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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited and Acela Regional
Chicago-Washington-New York
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/2002j14a/2002j20a.html

It's 6:25 p.m. on Sunday, October 20, 2002, and I've just arrived at Union Station in Chicago, where I will be boarding Train #30, the Capitol Limited, on my way to Washington and then back to Newark. I spent a very enjoyable weekend attending the festivities incidental to the wedding of my friends Ahron and Rena, culminating in the wedding, which took place this afternoon. I left the wedding at about 5:20 p.m., and my cousin Aaron drove me over to the nearby Bellwood station on the Metra Union Pacific (former Chicago and North Western) West Line, where we arrived about 5:30 p.m.

The Bellwood station is a suburban commuter stop which has a small enclosed waiting room (which was locked when we arrived). My cousin raised the question of which track the train would be arriving on. At first, I instinctively assumed that the train would arrive on the southern track of this east-west line. But the station building was located on the north side of the tracks, thus indicating that trains to Chicago might well leave from there. Then I remembered that this was an ex-Chicago and North Western line, and the C&NW was known for left-hand running. My cousin finally found a small sign that confirmed that the train should be arriving on the north track, adjacent to the station building.

At 5:40 p.m., five minutes prior to the scheduled departure of our train, an announcement was made on the loudspeaker that our train would be arriving on the south track. This was a change from the standard practice, and that is why an announcement had to be made to waiting passengers. Four other passengers now arrived at the station, and our train pulled in at 5:49 p.m., four minutes late. I boarded the train, and walked through the two open cars, where I found that every seat pair was occupied by at least one person. I really needed a pair of seats to myself, in order to have room for my luggage, and finally one person got up (he was getting off at the next stop), so I was able to take his seat pair.

The ride to Chicago was uneventful, and we arrived at the Ogilvie Transportation Center, built at the site of the old Chicago and North Western Railroad station, at 6:12 p.m., three minutes late. I detrained and walked through this modern facility, which is built underneath an office building. Part of the station concourse has a high ceiling, but overall, it is not an impressive structure, serving mainly as the entrance to an office building and a terminus for suburban trains.

Although on paper the Ogilvie Transportation Center appears to be two blocks away from Union Station, I discovered that it is possible to walk right across Madison Street into the new northern entrance to Union Station. This entrance leads directly down to the odd-numbered tracks leading north from the station, but you can walk along the platforms for those tracks right into the station concourse. That is what I did, and I reached the Metropolitan Lounge at 6:25 p.m.

When I presented my ticket to the attendant in the lounge, she informed me that the train should be boarding in a few minutes. I made a few phone calls, and before I knew it, the boarding of our train was announced. I proceeded out to Track 16, where I boarded my Car 3000, the first sleeper on the train. After stowing my belongings downstairs and in my Room #10, I detrained to walk down the platform and record the consist.

As I stepped off the train, a cart driven by a Red Cap came by. I moved over to let the cart by, but the cart stopped, and the Red Cap started talking to me. He introduced himself as Bill Pedroza, noting that he used to work for the Customer Relations department of Amtrak. He mentioned that he had dealt with some of my complaints regarding Amtrak service, and that he had met me at a meeting of the Amtrak Customer Advisory Council several years ago.

I was astonished that Bill would not only remember this incident, but would even recognize me when driving by on the platform! After a brief conversation, I said goodbye, Bill drove away, and I now walked down the platform, rather dumbfounded by this incredible encounter.

Tonight's Capitol Limited is pulled by two Genesis engines and includes a baggage car, a transition crew-dorm car, a coach with seating on the lower level, a coach with a smoking section on the lower level, a Sightseer Lounge car, a dining car and two Superliner I sleepers. My car, #32009, is named George M. Pullman. I believe that it is the only Superliner I sleeper to have the distinction of having a name, as well as a number. This car was on the Empire Builder that I took with Chris Fussell and Matt Melzer from Seattle to Spokane last February (I remember how, although we were traveling in coach on this trip, Matt managed to walk into the car to take a picture of the special plaque that honors Mr. Pullman), and it was also on the Southwest Chief that I took from Raton to Flagstaff this past July. However, this will be the first time that I will be occupying a bedroom in this car, which has been reconditioned with blue seats (the rear sleeper still has the original orange seats).

I noticed that the number boards on the sides of the cars displayed numbers that seemed to belong on other trains. My car was properly numbered 3000, but the rear sleeper, which should have been numbered 3001, was instead numbered 3230. That number was puzzling, as Amtrak, to the best of my knowledge, does not have a Train #32. But the other cars had numbers that signified their use on some other train. The rear coach/smoker was numbered 0611, signifying its use on Train #6, the eastbound California Zephyr. (Indeed, California Zephyr timetables and menus had been placed behind all the seats in this car.) The front coach, #34075, had the number 2212 on its board, signifying its use on the northbound Texas Eagle. Interestingly, this very car had been on the southbound Texas Eagle, Train #21, when I took that train last Monday from Fort Worth to San Antonio. It was destined for Los Angeles, and had it been sent back to Chicago on the next eastbound Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle, it would have arrived in Chicago just yesterday. The crew dorm car was designated 0831, signifying its use on the eastbound Empire Builder.

Until recently, Amtrak's practice had been to use the equipment from the Southwest Chief on the Capitol Limited, but it seems evident that this did not happen today. Today's train was pieced together in Chicago from equipment that had arrived on various other trains. Whether this is now the prevailing practice, or whether today's train represents an exception to the rule, I'm not sure.

We pulled out of the station on time at 7:00 p.m., but came to a halt four minutes later in the yard outside the station. An announcement was made that mail and express cars were being added to the train, and we stopped here for 12 minutes while this was being accomplished. We started moving again at 7:16 p.m., but came to a sudden halt five minutes later. This time, our delay lasted for 18 minutes, and we didn't start moving again until 7:39 p.m. Although I was not listening to my scanner at this point, the conductor confirmed that the emergency stop was due to a separated air hose between some of the express cars that had just been added to our train. This is an example of how the express cars attached to Amtrak's passenger trains can often cause significant delays. David Gunn, Amtrak's President, has recently announced that Amtrak's express business will be phased out as soon as possible. I, for one, will not be sorry to see this phase of Amtrak's operations discontinued.

I now walked through the train and found that both coaches were quite full. I counted 49 passengers in the rear coach and 35 passengers in the front coach, with nearly all seats occupied by at least one passenger. The seat checks indicated that most of the passengers in both cars were headed for destinations short of Washington, D.C. My sleeper was also quite full, although the rear sleeper appeared to be largely empty.

About 8:00 p.m., the first call for dinner was made. So I walked into the dining car, where I was seated opposite an elderly couple from Reston, Virginia, who were returning home from a visit to their daughter in Boulder, Colorado. The wife was afraid to fly, so they were taking the train instead. The wife had some difficulty walking, and the husband informed me that he had a heart condition, so they apparently qualified for the handicapped room on the lower level, which they occupied for all four legs of their trip. They seemed pleased with the amenities of this room, and they commented that it was much cheaper than the alternative (by which, it seems, they meant a deluxe bedroom).

My chicken dinner was quite good. Frankly, having eaten very well at the wedding, where the dessert was served as late as 5:00 p.m., I wasn't all that hungry. I had a Pepsi with the meal and a cup of tea with cake for dessert, and remained in the diner until about 9:00 p.m.

I then returned to my room, where I spent most of the rest of the evening, working on these memoirs and listening to the progress of our train on my scanner. Both Norfolk Southern and CSX require the engineer to call out the indication of all signals, so by carefully listening to these transmissions, I was able to determine our location on my SPV Rail Atlas. Our train does not stop at Hammond-Whiting - the suburban Chicago stop made by most trains heading east from Chicago - but it does stop at South Bend and Waterloo, Indiana. We made two stops at Waterloo, and when we departed from Waterloo at 10:52 p.m., we were 51 minutes late.

I was getting a little tired, but decided not to go to sleep until after our station stop in Toledo, where we arrived at 1:13 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (equivalent to 12:13 a.m. Central Time). I detrained from a coach (as the door to my sleeper was not opened) and walked down the platform and into the station. However, because of the positioning of the express cars beyond the end of the platform, I was unable to record their numbers.

Our train used the track immediately adjacent to the station building in Toledo - a departure from the usual practice of trains pulling in on the third track, which is adjacent to a separate platform. The reason for this soon became apparent. At 1:26 a.m., we pulled forward a short distance, then backed up onto a string of express cars that had been left on a track behind us. Finally, at 1:36 a.m., we departed the Toledo station. We were now 53 minutes late.

As soon as we departed from Toledo, I pulled down my bed and climbed in. It took me a while to fall asleep, but once I did, I must have slept pretty well, as I did not wake up for our station stops in Elyria, Cleveland or Alliance. I did wake up about 6:00 a.m. as we were approaching Pittsburgh, and I watched as we crossed the massive truss bridge over the Allegheny River and pulled into the Pittsburgh station at 6:33 a.m. I knew that we would be here for at least a few minutes, so I decided to get dressed, step off the train, and record the numbers of the express cars that had been added to our train subsequent to our departure from Chicago Union Station. It turned out that there were now seven express and MHC cars at the rear of our train, all of which were conveniently spotted on the platform (some of these cars had been added to Toledo). After recording the car numbers, I immediately walked back and reboarded the train at the rear sleeper, as I was not sure how long our stop would last. We ended up remaining in the station for just short of half an hour, and when we departed at 7:02 a.m., we were one hour and two minutes late.

I now stowed away my bed and remade the room for day occupancy. I noticed that, as we passed through McKeesport, a modern-looking station building with a high-level platform was visible to the left. This facility -- now used as a bus terminal -- was apparently built for the commuter service that once operated on this line to the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie station in downtown Pittsburgh. Next, I went downstairs to take a shower. The water was quite warm - in fact, it was too hot at first, and I had to adjust the regulator to obtain the proper water temperature. I then went upstairs to my room and got dressed.

About 8:15 a.m., I walked into the dining car for breakfast. Few people were eating breakfast at this hour, so I had a table to myself. I was served by Michael, who promptly brought me my breakfast, which included orange juice, coffee, a fruit plate and Rice Krispies with milk. The breakfast was delightful, and I remained in the dining car until about 9:00 a.m. In the meantime, we made a very brief stop at Connellsville at 8:41 a.m. No passengers got on or off here, so our stop lasted for less than a minute.

After returning to my room, I walked through the coaches and found that while there were still about 40 passengers in the first coach, the rear coach was nearly empty, with only about ten passengers sitting there. Most of the passengers sitting in the rear coach were destined for Pittsburgh or stops to the west, and they had already detrained, with very few passengers boarding at these stops. I then went into the Sightseer Lounge, where I spent most of the morning, first on the lower level and then on the upper level.

I had brought with me on this trip a copy of the "Cumberland, Confluence and Connellsville" guide published by American AltaVista. This publication includes detailed track maps for the 90 miles of the ex-B&O line from Cumberland to Connellsville - one of the most scenic stretches of the Capitol Limited route. I had brought this guide with me once before on a westbound trip, but on that trip, it got dark before I was able to follow the route very far. Today, it would be light for the entire stretch, and I carefully followed the guide for most of the three hours that it took us to traverse this very scenic stretch of our route.

After paralleling the Youghiogheny River for quite a distance, we passed through Confluence at 9:23 a.m. This town is named because it is situated at the confluence of three rivers - the Casselman River, Laurel Hill Creek and the Youghiogheny River. Here, we begin to follow the Casselman River. Just north of the town, the two main tracks take different routes. We followed Track #2, also known as the "Low Grade Line," which takes a route that is about two miles longer than the "High Line" Track #1, but has lesser grades. Just beyond, we passed through a work area, then went through two tunnels on a single-track section of the line. A westbound CSX freight train was waiting for us to clear at the north end of the single track. Then, on the scanner, I heard that an eastbound freight train was being held at Manila, over 20 miles ahead of us, so as to give our train priority. It was nice to hear that CSX is giving us the priority that we deserve!

Then, at 9:54 a.m., we stopped at Rockwood. Our car came to a stop on the bridge over Coxes Creek, just west of the wye which leads to the line going north to Johnstown. On the scanner, I heard the crew asking for protection, which we soon obtained (although to do so, a light engine had to be held just east of the station). The reason we needed this protection is that Rockwood is now a crew change point, and the crew had to cross Track #1 to reach the station, located in the middle of the wye. An announcement informing the passengers of the reason for our stop was made over the loudspeaker. We remained here for five minutes and departed at 9:59 a.m. As we passed the Rockwood station, I noticed that it is an old frame building, with its grey paint peeling.

Right after the new crew boarded the train, I heard the engineer ask the conductor whether we had any 1400-series mail cars in the consist. When the conductor replied that we do not (we actually have two 1500-series MHC cars among the express cars added to the rear of the train), the engineer commented that we could attain a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour. (Of course, that speed could not be achieved on this part of the run, which follows the sharply curving Casselman River.)

We soon passed through Meyersdale, just west of which is the tall viaduct of the abandoned Western Maryland Railroad, now converted into a hiking and biking trail. A few miles beyond, we reached the summit of our climb and proceeded through the Sand Patch Tunnel. We were now on Track #1 and to our right, on Track #2, was the stack train that had been instructed to hold at Manila (just east of the tunnel) until we passed.

We now slowed down as we switched over to Track #2 once we passed the freight train. Then the conductor made an announcement: "We do have a couple of speed restrictions over the next few miles, which will cause us to travel at a reduced rate of speed. Thank you for your patience." I found this rather unusual, as normally, only delays that result in the train having to stop - not mere speed restrictions - are announced to the passengers. For the next two miles or so, we proceeded ahead at a very slow pace, then resumed our normal speed. We began to follow Wills Creek, which we cross several times on our way to Cumberland. Thanks to the Route Guide, which mentioned this feature, I was able to spot the very interesting ruins of the Maxwell Furnace, a large brickyard that once operated on the north side of the tracks, with the ruins of a number of stone and brick buildings still visible, and a tall brick chimney still intact.

At 11:09 a.m., we reached the end of the Sand Patch grade and passed through the town of Hyndman. We now picked up speed for the rest of the way to Cumberland, our next stop. Small farms and homes now graced the valley to our right.

Finally, at 11:27 a.m., we arrived at the Cumberland station - an Amshack located on the site of what once was a grand station and hotel. It was announced that two stops would be made here, the first for coach passengers, and the second for sleeping car passengers. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to step off the train, detraining at the first stop and reboarding at the second stop. Several coach passengers got on and off here, and one woman, who was picked up by her sister, detrained from my sleeper. Between the two stops, I walked into the station - a small, unattractive facility, with molded plastic seats provided for waiting passengers. When we departed Cumberland at 11:32 a.m., we were one hour and 24 minutes late.

Departing Cumberland, we lost some more time due to trackwork being done on the adjacent Track 2 (we were now on Track 1). As we passed by, I noticed that many crossties, marked with red paint, were being removed and replaced with new ties, with many workers and various pieces of machinery along this track. For several miles, our speed was restricted to 25 miles per hour. Finally, at 11:55 a.m., we reached the end of the work area and were able to resume our normal speed. In the meantime, the batteries in my computer had died, so I returned to my room, where I could plug in the computer.

At 12:00 noon, the first call for lunch was made. I remained in my room for the next 25 minutes, watching as we passed through several tunnels, including the Graham Tunnel, where we cross bridges over the Potomac River on each side of the tunnel. This is also a very beautiful stretch of track, but I did not follow it as carefully as I had followed the section from Connellsville to Cumberland. Then I went into the dining car for lunch. Again, the car was not at all full, and I had a table to myself. My beef meal was very tasty. I noticed the old brick Hancock station to our left, followed by the small Hancock airport. I brought my scanner with me, and heard the defect detector at milepost 140.7 go off three times!

At 1:06 p.m., as I was finishing lunch, we pulled into the Martinsburg station. Here, a beautiful brick station was built several years ago to harmonize with the original station, attached to it on the left. The original station was built before the Civil War and was - at least at one time - considered to be the oldest station in the United States in continuous use. On the opposite side of the tracks is an historic roundhouse and shop complex, which was abandoned many years ago and remained in its deteriorated state until recently. Now, efforts are underway to restore these historic buildings. We arrived in Martinsburg on the track not adjacent to the station, so the train had to be spotted precisely at the crossover from the station platform. Thus, we had to make two stops, one for coach passengers and one for sleeper passengers, and when we departed at 1:11 p.m., we were one hour and 36 minutes late.

I returned to the Sightseer Lounge car to get a better view of the magnificent scenery between here and Washington. After passing through rolling agricultural countryside, we arrived in Harpers Ferry at 1:34 p.m. This is a very familiar station, as I've traveled here many times by train. Recently, the National Park Service acquired the station and its adjacent parking area, and I noticed that the parking area was recently repaved, and new signs have been posted. We also made two stops at Harpers Ferry and departed four minutes later, at 1:38 p.m. We now passed through the Harpers Ferry Tunnel and began to run along the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

After passing through Brunswick -- the terminus of many MARC trains -- with its rail yards, I watched as we passed the historic Point of Rocks station. The wye at the east end of the station was recently rebuilt, and it now serves commuters from Frederick each weekday. Unfortunately, since the new wye is some distance from the station, Frederick-bound trains do not stop here.

At 2:14 p.m., we slowed down considerably, apparently due to a restrictive signal ahead, and then stopped. We were now between the Barnesville and Boyds stations. The conductor made an announcement that we are waiting here for train traffic in front of us to clear. On the scanner, I heard that Track #2 is closed ahead, and that we have to wait for Train #871 - the first outbound MARC commuter train of the afternoon (scheduled to depart Washington Union Station at 1:45 p.m.) - to pass by so that we can cross over onto Track #1.

Up to this point, I had hoped that I would be able to connect with Train #148, the 3:05 p.m. Acela Regional train to New York, which would get me to Penn Station in Newark about 6:10 p.m. Although our train had been scheduled to arrive in Washington at 1:45 p.m., and we were running over one and one-half hours late, I knew that we had a little over half an hour of make-up time built into the schedule, so it could be expected that we would arrive at Union Station in Washington about 2:45 p.m., in time to catch my 3:05 p.m. train. But when our delay reached 15 minutes, it became apparent that I would not make this train.

MARC Train #871 - consisting of three single-level cars pulled by a diesel engine - finally passed us at 2:30 p.m. (The train is scheduled to leave Boyds at 2:32 p.m., so it was actually running a little early!) We now got a clear signal, and we started moving ahead a minute later, immediately crossing over onto Track #1. We now proceeded ahead at track speed. At 2:44 p.m., we made our next-to-last stop at Rockville. Again, two stops were required, and when we departed two minutes later, we were just over two hours late.

I returned to my room, gathered my belongings together, and awaited our arrival at Washington Union Station. We began to approach Union Station at 3:03 p.m., when we switched from the CSX Channel 8 to the Amtrak Channel 54, and our train called the K Tower, which controls the train movements into Union Station, asking for a wheelchair and people-mover to meet our train. As we proceeded ahead into the station, we were passed to our left by the southbound Acela Express Train #2157. Since the Acela Express trains always arrive on the upper level, it was apparent that we would, too. At 3:10 p.m., we came to our final stop on Track 16 of Washington Union Station - the only upper-level track with a low-level platform. We were one hour and 25 minutes late, having made up 36 minutes since we departed from Rockville (due to make-up time built into the schedule).

As is generally the practice at Washington Union Station, our train pulled directly into the station. Since my sleeper was in the back of the train, I had to walk down the length of the platform. While doing so, I passed the elderly couple that had occupied the handicapped bedroom in our car. They were walking down the platform, pulling along their own wheeled suitcases, and they informed me that they would be taking the Metro and bus home! I don't think that they really needed the handicapped-accessible features of their room, but I'm glad that they were able to enjoy these accommodations. At the end of the platform was the private car Cannon Ball, with a drumhead for the Wabash Railroad at the rear.

I walked into the station, picking up some new MARC timetables on the way, and checked the departures monitor. I noticed that the next Acela Regional train that would be headed north to New York would be leaving at 4:05 p.m., but that that train was an all-reserved one. My Washington-Newark ticket, intended to be used on the 3:05 p.m. train, was an unreserved one, and I did not want to have any problems boarding the 4:05 p.m. train. So I headed to the Club Acela (formerly known as Metropolitan Lounge), where I checked in and was informed by the attendant that I needed to exchange my ticket at the ticket counter for a reserved ticket good on Train #178. After storing my bags in the lounge, I went over to the ticket counter and obtained a new ticket. My original ticket read only to Newark, but since I would now probably not get a ride home from Newark, I asked that the reissued ticket read to New York. The agent complied with my request.

I now returned to the Club Acela, where I made a few phone calls and signed online, using a data port in a public phone in the rear of the lounge. I barely had time to sign on, send a few messages I had written on the train, and download some accumulated messages. Before I knew it, it was 3:55 p.m., and my train would be departing in ten minutes!

I retrieved my belongings and walked down to Gate J, where Train #178 was boarding. My ticket was inspected at the gate, and I then proceeded down the escalator to Track 25, where my train was boarding. I boarded the train and then walked down towards the front to find a car with unoccupied pairs of seats.

Today's Train #178 is pulled by electric engine #935 and includes an unreconditioned Amfleet I coach (designated the "quiet car"), four Acela Coachclass cars, a dinette with tables, and three 60-seat Metroliner cars, the first of which was used for Business Class passengers, and the last two of which were closed off. We departed Washington on time at 4:05 p.m. By the time we left the Baltimore station, every seat in my car (the second car on the train) was occupied by at least one passenger, and people were heading into the first car, where there were still some unoccupied pairs of seats.

Of course, this was an efficient, business-like ride, unlike the trip on the Capitol Limited, which on the one hand features more luxurious equipment and a far more scenic ride, but on the other hand has an undependable schedule, dependent on the whims of the freight railroads over which it travels. By contrast, while the equipment on Acela Regional trains does not provide as spacious accommodations, Amtrak controls the trackage from Washington to New York, and the schedules on this line are far more reliable.

When we left Washington, it was announced that the café car was not yet open for service. Not until 4:58 p.m. - nearly an hour later - did the car finally open. It seems that the attendant was called at the last moment to man the car, and he did not have adequate time to get the car ready for service until then.

I spent most of the time at my seat, reading AOL messages that I had downloaded in Washington, updating these memoirs, and sleeping a little. We arrived at every station up to Trenton either on-time or several minutes early, and I took advantage of our early arrival at Wilmington and the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to step out onto the platform for a little fresh air.

After we departed Philadelphia, I walked down to the café car with some food I had brought along for the trip. I purchased a Pepsi from the attendant, made a tuna fish sandwich, and sat down at a small table at one end of the car to eat. When I finished eating, I returned to my seat in the second coach. Then, at 6:51 p.m., just prior to our arrival at the Newark International Airport station, it was announced that the café car would now be closing and would remain closed until the train's departure (to Boston) from New York Penn Station.

We had some rather slow running south of the Newark International Airport station and, as a result, we arrived there at 6:57 p.m., two minutes late. We also arrived two minutes late at Newark Penn Station, and when we departed at 7:05 p.m., we were five minutes late. Then, as we approached New York Penn Station, we were delayed for a few minutes by a red signal, and we did not pull into Track 11 at Penn Station until 7:22 p.m., seven minutes late. I took the elevator upstairs,.boarded an E Train to 42nd Street, and took a #167 Queen Anne Road bus back to my home in Teaneck.

My trip on the Capitol Limited worked out really well. I normally choose this train for my Chicago-New York trips, despite the longer time required for the journey and the need to change trains in Washington, because of the magnificent scenery between Pittsburgh and Washington. Although I took very few pictures along the way, I followed the route very closely, and the scenery was as beautiful as ever. The ride was relaxing and very enjoyable, and it was a fitting conclusion to my somewhat roundabout rail journey from Fort Worth to New York.

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


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