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Published June 30, 2013, 12:46 AM

Rolling down the rails

Traveling by train this summer? Here’s what you need to know
Fargo - My watch read 4 a.m. as I stood alone and groggy on the platform of downtown Fargo’s Amtrak station. Cold rain had started to fall, and I swore the sky in the east was starting to get light.

Fargo - My watch read 4 a.m. as I stood alone and groggy on the platform of downtown Fargo’s Amtrak station. Cold rain had started to fall, and I swore the sky in the east was starting to get light.

Taking the train isn’t always an option that comes to mind when travelvers plan a cross-country trip. Yet there I was last month, in the middle of the night for the second year in a row, prepared for a multihour, multistate journey.

Last summer, I took Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Fargo to Milwaukee, which took 12 hours one way. This time around, I settled in for a much longer trip to Washington, D.C.

Both trips could have been a lot faster if I had flown or driven. I also wouldn’t have had to be awake at such an ungodly hour.

But that’s the unique appeal of train travel – it’s a throwback experience, eschewing the immediacy of flying for a longer, more scenic trip.

Watch as you pass by old towns and abandoned buildings, new cities and sprawling suburban developments, open fields and country roads. All of those features make up a part of the country you wouldn’t see if you flew through the air.

Taking the train is also relaxing, allowing you the opportunity to sit back and not worry about a thing as the rails roll by underneath you.

But because the train is a longer and a different kind of trip, there are a few things you need to know if you’re thinking of taking Amtrak this summer.

First and foremost: Check your train’s status, as the Empire Builder often arrives late to Fargo’s station, at 420 4th St. N, regardless of whether it’s going east or west.

Things to do

Depending on where you’re traveling and if you get dealt a delay along the way, you might be on the train for a long time. Thanks to delays on my most recent trip, I ended up being on trains from roughly 4 a.m. on a Tuesday to about 10:45 p.m. on a Wednesday.

  • Bring entertainment

    Some passengers pack their computers or portable DVD players to help pass the time, while others bring an e-reader or books. Outlets are placed at each seat to help you charge your various devices.

    The train’s café car also offers tabletops that groups of passengers can use to play cards or board games.

    But whatever you bring onboard, don’t get too immersed.

  • Keep your eyes open

    In addition to the cities you’ll go through, you can take in good ol’ Mother Nature.

    After the eastbound Empire Builder train leaves Minneapolis-St. Paul, it heads southeast and hugs the scenic Mississippi River. During that stretch, it’s hard not to take your eyes away from the window.

    On the way back from Chicago, the train travels that route in the evening, which means that you get to view sunset over the river and the picturesque bluffs of southern Minnesota.

  • Get to know other passengers

    If you run out of things to do and get tired of looking at the landscape, don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. Chances are good that that person sitting next to you – like the French woman on my trip who had set out for New York from Seattle four days ago – will have an interesting story to tell.

Food

If you get hungry or thirsty onboard the train, there are a few options.

On the Empire Builder, passengers can purchase food in the café or dining cars. Café items include various snacks and microwaveable food, while the dining car offers full meals.

Neither option is particularly cheap, so if you want to save yourself some money, Amtrak allows passengers to bring their own food as long as they eat it at their seat or in the upper level of the Sightseer Lounge car.

On my trip last month, I brought sandwich items, such as canned tuna and peanut butter, and various other snacks, all of which helped me stave off hunger and keep my wallet intact.

Still, there are a few items in the café car you may want to purchase. Coffee, hugely necessary after waking up from a night of interrupted sleep, is available for a reasonable price, as is a small selection of beer and wine.

Staying comfortable

Train seats are fine, but they’re not the most comfortable. Unless you’re willing to fork over extra cash for a sleeping car, you may want to think about packing items to make the trip more pleasant.

Consider bringing a blanket to keep warm at night, as the train can get a little chilly. Additionally, you’ll be thankful for a soft pillow, even if that’s something small and inflatable.

If you’re a light sleeper, bring ear plugs or a sleep mask. The train itself isn’t that loud, but the passengers around you might be. On my trip, the group of eight that boarded the train in Indiana around 3 a.m. wasn’t in any hurry to go to sleep, or even lower their voices.

You should also keep extra clothes and toiletries nearby. Amtrak bathrooms aren’t anything luxurious, but they’re big enough to change clothes if necessary.

In the end, if you make your experience as comfortable and enjoyable as possible, you may already start to plan your next trip before you even step down off the train.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535

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