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Trip Report

Epic Journey:Tacoma to Croton-Harmon

June 26-July 1, 2011


Tacoma, WA, was selected as the site for this year’s NRHS Convention. I flew out on Delta Airlines and was to return from Portland via the Empire Builder to Chicago, the Capitol Limited to Washington and NE Regional Service to New York.

Once the Delta flight had landed at Seatac I turned on my phone to find a message from Amtrak advising that the Builder would not be running thru due to the flooding at Minot, ND. The lady who called from Amtrak was most apologetic and offered two options. Option 1 was a re-route via the Coast Starlight to Sacramento in coach, thence the California Zephyr to Chicago in a large Bedroom, followed by the Lake Shore Limited in a roomette to New York. Clearly the value of this was greater than I had paid and it would afford an extra day of train travel. Option 2 was a full refund with me “on my own” to get back home. Hence a no-brainer and rather quickly I rode the Tacoma Link Streetcar to the end at Freighthouse Square and walked the long block to the Amtrak station to change the tickets.

My return trip started on Sunday, June 26, 2011 on the one way NRHS Convention trip powered by ex SP Engine 4449 from Tacoma to Portland. I had planned to ride the Empire Builder from there East but since that was canceled I would be heading south on the Coast Starlight. This gave me about 2 hours less in Portland so all I did while there was to ride the Green Line light rail to Lloyd Center with return by a different route. It was a clear, cool day so naturally I took some photos.

Yellow school buses took us from the convention hotel to the Amtrak Tacoma station. We had buses with luggage bins as many of the passengers wouldn't be returning to Tacoma; in fact quite a few had been re-routed on to the Starlight. I rode in the business class section in the half food service car, in a nice individual leather seat. The trip ran fast and as expected there were lots of folks out there recording the event on film. We reached Portland at 12:06.

This was said to possibly be the last steam train to operate via the “long way around” scenic route along Commencement Bay as passenger trains will use a new shorter route now under construction. We departed TAC at 8:44, stopped at Centralia from 10:00 to 10:09 to obtain a new battery for the 4449's radio, passed Kelso at 11:00, made a discharge stop at Vancouver, WA 11:44/11:47 and reached Portland at 12:06 just after departure of a Talgo train for Seattle.

Shortly after my return to Portland's Union Station from light rail riding, an announcement was made for check in of passengers for #11 and a long line began forming. Just about the same time the train pulled in, about 8 minutes early. The new conductor coming on duty here collected the tickets at a desk where he insisted on checking everyone's photo ID and issued seat checks. Then passengers had to wait in another line for the gate to open. From there it was out to the train to obtain seats from the car attendants. Amtrak had reserved a lower level seat for me, stating that nothing else was open. The conductor suggested I might prefer upstairs; when seated I noticed about 8 friends in the area so we all started chatting. However, the man seated next to me thought he'd like to try the lower level and I agreed so we got the car attendant to give us lower seats in the next (last) car after a group detrained in Salem. Good that I had checked the suitcase in the baggage car as this made the transfer easier. Only a few people were in the lower level compartment but it did fill up during the night. I slept well, missing most of the stops, awoke about 5:30 am and soon realized we were early so headed for the washroom. Arrival in SAC came quite early at 5:53.

A couple of “characters” were on board #11. When heading to my new car I saw a young fellow with a broom sweeping the area. He mentioned this was necessary as a high school group had been there and made a mess. When I asked him if he worked for Amtrak he said “Sort of.” Later he detrained at a station despite the conductor's clear directive that everyone should stay on board as this was not a smoking stop. The conductor later chewed him out and I never saw the guy since. Another was an elderly man who boarded at Chemult. He was heading to Baltimore, spoke very loudly and was constantly yelling “where is the conductor” or words to that effect. “I have cataracts and am hard of hearing and need help.” Luckily he most have dropped off to sleep or in any event, he didn't keep me awake.

Since I had several hours at Sacramento I started riding the light rail lines. First on the agenda was the new extension of the Gold Line which now runs right in to the railroad station track area. It was peak time and 4 car trains were running. I noted that the other end of the Gold Line operates over a new extension I had not previously ridden. Fifteen minute headway was operated to Sunrise and 30 minute beyond that to the line's end at Historic Folsom. Since the train I had boarded was going only to Sunrise, I spent perhaps a half hour there for photos. Then on to the end of the route at Folsom. The stations are further apart on this section and the last few miles are single track. After a few quick photos I rode the same equipment back with stops at several locations and then transferred to the Blue Line for Meadowview. Then on to Watt I-80 on the original route and return downtown for transfer to a Gold Line train back to the station. While downtown I phoned Amtrak and was told the Zephyr now was expected to arrive at 1 pm so rushed back only to find this was erroneous and 3 pm was the projected time. That turned out to be 5 pm.

While at the SAC station quite a few trains and people came and went. I got some photos and noted two volunteers out by the tracks directing people to various trains. Sadly there are now but 3 platform tracks in the station. Of course, the light rail took two of the tracks and others were eliminated for a bus loading area. But two of the further out tracks could have been retained. A large construction project is underway on the north side of the tracks and I was told the underpass will be extended there and some “new station” will be erected. At the very least, this will entail much more walking for the passengers.

Along with several other folks, I spent the half hour before train time on a station platform bench enjoying the shade, breeze and rail traffic, including several UP freights. Once a train to Oakland departed we were told the CZ would arrive on that track and it soon appeared on the Sacramento River bridge. The lead unit was #146 and was painted in the old “cigar band” color scheme with “Amtrak—40 years—1971 to 2011” on the side. Following were unit 86, a baggage car, 4 Superliner coaches, a Sightseer Lounge car, Dining car and 3 Superliner sleepers. My room was in the last car. When I boarded the attendant handed dinner reservation slips and was giving me two. He looked surprised when I told him I'm alone; I guess it's somewhat unusual for a single traveler to pay all that money for a big bedroom. The room next to mine had 3 adults and I could hear them complaining about the tight space during the night.

Departure from SAC came 6 hours, 1 minute late at 5:10. Roseville, home of a large former SP facility, was the first stop. The huge yard there housed many UP locos, one switcher in the former SP scheme and two SP rotary snowplows. My dinner reservation was for 6:45 so I enjoyed dinner while passing over the Sierras and Donner Pass. Table companions were a young couple from Seattle heading to a conference in Fort Lauderdale; a long trip made longer by the absence of the Empire Builder. The fourth seat was occupied by a retired U of Chicago administrator heading home from San Francisco. His last rail trip west had been through the Feather River Canyon and I told him he had just missed a repeat of that as this train had been routed over that line a few days earlier. I had the steak with baked potato and vegies and it was one of the best steaks I've ever had.

I adjourned to the lounge car after dinner to enjoy the scenery and returned shortly before the Reno stop where the station platform is in the trench built as part of a grade crossing elimination project. When I had returned my room was made up for the night so I turned in about 10:30. I slept well except for occasional noise (complaints) from the people next door. I awoke as we were speeding through the salt flats and soon heard the announcement for Salt Lake City. Since the sun was shining I wanted to see the facilities there so quickly showered and dressed—UGH--a cold shower as there was no hot water.

I detrained about 5 minutes after the SLC arrival to find a cloudless day with 70 degree temperature. The layout there is such that passengers must walk around the back of the train to reach a crosswalk over the Front Runner commuter rail tracks. Lucky for me I was in the last car so had a short walk to photograph several Front Runner trains and a TRAX light rail train in front of the new railroad station. This facility appears to be at the very fringe of downtown but is served by the TRAX light rail which makes downtown only a few minutes away. I didn't visit the Amtrak or Front Runner station building, nor the Greyhound station, as the train was so late that it might not use all its scheduled station time.

Now back on board it was time for breakfast. This took some time as the diner was full and numbers were being given out. When seated I was with a young couple from the UK and their 4-year old now living in Mill Valley, CA, north of San Fran. They were heading to Chicago, thence Washington on vacation. Soon we passed under a bridge containing railroad tracks which ran down alongside the UP tracks. In some locations the tracks were in, at others bridges were under construction, yet others had ties put down and in some places grading was in progress. At first I thought UP was adding capacity but when I saw station platforms under construction, I came to realize this double track line is for a new Front Runner line. It extended all the way to Provo, about 45 miles from SLC.

After leaving Sacramento the various conductors had announced scenic locations and points of interest. Soon ours mentioned we were ascending the grade to Soldier Summit, which prompted me to go to the back door where you could see the difference in grade almost immediately after cresting the Summit. The next stop was Helper, UT but we then encountered a work zone of about 15 miles duration with a long slow order and constant track equipment. Lots of new ties were laid out and the old ones marked for replacement. I assume that if on time the Zephyr wouldn't encounter this work but our lateness resulted in yet further delay. We had seen few freight trains on the line but I heard the Dispatcher tell the work crews that a BNSF train was behind us with nothing more for a long time. We had overtaken the BNSF train, operating on trackage rights, a half hour earlier.

I headed to the diner for lunch about 12:40 and was seated with a mother and two young daughters from Wala Wala, WA, en route to Rochester, NY. They had been ticketed on the Empire Builder but then drove to Portland to catch the Starlight. This time I had the soup & salad which was more than ample, especially after my big breakfast. Just after lunch came our stop at Green River, UT, not to be confused with the town of that name in Wyoming. The conductor mentioned that much of it is boarded up but it is more active than Thompson, the next town, which has but 50 residents and where the CZ used to stop until the late '90's. The purpose of these stops is to serve Moab, the largest city in eastern Utah, located about 45 miles south. As we passed through Thompson the conductor mentioned that the town has a motel by the tracks. “Motel 6 will keep the light on for you but here they keep the door open for you. Just watch out for the rattlesnakes.” No doors or windows, just an abandoned brick motel building.

Grand Jct came next. Since this is a 10 minute crew change stop, I walked up to detrain from the first coach to rush up front for a photo of the train pulled by historic locomotive 145. A few others came with me; the baggage person said nothing and the engineers gave us a cheerful greeting while getting on and off. The temperature here was 93 and it was quite windy. Amtrak built a cement block station here some years ago and the attractive former D&RGW station stands empty with a “For Sale—Historic Train Depot” sign, exactly as it was when I last passed through here a year ago. After Grand Jct we ran along the Colorado River for miles. The water was high and moving fast and we passed by some magnificent rock formations.

Glenwood Springs was the next leg stretching stop. Here the river was racing past. Quite a few passengers joined us here. Shortly after departure at 5:48 (due at 12:10) we entered scenic Glenwood Canyon, historic meeting place of the Cal Zephyrs. This day history repeated itself as we met westbound #5 in the canyon, running about 4 ½ hours late. The crew said it departed CHI on time but had to detour around Omaha and encountered a lot of freight trains that were rerouted due to flooding. That got me thinking that if we get hit with the same delays, all the Chicago train connections will be missed. Through this area we crossed the river several times and were treated to many magnificent rock formations and other beautiful scenery.

I had made a 6:30 dinner reservation and was joined by a mom with teenage daughter heading from Martinez, CA to Denver for a family reunion. The retired university administrator from Chicago also was at the table. Our waiter was making his first trip for Amtrak but did a creditable job. Since last night's steak had been so delicious I tried it again with equal success. After dinner I retired to the lounge car to observe more great scenery illuminated by the setting sun. Here the river seemed especially high and many of the farms were flooded. Since we wouldn't reach Denver until about midnight, I saw no need to stay awake to see the temporary station there so turned in about 10:30.

Wednesday, June 29: This is the day I was supposed to reach home as per my original itinerary. I awoke at 7:01 as we were stopped in Hastings, NE (1:42). Got up, shaved, showered and headed to the diner for an enjoyable Amtrak breakfast. My table companions were a lady from Cleveland returning home from a USA Railpass trip, another headed to Brooklyn from San Francisco, and another returning home to Dayton, Ohio (she had her car at a garage in Chicago.) The food and ambiance were good. After all these years I finally got to see Lincoln, NE, where we arrived at 9:41 and departed at 9:56 (3:26). Hey, 6 ½ hours late isn't bad--it got worse. The crew changed at Lincoln and the conductor was all by himself due to the topsy turvy schedules; an assistant would board in Creston, IA, if we didn't need to be re-crewed by then anyway. After Lincoln we began passing numerous freight trains, most of which were waiting in sidings. But there were a lot of them due to the closure of the northern transcontinental line. Somewhere along the way we switched on to the detour to avoid Omaha and gradually high water became evident near the tracks, sometimes far too near. It was evident that the track had recently been raised and now employees were building earthen dikes on both sides of the tracks to keep the Missouri River waters out. Sandbags were out in other locations. When crossing the river on a high bridge, I noted it was very high and had spilled over on to farms and a few homes. Other houses were on islands surrounded by water.

Once clear of the Missouri River area I had thought we would proceed at better speed but instead we stopped and crawled much of the way. The line was plugged with freight trains, many diverted from other routes. In most cases the freights were tucked away in sidings waiting for us but the congestion led to a very slow trip. All these delays made it quite unlikely that I would make my 9:30 pm connection with the Lake Shore Limited at Chicago. Anyway, it soon was time for lunch. In the diner I joined a man going from Redding, CA, to Alliance, OH (who would miss his train for sure), the lady from Dayton and a man traveling from San Francisco to Osceola, IA. He was concerned that he might not finish lunch before Osceola but I told him not to worry. That was good advice as we didn't reach Creston until 3:17 (7:04am). For lunch I enjoyed the Cheeseburger and vanilla ice cream, served by the still-jovial staff. I asked them what's for dinner and they assured me they'll figure something out although they were starting to run out of things on this sold out train. All along the way we continued to pass or overtake freight trains—many of them loaded or empty coal trains.

Creston,IA, our first station stop in 5 hours, 20 minutes, came at 3:17 with a departure time of 3:24. The yellow 2 story brick station probably is used for BNSF offices as Amtrak uses a Butler-style building just beyond. Here, I think, the passengers from Omaha boarded after having been bussed to this location. Upon departure there were freight trains on both sides of us and for several miles east we passed them on almost subway-type headways. Since it now was clear that we could not reach CHI before 9:30, I phoned Amtrak to ask if #48 would be held or some other plan implemented. As I had suspected, the agent said it was too early to tell and that the conductors would get the word later on and the Customer Service people would be on hand in Union Station to handle arrangements if need be. I then was projecting our arrival to be sometime after 1 AM so hopefully they'll be on duty and ready with alternatives.

After Creston we continued usually at a slow pace as if we were behind a freight train. We passed countless freights in the opposite direction and sometimes would overtake one, followed by a burst of speed. I'm sure the BNSF dispatchers were doing their best with what they had to work with but we continued losing time. Around 6:15 the passengers in my sleeper were invited to the diner, followed by those in the next car. To my surprise, we had a choice of everything on the menu and I once again had the steak, baked potato and vegies which again were delicious. The waiter joked that this time they would help us lose weight by skipping salad and desert. My table mates were a lady from San Francisco heading to DC for 4th of July events and a couple from South Bend who had boarded at Granby, CO. They were planning to spend a few days in Chicago and then take the South Shore Line to South Bend. The train was entering the Ottumwa, IA, station as we finished; upon departure from there we were 10 hours, 8 minutes late. Perhaps 25 miles east of Ottumwa we passed the westbound Zephyr, running about an hour late.

Here's what happened next: We continued running at modest speeds, reaching Burlington, IA at 9:42 pm (10:36 am). Upon departure we crossed the wide Mississippi on the former CB&Q's bridge; I was told that a new bridge is under construction here but it was too dark to see it. Then, a few minutes later at 10:04, we pulled into a siding a few miles into Illinois. The conductor made a lengthy announcement apologizing for the lateness and saying the customer service representatives would be on hand in Chicago to arrange hotels and continuing trips on tomorrow's trains. He then said that his working time was up and the train could not be moved until a new crew arrived. Now, up to this point I could understand the problems but I failed to understand why a new crew was not dispatched much sooner as it was well known that the train was running very late and that the conductors would outlaw. Anyway, we sat at this dark location with a few other trains passing by from 10:04 to 11:34 when we began moving. For some time we ran at the normal fast speed, passing and overtaking several freights. It was as if the dispatchers had “given us the railroad” the rest of the way to Chicago. My main concern then became getting a decent night's sleep and space on tomorrow's Lake Shore Limited. Alas, the fast running soon ended and we slowed to perhaps 30 mph and were delayed from 12:20 am to 1:04 “awaiting a signal” outside Galesburg. Once underway we ran at good speed most of the way to Chicago, reaching Union Station at 4:04 am (due at 2:50 pm).

I didn't mention this earlier but my car #32065 had recently been overhauled at Beech Grove under the “TIGER” program. It had some improvements over the other two sleepers such as tight shower doors, brighter hallway lighting, simulated wood paneling in the halls and rooms instead of carpeting which eventually becomes dirty.

Although I was in the last car of the train, I managed to reach “Lounge G” in the station where the customer reps were located with only 5 people ahead of me. Three were being served by 3 reps and soon the supervisor decided no more supervision was needed and called me over. She provided a voucher for the Crowne Plaza on West Madison St. (really only a few blocks away), as well as $50 for cab fares and meals. Sandwiches, soda and other refreshments were in the room but I didn't partake. When I walked out there were at least 150 people in a line and I imagine it would take an hour for the four agents to serve all of them. Upstairs on Canal St. I grabbed a cab to the hotel; the driver griped about having waited for such a short haul and I shut him up, telling him he could go right back for another load as there were about 150 more people to go.

The hotel was quite nice; they gave me a 2 pm check out time with no “wake up” call. I actually did wake up about 10 am, and checked out about 11. From there I walked to the nearby Ogilvie Transportation Center (formerly known as C&NW Station) to check trains, timetables and pick up a little cash at Citibank in the building. From there over to Union Station where my first stop was the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge. There a very helpful agent hunted in the computer and came up with a roomette in the Boston sleeper, telling me I'd have to change in Albany which is no problem as I thought I might even catch an earlier train from there. To my comment that “you folks must be quite busy these days,” she smiled and said “Business as usual at Amtrak.”

Now what to do? First on the agenda was lunch, obtained at the station's food court. I had considered traveling to Joliet but only the local Rock Island trains run at these hours and I'd return too late for my planned dinner with friends. So I opted for a trip on the former Burlington to Stone Ave. La Grange which I recalled as a good location for train photos. Indeed it was, with a park and an attractive station that could be worked into the photos. I got out there at 3:05 and returned on an express train at 4:34, photographing only one freight train but about 5 BNSF Metra trains as well as the Amtrak Southwest Chiefs to/from Los Angeles which were exactly on time in both directions. While around the station, 7 people asked for train information which I gladly dispensed.

By pre-arrangement a friend was at the gate to meet my train. We both had to carefully avoid getting trampled by the hoards of commuters rushing to catch their trains. BNSF/METRA do some tight turns at Union Station; when my train pulled in the platform was full of people awaiting the equipment's departure about 18 minutes later. We then walked over to the famous Berghoff German Restaurant on Adams where we enjoyed an excellent and leisurely dinner. When finished, I observed that I had not yet ridden CTA this trip so we walked to the “L” and took a ride around the Loop and a little beyond while my friend who works for CTA pointed out some interesting operational features of the “L”. A storm was brewing and we made it back to Union Station about 8:15 just before sheets of rain came down.

The Met Lounge was about ready to close when I entered as most passengers already had been “walked out” to the Lake Shore Ltd. One of the agents escorted me through the concourse where there was a very long line of coach passengers and left me at the rear of the train. I noted the consist of this very long train as I walked along the platform to my car, the Boston sleeper, up front right behind the front baggage car. Once on board the cheerful attendant named Walt got me settled in and I went back to the diner to partake of the wine and cheese tasting. After 3 glasses of chardonnay, some crackers, grapes and conversation with a couple from the UK, I headed forward to my room about 10 minutes after the train’s departure at 9:38 (9:30). We now were moving at good speed and I asked the attendant to make up just the upper bed so my “stuff” could be kept open downstairs. Once I climbed in I soon dropped off to sleep rather quickly. I woke up a little once or twice during the night and had the sensation of speed and a very smooth ride.

Consist notes: Amtrak had added a coach to accommodate those “stranded” in Chicago from the late Cal Zephyr. We had 2 baggage cars, 3 Viewliner sleepers, 7 coaches, a lounge car and a dining car. The split between cars en route to NY and Boston is shown in the consist detail below. Our second locomotive was one of the 40th anniversary units and had been the lead unit on my train #6 the previous day. I slept well and missed all the stations between South Bend and Erie, PA.

Friday, July 1: Woke up about 7:30, got dressed and headed for the diner where I enjoyed an omelette. Just as I entered the diner the power failed which means “no service.” However they took my order and everything was delivered shortly after the power came back. But then it went off and stayed off for a long time and the crew was heard discussing “engine problems.” So we sat at CP 37 (37 miles West of Buffalo) from 8:35 until 10:06 when we started moving again. Arrival at Buffalo-Depew station was at 11:07 and departure at 11:23 (9:08). Except for an occasional slow down, we ran at good speed from there and didn't get delayed by CSX trackwork which was in progress as we passed through. I enjoyed lunch with 3 ladies from Germany who were traveling through the eastern USA, getting as far west as Milwaukee. They now were heading to Boston from where they would fly back home 3 days later.

We did have another stoppage several miles west of Utica. This time the engineer was confident the problem was with relays and was solved; he also had a message from management to not use the cruise control. Once underway there were no further mechanical problems. We passed train 281 to Niagara Falls in the Utica station, running about 18 minutes late. Attaining good speed, we passed the junction with the freight line (Hoffmans) at 4:18 and reached the Schenectady station at 4:27 (2:00). Train 283 to Niagara Falls was in the station, about 15 minutes down but in any event would have had to wait for us to exit the single track.

The Boston and NY sections are split at Albany. Usually this is done north of the station and each train then pulls in on a separate track. Today, however, Train 449 the westbound Boston section of the Lake Shore Ltd had arrived over 40 minutes early and was occupying the only station track leading to the Boston line. So we pulled beyond the station with the NY section at the platform and it was uncoupled. We then pulled south and #449 moved north into a siding after which we were backed on to the Boston track. A squad of TSA guys was standing right opposite the door from my car. They didn't appear to know what was going on with all the switching. I merely tipped the attendant, said goodbye, smiled at the TSA guys and headed for the elevator. Upstairs an usher tried to stop me from going down to #48 but after hearing the story he summoned the elevator. Downstairs I located a seat on the Hudson River side and resumed work on this trip report.

The Boston section of #48 had reached the platform at 5:10; the NY section departed at 5:27 (3:50). We immediately reached good speed (90 mph much of the way) and I called my wife, estimating our arrival time at my home station of Croton-Harmon to be between 7:10 and 7:15. I then relaxed to enjoy the fast ride down the Hudson on this beautiful day. Poughkeepsie came at 6:22 (4:47) after which the conductor stopped by to tell me we should be at Croton-Harmon shortly after 7. An abundant number of trains began passing us–this time no freight but Metro-North and Amtrak passenger trains as we were passing the northbound “rush hour” service. We reached Croton-Harmon at 7:02 (5:33) and I was home shortly thereafter. The trip had taken two day longer than planned but I had enjoyed it.

CONSIST AMTRAK #6 FROM SACRAMENTO ON JUNE 27, 2011 Engines 145 (heritage unit) and 84 Cars: 1716-- Baggage 39024-- Transition sleeper 34096-- Coach 34044-- Coach 31008-- Coach 33002-- Sightseer Lounge 38039-- Dining Car 32099-- Sleeping car New Mexico 32082-- Sleeping car Indiana 32065-- Sleeping car [my car]–name removed during overhaul.

CONSIST AMTRAK #48 FROM CHICAGO ON JUNE 30, 2011 Engines 102 & 145 (heritage unit) Cars: 1763-- Baggage Car 62004-- Viewliner Sleeper Beach View [my car] TO BOSTON 25124-- Amfleet II Coach 25045-- “ “ “ 28005-- Amfleet II Lounge Car 25006-- Amfleet II Coach TO NEW YORK 25071-- “ “ “ 25031-- “ “ “ 25065-- “ “ “ 25123-- “ “ “ 8558-- Dining Car 62046-- Viewliner Sleeper 62025-- “ “ 1235-- Baggage Car

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