundant passenger trains with low ridership were permanently canceled.
“To us it felt like the world was coming to an end on May 1,” said Jesse Smith, a then-18-year-old railroad enthusiast from Maryland, who spent much of that spring riding trains that were going to disappear.
After Amtrak took over the trains, Smith kept riding and in the late 1970s, when he was between jobs, he spent weeks crisscrossing the country on trains thanks to the USA Rail Pass. Modeled after a similar product in Europe, the pass allowed holders to take as many coach trips as they pleased during a specific time period (Amtrak’s website says sales of the pass are temporarily unavailable). Smith said he would usually ride at night — that way he didn’t have to get a hotel — and then explore whatever town he got off at by day.
“I was the kid you didn’t want to sit next to,” Smith said, laughing. “I was shaving and bathing in the bathroom sink on the train, but I had a lot of fun on those trips.”
Smith would go on to work for a freight railroad in West Virginia, and today he’s retired. Although he spent his entire career running trains, he still loves to ride them and occasionally takes trips on Amtrak. Last week, on Amtrak’s 50th anniversary, he took a trip up to Cumberland, Md., to see and photograph the Capitol Limited, the same train he rode into D.C. right before Amtrak took over operations a half-century earlier.
Today, Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains, including the Capitol Limited between D.C. and Chicago; the Coast Starlight between Seattle and Los Angeles; and the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The trains are usually split into coach sections, where you might share a pair of seats with another rider, and a sleeper section where you can have a private room. Most trains have a lounge car with big picture windows offering a wide view of the passing scenery.
The communal dining car has long been one of rail enthusiast Arthur House’s favorite parts of long-distance rail travel, although that experience has been significantly curtailed during the pandemic. Presently, Amtrak is offering only prepared meals to sleeping-car passengers in their rooms and cafe car service to coach passengers. Officials have said they hope to eventually bring back “traditional dining” service with meals made in an onboard kitchen to its western long-distance trains. In more normal times, though, people can share a meal with other passengers.
“You can have spontaneous and fascinating conversations, especially in the dining car when you’re eating with total strangers,” House said. “By the end of the meal you know everything about them.”
House has been riding Amtrak for nearly all of its 50 years. He spent his career with the U.S. Army, and whenever he had to travel, either for work or for pleasure, he would take the train. While he admits it would have almost always been quicker to fly, he loves the “wonderful isolation” the train provides, the opportunity to just stare out the window and watch the world go by. Now that he’s retired, he usually takes the train from his home in Pennsylvania out to Montana every other year to see his grandchildren.
The extended stops are another highlight for House. While most of the time, the train will only pause in a town for a minute or two, sometimes it will stop for 20 or so minutes so supplies can be loaded on or the train crew can be relieved (locomotive engineers can work only up to 12 hours, so it takes multiple crews to get a train across the country). That gives passengers a few minutes to get out and stretch their legs — although the conductor will always warn you not to stray too far.
“The real fascination of train travel to me is the scenery and having the chance to stop in a little town that I’m unfamiliar with,” House said. “During those extended stops you can walk around the platform for a few minutes and really soak up a place.”
House remembers riding passenger trains before Amtrak and said while some things aren’t the same (in those days shoe shine services in the sleeping car and regional dishes in the dining car were the norm), the ability to disconnect from the rest of the world remains mostly unchanged.
Last year, Amtrak cut back most of its long-distance train service to just three days a week because of budget restraints, and some passenger rail advocates feared the reduction might be permanent. But the American Rescue Plan included funding to restore daily service on the routes that had been cut back. The long-distance trains will begin running daily again later this month.
It’s welcome news for Jay Marking of Rochester, Minn., who has been taking the train multiple times a year since 2010. He helps run two Facebook groups about the trains: one called “Amtrak’s Pride” for LGBTQ passengers and another called “Amtrak’s Empire Builder.” The latter group has more than 5,000 members. Marking created the groups so riders could share stories and tips from their travels. The pages are also used to organize group rides for members.
Marking said he prefers the train for a number of reasons, including its more relaxed environment (especially compared to air travel). But most of all it’s about the people he meets onboard, many of whom have become lifelong friends. An Amtrak conductor he met more than a decade ago was even in his wedding.
“The train gives you a chance to connect with other people,” he said. “You make connections with the crew and with other passengers. You don’t get that type of experience on an airplane. In the air, everyone is in their own seat just minding their own business.”
As the pandemic eases its grip on society, slowing down to take in the scenery and connect with other people might not be such a bad idea.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
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