July 7, 1999
The Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited is sitting in the station, but the New York section is going to be two hours late. The ticket agent explains that they had to wait to put in a dining car at Penn Station, but even she cannot understand why it should take that long. So, I figure it's an opportunity to watch trains and learn about how to use the scanning radio I bought a couple of weeks ago.
I did try out the scanner briefly a week ago when I took Peggy and Aaron to the station. Their train was also late leaving, totally packed because of the Fourth of July weeend coming up. When they were all boarded and apparently ready to go, but not going anywhere, I switched on the scanner and was soon rewarded. "We're waiting on the paperwork before we can leave," I heard. Someone from the train ran to the office and back to the train and the train pulled out.
This week, I pull out my pages of rr frequencies that I downloaded from the internet, (I found them at http://www.trainweb.com ) but I realize that I never printed out another page of the frequencies of the railroads I'd be traveling over (I found it as a link from trainweb.com, but I don't have the URL with me), so I this is going to be trial and error. I plug in the earphone and watch as they inspect the brakes and replace a set of pads on one of the coaches.
They're boarding people into the few seats left on the Boston section, (two coaches, one sleeper, baggage car, two mail cars and 3 road-railers) and I don't have my usual luck in finding a seat near the electrical outlet, though the car attendant is sympathetic and will help me find one later in the trip. I settle into my seat and pull out the radio.
I've programmed my scanner with the 97 railroad frequencies in the order they're listed and set to scanning. Pretty soon, I find the conversation on channel 46 (160.800MHZ). They're going to move the train from the main platform to track 2, and soon after the move, another train pulls up to the main platform, a Northeast Direct. I decide to go outside and watch operations.
The Boston section is headed by 3 engines and a café car which is now closed. After the New York section arrives at the precise estimated time of 9:30, the engines and café are pulled away. The New York section, baggage car, crew dorm, two sleepers, diner, café, and four coaches headed by only one engine, is pulled West, and then backed down on track two. The conductor for this move is Veronica, a confident and strong young woman, who shows a somewhat theatrical flair.
The cars are pushed up to the Boston section, given a pull, and the engine detaches, but the brakeman reports that the pin has not dropped, and Veronica calls on the radio for the engine to come back and do it over again. It takes a few minutes before the engine hooks on, and after Veronica directs the engineer to pull ahead 10 feet, she doesn't wait for the brakeman who is wearing gloves and dressed for dirty work, but jumps right in to lift the lever and pull open the coupler knuckle herself. "Hey, my hands are dirty," she says, half complaining and half chuckling. "Do it right this time," she commands into the radio. "Give it a good shove." It takes a little more stretching and compressing and jiggling of the levers till the pin finally drops, and I get on board again, expecting that we'll leave in a few minutes.
Back on the train, which is still in darkness, people are wondering what's been going on, and I explain the move. The lady in the seat nearby is complaining loudly. "What's going on? Why do they leave us in the dark for an hour and a half with no explanation? I have a child here." The child, a boy of about 10, looks like he's doing fine, but she has some reading materials for him and it's hard to do her planned educational activities in the dark. Actually, they'd left the engines on the Boston section until the last possible moment so that they didn't have to leave the passengers without air conditioning and light, and it's only been a half hour with the lights off, but she's right about one thing. There's no excuse for not informing the passengers about what to expect and why. I tell her she's right and that she should write to Amgrak management with her suggestion. I explain to her what's been happening. "How do you know?" she asks. "I'm listening on the radio," I tell her. "I bought this radio because they don't explain enough about what's going on." "Well, thank you for the information, but they should still tell us. There's no excuse. It's very unprofessional." Can I listen?"
I explain that I'm just learning how to use it and that you have to get used to the static and the shorthand before you can really tell what's going on from the radio. She listens for a minute and agrees. I put the earphone back in my ear and feed her significant pieces of information as I get them. "They've detached the New York engine again and are bringing over the engines that will take us to Chicago." "They've attached the engines now." "They're about to attach the power cables and the lights should be on in a minute." The lights go on. "They're inspecting the braklines on the mail cars." "The engineer has clearance to pull out." The train starts moving.
The on board chief comes on the PA apologizes for the delay, gives the usual list of destinations and safety announcements, and signs off the PA until the morning. When we pull in to Schenectady I hear that we are going to make two stops, and I explain to the worry lady why it appears that we've stopped in the middle of nowhere. After Utica I turn out the light and close my eyes, still listening for radio conversation. When we get to Buffalo, about 4 am, the car fairly empties out on the first stop, and I get permission from the conductor, before the car fills up again, to move to the newly vacant seat next to the electrical outlet.
Somewhere west of Elyria, OH.
In the morning the radio doesn't seem to be picking up much conversation, so I scan the channels for a while. We're stopped on the main line while a train full of empty auto transport cars goes ahead of us. A conductor comes through and I can hear that she's having radio conversation that's not on channel 46. After trying to adjust volume and squelch controls and scanning some more I finally find some Amtrak activity on channel 64 (161.070MHZ). After Toledo, the radio goes silent again and after a while, I find we're back on channel 46. There's a little conversation about construction areas with lowered speed limits, and the periodic computer voice reporting that our train has "eight eight axles" and no defects or dragging equipment. The engineer acknowledges the reports.
I walk up to the lounge car for some breakfast. Some of the cars on the New York section are either new or newly refurbished. Blue fabric on the seats and an electrical outlet at every seat. And every seat is occupied. I guess that in a few years when they finish renovating all the cars, I won't have to work so hard to find power for the RPO computer. On the other hand, the refurbished cars have TV monitors all through the luggage racks. Well, you gain something and you get another annoyance to make up for it.
In the lounge car, I see that Amtrak has finally solved the smoking problem. There's a completely enclosed smoking area, with glass walls separating it from the corridor, and with such good ventilation that smoke isn't getting into the rest of the car, even with the smoking compartment's door open. It's rather small, but it's not overcrowded with smokers. If they can provide enough smoking lounge space to accomodate everyone who wants to smoke, this should make everyone happy. I can stand right outside the glass and see half a dozen lit cigarettes, and not smell one whiff of smoke. At Toledo, I see lots of smokers out on the platform, too. But this is much better than half hour smoking periods every two hours in the old, unventilated lounge car. Well done, Amtrak.
Talking with people in the coach and lounge car, the only one who wouldn't take another Amtrak trip is the worry lady. She'll take the bus next time. Everyone else seems to agree that it's more fun to take the train even if it's late. More interesting, more comfortable. You just can't be in a hurry. And you have to realize that the delays are partly a result of Amtrak doing the best it can with its limited resources. They made the decision to keep it's equipment in use as much of the time as possible, with as little turn-around idle time as they can. The result is more capacity and more routes, but if one train is late, then trains that are waiting for that train's equipment will be late too. With trains running full, I think they made the right choice. But we need to tell Congress to give Amtrak enough money to increase capacity and still have backup equipment.
We're in Elkhart Indiana, home of a Penn Central GG1, #4882, with a black paint job. It must have looked better when it had the old Pennsy's maroon with gold stripes. Time to change our watches. We're about 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. I expect we'll still make the connection in Chicago if we don't have too many more delays.
"Do you know what's wrong with #13 switch at 421?" I don't know who's talking. Judging by the amount of noise on the transmission, I guess this is a freight engineer or brakeman talking with the dispatcher. "It's out for some bad switch points. It's due to be replaced tomorrow." "Yeah, I had some trouble throwing it yesterday." "That's the one. 13 switch."
We're in South Bend now. There's a bus station not far from the old train station which looks pretty desolate now. We pull into the new station, a shabby blue cement block building which is pretty far from downtown. You'd think they could put some platforms next to the bus station. I see the old poles which must be the end of the CSS&SB track, but the catenary is gone and the track looks rusty enough to guess that it's not in daily use. A mile or so west and I see the catenary intact and the top of the rails more wheel-polished. I don't know if they've moved the CSS&SB station to a new location or if the track is used for freight only now.
"??? Indiana. Track 1. No defects. Total axles eight eight. train speed seven five. Over." "Amtrak 49. No defects. out."
The engineer seems to have a habit of starting to talk before pressing the button on his microphone so it sounds more like "Track 49."
"Amtrak 49. Clear signal four four four. westbound."
On the left there's a modern looking factory building with rail cars loading rolls of steel and several switch engines with INTek markings. I guess these are the replacements for the derelict giant steel factories we'll pass later in the trip.
At Benton Harbor and at the USS Gary Works things look busy. The freight yard is filled with coke cars and coal hoppers. Locomotives in Green paint and Magenta paint with Yellow stripes both sport circular logos proclaiming "the J." When we pass some more locos closer up I see they're E J &E--Elgin, Joliet and Eastern. There is smoke coming from the stacks on the north side of the tracks. Flames flare from chimneys on the south. Farther on are some derelict steel mills.
As we approach Hammond I hear the crew on the radio discussing a report of a hot wheel bearing on a passenger car. They are walking through the cars looking for indicator lights to locate the hotbox, and when nothing shows up, the engineer stops the train and the crew walk the outside looking for the trouble. Nothing is found and we start up again. While this is happening, a track crew flagman and the engineer discuss what track we'll be coming into Hammond on. There's a broken rail that they're working on and we can't come into the station next to the platform. Coming in on track 2, they discuss making three stops so the passengers can step down onto the pavement of Calumet Avenue rather than on the ballast. Leaving Hammond I can see the track crew with oxyacetelyne torches working on a damaged looking switch point on track 1.
The on-board chief informs us that the Empire Builder will wait for us, and that all other connections will not be a problem for anyone. People movers and redcaps will be waiting at the platform for those needing assistance getting to train #7. She apologizes for the lateness once more and thanks us, as usual, for choosing Amtrak.
The rest of the way into Chicago is uneventful. The automatic sensors give their periodic reports and the engineer gives his routine responses. We're cleared to enter the station and we debark with a straight path on the through platform to the north side of the station where the Empire Builder is waiting.
Well, I'm slowly learning to use it by trial and error, but on the whole, I'm rather glad to have the scanning radio. I still agree with the worry lady that the crew should inform us better of what's happening, but even if they did that, I wouldn't expect them to give as much information to the traveling public as your average rail enthusiast would hunger for. "We're checking for a possible overheated axle bearing and will let you know if there will be any further delays" would probably be enough of an interruption to most people, while I like to hear the progress reports on the inspection. But Amtrak should know that people will forgive what they know about and will be much more intolerant of unexplained inconveniences. And the sooner people get the information, the happier they'll be. They might forgive a delay that is explained later, but it doesn't erase the annoyance of waiting for minutes or hours and wondering what it's for.
Aboard the Empire Builder (#7)
I'm directed to the rear coach which is pretty full and I am pleased that a woman who is headed for the nearest empty seat to the electric outlet agrees to let me sit there. The outlet was hard to find as it is partly hidden by the armrest of seat 52, and the gentleman in that seat is very patient and helps me squeeze my extension cord plug into the outlet, an operation which takes considerable effort in the semi-darkness of the station. I hope I don't need to disturb him very much when it is time to remove it. Some people across the aisle seem worried that whatever I'm plugging in will be noisy, but I assure them it's just a computer. I look forward to the day that the Superliners get refurbished with outlets at every seat.
I settle in and switch on the radio. I'm glad I have an earphone for my radio and can listen unobtrusively. I can put it in my pocket to walk around with it, but whether there or on the seat next to me,a button can get unintionally pressed, it beeps, and starts scanning, so I lose the channel I've been starting to get something on. There are a lot of frequencies in use here in Chicago Union Station and it takes me a while of sorting through the various signals of baggage handlers, station police, Metra commuter trains, morse code dits and dahs to find any information about train #7. Halfway to Glenview I home in on channel 44 (160.770 MHz).
I realize the is becoming more of a radio log than a travellogue, but I've been on this route plenty of times before and with the novelty of the radio, I'm much more tuned into what I hear than what I see. It gives an interesting insight into what goes on behind the scenes and the concern for safety shown by the train crew. The engineer announces that he is approaching a signal. The dispatcher acknowledges the approach and gives clearance to enter a particular track with or without speed restrictions. The engineer repeats back his instructions, the dispatcher confirms that the engineer has his instructions correct. As we approach mile 39, an engineer or dispatcher alerts Amtrak 7 that some kids were sighted playing near the tracks. Amtrak 7 engineer confirms receiving the information and says he'll watch for them.
After Milwaukee radio conversation disappears until I find it on channel 94 (161.520). The talk is sparse and pretty routine and I take a walk, eat supper, work on some band business planning, and read newspapers and magazines. There's little in the way of industry, interlocks, traffic or track work for the crew to radio about.
At LaCross, a storm comes up and as we cross the river into Minnesota, the water is pouring down the windows in sheets. Trees are blowing around and dark clouds racing across the sky. The crew announces that people should watch for water leaking through the passages between cars. The train slows to about 20 miles per hour. On the radio there's some talk about a track crew out of River Junction inspecting the track for storm damage.
Unlike the Lake Shore Limited, at this point the on board crew makes several announcements about slowing, stopping, and waiting for the inspection crew, proving more informative than the radio which has gone silent since we crossed the Mississippi. Having little luck finding the new channel during our wait, I switch to the weather channel and hear reports of a tornado watch. The storm abates around us and the weather channel reports that the tornado watch has moved further east into Wisconsin. Some flooding has occurred ahead of us.
Amtrak #7 is back on channel 44 once again, and I tune it just before we get clearance to move again. As we head into Winona, the engineer orders a Yellow Cab, and is told that some of the streets in Winona are under water and closed because of the tornado. But the inspection is done, the inspectors have shut off their radio and are heading for home, and we have no more speed restrictions. It's 10 o'clock as we arrive in Winona, and any hope of making up some of the hour and a half that we were running behind before we get to Minneapolis is gone. But I don't hear any complaints because the passengers were informed early on about the situation. As we leave Winona a dozen shirtless, barefoot boys are running joyously through a deep puddle in a parking lot.
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