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Dan Chazin's Trip on Amtrak Empire Service
Rochester-New York

It's 9:45 a.m. on Tuesday, February 20, 2001, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in Rochester, where I will be boarding Empire Service Train #286 to New York. I arrived yesterday afternoon on the Maple Leaf from Rochester, and visited my 93-year-old uncle in the evening, spending the night with my cousins.

My reservation was made for a return on the Lake Shore Limited, Train #48, scheduled to depart Rochester at 7:35 a.m. I actually did not want to leave Rochester so early, but I assumed that the "Late Shore" would, as usual, arrive an hour or two late, so that I could catch it at a more reasonable time. Indeed, checking on the Internet, I found that it had arrived over three hours late the last two days. But, to my surprise, today the Lake Shore Limited departed from Rochester only 25 minutes late! Having called Amtrak and found this out, I decided not to make any effort to catch #48, and instead I told my cousin to take me to the station about 9:30 a.m. so that I could board Train #286, scheduled to depart at 10:02 a.m.

When I arrived at the station, I first went over to the ticket counter to exchange my ticket for Train #48 for one valid on Train #286. While there is ordinarily a $30 fee for changing an Amtrak reservation, this fee does not apply for travel within the Northeast Corridor. When I told the agent that I wanted to travel on Train #286, he simply changed my reservation in the computer and then wrote "286" in a circle on my original ticket. I then made a few phone calls and awaited the arrival of my train.

Train #286 pulled into the station at 10:07 a.m. It was headed by F-40 engine #286 -- so far as I can determine, the only time I've traveled on an Amtrak train whose lead engine number and train number were identical! (I did ride behind engine #3 on the westbound Southwest Chief, Train #3, on June 30, 1997, but that engine was the second unit on the train.) The train consisted of five passenger cars -- a Business Class/food service car and four 84-seat Amfleet I coaches. All of the coaches were un-refurbished ones, with the original red seats. It seems that the Empire Service trains have become the stepchild of the Northeast Corridor, with the newly-refurbished Acela coaches assigned primarily to trains running between Boston and Washington, and passengers traveling from Niagara Falls to New York relegated to the un-refurbished coaches.

There were about 60 passengers waiting to board the train in Rochester, but only one door was opened, so the boarding process took six minutes. All New York-bound passengers were assigned to the second coach, while passengers for intermediate points were assigned to the first coach. The last two cars were closed off. Even after everyone boarded, there were a few unoccupied pairs of seats in my car. Since I had two seats to myself, I didn't complain about the rear two cars remaining closed. (Even if the conductors wanted to keep those cars open for passengers boarding at subsequent stops, they could have opened the doors at both ends of the second car to speed-up the boarding process at Rochester.)

Today, the Business Class car is #20129, which has the luxurious Club Car seating on one side (this is the section to which Business Class passengers were assigned) and Custom Class seating on the other side. The Custom Class seating section was unoccupied except for the two conductors. Well, had I made a reservation for Business Class on today's train, I would have gotten my money's worth! I didn't ask about upgrading to Business Class, but another passenger did, and he was informed that the Business Class has been sold out for several days already.

When we arrived in Syracuse at 11:25 a.m., the conductor opened the third car and directed all boarding passengers into that car. Even though the new Syracuse station -- part of an intermodal transportation center -- has a high-level platform, the boarding process took five minutes, as again only one door was opened. We departed the Syracuse station at 11:30 a.m., 13 minutes late. A few minutes later, we passed the older Syracuse station in East Syracuse, built by the New York Central Railroad in the early 1960s and abandoned last year when Amtrak moved to the new station. I noticed that the station building -- a modern structure of no architectural significance -- was scarred with graffiti, and grass was growing through the cracks in the station platform. Then, at 12:08 p.m., we passed Train #63, the westbound Maple Leaf.

Our next stop was Rome, which features an historic brick station in rather poor condition. However, a sign posted on the building stated: "Coming Soon: A Refurbished Train Station." It's nice to see that this classic building will soon be restored, hopefully to its original beauty.

I now went to the cafe car, where I purchased a can of soda. I had hoped to sit down there (in the Business Class section) and eat a sandwich that I had brought with me, but the conductor said that I could not sit there and had to return to my seat. Interestingly, this very same car #20129 has been on two Northeast Direct trains that I've taken during the past year. In both cases, although a coach passenger, I was able to sit in the more spacious seating afforded by that car -- once in the Club section, and once in the Custom Class section. Unfortunately, it looks like that won't be possible on this trip, and I had to return to my rather cramped seat in the 84-seat Amfleet coach.

At 12:28 p.m., we stopped at Utica, which (besides Rome) has the only historic station building on the Amtrak line from Albany to Buffalo. I noticed that New York Central steam locomotive #6721 is on display on a side track next to the station. I don't recall seeing this engine there before; perhaps it was only recently put on display there.

Soon after Utica, our line begins to run along the New York State Barge Canal, the route of the historic Erie Canal. This is a very scenic stretch of the route, with a number of historic buildings along the way. The canal was largely frozen, and the fractured pieces of ice, tossed at various angles, made a particular interesting sight.

Our next stop, Amsterdam, features a small, modern, brick station building on the outskirts of town. Here, as at the previous two stops, all boarding passengers (there weren't all that many of them) were directed to the first coach. When we departed from Amsterdam at 1:31 p.m., we were 23 minutes late. Boarding passengers were also directed to the first coach at Schenectady, from where we departed at 1:49 p.m. By this time, that coach had become quite full, with every pair of seats occupied by at least one person.

We arrived at the Albany station at 2:10 p.m. As we approached station, I noticed the new Genesis engine #139 on a side track. This engine -- like all those of the most recent engine order -- is painted with Amtrak's new "three sheets in the wind" logo. This is the first time that I've seen an Amtrak engine painted in this scheme.

When our train pulled in on the main track, adjacent to the station, I detrained. I observed the grand new Albany station, nearly completed, just to the south of the existing station (which will be razed for a parking lot when the new station is completed). I also saw the abutments for a new vehicular overpass, just south of the existing station and north of the new station, which will improve traffic flow from the station to downtown Albany. I walked into the existing station, where a ticket agent informed me that it is hoped that the new station will be in service by the coming fall. I also picked up a copy of the Empire State Passengers Association newsletter, which had an interesting article about the new station. Plans for the new station called for four station tracks, but construction of the fourth track -- the one farthest east -- cannot proceed until the existing Amshack (a/k/a "station") is demolished. The article indicated that because of the defeat of the New York State Transportation Bond Issue last November, the final $10 million needed to complete the station will not be available, and that, as a result, the installation of this fourth track will not proceed until additional funds are available. The existing station has only three tracks, so there will not be a deterioration in service, but there are times when three tracks are not sufficient to handle all the trains served by this station, and a fourth track would be a very welcome addition.

When I saw F-40 engine #286 at the head of our train as it pulled into Rochester, I knew that we'd have to change engines in Albany, since these engines cannot operate on electric power and thus are not allowed to proceed through the tunnel leading to Penn Station. Amtrak has now acquired enough 700-series engines, which are capable of operating on either diesel or electric power, to run all Empire Service trains with these engines for their entire runs to Rutland, Montreal or Niagara Falls, respectively, thus avoiding the necessity for an engine change in Albany. Until recently, the 700-series engines were in fact used on these trains for their entire run. But last night, my online friend Matt Donnelly from Auburn, New York alerted me to the fact that Amtrak has recently been using the older F-40 engines on all trains west of Albany, apparently because of the unreliability of the newer dual-mode Genesis engines. That that was indeed the reason was confirmed by the Amtrak employee who was stationed at the crossing to Tracks 1 and 2. It is quite interesting that these F-40 engines, most of which are over twenty years old, are considered more reliable by Amtrak than the brand-new Genesis engines!

Thus, upon our arrival in Albany, our F-40 engine #286 was removed from the train and replaced by Genesis dual-mode engine #713. We are scheduled to spend only ten minutes in Albany -- enough time to board passengers and change crews, but not enough time to change an engine (at least the way Amtrak now does it; I have observed engine changes that took less than ten minutes). So our stop lasted over 20 minutes. In the meantime, northbound Train #281 to Niagara Falls had arrived on Track 2, and that train, like ours, also had to change engines.

We finally departed from the Albany station at 2:31 p.m., 26 minutes late. Train #281 to Niagara Falls departed at the same time. I walked through the train and found that all the cars were now opened, with many passengers who boarded in Albany seated in the rear car. We proceeded south very slowly, and I observed the beginning of the construction of platforms for the new station. Then, only a short distance south of the station, we came to a halt. On the scanner, I heard a crew member of our train ask the CSX dispatcher whether any train was coming on Track 2, as he wanted to go out and inspect the engine. Soon, we moved ahead for a few feet and stopped again. Finally, at 1:41 p.m., we proceeded ahead, with the comment being made on the scanner that they heard some strange noise but couldn't find anything wrong.

We now continued south along the beautiful Hudson River, largely frozen in many places. At 3:01 p.m., we stopped at the beautiful, historic brick station at Hudson, N.Y., which has been nicely restored. When we left two minutes later, we were 33 minutes late. Then I heard on the scanner some conversations with the CSX dispatcher of this line, which indicated that there was a single-track stretch that we would encounter at some point north of Poughkeepsie. He was trying to figure out how to juggle our train with the northbound trains that we would have to pass on our way south.

At our next stop, Rhinecliff, the doors were opened between the first and second coaches, but there were no available pairs of seats in either of these cars, so boarding passengers had to walk two cars back to find seats. By the time we departed Poughkeepsie at 3:43 p.m., we were 37 minutes late.

Now I decided to walk to the back of the train, and spend a few minutes looking out of the end of the rear coach. I discovered that there were now people sitting in every pair of seats in that coach, too. One young man was sitting on the floor in the empty space provided for a wheelchair on this handicapped- accessible coach (the only one on the train). He explained that he had given up his seat in the rear of that car to an elderly woman who was sitting there. Of course, there were other single seats available elsewhere in the car, and I subsequently found a few empty pairs of seats in the first two cars which had been vacated by passengers who detrained at Rhinecliff or Poughkeepsie.

Next, I walked down to the cafe car, where I obtained a cup of tea and a bag of Red Hot Blue chips. Now, coach passengers were permitted to sit in the Custom Class seating at the rear of the car (except for the front two groups of seats reserved for the crew) but, of course, nearly all the seats were now occupied. So I brought my refreshments back to my coach seat, from where I continued to observe the beautiful scenery along the river.

This rail route along the Hudson River from Albany to New York has been rated one of the top ten rail journeys in the world. It's not quite as thrilling as the route of the California Zephyr through the Rockies, but it is still a magnificent train trip. I've done it many times before, but each time is somewhat different -- on this trip, the ice on the northern reaches of the river near Albany made it special. Somehow, the cramped seating in an unreconditioned 84-seat Amfleet I coach doesn't seem as bad when you have such beautiful scenery to look at!

South of Poughkeepsie, we slowed down quite a number of times. It seems that some delays were due to a restrictive signal, but at least once, communications on the scanner indicated that the cause was the strange noise heard emanating from the engine. As a result, we did not reach our next stop, Croton-Harmon, until 4:31 p.m. Here, I stepped off the train briefly. I noticed a Metro-North train waiting behind us to move onto the track which our train occupied. After two minutes, I heard the Metro-North Hudson dispatcher inquire whether we were ready to proceed. The response was that a detraining passenger had trouble finding his wife and children aboard the train, but he finally found them, and we departed at 4:35 p.m. Now we were 52 minutes late, having lost another 15 minutes since Poughkeepsie.

We made an unscheduled stop at Yonkers at 4:52 p.m., apparently to discharge a passenger who mistakenly boarded our train (rather than her Metro-North train) at Croton- Harmon. We then proceeded over the Spuyten Duyvil and under the George Washington Bridge, heading down to our final destination, New York Penn Station. I gathered my belongings together and, after a brief wait outside of the station for trains crossing ahead of us (it was, after all, the heart of the rush hour), we arrived on Track 8 at Penn Station at 5:18 p.m. We were 49 minutes late.

I had received an e-mail that Jeremy Abbott, a member of the All-Aboard List, was going to be arriving Penn Station on Train #68 from Montreal, scheduled to arrive at 7:50 p.m. However, subsequent messages on the list informed me that that train had been annulled from Montreal to Albany the last two days due to a freight derailment. When we were about to leave Albany this afternoon, I thought that I had heard an announcement that arriving passengers from Montreal should take Train #262, departing at 3:05 p.m. Although Train #68 does not ordinarily arrive in Montreal until 4:50 p.m., buses can make the trip much faster than the train, so it would not be surprising if the "bustitution" provided by Amtrak would have already arrived in Albany.

Thus, when we arrived in Penn Station, I went to Customer Service office, where I was informed that Train #68 had in fact been annulled today from Montreal to Albany, with the passengers having been "bustituted". That meant that Jeremy might be on Train #262, scheduled to arrive at 5:29 p.m. and running 15 minutes late. Soon, the arrival monitors indicated that Train #262 would be arriving on Track 8, so I went down there to await the arrival of that train. The train pulled in at 5:43 p.m., but I didn't see anyone getting off who matched Jeremy's description. So I decided that I should start heading home.

Having traveled all the way from the west coast by train, I thought it would be only appropriate to end it by taking a NJ Transit train home, instead of a bus. So I walked over to the 33rd Street PATH station, where I took a train to Hoboken and caught the 6:36 p.m. Pascack Valley Line train to Anderson Street in Hackensack, where I arrived at 7:02 p.m. After taking a local bus, I finally got home at 7:30 p.m.

I must say that today's trip on Empire Service Train #286 was somewhat disappointing. The old, 84-seat Amfleet I coaches are really not suitable for a relatively long, seven- hour trip, and the absence of any table seating aggravates the problem. This was certainly a "no-frills" trip, and even I, a railfan, got rather tired of it after a while. Only the beautiful scenery of the Hudson River saved the day. I don't think I could legitimately make a claim under Amtrak's Satisfaction Guarantee, as I got all that I was entitled to, but the trip really did not meet my expectations (wholly apart from the late arrival of the train). If Amtrak really wants to attract passengers to its Empire Service trains for trips longer than the popular Albany-New York route, it needs to improve the seating and other amenities available on these trains.

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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