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Trip Report

A Weekend in Chicago via Amtrak

March 15-18, 2002


Welcome aboard the Lake Shore Limited. Several weeks ago I had decided to avail myself of Amtrak's "30% off" promotion for a weekend in Chicago. The plan was to go west on #49 Friday night, March 15th, and return Sunday night-Monday on #40, the "Three Rivers." To put it another way, I'd be going on the New York Central (NYC) and returning via the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) and Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR)! I booked the trip on the computer but when I attempted to conclude the transaction, there appeared several lines of red message that made no sense. So I called 1-800-USA-RAIL and spoke with Stewart Levine, a very knowledgeable agent with whom I had dealt in the past. He booked the trip quite rapidly.

I departed my mid-Manhattan office at 3:45 pm and reached Penn Station at 3:59 via IRT subway. The station was filled with people with many departures scheduled within the next half-hour. Train 289 to Syracuse was loading on Track 5 and we were scheduled to depart 10 minutes behind him. Soon Track 7 was displayed for #49 and I was one of the first through the gate. The equipment was a pleasant surprise. My coach, the lounge car and the diner had been through the "Capstone overhaul" program and were very attractive with everything in good working order.

Departure from Penn Station (NYP) came a minute late and we soon were rapidly moving along the Hudson. Our coach was nearly full of Chicago passengers. The two other cars had assortments of guests en route to all of the other stops. The lounge car was "Pittsburgh Club" and featured a large mural of that city opposite the bar. It also had an enclosed smoking lounge that does a good job of keeping the smoke out of the rest of the car.

Shortly after departure from NYP the crew had made good "Welcome Aboard" announcements, explaining the features of the train and that announcements would be made regarding the opening of the lounge and dining cars. About 5 PM the jovial lounge car attendant informed us "The bar is open--come on in!" This was followed by a visit from the dining car hostess, Lori, who informed the guests about the evening's menu. The choices were Maryland crab cakes, NY strip steak, pork chop, chicken and a vegetarian item. The diner opened at 5:30 and the overhauled car gave a pleasant appearance. I presented my waiter, Mr. Wilson, with a "free drink" coupon I had received from the Guest Rewards program but he had never seen one of these before. Lori had but expressed surprise when I requested a bottle of wine. "A whole bottle?" No, just one of the small ones that you sell. "Oh, OK." I had the pork chop with a baked potato and vegetables and the meal was quite good. My table companions were three young Vietnamese-Americans returning home to Milwaukee after a week in New York.

While in the diner I noted we passed Hudson at 6:26, which should put us into Albany 15 minutes early at 6:50. Alas, this was not to be. At 6:48 we were held outside the station for the 7PM departure of #289 to Syracuse, in the station ahead of us. At 7:07 we moved forward through the station and past Train 449's equipment from Boston. Its two Genesis units then pulled forward on to a siding with a coach, sleeper and lounge car being left at ALB. We then backed on to #449's through cars--two coaches, a sleeper, baggage car and a MHC. So our actual arrival in the station was 7:52 (7:05), over an hour after we had arrived in the vicinity.

I then went outside to get the consists. At 8:30 the train moved forward about 15 car lengths so the RoadRailers could be added to the rear. (Don't ask why this wasn't done while the Boston section was parked in the station.) Then there was some difficulty with the brake test and we finally got the highball at 8:49 (7:55), So the train which had been running early was now nearly an hour late. In all fairness, the crews made frequent announcements to apprise the guests as to what was going on. Unfortunately, however, this is another example of how the mail and express business is being allowed to delay the passenger trains.

The view of the Albany skyline was good on this clear night. We got up to decent speed on the high-speed track to Schenectady but there was a somewhat different sensation than provided by the ride on the Hudson Division--the feeling of being in the middle of a very long train. My coach, however, rode quite well although it was best on the well-maintained track south of Albany.

Our consist out of Albany was Engines 138 and 155, a baggage car, 10-6 crew sleeper, Viewliner sleeper, diner, lounge, 5 coaches, another Viewliner, a baggage car, an MHC and an unknown number of RoadRailers.

There's a slow schedule from Albany to Schenectady so we left there only 37 minutes late. About 15 guests were on the platform to board at Utica. I stayed awake until Syracuse where about 40 people were waiting on the wide high level platform at the new station. The NYS&W's "On-Track" service is supposed to operate into the station with a cross platform transfer to/from Amtrak. But the Susquehanna's track hasn't yet been extended into the Amtrak station because of the need for bridge construction.

I slept reasonably well, awaking only for the Erie, PA station stop. A very young mother with a 6-month old son was seated right in front of me but the child didn't make a sound all night. She told me this was the first night he ever has slept through; I suggested she take him on train rides more often. I've often seen mothers traveling with infants and young children in coach on Amtrak trains and wonder how they manage. They're certainly brave--I guess youth has something to do with it.

I awoke at 7AM and freshened up in the large washroom. The two defects with this car were that the door to the large washroom wouldn't lock and the water in the small one was too hot. Since there was no turnover of passengers in this car, they got used to knocking before opening the sliding door. It then was time for breakfast in the diner. Mr. Wilson again was my waiter; my table companion was a young man en route from New London, CT to Kansas City. He had taken a morning Amtrak train from New London to NY Penn Station and would take the "Southwest Chief" from Chicago to Kansas City. I told him about the features of the Superliner cars and he was looking forward to riding them. This was his first long distance train trip and he seemed to be enjoying it. During breakfast we made the station stop at Toledo and were now just 30 minutes late. A walk through the train revealed nearly full occupancy. I thought it was too bad that Amtrak critic Senator John McCain isn't here to observe the guests from all walks of life who use Amtrak to travel about the country, not as a "sightseeing train for the wealthy."

At Bryan there's an old station building and a water plug on the eastbound side of the tracks. Shortly after we were zipping past farms with red barns and silos at the Ohio-Indiana marker. Then we came to a stop at CP395 where Amtrak #44 and an eastbound freight passed. Train 44 had just overtaken the freight and had 5 passenger cars and about 20 mail/express cars. Elkhart was a division point on the NYC and has much railroad heritage on display near the station. I observed a NYC steam locomotive, observation car and other equipment. We stopped for 14 minutes west of Elkhart with no explanation given.

Our Lake Shore Limited encountered delays here and there and we ended up an hour, 21 minutes late at Hammond-Whiting. Although it's only 16 miles from there to Chicago, the entrance into that city always is time consuming. Instead of heading directly into the station, we pulled around a wye and down to METRA's Halstead St. Station. The RoadRailers were dropped off at one of the stops. The train then backed into Union Station, finally arriving there at 12:04 (11:10). I enjoyed the trip but the on-time performance could use improvement.

Inside the Great Hall at Union Station there was a memorial to those killed in the World Trade Center disaster. It consisted of some steel beams from the buildings and various items that were found in the ruins. There also were letters, notes and some poems. One note proclaimed: "Our hearts are broken but our spirits are high." The display was very moving, especially to a New Yorker. Many people walking around Chicago were wearing "NYPD" and "FDNY" hats.

I had spent most of Sunday riding commuter trains and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) L lines. Toward evening I came to realize I had nothing to eat since breakfast. Earlier I had spotted an open Italian restaurant a few blocks from Union Station so headed for it. Luckily it still was open and I proceeded to enjoy a very filling dinner. From there a short walk back to the hotel to get my bag and then back to Union Station, arriving there at 8:15PM in ample time for Train 40's 9:20 departure.

Well there are some advantages to getting older. About 8:45 an attendant invited those traveling with children, handicapped or over 62 to enter the inner waiting room. As he viewed my ticket he asked if I'm over 62. "Afraid so," and in I went. While waiting for the train to open, a few of the guests got acquainted. There was a retired Chicago city engineer en route to Philadelphia (PHL) to visit a "lady friend." Two mothers with small children en route to Greensburg, PA, a mother, grandmother and 6-year old en route to Harrisburg and a young couple with a 3-year old en route to Reading, PA, via PHL.

The train opened about 9PM. The passenger consist was a Viewliner sleeper, Amfleet I lounge car and 3 Amfleet II coaches. The rear coach was closed until Pittsburgh (PGH). Those en route to points as far as PGH were loaded into the second car and all those headed to points East of PGH were in the head coach. Most of them were en route to Harrisburg and Philadelphia; I was the only Chicago coach passenger going all the way to NYP. The man seated ahead of me had some sort of disability and kept moving around a lot. He surrounded himself with "stuff", including a Big Ben alarm clock on the tray table. He was traveling from California to his home in Tampa, FL and didn't bother anybody. The senior citizens and people with children whom I had met in the lounge were all seated near each other as the car attendant handed everyone a seat check with a seat number as we boarded and filled the rear of the car first. He honored my request for a window seat and I was lucky to have both seats to myself the entire trip.

The train crew changed at Garret, OH, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. The snack bar and car attendants turned over at Pittsburgh. Whenever I had previously seen this train it had some Bombardier cars in the consist but there were none this trip.

Departure from Union Station came at 9:28 (9:20). But we didn't get far; after about a mile we stopped and sat for 48 minutes. The train crew was in the lounge car at the time and mentioned that cars were being added--I assume the RoadRailers--to the rear. Other guests who had come from the west started talking about how their trains were delayed for an hour here and there due to problems adding mail cars and conducting brake tests. Many expressed the thought that this work should be done before the train leaves the station. En route out of Chicago I got a good look at the former Rock Island [now METRA] crossing at Englewood and you'd never know that people traveling coast-to-coast used to change trains there--the station site is obliterated.

Only a few boarded at Hammond-Whiting (HMI). Just north of the station there was a large ship with a huge parking garage. I assume it provides gambling cruises out on the lake. We passed Train 43, "Pennsylvanian," east of HMI, about on time. It had 4 passenger cars and about 10 "rear end" cars.

We entered the former B&O about 10 minutes after HMI and I dropped off to sleep about 11:15. The next thing I remember is that the train was standing still and a guest behind me was saying "Youngstown, Ohio" (YTO). What already? Well, it was 7:25 and we now were nearly 1-1/2 hours late but I had been in a deep sleep for nearly 8 hours. Amtrak uses one small part of the former B&O station at YTO; most of the building had been a restaurant the last time I was there. At this point I started thinking of the Center St. Bridge, an old structure closed to traffic about a mile east of downtown; it overlooks the crossing of B&O and P&LE and whatever else and was a dandy photo spot, but one must watch out for the holes in the floor! Well, a new bridge complete with fine wire mesh fence has now replaced it, so another railroad photo location has hit the dust.

Soon the lounge car attendant announced that he'd be closing for the crew change at Pittsburgh so I rushed forward to have breakfast. Today it was an AmMcmuffin and coffee that got me started for the day. The car was a regular Amcafe with tables at one end and seats at the other end. It had a large mural of St. Louis behind opposite the bar so I assume it normally serves midwest corridor routes. The regular seats were used for smoking periods and the smoke didn't seem to get into the table section.

During breakfast I got chatting with the conductor who told me we had 29 cars in the consist. He added that we could run at track speed but that if the train were to exceed 30 cars the limit would be 60 mph. He also mentioned that one delay during the night was due to a stuck switch that required him to walk about a mile to inspect and they get "talked by."

Further delays were encountered meeting freight trains. Next thing I noticed was that somewhere we had gone through a direct connection to the PRR as position light signals were in evidence. A few years ago when I rode this train westbound it had backed up a few miles from PGH to a B&O connection. I did some walking and consist-jotting during the PGH stop; about 40 boarded there and were put into the previously empty rear coach. We ran along a PAT Busway for a distance east of PGH. Work is in progress for an extension of it for what appeared to be about 5 miles.

Further east I had been watching for the Station Inn in Cresson and the Tunnel Inn. I spotted the Station Inn, which provides a good view of the former PRR from the front porch. Just beyond is a railroad overlook erected and maintained by the borough. From here and continuing until after Altoona the ground was snow covered and the air quite foggy. So bad, in fact, that you couldn't see the entire train on the famous curve. It appears that the curve is no longer a great photo spot due to the erection of the fence at the visitors' center and failure to remove some trees that have grown too large and will obstruct the photos, especially in the summer.

As we wound around the mountainous terrain some of the senior citizens sitting near me got to telling their life stories. Henrietta, Alice ("I'm old fashioned like my name") and Augie ("my real name is Irwin") got quite emotional before they had finished. Each had lost a spouse not too long ago but was determined to go on enjoying life. Augie was traveling to visit a lady friend in PHL for 3 days and assured me he's enjoying things at 76. More power to them and I hope they keep riding trains!

The Harrisburg (HBG) stop consumed 25 minutes for unknown reasons. A Genesis with 3 Amcoaches was on hand to cover a Keystone Service train; another arrived in the station during our layover. We took off from Harrisburg with great speed and soon were jouncing along on the jointed rail. Between HBG and Zoo Junction, north of Philadelphia's station, trackwork definitely is needed in places. Some of the time the ride would be smooth, only to become quite rough and then smoothen out. The Westbound "Three Rivers" was departing Lancaster just as we arrived. It had a similar consist and was on time.

The Café and the 3 coaches all had been through the Capstone overhaul and rode very well except on some very rough sections of track between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. They presented a very attractive appearance. Most of the remaining guests detrained at PHL. Five head end cars and 16 cars on the rear also were removed there. During the layover I ran upstairs to McDonalds to purchase dinner which I later consumed [that's the word they use] at my seat. Several other riders did likewise. Eventually Engine 600 backed on to our train and we departed 58 minutes late at 6:23, now riding "backwards" toward NY. The Newark stop took 7 minutes and I noticed a forklift truck at one of the mail cars. New York Penn Station, the final destination, came at 7:58, 38 minutes late.

Amtrak's Empire Service #271 was in the station for its 8:25 departure for Albany, thus providing a convenient connection to my home station of Croton-Harmon, NY. It departed NYP on time and arrived CRT 4 minutes early at 9:04, bringing my enjoyable 3-day weekend to an appropriate conclusion.

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