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My wife and I just returned from a weekend trip from Philadelphia to Chicago with our two grandsons, ages 9 and 11. I took them on a shorter trip to Pittsburgh and return last summer and they are now confirmed train buffs. This trip was to give them the overnight experience on a sleeper.
The original plan was to go out on train 51, The Cardinal, and return on train 30, the Capitol Limited. About a month ago, Amtrak called to inform me that due to delayed maintenance on the Viewliner sleepers, train 51 had no sleepers. I decided to switch to the Lake Shore Limited, train 49 from New York. Amtrak made the switch and threw in Business class on the Regional train, #174 from Philadelphia to New York. I was impressed on how well they handled this. The agent even gave me his name and phone extension in case I had any problems exchanging the tickets when I arrived in Philadelphia. This new plan was better for us as my wife and I had previously traveled on the Cardinal when it had Superliner equipment and left Washington in the morning. The current schedule has the train passing through the scenic New River Gorge in West Virginia in the early evening instead of mid afternoon. We had never been on the Lake Shore Limited before. This also gave us another "big city" to visit with the grandsons.
Our daughter. Lisa, drove us down to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. I wanted to get there early so I had plenty of time to exchange our tickets. Driving down the Schuykill Expressway in Philly is always an adventure. We got there about an hour before train time and the ticket exchange went smoothly so there was time for the boys to experience the bustle of a major train station. 30th St. station is one of the few grand old train stations still in use much the way it was 50 -80 years ago. Travelers still wait for trains in the grand main hall sitting on wooden pew-like benches.
Our regional train # 178, Washington to Boston, arrived right on time and we went down the escalator and boarded the business class coach. The business class coach on a regional NE corridor train is no different than the other coaches on the train. I guess the business class up-charge of $19 weeds out the unruly teens and crying babies so "business" people can have a little more peace. The train made it to New York Penn Station on time. I had not been on this route recently so this was my first time to see the new Newark Airport station as we passed through. I guess passengers transfer here to a people-mover type car that shuttles them the one or so miles to the airport.
We checked into the Acela Lounge in Penn Station. Traveling 1st class on Amtrak is actually a very relaxing way to travel. The 1st class lounges, Acela in the Northeast or Metropolitan elsewhere, are a major factor. Soft chairs, refreshments, restrooms, newspapers and other reading material, TV, and some with computers with free Internet access. The grandsons found the computers, quickly determined the password to use them and were online e-mailing their parents. After a while, I weaned them from the computers and took them through the station and up onto the streets of New York! The boys did not like the crowds. We walked up to where we could look up at the Empire State Building and take some pictures.
About fifteen minutes before departure, they called the train in the lounge and we went to the gate and right down to the train. The engine was Genesis # 76. We were in the Viewliner sleeper 62034 "Sky View". We had standard sleeper rooms 3 and 4 across the aisle. We were all impressed with these modern sleepers. This was a first for all of us. My wife and I had spent many nights on Superliner standard sleepers. These rooms were the same width as those on Superliners but much higher with a separate window for the person in the upper bunk. They also had a toilet and pull-down sink in each room and a luggage storage compartment above the aisle. Because of the storage compartment, the rooms on each side of the aisle are actually mirror images of each other. This means that you sleep facing forward on one side and backward on the other. Some people might be sensitive to this. However, there is no way to predict which is which as the cars can be put into the consist facing either way. The boys were impressed with the small individual TVs in each room, which played preprogrammed videos. They also liked all the other buttons and controls and soon had turned their room into a space vehicle a la Star Trek.
The train departed on time at 2:50 PM and soon we were heading up the eastern shore of the Hudson River. This section of the trip is the most scenic. The Hudson valley reminds me of the Rhine valley in Germany. The first call for dinner came a 5:00 PM. We took this seating because the next seating is after the Boston section is attached in Albany and the train departs. Any delay in Albany and the later seating could be quite late! We arrived Albany on schedule at 5:35 PM, as we were finishing dinner. After about ten minutes in the station the head-end power was disconnected effectively terminating work in the kitchen part of the diner. We finished dinner in the dim emergency lighting and went back to our rooms. I went outside to see what was going on. The expanded consist was all made up including the engines but they had not turned on the power to the train. My observation from numerous Amtrak trips is that Amtrak employees involved with making up trains have no concept or concern for the impact of leaving the train without power. I was on the Silver Star in Washington, DC where they only have to swap the electric engine for diesels and the power was off for 30 minutes! Listening on my scanner, I discovered that our train 49 would be held in Albany until 7:00 PM (one hour late) waiting for some passengers who were coming in on several of the Empire Service trains. This means the 100+ passengers already on the train would wait for the 3 -4 more coming late! As I continued to listen on the scanner, I heard a conversation between the conductor, engineer, ticket agent and dispatcher regarding several of the passengers we were waiting for. They insisted that Amtrak told them the train would let them off at Rome, NY. The Amtrak employees agreed that that wouldn't happen as Rome is not a scheduled stop and the station was closed. They compromised by taking them to Utica and arranging for a taxi to take them to Rome. Amtrak tries to accommodate!
We did depart as predicted right after the Empire Service train arrived at 6:55PM. It was now dark so after watching lights pass for an hour or so, we requested our beds made up and turned in. I usually sleep in the upper bunk with my wife in the lower. I found the Viewliner upper bunk much nicer than that in a Superliner. Probably because of the extra headroom and width. I guess the upper window would be nice if you couldn't sleep and wanted to watch the passing night scene. I went to sleep so it was of no consequence. The one downside to the Viewliner rooms is that the toilet is in the room...without any partition. You need to be on good terms with your partner! There is no common toilet at the end of the car.
I awoke somewhere near the Indiana state line around 6:00 AM, ET. I got dressed and out of the room so my wife could dress. I got the boys up and we all went to breakfast at 6:45 AM. The train had made up most of the time overnight. Amtrak diner food is quite acceptable. Nice selections generally well prepared. They have children's menu selections but our 9 and 11-year grandsons ate off the adult menu. After breakfast we returned to our rooms. It had rained overnight and it was very foggy so the mid-west scenery was not visible. The train lost time and arrived one hour late into Chicago. The train was pulled into the wye South of the station to uncouple the roadrailers ( Amtrak express freight cars) added in Albany and then backed into the station. Since my wife had a removable walking cast on her leg, she opted for a ride on a red cap jitney into Union Station.
We took a taxi to our hotel, Doubletree Guest Suites across the street from the John Hancock Building and one block from Water Tower Place (an upscale, in-town, vertical mall). We chose this hotel for its location close to things to do and places to eat and for it's suite design with sofa beds in addition to beds. My wife can't sleep flat in a bed so the sofa with some extra pillows works well. They also provide a complementary breakfast. It is otherwise an overpriced vertical motel.
Since this was a trip for and with the grandson's, we did things they liked - Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, top of the Hancock building, etc. For supper, they wanted to try some of the famous Chicago deep-dish pizza. Since my wife couldn't walk far, the boys and I went out walking in the near North side to Giordano's for some of their famous "stuffed" pizza. Walking through the North side on a Saturday evening is quite exciting! The area is full of people out for the evening. We enjoyed watching the pizza makers work in the open kitchen while we waited for our take-out. After we ate supper in our room, the boys and I walked over to the Hancock building and rode the elevator up to the 94th floor observatory. They were very impressed with the night view of Chicago. David, the 9 year old asked how many states we could see. I said we are looking at just one city! He was amazed.
Sunday was a beautiful day in Chicago. After breakfast, we checked out and took our bags over to Union Station and checked them in at the Metropolitan lounge. As we were leaving the station, we noticed a road race in progress, probably a 5K race. We walked down to the corner and saw several thousand "runners" coming down the street. Quite a scene! We walked to the other corner to catch a taxi to our museum of the day, the Shedd Aquarium. It is very well done with dolphin shows, large and small fish in attractive surroundings, and underwater areas to view the fish. We ate lunch near a window into the dolphin tank while a show was in progress. It was interesting to see the show from both above and below water perspectives. The shark tank is especially interesting. The tank has concave sides so the underwater view allows you to stand under the fish as well as besides them. Quite a scene to see a shark swim over your head while another one is staring right at you!!
Chicago on a spring weekend is very crowded. We got tired of the crowds by mid-afternoon and went back to Union Station and the quiet comfort of the Metropolitan Lounge while we waited for our train. The NCAA basketball tournament games were on the TV so the boys and I watched while Mom talked to a pair of retired ladies from Wisconsin who were taking the same train on their way to Europe for a train-based vacation.
Train 30, the Capitol Limited, was called about 15 minutes before departure and we walked down and boarded. The train was backed into the station with four roadrailers already attached so it was a long walk. My wife again hitched a ride on a red cap jitney as the sleepers were on the front of the train. Genesis engines 121 and 196 headed the train. The lounge was 32030 and the diner 38028. Our sleeper was the Connecticut, a Superliner II car. We had rooms 7 and 8 again across the aisle. The boys found them just OK as they did not have as many gadgets in the room as the Viewliner sleeper. The train departed about five minutes late.
The dining car steward soon came by taking dinner reservations. We chose the 6:30 seating. We arrived and ordered got our beverages and then sat for 30 minutes while others around us were being served. At about 7:00, the server noticed we didn't have our meals and went to check, came back to see if we had really ordered, then finally found our lost order slips somewhere and said the kitchen would get right on it. In a couple of minutes she returned to tell my wife that they were out of the catfish and the two specials. My wife ordered the steak. Finally at 7:15, 45 minutes after ordering, dinner arrived. I was wondering how the kitchen could be out of three items partway through the 1st seating?? I had ordered a beer with dinner and was waiting to see whether the dining car steward would acknowledge the problems and give me the drink for free. It wasn't to be. I sense that this steward was new at her job and could barely cope with the paperwork let alone take care of her customers. So I paid for the drink.
The boys went to the lounge car to watch the early movie and then came back to go to bed. I asked the boys to take the two upper bunks as I find the Superliner uppers to be uncomfortable for someone my size. We awoke the next morning at Pittsburgh. The Superliner lower bunk was more comfortable. I checked the time to find that the train was running about 70 minutes late. This is actually good as more of the scenic part of the trip from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD will be in daylight. My wife and I took this trip in the fall of 2002. This trip in early Spring will be better as the trees are still bare and we will get good views of the rivers. After the train turns up the Youghiogheny river valley, it will be a continuous climb up to the Maryland border North of Cumberland. It is slow going the whole way due to the many curves. This is one of the most scenic sections of track in the East.
The four of us went down to the diner for breakfast along the lower Youghiogheny. This made two out of our four meals along scenic trackage. A very nice way to travel. After breakfast, the boys and I went to the lounge car to watch the scenery. We soon passed through Ohiopyle, PA, a well-known whitewater area in the East. We had camped here last summer with our grandsons and their family and could point out where they had been swimming in the river as we passed through. Later in the morning, the boys each took showers on the train and found it an interesting experience.
CSX work crews were replacing ties between Harpers Ferry, WV and Rockville, MD. It was slow orders and much horn blowing over most of this 17-mile stretch. However, the built-in time pads in the schedule allowed us to arrive in Washington Union Station still 70 minutes late.
Washington Union Station was the third preserved grand old station we got to visit. The grand old part has been turned into a mall, which is a very nice use of the space. However, the rail passengers are shunted off to low ceiling airport-type gate areas much like Chicago. Again, arriving as 1st class passengers, we were able to use the Acela lounge even though our final leg up to Philadelphia would not be 1st class. We went into the old part of the station and had some lunch. After lunch we rested in the lounge. The boys again found the Internet connections and were on the computers. I was able to check my e-mail also.
Our final leg was on another Regional train, #178. About fifteen minutes before departure, we walked down to the gate. Since my wife had her walking cast and we had children, we were allowed to board early and selected seats across in a coach car. The trackage between Washington and Philadelphia is rated for high speed and even these regional trains get up to 90 MPH. The boys thought that was cool. It would have been nice to take an Acela train for this last leg but the $70 up-charge per person was prohibitive. That is quite a premium for nicer surroundings and twenty minutes quicker.
We arrived back in Philadelphia on schedule and rode home with our daughter who drove down to meet us. All four of us enjoyed the trip. It went essentially as planned, the boys were good travelers and at least the 11 year old is ready to go again - next time to the West coast!!