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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Twilight Shoreliner & NortheastDirect
New York-Washington-New York

It's 12:30 a.m. on Monday, September 15, 1997, and I'm at the Metropolitan Lounge of New York's Penn Station awaiting the departure of Train #67, the Twilight Shoreliner, which I will be taking to Washington, D.C. for a meeting of the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee. Earlier, when I called up Amtrak to make a reservation, I was informed that the purchase of a Custom Class ticket on this train enables one to use the Metropolitan Lounge, which is open for the departure of the train. The Custom Class costs an additional $27 over the basic cost of $60 for a one-way ticket from New York to Washington, but it entitles you to a roomier seat, free beverages, and use of a special lounge car which is available only to sleeping car and Custom Class passengers. So I decided to try it out.

The 11:20 p.m. #167 bus which I took from Teaneck to New York left Teaneck about 20 minutes late, due to earlier congestion at the Lincoln Tunnel, but the congestion had apparently been cleared up by the time we passed through the tunnel. As a result, the entire trip took only about 25 minutes, and we arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 12:05 a.m. I walked down to Penn Station, where I purchased my ticket from a machine (all ticket windows are closed at this late hour). I then went into the Metropolitan Lounge. Somewhat to my surprise, I found the lounge to be quite full, with passengers waiting not only for my Train #67, but also for Train #66, the northbound Twilight Shoreliner, which was scheduled to arrive at 12:35 a.m. The fact that the lounge was so full may be explained by the fact that the man sitting next to me told me that he was not traveling in Custom Class, but nevertheless had been told to wait in the Metropolitan Lounge. (He had just completed a three-day bike trip from Boston to New York to raise money for AIDS research, and was now returning to Boston with his son.) I found an electric outlet near my seat, plugged in my computer, and started writing these memoirs.

At 1:00 a.m., an announcement was made that Train #66 to Boston was ready for boarding, and more than half the people left to board their train. I then decided to leave the lounge myself and check the train arrival monitors located elsewhere in the station to see what track my Train #67 would be arriving on. The monitors stated that Train #67 would be arriving ten minutes late on Track #14. So, although no boarding announcement had been made, I decided to gather my belongings and head down to Track #14. When I arrived there at about 1:10 a.m., I found that the train had already arrived. I found a pair of seats in the Custom Class car close enough to an electric outlet that I could reach it via an extension cord that I had brought along, put my belongings there, and then walked down the platform to record the consist.

Tonight, the Twilight Shoreliner includes a Viewliner sleeper, a lounge (for Custom Class and sleeper passengers), a Custom Class car (with Metroliner seating), four coaches (including one 21600-series car and a cafe car without tables), one material handling car, and one electric engine. The windows on the sleeper and the lounge car have been covered with a wrap featuring the logo of the Twilight Shoreliner. Interestingly, the train is not equipped with a baggage car. (In its former incarnation as the Night Owl, the train always had a baggage car, and also had several MHC's.) Most of the coaches are far from full, and every passenger -- both in coach and in Custom Class -- who so desired could appropriate two seats to himself.

We left precisely on time at 1:30 a.m. We arrived at Newark eight minutes early, so I stepped off the train and walked down the platform. After we departed Newark at 1:55 a.m., the conductor came by to collect tickets. I overheard the conductor telling the man in back of me that he had an unreserved ticket which was not valid in Custom Class. However, in light of the low occupancy of the car and the fact that the man was rather elderly and had some heavy luggage, he allowed him to remain at his seat, although he should be careful next time to sit in an unreserved coach. I decided to try to get some sleep, so I stretched across the two seats which I occupied and did succeed in sleeping to some extent, although I was awake when we stopped at Metropark and Trenton.

I also awoke when we arrived at Philadelphia at 3:16 a.m., eleven minutes late. This train is scheduled to spend an hour at Philadelphia -- apparently just to kill time since, in view of the absence of a baggage car, there is no baggage loaded or unloaded here. (It seems that Amtrak is concerned that the train depart New York and arrive at Washington at semi-reasonable hours, and this is facilitated by holding the train for an hour in Philadelphia.) As is my general practice when we have some time to spare at this station, I walked upstairs, and spent a few minutes looking at an exhibit featuring the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad's various stations in Philadelphia and the restoration of the 30th Street Station. Then I reboarded the train and went to the lounge car, where I continued my work of editing the description of a section of the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey, based on my recent hike of this section. This required making various corrections in pen to the previous material, and the absence of movement of the train during the long stop in Philadelphia facilitated this work. The lounge car was entirely deserted, with the exception of one conductor who walked in to get a can of juice.

When we started moving again at 4:05 a.m., the motion of the train made it difficult for me to continue my work, so I returned to my seats. I decided to try to get some sleep. I noticed that there were pillows and blankets available at the front of the car (although the attendant had not taken the trouble to offer me one when I boarded the train in New York), so I picked up a pillow and blanket and brought them back to my seat. These items definitely made sleeping more comfortable, and I did succeed in sleeping for most of the next two hours. I woke up during our station stop in Wilmington (which seemed to last for awhile, although I did not record the time we left), but I slept through the stop in Baltimore, not waking up until we stopped at BWI Airport at 5:50 a.m.

When we departed New Carrollton at 6:06 a.m., I decided to go back to the lounge car, where I obtained a complimentary cup of coffee. Even now, the lounge car was almost completely deserted. The promotional brochure that Amtrak has prepared for the Twilight Shoreliner states that the Twilight Lounge "is a great place to meet people or simply enjoy a change of scenery," but for the entire duration of my trip there were no people there to meet, and it was completely dark outside, so there was no scenery to see. Then I returned to my seat for our arrival at Washington Union Station at 6:17 a.m., two minutes late.

I would be getting off the train here, but I was in no hurry to do so. The Twilight Shoreliner would not be departing Washington until 7:00 a.m., and the meeting I had come to attend would be held right here at Washington Union Station, and would not begin until 8:30 a.m. So I decided to remain on the train for a while. There were only a handful of passengers left in my car (all of whom were sleeping), so it was very quiet in the car. I went into the dressing room and changed into my suit (I had been informed that it was customary to wear business attire to meetings of the Advisory Committee). At 6:50 a.m., passengers started getting on the train, and I finally stepped off at 6:57 a.m. I noticed that our electric engine had been replaced by a Genesis II diesel, and the MHC car had also been removed. The train departed on time at 7:00 a.m.

I walked upstairs to the station, found a seat near an electric outlet, and completed these memoirs. About 8:10 a.m., I headed over to the adjacent offices of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation for the meeting of the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee.

My first trip on the Twilight Shoreliner was quite pleasant, though entirely unremarkable. My only comment is that the added level of service in Custom Class did not really warrant the extra charge of $27. The seat was a little more roomy, but I spent most of the time trying to sleep over two seats, so that benefit was of little use. There was an attendant in the car, but he paid no attention to me, and I ended up having to pick up a blanket and pillow myself (which amenities, I might add, were also available to coach passengers at no additional cost). The coaches were quite empty, so I could easily have had two coach seats to myself. I did spend some time in the lounge car, available only to Custom Class passengers, and it was nice having the use of the tables for some period of time, but no food or beverage service was available there for most of the ride, and I ended up obtaining only a cup of coffee in the morning. Nevertheless, I was glad that I had the opportunity to experience Custom Class on the Twilight Shoreliner. It's 3:05 p.m. on Monday, September 15, 1997, and I'm at Washington Union Station about to board Train #190, the Congressional, which I will take back to New York. The meeting of the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee which I attended today was very interesting. There were about a dozen people there who were not members of the committee, all of whom (like I) had applied to serve on the committee but were not chosen, and most of whom had traveled some distance to attend. (The person sitting next to me came from Tempe, Arizona, and told me that the sole purpose of his trip was to attend this meeting!) The chairman was quite liberal about recognizing guests and giving them the opportunity to speak, and I made a number of comments. I also got to meet Martha Tancil, the head of Amtrak's Customer Satisfaction Service Center, and Carleton MacDonald, with whom I had exchanged a number of e-mail messages, and who was a great help in connection with our recent Boy Scout trip to New Mexico and Arizona. But the highlight of the meeting was the opportunity to hear Tom Downs, the President of Amtrak, in person. He was scheduled to speak for half an hour, but he actually stayed for about an hour and 20 minutes, interrupted only once by a telephone call from an important Congressional leader. He even took a question from me. The discussion of the various issues by committee members was very informative, and I was quite glad that I had decided to come.

The meeting was scheduled to last until 3:30 p.m., but I wanted to make the 3:10 p.m. train so I could be back in New York City in time for a 7:00 p.m. meeting at the Trail Conference. So I left the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee meeting at about 2:57 p.m. Since Amtrak's offices are actually part of Union Station, it took only about five minutes to get over to the gate from which I would board my train. I had already purchased my return ticket this morning, so all I had to do was to board the train.

Today's Train #190 consists of six coaches, one of which has a cafe section, but without tables. I took a seat in the third coach from the rear. I started looking for an outlet so I could plug in my computer, and then realized that this car #21685 had been retrofitted with a strip of electric plugs along each side of the car. This makes it possible to plug in a computer regardless of which seat you chose to sit in. This is the first time that I have encountered a coach so equipped (I noticed that two other coaches on our train also had these strips installed). The lounge car on last night's Twilight Shoreliner was equipped with such a strip, but I plugged in my computer at an outlet near my seat instead.

Soon after we left Washington, I changed back into my t-shirt and jeans. Then I went to the cafe car and got a muffin and a cup of tea. The attendant, Leonard, was quite friendly, so I left him a small tip. I returned to my seat, where I started writing these memoirs, and also fell asleep for awhile.

Train #190 is unique in that it makes every single Amtrak stop between Washington and New York, including such obscure stops as Aberdeen, Md. and Newark, Del. The last time I took this train (in November 1996), the Newark, Del. stop consisted of a dilapidated shelter and small, wooden platform. But since then, commuter service has been instituted there. As a result, there is a new platform (with the yellow warning stripe now required by ADA) and a new shelter.

Although this is what I would term a "no-frills" train, offering nothing but coaches and a cafe car without tables, such a train does have the advantage of enabling you to look out of the back. After we left Wilmington, I went to the back of the cafe car and looked out as we traversed this stretch of the Northeast Corridor. For most of this section, there are four tracks, with the center two tracks being used primarily by Amtrak, and the outer two tracks assigned for the most part to SEPTA commuter trains, which make frequent stops at the many local stations along the line. I watched as we passed three SEPTA trains (two southbound and one northbound), as well as the southbound Crescent, which came by at 5:03 p.m. This latter train had special significance, because I knew that a friend of mine was scheduled to be on it, traveling to Atlanta for an important business meeting the following morning. The Crescent is supposed to depart Wilmington at 5:05 p.m., so it is a few minutes late. I hope that will make up this time and arrive in Atlanta on time tomorrow morning.

Our train is one of the few Washington-New York trains that stops at North Philadelphia. The station has recently been reconstructed, but the old station building still stands to the right of the tracks, abandoned and boarded up. I snapped a picture of this rather ornately decorated building, which once served as the main Philadelphia stop for westbound Pennsylvania Railroad trains.

Up to this point, the trip was entirely uneventful. We left each station either on time or, at most, two or three minutes late. I stepped off the train briefly at a few stops, but for the most part remained at my seat and did some work on my computer.

We arrived at Newark at 6:34 p.m., one minute late. Our stop was very brief, lasting for less than a minute. When we departed from Newark, I started to pack up my computer and get ready for our imminent arrival at Penn Station in New York. But soon, as we crossed the various rail lines in the Meadowlands, at the site of the Allied Junction station being constructed, we slowed down, and as we approached the Bergen signal, just outside the tunnel, at 6:45 p.m., we stopped completely. Soon the conductor made an announcement that he was not sure why we stopped, but would let us know as soon as possible. A few minutes later, he announced that there was a track car in front of us, but that it was being removed, and that we would be moving shortly. We started moving again at 7:00 p.m., but slowed down again as we approached Penn Station, and did not finally come to a stop on Track 12 until 7:13 p.m. We had arrived 20 minutes late.

I must say that, at the time, I was rather upset with this delay. It was a far shorter delay than I have experienced with many other Amtrak trains, and I am well aware that delays are not uncommon for Amtrak. But this was the Northeast Corridor, under Amtrak's sole control, where I expect trains to run on time. And I had a 7:00 p.m. meeting to go to. (I ended up arriving at the meeting at 7:28 p.m., and the meeting lasted for another two hours, so I ended up missing very little). The conductor handled the situation very well, keeping the passengers informed to the best of his ability. And the delay was only 20 minutes. But this just illustrates the vital importance of on-time performance to Amtrak. (When I arrived at Penn Station, I discovered that there had been a derailment of an NJ Transit train earlier in the day, resulting in many disruptions of service. I suspect that the delay may well have been due to the effects of this derailment, and in retrospect I imagine that I should be grateful that the delay was not longer.)

In any event, the trip to Washington for the Amtrak Advisory Committee Meeting was very enjoyable, interesting and informative. I'm really glad I went, and hope to attend future committee meetings to the extent time permits.

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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