Reader's View, Amtrak: Living in Boise and traveling by train is an arduous effort

July 10, 2013 

Recently I read a sesquicentennial icon story about Boise's train depot; I was struck by the irony.

I love train travel. A couple of decades ago, I booked a trip on Amtrak from Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to New Orleans and back. It was a grand trip. I stopped over in Chicago and Denver and spent a few days in each.

In the early 1970s, I rode trains from Mexicali to Oaxaca, Mexico. When I lived in Twin Falls, I would catch the train to Chicago to visit my family. I used to catch Amtrak's Pioneer in Shoshone. It ran from Portland, through Boise and connected with the California Zephyr in Salt Lake City. A couple of times I took the train to Portland and Seattle for a quick weekend getaway.

I miss those days when the Pioneer ran through southern Idaho.

I can still catch the train to visit my family - sort of - but it's not so easy anymore.

Greyhound has a connecting bus to Salt Lake City, where you can catch the California Zephyr to Chicago. The bus takes about seven hours and gets you to Salt Lake about 6 p.m. The train pulls in about 3:30 a.m. - 9-1/2 hours later, if it's on time.

Greyhound also connects to the Empire Builder - the northern route from Seattle to Chicago - in Spokane. The bus stops right at the Amtrak station in Spokane at a little after 2 p.m. - the train pulls in just after midnight - 10 hours later.

Then there's the Winnemucca connection - closer but awkward at best. There is no direct bus - well Greyhound stops there, but the route goes from Boise to Salt Lake City first and takes about 18 hours.

It's about a five-hour drive - if the weather is good. But there's no place to park your car at the train stop. One could rent a car in Boise, but Hertz won't let you drop off the car at the rental office in Winnemucca.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I decided to take the train to Chicago to visit my brother's family for Thanksgiving. We opted for the drive to Winnemucca. The nice folks at U-Haul on the west side of town let us park in their storage lot. From there we caught a taxi to the station. The car was still there when we got back 10 days later.

The eastbound train departure time is also more convenient than the other two "options" - it is scheduled in Winnemucca a little after 7 p.m.

But we spent a couple of hours in limbo because a winter storm in the Sierras had delayed the train. We lingered over dinner. Then we lingered over desert. Then we lingered over coffee.

When the train finally arrived things got better. The rest of the trip was great. I slept just fine in the upper bunk, with the rhythmic rocking and the hypnotic clickety-clack. The scenery was spectacular, and the food was good.

The irony is that Winnemucca is the closest Amtrak stop from Boise, but it has no train station, only a partially enclosed glass booth more like a bus stop. That's OK when it's warm - not so good in late November with several inches of snow on the ground.

Boise, on the other hand, has a beautiful, functional train station - but Amtrak, sadly, doesn't run through Boise anymore.

Niels S. Nokkentved has worked as a writer and newspaper reporter in Idaho and the Northwest for 25 years.

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