Amtrak Travelogue by Steve Grande
Note: This rail travelogue was accidentally deleted and lost for many years. We managed to recover it in late 2010 from archives and re-post it to TrainWeb.com. These are some of my earliest rail travels and travel writings. My experience and understanding of Amtrak and other rail operations was quite a bit less than today and my writing style may have been a bit less experienced back then. So please pardon any problems that you might find in these earlier rail travel reports. A number of these earlier reports also have few or no photos or very small photos which was intentional to reduce download time during the early days of the web when almost everyone had slow dial-up connections to the internet!
Steve's Summer 1997 Rail Journey - Second Segment: Travel on the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited from New York City to Chicago and travel about Chicago on the METRA system.
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We left exactly at 6:30 P.M.! The Conductor and Car Attendant were very friendly and met each person with a big greeting. The Car Attendant asked if I would like a wake-up call. He said he'd bring coffee and juice to my room with the wake-up call. I told him that I'd rather play it by ear than set a specific time. I wasn't sure if I would be sleeping late after all the sleep I had missed on the flight from the night before. He said that was fine and to just push the "Call Attendant" button when I was ready for some coffee and juice.
Dinner was called at 7:15 P.M. and I headed down for the first seating. I want to get to bed early tonight and try to get up early in the morning around sunrise so I can catch as much of these scenery as possible. Dusk settled in all too soon. We traveled next to the Hudson River for a long time and saw a lot of impressive bridges and other sights, but there was not enough light to take photos.
There were no couples or families at our table, just four individuals. That seems to usually make for the best or worst of conversations. In this case, the dinner conversation was interesting. One gal at our table was quite versed in both trains and the internet. The other gal and guy at our table were interested in trains, but weren't as knowledgable about them. He was fairly knowledgable about the internet, however.
One thing we talked about was whether or not the food was better on the Superliners. We all had the opinion that it was. The only reason that we could think for this difference is that the Superliners have a much larger food storage and preparation area. The entire downstairs of the Superliner Diner is the food preparation and storage area. On these cars, half the Diner is the eating area and half has to be used for storage and preparation. They probably don't have preparation facilities as sophisticated on this Diner as on the Superliner and also can't store as large a diversity and quantity of items.
We pulled into Albany about 20 minutes late, but that doesn't matter as we aren't scheduled to leave until 9:35 P.M. This is where we join with Train #449, the section of the Lake Shore Limited that originates out of Boston. I think it was already here when we arrived, so the crew immediately initiated procedures to put the two sections of the train together.
Whoops! This is taking longer than I thought it would. We are still here in Albany linking up the cars at 9:50 P.M. The train was backing up slowly and then it came to a sharp stop. Then all the lights went out and we are now without power. Two Genesis locomotives just went by the window not connected to anything. I guess they were the engines that brought the 449 Boston segment of the Lake Shore Limited to us.
I decided to put down my own bed. It is pretty simple in the Viewliner. You just turn the handle and pull it down. Then, you put up the straps for safety. I kept both matresses on the top bunk rather than bring one down. Having the double matress just makes it all that more comfortable and raises you about an inch relative to the window. I like to sleep on the top bed in the Viewliner because of the great view from the window all night. Also, I like to keep my computer set up below in case I decide to write during the night.
Channel 50 - 160.860 - Detector: Erie, Pennsylvania
That was a well needed rest after not having a bed to sleep in since waking up on Thursday morning! I can usually sleep anywhere in any position, but cramped sitting up in on a "red eye" flight isn't one of them! I went to sleep pretty soon after my last entry at 9:30 P.M. above.
When I sleep, it isn't unusual for me to wake up during the night from time to time. That doesn't seem to bother me as I just go right back to sleep. Often I'll wake up just as we pull into a station, but not always. I guess it might be the quick change in velocity as the train pulls to a stop that wakes me up. If I can see what station we are at, I like to check the schedule and adjust the clock that I use to keep track of how far behind we are running.
Channel 50 - 160.860 - Detector: Springfield 1, Pennsylvania
I almost wish I could have stayed awake all night. It must have been pretty close to a full moon but I didn't catch a glimpse of the moon to verify that. I'm guessing at that because I could see everything out my window all night! It did seem like the Lake Shore Limited passed through a lot of cities which really helps with the view since so much is lit up, but even between cities, I could see everything that we passed.
The major aspect that I really love about these Viewliner Sleeping Cars is the ability to just lay on the upper bed and watch the world go by. The window stretches all the way from my head to me toes. From top to bottom, it goes from almost the top of the cabin to even with the matress. Thus, even laying flat you can see everything out the window by just facing in that direction!
Around 5:30 A.M., I poked my head out the door. The Car Attendant had just started to make coffee. I asked if he could bring me some as soon as it was ready. About 10 minutes later, he brought me a tray with coffee, sugar, creamer, stirrer, orange juice and a napkin. I thanked him and made up the coffee in my room. What a great way to start the day!
Channel 50 - 160.860 - Detector: Conrail, Ashtebula 1, Ohio, 5:31 A.M.
Channel 50 - 160.860 - Detector: Seabrook, Ohio, 5:36 A.M.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, 6:00 A.M.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, 6:01 A.M.
As I was about to leave for the Dining Car, the Car Attendant handed me the morning newspaper, Cleveland's "The Plain Dealer", which he was putting under the door of each room.
The Dining Car opened sometime about 6:30 A.M. and I was one of the first, but not the first, to enter the Diner. I sat with a couple that were already seated at the table. They had come from the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited. They had taken a bus down from the upper part of the state of Maine. They were talking about how much South Station in Boston has improved and all the fine restaurants that are now there.
I had the scrambled eggs for breakfast which was served along with potatoes and a biscuit. They also brought coffee and juice. The food was good, but the quantity wasn't very large. We all commented about a tall building in Cleveland that looked very similar to the architecture of the Empire State Building. Just as we had all finished breakfast and were about to leave, they sat another man at our table. He exchanged some polite words for a few minutes and then excused ourselves from the table. I noticed that the Dining Car was completely full and it wasn't even 7:00 A.M. yet!
Channel 58 - 160.980 - Detector: Vermillion, Ohio, 7:11 A.M.
I've had a great deal of difficulty getting photographs of scenery along this route. There are many interesting things to see, but the transitions in scenery are rapid and this particular train seems to move at top speed consistently. No sooner do I try to line up on something than the next item pops up and blocks the previous item. You can enjoy just watching the view with no problem, but everything is going by too fast for a still camera. A video camera would be ideal. I'll have to think of doing that on my next time on this route. I'll just have to capture still photos off the video tape.
Channel 58 - 160.980 - Detector: Conrail, Sandusky, Ohio, 7:25 A.M. - MP 240
Channel 58 - 160.980 - Detector: Carlyle?, Ohio, 7:40 A.M. - MP 251
Channel 58 - 160.980 - Detector: Akar, Ohio, 7:50 A.M.
Channel 58 - 160.980 - Detector: Millbury, Ohio, 8:06 A.M.
Looks like we are heading out 6 minutes late. We stayed in Toledo for at least 20 minutes. They refilled the water tanks on the train. This station has many passenger platforms, but it looked like only about two could be used anymore. The tracks had been ripped out of all the other platforms!
There were at least 3 private old cars in the station and I took photographs of them. I also took some photographs of the exterior of the Viewliners and the outside of the station itself.
I walked all the way to the end of the platform and boarded the Viewliner Car that had come from Boston. That was the very last passenger car on the train. I then walked forward all the way through the train. There were either 7 or 8 passenger coaches. They were made up of Horizon Cars, but with plenty of room between the seats. In two of the cars, television sets had been set up in the luggage racks about every 10 feet. I don't know if they are in use yet, but I assume the purpose is to let Coach passengers watch movies while they travel.
Every coach was quite full. The vast majority of people had their seat checks marked with Chicago, "CHI" as their destination. This really seems to be a feeder train to Chicago picking up passengers all along its route heading for Chicago or points beyond. There were also a lot of seat checks marked "HMI" which I assumed to be "Hammond, Indiana", though far less of those than marked for Chicago.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, Stryker, Ohio, 9:26 A.M.
There is mostly farmland on this stretch west of Toledo, Ohio. I took photographs of a few farms, but they seem endless, one after another.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, 9:50 A.M.
The Waterloo Amtrak Station is at Mile Post 367 and right in front of what looks like a grain storage bin. On the radio I hear the Conductor talking to an assistant Conductor trying to find a person that they know was suppose to get off at Waterloo. They have searched the train and can't locate anyone that says that this is their stop! The train is leaving without having located that person.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, Kendellville, Indiana, 10:15 A.M.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, Elkhart, Indiana, 10:51 A.M.
Be ready with your camera BEFORE the train pulls into Elkhard heading west. There are several old engines and old cars next to what looks like a restaurant. Some of the old cars have shadows of people paited on the windows. You may want to take some photos, but if you wait until the train is pulling into the station, you might not get the best angle. I took some photos, but will have to wait to see how they came out.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, 10:05 A.M. (Central Time)
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, Rolling Prarie, IN 10:35 A.M.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, Verdict, IN 10:50 A.M.
Channel 46 - 160.800 - Detector: Conrail, 11:01 A.M.
Click here for the next segment of this Summer 1997 journey.
In this section I have combined travelogues of my travels on the Metra system from both Saturday, June 21 and Tuesday, June 24, 1997. Over those two days, I was able to travel on 3 of the Metra routes: Milwaukee District / West Line - Chicago to Elgin, Milwaukee District / North Line - Chicago to Fox Lake and Burlington Northern Santa Fe - Chicago to Aurora. These 3 routes are the only Metra routes out of Chicago Union Station that operate so frequently that it is easy to make round-trips on them just about any hour of the day. The other routes from Union Station are mostly commuter routes that either operate infrequently or only operate during the commuter hours.
If you decide to travel Chicago's Metra System, you need to understand that there are TWO main stations in Chicago and not just one. Half the Metra trains operate out of the same station as the Amtrak trains and half the Metra trains operate out of another station a couple of blocks north of Amtrak's Union Station. There are also a couple of other places where a couple more Metro routes originate that are in a different part of Chicago. When I was there, the only schedules available in Union Station were for the routes that originate out of that station. These is a very large Metra Ticket Window area in Union Station and you can obtain schedules for all the routes that originate out of that station from racks in that area. If you want schedules for the other routes, you will have to walk the two blocks over to the other station.
Because of time constraints and not wanting to wait at the very last stop for an hour for a return train, I was not able to take these trains all the way to the end of the line, but was able to go pretty close to the end of each line. I took the Elgin train all the way to Elgin, but some of the trains on that route travel for another 10 minutes out to Big Timber. I took the Fox Lake Train as far as Grayslake, but the end of the line was another 17 minutes after that. I took the Aurora train as far as Naperville, but the end of the line was another 17 minutes beyond that. By clipping a bit of the end of each of these routes, I was able to reduce my wait time from an hour or more down to less than 10 minutes in most cases!
For my Saturday travels I purchased a weekend pass for $5. That pass is good for as much travel as you wish to do all weekend. I only had time for 2 round-trips on Saturday, but that pass saved me over $11. They don't have passes nor even reduced round-trip tickets for weekdays, so the one round-trip that I took on Tuesday to Grayslake cost me $10.10 ! The weekend pass was interesting to use. Most people on the train had them on Saturday since that was the least expensive way to ride to many locations even if you only planned on a single Round-Trip. When you have a normal ticket, the conductor punches it and puts it on a special clip by your seat so that he knows which passengers have already presented their tickets. The first Conductor didn't do anything for Weekend Pass holders. Without a punched ticket at your seat, he'd repeat asking you for your ticket each time he went through until he started to remember your face! The Conductor on the second trip brought along his own paper slips that he would place at the seats of Weekend Pass holders so that he didn't have to keep inconveniencing the passengers to pull out their tickets.
Tickets are sold on the train in addition to being sold from Ticket Machines at all stations and from Ticket Windows at some stations. If you board the train without a ticket from a station that has an agent on duty, the on-board puchase penalty is only $1.
The cars are what are called Gallery Cars. They are the same trains used on the California Caltrain route. Downstairs, two can sit at each seat. Upstairs, there is a single row of seats on each side of the train. The center of the upstairs seating area is all open such that the people upstairs can look down through that hole to the people downstairs. Thus, the upstairs people are sort of sitting in the "gallery". There are tight spiral staircases leading to the gallery on both the right and the left sides of the train on one end. Once you go up onto one side of the gallery, you can't get to the other side without coming down one spiral staircase and going up the other.
I don't know how old these cars are, but the decor looks like it is from the early 1970's or even pre-1970's. Everything was in the brown and beige earthtones of the 1970's. But, it is possible these cars and the color scheme pre-dates the 1970's.
All the seats on the train have "swing backs" so they can easily be made to face either direction. Since these cars operate in "push-pull mode", the Conductor goes through the train and quickly reverses the direction of all the seats at the end of the line. Many passengers will reverse the seat across from them when they sit down so that they can put their feet or luggage up on those seats. Also, if 3 or 4 people are traveling together, they will reverse the seat so one pair of people can face the other pair. Sometimes, a person that has reversed their seat will get off at their stop and another person will get on that either doesn't know how or doesn't care to put the seat back into the proper direction. They will just sit in the reversed seat and face everyone else in the train. I've ridden in many trains where half the seats are permanently facing backwards. Having people evenly divided in which way they are facing seems normal in those trains. But, on these trains, it seems awkward only having one person facing the wrong way. As I scanned the windows and the inside of the car, I found myself accidently making eye contact with this person that was facing the wrong direction! It was kind of an eirie feeling.
On each of the Metro lines, the first few stops didn't surprise me at all. They just confirmed my impressions of almost any big city in the United States. The stations were covered with graffiti and every glass window was either broken or replaced with plywood that was then in-turn covered with graffiti. Likewise, the neighborhoods through which the trains operated showed a lot of graffiti, gang signs, security bars on home and store windows, and older cars in rough shape.
However, I was surprised at what I found after about 4 or 5 stops outside of downtown Chicago on every one of the Metra routes. The urban blight would vanish suddenly. For the rest of the line, there would be interesting little brick station buildings at every stop. Most of these had waiting rooms with very large plate glass windows. The windows were not smashed and there were no signs of graffiti in sight anywhere! To top that off, unlike the Los Angeles Metrolink system, I didn't see a security guard at any of these stations. That is about the way all the stations looked for the remaining 15 to 20 stops along the rest of each of the 3 Metra routes that I traveled. Actually, as we started getting near the end of the line on each of the routes, the train would go through a lot of heavily wooded areas intersperced with occassional suburbs and towns. The homes in these towns were often quite large with a big size lot for each home. There were very large parking lots at every station and the daily parking rate ranged from 75 cents to one dollar with discount monthly rates available.
All of the Metra trains that I took operated like clockwork. The train arrived at almost every station right on the dot at the time scheduled. Sometimes the train would arrive 30 seconds or so early and would have to wait a few seconds before it could leave. Only on one line did the train fall behind by 2 minutes and had that made up before it got to the end of the line! These trains operate the way trains should operate. After a couple of rides on these trains and seeing how punctual they ran, I risked making connections where the trains operated only 6 minutes apart! This proved to be no problem. I'd get off one Metra train and have to wait exactly 6 minutes for the return train!
With the very wide doors on every car, I noticed that it takes no more than 10 or 15 seconds to unload and board the cars at every station no matter how many people are getting on or off. With cars like these on the San Diegan route, the delays at stations would be reduced to almost nothing! This model of car has avoided the problem of needing a Conductor at each door to unfold the stairway and then have everyone exit the train single file only through those exits manned by a Conductor. That is what kills the San Diegan schedule. These trains have stairs too, but they are very wide and can accommodate 3 people going up or down the stairs at the same time. Since the stairs don't fold out, every door on the train can open even where there is no Conductor. The only place the train needs to stop for more than 15 seconds to unload and load all the passengers for that stop is in Chicago itself.
There are some items that speed up the loading and unloading process at times for which I don't see a simple alternative. Bicycles are not allowed on the train nor is any type of oversized luggage that would block up aisles. Although they have discount pricing for people that are disabled, I did not see how they get such people on and off the train. Maybe one of the cars is equiped with a wheelchair lift which I didn't notice because I wasn't in that car.
A nice thing about the Chicago Metra system is that they run lots of trains all day on many routes, even on weekends. Although the trains were not crowded, there was no shortage of people using these trains even on Saturday. These trains were quite long, especially for a Saturday. I'd guess that end to end, the number of people using each train were in the hundreds. With these type of suburban trains, route and schedule planners have to understand they have a chicken and egg problem on their hands. If they plan plenty of routes and run plenty of trains on a frequent and reliable schedule, then people will start to use them. When some cities just run temporary and infrequent temporary trains as a short experiment, people can't plan using those trains into their schedules so they just get ignored. When trains operate frequently and like clockwork with plenty of available parking at every station, then people take the service seriosly and take advantage of the convenience.
Near the end of the Elgin line is a riverboat gambling casino at National Street that can be seen from the train at this stop. This is where most of the people got off the train on Saturday that had stayed on for most of the ride. Before getting to this stop, the train went through quite a bit of wooded area. I don't know how far we are from Chicago in miles, but it takes the train an hour to get here from Chicago. Either we are on the extreme end of the suburbs, or the suburbs get very intersperced with parks and wooded areas this far from the city.
During the non-commute hours, there are a few stops that are skipped and this is shown on the schedule. One of the stops that was skipped was "Mars." I was disappointed that we didn't stop there. I would like to have taken a train to Mars!