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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited

It's 8:35 p.m. on Thursday, July 30, 1998, and I've just arrived with four Boy Scouts at the Albany Amtrak station where we will be boarding the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, en route to Ames, Iowa, where we will be attending the biennial National Order of the Arrow Conference. We have spent two weeks at Floodwood Mountain Scout Reservation near Saranac Lake, N.Y., where we went on canoeing and backpacking trips.

As we approached the station at 8:32 p.m., I noticed a train coming into the station to the right. A glance at the train indicated that it was the Boston section of the Lake Shore, due to arrive at 8:44 p.m. The train was arriving 12 minutes early! I pulled up to the entrance to the station, where we unloaded all our baggage, and brought it into the station. Then I moved my car to a parking space to the rear of the station parking lot, since I would be leaving the car there for a full week.

After checking out the Boston section of the train, I went back into the station and purchased an extra ticket for one Scout who had decided to join our group after I had purchased the original ticket for four of us. Then I went over to the attendant for the coaches in the Boston section of the train and explained that I was with a group of five who wished to be seated together. She checked her seat roster and indicated that we should sit in seats 41-42, 46 and 49-50. Although these were not exactly adjacent, at least it permitted the four Scouts to sit next to each other. I inquired whether she had checked the manifest, since Carleton MacDonald had informed me that he had inserted a notice in the manifest that our group had requested to be seated together. She replied that she did not have a copy of the manifest, and that the conductor had not shown her any special seating requests. I thanked her for helping us out as best as she could under the circumstances. (Subsequently, I checked with the conductor, who confirmed that the request that we be seated together did in fact appear on the manifest. Why it was not communicated to the attendant is not clear to me.)

By now, the New York section of the train had arrived. The New York section is pulled ahead of the station, and is then backed up onto the Boston section. Since the power had been taken off the train and the cars were therefore dark, boarding of the train had not yet begun. So I walked back into the station and made a few phone calls. Among the messages on my machine was one from my good friend and fellow railfan George Friedman, who was attending the ABA convention in Toronto, and was delighted to find out that his hotel was right opposite Union Station! I also spoke to my cousin Bertie about my Aunt Rhoda, who had just undergone an operation in New York.

About 9:30 p.m., we moved our baggage out to the platform. As we were doing so, the lights went back on, and boarding began. We boarded our coach, but discovered that seats 41 and 42 were already occupied by other people. I went back outside and informed the attendant of this fact, and she eventually reassigned two of the Scouts to seats 11 and 12, located towards the front of the car. To do this, she asked a woman seating in one of these seats to move back to the next seat behind, so that our two Scouts could sit together. The car was almost completely full, so not too much more could be expected.

I took seat 46, an aisle seat. Next to me was seated a young man who had boarded the train in Springfield and was on the way to visit his family in Buffalo. Fortunately, this seat was right in back of a pair of seats next to an outlet. Anticipating that this might occur, I had brought along an extension cord, and I was able to plug it in and thereby obtain electric current for my computer.

At 9:57 p.m., we pulled forward. After moving a short distance, we stopped so that two RoadRailer cars could be added to the rear of the train, and then we finally departed the Albany station at 10:05 p.m.

As we left the station, a garbled announcement was made over the loudspeaker that this is the last call for dinner in the dining car. I was a little surprised to hear that dinner was being served at this late an hour, and we had not planned on eating dinner on the train. So instead we ate some snacks at our seats.

After the conductor came by to collect our tickets, I walked down through the New York section coaches to the lounge car. All of the coaches were quite full, although there were some pairs of empty seats, including eight seats that had been reserved for a group. The lounge car was not at all full, although there was a long line for service there. Then I returned to my seat and began working on these memoirs.

We made a six-minute stop at Schenectady and left at 10:35 p.m., five minutes late. I noticed that our car did not reach the platform in Schenectady; apparently, all passengers boarded at more forward cars. Soon afterwards, I decided to take my new laptop computer, which has operable batteries, down to the lounge car to do some work. As I had expected, the rear portion of the lounge car, where smoking was permitted, was quite full, but the front portion, with the large tables, was mostly empty. I sat down at a table near the conductors. One of the conductors, Bob, noticing my Philmont cap, mentioned that he had read in an Essex County newspaper two years ago about the death of a local Scout leader in Philmont, and was quite astonished when I told him that I had known the leader involved, whose name was George Berisso. I purchased a jar of cranberry juice and used the time to write up, at rather great length, the story of our recent backpacking trip to the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks, with emphasis on the performance of Dan, the staff member who had accompanied us.

I decided to step off the train when we stopped at Syracuse at 12:38 a.m. This would be one of the last times that I would be stopping at this station, since it is scheduled to be replaced by a new station in a few months. About 30 or 40 people got off the train here, and a similar number got on. Each person was assigned a specific seat by the conductor before he or she boarded the train, so the boarding process took some time, and I had enough time to walk back into the station and step briefly inside. Our stop here lasted for nine minutes, and when we departed, we were nine minutes late.

I returned to the lounge car and continued working with the computer. The last call for service was now made, so I got a cup of tea. Then, about 1:30 a.m., the conductor announced that the lounge car itself would now be closed until 3:00 a.m., and that all passengers would have to return to their seats. I had never seen that done before, but my batteries were beginning to run low, so I would have had to return to my seat soon in any event in order to recharge the computer. I returned to my seat and finished the story of the backpacking trip, then fell asleep for awhile.

Shortly before 3:00 a.m., the conductor came by to awaken the young man sitting next to me, who would be getting off at Buffalo. When we arrived at Buffalo at 3:09 a.m., I decided to step off the train again. The way our train was spotted on the platform, my coach -- where all of the passengers detrained -- was at the very rear of the platform, and everyone had to walk a considerable distance up to the station. This was done so that baggage could be unloaded from the baggage car in the front of the train. I walked down to the station and back. Then, at 3:22 a.m., soon after I reboarded, the train was pulled forward so that mail could be loaded into or unloaded from the mail car at the rear of the train. This process took quite some time. Finally, at 3:48 a.m., the train was backed up so that a few additional passengers could board, and then we left at 3:50 a.m., 14 minutes late.

When I returned to my seat after stepping off the train at Buffalo, I found an elderly couple sitting in my seat and the adjacent one which had been occupied by the man who had just detrained. I mentioned that I had been sitting there, and they replied that they had been instructed to sit there by the conductor. So I went and told the conductor what happened. He came back to the car and explained to the couple that the seat check indicated that the seat had been reserved for me (even though I, rather stupidly, had not left any of my belongings on the seat when I got off the train). Next, he arranged for a person sitting alone to move to a different seat so that this couple could at least have two seats together. Then it became apparent that this couple were the parents of a woman traveling with her husband and two children who were sitting in the seats opposite me, and in the seats behind them. They, of course, also wanted to sit near each other so, once again, the conductor arranged for some other people to move so that the six of them could sit in adjacent seats. (Had it not been for the fact that my computer was plugged into the electric outlet next to the seat in front of me, I would gladly have moved myself to avoid all these complications!) The seat next to me was now again vacant, so the conductor assigned another man who had boarded in Buffalo to sit there. He was going just to Cleveland, about a three-hour ride.

Soon after we departed Buffalo, I decided to try to get some sleep. I woke up a number of times, including during our station stop at Erie, Pa., but I think that I did succeed in sleeping for most of the three hours that we traveled from Buffalo to Cleveland.

About 6:40 a.m., the conductor came by to awaken the man next to me and announce that we would be stopping in Cleveland in about ten minutes. The passengers detraining in Cleveland started to congregate near the vestibules. We started slowing down, then came to a stop in a freight yard. After several minutes' delay, we began moving again, but once more very slowly. We were getting nowhere fast. Finally, around 7:15 a.m., we began speeding up again, and we pulled into the Cleveland station at 7:24 a.m. Many of the passengers had been standing in the aisle for over half an hour, waiting for the train to finally pull into the station. I got off the train, and noticed that about 25 passengers were waiting to board, including a large Amish family and a handicapped passenger in a wheelchair who required the assistance of a wheelchair lift. I knew that the stop here ordinarily does not last that long, but I figured that if a passenger would be boarding via a wheelchair lift, the stop would last long enough for me to go into the station and make a phone call. So I did so, on the way crossing the light rail line, protected by bells and flashing lights (but no gates). After making a quick phone call, I started walking back to the train. As I was about to cross the light rail tracks, the lights started flashing and the bells started ringing, and soon an eastbound light rail train came by. I then crossed the tracks and reboarded the train at the lounge car, in the front of the train. We left Cleveland at 7:35 a.m., and were now 46 minutes late. Most of this delay was, of course, caused by our being held up by Conrail entering Cleveland.

Now, for the first time, I had two seats to myself, so I moved to the window seat. Right after we left Elyria at 8:05 a.m., I walked down to the dining car for breakfast. (The Scouts accompanying me got some food for breakfast in the lounge car.) I was seated opposite a woman and her son from western New York who had boarded the train in Erie, Pa., and were on their way to visit her family in Milwaukee. I got the "American" breakfast, which consisted of orange juice, a fresh fruit cup, a bagel with cream cheese, a bowl of Special K cereal, and coffee. Our waiter was Zane, whom I remembered from previous trips on the Lake Shore as being friendly but a little slow. This time, though, service was reasonably prompt. I finished breakfast about the time we stopped in Sandusky at 8:43 a.m.

I returned to my seat and started reading my accumulated Railroad List e-mail, which I had downloaded yesterday afternoon at Floodwood. Now that I have a laptop equipped with a modem, I can download hundreds of messages in a few minutes, store them on my laptop, and then read them later wherever I happen to go. There are several hundred messages that I have to go through, but most of them are of little or no interest, so I can review them very quickly.

Soon, we crossed the Maumee River, with its beautiful view of the Toledo skyline, and I watched us pull around the sharp bend into the Toledo station, where we arrived at 9:34 a.m. Here, I got off the train, along with all four Scouts who accompanied me, and I took a picture of the four of them. Then I walked into the station and called my cousin Debbie in Chicago. I noticed that the western end of the platform adjacent to the station building has been converted to a loading area for express cars, and two express cars were in the process of being loaded. No express cars were added to our train, though. (I think that it is the Capitol Limited that handles most or all of the express shipments from Toledo.) I also walked to the back of the train where I recorded the numbers of the two RoadRailer cars that had been added to the train at Albany. (A glance at these cars solved a mystery that had puzzled me since last night, when I heard defect defectors announce that the train had 78 axles. Normally, there are four axles per car or engine, but 78 is not evenly divisible by four. The explanation is that adjacent RoadRailers share a single pair of axles where two cars are coupled together, but there must be a pair of axles in front and back of each car. So the two RoadRailers together have three pairs of axles. These six axles, together with the 72 axles for the other 16 cars and two engines on the train, add up to 78. Interestingly, this morning, one of the defect detectors announced that we had only 77 axles. How this happened I do not know.)

We spent 17 minutes in Toledo and left at 9:51 a.m., 49 minutes late. I continued reading my Railroad List e-mail at my seat. I didn't pay too much attention to the scenery in this area, since I had seen it all already many times, it is not particularly exciting, and I had forgotten to bring along a Route Guide or even a map of the area. Our next stop, at Bryan, lasted for five minutes. Presumably, the length of this stop could be explained by the difficulty in finding room for the boarding passengers. A few minutes after we departed Bryan, the conductor came by with a party of four passengers who could not find seats together. He showed them two pairs of seats which would be vacated at South Bend, Indiana, and suggested that they sit in the lounge car until then.

We arrived at Waterloo, Indiana at 10:07 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (equivalent to Central Daylight Time). Here we made three stops, due to the short length of the platform, and did not leave until 10:15 a.m. When we left Waterloo, a woman who had boarded there sat down in the vacant seat next to me, having been assigned by the conductor to that seat. I moved over to the aisle seat so I could continue to get up without disturbing her. She explained that she was enroute to Minneapolis, where she would be picking up one of her daughters and driving her back to her (that is, the mother's) home near Fort Wayne. The daughter, she noted, was afraid to drive through the Chicago area, so she, her mother, had to come and drive her back to Indiana. (I didn't have the nerve to ask how old this woman was, but she mentioned that she had 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and appeared to be at least 70!) She had decided to make this trip just yesterday, and had not had the opportunity to buy a ticket (since there is no ticket agent in Waterloo). As a result, she paid the conductor $44 in cash as the fare to Chicago, and would be purchasing in Chicago a ticket for the Chicago-Minneapolis portion of the trip. She also told me that when she called Amtrak yesterday, there were no coach seats left on the Empire Builder to Minneapolis, and that as a result, she had to purchase a bedroom for this portion of the trip. She mentioned that she had a winter home in Florida, and that she would normally drive back and forth from Indiana to Florida about three times a year!

About this time, I finished reading my e-mail messages, and I decided to return to the lounge car, where I obtained a cup of tea and a corn muffin and continued working on these memoirs. The conductor indicated to me that we would be dropping off the RoadRailers right outside of Union Station in Chicago, but that we would not be backing into the station, so that we should be arriving in Chicago about 1:00 p.m. We made rather brief stops at Elkhart and South Bend, and when we left South Bend at 11:24 a.m., we were 51 minutes late.

At 11:30 a.m., an announcement was made that the lounge car would be closing for service in ten minutes. But this announcement only spurred many passengers to go down to the lounge car to purchase some snacks for lunch, and when I returned to my coach seat at about 11:55 a.m., there still was a long line for service in the lounge car.

We left Hammond-Whiting at 12:27 p.m., still 51 minutes late, but the conductor was correct in stating that there is plenty of make-up time built into the schedule. Formerly, when the train backed into the station, about 20 minutes was wasted by this maneuver, but under the new procedure, the two RoadRailers and the two mail cars at the back of the train were dropped outside the station (a procedure that took only five minutes), and then we pulled straight in to Track 24, coming to our final stop at 1:04 p.m. Since we did not back into the station, it was not even necessary to make a safety stop. We walked down the platform into the station, made a few phone calls, and then went to Wells Street, where we boarded the Ravenswood CTA train which would take us near where my cousins Debbie and Aaron live.

This train trip was quite uneventful. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the journey was the fact that we arrived at our final destination only 19 minutes late! But our basically on-time arrival was not indicative of today's general performance of Amtrak. The arrivals board showed that the Texas Eagle was not anticipated to arrive until 7:00 p.m. -- over five hours late, and the Southwest Chief was not expected in until about 8:00 p.m. So it seems that Amtrak's on-time performance still has a long way to go!

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