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Trip Report

On the (Rail)road to Rochester
Bad weather prompts sudden change in plans

December 2-3, 2003


I'll admit it. My wife, Tracey, and I were planning to drive from Long Island to Rochester, NY yesterday to attend a special concert. Our daughter, Emma, was to sing at Rochester's famous Eastman Theatre as a member of the New York All-State Women's Choir. But reports Monday of a pending snow storm affecting Upstate New York prompted us to travel by rail instead, going up on #63, the Toronto-bound Maple Leaf , and returning on #284, the morning train from Niagara Falls.

Catching #63, which departs New York Penn Station (NYP) at 7:15 a.m. required us to be up at 4:45 to catch the 5:45 from Oceanside to New York. We were dressed and on our way to the station by 5:30 and able to park in the nearly-empty main parking lot, something that would have been impossible had we left 90 minutes later. I purchased our tickets from the TVM (ticket vending machine) on the platform and went inside to await our train's on-time arrival. The 5:45 normally is a blue collar train that deposits construction workers in the city so they can get to their jobs by the 7 a.m. starting time. Yesterday, it seemed there were fewer hard hats than normal and more office workers. The trip to New York was uneventful, and we arrived on time just before 6:30.

Once inside the station. I proceeded to an Amtrak TVM where I picked up the tickets for our trip that I had ordered the day before over the Internet. Tracey was impressed that our itinerary appeared on the screen within seconds of inserting my credit card and that with the push of just one button our four tickets printed out. Then we settled ourselves in the waiting room and I went over to a deli to purchase some coffee and bagels for breakfast.

The 7 a.m. window is one of NYP's busiest for Amtrak. Within the space of 15 minutes, six trains depart for Washington, Pittsburgh, Miami, Toronto and two for Boston (Acela Express and regional). Our train was announced a few minutes after 7 a.m., and we proceeded to track five to board. When we reached the platform, the conductor directed us to the last coach, which was ahead of the cafe car, a club-dinette that was providing two-one seating for Business Class patrons; First Class seats at Business Class prices. We were able to find seats in the middle of the car on the left hand (Hudson River) side. By our 7:15 departure, almost all the seats would be occupied.

Following our on-time departure, our train entered the first of several tunnels under Manhattan thoroughfares, finally emerging around 125th Street alongside the famous Hudson River, which we would follow for the next 137 miles. After passing under the George Washington Bridge, we received the day's first surprise: a light dusting of snow had fallen in northern Manhattan.

The trip up the river began uneventfully, and I pointed out the scenic highlights to Tracey as we sped north. We lost a few minutes near Poughkeepsie when we followed a Metro North local into the station and again outside Hudson, where we had to wait for a southbound Amtrak to complete its work at the station. Then we encountered a snow squall - the first of many - as we sped toward Albany, where we arrived 14 minutes late. However, we did not waste time in the station, even with a change of engines, and by our arrival in Schenectady we had made up four minutes.

From there, things went downhill. Another nine minutes were lost heading toward Utica, where I enjoyed seeing the equipment of Adirondack Scenic Railroad, done up in the paint scheme of the 1938 edition of the Twentieth Century Limited. Leaving Utica, I spied several out-of-service diesels and passenger cars sitting in the Susquehanna's Utica yard on the train's left side. We moved quickly from there to Rome, but crawled into Syracuse on account of following freight trains and congestion around DeWitt Yard in East Syracuse. We reached the Syracuse depot 36 minutes behind schedule and lost another five in the station. Fortunately, no additional time was lost and we arrived in a snowy Rochester 41 minutes late.

After settling into our hotel room, we walked over a mile in the bitter cold and on icy sidewalks to get to where Emma was staying. For dinner we went to the Dinosaur Barbeque, one of the best rib joints anywhere, and were surprised to find this restaurant housed in the former Lehigh Valley depot alongside the Genesee River. After dropping Emma back at her hotel, we headed to the Eastman, where we were treated to a wonderful evening of music.

Our return trip today on #284 was much like the ride up. The train arrived two minutes behind schedule and lost another five minutes in the station on account of heavy boarding; some of the passengers who might have taken the earlier Lake Shore Limited were riding with us since the late-running LSL wouldn't arrive for another 40 minutes. Shortly after our departure, we lost another four minutes for a wheel inspection stop caused by a faulty hot-box detector.

Again, we encountered a logjam leaving Syracuse as we had to thread our way between two freights waiting to enter DeWitt Yard. By the time we reached Utica, we were :22 behind. We lost another 27 minutes between there and Amsterdam following a slow-moving freight that we were unable to run around on account of a convoy of five westbound freights occupying the other track.

The final indignity was crawling into the Albany station for reasons not readily apparent, although the cafe attendant told me it had something to do with a dispatcher confusing us with the Lake Shore. We left Albany 50 minutes behind and arrived at NYP down :53. The final stretch, on the Long Island Railroad's (LIRR's) 3:52 Long Beach local, went smoothly and we were home before 5 pm.

Other than the lateness, which was largely beyond its control, Amtrak performed well. The cars were clean, although a bit dowdy (original upholstery, Phase III paint job on our coach going home), the crews were courteous and the cafe offered a good selection of decent food offerings. Going up, we had coffee and a cinnamon roll as a mid-morning snack. For lunch, Tracey had a veggie burger and I had Buffalo wings (very spicy) and pizza. On the return, Tracey had a breakfast sandwich (ham, egg and cheese) for breakfast while I had a bagel and yogurt. For lunch, Tracey had a tuna sandwich and I had a meat loaf platter, a very good value at $5.50. There was good patronage in both directions, and with five-car consists there was adequate room for the passengers.

As for CSX, I'm not sure whether to give them a break on account of the inclement weather or blast them for incompetent dispatching. To be fair, the Chicago Line is busy, with lots of leased and foreign power; all-CSX power lash ups were rare. But, after four years of owning the ex- Conrail main line you'd expect they'd know what they were doing. After all, even in Penn Central days I never encountered interference from freights on the Empire Corridor.

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