For those of you who may have finished WAR AND PEACE and found it to be too short, I present my travelogue...
Ever seen the show "Stormchasers" on the Weather Channel?!? It's a show where a band of folks deliberately chase down Tornadoes and such. While everyone else is fleeing, these people are heading towards the eye of the storm.
I've always wondered about the sanity of these folks. After all, who in their right mind deliberately thrusts themselves into nasty weather?
Well, now it appears I must question my own sanity, as I deliberately take a trip to the "Windy City" of Chicago on the President's Day weekend. When most people in my area would be heading to mild climates such as Florida, I'm taking a "vacation" into the frigid midwest.
"Why?!?...," one would ask. A good question. The answer lies largely within the need to get away and take a train ride while on a limited travel budget due to other (later) trips planned and partially paid for. Besides, it's been a rather dull winter here in Baltimore (where, despite our rather northeasterly bearing, we fear snow with a horrific passion), so it might be nice to get just a slight taste of a true winter.
When Amtrak's "Hot Deals" page revealed a number of trains from this area at some significant reductions, I knew I had to ride SOMEWHERE!!! Initially, the plan was less mild, a ride to Pittsburgh and back on the Capitol Limited from DC was less than $50!!! However, given the late arrival into the Burgh, and the early departure, such a plan would require a TWO night stay just to get one true day to spend there. By the time that added up, the bargain fare was running me over $200 once I added in the hotel.
On a whim, I decided to make the journey more adventurous. Since Amtrak arrives in Chicago conveniently in the morning, and leaves conveniently in the evening, how about looking into Chitown as a destination. Looking on Hotwire revealed just what an OFF travel season it is for Chicago in February, with 4 Star Hotels in the Loop going for under $75 a night (try this in Summertime, and you'll find them listed at over $200!).
So now my crazy plan was set. After some tinkering with the dates, I discovered the best plan was to leave Baltimore on the Thursday ahead of the holiday, arrive in Chicago on Friday morning, spend the day there, camp overnight in a hotel, then spend another day in Chicago before leaving back out that Saturday evening, to arrive back in Baltimore on Sunday. Choosing this plan allowed me to mix up the itinerary, heading to Chicago on the Capitol Limited (via Pittsburgh and Cleveland) and returning on the Cardinal (via Indianapolis and Cincinnatti). Round trip train travel was $93, while the hotel came out to $80, so I was getting days of adventure and scenery for less than $175!
Fortunately, one of my friends was as crazy as I am, so he volunteered to journey with me. While not the train junkie I am, he was at least receptive to the trip, and wanted to experience Chitown at it's "finest," so I was pleased to have his company for this journey.
Despite making a Chicago journey before, this trip would be different in a number of respects. First, it would be my first time aboard both trains #29 and #50. I'd ridden #30 and #51 before, but taking the trains opposite direction would allow me the chance to get lots of new daylight scenery I missed before, most notably West Virginia's New River Gorge. Also, despite dozens of train rides, this would also be the very first time I can ever recall taking a train (in this case #29) from its origin to its terminus. Finally, unlike my last trip to Chicago, my itinerary for this trip would be much more transit focused.
My transportation to and from Chicago includes just one notable missing link. While the returning Cardinal will drop me into Baltimore, the outbound Capitol Limited offers no such convenience, and thus, we must make our way to Washington DC in order to board it. There are numerous ways to accomplish this, but the IDEAL way to do this would be to catch MARC's Camden Line to Washington DC. Why you might ask?
For a number of years around the early to mid 1960's, Baltimore's Camden Station on the B&O was the actual ORIGIN for the Capitol Limited. Riding the MARC Camden commuter line would merely replicate the original journey taken by the Capitol Limited from Baltimore, travelling along a portion of the original Main Line to "Relay" before heading into DC through Laurel, albeit with much more spartan, functional equipment than the Capitol of old.
However, the current MARC schedule is not exactly the most functional towards maintaining the historic connection to the Capitol Limited. Yesteryear, the Limited traditionally left Baltimore about 3:20pm, leaving Washington Union at 4:30pm. Today's Capitol Limited leaves at 4:00pm, but the first PM MARC Train leaves Camden Station at 3:30pm, arriving in Washington at 4:38pm, missing the connection. The best alternate for those who wish to replicate the historic route is to catch the last AM train - the 8:15am, arriving in Washington at 9:27am, thus leaving a 6.5 hour window between the connection, fine if you'd like to spend a day sightseeing in pleasant weather, but when it's February, and you're toughing it out in "Coach" the following night, you tend to want to leave as late (and as clean) as possible, and not to do any needless sweating until the next time you can access a shower.
With that in mind, it's time to consider the less "historic" alternates: Amtrak, MARC Penn, or the Light Rail/B-30 Bus/DC Metro adventure. Amtrak offers the most comfy ride and the benefit of AGR points, while the rail/bus/rail route offers the cheapest way to travel. MARC Penn lies right in between, at half the base Amtrak fare, and taking only slightly longer. Since I'm packing rather light with only a big bookbag as my luggage, it seems the perfect choice. Were I lugging a rolling case or if Amtrak had a double points promotion going on, I'd have likely booked a ticket on Amtrak to DC. If I were only going to Pittsburgh, I'd have probably been receptive to the adventurous route, but given my itinerary, MARC's 1:40 PM trip to DC seems like the best option.
So armed with a very well packed backpack, and dressed for the weather, I set off from home at 12:30pm to catch the #61 bus to Penn Station. It arrives on perfect time, and we're at Penn Station at about 1:00pm. Once there, it's off to the window to pick up the tickets, and snatch a MARC ticket to reach DC. At about 1:30pm, my commuter train is called for boarding, and I make my way to the platform to find a set of Kawasaki bilevels awaiting me. Unlike most trips, I opt for a seat on the lower level, hoping it will make better train watching than the upper level, where only indistinct rooflines pass by on the other track. It doesn't. Now, only the lower siding is visible.as we pass other trains.
We launch at 1:43pm to allow a late running SB Regional priority, and make our journey from Baltimore to DC. The ride is rather lightly travelled, and quiet with the exception of one man who continually rustles newspaper, which gradually irks me. Still, we arrive in DC at good time before 2:40pm.
From here, I'm off through Union Station DC for a few travel necessities: a rail magazine, mints, cough drops, bottled water, and a small flask of whiskey for a nightcap. At 3:20, I head towards the gates and find the Capitol Limited's gate finally posted, where I await my friend, who finally arrives at abut 3:35pm. At about 3:45, the sold out train is called for the boarding of coach passengers, and we make our way out to see the consist of two locos, two (! +) baggage cars, transition sleeper, two sleepers, diner, sightseer, and two (! -) coaches awaiting us. Unlike previous trips, on this one, the conductors divy us up by destination (TOL & CHI in 1st coach, all others in rear) and give us prenumbered seat checks upon boarding. We make our way up the stairs and take our spots in seats 13 and 14. Oh, joy! Right above the trucks, and no outlet!
Still, the Superliner, while a tad worn, is still clean and comfy, and its nice and warm as well - perfect to combat the cold temps outside, which are never evident from its cozy confines. The train seems primped for its journey, as the passengers file in to fill up the available seats.
At 4:05pm, we're off, and the Amtrak journey has officially begun. As we nudge through the tracks of the throat and onto the connection to the CSX Metropolitan Sub, the annoucements come regarding this evening's offerings in the dining car, and the announcement that the LSA will be taking reservations soon, as well as a welcome from Jesus in the Lounge Car, who will make a number of humorous calls during the trip.
Just after our ticket is collected, my friend and I journey just a few steps forward to the pristine lounge car for the glide through the Washington suburbs. Soon enough, we're at Rockville, where there look to be 8 more people boarding. As the lounge car begins to fill with the early drinkers, and I see the LSA making his way in to take down the reservations, I opt to grab my coach seat back and get my dinner reservation in.
The choices are 5, 530, 730, or 8. Since I was hoping for a 7pm, I opt for the 730 seating, by which point we should hopefully be near Cumberland. Most of the next bit of time is spent looking out the window, or casually eavesdropping on other's conversations. As with other LD train rides I've taken, our patronage this evening is a pretty full sample of the melting pot of America. At the moment, everyone is getting along well, and the ride is proceeding smoothly, as we glide past the old C&O Canal, across the bridge into Harper's Ferry, and onto Martinsburg, as announcements from our Conductor point out some significant historical facts on all three.
I did confess I was eavesdropping at times, but it's not as bad as it sounds. It's just that I know that most people aboard my train right now are not train junkies like myself, and I'm always curious to know how and why people ride the train, where they're coming from and where they're going. It just kind of makes for impromptu entertainment during a long ride.
Interestingly, many of our riders are aboard our train this evening out of necessity, as their originally booked flights have been cancelled, and the airlines could not book them a flight until 3 days from now. We've got a young man going from New York to Austin to visit a sick brother. This was his only option after the flights were cancelled, and train #49 as well. A young lady near us is going from Atlanta to Arizona, while others are merely bound for Chicago like ourselves. Later, I'll talk to others and learn where they're heading and what brought them aboard.
As we approach Cumberland at dusk, my Dinner Reservation time is called (my friend declines to join), and I'm off to the dining car, where I'm seated with two other young men. One is the young gent sitting right behind me going to Austin. The other is a nice middle aged man in the rear coach who is heading from Washington to South Bend, where his wife will pick him up to visit relatives. He states he used to ride through to Chicago, but has since found it faster to hop off at South Bend. Later I'll see why. He states he's never had the nerve to do a full round trip, always opting for one way, but seems to enjoy the train a lot, and even asks us if either of us managed to get the "discount ticket." Unlike my seatmate at Dinner, I did. The young gent heading to Austin is pleased to be making his first trip across the country on Amtrak, and pleased to be moving instead of sitting in New York for 3 days waiting for a plane.
So what's Dinner? For me, it's the Cheese Tortellini with Baked Potato and Green Beans. Our Austin bound rider takes the "Special" Country Fried Steak (seems that's on the menu more often than some of the regular items), while our South Bend bound rider asks if the Pork Chop is available without the gravy. When it is found that it is not, he opts instead for the Roast Chicken. Dinner for all of us does not disappoint. The Cheese Tortellini is very warming comfort food on what is known to be cold night. And lo and behold on this train at least, they seem to have gotten the green beans right!
Soon enough, we finish up and pay our bills. I must say I'm quite satisfied for my $11.00. Kyle was an excellent server, and kept my iced tea glass and myself refreshed. Now it's off to make a quick stop at the Lounge Car for a shot of J.D. to put the final touches on me (in our opening announcements, they also offered the warning on my contraband booze!) and make me ready for some sleep. After fidgeting with my jacket and layers, I finally get comfy, and coast off soon after Connellsville, only to awaken just before Pittsburgh, though thinking I'm still a ways away from there. We glide into Pittsburgh only about 10 minutes down, and I stay awake just long enough to enjoy the outward journey from there before fading out again.
I awaken again, thinking little more than an hour has passed, and that we're launching from Alliance. WRONG! As it turns out, we're leaving Sandusky! I slept clear through Cleveland! I spend the next bit of time in a slumbering daze but make it a point to stay just astute enough to know when we're coming into Toledo, a station I was particularly interested in seeing, since it seems to retain a number of tracks and platforms, some of which are likely rarely used if ever. Sure enough, my supicions are confirmed when we glide into TOL and I count upwards of 12 tracks and 6 platforms to serve 4 daily trains!
By the way, we're only 25 minutes late! Our ride is going splendidly, and I hope the Capitol continues to shine! But sadly, it starts to go downhill from here. Once we leave Toledo, the ride that is supposed to take 4.5 hours winds up taking over 11 hours! The trip from here to Waterloo is supposed to take 1:15, but instead takes about 2:10. But that's child's play compared to what's coming down the pike. Our ride to Elkhart should take less than an hour, but instead takes nearly 5 hours, most of which is spent at two prolonged stops of over an hour in length.
During this time, I avail myself of breakfast, and devour a Western Omlette that is good, if piping hot. My company is a lady returning to Chicago from Boston. As with the young man, she spent hours two days prior trying to get a flight from Logan when hers was cancelled, only to be pushed back 4 days. She took the chance on the train, and seems open to it, though understandably, the delays are beginning to try her patience. Across from me is a lady who boarded at Harpers Ferry, and is heading to see her Grandfather in Indiana. She's made this trek several times, and always enjoys the ride in spite of the headaches like those we're encountering. Later, we're joined by a young man heading from Carolina to Minot to visit his girlfriend in the service. For his situation, understandably he's not quite the patient type as he wants to get there soon, but is taking the ride in stride for now. He was supposed to be aboard yesterday's Capitol, but missed the connection, and was put up at Amtrak's expense.
Speaking of missed connections, as the delays mount, we are visited by a Customer Services Officer who begins to get an idea of who on this train is trying to connect at Chicago to other trains. On this train, there are a lot of people that fit this. We've got riders for the EB, SWC, and TE just within my immediate area, and as the delays continue, the prospects of them making their connections gets increasingly dim, even with us "gaining" an hour once we cross to CT zone. Personally, with my hotel check-in not occurring to 3pm and Chicago weather expected not to be the most hospitable, I'm rather amenable to losing a few hours off the advertised 8:40am time.