On the Empire Builder to Seattle.
The St. Paul station has recently been restored and renovated and it’s a magnificent building, although the layout is a bit awkward. The ticket window is just off the street on the ground level; the great hall is at the top of a long escalator, and at the far end is a smaller waiting room for sleeping car passengers. The platform where the trains are boarded is down another long escalator and back down on the lower level.
All that notwithstanding, no one gets past the Amtrak station agent, who is cheerfully greeting passengers as we converge on the waiting area. He’s tall, has snow white hair, a bushy mustache, and looks familiar. No wonder. I’ve met him before. He was Station Master at Winona, Minnesota, for years until Amtrak de-staffed that station as part of the railroad’s unfortunate cost-cutting efforts. (Thanks for nothing and have a happy retirement, John Mica!)
A rugged, good looking young man–probably in his mid-30s–appears and stands off to the side close to the escalator leading down to the platform. He’s wearing jeans and a denim shirt, but is neat as a pin, even with a duffel bag slung casually over one shoulder. The Station Agent brightens: “OK, folks,” he says, “you see that young fellow over there? He’s gonna be your engineer tonight and he’s gonna give you a nice smooth ride.” There are three or four young kids in the small crowd and they are all staring wide-eyed at the young engineer, who smiles self-consciously.
The westbound Empire Builder–designated “Train 7” by Amtrak–arrives on time at 10:02 p.m. and within minutes we’re on our way. Jim Hamre, one of the other NARP directors, is also traveling to Seattle on this train. We booked our travel separately, but we’ve compared tickets and we’re in the same car and directly across the hall from each other: he’s in roomette 8; I’m in number 7.
We clamber up the narrow staircase in our Superliner sleeping car and find our rooms ready for us with berths already made up. In less than five minutes, I’m all tucked in and listening to a podcast of NPR’s wonderful show “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!” as the Minneapolis skyline recedes in the distance and the Minnesota night envelopes the Empire Builder. Up ahead, I can see headlights piercing the darkness as our twin locomotives sweep around a curve.
Find me a better way to travel, I dare you.