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Trip Report

METRA in Chicago

February 9-13, 2002
Section 1 of 3


(Click small photos to see larger; all larger photos are less than 35K)


Since I was unable to finish riding METRA in the time allotted last year, I decided to return again this year to finish what I started. There were two good reasons for doing this trip in the dead of winter. First, I like being out in the bitter cold, and Chicago, in February can be just that. Secondly, you can get a decent hotel without breaking the bank.


I originally planned to stay with relatives in Milwaukee for 3 days, then do the METRA trips before heading off to visit my brother in Harrisburg, P.A. Friday morning the 15th. Unfortunately, my aunt who I was supposed to stay with took ill, so that part had to be canceled. Rather than change the whole itinerary drastically, I decided to keep the original westbound departure, which was from CROTON-HARMON, NY (more on the route later). Leaving on Amtrak #49 the Lake Shore Limited. Arriving in Chicago on Sunday Morning the 10th. That will give me a full 3 days to ride the METRA lines, and perhaps explore some of the CTA ĎLí. I will leave on Wednesday, so I needed to change my tickets which wound up costing me 30 bucks. Since my brother will be picking me up Thursday in Harrisburg, I figured he wouldnít be too crazy about me taking the Pennsylvanian that is carded into Harrisburg at 10:20 P.M. The next day is a regular workday for him, so I changed my return reservation to train #40 The Three Rivers, scheduled to depart Chicago at 9:20 PM Wednesday, and arrive in Harrisburg at 2:16 PM Thursday afternoon. That will allow me the opportunity to spend another day in Chicago and ride more trains!

Saturday, February 9, 2002

I stayed in bed for a few minutes after the alarm went off. Denise and I had just gotten a NEW bed last week, and I wanted to spend a few semi-conscious moments enjoying it. Our youngest daughter, Heather had married last August and we were finally getting our bedroom back! After sleeping on a sofa bed for 20 years itís so nice to have a REAL bed and a room to go along with it too! Since all the packing was pretty much done last night, I just needed to add a few odds and ends. Before I knew it, it was 1:00 PM, time to leave!

Denise and my oldest daughter drove me to Linden station to catch a New Jersey transit local train to Pennsylvania station. Arrival in New York City was on time. Here, the fun begins. I had to go to a ticket agent so my tickets could be re-issued. The line was about 25 people deep, and although it moved, it did so s-l-o-w-l-y. The agent took all my tickets, and re-issued new ones. Nearly 30 minutes elapsed during the wait and exchange. With new ducats in hand, Iím off to GRAND CENTRAL STATION. What? Grand Central Station. An explanation is in order here.

Grand Central Terminal, NY, NY

Most of you that are reading this will wonder why Iíd be going to Grand Central to catch Amtrak #49. Amtrak no longer operates into or out of Grand central, RIGHT? Well it doesnít, and hasnít since the mid 1980ís when the Empire connection was finished. 20 years ago, Denise and I went to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. What Iíll be doing today in leaving from Grand Central, is re-creating what it was like before the Empire Connection, and to pay a visit to an old friend, GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL.

Grand Central Terminal was spared the fate of Pennsylvania station, forever lost to the wreckerís ball in 1966. It has been faithfully restored to its former glory by a recent renovation. The only things missing, of course, are the old roll-up departure signs, replaced with tasteful electronic ones AND the Amtrak trains.

Track sign for express to Croton-Harmon, NY

I canít say I blame Amtrak for moving all their trains to Pennsylvania station. Logistically it was a very good idea. After all most people donít like the idea of switching stations. Unfortunately, nostalgia, romance and logistics donít mix. I donít know which category I fit into. Either Iím hopelessly romantic, or a little bit nuts, or both. But here I am walking down 8th avenue with 3 pieces of luggage to catch a train I could have caught from where I just came from. What the heck! The walk will do me good. I arrive in Grand Central 40 minutes later, and only have a couple minutes to soak in the nostalgia before my train leaves.

I board the 2:53 express headed for Croton-Harmon, NY. This is the Lake Shore Limitedís first stop for receiving Ďguestsí. I enjoy the view as the Metro-North commuter train cruises along the Hudson River. I mellow out during the trip by listening to a Sarah Brightman CD. Arrival in Harmon is on time at 3:43 PM.

Eastbound train #48 the Lake Shore Limited making station stop at Croton-Harmon, NY

It appears the train #48, the eastbound Lake Shore Limited about two hours late, so I get a look at that train while he makes his station stop. A few Metro-North local and express trains arrive and depart, than before I know it an announcement is being made for MY train!

(Automated voice) "Attention, passengers, the 5:18 PM Amtrak train to Chicago will be arriving on track 3. Passengers for Albany, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo Depew station, Erie, Cleveland, Elyria, Sandusky, Toledo, Bryan, Waterloo, Elkhart, South Bend, Hammond-Whiting and Chicago will arrive on track 3."

Itís a pleasant surprise to hear Metro-North announce their tenantís trains.

Sunset along the Hudson River as viewed from room #4 car 4910 train 49

The train arrives on time, and I board my sleeping car "Island View" I am in Standard Bedroom #4 that just happens to be on the river side of the train. After stowing my baggage, I witness one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen in years. The river reflects the skis hues of blue and fire-orange as the sun sets over the majestic cliffs Of the mighty Hudson River. What a way to start a trip!

I opted for the sleeping car, even though Iím alone for a couple of reasons. First, I got on at Harmon, and not knowing how full the train would be, I wanted to get a good seat. Secondly, I wanted to treat myself to the privacy and luxury, in lieu of another hotel night in Chicago. Actually, when you figure in the meals, free coffee and soft drinks, the sleeping car is a good deal, as all your meals and drinks (except beer and alcohol) are included.

Our consist leaving Croton-Harmon was:

Locomotive:   #705 GE P-32
              "Electric" Porpoise
Baggage:      [NYP] 1255
Crew Dorm:    1255 [Pine Shore]
Sleeping Car: [NYP] 62015 "Island View"
              I was here
Dining Car:   [NYP] 8504
Lounge/Cafť:  [NYP] 28007 "New York Club"
Coaches,      [NYP] 26053
  AmfleetII   [NYP] 25090 
Richard, my sleeping car attendant--thanks for a GREAT trip!

Richard, my car attendant comes by and introduces himself. Richard has been on this train for 20 years and it shows. He asks me if I need any help. I tell him Iíve done this before, but he lets me know heís available if I need any help, or have any questions. He is a good example of what every Amtrak service attendant should be. The conductor lifted my ticket shortly after boarding, so I settle in.

After mellowing out a few minutes, I decide to head for the dining car. I am seated with Andy and Susan, who are headed back to Chicago after spending some business/vacation time in New York City. Very nice couple. They are fascinated by my interest in the trains. They came East in coach, and are going back First Class. Iím sure from now on theyíll never go any other way. The sleeper is a haven for a couple. I speak from experience. Denise and I have journeyed that way many times in the last few years, and words cannot describe the bliss of sharing a sleeping car room with your love.

Both Andy and Sue had the chicken offering, and I had the filet of sole. It was quite tasty, and Iím glad I chose that. Another gentleman was seated next to me. I forgot his name, but he rides trains all over. He passed through Linden Station earlier this afternoon on the Crescent, while I was waiting for my New Jersey transit local train to New York. He will be getting off in Bryan Ohio tomorrow morning.

We glide to a stop in Albany Rensselaer as I finish my apple pie alíamode. Andy and Sue Left for theyíre room a few minutes earlier. I have to get back to my room and get my coat so that I can hit the platform and record the consist.

This trip will be the first since my friend Andy moved down to Jacksonville, Florida last year. I used to look forward to seeing him here. He would bring goodies, as well as the latest news about the railroad doings in the capital. Several minutes elapse before I can get off, as we have pulled north of the station so that #64 The Maple Leaf from Toronto and Niagara Falls can finish his station work.

The Boston section of our train has already arrived, the Boston cafť car and road power have cut-off the train and are on the siding north of the station awaiting our arrival. There are also 7 Roadrailers going to Chicago with us tonight. Another curiosity: a Caltrain bi-level coach is sitting on the siding coupled to the cafť car. It probably arrived earlier today on #48, and will most likely be going on #63 to Buffalo and Alstom in Hornell, NY for rebuilding.

I walk our train as it is being re-assembled to record our consist, which, out of Albany-Rensselaer is:

Locomotives:    #53 (GE P-42]
               #124   "  "
Baggage [NYP]  1255
Dorm    [NYP]  2512  [Pine King]
Sleeper [NYP]  62015 [Island View]
               I was here, in Room #4
Diner   [NYP]  8504
Cafť    [NYP]  28007 [New York Club]
Coaches [NYP]  26053  Amfleet II
        [NYP]  25090     "     "
        [BOS]  25000     "     "
        [BOS]  25011     "     "
Sleeper [BOS]  62016 [Lake View]
Baggage [BOS]  1756
MHC     [BOS]  1468
PLUS 7 roadrailers

NYP= On @ New York, Penn Station
BOS= On @ Boston, South Station
MHC= Material Handling Car
  [Amtrakís term for plug-door boxcars]

As I near the rear of the train, I see that the Rensselaer police and what appear to be undercover Amtrak officers in the process of interrogating a man with a middle-eastern accent. Could it be that Osama Bin Ladin or one of his cohorts is riding the "Lake Shore Limited" tonight? Weíll see. I walk foreword to my sleeping car and settle in. We finally depart, and pull a train-length west of the station so our roadrailers can be added. I wasnít able to get the numbers, so Iíll wait until we get to Chicago tomorrow to try. We finally depart west. The first defect detector announces we have 70 axles. Still too difficult to guess in car lengths, since roadrailers have bogey sets that are 4 axles and the cars have two axles.

I relax as we skirt the Mohawk River, looking at the stars on this beautiful night. At Herkimer, NY, we brake to allow a meet with a wide-shipment freight train. At Utica, a railroad historical society has a former New York Central steam engine on display. I stay awake to Syracuse. What a joy it is, sitting in this darkened room, with a window to the world outside! There are no words that can describe what it is like to travel by night train in a sleeping car. Tonight, for the FIRST time, I will get to sleep in the LOWER! I always defer to Denise when we travel together, and sleep in the upper. But, since Iím alone tonight Iíll sleep in the lower. Richard makes up my bed shortly after we leave Syracuse. I lie down fully determined to resist the sleep that is trying to take over a tired body. Finally, the warm bed, the release of being away, and the hum of the rails produce a sedative effect that I can no longer overcome. Sleep comes way before Rochester.

Sunday, February 10, 2002

#49 wakes up eastern Indiana Sunday morning

I wake up later than usual. We have departed Bryan, Ohio! I must have been pretty tired. I walk up to breakfast, and again, I sit with Andy and Sue. Another lady, Layla, has joined us too. I enjoy my usual breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage. Layla is traveling in the coaches, and Andy and Sue tell her the difference that the sleeping car makes. One of the on board crew gives her a tour of the sleeper as soon as she is done with her breakfast. There is little doubt that the sleeping car ticket is worth the price, provided you can afford it, especially on a full service train like the Lake Shore Limited. I speak from experience. I can sleep in coach, but do a lot better on a bed.

Last week Norfolk Southern, whose rails we are riding on this morning, had a wreck near La Porte, Indiana. I figure I will get to see some of the wreckage that wasnít picked up yet, provided Iím on the proper side of the train. Thereís lots of chatter on the scanner this morning. We pass several freight trains, and finally, Train #44, The eastbound Pennsylvanian, en route to Philadelphia. Numerous road crossings are passed in Indiana, and the accompanying chime horn concert is a joy to listen to this morning. And I being in the third car have an orchestra seat!

A noted rail photographer and author, Al Stauffer once made the statement that "a good photographer never drops his guard" Well, I just did. We pass the wreck scene in La Porte, and I didnít go for my camera until it was too late. I wonít be passing this way on my return trip, so I guess I just blew what would have been a great shot.

We make our stops in Elkhart and South Bend on time, and it appears that this Lake Shore will arrive in the windy city on time.

Although we do arrive on time at Lumber Street (where our roadrailers will be detached) we lose a few minutes here during the process. We finally arrive in Chicago, Union Station, BACKING in on track # 26.

I gather my belongings and head in to the station. I have a few things to take care of before leaving for my hotel. First, I buy a 10-trip zone ĎKí METRA ticket that I will use for my journeys on that system that begin tomorrow. I also purchase a 5 day CTA (Chicago transit authority) visitors pass that will give me unlimited rides on the ĎLí.

With those things taken care of, I walk to the ĎLí station at Quincy, and catch a CTA brown line train to my hotel. Iím hoping that Iíll be able to check in early. It is only 1:30 PM and the specified check-in isnít until 3:00 PM. The weather outside is overcast, with a few flurries, but Chicago is living up to its nickname as the winds are gusting off Lake Michigan at near gale force. A strong cold front has just passed, and the fog that had shrouded the city has disappeared with the wind. I settle in to my room. The only thing I have left to do today is get to Mass. Happily, there is a late 5:15 Mass at Holy Name Cathedral. After Mass, I grab a quick dinner, and get to bed early. Tomorrow will begin, at least for me at 4:00 AM.

Metra Again! Monday, February 11, 2002

METRA TRAINS 603 & 632 Chicago (OTC) to Mc Henry Ill. & Return

The only way you can round-trip this branch is to either stay overnight in Mc Henry, or leave very early in the morning from Chicago. I chose the latter. Donít misunderstand me, Iím not crazy about getting up early in the morning, and if not disturbed can sleep until late morning. I donít usually get up early when Iím on vacation either, but this trip is a worthwhile exception. I requested a 4:00 AM wake-up call from the hotel desk, and as an additional precaution, set my alarm clock for 3:55 AM to make sure Iíd be up. I also got to sleep early last night just to be sure.

Just as the alarm clock goes off, Iím out of bed. I normally lie around for a few minutes, and sometimes nod off again, but fortunately, for me, my mind has a built in "going somewhere" circuit that overrides the usual routine.

I head out into the cold Chicago morning chill, and make my way to the Diversey Brown line ĎLí station. Iím not sure when they start running, and I want to give myself a good jump. Turns out that this was a good idea. The first ĎLí to the loop shows up at 5:03 AM. Iíll have lots of time. I decide to stay on the train until Madison, which was a mistake. I had to walk an extra 4 blocks, but got to OTC (Ogilvie Transportation Center) AKA Madison street CNW station at 5:40 AM, in plenty of time to catch the 5:55 AM Mc Henry local. That was a cold walk! Temperatures are in the 20ís this morning, and factoring in the wind-chill it feels about 10!

A word here on walking. I do a lot of it, especially on trips like this. Not only does it save money, but also it is very good for you. On a trip like this, I will probably walk close to 15 miles. I donít Consider myself a health nut, but I like to walk, just for the fun of it and to see the things that move by too fast to enjoy when you are in a cab or bus or on the ĎLí.

Track sign in OTC for early morning train to Mc Henry IL

I take a snapshot of the destination board before boarding. It is still pitch-dark outside! We depart OTC on time and pick up a good amount on our way west. These folks arenít railfans; they are going to work in the suburbs. This is a local train, and we have made all but one stop Gladstone Park. By the time we arrive in Cary, the sun is out revealing the beautiful Mc Henry County landscape. I know I said it last time, but it bears repeating -- this is some of the most beautiful country Iíve seen.

There is a switch-tender on duty at Crystal Lake Junction, and after receiving our track warrant from the dispatcher, we swing onto the branch. We parallel a bike path and pass a few farms and new warehouse buildings there is a Christmas tree farm along the ROW. A new sub-division is passed just prior to the station at Mc Henry. The terrain is rolling hills open as far as the eye can see. We move along at a good clip.

At Mc Henry there is a large electrical sub-station, no doubt built to serve the expanding population here. This is a beautiful place. We arrive on time at 7:24 AM.

Iím tempted to detrain here and take a few photos, but since we turn right back to Chicago, and there are no other trains if I miss this one, I decide to stay on board. I flip the seat and move my belongings to the left side for the trip back. I discovered a long time ago that When riding round-trip on a rail line that sitting on the left side going out, and the left side returning will give you the best views. That isnít necessarily true on METRA, since METRA runs left-sided, while back home, we run right-sided. Old habits die hard, so I do my usual left-sided thing.

The inbound trip will be an express, and we depart on time at 7:36. We probably have close to 50 on board leaving Mc Henry. We proceed back to Chicago. Leading is a METRA bilevel cab car, pushed by F40 #148. We pass Crystal Lake Junction and connect back with the mainline. Our first stop will be Barrington. A large crowd boards here, numbering in the hundreds. I remove my belongings from the seat next to me to allow someone to sit there. We race ahead of the cars on parallel US Route #14 in a graphic demonstration of why it pays to ride METRA. Itís a safe bet weíll arrive in Chicago way ahead of them. We pick up equally large numbers in Mount Prospect and Edison Park. I now have a seat-mate. She is engaged in a conversation with her friend across the aisle. We make our stop at Clybourn, and arrive on time in Chicago at 8:51 AM.

A couple of Kudos to Metra here. First: Although this train was full, there were no standees in my car that I could see. If this were NJ Transit, a rush hour inbound train would have been a sardine can with all the seats full, and people standing everywhere. Second: On-time arrival! METRA has done their homework and figured in growth, while NJ transit has not counted on the explosive growth there, so the result is too many people, not enough seats. I will make a small concession to NJT. The events of Sept 11, 2001 have shifted some of their ridership patterns away from lower Manhattan into Penn Station, but that notwithstanding, there werenít enough seats before Sept. 11.

I walk back to Union Station and grab breakfast before heading out on my next trip. The early departure this morning put breakfast on hold, so now Iím hungry. A big breakfast at the Mc Donaldís in the CUS food court does the job, and Iíll be OK until dinner later this evening.

I have been criticized in the past about what I eat. Iím not plugging Any places in itemizing this either, but when you are on the run, you need hearty fare that you can get quickly, and eat quickly. While Mc Donaldís, Subway, and Connieís Pizza many not be the healthiest things you can eat, all the walking I do will counterbalance a lot of the Ďbadí things I eat.

METRA Trains 2211 & 2234, Chicago (Union Station) to Elgin, Ill. And return.

I board the bilevel as the ground crew disconnects the hotel power to the ground, before the engine runs up the HEP (Head End Power). All METRA trains arrive in the stations in Chicago with the cab-car at the bumper. This leaves the locomotive further away from the station. As soon as they arrive, the HEP is shut down, and the trainís 480 volt heating and lighting circuit is connected to the station plant. This reduces the noise and diesel smoke emissions inside the station. If youíve ever stood next to an F-40 with the HEP up the noise is deafening. NJ Transit has somewhat eliminated this by placing Cummins diesel HEP plants in its F-40 fleet. This allows the prime mover to idle unless it is actually pulling a train. METRA still uses the prime mover for HEP, so standing next to one of these babies all revved up can be hazardous to your hearing. Walking back from Madison Street into Union Station's north side a little earlier, there were 3 or 4 F-40ís fully revved up and screaming for all they were worth! The confined space of the trainshed amplified the noise to a level so great you could not even hear your own voice! It was a treat to hear, however!

Double-headed METRA train to Elgin IL, Monday

We depart on time and swing a hard left leaving the station. We break out into a bright sunny day. We are double-headed! I wonder why. The size of the train certainly doesnít require it. Perhaps one of the engines is not running on all motors. We have SDP-40F #603 in the lead, followed by a flop 40 (F-40). We make good speed as we head west to Elgin. This sleepy town on the Fox River is the birthplace of the Elgin watch, the standard watch used on most railroads in this area before the advent of the digital electronic watch. Question: Does anybody in the U.S. make a real mechanical watch anymore? (One that common folk can afford.)

We pass a track gang and accelerate to speed. METRA uses an automated PA train-announcing system similar to the one NJ Transit uses. Iím guessing itís GPS based, as it announces the station stops as they are approached. The PA announces Hermosa is a flag stop; "You must notify the conductor, or the train will not stop." No kidding? We pass the Mars candy plant that shares its name with the station. Not many trains stop there, mostly just rush hour trains.

We pass a triple-headed CP freight train before Bensenville yard. We pass through Wooddale, Itasca and Medinah, We pause in Roselle, Ill. Whose Sister City in New Jersey was the town I grew up in. I snap a picture of the station sign. This will be the first of a few Ďsister cityí stops. I didnít realize that New Jersey and Illinois shared so many common city names! I get off the train in Elgin, rather then the end of the line at Big Timber. I snap a photo of the Fox River during my layover, and pick up a soda at the local deli.

Returning on the flip, I wait at the station. With the crazy left-sided running, Iím not sure which side the train will leave from, so I ask a local, who informs me it, will be on the right (HUH???) side. Which is opposite of every other METRA line Iíve ridden!

As the train approaches the road crossing west of the station, some genius decides to run practically right in front of it! Nice move. And people wonder why accidents happen.

METRA has a cute poster on their trains that depicts an F-40 in larger than normal size. The caption at the bottom reads: "Fast, Powerful, and made of steel; respect the power of trains." Something this guy needs to learn!

On the way back, I look for the Motorola plant in Schaumburg. This is their big headquarters, and there is nothing visible from the right of way to indicate their presence here. Position and color position light signals approaching Union Station indicate who the dominant tenant was (PRR) we arrive on time and after a brief refreshment break, I board my next train.

Continued in next section

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