AMTRAK NORTHWEST TRIP/AUGUST 1983

This article originally appeared in the April 1984 issue of THE FAST MAIL, publication of the 20th Century Railroad Club. Some information in the article has since changed.


The middle of August, 1983, happened to be a good time to travel. Chicagofest, privately financed and held at Soldier Field this year instead of at Navy Pier, would have a negative impact on the attendance at the nearby museums. The museum at which I work thus required a smaller staff from August 10 to 22, so I decided to let the others work while I would take a $225 All Aboard America fare vacation between Chicago and Portland. After running through several possibilities with the agent, I finally got the All Aboard fare from Chicago on #7 on August 10 and from Portland on #26 on August 16 and a 24 hour stopover in Denver. I also decided to throw in a round trip to Seattle from Portland, which would cost extra because of the All Aboard fare restrictions.

The eleven-car #7 encountered a few delays in leaving Chicago's Union Station, but arrived Milwaukee on time thanks to improved Milwaukee Road track. I ate dinner while passing the Wisconsin Dells, which is over commercialized with all this garbage having nothing to do with the original attraction of the area. The area gets slightly hillier west of the Dells, with a tunnel west of Tomah. It got dark after crossing the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wisconsin, but earlier this summer I had gone to the Twin Cities and had daylight on #8 to see the river between La Crosse and St. Paul.

I returned from the Twin Cities that time on #8, but going there I rode a Greyhound bus. I committed this railfan's sin because of the inconvenient arrival time at some weird location between the two cities, and I had not been in the area before. Amtrak seems to emphasize long haul service more than corridor service over the route of the EMPIRE BUILDER. This is ironic because this is one of the first corridors to receive streamlined equipment in the 1930's, with the ZEPHYRS, the HIAWATHAS, and later the 400.

This time I was a long distance passenger, and the fact that the train became more crowded west of St. Paul suggests the train's long distance nature. Grand Forks, North Dakota, has a new station west of town, built to eliminate a back-up move to the old station. West of Williston, ND, the train enters Montana, running near the Missouri River for more than a hundred miles. Because northeastern Montana has no intercity bus service. the area depends on Amtrak via towns normally too small to have Amtrak stops. Havre, headquarters of BN's Montana Division, is the first significant town in Montana.

West of Havre the terrain gets slightly hillier, but the area doesn't really become rugged until Browning. Soon the train stops at Glacier Park where the spectacular scenery starts with only a few more miles to the summit. Soon it's downhill through snow sheds and tunnels, while meeting uphill freight trains with helpers on a double track segment. It was getting dark and soon after passing through the 7.7 mile Flathead Tunnel, I went to sleep.

Somewhere near Glacier Park

At Spokane, Washington, a simple switching move split the EMPIRE BUILDER into sections for Seattle and Portland. It was daylight when I woke up again near Wishram. We were running alongside the Columbia River with the UP line, used by the PIONEER, visible across the river in Oregon. Eventually Mt. Hood became visible, and soon we stopped at Vancouver before crossing into Portland for an on-time arrival.

Portland presently has under construction the Banfield Light Rail Project, which will connect Portland with the eastern suburbs. The Tri-Met presently has one of the best run bus systems in the country, and the Banfield line will improve on that. The line will utilize the Steel Bridge to cross the Willamette River into downtown, west of the river. The double deck vertical lift bridge has a railroad level which carries passenger and freight trains south of Union Station.

Gresham Transit Center, east of Portland

I made a round trip to Seattle in one day utilizing the MOUNT RAINIER, #796 and #797, which use Superliner equipment. The abundance of evergreen trees and lumbering industries made the route seem strange for a corridor. South of Tacoma we passed next to Puget Sound, and approaching Seattle we passed the Boeing plant before arriving King Street Station. I rode the Alweg monorail to the Space Needle and explored a few areas by trolleybus. I also rode the waterfront streetcar which operates from Pier 70 to within a few blocks of King Street Station. The streetcars were built in 1927 for the system in Melbourne, Australia. From King Street I would return to Portland on #797. With its constant speed engine, the F40PH locomotive generally produces an uninteresting sound compared to earlier passenger locomotives. But from the front Superliner coach of #797 I could easily hear the traction motors of F40PH #225, including during dynamic brake application. The "constant" speed engine would also slow down and speed up occasionally as the head-end power would also go out. Evidently the seven year-old locomotive was having problems, but nothing which would prevent the on-time arrival at Portland.

Looking south from the Space Needle

The following day I left Portland on a five-car 426. After crossing she Steel Bridge the UP route parallels an expressway through a depressed right-of-way which will soon be shared with the Banfield light rail line. The line then runs along the Columbia River for the next 150 miles. Portland is on the western side of the Cascade Range, which left UP and SP&S with little choice but to build their lines through the Columbia River Gorge. Finally near Hinkle the flatter terrain enables the route to move away from the river.

Along the Columbia River

Hinkle, Oregon, is the location of a new UP freight yard. East of Hinkle the terrain becomes rugged again, with a pass over the Blue Mountains to La Grande. The terra n is flatter to Baker, Oregon, but then a more rugged climb takes us over to the Snake River, where the train crosses into Idaho. The terrain in Idaho is flatter, meaning Amtrak schedules the PIONEER to travel the most scenic portions by day. It is this scenery which makes this lesser-known Amtrak train worth recommending. At Nampa, Idaho, we traversed the unsignaled 40-mph branch line through Boise. After Boise I was ready to sleep.

We arrived at Ogden, Utah, 12 minutes late. A UP switcher switched #26's rear coach and sleeper to the rear of #6, also running late, and #6 left Ogden 50 minutes late. At Salt Lake City a coach and sleeper from #36 were added to the rear. A third F40PH was also added to help out over the Rockies. Because Amtrak continues to use the UP station in Salt Lake City, a time-consuming back-up move is required to reach the Rio Grande line. The territory to Provo was fairly flat, and at Provo we were 90 minutes late.

Beyond Provo is Thistle, Utah, location of the mud slides and floods which recently severed the main line and delayed Amtrak's switch from the UP line through Wyoming. The line has been rebuilt at a higher elevation, with a new 3/4 mile single track tunnel on the otherwise double track segment. Outside the tunnel the new lake is visible, with tops of trees and roofs of houses sticking out of the water. It is amazing how quickly things can change with a flood, and also how quickly the new line was built. It was costly for the Rio Grande but shutting down would have been costly, too. The paralleling highway was still closed, which meant additional local passengers for the train.

Site of the Thistle mud slides

The train continued the spectacular climb up Soldier Summit and descended to Helper, Utah.

Soldier Summit

More desert was encountered until west of Grand Junction, where the railroad joins the Colorado River for the first of many narrow canyons along the river. West of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, we met #5, running 2 1/2 hours late and with a Rio Grande freight locomotive leading.

Glenwood Canyon, photographed in 1987

The train continued uphill through the canyons while approaching the Continental Divide. It was getting dark as we reached Moffat Tunnel at the Divide. A while after passing through the 6.2 mile tunnel, the lights of the Denver area below came into view. A thunderstorm was occurring at the time and one could see practically every lightning bolt hitting the area. We were 90 minutes late in arriving Denver, where I would spend the next 24 hours.

And it was just about 24 hours as the next day's #6 was just as late. The trip to Chicago was relatively uneventful, except for the loss of another hour over a line whose scheduled speeds leave little cushion for delays. Once behind schedule, it is tough to make up time over the Burlington line. As we stopped at Aurora at 5:30 PM, I wondered about the problem of getting us into Chicago against the commuter rush-hour. We got through the three track CTC territory with no delays, even getting the center track to pass an inbound commuter train near Berwyn. We arrived Union Station at 6:20, barely in time for LAKE SHORE LIMITED passengers to make their connection across the platform. Those passengers were luckier than those for the BROADWAY LIMITED, which had already departed. Being from Amtrak's hub city, I only had to worry about connecting with the CTA.

A few days later Chicagofest ended and things returned to normal at the museum. Actually Chicagofest wasn't too successful and museum attendance wasn't significantly hurt. Nevertheless I already had a good vacation, and my co-workers who were on only for the summer appreciated being able to continue working. The Superliners are one of the best things to happen to long distance Amtrak trains, greatly improving on-time performance and dependability. Also the dining service was acceptable, with the New York strip steak being my favorite. On-time performance of the new CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR needs to be improved through. I then started to wonder what I wondered after returning from the Canadian trip covered in the April 1983 THE FAST MAIL; where and when would my next trip be? The more good deals Amtrak offers such as the All Aboard fares, the sooner that trip should be.