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Dan Chazin's Trip
on the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited & NortheastDirect (The Senator)
Rochester-Springfield-New York
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1998e11a/1998e12a.html

It's 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday, May 12, 1998, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in Rochester to board the Lake Shore Limited on my way back to New York. The dinner last night was very nice. Afterwards, Bruce Nelson drove me to the home of my cousins Malka and Joel Morris, where I spent the night, and this morning Joel drove me to the station. The Lake Shore is scheduled to arrive at 8:40 a.m., but the arrival board at the station indicates that it should be about 15 minutes late.

The Rochester station is a very modern one, built by Amtrak in 1978 on the site of the original, much larger New York Central station. It was built in the same style as the other stations of that period -- functional, modern, but without any architectural distinction. Originally, there were about ten tracks at the station, and the various platforms were connected by underpasses to the main station building. Now, there is only one platform left, immediately adjacent to the station, and the underpasses have been filled in (although deteriorating remnants of the old platforms are still visible). But the original canopy on the platform adjacent to the station remains. Interestingly, milepost 371 is located right in front of the station door! I took a few pictures of the interior and exterior of the station.

At 8:45 a.m., an announcement was made that the train would be arriving in about three minutes. As I was getting ready to step outside, I saw Bruce Nelson, who had come to see me off! We both walked out to Location 8, where coach passengers were told to board. Five minutes later, the train pulled in, led by Genesis engine #18. It consisted of two Genesis engines, a baggage car, a Heritage sleeper converted to a crew dorm, two Viewliner sleepers headed to New York, a diner, a lounge car, six Amfleet II coaches (with the first four going to New York, and the latter two to Boston), the Boston Viewliner sleeper, the Boston baggage car, a material handling car, and a RoadRailer car (the first one I have ever seen on an Amtrak train).

Ordinarily, I would have taken the Lake Shore straight back to New York. But this time, I decided to do things a little differently. I had never ridden the Albany to Boston section of the Lake Shore; indeed, this was one of the few Amtrak lines in the east that I had never traversed. So I decided to travel back to New York via Springfield. This way, I would be able to experience the scenic Albany-Springfield part of the line, and then take a Northeast Direct train back to New York from Springfield. Since my destination on the Lake Shore was Springfield rather than New York, and only the last two coaches on the train would be going there, I boarded the next-to-last coach. The attendant informed me that there were no empty pairs of seats in either of the two Boston coaches, so I found a seat next to someone else. The loading of the passengers and baggage took quite some time, and we made a second stop. We spent 13 minutes in the station and did not depart until 9:03 a.m. We were now 23 minutes late.

I left my belongings at my seat and promptly walked down to the lounge car. All four New York coaches were quite full, with no empty pairs of seats in these coaches, either. However, there was plenty of room in the lounge car. I sat down at an unoccupied table in the non-smoking section of the car and worked on editing a chapter of the forthcoming New Jersey Walk Book. The lounge car was very pleasant, and the table seating recalled my recent experiences on the British and Scottish railroads, where table seating exists on almost every train.

The scenery from Rochester to Syracuse is not particularly inspiring, but I did follow my Steam Powered Videos map and the route description from the Rail Ventures book. I noticed the remnants of the old West Shore Railroad to our right as we passed through Fairport and Wayneport, and I saw the "picture-postcard setting" (as the Rail Ventures book describes it) of a dairy farm and two churches at East Palmyra. Although we did not stop at any point, we did slow down a number of times due to track work on the adjacent track. At one point, the lounge attendant passed by, and I recognized him as Ira, the attendant on the Lake Shore last summer when we returned from Chicago to New York at the conclusion of our Philmont trip. He remembered me, too.

While passing through Syracuse, the conductor pointed out the new Amtrak station. The station building, which is quite attractive, has largely been completed, and work is now starting on the adjacent platform. It appears that at least a portion of the platform will be high level. Finally, at 10:37 a.m., we arrived at the present Amtrak station. I got off, walked down towards the front of the train, and took some pictures. The unloading and loading of passengers was completed in about five minutes, but it took another five minutes to finish loading the baggage, and we did not leave Syracuse until 10:47 a.m. We were now 42 minutes late, with the additional delay due primarily to the track work between Rochester and Syracuse.

I walked back to my coach. On the way, I noticed that there were now a number of unoccupied pairs of seats in the rear New York coach (the result of passengers who had been assigned to this car detraining at Syracuse). One pair of seats was next to an electric outlet, so I got my computer, returned to these seats, plugged it in, and continued working on these memoirs. (Needless to say, my seat in the Boston coach was not adjacent to an outlet, and I therefore had no opportunity to use my computer until now.) When the conductor came by, I explained why I was sitting there, and he did not object to my remaining in this car temporarily. Behind me sat a retired couple from Indianapolis, traveling from Chicago to Schenectady, where they would be renting a car and driving to Maine. The husband was fascinated by my laptop computer. He told me that he has traveled all over the country by Amtrak, which he much preferred to flying, but always travels by coach. Now we were traveling quite fast, with the defect detector announcing our speed as 79 miles an hour. We passed the Rome station (where the Lake Shore does not stop) at 11:20 a.m., and arrived in Utica at 11:34 a.m. Here, a number of passengers (including a family of six) boarded and filled up the remaining empty pairs of seats in the car I was sitting in, but I kept my seat next to the outlet for now. Again, the passenger loading and unloading proceeded quickly, but it took a few extra minutes to load baggage, and we left at 11:38 a.m. We were now 46 minutes late.

Soon I heard on the scanner that we had encountered a restrictive signal, and at 11:50 a.m. we slowed to a crawl while an Amtrak train passed us to the left. This was the Maple Leaf, Train #63 -- the same train that I took up to Rochester yesterday. It is scheduled to arrive in Utica at 11:47 a.m., so it will be a few minutes late. (Interestingly, yesterday the meet between the two trains took place at 11:48 a.m., and the Lake Shore was also about 45 minutes late!)

Soon, we passed Little Falls and began the more scenic stretch of the route along the Mohawk River. I and the man behind me started talking to the family opposite us (husband, wife and four teenage children). They were traveling from Utica to Albany just for the day to see the tulip festival. We talked all about Amtrak, and I took out my various trains magazines and showed them to the boys, who were fascinated by them. The conversation was very interesting, and I decided to remain at my seats in this car until Schenectady. (While going back to my Boston car to get the magazines, I noticed that the person sitting in the seat next to me had fallen asleep across both seats. Of course, I was glad to let him remain where he was.)

We arrived at Schenectady at 12:54 p.m. Many passengers (including the couple behind me) detrained from the car I was in, and other passengers boarded, filling the seats vacated by the detraining passengers. Again, I was able to step off the train here. As I was standing on the platform, a freight train -- led by three Norfolk Southern engines -- passed us to the left and headed up the Delaware & Hudson line to the north. I reboarded the train, and we left at 1:00 p.m., 50 minutes late.

Right after we departed Schenectady, the attendant and conductor came over to me and asked me to move back to my Boston car, since the train would be splitting in Albany. I had expected this to happen and, of course, complied with their request. I said goodbye to my new friends from Utica and moved back to my seat in the next car (by now, my seatmate was awake). I took out a sandwich and Snapple that I had brought for lunch and ate them rather quickly, since we would soon be arriving in Albany. The attendant announced that all passengers were free to step off the train in Albany, but that those passengers who chose to do so should await the boarding announcing before rejoining the train.

At 1:23 p.m., we pulled into the Albany station. As we arrived, I noticed that Train #69, the Adirondack to Montreal, was now departing. That train was scheduled to leave Albany at 12:40 p.m. and arrive in Schenectady at 1:03 p.m. Indeed, I had assumed that our train would be held at Schenectady until the arrival of Train #69. But, apparently, that train was late arriving in Albany, and it therefore had to be held until we arrived there (due to the single track between Albany and Schenectady). This train was made up entirely of the Heritage cars refurbished for this very run, but it was powered by Genesis dual-mode engine #704.

After detraining, I walked to the rear to record the numbers of the last three cars (the Boston baggage car, the MHC, and the RoadRailer). Then I walked forward towards the station. By the time I got there, our two engines had been pulled forward, and dual-mode Genesis engine #705 was backing onto the New York section of the train. I went into the station and made a few phone calls. Soon, at 1:42 p.m., the New York section departed.

But our Boston section was nowhere near ready to depart. First, our two engines backed up past the station onto a cafe car parked on a siding. Next, the engines and the cafe car pulled forward again, then backed up onto the Boston section, which had up to this point remained well to the north of the station. The RoadRailer car at the end of the train was now uncoupled, and the train pulled forward again. Finally, at 2:02 p.m., the train pulled forward so that it was in front of the station, and everyone reboarded. And, four minutes later, the train pulled out of the station.

But we still were not ready to leave. The train just pulled forward onto the Post Road branch, and then stopped. Now the train had to be watered and serviced (apparently, the servicing facilities are located here, so the train cannot be serviced until it is moved to this part of the station). We waited here for another 16 minutes while the servicing operation took place. Not until 2:22 p.m. was the highball signal given, and we were finally on our way to Boston.

We had spent a full hour in Albany, even though we arrived late. The tortuous, complicated switching and servicing operation took that long. It used to be much simpler. Until recently, the Boston section was located at the front of the train, not the rear. What used to happen then is that the Boston section (including the lounge car from the Chicago train) would pull forward, be serviced, and leave. In the meantime, a dual-mode engine, already attached to a lounge car, would back onto the New York section, and then that train would leave. Pure and simple. The convoluted way that the switching operation is handled now more than doubles the time required for the switching and servicing in Albany. I asked the attendant why things are done this way, and he said that he couldn't understand it himself.

Since my seatmate had detrained in Albany, I now had both seats to myself. Now we were proceeding on the Post Road Branch towards the Boston Line of Conrail. Immediately, the train started shaking back and forth very roughly. It was the roughest ride I can ever recall on Amtrak. I assumed that we were traveling on jointed rail, and the conductor confirmed that we were. This seven-mile stretch of track (from the Albany station to the connection with the main Conrail line coming from the Selkirk yard) had been abandoned by Conrail soon after Amtrak was created in 1971. For a while, Amtrak trains from Boston to Albany crossed the Conrail freight bridge over the Hudson River and then made a back- up move to reach the line to the Albany passenger station. But finally Amtrak purchased and rehabilitated the Post Road Branch and restored it to service. It seems, though, that welded rail was not a priority, since only one train a day in each direction passes over it. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that the line exists at all today!

I walked to the back of the rear coach, and found that only five seats remained unoccupied in that car. There were about 15 empty seats in my car (including the two pairs of seats ahead of me at the front of the car, which were windowless). Thus, the train was quite full, carrying about 100 coach passengers (although the fact that the train has only two coaches significantly limits its capacity, especially during times of peak travel demand). It seems ironic that Amtrak tried to discontinue this train two years ago despite its excellent patronage.

When we reached the junction with the Conrail line, with its welded rail, the ride immediately became much smoother. Soon, an announcement was made that the cafe car was open for service. Like yesterday, this car consisted of an Amfleet I coach (#20048) with a cafe section -- entirely inappropriate for a long-distance train such as this one. But the car did have one advantage. Like all Amfleet coaches, it had two outlets adjacent to seats. Since my pair of seats was not adjacent to an outlet, I decided to move to this car to do some work with the computer. Another passenger had already appropriated both outlets in the rear section of the car, so I sat down adjacent to the outlet in the front section, in which smoking was permitted. (Thankfully, the conductor had opened the door at the front of the car and the adjacent side doors, so that there was substantial ventilation.) I ended up remaining in the cafe car for most of the ride to Springfield, despite the less comfortable seating, so that I could use my computer. I also starting talking to a young man sitting in front of me, who had come from Chicago and was going to Hartford (like me, changing trains at Springfield). He told us about how he had consumed 16 cans of beer on the train last night, and apparently became so unruly that he was kicked out of the lounge car (I wonder why he wasn't kicked off the train completely!). I can only imagine what took place last night on the train, but his description of the events was certainly interesting.

The next part of the ride, down to Chatham, went through rather ordinary scenery. At 2:48 p.m., we passed through the quaint town of Chatham. The beautiful stone station is being restored (of course, not as a train station, since no trains stop there any more). Then, in another 15 minutes, we passed through the rather short State Line Tunnel, with the abandoned original 1841 bore visible just to the left. Now the scenery began to get more interesting, with mountains coming into view in the background, and many beautiful lakes adjacent to the railroad.

At 3:22 p.m., we stopped briefly at Pittsfield, Mass. We were afforded a panoramic view of the town as we passed through, but the station was nothing more than an Amshack. East of Pittsfield, the scenery became even more spectacular, as we started winding through the mountains, with many rock cuts. For most of the way, we were paralleling a river, but no roads followed the our route. This was formerly a double-track line, but it has now been reduced to single-track, with passing sidings. We had to stop only once (apparently due to track work), but the winding curves limited our speed on this very spectacular section of the route. At one point, I saw a beautiful stone-arch viaduct (probably part of the original 1841 line) off to the left.

As we passed milepost 117, I noticed a fire burning adjacent to the tracks on the left. Presumably, it was started by a spark from a passing train, but I found it hard to believe that the woods could so easily catch on fire after the several days of continual rain that we had experienced until yesterday. Soon the scenery became less mountainous, and we passed through the village of Westfield, where the historic station now serves as an insurance agency. Right afterwards, we passed two long Conrail freight trains, apparently waiting for us to clear this single-track line. Since we were soon approaching Springfield, I put away my computer, returned to my seat, and packed up my belongings.

Before I knew it, we were crossing the Connecticut River into Springfield, with the beautiful stone-arch Memorial Bridge visible to our right. At 4:45 p.m., we arrived at the Amtrak station in Springfield. I walked down to the front of the train, hoping to get a picture, since the train was scheduled to spend ten minutes here, and I thought that some MHC cars might be switched on or off. But that did not take place, and the train departed at 4:49 p.m., after having spent only four minutes in the station.

The 40-minute-late arrival of our train did not bother me, since I was expecting to make a connection with the train to New York that leaves at 5:54 p.m. (Actually, our train was scheduled to arrive at 4:04 p.m., and there was a train leaving for New York at 4:05 p.m., but I had no expectation of making this connection, even if by some remote chance the Lake Shore was on time.) I walked into the station and sat down in the waiting room, where I found an outlet, plugged in my computer, and continued working on these memoirs. I also made a few phone calls. The station was quiet and rather empty.

At 5:45 p.m, I put away my computer and walked outside, where the boarding of Train 477, the Senator, was soon announced. I boarded the train, which consisted of two Amfleet I coaches pulled by F-40 engine #291, and took a seat in the rear car. When we left ten minutes later, there were only a dozen people aboard.

I started talking to a young man sitting behind me, who had also taken the Lake Shore from Chicago and was going to Hartford via Springfield. He had flown to Chicago, but decided to try the train on the way back. He did not enjoy the experience, and said that he probably will be flying next time. When I questioned him in more detail about his trip, he mentioned that he spent virtually the entire trip in the last Boston coach sitting next to someone whom he hardly talked to. He said that the car was very stuffy, and that at one point in the middle of the night, someone threw up in the middle of the car (could it have been the guy who drank the 16 beers?). He did occasionally visit the lounge car, but never sat down there, and didn't realize that you could smoke there (at least some of the time). He also wanted to buy cigarettes (which were not sold on the train), but didn't bother walking down to the station at Albany, where he undoubtedly could have purchased cigarettes at the station newsstand. I explained to him that the secret of enjoying an Amtrak train experience is to know the full extent of what you can do on the train, and not merely to assume that you must blindly sit in your assigned seat the whole time. He mentioned that he might try it again with a sleeper (he seemed to be able to afford one, since he mentioned that he made a living from modeling, and had just earned $5,000 in the month that he spent in Chicago!).

The first car was closed off (except that the conductors appropriated it for themselves), but since we were in the last car, I could look out the back. I watched as we crossed the state line into Connecticut (marked by a stone monument), and noticed how our speed picked up once the double track ended just south of the state line. Apparently, when Amtrak single-tracked the line, they also upgraded the remaining track, and I clocked us covering a mile in 43 seconds (84 miles an hour). I also watched as we crossed the massive truss bridge over the Connecticut River just north of Windsor Locks.

We made brief stops at the Amshack in Windsor Locks and the beautiful station (converted to offices) in Windsor. Two passengers boarded at each station. Since we arrived in Hartford at 6:28 p.m., four minutes early, I had time to get off the train and take a few pictures. Four people got off here (all of whom had been on the Lake Shore from points west of Albany) and nine got on. The beautiful stone station in Hartford remains in use, but only one platform is in service (although this platform has recently been improved). I then watched from the back of the train as we passed under highway overpasses leaving Hartford. There once were a number of sets of tracks here, but only one remains.

One person got off at the historic station in Berlin (apparently still in service as a station) and five passengers got on. A little further on, by milepost 21, I watched us pass under an ancient wooden bridge, and then observed two boys retrieve pennies that they had left on the track to be flattened by the train. We passed through the site of an abandoned rail yard on our way into Meriden, where one person got off and a family of four got on at the modern station. This brought back memories of my last visit here several months ago with Rob Wukich when, as part of a day of railfanning in Connecticut, we saw the northbound Vermonter here.

At 7:08 p.m. (four minutes late), we slowed down for the stop at the historic Wallingford station (which, a sign proclaims, was built in 1871), but no one was waiting to board the train, so we continued along without stopping. There were now a total of 28 people on board the train, and the one 84-seat coach was more than ample to accommodate everyone.

We joined the main Shore Line at about 7:20 p.m., and soon paused for a few minutes until a Shore Line East train, pushed by an engine in New Haven colors, passed us to the left. Here, east of the station, concrete bases had been poured for the new catenary poles to be installed as part of the Shore Line electrification project. We then proceeded into the New Haven station, where we arrived at 7:28 p.m., two minutes early. (The conductor explained to me that there is quite a bit of slack built into the schedule, and that we had deliberately run more slowly than allowed for some of the distance so as not to arrive too early at New Haven.)

Here, in New Haven, our train would combine with the train coming from Boston. I certainly had time to go down into the magnificent station, but decided to stay around our train and see how the two trains are combined into one. First, of course, the diesel engine was removed from our train, and it was replaced with an electric engine. Then we pulled forward a considerable distance, well east of the station. We remained there for about seven minutes. In the meantime, the Boston train arrived, and its diesel engine was removed. Then we backed up and coupled onto the cars from the Boston section. The Boston section was a few minutes late in arriving, and we did not depart Boston until 8:00 p.m. Interestingly, although I have passed through Springfield a number of times previously on the Vermonter (and at least once on the Montrealer, before it was rerouted via New London), I think this is the first time that I boarded a train that originated there and then coupled onto a Boston train at New Haven. We lost considerable time switching engines, waiting for the Boston section, and then coupling onto it. I wonder what Amtrak will be doing about the Springfield trains once the line to Boston is electrified. Perhaps they will reinstitute diesel shuttle trains that will require passengers to change at New Haven.

Now that the train was coupled together, I walked towards the back of our combined train. The Boston section had five cars, including three Amfleet I coaches, a club car at the rear, and a cafe car with tables in one of the two seating sections. The coaches were far from full. Most of these cars -- including the cafe car -- had been retrofitted with electric plugs at every seat. This is the first time on this trip that I have been able to sit at a table with an adjacent electric plug, so I decided to take advantage of the situation. I went back to my seat and brought my backpack, along with my computer and some food, to the cafe car, where I appropriated a table. I took out a can of sardines and some crackers (left over from my trip to Scotland), and purchased a can of cranberry juice. The refurbished car -- which also featured brighter electric lights -- was delightful, and I was left to wonder why such a car could not have been included in the consist of yesterday's Maple Leaf, with its 12-hour journey to Toronto.

It was getting dark now, and I had covered this route many times, so I paid little attention to the scenery, instead working on these memoirs and continuing to edit the material for the New Jersey Walk Book. Due to the vagaries of power transmission on this electrified stretch of track, the power went out briefly about half a dozen times. In each instance, it was promptly restored after a few seconds, but since the batteries on my computer are completely dead, each power interruption would cause my computer to crash. While I saved my work frequently and therefore lost, at most, a few lines of what I had written, it was very annoying to have to constantly reboot my antique computer.

We made our scheduled brief stops at Bridgeport and Stamford, and when we left Stamford at 8:53 p.m., we were 15 minutes late. Before I knew it, at 9:23 p.m., we passed over the Hell Gate Bridge, with its panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. I put away my computer (just seconds before another brief power interruption!), then went back to my Springfield coach to retrieve my wheeled suitcase that I had left there, returned to the cafe car, packed everything away, and prepared to detrain.

At 9:35 p.m., we arrived on Track 12 in Penn Station. We were only five minutes late, having made up ten minutes (I think there is a ten-minute schedule pad built in). I took the elevator up to the lower concourse and then walked over to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I arrived in plenty of time to catch the 10:00 p.m. bus back to Teaneck.

And so ended my trip to Rochester and back. I met a number of interesting people on the return trip, and covered some very scenic new mileage. Although I was disappointed with the absence of a dinette car on two legs of the trip, that did not really affect my experience. The timeliness of the Amtrak trains was an interesting contrast to my recent trip to Scotland. There, all of the dozen-or so trains that we took arrived at their respective destinations within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time. Here in America, two of the three Amtrak trains arrived about 45 minutes late! But I was expecting that to happen, and neither of the delays inconvenienced me in any way. Now, I'm looking forward to my next trip by Amtrak in two weeks -- from San Antonio to Chicago on the Texas Eagle, and returning from Chicago on the Cardinal.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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