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Dan Chazin's Trip on Amtrak's Three Rivers
Chicago-New York
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1999j20a.html

It's 7:40 p.m. on Wednesday, October 20, 1999, and I've just arrived again at Chicago Union Station where I will be boarding Train #40, the Three Rivers, on my way back to New York. I took the 5:30 p.m. Fox River METRA train to Edgebrook along with my cousin Aaron, and we then went to his home, where my cousin Debbie served us a delicious dinner. I spent only about 45 minutes there, and then Aaron drove me back to the station, where I caught the inbound 7:11 p.m. train to Union Station. (I could have instead taken a train that left an hour later, but my cousins had to go to parent-teacher conferences, and would have to drop me off at Edgebrook before 7:30 p.m. in any event. I did not want to wait for a long period at the Edgebrook station, which has no facilities for passengers, so I opted to take the earlier train and spend my time waiting in the attractive Metropolitan Lounge in Union Station.)

As might be expected for inbound trains at this hour, the train was virtually deserted, with only one car open. We left Edgebrook two minutes late and arrived in Union Station at 7:37 p.m., two minutes early. After taking a look at the magnificent main waiting room (which, of course, was virtually deserted at this late hour), I proceeded to the Metropolitan Lounge, where I took out my computer and again used the available phone jack to sign online. I spent most of the next hour downloading mail, talking to some friends via IM's, and sending the story of my California Zephyr trip to a number of my online friends. I noticed on the train arrival monitor that Train #43, the Pennsylvanian, scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 11:59 p.m., has been delayed, and that its estimated time of arrival is now 2:30- 3:30 a.m.!

At 8:57 p.m., a boarding call was made for Train #40, so I proceeded to Gate C, from where I walked out to Track 30 to board the train. Track 30 is a branch of the through Track 28, and the front part of the platform for this track is a high-level platform, designed to facilitate the loading and unloading of mail and express. I was greeted by my attendant Ronald and boarded my car #2446, named Cypress Grove, where I was assigned Roomette #3. This car -- built for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1950 -- is one of only three Heritage sleepers that was refurbished for use on this train, and it will be the first time that I will be riding a Heritage sleeper in three and a half years! I have no record of ever riding in this car previously, but the car was included in the consist of the Silver Star which I took to Florida in 1991, and was used as a crew dorm on the Lake Shore Limited when I rode it in September 1997. I noticed that the seats in this car have been reupholstered and that the former Roomette #9 has been converted to a shower. Otherwise, the interior of the car looks just about the same as Heritage sleepers used to look. Indeed, even the two ashtrays remain untouched! (I used one of the ashtrays to stow some small items at night.) The seat is very comfortable, but the room lacks the folding table found in the newer sleeping cars. (I guess that means that for at least part of this trip, my laptop computer will really live up to its name!)

After stowing my luggage in my room, I walked down to the front of the train to check out the consist. The high-level platform leading to the front was littered with empty boxes and other trash and contained several holes; it was obviously not intended for use by passengers. But I did proceed to the front, where I found that our train was pulled by two Genesis engines and included eight MHC cars, a baggage car, my Heritage sleeper, an Horizon dinette and three Amfleet II coaches. I then reboarded the train, and we departed the station at 9:32 p.m., seven minutes late. (The conductor told me that our late departure was due to the fact that the crew needed these extra minutes to get "rested." Well, I'm sure that they really got a lot of extra rest during the few minutes that the departure of our train was delayed!)

We moved ahead a short distance into the yards outside the station and then came to a stop. An announcement was made that this was the "mail train of the East," and that we were making a stop to pick up more freight cars. (In fact, what was added were nine RoadRailers, although I did not learn this until later on.) Passengers were assured, though, that this stop was programmed into the schedule, and that we should arrive at Hammond-Whiting at 10:19 p.m., on time.

I used this opportunity to walk towards the back of the train. I didn't have very far to go, though. After walking through the dinette car, I found that 42 passengers were seated in the first Amfleet coach, with the rear of the car closed off by a makeshift paper streamer stretched across the aisle. The last two coaches on the train were entirely empty. It seems that all of the passengers were being crammed into one car, with the other two cars not being used at all. Had I been a coach passenger, I would have been quite upset with this procedure, but since I was in the sleeper, it didn't matter too much to me.

Finally, at 10:04 p.m., we began moving again. We proceeded steadily to Hammond-Whiting, where we arrived at 10:28 p.m. It took only two minutes to board the few passengers who were headed for the sleeper, but we did not move for another five minutes. The conductor explained to me that a freight train had to cross over ahead of us. After another five minutes, we started moving again, but we soon came to another stop. Not until 10:52 p.m. did I hear the freight train pass us to the right, and we finally started moving again at 10:58 p.m. We were only 16 miles out of Chicago, and we were already 40 minutes late!

I went to the lounge car, where I obtained a complimentary cup of tea (on this train, sleeping car passengers are entitled to obtain all beverages for free). Then I returned to my room and, about midnight, pulled down the bed and climbed in. As I had anticipated, the bed in this Heritage sleeper is far more comfortable than those in the newer Superliner cars, since it has a full mattress which folds into the wall. (By contrast, the Superliner cars have a very thin mattress pad which has to fit in the upper berth.) I woke up a number of times during the night, but I did get quite a bit of sleep. I was awake when we stopped briefly at Nappanee at 12:53 a.m., and woke up again when we departed Garrett at 1:52 a.m. (Garrett is no longer a passenger stop, but it is still a crew-change point.) I also woke up for our station stop at Fostoria at 4:42 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time). We should have been there at 3:10 a.m., so we were now over an hour and a half late.

At 6:26 a.m., after a prolonged stop, we passed the westbound Three Rivers. That train is scheduled to arrive in Fostoria at 4:00 a.m., so it is over three hours late. Then, at 7:37 a.m., we made a brief stop at Akron. There is a small, modern station here, and about half a dozen passengers boarded the train. By this time, it was getting light, so I got out of bed and walked to the back of the train. This time, all three coaches were open. There were only a handful of passengers sitting in the second coach, though (presumably, those passengers had just boarded in Akron), and the last coach seemed to be used only by the crew. Then I went back to my car and took a shower. The water was warm, but the shower head could not be properly attached to the hook extending from the wall, so you had to hold it in your hand. I returned to my room and got dressed.

At 9:00 a.m., we stopped at Youngstown. There is a magnificent historic brick station here, but it does not appear to be used. About half a dozen passengers boarded here, but the stop lasted for just a minute. We were now almost three hours late. (Actually, until this point, I had forgotten that we had changed back to Eastern Daylight Time. I was still operating on Central Time, and I thought it was only 8:00 a.m. and that we were only two hours late! A communication on the scanner in which the engineer advised the dispatcher of our arrival time in Youngstown is what alerted me to the time change.)

I now went to the lounge car for breakfast. I obtained orange juice, a blueberry muffin and coffee from the attendant (and was charged only for the muffin, since the beverage are free to sleeper passengers). For the first time, I was able to follow our route on the new edition of the SPV Northeast railroad atlas, which contains a very detailed map of the New Castle interlocking, at which we switch from CSX (ex-B&O) trackage to NS (ex-PRR) trackage via a connection that was just built several years ago to avoid a backup move of the old Broadway Limited near Pittsburgh. We proceeded south along the very scenic Beaver River, but it was misty out and the views were not the greatest.

We passed CP Rochester, where the branch line we have been following south from New Castle joins the old PRR main line, at 10:16 a.m. A defect defector here announced that we had 84 axles, but this number was incorrect -- the correct number was 86 -- and the engineer advised the dispatcher of this fact. I spent some time in the lounge car, where I was able to look out of both sides of the train, and then, when the batteries in my computer died, returned to my room to recharge the computer. Before I knew it, we crossed the bridge over the Allegheny River and pulled into the Pittsburgh station at 10:57 a.m.

I stepped off the train here and walked down the platform, where I noticed about 25 people waiting to board the train. After taking a few pictures, I tried to walk to the back of the train to get the numbers of the various RoadRailer cars that were in the rear, but the platform did not go that far back, and I was able to record the numbers of only three cars. We spent 16 minutes in Pittsburgh, and when we departed at 11:13 p.m., we were precisely two and one-half hours late.

I walked back to the last coach and noticed that there were now over 30 people in the second coach, most of whom had boarded in Pittsburgh. The third coach, though, was still closed off and occupied only by several crew members.

Our next stop was Greensburg, where we arrived at 12 noon. In addition to about half a dozen "regular" passengers who boarded here, there was an AARP tour group of about 50 senior citizens who were also waiting to board our train. This group, which was bound for Lancaster, was apparently not listed on the manifest and was not anticipated by the crew. Thus, the train pulled up two car-lengths and made a second stop, with the entire group being seated in the rear coach. As a result, our station stop in Greensburg lasted for ten minutes, and when we departed, we were 2 hours and 43 minutes late.

I might add that a review of two delay reports for this train indicates that most delays of this train occur west of Pittsburgh. If this pattern holds up, we should be arriving in New York no later than about 10:30 p.m., which is what I hoped would happen. This train has been significantly late virtually every day for the last several weeks, and I was just hoping that it would not be so late that I would miss the 1:35 a.m. #167 bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal -- the last bus back to Teaneck.

After we stopped at Latrobe at 12:20 p.m., I decided to get something to eat. I got a sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and a Coke, and sat down at a table in the lounge car. On the scanner, I heard a communication to the train crew warning them that the door on the north side of the baggage car was open, and that part of the plastic covering of a pallet was sticking out. The crew replied that the item in question was not in immediate danger of falling out, and that they would try to fix the door at our next stop, Johnstown. So we continued on our way. In the meantime, I reviewed copies of three issues of Railpace Magazine that I had taken along with me. These issues featured the west slope of the Alleghenies, from Johnstown to the summit tunnels at Gallitzin, and included topographic maps of this entire section of the route.

After having been delayed further by some track work, we finally arrived at the Johnstown station at 1:12 p.m. Two passengers were getting on our sleeper here, and the attendant grudgingly let me step down briefly onto the platform to take a picture. Of course, an effort was also made to fix the door on the baggage car which had been reported as open. (It seems that the door could not be fixed, since after we departed Johnstown, I heard another message about an open door on the baggage car!) The Johnstown station is a classic brick structure built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, but at the platform itself there is only an unattractive shelter. When we departed Johnstown at 1:16 p.m., we were just short of three hours late.

I moved back to the lounge car for the next part of the trip, which includes the most outstanding scenery of the entire trip. Soon, I was joined by Phil and his friend Valda. They were on the last leg of a month-and-a-half-long cross-country train trip. They began by taking the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago, then continued west on the Empire Builder. After spending about a week hiking in Glacier National Park, they continued to Seattle, then proceeded south on the Coast Starlight. Next, they took the California Zephyr east to Salt Lake City, where they rented a car and drove to Bryce and Zion National Parks for another week of hiking. After reboarding the train in Glenwood Springs, they continued to Chicago and connected with the Three Rivers to Johnstown, where Phil's family lived. Now they were headed home. Since they had a sleeper for the entire trip, they decided to get one for this daytime journey, too. Both of them -- but in particular Valda -- loved trains, and they remarked that of all the trains they took on their trip, only the Three Rivers was significantly late. She showed me a notice that Amtrak had placed in their room on the Chicago-Johnstown portion of their trip, apologizing for the delays and stating that they are working with Norfolk Southern to eliminate them by the end of the year. She also showed me a card which had been given to them on that trip which explained the historical significance of the Heritage sleeper that we were riding in, and pointed out that it was one of only a handful of such cars that Amtrak still retains in service.

Using these issues of Railpace as a guide, I followed the progress of our train as we climbed the west slope of the Alleghenies to the summit tunnel. This is the second time that I've covered this route eastbound in daylight, and while the scenery is pretty nice and the route is certainly very historic, the views are not really spectacular. (Of course, the narrow windows in the Horizon cars and the type of plastic material used for the windows, which distorts the image, do not help, either.) However, the scenery descending the mountain on the east side is much more interesting, with the Horseshoe Curve being the highlight of the trip. I did not hear any announcements of points of interest along the way (although I was subsequently informed by another passenger that an announcement was made of the Horseshoe Curve that was audible in the coach in which she was riding). And, as might be expected, no Route Guides were available on board the train. We passed the westbound Pennsylvanian -- also running late -- at 1:35 p.m.

At about 2:15 p.m., less than a mile short of the Altoona station, we came to a stop. Here we waited for about 20 minutes while an eastbound freight train, a pair of eastbound light engines, and then a westbound freight train passed us on the adjacent track. Then, we pulled into the Altoona station at 2:38 p.m. on the southerly track, which is not adjacent to the single station platform. This required that the train be spotted at a planked crossing of the northbound track, and necessitated three stops -- one to unload baggage, the second to detrain a passenger from the sleeper, and the third to pick up a number of passengers who would be boarding the coaches. Our station stop, accordingly, took nine minutes, and when we departed at 2:47 p.m., we were three hours and 22 minutes late.

I obtained a cup of tea and ate a piece of pie which I had gotten earlier. The scenery after Altoona is less interesting, and the views are about the same on both sides of the train. So, after a while, I decided to return to my sleeper and continue writing these memoirs.

We arrived at Huntingdon at 3:35 p.m. and paused only for about a minute to pick up about ten passengers. I dozed off for a few minutes but awakened when, at 3:48 p.m., the train came to a sudden stop at CP Jacks due to an emergency application of the brakes. The two conductors went out to walk the train. They couldn't find anything wrong, so after ten minutes, we continued moving forward. From my room, I watched us parallel the Juniata River which, for most of the way, is on the left side of the train.

At 4:27 p.m., we stopped at the historic station in Lewistown, said to be the oldest station remaining from the Pennsylvania Railroad. The station is labeled "Lewistown Junction" and seems to have been nicely restored. Only one or two passengers boarded here, and when we left at 4:31 p.m., we were just about three hours and 40 minutes late.

I walked again to the back of the train, and counted about 145 passengers occupying the three rear coaches, with a total capacity of 180. All three coaches are pretty full, although there are some empty pairs of seats in the rear coach (mostly those seats which are not adjacent to windows). I started talking to the tour group from Johnstown, who pointed out to me that the remainder of their tour would be by bus. Due to the long delays they had encountered, some of the participants regretted that this portion of the trip was by train! Then I returned to my room and again enjoyed watching the beautiful scenery along the Juniata River.

At 5:30 p.m., we crossed the historic Rockville Bridge over the Susquehanna River, and we arrived at the Harrisburg station at 5:45 p.m. On the track opposite us was the westbound Three Rivers, which left just as soon as we arrived (it was half an hour late). The consist of this westbound train was similar to ours, but in addition to the Heritage sleeper #2450 Beech Grove (to be distinguished from the Amtrak inspection car of the same name), it included a Viewliner sleeper. It had an Amfleet dinette, rather than an Horizon one, and it also had four express cars at the rear of the train (in addition to ten RoadRailers).

For the first time, I had the opportunity to walk along the platform to the very rear of our train and record the numbers of all nine RoadRailers which trailed the passenger cars. I noticed that the last four of these RoadRailers were being removed from the train here in Harrisburg. After briefly walking upstairs, I reboarded the train, and we departed at 6:03 p.m. We were now three hours and 32 minutes late.

I went to the lounge car and got a hot beef tray meal for dinner. I sat near a woman who had just boarded the train in Harrisburg. Our train stops in Harrisburg only to discharge passengers, and she had intended to take the 6:30 p.m. Keystone train to Philadelphia. But since she had arrived early, and our train was in the station and ready to depart for Philadelphia, she was permitted to board our train instead. In her case, she would arrive early at her destination -- about the only person on the train about whom that could be said. I also started talking to a woman who was traveling from Greensburg to New York, and who was very upset about the delay to this train, and even more so about the failure of Amtrak to inform her of the likely delay. I sympathized with her, and explained how I had checked the timeliness of the train on the Web before making my reservations.

When we arrived at Lancaster at 6:40 p.m., I stepped out onto the platform briefly. The tour group from Greensburg detrained here, and the stop took three minutes as a result. I then returned to my room. It was now dark out, so there was nothing to see. I did a little work on my computer and fell asleep for a while. I awoke about 7:30 p.m., when we stopped at Paoli.

At 7:57 p.m., we pulled into Track 7 at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Here, our diesel engines are removed, and an electric engine is attached to what was the rear of the train to pull it backwards to New York. This procedure obviously takes some time, so I went upstairs and called in for my messages. I noticed that part of the waiting area was closed and had been rented out for a private party. Then I went downstairs and walked to the rear of the train, where I found that the RoadRailers were about to be detached. I walked back upstairs again, made another phone call, came back down again about 8:20 p.m., and found that the RoadRailers were still attached to the train! I noticed that the 8:17 p.m. Keystone train to Harrisburg was about to depart from the track adjacent to ours, and an Amtrak employee indicated that the switching of our train may have been delayed until the Keystone train departed. As he put it, our train was late already, so it doesn't matter if it gets a little later!

In the meantime, I noticed a Customer Service Representative calling the conductor of our train on the radio. One passenger was bound for New Brunswick, and intended to connect with a Northeast Direct train that stopped there. But, of course, he had missed his train, and no subsequent Amtrak trains later in the evening are scheduled to stop at New Brunswick. So she was telling the conductor that we should make an unscheduled stop at New Brunswick to let this passenger off.

The switching was now done rather promptly. By 8:33 p.m., the RoadRailers had been removed, E-60 engine #605 was backed onto the train, and the power was turned on again. At 8:39 p.m., we pulled out of the station and began our northward journey to Trenton and New York.

Well, at least that's what I thought. But things didn't prove to be so simple. First, right after we left the station, we stopped for a few minutes to permit a northbound Metroliner to pass us. Then, as we moved forward once again, the power went out. It was restored, we moved forward a little further, and it went out again. Finally, I heard on the scanner the engineer requesting permission to back up and return to the station. To enable him to do this, the conductor had to walk down to the last MHC car on the back of the train and stand on the platform of that car to observe the backward move of the train. We received the permission, and backed up into the station, where we pulled into Track 4.

Now, even I was thoroughly disgusted. I didn't mind our rather late arrival at Penn Station in New York, but this was getting to be ridiculous. I assumed that we would have to take off engine #605 and wait for some other engine to be attached before we could proceed. Indeed, I packed up all of my belongings and was prepared to detrain and take the next Northeast Direct train back to New York. But it turned out that the problem was not that severe. As we pulled into the station, several maintenance technicians were waiting for us. They boarded the train, and within a few minutes the problem was fixed.

In the meantime, the conductor was again notified over the radio about the open door on our baggage car. She went over to check it, and I explained to her that this problem had existed for most of our trip, that there was nothing that could be done to close the door properly, and that by this time, everything had been moved away from the door so nothing would fall out of the car. She verified that that was the case, and left it alone. (Of course, we were again notified of the open door when we passed Zoo Tower on the way out of Philadelphia!)

Much to my surprise and delight, we spent only a few minutes at the 30th Street Station and left for the second time at 9:11 p.m. This time, the electrical problem had been repaired, and we proceeded northward without further incident. I returned to my room and continued working on these memoirs.

We stopped at Trenton at 9:44 p.m. I then walked back to the lounge car, but found that it was closed, and that the remainder of the train had been closed off from the lounge car. So I returned to my room.

Since the crew had been instructed to stop at New Brunswick, they contacted the dispatcher, who seemed puzzled by the request, and wanted to know which supervisor had authorized the stop. Our train was on Track 2, which is not adjacent to the high-level platform at this station, so we had to get assurance from the dispatcher that Track 1 would be "protected" -- meaning that no train would come by on that track while our train was unloading passengers in the station. We stopped at New Brunswick at 10:13 p.m., and it seemed to me that more than one person got off there.

Parenthetically, I should add, a glance at NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor timetable may indicate why the dispatcher seemed so upset about the decision to stop our train in New Brunswick. In fact, an NJ Transit train was scheduled to leave Trenton at 9:50 p.m., just six minutes after our train arrived there, and to stop in New Brunswick at 10:15 p.m. So the passenger who wanted to go to New Brunswick could have just gotten off at Trenton and hopped aboard the NJ Transit train, saving all the bother of the unscheduled stop and the resulting delay to the rest of the passengers. Indeed, it seems that that very NJ Transit local train was delayed as the result of our stop, since it had to be given a stop signal to prevent it from proceeding into the New Brunswick station on Track 1, between our train and the platform. In fairness to the Amtrak people, our train originally left Philadelphia half an hour earlier, and the passenger to New Brunswick would then have had a longer wait at Trenton. That might have justified the original decision to stop at New Brunswick. But someone should have had enough sense to realize that since our departure from Philadelphia was further delayed, the passenger going to New Brunswick should instead have gotten off in Trenton and transferred to the NJ Transit train. I guess that some Amtrak employees may not be capable of such imaginative thinking.

Soon after we left New Brunswick, Phil came over to me and gave me the notice from Amtrak which he and his friend had received on their previous Three Rivers trip, and also supplied me with his address so I could send him back a copy. We talked some more about his train trip, which both he and his friend seem to have enjoyed very much.

After a nine-minute stop at Penn Station in Newark, we departed at 10:44 p.m. and continued -- albeit rather slowly -- to our final destination, Penn Station, New York. At one point, we stopped, presumably because of single-track operation as a result of the construction of the Secaucus Transfer station. We passed through the Meadowlands, with the lights of the skyscrapers of Manhattan visible to the right of the train, and we finally went through the tunnel and arrived on Track 7 of Penn Station at 11:13 p.m., three hours and 48 minutes late.

I detrained and went upstairs. Again, I did not offer any tip to my attendant, since he did not perform any significant services for me. I took the subway one stop to 42nd Street, where I took the 11:30 p.m. #167 bus home to Teaneck.

As a seasoned rail traveler who fully expected the Three Rivers to be significantly delayed, I very much enjoyed the trip.

Having a roomette in a Heritage sleeper was a special treat. But it was obvious that most of the passengers were very surprised by the delay -- and not very pleased. Several passengers suggested that they should have received advance notification from Amtrak of the anticipated delays, and that sounded quite reasonable. Although I considered the trip a success, it is quite obvious that Amtrak needs to get its act together if this train has any hope of long-term survival as a means of passenger transportation.

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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