Tag Archives: Empire Builder

Chicago Union Station


Union Station in Chicago

Chicago Union Station opened in 1925, and is the second building on the site to carry the name. It is the fourth busiest rail terminal in the U.S., serving 140,000 passengers every weekday on average. Union Station has ten tracks coming into it from the north, and 14 from the south.


The Great Hall

Union Station’s headhouse covers an entire city block, with the Great Hall at its center. The Great Hall’s atrium stands 110 feet high, and is capped by a vaulted skylight. The entire Union Station takes up close to ten Chicago city blocks, the vast majority of it underground.

For some reason, I’ve been finding myself in New York State recently, and an easy way to travel from New York to the Twin Cities has been to hop aboard Amtrak. Once again I joined the Lake Shore Limited passengers in Syracuse, NY and transferred in Chicago, where I boarded the Empire Builder to Saint Paul, MN. That particular Am-trek takes around 23 hours of total travel time.

Unlike all other stations that serve Amtrak, every train either originates, or terminates at Chicago Union Station. There is no thru traffic on Amtrak in Chicago.


Amtrak mural at Chicago Union Station


Sunset by Rail

A sunset in Montana, while riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder.

Camera: Leica M3; Film: Kodak 35mm, Ektar 100


The Empire Builder

Saint Paul to Seattle

Because I never seem to do things the easy way, I decided to take Amtrak across the northern border of the U.S. to Seattle from the Twin Cities.

The Empire Builder lounge at Union Depot- St Paul, Minnesota

The entire Empire Builder line from Chicago is 2206 miles, and I had already done the Chicago to Saint Paul section.

The line originated in 1929 by the Great Northern Railway and James J. Hill.

The Great Northern was eventually succeeded by Burlington Northern in 1970.

Minot, NoDak train depot

The Empire Builder averages 1285 riders daily, which is Amtrak’s busiest long distance route. The max speed is 79 mph, with an average speed of 50 mph.

Stanley, NoDak

I did not get a sleeper car for the roughly 36 hour ride, although they are available. This isn’t air travel: the seats are wide and they actually recline, complete with a foot rest. I did not get a seat mate until Spokane, and that only lasted until Everett.

Sunset from the observation car

The Empire Builder runs the double decker rail cars. There is seating below, but I have always gone up the narrow staircase to the top section. The restrooms are on the lower level.

Since I had been visiting family in Minnesota, I was loaded down with food for the ride. I had no need to visit the dining car on this trip. I did spend a fair amount of time in the observation car, which also offers a basic cafe.

Eastern Montana

Lately, I find myself in no hurry to climb on board an airplane. Plus, Amtrak has been running some super saver fares, so the rail ride and flight from Seattle to Fairbanks was actually cheaper than the flight from Minneapolis to Fairbanks.

But that had very little to do with my decision to ride the rail. I simply wanted to experience the Empire Builder, and this was the only way to get that thought out of my head.

Skykomish River, eastern Washington

The Empire Builder travels through some beautiful country, as well as some that one wouldn’t mind speeding through. It does stop within Glacier National Park, and the trek through the Cascades is simply wonderful.

Cascade Tunnel

The Cascade Tunnel was built in 1929 by Great Northern. It’s just short of 8 miles long. Not much is visible for those eight miles, as you can imagine/see from the photo above. The tunnel is near Stevens Pass, Washington, and there was much grumbling about the lack of cell coverage during those dark, eight miles.

Puget Sound

Like cell-free tunnels, Amtrak doesn’t have much say in the weather either. A fog rolled in for our arrival to western Washington, and not much was visible from Everett on.

King Street Station, Seattle

Our train pulled into the King Street Station nine minutes early. Not bad, considering the distance. Amtrak also does not get priority over the freight trains. There were a few times when we had to wait for a freight train to get out of our way.

Overall, I really enjoyed the trip. Once again, this isn’t air travel. One needs to have the time available to ride the rails. One also must be in the proper frame of mind. It’s a good time to drop the petty thoughts and just sit back and relax. I watched one woman get incredibly upset that we were late getting into Havre, Montana. We had just spent 20 minutes waiting for two freight trains to pass, so the delay was hardly a surprise. She was on the train to Seattle, so I couldn’t figure out why she was so upset. Of course, my lackadaisical attitude about the delay didn’t improve her mood either.

King Street Station

Other than her, I met some pretty cool people on the train, and had some great conversations in the observation car. I do recommend the trip, if you have the time.