It's 6:42 a.m. on Monday, May 11, 1998, and I've just arrived at Penn Station, New York to catch Train #63, the Maple Leaf, which I will be taking to Rochester. I left my house in Teaneck at 5:55 a.m. with my cousin Michal and took the 6:10 a.m. Teaneck Road bus to New York. Unfortunately, there were no seats left on the bus, but the ride was very fast and we arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 6:30 a.m. Since it was raining, I decided to take the subway down to Penn Station (had the weather been nicer, I would have walked the seven blocks instead).
I left my belongings in the waiting area (the attendant was too busy with something else to ask me for my ticket) and then tried to find a mailbox to mail a letter. I didn't see any in the station, so I went outside and -- not seeing one on the street, either -- walked up to the post office across the street and mailed the letter there. At about 7:00 a.m., I went down to the lower level and found that our train was on Track 7. I boarded the second car from the rear, as instructed by the conductor, and found a seat on the left side of the train right behind an electric plug. Then I walked down the platform to record the car numbers. By this time, the boarding of the train had already been announced, and many people were coming down the escalator from the upper level.
Today's train is powered by two Genesis engines -- #704 and #712 -- and has five Amfleet I coaches (including two in the 21600 series, modified for handicapped accessibility) and a cafe car without seats. It is what I would call a "no-frills" train, since it lacks a dinette with tables. The train goes all the way to Niagara Falls -- a 12-hour ride -- and the absence of a car with tables on this train is unfortunate. At first, I assumed that the double-heading of the train was due to the fact that the lead engine #712, painted in the Northeast Direct scheme, has just recently been acquired by Amtrak, and was presumably being tested, with the older #704 used as a backup. But the conductor later told me that the two engines were on the train only because Amtrak wanted to bring both engines back to Albany.
The passengers quickly boarded, and at 7:17 a.m. I heard the crew informing the control center that we were ready to leave. However, we were delayed by a NJ Transit train that had to pass in front of us, and as a result, we did not actually depart until 7:20 a.m. As we left the station, I noticed Amtrak FL-9 engines #485 and #486 parked on a siding to the left. These engines, which are over 40 years old and were formerly used by Amtrak to take trains between Albany and New York, are now at the verge of retirement, and are being stationed here at Penn Station in case they are needed to replace a newer engine which has broken down. We stopped briefly at the end of the tunnel out of Penn Station, where we passed a southbound Amtrak train (#240, scheduled to arrive at Penn Station at 7:40 a.m). Soon, I walked to the back of the train and took some pictures out the back window as we passed under the George Washington Bridge, crossed the Spuyten Duyvil bridge, and then crossed over to the easternmost track on the Metro-North line.
We arrived at Yonkers at 7:44 a.m., five minutes late. Here, as at the other stations south of Albany equipped with high-level platforms, only one door opened, and many passengers had to walk forward to board the train. Interestingly, I was at this very same station yesterday when I took a hike on the Croton Aqueduct with Joe DeCarlo, and we boarded a Metro-North train at Yonkers to take us back to Tarrytown. This was the heart of the morning rush hour, and all the stations from here north were full of passengers waiting for their train to the city.
At Croton-Harmon, we passed Train #242 from Albany. After we departed at 8:04 a.m., I went to the cafe car where I purchased a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin for breakfast. I then walked back to the rear of the train to observe the scenic stretch between Peekskill and Garrison, where the river is at its narrowest point, and the train passes through many rock cuts and several tunnels. By the time we departed Poughkeepsie at 8:40 a.m., we were back on schedule again. At Rhinecliff, where we left 15 minutes later, we met the southbound Train #250. This was the fourth southbound Amtrak train we had passed this morning (the third one being Train #246, an Albany-New York non-stop express, which we passed between Croton-Harmon and Poughkeepsie).
After we left Rhinecliff, I walked through the entire train. As is the usual practice, the first two coaches were reserved for passengers traveling to Albany, with passengers traveling longer distances assigned to the last three cars. All cars were at least half full, but ironically, the most crowded car was the last one on the train, in which all passengers were traveling to Niagara Falls or Toronto -- the longest ride of all. I found that 60 of the 74 seats in this car were occupied by passengers. There were a total of about 285 passengers on the train. I looked out the back of the train again, and clocked the train going a mile in 40 seconds, which translates to 90 miles an hour.
We left Hudson on time and arrived in Albany on Track 2 at 9:39 a.m., six minutes early. We would have half an hour to spend here, so I got off and looked around. The two new Genesis engines, together with the first coach, were taken off our train and replaced by F-40 engine #413. (Interesting, I had ridden behind this engine once before, when I took the Cardinal from Chicago to Hinton, W. Va. in October 1993.) On the adjacent Track 1 was Train #299 to Rutland, Vermont, scheduled to depart at 9:55 a.m. This train, powered by Genesis engine #707 and consisting of three coaches (including one Heritage coach rebuilt for the Adirondack) and a dinette/Custom Class car, is intended primarily as an equipment move to permit the crew to return to Albany rather than laying over at Rutland for the night). I briefly boarded the train and found it completely empty, with not a single passenger aboard, even though the train was supposed to depart in five minutes, and the boarding call had already been made! Then I went inside the station and made a few phone calls. The train to Rutland did depart on time, and then a few minutes later Train #284 from Niagara Falls (a three-day-a-week train, which had departed Niagara Falls at 4:10 a.m.!) arrived on the Main Track. This train (which included a dinette/Custom Class car in its consist) was powered by Genesis engine #716, which had brought the train from Niagara Falls. Now that additional Genesis dual-power engines have arrived, it seems that Amtrak is using them to pull many trains north and west of Albany. However, for some reason, our train has had its Genesis engines replaced with an F-40 at Albany.
After taking a picture of our new (or, should I say, old!) engine, I reboarded our train, and we departed on time at 10:10 a.m. Train #284 left for New York a few seconds later. We crossed the bridge over the Hudson River and proceeded along a stretch that once had four tracks, but now has been reduced to one (since this section of track is used only by Amtrak, not Conrail). It seemed that we were not going as fast as we usually do on this section and, indeed, we arrived at Schenectady one minute late and departed at 10:37 a.m., five minutes late. We continued proceeding at a slow speed, apparently because of track work being done on the immediately adjacent Track 1 (beyond the Conrail junction at Hoffmans, where the line again becomes double-tracked).
I walked through the train again, and found the first coach now entirely empty. Although that car had not been closed off when I walked in, the conductor asked me (and another passenger who had been sitting there) to leave the car, and then closed it off. There were now about 185 passengers aboard, all in the rear four cars. Needless to say, virtually all seats were occupied by at least one passenger.
We now were traveling along the Mohawk River, a very scenic route. After we passed Guy Park, a mansion built by Sir William Johnson during the Revolutionary War period, and an adjacent canal lock, we arrived in Amsterdam at 11:05 a.m. When we departed a minute later, we were 17 minutes late, having lost additional time due to the slow running because of the track work. Soon afterwards, thanks to the route guide from Rail Ventures that I was following, I noticed to the left the remains of an 1841 stone-arch aqueduct built over Schoharie Creek as part of the original Erie Canal. Since we had passed the area of the track work, we now resumed our normal speed.
Although it was only 11:20 a.m., I was a little hungry, so I purchased a can of soda from the cafe car and consumed it along with a corned beef sandwich I had brought with me. I continued watching the beautiful scenery along the Mohawk River on the left side of the train. Then I went back to the end of the train, where I timed the train as going a mile in 53 seconds (68 miles an hour). At 11:48 a.m., we passed the eastbound Lake Shore Limited, with only two or three material handling cars at the rear of the train. The train is scheduled to leave Utica at 10:52 a.m., so it seems to be about 45 minutes late.
We arrived in Utica at 12:02 p.m. Utica has the only grandiose, heritage station on the entire line from Albany to Buffalo. I noticed that, since the last time I was here, an enclosed walkway has been constructed from the station to the one remaining platform, spanning an area that, presumably, was once covered with tracks. It certainly improves the functionality of the station, and it was designed using similar-colored bricks and with an attractive arch. But it nevertheless mars the beauty of the original classic structure. When we left after a one-minute stop, we were still 16 minutes late. To the west of the station, we passed a variety of NYS&W equipment in various states of disrepair, including a car from the original Auto-Train.
We stopped briefly at Rome at 12:17 p.m. Here we passed the eastbound Empire State Express, Train #286, which itself was about 25 minutes late. (I might add that this was the fourth time on this trip that we had passed an Amtrak train proceeding in the opposite direction at a station!)
Shortly before we arrived at Syracuse at 12:50 p.m., I heard on the scanner that a wheelchair and lift were needed at the rear of the second car. I realized that, although we were still over 15 minutes late, our station stop here would have to take a few minutes, so I stepped off the train, in the process helping a woman traveling with her baby by unloading some of her luggage from the train. (This would be the only time I stepped off the train during the entire trip, except for the long stop at Albany.) I noticed the conductor walking into the station, so I decided to follow him and take a picture of the inside of the station. Although predating Amtrak, this station was constructed by the New York Central Railroad, during the years of declining passenger service, in an outlying area of East Syracuse. Far from the center of town, it is slated to be replaced soon when a new station is constructed nearer the center of town, which will serve not only Amtrak but also the On-Track commuter rail service being provided by the Susquehanna Railroad. Our stop lasted for five minutes, and when we left at 12:55 p.m. we were 18 minutes late.
Shortly after we left the Syracuse station, I heard over the scanner that our train was seeking permission to pass through another work area. Of course, we obtained the requested permission, but again had to pass through at a reduced speed. This time, the work involved the installation of a new overhead signal tower. We proceeded a few miles further and then, at 1:16 p.m., just west of Memphis, N.Y., we again came to a stop. I went down to the cafe car and obtained a cup of tea. I also asked the conductor the reason for the delay, and he told me that there was track work ahead and we were waiting for permission to proceed. We sat still for over ten minutes. At 1:25 p.m., an eastbound Conrail double-stack train passed us to the left. The reason for the delay then became apparent. Due to the track work, only a single track was open on the line ahead, and we had to wait for the freight train to pass us before we could proceed.
Finally, at 1:30 p.m., we started moving again. We had lost another 15 minutes -- all due to track work being performed by Conrail. Presumably, we will be at least half an hour late arriving in Rochester. I don't really care, since my dinner is not until this evening, but I hope that Bruce Nelson, who volunteered to pick me up, doesn't waste too much time waiting for the late train.
I started talking to the two couples who were sitting ahead of me. They were heading to Toronto, where tomorrow they would be boarding VIA's Canadian for a trip to Vancouver. I assured them that the amenities and service on the Canadian were far superior to the spartan equipment on this train, and wished them a wonderful trip.
At 1:57 p.m., the defect detector announced that we were passing Savannah, N.Y. I noticed in the Steam Powered Videos atlas that the abandoned right-of-way of the West Shore Railroad is immediately adjacent here, and the right-of-way was clearly visible just to our left. We still had about 50 more miles to go before reaching Rochester, and it was evident that we would not be arriving anywhere close to the 2:00 p.m. time set forth in the timetable. Then, at 2:20 p.m., we again briefly came to a stop and proceeded ahead at a very reduced speed.
Finally, at 2:46 p.m. -- forty-six minutes late -- we arrived in Rochester. Bruce Nelson was there to meet me. As I figured, the last information he had gotten from Amtrak indicated (based on the departure time from Syracuse) that the train would be only about 15 minutes late, so he had to wait around the station for about half an hour. After giving me a driving tour of the city, we went to his house, where I signed onto AOL and got ready for the dinner.
The trip to Rochester was pleasant, but entirely without any amenities that one would ordinarily expect from such a long trip. There was not even a dinette with tables on the train. I did enjoy the trip, but it would not have been a very pleasant experience if I didn't have two seats to myself on the Amfleet I coaches with which the train was equipped. Indeed, it is surprising that Custom Class, which offers more spacious and comfortable seating and is available for almost of the short New York-Albany runs, is not provided on this train. Amtrak could certainly have done a better job supplying the train with more suitable equipment for its day-long journey to Canada.