VIA Rail Canadian + Empire Builder loop trip

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zephyr17

Engineer
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Some "traintubers" on YouTube apparently travel with a radio tuned to the frequency used for train crew chatter, and the messages from the defect detectors are heard on those radios, too.
Not just "traintubers". Many of us carry scanners on our travels with no intention of posting videos anywhere.

I am a total scanner junkie onboard.

Just remember the earphones/earbuds, folks. The static, squawks and tones emitted by the scanners can be pretty obnoxious.
 
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Joined
Sep 2, 2011
Messages
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Ann Arbor, MI
Slept better last night, and ended up being woken by an announcement that the dining car was open for breakfast around 7:45am. Was glad I didn’t set an alarm - if I had, it would have gone off underneath my bed with no way to silence it without putting it up since my phone fell there down through the crack overnight, At that point we were in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and closing in on St. Paul Union Depot, having made up the 2 hours we were behind overnight in North Dakota. Wanted to take a shower, but the sign said “in use” despite seemingly no noise at all coming from there. Did other things and came back shortly after to find the same situation. Thinking the door may be broken, I knocked to find out that there was indeed someone in there. Ended up going to breakfast - got the same thing as yesterday, though ordered It all up-front. Finished my breakfast while we were stopped at MSP, and went back down to the shower that was now open.

Finished showering just as we pulled out of the station, grabbed coffee, and then went to the lounge car to see the Mississippi. Saw a CP facility as well as a lot of CP freight cars - kind of the reverse of when I saw BNSF in Canada. All the seats on that side were full, so ended up going back to my sleeper. Eventually went back and got a seat and hung out there until we got to Wisconsin, when I had lunch. Talked to a couple from Colorado who had flown to Portland to take this to Milwaukee - found they were also familiar with the Zephyr and its mooners (and saw the mooner at Glacier Park yesterday), as well as the Rocky Mountaineer starting service in Colorado. I also mentioned riding the Surfliner and the upcoming trip to San Diego - the Southwest Chief was brought up, though I mentioned I was probably just going to fly due to the situation with withdrawn sleepers, high cost (SWC roomettes are running more than the EB was now, and that’s a train I’ve been on before), and worries about daily service being curtailed. As we arrived in Wisconsin Dells, I reminisced about a past family trip there.

After lunch, I headed to the bathroom only to find the “in use” label illegible and the door not opening. It turns out it was occupied - this was not the only time this had happened, though it wasn’t always occupied when the label was illegible. The door also was hard to unlock once I was done using it. Though a minor issue, the Superliners are definitely looking aged compared to when I first rode them 10 or so years ago. VIAs equipment was older, but seemed better maintained. In the lounge car, I also heard some coach passengers (at least some of which boarded at MSP, which probably gets few sleeper passengers on the train to CHI) surprised that they couldn’t eat in the dining car. We were still on track for an on-time (or even early) arrival into Chicago, though. We arrived in Columbus, WI (the Las Vegas, NM of the north, sharing a name with a far more populated city with no Amtrak service, and also the endpoint for past AGR loophole trips) on time. After that, our next stop is Milwaukee, and then we’re following the route of the Hiawatha to Chicago.

Looks like we’ll be on time - if so I could have taken 354 home, though at this point I’m locked into my hotel, and want to see the Venture cars on 350. Though it should be nice staying in the JW Marriott downtown - got a good last-minute deal there, which will have a pool I can relax in unlike my original hotel choice (and since I was a kid checking out the pool has always been one tof the things I look forward to the most in hotels). While it is a quick walk to the station, I am dreading a bit having to deal with general coach boarding at Chicago Union Station - as my sleeper arrives the night before, I can‘t use my ticket to access the Metropolitan Lounge. Could use points or cash to get a pass, but not sure it’s worth it - and obviously don’t want Business Class on this trip as that would be a Horizon car.
 
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MccfamschoolMom

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Joined
Feb 28, 2020
Messages
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Dwight, IL
Slept better last night, and ended up being woken by an announcement that the dining car was open for breakfast around 7:45am. Was glad I didn’t set an alarm - if I had, it would have gone off underneath my bed with no way to silence it without putting it up since my phone fell there down through the crack overnight, At that point we were in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and closing in on St. Paul Union Depot, having made up the 2 hours we were behind overnight in North Dakota. Wanted to take a shower, but the sign said “in use” despite seemingly no noise at all coming from there. Did other things and came back shortly after to find the same situation. Thinking the door may be broken, I knocked to find out that there was indeed someone in there. Ended up going to breakfast - got the same thing as yesterday, though ordered It all up-front. Finished my breakfast while we were stopped at MSP, and went back down to the shower that was now open.

Finished showering just as we pulled out of the station, grabbed coffee, and then went to the lounge car to see the Mississippi. Saw a CP facility as well as a lot of CP freight cars - kind of the reverse of when I saw BNSF in Canada. All the seats on that side were full, so ended up going back to my sleeper. Eventually went back and got a seat and hung out there until we got to Wisconsin, when I had lunch. Talked to a couple from Colorado who had flown to Portland to take this to Milwaukee - found they were also familiar with the Zephyr and its mooners (and saw the mooner at Glacier Park yesterday), as well as the Rocky Mountaineer starting service in Colorado. I also mentioned riding the Surfliner and the upcoming trip to San Diego - the Southwest Chief was brought up, though I mentioned I was probably just going to fly due to the situation with withdrawn sleepers, high cost (SWC roomettes are running more than the EB was now, and that’s a train I’ve been on before), and worries about daily service being curtailed. As we arrived in Wisconsin Dells, I reminisced about a past family trip there.

After lunch, I headed to the bathroom only to find the “in use” label illegible and the door not opening. It turns out it was occupied - this was not the only time this had happened, though it wasn’t always occupied when the label was illegible. The door also was hard to unlock once I was done using it. Though a minor issue, the Superliners are definitely looking aged compared to when I first rode them 10 or so years ago. VIAs equipment was older, but seemed better maintained. In the lounge car, I also heard some coach passengers (at least some of which boarded at MSP, which probably gets few sleeper passengers on the train to CHI) surprised that they couldn’t eat in the dining car. We were still on track for an on-time (or even early) arrival into Chicago, though. We arrived in Columbus, WI (the Las Vegas, NM of the north, sharing a name with a far more populated city with no Amtrak service, and also the endpoint for past AGR loophole trips) on time. After that, our next stop is Milwaukee, and then we’re following the route of the Hiawatha to Chicago.

Looks like we’ll be on time - if so I could have taken 354 home, though at this point I’m locked into my hotel, and want to see the Venture cars on 350. Though it should be nice staying in the JW Marriott downtown - got a good last-minute deal there, which will have a pool I can relax in unlike my original hotel choice (and since I was a kid checking out the pool ha always been one tof the things I look forward to the most in hotels). While it is a quick walk to the station, I am dreading a bit having to deal with general coach boarding at Chicago Union Station - as my sleeper arrives the night before, I can‘t use my ticket to access the Metropolitan Lounge. Could use points or cash to get a pass, but not sure it’s worth it - and obviously don’t want Business Class on this trip as that would be a Horizon car.
Let us know what riding coach is like on the Illinois Service trains heading home. My daughter used to ride the Lincoln Service coming home from graduate school in the Chicago suburbs, but she didn't talk about it. (And the hubby and I would need to catch a Lincoln Service train to Chicago before boarding any Amtrak LD train except the Texas Eagle (station stop 20 miles SW of us) or the City of New Orleans (our adult son can drive us to Kankakee, about a 45-minute drive E of us).)
 
Joined
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Messages
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Let us know what riding coach is like on the Illinois Service trains heading home. My daughter used to ride the Lincoln Service coming home from graduate school in the Chicago suburbs, but she didn't talk about it. (And the hubby and I would need to catch a Lincoln Service train to Chicago before boarding any Amtrak LD train except the Texas Eagle (station stop 20 miles SW of us) or the City of New Orleans (our adult son can drive us to Kankakee, about a 45-minute drive E of us).)
I’m actually taking the Wolverine, which is one of the Michigan services. Will be on 350, the early-morning run out of Chicago, heading to Ann Arbor, MI. The interesting thing about this train (as well as 355, the late departure on Michigan) is it is one of the first with the new Siemens Venture coaches. Have heard there have been some growing pains there (currently you can’t board through the new cars - Horizons on the ends of the train are apparently used for boarding),
 

MccfamschoolMom

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Feb 28, 2020
Messages
460
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Dwight, IL
I’m actually taking the Wolverine, which is one of the Michigan services. Will be on 350, the early-morning run out of Chicago, heading to Ann Arbor, MI. The interesting thing about this train (as well as 355, the late departure on Michigan) is it is one of the first with the new Siemens Venture coaches. Have heard there have been some growing pains there (currently you can’t board through the new cars - Horizons on the ends of the train are apparently used for boarding),
I had forgotten your description from the beginning of this thread of the ingenious combination of transportation options you had taken to get from Michigan to Toronto; sorry!
 
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Ann Arbor, MI
We arrived into Chicago early last night, which was nice - everybody made their connections, and I would have made 354 with enough time to grab dinner. Though I wasn’t riding 354 - I had planned to stay overnight due to this not being guaranteed and the opportunity to ride new Venture cars on 350 (or so I thought). Was a really quick walk from the Union Station Adams St entrance to my hotel (the JW Marriott), and that entrance happened to be right by McDonalds and Dunkin’ (something I noted for tomorrow, as I would need to grab a quick breakfast before boarding unless I wanted to wait for the cafe car).

After checking in, walked down to Giordano’s for dinner, which was just a couple blocks. Walking there, I passed the Quincy station on the L - not only was I close to Union Station, I was close to the L as well. Though I wouldn’t be riding it - I had an early night and just wanted to relax. Got some cheese bread and a personal-size deep dish pizza - I’ve been having some stomach issues so haven’t had any in quite a while (and starting slow). Dinner was good - a nice change from the train menu (which was the same every night, unlike the Canadian which rotated).

Went back to the hotel and checked out the pool and hot tub, a rarity in downtown Chicago and part of why I changed hotels. I had been at the Hilton Garden Inn Central Loop, which had opened recently and was an even shorter walk to Union Station, but didn’t have a pool. Just getting off a long train with an early departure tomorrow, I felt like relaxing rather than exploring Chicago - and the last-minute deal I found was not that much more (actually about the same, though I had used Hilton points for part of the previous booking). That was pretty nice, and I stayed until it got a bit too crowded/noisy. Decided to try out the large bathtub in my room, and then went to bed early to be up for 350.

Woke up at 5:25am, which is when I sent my alarm for - the goal being to be at the station at 6am. Ended up missing that goal slightly - getting ready took me a little bit longer than planned, and there was a slight delay at the front desk as someone had a complex issue (though I was able to drop off my keys and leave when I asked). Made it to the station around 6:10, and headed for McDonalds - Dunkin’ was not yet open (which seems silly given it was after 6am in a busy train station). There was no line, and I got my breakfast quickly (and just in time, as a line formed right afterwards). Then I made my way towards the Amtrak boarding lounges, and asked where the Wolverine boarded - was directed to Gate C. Then, a small line had started to form -wondered if it was just business class, but got in anyway. It soon became a big line as they made the boarding announcement, so that was good thinking - I had timed it just right. They did start boarding with business class (during which I thought about how it would stink to pay more money to sit in an older car - or so I thought), and then eventually got to coach.

Once we made our way to the track, I was greeted with a surprise - Horizon cars. Not just BC and cars for boarding at the end of the consist, but every car was a Horizon car. Ugh - had I known I’d have chanced 354, particularly when they started allowing multi-city booking with the Empire Builder. Disappointed, I boarded at the car I was directed to for Ann Arbor (I had been worried they would direct me to a Horizon car in a mostly-Venture consist and I’d have to plead to ride the new cars, but didn’t think they would withdraw Venture cars entirely). It was at least a refurbished Horizon car (which looked in better shape than the Superliners I had been on), and I was able to nab a prime window seat with no one next to me. Probably would have been worse crowds on 354, though I would have likely tried to get business class there.

Once on board, I ate my breakfast, and we soon began our journey out of Chicago Union Station. Passed a lot of Norfolk Southern freight (the bane of many an Amtrak train into or out of Chicago’s existence), stopped at Hammond-Whiting, and then paralleled the South Shore Line (to which I hope this train is moved in the near future). Got through that stretch without an issue, and then switched to the Amtrak Michigan Line and sped up. Passed the now-shuttered Michigan City station (which still has an Amtrak sign), and then entered Michigan (and Eastern Time) and stopped in New Buffalo. Aside from Chicago, that is the main stop I get off at west of Ann Arbor, as it is the only stop on the Wolverine in Michigan adjacent to Lake Michigan (and I like visiting Lake Michigan). The cafe car made its opening announcement (having finished my breakfast I may get a coffee), and we quickly reached the stop at Niles after that - hoping the rest of this trip is uneventful.

(As a side note, it would be nice to have more options to get to Lake Michigan without a car - obviously St. Joseph’s station is lake-adjacent too, but it would require a day-long backtrack to Chicago to connect. Holland is close, but Has the same backtrack issue and there is no easy transit option (or even readily available Uber/Lyft) connecting the beach and downtown - there may be dial-a-ride, but it is limited to weekday daytimes and still says it’s for essential trips only. Maybe if the Wolverine re-routes to the South Shore Line we’ll get Indiana Dunes as another option, and maybe if the Pere Marquette re-routes using the Michigan Line to New Buffalo we’ll get better connections in the future. Ideally, we‘d also have a Holland-Grand Rapids/Lansing/Ann Arbor/Detroit train and there would be some kind of shuttle connecting downtown Holland and the beach, though that’s perhaps farther off)
 

MccfamschoolMom

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Giordano's was a very popular pizza place at its Champaign location when the hubby and I were grad students at the University of Illinois. It's good to hear that their Loop location has excellent pizza as well (and is within walking distance of Chicago's Union Station!).
 
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Giordano's was a very popular pizza place at its Champaign location when the hubby and I were grad students at the University of Illinois. It's good to hear that their Loop location has excellent pizza as well (and is within walking distance of Chicago's Union Station!).
Yeah - I actually saw a lot of suitcases there, so I’m guessing a lot of people came over there to eat during their Chicago layover or before an evening train. Also, I forgot to mention that I saw someone with a Detroit Tigers hat there - looked up the schedule and they were in fact playing in Chicago that afternoon! Kind of funny when they were playing in Toronto the night I was there, and in both cases I narrowly missed being able to go to one of the games. Guessing there may have been a lot of Tigers fans on 354 last night - have done that trip before, and also did a same-day 351-354 trip to see them when they played the Cubs in a day game at Wrigley (which a lot of other fans also did).
 
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Living across the old ocean in London, England. I've really enjoyed the description you've given of each part of your journey, especially the food, important for all of us. Thanks been a great read. Best Wishes, Mike
 
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So the rest of the Wolverine trip was rather uneventful - we stopped to let 351 and 353 pass, but that’s about all. 351 went by too fast to tell if it had Venture cars, though 353 definitely did not. I did end up going to the cafe car for a coffee, which had a pretty long line. As to the Venture cars not being on this consist, I did get one possible explanation for the change - a few weeks ago one of the Wolverines was insanely late, causing the consists to switch. One other brief anecdote from last night’s Chicago trip - in my room, there were several pictures of trains, which seemed fitting (particularly since my Seattle room did as well).

All in all, that was a great trip - quite happy to be back on long-distance trains for the first time since 2019. The Canadian (and the time in Vancouver/Victoria was the highlight of the trip, but it was great to finally ride the Empire Builder - now I’ve taken all the Amtrak western long-distance trains, at least in one direction. There are quite a few eastern LD trains I haven’t rode (the Crescent and all the Florida trains, and I’ve never seen upstate New York on 48 eastbound or the CHI-TOL segment of the Lake Shore or Capitol), though flex dining and lack of Sightseer Lounges make those less attractive (and I never see myself on the Auto Train as I don’t drive). It definitely was the longest number of train days on a single trip for me - my all coach Wolverine+Southwest Chief+Surfliner+Sunset Limited+CONO+Wolverine trip over 10 years ago came close, but this was 1 day longer. The lowlight of the trip was probably cutting my foot at the BC Lions game (with a dishonorable mention to 9pm dinners on the Canadian and not getting Venture cars on 350), though all the trains were generally on time or even early.

Not sure when I’ll ride another overnight long-distance train - was thinking about doing one at least one way to San Diego for the Gathering, but the issues with Amtrak sleepers plus the jump in pricing there have given me second thoughts. Do still want to go to San Diego though - it’s been a while since I’ve done the Surfliner and I love San Diego (having lived there for 4 years, half of which was walking distance to Santa Fe Depot). Might try to fit something else in there - perhaps a LAX-EMY daytime Starlight run, or ARB-CHI on the Wolverine (hopefully one with Venture cars) and fly from ORD using a credit on American Airlines. Or just go to Chicago for fun, though I’m concerned about the issues I’ve heard about reliability/safety on CTA. From this trip, I also have enough VIA points for a Corridor trip to Toronto, though currently getting to Windsor would actually cost more than the cash fare Windsor-Toronto thanks to the lack of Tunnel Bus. I do want to do the GSC-SLC segment of the Zephyr as part of a trip to Glenwood Springs, though that will be next year. In any case, I’m glad to get this one in.
 

Michigan Mom

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Thanks for taking us along on your adventures, I really enjoy your vivid writing style and details provided. After all that you experienced, planning the overnight in Chicago struck me as an excellent idea. You might have even found it a bit of a letdown to continue on home the same day. I'm not familiar with the JW but know the area and the location is perfect to be near the station.
Like you I have taken coach to and from Chicago on the Wolverine, many a time, and there is not, IMO any compelling reason to pay the BC surcharge if you are not connecting to a LD train.
 
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So the rest of the Wolverine trip was rather uneventful - we stopped to let 351 and 353 pass, but that’s about all. 351 went by too fast to tell if it had Venture cars, though 353 definitely did not. I did end up going to the cafe car for a coffee, which had a pretty long line. As to the Venture cars not being on this consist, I did get one possible explanation for the change - a few weeks ago one of the Wolverines was insanely late, causing the consists to switch. One other brief anecdote from last night’s Chicago trip - in my room, there were several pictures of trains, which seemed fitting (particularly since my Seattle room did as well).

All in all, that was a great trip - quite happy to be back on long-distance trains for the first time since 2019. The Canadian (and the time in Vancouver/Victoria was the highlight of the trip, but it was great to finally ride the Empire Builder - now I’ve taken all the Amtrak western long-distance trains, at least in one direction. There are quite a few eastern LD trains I haven’t rode (the Crescent and all the Florida trains, and I’ve never seen upstate New York on 48 eastbound or the CHI-TOL segment of the Lake Shore or Capitol), though flex dining and lack of Sightseer Lounges make those less attractive (and I never see myself on the Auto Train as I don’t drive). It definitely was the longest number of train days on a single trip for me - my all coach Wolverine+Southwest Chief+Surfliner+Sunset Limited+CONO+Wolverine trip over 10 years ago came close, but this was 1 day longer. The lowlight of the trip was probably cutting my foot at the BC Lions game (with a dishonorable mention to 9pm dinners on the Canadian and not getting Venture cars on 350), though all the trains were generally on time or even early.

Not sure when I’ll ride another overnight long-distance train - was thinking about doing one at least one way to San Diego for the Gathering, but the issues with Amtrak sleepers plus the jump in pricing there have given me second thoughts. Do still want to go to San Diego though - it’s been a while since I’ve done the Surfliner and I love San Diego (having lived there for 4 years, half of which was walking distance to Santa Fe Depot). Might try to fit something else in there - perhaps a LAX-EMY daytime Starlight run, or ARB-CHI on the Wolverine (hopefully one with Venture cars) and fly from ORD using a credit on American Airlines. Or just go to Chicago for fun, though I’m concerned about the issues I’ve heard about reliability/safety on CTA. From this trip, I also have enough VIA points for a Corridor trip to Toronto, though currently getting to Windsor would actually cost more than the cash fare Windsor-Toronto thanks to the lack of Tunnel Bus. I do want to do the GSC-SLC segment of the Zephyr as part of a trip to Glenwood Springs, though that will be next year. In any case, I’m glad to get this one in.
Future travel? One suggestion to consider, on routes you've never been. Take The Ocean, Montreal to Halifax, NS; the ferry from Yarmouth, NS to Bar Harbor, ME: and then a variety of Amtrak to Albany or NYC for the return home on the Lakeshore Limited. Just a thought! :)
 
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The Ocean is something I had thought of - did not know there was a ferry I could use to do a loop involving the Lake Shore Limited. Would be basically the East Coast version of what I did going West. If I did that I’d probably start with 48 since I’ve never done it eastbound (I’ve done 49) and would like to go through upstate NY in daylight, backtracking to Chicago to avoid that awful 3am departure out of Toledo. Only question is what to do in Halifax/Maine without a car - I don’t know much about those area, but I’d expect transit is far more limited than in Vancouver or Seattle. Renting is not an option (don’t drive).
 
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