Somehow, at some point this fall, I felt that unbearable urge to drive across all of America, as one does. I go to school in Boston, yet I come from Oregon. I thought—it might be actually a practical and adventurous option. I listened to a podcast about a man who drove to every town named Lebanon in America. I talked to a friend about their trip driving across the US in early fall. I was inspired.
That is, until I realized how futile of a feat it would be to drive across the northern half of the country during the winter (which was, presumably, when I’d do this). I briefly looked into renting an RV for the drive: nope. The water might freeze. A car? Well, it wasn’t easy to rent a car one-way across the country, and the same issues with icy roads and inclement weather applied. So, I put the idea to rest.
Until, my bosom pal Leo sent a fateful article about traveling across America by train.
This was a perfect idea, especially for our trip back to school from Oregon. Trains are amazing. They have a much smaller carbon footprint than any other method of long distance travel. You can actually see scenery from the train. Also, you could get your own sleeper cabin, which means it would actually be more COVID safe than a plane, probably. And it only took around three days to traverse the country, which is much quicker than car.
Also, I’ve always had a soft spot for Amtrak. Ever since I took my first train along the Northeast corridor, I’ve been incredibly happy with all my experiences riding an Amtrak train. It’s generally quiet, comfortable, and convenient! What more could you ask for? I think of Amtrak as an underdog of sorts, and I would love to see a resurgence of train travel in the US.
Which is why I’m writing this post. I’ll start out by saying my train experience was absolutely wonderful. I would 100% recommend taking the train across the country. Everyone should do it. You really realize how large the US is (which I had a taste of after driving through Eastern Oregon over the summer, which is unsettlingly empty). The service is great. And you really feel more of a connection to the physical landscape of America that you don’t at all get when you fly over the country.
We took two trains to get from Union Station, Portland, OR to South Station, Boston, MA. The first was the Empire Builder, which is an iconic train that operates on the Great Northern Railway between Portland/Seattle and Chicago, through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Fun fact, it’s actually Amtrak’s busiest long distance train! This one takes a little less than two days.
The second train was the Lake Shore Limited, which runs from Chicago to Boston/New York along the Great Lakes, through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, upstate New York, and Massachusetts. This one takes a bit more than one day.
The trains in total were about 60% full on average, I would guesstimate, with many people getting on and off at intermediate stops. The sleeper cars were probably around 40% full on average.
The Empire Builder leaves from Portland at around 5 PM three times a week. We left on a clear Thursday from beautiful Union Station.
The station was more populated than I expected, and it seemed like the majority of people there were boarding the Empire Builder. With a sleeper car reservation, you are usually able to board first. You also have access to the lounge at the train station, but we didn’t have time to take advantage of this in Portland. We did not check luggage, since we packed tons of snacks in our luggage and we wanted access to them on board. This ended up not being a problem, since there was plenty of luggage storage in the sleeper car of the Empire Builder.
Tip: Bring plenty of snacks, maybe some instant ramen, and maybe some drinks to pass the time. Some people say to bring your own comfy pillow, but I thought it was alright. Wear layers and shoes that are easy to slip off, though!
We started boarding about 15 minutes prior to departure. The train leaves very much on time, so make sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure. They check your ticket in line and also when boarding the car.
In the image above, you see Natalie, our lovely sleeper car attendant. Natalie was an absolute blessing to have on our trip—she was so incredibly helpful and really made our trip special. She had been an Amtrak attendant for over 20 years! Huge thanks to Natalie for making our experience so pleasant.
Our sleeper car was at the very end of the train, which reportedly makes the ride slightly more bumpy. Note that the half of the train that originates in Portland includes a sleeper car, 2 coach cars, and the observation car. This means there is no dining car for the first night, so you get a cold meal. In Spokane, two more coach cars, 2 sleeper cars, and the dining car from Seattle connect with the Portland cars. This means that our sleeper car was very far from the dining car.
Speaking of sleeper car, we reserved a roomette, the most modest cabin in an Amtrak sleeper car.
The roomette is pretty small, but I didn’t find it overly claustrophobic for three days, which had been one of my fears. The space is about the size of a twin bed, but a foot or so wider so you can get out of the twin bed. During the day, the roomette consists of two seats—these seats are wider and more comfortable than airplane seats. There is more legroom than on coach in an airplane, but it’s still hard to stretch your legs completely unless you are very good friends with your roommate. During the night, the two seats convert into a bed that is slightly smaller than a twin, and a loft bed is lowered from above. It can be somewhat difficult to get into the loft bed, especially if you have a lot of stuff stored in your roomette, but it’s not uncomfortable sleeping up there. The only issue is that in the Empire Builder, it’s impossible to fully sit up on the loft bed.
Ah! Key information: the Empire Builder consists of “Superliner” type trains, while the Lake Shore Limited consists of “Viewliner” type trains. This is because the Northeast half of the country has tunnels that limit the clearance of the trains that pass through them, so Viewliner trains can only be one level. Meanwhile, Superliners are two floors. There are more rooms on the top floor of the Superliner than the bottom floor. I would recommend getting a top floor room—the view is much better. You can see floorplans of all Amtrak car types here.
However, this also means the ceiling height of rooms on the Superliner train is significantly lower than that of Viewliners, which you shall see.
Anyway, there isn’t a lot of space to store bags in the roomette, which is why you should store your large luggage downstairs in the storage space. We found enough space to have two backpacks and two duffel bags. There is a coat hook, a place to hang two jackets, a trash can, inside of the roomette. There are also various light settings and reading lights, as well as a foldout table between the seats. They provide a pillow for each seat, and provide sheets and blankets at night. There is a little alcove near the top of the door for towels.
There is a glass sliding door from the roomette to the hallway, with curtains that can entirely cover the view into the hallway.
You know, Amtrak accommodations are not the most modern or spacious, but I really enjoyed them and felt that the experience was cozy and novel.
I wasn’t able to take photos, but the corridor outside of the rooms is narrow, with a bathroom on the top level very close by. I thought the bathroom was quite convenient. It was basically an airplane bathroom, if not slightly larger. It was clean, so no complaints there. There are more bathrooms downstairs and also a shower room downstairs. I actually took a shower on the train and it was great! The water was hot, the water pressure was excellent, and the only snafu was that I had trouble shutting the water off. They also provide bath towels that are a bit thin.
Anyway, after getting settled into our room, we headed to the observation car 2 cars down.
The observation car is really a highlight of the Empire Builder—it’s almost all windows, allowing for great views of the terrain you’re passing through. It was nice, even in COVID times.
We managed to catch a sunset crossing the Columbia River into Washington state from the observation car! It was beautiful.
At night, the train runs along the Columbia River Gorge and into Washington state. The main unfortunate aspect of riding the train in the winter is that you can’t see a thing when it’s dark, and since the day is so short, it makes the ride slightly less interesting. It’s alright though. We had dinner soon enough.
Again, we only had cold food, which meant a chicken salad (that was not bad at all!) and a Hawaiian roll (which was delicious) among some other things. But we decided to make our instant ramen instead, and Natalie was very accommodating in bringing us multiple cups of hot water.
So. What is there to do on the train, you might ask?
Honestly, I was hoping to unplug and recharge a bit, since people had claimed that there wasn’t much cell coverage on the train and there was no wifi on the Empire Builder. But, honestly—the cell service was pretty good throughout the ride. There was at least passable cell service 90% of the time. It was much better than the cell service I might get on a road trip. Regardless, I brought and read plenty of books on the trip (Invisible Cities by Calvino, Einstein’s Dreams by Lightman, and The 99% Invisible City. All kind of similar? Perhaps, perhaps.) I also played some Mario on my Switch! So there’s plenty to do. And frankly, a good excuse to not get any work done.
Around 8-9 PM, the attendant will come around and convert the roomette to the bunk bed setup.
After you go to sleep, the train joins the Seattle train in Spokane.
By the morning, you’re in Western Montana, on the edge of Glacier National Park. The traversal of the southern edge of the national park is definitely the main attraction of the Empire Builder, so it’s well worth waking up early for it. In the winter months, this is before the sun rises!
Breakfast is a breakfast sandwich (probably the best item onboard) and some coffee. We ate in the dining car, which had been made more COVID-safe by blocking off every other table and requiring “reservations” for dinner. You had a server who was stretched pretty thin, and the food would come up through a dumbwaiter from the kitchen on the bottom level!
The sun is rising once you reach West Glacier, and from there, you follow the Middle fork Flathead River along the towering peaks of the Rockies. It’s a good idea to have gotten to the Observation Car by this point!
The area is pretty heavily forested, but you frequently catch glimpses of these majestic mountains.
I enjoyed the latter half of the journey through the park better than the earlier half—the sun had risen and there was something very ethereal about the snow-covered mountains.
It felt rare to be able to see the mountains of the park covered in snow, since, as each year gets warmer, the glaciers begin to melt and the snow is nowhere to be found in the winter. It’s also just hard to get to and into the park during the winter. I felt very lucky!
Finally, I thought the most beautiful part of the entire trip came as soon as you left the range of mountains. The colors of the sunset projected their remains onto the clouds about the mountains, their stark white giving way to a tawny-brown praire. The terrain becomes less and less hilly, and the mountains quickly recede into smaller and smaller prominences.
Soon, the entire landscape looks like this:
And when that happens, it’s about time to retire to the roomette. We realized then that you can ask for meals to be brought to your room, so we did for lunch! They packed everything very thoughtfully.
It was alright.
Then, we hit one of the more fun parts of the ride: the random small towns in northern Montana you stop in.
These stops were special because some let you get out for a bit (20 minutes or so) and breathe some fresh air. They also felt truly remote, the first time where you had any sense of being one with the train. That you, the train, and all the crew and passengers in it, were in it together to cross the continent.
I also really enjoyed looking up these small towns and learning about their railroad-connected histories. Anyway, one was Shelby, MT, which apparently hosted a boxing match in 1923 to determine the world heavyweight boxing champion. So many of these towns had been founded basically because of the railroad, and continued to rely on being served by the train that we were riding! I was surprised that the New York Times had written an article about this very soon after I had actually passed through very similar towns, but my experience was pretty accurate.
It was pretty cool to see towns that really centered around the railroad! However, outside of the towns, it’s quite boring in Eastern Montana (again, more of the praire that turns into badlands around North Dakota). This is a good time to start reading that book you really wanted to finish. Also, the sun sets early, and it’s dark before you enter Noth Dakota.
Tip: if you’re in the sleeping car, you get one alcoholic drink free for each rider during the course of the train ride! We got an IPA with an upside down label.
Sadly, you pass through Fargo, ND (which I was hyped for ever since watching Fargo) in the middle of the night.
In the morning, you arrive in Minneapolis and it feels like there’s civilization again! It’s crazy how much land and how few people there are between the West coast and the Midwest. I really enjoyed falling asleep in what seems like the middle of nowhere, and waking up in a major metro area. Again, one of the great things about the train: it just keeps going, even when you’re asleep!
You get a brief stop at the St. Paul train station, and then it’s onwards to Wisconsin. This part of the trip is fun since you follow the Mississippi River down to Milwaukie.
The river looked like it had frozen over, and there were people ice fishing on it, which definitely confirmed my stereotype of Minnesotans.
Crossing Wisconsin mid-day, I was disappointed to see very few cows. Obviously, they wouldn’t be out in herds in the dead of winter, but I expected to see more than two cows across the entire width of Wisconsin… Wisconsin and Minnesota felt much more settled (people-wise) than Montana, though.
Milwaukee was semi-disappointing (the downtown doesn’t inspire feelings of grandeur, per se), but a big highlight was passing very close to the under-construction Foxconn plant in Mt Pleasant! (The subject of one of my favorite podcast episodes.)
And from there, you pretty much enter the vast Chicago metro area, where you must detrain from the Empire Builder. Honestly, it felt like it was too soon.
I had been keeping track of how on-time the train was throughout the journey. Long-distance Amtrak trains tend to have a reputation of running very late, due to the presence of many cargo trains. We’d become more than an hour late somewhere in Eastern Montana, but I was surprised to see that we had made up this difference overnight and arrived in Chicago early, in fact!
But detrain we must, and we found our way to the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago Union Station. They’d just renovated the station not long before, and you could tell! It looked great.
Tip: you can store luggage in the lounge. The lounge has quite a bit of seating, but the upper level was fenced off and there was no food being served. You had to ask a staff member to grab plastic water bottles.
The train station was beautiful and very grand! This is what I wish Penn Station (still) looked like (although I’m excited to check out Moynihan Station!).
We walked 15 minutes to Greektown and picked up some gyro plates for cheap.
One big con of this stopover (which is to account for Eastbound trains arriving late, which they often do) was that it was about two hours too long (from 4:30 PM to 9 PM in Chicago). It was getting dark and downtown was very empty because of COVID, so we thought it’d be better to return and find a secluded spot in the lounge to eat dinner and wait it out.
It was a TON of food for very cheap. I liked my kebab platter more. 6/10.
Time to board the Lake Shore Limited! They lead a group out from the lounge when it’s time, so just wait for the announcement.
This train felt much less friendly and more business-like than the previous one. There were more people on the sleeper car, but we noticed that most of them didn’t go the whole way to Boston. The train again has separate sleeper cars and other cars for Boston vs. NYC final destination, so be careful which one you get on! Like I mentioned, this train consists of Viewliners instead of Superliners. The space was smaller and we had to use a spare roomette to store luggage for all the sleeper car passengers.
The roomettes were larger because of the height of the ceilings. They also included an in-room toilet and sink, which I was not a fan of. The sink was not amazing (but would do for brushing your teeth or washing your hands). You could also step on these to get onto the bunk bed.
The one big improvement, however, was that it included a nook across from the bunk bed to store luggage in. So there was more space for us to sit down below.
It’s dark as you roll out of the Chicago metro area. This train was very loud, and would sound its horn very frequently (every couple of minutes). We got used to this.
Shortly before we fell asleep, we passed through South Bend, Indiana. Dreams of Pete Buttigieg reviving enthusiasm for robust American rail service followed.
In the morning, you’re in upstate New York, where you are for much of the last day of the train. Another breakfast sandwich and coffee for kicks.
This is also a great part of the journey to do some reading, because it’s not super interesting in Upstate New York in the winter, other than the cities you pass through, and taking a glance at the Erie Canal.
The windows on this train were a lot more dirty than the other one, which I wish wasn’t the case!
I’m sure it’s much prettier in the summer. Anyway, I read all of The 99% Invisible City this day, and I read the bit about Syracuse, NY’s inverted traffic light just about when we passed through Syracuse! So that was fun. Also, there are a couple stops in upstate NY where you can get out and take a breather.
The trains separate in Albany, NY. The Boston train left almost immediately after the separation, but the NYC train had to wait a bit. You follow the Hudson for a bit before entering Massachusetts, when it starts getting dark.
And finally, 3200 miles and four and a half days later, we arrive in Boston’s South Station!
In conclusion? What can I say? I really enjoyed doing this. If I had the time, I’d do this every time I had to go to school! It’s a great time to slow down, and I do feel like I learned a lot more about the country (especially the Midwest) from seeing all of it.
Also, the train is awesome! It does feel slightly outdated, and the accommodations are a little bit run down, but that just made it all the more charming to me. I was very comfortable and cozy throughout (dress code is sweats!), despite the space being quite small.
If you were to take any leg of the trip, I would recommend the Empire Builder. The Empire Builder truly felt like a journey across the vast stretches of the unknown of the American West. It really got you feeling something about the power of the locomotive, Manifest Destiny-ing the whole of the continental United States. Seeing Glacier National Park was incredibly special and reminded me how beautiful this country is! The Lake Shore Limited, on the other hand, feels like it carries more business travelers and people are more curt than conversational. The scenery is alright but nothing to write home about.