Anatomy of a Railroad Ride

Amtrak Empire Builder:  Saturday April 18, 2009

1:30 p.m.  I’m standing on the platform of the Belmont EL station, just one stop south of Addison Street where the St. Louis Cardinals will play the Chicago Cubs at 2:40 p.m. today.  However, this day I won’t be heading to the Friendly Confines, but south on the brown line to the Quincy stop, just flour blocks from Chicago’s Union Station.  There will be no stupid cell phone-talking drivers to worry about today; I’m riding the rails all the way home to Winona, Minnesota!

2:03 p.m.  I’m sitting in a spacious seat on The Amtrak Empire Builder, Coach 711 bound from Chicago to Winona and points beyond.  The train is not due to depart until 2:15 p.m. so I’ve got a few minutes to wait.  As I look outside my window I see the Monroe Street drawbridge spanning the Chicago River.  The water is algae-green; not the kind of color that would be inviting for a swim.  The Empire builder sits on its track in a huge tunnel beneath Chicago’s Union station, lying alongside at least seven other trains.  The deep-throated idling sound of the diesels reverberates off the sides of the tunnel, creating a low, hollow vibration.  It is a warm day here and a 25-foot inboard powerboat glides quietly along the river, its occupants wearing light jackets.

2:15 p.m.  We leave exactly on time.  Am I in Europe?  I could have set my watch by this train’s departure.  We roll out of the city, crossing beneath at least fifty bridges, most of which have rusted metal and loose concrete underneath.  Even the Federal Reserve System couldn’t print enough money to patch up this town.  The railroad tracks seldom pass through glamorous places.  I see the Metra shops on my right and a huge auto junkyard on my left.  There are piles of sand and old tires as we head out of the city.  Old multi-story factories and classic two-flat brick homes zoom by as we head west through the city, then north up the lake toward Milwaukee.

2:48 p.m.  As we head north past Glenview we roar past Metra stations in smaller Illinois towns where the houses are modern and vinyl sided.  These towns are full of people who commute two hours each day for the benefit of a smaller mortgage payment.  Later, as we travel northward along Lake Michigan, we pass a “unit” train made up of identical hopper cars.  These 200,000 lb capacity hoppers are now empty, having dumped precious coal mined on the Powder River Range in Wyoming.  That coal will be burned so that 8 million people in metropolitan Chicago will see their lights come on this evening.  The coal-burning plant will also power their appliances, furnaces, air conditioners, and public transit system.  As we pass, the empty coal train again moves westward toward Wyoming to pick up yet another 120 cars of coal.  Coal may not be politically popular right now, but it is the primary fuel used to generate electricity in the United States.  If you think that global warming enthusiasts can make a lot of political noise, wait until you hear the screaming when the lights go out in Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, and New York.

3:38 p.m.  We pull into Milwaukee.  A few more people get on the train.  We give the nicotine addicts a few minutes to indulge so their heads don’t explode.  They will have to wait until we get to Winona before they receive additional relief.  Gosh, I ‘m glad I never started smoking as a kid; it was one of the big advantages of being raised a “Jack Mormon.”

4:59 p.m.  All of a sudden the train stops, seven miles east of Columbus, Wisconsin.  We’re hoping this will be a brief delay.  The conductor announces that there is a grass fire across the tracks just ahead.  The fire department needs to put out the grass fire and the Milwaukee Road track inspector has to certify that there is no damage to the track or ties before we can proceed.  I ask the conductor if this is his first “grass fire” delay.  He answers in the affirmative.

6:22 p.m.  We’re rolling again after an 83 minute delay.  The engineer seems determined to make up time and as I look out on the adjoining highway I can see that we are passing all of the cars.  I figure we’re going about 80 miles per hour.  As we pass through the countryside some of the fields are plowed, but there’s a lot of work to be done before the crops are planted.  We zoom past a little village and there is a barkeeper standing outside talking to some customers in the parking lot.  Do the words “beer belly” mean anything to you?

7:12 p.m.  We arrive at the Wisconsin Dells.  In 45 days the population of this is placid little town will quadruple when the water parks open.  They’re hoping for a big summer, without the “R” word.

7:51 p.m.  We arrive in Tomah, Wisconsin.  Problem is; this was our exact scheduled arrival time in Winona, so the grass fire has cost us an on-time arrival.  We’ll see how much of the 83 minute delay our engineer makes up once we hit Winona.  I call my wife in Winona to tell her I’ll be late.  She informs me that Aramis Ramirez hit an 11th inning walk-off homer at Wrigley Field this afternoon, giving the Cubs a 7-5 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.  Let’s see; warm weather, Saturday night, Cubs win.  Wrigleyville will be crazy-nuts tonight.

8:28 p.m.  We pull into La Crosse, our last stop in the state of Wisconsin.  In the darkness we speed along the west shore of the Mississippi, noticing the occasional blinking lights on the channel markers.  The river is smooth as glass.  Our engineer is slowly making up time.

8:54 p.m.  The conductor announces Winona as the next stop.  As we enter the city limits, I see the east end industrial park and pay particular attention to a tan, steel-sided manufacturing building.  I’ve passed hundreds of similar buildings on this trip.  I don’t know what they manufacture in those buildings, nor do I know the people who work in them, but I know that this tan building means more to me than all of the rest of them combined.  That’s because I own the business in that tan building.  I also know that the people who work inside are some of the smartest and hardest working people that I’ve ever known.

9:03 p.m.  The train pulls to a stop at the Winona, Minnesota Amtrak Depot.  The engineer has made up 11 minutes of the 83 minute grass fire delay.  My home is only two blocks away; just a quiet walk up Main Street.  I will be inside my kitchen reading the mail by the time the smokers hop back on the train, yearning for their next puff in St. Paul.

Trip Review:

Driving Time, 5 hours 25 minutes.
IRS Vehicle Mileage Allowance:  305 miles @.55 per mile = $167.75
Stress Costs:  Concentration at the wheel for 5 hours, 25 minutes.

Scheduled Amtrak Time: 5 hours 36 minutes
Actual Amtrak Time with grass fire delay:  6 hours, 47 minutes
Cost of Amtrak Ticket:  $46.00
Stress Costs:  Almost zero.  Spent the time writing this blog!

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