Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, NortheastDirect, & Palmetto
It's Wednesday, February 9, 1994, and I've just arrived in Chicago Union Station from Dallas on the Texas Eagle to connect with the Capitol Limited. I chose this train over other Amtrak trains to the Northeast partially because it was the most convenient way to get to Baltimore, where I had a dinner to attend the next evening, but also because I wanted the opportunity to see the Allegheny Mountains from a dome car. Looking at the arrival board, I notice that the westbound Capitol Limited is not due in until 5:00 p.m. So I go to the Metropolitan Lounge, where I hear someone talk about how that train was involved in a grade crossing accident, which explains why it is so late. (I later found out that the grade crossing accident actually involved a freight train ahead of the Capitol Limited, and that there was an additional delay due to trees falling on the tracks east of Pittsburgh). Well, I figure, they'll probably have to substitute some other equipment on the train tonight, which might mean that there won't be a dome car.
I stop by at station services and ask whether I'm correct in my assumption that they will be substituting some other equipment. No, I'm told, we don't have sufficient equipment here to make up another train, so the departure of the train will be delayed until the equipment from the arriving train can be serviced. How long will that take? I'm told that the departure will be delayed at least until 8:30 p.m. And, sure enough, soon the departure board is changed to reflect the fact that the train will not depart until 9:00 p.m. due to the late arrival of the equipment from the east.
Now I'm getting a little upset. I plan on getting to Baltimore by 6:00 p.m. to attend the dinner. I figured that the scheduled Washington arrival at 11:14 a.m. would give me plenty of time to get to Baltimore by 6:00 p.m., even if the train is somewhat late. But now the train will be at least four hours late leaving Chicago, so that even if it runs on time for the rest of the way, it will arrive at Washington no earlier than 3:00 p.m. That itself is okay, but what if it runs even later?
I begin to wonder -- what if I get off the train at Pittsburgh and then fly from there to Baltimore? I call US Air, and find that they have flights between Pittsburgh and Baltimore tomorrow. And what is the price of a one-way ticket? $348, I'm told. Incredible! By train, the distance from Pittsburgh to Baltimore is only about 300 miles. By air, it should be even less. For this distance, $348 comes to over $1 a mile!
Then I call Southwest Airlines to see if, by some chance, they might have flights from Pittsburgh to Baltimore. No, I'm told, they do not fly to Pittsburgh, but they do fly from Cleveland to Baltimore. And what is the fare? Well, if you make reservations and purchase tickets a day in advance, it costs $19. "Nineteen," I ask incredulously. "Do you mean one-nine"? Yes, I'm told, the price is $19! And what if I just arrive at the airport tomorrow? Then, I'm told, the price will be $49.
It's hard to believe, but to fly from Pittsburgh to Baltimore costs $348, while to fly from Cleveland to Baltimore -- a significantly longer distance -- costs only $19. Let's just hope that I won't need to use any of these alternatives.
I go back to the Metropolitan Lounge, and I'm told that I'm entitled to a voucher for dinner in the amount of $10.00, since the diner will not be opening for dinner, due to the late departure of the train. I go to the ticket counter and redeem the voucher. After eating dinner, I walk around the station, and find many interesting historical photographs of trains in a McDonald's on the second floor. Then I return to the Metropolitan Lounge.
At precisely 8:30 p.m., an announcement is made that the Capitol Limited is ready for boarding. I'm shocked. I figured that the 9:00 p.m. time posted on the departure board was merely a very optimistic estimate of when the train might be ready, and I certainly did not expect the train to leave then. Indeed, at one point an announcement had been made that the train will not be in the station until after 9:00 p.m. But it's 8:30 p.m., and the train is ready for boarding. Maybe we will get to Washington before tomorrow evening after all!
We go out through the door of the Metropolitan Lounge that opens directly onto Track 28, and walk down to the train. I go into my roomette, leave my baggage, and walk down the length of the train. I find that the train has three engines, two material handling cars, two baggage cars, three regular coaches (including two Amfleet coaches), a dome coach, a lounge, a diner, and two sleepers. I then get back on the train. At precisely 9:00 p.m., we leave the station. An announcement is made that, due to the late departure, the diner will not open this evening.
Once we get on our way, I walk through the train. There are very few passengers aboard, though. No car even is close to being full. The seats in the lower level of the dome coach are very worn and torn, although the upper level seats are much newer and nicer. The side dome windows look spotlessly clean, but the front windows are coated with dirt. Apparently, the Amtrak automatic window cleaners do not wash the front windows. Only one other person is in the dome; he also appears to be a railroad buff. I spend some time in the dome, and then go to the lounge car. There are two young men from Costa Rica on the train, who are vacationing for a few months in the United States, and I spend some time talking to them.
We make brief stops at Hammond-Whiting, South Bend and Elkhart, and we seem to be losing no more time. But when we get to Waterloo, a crew-change location, we find that the connecting bus to Fort Wayne has not yet arrived. Three people are supposed to get on that bus, and it does not seem right to leave them waiting in the cold. The crew therefore escorts them to the house used by the crew on the other side of the tracks, so that they can wait inside. Before we can get moving, though, the bus finally arrives -- with several people on it who want to get on the train! Finally we pull out, after having spent 25 minutes at the station, and we are now about 10 minutes further behind schedule than when we left Chicago.
It's now around 1:00 a.m., Eastern Standard Time. I'm not particularly tired, but I figure that I should try to get a good night's sleep. I pull down the bed, and climb under the covers. The bed is very comfortable; indeed, I've always found the Heritage sleepers to be more comfortable that any of the newer equipment. I'm not sure when I got to sleep, but it must have been pretty soon, because the next thing I know is that it's about 4:00 a.m., and we seem to be coming to some city. At 4:07 a.m. we stop and, sure enough, I hear on the scanner that we are in Cleveland. I know I remained awake for some time, but I'm sure I fell asleep again, and I didn't wake up until close to 7:00 a.m. Looking out the window, I can clearly see the city of Pittsburgh to the right. We get a really nice view of all the bridges over the river and of the downtown skyscrapers. At 7:26 a.m., we pull into the station.
By this time, I had gotten dressed, and I went outside and briefly walked along the platform. Many people were getting on the train here. It's very cold out; the weather station says that the temperature is about 4ø. Although we are late, we spend a fair amount of time in Pittsburgh, because some of the toilets in the Amfleet cars have frozen, and they try to fix them. Finally, I hear over the scanner a message that nothing can be done to fix the toilets, and we move on. We've spent over half an hour in Pittsburgh and lost a little time, but we're still only a little more than four hours late.
I go to the dining car for breakfast, and I'm seated across from a guy who comes from Memphis and is traveling to Washington to visit some friends. He likes to travel by train, and also has hiked a considerable portion of the Appalachian Trail. We talked for quite a while about travel by train, the condition of the domes on the City of New Orleans, etc. Then the guy who I met in the dome car last night sat down next to me. During breakfast, we paralleled the Monongahela River, with many abandoned steel mills and other industrial complexes visible to our right.
After breakfast, at about 9:00 a.m., I decide to go up to the dome car. Here I meet Will from Ohio, who is traveling with his younger brother. Will, who is 16, is about as confirmed a railroad buff as I've ever seen. He's going to Florida for his uncle's wedding, and while his parents are driving down, he persuaded them to let him and his younger brother go down by train. His younger brother doesn't seem very interested in trains, but Will has come equipped with several books about railroads and with a scanner, albeit one which has to be plugged into an outlet. I told him that I'll get my scanner instead, and I went back to my room and brought it back to the dome. The two of us sat in the front dome seats and enjoyed the views.
We arrived at Connellsville at 9:45 a.m., having lost an additional 15 minutes since we left Pittsburgh. The station here is nothing more than an Amshack. Someone was on hand to welcome the train, but no one got on or off, so we stopped for just a few seconds and continued on our way.
The next stretch of railroad, paralleling first the Youhgiogheny River and then the Casselman River, is really beautiful. You go along the river canyon, most of the way without any paralleling road. On the opposite side of the river, the abandoned railroad bed of the Western Maryland Railroad is clearly visible, and many of the bridges from this railroad are still intact. Everything was covered with snow, and for part of the way the trees were covered with ice. It seems to me that this part of the trip is the scenic equivalent of the New River Gorge on the Cardinal. This stretch of track is normally covered in the dark, so there are certainly some advantages to a train being late!
Of course, the speeds on this curving section of track are normally restricted, and the cold weather led to additional delays. At one point we encountered a dark signal and, after a crew member went out to check the signal, we had to proceed at a severely restricted speed (it seemed like about five miles per hour) to the next signal. Then, at about 11:45 a.m., as we are at about the top of the Sand Patch grade, we suddenly stop. There is a red signal ahead of us, even though the previous signal was green and not yellow. The engineer speaks to the dispatcher, and is told that there is nothing ahead of us, and that we can proceed to the next signal at a restricted speed. But then the head-end power goes off. The conductor goes out to check the train. Here we are, stuck again. Soon, though, the power goes back on and, after a delay of about 20 minutes, we are moving again.
It's now just after 12:00 noon, and the on-board crew chief announces that everyone must return to their accommodations. They are serving a complimentary lunch to everyone, and they want everyone to be accounted for in a way that is most convenient for them. I was looking forward to seeing the Sand Patch Grade from the dome car, but I guess I won't be able to do that. Well, I've spent about three hours in the dome car already, and I've seen the part of the run that's normally covered in the darkness. I guess it won't be a major tragedy if I have to see the grade from the dining car or my room.
Right after I return to my room, the on-board chief comes by and asks all first-class passengers to come to the diner for lunch. So I go to the dining car. They decide to serve only the first- class passengers at the first sitting, even though we fill up less than half of the car (and the meal being served to us appears to be identical to that later served to the coach passengers). I'm seated with two women who are traveling to Florida, and are rather upset about the delays and the probability that they'll miss their connections. It seems that this might be the last train trip for them. Opposite me is a man who has brought along a scanner, but he doesn't seem particularly friendly.
When I finish my meal, I start to go to the dome car, but the on-board chief informs me that the dome is still closed to all passengers, and will remain so until lunch is over. I think he could be a little more accommodating, but I figure that there is no point making a big fuss about it. After all, I should spend some time in my room, which is also a very pleasant place, and it's easier to work with my computer there, since I can plug it in while I'm using it. I return to my room, and view the remainder of the descent of the Sand Patch Grade from there. It seems to be the most spectacular part of the trip, surpassing even the previous part of the journey. It would be nice to see it from the dome, but maybe I'll just have to take this trip again. Another thing that I miss is an Amtrak route guide, which does not seem to be available on this train. I asked the on-board chief, who told me that none were available. This is one trip where a route guide would have been most welcome, and I'd like to try the trip again with one on hand. I did bring along a Pennsylvania road map, though, and I found that to be a great help in figuring out where we were going.
We reach Hyndman, the end of the Sand Patch Grade, and proceed south to Cumberland on a straighter, less steep route. Now we pick up speed. At 1:02 p.m., we finally arrive at Cumberland, having descended over 1,500 feet from the top of the grade. It would be nice to step off the train here, but the doors on the sleepers are not open, and I don't think that the on-board chief would like me to walk through his dining car on the way to the coaches. Again, it's not worth making a fuss about, especially since we spend only six minutes here and leave at 1:08 p.m.
We're now five hours and 14 minutes late, having lost an hour and 25 minutes since our departure from Chicago. Actually, though, I feared much worse. If we don't lose any more time, we'll be in Washington by 4:30 p.m., and hopefully this should give me enough time to get to Baltimore by 6:00 p.m.
I can't go up to the dome now, but there should be nothing to prevent me from going back to the end of the train. I walk back to the last sleeper, where the attendant is putting away a tray in the cabinet at the back. She very pleasantly asks me if I want to look out the back, and then she leaves.
Last night, when I briefly went to the back of the train, I found that the door at the end of the last car had been left unlocked. At that time, it was useless to stand back there, because the door was covered with blowing snow. But now the snow has melted. I try the door, and much to my surprise, it is still unlocked. I certainly thought that the conductor would have checked the door and locked it by now. I have no intention of leaving the door open for any significant length of time. But the window is dirty, and the fact that the door is unlocked gives me a chance to open it for the purpose of cleaning.
I got some wet tissues, opened the door, and cleaned the window. Now I could get a good view. I stayed there for about half an hour, watching the train go through the many tunnels on the route. Then I returned to my room.
At 2:00 p.m., an announcement is made that the dome and lounge cars are once again open to all passengers. I go back up to the dome, where Will and his brother are again hanging out. Soon we arrive at Martinsburg and then Harpers Ferry. I know this area fairly well, and I point out the various landmarks to Will, who invites me to ride the tourist railroad in Ohio where he works in the summer. I notice that instead of the snow which has covered everything since we left Chicago, here the ground is covered with a sheet of ice.
After we passed Point of Rocks, I went back to my room to get my belongings together and prepare to detrain. It now appears that we'll be getting to Washington Union Station by 4:10 p.m., so that I'll be able to make the 4:35 p.m. train to Baltimore. It looks like I'll make it to the dinner on time.
We leave Rockville at 3:41 p.m. From here, it should be only 25 more minutes, or so, to Washington Union Station. And, indeed, despite a slight delay getting into the station, we do arrive at Washington at 4:07 p.m.
As we arrive, I see a train on the track opposite ours. I ask a crew member, and he informs me that it is Train #82, the northbound Silver Star. I wonder: Should I try to get on this train? It would be much easier than lugging everything upstairs. But, I figure, the 4:35 p.m. train will get me there in enough time, so why bother trying to pull some strings.
Things are not that simple, though. When I arrive at the gate to board the train, I'm told that the train is not yet ready for boarding. In fact, the train is not yet even in the station. When will it be ready? "Soon." The attendant indicates that the delay is not expected to be very long. But the train does not start boarding until about 5:00 p.m., and it doesn't leave until 5:27 p.m. If I had known this, I would have tried to get onto the Silver Star. I might even have tried to pull some strings to get onto the 5:00 p.m. Metroliner. And, if all else failed, at least I would have taken a MARC train that would have arrived in Baltimore at 5:40 p.m. But by the time I found out what was happening, it was too late.
Anyway, I'm on my way to Baltimore. I won't get there until after 6:00 p.m., so I'll have to go straight to the dinner. I had thought of changing clothes in my room on the Capitol Limited, but decided against it. So now I'll have to find somewhere on the train to Baltimore to change. Getting on the train, I notice that the last car is coach 25100, a long-distance 60-seat coach that I wouldn't expect to find on the New York-Washington section of the train. The coach is not closed off, although the leg rests are folded back over the seats. I take a seat in this car, and notice that it is equipped with a handicapped rest room. This provides a very convenient place to change into a suit from a pair of dirty blue jeans.
Finally, at 6:07 p.m., we arrive at Baltimore. I know that I've kept my cousin Bertie waiting for a while, but at least we'll soon be on our way, and I should get to the dinner only about half an hour late. Bertie is glad to see me, and we're on our way.
At about 6:30 p.m., we finally get to the building where the dinner is to take place. We pull into the parking lot in back of the building, but it looks strangely empty. We are in the right place, aren't we? Is it possible that the dinner might be held somewhere else? I take out the invitation, and it becomes quite clear that we are in the right place. I go to the front doors of the building, and find that they are locked. What happened?
The building next door is open, so I go next door and call the organizer of the dinner. Sure enough, his wife informs me that the event has been cancelled. Apparently, most offices and schools in Baltimore were closed for the day due to the icy conditions, and her husband couldn't even get his car out of the driveway. They had succeeded in notifying everybody -- except me. They knew that I was en route, and figured that there was no way to reach me.
Be that as it may, I'm now here in Baltimore, and might as well make the best of it. My cousin Bertie is still waiting for me, and I do want to visit with her. So we go to her home, and eat dinner. I could stay overnight, but the prediction is for 4-6 inches of snow tonight for Baltimore, and even more for New York tomorrow. Now that the dinner has been cancelled, there is no point staying any longer in Baltimore, and I do want to get back home to Teaneck, New Jersey. So I decide that I better go home tonight, before the snow. The next train is Train #90, the Palmetto from Jacksonville, which is scheduled to leave Baltimore at 9:16 p.m. A call to Amtrak determines that the train is 30 minutes late arriving in Washington, but I know that this time could be made up, so I figure that we better get to the station by the time the train is scheduled to arrive. We actually arrive there about 9:05 p.m., and the train board indicates that the train is now scheduled to arrive only 10 minutes late. And, indeed, the train arrived about 9:30 p.m.
After riding on several long-distance trains, it was quite different being on a Northeast Corridor train. Although the train came all the way from Jacksonville, it was made up entirely of 84- seat coaches, except for a snack bar car with tables.
The trip was quite uneventful, and we arrived in Penn Station at 12:21 a.m., eleven minutes late. I missed the 12:30 a.m. bus to Teaneck, and had to wait for the 1:35 a.m. bus, finally arriving home after 2:00 a.m. I was quite glad that I had decided to return home that evening, since there was a heavy snowstorm the next morning, and I'm not sure I would have made it back from Baltimore then. And so ended my trip. Even though it turned out that the trip to Baltimore was unnecessary, I had the pleasure of experiencing a beautiful ride through the Allegheny Mountains in a dome car on the Capitol Limited. I won't have this opportunity much longer, because the train is soon scheduled to be converted to Superliners. Moreover, we covered in daylight a very scenic portion of the trip that is normally traversed at night. So I haven't the slightest regret that I chose to take the Capitol Limited for this trip.
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Dan Chazin /
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