Baltimore to Detroit
April 30-May 4, 2006
My rail journey began at Baltimore's Penn Station. Having been dropped off by my wife about 45 minutes before my departure time, I enjoyed a good cup of strong coffee and a cinnamon delight in the café inside the station. I went down Gate E to track platforms 6 & 7 to watch the arrival and departure of Acela Express # 2212, headed north from DC. Precisely on time (12:35 PM), that beautiful, sleek train emerged from the tunnel just south of Penn Station and smoothly eased into the Track 6 platform. The consist was four business class, one café, and one 1st class at the end, bracketed, of course, by the power units. A handful of passengers got off the train and another handful boarded.
Just minutes after the Acela Express disappeared around the curve just north of the station, my train, #143 Regional Acela, appeared easing to a stop at the Track 7 platform. #143 was five minutes late arriving (scheduled arrival was 12:38 PM) and departing. Quite a large number of passengers left the train and an equally large number boarded. I boarded towards the end of the train, which worked out well, since the bulk of boarding passengers were getting on towards the front. Consequently, I had my pick of seats in the next to last coach, not long after which a long parade of passengers came through looking for seats. Our conductor was a tall, large, most pleasant fellow, who bantered with the passengers and engaged those few kids on board.
The engineer really moved the throttle up, once we cleared the tunnels around Baltimore and entered the large, smooth, gradually-curved multi-track mainline near Halethorpe. We were clipping along pretty fast the rest of the trip, stopping briefly at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) and New Carrollton. Just leaving the BWI stop as we arrived was north-bound regional #140, double-headed AEM7s pulling a couple of business class cars, a café, and half a dozen coaches. A good number of passengers left our train at BWI and a similar number boarded. #143 was fairly full from Baltimore to Washington's Union Station I only noticed one or two open seats in our coach. As we approached the New Carrolton stop Acela Express #2254 roared by us northbound.
The country side between Baltimore and Washington was bursting with all the fresh colors of spring - dogwoods, plums, flowers, and all the new, bright green early leaf growth. The day was sunny and in the 60s.
An AEM-7, #905, pulled our consist of one business class, a café, and 6 coaches. My coach was very clean and comfortable. We pulled into Union Station, DC, stopping at our platform at 1:25 PM, our exact scheduled arrival time. As we entered the outskirts of the Union Station complex we first passed the AMTRAK storage and maintenance yards just west of our mainline. I could see 12 P42s and 6 AEM7s and there may have been more which I couldn't see. There was the usual array of North East Corridor coaches, as well as a Maryland Area Rail Commuter (MARC) consist - single and double-deckers - parked, probably waiting to engage in the morning commute tomorrow (Monday). I didn't see any Superliner equipment in that yard. The yard was busy, lots of activity.
The next yard, primarily a commuter rail facility, was fairly full of consists ready for the morning commute tomorrow. Most were MARC, but I could see at least one Virginia Railway Express consist. As we passed "K" tower and approached our platform on the upper level I spotted a couple of Superliner cars on the lower level east of our upper level approach. I saw a coach-baggage and a couple of coaches before the lower level tracks disappeared from view.
Since the Capitol Limited was scheduled to depart at 3:55 PM, I enjoyed a leisurely stroll around Union Station. The gate area was fairly full of passengers coming and going, as well as a very long line waiting to board the 2:20 Regional to New York. The main lobby area-restaurants and shops-was surprisingly packed - especially for a Sunday afternoon in April. I perused a Union Station RR gift booth next to the US Mint booth on the east end of the lobby and determined that I needed to make a few purchases on my way back through Union Station on Thursday. In the west section of the main lobby area was a most interesting display of the plans, construction photos (many aerial views), and a large architectural table model of the Interstates built around and through Washington since the late 1950s. A small display paid tribute to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a strong advocate of the Interstate Highway systems, contributing, unwittingly I suspect, to the demise of national passenger rail travel.
After making my rounds of the station, gawking like a tourist (I never tire of looking at the grandeur of this magnificent station) I grabbed a corner seat in the Gate D waiting area, our Capitol Limited departure gate, and started my trip report.
At 3:15 PM the AMTRAK gate guy called the sleeper, seniors, and families into the pre-boarding area. By 3:25 PM we walked out to platform 16 to today's Capital Limited. That gave me time to walk the train along the platform and collect the consist data. Two P42Ds, made in 2001, pulled our consist of Baggage #1709 (Phase IV paint scheme-with US mail); Transition Sleeper, my Sleeper (#32115 - the Washington), another Sleeper, a Dining Car, a Sightseer Lounge, 3 Coaches, and one ExpressTrak freight car. No looking out the rear window on this consist.
My Sleeper came off the California Zephyr. I came to this conclusion when I saw the dining car menu, the snack car menu, the route guide, a picture postcard and the schedule for the Zephyr in my roomette. Our car attendant said this sleeper did come off the Zephyr and she had not had time to complete her car preparations. She's a new attendant, on the Capitol Limited for a month now, after 4 months of training.
At 3:50 PM the "All Aboard" sounded and precisely at 3:55 PM we pulled out of Union Station as scheduled. My sleeper is about half full, with at least one couple getting off at Toledo tomorrow morning with me. The diner LSA (Lead Service Attendant), Terrence, made the announcement at 4:10 PM his deep, booming voice that he will be coming around to take our reservations and dinner orders. Hope we get a dinner menu before he gets to our car! I don't think that the California Zephyr (CZ) menu will work, or maybe it will!
Our car attendant just dropped off the dining menu - it looks better than the CZ menu - 8 selections vs 6 on the CZ menu. I ordered the "seared pork chop, served bone in for flavor, slow cooked in a rich brown gravy" when Terrence stopped at my roomette to take my dinner time reservation. The New York style cheesecake sounds good as well.
Well, we arrived in Rockville, our first scheduled stop about 4 minutes late. Not a good sign so early in the trip. I've got my laptop plugged into the only 120V outlet in my roomette, even though it says "Razor Only". Following the advice offered in other trip reports I read on this site, I did bring a small extension cord in case my CD player's transformer didn't fit in to the space around the 120V outlet. However, the extension cord won't be necessary on this leg of the journey - plenty of room for the CD Transformer plug.
We passed a red Missouri Pacific Lines caboose sitting on display just before we passed through the Gaithersburg station. A steel, round top caboose was parked behind the station. I couldn't see the name as we passed pretty quickly through the station.
Terrence came by and took my order and my 5:15 PM dinner reservation. We just passed over I-270 to Frederick and are now beginning the scenic portion of the ride up the Potomac and the Chesapeake and Ohio canal trace to Harpers Ferry. I'll make myself a cocktail and make my way to the sightseer lounge car.
I enjoyed the ride along the Potomac in the late afternoon, passing by the beautiful Point of Rocks station at the Frederick cutoff; then crawling through the CSX yard at Brunswick. I had my Jack Daniel highball and Patsy Cline's golden hits on my headphones/CD. We used the far left (south) track to travel through the yards. On previous trips, we used one of the tracks on the opposite side (north) of the yard. Eastern part of the yard (16 tracks across) was empty. The yard got more congested as we got closer to the station. We ran next to a CSX unit coal train, so I didn't quite see all that I had hoped. I did see the turn-table - still serving CSX well - and the outlines of the former roundhouse around it - sad ghost of times past. I did get to see the roundhouse before they tore it down years ago.
We rambled along the Potomac, slowing making our way to Cumberland. The scenery, with the river, was very nice in the setting sun. We arrived in Cumberland at 7:30 PM (20 minutes late). Four stops: 1st: Engineer change; 2nd - Sleeper passengers; 3rd - coach passengers; 4th - smokers break. We finally left Cumberland at 7:50 PM, falling even more behind schedule. The sun was behind the mountains as we left Cumberland to begin the climb to Connellsville and across the Alleghenies to reach the headwaters of the Youghiogheny River and the great East Coast continental divide. The Youghiogheny flows west towards Pittsburgh and the Monongahela River to join the Ohio in its journey to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.
Crossing the Potomac at Harper's Ferry is still one of the scenic highlights of the trip. A CSX mixed freight - empty coal hoppers, covered hoppers, was stopped on the older bridge across the Potomac, waiting for us to move off the main line. We pulled into Harper's Ferry about 12 minutes late. The old station next to the track was being restored/rebuilt. As we pulled out of Harper's Ferry, I went into the dining car for the first sitting. Only about four tables were in use. I sat with Luis and Ray, two retired gentlemen. Luis was returning to South Bend, Indiana, from a rally in Washington to stop the genocide in Darfur. He's a retired union metal worker. Ray, a retired Seattle postal worker, was returning to Portland, OR, after attending a T.E. Woodehouse convention at the Army/Navy Club in Washington.
We enjoyed a delightful 1 hr 45 minutes of a leisurely dinner. Luis had the braised beef; Ray had the Angus burger and I enjoyed the pork chop. All three of us thought that our dinners were quite good. The rolls were fresh, soft and warm, unlike other AMTRAK dining experiences I've had. My pork chop was moist and the gravy was not too thick or overpowering. Luis's dinner ticket got lost in the queue somehow, so he was served much later than Ray or me. He mentioned to the LSA, Terrence, that he ought to get a bottle of wine to compensate him for his late dinner. He did this more in jest, but Terrence said he couldn't offer him wine, but would give him a bottle of beer. I think Luis expected nothing and was delighted to savor a cold Samuel Adams "on the house". I enjoyed a ˝ bottle of a California Merlot, but at $12 it was an expensive couple of glasses of grape juice. I also enjoyed the New York style cheesecake with strawberry topping and whipped cream. All in all the three of us gave thumbs up to our dinner.
Returning to my roomette, which our sleeping car attendant had made up for the night, I got comfortable, put the headphones into my laptop and popped in the latest Harry Potter movie, "The Goblet of Fire", which my daughter said I "must see". I fell asleep sometime just before we arrived in Pittsburgh. When I woke up, we were arriving in Cleveland, about 30 minutes behind schedule. I set my alarm for 4:30 AM, thinking we'd be at least 30 minutes late arriving in Toledo. Actually we arrived at 5:00 AM, only 14 minutes late. Not long after our arrival in Toledo, the west bound Lake Shore Limited arrived, dropping off more passengers. The connecting coach to Detroit was full when we pulled out on time about 5:45 AM. We arrived at the Detroit AMTRAK station about 7:00 AM. The station ticket attendant was very accommodating and called a taxi for me, which arrived in just a couple of minutes.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006. I caught a ride with one of my fellow conference attendees who dropped me off at the Detroit AMTRAK station on his way to the airport. Since it was 2:30 PM and the motor coach to Toledo didn't leave until 9:00 PM, I had a long wait. The Detroit AMTRAK station is small, but comfortable, with spacious seating and lots of windows. It seems to have been renovated in the last couple of years. There was a White Castle across Woodward Ave, so dinner was not an issue. A ceiling-mounted TV in a corner of the waiting room was on, but it was showing some soap opera, so I parked myself along the wall near an electrical outlet, pulled out my laptop and began my wait.
Soon after I arrived a NS mixed consist moved slowly past the station. It was short - only about 15 cars. About 2:40 PM train #350, the afternoon Wolverine from Chicago arrived, about 10 minutes behind schedule. The prime mover was a P42, pulling an interesting mix of AMTRAK rolling stock. A business class Metroliner coach was followed by two smooth sided, corrugated roof coach class that reminded me of either Horizon or Heritage fleets. The café car was a modern Metroliner car. Most interesting of all was the last part of the consist - what looked like an F40PH that had been converted to a baggage car, with the corrugated sliding door cut into in the middle of body. It was numbered 90255. The P42 sounded its horn at 2:48 PM, slowly pulling out as it resumed its journey to Pontiac, its final destination. At 5:15 PM the westbound Wolverine picked up a sizable group of passengers, with the same consist as the 2:40 PM eastbound.
A short eastbound CSX mixed freight consist passed by with two CSX power units, empty autobody frame racks, some high wall gondolas and a few boxes. Later, a long westbound CN freight passed with two CN power units, mostly flats with auto body frames stacked 15-20 feet high, a few empty flats, and a half dozen high wall gondolas.
Our coach bus arrived on time, but was 20 minutes late leaving the Detroit AMTRAK station. Apparently, a mentally handicapped man was on the bus and got off while the driver was loading all the luggage from the Detroit passengers and couldn't be found when the bus driver got back on board. He said that DOT regulations required him to account for this man, so he had to contact AMTRAK security and state and local police. He was supposed to wait for clearance to leave, but told the authorities he had irate passengers on board who might miss their trains in Toledo if there was any more delay, so he was given a verbal OK to proceed.
The motor coach had overhead TV monitors and we watched the 2nd half of a Pierce Brosnan-Selma Hayek-Woody Harrelson movie. We arrived at the Toledo train station about 10:25 PM, only to learn that both eastbound trains - the Capitol Limited and the Lake Shore Limited were several hours late, and the posted "Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) kept getting later. Apparently, track work and a stack up of freights delayed both trains. The sleeping car attendant told me later that he had heard that there were four slow freights ahead of the two AMTRAK trains, which, by this time, were together in the jam up. Apparently, both AMTRAK trains sat for quite a while outside South Bend, waiting for freight traffic to clear. The Capitol Limited finally pulled into the Toledo station at 1:30 AM, three hours late. We quickly boarded and pulled out so that the Lake Shore Limited, waiting behind us just outside the station, could stop and pick up its eastbound passengers.
My sleeping car attendant, John Fox, was waiting for me at the sleeping car. He had my bed made and quickly made me comfortable with a glass of orange juice on ice. John has worked on AMTRAK passenger trains for 31 years, including the last 19 years on the Capitol Limited. He had worked on the NYC-Montreal route, the Southern Crescent, and the Sunset Limited prior to settling in on the Capitol Limited. He said he's just waiting to make age to retire.
I woke up about 6:00 AM to a fresh cup of John's good coffee. We were only 2 ½ hours late now. The dining car opened at 6:30 AM, so I was seated with Florence and Al for breakfast as we rolled through the Conway yards west of Pittsburgh. The one good thing about being so late was that I could see our trek through the Pittsburg area in daylight. We pulled out of the Pittsburg AMTRAK station at 7:10 AM, about 2 hours, 45 minutes late. The ride up the Mon River was beautiful. Florence, Al and I enjoyed a most pleasant conversation and finally left the dining car about 8:00 AM. Al retired so that they could move to Idaho where their daughter could begin nursing school immediately. In California she was on a four-year wait list. They traveled by train on their honeymoon 60 years ago and were making this train journey around the US to celebrate their marriage. They had not been on a train since their marriage. They were en route from Seattle to Chicago to Washington for 10 days of touring; then back to Chicago to catch the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles to visit some friends, then back up the West Coast to Seattle. Al served in the Navy in WWII and they are very proud of one of their granddaughters who is just about finished her US Air Force (USAF) training to be a loadmaster on the USAF mammoth C-17 cargo jets, based out of McChord Air Force Base in the State of Washington. Since the dining car was beginning to fill up, we wished each other pleasant travels and said goodbye.
John told me that a chef was just put back on the Capitol Limited this week and that the western omelet was made from scratch in the diner. Eggs to order, with bacon, were still not available. So I followed John's recommendation and ordered the western omelet, which was quite good. The croissant roll was fresh and soft, contrary to most of my previous breakfast experiences on AMTRAK. The hash browns were cooked very well, not at all greasy, and were stacked in a fluffy pile. Definitely not the tightly packed microwaved hash browns served on previous trips. Coffee was quite good as well, definitely much improved over brews on my previous trips. The turkey sausage links, which I ordered as a side, were very good as well, not greasy or overcooked. I tipped our waiter 15% of the value of the meal, as I do for all my meals in the diner. I did notice that a number of patrons did not leave tips. I want to think that they paid for their meals by credit card and put a tip on their cards. The dining car staff on this trip in both directions was well dressed, clean, courteous, polite, prompt and attentive and deserved tips for their good service. When I got back to my roomette John had placed this morning's USA Today edition in my compartment. Good coffee, apple and orange juices, ice, and water were available down the hall at our sleeper car's convenience station by the stairwell.
Our east-bound consist: 2-P42Ds, a 1700-series baggage car, transition sleeper for the crew, two sleepers, diner, sightseer lounge, two coaches, a private car and one AMTRAK ExpressTrak baggage. John told me that our sleeper was Superliner I rebuilt equipment that was taken off the California Zephyr yesterday and put into our consist. Unlike the Superliner II sleeper on my trip out, the roomette didn't have the external clothes hook, but rather a very narrow closet with a door. The curtains were not a really good fit and I had to fiddle with them quite a bit to get them to close adequately for privacy. The upper level restroom had an imitation black granite sink unit with push knobs that shut themselves off after a while. There was none of the stainless steel typical of AMTRAK restrooms. The entire restroom was done in a beige plastic material. Lighting was much improved and, with the lavatory angled out from a corner, the restroom didn't seem as cramped as previous designs. John told me that all sleeper compartments except two in both sleeper cars were filled. He said they were going to add another coach starting this week, since passenger demand picks up this time of year. He also mentioned something about selling sleeper compartments in the crew sleeper as well on future trains.
Heading east out of the Pittsburgh area, we passed six westbound freights in one hours after McKeesport. Saw several unit trains around Pittsburgh, as well as a Union RR switcher and river side boom for unloading coal from barges and transferring it to gondolas, probably for shipment to area power generation facilities. Saw the last two remaining Jones & Loughlin steel mill blast furnaces, for which historical preservation is being pursued locally. The Jones & Loughlin RR bridges across the Mon River were still there, although the rails had been removed. These bridges allowed the molten steel from the blast furnaces on the right back of the Mon River to be carried over to the rolling mills on the left bank.
We pulled into Connellsville at 8:55 AM, so we are back to being 3 hours late. There was a very nice large colored mural painted on a retaining wall (about 8' tall and 30 ' long) about 30 meters from the tracks which depicted the old Connellsville Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) station with a B&O freight pulled by a steam loco. Looks like our ETA to Washington's Union Station of 3 PM (3 hours late) may be a bit optimistic.
We hit Cumberland around noon, now 3 ½ hours behind schedule. We've had to pull over and wait for some freights a couple of times. We passed a CSX rail replacement operation on the mainline before we got close to Cumberland. The dining car steward came around announcing the availability of lunch in the diner. All menu items were available, but the chicken pizza item ran out fairly quickly. I had the Angus burger, which had been clearly microwaved. Bread was reasonably fresh, flavor was good. Coffee was good as well, although I really wanted a beer, but beer wasn't available during this lunch. I was at least glad that the diner was stocked with food for lunch, since we were supposed to have already been in DC before noon. While I was at lunch, John re-made my compartment, so that seats were waiting for me when I returned. I shared lunch with two middle aged men from San Francisco who were making a tour around the US by train. They had come via the Empire Builder to Chicago; Capitol Limited to Washington; Southern Crescent to New Orleans, City of New Orleans to Memphis; car to Kansas City; Southwest Chief to Los Angeles; then one of the California trains back up to San Francisco. One of the men was celebrating his 50th birthday on this trip. Both were visiting family and friends along the way.
We arrived at Washington's Union Station a solid four hours late. However, I was able to catch the 4:20 PM northbound MARC commuter train, arriving at Edgewood, Maryland at 5:40 PM. The train was packed, with many passengers standing in the aisles. By the time we departed Baltimore's Penn Station, however, the crowd had thinned considerably.