Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Vermonter
New York-St. Albans-(Montreal)
It's 11:05 a.m. on Thursday, April 5, 2001, and I've just arrived at Penn Station in New York where I will be boarding the Vermonter on my way to St. Albans, VT. and then via bus to Montreal. This will be only the fourth time that I've ridden the Vermonter, and the first time in four and one-half years. So I am looking forward to this trip. I left my home about 10:00 a.m., took a bus over the George Washington Bridge, and then rode the subway down to Penn Station.
Upon my arrival at the station, I walked over to the lower level, where I noticed that my train had already arrived on Track 8 (its scheduled arrival time was 10:56 a.m.), although the track for the departure was not yet posted. I immediately walked down to the train, placed my belongings on a pair of seats, then went back upstairs to make a phone call. The departure of the train was announced about 11:15 a.m., and I soon returned to the train. We departed on time at 11:30 a.m.
Today's Vermonter is pulled by AEM-7 engine #944 and includes two Acela Coach class cars, two unreconditioned Amfleet I coaches, a combination dinette/club car (with the club seats used for Business Class) and a Vermonter baggage car at the rear of the train. The four coaches are arranged with all seats facing the center of the car, since the train reverses direction at Palmer, Mass. I found a pair of seats at the rear of Acela car #82501, and I discovered that these seats have significantly more legroom than the other seats in the car (I could not even touch the seat ahead of me with my legs!). I never noticed this before, but now I know to try to occupy this pair of seats, with its extremely generous legroom, if possible.
For our crossing of the Hell Gate Bridge, with its magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline, I moved over to the left side of the car, then returned to my right-hand seat as we passed first through some deteriorated neighborhoods in the Bronx, then the beautiful Pelham Bay Park. The right-of-way in this area formerly supported four to six tracks, but presently there are only two active main line tracks. We passed through the Shell Interlocking and onto the Metro-North tracks, with the northbound local track under construction and out of service as far as Stamford. The stations along this stretch of the route have bridge plates installed over the out-of-service track, so that passengers can board their trains on the express track, which is not adjacent to the platform.
I stepped off the train briefly when we arrived at Stamford at 12:18 p.m. The station here is undergoing major renovations, with platforms being constructed to access all tracks, together with an additional pedestrian overpass. Soon afterwards, I walked down to the cafe car, where I purchased a bottle of Vermont cider -- a local product found only on this train -- and sat down at an unoccupied table to eat a tuna sandwich that I had brought from home. We proceeded rather slowly between Stamford and Bridgeport and, as a result, we arrived at Bridgeport at 12:47 p.m., five minutes late.
As we approached New Haven, I returned to my seat, and I stepped off the train when we pulled into the station on Track 2 at 1:08 p.m. My friend Pat Held had asked me to get some timetables for him, so I walked down to the magnificent waiting room, where I picked up a few Metro-North timetables and took some pictures. When I returned to the platform, our AEM-7 engine had been replaced by F-40 engine #265, and we departed at 1:18 p.m., only one minute late. Our station stop had lasted two minutes less than scheduled, and we managed to have our engine changed in just ten minutes!
The consist of our train is rather puzzling to me. Because of the track configuration in Palmer, our train has to reverse direction there. Ordinarily, there is a cab car at one end of the train, so that the train can be operated from there, with the engine in the rear. But there is no cab car on today's train, and only one engine was added in New Haven (on one of my previous trips on the Vermonter when no cab car was available, an engine was placed at each end of the train). I suppose that another engine may be added in Springfield. We'll have to see what happens.
We soon left the Shore Line and proceeded north on the now-single-tracked line to Hartford and Springfield. The scenery becomes a little more rural, but you still pass quite a few factories, junk yards, shopping malls, etc. I walked through the train and counted about 90 coach passengers aboard. No car was even close to full, and the first coach was nearly empty.
Although our train does not stop there, we slowed down as we passed through Wallingford, which features an historic brick station, built in 1871 and beautifully restored. We also slowed down when we passed through Meriden, which has a nondescript, modern gray-brick station. But we zoomed through Berlin, with its classic brick station, at track speed.
I briefly stepped off the train when we arrived at Hartford at 2:01 p.m. The magnificent stone station here was once a very important building, with at least three tracks, but only one track is left, and the wooden platform seems to be on its last legs. Indeed, part of the platform was closed for repair. Since the train stops here only very briefly, I've never had the opportunity to check out the interior of this landmark station. When we left Hartford at 2:03 p.m., we were five minutes late.
For the remainder of our journey to Springfield, we parallel the Connecticut River, running right along the river at times. At Windsor Locks, we run along an old canal that formerly was used to power machinery in the adjacent industrial buildings. We then curve to the right, cross the river and the canal on a steel bridge in a very scenic location, and curve again to the left, continuing to run along the river.
At 2:33 p.m., we came to a stop directly under a highway bridge, just south of the Springfield station. To our right was a side track with a high-level platform, recently constructed by Amtrak for unloading mail. (Interestingly, while the mail is unloaded at a high-level platform, the passengers must use a low- level platform at the station!) The conductor explained that the southbound Vermonter is scheduled to leave Springfield at 2:30 p.m., and when that train is late, our train often waits for it south of the station. There is more than one platform at the Springfield station, but they are all at grade, and Amtrak generally prefers to bring all trains onto the platform immediately adjacent to the station. We waited here for ten minutes until the southbound Train #55 came by to our left. The southbound train was bracketed by two F-40 engines -- #270 and #247. We finally pulled into the Springfield station at 2:48 p.m.
Springfield used to have a large station, constructed by the New York Central Railroad, but while the original station building (on the north side of the tracks) still exists, it has not been used in many years. Several years ago, Amtrak constructed a rather small station at track level on the south side of the tracks, and that is the current Springfield station. As we pulled into the station, the remnants of abandoned platforms and canopies were evident.
I detrained and walked into the station to make a phone call. The conductor informed me that an additional engine would be added at the rear of the train, and I watched as F-40 engine #280 was added to the train. I was informed by the conductor that cab cars are not used on the Vermonter in winter months, as they are not suited to leading trains through heavy snow, and that the practice is to run both engines south to New Haven on the southbound train, but to add one engine in Springfield for the northbound trip.
I soon reboarded the train, and we left at 3:01 p.m., eleven minutes late, having spent 13 minutes in the station. On a side track just north of the platform, I spotted two engines -- a black engine #1505, with reporting marks MPEX, and Amtrak F-40 #286, which I had recently ridden behind on Train #286. As we proceeded east on the former Boston and Albany line, I noticed some patches of snow -- the first that I've seen on this trip.
We passed the massive stone station at Palmer (now an antique store) at 3:28 p.m. and immediately reversed our direction, proceeding west on a side track. We paused for about five minutes in front of the station, where we were passed by the westbound Lake Shore Limited. Then, at 3:36 p.m., we started moving forward again onto the former Central Vermont Railway (now the New England Central). The ride became noticeably bumpier. Since my seat was now facing in the wrong direction, I found another spacious pair of seats facing in the correct direction in what was now the rear of our car and moved all of my belongings there. Soon, I decided to move over to the cafe car for a while. On the way, I counted only about 45 passengers aboard the train, with only two other passengers sitting in the cafe car.
About half a dozen people got off the train when we stopped at Amherst at 4:11 p.m., and eight people -- a group of teenagers who were headed to Montreal for a hockey tournament -- boarded here. Amherst has a small, quaint station. The boarding was handled very efficiently by the conductor, and we spent only one minute at the station, leaving 17 minutes late.
From Amherst north, the ride was really magnificent. Gone were the factories, junk yards and shopping malls. We were really in rural New England. The snow cover began to increase, to the point that most of the ground was covered with about a foot of snow. I watched as we crossed the Boston & Maine line in Millers Falls and then ran parallel to it for a short distance. Soon, we crossed the Connecticut River, which we then paralleled for quite a distance. I sat in the cafe car, doing some work on my computer and watching the beautiful scenery go by. The conductor started talking to me, explaining how he used to work for Amtrak in California and then moved to Massachusetts, where he worked on the MBTA routes operated by Amtrak, and finally decided to become a conductor on the Vermonter four years ago. Some of the teenagers who boarded in Amherst also came to the cafe car, took over two tables, and started playing various games that they had brought along.
We stopped briefly in Brattleboro, where three people got off, at 5:06 p.m., then continued closely following the Connecticut River until we reached Bellows Falls 35 minutes later. At Bellows Falls, where we also made a brief stop, the train crosses the river into New Hampshire. Our one stop in New Hampshire is Claremont Jct., which features an attractive frame station. A woman with her young child boarded the train here, with several other family members bidding her goodbye. When we departed Claremont Jct. at 6:09 p.m., we were 26 minutes late.
I was getting a little hungry again, so I took out a salami sandwich that I had also brought with me, purchased a bottle of cranberry juice, and sat down at my table for dinner.
Soon, we crossed the Connecticut River back into Vermont, and we stopped briefly at Windsor, which has an attractive brick station. We proceeded north along the river and reached White River Junction at 6:41 p.m. Quite a few people detrained here, and our stop lasted for three minutes, so I had a chance to get off and walk into the colonial-style brick station, built in 1937 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The station was well stocked with all kinds of travel literature, and publicity featuring New York, Philadelphia and Washington -- even including a map of the New York subway system -- was posted on the walls. An old Boston & Maine steam engine is on display here, too. When we departed at 6:44 p.m., we were 24 minutes late.
After following the Connecticut River for nearly 100 miles, we now turned west and began to run along the White River. This is the part of Vermont that I've seen the most of, since in the days of the overnight Montrealer, it would just start getting light around here. Indeed, I've always felt that this part of the route -- with its small, quaint New England villages -- best represented the quintessential Vermont. But now that the route is covered by a day train, the northern part of the line is traversed after the sun has set -- even when Daylight Savings Time is already in effect. It was getting dark, and I decided that I had spent enough time in the now rather noisy dinette car and should return to my very spacious seat. On the way back to my seat, I counted only about 30 coach passengers still on the train. There was only one other passenger sitting in my car!
Although Randolph is listed as a stop on the timetable, no passengers were scheduled to get on or off here, and we flew by at about 30 miles an hour without stopping. We did make very brief stops at Montpelier Jct. and Waterbury, though. I remained in my car, doing some work on my computer and sleeping a little.
We arrived at Essex Jct., our next-to-last stop, at 8:44 p.m. and left four minutes later, 28 minutes late. The conductor went through the train and announced that we would have to detrain from the front of the car ahead of us. I gathered my belongings together and, about 9:15 p.m., walked into the next car.
At 9:21 p.m., we made our final stop at St. Albans, VT. We were only 16 minutes late, having made up 12 minutes since we departed Essex Jct. (due to make-up time built into the schedule). About 20 passengers detrained here, and 17 of them (including the group of eight who boarded in Amherst) boarded a waiting Greyhound bus for Montreal. After loading the luggage in the compartment underneath, the driver collected all tickets and asked every passenger for identification. We departed at 9:32 p.m., eleven minutes after our train arrived, and only seven minutes late.
We stopped at the border for customs at 9:50 p.m. When you travel by train across the border, the customs agents board the train, and you can remain at your seat for the entire period of customs inspection. But when traveling by bus, you have to get off the bus, retrieve all your luggage, and take it inside a building for customs inspection. The customs agent asked me only a few questions and did not inspect any of my luggage, but I think that some of the other passengers may have been examined somewhat more thoroughly. In any event, the customs stop took about half an hour. When we finally proceeded on our way again, I fell asleep, and I woke up as we were crossing the bridge into Montreal, with a magnificent view of the Montreal skyline.
Our arrival at Central Station in Montreal was at 11:12 p.m., 17 minutes late. My cousin David picked me up and drove me to his home in western Montreal.
Today's trip on the Vermonter was a very enjoyable one. Unlike my journey in February on the Empire Service train from Rochester to New York, when I had to sit for the entire ride in a cramped 84-seat unreconditioned Amfleet I coach, on today's trip I was able to ride in a reconditioned Acela coach, and I managed to secure the best seats in the car. Moreover, today's train had a dinette with tables, and I spent several hours there. Between the spacious seating in my coach and the table seating available in the dinette, there was plenty of room to stretch your legs and make yourself comfortable. The scenery was also magnificent, with my viewing pleasure impaired only by the small size of the windows, which were not designed with scenery in mind. I'm very glad that I decided once again to ride this scenic route.