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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited
New York-Chicago
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1997i30a.html

It's 6:10 p.m. on Tuesday, September 30, 1997, and I've just arrived at Penn Station, New York, where I will soon be boarding the Lake Shore Limited for Chicago to visit my cousins. I had spent the day at several locations in Manhattan. Originally, I thought I might check my luggage at Penn Station in the morning to avoid carrying it around town, but in the end I decided not to. I took along a garment bag that was rather light, a wheeled airline carrier and a small backpack. Although heavy, the latter two items were relatively easy to transport, and I didn't mind moving the luggage all around with me.

When I arrived at Penn Station, I noticed that the Lake Shore's departure track had not yet been posted, so I went into the Metropolitan Lounge and took advantage of the complimentary drinks available. At about 6:20 p.m., the attendant assured everyone that they would not be missing the train, and that it would soon be available for boarding. And at 6:27 p.m., it was announced that the train was now ready for boarding on Track 8. (Parenthetically, I might add that when I arrived at Penn Station, I noticed that the southbound Vermonter had arrived on Track 8 about 15 minutes late. Obviously, our train could not pull onto that track until the Vermonter departed, and that would explain our delayed boarding, at least in part.)

On one of my recent trips to Penn Station, I noticed that self-service passenger elevators had recently been installed to most of the platforms. (There have always been elevators to the platforms, but the original elevators were manually operated and for use by redcaps only.) This is a convenience not only for handicapped passengers, but also for other passengers with bulky luggage. So I decided to take the elevator down to the train. The platform for Tracks 7 and 8 has an elevator which goes all the way to the upper level of the station (the elevators for the other platforms go only to the lower level; if you want to go to or from the upper level, you have to transfer to another elevator at the lower level). While everyone else was waiting in line to go down a long flight of stairs, I took the elevator right down to the platform (accompanied by a woman who had also learned the trick). I was welcomed to my car 4911 (the number on the car erroneously read 4910), named Lake View, by the attendant. After putting my belongings in my room, I walked down the platform to record the consist.

Today's train is headed by engine #707, with P-42 #103 trailing. This latter engine is one of the few P-42's that is painted in Northeast Corridor colors (there are supposed to be 11 of them), and it is the first time that I have seen one of these engines. Only the lead engine, which is capable of running on electric power, was running while we were in the station. The remainder of the train is the standard consist of the eastern long-distance trains: a baggage car, a crew dorm, two Viewliner sleepers, a Heritage diner, an Amfleet lounge, and four Amfleet II coaches. I noticed that the coaches did not appear to be entirely full.

As I was walking back to my sleeper at the front of the train, I saw the conductor give the highball signal, so I quickly boarded the train at the first open door (which happened to be the diner). We pulled out of the station at 6:45 p.m. Just before we left, I noticed a train being pulled onto the adjacent Track #7. That was the consist of Train #267, the 7:05 p.m. train to Albany. As we left Penn Station, I noticed that that train was headed by FL-9 engine #484 (preceded by an AEM-7). That's the second time in the last few weeks that I've seen this engine at Penn Station on a train to Albany!

I returned to my room and rearranged my bags. I found that there was a small shelf at the very top of the room where my garment bag fit, and -- after taking my computer and scanner out of the wheeled carrier -- I was able to fit that under my seat. This is my first time in a Viewliner sleeper, and I found the room to be quite luxurious and very pleasant. I couldn't get the music channels to work, but that didn't really bother me, because I wasn't planning on listening to the music anyway. Also, there was no timetable, route guide or brochure about the train in my room or other rooms in my car (although these items were available in the rooms in the other sleeper). I then took out my computer, plugged it in, and started writing these memoirs. I also talked for awhile to the man in the room opposite mine. He was a retired conductor on the Santa Fe Railroad, traveling back to his home in Garden City, Kansas. He explained that, as a retired railroad employee, he was entitled to travel for half fare anywhere on Amtrak, and to travel for free on the Southwest Chief, which operates on the old Santa Fe Railroad. However, he cannot make reservations for travel until a day before the trip begins. He told me that when he first called Amtrak yesterday to make his reservations, he was told that no sleeping accommodations were available, but that when he called again this morning, he was informed that there had been a cancellation. (I might add that several rooms appeared to be unoccupied, but they were filled by passengers boarding at later stops. The attendant subsequently informed me that every room in our car had been occupied at some point during the trip, and I was told the same thing by the attendant in the other New York sleeper.)

At about 7:05 p.m., soon after we crossed the Spuyten Duyvil bridge, I heard on the scanner that we will be stopping at Yonkers to pick up passengers to Albany who had missed Train #265. The conductor started arguing with this order, stating that we are a long-distance train which does not carry local passengers, and pointing out that Train #267 is scheduled to leave New York at 7:05 p.m. -- just 20 minutes after we ended up leaving -- and will be stopping at Yonkers. He also stated that because of "limited seating capacity" on the train, there was no room for these passengers. Although the latter comment didn't make much sense to me in view of the fact that there were plenty of unoccupied seats on the train, I did agree with the conductor that there didn't seem to be a good reason to stop our train at Yonkers in view of the impending arrival of Train #267. But the dispatcher won out, and we stopped at Yonkers for two minutes at 7:07 p.m.

At about 7:30 p.m., the On-Board Chief, Veronica Brisbane, came by to give me my meal voucher. She mentioned that the dining car was now open for service, and I indicated that I would eat very soon. But first I decided to walk to the rear of the train. I found that the first coach, for Chicago passengers, was quite full, but even there, a number of passengers were occupying two seats. The next two coaches, for passengers traveling to intermediate destinations, had a number of empty pairs of seats, and the rear coach was entirely empty and had been closed off. This is a far cry from the Lake Shore Limited that our Scout group experienced this summer, when virtually every seat in every car was occupied. I guess that the fall is not as popular a travel season as the summer. (I later had the opportunity to look at the train's manifest, which indicated that only 106 coach passengers were scheduled to be onboard the train leaving Penn Station. The four Amfleet II coaches can accommodate about 240 passengers, so the coaches are less than half full.)

Next, I went to the diner, and was seated next to a woman traveling home to Los Angeles (via Chicago and New Orleans), and opposite a couple from Lancaster, Pennsylvania who were taking a month-long train trip across the country. We had some very interesting conversations about train travel. All three of them were traveling in coach on this train, although they would be in sleepers for at least part of their train travels west of Chicago. My beef meal was served quite promptly, and it was very good. The other three people also seemed to be pleased with their selections. The attendants were courteous and efficient (again, much better than the crew we experienced on this train last summer). Even after we finished our meals, we remained at the table and continued talking for awhile, and I did not return to my room until after we stopped at Hudson at 8:55 p.m.

I spent a little time updating these memoirs, but very soon we arrived at Albany. Until last April, the Boston section would be placed in front of the New York section of the Lake Shore. The coupling maneuver was then accomplished by having the New York section pull in back of the Boston section, cutting off the New York engines, and having the Boston section back on to the New York section. But now that the New York section is in front, the train passes by the station without stopping, then backs up onto the Boston section. (The New York engines are then cut off and replaced by the Boston engines). This back-up maneuver takes some extra time, and we did not come to a stop at the Albany station until 9:34 p.m. As we passed the Boston section, I was able to record the car numbers by looking out of the window of my room. (Interestingly, the attendant mistook a safety stop for the final station stop, and started letting some people detrain at that point. Right after several people got off, the train started moving again! Fortunately, no one was alighting from the train at that point.)

I walked back down to the station, checked my messages, and then went back to the train when a boarding announcement was made after about ten minutes. I boarded the rear Boston coach, which was very hot and stuffy. This car was used for Chicago passengers, and was quite full. But the front coach, used for local passengers, was half empty. I then tried to walk down to the front of the train, but found that the last coach of the New York section was still closed off. So I got off again, and walked down to the front of the train, where I recorded the numbers of the two P-42 engines that had just been added to our train. The doors to the two New York sleepers had been closed already, so I reboarded at the lounge car.

After we left Albany at 10:07 p.m., 32 minutes late, I again walked towards the rear of the train, and stepped off briefly in Schenectady, where the rearmost New York coach was opened. One man boarded here with two huge, very heavy suitcases. He was instructed to put them at the back of the coach where there was empty space next to the handicapped seat. The crew informed me that usually two stops have to be made at Schenectady, but by carefully spotting the train so that both the baggage car and that coach were on the platform, they were able to get by tonight with only one stop.

When we departed Schenectady, I returned to my room. Soon, I decided to try to get some sleep. A friend of mine who frequently travels on Amtrak had mentioned to me that he normally sleeps in the upper berth of the Viewliner rooms, since it is somewhat wider than the lower berth. An added feature is the availability of a window on the upper level -- something that does not exist on any other type of sleeper. And my friend also pointed out that the bedding for the lower berth is stored on the upper level, so that when you sleep there, you can sleep on top of both sets of bedding. I discovered that it is extremely easy to lower the upper berth -- all you have to do is pull on a handle, and the bed goes straight down along a grooved track. I lowered the bed, but decided to wait until after our next stop, Utica, before turning in.

In the meantime, I went back to the lounge car to see what was doing there. I was greeted by a young man with the unlikely name of Gage Pray, who was in the process of moving from Mystic, Conn. to San Francisco. He had a miniature tape recorder with him, and asked everyone to speak into the recorder, giving their name and making any other comments they desired. He also took a number of pictures with a throwaway camera, including several of me. Gage told me that he would be writing a story of the trip, so I gave him my address and asked him to send a copy of the story to me. There were a number of other people hanging out there (including a man who lived in Hackensack), and I was not really tired, so I decided to remain in the lounge car for awhile. Gage had taken a number of trips around the country on Amtrak, and loved the experience of traveling by train and meeting new people.

I stepped off the train when we arrived in Utica at 11:47 p.m. After I reboarded, I noticed that the train started backing up. Apparently, we had gone a little too far down the platform, and had to back up in order to permit the unloading of baggage from the front baggage car. For some reason, we ended spending 13 minutes at Utica, and did not leave until 12 midnight.

I was still in the lounge car when we arrived at Syracuse at 12:40 a.m. Again, I stepped off briefly; this time, doors were opened on two coaches, and I reboarded the train two cars behind where I got off. (I might add that the doors to my sleeper were not opened at any of these stops, so I had to go back to the coaches to step off the train.) Among the people who got on in Syracuse were two young men who promptly headed to the lounge car, expecting to buy some beers. They were quite disappointed to discover that the counter had already closed for the night. One of them was headed for a month-long trip out west via Amtrak, including backpacking at several locations. The other one was a soldier from Fort Drum (near Syracuse), who was returning for a visit with his family in Chicago. I might add that the smoking section of the lounge car did not get too smoky, probably due in part to the fact that the window on the door in the vestibule to the car was left open, thus providing additional ventilation.

I finally decided that I should get some sleep, so I returned to my room and climbed into bed. The bed was quite comfortable (although nothing is quite as comfortable as the beds on the Heritage sleepers, with their thick mattresses), and I did get a fair amount of sleep, although I woke up during the station stops in Rochester, Buffalo and Erie. The upper berth is designed quite well, with controls for the lights and a pocket for small articles readily accessible. However, getting down from the berth was a little tricky, and I thought that an additional grab bar would be useful.

I finally woke up for good when we came to a stop at the Cleveland station at 6:59 a.m., 45 minutes late. We stopped here only for the seven minutes allotted by the timetable, and left at 7:06 a.m. I remained in bed for the next half hour, watching the scenery go by, and finally got up when we arrived in Elyria at 7:34 a.m. I got dressed and raised the bed (although there is enough headroom to sit in the seats in the room even when the bed is lowered), and then walked back to the rear of the train. There were still many unoccupied seats, but some passengers boarding at intermediate stops had been assigned to sit in the fourth coach, which was previously entirely empty. Then I returned to my room and took a shower. The shower was conveniently located just a few steps down the hall, and the water was nice and warm. As I finished my shower, we stopped briefly at Sandusky, Ohio, with its beautiful old stone station, now boarded up and unused. As we left Sandusky, I got a nice view from my room of Sandusky Bay, part of Lake Erie. (Well, my car is named Lake View, so I suppose that guarantees that you get a view of a lake somewhere along the route, right?)

I helped myself to the complimentary juice and coffee available in my car and briefly glanced at the complimentary copy of USA Today which had been slipped under the door of my room. We would soon be stopping at Toledo, where I wanted to step off the train, so I decided not to eat breakfast until after we left Toledo.

We arrived in Toledo at 8:56 a.m. I got off (again, the doors to the sleepers were not opened, and I had to detrain at the lounge car) and walked to the front of the train, where I took a picture of the engines. Then I walked back and went into the station, where I made a phone call to check my messages (there were none). The newly remodeled station at Toledo is particularly attractive, and I was very impressed by the comprehensive collection of timetables and other railroad-related material available. I picked up copies of a number of items, including a VIA timetable and booklet prepared by Amtrak entitled "Rail Passenger Service: A Critical Link in the National Transportation System." Also available was a sheet entitled "Keeping Track," which provided information about services available at the Toledo station. The agent here seems to be making a special effort to promote rail travel, and should be commended for doing a particularly outstanding job. I also noticed that three private cars -- named Cleveland, Eaton and Duchess Lynn -- were stored on stub-end tracks at the north end of the station.

We left Toledo at 9:15 a.m., and I headed to the diner, where I was seated opposite a rather elderly woman who was returning to her home in Seattle from a visit to her sister in Rochester. She was also traveling in a sleeper, although she was assigned to the Boston sleeper in the very rear of the train. She mentioned to me that she had some difficulty getting around, since she now has an artificial knee, but that she used to do quite a bit of backpacking in the State of Washington, and was active in the Intermountain Alpine Club. She was very friendly, and we both enjoyed our leisurely breakfast. We finished breakfast and returned to our accommodations as we made a brief stop at Bryan, Ohio at 10:03 a.m.

When we were approaching Waterloo, I heard on the scanner that two stops would be made to permit both sleeping car and coach passengers to detrain. I had thought of getting off at the first stop and reboarding at the second stop, but in fact, no sleeping car passengers got off, and only one stop was made, so I didn't have the opportunity to step off the train here.

When we approached Elkhart, Indiana, I walked back to the rear coaches and did have the opportunity to step off the train briefly while waiting for other passengers to board. And I also stepped off at South Bend, where the attendant in our car opened the door to permit several passengers to detrain. We arrived at the South Bend station on the eastbound track, and passengers detrained on the left side of the train. When we left South Bend at 10:41 a.m., we were 41 minutes late.

Right after we left South Bend, an announcement was made that the lounge car had closed and would be closed for the remainder of the trip. This is a common practice on Amtrak trains, and one that I consider very annoying and undesirable. It is done to facilitate the attendant taking inventory and cleaning the car, so that he can leave the train immediately upon arrival in Chicago. But the train is scheduled to spend two hours traveling from South Bend to Chicago, and it seems unfair not to provide any food and beverage service during this time -- especially because some people will want to eat something for lunch. And it is particularly upsetting when -- as was the case today -- the lounge car is completely closed, so that passengers cannot remain there even if they do not wish to purchase food and beverages. As a sleeping car passenger, I don't mind spending some additional time in my room, but had I been traveling by coach, I think I would have been a little more upset. It seems to me that the lounge car should remain open until our arrival in Chicago (or, at the very least, until Hammond-Whiting, which ends up being 45 minutes to an hour from Chicago). Closing the lounge car at South Bend may be a convenience for the crew, but it is a great inconvenience to many of the passengers. At the very least, an announcement of the impending closing of the car should be made about 15 minutes before the car actually closes down.

We stopped briefly at Hammond-Whiting at 11:53 a.m., having lost a little more time due to some slow orders. I decided to eat a can of sardines and some crackers that I had brought along for lunch. There was no orange juice left in my car, so I walked down to the next car, where some was available, and brought it back to my room. I noticed that the attendant in that car had already gathered the suitcases from all passengers and brought them to the vestibule; the attendant in my car had not done so yet. (I think that he carried some luggage out to the vestibule, but I carried all of my own luggage).

At about 12:25 p.m., we started pulling forward into the wye in preparation for our backup move into Chicago Union Station. The forward move consumed over ten minutes. (I was subsequently informed that part of the forward move involved dropping off the two MHC cars at the end of the train.) Then we started backing up. That was also a very slow process, and we did not come to our final stop on Track 28 until 12:54 p.m. We had lost about 25 minutes because of this back-up move. And the entire back-up process seemed useless to me, especially because the result was that the two New York sleepers were now the farthest cars from the station. Moreover, since we arrived on Track 28, which is a through track, even if we had gone straight in, the engines could be easily detached from the train upon arrival and sent back to the yard for servicing. On my way to the station, I asked an Assistant Conductor why we had to bother with the back-up move. He responded that he, too, could see no operational reason for it, and suggested that I complain to Amtrak about it, since it wastes so much time. Fortunately, I had plenty of time, so the added delay did not bother me.

And so ended a very pleasant and relaxing trip to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. It was quite a contrast to my last trip on this train. Of course, having my own private room in the sleeper made for a much more enjoyable trip, but I think I would have enjoyed this trip even if I had been in coach, since the train was not crowded, and all on-board personnel were pleasant and helpful. My attendant did virtually nothing for me the whole time onboard, but I didn't ask him for anything, and didn't mind being left alone for the entire trip. (Of course, I didn't tip him, either.) I'm really glad that I decided to take the train for this leg of my trip.

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