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Trip Report

The USA By Rail

April 24 - May 10, 2008


I'm under no illusions about long distance rail; it is impractical for the business user. What better way to unwind, though, than aboard a lounge car rolling through the scenery, with good company and no need to worry about tomorrow.


This was a trip that's been long in the planning and almost as long in the anticipation!

Before the actual report perhaps some brief introductions and explanations are in order. Although I live in the UK I've been making regular trips to the US since 1997 to ride the rails. Something that always comes to light quite quickly in discussing our respective countries is the immense difference in size and distance. My first trip on this visit was 991 miles from Chicago to Dallas on the Texas Eagle. The longest distance between rail extremities in this country is only 800 miles or thereabouts. I'd traveled almost all of the UK's rail network by my mid 20's (I'll be 40 in November) so Western Europe and the USA are the big challenge now.

This trip was made partially in conjunction with a organised group from USA by Rail which is not a professional tour company but a group of UK friends and acquaintances with similar objectives, co-ordinated by the ineffable Simon Bennett. It's probably fair to say that most of the 11 participants in the group are hardcore railfans; in 2008 alone many had already participated in German and Swiss fan trips whilst two have been to India for ALCO's!

Thursday April 24th

This was always going to be the hardest day as I said goodbye to my partner and our various pets. We first met not long before my first trip to the US so she is used to my traveling ways, and she has time consuming hobbies of her own but it doesn't make the car park farewell any easier.

I live in the city of Bradford, in Yorkshire, and our closest international airport is Manchester. With an 8.00am check-in time for my flight the only practical option was to travel to Manchester Airport the previous night. I took:-

  • 158845 - a 2 car DMU run by open access operator Northernrail for the 40 mile journey from Bradford Interchange to Manchester Victoria

  • 1012 - on the Manchester "Metrolink" LRT to Manchester Piccadilly and

  • 185143 - a 3 car DMU for the 10 miles from Piccadilly to Manchester Airport.

An interesting "compare and contrast" at this point is that I didn't really need to check the schedules of these trains beforehand. Here in densely populated Northern England trains run at a frequency only enjoyed by those with access to an LRT style system in the USA.

Tonight's bed was Bewley's Hotel, within the Manchester Airport complex.

Friday April 25th

Planes do not interest me, and airports intimidate me. I stocked up on reading material, had an extremely easy check-in (except for the shoes-off procedure when I realised that I was wearing one grey and one blue sock) and endured a tedious flight to Chicago O'Hare aboard a BMI Airbus A330.

Processing through US Immigration was civil and courteous (I've experienced far worse and have heard some real horror stories) so almost before my wits had caught up with me I was on the rails again:-

CTA Blue Line car 2330 - O'Hare - Jackson

The sun was beating through the windows as we rolled downtown, and I only had to look around me to forget yesterday evening's blues and be excited about another trip to the US.

Hotel Essex on Michigan (my usual Chicago bed) was my destination for tonight and once checked in I headed for Union Station to pick up my reserved Amtrak tickets for the journey to come.

Experience has taught me that Amtrak ticket agents tend to get confused when presented with an itinerary that differs from the ordinary. I gave myself plenty of time and expected the worst. To my astonishment the agent at Union ran the reservation through with not the slightest problem and with a cheery, sunny, can-do attitude that some other Amtrak agents would do well to emulate - I wish I'd caught his name because I believe that a job well done deserves a commendation.

After that surprise it was a trip to Barnes and Noble on State/Jackson for more reading material, The Plymouth Bar and Grill for some food and then my unique, trademarked cure for jet lag. The 12 hour sleep.

Saturday April 26th

Up and at 'em! First move was a walk to Union to check my bag in rather more Chicago-esque weather conditions than yesterday; a howling gale and temperatures just above freezing. My intention was to ride a few Metra services out of Union in the morning prior to taking the Eagle. Metra offer a $5 weekend ticket which is incredible value for money if, like me, you're riding for the sake of riding.

This could be the time to attempt an explanation. Although traveling by train is intrinsically satisfying for me, I also have a penchant for riding behind as many different locomotives as I can. As far as I can ascertain this particular variation on the railfanning theme is a uniquely Western European phenomenon. I don't record consists, simply loco numbers. I think that relaying in this report each individual train I rode (other than Amtrak) would make for rather dull reading. Suffice to say that in the course of a morning I covered 90 miles (for $5, remember) on 6 different trains. Should anyone want specific details my contact e-mail is in my OTOL member profile (same as my name), and linked above.

Given the lengths I'd gone to for this trip it will be understood that, although I'm not a billionaire tycoon, I am willing and able to pay a little extra for a more comfortable life. Having said that I will make economies where I can. Piling myself high with water and snacks before boarding rather than paying cafe car prices is one example and traveling coach if I'm only on board for one night WAS another - never again!

Things started to go wrong for the Texas Eagle before we even boarded with an announcement that departure would be delayed due to "mechanical problems with the train." What these were I never actually established but presumably the big Amtrak hammer sorted them out because at 2.25pm, 40 minutes late, we got underway.

Amtrak Train 21 "Texas Eagle" - P42 #9

A delayed departure interested rather than concerned me because of late the Eagle has been rivaling the Sunset for poor punctuality. I was in no rush and was curious to see what the knock-on effect would be. Genesis 9 was a disappointment because I'd ridden behind it previously (Philadelphia-Harrisburg in 2000).

Unsurprisingly departure from Joliet was 40 minutes late as well but immediately we ran into a lengthy slow order. Then another, and another. In fact progress across UP's former Illinois Central road was so patchy that we managed to lose a further 50 minutes before Bloomington, much to the bemusement of a Bloomington bound passenger sitting in front of me. Luckily there seemed to be very little coming the other way so we weren't delayed further by meets.

Shortly after leaving Springfield almost 2 hours late my dinner reservation was called. The staff were first rate but the company was not. I was seated with two other gentlemen and a lady traveling to St. Louis who clearly regarded us a a captive audience upon which to unleash a torrent of opinions on a number of topics, apparently without even needing to pause for breath. Initially I regarded this as mildly amusing but my assessment of her quite quickly changed to irritating, then obnoxious.

Dining on Amtrak is usually a real highlight if traveling alone because of the fascinating people that you can find yourself seated with. This, I think, must constitute my single worst dining experience. On reflection I should have asked to be moved but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

With hindsight I should have removed the compact digital camera from my coat pocket before going to dinner and leaving my coat at my seat. I didn't, and when I got back the camera was gone. Frankly, looking around the coach it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out who might have taken it but rather than confront my suspects I explained what had happened to the Car Attendant who seemed to be one step ahead of me. He asked for a full written description of the camera and then suggested that I leave the rest to him.

After St Louis I dozed off, in a snit. Not my best ever Amtrak day.

Sunday April 27th

After a fitful night's sleep I roused myself for my morning coffee and cigarette at Little Rock, 3 and a half hours late. Over breakfast I heard someone mention that jewelery had been stolen from a passenger's bag and that the train staff were aware.

I lost myself in a book until Marshall, Texas, when the car attendant asked me to step off the train. There I saw at least five law enforcement officers, one of the two people I'd suspected of lifting my camera and a treasure trove of stolen goods including my camera and a lot of liquor which had apparently disappeared from the cafe car. I was asked if I wanted to press charges but that would have meant having to return for a court appearance - hardly worth it. The miscreant remained in Marshall as we rolled out although somehow her accomplice managed to get away with it and remained on the train.

Top marks to Chicago based car attendant Robert Hunter. He had clearly sized up the situation quickly the previous evening and had watched and waited until he had the evidence he needed rather than creating unrest by announcing to everyone that there was a thief on board.

I suppose that's the sort of thing that can happen in any public place, and there is nothing to prevent a determined thief entering a sleeper or roomette, but that incident has effectively put an end to my days of long distance travel in Coach, however wise and efficient car attendants such as Robert Hunter might be.

Nothing to report of East Texas except that it was raining, UP seemed busy but were dispatching the Eagle well and that by Longview we were down to 2 hours late. I suspect that there's a lot of "padding" in the schedule from Texarkana onwards. The 66 miles from Texarkana to Marshall is, for instance, allowed 2 hours 17 minutes.

After a stop-start crawl through the less desirable suburbs of Dallas arrival at Union was 2 hours 50 minutes late at 2.50pm.

Tonight's bed was the Hotel Lawrence, immediately opposite the station. Since my last stay there it's been extensively refurbished and the rooms at the front of the building are great for train watching.

This evening's dining was a no-brainer! I stretched my legs with a brief stroll to St. Paul and took the superbly restored and superbly conceived McKinney Avenue trolley uptown for a meal and a drink. I rode in both directions on a former Dallas car, 186. To cap it all the poor weather earlier in the day had moved on and the evening was warm and sunny. Hopefully a portent of better days ahead.

Monday April 28th

This mornings plan was to ride Trinity Rail Express, the commuter operation between Dallas and Fort Worth. On my previous visit to Dallas this operation was handled entirely by RDC's but now the system has 6 locomotives (4 ex Go F59's, 2 bought new and a fleet of bi-level cars.) I managed rides with 3 of the loco's. Unfortunately I made a mess of interpreting the schedule and missed out on the 4th, and a further train that should have been formed of a loco and bi-levels ran with RDC's instead.

Ridership looked very healthy and a day pass for $5, which is also valid on the Dallas DART LRT, is excellent value for those who ride for the sheer love of it. Once again, should anyone be interested in the fine details please contact me.

I arrived back at Union Station in time for the Westbound Eagle more in hope than expectation. Prominently displayed behind the ticket agent's desk is a board showing the expected arrival times of the trains in both directions which is a good idea. Train 421 was shown as 1 and a half hours late. The agents did a good job of keeping us up to date with progress, and injected some welcome humor into their announcements.

Amtrak Train 421 "Texas Eagle" - P42 #74.

We left Union at 2.00pm, 1 hour 40 minutes late, headed onto the trestle just after the station, and stopped. There we remained until 3 UP Gensets passed in the opposite direction and we set off at 4.20. Still, that gave me time to settle into my roomette and discover that I'd never ridden behind #74 before.

Part of my excitement about this leg of my trip was that Dallas to San Antonio is a route I'd never ridden before so once on the move I was watching new scenery go by. One of the highlights was the old Santa Fe shops at Cleburne. Remembering the CF7's - to my eyes the most horrible looking diesels ever produced - I rather expected some sort of Frankenstein's castle but was pleasantly surprised. I was also pleasantly surprised that some guys on an access truck washed the external windows of the train during the Fort Worth fueling stop, whilst the rolling sandy hills South of McGregor make for a very relaxing landscape.

Alas, it was never going to be all good. The dining car had given up the ghost, so dinner was a rather greasy and tepid fried chicken meal brought on board at Temple.

Tuesday April 29th

I was awake for our arrival in San Antonio at 1.53am, about 3 and a half hours late. For some time I'd been intrigued about the switching operation required to conjoin train 421 to train 1 so I stepped down to watch it first hand. Things were complicated somewhat by a private car (ex GM & O and marked as the Tequila Express) which had arrived on the rear of train 1 and was going forward. I spent a pleasant hour watching the switching, which had an element of the old shell game about it - which road is my car on now?! Before returning to bed I checked our forward motive power.

Amtrak Train 1 "Sunset Limited" - P42's #133 and 199.

I'd ridden with 133 before (Chicago - Washington 2003) but 199 was new to me.

This was a solid day of train riding and absolutely restored my faith in Amtrak. From San Antonio to Lordsburg, when I turned in, the train ran to time. The train crew were good, the food service was excellent and the people I met whilst dining and in the lounge car were all pleasant and interesting company.

Perhaps the highlight for me was the "Sunset" route itself, after El Paso. Compared to the condition it was in when I first passed that way in 1999, it is now a truly first class piece of railroad, superbly laid and aligned.

It's days like these that make me know I'll keep coming back.

Wednesday April 30th

I awoke briefly at Yuma and noted that we were still running to time. Next time I woke up, however, we were moving very slowly across the desert. From what I observed at least 50 miles of the route East of Palm Springs is a linear construction site, and that put us into Palm Springs an hour late. I can't complain about progress, however, especially when it will ultimately make the service more reliable.

Another long stop outside Colton Yard put us 2 hours late into Ontario. There is, however, another example of schedule padding here as the Sunset is allowed 2 hours and 5 minutes for the 38 miles into Los Angeles Union.

Here's a fine bit of irony. Check-in at my hotel wasn't until 2.00pm so in a way I'd been hoping for a late (i.e. typical) arrival. 40 minutes late was the best performance of the Westbound Sunset for many weeks!

My bed for the next 3 nights was the Kyoto Grand Hotel and Gardens, a few blocks from Union. The rest of this day was spent doing touristy things (including discovering that Angel's Flight remains closed) although I did ride the Gold Line to Pasadena for my evening meal and wondered just how closely this follows the original Pacific Electric route.

Thursday May 1st

A day of bits and pieces, starting with an out and back to Fullerton.

Amtrak Train 564 LA Union - Fullerton - F59 # 453
Amtrak Train 763 Fullerton - LA Union - F59 # 463

This was a simple "because it's there" move although it turned out to be rather costly and unnecessary. Not only had I ridden behind both loco's before (1999) but Train 763 was 25 minutes late, wrecking my planned connection onto a Metrolink San Bernardino train.

Every cloud has a silver lining, however, and while I was waiting at Fullerton the late running Westbound Southwest Chief rolled in behind a pair of P42's and a Pacific Sounder F59, all working! Despite a number of theories I've yet to establish how and why a Seattle area commuter loco came to be on the Chief from Chicago, or why it was going to LA where it remained on Saturday night.I wish I'd blagged a ride on that one!

As I couldn't get to San Bernardino I took a Metrolink train to Chatsworth for:-

Amtrak Train 774 Chatsworth - LA Union - F59 # 461
Amtrak Train 769 LA Union - Glendale - F59 # 455

At least these were 2 "new" locos for me, and on alighting at Glendale I bumped into two other members of our party, Steve Bates and Richard Morrison, who were also out for a ride. Metrolink took us back to Union, where we adjourned for lunch. I then had the pleasant experience of relaxing in the sun in the hotel's rooftop garden, enjoying a pleasant Chardonnay and awaiting some more of our party. It's not ALL riding trains!

In the company of Derek Milby, Tim Howlett, Paul Rodriguez and Simon Bennett (who had just flown in from the UK) I headed back to Union a few hours later with a very clear objective. This morning I had seen Northbound train 799 leaving LA Union behind a P32 - #503. Amtrak P32's are now very rare on passenger trains, with no booked workings, so the return working of 799 had to be covered.

After a few rides on Metrolink (no cheap tickets here) seven of us found ourselves waiting in the setting sun at Bob Hope Burbank Airport. For all but me this would be the first ever ride with an Amtrak P32 and there was a real sense of celebration as the train rolled in:-

Amtrak Train 798 Burbank Airport - La Union - P32 # 503.

I thought it would be a little churlish of me to grumble that it wasn't even a "new" loco for me (Martinez - Emeryville 1999) so I kept quiet on this short journey.

All that remained was to meet the last 4 members of the party - Ian Edwards, Bob Hannaford, Steve Ashby and Andy Powis - who had flown to Chicago the day after me and traveled to LA via the California Zephyr and Coast Starlight.

Friday May 2nd

We couldn't let this go! Knowing that there were another 2 P32's on Amtrak's servicing facility (509 and 510) train 799 had to be watched and we weren't disappointed! It seemed that a problem had developed with the "Cabbage Car" so 510 was being used with 503 in top and tail mode.

Amtrak Train 799 LA Union - Glendale - P32's # 503 and 510.

A perfect start to the morning for most of us, although Andy suffered at the hands of an LA Union ticket agent. After our short trip to Glendale him, Ian, Bob and Steve A intended to head to San Diego for the day but the agent wouldn't give him a ticket as "she didn't have time." There seemed to be no love lost between her and the other two agents on duty, however, as one of them overheard this exchange and made sure that Andy got his tickets.

In complete contrast was the cheery and humorous conductor on train 566, who got, in his announcements, exactly the right balance between information and entertainment. My moves here were:-

Amtrak Train 566 - LA Union - Irvine - F59 # 454
Amtrak Train 567 - Irvine - LA Union - F59 # 455

The point of this exercise was to meet Simon, Tim and Derek, who'd made an early start and got to Irvine via Riverside on Metrolink. I spent the rest of the day with them riding Metrolink until a return trip to Pasadena in the evening with the San Diego contingent plus Paul, who'd spent the day photographing at Fullerton.

For those who are keeping count, only one "new" Amtrak loco for me today today - 454.

Saturday May 3rd

And again! Ian and I got out early for:-

Amtrak Train 799 LA Union - Glendale - P32 # 510

The cabbage had reappeared and, although I was disappointed that #509 hadn't come out to play, events at Glendale more than made up for it. The engineer had seen us and realised what we were about. He gave us a superb run 9 departure, meaty enough to set off several car alarms in the adjacent car park! You can't do that with a Genesis. A superb farewell to a superb loco.

Metrolink back, and breakfast at Felipe's. This is a couple of blocks North of Union on Almeda and has a great collection of Santa Fe ephemera on the wall of the back room.

Ian, Andy, Paul, Steve A and myself then went on the tourist trail via Red Line to Hollywood. Perhaps I had Screamin' Jay Hawkins in mind when we got out at Hollywood and Vine. That's the wrong stop; for the touristy stuff you need Hollywood and Highland although it was a pleasant and entertaining stroll between the two.

After a little bit more Metrolinking all 11 of us reassembled at LA Union for our overnight conveyance:-

Amtrak Train 4 "Southwest Chief" to Williams Junction - P42's 5 and 164.

Amongst the group there was a collective groan about 164, which most of the others seemed to have ridden behind at least once. 5 pleased everyone, and both were new for me.

Once underway there was a further collective groan when it was discovered that there were only 5 bottles of Sam Adams beer in the cafe car although very shortly there were none! Sadly it was a little too dark to fully appreciate the improvements on Cajon Pass although Derek was happy. Him, Simon and Tim had been to Fullerton where Santa Fe 3751 was in steam. Derek had met an acquaintance on the support crew and got to blow the whistle. No point in a sleeper on this leg. I turned in just after Needles.

Sunday May 4th

Up at stupid o' clock to get off at Williams Junction. Prior to our trip I'd had a little look at Williams Junction on Google earth and presumed I'd got a rogue image because all I could see was a set of tracks in the middle of a forest but that's actually all there is! There was also, mercifully, the Grand Canyon Railroad's van to take us to Williams over 3 miles primarily of dirt tracks.

Despite it being 5.00am we were able to check into the the Grand Canyon Railroad Hotel at Williams with no difficulty and found ourselves a fine breakfast across the tracks. With train departure time at 10 (and there not being much else to do in Williams first thing Sunday morning) several of us got another few hours sleep.

We'd been hoping for ALCO's but today's train was ex Amtrak F40 239. For once it didn't matter, as today wasn't really about locos. To enjoy the whole experience we'd booked to travel first class. This was somewhat lost on me as the fairly fast pace of the last week had finally caught up with me and I slept most of the way to the Canyon itself. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, however, woke me up. Probably the most often repeated cliche is that it's something you have to see for yourself. Perfectly true. Words can't describe it, and the photo's I took with a reasonably advanced digital camera are totally inadequate.

I was awake for the journey back and very much appreciated the commentary from Carol, our effervescent car attendant. The obligatory "train robbery" by a band of desperado cowboys was amusing, too. Most of us had an excellent meal at the Route 66 Diner, a well replicated 1950's look restaurant in Williams, prior to the necessary early night.

Monday May 5th

Up at stupid o' clock AGAIN to pick up where we'd left off the chief.

Amtrak Train 4 "Southwest Chief" Williams Junction - Albuquerque - P42's 130 and 132.

Any thoughts of checking our various personal histories with these loco's were put on hold when someone counted the consist as it rolled in and realised that the train was a Superliner short. Not surprisingly, therefore, the train was very full. To compound matters the conductor seemed unwilling or unable to awaken and move people who were spread across two seats. Several of us ended up sitting in the lower seating area until the dining car opened for breakfast.

As this was a short hop by our standards several of our group set up camp in the lounge car to allow those who wished to catch up on sleep the use of our seats. I very much enjoyed the impressive rock formations that we passed, which set off a deep and philosophical discussion interrupted by a voluble argument between a passenger and the train crew. It seems that the passenger had wished to detrain at Gallup, which we'd left 15 minutes ago. Not only had there been the usual clear announcements as we arrived but the station stop was long enough for me to enjoy a leisurely cigarette on the platform, so how she had failed to get off was entirely beyond our comprehension.

I think we'd lucked-in a little on the Transcon as we sailed across the landscape to the junction with the Belen cut-off and got into Albuquerque 30 minutes early. Albuquerque is, of course, the first stop for The Chief after Gallup so our disgruntled friend from earlier finally stepped onto terra firma, and we stepped onto another train!

You've probably realised what our objective was in Albuquerque. New Mexico Railrunner began operations between Belen and Sandoval in 2007 and we wanted a ride on this system. Our early arrival set us up for an unexpected bonus round trip to Belen before we checked into our hotel, and I think from the outset we were all highly impressed with the presentation of the stock, the well planned schedules and the general "user friendliness" of the system. $4 for a day ticket is good value and the staff were excellent, once they got used to 11 British railfans randomly riding about on their trains!

Bed tonight was the Hotel Blue and a very welcome bed it was too!

Tuesday May 6th

Fatigue had caught up with all of us by this point so this morning was a very relaxed affair. Possibly the oddest moment was in a bar outside Albuquerque station, where we had a couple of beers waiting for the arrival of the Chief. The youngest of our group was 36, the oldest 68 yet we all got asked to provide ID before we could be served!

Amtrak Train 4 "Southwest Chief" Albuquerque - Chicago - P42's 66 and 81

Across at the station there was a degree of jubilation as Amtrak had provided us with a pair of Genesis which nobody in the group had previously ridden behind. After we found our accommodations it was straight to the diner for lunch where the jubilation continued, to the extent that we were told off by the steward for being too noisy. Oops. Highlight of the afternoon were Glorieta and Raton Passes. Although the latter is higher we all found the ascent of the former more spectacular.

In many ways today was a sequel to my previous Tuesday: laid back, relaxed train riding through breathtaking landscapes, with no desperate rush to get anywhere and nothing to spoil my enjoyment. All we had to worry about was our dinner reservations being called. Until I realised how badly it was affecting my health and my relationships I used to work long hours in a very stressful environment. I've moved on now, and although I don't make as much money as I did 10 years ago I've learned to value relaxation and leisure time above material gain. I wish that some of those people for whom time is money and pressure is sustenance could be tempted onto a journey like this once in a while, without their laptops or cellphones. I'm under no illusions about long distance rail; it is impractical for the business user. What better way to unwind, though, than aboard a lounge car rolling through the scenery, with good company and no need to worry about tomorrow.

Wednesday May 7th

Derek, Tim and I had shared a family room overnight. We're all quite short and we'd been subjected to some good natured ribbing about the Munchkins on the way to Kansas! It was Argentine Yard, Kansas City, where we woke up to the arresting sight of passenger aeroplane fuselages on flatcars. Even better was the KCS F unit sitting right beside us in Kansas City station.

Somehow or other we'd lost time during the night and this situation got worse on the way to Fort Madison. We observed that the level of the Mississippi was quite high here; some of the yard tracks were under water. On a previous trip Tim had come within a whisker of being left behind at Fort Madison after stepping off the train to take photographs and we amused ourselves trying to spot what he could have done to keep himself busy for 24 hours until the next train. Not much, seemed to be the concensus.

A lengthy stop at Galesburg didn't help our timekeeping but an enterprising engineer tried to make amends. Bob had a GPS device with him and we timed the train traveling rather faster than Amtrak trains are supposed to in places! Once again Amtrak's schedule padding is apparent here, with 1 hour 59 minutes allowed for the 83 miles from Mendota to Chicago. BNSF did us proud, though, with a fast and fluent run almost as far as Cicero yard. A fitting end to a splendid 5000 plus mile Amtrak jaunt.

That brought an end to the Amtrak bits of my tour. As the more observant amongst you will have realised by now, I have a great love of Amtrak. I am not blind to it's many faults and shortcomings and, like everyone, I have my own ideas as to how it might be enhanced and improved but this is not the place to set out my stall. Many of the discussions I enjoyed with Americans on my trip embraced the forthcoming elections, with the subtext of what the outcome might mean for Amtrak. The certainty, I think, is that nothing is certain.

As I write this (May 22nd) crude oil has hit it's record price per barrel, and several people that I spoke to were traveling Amtrak rather than paying gas prices. America is (belatedly) beginning to understand the environmental impact of aviation and hopefully these two factors might highlight the value of Amtrak as inexpensive long distance transportation with green credentials. It seems, however, that increasing ridership is not perceived as an indicator of viability to those who hold the Congressional purse-strings. For as long as Amtrak exists I will ride it. I hope that I won't find myself riding the very last Empire Builder, or Crescent but I don't know.

I'm not an American citizen and as such have no buy-in to your electoral and democratic processes. Most of those who read this review will be American voters. I implore you not to allow a National asset to succumb to legislative parsimony. Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone etc. don't make money directly. The comparison may be a little difficult to swallow but in my eyes the principle is the same.

Back to Chicago. Accommodations for the next 3 nights were the Downtown Travelodge, East Harrison. Basic but adequate.

Rather more pressing matters were that Metra F40 #100 was observed at the head of a train on the South West Service to 179th Orland Park. This elusive beast was the only early series F40 that Simon and Tim had not previously ridden behind. To add to it's attractiveness the first 13 Metra F40's are very shortly due to enter shops for a frames-up rebuild. It had to be done and it was!

Thursday May 8th

Anything else was going to be an anti-climax, although I thoroughly enjoyed this day which was spent chasing and riding "new" loco's on Metra's UP services out of Ogilvey Transportation Center. Metra is, of course, a well established commuter network but it's always heartening to see the extent of ridership on trains in the middle of the day, illustrating that a well balanced schedule doesn't just need to be constructed around rush hour times.

This was also the last day that our gang of 11 would be together so a celebratory meal was enjoyed at the Rock Bottom Brewery, at which our leader and organiser, Simon Bennett, was heartily thanked for his efforts.

Next year's trip will be to Alaska. Very tempting for me as Alaska is one of the only 3 US States that I've not been to, but conspicuously devoid of Amtrak. Unless I do the Empire Builder Chicago - Seattle and fly up there. Or the Coast Starlight LA - Seattle...and the F59's on Cascades will be new loco's for me...and Sounder...I'd better start saving!

Friday May 9th

A very different day for me today. I have a huge fascination with the uniquely American phenomenon of the Interurban. I was delighted in LA to spot some old Pacific Electric fragments, and identify the former location of Valley Interlocking. Yesterdays riding paralleled, in places, the North Shore and passing Aurora on the Chief I paid silent homage to the site of the CA&E depot.

Despite my fascination I'd never ridden the Granddaddy of them all, the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend. I think I'd been saving it for the right occasion and that was today.

I wonder what Sam Insull would think of today's Chicago? Or what Charles Tyson Yerkes would think of today's London? History thinks of them both as corrupt racketeers and to an extent that assessment is valid but Londoner Insull made Chicago his own, and solidified the concept of Suburban development with his 3 Chicagoland interurbans, while Chicagoan Yerkes effectively created the London Underground system. An intriguing pair, perhaps in more than one sense of the word. Despite their financial "inventiveness" the socio-economic development of both cities would have been far more protracted without their vision, industry and enterprise.

I'm sure that Sam Insull wouldn't approve of the fact that Randolph Street - or Millennium Station as we're now encouraged to call it - is a facade-less subterranean concrete box with a distinctly unfinished appearance. The demise of the North Shore and the CA&E must have him spinning in his grave, especially as Metra's subsequent success along their corridors makes it quite clear that these closures were ridiculously short sighted.

Nevertheless, and almost miraculously, the South Shore has survived and I thanked fate for that as we set off to South Bend Airport under the wires. Van Buren still has a degree of originality about it and the sprawling South Chicago suburbs perhaps give a clue to the vibrancy that the South Shore exudes, despite a strictly enforced policy of diverting local passengers onto Metra Electric as far as Kensington 115th.

Much of the right-of-way from the 115th interlocking towards Gary is interwoven with industrial leads from NS, CSX and EJ&E which adds to the attraction. Despite this being a mid-day train ridership was healthy. I don't know if the term "rust belt" is still in currency but there was no doubt that we were traveling through it. Gary was the setting for the initial scenes of "The Deerhunter" and my impression (admittedly from a train window) was very much of a hardworking, hard-living industrial town. I felt at home!

After Gary, apart from Mittal Steel's immense Burns Harbor plant, the line changes in character to an essentially rural route. I observed a long, winding path alongside the route and imagined a very different me, living in the area and walking our dogs daily along the path. Then I thought of the legendary "lake effect" of winter weather and quickly retracted my daydream. I also factored in my 34 days annual paid leave from work, my 35 hour week, our 17th century farmhouse home and Fall in the Wharfe Valley, 10 miles from our home.

Yes, folks, by this time I was getting a little homesick, not helped by some heartfelt transatlantic phone calls. America is wonderful - absolutely, without qualification or question. Americans, unless they're stealing my camera or subjecting me to narrow-minded bigoted opinions (a tiny tiny minority) are wonderful people. As you will have realised I absolutely cherish the ease with which conversations start and friendships develop in the US, and I glory in the incredible scenery, and the vibrancy of your cities, and the friendly, generous openness of American people in general. But I could never consider emigration.

Clanking across the diamonds at the west end of Michigan City brought an abrupt end to my reflections. Not only is this an interurban but it features street-running. Whilst this isn't an unknown to me (adventurous aficionado's of street-running should try "De Lijn", a long coastal trolley system between De Panne and Knokke in Belgium) it is sufficiently rare now to be a very enjoyable and spectacular experience. Regrettably, however, the original depot at Michigan City is for sale and looks to be in a state of disrepair. The area doesn't appear too affluent which perhaps explains the condition of the depot.

Carrol Avenue represents the end of street-running and is also the site of the maintenance shops for the system. After that the route passes through very pleasant rural scenery. Yet another highlight for me was a meet with a pair of South Shore GP38-2's on a freight. Sadly not the "Little Joe's" which used to work the route, but good enough. South Bend airport, the current terminal, is reached by some roadside running and, by the time the train arrives there, it has curved through 180 degrees and is facing Chicago again, which surprised me. The place seemed vibrant enough but as usual I'd come for the ride so took the same train back.

Other than to relate that this late afternoon train into Chicago was again quite busy, and to reiterate just how much I'd enjoyed my day there is nothing much to say of my return journey. For me the defining experience of any rail journey is not the level of service, or the accommodations, but what is going past outside the window. I also appreciate the technical and historical aspects of the system. I can't understand why I left the South Shore as long as I did, but I know I'll make time to ride it again every time I return to Chicago.

Saturday May 10th

My last day in the US - for this year anyway! Simon, Tim, Paul and Derek had flown home the previous night leaving the rest of us behind to squeeze every cent of value out of Metra's $5 weekend pass. With 90 miles out of 8 trains I don't think we did too badly.

The culmination on Metra was a train to Jefferson Park, where we transferred onto CTA's Blue Line. This is undergoing some rehabilitation at the moment so between Cumberland and Rosemont we were shuttled by a CTA bus with incredible efficiency. There were a lot of available staff to help out, no ambiguity about where we should go and ample buses to take everyone and their luggage forward. A shining example of what to do when you're unable to provide a rail service.

After another easy check-in and security screening we found ourselves with a huge let-down at O'Hare Terminal 5. Once through the security screen there are very little in the way of concessions and eateries. The choice was a few sorry-looking sandwiches and a smaller news-stand than one might find in an average small town. The country of bounteous hospitality lets itself down very badly here. Luckily, and despite my expectations the food on the plane (another BMI A330) was edible and tasty.

Sunday May 11th

Home! As usual I'd not slept on the plane, and it was 1.30am Chicago time when we landed. Only Ian and I took the flight to Manchester; the others went to Heathrow. Surprise number 1 was that it was warm and sunny in Manchester; better weather than we'd had in Chicago. Surprise number 2 was that the walkway to the station was closed for repair. Luckily we know the way as the signposting was totally inadequate for anybody unfamiliar with the airport. Surprise number 3 was that, due to engineering work, there were no trains from the airport station. Staff were on hand to give us directions but the replacement bus was some distance away and was not there when we arrived: a very poor contrast to yesterday's good show from CTA.

The bus took us to Manchester Piccadilly, from where I took:-

  • 185135 - a 3 car DMU operated by open-access company "TransPennine" 43 miles to Leeds then

  • 333005 - a 4 car EMU operated by Northernrail to Frizinghall and a hugely awaited embrace!


I've laid down certain reflections in my report and have little to add. I cannot understate my admiration of America, my fascination with it's history and, above all, my continued love of it's National rail network. However, I am British by birth and European by inclination. For me, perhaps taking Amtrak is a little like taking a mistress. It's fresh, exciting, different and challenging for a brief fling, but it can't replace the satisfaction of home!

Thanks for reading.

Simon Reed.

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