Completing a PhD – was it worth the effort?

A topical story in the Lima press
Overnight, there was an interesting and topical post (as far as I’m concerned) on the Facebook page of one of my ‘friends’—the son of one of my graduate students when I was a faculty member at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s. He hails from Peru. Carlos Arbizu Jr. is studying for his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, as far as I can determine, he’s working on carrot genetics under the supervision of my friend and former potato scientist David Spooner.

Carlos had posted a link to an article published on the website of the Lima-based Newspaper Perú21: ¿Por qué estudiar un doctorado?  (Why study for a PhD?). To which Carlos had added the byline: PhD = Permanent Head Damage.

Maybe he’s going through a difficult patch right now. I’ve seen from several of his posts that he’s immersed in some pretty ‘heavy’ molecular genetic analysis. It’s beyond my comprehension.

But all PhD students go through peaks and troughs. I know I did. Some days nothing can go wrong, progress is swift. The world is your oyster, and there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. On other days, you just wish the earth would open up and swallow you.

And for many PhD students, the most trying time often comes when they begin to draft their thesis and eventually prepare to defend it. Unfortunately many science graduates have received very little formal training in how to write clear and concise prose. Writing just doesn’t come naturally. So what should be one of the most important aspects of completing a PhD can become a long and tedious chore. And before submission regulations were tightened up at UK universities, some students could take a couple of years or more to write up and submit their thesis for examination.

40 years ago today
Well, this Perú21 article was published yesterday. And today, 23 October (if memory serves me right) is exactly 40 years since I defended my PhD thesis: The Evolutionary Significance of the Triploid Cultivated Potato, Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk. I was almost 27 (old by UK standards, average or maybe young compared to many US graduate students), and had been working on my degree for four years. I’d completed a one-year MSc degree in genetic resources at Birmingham in September 1971 (having graduated from the University of Southampton with a BSc in botany and geography in July 1970), and then been offered the opportunity to work in Peru for a year at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP). Well, for various reasons, and to cut a long story short, That opportunity didn’t materialize in September 1971 so my head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes (who went on to supervise my PhD) persuaded the Overseas Development Administration (now Department for International Development, DfID) to cough up some support until the funding for my position at CIP was guaranteed. Thus I began my study in Birmingham, and finally moved to Lima in January 1973, working as an Associate Taxonomist and conducting research that went towards my PhD thesis. And since I was employed and having a regular income, I took another three years to complete all the experimental work I had planned. In any case, when I joined CIP in 1973 the institute was still establishing and developing its own infrastructure. That was also one of the exciting aspects to my work. It was a real opportunity to build up and curate a large collection of Andean potato varieties and wild species, and study them in their native environment.

CIP collection

The CIP field collection of potato varieties planted in the Mantaro Valley near Huancayo in central Peru.


The diversity of Andean potato varieties.

The next couple of photos show some of the field work I carried out in various parts of Peru.

Mike Jackson and Jack Hawkes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974

Learning from my supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, during one of his visits to Peru while I was carrying out my study.


With CIP taxonomist, Professor Carlos Ochoa, a renowned Peruvian expert on potatoes and their wild relatives.

I was looking at the relationship between potato varieties with different chromosome numbers, so-called diploids and tetraploids, with 24 and 48 chromosomes respectively. If you can cross these two types you expect to produce some with an intermediate chromosome number. So, 48 x 24 = 36, the triploids. For the first years at CIP we didn’t have any glasshouses where we could work. Instead we had rather rustic polytunnels right in the field next to the germplasm collection, where I would make all those pollinations using the so-called cut-stem technique.

Experimental data from other parts of the world had shown that triploids were formed only rarely in such crosses. Yet triploid varieties were quite common and highly prized by potato farmers in the Andes. I was trying to determine if the crossability relationships of these native potatoes might be different in their indigenous environment. So I went on to make hundreds of crosses (and thousands of pollinations), as well as study indigenous farming systems in the south of Peru. This next gallery show some of the triploids potatoes grown by farmers. One of the most prized was the variety Huayro, and there were two forms, one round and the other elongated (and quite large). Both had red skins and yellow flesh.

Back to Birmingham
In May 1975, Steph and I headed back to the UK. But not directly. On the assumption that I would successfully defend my PhD thesis, CIP’s Director General had offered me a new position in the Outreach Department, and with the possibility of moving to Central America. So we headed for Costa Rica (where I’d eventually move to in April 1976) to see the lie of the land, so to speak. And from there we went on to Mexico for a few days to visit our old friends, and former CIP colleagues, John and Marion Vessey who had moved to maize and wheat center, CIMMYT, near Mexico City. From Mexico we headed to New York (first flight on a wide-bodied jet, an Eastern Airlines L-1011 Tristar) for a connection with British Airways to Manchester where my parents met us. We spent a further week looking for somewhere to live in Birmingham, and were fortunate to find an apartment very convenient to the university and only a few minutes walk from the Department of Botany (as it was then) Winterbourne Gardens where I had been assigned some lab space and a desk.

A nightmare waiting to happen
Now remember, there were no PCs or laptops, cloud computing, USB sticks or floppy disks in 1975. All my thesis data was available in hard copy only, and I carried a briefcase with four years of work with me from Lima to the UK on that journey I just related. The briefcase was hardly ever out of my sight! In those days it was not unknown for a graduate student to have lost a briefcase on a journey containing a complete draft of a thesis. No backup!

Getting into a routine
Once settled in Birmingham, I planned out my work for the coming months, with a deadline of 1 October. That was the final day of submission if I wanted to have my thesis examines and (if approved) have the degree awarded at the next congregation or commencement in early December that same year. But by the beginning of June I had not even begun to write, never mind complete the last minute field experiment I had planned (checking the ploidy of a set of hybrids produced earlier in the year) or create the figures I would include. Again, there was no digital technology available. I had to hand draw all my maps and other figures (my geography training in cartography at Southampton finally came in useful). While the department’s chief technician actually photographed all of these, I had to print all my own photographs (again, the experience I’d gained from my father, a professional photographer all his life, came in handy).

Working to a regular schedule every day, from around 7:30 am until 5 pm with a break for lunch, and spending another couple of hours after dinner, I soon began to make progress, although I didn’t actually start putting pen to paper until the beginning of July. It took me only six weeks to draft my thesis. Once I’d completed a chapter I’d hand it over to Jack Hawkes for review and revision. And to give him credit, he usually handed me back my draft with his comments within a couple of days only (and this was an approach I adopted with all my graduate students during the 1980s).

So, by mid-August or so I had a completed text, I’d checked the chromosome numbers of the hundred or so plants in the field, and set about the figures. I found someone who would type my thesis, but at the last moment he had to use a manual typewriter since the electric one he’d wanted to rent was no longer available. In 1975 The University of Birmingham changed the thesis submission regulations and it was no longer necessary to submit a thesis fully bound in a hard cover. I was able to submit in temporary binding, and this in fact saved perhaps three weeks from my tight schedule. I hit the 1 October deadline with about twenty minutes to spare just before 5 pm.

Thesis defence
I was quite surprised when my external examiner planned the defence of my thesis just three weeks later. All went to plan. In those days, the exam consisted of the graduate student, the external examiner and an internal examiner (usually the thesis supervisor). Today things might have changed, and even when I worked at Birmingham in the 80s the supervisor was no longer permitted to act as the internal examiner. I believe there may now also be a third panel member, to see fair play.

From the outset it was apparent that my thesis would pass muster, since the external examiner told me that he’d enjoyed reading the thesis. But we then went on to have a thorough discussion over the next three hours about many of the details, and the implications for potato genetic conservation and breeding. Phew!

And in early December, the 12th actually, I was able to celebrate with others from the department as we were awarded our degrees at the mid-year congregation.

19 Ed & Mike

L to R: Pam Haigh, Brenig Garrett,  me, Prof Trevor Williams, Prof Jack Hawkes, Dr Jean Hanson, Margaret Yarwood, Jane Toll, Stephen Smith

20 Ed & Mike

With my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jack Hawkes on my right, and MSc supervisor, Prof. Trevor Williams on my left; 12 December 1975.

PhD congregation, 12 December 1975 - with Mum and Dad

With my Mum and Dad.


Was it worth it?
So let me come back to the question I posed in the title of this post. Was it worth it? Unequivocally Yes! Would I want to do it again? No!

Actually completing a PhD is probably the most selfish piece of research that a scientist will ever get to do. There’s one aim: complete a thesis and have the doctorate awarded. PhD research does not have to be ground-breaking at all. In fact much of it is pretty mundane, and that’s one of the down sides when things are not going so well. For Birmingham at least, the PhD regulations stated that the thesis had to represent a piece of original research, completed under supervision. And it’s the ‘under supervision’ that is critical. A PhD student is still maturing, so to speak. The work is guided by a mentor. Of course there can be breakthroughs that lead to the most prestigious prizes. I believe that Sir Paul Nurse’s PhD research set him off on the path that eventually led to his Nobel prize.

I have encouraged others to research for a PhD, and I hope I was able to give them the support and advice that my supervisors gave me. In that respect my PhD was a positive experience. It’s not always the case, and when student-supervisor relationships break down, every one suffers. It does not necessarily have to take many, many months (or years even) to write a thesis. It takes self-discipline but also support from the supervisor.

Without a PhD I would not have enjoyed the career in international agricultural research and academia that I did. My PhD was like a ‘union card’. It enabled me to seek opportunities that would probably have been closed without a PhD. But I also acknowledge that I was lucky. I moved into a field—genetic resources—that was just expanding, as were the international centers of the CGIAR. And I had mentors who were prepared to back me.

Forty years on I can look back to those days in 1975 with a fair degree of nostalgia. And then reflect on the benefits that accrued from that intense but disciplined period in the summer of 1975 (when there was a heat wave, and Arthur Ashe won the men’s title at Wimbledon), and which allow me now to enjoy the retirement I started five years ago.

Both of our daughters, Hannah and Philippa, went on to complete a PhD (in 2006 and 2010, respectively) in their chosen field: psychology! So I can’t have passed on so many negative vibes about graduate study, although their choice of psychology does make a profound statement, perhaps.

Peer-reviewed papers
Incidentally, I finally got around to publishing three papers from my thesis. When I returned to CIP just before New Year 1976, I moved into a new role and responsibilities. And even though I eventually found time to draft manuscripts, these took some time to appear in print after peer review, revision and acceptance. One of the papers—on the field work at Cuyo Cuyo—was originally submitted to the journal Economic Botany. And there it languished for over two years. I received an invitation from the editor of Euphytica to submit a paper on the same topic, so I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany. About that same time I received a letter from that journal’s interim editor in chief that manuscripts had been discovered unpublished up to 20 years after they had been submitted, and what did I want to happen to mine. It was published in Euphytica in 1980.

Jackson, M.T., J.G. Hawkes & P.R. Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanumchaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783. PDF

Jackson, M.T., J.G. Hawkes & P.R. Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113. PDF

Jackson, M.T., P.R. Rowe & J.G. Hawkes, 1978. Crossability relationships of Andean potato varieties of three ploidy levels. Euphytica 27, 541-551.PDF

‘Perhaps the most typically American place in America’. (James Bryce, 1888)

Chicago, Illinois. The Windy City. Where we spent three very enjoyable days at the end of September, having made the trip from St Paul, MN on the Amtrak Empire Builder.

Each year when we cross The Pond to visit our daughter Hannah and family (husband Michael, Callum and Zoë) in Minnesota, we try to make a trip to see other parts of that vast and diverse country. In 2011, it was a trip to canyon country in Arizona and New Mexico. Then in 2012, we headed to the ‘Minnesota Riviera‘ along Lake Superior, and the Gunflint Trail. 2013 saw us on the coast of Oregon, then a road trip south to Crater Lake and the redwoods of northern California. And in 2014, we drove to Yellowstone National Park from St Paul.

Since we had already made a 2,300 mile road trip around Scotland and the Western Isles at the end of May-early June, I didn’t fancy another long drive. But a short break in Chicago seemed to fit in well with our schedule. And, after all, Chicago is one of the great US cities that has to be in your travel plans at some stage. Until we visited I hadn’t heard about the Great Fire of Chicago in October 1871 when several square miles of the city were destroyed. But this also gave an opportunity to build a better city, and upwards.

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The skyline of Chicago is stunning, see here from the Milton L Olive III Memorial Park on the shore-front of Lake Michigan. One of the tallest buildings, the John Hancock Center is the black tower on the right. Just click on any of the galleries to open larger images.

Chicago skyline

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The Milton L Olive III Memorial Park (with Navy Pier in the background), looking southeast from the 360 Observatory. The Chicago skyline photo above was taken from the platform halfway along the park shore.

Our train from St Paul arrived at Union Station on schedule just before 4 pm on the Tuesday afternoon, and we were at our apartment hotel, De Witt Place on the northern edge of Streeterville (seen here outlined in red) in about 30 minutes.

de-witt place

The hotel was fine, although the bathroom was small and a little ‘tired’. I’d found it through that we have used on several times before when planning our travels in the USA. The price was right (USD416 incl. taxes for three nights), and because there was a kitchen we could make our own arrangements for breakfast. A well-stocked convenience store was just across the street. The location couldn’t have been better: just a block from the shore of Lake Michigan (and its miles of walking opportunities), and two blocks from the John Hancock Center and its 360 Observatory on the 94th floor, one of our principal objectives during our Chicago trip.

First thing on the Wednesday morning we headed to the John Hancock Center, expecting to find a large number of like-minded tourists aiming for the top. I’d read some horrendous reviews indicating that it could take more than 80 minutes waiting for a lift to the top. I’d already purchased tickets online (USD19 each).

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Just before 9 am we found ourselves at the head of the queue of about a dozen people, and after a 40 second lift ride we were whisked to the top and the stunning views over four states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan (and perhaps even as far southwest as Iowa). During the 1½ hours we spent there, it never did become really busy. We enjoyed a cup of coffee looking north towards Lincoln Park and its zoo and conservatory that we planned to visit the following day.

The latest attraction 94 floors up is Tilt. A section of the wall tilts out at an angle of almost 35°! Not for me. I suffer from vertigo, and am never completely comfortable until I’m on terra firma at ground level.

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Back down, we began our first day’s walking—at least six miles (and almost seven the next day, and four on our final morning). The weather could not have been better, with temperatures in the high 70sF, clear blue skies, great visibility from the 360, and for once, Chicago was the Windless City.

We headed south down N Michigan Ave (The Magnificent Mile) towards the Chicago River, admiring the ‘canyon’ of skyscrapers that have sprung up over the decades. One of the most beautiful is the older Chicago Tribune Tower (completed in 1925) with its Gothic, almost art deco embellishments. Chicago architecture is magnificent. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I really like these high rise, reflecting the beauty of the buildings all around them. And I never cease to wonder at the engineering and construction that goes into designing and building these masterpieces.

Chicago has taken a lot of effort to spruce itself up and welcome visitors. All along The Magnificent Mile, there are attractive sidewalk gardens, and in front of most of the hotels, flower beds are carefully tended.

The Chicago Riverwalk is still being refurbished, but is open along various stretches, affording excellent views of all the buildings gracing its banks. There are plenty of places to rest or sidewalk cafes where we enjoyed a light lunch of local pâtés and bread.

Among the tallest buildings in Chicago is Trump International Hotel and Tower and, from a distance, it is indeed rather striking. Up close, it’s rather jaded and a little tacky; few of the commercial outlets have been let, and I guess many of the 98 floors are yet unoccupied. Named after Donald, it must take an awfully large ego to have your name in letters on the side of the building, two stories high.

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Thursday morning. We headed north along the shore of Lake Michigan to Lincoln Park. Destination?

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Then it was almost time to return to the Twin Cities. On the Friday morning we had an early breakfast, and crossed over to the Lake Michigan shore to walk through a ‘haven of tranquility’, the Milton L Olive Memorial Park. Just a short distance from the bustle of downtown Chicago, there were just a few joggers and dog walkers.

I guess there was so much more that we could have chosen to visit in Chicago—other parks, museums and the like. But we only had 2½ days, and we wanted to walk everywhere. And even though there were so many other attractions we could have taken in, we are quite happy with our trip (including the train journey). We found good restaurants, and convenient to our hotel. But we didn’t get to try the famous Chicago deep-dish pizza. On the other hand, the local Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale was excellent.

Would I visit Chicago again? You bet! But there are many other places around the USA I’d like to visit first.

Here’s a video of almost all the photographs I took:

I am an ‘app neophyte’

I’ve enjoyed the use of an iPad Mini for a little over a year now. I’m not sure I would have gone out and bought one. But I was fortunate—and delighted—to be given one. And it hasn’t left my side ever since. I probably spend too much time browsing news, views, and videos of kittens.

I don’t have a smart phone, just a humble Nokia. I don’t even remember the model.


I have a simple SIM-only plan, that costs me about £3 a month, adequate for my mobile phone usage, both calls and messages. When I visited the USA recently, I couldn’t even connect to any local provider. And for the amount of usage it gets, I certainly cannot justify the cost of a smart phone. I just did a price comparison, and an iPhone 6 plus could cost almost £50 a month with one supplier! Wow!

But for how much longer can I resist?

I took my iPad along when we made a short trip recently from St Paul, Minnesota to Chicago. My iPad is not a cellular model. Wi-Fi only, which was fine while we were at our hotel. I certainly didn’t take it out and about with me. But it was a tremendous asset each evening to be able to plan the next day’s itinerary, using Google Maps, and finding places of interest to visit. Now of course I’ve used Google Maps for many years now (as regular readers of my blog will know, as I often include links to maps in many of my posts).

But this Chicago trip was the first time I’d used Google Maps ‘live’ to find somewhere to dine each evening, to check out a review, and make an online reservation, all at the ‘click of an app’. Smartphone users do this all the time. It was a novel experience for me.

What have I been doing with my life until now? How long before I succumb to reality and get my first smart phone? What became so clear to me during our three days in Chicago is that many businesses now assume everyone has a smart phone and will use their app. I was much taken with Chicago’s bike rental scheme, but I overheard one user explaining to another that you needed to use an app to be able to book or check details, or something to that effect.

I use apps on my iPad all the time, from banking, to news, to weather, Facebook, email or whatever. All Wi-Fi based. While using an app ‘on the go’ has become the norm, I’m not there yet.

Am I a mobile phone dinosaur?

Delta Comfort+: an aviation oxymoron?

Before I retired in 2010, I was able to fly Business Class for most of my international travel for flights in excess of eight or nine hours. Very comfortable indeed. You certainly arrive at your destination better rested (if not a little overhung occasionally) to take on the challenges of a new day of meetings. I’ve often departed from Manila on the Emirates midnight flight to Dubai. connecting with another to Rome just a couple of hours after landing in Dubai, then been in my first meeting less than two hours after arriving in Rome. I would have found that very difficult traveling in Economy. I know that’s the the norm for most travelers, and I’m just thankful that my employer saw the real advantages of Business Class travel.

However, since retiring in 2010 we’ve flown Economy for personal travels to visit our daughter in St Paul, Minnesota (MSP), and all flights were with Delta Air Lines from Amsterdam (AMS) or (on one occasion) from Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG), connecting from Birmingham (BHX).

This year, having made our flight reservations way back in March, I decided that we should try Delta Comfort+, the airline’s ‘enhanced’ Economy service, offering wider spacing between seats, priority boarding, seating at the front of the Economy cabin, and free drinks. And for these ‘privileges’, we paid an extra £60 each per flight. Even so, the total amount we paid, £1,601, was less than we had paid in 2014 for ‘regular’ Economy seats.

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Delta’s A330 aircraft have a 2-4-2 seating configuration in Economy, so I chose window and aisle seats as far forward as possible. Delta Comfort+ seats occupy the first five or six rows of the Economy cabin. We had 11A/B on the outbound flight, and 12A/B on the return (the second and third rows respectively).

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So, was Delta Comfort+ worth the additional expense? Well, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

  • In terms of wider spacing between seats, it’s hard to credit just how much more comfortable this made both flights. The seats are essentially the same as the other Economy seats: same width but there is a slightly greater pitch when reclining, but hardly noticeable. It’s the extra four or so inches between rows that makes all the difference. In a regular seat, I find that I have to sit with my ankles crossed, tucked underneath me, as I’ve illustrated below. Not so in Comfort+. I could stretch out, move around, find a comfortable position and, if needs be, move past Steph quite easily as she was sitting in the aisle seat. So for the extra space, the extra cost made both flights that much better.


  • We didn’t enjoy priority boarding in Amsterdam, although we arrived at the gate just as boarding had begun. It seems the Schipol/KLM employees had never heard of Comfort+. Not so on the return, where Comfort+ passengers did board shortly after Business Class under the watchful eye of Delta ground staff.
  • We were seated right at the front of the Economy cabin. This was very convenient on arrival at MSP, as we were among the first to disembark, and through Immigration quickly (which was, for the first time in many, quite a pleasant experience!).
  • I did enjoy a few gin and tonics, but the cabin crew weren’t overly generous with the drinks service.

Delta doesn’t offer an ‘extensive meal menu’ in Economy: you can choose from a hot chicken dish, a cold chicken salad, or a pasta dish. And it’s been the same on all the flights to and from the USA that we have taken since 2010. I usually ask for the hot meal, and then wonder why I didn’t ask for the salad. This was most certainly the case from MSP – AMS last week. The ‘chicken BBQ’—small cubes of chicken in a spicy sauce (it could have been tofu for all I could tell), a slurry of sweet potatoes, and some veggies—was unpalatable, and almost inedible. The salad definitely looked much better value. But the brownie that was served up was delicious, containing large chunks of chocolate. More’s the pity, there was no ice cream on the return flight.

So, how would I rate Delta Comfort+, and would I recommend it to anyone considering flying Delta to the USA.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Recommendation: I think the extra expense was worth it, and I arrived at both destinations feeling fresher than I have done in past flights. I will certainly purchase Delta Comfort+ seats for our next flights.

However, in feeling more relaxed, I can’t discount the fact that this year we had no hassle whatsoever with our tickets, transfers, connections, etc.

Schipol Airport in Amsterdam is undergoing yet another refurbishment. But they have made one very important change since we last passed through. There are no longer any security checks and screening at any of the departure gates. Once through the central security, or when transferring flights, there’s no need for extra hand baggage screening, removing shoes, belts and the like, and passing through a security screen. Saves on time and on hassle. Also, Delta has taken over Gate D1 entirely. A brief security check is made there, a few questions, and it’s on to the actual departure gate that could be in any of the terminals. Fortunately our departure to MSP was from D45, nevertheless about 8 minutes walk from D1.

Here’s a video of the take-off and landing for each flight. I just love the roar of the engines as they spool up.

Letting the train take the strain – Amtrak-style

amtrak-logoSt Paul, Minnesota.
22 September 2015.

The Amtrak Empire Builder pulls into Union Depot on time, two days and about 1,800 miles after leaving Seattle¹, headed by two GE P42 Genesis locomotives.

Destination: Union Station, Chicago. Another 400 miles and 8 hours travel, with intermediate stops at Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota, La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and Glenview (an outer suburb of Chicago) in Illinois.

Until early 2014 Amtrak used the Midway depot (between Minneapolis and St Paul) as its station in the Twin Cities. Now it operates out of the refurbished—and very plush—Union Depot in downtown St Paul, alongside the Mississippi River. Interestingly, Amtrak uses three-letter codes for all its stations, just like airports (MSP for St Paul-Minneapolis).

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We arrived to Union Depot with about 20 minutes to spare, found our way to the exit gate, and joined the other passengers (around 40) waiting to board the train that was due in a few minutes later. Once all St Paul passengers had ‘de-trained’, we were assigned our coach at the departure gate, and made our way down to the platform. The train consisted of a single-decker baggage railcar just behind the locomotives (you can just see it in the photo above), and a long set of sleeper cars and seating cars, a dining car, and an observation car. Seattle cars were at the front of the train, and those from Portland at the rear.

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Although we had reserved seats, we didn’t have actual seats assigned. But as the railcars were not full, we just found the first empty seats available, all on the upper deck of each Superliner car. Fortunately, Amtrak does assign blocks of seats for couples traveling together, and those for passengers traveling alone. So it’s always possible to sit together. If the train is full, however, the conductor will assign specific seats.

On both sectors we had no problem finding good seats, and down to Chicago, our car was immediately behind the observation car, with its snack bar on the lower level. All seats face forward, recline, there’s a foot-rest, and ample space between seats, more like the business class seating space on an aircraft.

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Since we only had hand luggage, this could be accommodated in the racks above our seats. There was plenty of space for larger luggage downstairs, and baggage could also be checked and stored in the baggage car.

So, letting ‘the train take the strain’ we settled into our seats, anticipating the journey south to Chicago.

We departed on time at 08:03, which is exceptional for Amtrak considering the issues this service has been facing in recent times. Delays of up to five hours have occurred on some sectors, especially west of St Paul. The Amtrak Empire Builder runs on tracks (often single tracks) owned by several freight companies², which take priority. So if extra freight trains are added to the schedule, or there’s a breakdown on one of the single track sections, for example, then Amtrak just has to fit in. Fortunately on both sectors of our Chicago jaunt, the trains ran to schedule and on time.

About 20 miles south of St Paul, the railway crosses the Mississippi at Hastings over to the west bank. I didn’t even notice when that happened, as the river is quite narrow at this point. Not so, further south, as the river merges with a set of lakes. Where the railroad crosses the Mississippi over to the east bank near La Crosse, WI, it is most impressive as you can see in the Part 1 video (at around 13 minutes).

From Hastings south to Red Wing and Winona, the railroad more or less hugs the bank of the Mississippi. After crossing the river, it heads east over mid-Wisconsin, often through extensive wetlands, but also mile upon mile of maize and soybeans. After Milwaukee, on the shore of Lake Michigan, it turns abruptly south, and after another 90 minutes or so, pulls into Chicago’s Union Station—as we did on time around 15:55.

On both sectors there are slightly longer stops at Winona and Milwaukee to permit passengers to step off the train for a few minutes and stretch their legs and, if needs must, smoke. All Amtrak services are strictly No Smoking!

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Stretching our legs at Winona, MN

On the journey to Chicago, we bought sandwiches in the snack bar. Big mistake! They were expensive, and dry, almost inedible slabs of bread (no butter or mayonnaise) with a turkey and cheese in between. As we had to leave the house early for our train we hadn’t had time to prepare anything. On the return journey we stocked up with supplies from a deli close to our hotel. Much tastier and better value.

While many passengers (retirees in particular) take the Empire Builder for its relaxing way to travel across this vast country, for others rail travel is cheaper than flying. After all, our two return tickets cost only USD224. For others it’s really the only way they can travel. On both journeys there were many Amish (or were they Old Order Mennonites, or even Hutterites?) making their way to Chicago, or back to their communities in the far west in Montana.

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A young ‘Amish’ woman and her baby making their way through the observation car.

On the return leg, there were four young ‘Amish’ women sitting in the row in front of us, chattering away in ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’, that strange Swiss-German dialect they have used since first arriving in the USA (you can hear them at the beginning of the Part 2 video). They were traveling to Malta, Montana, another 36 hours at least west from St Paul. Another young man seated near us was traveling on to Portland, OR. And only seated! I couldn’t do that. On a longer journey than our trip to Chicago, I would definitely choose the sleeper option, with all meals included.

Was it a good trip? On the whole, yes. I love traveling by train, as I have posted elsewhere on this blog. Traveling by train allowed us to see new parts of the USA that we wouldn’t had we flown to Chicago—new communities, new landscapes, new agriculture. A pity though that Amtrak doesn’t clean the railcar windows more regularly (as you can see from the videos, unfortunately).

Maybe another time, for a short trip like this one, I would travel by train one way, and return by air. That would certainly be the case for a transcontinental trip. Nevertheless, our trip was comfortable, interesting, on time, and with rail travel there is the distinct advantage of arriving in the center of the city. From Union Station in Chicago it was a short taxi ride to our hotel. I have one regret. We didn’t have time to look round Union Station. It was a bit of a maze to find our departure gate, so once there, we just waited for the gate to open (about 20 minutes) rather than wander off around the concourse, and I’m not sure in which direction that lay. Union Station is huge.

Three things struck me as we traveled:

  1. Chicago is the terminal for many of the long-distance trains that Amtrak operates to California, the Midwest, and Texas among others. Of course, it was the city from where the 19th century railway building boom started. Parts of our journey used to be double track or more. Many lengths are now just single track. But looking at the landscapes, the rivers and wetlands that the railroad crossed again brings to mind the superhuman effort to build a trans-continental railway then.
  2. The state of the railway is quite poor in parts, although efforts are being made to upgrade different sections of the line. But almost exclusively existing wooden sleepers are being replaced by wooden sleepers. I hardly saw any concrete sleepers at all. And rail lengths are very short. This is in contrast to what you see in the UK and Europe, where all rail refurbishment is with concrete sleepers and extremely long lengths of steel rails welded together for a safer and smoother ride. With wooden sleepers about a foot or so apart, I hate to think just how many trees (and which species) have been sacrificed to build the railways. Crossing the Great Plains in the 19th century, sleepers were shipped in, were quite crude, and made from timber (often cottonwood) that didn’t survive for very long. Modern wooden sleepers are huge chunks of wood.
  3. And as you will see as you watch the two videos, there isn’t much segregation between the railroad and cars and people. Obviously the railroad follows today the original 19th century route, passing through the center of towns along the way. There are innumerable railroad crossings, and the locomotive engineer was constantly sounding his horn the whole journey as we approached the many roads crossing the line, or on entering towns. There are no fences, and the line often cuts across gardens of houses alongside the railroad.

However, this Amtrak trip is another item ticked off my Bucket List. Time to start planning my next trip.

¹ Actually, the Empire Builder is two trains, one from Seattle and the other from Portland, OR that join to form a single train at Spokane, in eastern Washington State.
² BNSF Railway’s northern route from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota Commercial from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Canadian Pacific from St. Paul to Glenview, and Metra from Glenview to Chicago.