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 - First Segment: Travel on Western Pacific Airlines from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, the Amtrak Metroliner from New York City to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey Transit from Philadelphia to Atlantic City.
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Rather than leave my car at Fullerton, a friend and work associate at TrainWeb gave me a ride from our offices in Anaheim to the Disneyland Hotel where I could pick up an express bus to the Los Angeles Airport (LAX). I didn't have any idea what time the next bus would leave, but I knew they ran pretty frequently. I wanted to be at the airport by about 8:00 P.M. at the latest to catch my flight at 8:20 P.M. If there wasn't any bus between now and 7:00 P.M., we'd still have plenty of time to drive all the way to LAX.
With all the rush-hour traffic and construction around Disneyland, we didn't get to the bus stop at the hotel until about 5:45. However, I was in luck. The next bus to LAX was leaving at 6:00 P.M., in just 15 minutes. The one-way ticket was $14. The bus rolled a couple of minutes after I purchased my ticket. I gave my suitcase to the bus driver to store below and brough my carry-on bag to my seat with me. There were plenty of seats on the bus. The bus could probably hold more than 30 people and there were only about a dozen people on the bus. The bus stopped at a couple more hotels before getting onto the highway. We reached the airport in plenty of time. I was let out at the terminal for Western Pacific just a few minutes after 7:00 P.M. A sign on the bus said something about tips not being included in the fare, so I tipped the bus driver $1 as he was unloading my bag to the curb.
There were about six people waiting in line at the Western Pacific ticketing desks with two agent desks open and a third agent helping the other two. There seemed to be some problem as the line didn't move for over 10 minutes. The computer seemed to be having a problem assigning seats. Best I could tell, the agent would put in a request and the computer would just sit there not giving any response for a long time. One of the agents announced that people who were not checking baggage could go right to their gate. Since I wasn't checking any baggage, I headed off to the gate!
I didn't have any problem getting through the security check at the airport this time. I wasn't wearing steel tip work shoes this time and I had put all my keys, pager, cell phone, etc. and even my film into my luggage temporarily so I didn't have to dump out all my pockets into a tray. I also made sure my cell batteries were scattered about my luggage this time and weren't all lumped in one layer at the bottom of my suitcase which would have created a suspicious impenetrable barrier for the person operating the X-ray machine, as it did the last time I flew. One of the things I like about a train is that you can just board with you luggage and not hassle going through an invasive security procedure that makes you feel like a prison inmate.
At the boarding desk, another 6 people were in another slow moving line. They seemed to be having the same problem as the main desk! Eventually it got to be my turn and I asked for an aisle seat near the front if one was available. They assigned me 5C which was a good place to be. For my early morning plans to work, I needed the plane to arrive on time and I then needed to get to the airport bus stop quickly. Being on the aisle and near the exit door would give me the best chance at getting out ahead of the crowd and making my bus connection. If the plane was too late, I'd have to cancel some of the rail touring that I had planned to do in the local area before the rest of my Amtrak journey would begin at 6:30 P.M. that evening.
Western Pacific is an interesting airline. They have the newest equipment of all the new startup airlines, and their philosophy is to use all identical equipment! They figured they could reduce maintenance costs by going with a fairly new fleet and by needing replacement parts throughout the nation for just one model of airplane. I am aware that a large problem for low-cost startup airlines is trying to keep control of maintenance costs. I'm glad that Western Pacific was solving this problem by using newer planes and streamlining maintenance and costs by standarizing on just one plane model which simplifies and reduces both maintenance training costs and parts supply costs. I'm not too happy or secure in the fact that most other low cost airlines have tried to keep their costs low by purchasing whatever planes they could get at whatever low prices they could find, even if they end up with a mixed fleet of older planes and a nightmare of maintaining spare parts and finding mechanics trained on so many systems.
After most people had boarded the plane, there were still more trying to come on. Many of these people had seat assignments identical to people who were already sitting! That even happened with my seat! All the people in my row were traveling by themselves and each had a single seat assignment. Yet, a family of 5 boarded and had seat assignments that were a duplicate for almost every seat in my row! A couple of minutes before the plane was about to take off, a Flight Attendant announced they had been having a problem with the seating assignments being issued by the computer and asked that everyone just take whatever open seat they could find!
In this way, only a couple of people were left without any seats. The Flight Attendant seemed happy and said they had done a lot better this time finding a seat for almost everyone than on the last flight! From some other comments, I concluded that Western Pacific had open seating like Southwest Airlines until just a couple of days before my flight. Assigning seats before boarding was a new feature of Western Pacific and not all the bugs had been worked out yet.
Western Pacific is to passengers what Federal Express is to packages, if you have any understanding of how Federal Express works. Basically, Federal Express flies all the packages from around the nation to one central hub. All the planes arrive within a couple of hours of each other and sit at the hub until all the packages are unloaded, sorted, and reloaded onto the appropriate jets. Once the sorting and loading process is done, all the planes leave the hub within a couple of hours of each other.
Western Pacific does the same with people. All the planes arrive at their central hub in Colorado Springs within a couple of hours of each other. Everyone gets off the planes and moves to another plane. All those planes then take off at almost the same time for their final destinations. The only big difference between Western Pacific and Federal Express is that the passengers on Western Pacific can sort themselves out and board the appropriate departing plane.
Since my flight left at 8:20 P.M., this "sorting" occurred in the middle of the night. Even though I was going through to Newark, New Jersey on the exact same plane, they made us get out and reconfirm our seat numbers. Once out of the plane, they didn't let anyone back on until general boarding. Thus, it wasn't even possible to sleep all the way through on this "red eye" flight!
On each of the two flight segments, Los Angeles to Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs to Newark, we were served a complimentary soft drink and a snack. The snack of the first segment was pretzels and the snack on the second segment was a pack of crackers, cheese and candy.
We arrived at the gate in Newark, New Jersey, right on time! If you ever fly anywhere, you are aware that you only go through the security screening procedure as you enter the airport gate area, not when you leave. As I was hurrying out of the gate area at the Newark airport, all the power to the airport went out just as I was passing the security area! I was on the exit side where no screening is done as I saw the X-ray monitors go off, the lights go out, and the conveyor belts through the X-ray machines go off. I had to walk down the escalator and go through an automatic door that was propped open to exit the airport.
I was wondering what effect that power outage was going to have on the airport. Certainly they weren't going to let anyone past the security point until power was restored. Check in of passengers would have to stop as all the computer monitors at the ticket and check-in counters were down. I had no idea if anything electrical was needed in processing planes as they came and went from the gate. Maybe the boarding ramp that they drive to the door of the plane is on that power? I would just assume that air traffic control and ground control as well as the runway and taxiway lighting would have a separate backup power generator so that planes could be safely guided planes in, out and around the airport. Even with all the big windows everywhere in the airport building, the inside lighting was pretty dim since the sun was just coming up.
I went out to the bus loading area and was able to board the first #302 bus of the day which didn't come until after 6:30 A.M. even though all the schedules said it departs at 6:17 A.M. This bus is also called the AIRLINK bus. One-way costs $4.00 which I paid directly on the bus. The bus takes 20 minutes to get from the airport to Newark Penn Station. This bus operates every 20 to 30 minutes in both directions starting at 6:17 A.M. and ending at 1:48 A.M.
Once at Newark Penn Station, I barely had time to purchase my ticket from the New Jersey Transit ticket window before the train arrived! At this hour of a weekday morning, trains between Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station run 2 to 8 minutes apart! My ticket was good for whichever train I would catch to New York Penn Station. I didn't look at my watch so I don't know which one I got on, but it could have been the one scheduled to leave at 6:42am, 6:56am, 7:10am or 7:12am. Whichever, the ride was about 20 minutes and I arrived into New York Penn Station long before my next train was to leave at 8:00 A.M. The one-way fare for the New Jersey Transit train ride from Newark to New York was only $2.50.
The first thing I did once I arrived in New York Penn Station was to look for a locker where I could leave my suitcase while I traveled up and down the Northeast Corridor to Philadelphia. I looked everywhere, but could find no lockers. However, there is a place in the New York Penn Station where Amtrak passengers can check their luggage for $1.50 for the day. That is a lot less expensive than lockers, but I usually feel more secure with lockers if I have a choice of either storage method. It makes me nervous knowing that my bag is sitting with hundreds of other bags that are coming and going all day long, including some that are being placed directly onto trains by baggage handlers. A small mistake and your bag could get onto a train or be handed out to the wrong person, though I'm sure those mistakes are rare. But having no choice other than to drag the luggage around with me all day, I checked it in. I kept my computer and tickets with me just in case. Though awkward, I could complete my journey without my packed clothes, but would have a serious problem finishing or writing about the journey without my tickets or computer!
The baggage person said he needed exact change since he was out of change. I gave him $2 and told him to just keep the 50 cents change. He mumbled something, handed me 50 cents change and my claim check and walked into the back room with my suitcase. Confused, I walked away with my claim check and the 50 cents change. I saw no place to leave tips on the counter and did not understand why he didn't keep the 50 cents I had just told him to keep, or why he came up with change when he just said that he didn't have any. If people are going to leave a tip, they usually do so when they pick up their luggage at baggage claim rather than drop it off. Maybe he thought I'd need the 50 cents later to leave a tip when I claimed my luggage.
After checking my luggage, I had a few minutes before the departure of my train. I went to one of the automatic New Jersey Transit ticket machines. I was taking the 8:00 A.M. Metroliner from New York to Philadelphia. I wanted to then take the New Jersey Transit train to Atlantic City. I knew that I only had 16 minutes between trains, if the Metroliner arrived into Philadelphia on time. Thus, I figured I could purchase my ticket here and not worry about having time to purchase a ticket in Philadelphia.
No luck! The machines were only programmed to sell tickets for trains that served New York Penn Station. So, I went to a New Jersey Transit ticket window. No luck there either! The live ticket agents were also only programmed to sell tickets for trains that served New York Penn Station! The ticket agent said I'd have to wait until I got to Philadelphia to purchase a New Jersey Transit ticket to Atlantic City.
I still had a few minutes so I explored around New York Penn Station for a short while. Amtrak has a waiting area for passengers with tickets and I went into there. They had quite a few schedules and other Amtrak information in racks on the side of an information booth. I took one of everything that I didn't already have. Then, I wandered out to the central board where arrivals, departures and track numbers are posted. As soon as the track number of my train was posted, I headed for the track.
I boarded the Metroliner. Heading from New York City to Philadelphia I had only booked a regular coach seat. There were a lot of people on board, but it wasn't booked solid. Many people traveling alone like myself could easily have two seats to themself without depriving anyone else of a seat. This was an Amfleet car, but was probably what some people have told me are "Amfleet II" cars. The window definitely seemed to be larger than what I was used to on the San Diegan route.
These cars had been remodeled from their original decor. Unlike the Amfleet Cars of the San Diegans, the carpet and the curtains were deep blue and the chairs were blue with stripes. The ceiling and the window molding were both a modern grey. There was also an electric outlet for notebook computers at every seat, not just in Custom or Club Class. There was plenty of legroom at each seat.
Many of the passengers were wearing business suites. Even with the very high price of the tickets, I imagine that this competes favorably with airfare between New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. For example, in addition to the airfare between New York and Washington, a traveler would also have to pay the high taxi fare to get from downtown to the airport and then from the other airport to the other downtown. When you consider both the added expense and time to take taxis between the airports and the downtown areas, rail travel probably competes favorably in both time and expense.
These cars are probably shared with the Northeast Direct route which covers the exact same tracks. The biggest difference is that the Northeast Direct makes many more stops than the Metroliner which means it takes longer to cover the same distance. A Northeast Direct brochure was in the back of each seat and included a number for Amtrak that I had not seen before which is: 1-800-AMTRAK.
The train arrived right on time into Philadelphia. It might even have been a couple of minutes early. As part of the Amtrak Historical Society 1997 Annual Conference, I had been given a tour of the Philadelphia station less than 2 months ago. Thus, I had some idea of the layout of the station. However, I could not recall seeing any ticket windows or machines for New Jersey Transit in the station. I only had about 15 minutes to locate the place to purchase tickets, buy my ticket, and then find the train! On many transit lines, tickets can be purchased on the train, but with a penalty for not having used a machine or ticket window in the station. Or, with lines like the Los Angeles Metrolink where tickets are not sold on the train, you can be subject to a fine of several hundred dollars! Thus, I wasn't about to board the train without a ticket without knowing the policy.
I went to the Amtrak Ticket Window area. Not seeing any New Jersey Transit windows in that area, I did a quick walk around the station. There was one ramp at the corner of the station that lead away from the main concorse. There were signs saying that SEPTA tickets could be purchased in that direction, but nothing about NJ Transit. I headed up that way and only saw SEPTA Ticket Windows and Machines at first, but then spotted a NJ Transit ticket machine. By that time, I think I was down to about 5 minutes before the train would depart. I purchased a round-trip ticket from Philadelphia to Atlantic City and headed back for the main concorse. There is a large sign announcing the boarding tracks for every train in the main concorse. I quickly found the right track for the Atlantic City train and headed right to it. I had just a couple of minutes left before the 9:30am scheduled departure time (Train #4611).
These trains seemed to be older single level trains that could be pushed or pulled by a regular locomotive. This particular train was being operated in Cab mode with the locomotive in the rear. I went all the way up to within 2 seats of the Cab. The door to the cab was open and it appeared that someone not affiliated with the railroad (a railfan?) was standing at the front door window carrying on a conversation with the engineer. Occassionally, the conductor would stand up in that area also. It appeared that everyone knew each other quite well. When the conductor wasn't collecting tickets, he often sat two seats in front of me facing in my direction. The seat backs were all adjustable and the seats could be made to easily face either direction. There were a number of people on the train, but it was far from full. I'd say the number of riders was similar to a subway train outside of the rush hour.
The train went almost 30 minutes before it arrived at its first stop! I thought this was rather odd for a commuter line. Looking at my map, I think I can guess the reason for this. This train is a New Jersey Transit train, paid for and operated by the state of New Jersey. The reason for the long run to the first station is that the train doesn't stop until it gets to New Jersey! It has to stop at Philadelphia in Pennsylvania because that is how it connects to the Amtrak system and brings its own residents in and out of Philadelphia. But, once the train leaves that station, it doesn't stop until it crosses the border. One the train arrives into New Jersey, stops are about every 10 minutes all the way to Atlantic City.
I was a bit confused when we pulled into the Atlantic City station. The train pulled forward directly into the station and that appeared to be the end of the line. Everyone got up and stood in line to go into the engineer's cab! I thought that was pretty odd. Why is everyone lined up like they are about to go out the front of the train. I couldn't believe the train would pull all the way forward so that people could exit directly out the front door of the train. I could see we weren't close enough to the end of the track to do that. Then, the line started moving. Everyone was leaving "through" the engineer's cab! The cab has a door to the platform. When the train arrives. The engineer locks up his controls, exits through the door and leaves it open. All the passengers then walk into the engineer's cab and then out onto the platform the same way the engineer went out! I took a quick peek at the engineer's controls as I walked within inches of them as I walked out that door. That was the strangest way I had ever exited from a train.
The train arrived into the station on-time at 11:10am. The next train wouldn't be leaving Atlantic City for Philadelphia until 12:19pm. That gave me a bit more than an hour to explore the station.
I was very impressed with the Atlantic City station. For a station that isn't a major hub, it was fairly large. If you are familiar with the station at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, it was larger than that. It wasn't large compared to major hubs like Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago or even Los Angeles, but was quite large for the few trains and people that used the station. There were several ticket windows, restrooms, and a lot of benches. In one corner of the station was a good size snack and souvenier area. There were circular phone banks in two parts of the station. The ceiling was probably 40 or 50 feet high. Two walls were mostly glass windows. One side faced out to the tracks. The other side faced into the Atlantic City Convention Center lobby. You could see several floors of the Convention Center that were directly connected to the station. Another side of the large glass walls of the station faced the Atlantic City downtown area. I could see many of the casinos right out that window. I thought of walking to the casinos, but I think I would just barely have made it to the Casinos and back by the time the train would be boarding.
This station was definitely built with the expectation that a lot of trains would be stopping here. There were 6 loading platforms. Up to 6 trains could be loaded and unloaded simultaneously. There were 3 sets of automatic glass sliding doors between the station and the platform. Above each set of doors were two monitors. There were some words on the screen indicating they planned to have the monitors show train arrival and departure status, but they weren't working. The arrival and departure times of all trains were posted above the Ticket Windows. Best I could tell, NJ Transit trains between Atlantic City and Philadelphia are the only trains that serve this station and they run once every couple of hours! Amtrak used to stop here, but they ended service to Atlantic City a couple of years ago.
The only reason I could see for such an elaborate station and facility is they hoped this would become the easter terminus for some east/west Amtrak routes, or maybe they get special gambling tourist trains that bring people here from time to time from Boston, New York and Washington. If a few special tourist trains had to park here for a few days, they certainly have enough track and platform space for them!
I noticed that quite a few people approached the NJ Transit Ticket windows and not only purchased tickets to Philadelphia, but also purchased Amtrak tickets. I also saw one lady try to return her Amtrak tickets to get a refund. The NJ Ticket Agent told her that she would have to go to Philadelphia to get the refund or mail them in. Although the NJ Transit Ticket Agents can sell Amtrak tickets, they evidently can't refund them! I also noticed that the Ticket Agents had directions and times of Amtrak connecting trains to New York and Washington down pat. That seemed to be the most common question people would ask: "How do I connect to a train in Philadelphia to New York and were do I get that train?" They even had some off-the-cuff answers like: "Even though Amtrak will not guarantee a connection of less than one-hour between trains, you should be able to transfer between our train and the next Amtrak train even though they are only 10 minutes apart. If you miss that Amtrak train, just take the next one. Since arriving NJ Transit trains come in on one side of the station and departing Amtrak trains are on the other side, you have to go up the stairs, check the board, and go down the other side to the correct track." That is very useful information which I'm sured has saved many people an unnecessary one or two hour wait between connecting trains which would occur if they only booked to insure the "guaranteed connection."
On my way back to Philadelphia, one lady ended up locked in the bathroom. Someone went through the train to find the Conductor to help her get out of the bathroom. Someone suggested that the ax from the emergency tools be used to get her out. Fortunately, nobody took that suggestion seriously. The Conductor got her out easily and said there was an older lock and a newer lock and that the lady must have locked the older one that is not suppose to be used. She insisted that she did not touch anything. The Conductor just smiled and walked away.
My train #4614 had left Atlantic City at 12:19pm and arrived into Philadelphia on time at 1:54pm. My return Metroliner would not be leaving until 2:43pm. I had never visited the Metropolitan Lounge in Philadelphia. Since I had purchased "Club Class" for my return trip, I was entitled to use the Metropolitan Lounge. I already knew where it was from the tour of the station I had taken less that two months before. We were a bit short on time during that tour, and when the group was asked if they wanted to see the lounge, the majority decided that we should skip that so that we could see more of the rest of the station. So, even with that tour, I hadn't yet seen the inside of the lounge. The Philadelphia Lounge is a bit out of the way and you have to go around the corner from the Amtrak Ticket Windows to find it. The lounge is up a flight of stairs. If you can't climb stairs, there is a bell for you to ring. Someone will come down and escort you up in the elevator.
After climbing the stairs, I arrived a glass door. You have to push a button to signal the Lounge Attendant for admittance. He then pushes a button that unlocks the door. The lounge had all the usual amenities. The Lounge Attendant has full access to the reservation system and can help you with any reservations or changes just like the agent at any ticket window. There was a beverage station with fresh coffee and cold soda. There were many comfortable chairs and couches along with several work desks. There was a television set which I'm pretty sure was tuned to either CNN or Headline News as they are in most of the Metropolitan Lounges. There was also a computer, printer and modem all set up with a bit of useful software. The computer also had America Online and some other online services "available". I tried all of them and none of them would connect to the internet. Each died for one reason or another. They appeared to be set up to automatically log in under a guest account. Each online service died for a different reason. For one, the phone call never connected. For another, the logon id wasn't valid. I had an account on that service, but I wasn't about to type in my password on such a public system!
There were only a few people in the lounge. One was working on his own personal computer which he connected by his own modem to a phone in the room. The phones do support modem connections. The wording on the phones implies that the only way you can dial a long-distance number is by starting the call with "0" followed by the areacode and number. I tried starting a call with "1-800-" and that worked fine! Thus, I was able to call my office on its 800 number and was also able to use the long distance service of my choice which I access through a "1-800-" number. This usually works, but there are some public phones that don't allow you to reach 800 numbers except through the operator.
Although this Metropolitan Lounge is a bit out of the way, one entire wall is made of glass and overlooks the main concorce of the station. So, you can sit by the window and watch activity down in the station. As each train is ready for boarding, it is announced over the P.A. system. An elevator takes you from the Metropolitan Lounge directly to the track platform!
I heard them announce that the Club Car would be at the end of the train. Someone that went down in the elevator with me from the Metropolitan Lounge who looked like they were experienced at this instead went to the head end of the platform. I followed him, but thought that was strange. When the train started to arrive, I could see the Club Car was not at the head of the train and I started to walk down the platform toward the rear of the train. When the platform started looking pretty empty, I went into the closest open door into the train and continued to walk through the train toward the end of the train. I wasn't absolutely sure I was heading the right way since that other person had boarded at the front.
I finally got to a car where there were two seats on one side and one seat on the other side and there was a serving area in the center of the car. The Car Attendant approached me and asked if I was looking for the Club Car. I told her I was and she told me to just sit anywhere. I sat on the side with all the single seats. Each seat had a tremendous amount of leg room and was very cushy. The tray from the back of the seat in front of me opened to a size double that of normal seatback trays. There was an electric outlet for notebook computers at every seat.
I was immediately served a bag of "Rold Gold" pretzles, goldfish, and a glass of wine and then asked if I would be having lunch on the train today. I asked what they had and they said they had a chicken sandwich and some type of beef dinner. I wasn't hungry enough for an entire dinner selection so I selected the chicken sandwich. As soon as I had finished the snack and the wine, they poured another glass of wine and brought more snacks! I was about snacked out so I put those in my backpack.
Looking around the car I could see that it was a refurbished Amfleet Cafe Car. Again, I would assume it was an Amfleet II Car as the windows did seem larger. Food and drinks were prepared in the center area. There seemed to be 3 staff members working this area. One person worked the bar/kitchen preparing food and drinks. Another person was like a Flight Attendant taking car of all your needs, including bringing the food and drinks to your seat. A third peson seemed to be in charge of the other two and would also help in serving the drinks and in other ways. I'm not sure if that third person only worked in the Club Car or was also in charge of other parts of the train. He seemed to leave the car from time to time. He was always around to help people in and out of the car when we arrived at stations. Actually, the Metroliner is an express train and only made 2 stops between Philadelphia and New York. With so few stops, it covered this distance of over 100 miles in about an hour and 15 minutes. The sandwich was served hot with chips and a pickle. The food was good. All the food and wine is included with the cost of Club Class, which I'm sure is easily covered by the additional cost of this accommodation.
All during this trip, the lights had occassionally gone off and then back on. At 3:15pm, the lights and air-conditioning went off and stayed off. On the radio, I heard CETC (Centralized Electrification and Traffic Control) instruct the train to not attempt to restore HEP (head end power). They would have to stop the train to attempt to restore power. That would delay the train, complicate traffic control by affecting other trains on the Northeast Corridor, and risk ending up with a stalled train on a main corridor. CETC instructed the train to finish the rest of their journey into New York City without power.
The ride was very quiet, but a bit warm without the air-conditioning. I didn't mind being without the overhead lighting as there was plenty of light from the windows. The serving staff asked each person if they would like ice and something cold to drink to counter the rising temperature that we were experiencing with the air-conditioner. Many people opted to have white wine on ice and that is what I also selected! I figured this had better be my last glass of wine on this trip or they would have to carry me off the train! The train arrived into the Penn Station in New York City right on time at 3:59pm.
The radio channel used between Philadelphia,PA and New York City,NY was Channel 54 (160.920).