Hollywood to Seattle and Return for $135.70 via Amtrak and EBay
April 14-26, 2004
How did it happen?
This might be a good price for a trip from Hollywood, CA to Seattle and return. But, no, this trip is from Hollywood, Florida to Seattle, WA and back! Early in March 2004 someone had given me the webpage link for Amtrak's auctions on EBay. I had been contemplating a Hollywood, FL to Houston round trip during early March so started watching the auctions with interest. Most of them entailed more than the run of a single train, for example, such combinations as Albany to Albuquerque, Cleveland to Salt Lake City. Just like all EBay auctions, there is a closing time and the bidding gradually increases. The high bidder at the closing time of the auction is the winner.
The second week I watched the auctions, a Miami-Seattle trip appeared with a minimum bid of $79 and a closing date a week later. Nothing happened for a few days, then a minimum bid was entered and soon increased to $81. After discussion with my wife, we agreed that I would try my luck and scratch the planned Houston trip in the event of success. So I entered a bid of $85. A day later it was raised to $89. Thinking a good strategy would be to wait until shortly before the closing time, I did nothing more until the final day when the bidding would be cutoff at 2:15pm. Since we had plans to be out that afternoon, at noon I raised the then-high bid of $127 to $135.70. We then left with little hope of success, as the other active bidders would have plenty of time to outbid me.
Upon return about 4:30 I found there had been a big surge of bidding in the last few minutes and the "winner" received the trip for $159. But lo and behold, there was another message from EBay advising that Amtrak had some extra tickets for sale and was offering me the trip for my high bid price of $135.70! I accepted the following day and was instructed to call a special Amtrak number to make the firm reservations and pay for the trip. Both the email messages and the auction rules advised that the trip must be via the Silver Star, Capitol Limited and Empire Builder with up to three stopovers including the final destination. All this took place around March 11; the following day I phoned the number and spoke with a most helpful Debbie Dworkin who made the reservations. She congratulated me on getting such a good price and mentioned that Amtrak is considering expansion of the EBay program. Two weeks later the Amtrak EBay Store was closed so I assume some folks at Amtrak came to believe they were literally "giving the store away." While this was taking place I was in email communication with the Editor of a newsletter to which I contribute. I jokingly mentioned that he should hold the entire June issue open for a report on this trip. He became interested and when I made the reservations it was for the editor and his wife as well as me. (The Amtrak agent told me that they would be willing to sell a few more tickets for the identical itinerary at the same price.)
The itinerary entailed 24 hours on the Silver Star to WAS, about 6 1/2 hours there followed by an overnight ride to Chicago on the Capitol Limited. The first stopover would be in CHI for about 28 hours before continuing on to Seattle on the Builder. After consulting with friends in Indainola, WA, I decided to visit with them for a day and to detrain at Edmonds, WA, to catch a Washington State Ferry to Kingston where I'd be met. This would be the second stopover. The following day we'd take the Builder from SEA at 4:45pm overnight to Essex, MT for a full day at the Izaak Walton Inn. The final leg would be a 33-hour marathon from Essex to Chicago, a two-hour transfer there to #30, followed by a 4-hour transfer at Washington to #91. Now, just to keep things interesting, about a week before departure Amtrak called to advise that #91's schedule was being changed temporarily due to CSX trackwork and that both #91 and #97 would be consolidated into a "Supertrain" leaving WAS at 1:40 pm, only an hour, 20 minutes after my scheduled arrival there. "It's a legal connection so I guess they'll have to hold it for you as it will be the last train of the day to Florida," she said. Later when I attempted to book a CHI-MIA trip on the computer it was refused due to lack of a same-day connection at WAS. So the connection was protected for those who had previously booked but not for new reservations.
The Westbound Trip
My wife dropped me at the Hollywood station on the morning of April 14 for the start of the adventure. The friendly baggage agent checked the one suitcase to CHI and mentioned that I should board the second train to arrive. Sure enough, a few minutes later a northbound Tri-Rail train came in running a few minutes late. Train 92 was spotted about 10:57; I kissed my wife goodbye and began taking the consist. Engine #2 was in the lead, followed by two baggage cars, 2 Viewliner sleepers, a diner, Amfleet II lounge car and four Amfleet II coaches. Apparently used to the Florida practice of ticket collection on the platforms, many passengers started getting their tickets out but were told by the friendly female conductor to put them away for collection after West Palm Beach. We departed on time at 11:01 but got only to the north end of the siding where we awaited a southbound Tri-Rail train. Our train was clean inside and out with everything in good working order.
Three Spanish-speaking gentlemen boarded with me at HOL; I gather they had not obtained their tickets as the conductor gave them a price of about $666 for three round trips to Newark, NJ, and told them the tickets would be ready at Fort Lauderdale station. They gave her the money and she returned with their tickets. While at FTL I noticed that heavy construction is in progress for the double track, elevators and Tri-Rail platform on the opposite side. We were more or less on time but were set back 5 minutes for a meet at Boynton Siding with southbound #89, running about an hour late. There followed some very slow running past miles of double track construction. Lunch in the diner was called about 11:45. My companion was a gentleman from Fort Lauderdale en route for a week of visiting friends and attending shows in NY City. He has taken the Silver Service and Auto-Train many times and mentioned the need for adequate funding of Amtrak. I told him he's preaching to the choir. The menu was a new one with prices somewhat higher than those in use on my trip south on #97 less than 10 days ago. The steak dinner now is priced at $19.50. For lunch I had a Jambalaya which was nice and spicy as expected. The service was a little slow but there was no hurry. The usual crowd boarded at WPB where we departed 29 minutes late due mainly to the slow orders past the trackwork. Once on the Speedway, the beverages nearly flew out of their glasses as our engineer got up to the maximum 79mph which I later clocked from the rear vestibule. We had a 13 minute delay meeting half-hour late southbound #91 at Ridge siding south of Sebring. Florida Midland RR Geep #65 with a train was on the interchange at Winter Haven to greet us. It made a beautiful sight on this clear, sunny day; too bad my camera wasn't ready to record it.
A walk through the train indicated two rather full coaches, a third sparsely loaded and the fourth empty. The conductor advised the train would be nearly full after Jacksonville and indeed it was. A snack in the "Chicago Club" lounge car sufficed for dinner. This is one of the Amfleet II lounges rebuilt with an enclosed smoking area. This particular one has a large mural of an Amtrak train leaving Chicago; the glass walls around the smoking area have etchings for the Lake Shore Limited within a NYC-type oval, the Crescent with a half moon and Atlantic Coast Services with an ACL-type oval. Very classy. I detrained and wandered around during the half hour stop at JAX. As usual for this train, we ran past the station and then backed on to 11 RoadRailers parked on a station track. The engine was refueled and another added because of the extra load. About 50 passengers boarded here.
As an interesting coincidence, engine #1 was added to the front so Amtrak locomotives 1 and 2 now pulled the train!
A little over a half hour after JAX we passed the next point of interest up the line, the train viewing platform at Folkston, Ga. The lights were on and about 10 individuals were waving at the train. The following weekend the City of Folkston hosted a Railfest Weekend; they really go all out to welcome railfans to their community.
Somewhere between Folkston and Savannah I washed up and then dropped off to sleep. I didn't think I had slept too much as I recall being awakened from time to time by a rather violent lateral sway that must have been due to track conditions as the car rode smoothly at many locations. Actually I had slept more than I realized since when I awoke at 7:05 am we were crossing some tracks and pulling into a temporary looking station. All I could catch of the name was "Amtrak." The conductor soon clarified things for me-"We just left Hamlet, NC and are over 4 hours late." The cause was complete failure of the CSX signal system for about 50 miles in the area between Savannah, GA and Columbia, SC. I gather the train had to stop and proceed at restricted speed and be talked by the interlocking signals. So I could see my plans for riding and photographing on certain Washington Metrorail lines going down the tubes and would gladly settle for catching the 5:20 departure of the Capitol Limited.
At 8am I decided it was time for breakfast in the diner. There were plenty of empty seats and a man from Daytona Beach en route to Baltimore soon joined me at the table. He had boarded at DeLand and hopes to see passenger service restored to his home city within his lifetime. The food and service were good. Neither of us ever saw a check but were given receipts so I trust everything was handled properly. While I was in the diner, the conductor made a long announcement about the delay and added that connections would be protected to the extent possible. "The signals on the CSX freight railroad were dark for 50 miles."
After breakfast I noted some very rough locations with more strong lateral sway. Smooth and quiet areas would follow these so the problem definitely is related to track conditions rather than Amtrak's cars.
Just outside Raleigh we switched on to the former Southern Railway line and entered the station there. About 50 were inside the station waiting to board; the building has been somewhat enhanced since my last passage through this area. It now features a glass enclosed area around the front of the building. After Raleigh the scenery changed from miles of pine trees to low density residential and the stores of "downtown" Garner where we stopped briefly opposite a storefront taxi and bookkeeping service-small town America. We stopped again about 3 miles west of Selma Jct. as a NS freight was ahead of us. Once he cleared the block we were given a track warrant to proceed to the junction where we had a clear signal to proceed north on to the CSX former ACL mainline. From here we generally ran at track speed but there were some track-related slow orders. If train 90, which left MIA 4 1/2 hours earlier, was on time we would be running over an hour behind it. We were 4-3/4 hours down at Rocky Mount and then had to snake around some more freight trains while running through pine forests and an occasional small town. The train was exactly 5 hours late at Petersburg and we were delayed a little further by stopping a few miles south of Richmond while on the ACL line running in the middle of an expressway. The northbound Tropicana Juice train was opposite us so we were in good company. Throughout northern NC and southern VA the right of way had many broken and cut tree branches, remnants of the severe ice storm that hit this area late in January. Train 90, the southbound Palmetto, was in the Richmond station when we arrived; it departed just about on time en route to MIA. Richmond is a traditional leg stretching stop and the crew watered the cars during the layover. In the past station personnel did this but now the car attendants and dining car chef perform the task. I noticed some beautiful photo locations in wooded areas south of Richmond as well as north of there on the former RF&P; hopefully I'll get back for some further "on the ground" activity in this area. The weather outside was beautiful with deep blue sky and about 50 degrees-perfect to photograph Metrorail and commuter rail at WAS. That, too, will have to await another day. The ride up the RF&P was quite fast; we ran "left handed" up Track 3 with no delays. The train would have reached Union Station by 4pm but was held outside the tunnel for an outbound VRE train. As we pulled in at 4:13 the equipment for #29, my Capitol Limited was being backed on to four freight cars across the platform.
About 5pm an announcement was made that Train 29's boarding would be somewhat delayed. It opened about 5:15 and the three of us soon were comfortably seated in the Chicago coach after negotiating with the car attendant for better seats and switching the cushion of my seat. The train looked good and consisted of Engine 123 pulling 3 Superliner coaches, a Sightseer Lounge car, dining car, two sleepers, a transition sleeper, baggage car and 4 freight cars. Departure came at 5:44 (5:20) only a few minutes after Train 91's departure across the platform. That train had sat in Union Station for exactly an hour and a half so now would be about 6 hours late reaching New York. The Capitol's first coach was used for Pittsburgh and Cleveland riders, the second mostly for Toledo/Detroit people and the third just for Chicago passengers. The coaches had empty seats but the sleepers were full with over 70 patrons. After the ticket collection we adjourned to the Sightseer Lounge and were told a dining car employee would pass through to make dinner reservations. When she finally arrived, she had openings only for the 9pm sitting as the sleeper passengers understandably get first choice. I thought a Superliner diner could seat about 70 but assume the car was not sufficiently staffed to use its full capacity. Not wanting to eat at such a late hour, we elected to get sandwiches in the lounge car, which was "fresh out" of two items already. So we enjoyed our food and drinks while watching the scenery along the Potomac between Harper's Ferry and Cumberland.
There was some rather slow going after Cumberland but it was not due to signal problems as they were all clear. Earlier we had heard announcements in Union Station about MARC delays because of such problems. We left the lounge shortly after Cumberland as a movie with a loud soundtrack was being shown and it was nearly impossible to talk. The car attendant turned off the overhead lights about 10:45 by which time the train had attained a decent speed. I always enjoy whistling through small towns during the night and took in that scene for a while before dropping off to sleep. The train's motion gradually put me to sleep. The next thing I recall was awaking in a station which I assumed to be Pittsburgh but turned out to be Cleveland at 5:11am (4:09). I looked outside for my son who lives there but he was nowhere to be seen-not that I really expected him at that hour. After CLE the train took off like a rocket and seemed to be moving at better speed than earlier. I woke up for good at Toledo, washed up and joined my friends for breakfast in the diner. We were seated at a table with a lady en route to Waterloo, IN, to visit her sick mother in Ft. Wayne. She had originated in Harrisburg on the Three Rivers and had a wait of over 3 hours between trains in PGH. She also was concerned that her breakfast wouldn't arrive before Waterloo, as the service was slow. Luckily everything arrived in time. This time I had my standard of scrambled eggs with hash browns, croissant, orange juice and coffee priced at $6.00. The juice arrived after the meal; the previous day on #91 the waiter had brought the man across from me two juices and I just took one of them. The Capitol continued at good speed despite the frequent NS freight trains in the area. At South Bend the former South Shore station is used while the South Shore itself turns north for the airport station about a half mile west. The ride through the Chicago area went faster than on some previous trips and we headed into Union Station exactly one hour late at 11:25am.
My first order of business in Chicago was to visit the RTA's Reduced Fare Office at 175 West Jackson to obtain my Senior Citizen ID card that also is good on CTA's automated system.
Upon returning to Union Station I learned that my bag had been removed from the carousel since I hadn't been there to pick it up. A call to the baggage room produced directions on how to find it in the basement, a cavernous room filled with baggage wagons, tractors, etc. An attendant located the wagon with #29's baggage, couldn't find my suitcase and thought it must have missed the connection at WAS. I found it myself on top of the pile and headed to the hotel for check in.
A commuter rail ride was the next order of business. We had contemplated riding the Wisconsin Central to Antioch but my friend suggested riding the former C&NW to West Chicago where the EJ&E crosses the C&NW and there usually is lots of freight activity. Believing there would be more action than on the WC, I concurred and we headed for the Ogilvie Transportation Center, formerly known as the C&NW Station. After a brief stop at a Citibank ATM in the building, we were on the 1:40 train heading west. On the way to West Chicago we passed 6 freights so I feared there might be none left by the time we reached our destination. Not to worry; we walked down to the tower at the diamond crossing and soon were treated to a UP Commonwealth Edison unit coal train that looped out of the UP yards and headed south on the EJ&E. During the 1 1/2 hours at this location we encountered 2 Metra passenger trains and 6 more freights-no complaints!
Our return train to CHI departed at 4:14 and arrived there at 5:15. We passed some freights along the way even during this peak hour period. We rode up front in the cab car and photographed a number of passing trains out the window on this very clear day.
Back in Chicago our goal was to meet up with two friends at Union Station and catch a 5:38pm train on the CB&Q to Stone Ave., La Grange. We reached the station about 5:20, met my friends one of whom works for CTA, the other for RTA, got the tickets and boarded a front car on the train with 3 minutes to spare. This was an express to La Grange so ran on the center track much of the way. We caught quite a lot of action there, mostly commuter but also the Illinois Zephyr and a freight. Later we walked to downtown La Grange where we found a restaurant near the station. We returned on the 8:03 from there after watching two freights and a westbound commuter train pass by.
April 17: We awoke to a most beautiful day with clear, blue sky and temperature in the high 50's. In other words, a good day to ride and photograph CTA. After checkout we took the luggage to Union Station, had breakfast and walked over to the "L" at Quincy & Wells. My RTA friend was in the station there awaiting our arrival. After a few photos we headed for Midway Airport via the Orange Line. Just as the train entered Halstead Station we spotted the eastbound Amtrak "State House" on the adjacent former GM&O tracks. We bailed out and got good shots of it just after our "L" train cleared. The train had a Genesis locomotive, 4 Horizon coaches and one Amfleet. Next on to Midway and then back to the Loop. After a few more photos from an overhead bridge, we headed to Kimball on the Ravenswood Line with a few photo stops on the return. All the CTA train operators were most courteous and most of them waved when they saw us photographing. Indeed, CTA had recently published another bulletin to warn employees to watch for suspicious activities but to use care to avoid annoying well-intentioned photographers. Time now was running on us so we headed for Union Station to board the Empire Builder.
To our surprise the Builder was posted to leave from Track 30 on the south side of the station. The waiting room there was quite full, as our train and the California Zephyr would be departing within 20 minutes of each other. Since the diner wouldn't be serving lunch, my companions headed for a "Subway" sandwich shop near the station while I patronized the Arches upstairs. We carried our lunches on to the train for later consumption. After seeing the long line near the gate I told the usher I am a senior citizen and she waved me through along with my non-senior companions. The Builder made an impressive sight and consisted of two Genesis locos, a baggage car, transition sleeper, sleeper, diner, two coaches, Sightseer lounge, 2 coaches, sleeper, private car Caritas, 4 ExpressTrak freight cars and 4 RoadRailers in that order. The cars up to the Sightseer lounge were destined to Seattle with the rear of the train being the Portland section to be removed at Spokane. There was something different about this train. Not only did it look good but the crews were full of enthusiasm and eager to make the riders feel welcome. We were directed to the second coach that would become the last car out of Spokane. Bonnie, our most friendly female attendant, told my companions to take any seats marked for "Families" and suggested I take one across the aisle marked for "single travelers." I had never seen this before and it was a welcome change from the practice on some trains of telling riders they MUST sit in an assigned seat and can't select from the empty ones. Soon announcements were made as to the route, safety procedures, etc. and everyone was asked to remain seated until the tickets have been collected. Departure came 3 minutes late due to a "runner.
The conductor and car attendant working together did the ticket collection in a most professional way. He would state the destination and she would issue the seat check. In my book that's how it always should be done. We then adjourned to the Sightseer lounge to begin to enjoy the ride. Later the dining car chief passed through with reservations; we had to eat at 5pm, as the other two sittings already were full. I had the seared salmon with a baked potato, veggies and salad. The service was fast and the meal excellent. We later returned to the lounge car to view the crossing of the Mississippi near LaCrosse, WI, at sunset.
Arrival at MSP was early at 10:09 (10:25); the crew announced we'd depart at 11:25 so you've got plenty of time to visit the station, pick up brochures or whatever. For a moment I thought I was back in Miami as the MSP station is identical to Miami in nearly every respect. The RoadRailers had been dropped just outside the station. Soon Minnesota Commercial RR Engine 1978 coupled on to the rear and removed the ExpressTrak car and the Caritas and switched the private car over to a parallel station track. The freight car then was replaced on the rear of the train. A car inspector told us it was headed to Wenatchee to bring back another refrigerated load of Washington apples. About 50 new passengers boarded at MSP and were checked in by the conductors at a desk in the station. Departure came on time at 11:25 and we soon were heading northwest several miles from the Minneapolis skyline. I dropped off to sleep shortly thereafter as the train moved at good speed over the excellent BNSF tracks.
April 18: I awoke as the train was in the depot at Fargo, ND, at 3:55am. At this hour there was a good crowd on the platform outside the brick building including three 20-something young men in tuxedos. Now the Builder is a nice train but isn't this an overkill? Back to sleep upon our 8 minute late departure and woke up at 7am before arrival at Rugby, ND, the geographical center of North America. Outside the scene had changed to open prairie and abandoned houses. In fact the train ran through a few ghost towns while in North Dakota.
Soon the conductor announced we were 8 minutes late "which means we'll arrive in Minot early so you'll have plenty of time to pick up maps and brochures." Yes, there surely is fat in the schedule as we arrived Minot a half hour early and were there for 50 minutes. Outside it was cold and drizzly but I walked up front and got a photo of the entire train in the station. Since the diner had closed at 8:30, a few of us had breakfast from machines in the depot. The Soo Line crossed the BN on a diamond just beyond the depot and their passenger station was about a half mile east and well preserved. The Amtrak waiting room was well decorated with railroad and historic photos and other information and had several large racks of maps and detailed guides for the Builder's route in ND prepared by local organizations. These materials were most helpful once we got back on the train. The friendly ticket agent also was a good source of information. Departure from Minot was on time at 9:06. About 9 minutes later we crossed a high trestle that had been a large wooden one when the railroad was first built. The depot had photos of the mess left after a hurricane hit. The crew also had made a big point that Minot is the "Magic City", attributable to its having grown like magic once the Great Northern RR arrived in 1886. The real-life "Empire Builder," James J. Hill, named the city after a GN official involved with construction of the line.
West of Minot we were back in the prairie with a ghost town every now and then. The train continued moving a good speed and remained on schedule. The BNSF dispatchers in far-away Fort Worth did an excellent job with many non-stop meets and freights waiting in the sidings. This reflects the priorities set by top management and results in BNSF earning on-time performance incentives from Amtrak. The pattern was to arrive each station about 2 minutes early and depart on time. Soon we entered Montana where the "Big Sky" was cloudy for the first few hours and we set our watches back an hour to Mountain Time. We were getting hungry, as the diner didn't open until noon (1pm by our stomachs) so were among the first to enter for lunch. Our table companion was a young woman from Chicago who had grown up in Wyckoff, NJ, and was heading to Spokane to visit her retired parents. She makes the train trip every now and then and enjoys it. She had a large salad while I had the large cheeseburger with a small salad. We had some pleasant conversation while watching the prairie roll past the window.
Later #7 stopped east of Chinook, MT, to await eastbound #8 which delayed us 9 minutes; a woman on horseback passed us alongside the nearby highway. The next two sidings contained eastbound freights awaiting our passage. Soon the country became a little hilly and a Havre station announcement was made. There first would be a refueling stop followed by the station stop. The refueling was done near the BNSF's locomotive facility and several freights were awaiting departure in both directions. During the refueling stop a US Boarder Patrol agent came through the train asking everyone's citizenship. Two more agents were on the platform. At Havre I was able to photograph Great Northern steam locomotive #2584 on display there as well as the train itself in good sunlight. Departure from Havre (pronounced "Haver" as in Haverford) was a little late at 3:16 (3:04). Our excellent car attendant was covering both Seattle coaches. When she asked everyone to step back in I shouted "All abooard!" Since I did that so well, she asked me to close and latch the door so she could walk forward and close the next car; I guess I'm a frustrated conductor. About 20 miles out of Havre we caught up with a westbound freight but soon speeded up once it cleared into a siding. The train proceeded through somewhat desolate country with Montana Highway 2, a two lane road with little traffic, often along side. The scenery became more interesting after Cut Bank when we could see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. The train was winding around when we entered the diner at 6:45. This time our table companion was an attractive woman from Seattle who was returning from a conference in Minneapolis. She had flown there via Phoenix but wanted to use the train in one direction; before long we discovered she is a world traveler so an interesting conversation followed. It was still light when we left the diner at 8:15 so we headed for the lounge car to better view the mountain scenery. The Essex flag stop had come while we were in the diner. The train just waited for time with no apparent activity. After leaving we passed the Izaak Walton Inn where we would be staying for a night on the return trip.
It is alleged that I dropped off to sleep in the lounge car as the train was winding around the mountains. My friends awakened me and got me back to my seat. I don't remember the incident so must have been in a really deep sleep.
April 18: The coldness briefly awoke me about 4AM but I was back to sleep after putting on my jacket. Final awakening came about 6:30 with the "dining car now is open" announcement. At this point the train was winding through some magnificent scenery in the Cascades. Outside it was cool and rainy. Our final breakfast this trip was served a jovial waitresses who set a table when she saw us coming. I had the usual which was quite good.
During the night the Portland section had been removed at Spokane. The one ExpressTrak car remained until Wenatchee. Shortly beyond the station there we backed into a siding to drop the car where it would be loaded with another batch of Washington State apples.
Based on the conductor's advice that Cascade Tunnel would be coming in 3 miles we headed for the rear of our coach, now the "observation car." Passage through the 7.79 mile tunnel was between 7:09 and 7:24 after which we continued through the spectacular Cascades. Flat country with pine trees was reached somewhat over an hour later when we resumed normal track speed. The Everett stop came about 10 minutes late at 8:54. This is the origin point for one weekday Sounder commuter train to Seattle. Everett has a new station with two platforms, one of which is stub end for the Sounder commuter train. A hand thrown switch accesses it. The next stop was Edmonds where I detrained to catch the 10:10 ferry to Kingston where a friend would meet me. As the train moved along the scenic Puget Sound I said goodbye to my traveling companions and to Bonnie, one of Amtrak's finest car attendants. Arrival at Edmonds was at 9:12, only 4 minutes late, after a really magnificent transcontinental trip. A good trip can happen if the equipment is in working order or the crew is helpful but one doesn't always get a combination of excellent crew and well maintained equipment. This train had it all-a close to outstanding crew and equipment that was in good order and properly maintained by the crew during the trip. I only wish we could more of such crews on our eastern long distance trains.
Visiting in the Seattle Area
Arrival at Edmonds was only 4 minutes late at 9:12am. The station has a nice display of railroad artifacts and Amtrak souvenirs. After checking this out and chatting with the agent for a few minutes I started walking to the ferry building which is at the north end of the platform. First, though, a headlight appeared and I photographed a northbound freight containing a wide load car for Boeing. Then, just as I reached the grade crossing leading to the ferry, another northbound came along--this time a long container train. The Washington State Ferries agent honored my Medicare card and sold me the ticket for $2.80 while commenting that I must barely qualify for that rate. I wonder if she says this to all the seniors? The ferry "Puyallup" departed at 10:20 and reached Kingston at 10:42 where my friend met me for the drive to Indainola where he and his wife reside.
After lunch we drove to Tacoma to ride the new Tacoma Link streetcar line operated by Sound Transit. The line is about 2 miles long and the cars are identical to the Skoda cars used on the Portland, Oregon, streetcar line. It has 5 stations, is single track with passing sidings, and was operating on a 10-minute headway. We spent about 2 hours riding and photographing and got some nice shots of the LRV's passing the former Union Station, now beautifully restored. The north end of the line is near the Sounder station except that the Sounder trains now are back to a station at the freight yards due to some problems with an embankment leading to their new station. The Tacoma trolley has 3 cars of which 2 were in service. While photographing on the line we spotted a "Bus Store" where I obtained my Senior card to enable reduced fare travel in the entire area. I'm now building a large file of these cards from throughout the country and must remember to take the proper credentials for the cities I'll be visiting before each trip. This would be so much easier of each agency would accept the Medicare card as Congress intended.
April 20: We caught a 9am Kitsap Transit bus to the Bainbridge Island ferry dock. The "Tacoma," another large WSF boat, provided our transportation to Seattle. Luggage was checked at King St. Station after first passing Union Station that has been nicely restored but never again will host a train as numerous new buildings have been erected on the site of the approach tracks.
Once my luggage was checked we spent some profitable time riding and photographing the Waterfront Trolley with its Melbourne, Australia cars. We adjourned to the Seattle Center for lunch and some shopping and then rode two of the more interesting trackless trolley lines, the #1 and #2; the latter operating on a grade as steep as 18%. We concluded our activity on the Waterfront Streetcar. My friend returned home on the 3:45pm ferry while I continued riding and photographing although the Streetcar headway now had shrunk to 30 minutes. Several BNSF freights came along to be photographed while I was at the Broad St. end of the trolley line. I took the 3:34 departure to the opposite end at Jackson Sq., near King St. Station. The station is in the process of being renovated with construction in some areas. There I joined the my companions and quite a few others awaiting the eastbound Builder.
The Eastbound trip, including 2 bus rides
Soon an announcement was made to the effect that due to a freight derailment in Montana, today's train will operate only to Spokane where passengers will transfer to chartered buses to Shelby, MT. In effect the westbound and eastbound trains would be turned at Spokane and Shelby, respectively. Oh joys-a bus ride through the mountains during the middle of the night.
Our Builder left Seattle a few minutes late and soon was heading north along the waterfront passing the trolley and the BNSF yards. The ride along Puget Sound was gorgeous-contrary to the forecasts of rain this had been a beautiful day.
Dinner came at 6:30 with a most interesting table companion, Wendy, who was heading to Whitefish, MT, in search of a house in the country. My dinner was the halibut, which was quite good. There followed conversations with a lawyer from Washington State and the excellent car attendant, Mac, who is slated to retire soon. He seemed equal to Bonnie, the outstanding attendant on our westbound trip.
Most of the passengers dozed off so as to get a little sleep before the bus transfer. The Builder reached Spokane at 12:32 with the Portland section right across the platform. Passengers were asked to detrain and go downstairs to await further information. The station is a two story building with upper levels for trains and intercity buses. There even was a cafeteria upstairs which is open between midnight and 2:30am. The Amtrak staff took a little time to decide how to route the four buses but eventually everyone stepped outside where the buses were loaded by destination. Riders destined only as far as Essex were in one bus; all were operated by Northwest Stages. After Danish, OJ and water were loaded we proceeded East at 1:18 (1:15). The two conductors rode in our bus, which was in the lead with a genial driver named Dennis. Needless to say we didn't get much sleep! The "train" of buses followed the railroad as closely as possible. At some stations only our bus would actually go to the station and the others would wait alongside a highway. The conductors collected the tickets as passengers boarded.
Many riders were destined to Whitefish. After leaving there we made a breakfast stop at a McDonald's; the other 3 buses used other facilities to avoid overloading the Arches. Arrival at the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex was exactly an hour late at 9:55am. The Inn had a small group of guests but all the remaining rooms had been rented to BNSF for use of their personnel engaged in clearing the wreck. The day was clear and in the mid-60's, just right for photography. Only one problem: except for some work train engines outside, there were no trains!
During the day we learned that 29 cars of corn had derailed and much of it had spilled. This must be cleaned up because when previous corn spills were left along the line, the corn fermented, bears became intoxicated from it and ended up getting killed by trains. The top priority was to clear the cars, fix the track and get the railroad open as countless trains were stacked up in both directions. The first real sign of activity came about 4:30 when a Eastbound container train pulled in with about 10 cars of ballast up front. Those were put in a siding and the train then headed East, the first all day. By now, of course, the shadows were taking their toll of photo locations. Eventually I heard the repair crew give up its hold on the second track and trains began to roll about 6pm. Soon the power from work trains and the train that had derailed were in the small yard at Essex. And the best news of all was that Amtrak #7 was behind a freight but would be almost on time. BNSF must have made a commitment to Amtrak to get the train through OK and they lived up to it. This meant that our Eastbound train on Thursday morning would operate rather instead of being represented by a bus to Shelby. Once the line was reopened it was like pulling the cork out of a bottle with trains blasting through all night. If only we could have had them during daylight. Essex is a beautiful location in the mountains; the Izaak Walton Inn was built by the Great Northern RR as a lodge for its employees in the area and later converted to resort hotel purposes. It has 3 floors and we were lucky that out "Great Northern" room was one of the relatively few located on the first floor as there didn't appear to be an elevator. The room was at one end of the building conveniently near two diesels that were idling most of the time. The building was rustic but quite comfortable and modernized with smoke detectors and sprinklers. We slept well.
April 22: Wednesday was beautiful with Montana "Big Sky" and more trains coming through. It would have been nice to have been able to stay another day. Our train was on time and the hotel van brought us to the station about 5 minutes before it was due. The station facility consisted of a 3 car gravel platform with a street light. So if a trivia contest question ever asks, "What Amtrak station doesn't have a name sign?" the answer is Essex, MT. The conductor spotted the rear [Portland] section of the train where we were standing and we soon were underway for an on time departure and it was a relief to be on a train once again. Since we were in some beautiful scenery we headed for the Sightseer Lounge car to take it in. About 10 minutes later the train slowly ran past the big derailment. There were grain cars in various locations down the embankment with much corn spilled along the right-of-way. We were told that 8 vacuum trucks would be at the scene to clean up the corn before the bears get at it. Considering the magnitude of the damage, BNSF had done a good job of getting the line reopened.
The eastbound Builder was comprised of 3 Genesis units, a baggage car, transition sleeper, sleeper, diner and 2 coaches [from SEA] followed by 2 coaches, a Sightseer Lounge, 2 coaches, 1 sleeper [from PDX] and a freight car from Wenatchee. A walk through the long train revealed that everything was in good working order. Aside from one car attendant who was a little grouchy, the crew was outgoing and friendly. My lunch was a cheeseburger and a Pepsi in the lounge car. The Rocky Mountains were left behind between Browning and Cut Bank where we entered the flat prairie country passing farm houses, grain elevators and dirt roads that seem to stretch for miles into the distance. The Havre stop came 20 minutes late but we had time for walking and photography there while the engines were serviced. Here I met the new conductors who boarded at Shelby-- they saw me first and asked how we had liked Essex. Both had been the conductors on our "train" of buses from Spokane the previous day. Havre is a BNSF division point; locomotives and trains were all over the place. About a half hour east of Havre we passed #7, the westbound Builder, about 10 minutes late. Soon we were running through some rather foreboding territory, the Montana Badlands with some interesting rock formations, virtually uninhabited. We continued to overtake and pass freights on this busy BNSF line.
Our dinner reservation was for 7pm Mountain Time although we were in the Central Time zone by then. They were "fresh out" of the special [there had been 26 of them]. I had the lamb shank that was quite good with vanilla ice cream for desert. The service was good and provided by a native American waitress. Our table companion was a physician's wife traveling from Glasgow, MT, to Chicago to visit friends. Her husband had established a medical practice in Glasgow about 2 years ago and they are very happy raising a family there. The train reached Minot, ND, just as we finished dinner so I once again visited the station that is well stocked with maps, route guides and information about the area. I also said goodbye to the conductor who had been with us on the overnight bus ride Monday night. While at Minot a problem developed with the toilets in our car. An Amtrak employee at the station was unable to fix it quickly so the toilets were shut down with the hope they can be fixed at MSP. We also were told a crowd will be boarding there so nearly all seats will be occupied. The loading on this train is interesting-quite a few heading to CHI and MSP but also many traveling to the small communities along the line as well as between those towns. This train provides a genuine transportation service along the route and is not primarily a tourist train. At Williston, ND, I witnessed a scene straight out of small town America as a mother and small daughter boarding the train were in tears along with a few others on the platform to see them off. One can only speculate as to the cause of the sadness.
I dropped off to sleep after departure from Rugby, ND, at 10:48 pm and slept rather soundly until about 6:15 when I washed up in preparation for some walking during the stop at MSP. It came a little early at 6:52(7:05) providing ample time for photos and looking around. During the stop a Minnesota Commercial RR locomotive added 4 RoadRailers to the rear of the train. The conductors checked in the boarding passengers at a desk in the station and issued them "boarding passes", actually seat checks with a car number and destination. Upon departure passengers were requested to "please put your boarding passes in the ridge under the luggage racks." Many more had boarded than detrained and the train now was nearly full. I headed for the diner before departure to have breakfast and enjoyed my scrambled eggs, hash browns, croissant and coffee just as the train started moving. We proceeded along the Mississippi for some time before finally crossing into LaCrosse, WI. The ride through Wisconsin was uneventful and mostly at track speed. The train was just about at capacity until Milwaukee where some detrained. For the last time this trip we passed westbound #7 about on time. The arrival at Chicago Union Station was on time at 3:45 but we then moved forward, stopped and proceeded to the south side of the station where we arrived at 3:54. The earlier stops had been to uncouple the freight cars and RoadRailers, which soon were moved out by a switcher. Our three rides on the Empire Builder had been delightful. I'd rate the crews as excellent and the equipment as "very good."
Union Station was crowded with commuters heading home for the weekend and became more congested as the California Zephyr and the Texas Eagle arrived with many passengers headed east. The Capitol is due out at 5:35 and a call was made for pre boarding of seniors about 5:15. I had to show the usher some ID as my ticket didn't say "Senior Citizen" on it; he commented that I had wasted money on a regular ticket-it he only knew!
Train 30 had a baggage car, transition sleeper, 2 sleepers, diner, Sightseer lounge, 4 coaches and 2 freight cars in that order. Passengers for WAS were loaded in the first coach and were told all seats would be occupied. We headed upstairs to stake out choice seats. Now, some rather odd things happened on this leg of the trip and I'll just relate them in order. First, the coach was "pre-seatchecked" in that each seat had a "WAS 2" check indicating 2 passengers for Washington. The conductor collected the tickets but did nothing to change my check to "1". I never did see our car attendant. The train departed at 5:44 (5:35) and got up to good speed after Englewood. Dinner sittings were at 6:45, 7:30, 8:15 and 9:00 and we obtained reservations for 7:30. I then moved to the lounge and was seated at the front end, near the diner. Shortly after South Bend a man and woman came running frantically through the car and started pounding on the glass of the end door shouting, "Open the damn door." I told them to just push the plate and it would open. They did and ran into the diner, almost running into a waiter carrying a tray of food. A minute or so earlier, they had been seen running up and down the stairs of a coach in search of the conductor. Shortly thereafter the train made an unscheduled stop at Mishawaka, IN, and the couple were seen exiting from a sleeper, running up the street waiving their arms. The conductor later told us they had put a person on board at South Bend and got carried away. They really freaked out as their two small children were in their auto parked at the station. The dispatcher called the agent there to take care of the kids while the parents got a taxi back to their starting point!
Our tablemate in the diner was a middle aged gentleman who told us he was going to Waterloo, IN. I sensed a problem as we should reach there in about a half-hour. "No," he said, "the train never gets there in less than 3 hours." He placed his order, ate his salad, and drank his iced tea. When the conductor happened by I explained about the Waterloo destination and he said the man had better get his meal "to go" as we would be there in 10 minutes. He first said he wanted it to go but then changed his mind, told one of the waiters and ran back to his seat 5 cars back. He couldn't believe the train could get there so fast and also thought that upon arrival he could go back 5 cars get his luggage and detrain before the train left the station. Luckily we were watching out for him or he would have ended up in Ohio. Then, there was the suspicious looking guy with trench coat and fedora who would appear in the lounge car from time to time. We wrote him off as CIA or TSA.
Amtrak has new procedures for credit card use in dining cars. Passengers must show their ticket stub with the reservation number so the person can be traced if the charge bounces. Moreover, the form provides for the passenger's name, address and telephone number. On all trains we filled this in but on #30 the waiter wanted photo ID and he copied the address on to the form. Too late I realized I had given him my Florida ID card while the credit card is billed to my NY address; the charge did go through OK.
While in the diner we had crossed over numerous times to meet and overtake NS freight trains. From time to time the train ran at very slow speeds with the result that we were 38 minutes at Bryan, Ohio, and I was starting to get concerned over my hour, 20 minute connection at Washington. A large crowd boarded at Toledo and were loaded into the two rear coaches, as the front ones were nearly full. We also did some backing up there, presumably to pick up more freight cars. Shortly after our TOL departure at 11:53 (11:08) I dropped off to sleep. I always seem to awake at Cleveland, perhaps subconsciously thinking of our son and his family there, and this trip was no exception. The Capitol departed CLE at 2:34 (1:08) by backing across the Cuyahoga River bridge and then heading east on the former PRR. A direct connection exists east of the Amtrak station so I assume there was some problem with it. After watching the ride through Cleveland, including crossing over the RTA Red Line and under the Shaker Rapid, I dropped off to sleep once again.
April 24: Yet another bus ride!
Several times during the trip, my companions had predicted that I would end up getting off the Capitol at Pittsburgh in the middle of the night and taking a bus to Washington in order to make the connection with the rescheduled Silver Star since there was only about 1 hour, 20 minutes between trains there. They also forecast my having breakfast in a Posthouse instead of a dining car. Well that's exactly what happened. At 5:35am I was awakened by an Amtrak employee asking if I was headed for Florida on Train 91. "We are providing a bus to enable you to make the connection." One lady complained about having been awakened from her sleeping car at 5:20 and told she had 10 minutes to get dressed and go outside to board a bus. Nothing was said about where the bus would take us but, upon inquiry, the answer was DC. So I said a sleepy goodbye to my friends and headed for Myers Coach Co. of Export, PA, bus #904 that was waiting outside. Naturally I could have taken my chances by staying on the train but then would have been on my own if the connection were missed. The train left PGH at 5:53 (4:41) so stood a decent chance of making it but one never knows what might happen en route on CSX. So I was destined for yet another early morning bus ride.
The Myers Ambus departed PGH at 5:56 with 13 passengers; most of them headed for Florida points. After seeing what I could of the city, including a freight on the B&O, a light rail subway station and bridge, I dozed off. At 8:02 am we pulled off the Penn Turnpike at Breezewood and into a PostHouse that caters to buses. Several other buses were there so the cafeteria was congested and we had to gobble down our breakfasts in the 1/2 hour allotted for the stop. But there were some stragglers and the departure didn't come until 8:44 (8:32) with the driver giving a WAS Union Station ETA of about 11, depending on traffic. From Breezewood we headed southeast on I-70 with a distance to DC, via Frederick, MD of about 127 miles. I'm sure some who are reading this will say "true justice;" have a good laugh if you want to but at least this would give me a little time to ride Metrorail which I was unable to do on the north/westbound trip due to the 5 hour lateness of the Silver Star. So there is a bright side to everything. The driver's estimate was good and we reached the front of Union Station at 10:48am. I went inside and checked my suitcase to Hollywood, noting the agent wrote "1191" instead of "91" by the train number. The Customer Service office was "temporarily unstaffed" and the information desk people knew nothing about the Ambus and offered no assistance. My request for a timetable was met with the old one and they denied all knowledge of any change. When I insisted, they checked the computer and commented, "Oh my, it's leaving about 3 hours earlier!" But no timetable showing the schedule of my train was available-"maybe we'll have one on Monday." To that I responded that I certainly hope to be in Florida by then but am beginning to wonder. Assuming #91 would be on time, I did some riding and photography on Metrorail's Red and Green lines, returning to the station about 1:10pm. The arrival board had the bad news that #91 due in at 1:18 was one hour late. I had lunch at the station's food court and then found the train to be an hour, 17 minutes late. All this information was obtained by telephone to Amtrak's 800 number-nobody at the station knew anything except an engine broke down and it's not in yet.
The station was rather full of people. Some times were leaving on time but #194 to Boston, due out at 1:25, didn't get out until after 4pm; #195 to Richmond also was late as was #146 to Springfield.
Since the information people lacked knowledge, about 3:45 I called the "800" number and learned that train had not yet reached BAL due to an engine failure. The agent didn't know where it was but suggested it could not depart WAS until 5pm (1:40). A further search of the station revealed that the Customer Service office finally was open. The agent there knew about the schedule change and insisted that the info booth has the new schedules. She walked over there and produced one: effective June 17, when the temporary schedule will cease. Nobody seemed to have a timetable for today's train. This lack of knowledge was a stark contrast to the excellent and informative crews on the western trains.
After my lunch I met the Capitol Limited which pulled in at 1:55. My former traveling companions didn't seem surprised to see me even though my train to Florida should have departed 15 minutes ago. It was really unfortunate that someone at Amtrak made the decision to discommode the passengers and incur the cost of the bus when #30 would have reached DC shortly after #91's scheduled departure time and so it would have to have been held for only about 20 minutes had #91 been on time. Since it was a lovely day and I had checked my suitcase to Hollywood, in retrospect I should have taken Metrorail over to Alexandria to photograph and await the Supertrain there.
The boarding announcement was made about 5:50 for the scheduled 1:40 departure. Downstairs we found a very long train with a baggage car, 4 Viewliner sleepers, 2 diners, a lounge car, 6 Amfleet II coaches and a private car that was removed at WAS. I was seated in the first coach, a "Florida coach" but "sorry no window seats." Departure finally came at 6:13 (1:40) for what promised to be yet another adventure.
I had wondered if Amtrak would be monitoring the performance of the first "Supertrain" and noted a management employee on board. He was rather sad about what had occurred and mentioned that the train was exactly on time leaving New York but the engine had failed south of Wilmington. He thought multiple stops should not be needed at most stations if the train is properly loaded by destination. I must say that the train was in good condition with everything in working order. But some of the passengers told me they had been without air conditioning or information for several hours. Although it was hard to believe, one of the passengers stated that the 16 car train was given a single AEM-7 locomotive out of NY; it ended up in DC with 3 of them.
The train crew made a ticket sweep after WAS, inspecting everyone's tickets or stubs. The new passengers, such as me, were asked to show photo ID, a "first" for me on Amtrak. The diner opened upon completion of the sweep. I went forward to get a reservation but was immediately ushered to a table. The menu was identical to last night on the Capitol and I had the special which was stuffed peppers. My dinner companions were a young couple headed for an Orlando area vacation and a lady from Greenbush, MA, who had taken Acela BOS-WAS to visit her daughter there and now was heading for West Palm Beach to visit other family members. She laments the 1959 closure of the New Haven's Greenbush Line and wishes the people in Hingham had not delayed the reopening for such a long time. After dinner I checked out the train before returning to my capstone overhauled coach to enjoy a book while listening in to the CSX radio. I dropped off to sleep after departure from Rocky Mount at 10:30 (5:53). Only 5 boarded there; the others probably got tired of waiting.
April 26: Woke up as we were pulling into SAV about 5 hours late at 7:12. Just as I finished washing up, came a "breakfast in the dining car" announcement. As I walked forward I observed a number of riders eating their own food and many eating chips and junk food in the lounge car. Indeed, the second diner had plenty of seats. I was seated opposite a couple from the sleepers who had been in a sleeper on the Capitol and bussed to WAS with me. They had waited with the bus in front of the station for about a half hour until an Amtrak representative and Redcap came out and took the coach passengers to the regular waiting area and the first class people to the Acela Lounge. They were rather annoyed at not having been able to see something of the city and would have done so but for the assurances that the train was only a half hour away. They were traveling from Las Vegas to Orlando and had been routed to Needles, CA by bus, thence the SW Chief to CHI and Capitol to WAS. Once on the Chief they learned of the Sunset's existence and wondered why the agent had not told them about it as that's a much shorter route than via CHI. Nevertheless, they had enjoyed their trip and planned to use Amtrak for future travels.
Jacksonville was reached at 9:50 so it was time for leg stretching and recording the full consist. Not too many got on or off there as most of the 4 1/2 coaches full of passengers were headed for Orlando or South Florida points. There were lots of children on board but they didn't bother me during the night. Across the aisle was a mother with a child of about 8 and his brother of about 11 was next to me. Both were occupied listening to CD's with headphones. The mother had a huge suitcase between her and the seat in front. She removed items from time to time and slept leaning over with her head resting on two pillows on the suitcase. She would have a much easier trip by checking the suitcase. They're headed for ORL where about half the people detrained. Lunch was a "flame broiled cheeseburger" in the lounge car before the Orlando arrival where I stretched my legs and noted the temperature was about 80. It was starting to feel like Florida. Interestingly, about 70 people boarded the train in ORL heading for Southeast Florida. Likewise, about 10 were on at Kissimmee and 15 at Winter Haven.
We pulled into Hartt siding, north of Sebring, at 3:48 and were there until 4:09 while a long Train #92 passed. If the "regular" schedule were in effect, the train would have been nearly 2 hours late from Miami. But if the new temporary schedule were effective for that train, it would have been about 3 1/2 hours late. I had thought the regular schedule was in effect for northbound trains today but really didn't know. You may recall my utter frustration in attempting to get a schedule for these trains at Union Station in Washington. During the layover at JAX one of the ticket agents kindly gave me a copy of all she had-a typed sheet with the Amtrak alpha codes and times for trains 89, 90, 91 and 92 with the train numbers handwritten at the top of the columns. It lacked an effective date but at least I could figure the times and station stops for my train. In reality this was meaningless as our lateness hit 5 hours at one point. We met northbound #90 at Indiantown at 5:42 when it already was 3 minutes late at Okeechobee, about a half hour away. He had one unit and 6 cars-our engineer said, "Supertrain calling, you're looking good for a little guy." Reply: "It's hard work but somebody's got to do it."
A man headed for Key West and an Hispanic lady for MIA were sitting behind me. She was always asking for directions and information as to the location of the Miami station. I explained it several times. After calling someone on a cellphone, she asked me about "Hiaheah", "Flagler St." and "Coral Gables." Hopefully she got to where she was headed. The man had an Amtrak-issued ticket for a 6:15pm Greyhound departure from Miami station to Key West. A call to the station revealed that the bus would not wait but that Amtrak would pay for a hotel room in the city so he can catch the 8am bus in the morning. He said the person who answered the phone at MIA offered the room without hesitation.
The train made good time through the south end of the line, especially since there are few Tri-Rail trains and no construction activity on Sunday. I called my wife from around WPB to advise that we were getting close. The Supertrain's first trip reached Hollywood at 7:35(2:52). My wife was waiting, I claimed my bag and we headed home. The trip had been fun and somewhat adventuresome. Nearly all the train and on-board service personnel had been close to excellent and helped make everyone's trip more enjoyable. But the station staff at Washington could use some retraining on how to take care of travelers.
Consist of Supertrain #1191 WAS-HOL April 24-25, 2004: