Amtrak isn’t just a National Railroad Passenger Corporation, it’s a rollercoaster. It seems like every time I ride it, I have an experience so superlative it’s almost mystical. And every time I ride it I swear that I will never ride it again.
I took the Empire Builder to Red Wing last weekend to visit a friend of mine who lives in Wabasha. If there were a bus (or a jitney or a rickshaw) that went directly to Wabasha, I would not have taken Amtrak. Unfortunately, in this state that most consider to be part of the first world, of Minnesota’s 446 outstate cities with populations greater than 1,000, there only 57 with intercity bus service.* That means that those of us who prefer to travel without impacting others’ lungs often have to ask their friends or family to meet halfway.
After transmitting my sensitive financial information to an unknown online entity, all I had to do was stroll up to the station and pick up my tickets. Possibly because of the true American pastime, queuing, boarding Amtrak trains isn’t that different from boarding an airplane: endless lines of nervous people clad entirely in sweats wait with only a vague idea of the purpose, and ultimately are confronted with an amiable but apathetic anachronism doing the work of a bar code reader. It’s even possible for a nude image of you to be generated and viewed by a total stranger, but most people catching the eastbound Empire Builder aren’t feeling that imaginative at the 7:50 a.m. boarding time.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have ridden trains in about a dozen other countries, and none of them checked tickets prior to boarding. I remember enormous, serpentine lines in China, but I’m pretty sure they were just to get on the train. Americans appear to be either uniquely untrustworthy or uniquely paranoid – and I’m pretty sure this was the case before the Tragic Events of September Eleventh as well, although I admit that I didn’t save space in my cluttered memory for the boarding protocols of decade-old train trips.
Speaking of my defective cabeza, I made the biggest mistake of my life prior to departing by neglecting to charge my camera battery. That means I wasn’t able to capture any blurry images of what was the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken.
St Paul is really a beautiful rail city – the moment where the train joins the edge of the bluff and the wide expanse of the valley presents itself just in time for the train to duck under the High Bridge – exciting stuff. On top of that, it was the morning after a snowstorm had coated all the trees, creating a sparkling wonderland of the already-scenic blufflands south of St Paul. But that’s not all – high water had created a sea out of the bottoms south of Hastings that we dumped on some of the Native Americans that we didn’t kill or banish, so it gave the appearance of gliding on a causeway over a broad lake. Beautiful, even with the nuclear panner plant.
But, as always with Amtrak, the engine of magnificence was tugging a caboose of frustration. Whenever I meet someone who has taken Amtrak a lot, I always ask him or her what their longest delay was. For me, it was the time the Empire Builder derailed in Chicago’s Union Station – in the station – and it was delayed at least 6 hours, although there was also a memorable 3 hour delay in the cornfields of northern Indiana, which purportedly was just because the freight railroads were backed up.
The delay this time wasn’t memorable – an hour late getting into Red Wing, and 45 minutes late getting into St Paul, pretty standard Amtrak time (if you look at the photos on the site I nicked the above pic from, a majority of them have captions noting the tardiness of the pictured train). The westbound Empire Builder gets into St Paul at the obnoxious hour of 10:30, when you are guaranteed a substantial wait for any city bus you’d want to catch home from the train.
And that’s the highs and lows of Amtrak: the most comfortable way to travel in the USA, often breathtakingly beautiful, and usually some interesting society, but nearly unusable due to low frequency and dismal reliability. As for me, I’ll take it to the bluff country again, but I bet that at least once on that trip I’ll swear to never take it again.
*Ok, to be fair, there are only 69 cities outside the 7-county metro with populations greater than 5,000, so the situation really isn’t atrocious. Still, the entire Iron Range is without intercity bus service, and I am irked that I can’t visit my ancestral homeland of New Ulm (pop. 13,522) without asking my astigmatism-prone grandmother to drive to Mankato to pick me up.