Amtrak New York to Vancouver BC and Return
August 22-September 13, 2006
Croton-Harmon to Seattle via Lake Shore Limited., Empire Builder & TalgosWalter E. Zullig Jr.
My wife and I had been contemplating a trip to Alaska for some time. During June 2006 we decided to make the trip during late August and early September. Since we live on the east coast in Westchester County, NY, part of the plan was how to reach the southern part of Alaska where we could board the Alaska RR to travel further north.
One option we considered was VIA Rail to Prince Rupert. But when we finally located a cruise ship we could use from there, the VIA one way fare from Toronto would have been CDN$3700, a little dear, eh? This sent me back to the drawing board and resulted in a cruise from Vancouver, BC to Seward with stops at Juneau, Sitka, Skagway and a few other locations. A cruise also would be a nice way to help celebrate our 40th anniversary which occurred at the end of May. But first came some checking on the Amtrak website and a call to their Guest Rewards office. The result was a roomette on the Lake Shore Ltd from Croton-Harmon to Chicago, a free Guest Rewards trip in a Deluxe Bedroom from there to Portland on the Empire Builder another free trip on the Talgo from Portland to Seattle and, finally a free trip on the Talgo from there to Vancouver. We would stay overnight in Seattle and head for Vancouver on the day of the sailing. Returning we purchased a Superliner roomette on #8 SEA-CHI and a small bedroom on #48 from there back to Croton-Harmon.
The travel plans were more or less concluded early in July although we did some fine tuning after that. Finally our departure day of August 22 arrived. We took our dog to the boarding kennel, packed and caught a cab to the Croton-Harmon station, 1.1 miles from our home. We usually travel light but due to the cold and possible rainy weather in Alaska and the cruise ship needs, we had one very large suitcase and a smaller one in addition to a heavy carry on bag for each. The large suitcase was packed so we could check it to Seattle once we reached Chicago and we would leave it at the Seattle station until we boarded the Vancouver train on Saturday morning.
The Lake Shore Limited--CRT-CHI
The agent at Croton-Harmon used to be the file clerk in my law office at Metro-North. He greeted us and advised that the train was 13 minutes late but it actually arrived closer to 20" down. Several Metro-North trains arrived and departed while we waited. It came in on Track 3 with Engine 703 pulling a baggage car, crew sleeper, 3 Viewliner sleepers, a diner, a lounge car (Amfleet II) and 5 Amfleet II coaches, one more car than the normal summer consist for this train. Although the coaches were sold out, there were a few sleeper rooms open. The car attendant hesitated at our big suitcase but I told him there was little choice as checked baggage is not handled at Croton. He finally agreed to put it in an empty room in another car.
We settled into our room and enjoyed the beautiful ride up the Hudson on this cloudless day. The ride was uneventful except that north of Rhinecliff we crossed over from Track 1 to Track 2 to run past a long freight train standing on Track 1. I didn't see the engines so couldn't tell which way it was going. Around 5:45 a waitress from the diner came by to ask if we wanted dinner before or after Albany. We decided to go right away. The diner was directly behind our car so it was an easy walk. I had warned my wife, Suzanne, about the new "diner light" service. The diner had an attractive appearance and the crew was friendly. The menu provided about five choices but the prices seemed very high for what you get. Naturally meals are included for the sleeping car passengers but I'd think many of the coach passengers would resist paying these prices. I had the seared catfish which was OK but a little dry and Suzanne had the baked chicken. Unfortunately, her baked potato had large black portions inside but mine was quite good. The only desserts were Mississippi Mudpie, NY Cheesecake and a fruit salad. No more apple pie and ice cream! I had the mudpie and Suzanne had the fruit. Both were good but not worth the individual prices charged for them. The plastic type dishes look nice and worked out OK. However, the overall scene is a definite downgrading from the former food service that generally was good to excellent. This is another example of what happens when Congress attempts to micro-manage Amtrak.
The train reached Albany just as we were finishing dinner. Here our P32 locomotive was replaced with two P40's elephant style, a great deal of baggage was loaded and eventually the passengers were allowed to board. Train 449 from Boston was sitting on the Easternmost track and soon #235 from New York arrived, discharging a large number of riders. And lo-what's this-a switch engine trundled along pulling 3 ExpressTrak cars to be added to the rear of our train. Although David Gunn thought he was getting rid of all mail and express traffic, ExpressTrak had gone bankrupt and their judge ordered Amtrak to continue honoring the contract.
Departure from Albany came 31 minutes late at 6:56pm. After the Schenectady stop we had some more nice scenery through the Mohawk Valley with a 4 minute delay at Hoffmans where the CSX freight line joins in. After a freight passed the Dispatcher promised to "let you run" and we moved along rapidly. Since we were getting tired, we had the attendant make up the room about 9pm. I adjourned to the lounge car while Suzanne went to bed. At this time I also walked through the entire train and noted the sleepers to be nearly full and that there were 5 coaches, not the usual consist of 4. They were quite full as well and I heard the conductors on the radio getting rates for selling sleeping car space to coach passengers. The two sleepers in front of our car had cards on each room with the passengers' names as well as points of travel. About 95% of them were going to Chicago with a very few to Toledo and South Bend. Our car had two attendants, one a trainee. He gave the better service but neither was too swift. When we boarded at CRT the older one said he couldn't find "2 passengers" on our travel agency issued ticket; I suggested he leave that problem to the conductor.
We were about an hour late by Utica where about 25 detrained and a like number boarded. There we used the recently constructed platform alongside Track 1, the normal "Westbound" track. This platform also is used by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad After that stop I returned to the room to retire for the night.
The train ran fast but neither of us slept that well. In the upper berth I had a sensation of a very rough ride in some locations, especially at interlockings. At one location the train seemed to jump up, something other passengers mentioned at breakfast. Also we sometimes had a rather violent lateral motion and I was glad the attendant had hooked up the safety net. Nevertheless I had slept through the stops at Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland and Toledo. I awoke as we were nearing Bryan, OH, where we arrived at 7:48am (due at 6:25). Shortly after the attendant knocked on the door to advise that breakfast was only served until 8:30 so we got dressed and headed for the diner.
Breakfast was a slow process, even with the pre-cooked meals now used. Suzanne had the Continental and I had a quiche. Our table companion was a man from North Adams, MA, who had boarded at Albany and was heading for Denver. He very much dislikes flying and mentioned that the morning paper had an article about an air crash in the Ukraine that killed 170 people. Many Eastbound freights passed while we were in the diner, including a Detroit Edison unit coal train with three BNSF units for power. The next one to pass had two UP units.
Although we had been only 1+ hours late, the train kept losing time. At South Bend the South Shore Line track at the now-exclusively Amtrak station was quite rusty so I assume little or no freight uses it. We ran parallel to the South Shore for part of the trip in this area but didn't see any of their trains. I did notice a new station for what appeared to be Ogden Dunes with a mini high level platform. A new housing development was under construction a short walk from that station. We raced through the former Union Station at Gary, now merely a shell with walls and empty space inside.
Nearer to Chicago we encountered quite a few freight trains, running in both directions. In all fairness to NS, at this point they did a good job of moving us along. But there were a few delays at junctions and our arrival at Chicago's Union Station was an hour, 45 minutes late at 10:45am. Our first item of business was to check the large bag through to Seattle. That accomplished, we headed for the Metropolitan Lounge to drop the other bag while we did some walking around the city. Next we walked over to the new main Post Office on Harrison St. to mail a small package. This has replaced the large 2-block long building visible from the trains and involved a walk even once inside the building. Next to Citibank to pick up cash and then to RTA HQ on Jackson Blvd. for Suzanne to obtain her RTA/CTA half fare card. We also went upstairs with the hope of visiting a friend who works for RTA but he was in New Haven, CT, on vacation. Since time was running we returned to Union Station to relax in the Metropolitan Lounge on this rather warm day.
The Empire Builder
At 1:40 a boarding announcement was made and we joined the other passengers heading outside to our train. The rear car was the Minneapolis drop-off coach and our Portland sleeper was the very next car. Once inside we could see this train is something special. All the equipment had been rehabilitated with dark blue seats and simulated wood paneled walls. Everything was immaculate. Once upstairs our attendant, Paul, introduced himself and said he'd be back later with champagne. Excellent information announcements were made by the crew and we soon were underway with an on time departure. Paul soon came by with two bottles of champagne. I told him this is a great way to travel but I only wish they had nice glasses instead of the plastic now used. I recall a trip from Portland to Denver several years ago when we were given beautiful glasses made for the Pioneer as take home souvenirs. Alas, both the Pioneer and the glasses are gone.
After Glenview we began to see grain elevators, a sure sign of the Midwest. And a short distance into Wisconsin we passed a large Wisconsin Electric Power Co. generating plant with about 100 coal hopper cars parked around it. Dining car reservations were taken as we traveled between Chicago and Milwaukee and we were looking forward to a real dinner with meals cooked on board. Since the Milwaukee arrival was early, it was designated a "smoking stop" so I got off to walk around. The station is concrete and is covered over with roadways so there isn't much to see or do there. Further on a large crowd boarded at Columbus, the stop for Madison. We adjourned to the sightseer lounge car to enjoy the scenery at Wisconsin Dells and other locations in farm country.
Our dinner reservations were for 6:45. Upon entering the diner the very attractive setup was apparent. Moreover, the staff was a close to excellent with five waitresses who were friendly and energetic and did everything possible to encourage people to use the diner. [For example, "We have 3 seats open at this seating; anyone who would like to have dinner come in now." I can't envision this happening on the Lake Shore Ltd.] Our table companions were a couple from Mankato, MN, who were heading to Minneapolis. They had traveled to Chicago from Cleveland on the Capitol Limited. We discovered that we had some things in common: both have a child and family in the Cleveland area and both are interested in railroads. All had the steak which was excellent and I enjoyed vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert. Our friendly waitress mentioned that she has been with Amtrak for 28 years, having worked on the Sunset, Texas Eagle, California Zephyr and now the Builder.
The Minneapolis stop came 13 minutes late but the departure was 36 minutes down. I detrained to walk around and finish jotting down the train's consist. The station was quite full of people and, as on past trips, the conductors were checking in the passengers by destinations so as to get them seated in the proper cars. This is a time consuming process and I believe was the main reason for the 19 minute stop ending up as a 43 minute stop. While in the station a Minnesota Commercial RR switcher removed the last coach and placed it on another track. That was the CHI-MSP coach so our car now became the last one on the train affording an "observation car" view through the rear door window.
The train's consist was as follows: Engines 81 and 82, elephant style, pulling 1 baggage car, 1 crew transition sleeper, 2 sleepers for Seattle, a diner, 2 coaches for Seattle, a Sightseer lounge car, 2 coaches for Portland, a sleeper for Portland (our car) and the CHI-MSP coach. Upon reaching Spokane the Sightseer car and those behind it would be separated from #7 to continue to Portland as Train #27.
Suzanne was sleeping when I returned from the MSP station so I climbed upstairs and settled in for the night. I must have dropped off about 11:50 and awoke shortly after 7am when the conductor was announcing the Devils Lake, ND, stop. At that point we were about an hour late. Soon the dining car crew started making their announcements so it was time to get up and have breakfast.
The car attendant put my name on the waiting list but I still had a 15 minute wait as the diner was full. My breakfast, a delicious omelette, was well worth the wait. The conversations revealed several other passengers who were heading to Seattle or Vancouver to board cruise ships.
The Minot stop came just as I was finishing breakfast. I detrained and picked up some maps in the station but didn't walk around too much as it was raining. I noted the bank of vending machines that provided me with "breakfast" on a previous trip when the diner had closed earlier than I had expected. No photos here due to the rain but I would get some at the afternoon servicing stop at Havre. That's in the "Big Sky Country" of Montana where the sun always shines. Rugby was the next station after Minot; Sinclair gas is still being sold here, now at $3.00 a gallon.
We had lunch about 11:45am, now in Montana and on Mountain Time. Suzanne had an excellent salad while I enjoyed a delicious pizza along with a small salad and finished off with vanilla ice cream. As before, the service was excellent. Our companions at the table were a young couple from Sioux Falls, SD, who had boarded in Fargo, ND, at 3:24am. They were headed to Whitefish, MT, which is a very popular destination on this train. During lunch the train made its stop at Wolf Point, MT, where a large crowd was waiting to board. Yes, this train is far more than service to the end points of Chicago and Portland or Seattle. There are countless "ons and offs" at the many stations along the way and the residents of these communities are dependent on the Builder for their transportation needs.
Havre, MT, the next big stop came nearly an hour late at 3:18. Westbound trains first make a stop East of the depot to refuel the locomotives; upon conclusion the train proceeded to make its station stop of about 15 minutes duration. Some smoked while others took photos. Back on board I was working on the computer when the conductor announced the Shelby stop. That seemed much earlier than it should have been-indeed some recovery time has been built into the schedule and we waited at Shelby for 15 minutes. Radio talk indicated that we were going to back out so I went to the rear of the car where a conductor gave the back up instructions to the engineer. It was only about a half mile to enable us to cross over to the parallel track and run around a freight train. Two other passengers from our car appeared to have an interest in the proceedings and joined me in talking trains at the rear door for the next half hour. While looking out the back I snapped photos of two other freights we overtook. BNSF dispatchers really did a good job of keeping #7 moving along by passing and overtaking quite a few freights.
We again had selected the 6:45 dinner seating. Upon hearing the announcement by Jeanette, our outgoing hostess, we entered the car and were seated with two sisters heading for Portland. One of them does a lot of traveling with her husband who had dropped her at South Bend to catch Amtrak to Chicago. She had considered flying that leg but the airline wanted $258 for the flight. She paid about $17 on Amtrak and I mentioned the possibility of the South Shore Line with more frequent service and a yet lower fare. Suzanne and I again had the NY Strip steak which was excellent and would be our final meal with the marvelous crew in this diner. Since that car goes to Seattle, we would have what the timetable describes as "cold meal service" for breakfast in the lower level of the lounge car.
We turned in early and slept well. About 6am I awoke to realize that the train was twisting and turning as we ran through the Columbia River gorge. Indeed, washing and dressing was more complicated than usual because the train was constantly turning in different directions. At one point the train lurched violently while I was standing in the bathroom. Even though locked, the door didn't hold my weight and I crashed through falling over the chair in the bedroom. The aches from this continued for about 10 days during the trip.
After Spokane our Train 27 had shrunk to a mini-streamliner of but four cars. Once up and around I headed to the rear door to view the sunrise over the river and the railroad tracks. Several UP freights passed on the other side of the river and BNSF trains were waiting in sidings for our train to pass. Advised by our car attendant that "Some people really like the cold breakfast," we walked three cars forward to the "Observatory Car," as the friendly attendant there called it in his announcements. There was a line downstairs as this now was the only food service car on the train. Ahead of me was a young Amish fellow from the Toronto area. He had taken the Blue Water from Port Huron to CHI, thence #7 to Shelby, MT, where he had spent a few days before boarding our train for Portland. There he would change to the Coast Starlight en route to Martinez, CA.
Once I reached the head of the line the attendant had me sign a "sleeping car meal sheet" and gave me two packages as well as two coffees. Suzanne already had claimed a table downstairs and we ate our breakfasts there. Despite stories to the contrary, the meals were not bad. The package had a ham & cheese sandwich on a bagel, cup of yogurt, small fruit salad and a small cake. While we were eating, the conductor announced the Wishram stop and added that we were nearly on time and should reach Portland a few minutes early. Yes, this is a well run train due in no small part to the efforts of BNSF to keep it on schedule. Since the few tables were needed by others, when finished eating we moved back upstairs to view the magnificent scenery along the Columbia River.
The train moved along at good speed with numerous freights waiting in sidings. After viewing some more scenery, we soon pulled into Vancouver, WA, followed by crossing the wide Columbia River and entry to Portland Union Station. Portland is a very nice city and I noticed quite a few new medium rise apartment houses a short distance north of the station. Some of those folks will have a great view from their balconies. Our arrival was at 9:51 (10:25). After saying goodbye to Paul and rewarding him for his excellent service, we went inside the station and entered the Metropolitan Lounge. The one in Portland is one of the nicest in the Amtrak system and was built outside the walls of the original building, on the wide station platform. Our next train would be a Cascade, departing for Seattle at 12:15pm.
Although it was a beautiful day, we didn't ride the light rail line. While heading west we had decided to attempt to obtain a big (a/k/a "Deluxe") bedroom for the return trip out of Seattle on #8. I visited the ticket office and accomplished the change with the help of two agents and Amtrak's coffers were somewhat enriched as a result. We then read the paper and attempted to go on-line but the station had no internet connection and the two phone lines provided for this purpose didn't work. Soon we were told a line was forming for Train 506 to Seattle. Indeed, the line extended from the train gate through the station and almost out to the street! Two conductors were collecting the tickets and issuing seat checks with car and seat numbers. Ours were in Car 8, the next to the last car on the train.
Portland to Seattle Cascade Talgo Train
August 25th was my birthday and I had looked forward to spending four hours of it on the Cascade Talgo followed by a nice dinner in Seattle. Boarding started about noon and we highballed out exactly on time at 12:15. The ride was fast and smooth but we somehow lost time. North of Portland there were many freight trains but they didn't seem to delay us. An announcement was made for the Bistro car in the center of the train so we headed for it. WOW-another long line stretching well into the next car that was equipped with tables. Suzanne took a table seat while I waited on line for about 15 minutes. They had hot dogs and cheeseburgers but why have Northeast Corridor food when you can enjoy local specialties? I had a salad and Suzanne had a "special" sandwich. Unlike the California trains, the cash registers aren't equipped with credit card readers so the cashier had to make up a form on an old fashioned manual machine.
Just as we were sitting down for lunch the conductor made a long announcement that a freight train had derailed around Tacoma. He promised an update but said that "as of now" the plan is to hold the train at Centralia to await developments. Later he mentioned that a Greyhound bus departs there (about a mile from the station) at 3:30 and even advised the fares to Tacoma and Seattle. At this point quite a few detrained with luggage, etc., while others were shouting into cellphones in an attempt to get friends to pick them up. Finally, the word came that we would proceed to Olympia where cabs might be available. Once there, anyone having checked baggage was invited to come back to the baggage car to pick up their items. From there we headed north to a siding at Titlow where we would wait and see. At least half the passengers detrained at Olympia; when we pulled out there was one taxi sitting there and a line of about 75 people waiting.
We reached the Titlow Siding at 3:25 and pulled in alongside a northbound BNSF double stack train. It looked huge from our low Talgo train. I turned my radio on but heard nothing until about 4:45 when the Dispatcher advised "Well, they've got the Business Class car back on and now they're working on the power car." So, the derailment was not a freight but, rather, southbound Cascade Talgo train #513 which was due out of Tacoma at 12:05pm. During the wait several "smoke breaks" were held in the baggage car at the rear of the train. Later on a "fresh air break" was announced. About 20 people headed for the baggage car where the side doors had been opened. The man in charge of all of this was the Operations Manager for the Cascade service. He explained some of the things they are doing to attract customers and mentioned that several other Talgo cars had been damaged by a recent derailment. Actually the re-railing process with a crane is what did the damage. So they're now a little short of equipment-not a good situation with sold out trains.
Eventually I started hearing radio chatter about trains being moved and we started at 6:35. Although there were many freight trains in the area, we received priority and made good time once underway. The train that had derailed was sitting in the Tacoma station so those headed for that city had to continue on to Seattle and use taxis provided by Amtrak. We reached Seattle's King St. Station at 7:56, 4 hours and one minute late. Overall, though, the trip was a good experience because of the comfortable equipment and the friendly, helpful personnel.
Because of the late arrival we had to scrap some things we had wanted to do in Seattle and took a cab directly to our Marriott hotel overlooking Lake Union. My birthday dinner was at a nearby Outback.
Seattle-Vancouver Talgo Train
August 26, 2006 required an early start as we needed to get to King St. Station in time to claim our large suitcase that had been checked from CHI and check it and our smaller bag on to Vancouver, BC. This was handled efficiently by the baggage room staff who had large amounts of luggage to deal with. We then joined the check in line for our train. As in Portland, the conductors took our tickets in the station and issued seat checks with car and seat number. Although I dislike waiting in lines, it moved fast and I must admit this is a very civilized way of boarding a train since it omits the mad scramble to find seats. The ability to check baggage also helps and was used by many riders. Naturally another way to do this on reserved trains would be to have the tickets pre-printed with car and seat numbers but this hasn't been done for many years. The station check in solves the "no show" problem as "standby" passengers often can be accommodated.
Once again, the train was clean and made an attractive appearance. We boarded at the door for our car and found our seats in short order. Departure came at 7:39 which is a minute early but permitted as all passengers are required to be on board by 7:35. Shortly after departure an announcement was made that the train had both Bistro and dining cars and that the diner now was open. The crew also announced that the empty seats in two of the cars would be filled at the next two stops "so please don't move into them." As was yesterdays train, this one was sold out. We headed for the diner which was full so we added our names to the wait list. About 40 minutes later we were called over the PA system. The diner made an elegant appearance with linen tablecloths and a very attractive setting. We both enjoyed breakfast as the train ran along Puget Sound on a beautiful, clear day. The Bistro was run by one attendant and the diner by another who was quite busy clearing tables, taking orders, running the microwave and serving. A service manager also was on board and he helped with the reservations as well as assisting passengers with luggage and making some very upbeat announcements. If only we could have something like this in the Northeast Corridor!
After breakfast we returned to our seats to enjoy the scenic ride. I noted a new glass station at Everett and a new brick one at Mt. Vernon. Bellingham also had a modern brick station about a mile south of the old one which is still standing. Following the Bellingham stop, the manager passed through the train with Canadian Customs forms. We also were told that the checked baggage at Vancouver gets picked up on the platform by the baggage car as we must proceed through Customs with our own luggage.
As soon as the train reached the International Boundary at the affluent town of White Rock, BC, the ride became noticeably rougher as we entered jointed rail. At a few locations the train swayed from side to side and ran somewhat slowly. The ride quality changed from good to bad and back to good as we moved along. My conclusion is that the Talgos don't ride well on bad track. After a few stops for hand thrown switches near the Vancouver station we arrived there at 11:32 (11:40). Nice trip--no complaints! Many cars from VIA's Canadian were parked on various station tracks.
A cage has been constructed around the track used by the Amtrak international trains to ensure that everyone enters through Canada Customs. The cars are unloaded one at a time to prevent a long line. We gathered our two checked suitcases and got through Customs in short order. I told them this would be our shortest trip to Canada since we would be leaving by ship in a few hours. Amtrak uses the former CN station, now known as the Pacific Central Station, also used by VIA and some bus lines. We grabbed a cab out front and were at the cruise ship pier about 15 minutes later, ready for the next phase of our trip.
Amtraking from Seattle to Croton-Harmon, NY
We had arrived in Seattle about 5:00am on September 10, 2006, after an "overnight" flight from Anchorage, AK, and would be leaving on the Empire Builder about 12 hours later.
After arrival we had a light breakfast at the airport food court and hunted for the shuttle van office for transportation to King St. Station. We reached the station at 7:36 just as the Cascade was departing for Vancouver, BC. I walked to the baggage counter and asked the attendant if that was the Vancouver train. "I'm sorry sir, but you've just missed it." "Then I guess it's good that we're going to Chicago." He had a good sense of humor and checked our jumbo suitcase to CHI and held the other suitcase and two carry ons at no charge. The large bag had been weighted at Anchorage Airport for the first time and we discovered it weighed 49.5 pounds, just under Continental's 50 pound limit for "free" baggage as well as under Amtrak's limit for carry on luggage.
During the interim we took a Washington State Ferry to Bainbridge Island where we met friends for brunch. Since the substitute bus now painted in the yellow/green scheme of the former Waterfront Trolley did not appear to be running this early, we walked over to the ferry dock via historic Pioneer Square. Once again the good weather was along with us and the 35 minute ferry ride was very scenic. Our friends greeted us on the other side and took us around the area after first having a delicious brunch at a famous local restaurant.
Our return was on the 12:20 trip of the vessel "Tacoma;" the going trip had been on the "Wenatchee." Since we both suffered from lack of sleep we decided to just walk around and end up at the station. Along the way, we visited the new Klondike Gold Rush Museum run by the National Park Service in a former old hotel building at Pioneer Square. This told some of the same story we heard in Skagway and Juneau but emphasized the role Seattle played as a transit and outfitting point for those heading to and from the Gold Rush areas.
Empire Builder Seattle to Chicago
We returned to King St. Station about 3:30 and were surprised to see two Sounder trains in the station as this was a Sunday. After photographing them, I learned they were baseball specials for a Seattle Mariners game then in progress. One would go to Tacoma, the other to Everett. Indeed, they both pulled out shortly before our train's departure and after the Mariners ended up losing to the Texas Rangers 3-2. I also noted that Cascade #506 from Portland was scheduled to arrive a little early at 3:51pm so went out to photograph its arrival behind a "Cabbage" unit-a former F40 now used as a cab/baggage car. A large crowd detrained and about 50 items of checked baggage came off as well. The Cascade trains provide a good service at reasonable fares and are well patronized.
The Builder pulled in about 4pm. It was immaculate and really looked like a first class train. Sleeping car passengers were invited to board at 4:15 and we soon located our car, the 4th behind the locomotives. At this point the consist was two P42 locomotives pulling a baggage car, transition crew sleeper, 2 sleepers, a diner and two coaches. Two ExpressTrak cars full of apples would be picked up at Wenatchee and a Sightseer Lounge car, 2 coaches and one sleeper from the Portland section [Train #28] would be added during the night at Spokane.
Our Room A in Car 830 was just in front of the diner so we didn't get much exercise. Prior to departure the crew made excellent announcements and the very efficient dining car Steward came through to make dinner reservations. We wanted to turn in early so chose the 6pm seating where we joined a couple in their early 80's en route from Seattle to Libby, MT. From there they would travel to CHI, thence WAS and to Richmond, VA, for some family functions. They had been married 42 years and had children and grandchildren in numerous locations. All at our table had the Flat Steak, priced at $21 (but "free" to us) which was OK but not spectacular.
After dinner the attendant had made up our room so we gradually settled in. On the Westbound trip we had Room C which is more spacious than Room A because the sink area in that room is at one side instead of in the center of the room. I climbed into the upper as the train was stopping at Wenatchee, WA, where we would stop for about 10 minutes before backing on to a yard track to pick up 2 cars of apples heading to the East Coast. I dropped off to sleep as the train was doing the back up move and barely remember the coupling.
Our car attendant was from Hong Kong and goes there periodically to visit his 95 year old mother. He jokingly mentioned that he will retire in 18 months will move back there to run a rickshaw. Earlier he has showed us a memo that our train will be subject to a 2 hour delay at Winona, Minnesota, station as the CP will be doing steel work on the Mississippi River bridge. As a result, those transferring to the Capitol Limited and four other trains at CHI would be "bussed" from St. Paul to CHI. Luckily for us the Lake Shore Limited departs four hours after #8 arrives so we didn't experience the pleasure of a "motor coach connection" ride. However, we would get a few hours at Winona where we had been for about 2 hours during a trip on the 2004 NRHS Convention. This time there was no barbecue.
Monday morning I awoke about 7:30am as the conductor was making the station announcement for Whitefish, MT. Thus I had slept from about 9:20pm until 7:30am to make up for the loss of sleep on the previous night's flight. Suzanne slept a few hours longer. My breakfast companions were a young interracial couple from Portland heading to Minneapolis and a gentleman from SEA also destined to MSP. My selection was the standard two scrambled eggs with sausages, croissant, OJ and coffee. Suzanne was still sleeping so I spent some time enjoying Western Montana from the Sightseer lounge which was nearly full. While in the diner we stopped at Essex, MT, and passed the famous Issak Walton Inn where many guests waved and others took photos. Western Montana is beautiful but the state becomes flat as you head east.
Soon it was time for yet another lunch. My table companions this time were an elderly lady with her daughter and son-in-law. They had boarded at Whitefish and were traveling to Williston, ND.
A few words about the train crews. Without exception the conductors and assistant conductors were courteous, friendly and helpful. They made good announcements and about 10pm would explain that no announcements would be made during the night but that detraining passengers would be advised before their stops. Everything started with, "Ladies & Gentlemen." By the announcements we could tell that we had the same conductor in both directions between Chicago and Winona. He would announce the station followed by, "If this is NOT your stop, please do not descend the stairway and unnecessarily delay this train." The diner was a very well run operation headed up by a very efficient lady named Fran. Her only fault was that she made some of the same announcements a little too often. Our car attendant from Hong Kong was raving about the growth of Hong Kong and mainland China and plans to move back there when he retires in 18 months.
About 3:30pm all sleeping car passengers were invited to a wine tasting event in the diner. We sampled 4 wines and 4 cheeses. I was seated with a couple from SEA and a lady whose husband was resting in his room. After we started talking she and her friends almost fell out of their chairs with laughter as her husband is a railfan and both of them had worked on the White Pass & Yukon RR (which we had just visited) during one or two summers. They were going to St Paul. I later met her husband and we had some good conversation.
Before long it was dinnertime once again. We had 6:30 reservations which really was at 5:30 as the diner operates on Central Time in the area of the MT-ND boundary. We were joined by a couple from Concord, CA who had taken the Coast Starlight to SEA and stayed there overnight. They originally were from Philadelphia but moved to California 19 years ago. Since they were taking the Capitol Ltd to WAS and a Corridor train to PHL, they would be bussed from MSP, for which they would receive a $58 credit for the loss of their sleeping car space.
Later that evening I briefly detrained during the Minot, ND, stop which would be longer than normal because of the need to change out an air hose. Our beds had been made up and Suzanne already was resting in the lower; I climbed into the upper and dropped off just as we were departing Minot at 10:48 (due at 9:57).
The next thing I remember is the conductor's 8 am announcement from a loudspeaker directly over my head that we were approaching MSP and that passengers for five enumerated trains must change to "alternative motor-coach transportation for Milwaukee where transfer will be made to a regional train to Chicago. The buses will be in front of the depot." So much for alternative motor-coaches. About 8:45 I went in for breakfast and was joined by a CP conductor deadheading from MSP to Portage, WI, to pick up a freight train delayed by the bridge work. He explained the nature of the heavy bridge work being done and mentioned that additional delays would occur since there was track work in progress in Wisconsin. This time I had pancakes with sausage links as well as my usual OJ and coffee.
When we reached Winona at 10:40 (10:01) we were told that only a brief stop would be made since the CP advised that we might be able to move through the work area earlier than anticipated. So after about 7 minutes everyone reboarded the train and it moved about 50 feet. There we sat again and were allowed to detrain until 12 noon when CPRail said they could take us. Nearer to the bridge, at River Junction, there was a long stop but we finally proceeded across the Mississippi.
At noon we joined a couple from Rapid City, SD, for lunch. The husband is English and author of children's books, mainly for Native Americans. When I mentioned that South Dakota now is the only US state I've not visited, they laughed and said they had boarded at Williston, ND, 350 miles north. Later they showed us some of the books he has written.
Back in our room, I asked the attendant for some ice to chill our second bottle of champagne. He returned with a new cold bottle and traded it for our warm one and brought Suzanne a Pepsi from his private stock. At this point we had reached Tomah, WI and I noted we were nearly 3 hours late. I still thought this would not be a problem although there would be no time to ride the "L" in Chicago but I probably would make it to a Citibank a few blocks away. Unfortunately, we encountered more track work and some signal problems due to recent rains and continued to lose time. Departure from Milwaukee was over 3 hours late and we reached Chicago's Union Station at 7:17 (3:55). Aside from the delay the trip was excellent and we duly rewarded our helpful car attendant to help fund his rickshaw.
Lake Shore Limited-Chicago to Croton-Harmon
The next and final leg of our trip was on Amtrak #48, the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to our home station of Croton-Harmon, NY. In view of the late arrival I was concerned that our checked suitcase might not reach the baggage carousel in time for me to grab it and catch our train. I explained this to the Amtrak people unloading #8's baggage car and added that I needed the bag since it couldn't be checked to my destination. They located the bag, I handed them the claim check and we entered the station. The Cardinal was being announced for its 7:30 departure but Train 48 also was loading so there was no time to head to Citibank or even the station's ATM machine.
As soon as we reached the train it was apparent that we had left the west. The platform was utter confusion and the attendant for the car next to ours wanted to see our tickets and then claimed there was no place for the large bag. I told her that since Amtrak does not check baggage to CRT and the bag is under 50 pounds it must come aboard. I suggested it ride in the vestibule with some other large pieces of luggage. Well, OK, but I'll have to check with your attendant. "Fine," said I and we walked inside to our rooms. What a contrast with all the trains out west where the crews are friendly and helpful. Here I had to figure out what to do for the service crew. Luckily the dining car LSA was in our car and gave us 8pm dinner reservations. Our orders were taken reasonably soon but the service was very slow and we gave up waiting to order dessert and just walked out without leaving a tip.
The train should have departed while we were in the diner but didn't move. At 8:15 the reason became apparent when Train 6, the California Zephyr, pulled in across the platform about 5 hours late with many connecting passengers. After all the baggage had been transferred we pulled out at 8:30, already 35 minutes late before leaving the station.
Rain had started as we neared Chicago on #8. Before South Bend we were held at an interlocking signal as it now was raining harder and there had been a report of a tree down on Track 2. After two freights and an Amtrak train had passed on Track 1, the word came that the tree did not foul our track and we continued. The rain was coming down in torrents at South Bend where about 25 boarded. Our beds were made up about this time and I climbed upstairs for the night and dropped off as we were leaving Elkhart at 12:02 (10:47).
For me Sept. 13, the last day of our trip, began when I heard passengers talking loudly about 7:30am. After dressing I entered the diner and was seated with a couple from Baldwin, NY, who were returning from Denver and a bus tour of National Parks. They had been on the previous day's California Zephyr that was late and missed #48 by about a half hour and had spent the night in Homewood, IL, where Amtrak houses its "missed connection" passengers. Their main complaint was a late arrival there when it was too late to get dinner. Suzanne soon joined us. The waiter was jovial and the service crew turned out to be better than I had first thought. In my view, though, they joked with some passengers a little too much.
The train had made up some time during the night and departure from Buffalo was at 8:00 (7:10). However, more delays ensued. The Rochester station stop consumed 19 minutes and there were two stops for a CSX track project west of Syracuse. Further single tracking delays occurred between there and Utica but after that we zipped along at track speed on very smooth track.
Suzanne passed on lunch. I was joined by a couple from Longview, TX, who had used the Texas Eagle to CHI and were heading to Boston. From there they would continue to Washington and eventually home. Shortly thereafter we were joined by a man from San Diego also en route to Boston. He later mentioned that he had worked at MBTA while Dave Gunn headed the agency and further conversation developed that we had several other mutual friends.
Utica station came at 12:37 (10:22). Much equipment of the Adirondack Scenic RR was on hand on their station track. From there the train continued at good speed through the Mohawk Valley. However, around Amsterdam the conductor asked the engineer to radio for police assistance at Schenectady as a passenger allegedly was attempting to extort money from another rider. When we reached SDY, two city police officers were on hand and boarded the rear of the train. Soon Train 283 from NYP to Niagara Falls arrived on the opposite track and #292 running late from Rutland, VT was heard on the radio calling for a signal; it was waiting to access the connection from "The D&H." Hence gridlock with 3 trains at Schenectady. Eventually our train moved down a few car lengths to clear the north switch for #283 which soon departed. But almost immediately #292 came in on that track and was allowed to leave ahead of us.
Departure from SDY came at 2:25 (11:39) after two passengers had been removed by the police. Since we were following #292 the ride to ALB was slow; after waiting about 10 minutes for a track we entered the station at 3:03 (12:30). I rushed upstairs to use the ATM machine and noted the head end consist from the station windows. But there was no need to rush as nothing had changed when I returned to the platform. The station was gridlock. First #242 had to depart at 3:15. Then Engine 706 which was parked in front of the Boston connection (Train 448) pulled down. Only then were our two locomotives uncoupled and run south to clear the switch. Next, #448 for which the "last boarding announcement" had been made 15 minutes earlier pulled forward, then backed through a crossover to access the Boston track. It then departed for Beantown. Meanwhile Engine 706 backed down on to our train, the brake test was made and we were out of town by 3:42 (1:00).
The ride down the Hudson was fast. Our car attendant had become more chatty, especially after she heard me describe to someone how the switching moves were going to be made at Albany. She confided that she would love to work for Metro-North! Train 48 reached Croton-Harmon at 5:35 (2:38), shortly before a Metro-North train from Grand Central pulled in. Thus plenty of cabs were on hand. We got our luggage and ourselves into one and were home about 7 minutes later after a delightful trip back home from Alaska.