We thought a cross-country train trip would be great. We were half right.
The big Amtrak locomotive screeched and slowed to a stop in the middle of nowhere.
On a gray exterior wall along state Route 42, a painting featured an outline of Montana with a bull’ s-eye placed at this ranching town of 3,200: “The Middle of Nowhere,” it proudly proclaimed, “Glasgow, Montana.”
Glasgow is the 22nd stop westbound on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Seattle line and the most popular of its 15 long-distance routes.
Four years ago, my family had visited Glacier National Park and its snow-capped peaks that sprawl across the roof of Montana’s northwest corner. As we drove around the park’s southern fringe, we reached the town of East Glacier Park, and my daughter’s eyes bulged when she saw the Amtrak station.
“Wait!” Katie, then 11, exclaimed. “You can take a train to Glacier?!” Ever since, the idea of a father-daughter, round-trip train ride from our home near Baltimore to Glacier National Park plowed forward like the freight locomotives that rumble across the northern prairie 24 hours a day.
We booked our June 2022 trip in January, right around the time airlines were canceling flights by the bushel because of COVID-related staffing problems. As gas prices soared through the spring, our decision looked increasingly wise.
Over six train rides that totaled roughly 4,500 miles, Katie and I experienced the best — and the worst — that Amtrak has to offer.
We saw spectacular vistas across the Great Plains and drifted off in the comforts of a sleeper car, the rocking of the rails serving as a lullaby. We also dealt with infuriating delays, especially between Washington, D.C., and Chicago, ammunition for Amtrak’s detractors who say train travel isn’t worth the time or trouble.
A long night’s journey in coach
Seeking the entirety of the Amtrak experience, we opted for the most economical coach seating from Baltimore to Chicago, the luxurious bedroom from Chicago to East Glacier Park, and the budget roomette sleeper car for the two long eastbound trips.
With nearly double the legroom of a standard airline seat, Amtrak’s Superliner coach offered plenty of room to stretch out on what was supposed to be a 17-hour trip on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, which runs from Washington to Chicago.
The Potomac River sparkled in late-afternoon sun near Harpers Ferry, W. Va., and as we churned northwest across the Allegheny Mountains, we pulled down our tray tables and ate dinner that we had purchased before boarding. Passengers eating rubbery microwave pizza sold in Amtrak’s cafe car validated our decision.
I tried to sleep somewhere around Pittsburgh, and by then the train was in quiet mode — dimmed lights and no station announcements between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. But I envied the seasoned coach travelers who had packed blankets. And noise-canceling headphones. I tossed and turned in my seat, trying, with limited success, to get comfortable using a fleece pullover alternatively as a blanket or a pillow. A passenger one seat behind me hacked and coughed throughout the night.
I woke up the next morning feeling about as foggy as the Indiana farm country outside our window. Acres of fields spread out in the mist, punctuated only by an occasional barn that, this being the land of Hoosiers, often had a basketball rim nailed to the side of it. Coffee would have to wait, though; I gave up after standing in line at the understaffed cafe car for more than 20 minutes.
By the time our train inched past Elkhart, Ind., it was running two hours late. According to Amtrak, the Capitol Limited had an on-time rate of 28 percent in 2021, tied for the lowest of its 15 long-distance routes. Both our trains lived down to that reputation. We crawled into Chicago three hours late on the westbound trip, then limped into Washington more than seven hours late on our return trip.
Amtrak attributed the delays to weather and its favorite culprit, freight train interference.
Freight lines own roughly 95 percent of the 21,400 miles of track used by Amtrak and make all dispatching decision on shared track, but a 1970 law requires them to give Amtrak priority, a concession made when federally-subsidized Amtrak took over money-losing passenger routes. (Of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance routes, only the Auto Train along the Eastern seaboard regularly turns a profit.)
However, freight trains routinely ignore the law, which is hardly ever enforced. According to Amtrak, freight trains in violation of the law caused more than 890,000 minutes of delays in 2021.
Amtrak has a staunch advocate in President Biden — who earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” as a train-riding senator from Delaware — and the infrastructure bill Biden signed in 2022 includes $66 billion for rail travel. But all the money in the world isn’t going to help Amtrak attract passengers if trains can’t run on time.
After a briefer-than-expected layover in Chicago — just long enough for Katie to sample her first authentic deep-dish pizza — we boarded the Empire Builder and snaked our way up the narrow staircase to our second-floor sleeper room.
Katie’s eyes lit up, she dropped her suitcase and flopped onto the sofa that converts to a bed at night, giving me two thumbs up. As we passed Milwaukee, Katie lounged on the sofa, earbuds in, a blissful smile on her face.
“My train playlist!” she said as her head bobbed back and forth, her brown hair spilling over her shoulders. “This sleeper car! This is all just too good!”
Watching her, I briefly saw the freckle-faced girl of 11 whose eyes widened when she first saw that East Glacier train station. She starts driving this fall. Three years from now, she’s off to college. Four days riding trains with your only daughter on that bridge between childhood and independence? Too good indeed.
Twenty minutes west of Milwaukee, our sleeping-car attendant, Robin, knocked on our sliding door and scheduled our dinner reservation.
Nothing conjures up the romance of long-distance train travel quite like the dining car, a dying breed but still an option for sleeper-car passengers on the Empire Builder.
Katie and I were paired with other passengers in Amtrak’s communal seating, a questionable practice in COVID times but a social one nonetheless. (Amtrak will deliver meals to the sleeper car if preferred.) Our dining partners included a couple en route to Seattle to begin a 50th anniversary cruise and a quiet North Carolina man who wanted to give long-distance train travel a try.
“So, what do you think?” I asked him as I ate a salad with fresh strawberries and goat cheese, a far cry from the bleak cafe car offerings.
He looked out the window, paused, and said, “I think once is enough.”
After dinner, we made our way to the observation car, available on most Amtrak long-distance routes but, inexplicably, not the Capitol Limited. The floor-to-ceiling windows revealed a small Wisconsin town with a postage-stamp church graveyard and manicured Little League park, and I sensed that this town has 100 percent attendance at the annual Fourth of July parade. A D-Day veteran probably serves as the grand marshal, and having survived Omaha Beach, he sure isn’t going to be scared off by the Wisconsin winter. There’s plenty of time to speculate on a 2,000-mile train ride.
An hour later, as the sun set near Winona, Minn., barges worked the Mississippi River under a vermillion sky.
With the last hints of dusk vanishing and the train marching toward Minneapolis, Katie and I returned to our room and found that Robin had folded down the upper bunk from the ceiling and prepped our beds with mattresses, sheets, pillows and blankets.
Oh, Toto, I don’t think we’re in coach anymore.
By the time I awoke from a deep sleep the next morning, all wrinkles of Midwest geography had faded away. Early-season North Dakota fields stretched to the horizon like a brown blanket that had been pulled tightly and tucked into the ends of the earth.
Puffy cumulus clouds dotted a cobalt sky, and digging into her playlist, Katie belted out fitting lyrics from award-winning play “Dear Evan Hansen”: All we see is sky, for forever ….
Back in the observation car as we approached Montana, Katie and I played cribbage at a table while an Amish family, which had been on the train with us since Washington, played a game across the aisle, their discussion a fascinating amalgam of English and Pennsylvania Dutch.
One Amish girl of about seven, wearing a navy-blue dress and a white bonnet over her blond hair, stood in the aisle and shyly watched us. She ran her fingers through the corners of an empty box of donuts, hoping to mine the last powdered-sugar treasure, some of which fell off her fingertips and onto her dress like snow flurries.
We rumbled across the roof of Montana along the vast, empty expanse of the “Hi-Line,” a 650-mile route that flirts with the Canadian border from North Dakota to the Rockies, and, as we learned, goes right through the middle of nowhere. Glasgow was bestowed that name by a reporter who determined it was farther from a metropolitan center than any other place in the contiguous United States.
“Let’s get out and get a picture at the painting!” Katie said as the train slowed to a halt in Glasgow.
No time for nowhere, though; the painting was several blocks from the station, and our stop lasted just a couple of minutes.
Near Cut Bank, the first ripples of mountains teased in the distant haze. By the time we neared East Glacier Park an hour later, nearly everyone in the observation car had a phone pressed to the glass, taking pictures of towering peaks frosted by snow.
After 49 hours on trains, Katie, her brown hair pulled into a bun atop her head, threw her hands skyward with a big smile as her feet hit terra firma in the cool, crisp air of East Glacier Park.
The train station is across the street from the Glacier Park Lodge, and this is no accident. The lodge, its stunning two-story lobby framed by 40-foot Douglas fir timbers, was the first hotel built by the Great Northern Railway, which had a lot to do with the creation of Glacier National Park. The railway’s president, Louis Hill, pushed for the formation of the park to generate tourism business on his passenger trains, and the park was formally established in 1910 as America’s 10th national park.
From Glacier Park Lodge — which technically sits just outside the park on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation — shuttle vans transport guests up the east side of the park, including to St. Mary’s, the eastern terminus of Glacier’s Instagram-worthy Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Glacier Park Lodge served as our home for four nights, which after 49 hours on the train, didn’t seem nearly long enough. Before we knew it, we were walking back across the street to the station for our return trip. As the eastbound Empire Builder pulled in, a rainbow arched above Glacier Park Lodge for the fourth straight morning.
The roomette we booked for the eastbound trip featured two seats that face each other, which combine at night to form the lower bunk. At 22.75 square feet, the snug roomette is about half the size of the bedroom, but also nearly half the cost, and, to my mind, the best value on an Amtrak long-distance trip.
A long slog to Washington
Reversing our tracks, we reached Chicago in about 24 hours, and I dreaded another ride on the Capitol Limited. That was even before the tornado warning in Chicago that delayed our departure.
I watched lightning out the window as we slowly followed a line of storms east, and I drifted off to sleep to the ubiquitous sound of our engine horn as it approached intersections. At dawn, I awoke to the realization that we were not moving. A sign indicated we were stopped at the Amtrak station in Toledo. Toledo? We should have been there at about midnight. I checked the Amtrak app on my phone and saw that we were operating six hours late.
I dropped my head back on my pillow and closed my eyes tight, thankful we had a roomette for this leg of the trip.
“Katie,” I called toward the upper bunk, “You’re not gonna believe this….”
Hours later, as we chugged through Western Pennsylvania, a conductor apologized – weather and, yup, freight train interference – and explained that for our troubles, passengers would receive a Chick-fil-A boxed meal when we stopped in Cumberland, Md.
We finally reached Washington, D.C., seven hours late. We joined a frenetic throng climbing aboard Amtrak’s workhorse Northeast Regional, which ferried nearly a third of Amtrak’s 12.1 million passengers in 2021. I tried to make myself as thin as possible as a woman with a large suitcase jostled past me and worked her way upstream, battling to get off the train. A conductor impatiently barked commands. I longed for the emptiness of the Hi-Line.
As the train sped north toward Baltimore on our final, hour-long push for home, I felt I had figured out Amtrak’s geography: Travel is better the farther west you go. The cars are better, the scenery is better, the mood of fellow passengers and staff is better.
The Northeast Regional running alongside Interstate 95 exudes East Coast urgency, everyone in a rush to get from Point A to Point B. The Empire Builder across the Great Plains has a Midwestern ease, passengers and staff seemingly consigned to some tacit agreement with the time and the mileage.
With 108 hours of hard-earned knowledge, Katie and I agreed that if we do a trip like this again, we’ll fly to Chicago, and then, after of course grabbing more deep-dish pizza, hop on a train heading west. From the air, I’ll look down and wave at the Capitol Limited, crawling along, late, somewhere east of Toledo.