On Sunday afternoon, I’ll be boarding an Amtrak train at Union Station, steps from the U.S. Capitol. Sixty-some hours and 2,659 miles later, I’ll disembark in Spokane. Sure, it’s not the fastest way to the Lilac City, but let me explain.
Orion Donovan-Smith, the Spokesman-Review's Washington D.C. writer, embarked on a four-day journey to Spokane from the nation's capital. He used the trip to write a series of stories about Amtrak, its history and current state.
The coach section of the train was nearly full as we rolled through this historic town where West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia meet at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. But as the Capitol Limited emerged from a tunnel and glided across a bridge over the Potomac and into town, a conductor reminded us that despite the increase in passengers – Amtrak’s ridership dropped by 95% amid the pandemic a year ago – we were still far from a return to normal.
President Joe Biden wants Congress to spend $80 billion over eight years to improve and expand service on Amtrak as part of a multitrillion-dollar effort to shore up the nation’s aging infrastructure. That may sound steep, but to America’s most famous rail travel aficionado, it’s a no-brainer.
As the Empire Builder rolled out of Chicago’s Union Station on Monday, something felt different. It was the first day of regular, daily service on the Chicago-to-Spokane route since Amtrak cut service on most of its long-distance trains to just three days a week last October amid the pandemic, and the mood on board was almost ebullient. It was a striking contrast with my quiet overnight trip from D.C. to Chicago on the Capitol Limited, which won’t resume daily service until next week.
When the Empire Builder stopped in this town of about 50,000 for an hour-long refueling break on Tuesday, Athena Larsen and her brother Josh Medlin piled on with her 4-year-old daughter and his two sons, ages 3 and 1. While Amtrak’s ridership fell sharply over the past year amid the pandemic, the siblings from Kelso in southwest Washington became frequent passengers after Medlin, 35, moved to North Dakota a year ago.