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Home » Adventures » Glacier » Day 9

Saturday, August 27 — The Waiting Game

I did not slumber very soundly, being overly paranoid of sleeping too late and missing my train. I emerged from my tent before daybreak with ample time to start my exodus from Glacier, which consisted of walking several miles across paved roads. It was actually reverse of the route I originally planned for making my triumphal entry into Glacier. If I had not altered my itinerary and disembarked the train at West Glacier, I would have crossed these roads my first night. Although the stroll was easy enough, I was glad I did not complete it after initially arriving at Glacier, disoriented at night with traffic rushing past.

I wandered into the station around 7:30 a.m., plenty early for the 8:15 Empire Builder. I called Amtrak’s toll free number to check the train’s status, and the automated voice helpfully stated, “The train is running seven minutes ahead of schedule but is expected to arrive two hours late.” This seemingly contradictory statement merely confused me, and since West Glacier Station was unattended, no one was available to inquire about the situation. Only an operator at a call center on the other end of an 800 number served us. There was not much choice other than to wait with the other ticket holders for the locomotive. This stay would be a little longer than anticipated. After 8:15 passed, several more phone calls exchanged, and rumors from arriving people, we deduced that the previous night a freight train carrying grain derailed between East and West Glacier shutting down the line. So in fact, Amtrak was running punctually but was stuck at Whitefish (the station just up the line from me) because there was no intact track to cross.

After waiting for an airlift to bring relief to those sealed in West Glacier, Amtrak eventually stopped giving an ETA for the train. A worker from the railroad (not Amtrak) arrived and exhibited some interesting aerial photographs of the crash. He informed the expectant passengers that the train jumped the tracks in a remote section and roads had to be improvised to even deliver equipment to the accident site. Besides cleaning the wreck and repairing the track, the park service required all spilled grain to be removed. This act prevented the unfortunate situation of bears playing chicken with trains after eating the grain, which tends to ferment when left exposed. Needless to say, the bears rarely win. More to my immediate concern though, the railroader could not offer any firm estimate on when the line would open. If it took too long, he thought Amtrak might bus the passengers to Havre, an unpleasant five hour ride cramped inside a motor coach. There, we could catch the westbound Empire Builder which would turn around at that station instead of heading all the way through to Seattle. He was not an Amtrak employee though, so he could not promise anything.

With a long morning ahead and not being trapped behind security checkpoints, I explored the nearby tourist shops. As expected, they held nothing interesting, just the normal t-shirt and souvenir trinkets. Running low on food and money, I picked up an economical package of bagels for sustenance on the train, if it ever arrived. A local newspaper gave some details of the bear assault. A father and daughter had been attacked by a mama grizzly defending her two cubs. The people fell from the trail and had to be rescued by a helicopter. Although severely hurt, they both survived, and I believe were able to recover from their injuries.

On the Rail Again

The approaching Amtrak locomotive

The train approaching late

As the sun approached its daily apex, word spread around the station that the train had allegedly left Whitefish moving in our direction. I tried not to get too excited, fearing disappointment and delay, but eventually the bright headlight on the engine appeared to everyone’s amazement. After quickly loading, the Empire Builder departed West Glacier exactly four hours late.

I settled in a seat, relieved to finally be on my way. My joy appeared a bit premature as it quickly became evident the situation had not improved much. The derailment still had the line closed and Amtrak merely crept towards the crash site, slowly passing about half a dozen freights also trapped by the crash. At least the scenery outside was beautiful. The train’s speed permitted plenty of time to study it thoroughly too. The route started by tracing the Flathead River. Several groups white water rafted through it, although the rapids appeared tame. We then progressed through a dense, luscious forest which encroached to the edge of the tracks. Finally, the line snaked along the edge of the mountains, behind which lay Glacier National Park. Along this windy path, several snow sheds had been constructed to protect the tracks, making me imagine just how severe winter could be there.

Surprisingly, it appeared the railroads gods gave Amtrak priority so that it would be the first train through after the tracks opened. This development should prevent even further delay, but also make us the guinea pig for the freshly laid track. We were almost certainly lighter than any of the freights, so that was probably why we were pushed to the front of the queue — not because a couple hundred annoyed people were on board the train. After all, I bet the railroad would be more eager to move its profitable cargo rather than a bunch of bodies.

Wreckage from the freight train derailment

The Wreck

After seemingly endless starts and stops over the next two hours, the train finally passed through the previous night’s wreck. As we slowly inched forward, railroad crews still furiously worked on repairs. A double track ran through this section, and only one set had been fixed. Many ties were broken, cracked, or destroyed by the crash. Damaged rail cars were scattered about, lying upside down off to the side. I could not tell if they were moved during the clean up or had been displaced by the crash’s force. The wreck was neat to see up close but definitely not worth the six hour delay.

Full Speed Ahead

After clearing the derailment, the train resumed its normal travel across the plains. Everyone was glad to be moving again at full speed. Almost the entire way across Montana freight trains were parked on sidings, postponed by the same wreck. This one crash affected trains for hundreds of miles across this very large state.

Although traveling smoothly now, unless a miracle occurred I would miss church at ULC the next morning. I do not like missing the benefits of Divine Service regardless, and it would have been especially nice to visit that church again. The Lord works in mysterious ways. I had already pretty much decided to skip my other Minnesota based escapade, their state fair, even before delay, so now I would definitely not be attending. My adventure had been quite exhausting and fulfilling already so my heart did not break much.

The train ride back was analogous to the way out, except the scenery moved in the opposite direction. A trio in the lounge car who thought copious wine consumption improved their karaoke skills was the only detraction from my enjoyment. The lounge car showed the stereotypically bad romantic comedy Fever Pitch in the evening, which I watched anyway before falling asleep in my coach seat.