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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Maple Leaf
Rhinecliff-Rochester
http://www.trainweb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1999c31a.html

It's about 8:25 a.m. on Wednesday, March 31, 1999, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in Rhinecliff, New York, where I will be boarding Train #63, the Maple Leaf, on my way to Rochester, New York, where I will be visiting my cousins.

I wanted to take the train to Rochester, but the Maple Leaf leaves Penn Station in New York at 7:15 a.m. To make this train, I would have to leave Teaneck no later than about 6:15 a.m. I didn't want to leave quite this early. However, I could also catch the train further north, which would give me some additional time. Although the train stops in Yonkers, Croton- Harmon and Poughkeepsie, there is a charge for parking at these stations, and the first station to the north of New York with free parking is Rhinecliff, about 90 miles north of Teaneck. So I decided to board the train there.

Last night, I got directions to the station from the Internet, and they proved to be reasonably accurate. I took the Thruway to Kingston and then crossed the two-lane Kingston- Rhinecliff Bridge, and proceeded south on a narrow, winding road to the village of Rhinecliff.

Rhinecliff is a quaint, sleepy little hamlet which would not warrant an Amtrak station in its own right. But it is only a few miles away from the larger community of Rhinebeck, and just across the river is the city of Kingston. So the Rhinecliff station serves these localities, too. The attractive brick station is located at the edge of a cliff, with vehicular access to the ticket office and waiting room on the upper level, and the trains themselves on the lower level. I first went to the upper level of the station, where I purchased my ticket from the friendly agent. But the parking on this level is very limited, and all long-term parking is on the lower (track) level, accessed from another street. So I then drove around and parked my car at the lower level.

Formerly, there were four tracks on the old New York Central Railroad passing through here, and there were two platforms, each with a stairway connecting to the pedestrian bridge leading to the station. Now that two of the tracks have been removed, all trains use the remaining two tracks on the original southbound platform, and the former northbound tracks have been removed and converted to a parking area. Thus, the parking area is long and narrow. It was quite full, since many people commute to New York city on the four Amtrak trains that leave earlier in the morning (Amtrak now sells commutation tickets for $380 a month). But there were a number of empty spaces in the far north portion of the parking area, and I was able to park there (after having left my luggage by the stairway leading up to the overpass). Then I returned to station, made a few phone calls, and walked down to the platform.

My train arrived at 8:50 a.m., two minutes early. About five people got off, but I was the only passenger to board the train (although about half a dozen passengers were waiting for southbound Train #248, scheduled to depart at 8:56 a.m). I was directed to the second car of the train, where there were a number of unoccupied pairs of seats, and we departed on time at 8:52 a.m. After the conductor took my ticket, I walked back to check out the rest of the train.

Today's Maple Leaf is pulled by two 700-series Genesis engines, and includes five Amfleet I coaches and a 20000-series cafe car without tables. I am rather disappointed with the "no- frills" consist of this long-distance train, with a 12-hour run to Toronto. This was the case the last time that I took this train, too. It seems that Amtrak favors the higher-paying customers using the New York-Albany trains, and figures that the lower-class people traveling to Toronto aren't deserving of better treatment. When I mentioned this problem last year to Wes Coates, the manager of Amtrak's Empire Service, he said that he was aware of the problem and that Amtrak was working to remedy it. But it seems that nothing has been done in the meantime.

There are about 220 passengers on this train. The last two cars are the most crowded; it would appear that the Niagara Falls passengers have been assigned to these cars. The first two cars are assigned primarily to people going no further than Albany.

We proceeded very slowly north of Rhinecliff, and then came to a stop at 9:03 a.m. We were soon passed by the southbound Train #248, and then we started moving again. The reason for the delay was soon evident. The southbound track on our left was full of yellow Conrail track-work equipment, so all trains had to use the northbound track. Moreover, there was a 30-mile-an-hour speed restriction on this track, due to the work on the immediately adjacent track. It took us 24 minutes to cover the 11 miles from Rhinecliff to milepost 99, and we did not resume our normal speed until 9:22 a.m. I might add that, although the conductor was very friendly when I inquired as to the cause for our delay, no announcement was made for the benefit of all the other passengers who probably did not understand what was happening.

In the meantime, I went back to the cafe car and purchased a blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee, which I brought back to my seat. I sat back and enjoyed the beautiful scenery along the Hudson River to the left.

We finally arrived in Hudson at 9:32 a.m., and left a minute later. About half a dozen passengers got on and off here. Just north of the station, we passed southbound Train #250, right on time for its scheduled 9:35 a.m. arrival at Hudson. (We were supposed to have departed Hudson at 9:15 a.m.)

Soon afterwards, I heard on the scanner the engineer telling the conductor that the passengers who are using cell phones and computers are "messing with his navigational equipment," and that he should have all of these electronic devices turned off. A few minutes later, he repeated the message, stating that the navigational equipment in the Genesis engines seem to work fine if the computers and cell phones are turned off.

I was astonished to hear this comment by the engineer. On planes, it is standard procedure to require that all electronic equipment be turned off for take-off and landing, but I've never heard of such a regulation onboard trains. And even in the case of planes, passengers are permitted to use laptop computers during the flight itself. I was waiting to see how the conductor would react, but no announcement was made in response to these concerns by the engineer. So, I decided to turn on my laptop computer and start working on these memoirs. Apparently, my computer did not have any undue effect on the navigation of the train -- I mean, we did end up in Albany, rather than Washington, D.C. or someplace else, right?

We passed under the Alfred E. Smith Bridge over the Hudson River at 9:46 a.m., just as an eastbound Conrail train was proceeding east over the bridge. Then, as we pulled into the Albany station at 9:54 a.m., I noticed Conrail engine #1975 on the track immediately to our left. Almost everyone in my car got off here in Albany.

I stepped off the train, and observed the northbound Ethan Allen to Rutland, Vermont on the adjacent track. Then I noticed that our two Genesis engines and the first coach were being taken off the train and replaced by F-40 engine #206. Most 700-series Genesis engines now operate for the entire run of the train, but my friend Matt Donnelly had told me that, with respect to the Maple Leaf, the Genesis engines must be replaced with an F-40 engine because the VIA crews, who take the train from Niagara Falls to Toronto, are not qualified to operate the Genesis engines. This was the case about a year ago, and I am somewhat surprised that they haven't bothered to get qualified for the Genesis engines in the meantime. (An Amtrak employee confirmed that this is indeed the reason for the engine switch in Albany.)

The engine change was handled very expeditiously. About 25 people boarded the train (all of whom were assigned to my car, which was nearly empty after the passengers from New York had detrained), and by 10:04 a.m. we were ready to proceed. However, another problem now arose. The line from Schenectady to Albany has only a single track, and Train #284 from Niagara Falls, scheduled to arrive in Albany at 9:55 a.m., was running late. So, we had to wait for the arrival of that train until we could proceed. Train #284 finally pulled into the station at 10:11 a.m., with rebuilt Heritage coach #7620 included in the consist. Then the Ethan Allen (which had been scheduled to depart at 9:45 a.m.) left ahead of us, and we did not leave until 10:16 a.m., sixteen minutes late.

We stopped briefly at Schenectady at 10:39 a.m., and then proceeded west along the New York State Barge Canal. I noticed some points of interest along the way, and looked a little at my new edition of Steam Powered Video's Northeast Rail Atlas, but I wanted to get some work done on an index I was preparing for a book. So, I took out my computer and started working on the index. Soon, my batteries began to run low. Since my car (#44673) had been equipped with strip wiring, with plugs at each seat, I plugged my computer into the outlet adjacent to my seat. But, somewhat to my surprise, the outlet did not work. I tried the outlets on the other side of the car, with the same result.

By now, the batteries to my computer were completely dead, so to continue doing my work, I had to move to another car where I could locate a working outlet. I finally found an empty pair of seats in the next-to-last car, which had also been retrofitted with an outlet at each seat. Thankfully, this outlet worked. So I moved my computer and the materials I was working with back to that car, and spent most of the next two hours there, working on the index.

We arrived in Utica at 11:52 a.m., pulling in on the northern track, which is not adjacent to the one remaining platform. (Passengers had to cross the southern track on a paved area to access the train.) As we approached the station, I noticed about eight cars of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad on a siding to the right. And when we arrived at the station, a sign to the right was posted that read: "Coming Soon -- Southern Terminus of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad." I understand that due to the unwillingness of Conrail to permit the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to use its trackage approaching the Utica station, the railroad has been busing passengers from the station to the end of its own line a mile or so away. Hopefully, this practice will soon end, and passengers will be able to board the trains directly from the magnificently restored Utica station.

After two minutes, all the passengers had boarded, but we remained in the station for another three minutes while the engineer copied a Form D order dictated over the radio from the dispatcher. When we departed Utica at 11:57 a.m., we were 20 minutes late.

Soon, pursuant to the Form D order, we moved to the southern track. We arrived at the Rome station at 12:11 p.m. The beautiful old station building is visible to the left (I'm not sure to what extent it is still in use), but the platform is in poor condition, with the one door leading down to the "lobby" being boarded up. While in the station, the eastbound Lake Shore Limited, led by engines #2 (Genesis) and #402 (F-40) zoomed by to our right. It was supposed to have passed through Rome at about 9:50 a.m., so it is running about 2 hours and 20 minutes late -- not at all unusual for this train. We departed Rome at 12:13 p.m. and then, four minutes later, Train #286 passed us to the right. This train, which is scheduled to stop at Rome at 11:56 a.m., is running behind the Lake Shore Limited, and presumably has been delayed because of it. This, again, is not unusual.

I continued working on the index, not paying too much attention to the scenery which, although somewhat interesting, I have seen a number of times before. Before I knew it, at 12:44 p.m., we passed by the former Amtrak station in East Syracuse. The station is still there, but it is closed and deserted. Although it is only about five miles from the old station to the new station, it took us 14 minutes to cover this distance, since we traveled at a rather slow rate of speed.

At 12:58 p.m., we pulled into the new Amtrak station in Syracuse. This is the first time that I have been on a train that stopped at this station. It features a single high-level platform, with room for tracks on both sides (although, at least for now, there is a track only on the northwest side of the platform). This is the only station north of Poughkeepsie that has a high-level platform, which certainly facilitates the loading and unloading of passengers. I, along with several other passengers, stepped off the train during our four-minute stop. Of course, I did not have time to go down to the station building itself, but I noticed that it has separately identified bus and train lobbies. (This is rather interesting, considering the recent discussion on the All-Aboard List of the wisdom of combining Amtrak and Greyhound stations, with some list members commenting on the alleged unfortunate consequences of forcing the "classy" Amtrak patrons to utilize the same facility as the "trashy" Greyhound customers.)

After we left Syracuse, I continued working on the index for about an hour. I noticed at 1:49 p.m. the two picturesque churches and the farm in East Palmyra, mentioned in the Rail Ventures book. I then returned to my seat in the first coach, did a little work on these memoirs, and then packed up my belongings in preparation for our arrival in Rochester.

We arrived at Rochester at 2:17 p.m., 26 minutes late. I detrained and looked for my cousin Joel, but he was not there. So I called up his home and was informed that he would be arriving in about ten minutes. In the meantime, I went back and took a picture of the train. The stop here lasted for nine minutes because a wheelchair lift had to be used first to permit a handicapped passenger to detrain, and then to allow another wheelchair-bound person to board the train. A few minutes later, my cousin arrived, and we were on our way to his home.

Today's ride was pleasant, but it was rather disappointing to have to travel on a no-frills train with no amenities. At least I had two seats to myself for the entire trip, and I did manage eventually to find a seat next to an operable electric outlet. But something was definitely missing from the ride. Having a table available would have facilitated my work, and it would have been nice to hear the conductor make some announcements other than those informing passengers of the next stop. The service provided on this train certainly does not fit the image of excellence that Amtrak is trying to promote under the new "Acela" brand name. If Amtrak is to be successful in marketing its Empire Service west of Albany, it has a long way to go.

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


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