After several days in Chicago exploring, it was time for me to make my trip back to Pittsburgh on Amtrak #30, the Capitol Limited.
The ride out to Chicago had given me some insight as to what to expect from today's Amtrak. On-board staff seemed efficient and pleasant. NS had done well making up time CSX had lost. The Superliner coaches to me seemed, the best-riding railroad passenger cars I'd ever been on. By way of comparison, I've ridden Heritage,Metroliner, and Amfleet I and II coaches on Amtrak; and a number of different types of coaches on the old Deutsche Bundesbahn. Well-maintained NS track and roadbed were a factor, for sure, but the last products from Pullman-Standard for Amtrak left quite the positive impression on me.
I caught a SouthWest Service Metra train out of Orland Park into Union Station, and walked to Lou Mitchell's for breakfast. Most of the day, I rode the CTA El trains to explore various parts of the city. My plan on departure day (since I would be arriving at Pittsburgh in the middle of the night if all went right) was to walk as much as possible while sightseeing in order to stand a chance of sleeping solidly for a couple of hours during the ride back. As #30's 5:35p departure time approached, I made my way to Union Station. Here I found my first totally negative Amtrak experience, and I've been riding Amtrak since 1981.
For coach passengers, Amtrak's Chicago Union Station departure lounge is an unmitigated "flustercluck". Only in my military service did I ever see something approaching this level of "hurry up, and wait." In fact the experience has so soured me, that I plan on writing a separate report. Suffice it to say for this report that elderly travelers -- some with walkers -- stood in line for around 40 minutes before they were permitted out on the platform to board #30. This after their tickets were checked two or three times, and while I sat waiting for them to call the rest of the coach passengers for boarding!
I don't quite recall now when I became thoroughly annoyed with the terminal crew, but my notes written at the time say I jumped the line. In thinking about it, what I ended up doing was getting past Ticket-Checker Number Two, going out to the track entrance for the Blue Water adjacent to Amtrak #30, and then simply walking over to the track where the Capitol Limited was boarding. Again, by sheer dumb luck, I get the coach seat with a power outlet.
This Superliner I coach, though, is a bit more worse for wear, showing a bit of scruffiness, compared to the one on #29 for my trip to Chicago. A Mennonite family group with a screaming baby sits several rows back from my seat. Worse, my travel power brick for my cellphone won't fit. Pointless to get angry or upset; this is Amtrak. Best to bring a short extension cord with small plastic plug, and hope the mom can quiet the kid. We depart two minutes late.
As #30 begins its journey picking its way through the maze of switches and turnouts around Chicago, the conductor speaks over the public address system with the usual pleasantries. He thanks us for taking Amtrak; informs us all sleeper space is sold out; for coach passengers, only two seatings in the diner are available, 8:15p, and 9:00p; and someone will come by to ask if we'd like a reservation for dinner. When the dining car steward (or whatever Amtrak is calling them today) comes by, I make a reservation for 8:15p.
We grind through the industrial maze that is this part of Illinois and Indiana. I had noticed the refrigerated service boxcar on the rear of the train as I had boarded, which might have been the reason for the tardy boarding at Union Station. Now, as we hit the blocks of the freight trains ahead of us, another reason suggests itself. Our Hotel Electric Power, or HEP, which is the electric power service to our passenger cars, cuts out when we slow below ten or so miles an hour. This, not surprisingly, makes the air conditioning cut in and out. Luckily, the NS dispatcher is keeping us moving, even if it's only at 15-20 miles per hour. We only stop completely once or twice, and never more than five minutes or so. People do notice when the air conditioning cuts out, and the noise level in the cars rises appreciably. The NS dispatcher puts us on the opposite main in places as we roll eastbound toward skies threatening rain, and freight train after freight train slams past us. By Elkhart, IN, we're about 25 minutes late.
Shortly after Elkhart, my seating at the diner is called. Our table is a typical mixed bag of folks. I'm seated with a PRR buff and member of the Pennsylvania RR Technical and Historical Society, along with a retired lady from the Philadelphia area, and a college student. It seems all of us have Amtrak experiences to swap. This trip gives us a new one to add to our repertoire. As our train proceeds to hit the NS freight train's signal blocks, we slow. When we slow, as I've noted, the HEP cuts out. Several times during our meal, the HEP cuts out, giving us the thrill of waiting for dinner under emergency lighting. Our waitress is obviously new, and is easily flustered. The steward, however, takes the problems in stride, and sends a more experienced waitress over for help. She, at least, manages to keep our drink glasses full.
At the suggestion of a pal, I try the country-fried steak special. The retired lady from Philly has lamb, and the college student and Pennsy buff have steak. We finally get our food about 8:50p or so. I have two huge slabs of country-fried steak on my plate. There are a couple lukewarm places, but the rest is piping hot, and the thought of sending it back to the cooks dealing with cooking and HEP loss barely crosses my mind. It's more than enough food. Tariff for dinner, which included a main course, rolls, two side dishes, ice cream for dessert, and beverage, is $14.50. This is in line with what you'd pay at a chain restaurant on an interstate highway. We leave the diner about 9:45p -- err, 10:45p, as we've crossed into Ohio.
My timekeeping here until Pittsburgh becomes shaky, as fatigue sets in and I start calling family and friends from my cellphone. #30 is still down, about a half hour, as we arrive in Toledo. I call my pal while still stopped in the station, and thank him for the crash pad. The Toledo crew also fixes the HEP. I head for the lounge, where in a nice display of democracy, passengers share the unused power outlets in the upstairs part of the lounge. I'm able to plug my phone in, and juice it up for 45 minutes or so as we boom out over the high iron eastbound toward Cleveland. A few folks are enjoying some beers from downstairs. Movies blare from the TVs at either end of the car. Not exactly my idea of a "lounge", but probably 80 percent of the seats are taken. There's not a great deal to see at 11:30p outside of Toledo on the currently NS, ex-Conrail, ex-Penn Central, ex-New York Central line.
After returning to my coach seat, I doze fitfully, and fail to record the times across Ohio. The Mennonite mom has done a nice job in quieting her baby. I wake up for good as we hit Conway Yard west of Pittsburgh. To my absolute shock, the NS dispatcher has cleared us on a track through the yard. We arrive in Pittsburgh's Penn Station, on time to the second at 4:05a, to my utter amazement. An Amtrak Pittsburgh terminal crew member sees me jotting down the consist, and says to me, "Wow. What engine DID you guys have, anyway?"
(Postscript: #30 ended up arriving about an hour and a half late in Washington DC, owing to CSX dispatching.)
For those interested, here's the consist of #30, The Capitol Limited, Chicago - Pittsburgh, in the order the train was made up: