My journey from from Portland, Oregon to Whitefish, Montana aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder service was not what I expected, but still enjoyable.
After arriving from Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight, we had about an hour before continuing our journey to Montana. While we checked out the Metropolitan Lounge, we used most of our time to take a walk around the station. Unfortunately, Union Station appears to be in a pretty seedy area of town…or perhaps that is just Portland. As we stepped out of the station, we noticed a couple sitting on the ground outside. One was injecting herself with a needle and the other was smoking a crack pipe…
Boarding was called and we left Portland on time. Amtrak’s Empire Builder train starts in both Seattle and Portland, mergers in Spokane, and continues to Chicago. The service was first inaugurated by the Great Northern Railway in 1929 and assumed by Amtrak in 1971. This service was Amtrak’s first to use a superliner bedroom (double decker) in 1979.
Portland Union Station – Whitefish, Montana
Tuesday, May 17
Depart: 04:45 PM
Arrive: 07:21 AM+1
Duration: 13hr, 36min
Seat: Car 2830 / Room A (Bedroom)
Our sleeping car attendant, Ashley, welcomed us onboard and showed us to our room. The train would slowly fill up as we made more stops enroute to Chicago. This is apparently’s Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route.
Amtrak Empire Builder Superliner Bedroom
Our bedroom was nearly identical to our bedroom on the Coast Starlight journey up. The only difference was that the bathroom and sink were positioned slightly differently. The bedroom can accommodate up to three (two on the lower berth, one on the upper berth) but is best for two or two with a young child. The ensuite restroom includes a toilet and shower combo with a sink on the outside.
Bedding was clean and included two large, plush pillows.
The room had a blue night light which cast an eerie shadow over the room before we finally figured out how to turn it off.
Amtrak Empire Builder Dining
I was looking forward to a fish dinner but learned I would be eating a boxed meal instead. As I mentioned above, the eastbound Empire Builder begins in both Portland and Seattle at about the same time. The two trains meet in Spokane and are joined into a single, longer train. Passengers between Portland and Spokane, however, get the short end of the stick: their train has no dining car.
So I was truly shocked when Ashley informed us there was no dining car onboard and that we had a choice of beef gyros or chicken salad for dinner. We tried one of each and I must admit, the food was not bad. In fact, it was tasty. Even so, there was no warning of this in advance and strikes me a rather unprofessional to served boxed meals instead of, say, using the cafe car to heat meals for sleeper car passengers.
I was still hungry and Ashley offered me another salad with chicken:
We slept through the junction in Spokane but awoke to a much larger train and a hot breakfast. I had an omelet in the dining car and my wife had oatmeal. As we were just traveling alone, we were seated with another women who was traveling to Minnesota to visit her grandchildren.
Amtrak Empire Builder Observation Car
With no dining car or lounge car out of Portland, we spent much of the evening in the observation car.
This leg of the journey is truly quite beautiful. Here’s some pictures (including some pictures from our room the following morning before arrival into Whitefish):
Amtrak Empire Builder Service
A special shoutout to Ashley. She was so friendly, so kind, and tried her best with the limited tools she was working with to provide comfortable service. She was a relatively recent hire of Amtrak and I hope that she sticks with it–she made up for the lack of amenities onboard.
The only other crew interaction I had was with the conductor, who briefly checked my ticket, and the dining car attendants the following morning. All were friendly.
Amtrak Empire Builder Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is not available on this train nor did my mobile phone have coverage for most of the journey.
The dining car issue aside, I truly did enjoy the Amtrak journey. It’s not something I could ever do on a regular basis, but once in a while–maybe once every few years–is a nice change of pace over driving or flying.
Finally, look at how quaint Whitefish, Montana is. We enjoyed a great few days hiking in Glacier National Park.