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January 7, 2010

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A lot of trains canceled this week due to cold and we felt lucky to have rescheduled ourselves onto one of the few making the Empire Builder run west from St. Paul back home to Seattle. Amtrak blames it on brakelines which freeze when it gets down past 20 below zero as it did in Havre, the usual smoke break and service stop unexpectedly extended as crews dragging propane tanks shot fire at the frozen parts. You'd think they'd have it figured out by now and the better-funded freight trains kept rolling right on by mocking our plight as we sat there stuck worrying that they might resort to putting us on a bus. We were relieved to get rolling again after a 4-hour delay. Even running late I'd rather be on a train than deal with the discomfort and indignity of flying. As a passenger rail lobbyist we met put it, "On the train I'm a citizen of the United States; when I fly I'm a subject of the government." And then there's the scenery and sense of space one gets inching across the continent at 80 miles per hour--a whole day just to get across Montana, the gentle rocking and snowy plains spread out like empty pages inducing a reverie that's broken only by the lounge car attendant making an early morning announcement: "For those who were brave enough to get off for some fresh air in Minot who might still be feeling a chill, the lounge car is now open. So come on down and warm yourself up. There's nothing wrong with having a little Jack Daniels in your coffee. I'll put a cover on it and nobody will know the difference." It was a little early even for me but it was nice to be invited into a little pre-breakfast booze conspiracy. Crew and passengers alike tend to be pretty jolly on the train. Given the unreliability of the service, an easy demeanor and good sense of humor are almost mandatory.