Having now entered Mississippi, we made our first stop in that state, McComb, at 3:54 PM. This is the first of many flag stops on this train. There were passengers boarding here for points north. When our work there was complete three minutes later, we departed McComb four minutes off the advertised. Not bad, but things would deteriorate in the next hour, thanks in part to a freight train and the severely late southbound CITY.
At 4:18 PM, we slowed down and then stopped. A crew member told us that there was a slow-moving freight ahead of us. We began to roll north four minutes later. It turned out that we were just outside of Brookhaven, MS. After our three-minute flag stop there, we were now eight minutes off. At 4:30, still in the town of Brookhaven, we finally passed Train 59(24), left-handed.
While in Brookhaven, Monty announced that at 6 PM, he would be showing the movie "Maid in Manhattan" with Jennifer Lopez. I had not seen this, and was looking forward to it. I was even happier we had the 5:00 dinner seating, and I hoped we would be done with dinner in an hour.
At 4:35, we stopped in a pocket just north of Brookhaven, to await a southbound freight that was following the passenger train. We lost 18 minutes here, since we first had to wait for the freight to arrive and pass us, and then we had to back up out of the pocket track over a wrong-way switch to return to the mainline. John, our new friend from the SUNSET LIMITED and NOUPT, said that it was a shame we had to site here, since this was once a beautiful two-track railroad. Out the rear of our coach, it did look like a two-track railroad, but ahead of us it went down to one track, hence our wait.
While the backup move was taking place, we were summoned to the dining car. Tiffany said that anyone holding 5:00 reservations should report to the dining car now. I was not holding anything, because she did not give me anything. We were seated promptly, and took two rear-facing seats across from a couple.
At first we did not say much to our tablemates. Then they began with the obligatory "Where are you from" and "Where are you headed" questions. That broke the ice, and we found out that they were also from New Jersey, specifically Mays Landing, which is near Atlantic City. They were supposed to have left New Orleans on the CRESCENT that morning for Philadelphia, but there had been some mix-up with the dates. With this morning's CRESCENT fully booked, they were coincidentally routed over an identical itinerary to ours -- CITY OF NEW ORLEANS to Chicago, CAPITOL LIMITED to Washington, and Regional train to Philadelphia. They even would be on the same NJ TRANSIT train back into New Jersey, but would be going beyond Cherry Hill. I asked why they were going via Washington to Philadelphia, and they said that the THREE RIVERS also had no availability. The caveat was that their original CRESCENT reservation had been in a sleeper, but their much longer route would all be in coach. With a jazz festival taking place in New Orleans, and heavier-than-normal travel taking place throughout the country at the end of the spring break, they had to take what they could get.
Well although we had been seated promptly, we had plenty of time to read the menu. I noticed that this was Cycle 1 - no, not the dog food but one of three different menus that AMTRAK is offering around the country, so that those who travel on more than one train won't likely be confronted with the same menu twice. It was 5:20 when our waiter, Claude, finally took our order. Michael ordered the kids chicken, while I went for the chicken thighs with teriyaki.
Our food was satisfactory. After the delay in having our order taken, the rest of the experience was fine. The meal cost $19.50 for the two of us. I had left a tip for Claude under a plate. When Tiffany came to collect our payment, I gave her a $20 bill. She had no change, and asked if she could add this to our server's gratuity. I said "okay", since I was not going to argue over 50 cents, not at 5:58 PM when Jennifer Lopez was waiting for me in the next car. All told, it was $23, including the gratuity I had left and the 50 cents I never got back. We said our goodbyes to the New Jersey couple and headed into the lounge car.
Monty was still showing some cartoons before the main feature, so I had to sit through Daffy Duck. As we took seats near one of the monitors in the Sightseer Lounge car, we were just arriving in Mississippi's capital city, Jackson.
We arrived at Jackson's rather dilapidated-looking station at 6:05 PM. During our eight minutes there, I noticed to our left that they were building a new bus terminal for the local transit buses. Upon departure from Jackson, we were now 29 minutes late.
Jackson's station was supposed to get a second daily AMTRAK train a few years ago, as the east-west CRESCENT STAR would have passed through here between Meridian and Vicksburg, on the way to Shreveport and the Dallas/Fort Worth area. That unfortunately did not materialize, just like the SKYLINE CONNECTION and NEW ENGLAND STATES, neither of which ever left the station.
Monty took to the microphone once more, and he announced that we would be going over the Yazoo District, thus our trip would be bumpy all the way to Memphis. I began to wonder about Monty and why he was making all these announcements when his role was to sell food and show movies.
The CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, along with most freight trains, now uses the western of two parallel ex-ICRR routes between Jackson and Memphis. The eastern one, and the original ICRR mainline over which the CITY traveled until about 9 years ago, is called the Grenada District. It has been partially downgraded now, seeing only one or two freights per day. The western routing, known as the Yazoo District, does not have mainline passenger-quality tracks, hence the predicted bumpy ride. If you look at a Mississippi road map, the Yazoo District basically follows U.S. 49, while the Grenada District follows U.S. 51.
Our movie began at 6:25 PM, and it was enjoyable, taking our attention off the scenery. We arrived in Yazoo City, MS at 7:05 PM, made another three-minute flag stop there, and then resumed our journey northward, now 26 minutes down. Greenwood, the only other stop along the Yazoo District, came at 7:55 PM. We left there at 8:01 PM, 24 minutes off. By now, it was getting dark outside. There was supposed to be one more station stop on the Yazoo District, Marks, but it was never implemented. Monty kept on making more announcements about the rough ride, and told people to come down and buy snacks or drinks from him. His voice also temporarily drowned out the audio of the film, a practice that became quite annoying.
When "Maid In Manhattan" was over, Monty said that later on he would be showing a second film, "Catch Me If You Can". I really had no desire to see this one, but Michael said he wanted to watch it. I was confident after watching the J-Lo film that certain parts that could be inappropriate for children had been edited from this train version of the movie, so I let him stay and watch while I would return to our coach and play railfan. After starting the second movie, Monty announced he was going to take a break. I felt this would be a break for everybody on the train, because I was really starting to resent his overly talkative nature.
Monty reopened at 9:33 PM, and he said he would be open until 12 midnight with some fresh, hot coffee. Just what people need when they want to get to sleep.
At this point, I was trying to listen to the activity on my scanner, but it was losing its charge once more. Again I had no access to a power outlet, except downstairs. I tried plugging it into the outlet in Bathroom D, but my plug kept on falling out; thankfully the toilet seat was closed. I tried another bathroom, but it had no current at all. Finally, I spied an outlet in the vestibule next to the door where passengers board and detrain. I stood next to this door with my scanner plugged in here for a while.
At 9:45 PM we stopped awaiting a passing freight. Then we were coming off something called the "high line", and backed through a reverse switch to a "main line", and finally entered a "low line". I assume that this meant we had reached the end of the Yazoo District and were returning to the CNIC mainline once more. At 10:12 PM I heard our engineer tell somebody, "58 has cleared the low line".
At 10:14 we passed by a refinery on our left, very similar to those found in Marcus Hook, PA on the Delaware border, and around Elizabeth and Linden, NJ near the NJ Turnpike. We were a long way from those more familiar places. We were somewhere near the Mississippi/Tennessee border. A few minutes later I could see the lights and tall buildings of a city, which had to be Memphis.
When we came to a stop at 10:28 PM, I thought we were waiting for a freight train; I had no idea we were in the Memphis station. I guess the concentration of larger buildings was to our north, so I thought we were still south of the station. The doors in our car did not open because nobody headed for Memphis had been placed in our coach. I did see Daphne, and I asked her if I had time to walk outside on the platform. The timetable does show a 30-minute layover here. She told me that since we were late, we would only stop to detrain and board passengers, and then continue.
I returned upstairs to our seats, to find Michael, who had just returned from watching the second movie. I got his toiletries out for him, since he was tired.
I heard on my scanner at 10:42 PM that we had the OK to depart from Memphis. However, we did not leave until 10:48 PM. Some padding into Memphis, plus our shorter layover put us just eight minutes late on departure.
Although it was dark and the streets were almost deserted at this hour, the city looked like a place one would want to visit. I could see the riverside attractions to our left, and a bridge with twinkling lights over to the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. Memphis has been on my list of places to visit for some time, and I hope we can return there soon, of course by the same means of transportation.
As we rolled past Central Station, which was recently refurbished, I noticed that there was some type of banquet going on inside, with people dressed in formal clothes. I also saw trolley tracks on the streets on the east and north sides of the station building.
Memphis was our signal to get to sleep. By now Michael had already fallen asleep, and with my Ambien pill I was not far behind. This was a deep sleep, as I cannot recall awakening at any of the stations where we had stopped overnight in the rest of Tennessee, Kentucky, or southern Illinois.
While we're sleeping, here is an extra chapter regarding the song about the train they call the CITY OF NEW ORLEANS. If you want to skip this musical chapter and simply continue our journey the next morning, click here.
"City of New Orleans" was written by Steve Goodman in 1970, just one year before AMTRAK assumed control of most passenger services. Goodman wrote the song from a first person experience as he and his wife rode the train to visit her grandmother somewhere along the route. Although he also performed the song he wrote, a version by contemporary Arlo Guthrie in 1972 was by far the song's most popular version. Willie Nelson did a cover of the song in 1984, which ended up earning Goodman, who passed away later that year, a posthumous Grammy award. The song was, in fact, recorded by other artists over the past 33 years, including Johnny Cash, John Denver, Ronnie Gilbert, Mark Dvorak, The Limeliters, Pete Seeger, C.W. McCall, Holly Near, Chet Atkins, Broadway Kids, Richard Claderman, Judy Collins, Country Gentlemen, and Jerry Reed.
As I looked at the lyrics, I figured that if anyone were to really modernize them, the song would be difficult to sing. For instance, "Illinois Central Monday morning rail" would have to be changed to, in my case, Canadian National Illinois Central Saturday morning rail" (actually CNIC fits better).
"Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders" no longer works, because our train only had seven passenger cars (including the transition sleeper which is technically a crew dorm). There were a lot more than fifteen riders on board, and not all were restless.
Goodman talked of his "southbound odyssey", but we were going north. He spoke of "freight yards full of old black men", which today would have to be changed to something more politically correct. "Dealin' card games with the old men in the club car" would have to be rewritten to "..in the Sightseer Lounge".
"And the sons of Pullman porters" would now have to say "And the sons of Superliner sleeper attendants". "Mothers with their babes asleep" -- well the mothers in my coach had very little control over their babes, who carried on for much of the trip, including at night.
"Nighttime on The City of New Orleans, Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee" could not have applied to Goodman's southbound journey, since Memphis falls early in the morning. It does work for the northbound direction. And who has to change cars anyhow? All cars run through to either endpoint city.
"I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done" means Goodman could not sleep. Even I, king of insomnia, went to sleep shortly after Memphis, after which we had traveled just 406 miles. In the southbound direction, Goodman would not have made it to Memphis, which is 520 miles from his hometown of Chicago.
"This train's got the disappearing railroad blues" could be referring to the fact that AMTRAK was about to take over passenger service. The Illinois Central outlived Goodman, surviving until the Canadian National merger in 1999. So it's unclear what Goodman meant by that phrase.
At any rate, it's nice to see that 32 years into the AMTRAK era (except for a very short time in AMTRAK's early years when it was called the PANAMA LIMITED), they have continued to retain the train's name thanks to such a popular and memorable folk song.
Saturday, April 26, 2003
Part 23: The CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, Train 58(25), New Orleans, LA to Chicago, IL (continued)
When I awoke in the morning, it was 6:34 AM. We were stopped in Champaign-Urbana, IL. I had missed six station stops (although some of them were flag stops).One of the stops we did not see, Carbondale, has quite a few significances. For one, it is the place where passengers get off the bus overnight to take a two-hour Thruway bus ride to St. Louis. At St. Louis they can also board another train, the MULE, which takes them across the state of Missouri to Kansas City.
The CITY used to carry a through car for a train that traveled from New Orleans to Kansas City. The car was taken off at Carbondale and given its own engine, and then it operated as a one-car train to St. Louis, where it picked up the MULE's cars to go further west. The RIVER CITIES, as it was called, was one of the casualties of the cuts that cost us the DESERT WIND, PIONEER, and GULF COAST LIMITED.
Another significance for Carbondale is that it is also where the route gains a second daily frequency, the ILLINI. The ILLINI was once called the SHAWNEE, and it went all the way to Florida in pre-AMTRAK days. What remains is actually only a stub of what was once a much longer route, running along the ex-ICRR mainline. Today, the ILLINI is part of AMTRAK's Illinois Service out of its Chicago hub.
Effingham is an important rail junction town as well, dating back to the days of the NATIONAL LIMITED. In addition, somewhere between Fulton, KY and Carbondale, IL we also missed the passing of another CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, Train 59(25). At any rate, we were just 24 minutes late, which is a lot better than the rude awakening I'd had in South Carolina on the SILVER METEOR nine days ago.
The Champaign-Urbana station is located in Champaign, IL, and sister town Urbana is a few miles to the east. In fact, Champaign was once called West Urbana. Champaign became the more popular of the two due to its position on the Illinois Central mainline. The station was renovated in the very recent past into an intermodal terminal that also handles local and intercity buses, and taxis.
From here to the Chicago area, we would be running next to U.S. 45, and its bigger cousin, I-57. At 6:56 AM, we passed Rantoul, IL, which has a clearly-marked AMTRAK station stop. Only the ILLINI calls here.
At 7:03 AM, something activated Money's voice, and he was back at his tricks. He said he was open, in fact he had been open since 6 AM (he sounded so lonely), and that he was serving lots and lots and lots and lots of fresh, hot, coffee. However for those who perhaps did wish to sleep past 7 AM, they would not with "Monty on the Mike".
The dining car had also opened around 6 or 6:30 for breakfast, but they never seem to announce this. Michael and I decided we would have our breakfast off the train in Chicago, since we would still be getting there within breakfast time.
Out the windows we could see the proverbial cornfields of the midwest as we got closer to the Chicago suburbs. I saw us pass through Paxton, IL, followed by Gilman (another ILLINI stop). Just before we came into Kankakee, we encountered a stop signal, and had to then approach the station slowly.
Our station work in Kankakee took two minutes. When we departed Kankakee northbound, it was 7:56 AM and we were running 43 minutes behind schedule.
As for our meeting with our Chicago friends -- Mike Hammond was coming in on Train 29(25), the westbound CAPITOL LIMITED. He was reported to be about 1/2 hour late. I expected him to get into Union Station before us, but he would not have much of a wait. I also informed Steve Weagant, who lives in Chicago of our status.
Almost right after Kankakee is Bourbonnais, site of the CITY OF NEW ORLEANS' worst disaster. Here in mid-March of 1999, a truck carrying steel bars crossed the railroad tracks in front of the lead locomotive, causing an unusually messy and fiery derailment. At least 12 people were killed, and 100 more were injured, some of them severely. It's a saga that has played out at railroad crossings all over our country. The railroads and the trucking industry, while they might not always see eye to eye, will have to sit down at a table together and work towards solutions to prevent trucks from fouling railroad tracks.
Right after Bourbonnais comes Peotone, IL. If that sounds familiar, it's because some officials in Chicago want to build a third major airport at a site in Peotone, to relieve some of the load on Midway and O'Hare International. The truth is, if more short-haul passengers were handled by rail instead of air, there would be no need for a third Chicago airport.
Now things got exciting. A railfan's knowledge that he has entered the metropolitan area of a city with which he is not totally familiar comes from seeing the first sign of a commuter or rapid transit line. That would come at University Park, in the form of METRA's Electric line. I was looking for this University Park station, but first came a small town called Monee, IL, at 8:15 AM. It was just two minutes later that I saw on the left side the METRA train sitting at the bumper in University Park station. Two minutes later, we passed the Richton Park METRA Electric station. The CNIC freight line, over which the CITY and the ILLINI travel, is separate from the passenger tracks used by METRA. The Illinois Central knew what they were doing, wisely separating passenger and freight routes onto parallel tracks. Of course long-distance trains had to use the freight tracks so they would not be delayed by the slower commuter trains.
AMTRAK does make one stop in common with METRA Electric (although at separate platforms on their respective rights-of-way) at Homewood, IL. One could detrain here and take the commuter line all the way up to the city, or connect with other lines.
Well by this time, the end of the trip was getting near. Daphne had work to do, collecting pillows and helping people discard trash. She tried to make announcements of her attentions, but twice her announcement was cut off by Monty, who was still telling us he has lots and lots and lots of coffee left, etc. He also said that he would be closing soon (his business, or his mouth?) so we should be sure to come down for that last bit of refreshment before our arrival into Chicago. He also volunteered the information that Chicago was indeed the final stop on this train, and that its equipment would become Train 21/321/421, the southbound TEXAS EAGLE. It no longer becomes the EMPIRE BUILDER, Train 7/27/807.
At 8:38 AM I saw the METRA Electric Blue Island branch coming in from the west to join the passenger main. After that, we crossed at grade over the South Shore Line's tracks to Indiana; they, too join the passenger mainline just south of its Kensington station.
I decided to talk with the New Jersey couple with whom we had eaten dinner the night before. They were sitting diagonally across from us in our coach. I advised them to eat dinner while in Chicago, since as coach passengers on the CAPITOL LIMITED they may not get served until very late. It was advice that I should have followed myself. As you will see later, we had quite a negative dinner experience.
At 8:55 AM we had just passed Soldier Field, and were underneath where the McCormick Place convention center was built over the tracks. The darkness hid the fact that we were slowly rising over the level of the METRA Electric tracks, and even before we left the cover of McCormick Place, we had crossed over them and were now turning to the west.
The train now entered an elevated track structure called the St. Charles Air Line. This line crosses over to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks, passing over the approaches to (but having no immediate access to) Chicago Union Station.
At 9:00 AM we passed under the elevated Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Green Line, which runs over Wabash Street, and then over State Street, under which runs the CTA Red Line. We also crossed at a diamond the ex-Rock Island tracks (now METRA Rock Island District), which lead into LaSalle Street Station.
By 9:06 we had entered the BNSF. Once our train had cleared the switches at the end of the St. Charles Air Line, we began a backward movement off the BNSF and around into Chicago Union Station. The slow reverse movement included a safety stop well into the station, and then a final stop, which happened at 9:16 AM. Final tally for this train, after all we went through, was 16 minutes late!
On the platform for Track 20 where we had arrived, I had Michael watch our bags while I finally took my walk up to see the engine, baggage car, and sleepers. Had our train pulled into the station forewards, we would have passed these on the way into the building.
When Michael and I finally made our arrival into Union Station, we found Mike Hammond and Steve Weagant waiting for us. After saying hello to them, I went into the waiting area. I checked our suitcases with the Redcap in the baggage room, and did so at no expense since I showed him that we would be sleeper passengers on the CAPITOL LIMITED later that day.
We then agreed to go over to McDonald's for our well-deserved breakfast. We would compare notes about our trips, and try to plan the rest of our day over breakfast.
Part 24: In Chicago
Our day would be my preview trip for the Windy City RailFest, taking place in July of this year. My goals were to check out places where we might be eating and staying, and some connections between rapid transit lines or between rapid transit and commuter lines. We accomplished all those goals.
After breakfast, Steve, Mike, Michael, and I walked from Union Station to LaSalle Street Station, to take a 10:30 AM METRA Rock Island District train to Joliet. The walk was part of my lesson, since we'll be doing a similar one during the actual Fest. Also, in the past I've gotten lost trying to find the entrance to LaSalle Street Station, which is situated next to the Chicago Stock Exchange Building. This time, we found it with no problems.
We rode the train from Chicago to Joliet. While there we saw several freights pass by on the Union Pacific and BNSF tracks. We looked inside the station building and found a restaurant called Down From The Tracks, where we can have dinner during the Fest. We walked outside a little bit, but I was nervous about our venturing the five blocks to the Harrah's Casino (to check out dinner possibilities there) because I did not want to miss our inbound train back to Chicago. We noticed the Silver Cross Field across the tracks, a stadium that hosts the new Joliet Jackhammers minor league baseball team. The venue interestingly is not named for the busy railroad diamond at Joliet Union Station outside its gates, but rather a local hospital that bought the naming rights.
We took the same equipment back to Chicago. Once back at LaSalle Street Station, our next order of business was to make our way to Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC). We took the Brown Line counter-clockwise around the Loop two stops from LaSalle/Van Buren to Adams/Wabash, and then transferred to a Green Line train. We got off at Clinton/Lake, and we experienced one of the connections I wanted to check out, between that station and OTC. We had a rather long walk, but only because it was a weekend and all but the front doors of the station on Madison Street were locked. When we are in town in July, this transfer will be made on a weekday, so we will have better access to the station.
Once in the rail terminal, we got a quick bite to eat in the street-level food court. We did not have enough time to sit down and enjoy our food, so we took it with us, to be consumed on the train.
Our train was waiting on Track 12. We would be taking the METRA UP-West line just one stop to Oak Park. For the real Fest in the summer, we'll go all the way out to Geneva and back, getting off the inbound train in Oak Park. For now, I just wanted to check out the connection in Oak Park between METRA and the CTA Green Line. Once we got going from OTC, it was a mere 15-minute trip to our stop, so we barely had enough time to stuff our faces full of food. That's the life of a dedicated railfan -- making sure we got our food but eating it under less than perfect conditions.
At Oak Park, we noticed a freight train on the center track. The crew was standing outside the train, and they signaled to the conductor of the passenger train that they would be boarding the latter. Apparently they had outlawed here. Although it originally appeared that their train was blocking the inbound passenger mainline track, they were actually on the center of three tracks.
We walked down the ramp into the station beneath the tracks. I had two pleasant surprises here. First, I had thought we would have to walk a little bit in the street to get from one station to the other; we quickly found the transit station in the same building as the commuter station, so it is a seamless connection. In addition, when I had made up my itinerary for the Windy City RailFest, I assumed that the CTA Green Line's Oak Park station lines up with the Oak Park station on the METRA line. I was wondering why the "L" trains were starting and ending their runs here, until I realized that we were at the Harlem/Lake station, which is indeed the westernmost station on the Green Line. This will save us a few minutes at the main event.
We then took the next inbound Green Line train from Harlem/Lake to Clark/Lake in the Loop. Here I wanted to check out the transfer between the elevated Loop track and the Blue Line subway below. It is a very easy transfer to make, all located within the James R. Thompson Center office building and complete with escalators and elevators.
We then returned upstairs to the Green Line once more, and went south as far as Garfield. On the way (between the Loop and Roosevelt/Wabash) we noticed where construction is well underway to ease a very sharp "S" curve that Green Line and Orange Line trains have to negotiate. Garfield is the last stop before the line splits into two branches, so I wanted to see if one has to leave the system in order to change platforms. The station was recently rebuilt, and we found that the transfer between directions is within the paid area of the station.
Now we returned north, and headed for the Roosevelt/Wabash station. There was one more transfer I wanted to check out here, one that I found out many Chicagoans do not yet know about because it was just opened in December of 2002. Maps and timetables have not yet been updated to reflect this transfer tunnel's existence. It connects the elevated Green/Orange station with the underground Red Line station under Roosevelt/State.
Now I was done with my transportation-related explorations. We would now head for the Near North Side, where we checked out one hotel that I was considering. Mike Hammond had already booked his accommodations there for July. We took the Red Line from Roosevelt/State to Grand, and then walked three blocks to this hotel. We found it to be in a vibrant area of the city, full of shoppers and a yuppie-type crowd. All four of us also found the need to use the hotel's rest room facilities in the lobby.
By now, it was past 5:00 PM, and although I had entertained a notion to check out another hotel further north, I decided we'd had enough for one day. I wanted to be in the Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station by 6 PM in order to experience it for an hour before our departure, so we began to head back in that direction.
We walked back to Grand Street, and took a southbound Red Line train to Jackson. We then walked through that station's transfer tunnel to the Dearborn Subway, where we changed to the Blue Line. We took that two stops to Clinton/Congress, and we then walked north three blocks to Union Station. On the way, we said goodbye to Steve, whose car was parked in a garage along Clinton Street.
Mike, Michael, and I headed into Union Station. Mike was going in coach on the CAPITOL LIMITED, so he went upstairs to look for food, although he did not find much to his liking. Michael and I were eligible to use the Metropolitan Lounge, since we were going in First Class on the same train. We temporarily said goodbye to Mike, since I knew we would not see much of him aboard the train. Michael and I then headed into the Metropolitan Lounge.
Part 25: Metropolitan Lounge, Chicago, IL
As we entered the Metropolitan Lounge, the first thing I noticed is that it was quite crowded. After showing a desk attendant our tickets, we were told that the boarding process for our train would begin at about 6:30. We were then admitted into the rest of the room. We had to walk around quite a bit before finding a place to sit.
With so many people in there, one loses the feeling of exclusivity that they have in the spacious Club Acelas on the east coast. The reason the place had so many people is that the evening departures with first class accommodations, including the LAKE SHORE LIMITED, CAPITOL LIMITED, CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, and CARDINAL, all took place between 7:00 and 8:15 PM.
This lounge also lacked amenities found on the east coast, such as solid munchies and internet access. We did get complimentary soft drinks. The space in the center of the room occupied by the bank of pay telephones, which nobody uses anymore because of the emergence of cellular phones, could be used for a nice food buffet and some personal computers with internal modems.
At some point I wanted to collect my luggage, so we would have it when our train was called. I went out to the room where the Redcaps store luggage, but I was told that luggage is not permitted in the Metropolitan Lounge, and that I should come back at train time. I later heard one of the attendants at the desk telling somebody they could not bring their luggage into the lounge. He explained that some old lady once tripped over somebody's luggage and was injured. With that logic, they should not allow luggage in the regular waiting room, nor aboard the trains, since they are always going to be paranoid about another accident. I feel that first class passengers get the short end of the stick here. The ability to pre-board before other passengers is hampered by the need to first stop at the luggage room, and then wait on line to claim one's luggage.
It was precisely 6:30 PM when the first announcements came for the CAPITOL LIMITED. First came the pre-boarding announcements, for those with small children, seniors, and anyone else needing assistance. Michael still qualifies for pre-boarding since he is under the age of twelve, so we left the lounge with this group. Unfortunately, that advantage is lost because now passengers have to stand on line awaiting their luggage. The one Redcap inside the baggage room was suddenly overwhelmed by the influx of passengers. He opened the door to allow one person in, and went back with them to help them retrieve their luggage. I don't think it was his intention to let all of us in, but that is what happened -- suddenly there were about 15 people in the narrow room looking for their luggage. While this made the process faster, any one of us could have taken the wrong bags, whether intentionally or not. Nobody checked to see that we had the proper claim checks when Michael and I left the room with our two suitcases.
We now went to the gate through the regular waiting room. They were still holding the coach passengers on a line until the sleeper passengers had claimed their luggage and went out to board the train, which was on Track 24.
Saturday, April 26, 2003 (continued)
Part 26: The CAPITOL LIMITED, Train 30(26), Chicago, IL to Washington, DC
Since we were in a sleeping car located towards the front of the train, I was able to record the car numbers of our train as we walked towards our assigned car. The only ones I could not get were the baggage car and two engines ahead of our sleeper; I would not be able to jot those down until we reached Washington, DC the next day. The consist of this train was:
185 P-42 locomotive
62 P-42 locomotive
39033 Superliner II Transition
32045 Superliner I sleeper
"Zion Park" <- *
32103 Superliner II sleeper "Ohio"
38018 Superliner I diner
33013 Superliner I Sightseer Lounge
31592 Superliner I coach/smoker
34103 Superliner II coach
Plus 5 express cars added in Chicago
yard after departure
* - We were here
When we got to our sleeper, we met our attendant, Tony. He lifted our tickets and directed us upstairs, telling us which way to turn to access our room. We were ticketed for Room 3.
It quickly became apparent that two people and four bags were not going to coexist in this small space for 18 hours. I had to go back downstairs and put our suitcases on a rack, which by now had already almost filled up with others. The convenience of the sleeper would be negated by having to go down and up the stairs to get certain items from the suitcase later on.
At exactly 7:00 PM, the CAPITOL LIMITED slowly departed from Chicago Union Station. Seven minutes later we came to a stop in AMTRAK's yard just to the south.
Tony made some announcements specific to our sleeper. He welcomed us, introduced himself, and said he would be available throughout the trip to answer any questions or help passengers with making the beds, carrying their luggage, or any other concerns that they may have. He explained where the luggage rack was on the lower level, the locations of the rest rooms on both levels, and where the shower was. He said that soap, wash cloths, and towels are provided on the lower level for use in the shower. He also said that there is a linen bag for used towels. He let us know that complimentary beverages, such as juice, soda, and coffee, would be available throughout the trip. Finally, he mentioned that there is no longer any music playing in the speakers in each room, but that using Channel 1 would allow passengers to hear announcements such as this one clearer (instead of via the speakers in the hallway).
Tony said that he expected that the diner would be ready for service in about an hour. He told us that we were currently making a routine stop to pick up some express cars, and that this stop would not affect our timekeeping. Finally, he said he would come to each room and introduce himself individually to each passenger.
At 7:20 PM, we began to roll out of the yard, with our five express cars in tow. Things were looking rather well for a wonderful, on-time trip to Washington. Tony got to our room, and asked if we had any questions. Michael asked him if there would be a movie playing, and what it might be. He said that if it was the same as his last trip, the lounge would be showing "Spiderman". Michael had seen this before, but that would not stop him from watching it again. Other factors, however, would keep him out of the lounge car.
To be able to have our first experience ever in the Chicago Metropolitan Lounge, we did not go to the food court in Union Station. Another reason we skipped dinner in Chicago (against the advice I had given to the New Jersey couple aboard the CITY OF NEW ORLEANS) was because it was included in our sleeper fare. From experience, I knew that they routinely end up serving dinner quite late on the eastern trains out of Chicago, so I knew we would have a late night. What complicates matters is that while dinner is being served, the train crosses into the Eastern time zone, which makes everything one hour later. To keep the following experience in perspective, everything will be expressed in Central Time, until we get to the end of dinner.
At 8:01 PM, when I expected they would call us for dinner, the conductor announced that it "may be late, possibly not beginning until 9 PM". People know that when I don't eat, and am cut off from food for reasons beyond my control, I am not a pretty sight. Plus, with children on board (including Michael) who might wish to get to sleep around 9 PM, it is unfair to them to not have even begun serving at 8:00. Since the train left Chicago at 7, there is absolutely no way anyone can justify why it takes TWO hours to prepare the diner to serve a meal. It should not even take one hour, since the train departs from Chicago well after what is normally considered to be dinnertime.
At 8:55 PM, we heard a rather terse message from a dining car attendant, who said "This is the first, last, and only call for dinner in the diner." What nerve! Why would you take two hours to begin seating passengers, and then rush them? We complied of course, and were seated in the diner about two minutes after the announcement was made. I noticed that we had the Cycle 2 menu on this trip. It was not all that crowded in the diner, as many people from previous experience also had their dinner in Chicago long before boarding.
Michael and I were facing forward. Across from us at our table were two men, who had been seated separately and did not know one another. There was absolutely no conversation between us and these two men. Rolls and salad were brought to our table at 9:05 PM. Some may argue that salad may have curbed our appetites. But I've never eaten salad, and never will. I am of the belief that if man were supposed to eat leaves, he would live in the forest. So as hungry as I was, I would not eat any leaves, grass, trees, or any other plant life put before me.
We arrived in South Bend, IN at 9:07 PM. During our stop here, the train lost its head-end power (HEP) for a few minutes. I thought they were going to ask us to leave, since the diner usually cannot operate without power. With power restored at 9:11 PM, we were on our way, 19 minutes late.
We passed through Elkhart, IN at 9:28 PM, which at the time was not a stop for this train, as it was only served by the LAKE SHORE LIMITED. Outside of town, we passed a strip of restaurants, which included, in rapid succession, Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Arby's, and a chain cafeteria. With our order not yet having been taken, I was all in favor of having them just stop the train so I could be served right away!
At 9:35 PM, one of our tablemates saw the writing on the wall and got up. He had consumed his salad and a roll, but he was not going to wait for the main course. He did not tell us whether he was coming back, so it was assumed he had just left to go to the bathroom. At 9:39, our waiter, Brian Taft, finally took our orders. He did not introduce himself, but he just asked, "How are you doing?" I said simply that we were starving. He replied, "You came to the right place". Brian's last statement could not have been further from the truth! We placed our orders. Michael went for the kid's chicken meal once more, while I chose to take advantage of the complimentary nature of our meal, and ordered the strip steak, medium rare. That's the entree for which coach passengers would pay $18.50.
Remember Mike Hammond? He was on our train too. He was in one of the two coaches. I was trying to call him from the dining car on his cell phone, to let him know that service was awful, and that if he was hungry he should go to the lounge car instead. I was not sure if they ever got to seat any coach passengers who wanted dinner in the diner. I could not reach him however, since there were no cell towers in the vicinity. I would go talk to him later.
Our food came at 9:51 PM, sixteen minutes after it was ordered, almost an hour after we had been seated, and close to three hours since we had left Chicago. The steak was a bit too pink, but given the amount of time we had waited, I was not about to send it back. At that point, eating a pink steak was a lesser evil than waiting until sunrise to get a cooked one.
By 10:00 we were finished. I wanted to have dessert; after all, it was included. Michael was feeling tired by now, and just wanted to go back and begin to get ready for bed. I figured it would not take us much longer if I ordered some ice cream. We sat starting at our dirty plates for another eight minutes. When Brian finally took them away, it would have been customary for any server to ask if anybody wanted dessert. I didn't speak up, figuring he would be right back.
The CAPITOL LIMITED arrived at the Waterloo, IN stop at 10:12 PM. Our double spot there took just three minutes. Our 10:15 departure put us 14 minutes late. Now, we were clearly in the eastern time zone, so it was really 11:15 PM Eastern Daylight Time. Here we were, still sitting in the diner at that hour. Not only was it wasting our time, but also I felt we were not getting my money's worth our of the sleeper accommodation surcharge, since we were not able to utilize it for so long.
It was now 11:17 PM Eastern, and I saw Brian cleaning up another table. I was waiting for my dessert; the dirty table that would not be used until breakfast could wait. Three minutes later, our second table mate left, giving up on his dessert. At 11:22, I finally ordered my ice cream. Luckily it came in a reasonable amount of time, and I ate it quickly. At 11:30, having been in the diner for an hour and a half, we finally were able to leave. The process of having dinner, to me, had really taken 3-1/2 hours factoring in the two hours it took to get the diner ready after the train's departure from Chicago.
Did I leave a tip for Brian? If you can figure out what 15% of the amount a sleeper passenger pays in cash for his meal, you will know how much of a tip Brian got. His last display of totally ignoring us while cleaning other tables had really pissed me off even more.
At this point, it was late. I wanted to talk with Mike Hammond, and say goodbye since we would be asleep for his 2:26 AM Cleveland arrival. I sent Michael back to our room, with instructions for him to ask Tony to make up our beds.
I walked back through the lounge car. It was pretty empty. I am not sure if a movie had been shown there or not, but certainly we would have missed it anyhow. I looked for Mike in the coaches, but could not find him. I returned to the lounge car and checked both levels, thinking he had possibly decided to eat a late dinner there. Still not finding him, but knowing he had to be on the train, I then returned to the coaches. Since the one adjacent to the lounge car had the smoking lounge on the lower level, I knew he would not be there. I finally found him on the lower level of the rear coach. He was still wide awake. I told him that if he had planned on getting dinner in the diner, forget it. I explained to him how horrible the service was. Luckily he had eaten something in Chicago, and had another three hours or so before he would be off the train.
The lights were still on, which I thought was strange since the coach attendants usually turn them off at around 10 PM. Some passengers sitting near Mike asked me to let their attendant know they wanted the lights off. I said goodbye to Mike, who we will next see in July back in Chicago. I went upstairs, and unable to find the coach attendant, I began to make my way up towards the sleeper section of the train.
I had to walk through the lounge car, and then the diner to get to the sleepers. Brian had just finished cleaning off our table, and was in the general area counting his undeserved loot. How unprofessional! If I were counting my gratuities out in the open, I would hide that fact if a customer came by. He made a point of doing so right in front of me as I approached him, perhaps to let me know I might have forgotten him. I hadn't forgotten anything, and kept on walking past him.
When I returned to our sleeper, not only had Michael done an excellent job of summoning Tony to make up our beds, but Michael had already occupied the upper bunk. He was waiting for me to get his pajamas. I then had to go downstairs and take his pajamas and our toiletries out of our suitcases. Unfortunately, even though we had not showered since leaving Florida in Thursday, it would not be possible tonight.
Once Michael was ready, and in bed, I also got ready. In watching my weight, I've always strived to not go to bed so close to dinnertime, but given the circumstances, I would have to do so now. By the time I had gotten ready, we had arrived in Toledo. It was 12:46 AM.
Sunday, April 27, 2003
Part 27: The CAPITOL LIMITED, Train 30(26), Chicago, IL to Washington, DC (continued)
The timetable allowed a 17-minute layover in Toledo, and we were in fact in town for that amount of time. I believe we either took on or dropped some express cars here, because there was a backup move before we came to a stop. I was able to listen to the action on my scanner. Whatever problems I'd had with my scanner earlier on the trip were a moot point since we had an electrical outlet available to us in the sleeper.
Departure from Toledo was at 1:03 AM, twenty minutes late. At this time my sleeping pill was kicking in, so I went to sleep. We both slept with our carry-on bags on our respective beds next to our feet, since there simply was no place else to put them.
I awoke at 6:18 AM to find that we were in Pennsylvania already, having just left Pittsburgh. I had gotten five hours of sleep, which is fine for me. I figured that I could always nap in the early afternoon through West Virginia and Maryland. Since the scheduled Pittsburgh departure of our train was at 6:10 AM, it appeared that we were running close to schedule. I recognized the area as a connecting track that runs between the Norfolk Southern (ex-PRR) mainline to the CSX (ex-B&O) mainline alongside the Monongahela River. Most of our trip this morning would be following the banks of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers, and towards the end of our trip, the Potomac.
We were entitled to breakfast, and that meant we faced another trip to the dining car, with its awful crew. Just after our stop in Connellsville, PA, we left our sleeper at 7:56 AM. Since the dining car was much busier than it was the night before, we had a short wait before we were seated. We sat down at 8:07 AM, and were seated across from two women who were traveling together. They were residents of Maryland, and so they were heading to Washington, DC as well. They were coming from somewhere in Minnesota, and had taken the EMPIRE BUILDER to Chicago before connecting with this train. From their conversation with each other, I deduced that at least one of them was a teacher.
Well our order was taken about five minutes after we were seated. That was an improvement over last night, considering that we once again had Brian as our waiter. But Brian would prove his ineptness several times more before we were done.
It was 8:37 AM, 25 minutes after our order was taken, when Brian appeared with some food. As he put plates down in front of us, all four of us realized that we were getting something we did not order. In fact, everything was wrong, as he had given us the food that should have gone to another table. Ten minutes later, some of the correct food came. Michael got his scrambled eggs and sausage. I had ordered French toast with sausage, but he forgot my sausage. He returned a few minutes later with my sausage patties on another plate.
We finished our breakfast without further incident, and left the dining car. I left a minimal tip for Brian's improved service, although he probably deserved nothing. We returned to our room, and asked Tony to return our room to the daytime configuration.
Now it was time to do something we've never done aboard a train. We had not taken a shower since before we left Florida. Although we would be coming home tonight, it was still a necessity. The shower room is where the "C" bathroom would be in a coach. We collected the soap, shampoo, wash cloths, and towels we would need, and then Michael said, "you go first". You have to admire the kid for his courage! To make a long story short, the only problem I had was keeping the water inside the shower. Because the curtain was old, and thus had shrunk a bit so it did not reach the floor, some water got out. Luckily my clothes were up on a bench, so they did not get wet.
When I had dressed and come out, I warned Michael about this. Unfortunately, he was not as successful as I was at aiming the water the right way. As I waited in the hallway outside the shower room, water began to come under the door and run up and down the hallway, spreading fast in different directions as the train went around curves. Tony was on the ball, and when he saw this he spread some extra towels down over the mess to absorb the water. One reason he did this was because the water had come pretty close to going into one of the downstairs bedrooms at the end of the hall. These people had their door open, so they would have had a rude awakening had the flow of water not been thwarted when it was.
The woman in the open room did not seem to mind what was going on. She was joking around with Tony that she and her daughter were unable to meet single men on the train. Tony asked how old my son was, and when I said he was eleven, she said he was too young. I don't know what she had in mind for herself, but she did tell him that she was 38. I kept my mouth shut, since she was in the handicapped room capable of holding lots of people, and there could have been a spouse there. I was more concerned with preventing any further problems and expediting Michael's shower. Michael was luckily almost done, and after he got dressed we made a hasty retreat, both for the damage we'd done with the water, and the threat of an expensive long-distance "Brady Bunch" commitment.
At 10:09 AM, we passed through the town of Corriganville, MD, which is about six miles south of the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. We then arrived at the Cumberland, MD station at 10:18 AM. Our work took just two minutes. Upon departure we were running just four minutes off the advertised.
With my scanner now having a good charge, I decided to use the remaining trip time to recharge my cell phone. I kept my scanner on without the electric adapter. With our door closed I was able to use it freely without headphones. We were going through a mountainous area anyhow where my phone would not be able to send nor receive any calls. I was able to close my eyes here as well to catch up on some rest.
We made an unscheduled stop at an interlocking called "Orleans", in order to wait for a passing freight, which I learned was called 707-R. CSX handled this meet pretty well, as the freight soon passed by, allowing us to continue in about four minutes.
What about another meal? The wonderful dining car crew had announced that they might offer a short lunch period, depending on how we were doing with our trip into Washington. I vowed we were not going back there. Knowing we would be arriving into Washington sometime between 1 and 2 PM, I figured that all food services on the train would probably close down around 12 noon. So I decided we would go to the lounge car, pay for our food there, but bring them back to our room where we could use the free sodas still available out in the hallway. From Rick, the lounge attendant with dreadlocks, I just bought three hot dogs - two for me and one for Michael. It was a little early for lunch, but I figured it was now or never. I would not be cut off from my food again on this train.
When we got back to our room at 11:50 AM, there was an announcement from the dining car that a very short lunch would be served there. Those who wished to eat lunch were told to report right now. About five minutes later, I heard the lead dining car attendant calling on the speaker for Brian Taft to report. Here they had summoned passengers to the lounge car for a quick meal, and their star waiter was not even there. I don't think his absence would have been noticed by those already seated. It went through my mind that perhaps with others equally upset with Brian's service as I was, he had a bad night in gratuities and felt that showing up for a short meal would be worthless. Maybe he had done AMTRAK a big favor and quit his job. I heard one more forceful appeal for Brian to report to the dining car, so either he made it or they gave up on him. At any rate, I am glad we didn't go.
We made a three-minute double spot at Martinsburg, WV, departing there at 11:58 AM. We were thirteen minutes late. To me we were already in the Washington area, since this is the western end of MARC commuter rail territory.
There was an announcement at 12:18 PM that the lounge car was closing. I was now even gladder that we had eaten when we did. They were closing it more than 1-1/2 hours before the train's scheduled arrival into Washington, and at lunchtime.
We made a single stop in Harpers Ferry, WV. Our sleeper portion of the train was already on the bridge over the Potomac River while the coach portion was in the station. Our 12:22 PM departure put us twelve minutes down. There were lots of tourists standing on an adjacent bridge, waving to our train.
The dining car closed at 12:47 PM, less than one hour after it had opened. That meant that for those who reported, and waited for Brian (if he ever showed up) they had to have been rushed. If Brian was indeed there serving lunch, he would have had to hustle a lot more than he did for dinner and breakfast. About this time we were passing through Brunswick, MD.
We made a quick stop in Rockville, MD, now also within the territory of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metro Red Line. When we left there at 1:06 PM, we were eleven minutes late. The timetable allowed for one hour to go just 17 miles between Rockville and Washington, but I knew this was extreme padding. Heck, the Metro takes less time than that between Rockville and Union Station! In the westbound direction, the CAPITOL LIMITED takes just 24 minutes from Washington to Rockville.
Tony soon made his farewell announcement to us. He said, "It looks like we will have an early arrival. We apologize for the inconvenience." I am not sure how that was an inconvenience, other than the railfan view of not getting the quality time on the rails for which I had paid. He also came around to each room and said goodbye, also offering to help people with their luggage. Ours was downstairs already, as was almost everyone else's, so I declined. I did give Tony a well-deserved gratuity at this time.
We came to a stop in Washington Union Station at 1:28 PM, 27 minutes early. I expected us to come in on one of the lower level (Virginia-bound) tracks, but we were on one of the station-level tracks instead. Certain tracks here have a low-level service platform between them on the other side of the train from the high-level platforms. I think our platform was between Tracks 16 and 17. Our walk towards the station, and the front of the train, let me easily write down the remaining equipment of our consist that I had not yet recorded.
Once we had walked past the bumping post, station employees directed us to the arrivals area, which funnels passengers from most tracks into Gate G. Inside the station, I was able to pickup AMTRAK's new Northeast timetable (remember I had found the new National one in Orlando, so many miles ago!). We then headed for the Club Acela.
Part 28: Club Acela, Washington, DC
I figured we had about a 40-minute wait in Washington until our next train. As arriving first class passengers, we were eligible to use the Club Acela, even though we were departing as coach passengers on a Regional train. I showed the attendant our stubs from Train 30 as well as our unreserved tickets for Washington-Philadelphia, and we were in. He told us that they would not be announcing our outbound train, so about 15 minutes before train time we should just go out the doors and board the train. Gosh, that sounded so easy!
We both had to use the rest room facilities, and were happy to do so without the movements of a train, and without the foul smell that comes from the retention tanks. These rest rooms are also free of the homeless people and other characters that frequent the rest rooms on the main and lower floors of Union Station.
Unlike the previous evening's stay at Chicago's Metropolitan Lounge, this facility was not at all crowded, even though the waiting areas and the station concourse were pretty busy. I'd noticed, before we entered the Club Acela, that the crowd waiting near Gate D, Track 14, was for Train 156, the train we would be taking north to Philadelphia. Unlike Chicago, I had internet access, so that I could take the opportunity to clean out the junk e-mail from my inbox for the first time since Wednesday night in Florida.
We did partake of the complimentary sodas. There was also a table set up with various pastries.
When it got to be 2:05 PM, which was 15 minutes before the scheduled departure of Regional Train 156, we gathered our stuff and left the Club Acela on our own through the left side door. We immediately encountered a crowd that had gathered for the same train in an interim waiting room beyond Gate D. We had a few dirty looks as we came out of the Club Acela and joined the crowd, but heck, we probably should have boarded before them anyhow. If anything, I had my ticket to pre-boarding with me, my kid under 12. We waited, however, until the group began to move towards the train on Track 14.
We walked up towards the front of the train, because people by nature boarding in Washington plop themselves down into the first coach they can. Taking a few more steps towards the engine guaranteed us we would find seats, at least at this stage of the game.
Part 29: Regional Train 156(27), Washington, DC to Philadelphia, PA
We settled in the third coach of the train. The people just kept on coming and coming, so that by the time we departed, the train was just about full. There were very few empty seats left. The crew asked several times for people with belongings on the seats to remove them, so that people could sit down.
Because of the number of people heading for the train, it was impossible to stop and write down the car numbers as we had walked towards the front of the train. I figured I could later get them from the inside as I walked through the train. But then with the train becoming standing room only really quickly, that was not possible either. I would have to complete my consist listing upon arrival in Philadelphia. At any rate, the consist of this train was:
Overall, this was a very mixed-up consist, with an assortment of old and new, Metroliner and coach, and a cafe car running as extra coach seating.
924 AEM-7 locomotive
82501 Amfleet I Regional cafe
(as coach seating)
81510 Amfleet I Regional BusinessClass
44916 Amfleet I Metroliner coach <- *
82015 Amfleet I Regional CoachClass
21189 Amfleet I coach
48974 Amfleet I Metroliner club
(as coach seating)
20037 Amfleet I cafe (working)
21195 Amfleet I coach
* - We were here
Train 156 departed from Washington at 2:20 PM, right on time. After more passengers boarded in New Carrollton, there were not enough seats for all of them to sit. We had two or three standees in our coach. Things only got worse as the train went up the line. There was confusion on the platform in Baltimore, when the crew did not open all of the doors, leaving people wondering where they should board the train. I'm not sure if they were aware that most of them would be standing.
Meanwhile, the crew did not collect our tickets for quite some time. The train was so packed that the crew was unable to keep up with collecting the tickets. They had to keep abandoning that function to work the next station. Just as a conductor got near us, he had to go to the vestibule once more. Then he would start in a place other than where he had left off. While I don't mind a free ride, it's lost revenue for AMTRAK if they don't collect all the fares. In fact, I was already trying to figure out how I could use these tickets another time. Not collecting the tickets right away is also an inconvenience to passengers. One cannot take a nap, go to the cafe car or a rest room, or take a walk through the train since they should be at their seats until tickets are collected, and they risk losing their seats where there are standees. Therefore I was a virtual prisoner for all but the last twenty minutes of this trip.
This is the one train per day that makes a stop in Newark, DE. Despite the fact that our train was bursting at the seams with passengers, we did stop in Newark to board a few more people. The engineer had to get permission to stop on one of the inside tracks, and the boarding passengers, who were waiting on the SEPTA platform, had to cross over the outer track on a walkway.
Just before Wilmington, DE, our tickets were finally lifted. We were on time at Wilmington. Just after we left, the crew told the Wilmington station personnel to call ahead to Philadelphia, to let people know this train had standing room only conditions.
As we approached Philadelphia, Michael and I got up and tried to change places with some of the standees, giving them our seats while we tried to get to the nearest door. This was a difficult move, since we were wheeling our luggage through the aisle.
I must say that with all the heavy boarding, lack of seats, and the time-consuming Newark, DE stop, our timing was excellent. We arrived in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station at 4:12 PM, which was one minute early!
In Philadelphia, we had 37 minutes to wait before our NJ TRANSIT train to Cherry Hill. We waited with the masses in the station. Like Washington, the station was crowded with Sunday travelers heading home from a weekend or from spring break. I could not find our NJ TRANSIT tickets that had not been collected from our last trip back on the 16th, so I purchased from the machine one adult ticket to Cherry Hill, since Michael is free on weekends. We'll make use of the unused tickets, which of course showed up later, another time.
For the first time since Saturday morning on the CITY OF NEW ORLEANS coming into Chicago, I noticed the New Jersey couple from Mays Landing who we had met at dinner on that train. They were with us on the CAPITOL LIMITED and the overcrowded Regional train, but we did not see them because we were in different parts of both trains, and because we had spent our Washington layover in the Club Acela. When our train was called for Track 4, I noticed them also going down the same stairs. We did not talk to them on this train, however, because Michael and I sat in a car closer to the rear of the train in order to minimize our walk once we got to Cherry Hill.
Part 30: NJ TRANSIT Train #4619, Philadelphia, PA to Cherry Hill, NJ
Train 4619 was three coaches (including a cab control car), and a GP-40 engine in push mode. We left right on time at 4:49 PM. The final rail phase of our long trip had begun. At 5:11, we arrived in Cherry Hill, our first time back in our home state in eleven days.
My car started right up, and very soon we were on our way home. We had dinner at a Burger King near Burlington Center (stopping at about the same place we did earlier in this trip). When we got to the New Jersey Turnpike, I noticed that traffic was stopped in the northbound direction. So instead of getting on, I headed into Mount Holly and took back roads home. I had to deviate further because we would have gone right by the entrance of Six Flags Great Adventure, which also would generate traffic on a warm Sunday afternoon. We still made it home in two hours, including our dinner stop in Burlington.
By 7:20 PM, I was already unpacking from our trip, and we were getting ready to watch The Simpsons, just like any typical Sunday at home. Fluffy had survived her eleven days without us, and her four visits by a stranger who fed her.
It was quite an adventure, wasn't it? We accomplished everything we set out to do, unlike the letdowns of previous Florida trips. We had several firsts, such as the shower on the CAPITOL LIMITED in Maryland, the wyeing of the SUNSET LIMITED in Jacksonville, the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago, and the entire CITY OF NEW ORLEANS.
Overall, our timekeeping was not perfect, but we still did rather well. The SILVER METEOR trip from Philadelphia to Winter Haven had by far the worst timekeeping, at 1 hour 34 minutes late. My solo trips on the SILVER STAR within Florida were 50 minutes and 21 minutes late into Jacksonville and Orlando respectively. The CITY OF NEW ORLEANS was just sixteen minutes late into Chicago. On the plus side, the SUNSET LIMITED was 24 minutes early into New Orleans, the CAPITOL LIMITED was 27 minutes early into Washington, and our Regional train was one minute early into Philadelphia. If you consider all of the late and early trains, it averages between 20 and 21 minutes late for the seven AMTRAK trains I rode. Michael's average is between 15 and 16 minutes late, because he was not on the two late SILVER STAR trips I took.
Silver Service trains need to get better. Perhaps it is because I usually use them during the peak travel times, but they have to get their act together with the boarding process. It's something that is seriously broken and needs fixing. The equipment is getting old, and the bathrooms do smell. The tradeoff for having retention toilets (instead of dump toilets) is that the user has to smell what is in the retention tank when they flush. Perhaps the tanks have to be emptied more often during a 30-hour trip. The two coach attendants on the SILVER METEOR were not overly friendly, but they did impress me with their periodic sweeping the aisles of the coaches. The attendants I had on the two SILVER STAR trains I rode within Florida were much friendlier, spending more time chatting with the passengers in their care.
The SUNSET LIMITED's excellent performance was due to a minimum of freight interferences, and a very padded timetable. Our particular experience aboard the train was satisfactory, although I feel that malfunctioning speakers did hurt our trip because we were not properly informed about things. Our attendant John was pleasant and helpful but I thought he needed to do a little more to introduce himself (which might have been a casualty of those speakers, although nametags certainly do help!). He was, to his credit, overworked as he was responsibile for three coaches.
The CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, which we rode from end to end, was a unique experience. I hope to ride the train again sometime. Our biggest complaint was the highly talkative lounge attendant, Monty. I almost wished our speakers did not work on this train. Daphne, our coach attendant, was friendly and she did a good job in keeping the passengers happy and informed.
The dining car crew we had on the CAPITOL LIMITED should hang their heads in shame. The dining crew simply was not up to the task of serving the passengers. There is probably no other workplace anywhere that would tolerate the quality of waiter Brian's work. Tony, our sleeping car attendant, did a superb job, and he was a ray of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day on that train.
Since we rode the CAPITOL LIMITED, its eastbound schedule has changed, so that it now departs from Chicago at 5:35 PM. Whether this has a positive effect on the food service remains to be seen. More passengers should have time to eat, digest, and then go to sleep -- that is, if there is a dining crew capable of serving them.
In general, the Superliner I's in the fleet are showing their age. Superliners are in short supply, so they will be run into the ground before they are replaced. The curtains in our sleeper, for instance, would not close properly, so there was always part of it open no matter how much I tried to close it entirely. Ditto for that shower curtain that caused the minor flood.
Then there was the typical holiday-period Sunday overcrowding on the Regional train. Had we not used the Club Acela in Washington, we might have been the ones standing in the aisle with our luggage for two hours. It's hard to predict just how many people will choose to take an unreserved train in a corridor, but after 32 years AMTRAK should have some experience at this and be able to accommodate everyone by either lengthening their trains, or running extra sections in between the scheduled runs. Standing room only conditions cannot possibly be safe, particularly for the standees, but also for those seated should there be an emergency.
Jacksonville's monorail system needs to expand their weekend hours, and they need to make sure their fare collection system is modern and functional. One would hope that the system's existence downtown would spawn new development, so that there are more destinations to serve.
Our trip included some streetcar rides in both Tampa and New Orleans. Tampa's is new, but it's catching on. They need to work on public awareness at the grade crossings, as there have been several accidents already. Double tracking the line where possible will provide a faster ride and require less idle time en route.
New Orleans has an expanding system. Hopefully when the Canal and Desire lines open, they will divert some of the tourists away from the St. Charles line, so that all passengers on the latter can be accommodated in seats. It's still a historic gem. The Riverfront line is too short in comparison -- you expect it to go further downriver, at least towards the Crescent City Connection Bridge.
Finally, we had our dry run in Chicago for the Windy City RailFest. Thanks again to Steve and Mike for joining us for a very productive day.
And so we've already gone back to the grind at work and school, and now we look forward to our Chicago trip in July, and possibly a few other smaller trips in the summer. There is also the challenge of what we can do differently for our next Florida trip in 2004!