Over the winter, I'd been growing restless. I hadn't taken a Amtrak trip in a year, owing to a variety of issues concerning work (not the least, a projected lack of it). Announcement of a National Association of Railroad Passengers reception in the nation's capitol seemed a perfect excuse to shake off the wintertime blues and take an Amtrak trip.
I simply had to take Amtrak train #30, the Capitol Limited, on this trip. Logistically, it was the only train I could take that would bring me into Washington, D.C. on time for the reception. Taking #30 would also allow me to close a gap in my railroad lines ridden book. The last time I rode #29 in 1985, I left the train in McKeesport, PA at the PATrain station. Riding out of Pittsburgh on this trip would fill that gap.
A quick online search of hotel space revealed nothing in DC I could afford, so I broadened my search to Baltimore, and scored a room there. My itinerary therefore would be, #30 from Pittsburgh to Washington, regional trains from Washington to Baltimore and Baltimore to Philadelphia, and then #43, the Pennsylvanian, from Philadelphia back to Pittsburgh.
Ambling across the Alleghenies
For me, May 2 began at oh-dark-thirty. A quick check with Amtrak in Pittsburgh revealed #30 was running around two hours late. This was not really much help for me because of traffic patterns. If I didn't hit Green Tree Hill on the Parkway West by 6:00 A.M., I would be stuck in traffic. Traffic delays on that stretch of highway would put into question my arrival at the station in time, even for a late #30. So I bit the bullet, drove in early, and was at the station at 6:15 A.M.
I watched at the station as #30 pulled through on the Norfolk Southern through freight track, and then backed into the station. A friendly Amtrak employee told me #42, the eastbound Pennsylvanian, would have 53 passengers transfer. The passengers for #42, perhaps 130 or so including the 53 from #30, boarded, and #42 left on time or very close to it. #30 departed at 7:30 A.M., two hours late.
The conductor did not come back to my coach right away. But this coach does have the attendant sitting in the rear. I inquire about breakfast in the diner. The coach attendant tells me he'll stick my ticket in the seat check slot so I can head forward to the dining car. This edition of #30 has two coaches, a sightseer lounge, and dining car renovated for the Empire Builder. I'm seated promptly by the LSA. A Canadian couple coming in several minutes after me is told to wait in the lounge car for a few minutes.
We head out for a couple minutes on the NS line until we hit CP-Bloom, where the connection with CSX trackage is made. We head on through Panther Hollow, where up above us, students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are getting to class. The train goes through a tunnel; several minutes later, we're at US Steel's Duquesne (say du-KANE) works, looking at Kennywood Park across the Monongahela River. About the end of CSX's Glenwood Yard, #30 grinds to a halt.
My seatmate across the table and I swap notes. He's a former US Air pilot, on the train to pick up a car in Washington, DC. Now, he's a dentist in Columbus, OH. He tells me he's been looking for a particular model with certain options for months, and finally one has popped up in Washington, DC. After looking at $600 for a last-minute, one-way flight, he looked for another option. His wife had to attend a conference in Cleveland, so why not Amtrak? His enthusiasm for the ride dimmed considerably, owing to the two hour late performance so far. The LSA pops by. After verifying the omelets are cooked fresh, I go ahead and order a "Southwest Omelet." The dentist opts for cold cereal.
#30 trundles down the old B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) trackage after ten minutes or so of waiting. Several minutes later, the Canadian gentleman of the couple, having been seated during the delay, asks the LSA for "porridge" as his breakfast. The LSA is dumbfounded until the man's wife says, "Oh, you have to say 'oatmeal' here." Chuckles from everyone all around.
This is my first experience with Amtrak's Simplified Dining Service, or SDS. My last trip on #29 and #30 had been made just before its introduction. The omelet is served promptly. It's hot and tasty. The potatoes are somewhat cooler, but still hot enough. A skimpy croissant instead of toast doesn't thrill me. As my second cup of coffee is almost finished, the erstwhile flyboy wishes me well, and heads back for the coaches. The LSA generously offers me a third cup of coffee. I need it after the oh-dark-thirty start.
Back in my coach seat, my ticket still hasn't been collected. Stops are not frequent along this stretch of #30's route, so I don't regard it as a big deal. We mosey to a stop at Connellsville, PA's Amshack at 9:27 A.M., two hours and three minutes off the timecard.
The ride down the old B&O trackage in southwest Pennsylvania goes through some of the more beautiful scenery of the east. It's not the busy beauty, or the glory of what once was the Pennsylvania Railroad that the Pennsylvanian route shows. It's perhaps not quite as pretty as the Cardinal route through Hawk's Nest and the New River Gorge in West Virginia. But the old B&O route has its own beauty, and sense of dignity in its own right, as we amble through little rural Pennsylvania towns like Meyersdale and Confluence. The creeks and streams flow gently, perhaps thirty yards from the right-of-way. A family group from Portland, Oregon, having traveled on the Empire Builder across the country, tell me the scenery through here reminds them of Montana. In the autumn at peak, there is no doubt in my mind the colors of the Allegheny mountains in southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia will practically tear your eyes out to look at them.
#30 slows to a halt perhaps ten minutes running time from Cumberland, Maryland. After a ten minute or so pause, we finally begin the three-separate-stop silliness at Cumberland at 12:08 P.M., now a full two hours and 24 minutes late. We depart after a brief pause for the smokers at 12:30 P.M., two hours and 39 minutes after the timetable advertises.
East of Cumberland, I notice #30 is running "opposite main." We're on the track that in the USA, would typically be used by westbound traffic. The reason becomes obvious as we continue trundling along about 40 or 50 mph. CSX is subjecting the other track to a maintenance "blitz." Track gangs labor with their ballast tampers and gauge adjusting equipment. In some places, fresh ballast looks as if it had just been laid for publicity pictures. It's obvious the derailment and explosion of a propane tank car up around Utica, NY has jacked things up considerably on CSX.
I miss the first call to lunch, and head back to my coach seat to wait for a bit. My ticket is still in the seat check position. About fifteen minutes from Martinsburg, WV, our LSA makes the next call to lunch. I'm seated in the diner waiting on a burger when we stop at Martinsburg at 2:05 P.M., two hours and 45 minutes late.
An elderly woman of color and a trade show display specialist are my dining companions. The elderly woman is polite, but does not offer much conversation. After she finishes her meal and leaves, I chat with the trade show specialist. He's in a roomette and uses Amtrak fairly extensively to get from show to show, finding that baggage cars make it easier for him to get the occasional oversized item from place to place. We agree that on-time performance makes it difficult to recommend Amtrak for those people who intend on doing things immediately after arrival. While business types like him can use the LD trains, many business types outside the NEC just can't count on Amtrak even if they'd like the benefits that intercity passenger trains provide.
Railfans come out in force after Martinsburg. From every decent trackside overlook it seems, there's a fan out with an expensive SLR camera, and in many cases, a small camcorder. We begin our double stop at Harper's Ferry, WV at 2:31 P.M. Fans and families dot the platform. Another fan with a supertelephoto lens on a SLR is up in the observation post at the station. #30 pulls across the bridge, through the tunnel, and begins to move a bit faster.
My ticket is still in the seat check position. I open my cellphone and call Amtrak Unlimited forum member Rafi. We had planned to swap some notes about the news business upon my arrival, but need a bit of coordination, given #30's tardiness. While I'm on the phone with Rafi, I miss recording the time we stop in Rockville, MD.
After Rockville, MD, we start running a bit faster, it seems. The coach attendant finally rips my ticket, gives me the stub, and takes the ticket part to the conductor. We pull into Washington, DC Union Station at 3:55 P.M., two hours and 25 minutes late. It's a beautiful day to be in the nation's capitol.
Aside from the dreary on-time performance, the eastbound ride on #30 represented a solid performance by Amtrak. Not spectacular, but solid, certainly efficient and competent. Superliner equipment rebuilt for the Empire Builder is in great shape, even if CSX track made the last coach bottom out its springs every so often. Our train crew made announcements keeping the passengers informed concerning stoppages for freight train interference. The LSA made cordial invitations to all passengers for the dining car, and attempted to minimize the effects of SDS by announcing a "first call", "second call", and so on at meal times. Even the lounge attendant got into the act by reminding passengers he had chips, snacks, and drinks available.
I'd certainly ride the Capitol Limited again, in either direction. Just don't think Amtrak's timetable right now on this line is anything less than a science fiction fantasy.
For those who keep track of such things, here's the consist, in order, for Amtrak train #30, the Capitol Limited, departing Chicago on 1 May 2007: