Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited & Acela Regional
It's 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, December 16, 2001, and I've just arrived at Chicago Union Station, where I will be boarding the Capitol Limited for the first leg of my Amtrak trip back home. Although my train does not depart until 6:40 p.m., and I could have taken a Metra Fox Lake train leaving Edgebrook at 5:47 p.m. and arriving at Union Station at 6:13 p.m., I decided that that was too close a connection, and instead took the previous train, which leaves Edgebrook at 3:47 p.m. My cousin Aaron drove me to the station and waited with me in his car, since it was raining and the station has only a small covered area, with no other facilities. The train arrived one minute late and reached its final stop at Union Station on time. At 3:53 p.m., while we were stopped at the Mayfair station, the southbound Empire Builder zoomed by on the northbound track. That train is scheduled to arrive in Union Station at 4:20 p.m., and it was running a few minutes early.
As we arrived on Track 7 at Union Station at 4:13 p.m., on time, I observed a very large crowd of people on the platform waiting to board the return train to Fox Lake, scheduled to depart at 4:35 p.m. It looked like a weekday rush hour! Someone on the platform explained to me that the Bears game had just ended. The Bears are a local football team that plays their games at a stadium in downtown Chicago, and the huge crowd of people apparently consisted mainly of sports fans waiting to get home from the game.
I now went to the Metropolitan Lounge. Here (unlike my experience in New York), I was asked for photo ID when I checked in. I was then told that my luggage had to be put in Room 341, which is down the hall from the Metropolitan Lounge. After bringing my luggage there, I returned to the lounge, where I did some reading, made a phone call, and started writing these memoirs. Ordinarily, I would have signed online using the phone jack made available in the lounge for laptop computers, but since the hard drive in my computer was not working, I was unable to do this.
The arrivals monitor indicated that the Texas Eagle was about five hours late and would not be arriving until 7:05 p.m. The equipment from this train, in turn, is used on the outbound City of New Orleans, scheduled to depart at 8:00 p.m., and the departures monitor indicated that that train would be delayed due to the late arrival of the Texas Eagle.
At 6:00 p.m., the attendant at the desk in the Metropolitan Lounge told me that our train would be boarding shortly. But when I looked at the departures board five minutes later, it stated that the boarding was being delayed due to servicing of equipment. Fifteen minutes later, the attendant announced that there would be a 30- to 45-minute delay in boarding because the equipment had to be serviced. I turned on my scanner to see if I could hear anything about the reason for the delay, but was unable to detect any relevant radio transmissions.
At about 6:30 p.m., the first boarding call was made for Train #48, the Lake Shore Limited. Soon afterwards, the late Texas Eagle approached the station, and it arrived about 6:55 p.m. Finally, at about 7:10 p.m., I heard on the scanner that our train was in the station and ready for boarding. A few minutes later, we were told to retrieve our luggage from Room 341, and then we were escorted onto the platform for Track 24, where our train was boarding. After the conductor collected my ticket on the platform. I boarded my sleeper, car #32062, an unreconditioned Superliner I car, with orange seats. My ticket was for Room #6, but I mistakenly went into Room #7, which I realized a little later when the conductor came by to collect tickets. However, the conductor told me that I could stay where I was, so I decided not to move. (As it turned out, my Room #6 remained unoccupied for the entire trip.)
Across from me, in Room #8 was Michael, a young man that I had met in the Metropolitan Lounge earlier. He was attending college in Indiana and was returning home to Philadelphia for his break. He mentioned that his fiancee's family travels all over the country by train, and he had accompanied her on some of their travels. He said that he chose the Capitol Limited because he enjoyed eating breakfast in the diner along the scenic route taken by this train through the mountains in Pennsylvania. We talked quite a bit throughout the trip.
Ordinarily, I would walk down the platform to record the consist, but by the time that I got settled in my room and went downstairs, the attendant said that all passengers in his car had already boarded, and he closed the door to the car. I decided that I would have to wait for a subsequent stop to record the rest of the consist, but I had already recorded the numbers of all of the passenger cars on the train. As I subsequently determined when I had a chance to check the consist at our stop in Toledo, tonight's Capitol Limited is pulled by two new P-42 Genesis engines #130 and #125 and includes a transition/crew dorm car, two sleepers, a diner, a Sightseer Lounge, a smoker coach, and a 34000-series coach with lower level seating. All of the cars (except for the crew dorm) are of Superliner I vintage.
We finally left Union Station at 7:38 p.m., nearly an hour late. Five minutes later, we stopped in the yard to add express cars to the rear of the train. The lights were not turned off during this operation (presumably, there was no need to connect the electric cable to these cars), and the stop lasted for only ten minutes.
Soon after we started moving again, a first and final call was made for dinner in the dining car. I went there along with my friend from across the hall, and we were seated opposite a couple from Alexandria, Virginia who had traveled to Chicago to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I had a vegetarian meal for dinner, while my seatmates had the prime ribs and the chicken. We were all pleased with the quality of the food, and I very much enjoyed the company of the other three people sitting at my table and the experience of being served a meal with linen tablecloths, rather than having to sit by myself at a table in the dinette on the Three Rivers after having obtained a tray meal from the service counter.
During our meal, we made a brief stop at South Bend, Indiana at 10:25 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). When we finished eating, I returned to my room and then walked back to the end of the train. Both coaches were quite full, with at least one person sitting in almost every pair of seats, and most pairs of seats occupied by two people. (I might add that both sleepers also appeared to be quite full, although there were a few empty rooms.) A movie was being shown in the lounge car, and a number of people were watching it. Our next station stop was Waterloo, from where we departed at 11:34 p.m., fifty minutes late.
The January 2001 issue of TRAINS magazine, which I read on the trip out to Chicago, had a note about the longest tangent stretches of track in the United States. It turns out the section of the ex- New York Central line which we follow from Butler, Indiana to Toledo, Ohio -- about 69 miles long -- is the third longest tangent stretch of track in the entire country!
Our next stop was Toledo, Ohio, where the train is scheduled to stop for 15 minutes. I knew that freight cars are normally added to the train here, so I realized that the stop would have to last for some time, even though we were late. I wanted to step off the train here, but the attendant told me that no one would be boarding my sleeper, so I walked back to the last coach and detrained there when the train arrived in Toledo at 12:45 a.m. I walked down to the front of the train to record the numbers of the engines and the baggage car, and then reboarded the train.
The method of coupling the additional cars to the train at Toledo was interesting. We pulled in on the track immediately adjacent to the station, having just switched from the next track, with the express cars on the rear of our train still on that track. Right behind us on the same track were the additional express cars that had to be added at Toledo. (Actually, as I subsequently discovered, only one car was added here.) At 12:57 a.m., after the 20-or-so boarding passengers had gotten on the train and all station work was complete, the train pulled forward and then backed up onto the MHC car that was being added. We pulled forward again to take up the slack, and at 1:02 a.m. we departed Toledo, now only 36 minutes late. The boarding passengers were assigned seats to the rear of the first coach, which now seemed almost completely full.
Although I still was not really tired, I decided that it was time to go to bed. I started pulling down the bed, but the attendant happened to be walking by, so I asked him to do it instead. He showed me that the easiest way to make up the lower berth is to sit on the seat and push it forward while simultaneously pushing down the lever under the seat. It took me a while to fall asleep, and I was awake when we made a brief stop at Elyria at 2:18 a.m. About half an hour later, we were passed by the westbound Capitol Limited, Train #29. That train is scheduled to depart Cleveland at 2:44 a.m., so it appeared to be exactly on time. Our train, in turn, arrived at Cleveland at 2:54 a.m. When it departed ten minutes later, we were 52 minutes late.
After we left Cleveland, I fell asleep, and I slept through our stop at Alliance. I did awake, though, when we pulled into Pittsburgh at 5:38 a.m. Our stop here lasted for 20 minutes, and when we left at 5:58 a.m., we were only 12 minutes late. There is obviously considerable make-up time built into the schedule here.
It was still dark out, and it was raining. I remained in bed, looking out at the scenery, which becomes quite interesting from this point on. Listening to the defect detectors on CSX, I found out for the first time that our train had 64 axles, which translates into 16 cars, including the two engines. Since there were eight passenger cars (including the baggage and crew dorm cars), that meant that were six express cars at the end of the train. Five of these cars had been added in Chicago, with only one car added in Toledo. Also, for the first time, the engineer would announce signals that we passed using names of locations, rather than mileposts. Up to now, we had been on Norfolk Southern lines, and NS has apparently instituted a policy of using mileposts to designate all locations which the Pennsylvania Railroad and Conrail had designated by name. This was somewhat confusing to me, as the SPV Railroad Atlas that I use to follow the route gives the old PRR/Conrail designations of these locations.
I remained in bed until we departed Connellsville at 7:30 a.m. Then I got up and took a shower. This Superliner I shower was a little more difficult to use (you had to constantly press a button to get a flow of water, and it took a while for the water to get warm), but it worked out reasonably well. After I got dressed, I walked to the back of the train. I observed that the first coach was nearly full with passengers headed all the way to Washington, while the rear coach, used for passengers traveling to intermediate stops, had only about 20 people in it, most in the front of the car. The attendant had raised the footrests on many of the seats in the rear of the car, apparently to discourage people from sitting there! Had I been a coach passenger, I would not have been pleased with this, but since I had my own sleeper room, I didn't really care.
I returned to my room to watch the scenery. We were now paralleling the Youghiogheny and then the Casselman River, and the scenery on the right side of the train (where my room faced) was very nice, despite the gloomy weather. I followed many of the points of interest on the Route Guide that I had brought along. One feature I had never noticed previously was a collection of what appeared to be windmills to generate electricity. At one point, I heard the conductor ask the engineer the name of the river that we were paralleling. The conductor somehow thought that it was the Potomac River, but the engineer corrected him and informed him that it was the Casselman River -- the Potomac being on the other side of the mountain! For most of the way, the abandoned right-of-way of the Western Maryland Railroad is visible on the opposite shore of the river. This railroad -- including the high Salisbury Viaduct over the CSX line -- has been converted into a bike trail.
At 8:55 a.m., I decided to go to the diner for breakfast. I had orange juice, a bagel with cream cheese, a fruit plate, and coffee. There were very few people in the diner, and I had a table to myself. Soon after I sat down for breakfast, we passed through the Sand Patch Tunnel and began descending the grade on the eastern slope of the mountain. By the time I finished breakfast, we had already reached Hyndman, the eastern end of the grade, and were proceeding south towards Cumberland.
I returned to my room and realized that we would probably be arriving early at Cumberland, so I walked to the rear coach in the hope of stepping off the train upon our arrival at Cumberland. We arrived at the Cumberland station at 9:56 a.m., six minutes early, and the conductor said that I was welcome to step off the train for a few minutes. I used the time to walk back to the rear of the train and record the numbers of the six freight cars that had been added to the train subsequent to our departure from Chicago. Several people boarded the train here, including a woman who was dropped off at 10:00 a.m., a mere two minutes prior to the departure of our train! The historic Cumberland station was demolished a number of years ago and replaced by a non-descript Amshack, with a tiny waiting room. Behind it, there is an equally non-descript post office facility. We left Cumberland on time at 10:02 a.m.
I returned to my room and watched as we passed through the Cumberland yard. Cars were being pushed over the hump in the yard as we went by. When we left Cumberland, I walked back to the Sightseer Lounge car and spent about an hour there. East of Cumberland, the train begins to parallel the Potomac River, which is to the left of the train. My room was on the right side, so the Sightseer Lounge car afforded better views of the scenery for this portion of the route. I was able to spot a stone-arch bridge which carried the C&O Canal over a feeder stream, a feature mentioned in the Route Guide. The scenery here is very pleasant and peaceful, and is a nice contrast to the more rugged mountain scenery that precedes it.
I returned to my room just before we arrived in Martinsburg, which features both an historic railroad station and old roundhouses which are being restored. We stopped here only very briefly and continued on to Harpers Ferry, passing several new residential subdivisions on the way -- a sign that we were getting into the Washington, D.C. suburban area. We made two stops at Harpers Ferry -- one for sleeping car passengers, and the other for coach passengers. When we left Harpers Ferry at 12:01 p.m., we were five minutes late. However, there is some make-up time built into the schedule, and it looks like we will still be arriving in Washington early.
As we left Harpers Ferry, I showed Michael some of the historic features of the area. Then I gathered together some of my belongings from my room and brought them downstairs to my suitcase on the lower level. Soon, we passed Point of Rocks, where a new wye has been constructed in connection with the extension of MARC service to Frederick, Maryland. Although I didn't realize it at the time, it turned out that today was the first day of service on this new line -- the first time that a regularly scheduled passenger train has run to Frederick in nearly 50 years!
We now proceeded towards Washington on the #1 Track of the Metropolitan Subdivision, the track normally used for westbound trains. When we arrived at Rockville at 12:43 p.m., the reason for this became apparent. The platform on the #2 eastbound track appeared to be out of service for reconstruction, so it was necessary for us to use the #1 track in order to stop at this station. We also made two stops here, and we departed at 12:45 p.m.
At 1:03 p.m., we stopped at the QN signal, a short distance before Washington Union Station, which was red. Soon, an announcement was made that there was a MARC commuter train ahead of us, and that we would be proceeding as soon as that train was out of our way. At 1:08 p.m., the MARC train (destined for Brunswick, I believe) passed us to the right, but we didn't start moving again until 1:10 p.m. As far as I can determine, this was the longest delay we had encountered due to a red signal for our entire trip! We proceeded ahead, and again encountered another red signal. Finally, we pulled into our final stop on Track 16 at Washington Union Station at 1:20 p.m, three minutes early. An announcement was made that the train had arrived three minutes early, and that this should be considered a "credit" to Amtrak if passengers subsequently travel on another train that arrives late!
I detrained and walked upstairs to the station, where I went into the Club Acela. Although I had a ticket for reserved Acela Regional Train #178, scheduled to leave at 4:05 p.m., I wanted to get back as soon as possible, so I decided to take the unreserved Acela Regional Train #168, which leaves at 2:10 p.m. The attendant in the lounge stated that she does not make announcements for this train, so I should simply leave the lounge and go to my gate about 20 minutes prior to the train's departure. There were two computers in this Club Acela, but only one of them was working, and my friend Michael had beaten me to that one. After about ten minutes, though, Michael left the computer, and this gave me the opportunity to check my e-mail (although I had to sign on via aol.com, which is a rather slow and inconvenient way of accessing one's messages).
At about 1:50 p.m., I left the lounge and walked over to Gate K, where my Train #168 would be boarding to leave from Track 28. Boarding soon began, with everyone being asked to show his ticket to an attendant at the gate, but I had no problem with using my ticket for Train #178. I walked down to the platform and first boarded the reconditioned Acela car #82067. After placing my belongings there, I walked down to the front of the train to record the consist, and noted that Club/Business Class car #20139 was on the train, serving as the cafe. I checked with the conductor, who confirmed that seats in this car are open to all passengers. So I sat down at a pair of club seats and brought all my belongings up to this car. I found it rather interesting that only one other passenger boarding in Washington had chosen to sit in this car, with the luxurious club seats. Most passengers don't bother checking the entire consist before deciding where to sit!
Soon after we departed Washington on time at 2:10 p.m, the conductor announced that the first car on the train, a 60-seat Metroliner car, was open only to Business Class passengers. I found it rather ironic that one would have to pay extra to sit in this first car, while anyone holding a coach ticket could sit in the club section, with even nicer seating, at no additional charge! The conductor also announced that the last car of the train is a "quiet car," where cell phones and loud conversations are not allowed.
The cafe soon opened for service, and I obtained a bagel and cream cheese and a cup of tea for lunch. I then returned to my seat, where I updated these memoirs. Several more passengers sat down in my car after the next few stops, but most seats remained unoccupied. After we departed Baltimore, I walked to the rear of the train and looked out the back for a few minutes. I noticed that one of the other cars on the train was Acela Business Class car #81503, also used as a coach open to all passengers. The seating in this car is not much more comfortable than in the refurbished Acela "coachclass" cars, but these Business Class cars do feature three tables, one of which was appropriated by the conductor. I counted about 160 passengers in the six cars that were open to passengers, and also noticed two passengers carrying on a conversation in the "quiet car," which seemed inappropriate. At one point, I clocked our train as covering a mile in 32 seconds, which is over 110 miles an hour.
Our train is one of the few Amtrak trains which stop at Aberdeen, Maryland and Newark, Delaware. As might be expected, only a handful of passengers boarded at each location. We arrived in Newark at 3:31 p.m., four minutes early, so I stepped off the train briefly here. Interestingly, there are four tracks at this station, and we arrived on what would appear to be the southbound express track. As a result, all passengers had to cross two sets of active tracks to reach our train. Presumably, the dispatcher arranged protection for our train so that boarding passengers would not be hit by another oncoming train!
When we arrived at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia at 4:07 p.m., a large crowd of people was waiting to board the train. My car was now completely filled, and a man sat down in the seat next to mine. He was a regular commuter between Philadelphia and New York, and showed the conductor a ticket that looked like an ordinary Amtrak ticket but was actually a commutation ticket allowing unlimited rides for the calendar month.
Soon after we departed Philadelphia, I heard on the scanner that a passenger on our train had left a blue bag on the platform. The people in Philadelphia found the bag and offered to send it up to New York on the next train, but the passenger decided that he would instead return to Philadelphia to retrieve it.
I decided to step off the train briefly when we arrived at the Newark International Airport station at 5:12 p.m., since this would be the first time that I was on a train that stopped there. Only a handful of people got on or off at this beautiful new station. When I returned to my car, I noticed that one of the single seats on the opposite side of the aisle was now vacant, so I moved over there. (I had originally chosen the pair of seats on the opposite side of the aisle because this car had not yet been reconditioned, with electric outlets being installed at each seat, and the only electric outlet in the front of the car was right in back of that pair of seats. But my battery was sufficiently charged by now, so I did not need the electric supply for the rest of the trip.)
We arrived on Track 1 at Penn Station in Newark at 5:18 p.m., two minutes late. This was the first stop that this Acela Regional train had arrived late at; indeed, we had time to kill at almost every stop along the way. Our stop should have lasted only a minute or two, but we remained in the station much longer than that. After about five minutes, the conductor announced that we were being held at the station because southbound Acela Express Train #2183 (scheduled to leave New York at 4:30 p.m.) had encountered power problems. The conductor explained that this train had to cross in front of us to get into the Newark station, and that as soon as the Acela Express train pulled into the station, we would start moving again. But nothing happened. Five minutes later, the conductor announced that the problems were more severe than initially believed, but that the Acela Express train would soon be moving. Finally, at about 5:30 p.m., the trouble- plagued Acela Express train pulled into Track A. This itself was highly unusual, as Track A -- the most easterly track at Newark Penn Station -- lacks connections to the PATH trains and is rarely used for any regularly scheduled train. I don't think I've ever seen a regularly scheduled southbound train depart from this track. Something was obviously seriously wrong here. I'm sure Amtrak will be handing out quite a few vouchers or refunds to the "guests" on that Acela Express train! (I subsequently checked Amtrak's website and found that Train #2183 arrived Washington two hours and 44 minutes late -- a delay that actually exceeds the scheduled running time of this train between New York and Washington!)
We finally pulled out of Newark at 5:33 p.m. and arrived on Track 8 at Penn Station in New York at 5:47 p.m., ten minutes late. I detrained and walked upstairs to the Eighth Avenue subway, where I caught an A train to the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. For some reason, service on the A train was delayed, and I had to wait over 15 minutes for my train which, of course, was packed when it finally arrived. I then took the "Spanish van" back to Teaneck, and the driver was quite friendly and accommodating, allowing me to store my suitcase next to her seat in front of the van. I finally arrived home at 7:10 p.m. -- just about in time to make my Boy Scout meeting a few blocks away at 7:30 p.m.
I had considered two alternative methods of transportation back to Teaneck. One was PATH from Newark to Hoboken, an NJ Transit Pascack Valley Line train from there to Hackensack, and a bus from Hackensack to Teaneck. Another possibility was to walk or take the subway to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, from where I would take an NJ Transit bus directly back to Teaneck. As it turned out, due to the delays encountered on the Amtrak train in Newark and at the subway station waiting for the A train, either one of these two alternatives probably would have been faster, but at least I did get home in time for my meeting.
My trip back from Chicago on the Capitol Limited was very enjoyable. It was quite different from the trip out to Chicago on the Three Rivers, which lacked the amenity of a dining car, and covered nearly the entire distance in the dark. The scenery along the the winding route followed by the Capitol Limited from Pittsburgh to Washington is really magnificent, and each time I cover this route is a special experience. Even the less-than-ideal weather that we encountered did not spoil the trip. I was indeed fortunate that the Capitol Limited was on time, as otherwise I would have missed my Scout meeting, which I really wanted to attend.
The trip was also noteworthy in that both Amtrak long-distance trains that I took arrived at their final destinations early, yet the Northeast Corridor Acela Regional train that I used to complete my journey arrived ten minutes late. And, what was even more remarkable, whatever delays we did encounter were -- as far as I can determine -- due to problems solely within the control of Amtrak, rather than the result of poor dispatching by the freight railroads. Two years ago, the on-time performance of the Three Rivers was horrendous, largely due to congestion on the lines recently acquired from Conrail by Norfolk Southern. But these problems seem to have been solved, and now all delays are entirely the fault of Amtrak!
In sum, I am very glad that I decided to take the train for my trip to Chicago rather than flying there!
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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