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Trip Report

Midwest Trip 2002

June 20-27, 2002
Section 3 of 6


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Friday, June 21, 2002 (continued)

In Dearborn

The Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village attraction closes at 5 PM. AMTRAK Train 352 does not stop at the village, so we would have to catch it at 7:09 PM at the main Dearborn station. So we had some time to kill while making our way east 2 miles slowly. We had to leave the Henry Ford Museum earlier than closing time to walk back and get our luggage from the front gate at Greenfield Village. Then we would return to the museum, to board a local bus. We would visit a local shopping mall, have dinner there, and then take another bus from the mall to the Dearborn AMTRAK station.

At 4:34 PM we boarded a SMART bus for the short trip to the mall. SMART's 265 line, I had learned from internet research, comes right into the complex and stops in front of the museum. It was aboard the bus, after we turned onto Oakwood Blvd., that I looked back at the Henry Ford Museum and realized how big that building is. If your family is ever in Southeastern Michigan, it comes highly recommended.

After our 8-minute ride, we got off the bus at the Fairlane Town Center. This regional mall & Hyatt Hotel complex is actually right across Michigan Avenue from Greenfield Village, but it is across the railroad tracks, and the main entrance is far on the other side anyhow off Oakwood Blvd. Yes, there really was a car called the Ford Fairlane; it was not just a character portrayed by Andrew Dice Clay 12 years ago. Fairlane Town Center is right next to a building that houses the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company.

After dinner, and a minimum of walking around the mall (surely we were the only ones there with rolling suitcases), I called Julie the AMTRAK Robot and found out that Train 352 was running 51 minutes late. We went outside to wait for another bus to take us to the AMTRAK station, knowing we were in no rush. This would be a bus operated by Detroit Dept. of Transportation (D-DOT), on its 37 route.

It turns out that Dearborn's AMTRAK station is not in a downtown area. It is located behind a civic center (police department, courts, etc.), along a four-lane highway (U.S. 12, Michigan Avenue). We had to walk across the civic center's parking lot to get to the station. Luckily there was an AMTRAK sign along the highway.

We got inside the station at 7:00 PM. The ticket agent verified that the train, scheduled for 7:09 PM, was due at 8:00. Because Dearborn was a last-minute addition to our trip, Michael and I had tickets for Detroit-Pontiac, and I was more than willing to pay whatever charge was necessary to originate in Dearborn. The agent assured me that no step-up charge was necessary.

Not too many people board in Dearborn to go east. Travel solely between Dearborn and Detroit is restricted to those connecting with other trains. And for stations north of Detroit, it is said that the train is so slow that it's faster for those coming from the west to detrain in Dearborn and they could be driven home and be in bed before the train gets to Birmingham or Pontiac.

Train #352(21), LAKE CITIES, Dearborn, MI to Pontiac, MI

The train arrived in the station at 8:04 PM, and we boarded. A lot of passengers detrained, and only a small handful boarded. The conductor was a comedian, so when I explained that the ticket agent said we did not have to pay any more to board in Dearborn rather than Detroit, he said, "He said WHAT?" He was only joking, and we had no problems.

Our consist:

32 P-42 locomotive 53007 Horizon food service 54013 Horizon coach 54555 Horizon coach 54541 Horizon coach 54544 Horizon coach 90200 Cabbage control unit

Next stop was Detroit, another stop with heavy detraining and virtually no boarding. We arrived there at 8:27 PM and departed 8:33 PM, putting this train 54 minutes down. These delays were actually expected on account of track work, but the schedules were only changed so that the final arrival times in Pontiac and Chicago had extra padding. This practice allows AMTRAK to show better time keeping at its endpoints, while providing incorrect times at intermediate stations for boarding passengers.

After the Detroit station, we passed over Woodward Avenue, saw the White Castle where we had lunch nine hours ago, then passed the CN Baubion Street interlocking. This brought us into Milwaukee Junction, a major rail intersection (all former Grand Trunk Western track on various lines). We would, in essence, be making a left turn here to head north. The track we were joining was once used by SEMTA, the predecessor of SMART, when they ran commuter rail service to Royal Oak, Birmingham, and Pontiac from a small station next to the Renaissance Center.

Our conductor was involved in a long, serious discussion with a teenage boy about how he should excel in life, and not to get mixed up with gangs. He broke away from it briefly at the stations up the line.

We came to more restricted signals that would further delay us. At 8:40 we had a clear signal to proceed north. Our engineer had to call the CN Police at 8:54 because somebody was putting stuff on the track. No further delays from that, but an officer said he would check it out.

We arrived in Royal Oak at 8:56 PM. A nice attractive business district around the station was a far cry from Detroit. Adjacent to the rail station is a bus depot that accomodates Greyhound and SMART, making this a true intermodal station.

We arrived in Birmingham at 9:04 PM. Not as impressive as Royal Oak, but it looked like a liveable suburb. At this point I called Pontiac Cab to have them meet us at the Pontiac station.

And finally, Pontiac. We got there at 9:15 PM. After running close to an hour late through much of the trip, the train got there just 10 minutes behind schedule. That'll look good on AMTRAK's books, won't it?

In Pontiac

Pontiac is not too impressive. What looks like a station building is closed for most arrivals and departures, since there is no longer any midday turn here. There are no hotels downtown, so we had to go by cab to the closest one, about 3 miles away to the southeast in an industrial portion of town. Another cluster of hotels is 3 miles east and northeast of downtown, near the Silverdome (the football Lions are moving to downtown Detroit from there) and the Pistons' basketball venue, the Palace, in neighboring Auburn Hills.

Our taxi was awaiting us. It was a five-minute, $10 trip (with tip) to our hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott. I also had the driver reserve a cab for the following morning to pick us up at 6:30 AM so we could make our 7 AM train departure.

The Courtyard was part of a campus that also had a regular Marriott, and a Residence Inn by Marriott. We were checked into our room by 9:30 PM, and had no trouble getting to sleep after what was by far the longest and busiest day of the vacation.

Saturday, June 22, 2002

Train #351(22), WOLVERINE, Pontiac, MI to Battle Creek, MI

Lonely Cab-baggage unit sits next to closed station in Pontiac; CN freight about to pass by on the main We checked out at around 6:25 AM, and our car was waiting. We were back at the Pontiac station by 6:40. There were two AMTRAK consists sitting in a small yard to the south of the station. One was the one on which we had arrived the night before; engine 32 was clearly visible on its north end. The other consist was missing something. Its engine (26) was on the south end, with an Amfleet I dinette and 3 Heritage coaches behind it. The last coach had red markers. A cabbage unit (90215) sat by itself, next to the station building north of the platform. The latter consist (and I figured the cabbage unit too) had arrived overnight on Train 354, the TWILIGHT LIMITED. It was not clear which consist would be going out this morning as 351, or whether it should be boarded where it was sitting or if it would come into the station.

Station platform in Pontiac; in background are storage tracks where 2 Amtrak consists are kept nightly At about 6:58 AM, the first consist (the one with engine 32 and cabbage 90200) came north to the platform to pick us up. There were about 15 passengers awaiting this train. I knew we would be late right out of the gate, as this move should have been done earlier to ensure a 7 AM departure. I also saw our conductor from the previous night, so we were getting both the consist (in exact reverse order from above) and the crew from our most previous run.

It was 7:02 when the WOLVERINE began to roll south, the cabbage unit now on the point with the diesel pushing. However we sat right where the consist had spent the night, just south of the platform, for another 12 minutes. We moved onto the main at 7:14, but stopped again at 7:18. I heard that there were switch problems -- they could not line up a switch to allow us onto Track 1, so we would have to run on Track 2 for a bit. We again got moving at 7:23 AM.

The engineer, upon coming into Birmingham, said to the conductor, "I just fell in love." He was referring to a woman in her 20's in a tight pink top. I'd heard similar comments by Tri-Rail crews on a visit to Florida a few years ago when they passed by a girl in a bikini sunning herself in her backyard.

We made our stop at Royal Oak at 7:40 (we should have already been in Detroit by this time). The engineer said, "I fell in love again". This time it was a group of four young attractive young ladies who boarded. I wondered if this engineer was going to make it all the way to Chicago or the next crew change point.

We left Royal Oak at 7:44 AM, 26 minutes off the advertised. The CN dispatcher gave our train a warrant to continue operating on Track 2.

Michael and I went back to the food service car to get a bite for breakfast, and we were told by an assistant conductor that the food attendant does not get on the train until Dearborn. I wondered if that was regular procedure or a result of this year's staffing cuts.

At Milwaukee Junction in Detroit, we had to wait to be switched to Track 1, and then onto the connection to make the right hand turn to go west. At 8:12 AM we got the highball, and proceeded west. The warrant to run on Track 2 was cleared.

When we finally pulled into the Detroit station, the platform was crowded with many wishing to board. The train was packed, although it appeared everyone was being placed into one or two coaches. We were further delayed because two bags were left in the station downstairs. Upon departure at 8:27 AM we were now 39 minutes late. The train moves a lot faster once it enters the Norfolk Southern mainline at Townline. Our stop for Dearborn was made between 8:46 and 8:49, with more people joining us and boarding another coach. Now that it was crowded, and the food service car would just be opening, we decided to wait until we were in Battle Creek an have an early lunch (or more likely, a late breakfast in the Cereal Capital of the world!).

We continued to lost more time. At Ann Arbor we departed at 9:30 AM, 50 minutes late, and then the Jackson departure at 10:09 put us 53 minutes in the hole. Good thing this day was set aside for recreation!

10:33 AM, we passed through the town of Albion. We saw the station, where only Trains 352 & 353 stop. When I first saw the water tower I thought I would be seeing a lot of people with white hair.

Soon we came into the Battle Creek area. We passed by the Kellogg's plant, as well as another building where Post cereals are made. On our right, we were joined by the CN (former GTW) tracks that are used by the INTERNATIONAL to and from Toronto.

Attractive station at Battle Creek handled 2 trains simultaneously a few minutes after this shot was taken Arrival in Battle Creek was exactly 11:00 AM, which meant we were 52 minutes late. At 11:01, Train 350, the eastbound WOLVERINE, arrived from Chicago exactly on time. This was the first (and only!) Michigan train I had seen that was on time. Train 350, which stopped on an adjacent track and had to discharge and board its passengers from one coach in front of 351's cabbage unit, had a slightly different consist:

27 P-42 locomotive 53503 Horizon food service 54029 Horizon coach 54558 Horizon coach 74035 ExpressTrak refrigerated car 1163 Baggage

The assistant conductor from our train went off duty and got on 350 to go back east. It appeared that the head conductor remained on board. I did not see if either engineer changed.

In Battle Creek

The Battle Creek station is attractive and very functional. The waiting room features two circular bench areas, with an area in the middle of each circle as well. Vending machines are off in an alcove. The rest rooms could have been cleaner. Two ticket agents, one for AMTRAK and one for intercity bus, are located on one side of the station.

It was already in the 90's, so the water park adjacent to the station would surely feel good. It was one of our reasons for visiting Battle Creek. We first went to our motel room (where we were permitted to check in early) at the Econo Lodge to change and drop off our suitcases. Then we walked over to Kellogg's Cereal City, our first planned attraction. It was roughly a 4 or 5-block walk, past the train station and water park, and through one downtown street, to get to the grounds of Cereal City.

Kellogg's Cereal City

Kellogg's Cereal City opened in 1998, as a sort-of replacement for the onsite factory tours that had been offered until 1996. Our first stop was in the small food area in the lobby, where we had hot dogs for brunch. Of course, cereal is offered there all day.

Then we entered the attraction itself, and quickly found out that it's not as much as I thought it would be. I expected something on the level of Hershey's Chocolate World, where there are rides through a mock factory, complete with the smell of chocolate and good narration of the process. Here, there are two stories of small exhibits, a roaming Tony the Tiger, and activities mostly appropriate for kids younger than Michael.

There was a small walk-through exhibit on the second floor that traced the process of making corn flakes, with real Corn Flakes going through the room. At the end, a dispenser let us taste the final product, a cup full of warm, milkless Corn Flakes. When you finally descend the escalator and are herded into the obligatory gift shop, there are complimentary boxes of Corn Flakes. We passed them up because they would just add to our load to carry, and they would most likely open up inside our bags.

After leaving this attraction, we headed back to our hotel, passing diagonally through as a shortcut and break from the heat the city's only 4-star hotel, the McCamly Plaza Hotel. It would have been even closer to the train and attractions, but the rooms are priced around $150 or more a night. A doorman held the door as we exited the other end, thinking we were guests. Little did he know I was paying more than $100 less at the Econo Lodge down the street.

Back at our room, we changed to swimming attire and then walked back to the water park, known as Full Blast.

Full Blast

Today was our day to relax, and being so hot our planned visit to Full Blast could not have come at a better time! Full blast contains both an indoor and an outdoor waterpark, so it can continue to be open during the Michigan winters. Both the indoor and outdoor parks have a large pool, and slides. The indoor one also has a whirlpool bath off the main pool. And one can sit in the food area while dripping wet. We spent a good four hours there, and of course as always it was hard to get Michael out of the pool. I could not get Michael to go down the slides, but I did the indoor and outdoor ones about three times each.

And to a railfan, where else can you watch trains while swimming? Of course, being shirtless, barefoot, and wet means it's hard to write down train consists. But it was a wonderful atmosphere to have the freights go by, and to have three AMTRAK trains stop at the station next to the pool while we were there! I had no idea if they were on time, but these are the AMTRAK trains, from memory, that I observed:

  • Train 353(22), the westbound LAKE CITIES, had the "other" consist we had seen in Pontiac that morning, with engine 26 and the 51003 coach trailing. No power or cabbage on the east end of the train.
  • Train 365(22), the westbound INTERNATIONAL, which had P-42 engine 36, 3 Horizon coaches, and one Horizon food service car. I know this train was very late, because right after it left, I saw...
  • Train 352(22), the eastbound LAKE CITIES, which had P-42 engine 28, 4 Horizon coaches, one Horizon food service car, and P-42 engine 37 trailing. Passengers who would have had to transfer from 365 to 352 just made it, as the two trains probably passed just west of the station.

There were a lot of freights, mostly with CN power, and some with NS power, going by in both directions.

After our day at Full Blast, we returned to our motel room and ordered a pizza to be delivered to our room from a local Papa John's.

A little more railfanning of the radio kind, as I listened to the arrival of Train 354(22) on my scanner from our room. The train arrived in Battle Creek at 10:30 PM, 35 minutes late. The dispatcher was unable to let the train leave the station for 14 minutes due to "cross traffic". Apparently there were long freights on both directions, and the AMTRAK was on the siding at the station.

Of the five hotel rooms we had, this Econo Lodge was by far the worst. When we had checked in, one bed was not made up. There were no instructions not to touch the air conditioner, but to use a thermostat hidden behind the television instead. And the carpet was dirty; just walking barefoot in the room my feet turned black. The place is by far economical and convenient to local attractions, but you get what you pay for!

Still, we had a good sleep after our day of activities in Battle Creek.

Continued in next section

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