Cross Country on Amtrak Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited
November 5-12, 2005
Summary: I traveled by air to San Francisco on 11/5/05 for the following day's NY Giants v. SF 49ers game and to sightsee and ride the area trains and cable cars. Later that week, I flew to Portland, OR, then took a cross-country Amtrak trip on the refurbished Empire Builder and the Lake Shore Limited.
Arrival at San Francisco 11/5
I arrived Oakland at about 1:00 PM on Southwest Airlines and after a late lunch (really late for me, 4:00 on Eastern time) I took the airport bus to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system into San Francisco. By then it was past 2:30 so I went to my hotel. I went to the Fisherman's Wharf area. There was a really long line for the cable cars so after exploring the area and trying a clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, I took the line F (historic streetcar) along the Embarcadero to the ferry terminal area. By now it was dark.
Oakland and SF by night 11/5
I decided to go by ferry back over to Oakland's Jack London Square seeing the skyline by night. Here Amtrak trains run in the middle of the street to their Oakland terminal. At one point a deadhead Amtrak run and two Union Pacific engines (running light) left at the same time on different tracks in the same direction. They lightly tapped their horns, performing a duet. I was going to walk up to the 12th Street BART station for the trip back, but the map I picked up indicated the West Oakland station was closer. I went to the place on the map where the station was shown, but no station was there and the trains whizzed by overhead. This left me with a 10-12 block walk to 12th Street. Riding by, I estimated the West Oakland station about a half mile to a mile away off the map. I then retired to my hotel for the night.
Air Train SFO 11/6
That morning, I took BART to SFO Airport for a joyride on Air Train SFO. I would see if I could get the 3-day visitor pass (Passport) that would be good on the cable cars as well as regular transit. I had a 15-minute wait for the first train of the day about 8:35 AM. This reminded me of Washington DC's METRO system back in the '90s that opened at about 5:30 AM on weekdays but 8 AM on weekends. Lots of people with baggage waited for the trip to the airport. Upon arrival I went to the international terminal and found the Air Train station. I would discover later that there was a closer stop especially for BART. I took the first arriving train, a Red Line (inner track), eventually getting off at one of the terminals to look for the visitors stand where they supposedly sell the Passports. However, opening time was 10:30 and the current time was 9:20 or so. I took the blue line (outer loop) including the rental car loop and then went on another red line to the BART station.
Millbrae and back 11/6
By now it was 9:40 and I checked the BART schedule. I decided to take the BART (9:55) one stop to Millbrae (10:00), then Caltrain (10:08) downtown (10:35), buy the Passport there, then Caltrain (11:00) to the Bay Shore station (11:10), within a long walk of the stadium. However, it would be a close connection if the BART train was delayed. BART arrived at 9:53, but did not leave until 9:59. The BART trains go in from the main line then reverse direction. This one waited for the 9:56 city-bound train to go first. The train arrived at 10:04. I would have to buy my Caltrain ticket before boarding as Caltrain is a "proof of payment" system where they do not sell tickets on board and fares are checked sporadically. Those boarding w/o a ticket run the risk of fine or arrest. I quickly bought a zone 2 to zone 1 "day pass" which happened to cost the same $7 I would have spent had I bought an individual trip then a 1 zone pass in SF. I wasn't sure which track the train would arrive since this was my first time at that station and a small crowd waited on the opposite track. Yet I was on the platform for SF bound trains. I went upstairs and positioned myself to be ready for the train on either platform. It arrived on the normal SF-bound track, I hurried back down and boarded. There was a slow-running delay and opposite track running in the Bayshore area and the train arrived SF at 11:40.
In SF I bought the Passport and grabbed a Subway sub for eating aboard the outbound Caltrain. After all, it was a late lunch for me on New York time. I went to the game (NY Giants won 24-6) and then I walked along crawling vehicular traffic back to the station afterward. It was about 40 minutes to the next inbound train, so I went to a local 7-11 for a bite to eat. I noticed the under-construction LRT tracks. Soon it will be possible to take MUNI light rail to the same place. MUNI has buses to the stadium, but the origin points of the buses are a longer distance away and they have to go through a lot of traffic. Meanwhile it got dark. Back home it is past 8PM and it feels like that. The inbound Caltrain arrived about five minutes late (5:28) for the 10-minute trip downtown. I then used my pass for the first time, taking the MUNI "N" line downtown to connect with my first cable car ride.
Cable Car Sunday Night 11/6
There was a short line at the Powell Street terminal on the south end. Those ahead of me boarded the first car to arrive, but I decided to wait for the one that goes up Hyde St. By then I was at the front of the line. As the car arrived, those a way back on the line jumped aboard as it was still moving and took the best seats (I've heard of people jumping aboard the cable cars as they move). However, the operator kicked them off altogether leaving the outside seats for me and the group at the front. I rode all the way up to the end, about five blocks west of Fisherman's Wharf, then hopped the next cable car the other way. This route passes the stretch of Lombard Street known as the Crookedest Street in the World.
Hyde Park and back evening 11/6
Realizing I am on Pacific Time and it is not as late as I feel, I decided to do a subway round trip from Civic Center to Hyde Park, taking the first line among (J, K, M) and one of the other two back. The winner: The M line. It takes the most roundabout route to Hyde Park. By the time I got there, I was dodging a few misty raindrops. I went to the J and K terminal at Hyde Park and waited about 15, maybe 20 minutes. Nothing came and people came and went. 8:30 passed and I got really jet-lag-tired. I decided the quick (10-15 min) and cheap ($1.30) BART ride back to Civic Center was the best thing to do. I would go for the J/K combination the next day.
I started Monday with a regular bus ride to Fisherman's Wharf. For the first part of the day I would take the boat (10:45AM) and visit Alcatraz Island. The only drawback was the weather. The forecast was rain, but fortunately only an occasional mist came. There was a peek or two of sunshine later. I spent a couple of hours on the island then returned to the mainland.
Cable Cars 11/7
I then headed for the other two cable car lines. I rode the entire length of both of them and stopped at the Cable Car Museum in the middle of the trip. I had a late afternoon meal (dinner for me!) and then went back to the Crookedest Street for a closer look.
MUNI J/K/L lines 11/7
I then took another F-Line Streetcar back to the ferry terminal station so I could pick up the J or K line at Embarcadero Station. By now it was approaching 5:00 Pacific Time. The winner this time: The J line. On the way out it started to rain for real. Arriving at the Hyde Park station I waited for the K. This time it was weekday rush hour, so I know it won't be a long wait unless I'm waiting in the wrong place. I confirmed with others waiting that I was in the right place. Unlike the M line, this waiting area was sheltered from the rain. I would take the K to the portal where it meets the L and then take the L on a round trip. I'd pick up the N either afterward or if I am tired, I'd do it first thing the next day. It was about a 10-minute wait but the K arrived and a large crowd boarded. Officers spot-checked tickets and I had my pass. Arriving at the portal station, I would see a LRT arriving in the other direction. I hurried across the overpass seeing that it was the L line. I made it and took it to the terminal near the San Francisco Zoo. On the way back I noticed that the sign now read "K" line. I thought that was a mistake until upon approaching the portal, the driver announced that the train would turn and take the K route to Hyde Park. I got off and waited at the portal for the next train downtown. I would be finished for the night.
MUNI "N" (Judah) and ferry to Oakland 11/8
With a time-zone advantage, I got up early and took a round-trip on the N (Judah) line to complete my MUNI subway-surface riding. It was cloudy but the rain had stopped. My outbound run made it to the Judah/48th Street terminal at just before 7:00 as I noticed a polling place getting ready to open for Election Day. A big rush-hour crowd packed the train for the inbound trip. I would then do laundry and complete the portion of the F-line trolley that I had not experienced before then. The sky cleared for a sunny late morning. I checked out of my hotel and took the short MUNI ride to Embarcadero station and boarded a 10:30 AM ferry to Oakland. Most aboard were attendees at a convention in San Francisco.
Oakland to Sacramento 11/8
I could have taken the Amtrak bus to Emeryville or BART to Richmond. However, I wanted to ride Amtrak from the Jack London Square terminal. After a 11:15 AM lunch at Subway, I went to the terminal for the 12:15 departure. While I was at Subway, an Amtrak train arrived and two more UP engines went by w/o cargo. The train (with double-deck Amtrak California cars) arrived and was ready to board by noon. Only a few people would board here, and even after the busier stations, it would be a lightly patronized trip.
(Rear) engine 155
8009 <--I was here
8806 <-- food service
8308 (cab car front)
Part of the trip is a scenic one along the San Francisco Bay and then the Suisin Bay. On the way is Martinez, the hometown of Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio. The weather remained clear for much of the trip. After Martinez, the train crossed the bay for the trip north to Davis and then Sacramento. Approaching Sacramento the skies became mostly cloudy. There were delays totaling 15-20 minutes for various minor reasons. I got off in Sacramento at 2:35 and went to my hotel there. As I arrived, there was a brief rain shower.
Sacramento Railroad Museum 11/8
After unloading my baggage, I went back to the area of the Amtrak station to visit the California State Railroad Museum. The main level has engines, cars, and other displays from the development of the transcontinental railroad. One of the sleeping cars gently rocks back and forth giving the sensation of a moving train inside. The second level has model trains of all sizes and a large working layout. There is also a play area for kids. I stayed there until 4:45 (closing is 5:00) and then went to the nearby mall (a Westfield Shoppingtown) for dinner.
I then found the Sacramento light rail system. A new line from Sacramento to nearby Folsom opened last month. To make the round trip, I would have to make it out there before 7:00 since the last inbound trip leaves at 7:01. I just had enough time to buy my day pass and board the train at ~5:30. It was a good thing since only alternating trains make the entire trip and the next one to Folsom was a half-hour later. It was already dark so there wasn't a lot to see. I made it out to Folsom by about 6:20, and made the next-to-last return trip at 6:31. I then took the southern part of the blue line. I got off downtown to buy a T-shirt at the Hard Rock Cafe before the souvenir shop closed for the day. As a result, the next northbound trip was 30 minutes later and it was getting late. I skipped the north end of the LRT and went to bed.
Sacramento to Portland 11/9
I could have gotten up before the crack of dawn for the north end of the LRT but just took the airport bus for my flight to Portland, which left on time at 9:30 and arrived on time at 11:00. Clear weather meant a good view of Mount Hood, albeit on the other side of the plane. On final approach, the plane turned east giving me a view north of two large mountains. They could have been Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. I later confirmed that the first was Mt. St. Helens.
Portland MAX (LRT) and Streetcar 11/9
I took to the MAX Red Line and made a 11:27 AM departure. I could see Mt. Hood in the distance. I rode as far as it meets the Blue Line to Gresham. I arrived at 11:41 and departed for Gresham at 11:48. The train arrived at 12:10 just as one departed leaving me with a 15-minute wait and a good view of Mt. Hood (about 35 miles away) and fall foliage. I had the schedule and figured I could not cover the entire MAX system without skipping lunch, missing the Portland Streetcar, and also cutting it close r/e my 4:45 PM Amtrak departure. My plan was to ride as far as Rose Quarter where the Yellow Line meets, then take a R/T on the Yellow Line and forget about the other end of the Blue Line. However, as the transfer station approached they announced that it was a block walk to the other station and it was evident I would just miss a train at 1:04 with the next one 1:19. I decided to stay on board and connect at the Old Town/Chinatown station. No need to walk with my baggage.
On the way over the Williamette River bridge, I spotted Union Station and decided to go there to drop off my bags. I then made the Portland Streetcar my next priority and never got on the Yellow Line. I took a complete round trip starting on 10th Avenue near the Amtrak station, getting off a couple of times, once for lunch, and another time to pick up some Centrum vitamins since I had one or two left and my supply would run out before I get home. I looked for a drugstore and tripped over something perfect, The Vitamin Shoppe. Imagine if they did not have Centrum or a similar multi-vitamin. The woman there explained they did not have Centrum or anything close. She tried to sell me some of their vitamins and called Centrum 'synthetic' and the Burger King or McDonalds of vitamins. However, I decided to go elsewhere and found a drugstore two blocks away. On the first segment of my trip, I boarded with a school group of at least 15 noisy grade-school kids. On the last segment, I would find the same noisy group back aboard. The streetcar has a machine to purchase tickets but fares are inspected sporadically and only outside the central city area where all rides on MAX and the streetcar are free. I had a day pass covering MAX and the streetcar and did not have to worry.
I made it back to Union Station at 4:15 and picked up my bags. I went to the Metropolitan Lounge and two minutes later boarding for train #28 to Chicago was called.
Train 28, Portland to Chicago 11/9
Sunset came quickly so the only views were of departing Portland and going over the Columbia River into Washington. I was in the rear car with a view out the back.
33027 (Lounge car)
32045 (Sleeping car, I was here)
The dining car was in the Seattle part of the train and would meet up overnight in Spokane. I wondered what would be served for dinner. It said a cold meal and I was ready for lounge car fare. It was a tray meal delivered to my room. However, it was a real meal with sliced chicken breast (other choice was beef), salad, fruit, mashed potato (?), and a brownie. I had a choice of a small bottle of champagne or sparkling apple cider. There were a couple of waits and backward movements to get around freight trains. The conductor went into the sleeping car to lead the backward movements.
I woke up to find no more view out the back. There was an Amtrak Express car (actually two) behind us. At about 5 AM I went to the shower to find it had been leaking or left on overnight and as far as I could tell no hot water left. I would eventually take a shower in the mid-afternoon. At 6:30 (Mountain Time) I went through the coach cars to the diner, now attached toward the front of the now-combined train. There were a lot of empty coach seats. I was the first to arrive for breakfast. Choices included the usual eggs- bacon/sausage-potatoes, or French toast, or pancakes. There was also a mix of several breakfast items called the Bob Evans Breakfast Scramble (Bob Evans being a restaurant chain in the East and Midwest). I went with the pancakes and bacon. Coach passengers would expect to pay $7-10 but meals for one or two are included with standard sleeping car accommodations. Meanwhile, coach passengers had additional options of lighter, cheaper fare in the lounge car. Snacks, beverages, and breakfast sandwiches were sold on the lower level and snacks and beverages were sold on the upper level as well. They covered for each other's meal breaks the first night when there was no dining car service.
The train was close to an hour behind schedule. In the mountains of western Montana, snow had fallen and the skies were mostly clear, then there were some high clouds. This left some spectacular views of the landscape. There were a couple of stops to briefly get off the train for a stretch and for smokers to get their fix.
Lunchtime arrived and I went into the dining car. It was half-filled and I was seated where three people had already ordered their lunch and it was delivered a minute after I sat. A woman at the table was getting rude treatment from the waiter. He may have been trying to be humorous w/o much success. He was somewhat curt with the rest of us, then we got another waiter at our table. The woman wanted to order food to go for her elderly parents and wasn't going to try with the first waiter, then succeeded with the second waiter. Fortunately that was my only sighting of rudeness on the entire trip, as all others, including my sleeping car attendant, were very helpful and courteous. Lunch options included burgers, sandwiches and salads. Coach passengers would pay $7-10 plus beverage costs. Dessert was available but since I would be having dessert with dinner I passed on that.
At Havre, MT, there was a 15-minute service stop. This was enough time for me to walk alongside the train and look around.
The train remained about an hour late as the afternoon wore on. There was a lot of empty space in the coaches, but that would change later. As if we hadn't had enough to eat, we in the sleeping cars were invited to a wine and cheese tasting in the dining car at 3:30. The wines were from the state of Washington, and the cheeses were from Minnesota. Eastern Montana is all plains with cattle and horses dotting the countryside. The shadows got longer and dinnertime approached. Dinner is by appointed time with sleeping car passengers getting the first choices. Being that I am from Eastern time, and we were still in Mountain time, I chose the earliest time, 5:30. There was a good selection (Steak, chicken, turkey, seafood, a daily special, or vegetarian) with coach passengers being charged $11-21 plus beverages and dessert costs . I chose the steak with rice and vegetables.
Later that night I got off briefly at Minot, ND as a friend from there came out to meet me for a chat during that 15-minute service stop. He and his wife got me some fruit, nuts, and bottled water. Cool, especially since the train ran out of bottled water. We must have been a thirsty lot. Coach passengers were warned that every seat would be needed overnight. Solo travelers may have to be moved to keep couples and families together.
I would go to bed afterward. After four to five hours on-and-off sleep I got up for breakfast. I found the shower available at 7:30 AM; that is like finding the freeway empty at the same hour on a weekday.
What else did I do on the much free time I had? A lot of reading. After some busy times at work and with other things, I brought along two books to read, one was 1776 (David McCullough's bestseller about the first year of the American Revolution) and the other was a book I found called "Why do Men Have Nipples" with lots of crazy questions and answers about the human body. I also brought along my laptop computer with other reading. I also typed up much of this report because I won't have the time after I get home! As of now I have completely read 1776 and I am just beginning the Nipples book.
I also loaded and updated my application for a temporary promotion assignment at work. The application is due the second day after I return. This was the third time they announced the same positions, each time with just enough tweaks (including Federal "GS" series number or minor duty changes) to make me review and edit my application. The previous two times, hiring freezes caused the positions to remain unfilled. I think it is that they can't hire any more in a certain job series, so they re-write the same job to fall under another series that has not been frozen.
The train was almost two hours late, but that would not endanger my connection, or most other connections, in Chicago. There was a 20-minute service stop in St. Paul, MN, where I again got out for a stretch and to see a few historic and private rail cars parked on another track. Coach passengers were again advised that we expected a full train and to make every seat available.
For about 140 miles after St. Paul, the train runs along the Mississippi River. This is one of the scenic highlights. We cross the river, cross back, then cross one final time. I went out of my room when the river was on the opposite side, then returned when it was on my side. The train made double-stops at some stations where the platform was not long enough to handle the whole train. I had one final meal, lunch aboard the diner before they closed business and prepared for arrival in Chicago. There was a five-minute get-out-and-stretch stop in Milwaukee at 3:40. Then sun set as we entered Chicago commuter territory.
Finally we were slowed from Deerfield, IL into Chicago due to coming behind a METRA local commuter train. An announcement came that anyone looking to go to St. Louis or Grand Rapids would miss their connections and would report to passenger services in Chicago. Other departures are later and would be made.
We finally arrived in Chicago's Union Station at 5:35 PM and I gathered my bags and headed for the Metropolitan Lounge. Although it was a Federal holiday, the commuter trains were on a weekday schedule and a number of people were rushing to catch their trains. There was an attended area in the lounge to leave my baggage. I confirmed that dinner would be served aboard my next train, #48, Lake Shore Limited, despite the scheduled departure time of 7:55 PM. They advised being back for boarding at 7:00 PM. I wondered if that meant sleeping car passengers would get a head start on dinner. I went outside for a walk then returned. There was a delay in boarding because the trainset was not ready until about 7:45. We also boarded passengers from a tardy train #22 out of Texas. Due at 2:14PM, it did not arrive until just after 8:00. Call for dinner came as it arrived. Dinner proceeded as coach passengers were boarding. Dinner was a similar menu as on the previous train, though not exactly the same.
At dinner I was seated with three other people, including a grandmother taking her ~10 year old grandson on the overnight Chicago to Albany, NY trip. She likes to take the train and has several grandkids and takes one of them at a time.
Three horses up front! Why did we need all that power? Soon after dinner I did a little reading then retired for the night.
Aboard the Lake Shore Limited 11/12
I got up really early, about 4:30 or so and did not feel like going back to sleep. I was the first one to the shower around 5:00. I wasn't sure where we were, but there was a station stop while I was in the shower. The shower room has no windows. It turned out to be Cleveland, OH, and the train was an hour and a half late. At breakfast I was first seated with someone almost done, then he was replaced by two other men coming one at a time. The second was a displaced New Orleans resident who fortunately was from the higher ground in town with no flooding and also was able to continue work at another location. Meanwhile we were continuing along Lake Erie stopping at Erie, PA, then going toward Buffalo, NY.
There were some more delays in western New York due to freight trains. Either we got stuck behind slower freight or there was an area of single-trackage and we had to wait for a train coming the other way.
They started lunch service before noon, at about 11:25 AM. One reason is that when the train is on time, power is cut off for a while around 1:00 PM. That is when the train is scheduled to be in Rensselaer, NY, opposite Albany, where the long-distance engines are removed and we get an engine that can operate electric-mode inside the New York City tunnels. However, Albany came at 2:30-3:00 so there was no power issue. That evening I would visit my father in the Bronx, and I called him to advise of the train's status about two hours late. As it turned out, my sister was following my status on the Amtrak web site and alerted him first. At certain stops, the train's status is forwarded to Amtrak headquarters where they make it available on the web site and the automated system at 1-800-USA-RAIL.
The most scenic part of the Lake Shore Limited is the run south from Albany on the Hudson River line. It came as sunset approached. On the way, West Point, then the Palisades is visible on the opposite side. This time it was dark before the Palisades. Especially for me, as I got off at Croton-Harmon, a busy commuter stop, and boarded a local Metro-North train to the Bronx.
I would arrive at the Riverdale, Bronx, stop, and was met there by my father. This completed my cross-country trip.