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Trip Report

The "Capitol Builder"
PGH-CHI May 2005 via Amtrak part I

May 15-16, 2005

by Sam Damon
(Contact "Sam Damon" on the OTOL Forums)

Other related reports:


A bit of background: I took my first Amtrak ride in early 1981. My very first Amtrak trip was on the Broadway Limited, from Greensburg, PA to Washington, DC. At the time, the Broadway had through cars which were cut off at Philadelphia, and sent down the NEC. Over the 1980's, I would ride Amtrak when I found an excuse, even if it only meant riding the Pennsylvanian from Greensburg to Altoona. In the military, I ended up riding a special furlough train out of Fort Jackson, SC to Washington DC. An assignment to Germany for better than two years left me an appreciation for just how well passenger trains can be operated. My last Amtrak trip before this one was a military-related one. A US Army Reserve class gave me an excuse to take the Broadway Limited from Greensburg to Harrisburg in 1990. It was the last time I took it before it expired. Getting married, shifting gears from military to civilian, and trying to establish my work and family left no spare cash for riding Amtrak. Even so, I figured Amtrak would muddle through somehow, as I saw the Pennsylvanian extended to Chicago, and subsequently, read about the Three Rivers.

When Amtrak gave the train-off notice for the Three Rivers, I read with more than a casual interest about how Amtrak had changed since my last ride. Work schedules would not permit me to take a trip on that train, however.

As the Amtrak subsidy budget gauntlet was thrown down early in 2005, I resolved to go train travelling again, sooner rather than later. A friend of mine since junior high school provided the perfect excuse. He had taken a new job in Chicago, and wanted to hang out with a pal. In a matter of minutes we hammered out a time when my work schedule could be fudged enough to take the Capitol Limited into Chicago for a day or two. This would be my first Amtrak ride since 1990, and my first ride on Superliner cars.

Opening out: Pittsburgh departure

A last-minute health problem with my aging parents very nearly derailed this trip before it began. A quick check with "Julie" along the drive to Penn Station in Pittsburgh (I'll probably never call it the "Amtrak Station") showed CSX was putting their usual freight train in front of Amtrak #29, making it about an hour late. This meant I could pop in at my parents' house and see how they were getting along. A quick visit, and down the Parkway I zoomed to downtown Pittsburgh, arriving about 11:00p on a crisp spring night.

The agent was cheerful, and the station had more people than I thought would be there for a weeknight. #29 arrived, just as "Julie" said, about an hour off the timecard, according to my cellphone clock, synced to the GPS clock.

A Superliner coach, the first car in the train after the baggage car, pretty much completely emptied. Overall, I estimated about two hundred or so people boarded or got off in Pittsburgh. Moving quickly, I found my way up the stairs, and into what looked like a pretty good seat. By sheer good fortune, I found myself in one of two seats or so that had a power outlet. I didn't realize this until someone else boarding asked me if I wanted to trade seats so he could plug in.

Two P42DCs launch us towards Conway Yard and Chicago, after the smokers reboard. After the conductor collects my ticket, I move forward to the lounge car, hoping to get a nightcap. I miss the view of the Ohio River as I navigate the train to the lounge car, three cars back. Of course, given the lateness of the train and the fact that it was about 12:45a, the lounge is closed. Had I known then what I know now about the on-board staff hours, I would have saved my steps.

Back in my seat, I attempt to settle down and see what I can see, as I'm too keyed up to even try to sleep. We buzz through Conway Yard at a decent clip. East Palestine, Ohio (say pal-us-teen) and Columbiana, Ohio pass at the same clip. Three, maybe four people board at Alliance, Ohio when we get there at 2:23a, one full hour down. Our schedule is such that we're go down another five minutes when we arrive In Cleveland at 3:32a. Another dozen or so board, some of them sitting down in the coach I'm riding.

To me, those figures speak more than any advertisement as to the enduring interest in passenger rail travel. What other means of transportation, with practically no advertising, and dismal scheduling, would still inspire people? A few anatomically impossible suggestions for Mr. Mineta and his minons go through my lack-of-sleep befuddled head as we depart.

After we clear Cleveland-area industrial tracks, the NS dispatcher turns our hoggers loose for the run to Toledo. Longtime Trains magazine editor David P. Morgan was right: trains really do seem to go twice as fast after dark. The two P42DCs on the point drum steadily as our hoggers push them as fast as the dispatcher allows us. We make Toledo, Ohio at 5:17a, 36 minutes late at the crew change point. Perhaps two dozen get on and off.

I doze through Waterloo, IN, but wake up about 5:50a by my cellphone clock, which has helpfully figured out the whole Indiana standard time/central time thing for me. At 6:00a, I decide to try my luck with the dining car, figuring they'd open then, and hoping for a better experience than the lounge car. As I open the door to the dining car, a computer-generated paper sign announces, "Welcome to the Empire Builder."


Thoughts on a Diner in Indiana

My waitress is young, bubbly, and cheerful. A trucker-style breakfast with eggs and potatoes sounds tempting, but then I think of how much I miss railroad french toast. The coffee is fresh and cuts the cobwebs. My waitress keeps my coffee cup filled with as much coffee as the roadbed permits. While I'm waiting for my french toast, we pause at 6:23a at Elkhart, Indiana, 24 minutes late.

A couple other coach passengers wobble into the diner, and are seated at my table. One is a kid in his mid-20's, riding from Washington to Chicago. He'd stayed in the lounge all night, riding the train because he hated flying.

The other one seated at my table is a female of color, travelling from South Carolina to Chicago. This was her first train ride. Previously, she had used the bus on the same route as she's going today and didn't like it. Because she found flying a hassle, she was on the train. She didn't find the coach seat all that bad, but "Next time, I'm taking a sleeper," she said. Both of my breakfast companions were amazed at the scenery, such as it is, they were seeing from the Capitol Limited.

Conversation pauses as #29 pauses at South Bend, Indiana at 6:41a, 23 minutes off the timecard. We're still gaining time, and if the NS dispatcher has a care, stand a chance of making it into Chicago Union Station on time. A few more folks continue to trickle into the diner. My waitress would cheerfully give me as much coffee as I might like to drink, but mindful of other diner patrons, I leave after the sixth cup or so.

Our train moves through the industrial bits of northwest Indiana, past the currently Mittal Steel, formerly ISG, formerly Inland Steel, steel mills and blast furnaces. The NS dispatcher helpfully clears us a path; we buzz through most of the industry, and right past the casinos at Hammond.

Within Cook County, Illinois, just when I think #29 will arrive on time to the second -- reality kicks in, and we come to a dead stop about 8:10a. Three or four Metra commuter trains slam past us. We creep slowly after that, and #29 pulls up at Chicago Union Station on Track 28 at 8:31a, six minutes late. Mr. Mineta, by his department's standards, would say we arrived on time. I suppose when #29 actually arrives on time, it goofs up Metra's morning rush?

For those into such things, here's the consist as I recorded it upon arrival at CUS, in the order the train was made up:

#29 -- The Capitol Limited, Washington DC -- Pittsburgh -- Cleveland -- Chicago

P42DC #129
P42DC # 47
Heritage Baggage car 1213
Superliner I coaches 34014 (mine), 34017, 34037
Sightseer lounge 33007
Diner 38018
Sleepers 32019, 32052
Transition sleeper 39007

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