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 - Third Segment: Travel on the Amtrak Cardinal from Chicago to Washington,D.C.
Click here if this is the first time you have ever read one of my travelogues.
After returning to Chicago from my two trips on the Chicago METRA system, I decided to get something to eat. The last meal that I had was at the first seating for breakfast on the Lake Shore Limited at 6:30 in the morning! Thus, it had been almost 12 hours since my last meal. I was guessing that dinner would not be served on the train since travel doesn't start until 8:10 P.M. Even if dinner would be served, I didn't want to hold out for a few more hours.
I went up to the mezzanine level where there is a food court with many places to eat, including a McDonalds. The first trip that I made to Union Station in Chicago, I didn't know of the existence of the Food Court! I waited until I got to my hotel and paid a lot more for dinner than necessary. If this is your first time in Chicago, just look around and follow the signs. Not every stairway and escalator that goes up goes to the mezzanine, some just go to exits.
I looked around at all the options and decided on the Pizza place since Chicago is famous for their Deep Dish Pizzas. They sold 7 inch personal deep dish pizzas. That plus a bottle of water cost me less than $5. However, I wouldn't recommend judging the fine pizzas available in Chicago on the pizzas sold here. The Pizza was delivered very quickly and was good, but I've had much better Chicago Pizzas.
After I finished eating, I went to a store just outside of the grand hall downstairs and purchased a tote bag. I had accumulated more stuff than I could conveniently carry in the two bags that I had brought with me. That cost me less than $8. Then, I retrieved my large roller suitcase from the locker area. That ended up costing my $4.50 to have stored my suitcase there all day. I reshuffled everything so that the items that I needed immediately were in the two light carry-on bags and the items that I wouldn't need until much later on the train were in my big roller suitcase.
I then rolled my way into the Metropolitan Lounge. The lounge was more crowded than it has ever been! There were only a few empty seats and it was full of people everywhere! Several trains were running very late. The biggest problem was the City of New Orleans that was suppose to leave Chicago at 7:50 P.M. Under Amtrak's new plan, that is now the same train as the Empire Builder. The Empire Builder was suppose to have arrived into Chicago at 3:50 P.M. Since it hadn't arrived yet, and it was already after 6:00 P.M, there was no train in Chicago to be the City of New Orleans! Once it did arrive, I'm sure it would need to be fueled and have other housekeeping done. They would hurry to make up some of the time, but they didn't expect the train to leave Chicago much before midnight, at least 4 hours late.
Many people in the lounge were waiting for that train. Amtrak was giving everyone credits so they could go eat dinner somewhere since dinner was suppose to be served on that train. They also set up a room with free phones so people could notify anyone waiting for them of the late status. A man in front of me was given a credit for $20 for dinner. I don't know if that was just for him, for he and his wife, for a whole family. I suspect it was just for him since I heard him complain the the Lounge Attendant that you can't even get a hamburger for $20 around here. The Lounge Attendant sort of agreed with him and told him where to write if he felt the compensatin wasn't fair. If $20 was just for himself, that seems quite fair as the dinner in the Dining Car usually doesn't add up to more than that. If the $20 was for more then one person, then he may have a case. Technically, Amtrak should be re-imbursing people for the most they could have spent in the Dining Car since that is what was missed due to Amtrak's fault and of no fault to the traveler. If the $20 was just for him, I could have assured him that he could get a hamburger for much less than $20 at the McDonalds upstairs or any of the better restaurants in the building.
In Chicago, you check into the Metropolitan Lounge and they give you a "Boarding Pass" with your train number, car number and bedroom number written on it. They then give you these round stickers with your train number, ask you to put the stickers on your luggage, and place your luggage in a holding pen in view of the front desk. Each train has its own color sticker with the number of the train. Nobody will take your luggage from this area. You are expected to retrieve your luggage and bring it on board as carry-on luggage yourself, or you can get "Red Cap" assistance when your train is boarding. If you want your bags to go into the checked baggage area, you have to tell them that. I almost never check my bags and instead, just carry them onboard with me.
I was having some difficulty finding a place to sit in the lounge near an electrical outlet where I could plug in my notebook computer. This is the one Metropolitan Lounge that does not have a computer work desk area. When I'm in Chicago, I just sit by a lamp or a fan. There is usually an extra outlet there. If not, I come prepared with my extension cords to branch off the outlet the lamp or fan is plugged into. By the time I was able to get a seat near an outlet, it was too late to set up my computer. Sure enough, as soon as I sat down, I was called to board our train!
I was in Car Number 5000, that is, Car 00 of Train 50. I always find it weird to be in a car that is numbered "00". I've heard them refer to the 0331 Car on the Southwest Cheif as the "thirty-one" car and the 0311 Car as the "eleven" car. What do they call this, the "zero" car?
The fist sleeper was 5010, so I kept on going. The second one was my 5000 car. I was the second one to board. The people in front of me put a couple of suitcases in the rack and went direct to the Family Room. They must be experienced riders! I put my suitcase on the rack and headed up the stairs. I paused before reaching the top. Our Sleeping Car Attendant was busy putting ice into the refrigerator drawer. Refrigerator drawer? Yes! It is a Superliner 2 Car ... the only Superliners that currently have a refrigerator in the Sleeping Car. That draw is located directly under the Coffeemaker. If you can't find it, then you are probably in a Superliner 1 and not a Superliner 2 Sleeping Car.
Following me was a whole family with several small children. They had 3 Standard Bedrooms.
The Car Attendant came through, introduced himself and explained a few things. The Dining Car Steward then came by taking reservation. I made mine for 8:10 P.M., not even realizing that was the departure time of the train! So I guessed wrong. They are serving dinner on the train. I guess not everyone opts to have it this late though. Usually they just ask what time you want to have dinner. This time they asked: "Will you be joining us for dinner this evening?"
I was going to pass on dinner as I wasn't too excited about a tray meal. The schedule and all the literature said that the Cardinal DOES NOT have a Dining Car and that First Class Service includes complimentary tray meal service. However, the Dining Car Steward assured me that we have a real Dining Car on this train and it is the next car forward! I asked if that was new and how long they had the Diner on the train. He said this was only the fourth trip of this train with a Dining Car! Thus, I guess I was just in time for another new experience. I couldn't turn down the opportunity and made my reservation for 8:10 P.M.
In the Dining Car, I asked our waiter if he had been doing tray service before or if he came with the Dining Car. He said that he along with the other Dining Car staff including the cooks came to this train with the Dining Car. He reconfirmed that this was only the fourth trip of the Dining Car with this train. They didn't quite have everything set up yet. There were no menus and they didn't have the food order forms. Instead, they used the forms that had been used to order meal trays. The menu on the form didn't apply, but they had us sign the bottom of the form since they had no other forms for us to sign. Our server told us what selections were available. They had Beef Burgundy, some type of Lemon Pepper Chicken and a Vegetable Lasagne. I really wanted to try the Beef Burgundy, but didn't think I could eat that heavy since I just ate a pizza a few hours ago. Thus, I opted for the Vegetable Lasagne.
Although the food was cooked from scratch just like in any other Amtrak Dining Car, it was served on plastic plates on a tray. The silverware was made of plastic and came wrapped in plastic along with a napkin. I'm sure the plates and silverware came from a stockpile they have from their days of mealtrays. I asked our server and he said they'd be phasing in real silverware and glasses soon, but didn't think the plates would be coming anytime soon. That isn't good. When food is served to people looking like a TV dinner, then it puts the idea in their heads that it is a TV dinner like the airlines. I saw the Steward go around and explain to several people how the food is all freshly prepared downstairs in the galley. That wouldn't be necessary if it was served on china like it is served in all the other Dining Cars. Other than that, I thought the food was quite good.
I had ordered wine. He served it to me in a small clear plastic wine cup. I was wondering if they were going to charge me the usual $3 for this as I could tell it was about half the amount that comes in the small bottles. But, my fears were soon put to rest as he brought me another glass of wine to replace the first glass I had finished. When I was about to leave, he brought be what looked like a cup of coffee "to go". I couldn't understand why he did this since I didn't mention I wanted coffee, but then I realized this was probably more of the wine! He said it was included with my room so he brought me more to take back with me. I don't know how much wine I drank in total, but his travelogue seems to be a bit easy to write than the one of the Lake Shore Limited!
While we were eating, some kids threw rocks at the train and one hit our window with a really loud "Thud!" Fortunately, the glass did not break, but it really startled everyone around us. I can almost understand kids throwing rocks to see if they can hit a freight train, but only idiots would throw rocks at a passenger train. I guess they are the same type of kids that drop rocks from bridges onto highways. It was only a year or two ago that an infant was killed by such a rock that came through the windshield. Only once before in all my thousands of miles of train travel have I ever seen kids throwing rocks at a passenger train and this is the first time I have ever had one hit my window.
The gal across from me had traveled this route before and said that she saw some people buy souveniers. After diner, I went down to the Cafe to see what they might have for souvniers. They had a "Cardinal" cap which I purchased. They also had a plastic mug from the "Capitol". Although not a souvenier of this train, I decided to buy it anyway in case they don't have them on the Capitol. I also purchased an interesting set of Amtrak collector postcards.
Channel 84 - 161.379 - Detector: Dyer, Indiana, 10:00 P.M. (Central Time)
The train has stopped across a couple of grade crossings, but I'm not sure why. This could have been the "Rensselaer, Indiana" station, but no announcement was made and I didn't see anything. In any case, we are on our way again at 10:07 P.M. "Rensselaer, Indiana" was suppose to have been at 9:52 P.M. and no announcement about that station has been made yet.
If you like your room cool, but are annoyed by the air blowing at you, then try to adjust the vents. I don't recommend trying to adjust the room temperature with the thermostat. If you like it cool, the best thing to do is to leaving it on maximum cool. Depending on the preferences of the Car Attendant and other passengers, setting the dial to maximum cool will have varrying success. I figure leaving it all the way to maximum cool will give you all the cool you will ever get in your room without trying to convince the Car Attendant to set the overall car temperature lower. Adjusting the vents will point the cool air in a different direction without reducing the amount of cool air pouring into your room.
That was "Rensselaer"! I heard them talking on the scanner. No sooner did the train stop that the "highball!" was immediately given. I guess there was nobody to drop off or pick up at that stop, so we were immediately back on our way. Looks like we are already running about 30 minutes late. That isn't off to a good start. We never paused anywhere, but we had to move very slow for a long time while we were on our way out of Chicago. In worst case, I think that will just mean there will be more daylight for sights in the morning.
Channel 84 - 161.379 - Detector: CSX, Rensselaer, IN, 10:25 P.M. (Central)
Channel 84 - 161.379 - Detector: CSX, Monon, IN, 10:43 P.M. (Central)
The Sleeping Car Attendant just came through at 11 P.M. and asked what time I'd like my bed made. Obviously, he'd like to turn in sometime too. I told him that I wasn't sure, but having done over 34,000 miles on Amtrak last year, I've at least learned how to make the bed myself. I told him not to worry about it and I'll take care of it myself when I'm ready to turn in. I wish there was a polite way to say: "Don't worry, it won't affect your tip. This is my choice." If I haven't gotten friendly with the Car Attendant by evening, I sometimes sense something from the Car Attendant. Sort of like what you get from a bellman when you tell him you don't need any help with your bags.
Channel 84 - 161.379 - Detector: CSX, MP 113.3, 11:02 P.M. (Central)
We just went to a crawl. The Detector reported "No Defects" so I'm not sure why we are going so slow. There is nothing being reported on the scanner.
We dropped off at least one person here. There was very lound country music outside my window. Over the radio, I heard the Dispatcher warning a freight train to be extra cautious as he takes the train through the plaza. I guess they must have some people and some event going on in Lafayette this evening.
Channel 84 - 161.379 - Detector: CSX, MP 143.7, 11:44 P.M. (Eastern Standard)
Uh, oh! The Detector says: "Mile Post 143.7, First Dragging Equipment at axle 001. Total axles 040." They stopped the train. The Conductor said it must be at the engine. The Engineer got out to look at the problem. He must have found it pretty quick because we were back on our way in less than 2 minutes!
The Conductor told the Engineer that 3 people are suppose to be getting on here. I guess the Engineer say a whole crowd at the station and told the Conductor that there were a lot more than 3 at the station. After we took off, the Conductor told the Engineer that the rest of the crowd were all "well wishers."
It looks like the next stop isn't going to be until Indianapolis and that is over 90 minutes from now ... about 1:30 in the morning. I've got to get some sleep if I want to get up a sunrise. Plus, we are in an area of Indiana that observes Eastern Standard Time instead of Eastern Daylight Savings Time. Thus, it is the same as Central Time at this time of the year. By morning, we will be into Eastern Time and it will be an hour later. Thus, going to bed now will actually be like going to bed at about 1 A.M.! Not a good time to go to bed when I want to get up early!
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: about 5:00 A.M. (EDT)
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 573.0, 07:46 A.M. (EDT)
We are going right down the middle of the street in some small town. We are just a few feet from the front of some homes. Some are so close that I am willing to be they are less than 20 feet from the tracks! The town might be Buena Vista. That is what the engineer called the signal location.
I awoke about 5:00 A.M. this morning, an hour before I really wanted to get up. There was very loud rapping on a door. It was so loud, I thought it was my door. I didn't know why the Car Attendant would be trying to wake me up since I didn't ask for a wake-up call. Actually, it was the family in the rooms next to mine. The parents were trying to wake up the kids that were in the other two bedrooms. The rapping was so loud, they probably woke up the entire car. I assume they must be getting off at the next stop.
I think I fell back to sleep for a short while before waking again at just before 6:30 A.M. This time I got up and got dressed. I unplugged my notebook computer and clock and put them away. I then pushed the "PUSH TO CALL" Attendant button to make my bed and headed for the restroom. Before I could even return to my room, they announced that the Diner was full for breakfast! They are only using half of the Diner so it doesn't take many people to fill it up. I think they only have one one server so it makes sense that they can only open half of the diner.
(07:53 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal - Garrison
(07:55 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal - East End Garrison
(07:57 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal - MP 561
The second call for breakfast was made at about 8:00 AM and I headed right down. Because the Diner is new on this car and hasn't been fully supplied, the breakfast options were limited to scrambled eggs with bacon or sausage or a bowl of Honey-Nut Cherio cereal. Orange juice and coffee was also served with that. Like last night, the meal was served in plastic dishes with plastic silverware on trays. The coffee was brought to the table in paper coffee cups and we were given plastic cups into which we could pour the coffee.
All four people had access to the internet. One had made their reservation for this trip on the Internet. Thus, I handed out my "http://trainweb.com" card to everyone! One person at the table was on his way to Huntington, West Virginia. He had just been hired by CSX to do signal work and was going to Huntington for his first week of training. He'd be starting work in Chicago in about a week or so. He wasn't a railfan so he didn't have too much knowledge of the work that he would be doing but he knew the benefits would be good and it sounded like work he would like. This was his first trip on Amtrak and he really liked the experience of travel by train. CSX paid for everything, including a room in the Sleeping Car!
We are in a large CSX freight yard with many tracks. They are fueling our locomotives. We've been here for quite some time. We finished fueling and left the yard at 8:55 A.M.
For much of our journey this morning we have been traveling through lush green countryside occassionally passing small towns. It doesn't seem to be raining now, but it has obviously been raining earlier as everything outside is quite wet. The Ohio River has also been on the left side of the train for quite a while.
Leaving Catletssburg right on time! Shortly after Catlettsburg, we went through a town on elevated tracks and then crossed a bridge which I believe went over the Ohio River.
(09:15 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal - Sandy Junction
(09:20 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal - MP 510
(09:22 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal - Frank Valley
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: MP 508.1, 09:24 A.M. (EDT)
(09:25 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal - West Huntington #2
(09:25 AM EDT) Amtrak 50 Clear Signal -
We arrived about 5 minutes early into Huntington, West Virginia, but then left about 5 minutes late.
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 489.6 Track #1, 10:00 A.M. (EDT)
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 470.2 Track #1, 10:19 A.M. (EDT)
Tour Guides Ramona Web and David Web have just joined the train and put out some literature regarding this segment of our travel. They will be narrating our travel through the New River Gorge.
The train goes right down the middle of town here also, but the tracks are much further from the buildings than in the previous town where the tracks went down the middle of the street. In the previous town, I think the tracks were literally in the street. In Montgomery, the tracks go down a center strip separate from the road.
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 420.5, 11:24 A.M. (EDT)
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 397.0, 11:56 A.M. (EDT)
There are many wonderful sights through the New River Gorge. One of the highest bridges in the world, waterfalls, hydroelect dam and power plant, plus hundreds of rubber rafts on the river with white water rafters. Unfortunately, it is very frustrating trying to get photographs of any of it. There are trees between the tracks and the river continuously. Althought it is east to see through the trees, there isn't adequate time between the spaces in the trees to take many photos. The only way to do this would be to use a video camera and then to seek clear shots to turn into still pictures during the playback.
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 374.4, 12:29 P.M. (EDT)
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 336.7, 01:24 P.M. (EDT)
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 312.0, 01:56 P.M. (EDT)
They called for the first lunch seating at about 10 minutes after noon. The selections are either a cheeseburger or a personal pizza. They may be preparing all the food fresh in the galley, but from what they have been offering for each meal, it sounds like the only supplies they have are what was given to them for the tray service. They have as yet to call for the second seating and it is already 2:05 P.M. I have a feeling that people are just wandering in and filling up seats for lunch as fast as they are being vacated. I'm really trying to stick to just 2 meals each day. I might be able to stick to this rule if they run out of food before they ever make the second or last call for lunch!
Channel 8 - 160.230 - Detector: CSX, MP 287.1, 02:36 P.M. (EDT)
Talk about blocking the view! We are traveling parallel to a very very long coal train. We passed most of it getting to the station. We stopped at the station. Then, we started going again. All that while, the coal train continued to move parallel with us. We are overtaking it again, but I suspect we are going to be passing one coar carrying car after another for quite some time!
Now this is weird! I feel like I'm on stage! The westbound Capitol Limited has just pulled in right next to us. The Sightseer Lounge Car has stopped directly across from my room. A number of people are sitting in the seats in the Sightseer Lounge Car facing the window directly across from me. Instead of having a nice view out the window, all they can see from where they are sitting is me!
Both trains are pulling out again. I've never been one that likes to be the focus of attention and I feel much better without having a dozen people from the other Sightseer Lounge Car staring into my room. The westbound Capitol Limited was pulling two private cars, one labeled "PULLMAN".
I think the reason we had to stop and wait was that the westbound Capitol Limited was in the Staunton, Virginia station and we had to wait for it to pull out before we could pull in. We may be in a single track area where we were waiting on a siding for them to pass us before we could proceed east.
We were about 15 minutes behind on our way to Staunton, but having to wait for the westbound Capitol Limited which was running about an hour late has now made us about 40 minutes late. We lost almost half an hour waiting for the westbound Capitol Limited to pull out of Staunton and pass our train.
They called only the Sleeping Car Passengers to Dinner at about 5:00 P.M. Since I didn't have any lunch, I was ready for dinner! I headed straight to the Diner immediately to make sure I would get in on the first seating. Two others joined me immediately. One was an older guy and the other a younger one studying marketing. Two of us ordered the beef burgundy. I thought it was good, but I am really convinced this is the food they normally supply to the train for the tray meals. It is better than TV dinners or airline food, but falls far short of the quality of most Dining Car meals. My guess is that they are still supplying this train with the same food supplies as they always have. The only difference is that the chef now has a nice big kitchen to use to cook the food. However, without supplying the chef with the proper ingredients that are used to prepare a meal from scratch, the quality can only be just so good and no better. I hope they manage to start supplying this Dining Car with all the proper supplies including not just silverware, china and glasses, but also real food that is meant to be prepared from scratch!
Channel 56 - 160.950 - Detector: Manassas, Virginia, 07:13 P.M. (EDT)
Channel 56 - 160.950 - Detector: Norfolk-Southern, MP 31.6, 07:24 P.M. (EDT)
Channel 56 - 160.950 - Detector: Norfolk-Southern, MP 18.8, 07:39 P.M. (EDT)
The Sleeping Car Attendant during this trip kept everything well stocked. Coffee seemed to be available around the clock with plenty of cups, sweetner, cream, etc. The top of the serving area always had lots of bottled drinks and water, including diet drinks. He kept the refrigerator full of ice at all times. Also, the restrooms were always in perfect shape and fully stocked every time I went to use them. Using the philosophy of myself and others, $5 per day per person to a maximum of $20 (varying upon extenuating circumstances and peformance), I plan to tip him $10 for this 2 day/1 night journey.
Click here for the next segment of this Summer 1997 journey.