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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited

It's 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 6, 1998, and we've just arrived at Chicago Union Station where we will soon be boarding the Lake Shore Limited, which we will be taking to Albany. We have just finished participating in the National Order of the Arrow Conference held in Ames, Iowa, and the Man-A-Hattin Lodge #82 was kind enough to give the four of us a ride from Ames to Chicago. (Although there were four Scouts who accompanied me last week from Albany to Chicago, one of those Scouts chose to fly home this morning, so only three Scouts are now accompanying me on the train to Albany.) We gathered together our various packages and luggage and brought them to the waiting area adjacent to the boarding platform. On the way, I observed the arrivals board, which showed that the California Zephyr, scheduled to arrive at 4:10 p.m., will not arrive until 7:45 p.m., and that the Texas Eagle, scheduled to arrive at 1:35 p.m., will not arrive until 9:15 p.m.! I checked with the Passenger Service Office, where the representative indicated that our train would not be held for the Texas Eagle, and should depart on time. Soon I noticed that the estimated arrival time for the California Zephyr had been changed to 8:00 p.m.

A couple sitting in the waiting room noticed my Scout uniform, and asked if we were returning from Philmont. I replied that we were instead coming from NOAC, but that I had been to Philmont quite a few times previously. They then informed me that their son had worked in Philmont for several years, and that in 1996, he was on staff in Cypher's Mine. I replied that I had been to Philmont in 1996, and that we stopped in Cypher's Mine on that trek, and might possibly have a picture of their son, whose name was Rusty. They gave me their address, and I promised to look for my pictures when I had a chance and send them copies of any pictures that might include their son.

I then made a few phone calls. At about 7:50 p.m., the boarding of our train on Track 28 began to be announced, with elderly and handicapped people, and those with young children, being afforded the opportunity to board first. About 8:00 p.m., we were able to board the train, and were assigned to the front Boston coach. I located a row of four seats, with one pair of seats two rows in front of an electric outlet, so I could plug in my computer (using the extension cord that I had brought along). Then I stepped outside and walked down the platform to record the numbers of the consist. As I was doing so, at 8:07 p.m., the California Zephyr pulled in on Track 24. This seemed a little strange to me, since if the train had arrived instead on the adjacent Track 26, there could have been an across-the-platform transfer of passengers from one train to the other. Now, the passengers will have to go all the way into the station and then come back out to board our train. And, indeed, that procedure resulted in a delayed departure for our train. At 8:15 p.m. -- our scheduled departure time -- passengers from the Zephyr were just beginning to board our train, and the boarding process took some time. On the scanner, I heard how one passenger attempted to board a coach with more baggage than could be accommodated there, and he was directed to check some of that baggage in the baggage car.

In the meantime, I plugged in my computer and started entering the consist on my computer list. I discovered that the cars on the Boston section of the train (two coaches, sleeper, and even the baggage car), were identical to those on last Thursday's train which we took from Albany to Chicago (although the order of the two coaches was reversed). The New York section, though, consisted of entirely different equipment.

Finally, at 8:41 p.m., we got the highball signal and pulled out of the station. I expected that we would stop somewhere in the yards outside the station to add some RoadRailer cars, but that did not happen. Instead, we proceeded straight on our way to Hammond-Whiting. The schedule allows nearly an hour to cover the 16 miles between Hammond-Whiting and Chicago, but if no long stop is made outside the Chicago station, this distance can be covered in about half an hour. So it looks like we should be able to make up most of our lost time by the time we depart the Hammond-Whiting station.

And, indeed, we arrived at Hammond-Whiting at 9:14 p.m. It had taken only 33 minutes to cover this distance, instead of the scheduled time of 57 minutes (coming in last Friday, we had taken 37 minutes for this trip). We stopped here for eight minutes, and left at 9:22 p.m. So we were now only ten minutes late. Tonight, the extra time built into the schedule for adding RoadRailers has permitted us to make up most of the time we lost due to the late arrival of the California Zephyr.

I now decided to take some food down to the lounge car and eat it for dinner. Dinner is no longer served on the Lake Shore Limited leaving Chicago (although snacks, consisting of fruit, cheese and crackers, are provided in the dining car for first class passengers). When I arrived at the lounge car, I found that the line for service extended all the way back into the first coach. This was reminiscent of the scene we experienced last year, when we were seated in this part of the first coach. The lounge car is simply not designed to serve meals to so many passengers, and even though there were two people behind the counter, the attendants could not keep up with the demand for food. I had planned to get a cup of tea, but I did not feel like standing on such a long line, so for now I had my sardines and crackers with a can of soda that I had brought with me. At least no one objected to my consuming my own personal food in the lounge car! I purposely sat in the area of the car with the small tables, rather than the other area of the car, where the conductors normally sit. But conductors and attendants did walk through the car several times, and no one said a word about my food. I also noticed that the rule against smoking in any part of the lounge car except at designated times was apparently being enforced, since I did not observe anyone smoking at this time in either portion of the lounge car (posted regulations proscribed smoking in the lounge car from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.)

After finishing my meal, I decided to return to my seat. Although the line for service was somewhat shorter than it had been previously, it still stretched halfway back in the lounge car. While walking through the coaches, I noted -- somewhat to my surprise -- that a movie was being shown in the first two coaches, the only two on the train equipped with video monitors. I have seen such cars on the Lake Shore previously, but to the best of my recollection, this is the first time that I have seen the video screens on this train used to show a movie. I also noticed how passengers were assigned to cars by destination: the first coach was reserved for passengers going all the way to New York, the second coach accommodated those going to Albany, Toledo and Croton-Harmon, the third coach was used for passengers traveling to Cleveland, Syracuse and Utica, while the fourth coach (the rear coach going to New York) housed those going to Rochester and Buffalo. My car (the first Boston coach) was used primarily to accommodate passengers getting off at stops west of Buffalo (except Cleveland), and also held some Albany passengers (including our group), while the last car was reserved for passengers traveling to stations between Albany and Boston. Although there were some empty seats (including some empty pairs of seats), all the cars seemed to be pretty full.

We stopped at South Bend, Indiana at 10:24 p.m. Our stop lasted for four minutes, and when we departed at 10:28 p.m., we were 13 minutes late. I was getting a little tired, so I sat down in my seat, and tried to go to sleep. I did in fact sleep to some extent, and was asleep when we arrived at Elkhart, but did wake up when we left Elkhart at 10:53 p.m., still 13 minutes late. Then I fell asleep again. The next thing I remember is that I awoke as we came to a stop at Waterloo at 11:59 p.m., and then we left at 12:07 a.m. Now, we were 38 minutes late.

I was puzzled by our additional delay, and by this time I was no longer very tired. I also wanted to finally get my cup of tea. So I took my computer (which by this time was fully charged), and walked down to the lounge car. All of the coaches were quite full, although there were still a few pairs of empty seats. While walking through the second coach, I noticed that a movie was still being shown on the video monitors, even though almost everyone in the car was already asleep, and no one was paying any attention to the movie. When I arrived at the lounge car, I was confronted with a "closed" sign on the door. I walked in anyway, and found the non-smoking end of the car almost empty (although there were a number of passengers in the other section, where smoking was now permitted). I was assured by the conductor that the "closed" sign only indicated the fact that the food service counter was no longer open for service, but that I was welcome to remain in the car. Well, it looks like I won't be able to get my cup of tea after all, but at least I can spend some time in the lounge car. (I thought that the "closed" sign was quite misleading, and should not have been posted, but at least no attempt was made to clear the car of all passengers.)

I sat down at the table in front of the conductors, who were busy calculating how many seats were left in each car, so that they could determine in which cars passengers for each stop should be boarded. It seemed to me that there was ample space on the train for additional boarding passengers, but the conductor indicated to me that at some point, all coach seats will be full. I was also informed that the sleepers are completely full, too. I questioned the conductor as to the reason for our additional delay, and he explained that between Elkhart and Waterloo, we were stuck behind a TV (Trailer Van) freight train, which we finally passed around Waterloo. I continued writing these memoirs. We arrived at Bryan, Ohio at 1:35 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) and when we departed three minutes later, we were 45 minutes late. Hopefully, we should be able to make up at least some of this time by our arrival at Toledo, since there appears to be about 10 minutes make-up time built into our schedule between Bryan and Toledo.

I continued writing my description of our trip to the Adirondacks last week in the lounge car. Other than the conductors, I was the only person sitting in the part of the car with the large tables. At about 2:20 a.m., the conductor used his cell phone to call the Toledo station, where the agent informed him that there were about 63 passengers who would be boarding the train in Toledo. A strategy was devised to load the passengers in stages, so that space could be found to accommodate all boarding passengers in cars which had vacant seats.

We pulled into the Toledo station at 2:39 a.m. I got off the train and walked into the station, leaving my laptop computer under the conductor's bag in an adjacent seat. (I had previously spoken to him, and he indicated that he did not have a problem with this.) On the way towards the station, I noticed about 20 express cars being stored on the two tracks between the main running track and the station. These cars were painted in an assortment of color schemes -- green, silver, and silver with a blue stripe. None was to be attached to our train tonight, however. When I came back outside about ten minutes later, many passengers were still waiting to board the train. I started talking with a young man named Adam Bennett who was traveling from Grand Junction, Colorado to Syracuse, where he would be spending some time with his family in Cortland. He told me that he had climbed all of the Adirondack 46 peaks when he was younger, so when we reboarded the train, I took out my map and pointed out to him the hike that we had taken last week. He had originally gone out to Colorado on an Outward Bound program, and we spent a while talking about our respective hiking experiences.

We finally departed Toledo at 3:04 a.m., having spent 25 minutes at the station. Instead of making up time, we lost some additional time, primarily due to delays in loading passengers, and we now were 54 minutes late. I remained in the smoking section of the lounge car for some time, talking to Adam and doing some work on my computer. (Adam had run out of cigarettes, and was complaining that none are sold on the train.) After about 45 minutes, Adam returned to his seat, and I moved back to the non-smoking section of the lounge car. By this time, the smoking section of the car was almost completely empty, but there were four other passengers in the non-smoking section of the car.

We proceeded toward Sandusky, crossing Sandusky Bay, which was visible even in the darkness. At 4:00 a.m., we came to a stop just short of the Sandusky station, with the conductor explaining that we had to stop to flag a crossing. (As one might imagine, it is very unlikely that any cars were actually using this crossing at this hour of the night.) Finally, at 4:05 a.m., we stopped at the Sandusky station. The first stop permitted some passengers to board one of the New York sleepers, and then, after two minutes, the train was pulled forward to permit three passengers for Rochester to board a coach. When we left Sandusky at 4:09 a.m., we were one hour and nine minutes late, having lost some additional time since Toledo.

Soon after we left Sandusky, the conductor announced that the lounge car was now closed, and that all passengers must return to their seats. I then heard him say "get the washrags out," so it is apparent that the purpose of the closing of the car is to facilitate its cleaning. Actually, I was planning to return to my seat rather soon anyway, since my computer's batteries were running rather low. I closed up my computer and walked back to my seat. On the way, I noticed that all cars were quite full, but there were still some empty seats, including a few pairs of seats.

I think I actually fell asleep for a while, and apparently slept through our stop in Elyria. At about 5:20 a.m., I woke up, and noticed that we were stopped at the Cleveland station. A number of passengers boarded our car, and we started moving again at 5:29 a.m. We were now one hour and 13 minutes late. Again, I fell asleep for some period of time, but awoke as we were approaching Erie, Pa. at 6:53 a.m. At one time, there were about ten tracks and five platforms at this station, but now only one is used. The deteriorated remains of station canopies and elevator shafts are still visible on the abandoned platforms to the right of the train. All passengers to Erie had been assigned to our car, so our car was the one that was opened, and all boarding passengers boarded our car, including those who were going to New York. These passengers were told that there were no seats at present in the New York cars, and that they would be moved to these cars after passengers got off in Rochester and Buffalo. Our stop in Erie lasted for only three minutes, and we soon resumed our journey.

A couple sitting in the pair of seats in front of us had detrained in Erie, and the boarding passengers had not taken these seats. So I decided temporarily to move up to these seats, so that I would have a pair of seats to myself. We were now proceeding parallel to the old Nickel Plate line (now Norfolk Southern), which was visible for most of the way only about 100 feet to our right. It was interesting to see how the grade crossing protection for both railroads interacted. At some of the crossings, the lights and gates for each railroad operated totally independently, while in other instances, the outer gate (but not the inner gate) on the NS track came down when our train approached on the parallel Conrail track. At one point, we passed an NS freight train proceeding in the opposite direction.

Soon an announcement was made that although the dining car was open for breakfast, it was now full, and that names were being put on a waiting list. I wanted to eat one meal in this trip in the diner (even though, this time, I had brought along a box of cereal for the Scouts), so I went to the diner and had my name put on the waiting list. I was rather surprised to see that the diner was more than half empty, with some tables occupied by only one or two people, yet there were about 30 people on the waiting list. The steward said that there would be about a 20- minute wait to be seated, so I returned to my car in the meantime.

About 8:00 a.m., my name was called on the loudspeaker, so I proceeded down to the dining car. I was seated opposite a woman and her daughter who were traveling in an economy bedroom from Chicago to New York. They were just coming for the weekend to see the sights of the city and experience the train ride back and forth. This was the daughter's first trip on a train, and she was very excited about the experience. I ordered the same American breakfast that I had on the trip from Albany to Chicago, with juice, fresh fruit, cereal and coffee.

Before my meal was served, we passed the ruins of the abandoned Buffalo Central Terminal, and we came to a stop at the Buffalo/Depew station at 8:17 a.m. I decided to step off the train here for a few minutes. I noticed that a small addition was being constructed on the east side of the station. The agent explained that this addition would provide needed space for baggage storage. He also pointed out that another addition had recently been constructed on the west side of the station in order to enlarge the waiting room. I stepped into the station and noticed that a large number of people were still sitting in the waiting room. They were apparently waiting for the Empire State Express, the next train to New York, which was scheduled to arrive in about another half hour. After about seven minutes, an "all aboard" call was made, so I returned to the dining car, where my meal had been served. The train then pulled up to permit the unloading of mail, and we departed the Buffalo station at 8:32 a.m. We were now precisely one hour late, having made up a few minutes since the last stop.

After eating breakfast, I returned to my car. The pair of seats that I had occupied temporarily was now taken by other passengers who had boarded in Buffalo, so I returned to my original seat and continued working on these memoirs. A man who had boarded in Buffalo, and was seated directly behind us, inquired regarding my Boy Scout affiliation. It turned out that he was an Eagle Scout whose 11-year-old son would soon be joining a Scout troop in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they now lived. He had grown up in Massachusetts, where he was a member of the Tisquantum Lodge #164, and he was now on his way, along with his family, to Boston, where they would be visiting relatives.

We pulled into the Rochester station at 9:30 a.m. I stepped off the train here, since there were about 40 passengers waiting to board. The boarding took place quite efficiently, though, and even though we had to make a second stop to let off people from the Boston sleeper, we departed at 9:38 a.m. I returned to my seat and fell asleep for a while. When I finally awoke, we were approaching Syracuse. I watched as we passed by the Solvay plant, where we had briefly joined the Conrail line on the NRHS excursion I took last month to Auburn. Then, at 10:58 a.m., we passed by the Carousel Mall and the new Syracuse Transportation Center, which I immediately recognized from the picture that I had seen of it in the Syracuse newspaper on the day of the Auburn excursion. The bus terminal part of the building has already opened, and work was underway on the construction of a new high- level platform in preparation for the opening of the rail portion of the station, scheduled for sometime in the fall. It appears that only a single high-level platform is being constructed, which raises the question as to whether Amtrak could run Superliners over this line in the future. (Although Superliners do not regularly use this route, they have appeared here on occasion in the past, and Amtrak might want to run them to Albany and Boston if, as has been considered, the Boston section of the Lake Shore is run as a train separate and apart from the New York section.)

At 11:10 a.m., we arrived at the "old" Syracuse station. Again, I detrained, since I knew that the stop would last for a few minutes. I said goodbye to Adam and walked into the station (perhaps for the last time). As was the case at Buffalo, there were quite a few passengers still waiting at the station for the Empire State Express, scheduled to arrive Syracuse at 11:21 a.m. It seems that that train has already caught up with us, and that we might even be delaying it slightly, since it will be following us. We left Syracuse at 11:19 a.m, and were now one hour and 14 minutes late, having lost some additional time since we left Rochester. I went back to my seat and continued working with my computer.

We passed the Rome station (where our train does not stop) at 11:48 a.m., and then switched over to the north track (Track 1, which would normally be used by westbound trains). Then, at 12:00 noon, just before milepost 240, the westbound Maple Leaf passed us to the right.

At 12:04 p.m., we arrived at the Utica station. Since we were on Track 1, which is not adjacent to the station platform, we had to make two stops. First, the baggage was unloaded at the one walkway leading to the platform, then the train pulled up several car-lengths so that passengers could detrain and board. This second stop was very brief, but I did have a chance to step off the train for a minute. Many passengers remained on the platform waiting for the eastbound Empire State Express, which would be arriving at the station on Track 2 right after we pulled out. To the right, on a side track, I observed four cars of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, resplendent in their paint scheme which resembles that used by the old New York Central Railroad. It seems that these cars would be used this afternoon on an excursion train. Right after we departed Utica at 12:09 p.m., I heard on the scanner the conductor of our train informing the conductor of the Empire State Express that we had departed the station and, accordingly, their train could now pull in. Subsequently, I heard on the scanner that our train would be taking the siding at Little Falls to permit the Empire State Express to pass us, but this did not happen, and we continued eastward on Track 1 without pause.

It was now lunch time. Although there had been a call for lunch in the diner, we had brought along our own food, so we ate that instead. I took out jars of peanut butter and jelly, together with some crackers, and the boys had this for lunch at their seats. I took a can of tuna fish and crackers to the lounge car, where I (finally!) purchased a cup of tea and sat down at a table to eat. We were now going along the Mohawk River/New York State Barge Canal, which provides some nice scenery to the right of the train. About 1:15 p.m., shortly before we arrived at Schenectady, an announcement was made that the lounge car is now closed, so I returned to my seat in the Boston coach.

We arrived at Schenectady at 1:23 p.m. As usual, only the front of the train stopped here. We started moving again at 1:27 p.m., but soon came to a stop at 1:30 p.m. On the scanner, I heard that the PCS light had gone on in the engine, and we would have to stop to investigate what was wrong. The conductor announced that we had stopped because of "mechanical difficulties." Soon the lights went off, but whatever the problem was, it was fixed quite soon, and we started moving again at 1:35 p.m.

We crossed the Hudson River and came to a stop at the Albany-Rensselaer station at 1:59 p.m. We were one hour and 19 minutes late. I had previously brought our luggage out to the vestibule, and I now unloaded it onto the platform, where I found a luggage cart. We loaded all our stuff onto the cart and rolled it down the station. This took quite a while, since our car was towards the rear of the train, and we had at least ten car- lengths to walk back to reach the station. In the meantime, at 2:06 p.m. the Empire State Express pulled into the station on Track 2. It should have arrived at 1:50 p.m., so it was 16 minutes late. Presumably, this delay was caused by the fact that it had to follow our train all the way to Albany. I retrieved my car, loaded all our luggage, and we were on our way. Fortunately, the car started without a problem, even though it had been sitting in the station parking lot for over a week. After dropping off two of the boys, I arrived home at 5:00 p.m.

And so ended our return trip on Amtrak from Chicago. It was pleasant, although not particularly special in any way. Although the train was not on time, at least the delayed arrival did not cause us any significant inconvenience. Once again, Amtrak proved to be an efficient way for our Scout group to travel.

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