"Welcome aboard the Empire Builder,"
said the sleeping car attendant, a young, fresh looking
man in a neatly pressed shirt, bright blue waistcoast and
tie. He studied our tickets for a moment. "You guys heading
all the way to Chicago then?" he asked brightly. I nodded
wearily, holding the boys back as they tugged at my arms
to get on board and explore; the prospect of two whole days
cooped up with these two energetic and excited toddlers
filled me with dread. The attendant broke into a welcoming
smile, "Hi there little guys. My name's Bryan and I'll be
looking after you for your journey. Now if there's anything
you need, you just let me know, OK? You're in cabins nine
and ten, so why don't you just climb aboard and make yourselves
No bikes, boats, cars or wilderness
now... just backpacks, big trains and big cities
We climbed up onto the enormous
silver sleeping car, leaving behind the industrial clamour
of Seattle station. Our two little air conditioned cabins
felt cool and calm after the heat and hassles of the previous
hour; stuffing belongings into backpacks, returning the
car to the rental depot, and battling the rush hour to find
the right station, track, train and carriage. Once on board
the boys kicked off their shoes and ran around spiritedly,
making a nuisance of themselves among fellow passengers
searching for seats and stashing bags.
"Look Dad. Water Dad. Tiny water bottles. This one's got
cartoons on it. Is this my one? Is this my water?" said
Cameron as he ferried bottles of mineral water back and
forth between our cabins.
"No, that's your one Cameron. And this is my one," said
Matthew firmly snatching a bottle off him.
"Can I see your one Matthew? Has it got cartoons on? It
has. It has. Oh look and pillows. We've got pillows. And
leaflets. With trains on."
The intercom crackled into life relaying the disembodied
voice of the conductor into our cabins. "Good afternoon
and welcome aboard train number eight to Chicago. We're
just about to depart and I'd like to remind all passengers
that for your safety and security we ask you to wear shoes
at all times whilst moving around the train." Her announcement
sounded personal and pointed and as the loco whistled and
pulled us slowly out of the station another battle in the
shoe wars with the boys began.
The evening sun slid
slowly down the clear blue sky, casting ever longer ripples
of light across peaceful Puget Sound. In the world outside
the window, people gathered around barbeques on sandy beaches,
paddled in the sea or cooled off swimming out in deeper
waters. Aboard sleeping car 301, the new residents organised
their cabins, gazed out their picture windows and engaged
in the rituals of small talk with other passengers filing
through the narrow corridors.
"Good evening everyone, this is Tina here," crackled a friendly
voice across the intercom. "Would anyone wanting dinner
this evening please make their way to the dining car."
"I'm hungry," said Cameron.
"I'm hungry too," said Matthew, "Can we go for dinner?"
It seemed as good a way as any to pass the time.
"Only if you wear shoes," I said spotting a moment of leverage.
The boys complied unusually quickly then disappeared down
the corridor, keen to explore and find the mysterious 'restaurant
on a train'.
"It's just like a café," said Matthew loudly as we arrived
at the diner.
"It's got seats and tables and it might have toys like the
M place" gibbered Cameron.
Tina came to greet us, a large bespectacled woman with short
hair set in loose curls. She welcomed us with a smile and
led us efficiently to a table for four, neatly laid with
linen napkins, polished cutlery and a vase of flowers. The
chatter of polite conversation filled the diner as strangers
sat down to meet and eat with one another. "So, where are
you guys from?" "And where are you heading?" "Aren't the
islands beautiful?" "How's your meal then?" We savoured
the food and the views, a fresh green salad with a drizzle
of dressing, a succulent steak with a mountain of mash,
a chocolate bombe topped out with fresh whipped cream; we
left nothing but dirty napkins. Outside the window the sea
faded into the sunset as the train whistled, turned inland
and headed East towards the Cascade Mountains.
The sun rippled on Puget Sound
as we left the West Coast to cross America by train
"Hey someone's turned my chair into
a bed," shrieked Matthew as he slid open his cabin door
"And it's got sheets and blankets, and pillows, and blankets"
added Cameron twitching the curtains open and shut, open
and shut, open and shut.
Kirstie helped the boys into their pyjamas, tucked them
into their beds and told them a bedtime story. "Now you
close your eyes and the train will rock you to sleep," she
whispered as she closed the door on them half an hour later.
We sat across the corridor, shared the Cabernet Sauvignon
left over from dinner and waited for their bedtime babble
to subside. But the silence of sleep could not descend while
there were switches to flick, lights to adjust, curtains
to pull, and magazines to take apart, not to mention the
magic yellow button that lit up and summoned the genie.
After three visits Bryan was running out of patience and
thankfully the boys finally ran out of energy and nodded
off. The train bounced and rolled gently into the dark,
the soft smudge of its' whistle marking each crossing and
lulling us deeper and deeper to sleep.
A familiar voice woke me. It was
close, almost in my ear. "Good morning. This is Tina," crackled
the little speaker next to my head, "It's now seven o'clock
mountain time and I'm making first calls for breakfast in
the diner." I set my watch an hour forward, squeezed out
of bed, crossed the corridor and peeked in on the boys.
Still there. Still sleeping. They looked so sweet. I picked
up a paper and a coffee from a tired looking Bryan and crawled
back into my bunk. What luxury. Breakfast could wait. Or
so I thought. But Tina's call had stirred the boys too and
slowly but surely they came to, hungry after their late
night antics. The cabin door slid open, the curtains twitched
and two cheeky faces peered in at me, "We're hungry Dad,
"How are you doing this morning?"
asked Tina with an air of familiarity. She led us to the
same table as the previous evening. "What can I get you?
Cereal, fruit, eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, yogurt, juice,
coffee?" she asked sounding just a little less fresh than
the night before.
"Sounds good ," I replied.
"Want sausage and bacon," said Cameron.
"Want yogurt and juice," said Matthew.
"Want coffee," said Kirstie drowsily.
Around us the dining car filled with the relaxed chatter
of diners picking up conversations from before, no longer
strangers but not yet friends. We sat for an hour picking
our way through a leisurely breakfast while the loco climbed
slowly but steadily through the Rocky Mountains, through
cuttings and canyons, on high trestle bridges over raging
rivers, pausing to draw breath at pretty Alpine-style stations
where the visual feast of snowcapped mountains more than
matched the feast on the table in front of us.
Back in the cabin, the boys created
their own playroom, spreading crayons, lego and K-nex around
until it spilled into the corridors, settling into a pattern
of happy solo play interspersed with spats of sibling warfare.
Meanwhile Kirstie and I settled into the hypnotic rhythm
of life aboard; ever repeating cycles of sitting, reading
or staring; stretching, walking and swaying; chatting, nodding
then snoozing; waking, eating and boozing.
The kids transformed their cabin into a happy playroom by
When you ride the railroad across
America, it's a historic journey, on tracks that carried
early pioneers and settlers to the Great Plains and Wild
West; created new jobs, towns and communities; opened up
new territories to foresters, miners and farmers; fashioned
new businesses and economies. The railroad connected East
with West for the first time, and forged new social, economic
and political ties which helped bind disparate states and
create a sense of one nation between people separated by
vast distances. Travelling by rail across America brought
strangers together on a long and extraordinary journey across
an amazing landscape, and it still does the same today.
Our travelling companions were a
motley bunch; pensioners on a last great train journey,
sharing memories of travels in the glorious days of steam;
trainspotters on the holiday of a lifetime scribbling down
the details of every loco, wagon and car; tourists of every
class snacking, snapping and videoing their way across America;
history buffs following the trail of legendary pioneers
Lewis and Clark; and a few real travellers heading cross-country
to see friends or family. But on such a long journey the
train works a kind of magic on disparate groups like this,
the confinement of carriages, enforced conversation at mealtimes
and social gatherings in the sightseeing car forging a small
travelling community that rubs along affably, at least until
the journey is done.
Just two and a half hours after
finishing breakfast Tina was back on the intercom, inviting
us for lunch. "But my tummy is still fat mum," said Cameron
as we made our way back to the dining car. I knew what he
meant; the interval between meals seemed to be getting shorter
and shorter. Still, we couldn't refuse, our ticket included
all meals; besides it was good to get out of the cabins
and get a change of scene. And as we grazed on lunch the
scene began to change; jagged faces of rock giving way to
soft carpets of pine, boggy ponds and quiet rivers. Then
as the foothills of the Rockies receded, the boundless,
flat grassy plains of Western Montana came into view and
a growing feeling of monotony began to take hold.
"What can we do Dad? I want to do something," whinged Matthew
as we returned to the cabins after lunch.
"Why don't you take the boys up to the sightseeing car?"
suggested Kirstie. "There's entertainment and interpretive
commentary up there."
"Want to go to the seeing car, Dad," said Cameron.
"Come on Dad, let's go to that car." said Matthew.
We made our way to the sightseeing
lounge through the Armageddon of Coach Class. Bodies lay
contorted on every set of seats, some concealed under blankets,
others staring vacantly into space, looking up at passers
by or down at empty coffee cups rolling up and down the
carriage floor. As we picked our way through the carnage,
the expense of our 1st class cabins seemed much more justifiable.
Matthew pressed the big plastic button to open the door
to the sightseeing lounge. The door slid open with a mechanical
hiss and a blast of hot air sucked us into the travelling
greenhouse. We made our way up to the middle of the car,
where a large man in a checkered shirt was holding court.
"This one's an old favourite of mine," he said in a mid
West drawl, "hope yous all like it." He picked up his fiddle
and slid it under his bearded chin, holding it lightly with
hands that looked too big for the instrument, then scratched
out a fine country tune, raising a tiny cloud of resin as
he sawed happily at his strings. Around the car, feet started
tapping and the monotony of the landscape and journey was
lifted for a while by the sweet drone of his music.
The vast plains of Montana. Is
that a tiny point of interest on the horizon?
On and on and on we rolled across
the country, from afternoon into evening, Mountain time
to Central time, Montana to North Dakota, from sightseeing
car back to diner. Tina looked hassled as she dealt with
an old couple in front of us in the queue for the diner.
"I'm sorry," she said to them, "I know you reserved for
eight but you're working on Mountain time and like I told
you I'm keeping the diner on Central time for dinner. You'll
need to come back in an hour."
"But there's an empty table there," the husband protested.
"That's taken," said Tina firmly. "You need to come back
The couple retreated hungrily and Tina showed us to the
empty table, letting off a little steam as she did, "People
just don't get it," she ranted, "If we start a service on
Mountain time we've gotta see it through on Mountain time.
I can't just change time zones in the middle of a service.
We'll do breakfast on Central Time so make sure you put
your watches forward or you'll sleep through it. There's
always a few who do and I can't do anything about it." She
turned and steamed off, "I'll be back to get your order
in a little while."
We reviewed the menu, made our choices and waited for Tina
to return. A freight train thundered past, the colourful
smear of its red, blue and white wagons a welcome relief
from the endless green of the wide open prairies.
"Shall we play I spy?" asked Matthew as Tina scuttled busily
up and down the car. "I'll start. I spy with my little eye
something beginning with G."
"Is it an Air New Zealand flight?" asked Cameron.
"No, you can't see one of those Cameron. It's got to be
something you can see," Matthew scolded his brother.
"Is it grass?" asked Kirstie.
"Yes," said Matthew, "How did you know?"
"Just a guess."
Tina reappeared. "Now what can I get you? We're out of pasta,
chicken, white wine and chocolate bombe." She paused with
her pen poised. "So what would you like?"
There was tension in the diner tonight
and it wasn't just with Tina. The polite conversation of
earlier meals had given way to more controversial fare;
a couple of young evangelists trying to sell a new religion
to two bored pensioners; a family disagreement about what
to do in Chicago; a heated argument about the politics of
George Bush. But as the sun set and the sky darkened once
more, we kept things light at our table.
"I spy with my little eye something beginning with G," said
"Is it God?" I asked, causing the nearby missionaries to
look our way.
"Is it a Virgin Cove flight?" asked Cameron.
"That doesn't begin with G Cameron," said Matthew.
"Is it grass?"
And so the game continued until Matthew and Cameron had
ice cream and chocolate sauce all down the front of their
T-shirts and it was time for bed.
'Swiper no swiping'.... time
for an in cabin movie before bed
The bedtime routine was rudely interrupted
by Bryan, crackling into the cabin on the intercom. "Hello
again folks, I'm afraid there's a problem with the toilets.
It seems to be taking twenty minutes for the tank to charge
between flushes and I need your help in organising things
so there's a twenty minute interval between toilet visits.
Just until we can get an engineer to look at it at our next
service stop." He went on to explain a complicated system
he was devising to achieve this but it was already clear
to me it was not going to work for us.
"I need a wee. I need a wee," said Cameron desperately.
"I need the toilet too." said Matthew.
"Can you wait twenty minutes?" I asked.
"No I need it now Dada. Right now."
I trooped the boys down the corridor in their pyjamas and
we sneaked into the toilet which now had a "temporarily
closed" sign on it.
"Dad, this toilet stinks of beavers," announced Matthew
loudly as I locked the door.
"Did someone do a fart?" giggled Cameron pulling his pants
down. "Yuk…yuk.. this toilet is already full Dad."
We tried the flush button but there was no flush. Not even
the sweet almond scent of the Amtrak liquid soap could conceal
the horrible smell. "Quick boys, do your thing and let's
get out of here. We won't bother with brushing your teeth
tonight." They looked quite relieved. As we snuck out of
the toilet we bumped into Bryan trying to get in with a
plunger and some air freshener.
He looked irritated, "Didn't you hear my announcement?"
"Sorry, the boys were desperate," I said meekly as I shuffled
the boys away.
And so to bed, the train rushing on, whistling its way aggressively
into the night, crashing, rocking and rolling its' way into
Minnesota while we all did our best to grab some sleep before
the next meal service began at first light.
"Last call for breakfast. This is
your last call for breakfast," squawked Tina down the intercom.
"We have a lot of people getting on at the next stop so
you'd better come now or you'll miss your slot." I looked
at my watch and wondered what time zone it was reading and
what time zone Tina was working on. It didn't really matter,
it was now or never. The boys were already awake and busy
colouring in their sheets; Kirstie was busy scolding them
and trying to remake the bed so the damage was not obvious.
We made a quick dash for breakfast before the train stopped.
Tina welcomed us to the diner, "You're just in time, you
can sit here." Her curls were tight, the tiredness in her
eyes magnified by her glasses. "So, what can I get you this
morning? Coffee? There's no grits, omelettes or hash browns
left. Strawberry yogurt but no blueberry and no Krispies.
I'll fetch some coffee first and let you have a think for
a moment." There didn't seem to be much left to think about.
The train slowed as it approached the station and Tina returned
with some coffee. "Right, 'fraid we're out of sausages now
too, so, what can I get you?" she asked, pulling a chewed
up pen out of her pocket ready to take our order. The train
came to a standstill, the power went off and the car went
silent as the air conditioning fans slowed to a stop. Tina
turned to address the whole car. "Don't worry now. It's
routine. Power will be back in due course but for now breakfast
service is suspended. We can't cook anything. You folks
might want to step outside for some fresh air or a smoke
for a few minutes until we get started again." Then she
joined the rest of her team at an empty table for their
own coffee break.
Stepping outside was a shock after
nearly two days in our air conditioned cocoon. Up and down
the train, car attendants stood by sets of little yellow
steps helping passengers down onto the platform and greeting
those just joining the train. "Don't go too far now," said
Bryan wiping his brow as he helped me down, "We'll be on
our way again soon." He looked tired and hassled, his waistcoast
and tie now gone, his shirt creased, hair tousled and face
unshaven, the price of forty hours of service. The sky was
grey and overcast and the air hot and humid. I walked up
and down the train, stretching my legs to try and relieve
the dull ache of inactivity. Beads of sweat formed on my
forehead and trickled down my face. Along the platform irritable
looking smokers grabbed a quick fix of nicotine, friends
and family said their last goodbyes to departing loved ones
while sweaty red caps lugged baggage on and off the hot,
shiny train. There was barely time for two laps or two cigarettes
before the loco whistled 'all aboard,' power was restored,
breakfast was resumed and the final six hour leg of the
From the hot and sunny West to
the hot and rainy East
With the monotony of the plains
now well behind us, eyes turned to the welcome relief of
the limestone bluffs, sandstone canyons and soft tree covered
mountains of the trail across Minnesota and Wisconsin. And
as we headed along the banks of the Mississipi River, past
paddlewheel boats, barges, locks and dams, so minds began
to turn to the end of the journey. The strange little community
that developed over the previous days and nights, began
to ready itself for the separation of onward journeys. Cabins
were tidied, garbage bags filled, sheets and pillow slips
folded, baggage repacked. And with the journey almost done,
a lighter atmosphere began to descend for the final rites
"This is the last, final and ultimate
call for lunch. There will be no more service after this,"
announced Tina. We hurried to the dining car for the last
"I have burgers and I've got ice cream but no chocolate
or strawberry sauce," she said firmly.
"Can we get four burgers and four ice creams then please?"
"I'll see what I can do," she said as she shuttled off to
Around us the other diners munched on their burgers and
ice cream. They chattered away, tidying up conversational
loose ends. "So, where did you say you were heading next?"
"You know I really hope things work out for you." "Well
goodbye, good luck and God be with you." And when Tina had
served up the last burgers and ice cream she returned to
her intercom to do the same. "Hello everyone," she announced
with notable relief, "The dining car is now closed. We are
closed. Thank you for your custom. We are now closed."
Back in the cabin, Bryan made his
final visit to collect dirty linen, used towels and garbage,
finding time for a final chat as his long shift approached
"So, where for you now then?" he asked.
"Two days in Chicago, then by train to Washington, three
nights there, then train to Boston for three, train to New
York and finally fly home to England," explained Kirstie.
"Wow, you guys must love trains."
"Love trains," squeaked Cameron.
"And how about you?" asked Kirstie.
"Overnight here then working this train back to Seattle
from tomorrow afternoon," replied Bryan.
"Wow, you really must love trains."
He looked over his massive pile of dirty linen and smiled
for the first time in a long while.
Outside the skyline was changing,
as urbanity gave way to the first exciting glimpses of the
mesmerising Chicago skyline. The boys packed away their
toys and sat quietly on the edge of their seats looking
out their windows.
"Is this Chicago?" asked Matthew.
"Yes" replied Kirstie.
"It's a really big city isn't it?" he continued gawping
at the sprawl.
"It's muckkindatown, muckkindatown," sang Cameron.
Kirstie and I laughed. "We'll see about that shall we?"
And as we finally pulled into Chicago after forty four hours
and 2206 miles on the railroad, we took a deep breath and
launched ourselves into the frenetic cauldron of the first
of four big American cities.
Chicago, Chicago... will it be
my kind of town?