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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Cardinal & NortheastDirect (Fast Mail)
Chicago-Washington-New York
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1998e28a/1998f02a.html

It's 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, 1998, and I'm at the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago Union Station awaiting the departure of the Cardinal to Washington. This will be only the second time that I will be taking this train, and the last time was nearly five years ago, when the train was equipped with Heritage equipment. The Cardinal is not the quickest way to get to Washington -- the Capitol Limited is a much faster train -- but it traverses a very scenic route. Another factor which convinced me to take this train was the fact that it runs only three days a week. Usually, it runs on the wrong days for me, but today is Tuesday, one of the few days it does run, and I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to ride this rare bird.

Checking Amtrak's web page for the last few weeks, I noticed that this train often runs late. Indeed, I discovered that on one recent occasion, the train arrived in Washington over six hours late! So this should be a rather adventurous ride.

But the adventure began a little earlier than I thought it would. I spent the day at the home of my cousins Debbie and Aaron Kahn, where I checked accumulated e-mail and did some other work. I decided to take the 5:03 p.m. Metra train from Edgebrook to Union Station, so my cousin Debbie -- along with her son Sammy -- gave me a ride to the Edgebrook station. We left her home about 4:35 p.m., and after stopping at the nearby post office to mail a letter to Steve Grande, I arrived at the Edgebrook station about 4:55 p.m., in plenty of time to make the 5:03 p.m. train.

Several other people were also waiting for this train, and I was informed that the 4:38 p.m. train to Chicago had never arrived, and that an announcement had been made over the loudspeaker that the 5:03 p.m. train would be delayed about 40 minutes. Things did not sound very auspicious, but this was of little concern to me, since my train was not scheduled to depart until 7:40 p.m. But several regular commuters, tired from a hard day's work, were getting rather upset. They were headed into Chicago to connect with another westbound Metra train. One of them took the northbound train instead (presumably, his wife would meet him at the station he would end up at), and another one walked over to catch a bus that would take him downtown. I used the time to make a few phone calls. In the meantime, at 5:10 p.m., the southbound Empire Builder came barrelling through the station. It was going very fast, so I couldn't get all the car numbers, but it was powered by four Genesis engines, and had quite a few material handling and Road-Railer cars at the rear. The front of the train was graced by the private car Intrepid, lettered for the Southern Railway. That train is supposed to arrive in Union Station at 4:10 p.m., so it is over an hour late. c

The rest of us waited in front of the small shelter at the Edgebrook station, and finally, at 5:52 p.m., a Metra train pulled in. I had waited a full hour for the train. Needless to say, although all four cars were open, the train was quite full, and I had difficulty finding space for my bags. I noticed an engine in front of the first open car, and the conductor explained what had happened. It seems that the 4:38 p.m. train had broken down, and since the 5:03 p.m. train couldn't get around it, it coupled onto it, and the power for that train pushed the dead train ahead of it. So there were four deadhead cars and a broken engine (#605) in front of us, with all passengers in the rear four cars, pushed by the engine in back. The conductor was quite friendly, and did not object when I put my bags on his seat, since that was the only place I could find to put them (even after having walked through three of the cars). In fairness, I should say that the regular passengers who had been waiting with me at Edgebrook indicated that the long delay was a very unusual occurrence, and that the Metra trains normally ran on time, or pretty close to it.

We proceeded on our way to Union Station, with quite a number of passengers getting off at the various intermediate stops on the way. Finally, at 6:20 p.m., we arrived on Track 9 at Union Station. As I got off the train, I noticed a large crowd of people waiting to board. Included among them was my cousin Aaron! He explained that he had intended to take the 5:55 p.m. train to Edgebrook, but that that train had been delayed. Of course, the reason for the delay was that the equipment for that 5:55 p.m. train was the consist of our train! The dead engine and the four cars in front of it were uncoupled, and the 5:55 p.m. train presumably left at about 6:30 p.m.

I now proceeded to the Metropolitan Lounge. As I entered, an attendant explained that there was no room to store any luggage in the lounge itself, and he took me with my luggage to a nearby locked storage room, where I left my luggage. I then returned to the lounge, got some complimentary juice, and then walked around the station for a while. I noticed that the Southwest Chief, scheduled to have arrived at 3:45 p.m., was late, with an estimated arrival time of 8:00 p.m. As a result, the Capitol Limited, which operates with the same consist, was also delayed. It was scheduled to depart at 7:20 p.m., but would not actually leave until at least 9:30 p.m. (First-class passengers on that train were given $10.00 to buy a meal in the station, since no dinner would be served on- board, in light of the delayed departure.)

At about 7:20 p.m., the boarding for our train was announced in the Metropolitan Lounge. The attendant led me and the other boarding passengers first to the storage room, where I retrieved my luggage, and then to Track 24, where our train was ready for boarding. I walked down the platform and boarded Superliner II sleeper #32112, named Utah, at the front of the train, where I had been assigned Room #5. Then I walked back and recorded the entire consist of the train.

Tonight, our train is led by a Genesis engine, with a baggage car, transition crew dorm, sleeper, diner, lounge, and two coaches (one with a lower-level smoking section). But behind this consist are coupled nine more cars on their way to Amtrak's Beech Grove shops in Indianapolis. Since the only Amtrak train which now goes to Indianapolis is the Cardinal, Amtrak uses this train to ferry to Beech Grove whatever cars are in need of repair. The nine cars include two Superliner sleepers, a Superliner transition crew dorm, two Superliner diners, a Sightseer lounge, a Superliner coach/smoker, a Horizon coach, and car #10400, a very strange- looking combination baggage/coach, with boarded-up windows, obviously used for some non-revenue purpose. As a result of the presence of this equipment at the rear of the train, we had quite a long walk down the platform to our sleeper in the front.

Since the departure time of the train was quickly approaching, I reboarded the train, and we pulled out at 7:43 p.m., just three minutes late. But we didn't get very far. At 7:54 p.m., immediately past the Amtrak coach yards, we stopped for about ten minutes, and then proceeded at a snail's pace southward. I noticed that we passed on the left Comiskey Field, the stadium for the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

After starting to write these memoirs, I walked back to the coaches. Both coaches were largely empty, with only about 40 coach passengers on board. (Of those, only two are going all the way to Washington!) By contrast, most rooms in the sleeper are full, and quite a few passengers are going all the way to Washington. Soon an announcement was made that dinner was being served in the dining car, so I walked down there and was promptly seated.

Like last week on the Texas Eagle, only half of the dining car is being used tonight. But even that provides more seats than are needed. Tonight, only 18 people are eating in the diner. They are all sleeping car passengers (and a number of those in the sleeper have chosen not to eat dinner). I was seated opposite a young couple from Cincinnati who had taken the train to Chicago for a long weekend and were now returning home. They had an Economy Bedroom in my car, and seemed to be enjoying the trip very much. Next to me was a man going to Charlottesville. He had Deluxe Bedroom D in my car, and wasn't very talkative, but I had a very interesting conversation with the young couple, telling them about the history of Cincinnati Union Terminal.

My chicken meal was very tasty, and the guy from Cincinnati commented that he was quite satisfied with his meal, too. (The man next to me seemed less pleased, since he left over almost his entire main dish.) All the meals were served on plastic plates with plastic silverware, but there were linen tablecloths and real flowers on the tables. I also started a lively conversation with the people seated at the table opposite mine. They included a man from some foreign country who barely spoke English (well, I didn't talk to him!), a woman going to Clifton Forge, Va., a young man going to Huntington, Va., and an older man going all the way to Washington, D.C (he was rather obese, and occupied Deluxe Bedroom E in my car). We talked about the lateness of Amtrak trains, the freight railroads' attitude towards Amtrak, and the comparative merits of the various Amtrak routes. Indeed, we kept on talking after everyone else had left the diner, and finally the attendant indicated that the car was closed and we should go back to our accommodations!

In the meantime, we weren't getting anywhere fast. At about 8:45 p.m., we stopped for about 20 minutes while a CSX freight train passed us. Then we continued ahead at a very slow rate of speed. Not until we reached Thornton Jct. at about 9:35 p.m., where we got onto the Grand Trunk Western (Canadian National) trackage for a short distance, did we really start moving at any significant speed. The conductor told us that we had been following a freight train, and couldn't go any faster than it was going!

Finally, at 9:49 p.m., we stopped at the Amshack in Dyer, Indiana. It had taken us over two hours to go a distance of 28 miles! We sure weren't breaking any speed records tonight! I didn't see anyone get on here, but we made two stops, I think because the conductor went up to bring some food to the engineer.

After I finished dinner, I again walked through the coaches and went down to the smoking lounge. There were several people there, including one man, bound for Charleston, W. Va., who appeared to be rather drunk. Then I returned to my room. At 10:36 p.m., we stopped at the Amshack in Rensselaer, Indiana. Four people boarded the train here.

Soon afterwards, in the middle of nowhere, we came to a stop. Apparently, a defect detector was not working, and as a result, the conductor had to go out and inspect the entire train. No problems were found, but we lost another 20 minutes before we started moving again. I walked back to the lounge car and found the upper level virtually deserted, but about eight crew members (including the conductors) were hanging out in the lower level. I found this rather strange in light of the fact that there was a transition crew dorm on this train, with an office for the conductor and a lower-level lounge, so one would think that the crew would choose to hang out there instead. But at least this made the crew accessible when I had questions I wanted to ask them.

Then, north of Lafayette, we came to a stop, and proceeded ahead at a very slow speed. I checked with the conductor and was informed that we had received permission to pass a red signal, but had to proceed at a restricted speed until we got to the next signal. So, we were going nowhere fast!

Not until 12:34 a.m. did we arrive at Lafayette, Indiana. This part of the ride is new mileage for me. When I rode the train in 1993, the train went right through the main street of the city! Soon afterwards, though, a bypass route was constructed, and the old street-running trackage abandoned. Now there is a new station on the bypass route, at the edge of town. It had taken us just about two hours to cover the 48 miles between Rensselaer and Lafayette -- an average of 24 miles an hour! And we have spent nearly five hours to get from Chicago to Lafayette, a distance of only 121 miles. It can certainly be said that the Cardinal has a very relaxed pace!

Our stop here was very brief, lasting only a minute or so. Several passengers got off, but no one got on. We were soon on our way, but by now we were two hours and 17 minutes late. I returned to my room and started doing some work on the Trail Conference minutes.

I had hoped that I might get off the train during our stop in Indianapolis, but we were running quite late, so soon after we departed Crawfordsville at 1:12 a.m., I decided to get into bed. I made up the bed and climbed in, but it took quite a while for me to fall asleep. I watched as the Indianapolis skyline came into view, and then we pulled into Union Station in Indianapolis at 2:39 a.m.

To our left, on the adjacent track, was Amtrak F-40TC engine #198. I immediately thought of my AOL friend Matt Donnelly, who loves these rather unusual engines, and keeps track of their whereabouts. (Indeed, his AOL screen name incorporates the number of engine #199!) Matt will be thrilled to learn that one of his beloved F-40TC engines is alive and well, and actually being used for switching duty here in Indianapolis. Although I was awake during our stop here, I wasn't about to climb out of bed and get off the train. Our stop lasted for 17 minutes, and then the train pulled forward and head-end power was shut off. At this point, presumably, the rear nine cars, destined for Beech Grove were uncoupled. Head-end power was soon restored, and we finally departed Indianapolis at 3:08 a.m. We were two hours and 13 minutes late. On the scanner, I heard the crew of engine #198 seeking permission from the dispatcher to switch tracks in order to pick up the cars that we had just left behind.

I remained awake for a while, and at 3:25 a.m., we again came to a stop. On the scanner, I heard the engineer announce that we had encountered a red signal, and he tried reaching the CSX dispatcher to get permission to proceed. But his attempts were unsuccessful. So he next called the Conrail dispatcher on the radio and asked him to dial an 800 number to inform the CSX dispatcher of our predicament. The Conrail dispatcher complied, but he got a busy signal! Finally, after a 20-minute delay, we finally got permission to proceed. At this point, I think I fell asleep.

I awoke at 5:17 a.m., as we were pulling into Connersville, Indiana. There is an attractive brick station here, but no passengers were getting on or off the train, so we made a very brief stop and proceeded ahead. But we had lost some additional time since we left Indianapolis, and were now just over three hours late. It was now already getting rather light out. I remained in bed and tried to fall asleep again, but don't think I succeeded in doing so, At 7:23 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time (corresponding to 6:23 a.m. Central Time), we arrived at Hamilton, Ohio. The old brick station here is apparently used exclusively by CSX. I don't think anyone got on here, but we spent about two minutes at the station.

We would be arriving in Cincinnati in about another hour, so I decided to get up. I briefly walked back to the end of the train, where I noticed that there was now an unobstructed view from the rear of the last coach. Then I went back to my car and took a shower (the water was warm, but the pressure was a little weak), after which I returned to my room and got dressed. About 8:05 a.m., I heard an announcement that this would be the last call for breakfast. So I went to the diner, where I was seated next to the woman going to Clifton Forge who was sitting at an adjacent table last night, and opposite a Japanese couple who had boarded the train in Indianapolis and were headed to Washington and then to Baltimore. They were going there, unfortunately, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of two of their nephews in a car accident. They had taken a bus to Indianapolis from Champaign, Illinois, and had to wait for several hours for our train. They were enjoying the trip, nevertheless, and didn't seem to be too upset about the delays we had encountered. They were in the sleeper, and remarked that they promptly fell asleep once they climbed into their beds.

During the meal, we approached Cincinnati, and at 8:30 a.m., we pulled onto the platform at Cincinnati Union Terminal and came to a stop. Although I had not finished eating, I decided to get off the train here. We are scheduled to spend half an hour in Cincinnati, but since we were so late, and no servicing of the train is performed here, I knew the stop would probably not last that long. I walked down the platform and took some pictures. Then I heard an announcement that sleeping car passengers should now go down to board the train. I realized that coach passengers had not yet begun to board, so I went upstairs, passed through the Amtrak waiting room, and quickly took a look at the beautiful rotunda of the station, with the magnificent circular mural by the artist Winold Reiss, featured in the current issue of Vintage Rails. I would have liked to spend some more time here, but I realized that I better get on board the train, so I walked down to the platform and reboarded at the rear coach. We departed at 8:40 a.m., having spent only ten minutes in Cincinnati, and were now two hours and 45 minutes late.

Now we proceeded slowly towards the Ohio River bridge, with beautiful views of the city skyline to the left. I returned to the dining car, and continued with my meal. To the right, I observed a huge brick warehouse, formerly the freight station/warehouse of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Then we made a sharp right turn and crossed the bridge over the river. To the left, you could see the Roebling suspension bridge, built in the 1860s, and a large downtown urban renewal area, which had been bulldozed in preparation for redevelopment. We now entered Kentucky, turning left and running parallel to the river.

For the next few hours, we paralleled the river, which was directly to our north, often only 100 feet or so away. But for most of the way, the view of the river was obstructed by trees growing between the railroad and the river. There were a number of good views, though. We finally started picking up some speed, and at one point I heard a defect detector announce that we were traveling at 77 miles an hour. Quite a change from last night! But then I hear that we have a speed restriction through the town of Augusta, where the crossings have to be flagged. We are told that CSX personnel will be doing the flagging, but we still have to reduce our speed as we pass through. Augusta turns out to be a charming little town, with the railroad running right along a row of small homes. Plenty of CSX workers are visible flagging the crossings, but not a single car appears to be stopped at any one of them!

We passed underneath a suspension bridge over the Ohio River, and then, at 10:11 a.m., stopped briefly at Maysville. Here there is an attractive brick station and, although there is no agent, the station is open for waiting passengers. A few passengers boarded here, and we were soon on our way. At about 10:45 a.m., I looked out of the lower-level window as we passed through the little town of Vanceboro, with an old wooden station that is no longer used. Then, at 11:05 a.m., we paused at the Amshack in South Portsmouth to pick up a single passenger. I walked to the rear of the train, where I watched us overtake and pass a CSX coal train headed in the same direction as we were traveling. When I returned to my room, the woman getting off at Clifton Forge stopped by to tell me that she had used a phone newly installed in the lounge car to call her family to warn them of the lateness of our train. She noted that the call cost $1.99, plus 99 cents a minute, which sounded not too unreasonable for a call from a moving train. At least the phone is available in case it is vitally important to make a call!

At 11:31 a.m., we stopped in the CSX yard at Russell for the train to be serviced. Here, the train is refueled and watered. The Rail Ventures book states that the servicing should take "about eight minutes or so," and, indeed, it took precisely eight minutes! Then, at 11:49 a.m., we stopped at Ashland. This is a new stop for Amtrak, which only opened up about two months ago. The former C&O freight house here has been converted to a very attractive passenger station. About 15 people boarded the train here, and we made two stops, since a woman and her son got on the sleeper. They occupied the room opposite me (which had formerly been occupied by two young men who detrained in Cincinnati), and were on the way to visit her sister in Newport News, with the sister meeting them in Charlottesville. This was her son's first trip by train, and his mother hadn't taken a train trip for many years, either. They wanted some privacy for the trip, so they got a sleeper room for this daytime journey. Of course, she had already notified her sister about the delay. Interestingly, the mother told me that one passenger had waited for three hours at the Ashland station just to take our train to Huntington -- only 14 miles and about 20 minutes away!

A few minutes later, we passed the former Amtrak station in Catlettsburg. This was actually a new station, built by Amtrak about 25 years ago, and featured an enclosed waiting room. Now it is closed and unused. Shortly afterwards, we passed on the left an old brick-and-stone station, which appeared to be the original C&O station for this town. Then we crossed a truss bridge over the Big Sandy River, and entered West Virginia. A few minutes later, we passed the large former C&O Huntington station to the left, and then we stopped at the modern Amtrak station on the right side of the tracks at 12:12 p.m.

I got off from my sleeper, and immediately recognized Don Mills, who was waiting for me. We both subscribe to the Railroad List, and when I posted a message to the list that I would be taking the Texas Eagle, he replied that he wished me well, but would be some distance away in West Virginia. I then told him that I would also be taking the Cardinal, and he then advised me that he lived only four miles from Huntington and would meet me at the station. So, here he was! He handed me a cap of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, and took my picture. The sleeper car was quickly closed up, and the train moved ahead to be in the proper position for the coach passengers to get on and off the train. I remained on the platform and reboarded at the rear coach after about 20 coach passengers had boarded ahead of me.

After everyone had gotten off the train, a man on the platform came over to the coach attendant and mentioned the name of a woman who should have gotten off here but did not. An announcement was made, requesting her to get off, but to no avail. The person who had come to pick her up then mentioned that she had gotten on the train in Albuquerque, and both the attendant and I immediately realized what had happened. She was on the Southwest Chief which did not arrive in Chicago until at least 8:00 p.m., and our train was not held for the arrival of that train. She had obviously missed the connection, and Amtrak presumably tried to make other arrangements for her. We were both amazed, though, that the passenger had not managed to inform the person meeting her of the changed arrangements. In any event, it appeared clear that the missing person would not appear, and we finally left at 12:18 p.m., having spent six minutes at the station. We were now two hours and 46 minutes late, having made up a little more time.

At 12:45 p.m., the first call for lunch was made. I wanted to finish eating before the New River Gorge began, so I went to the dining car and was seated next to a woman and her two children. They had boarded in Huntington and would be going to Charlottesville, from where they would take the bus to Richmond. She was a strip dancer (!), and the three of them had Economy Bedroom #14 in my car. During my lunch, we stopped at Charleston. The stop lasted only three minutes, and we left at 1:26 p.m. But at this stop, a group of about 40 young school children boarded the train. They were taking a field trip through the New River Gorge, and would go as far as Prince, where buses were waiting to pick them up.

I quickly finished lunch and went to the lounge car, where I had hoped to hear the commentary of a guide from the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society. But no commentary was audible on the upper level of the car. I went down to the lower level, where the conductors were sitting, and they informed me that the PA system in the lounge car was not working, and that I would have to go to a coach or sleeper if I wanted to hear the commentary. This was, of course, rather strange, as the lounge car is specifically designed for viewing of outstanding scenery, such as the New River Gorge. So for now, I returned to my sleeper, where I remained for the brief stop in Montgomery at 1:52 p.m. Here, the railroad goes right along the main street of the town, and the "passenger boarding area" is nothing more than a short sidewalk between the tracks and the street.

We now were paralleling the Kanawha River, and soon we entered the New River Gorge. I went to the end of the train and looked out the back for the first part of the passage through the gorge (including the views of the New River Gorge Bridge), and then went to the lounge car for the remainder of our journey through the gorge. It was, indeed, a very thrilling sight, although the trees growing between the railroad and the river made it difficult to see the river much of the time. We observed a number of groups rafting down the river. Ironically, the guide from the historical society started talking about the New River Gorge Bridge only after we had passed it, and then said that we would be coming to it soon. I observed us passing through the historic town of Thurmond, but we did not make the flag stop here. (The last time I took this train, we did stop here briefly.) When we arrived at Prince at 2:58 p.m., the large group of school children got off the train, and the first coach was once again largely empty. (But the rear coach was still quite full, with about 50 people in that coach.)

After passing through a tunnel, we arrived at Hinton at 3:30 p.m. When I took the Cardinal in 1993, I got off here for a weekend meeting and then continued on my way on Sunday. The old, rambling brick station looks much the same today as it did when constructed about a century ago. I did step off briefly here and got a picture of the station. We left three minutes later, and were still nearly three hours late. Now I returned to my room for a while.

Soon we passed through the mile-long Great Bend Tunnel, and left the New River valley. Now we were following the Greenbrier River to the left, also a pretty sight. We passed by the Federal Detention Center for Women in Alderson, but did not make the flag stop there. We went through several more tunnels, and finally emerged at White Sulphur Springs, where we made a brief stop at 4:32 p.m. There were a number of private cars parked here on sidings, and I took a picture of one of them. After leaving White Sulphur Springs, we proceeded through two more tunnels, and then passed a sign reading "Allegheny - Altitude 2,078" -- apparently marking the summit of this route. Soon, at 4:47 p.m., we stopped and waited on a siding for the arrival of the westbound Cardinal, Train #51. We ended up waiting quite a while here. In the meantime, I hear the crew of our train saying that they have to pick up some food from Train #51, and then I hear that Train #51 needs to pick up several quarts of milk from our train.

Finally, at 5:11 p.m., Train #51 came by, we exchanged the food, and they were on their way. But we proceeded only a short distance and then stopped. I noticed our baggageman walking over to hand-throw a switch. (Subsequently, he explained to me that the switch should have been thrown electronically, but it didn't work, so he had to throw it manually.) We started moving again at 5:20 p.m., and now went through yet another tunnel, which was single- tracked. We have lost an additional 25 minutes due to our meet with Train #51, and I doubt that we will be arriving in Washington before 11:00 p.m. tonight.

I then went to the back of the train and observed our train wind its way through the Allegheny Mountains. I noticed how the line was formerly double track, but that sections have now been single-tracked, resulting in the type of delay that we had just experienced. This is truly a beautiful stretch of track, and when I previously rode the line in 1993, I traveled this part of it in coach, and therefore did not have the opportunity to look out the back (at that time, the sleeping cars were put at the rear of the train).

I now was getting a little hungry, so I returned to my room and took out a deli sandwich that my cousin Debby had given me yesterday. I would have welcomed some complimentary orange or apple juice to go with it, such as was provided to first-class passengers on the Texas Eagle. But no such complimentary drinks were made available to passengers in the sleeper on the Cardinal. Nor was a voucher provided for a complimentary soft drink. So I went to the lower level of the lounge car and purchased a jar of cranberry juice, which I brought back to my room and drank with the sandwich.

At 6:00 p.m., we passed through the CSX Clifton Forge servicing facility (including a modern turntable!), and finally stopped at the old wooden station. I stepped off the train at my sleeper and walked back to the coaches. Even though Clifton Forge is a crew-change point, we spent only two minutes here, and left at 6:02 p.m.

I stepped briefly into the smoking lounge (which was quite smoky) and then went to the Sightseer lounge, where I started talking to a man and his son who were traveling from Chicago to Charlottesville. They were both railfans, and the father showed me the point just east of Clifton Forge where the old C&O line to Newport News diverges from the line we follow, which leads to Charlottesville. I noticed some old decrepit cars sitting in what used to be a yard east of the Clifton Forge station, and he told me that they belonged to the C&O Historical Society, but that they seemed to have been quite neglected. He also mentioned to me that they tried to get a sleeper when they made their reservations several days ago, but all of the available rooms were taken. We both pointed out that there must have been plenty of empty rooms in the transition crew dorm car ahead of the sleeper, and noted that Amtrak seems to be misusing its available resources by failing to sell unused rooms in this car when all other sleeping car space is occupied.

Although no announcement was audible in the Sightseer lounge (presumably due to a defective PA system in this car), I saw a number of people walking through the coaches on their way to the dining car, so I assumed that dinner was now being served. I walked into the diner and was seated at a table with three women. One had boarded in Cincinnati and was going to New York; one had boarded in Cincinnati but was going only to Washington; and the third had boarded in Huntington and was going to New York. We discussed which train those of us who were going to New York would be taking (I indicated that it would probably be the 3:00 a.m. train). The two women who boarded in Cincinnati also commented that the attendant had rushed their boarding of the train, and later had to apologize for the way she had dealt with them. I remarked that if speed of boarding was of the essence, the boarding passengers should have been instructed to go down to the platform before the train arrived, so that they could board immediately after everyone got off the train.

During dinner, we stopped at Staunton at 7:17 p.m. Here the old station has been converted to a restaurant, and it appears that the former signal tower for the station now serves as a waiting room for Amtrak passengers.

After dinner, I returned to my room, where I noticed that we were delayed even further by slowing down and then briefly stopping while we were passed by a freight train. Then I walked to the back of the train, where I observed a magnificent panorama of green fields with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop. Unlike the C&O line west of Clifton Forge, this line -- which served as a branch line for the C&O -- was clearly built as a single-track line with sidings. We passed through some very narrow rock cuts which certainly could never have been double-tracked.

On the way back to my room, an announcement was made that those passengers connecting to Train #97 to Florida and other points south should detrain at Charlottesville and take a bus to Richmond, where they will make their connection. Train #97, the Silver Meteor, is scheduled to depart Washington at 10:59 p.m., and it does not appear likely that we will arrive there by then. On the other hand, though, it does not arrive in Richmond until 12:57 a.m., so the connecting passengers will have quite a long wait for this train at the Richmond station.

We arrived at Charlottesville at 8:27 p.m. I stepped off the train, hoping to meet the agent, Mr. Harper, whom I had talked to on AOL, but it turned out that he was off today. Our stop here lasted only four minutes, and we departed at 8:31 p.m., precisely three and one-half hours late.

It was getting dark now, and you couldn't really see anything out. So I returned to my room, and did some work on my computer. About 9:15 p.m., an announcement was made that the lounge car would close in about 15 minutes, so I went there and purchased a beer. On my way to the lounge car, we passed what appeared to be an Amtrak train to our left. The conductor confirmed that it was the Crescent, scheduled to arrive in Charlottesville at 9:37 p.m., and therefore also somewhat late (although not nearly as late as we are!). I brought the beer back to my room and drank it with some Pringles that I had brought with me.

From here on, our ride to Washington was swift and uneventful. We made brief stops at Culpeper and Manassas, and then arrived in Alexandria at 10:44 p.m. Around this time, an announcement was made that Train #198, scheduled to leave Washington for New York at 10:30 p.m., could not be held for passengers arriving on the Cardinal, so passengers for points north of Washington would have to take "the mail train" (more correctly designated as The Fast Mail), scheduled to leave at 3:00 a.m. I had not anticipated otherwise; indeed, I was glad that I would be taking the 3:00 a.m. train, since the 10:30 p.m. train was scheduled to arrive in New York about 2:00 a.m., and I had no way of getting back to Teaneck at that hour.

I packed up all my belongings and brought my suitcase downstairs. At 11:02 p.m., we finally arrived on Track 24 at Washington Union Station. We were eight minutes shy of being three hours late. At the escalator leading to the station, an Amtrak representative was stationed to advise everyone going to points north of Washington to come to Gate D. After checking my messages, I went there, and (along with every other passenger in the same predicament) was led into an enclosed area usually reserved for Metroliner passengers and given an Amtrak voucher for $50 to compensate for the inconvenience caused by the late arrival of the train. There were about two dozen of us waiting here for the 3:00 a.m. "mail train."

I started talking to a young man sitting nearby. It turned out that he was the one who had boarded at the Amshack in South Portsmouth, Kentucky. He was headed for New Haven, and his original plan was to take the 10:30 p.m. train for New York, and then get another train at 6:58 a.m. for New Haven. I pointed out to him that the 3:00 a.m. train that he would be taking is the very same train that leaves New York at 6:58 a.m. for New Haven, and that it is far more pleasant to spend the next three hours in an attractive room in Washington Union Station than it would have been to wait in Penn Station in New York.

I took out my computer, plugged it in, and finished writing these memoirs. Then I took a walk around the station. I noticed that the Main Hall (the former waiting room) was decorated with banners and Israel flags, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel. Needless to say, at this very late hour, the station was almost entirely deserted.

At about 2:00 a.m., an Amtrak representative gathered all of us together and led us to Track 25, where our Fast Mail train was ready for boarding. Almost everyone (by this time, there were about three dozen people) got onto the last coach of the train, but I boarded the next-to-last coach, where I promptly found a seat adjacent to an electric outlet. Tonight's Fast Mail train consists of two AEM-7 electric engines, five Amfleet I coaches (all but one which are handicapped-modified), a cafe car with tables in half of the car, and four material handling cars, one in front and three in the back.

We left on time at 3:00 a.m., and I fell asleep pretty quickly. I was awake when we arrived in Baltimore at 3:34 a.m. and Wilmington at 4:28 a.m., but I otherwise slept for most of the ride until we arrived in Philadelphia at 4:55 a.m. (Parenthetically, I thought it quite ironic that on Tuesday night, it took us over two hours to travel the 28 miles from Chicago to Dyer, Indiana, while this morning, we traveled from Washington to Baltimore -- a distance of 40 miles -- in a mere 34 minutes!) As is my normal practice when we get to Philadelphia, I walked upstairs to look at the magnificent and majestic station. This time, I made a special effort to observe the Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, a sculpture by Walker Kirtland Hancock, which was featured in the current issue of Vintage Rails. It says something about the size and scale of this station that I never previously noticed this sculpture, which stands 36 feet high in a prominent place in the station concourse.

When I reboarded the train, I went to the dinette car, where I purchased a cup of coffee. This car was virtually deserted, even though it featured attractive tables with outlets at each table. I guess the reason is that about 90% of the people on the train -- including almost everyone who was on the Cardinal -- are asleep! I sat in the dinette car for a while, and saw the sun rise as we were approaching Trenton at 5:36 a.m. Then I returned to my seat and did some more work with the computer.

Even though we had left Trenton at 5:41 a.m., five minutes late, we arrived at Penn Station in Newark at 6:13 a.m., eight minutes early. We had covered 48 miles in 32 minutes, which averages about 90 miles an hour! Of course, we had to wait until our assigned departure time before we could leave, and we finally arrived at Penn Station in New York at 6:37 a.m. Since I had some heavy baggage, I took the subway to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I caught the 7:00 a.m. #167 bus to Teaneck. By 7:45 a.m., I was home.

My trip on the Cardinal was a delightful experience -- even taking into account the last leg of the journey on "the mail train." The scenery along the way is thrilling, and my private room was really nice. I'm glad that I chose this long -- but very scenic and relaxing -- route to return home from Chicago!

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


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