by Bruce Goeser
A wheelchair bound railfan's ride with the crew aboard Amtrak's Empire Builder train.
I did not pursue railroading much further as there were classes, socializing, women and eventually jobs to occupy my time. Several years after I left Madison I was involved in an auto accident that left me paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. With the life change came a change in hobbies and interests so railroading came to the top of the list. I joined the Great Northern Railway Historical Society and learned of it's premier passenger train the Empire Builder. Since I loved the open spaces of the west and railroading, it was just a natural to make a habit of riding the Amtrak version of the great train of the High Line. Each time my wife and I would make the trip it was always an event. Experiencing the delays, inconveniences and even a derailment never bothered us, in fact, we consider it part of the vacation.
The last trip began as innocuous as any other with boarding at Wisconsin Dells, near our home, getting settled in and enjoying the supper in the handicap room of the Superliner Sleeper car. As we finished our meal my wife and I noticed the sound of running water above the ceiling of our room. Being the husband, I dismissed the noise as “water in the drain pipes.” Well as we crossed the Mississippi river and turned north the car leaned, promptly proving that my wife was correct and there was water leaking between the floor and ceiling. Each time the car rolled from side to side a fresh shower erupted from between the ceiling panels. For a guy, this was just a task of figuring out what was wrong. For a woman, versed in the medical field, each shower had earmarkings of typhus, staph, herpies and many infections too numerous to mention. As quickly as I could transfer out of the bench seat and into my wheelchair, we were bounding down the hall to the center vestibule. Our car attendant arrived quickly and, being a man, began assessing the problem like I did. “Let's see, it doesn't smell – not waste water, not hot - must be the cold water pipe.”
When the conductor arrived, a woman, it was a different story. Taking the same approach as my wife, she was completely horrified by the trauma we had experienced and apologized profusely. To add to the problem, all handicap cabins were taken, however there was a handicap room available in the crew car at the head of the train. I looked at the conductor in astonishment thinking, I must have died and gone to heaven. My wife rolled her eyes, knowing full well what I was feeling. Not risking a change of plans, I quickly told the conductor that such accommodation's would be more than wonderful. Since our current car was toward the rear of the train, we had to wait until St. Paul to depart the train, wheel the entire length and get back aboard.
The crew car is really nothing more than a modified Superliner Sleeper with one end of the lower level converted to a work area with tables, in place of the roomettes. The conductor completes his paperwork and performed his business from this area. Car attendants would also gather to spin tales and exchange war stories.
I had learned from past trips that a scanner is a vital traveling companion. I use it to listen to the train crews and keep informed of train happenings, outside temperatures from the detectors and what to expect as the trip progresses. In the crew car, I was privy to “the rest of the story.”
Before the train left St. Paul we had turned down the bed so as we pulled out of the station I promptly fell asleep. Sometime in the middle of the night I recalled waking to the sound of the engineer holding the horn down continuously for each grade crossing. In my state of half sleep, I figured the engineer to hold a grudge against the small towns in northern Minnesota and wanted to be sure every resident knew he was passing through town. Then the car movement stopped and I resumed my slumber. Waking at first light, I was intrigued when, I noticed we were stopped in front of the Grand Forks station. We should be in Devils Lake at first light. Something had gone awry in the night. Then I remembered to just open my ears, as all that was happening, was just down the hall.
It seems that the engineer was not a hostile hostler, the horn had frozen, and the thought of guarding every crossing from St Cloud to Seattle didn't appeal to the crew. Instead they decided to turn the locomotive consist and use the once trailing locomotive as the lead. Good thing, I thought. Well apparently someone, somewhere, didn't agree and politics reared it's ugly head. In any case after a two hour delay we were proceeding westbound. As we tried to leave the Grand Forks station, the engineer encountered a frozen switch, which the conductor had to pry loose. No small feat on the edge of the Red River Valley with a stiff forty mile per hour north wind blowing. I got to hear the grumbling as the poor fellow disembarked and reembarked from the train. Soon after we got started again the engineer came upon a dark signal – stop - get permission to proceed at 25 mph to next green flag. Next signal – dark, repeat the process. As we traveled half way across North Dakota at 25 mph, me and the train crew learned from a signal maintainer that a certain track crew in the area apparently dislodged a wire somewhere in the middle of North Dakota causing the signal malfunction. There was a lot of grumbling and now some serious cell phone conversations with the crew dispatcher. We were not going to make Minot before the crew went dead. The main question was, should they continue until they went dead or stop and wait for the dog catcher crew. The crew dispatcher still upset from the locomotive switch decided to let them go dead and fill out the overtime reports associated with staying on the train past the twelve hour rule. There was a lot of discussion between crew members that was not carried by the radio.
After the sixth dark signal we finally passed the track crew and got a green. Just after reaching maximum track speed a detector caught us with a dragging equipment warning. When it rains it pours, again the conductor had to walk the train in the bitter North Dakota wind only to find a tree branch had blown onto the tracks and was hung up on a brake hose. Returning to the crew car, shivering, and grumbling, his cell phone rang. Now the door closed shielding the call from my prying ears. After a muffled heated conversation the door opened and the announcement was made over the public address system that we would be stopping about forty five minutes out of Minot for a crew change. There would be a slight delay.
After a forty minute wait the new crew members arrived and things started to look up. When the van driver asked if the crew would, ride with him, or the train, everyone decided on the train. Now the fun and politics surfaced as each crew member complained about the dispatcher, the weather, and even each other's crew mates. Just another day on the railroad.
The rest of the trip proceeded without a hitch and was only mildly as interesting as the first part. We arrived at our destination, in Whitefish, four hours late but with a realization that a railroad runs on it's people as well as it's equipment. I want to thank Amtrak for an experience of a lifetime, and thoughts of the old Great Northern crews battling the same elements, whether physical, political or personal, since James J. Hill, the Empire Builder whose namesake train Amtrak still carries today, completed the line over a hundred years ago.