Amtrak is easily the slowest way to travel from coast to coast, but I did it anyway. The journey was delayed by more than 24 hours thanks to a missed connection in Chicago. Still, the sights were so beautiful — and the conversations with fellow passengers so enjoyable — that I'd repeat the journey every time I travel, if I had the time. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Over the course of 96 hours, I saw more of the US than I had ever seen before as I traveled through cities and towns of all sizes, across wind-swept plains, and through some of the most beautiful mountains imaginable. But stepping onto my first overnight Amtrak journey, I thought I was a seasoned veteran. Mere hours into the four-day journey though, I quickly learned that wasn't the case. I've taken the train between New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, more times than I can count, and even ventured out of the Northeast Corridor for a few longer journeys. But compared to many other passengers on this trip from coast to coast, I was still a novice in every sense of the term. My companions on this 96-hour, 10-state journey from New York to Seattle, especially my fellow sleeping car passengers, were well-versed on how to survive a multiday trip by rail. Nearly every person I met had been on a sleeper before, and they were well-prepared to pass the time. Unfortunately, I was not as ready. SEE ALSO: I tried Amtrak's new 'contemporary' dining car and it was immediately clear why so many people want to save the old one I departed Business Insider's headquarters on a Tuesday afternoon, loaded up with plenty of snacks, tons reading material, hours of podcasts, fully charged batteries, and high hopes.
My journey officially began at New York's Pennsylvania Station, one of the most hated buildings in the city, if not the world.
It's the busiest rail terminal in North America, with 16 Amtrak routes, as well as commuter rail to upstate New York, New Jersey, and Long Island. There are lots of ways to cross the country by train. The journey I chose isn't the longest by route miles, but it is one of the most popular.
The Empire Builder, as it's known, crosses 10 states, through some of the most beautiful — and desolate — parts of the country. I chose this route over the others simply for the fact it passes through four states I had never seen. The first half of my journey was scheduled to depart Manhattan at 3:40 p.m. I had an assigned car and room number, so there was no mad-dash to get a seat like on some trains. Still, I found myself in a line.
Why does Amtrak love lines so much? I'm not sure. Nevertheless, a friendly staff member began walking us to our platform about 10 minutes before our departure. Each train car had an assigned attendant, who helped me find my room and later came through to explain everything about the room, how dining worked, and all the other rules of the train.
James pointed out the luggage rack in the ceiling, which I was thankful to find, given that suitcases barely fit into the small room. I was surprised my tiny room included both a toilet (which doubled as a table) and a fold down sink.
The sink only drains as you fold it back into the wall, and splashed all over my stuff when I used the faucet.
As we headed up the Hudson River, I settled in to relax and watch the sunset.
Overnight we'd pass through upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana before rolling into Chicago the next morning. It's worth noting here that I was in a single-level "Viewliner" sleeper. Amtrak operates these on the East Coast because it's taller, "Superliner" trains can't fit through the more than century-old tunnels in Baltimore, New York, and others. At Albany, where the train had to switch from modern, electrified power to a diesel locomotive, we had about a 20-minute break to stretch our legs, get a snack, smoke a cigarette, and pick up more passengers.
I headed inside to check out the station. My dinner reservation wasn't until 8:30, so after stretching my legs in Albany I settled in for some more reading until my time slot was called.
The rooms, while small, were surprisingly spacious! I was able to fully stretch out my legs onto the second seat. (Though had I been sharing this room, things would have been quite cramped.) I had previously reported on some big changes on (some of) Amtrak's dining cars east of the Mississippi, so I was mentally prepared going into dinner — and that proved to be a good thing.
I found an open seat next to Hal, many decades my senior, who was on his way home to Montana from a family reunion in Vermont; and Peggy, also an Amtrak veteran of many more years than I've lived, who was headed to California to visit her son. There are basically two types of people who ride these long distance trains, Roger Harris, Amtrak's chief commercial and marketing officer, said in an interview a few days before I set off on this journey. "They have very, very different characteristics," he said. "People riding coach tend to travel a few hundred miles, while people in sleepers tend to be much more end-to-end. There are people who get on in Albany and get off in Cleveland, or get on in Cleveland and ride to Chicago." Those intermediate markets, sometimes called "city pairs" by people in the industry, are a big focus for Amtrak going forward. As I scanned the menu with my complementary glass of wine, Peggy — who was finished with her Chicken Fettuccine already — warned me in a polite-but-foreboding tone that the food "isn't what it used to be."
Both of my companions had been on other cross-country routes, and confirmed I made a good choice with the Empire Builder. Next on my list is the Southwest Chief, by their suggestion, to see the Rocky Mountains in all their grandeur. The Creole Shrimp and Sausage left much to be desired. I'm no gourmand in my home kitchen -- but for these ticket prices, I could see why people were unhappy.
The food was clearly microwaved (or quickly reheated in some capacity) and wasn't even served on a real plate. The "specialty dessert" was a pre-packaged brownie. "1-800-USA-RAIL!," the lone (and very busy) dining attendant quipped to an unsatisfied passenger. "I didn't make the changes." Luckily, the food got better on the next train — where the white tablecloths are likely to remain, for now at least. (More on that in a bit.)
"West of the Mississippi, these trains are typically two nights," Harris, the Amtrak executive, said when I asked him if the changes might expand westward beyond their initial rollout. "They're typically a 48-hour train to the West Coast," he said, "so the onboard service is a more important part of the journey and people have more dining events while they're traveling. It's more complicated than on the East Coast where people generally get on in the evening, have a meal, and then get off in the evening." After the dining car emptied out, I headed back to my room to settle in for the night. James asked if I wanted to use the top of bottom bed (yes, people pack two-tight into these roommates) and showed me how to make it up.
I grabbed another breath of fresh air in Syracuse, New York, where we arrived around 10:15 p.m., about an hour behind schedule. I joked about this safety net as I crawled into bed, but one big bump in the night later and I was thankful it was there to keep me from falling six feet to the train floor below.
Sleeping aboard a train was surprisingly difficult. The bed was comfortable enough, and the blankets warm, but every train that passed with its whistle blasting caused me to toss and turn. I spent half the night watching stars (something I can't do often in New York). I awoke the next morning around Benton Township, Ohio, according to the location tags that my phone automatically added to this photo.
When we stopped in Toledo, the train was more or less on time. The rest of the morning, however, would throw much of my trip into disarray. I went to breakfast — an unreserved affair compared to dinner — around 10 a.m., after we should have already arrived in Chicago. Sadly, however, we were in Waterloo, Indiana — still hours from our destination.
Breakfast was about the same quality as dinner. To be fair, I only have a banana and granola bar each morning — even a microwaved sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich is an upgrade. Worried I would miss my connection in Chicago, I went back in my room and contemplated life, the status of rail travel in the United States, and tried to get some work done.
My train from Chicago to Seattle, meanwhile, left without me.
Finally, we arrived in Chicago a full five hours and 49 minutes behind schedule. Plenty of other people missed their connecting trains too, but no one seemed to be very disappointed. After all, we were (mostly) here for the journey — and knew it would be a slow one.
Amtrak stations largely fall into two basic categories: beautifully restored stations built hundreds of years ago, and derelict shacks. Luckily, Chicago's falls into the former. I joined a line with many of my fellow delayed travelers and plotted how I could waste 24 hours in Chicago. Luckily, Amtrak had many of our trips already rebooked, and a customer service agent went down the line passing out updated itineraries as well as hotel and food vouchers.
On an unplanned hiatus from my journey, I decided to explore downtown Chicago, a city with great importance to America's railroad history.
24 hours behind schedule, I headed back to Union Station for attempt number two to board the Empire Builder to Seattle.
Unfortunately for the beautiful station, Amtrak, again, loves lines. I followed the signs to find a snaking line of unhappy travelers leading to the boarding gate. Once the door opened, we headed to our train. There was no rush, like trains on the East Coast, but this many people with luggage heading down one narrow platform made for chaos, to say the least.
Whoever was scanning tickets at the platform entrance was directing people to the wrong doors, a conductor said, only adding to the confusion. This leg of my journey — like most trains west of Chicago — was on what Amtrak calls a "Superliner." These taller, double-level train cars offer quite the view (and can carry many more passengers). Luckily, however, I soon discovered that I had lucked out: the accessible bedroom was mine.
The attendant later noted these rooms are only bookable about one week out from a trip. I lucked out with this instead of a coach seat because the bedroom wasn't booked. Whew. Smitten with relief from not having to spend two nights sleeping upright, I unpacked my stuff and got comfortable in my new room.
The accessible bedrooms are the only accommodations that take up the entire width of a train car. I also had my own toilet inside, while other travelers had to venture down the hall to shared restrooms. As on my first trip, a dining car attendant came to take my reservation. I chose the latest option again.
I also had a choice of two seats in this spacious bedroom, depending on which way I wanted to face.
This was conflicting enough in the first room, but now I also had to choose which side of the train to look out! Admittedly, sitting on the toilet wasn't as comfortable, so I mostly stuck to the side with actual chairs. Rolling through Wisconsin, one of the few aforementioned states I had never visited before, the landscape was mostly what I was expecting: rolling hills and farms.
As the sun began to set, we rolled into Milwaukee, our second stop and the first outside of the Chicago metro area. This train had an observation car, too, which I was eager to use as an escape from my room.
Somewhere between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, my dinner reservation finally rolled around. I headed to the dining car, and followed the instructions to wait at the door to be seated.
It was immediately clear from the tablecloths and Amtrak-emblazoned cutlery that Peggy was right: this meal would be much better than the previous train. Dining on Amtrak is an interesting affair, unlike any restaurant I've ever been to.
Each passenger fills out this form, which appears to have general categories for menu items, "poultry entree" or "healthy menu option." I assume these let the company track what's being ordered, while allowing for some flexibility. "They've said computers are coming for the entire 12 years I've worked here," the waiter said when I asked if they were eventually scanned into a computer or somehow tallied. There were a lot more choices on this train, too. But alcohol, unfortunately, was not included in my reservation. I eventually settled on the "Land and Sea Combo" because let's face it, I'm never going to pass up a steak.
Out the window, we caught brief glimpses of the Mississippi River. Two of my table-mates, Thomas and Mimi, from Switzerland, were very confused about how we were crossing the famous river this far north, so we pulled out a map and discussed geography. Dessert was so delicious that I forgot to take a photo, but take my word for it that the cheesecake was moist, flavorful, and topped with fresh whipped cream.
In a sugar coma, I settled back into my cabin as we rolled into our last smoke break of the day in St. Paul, Minnesota. As Harris, the Amtrak executive, mentioned, Minneapolis is one of the big hubs along this lengthy journey. I saw plenty of people disembarking and plenty more boarding as we set off for North Dakota and the rest of the West. I opted for the bottom bunk on this train, so that I could see out the window (despite the darkness). It was slightly more spacious than the first train, and I quickly drifted off to sleep.
At some point in the night we hit a nasty storm, despite being so early in the season. It bombarded much of the upper Midwest. My window was mostly caked with ice, and the landscape had changed drastically since Minnesota.
There's nothing more warming than a hearty breakfast, and pancakes did the trick.
These pancakes were some of the best I've ever had: perfectly fluffy, slightly crisp around the edges, and not dry to the point they merely soak up syrup like sponges. It's no surprise that they were out of pancakes the next morning — that will teach me to sleep late. At this meal, I was pleasantly surprised to meet people younger than me. Two women from Pittsburgh were headed to Seattle, where one had just accepted an internship at Boeing. We talked about planes for a bit before parting ways. I've lived in New York for the better part of a decade, but snow is still extremely exciting, so I headed to the observation car to stare at the frozen landscape.
Seats were in high-demand here, but after a few minutes of pacing back and forth I managed to snag a seat. Downstairs, there were snacks for sale by Miss Oliver, the lounge-car attendant. When making announcements, she sang little jingles for us. I was partial to her Tina Turner cover. By Minot, North Dakota, it was time for another crew change.
Once again, I took the time to stretch my legs with the smokers. Across the street, a small coffee trailer was open and eager to see us. A conductor said they rely on the daily train arrivals for business, and are prepared every time. Somewhere near the Montana/North Dakota border, things started to look like I expected them to. That is to say, it was desolate.
The landscape out here, mere miles from the Canadian border, is dotted with dozens — if not hundreds — of small farming towns. Some of the smaller stations don't see many passengers. That's probably because this one in particular still features a vintage Amtrak logo that was retired nearly two decades ago.
Malta, Montana, saw 3,570 passengers in 2018, statistics show, with most of those coming from Chicago. One thing I didn't expect to see along the route were so many railroad museums.
We must have passed at least a dozen small homages to America's railroad history at stations throughout the journey. Here, in Havre, Montana, a beautifully restored locomotive from the Great Northern Railway sits next to the station. Now defunct, the railway was the northernmost transcontinental route in the country, and carried the original "Empire Builder" train in 1929. Salmon was my dinner choice for the second night. It wasn't the best fish I've ever had, but still an excellent meal.
I was sat again next to Thomas and Mimi, who told me about their travels aboard the Orient Express from Milan to Istanbul, as well as the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia. Those trains are now next on my list. I cannot overstate the amount of farming. It was at this point I fully understood the line "amber waves of grain."
At this point, I was getting pretty restless. Eager to get to Seattle (and off this train), I settled in for an early bedtime (and more reading).
I woke up the next morning in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Eastern Washington.
Wenatchee, apparently, is the apple production capital of the United States, producing six of every 10 apples grown in the country each year. There were no pancakes this morning because I slept in. I opted for an omelette and grits instead. Not bad!
Because service was over for the trip, I managed to get a small tour of the kitchen and service area.
These dumbwaiters carry food for hundreds of meals every day from the full kitchen and grill on the lower level, to the upper deck where it's served to hungry passengers. Finally, we turned a corner out of the mountains and there it was at long last: Puget Sound.
I shed a small tear as I spied the Olympic Mountains peeking above the sound. We were so close I could almost taste it. I stepped off the train at 1 p.m. — nearly three hours after our scheduled arrival.
"Have you ever arrived on time?" I heard a fellow passenger ask a crew member as we departed. They just shook their head. Seattle's King Street station, like Chicago, is beautiful.
Google Maps says this journey would have taken just 42 hours to drive, compared to my 96 hours on a train. Sure, it took a little bit longer. But if I had the time to do it again, I'd cross the country by train every time. As Peggy, my first dinner companion, said the first night, "you just can't see anything from 30,000 feet." Some 3,000 miles later, she couldn't have been more right.