By Amtrak on a Great Circle Adventure
[By Allen Brougham] . . .
The time was once again at hand for my annual wintertime excursion. Each year about this time I set out to enjoy this great land of ours - using the very finest means of travel ever devised. My choice of places to visit was merely a byproduct of the itinerary; indeed, the vacation was principally to enjoy the ride along the way. Whatever I would do during layovers was merely incidental to the trip.
The booking went as follows: Baltimore to New Orleans on number 19 (Crescent); a two-night stay; New Orleans to Los Angeles on number 1 (Sunset Limited); Los Angeles to Seattle on number 14 (Coast Starlight); a one-night stay; and Seattle to Chicago on number 8 (Empire Builder). At that point I opted originally to take the Cardinal back to Baltimore - timing the itinerary to mesh with that train's quirky three-day-a-week operation. So I made my reservations - sleepers all the way. But just three days before the trip was set to begin, a potentially cataclysmic snag developed! Amtrak decided to drop its sleeper from the Cardinal. I learned of this through a friend who had read about it on the internet. (Surely, I thought, Amtrak might try and call me, but I gave Amtrak a call before it had a chance.)
The lady with whom I spoke knew nothing of the Cardinal losing its sleeper, but she kept me on the line while she checked. Yes, it was so, she told me when she returned, and I sort of had to prod her into suggesting an alternate way for me to get back home without having to sit up that final night in a coach. She rebooked my final leg via number 30, the Capitol Limited, Chicago to Washington, and a coach seat on a connecting NEC Regional to Baltimore. Fine!
But later I learned of yet another disturbing report.. It seems one of the two sleepers on the Crescent had also gotten the axe. At issue was a backlog in maintenance and repair work, compounded by snow and cold weather at the Sunnyside Yard facility in New York where Viewliner-equipped trains are cycled, plus an ongoing tight supply of the cars needed to meet their regular demand. Concerned that my original reservation on the Crescent's leg of the journey might have been booked in the sleeper that had been blanked, I called Agent Frimbo (not his real name), a very accommodating Amtrak station agent I know, to hopefully put my mind at ease. I'm glad I did. He assured me that I still had my sleeper space on the Crescent, but in checking further he discovered that my change in routing via the Capitol Limited vice the Cardinal had not been entered. (Ouch!) But he took care of this for me, and I was all set to go.
The heralded day arrived. It was Tuesday, February 3. Wade Massie, a friend of mine from Pittsburgh who agreed to come to Baltimore to housesit and look after my dog Rex, drove me to the station. We already knew that number 19 had left New York a little late, but I got to Penn Station in plenty of time. A quick look at the train status board was not encouraging, though, as three of the seven spaces on the board were filled with reports of overdue trains that were being "Delayed," and number 19 had not even been entered. I wondered then, and still do, what might happen if all seven spaces on the board were needed to report upon trains that were overdue, and there would then be no further space to enter trains that would sequentially arrive ahead of them. (That's something to ponder the next time I have trouble getting to sleep at night!)
In due time, number 19 found its slot on the board, and when the train arrived I found myself to be the only passenger boarding its lone sleeper. We left the station 24 minutes late. As we entered B&P Tunnel, it was a very cherished moment as I gleefully acknowledged the vision that all of the fun was still ahead of me.
In short order I ventured back to the diner - the next car back - and was seated with Michael, a professional golfer. He was en route to Atlanta for a short visit from which he would venture to Savannah for a tournament on Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast. Golfing is his sole profession, he said. My dinner selection for my first night out was (what else?) the New York Strip Steak! The atmosphere was quite casual in the diner, and the steward was seating mostly two to a table to avoid the feeling of being crowded. Evidently, having only one sleeper on the train had reduced the number of folks expecting to be fed. (Sleeping car passengers get their meals gratis.) As my beverage I bought a bottle of Merlot, and then a second bottle which I took back to my room. (The booze is extra.)
Upon leaving the Virginia Avenue Tunnel I caught an inspirational glimpse of the Capitol building and the light within its cupola. Very impressive! We left Alexandria 26 minutes late. Fog had set in by the time we reached Manassas, but later it cleared and a nearly full moon shone above which lightened the snow on the landscape. I must have been napping when we stopped at Culpeper, as I do not remember it, but I made sure to be awake at Charlottesville to detrain briefly and meet friends who had planned to be there - but they couldn't make it. We left Charlottesville 20 minutes late.
A feature of the Viewliner sleeper is an upper window at eye-level, so when I retired I did so in the upper berth to avail the serenity from my darkened room of the ever-changing landscape as we sped our way through the hills and dales during the night. Hint: If schedules permit, it is a worthy idea to time your trip during the period of a full moon. It can make a big difference.
Sleep was sporadic this first night out as the thrill of the moment interceded. Still, I firmly contend that four hours of sleep on a train is equal to eight hours of sleep anywhere else, if indeed it is not equal to even more than that. Somehow, the rhythmic motion of the train and the clickity-clack of the wheels complements the sleeping process to allow one to awaken refreshed regardless. This would be my only night in a Viewliner sleeper, but I did use the upper berth throughout the rest of the trip in Superliners, sans the upper window, as this left extra room for my luggage perched on the seat below.
We were in South Carolina when I awoke, and I was in the diner promptly at 6:30 for breakfast. I was joined at the table by Peter, an Episcopal priest from New York en route to Birmingham for a conference. My selection was Turkey Sausage Links, Egg Substitutes, Grits, Biscuit, and Juice. (Juice was also available in the sleeper, along with coffee and bottled water, but soft drinks are no longer offered there.) We were a mere one minute late leaving Toccoa, Georgia. (OK, let's call it on time!)
The dining car on the Crescent - number 8510 - has a curious configuration. Whereas most single-level diners have table seating for 48, this one only has five pairs of tables giving it a capacity of 40. In the middle of the car, between the passageway and the pantry, is a lunch counter with five stools. The lunch counter is not used - and never has been, I am told - which was reportedly installed by Amtrak several years ago as part of a rebuilding effort. Diner 8510 (x-8050) had originally been California Zephyr car Silver Cafe, one of three such cars that Amtrak acquired from that particular fleet. It had always had 48 seats until Amtrak messed with its interior; now it is rostered as a 45-seat car, but only 40 are used. From my own analysis (for whatever it's worth), I do not think that the lunch counter stools - which have no backs - would be very practical from a safety standpoint due to the train's lurching motion that could cause a patron to fall over backwards. Could this have been the brainchild of somebody with Amtrak who never rode aboard a train? Who knows!
The Crescent had two locomotives, crew car Pacific Cape, Viewliner Sea View, the diner, lounge, five coaches (three occupied), baggage car and one material-handling car. Earlier in the trip (the night before) I had made my way through the train and counted 124 passengers, plus kiddies, in the coaches and lounge.
Atlanta was a service stop, and I detrained to get a look at Peach Tree Station. Originally an uptown station, I am told, it is a rather small but classic building at street level accessed from the lower track level by steps or elevator. There is a small courtyard off to one side of the building. It's not what one might consider fitting for a city the size of Atlanta, but for one train a day in each direction, it is at least adequate. We left Atlanta right on time.
Alabama, the next state along the route, offers some rather picturesque scenery with tall conifers, hills, streams and many curves along the way. The terrain is reminiscent of northern Baltimore County where I was raised, and the train negotiates the landscape much as trains of the old PRR Northern Central line did when I rode its rails to attend school. Now I know where to go whenever I want to relive the memory!
As part of my "must take" material I had with me was the latest edition of Harry Ladd's U.S. Railroad Traffic Atlas (Ladd Publications, P.O. Box 1671, Orange, California 92856-0671). The atlas, which fits easily into luggage, shows mainline routes throughout the country keyed to their traffic density. It is a useful guide to spotting where you are and the lines that intersect the route being used. It was especially useful further along in the trip - but more on this later.
Birmingham is also a service stop, and I got off to get a look at that city's station. Ouch! I should try and be more diplomatic, but the Birmingham depot is disgusting! The track level appearance is tolerable only because the depot cannot be seen from the train. Its lower level gives the appearance of a cell block with a narrow, curving passageway connecting the waiting area with the outside world. Then on the outside, things looked even worse!
For lunch I enjoyed Amtrak's Chili. I was joined by a gent from Atlanta en route to Meridian, Mississippi. It was his first train ride since he was a kid, and he took the Crescent this time because he did not wish to drive, and flights were inconvenient and expensive.
During our brief stop in Meridian, I got off the train to get a glance at that city's depot. What a treat! A modernistic yet classic three-story structure, it is known as the Union Station Multi Modal Transportation Center. I did not have time to explore its interior, but I have learned that it houses Amtrak, Greyhound, taxi companies, rental cars, and the local transit authority. There is platform space at the facility for three trains, although only one train presently serves the city daily in each direction. In a plan unveiled by Amtrak in early 2000, Meridian was slated to become a split point for a section of the Crescent - to be known as the Crescent-Star - to run west into Texas, but this plan got shelved. We left Meridian 35 minutes late.
For dinner I was joined by Kitty, a psychology major en route to New Orleans for interviews, and then to Los Angeles (on the same train as I). My selection for dinner was the Blackened Catfish.
The sun had set by the time we began our six-mile crossing of Lake Pontchartrain. From my left-side darkened room I looked out upon the lake toward distant lights - noting that the seas appeared somewhat turbulent - with flashes from lightning of an approaching thunderstorm on the horizon. That my first and so far only encounter with Lake Pontchartrain was not in daylight, this was about as impressive as one might expect in darkness.
We were 24 minutes late arriving New Orleans - precisely the number of minutes late that we were when I began the adventure back in Baltimore.
My hotel was located on Lee Circle, about five blocks from the station. A statue of General Lee stands upon a tall column in the middle of the circle, and bleachers flanked the perimeter for the Mardi Gras parade to be held later that month. The circle is along the route of the St. Charles streetcar line, the length of which I rode the following day.
Thursday, my only full day in New Orleans, was spent riding both the St. Charles and Riverfront streetcars, and I took a luncheon cruise on the Steamer Natchez. The steamer - the ninth to bear that name - is one of five truly steam-powered stern wheelers on the Mississippi River. For someone interested in watching nautical traffic, New Orleans is a swell place to be. That evening, I paid a visit to the National D-Day Museum.
Back in my hotel room that evening, I "attempted" to set the room's alarm clock to assure that I would be up in plenty of time to get to the train. No, it was not one of those old-fashioned clocks that anyone could set - it was a new type of mini gizmo complete with a digital display and a choice of waking to a beeping alarm or to the sound of the radio. There were knobs and buttons by which it could be activated, but no instructions as to how each was to work. So I experimented. I set the gadget to go off in five minutes. It didn't work. (Yes, it was plugged in!) Then I tried it again, setting the buttons differently. It still didn't work. Through trial and error, I finally got it to work - or so I thought. I then reset it for the time I wanted to wake up the next morning, and I went to bed. But a few minutes later, the alarm sounded. So I reset the thing again. A few minutes later, the alarm sounded again. Frustrated, I unplugged the contraption and took it down to the front desk. If an old timer such as I can't figure out how to make the confounded thing work, surely somebody from the staff could. The bellman was a 20-something, and I felt certain that he could set it for me. But since the thing had to be plugged in to activate, and once unplugged would lose its memory, he brought it back to my room with me so he could properly set it for the time I wanted to get up. Eureka! I took very special care not to even touch the clock for fear of messing something up, and I went back to bed.
The following morning I was up before the time the clock was supposedly scheduled to wake me up, but the alarm never activated! Just then the telephone rang! It was a telephone wake up call. (I know, I could have asked for one of those in the first place, sans using the alarm clock, but I thought the clock might be more reliable.) I can only surmise what had happened the night before. After the 20-something returned to the lobby, he probably rethought what he had done, and then not being sure that he had set it right either, he simply arranged for me a wakeup call. HA! I felt vindicated. I wasn't the only one who couldn't figure out how to make the stupid thing work. (Next time, I'll bring my own alarm clock!)
I got to the station about an hour before the train was due to leave. The train was already there (it has a long dwell), but it was not ready for boarding. I went into the first-class lounge to await the call. An agent came in a short while later to get us assembled, and she told us that our train would be making a detour. It seems a barge had struck one of the bayou bridges along the train's regular route, knocking the track from its alignment, and we would be running sort of a circle route northward to bypass the damaged bridge. The train would miss the stops at Shriever, New Iberia and Lafayette (a route I had covered on last year's Amtrak adventure anyway), and we would rejoin the regular route at Lake Charles. Such excitement! RARE MILEAGE! To me, this would be more fun than a person ought to be allowed to have.
As soon as I boarded the train, I slipped from my luggage Harry Ladd's Railroad Traffic Atlas to peruse our probable route. We left New Orleans exactly on schedule, and in due time began our breathtaking ascent onto the Huey P. Long Bridge. After passing through Avondale west of the bridge, we stopped briefly for (I suppose) our pilots, and then we proceeded onto UP's freight-only line that parallels the Mississippi River through Donaldsonville and then to Addis. We experienced no significant delays - in fact, we were making relatively good track speed - until we reached a yard at or near Addis. There we stopped (on the main track) with an announcement provided to us on the intercom that we were awaiting new pilots to take our train the rest of the detour route to Lake Charles. Evidently, our relieving pilots were not immediately available or were delayed en route, as we waited. And we waited. And we waited. To wile away the time next to a rail yard was not so much a concern to me - I was then in no hurry to get anyplace fast - but it was a bit disconcerting knowing that other passengers may be wary of sitting still for so long when the train could otherwise be moving. Fifty-eight minutes after we arrived, we departed.
The scenery along the detour route was not unlike what I could recall of the regular route - flat, marshy, a number of streams and a few rivers - but this was, after all, rare mileage. Coming into Kinder, still on the detour route, the conductor announced to us that we were passing rice paddies, seen off to the left.
For dinner I chose the Stuffed Pepper special. There is a variety of main dishes on the dinner menu, but specials are generally offered as well.
Back on the regular route once again, we left Lake Charles at 6:55 P.M., one hour and 47 minutes late. Not too bad, considering that we were told earlier to expect about a two hour delay taking the detour. Still, this delay could have been halved had we not been held in Addis for such an extended time.
The moon was out once again - more full than it had been three evenings earlier - and it helped brighten the landscape to my left-side room. Sleep was easier to come by, but I kept waking up by incidents of rough track. We were switching around in San Antonio when I woke up for good Saturday morning.
I was joined at breakfast by a lady from Virginia Beach, originally from Michigan, en route to New Mexico. She was a frequent Amtrak traveler.
Del Rio, Texas, has an impressive regional transportation center, shared by Amtrak. We left Del Rio two hours and 57 minutes late.
Throughout the trip I kept a watchful eye for the depots. Some, of course, are truly credits to the cities and towns they serve; some are not. Such as it is in Sanderson, Texas, the depot for which appeared quite derelict and in need of some serious attention. Even an Amshack would look better than that!
One thing I noticed as we sped past freight trains stopped in the siding for us, Union Pacific crews appeared to be inspecting our train from the ground, and in most cases with one crew member watching us from each side of the track. Really professional!
El Paso is a service stop, and I detrained to get a better look at its station than I was able to get last year when I could only look at it from the platform. This time I actually got inside - but only briefly, as the conductor thundered possibly the longest ... All Abo-a-a-a-a-a-a-rd I have ever heard. No ambiguity about that one!
We departed El Paso one hour and 43 minutes late. While this was more than an hour later leaving El Paso than we were when I rode this train last year, I was nonetheless elated when we climbed the hill without experiencing the same sort of stop and go congestion we had seen then. And with enormous padding in our schedule between there and Los Angeles, and having arrived in Los Angeles more than an hour early last year after having been more than an hour late just 32 miles before that, I was reasonably certain that we ought to make my two hour and 20 minute connection to the Coast Starlight the next morning without fail.
Or would we?
For dinner I was joined by a couple from Georgia and a fellow from Texas. The Texan was en route to Santa Barbara on business. It was his first train ride, he opting to go by train because a flight would have cost him five hundred dollars!
Retiring that evening, I heard the conductor announce that we would be waiting for three freight trains - for about 35 minutes - and then I heard him say that we were about to make a backup move to get us into position to sneak around another freight that had "broken down." That's all I remember about operating nuances until the following morning.
Sunday, the day I had "planned" to make my Coast Starlight connection in Los Angeles, I awoke early as usual. There was a bright moon in the western sky as the sun was just beginning to do its thing. We were in a sandy valley surrounded by mountains. Train-wise, this was a very busy line with a number of stack trains out and about. I headed back into the Sightseer Lounge, en route passing through the diner, finding that indeed breakfast was being prepared but not yet ready for patrons. Soon the valley opened up into a desert and the mountains receded from view. We were still in Arizona - not yet to Yuma. I then discovered that we were more than five hours late!
This single-track line is seemingly a madhouse of congestion. I heard one crew member refer to it as a "zoo." Virtually every siding had a freight train waiting in it, and at those that did not, sometimes they became occupied by... us!
I have to be fair in assessing the carnage - the Union Pacific dispatchers at least appeared to be trying to keep our train moving. I did not actually count the number of times we sped past a stopped freight. Nor did I actually count the number of times that we passed a stopped freight headed in the same direction as we, waiting for us to get by.. But it happened. And it happened more times that freights were stopped for us than it happened that we had to stop for them. I would say that we got the route about 70 percent of the time. But it was the remaining 30 percent that got noticed by our passengers, and it was this 30 percent that caused us to get later, and later, and later...
But this much said, I should go on record as noting that this particular line is entirely too congested to move anything efficiently - much less Amtrak. The amount of traffic I saw upon this line far exceeds its single-track infrastructure. In other words, it ought to be double-track! Even then, I wonder if everything could run efficiently. This is a very, very, very busy line!
Adding to this is a recurring issue of crew shortages with trains outlawing in the hinterlands. By some accounts, trains awaiting new crews have caused some sidings to become lineal parking lots.
In due time I heard the dreaded b-word! The b-word? [See next item.]
- (1) a large motor vehicle for carrying passengers
- (2) a motor coach
- (3) a highway vehicle only slightly more comfortable than an airplane
- (4) an onerous form of transportation endured as a last resort by Amtrak passengers to get between locations when train service is disrupted by the whims of freight railroads causing scheduled Amtrak connections to be missed
Such as it was about an hour before our arrival at Palm Springs. Passengers making connections with the Coast Starlight or San Joaquin trains were advised to be prepared to detrain at Palm Springs for alternate transportation.
We arrived in Palm Springs - a resort town nestled within a sea of power-generating windmills - at 9:58 A.M. Three MCI Inland Empire coaches were waiting - two for passengers to be connected to the Coast Starlight at San Luis Obispo; the other for intermediate Coast Starlight stops, also Bakersfield. Checked baggage was unloaded and reloaded accordingly, and passengers were directed to the appropriate vehicle. On my coach to San Luis Obispo, there were 23 passengers; the other had even fewer. For us, it would be about a five-hour ride. Ouch! I took my seat directly behind the driver.
We left Palm Springs at 10:21 A.M., four minutes after the train itself departed. We then headed west on Interstate 10 which parallels the railroad for a number of miles. As we were moving in the same direction as our train, and with the amount of freight traffic out and about, it was almost inevitable that we would eventually overtake the train. We did. Twenty-six minutes after we left the Palm Springs station, off to our left, we slowly passed the train from which we had been exiled. We were doing about 70 MPH at the time - I guess the train was doing about 65.
It was a bright and sunny day which made our ride through the hills of Southern California not all that unpleasant, although it was rather bumpy riding in the front seat. Eventually we reached the coast on US-101 which parallels the route of the Coast Starlight, so at least we were able to partake in much of the same scenery as would have been seen from the train. The action plan was to make it to San Luis Obispo prior to the train's arrival - which we did - but the driver explained to us that we could have been further diverted to a more northward point if it became necessary. He had handled similar detour moves for Amtrak a number of times before, and he said that he had even taken folks as far north as Emeryville and Sacramento on some occasions. We made no stops - we just kept moving. Fortunately, it was Sunday, and there were no backups.
We arrived in San Luis Obispo at 3:05 P.M.; the train arrived 31 minutes later. The train left at 3:47 P.M., just four minutes late.
This, the Coast Starlight, was the train I had been most looking forward to enjoy. Its claims to fame include incredible scenery, superb service, and the ultimate amenity of its Pacific Parlour Car. And there it was, just one car back from my sleeper, and I thundered my way to the car before we even left the station.
The Pacific Parlour Car is the exclusive domain of the Coast Starlight's sleeping car passengers. Its upper level is replete with large, cushy swivel seats at one end of the car, lounge seats with tables in the middle of the car, and a bar and more tables at the other end. On the lower level is a movie theater. The car is majestically paneled. And as if on cue, to await the arrival of those boarding at San Luis Obispo, a wine and cheese tasting session began just a few minutes after we left.
A short distance north of San Luis Obispo the train snakes its way around a series of horseshoe curves - scenery I recorded in my notes as sufficient to "knock one's socks off." And the scenery continued unabated until it was too dark to see anything.
For dinner that evening I enjoyed the T-Bone Steak. I was joined at the table by Bob and his wife Lucy from Newfoundland (Bob is a provincial supreme court justice), and Bill from Orlando, Florida. Bill, by coincidence of our respective itineraries, had been a fellow passenger on the Sunset Limited, and would continue to be a fellow passenger from Seattle to Chicago on the Empire Builder. He had made this journey often, he said, and in the last five attempts he had never made it to Los Angeles to make his connection. Now, it was six...
Bill, a retired gent, enjoys his retirement much the same as I: (1) by riding Amtrak, and (2) by having a similar part-time job. He is as a dealer trade driver. Car dealers often swap vehicles among themselves, and he is on call to drive one of them to wherever it is needed, sometimes many miles away. He then brings another vehicle back. It is a fun sort of thing for him, and he does not have to accept an assignment unless it is convenient for him at the time it is offered. I told him about my crew van job, but this is something he would likely not consider as it would not be as flexible for him as the job he has now.
Except for meals and the need to sleep in my room, I spent a preponderance of my time in the Pacific Parlour Car. I wanted to enjoy it to its fullest extent while I had the treasured opportunity. The car's attendant happily explained a little history: Our car, number 39970, was one of five in active use. It was one of six acquired from Santa Fe's El Capitan fleet where it had been used as a mid-train lounge car. Amtrak continued to use it as a lounge, and eventually it was used as a backup lounge when the newer Sightseer Lounge cars came on line. Amtrak might have scrapped the cars in 1995 but for the insistence of Brian Rosenwald, then general manager of Amtrak's Western Business Group, who convinced others in management that the cars would fit in splendidly on the Coast Starlight. Five of the cars were overhauled, and today they serve as a showpiece to the level of service provided on the run. Many consider the Coast Starlight to be Amtrak's premier train.
That night, I attended a movie in the plush lower level. Normally I avoid the movies. But watching one in the Pacific Parlour Car is a singular experience, even if I thought the movie itself to be downright dumb! Others on board may have thought the same (that the movie was dumb), as I was the only one watching it in the beginning, and one of only three watching it at the end. Still, with it being too dark to see anything outside, it was something I just wanted to do.
The following morning, Monday, found us still in California. Not yet light, I ventured back to the Pacific Parlour Car, finding myself to be its first participant. The attendant offered my coffee. "Why not?" I said, although I almost never drink coffee. He brought it to my linen-spread table, and I took some pastry to go with it. This would not be my breakfast - which would come later in the diner - but a pre-breakfast mini-meal in keeping with the thrilling moment of riding in an atmosphere of such class. Meanwhile, the moon shone brightly through the upper window as our train meandered along.
It may have been that I was in a time warp, as at that point I didn't even think to be concerned that we may have been running late. Indeed, when we left Dunsmuir, I simply wrote the time down without comparing it to the schedule. Only later did I come to realize that we were then nearly an hour and a half late. At this point I would have been happy had the train been running even later - this would have extended the time I would have been aboard.
For breakfast I was joined by a lady from Oregon who raised alpacas... and teenagers... (in that order).
Just as gorgeous as the scenery was when it had gotten dark the evening before, so it was when the sun poked its head above the mountains. It was a crystal clear day with unlimited visibility. We were in the midst of majestic beauty. Such scenery is so much in keeping with the pleasures of riding aboard this train, and it simply stayed with us with every turn. The scenic quality of this route is a byproduct of its juxtaposition with the mountain ranges. Other western long-distance trains simply cross the mountains; this one runs through them nearly its entire route. I would say, then, that the ratio of mountainous scenery is greater on the route of the Coast Starlight than it is on any of the other western trains. The California Zephyr has the second greatest ratio. In third place I would pick the Southwest Chief, with the Empire Builder a close fourth.
Coincidentally, this was not my first ride on the Coast Starlight. I did get to ride a very short portion of it a couple of years ago when I was visiting Portland. I fell in love with the train then, and I came back this time to ride its entire route. (At least I wanted to ride its entire route; one day, connections willing, maybe I shall).
When we left Eugene, Oregon, we were one hour and 29 minutes late. It became overcast, but in short order it cleared once again. At three o'clock we had another wine and cheese tasting in the Pacific Parlour Car. Three different wines are poured with descriptions given about each. The samples are free, and those declining the wine are offered a non-alcoholic substitute if they choose.
It was about this time that I met Jim, a retired BNSF accounting manager who had begun his career with the CB&Q in 1952 as a switchman. Together we talked at great length about railroads and things each of us recalled from the "good old days." He joined me for dinner that evening, and he filled me in on a project of his to help construct a hiking trail using the abandoned Great Northern line to the old Cascade Tunnel. You always meet such interesting people when riding the train.
We arrived in Seattle 49 minutes late. This was not a bad performance for this particular train, which has not been noted for punctuality in recent years. While it did get me to its destination at a reasonable hour, for which I should be grateful, this is one train that I could always enjoy being aboard if it were late. It is a premier train - and Amtrak charges nothing extra for the pleasure of being aboard it for the added time that it is late!
It bears mention, at least in passing, that my very first long-distance train ride was to Seattle. I was only five years old at the time. My mother brought me here to meet up with my dad who was returning from the Pacific following the second World War. And, yes, I remember that trip - bits and pieces of it - and I'm sure that helped sow the seeds toward my love of trains.
I spent one night in Seattle, and the next morning and afternoon I dutifully spent riding the ferry to Brunswick Island, exploring the waterfront by foot, and by riding the trolley cars.
I also took a walk to a street named Royal Brougham Way. Running between the baseball and football stadiums, the street is named for a noted newspaper man who shared my not-too-common last name. I never met him, but I did correspond with him once. Royal Brougham (1894-1978) was a long time sports editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer whose career spanned 68 years. Considered by many as the dean of American sportswriters, he was also a philanthropist who once "gave away his fortune" to set up a charity foundation to assist needy young people to continue their education. His death at 84 from a heart attack was while doing something he loved - attending a football game. I would be honored to say that he was a relative, but likely it was very distant, if at all.
Seattle had two train stations - Union and King Street - located just half a block apart. Both are still standing. Union Station was used by the Union Pacific and the Milwaukee Road, while King Street Station was used by the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. Amtrak and Sound Transit trains now use King Street Station exclusively. It is currently undergoing restoration to its historic appearance. Union Station, after sitting empty for a number of years, has once again been brought to life - not as a train depot, but as headquarters for Sound Transit and the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority. Its massive waiting room is awe-inspiring.
My next leg of the trip was aboard the Empire Builder, which left from King Street Station on time. Darkness had set in by the time we began our scenic assault upon the Cascade Mountain Range. This made me ponder whether the winter timetable might better be served by scheduling the train's departure from Seattle an hour or more earlier to avail at least some of the mountainous splendor while there was still some daylight with which to see it. I know there is no magic cure all, as much of the best scenery would still be passed during the night, but added time to the dwell at, say, Spokane could preserve the current schedule through the Rockies and not be unwelcome by many of the patrons who, like me, ride the train for the things they will see en route.
At dinner I was surprised, and duly impressed, when the steward brought me margarine instead of butter. It seems he had read the dietary request I had made (when I made my reservation) for margarine, fat-free dressing and egg substitutes. These are items Amtrak supplies (or is supposed to supply) routinely to its diners, but I had made this request nonetheless. Right on! It proves that this particular steward was really paying attention - he recognized my name when I signed the guest receipt at the table.
Our entry into the Cascade Tunnel was delayed about ten minutes. We were told that the tunnel needed to be blown free of diesel smoke from a previous train - but then a westbound freight came by, and we entered the tunnel as soon as the train passed. It took us 14 minutes to get through the tunnel.
The train had a baggage car, crew car, one sleeper, a diner, and two coaches. In the meantime, a Portland section with two coaches, a lounge, and one sleeper would link up to form a single Empire Builder train at Spokane shortly after midnight. Beyond that point, the train had the Seattle portion on the front, and the Portland portion on the rear. Patrons from the Portland sleeper had a six-car walk to reach the diner; for us, the diner was the next car back.
I awoke early the next morning, and was joined at the breakfast table by a couple from Texas who were en route to the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex, Montana. The ride through the Rockies is the high point of a trip aboard the Empire Builder, and I made sure to stake out a seat on the right side of the Sightseer Lounge. The day dawned partly sunny with no snow clouds overhead, but plenty of the white stuff on the ground. At West Glacier there were no passengers getting on or off, but unlike the last I came through here in the winter, the platform had been cleared of snow. A pall of mist hung over pools along the Flathead River as the early morning sun shone through in a radiant glow. At Essex we made two stops, once for the couple getting off, and once for passengers getting on. I had been through the Rockies and Marias Pass on this train a number of times in recent years, and I am getting more and more accustomed to the lay of the land. Still, I would never tire of it - the mountains are that beautiful.
By the middle of the morning the mountains abruptly stopped. The Great Plains begin as though a demarcation line were drawn through a specific spot - in this instance, East Glacier. The train does not stop here in the winter; the Glacier Park Lodge is not open at this time of year. Instead, the train makes a stop at Browning, 14 miles to the east. Both East Glacier and Browning are within the Blackfeet Nation, and by swapping stops summer and winter, the Blackfeet Nation is served by the train year round. We were five minutes late leaving Browning, where we made two stops.
For lunch I tried the Gardenburger, a rather tasty alternative to the Angus Beefburger. There were seven selections on the lunch menu, most of which I chose in the course of this year's Amtrak adventure. In addition to the two burger entrees, the other selections included Grilled Chicken Sandwich, Vegetable Frittata, Corned Beef & Swiss Sandwich, Beef Chili, and Field Green Salad. Desserts are also available. The selections quoted were from one menu I was graciously offered to keep, but there was a second menu on some of the other trains that had slightly different variations. At one time each train had its own distinctive menu, but in a move to make the process more efficient, a standard menu (or two of them, evidently) was adopted. I was joined for lunch by a couple from Kalispell, Montana, traveling from Whitefish to Williston.
Meeting with other travelers on the train is always a pleasure. Most are on the train for similar reasons - they like to ride trains. Together we recount our experiences and comparisons among the trains in the system. We become best of friends while the trip lasts - then we never see each other again - but on the next trip there is always a host of new folks, and we simply take up where we left off before. We are a great big, happy family of Amtrak admirers!
We left from Havre at 1:37 P.M. (four minutes late). I then took a nap (scenery was boring), and later I went back to the Sightseer Lounge where there were only seven other people, and they were showing a stupid movie. (OK, I think the movies are stupid, but there are those who like to watch them, and it is a plus that they are offered when there is not much else to do!)
As we continued eastward, the snow on the ground began to appear somewhat deeper than it had earlier in the day. Judging from the fence posts and plowed roads, the depth appeared to be about three feet. The main roads were open, but there had been a lot of drifting, and some of the side roads and driveways looked to be impassable.
At one point we slowed to about 30 MPH as if we were following something. This went on for about 12 minutes, and then we made our station stop at Malta. We then continued at the slower pace for awhile longer, first passing a high-rail truck at Bowdoin, and finally we passed an eastbound intermodal train that had gone into a siding (presumably) for us to get around.
At 4:35 P.M., at Oswego, we met the westbound section of the Empire Builder. This meant that the westbound train was running nearly five hours late, but I later learned that it had actually turned back from Minot, North Dakota, from the eastbound section of the previous day. Now that train had experienced a real adventure - but more on this later.
During our stop at Wolf Point, the temperature display on a bank sign read four degrees. Another bank's sign a block south of the first one read seven degrees. "That's because it's further south," I said. (Allen's type of logic!)
For supper I enjoyed the Seared Salmon. We left from Stanley, North Dakota, 12 minutes late.
We made a seemingly speedy run from Stanley to Minot, and it appeared that we might actually arrive there ahead of schedule since there is some padding. But upon our arrival at Soo Tower (no longer a tower, but the name remains) at the west end of the Minot station area, there was a westbound freight stopped on the track our train was supposed to enter - the station track. So we pulled in on the next track over, waited an extended period of time for the freight train to depart, and then we reversed direction to clear Soo Tower and proceeded into the station once again - this time on the proper track. The word filtered down that one of the two trains had been misrouted (oops!) - either that the freight train had been mistakenly allowed to occupy the station track, or that our train should have been held west of town for the freight train to clear. Whatever the reason, the jostling maneuver delayed us by about 40 minutes.
The Minot platform was literally packed with folks preparing to board our train. I had never seen this many people board here, which in the best of times may account for maybe a couple of dozen. But I quickly learned that we were about to receive passengers from an ENTIRE TRAIN. What had happened is that the previous day's eastbound section of the Empire Builder had been terminated at Minot, its passengers put up in a hotel, and then brought back to the station to board our train!
The reason the previous day's train was terminated was on account of a vicious snowstorm, with heavy winds and massive drifting, which had caused the train to become bogged down and unable to proceed any further. A couple of the passengers of the affected train recounted tales of how attempts to get through the snow had been met with numerous stops, slow running and long delays, and they had not reached Minot until six o'clock that morning - over eight hours behind schedule. In the meantime, the westbound section of the previous day had been terminated at St. Paul for the same reason, and the schedule of that train was eventually assumed from Minot using the equipment from the eastbound train that had been terminated.
Fortunately, we had room for the entraining passengers, and everyone was accommodated without anyone having to stand. When we departed Minot, we were 56 minutes late.
The following morning found us rolling across Minnesota, and we were one hour and 42 minutes late leaving St. Cloud. We could make up time, I surmised, or even hold our own, and I might be able to make my one hour and 45 minute connection to the Capitol Limited in Chicago. Still, I have a saying - which I shared with others - that for every possibility Amtrak has to make up time, there are about three possibilities that it won't! Moreover (once again), Amtrak charges nothing extra for the privilege of being on the train while it is being delayed.
Sure enough, nine minutes after leaving St. Cloud, we got a 32 minute delay due to switch failure.
For breakfast I learned that the diner had run out of egg substitutes for breakfast. But the waiter told me that the chef would be happy to scramble genuine eggs for me without the yolks, which he did. We were served with paper plates, and would so for lunch as well, as the increased number of passengers on board would tax the ability of the staff to wash so many dishes.
We did make up the time we had lost near St. Cloud, and our arrival in St. Paul was one hour and 38 minutes late. With a 35 minute dwell in the station, there was at least the potential to shave some more time. But (you guessed it), we didn't. We simply sat in the station for an inordinate amount of time, with no explanation offered, and when we finally left, we were two hours and 27 minutes late.
The conductor later announced that we could expect to arrive in Chicago at 5:50 P.M., a figure that would put us there 20 minutes after my connection was due to leave. We were told we would be given an announcement about connecting trains when we left Milwaukee. (But more on this later.)
It was a great day for watching the scenery along the frozen Mississippi River, and just south of Red Wing, in a cove near the tracks, we saw a flock of bald eagles. I definitely saw three of them, but other birds in flight may have been eagles too - perhaps a dozen altogether.
We were two hours and 52 minutes late leaving Milwaukee, and it was by then quite obvious that if I were to make my connection to the Capitol Limited, its departure would have to be held. But no announcement about connections was made.
I was not so much disturbed that my connection might be missed, but I would have preferred to least hear some sort of news one way or the other. I simply wanted to know. Bill, the fellow passenger who had been on the same trains as I ever since we left New Orleans on the Sunset Limited six days before, kindly let me use his cell phone to make a call. I called Amtrak's 800-number. "They're not telling us a thing on this train," I told the agent. He replied by saying that the Capitol Limited had already departed. I then asked him if he could rebook me in a sleeper on the Lake Shore Limited, due to leave at 7 o'clock. But the sleepers on the Lake Shore were sold out, he told me.
While at the very least I think we should have been given an on-train announcement about connections in Chicago, I had to learn what I wanted to know by calling on a cell phone instead. The conductor - when he happened by later - told me that Amtrak's operations office had never called him to tell him anything. I bit my tongue, but I was tempted to ask him if he had even bothered to call them.
I have been using the Chicago gateway many times in the past. Whenever service was disrupted, we were always given on-train announcements about connections either being held or missed. But not this time!
A brief announcement was given shortly before we got to Chicago saying that all customers who had "missed their connections" should, upon arrival, report to the Amtrak passenger representatives at Lounge G.
We arrived in Chicago three hours and two minutes late.
Some passenger services folks met us on the platform, and one of them told me I could board the Cardinal to get to Baltimore. "But what about a sleeper?" I asked. Oops! No sleeper on the Cardinal. (I had already been down that road - had the Cardinal had a sleeper, that is the train I would have been connecting to in the first place!) So I went to Lounge G. It was closed! So I got in line to see one of the agents in the adjacent passenger services office. The line of passengers from our train already extended out the door into the concourse. And the line was moving very, very slowly. There were five agents inside, including (I guess) a supervisor who stayed beyond her shift to help get things caught up. At one point she came out into the concourse to tell people who were making certain connections that they could board other, specific trains without having to have their tickets changed. But as for me, since I wanted sleeper space, I would have to see one of the agents inside.
After a wait of about 15 minutes, I got to see an agent. Since I wanted a sleeper - and no space was available on other trains that evening - I would be put up in a hotel for the night and given equivalent space on the Capitol Limited the following evening. It took the better part of ten minutes to complete the paperwork to secure a hotel room, and to get a voucher for taxi fare and a meal allowance. I would be getting $33 (five dollars for each taxi ride to and from the hotel, and $23 for meals). I thought then, and still do, that $23 was stingy compensation for three meals in Chicago. Golly, that would hardly cover three meals in fast-food joints, much less for meals in hotels, etc.
Once this was done, I had to go across the concourse to the ticket office (and stand in a line once again), to get my sleeper ticket exchanged and to convert my voucher into cash. The process moved slowly. It was not for a lack of personnel, either at the passenger services office or at the ticket counter, but for a seemingly snailpace functioning of the computers being used to effect the transactions. All this took time, and the patrons affected by the changes had to endure the inconvenience - much as if they were being processed for a military assignment. As often as Amtrak makes ticket adjustments for service disruptions - particularly in Chicago - surely they could devise some meaningful shortcuts to minimize the time it takes to do it. If a lot of patrons are involved - as in this case there were - the ordeal can approach the status of bedlam. For me, the entire process took an hour.
While standing in line, I met Russ, a patron who had been ticketed in the erstwhile Cardinal sleeper but had just learned that the car had been blanked. He, too, was being reticketed to ride the Capitol Limited of the following evening. Similarly, he would be staying at the same hotel as I, so we agreed to take the same taxi to split the cost.
The hotel was the Rodeway Inn, about five blocks from the station.
The following morning, Friday the 13th, I simply walked back to the station, although it was cold and windy. I checked my bags at the Metropolitan Lounge, and took in some of the sights. This included a couple of rides on the El around The Loop, and a visit to the top of the John Hancock Tower.
Back at the station and the cozy confines of the Metropolitan Lounge, I noticed on the train status monitors that all four of the inbound western trains (Texas Eagle, Southwest Chief, California Zephyr and Empire Builder) would be arriving late. Only the Southwest Chief would make connection to the Capitol Limited unless it would be held for any of the others. In fact, unlike the day before, the Capitol Limited was held, and all of the western connections were made. This was not intentional, however, as the equipment for the Capitol Limited was cycled through from the Southwest Chief, and there was an extended delay while the train was serviced and repairs made to one of the two sleepers.
While making our way to the train at 8:30 P.M. - three hours after we had been due to leave - I took notice of the incredible amount of trash and clutter that was strewn along the vacant track on the opposite side of the platform from our train. There were plastic bags and papers, evidently dumped from earlier trains and not yet removed. It was a real eyesore, hardly in keeping with the neat sort of housekeeping one might expect at a major terminal. Yes, I know things get busy there in the evenings, but it was not an impressive thing for Amtrak's honored guests to see.
Our train had a dorm car, two sleepers, lounge, diner, two coaches, and a string of material handling cars.
And what a treat it was to find that the sleeping car attendant for my car would be Lou Drummeter. I have known Lou - who lives in Martinsburg, West Virginia - from my days at Miller Tower. He and I first met on the Capitol Limited in the aftermath of a 1996 blizzard when they stopped the train for me at the tower to give me a ride to Martinsburg because the hilly roads in the area were closed by the snow. My car was parked at the Martinsburg station, and I then drove Lou to his home. We later caught up with each other in Martinsburg on several occasions, and he has been on the same train as I two or three times as I Amtraked on my annual adventures. But not until now had I found myself assigned to his particular car.
Lou later introduced me to his mascot Percival, a hand puppet of a pig. This was his "service pig," he said, a reference to the requirement that the only animals allowed on board Amtrak trains be "service" animals. Percival, a gift to him from his daughter, kept his post in Lou's accommodation perched upon a can. (Now try saying "Percival, the perching Puppet Pig" five times in rapid succession!)
We left Chicago at 8:40 P.M., three hours and 10 minutes late. Yet our delay was not over; we stopped just four minutes later to set out a bad-order material handling car.
I was joined for dinner by Russ, the fellow with whom I had shared a taxi the evening before. Russ, an emergency room physician in North Carolina, was coming back from a visit to Martinez, California. A frequent Amtrak traveler, he had gone west in January via the Cardinal (before it lost its sleeper) and the California Zephyr, and he was returning to Richmond, Virginia. His Amtraking adventures average five or six times a year, he said.
For my final dinner on this trip I selected the Steak. To help wash it down, I bought a bottle of wine (plus another for later indulgence), but the steward had no credit card receipts by which I could pay for it. I would not have been daunted to pay cash, but I explained to the steward that I wanted to build upon my Amtrak Travel Rewards points generated through use of the card. I need, for example, 35,000 points to make a coast-to-coast trip (one-way) by sleeper, and I still need about 28,000 points. "And every little bit helps," I said. He understood the urgency, and said he would try and get a supply of receipts at Toledo later that evening.
We were three hours and 50 minutes late leaving South Bend, at which point I retired for the night.
Saturday dawned with a hazy sun as we made our way into Pennsylvania toward Pittsburgh. I was joined at the breakfast table by a couple from Ohio on their ninth wedding anniversary.
The dining car steward had been unable to get any credit card receipts at Toledo, and I then hit upon an idea: I asked Lou, the sleeping car attendant, if he could get some in Pittsburgh. If anyone could, it would be he. So he called a buddy of his in the Pittsburgh ticket office, and he agreed to bring a supply of them to the train. Mission accomplished. Where there is a will, there is a way! (Add 16 Travel Rewards points to my total.)
We were four hours and nine minutes late leaving Pittsburgh, but as I said to at least a couple of folks on board, "There will be no further delays due to freight trains; now we're on CSX!"
I was right, as things developed (lest I would have had to eat my words), and we made what could be called a commendable run. A number of freights were stopped in the vicinity of Sand Patch, waiting for us to get through, and we had to slow down a couple of times to snake our way through the congestion. But then at Cumberland we sat at the station for 15 minutes for the relieving engineer to take over and have his safety briefing. (Chalk that delay up to Amtrak.)
Some more reverse running was in order between Cherry Run and Byrd, and at Weverton we crossed over once again. Ascending Barnesville Hill on number 1 track, we overtook a multi-level train moving in the same direction on number 2 track. That was a thrill. We remained on number 1 track until we reached Georgetown Junction, and then crossed back over to number 2 track.
We got into Washington three hours and 58 minutes late.
To this point, my 2004 Amtrak adventure had encompassed 7,219 route miles (plus whatever adjustment there was for the rare-mileage detour in Louisiana), riding five different trains. All five had gotten to its destination late. I still had one train to ride to finish my journey - from Washington to Baltimore. Could at least that one be on time?
End of Adventure...
It was wall-to-wall fun! But for a few shortfalls, the trip was a tremendous success. And I even got an extra day of fun to enjoy in the process. The high point of the trip was the pleasure offered by the Coast Starlight and its Pacific Parlour Car. The other trains were enjoyable, too, and I look forward to my next adventure.
Amtrak needs to work on the process of sharing information with its passengers when service is disrupted. Many conductors took the time to report the reason for a delay - sometimes even to excess - but (for me, and I'm sure for many others) advising connection issues prior to our late arrival in Chicago tanked when such advice would have been most welcomed. The agents responsible for providing comfort to disrupted passengers in Chicago did a commendable job, but their data processing infrastructure ought to be upgraded to handle the work more efficiently. And once again, the meal compensation amount for a full day of interrupted travel ($23 for three meals in Chicago) is not adequate. Indeed, the average three-meal price shown on Amtrak's own dining car menu (complimentary to sleeping car passengers) is about $27, and that doesn't include dessert.
Most of the delays encountered can be chalked up to freight train interference. It is an ongoing problem, and it is not about to go away anytime soon.
But was the experience of this one adventure typical? I wanted to know.
So for a 12-day period following my arrival back home, I checked the times shown on Amtrak's train status program for the trains I had used to determine an average. I developed a table listing the performance of my trains for comparison with the subsequent 12-day average. All trains operating during that period were included in the survey (although three were apparently annulled and were purged from the figures).
No. 19 leaving Baltimore..
- My train - 24 minutes late
- 12-day average - 30 minutes late
No. 19 arriving New Orleans..
- My train - 24 minutes late
- 12-day average - 12 minutes late
No. 1 leaving New Orleans..
- My train - on time
- 12-day average - 9 minutes late
No. 1 arriving Palm Springs..
- My train - 6 hours 35 minutes late
- 12-day average - 2 hours 58 minutes late
No. 14 leaving San Luis Obispo..
- My train - 4 minutes late
- 12-day average - 29 minutes late
No. 14 arriving Seattle..
- My train - 49 minutes late
- 12-day average - 2 hours 27 minutes late
No. 8 leaving Seattle..
- My train - on time
- 12-day average - 2 minutes late
No. 8 arriving Chicago..
- My train - 3 hours 2 minutes late
- 12-day average - 31 minutes late
No. 30 leaving Chicago..
- My train - 3 hours 10 minutes late
- 12-day average - 31 minutes late
No. 30 arriving Washington..
- My train - 3 hours 58 minutes late
- 12-day average - 49 minutes late