New York - Chicago - Washington - New York
Early March 2002
On February 1, 2002, Amtrak announced that it would seek to discontinue all of its long-distance trains, except the Auto Train, unless its government funding is substantially increased. While it may be premature to write the U.S. long-distance passenger train's obituary, this reporter wanted to spend some quality time with the patient before it would be too late. Accordingly, I made a quickie round trip from New York to Chicago the first weekend of March, via the Three Rivers westbound and Capitol Limited eastbound, with a connection at Washington to the Northeast Corridor. My routing was chosen to enable me to ride the length of the historic Baltimore & Ohio mainline, and during my trip I experienced the best and worst of what Amtrak offers: aboard both trains.
The Three Rivers, which replaced the fabled Broadway Limited on the New York-Chicago run, handles more freight than passengers: our consist had 15 cars of mail and express, but only five passenger cars with a peak load of 88 travelers. The Amfleet II coach in which I rode was clean, comfortable and half-full, enabling me to spread out over two seats. I even managed several hours of shuteye west of Pittsburgh. The crew was quite attentive, and the coach attendant who placed cards over the ceiling light fixtures to help darken the car warrants special mention for that deed. Even with lengthy stops in Philadelphia and Harrisburg to add mail and express cars, the train stayed on schedule, and even arrived ahead of schedule at a few stops. And, despite a winter storm that fouled Chicago, we managed to arrive 45 minutes early.
The only drawback - a serious one - was the food service, provided in a Horizon fleet dinette that doubles as a smoking car. The limited dinner choices prompted a run to the newsstand at Harrisburg for a bag of pretzels and bottle of spring water that were supplemented by a veggie burger bought on board. In the morning, fortunately, a stable of continental breakfast items - bagels, muffins, Danish pastries, yogurt and cereal - was available. But you had to be up early to get some, because the car closes well over an hour before arrival. Given this train's better-than-par timekeeping (90% plus for January), I'm convinced that with a dining car the Three Rivers could go from one of Amtrak's worst to one of it's best and generate much higher ridership as a result. Amtrak could even go back to calling it the Broadway Limited again; a Broadway revival.
My return trip via Washington on Sunday's Capitol Limited was a textbook case of Murphy's Law, however. Late trains get later indeed. The train was spotted in Chicago Union Station a half-hour past its scheduled departure time due to equipment problems. As I was aware of the previous day's storm-related problems and I needed to make a connection in Washington to get home, my anxiety was heightened. We departed one hour late, and timekeeping headed south from there.
Just east of Hammond-Whiting, we stopped for more than a half hour due to a frozen switch, and watched as the eastbound Lake Shore Limited, with left Chicago after us, sped by. For the next 300-odd miles, we played a game of "hurry up and wait," due to congestion on Norfolk Southern's Chicago Line and the need to let the Lake Shore handle its business at the three stations en route - Elkhart, IN, Bryan, OH, and Sandusky, OH - where it stopped but our train didn't. By the time we reached Cleveland, we were 3:40 late. Fast running between there and Pittsburgh shaved 40 minutes off the delay. But, sluggish running over the CSX (ex-B&O) mainline and a crew change at Hyndman, PA, that consumed 20 minutes put our arrival in Washington four hours behind schedule.
I had booked a standard bedroom in the sleeping car for the return trip on the Capitol Limited and was glad I did. Not only did I enjoy the privacy of my own room and the amenities that come with the package - dining car meals, in-room snacks and beverages, and a made-up bed waiting for me on my return from dinner - but Chicago Union Station's Metropolitan Lounge for first class passengers provided a comfortable place to thaw out during my 10-hour layover in the chilly Windy City. The only drawback was the bad luck of being assigned to Bedroom 8, which was directly above one of the trucks. The former New York Central Water Level Route, now part of Norfolk Southern, is no longer level, and I could not get a good night's sleep. A more seasoned traveler recommended next time getting a room on the lower level of the Superliner car because there is less sway down below.
Even though the dining car did not open until almost 9 p.m., the meals served were very good. I had a tasty prime rib for dinner with mashed potatoes and a nicely prepared medley of mixed vegetables. The deep dish apple pie I had for dessert was one of the best I ever tasted. Other than a too-salty gravy on the potatoes, the meal was perfect. At breakfast, the French toast and turkey sausage links were also delicious, although the French toast could have been warmer.
The Cap's best attraction has to be the scenery between Pittsburgh and Washington. The route climbs toward the summit of the Alleghenies at Sand Patch tunnel along the banks of the Monongahela and one of its tributaries and then follows the Potomac River for most of the way to Washington. But the former B&O Washington-Pittsburgh line offers more than beautiful scenery. It is the world's longest industrial museum stretching nearly 300 miles. Along the way, the train passes by abandoned steel mills and through the towns where the employees who worked there lived. Also to be seen are bridges and depots from the abandoned Western Maryland Railway (now a recreation trail), the remains of 19th Century foundries and the railroad shops at Martinsburg, WV, which date to the Civil War era. Line-side structures, the soon-to-be-gone color light position signals and the cast concrete portals bearing the names of the tunnels through which the train passes give the line a unique character that shouts "Baltimore & Ohio" in an era marked by the blandness of contemporary railroading.
This rolling show, viewed from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Sightseer lounge, took some sting out of being so late. And there were other benefits to compensate for the delay. I was able to enjoy daylight running for the entire trip east of Alliance, OH, getting to see several locations normally passed in darkness. All passengers received complimentary lunch in the dining car, affording me an extra slice of that wonderful apple pie. Finally, because of the lateness, I was permitted to complete my return to New York on the 6 p.m. Acela Express, which provided a speedy contrast to the plodding Capitol Limited, at no extra cost. I arrived back in the Big Apple a few minutes before 9 p.m. (two minutes late), exhausted but thankful for the quality time spent.
I also came away with a different perspective on long-distance trains. Some in Washington have misdiagnosed them as a being cancer to be removed from the passenger rail system in order to save it. In truth, they, along with the rest of Amtrak, suffer from malnutrition - a lack of necessary financial, material and intellectual resources needed to succeed. They are not a plaything for WOOFs (well-off old folks) or railroad buffs like me. Instead, they provide a vital public service to the people who ride them because other modes do not serve their needs well.
So the next time Congress holds a hearing on Amtrak's future, perhaps they should invite to testify some of the Amish people who travel by train because their faith prevents them from driving or flying, or the man I met accompanying his disabled son to Washington so he could participate in a conference, or the woman traveling to Florida by train because her diminished lung capacity prevents her from flying or the blind couple traveling in the handicapped compartment of my sleeping car who stepped off briefly at Pittsburgh to exercise their seeing-eye dogs. Amtrak has 23 million stories like these. Somebody needs to hear them.