2014 Amtrak-VIA Circle Trip: Day 2

I woke up rather early on Day 2 (Friday, May 23, 2014) of my Amtrak-VIA circle trip, pulled back the curtains covering the windows in my roomette and saw a stately-looking brick train station. We were in Fargo, North Dakota, and would depart here at 5:32 a.m., one hour and 57 minutes late.

The westbound Empire Builder was making a summer-long detour over the BNSF KO Subdivision via New Rockford.

In Great Northern days, the Empire Builder used the New Rockford Sub whereas the Western Star ran via Grand Forks via what today is the BNSF Prosper and Hillsboro subdivisions. Amtrak has used the latter route ever since its 1971 inception and the ex-GN station used by Amtrak in Fargo is on the Prosper Sub.

We made a nearly 2-mile backup move to Moorhead Junction in Moorhead, Minnesota, before moving ahead onto the KO Sub.

We passed an old train station that has been repurposed to other uses and has a display of railroad rolling stock. The depot markings were for Northern Pacific. The KO Sub and Prosper Sub run a parallel in downtown Fargo and at times you can see one from the other.

It wasn’t until I got back and looked at maps and that I was able to figure out the routing. We would take the ex-NP to Casselton, N.D., and then swing onto a former GN branch to Nolan to

pick up the ex-GN New Rockford route used by the GN Empire Builder. We would rejoin the regular route at KO Junction

The terrain west of Fargo reminded me a lot of the east central Illinois countryside where I grew up. Both are flat and have fields of grain as far as the eye can see. But North Dakota is much more uninhabited than central Illinois.

Where I grew up, there are farmhouses nearly everywhere you look. Not so in North Dakota where I saw very few homes that were still occupied. There were a fair number of abandoned houses near the tracks waiting for nature to take them down.

I took a shower and got dressed. Let me tell you that warm water felt good. Unfortunately, I forgot to turn the water off completely.

The instructions say to push a button to start the flow of water. That I did. Then you turn a handle to adjust the temperature. That worked just fine. I must have missed the instruction to push the button to turn off the water.

Maybe that’s because the water didn’t start spraying until I turned the temperature handle to a “warm” setting. It stopped spraying when I turned the handle to the coldest setting.

But some water still trickled out of the shower head and I erroneously thought it would shut off on its own much like motion-activated faucets in public restrooms turn themselves off.

Car attendant Jeff would later make an announcement about the need to push the button to turn the shower water off. He noted that otherwise the water would continue running and the tanks would be drained dry. I took that to mean that whatever water we had when we left Chicago would have to last us until Seattle.

That wasn’t the only water in short supply. On the third day out, Jeff said that we were nearly out of bottled water. Already we had exhausted the orange juice supply, although there was still apple juice left.

It was interesting that the dining car received a refill of water during the service stop at Minot, North Dakota, but not the sleepers or any other car on the train.

* * * * * *

The ride over the KO subdivision was steady, but not overly fast. The ride was a little rough, but not too bad.  I turned on my scanner and heard the dispatcher issuing us several slow orders. But at least we didn’t have to go into a siding for a freight train. I saw just one freight train during out jaunt over the KO Sub. I considered that a good thing.

At breakfast I was seated at the first table on the left as I entered the diner. My tablemates included a couple from Olympia, Washington, who were returning home, and an older gentleman returning to Idaho.

We had pleasant conversation, but all of the talking stopped once our meals arrived. We all must have been hungry.

The Washington couple had ridden No. 8 earlier and told a story of a guy who had kept to himself in his roomette before being removed from the train at Minot by three FBI agents. He apparently was a drug courier or dealer and had been under surveillance for most of the trip.

Our server was Barlow and I would have him for all of my remaining meals aboard No. 7. He was a pleasant man, although not as outgoing as Jean, the other server.

He was prompt at taking orders and the meals arrived not long afterwards. Barlow worked the tables at one end of the car while Jean had the other half. I was assigned to sit in Jean’s half of the car just once.

I ordered the chef’s good morning special, which was eggs and cheese inside of a whole wheat tortilla topped with guacamole and a sliced tomato. I also had bacon, potatoes, a croissant and orange juice. All of the meals were served on cardboard plates with a plastic coating. The silverware was stainless steel. Juice, milk and such was served in plastic cups, but the coffee came in porcelain mugs. The tablecloth was a sheet of white paper.

The chef’s special was good, although not quite as tasty as a similar dish I had had earlier this year on the westbound Capitol Limited.

After returning to my room after breakfast I watched a storm approaching from the northwest. Most of the roads were dirt and the grade crossings had cross bucks. There was more water in North Dakota than I expected to see.

I spotted a grain train at New Rockford and we made a short stop at one point to allow a maintenance-of-way gang to get into the clear.

* * * * *

Minot is a 32-minute service stop and crew change point. We pulled to a stop at the attractive and well maintained Great Northern station just over an hour and a half late. I made photographs of the station inside and out.

Two BNSF freights waited to follow us out of town. A westbound intermodal train would be waiting for us in a siding west of town and soon thereafter an eastbound tanker train would pass us.

And that pretty much summarizes what was going on with BNSF, whose congestion was giving Amtrak operations so many operational headaches. It is one thing to read about what is ailing BNSF but another to see it from the windows of No. 7 as we passed through the territory where that Bakken crude oil comes from.

West of Minot track gangs were out laying down a second mainline track with sidings. In most places the rails have been laid on bright white concrete ties and signals were in place ready to be connected and turned on. In other places crews were grading the soil where tracks will go.

Once the project was complete, BNSF would have double track between Minot and Snowden, Montana, with 147 miles of that being new rail.


New oil-loading terminals also were going up and in a few places workers were drilling new wells. One of the new oil terminals had rows of modular housing. Without any trees to provide shade, those must get hot during the summer.

We rolled along under mostly sunny skies and warm temperatures. A detector at Manitou said it was 90 degrees.

Copies of the Minot daily newspaper had been put aboard during the service stop and the forecast in that day’s paper called for temperatures in the high 80s.

I had read reports that one of the sleeper class perks that was being cut was the complimentary daily newspaper, but on this trip newspapers were put aboard at Minot and Spokane.

I hung out in the Sightseer Lounge for a while, the only time I would spend there during the trip. It was a popular place to be and few unoccupied seats were available. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but tend to reflect the windows from the other side of the car. It was tough to take photographs out those windows without getting those reflections.

But I wanted to get some images as we crossed the Gassman Coulee trestle just west of Minot.  It is much more impressive looking from the ground than from atop it in a passing Amtrak train.

* * * * *

Lunch was a case of déjà vu all over again. I sat at the same table and seat as I had during breakfast. My tablemates were the two women from Las Vegas. They were good tablemates to have and we had some good conversation.

I ordered the Angus burger, which I have had several times on Amtrak, although most of the time it has been from a café car.

It is probably the same burger but in a full-service diner it comes dressed up with fresh tomato, lettuce and onions. In the café car, it only comes with cheese.

In the diner you also get potato chips with the burger and, perhaps, a fresher bun. I like Amtrak’s Angus burger so I enjoyed my lunch. For desert I had that yummy chocolate parfait.

The station in Williston, North Dakota, has a Great Northern steam locomotive and a Northern Pacific caboose on display. The platform was filled with people boarding, disembarking or meeting those who were. As we ate lunch we passed several BNSF freight trains.

West of Williston there were smallish mountains, but the terrain remained largely flat. It was enjoyable to observe the small towns in North Dakota and Montana.

The isolation of these towns has for years been a major argument in favor of keeping the Empire Builder every time some politicians in Washington talk about gutting Amtrak’s long-distance network.

It also was fun watching the clouds moving across the sky. They don’t call Montana Big Sky Country for nothing. The sky does seem bigger here and finally I felt like I was in the West.

* * * * *

Shortly before we reached the Havre, Montana, yard, we came to an abrupt halt and the engineer told the conductor over the radio that a hot axle alarm had gone off on the fourth axle of the second locomotive.

The engineer shut off the head end power and set up three-point protection so a crew member could go underneath the unit with an infrared heat gun.

It must have been nothing because soon we were on our way down to the refueling point and nothing more was said about it on the radio. But there was more to it.

Our crew was on the phone with Amtrak operations to discuss the problem, which was described as a warm traction motor support bearing.


The engineer also advised the BNSF dispatcher of the problem, saying he would get back to her later with more information. BNSF has a diesel shop in Havre and the railroad sent out some of its personnel to help the Amtrak crew check out the locomotive.

I never did learn much more about the problem other than the infrared heat gun had registered a reading of 190 to 195. I can’t say if the issue was major, minor or what.

We were delayed a short time, but soon we were on the move down to the Havre station and the second locomotive remained on the train until Spokane when it was cut out. I am not sure if that was because it was to lead the Portland section or what.

Havre has the look and feel of a railroad town. The Great Northern locomotive shops still stand. The depot is the type of hulking two-story brick structures that says “division headquarters.”  The BNSF name is prominently displayed on the upper level of the two-tone brick structure. Otherwise, you might as well be back in GN days or at least the early Amtrak era. The station even had signs for a pay telephone.

At the west end of the platform was a GN steam locomotive on static display. An Amtrak diner-lounge sat on a stub end track. What is the story was behind that? Was it bad ordered? It seemed unlikely that Amtrak would station a spare diner here.

The locomotive issues had cost us about a half-hour. We rolled out of Havre nearly three hours late. This would the latest that we would be during my journey aboard No. 7.

Back at Chicago Union Station I had not seen any Empire Builder timetables in the schedule rack. I asked for one at the customer service desk and was given a copy of what turned out to be the pre-April schedule.

I didn’t recognize that until we passed eastbound No. 8 east of Wolf Point, Montana, at 2:45 p.m. MDT. The schedule I had showed No. 8 scheduled to leave Wolf Point at 4:33 p.m.

I know the Empire Builder was having problems with timekeeping, but operating an hour and half ahead of schedule wasn’t one of them.

In fact, No. 8 had departed Wolf Point 32 minutes late at 2:05 p.m. It would ultimately arrive in Chicago 4 hours and 50 minutes late.

Not until I returned home and got access to the Amtrak train status archives hosted by Dixielandsoftware.net was I able to sort out why I was wrong for most of the trip about how my train was doing from a schedule perspective. We were not as late as I thought that we were most  of the time.

* * * * *

I always prefer the second seating for dinner. The first seating is earlier than I am used to eating and 7:15 seems like a more civilized time to eat. Dinner was the only meal during my trip aboard the Empire Builder for which there were timed seatings. For breakfast and lunch passengers came to the diner during the traditional hours for those meals. If the tables were full, then the steward started a waiting list.

My dinner tablemates were Tom and Sue of Pierre, South Dakota. They were an interesting couple and we had some good conversation. South Dakota is one of three states – the others being Alaska and Hawaii – that I have not visited. I joked that that is because Amtrak has never served any of those states. There is some truth to that.

We had scarcely settled in when Barlow came by and advised us that the kitchen was just about out of the fish entrée, which was mahi mahi. If we wanted that, he needed to know so he could reserve one for us.

I thought about it for a second and said, “yes, I’m going to have the mahi mahi.” I didn’t want the steak again and I don’t care for a half-chicken dinner. None of the other offerings appealed to me, either.

Barlow’s thoughtfulness impressed me. It wasn’t the type of thing that will make or break a trip, but little things like this that make a difference in a passenger’s overall enjoyment of the trip.

The mahi mahi came topped with chopped tomatoes, a small container of tartar sauce, mashed potatoes and the corn medley. When it came time to order desert, the inventory control system worked against me. I wasn’t the only passenger who found the chocolate parfait delightful. I settled for cheesecake with a fruit topping.

For my last dinner on the Empire Builder I also ordered a small bottle of red wine, a Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon. To my delight it came with an actual glass wine glass. It would be the only time that I purchased anything aboard the Empire Builder.

* * * * *

Outside the window, the terrain was more rolling, but we were still more than an hour away from the mountains, which I was told are west of Cut Bank, Montana. We had long since passed out of the Bakken oil fields. The land I was seeing now seemed better suited for cattle grazing than grain farming.

We were allowed to stretch our legs on the platform in Shelby, Montana. By the time we left Shelby we had shaved slightly more than an hour off our tardiness.

I doubt that it was because the engineer had opened the throttle and exceeded the speed limit. Shelby is a locomotive crew change point and I’ve noticed that the effects of schedule padding seem to be most pronounced at crew change points and endpoint terminals.

We left Cut Bank about 9 p.m., an hour and 42 minutes down when we departed. Had No. 7 been on time I could have seen at least some of the Rockies and Glacier National Park in daylight.

But that wasn’t going to happen. It was disappointing, but I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to photograph one of the most scenic sections of the trip, if not the most scenic.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t see those mountains. I could easily see them in the distance in the fading light of day.

Once we got into the mountains there was enough ambient light that I could make out the shapes of the peaks and see the glaciers.

In its own way, it was a nice to view the train twisting its way through the mountains with the lead locomotive’s headlight illuminating the way ahead.

Jeff wanted to have all of the beds made up by 10 p.m. He explained that the next day would be a busy one for him as he prepared the car for arrival in Seattle and took care of the needs of his passengers.

At one point he mentioned in a conversation how he appreciated passengers who made up their own beds because it meant he was less harried in taking care of those who needed his assistance. I didn’t take that to be complaining, just matter of fact talk about the nature of his job.

Jeff was a friendly guy who did a good job. He was particularly good about informing us when we could get off the train during the service stops.

In making up my bed for the night, Jeff placed the pillow so that I would be facing the rear of the train.

I changed, got into bed and listened to my scanner for a while. BNSF seemed to have placed talking defect detectors nearly every mile. Soon I was falling asleep.

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