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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Acela Regional

It's 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 3, 2002, and I've just arrived at Washington Union Station, where I will be boarding Acela Regional Train #192 to Newark, New Jersey.

This is the culmination of my weekend at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where I attended the semi-annual Board meeting of the Appalachian Trail Conference. I drove down on Thursday evening with Walt Daniels, a Board member of ATC. The trip took nearly eight hours, rather than anticipated five hours, as we encountered three separate traffic jams (one of which delayed us for at least 45 minutes) and suffered the misfortune of a flat tire. We didn't get to Shepherdstown until about 1:45 a.m., with our Publications Committee meeting scheduled for 9:00 a.m. the next morning. I had enough time to take a walk around the property on Saturday afternoon, but for most of Friday and Saturday, I attended several meetings and sessions and talked to various people about entries in the Appalachian Trail Data Book that I am editing.

The National Conservation Training Center is an elegant facility built for the use of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at a cost of $135 million. It features buildings built out of materials - including stone - designed to harmonize with the natural environment and create the atmosphere of a century-old farm. The rooms have all the amenities of a first-class hotel, and meals are served in The Commons - a building with high peaked roofs, designed in the Adirondack style. ATC is privileged to use this facility because of its partnership with the National Park Service in managing the Appalachian Trail, and the NPS in turn contributes to the cost of the upkeep of the training center and uses it for some of its own training.

The ATC Board meeting was held on Sunday morning, but since I'm not a member of the Board, I had no obligation to attend the meeting. So I decided to use the opportunity to take a hike with my friend Aaron Kahn, who lives nearby. Aaron picked me up at 9:10 a.m., and we drove to nearby Catoctin Mountain Park, where there is an extensive network of hiking trails. We took a loop hike of about eight miles that lasted for three and one-half hours, and then drove to Aaron's home in rural Lovettsville, Virginia, not far from Harpers Ferry. After spending a little time there, Aaron drove me to the Friendship Heights Metro station, where I could board a train for Union Station.

Before saying goodbye, Aaron handed me my tickets for the trip. How I obtained these tickets is a story probably more interesting than the trip itself!

The regular, undiscounted one-way fare for Amtrak travel from Washington to New York is $90.00. A discounted fare is available for most trains, but the discounted tickets are not valid on trains departing between 11:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays. As a member of the American Automobile Association, I'm entitled to a 10% discount on all Amtrak coach tickets, so I could have purchased a ticket valid on my Sunday evening train for $81.00.

But I wanted to obtain a cheaper ticket, if I could. I knew that Amtrak had a 35% discount promotion which applies to most coach tickets purchased at least three days in advance. However, this promotion is not valid on Northeast Corridor trains which depart between 11:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays. So I decided to try another course. I checked the fare from Harpers Ferry to New York via Washington, and found that it was the same as the Washington-New York fare. But, if you start your journey in Harpers Ferry, the restriction on the use of the 35% discount promotion does not apply, even to the Washington-New York segment. (That's because you're then considered a long-distance passenger who just happens to use the corridor train to get to your final destination, and the restrictions applicable to corridor passengers don't apply.) So, I thought of purchasing a Harpers Ferry-Washington-New York ticket.

But that would create another problem. Harpers Ferry is an unstaffed station, and Amtrak's web site is programmed to require that tickets for travel originating in an unstaffed station cannot be picked up at a station, but must instead be sent by mail. Since I did not purchase my ticket until last Wednesday, and it was too late to send tickets by mail, the web site would not allow me to complete the transaction. Ordinarily, I would simply have called Amtrak's 800 number and made the reservation over the phone, specifying station pick-up. But if you do that, you only get a 30% discount, not the 35% discount you get when you purchase the tickets on the Internet.

So I decided to try something else. Instead of buying a ticket from Harpers Ferry, I decided to buy a ticket for travel originating in Pittsburgh! I discovered that the price of a Pittsburgh-Washington-New York ticket was identical to the price of Harpers Ferry-Washington-New York ticket (which, in turn, was identical to a simple Washington-New York ticket, putting aside the availability of the 35% discount). Pittsburgh is a staffed station, so the problem with mailing the ticket would not arise, and the web site would allow me to complete the transaction and purchase the ticket with my credit card. And so I did.

But there was one more problem. How would I pick up my ticket? Had I thought to make the reservation a day earlier, I could have picked up my ticket at Penn Station in Newark, as I was there on Tuesday. But it was now Wednesday, and I had no intention of going to either Newark Penn Station or Penn Station in New York before heading down to Shepherdstown on Thursday evening.

Well, you might say, I could pick up my ticket in Washington on Sunday before I board my train. But this would present another problem. Since the ticket was for travel originating in Pittsburgh, it would presumably be automatically cancelled if not picked up before the eastbound Capitol Limited is scheduled to leave Pittsburgh at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. And, of course, I did not intend to get to Washington Union Station to pick up my ticket before then.

So, what was I to do? Another thought came to my mind. Aaron Kahn, with whom I'd be hiking on Sunday, works in Washington and takes MARC to work every day. He goes through Washington Union Station twice a day, and could presumably pick up my ticket for me. He couldn't pick up the ticket from an agent, as that would require him to produce my photo ID. But he could get the ticket from a machine, as all the machines require is for you to insert a credit card - any credit card, not necessarily the one used to purchase the ticket - and enter the reservation number for my prepaid ticket. So I e-mailed Aaron, and he agreed to do this. On Wednesday evening, Aaron sent me a return message confirming that he had in fact picked up the tickets.

Even this was not the end of the saga. On Thursday night, when I listened to my phone messages after arriving in Shepherdstown, I found that Amtrak had offered me a discounted sleeper upgrade for the Pittsburgh-Washington portion of the trip (which would be a daylight ride, in any event). After explaining the many benefits of sleeper travel, the message continued with an 800 number I could call if I wished to upgrade! Needless to say, I did not do so (although I was tempted to call the number just to find out how much this upgrade would have cost).

So now Aaron handed me my two tickets - Pittsburgh to Washington, and Washington to New York. Of course, I had no intention of using the Pittsburgh-Washington ticket, for a train which had already arrived in Washington. But the validity of the Washington-New York ticket would in no way be affected by my failure to use the Pittsburgh-Washington segment, and I had succeeded by my roundabout and convoluted method to obtain this ticket at the "bargain" price of $57.85! I said good-bye to Aaron and proceeded over to the Metro station.

Like most Metro stations, the Friendship Heights station is located far below ground, and you have to take four escalators (or stairways) -- including one very long one -- to reach the track level. I purchased my $1.10 ticket for the ride from a machine, and arrived at the platform at 4:42 p.m., just as a train headed for Union Station pulled into the station. The ride to Union Station took 18 minutes, and I arrived there at precisely 5:00 p.m. Five minutes later, when I reached the Amtrak station concourse, the first priority boarding call for my Train #192 was being made.

There were several hundred people waiting to board the train at Gate D, and the line extended back to Gate B. A general boarding announcement was made at 5:09 p.m., and the boarding went quite smoothly, considering the numbers of people who were waiting to board. Tickets were checked at the gate, but all you had to do was to wave something that looked like an Amtrak ticket to get through. The attendants did not carefully inspect the actual ticket, probably because this was an unreserved train.

I walked down the platform of Track 14, recording the car numbers on the way. When I reached the third and fourth cars from the rear, I noticed by the car numbers that they were Metroliner cars. So I decided to take advantage of the more spacious seating that these cars afford, and I put some of my belongings on a pair of seats, to reserve them for myself. Then I continued walking down the platform to record the rest of the consist. I discovered that the third car of the train was a Club/Custom Class car, but was being used as a coach. This was almost too good to be true: I would be able to ride all the way to Newark in the elegant comfort of a Club Car, with its 2 and 1 seating! This car, which has the original red seats, has not been retrofitted with outlets at each seat, but there was one outlet on the left side of the car (the side that had the pairs of seats). So I chose a pair of seats behind the outlet (the seats offered a better view than those immediately adjacent to the outlet), retrieved my belongings from the Metroliner car, and settled down to enjoy the ride.

Today's Train #192 consists a mish-mash of various types of Amfleet and Acela equipment. Pulled by AEM-7 engine #912, it includes three unreconditioned 84-seat Amfleet I coaches, two Acela Coachclass cars, two 60-seat Metroliner cars, my Club/Custom Class car, and a café car with coach seating on both sides of the service counter. The café service counter in my car was not used, and the first car on the train - an Acela Coachclass car - was used for Business Class! In this instance, Business Class passengers got ripped off, as my Club Car offered far more spacious and comfortable seating at no extra charge, while the Business Class passengers paid a substantial premium to travel in a Acela coach that offered accommodations no more comfortable than those available to the coach passengers. Amazingly, only three of 18 Club seats in my car were filled when we left Washington. Nearly all passengers are content to sit in the first empty seats that they encounter when boarding the train. Only dedicated railfans like myself know that you must inspect all cars on the train in order to choose the one that offers the greatest comfort. The presence of a Club car on an ordinary unreserved train is a delightful surprise, but this is certainly not the first time that this has happened to me.

Checking my computer roster of Amtrak equipment that was on trains I had previously traveled on, I discovered that this Club/Custom Class car, #20141, was on the ill-fated "Late" Shore Limited that I took from New York to Chicago last June 30th. That train ride - the train arrived in Chicago over eight hours late, causing us to miss our connection with the Southwest Chief to Raton - was one of the most unpleasant I've ever taken on Amtrak. On that train, this car had served as the café car for the Boston section, and it was supposed to be removed from the train in Albany. But because the lounge car accompanying the train from New York had malfunctioned, the Boston café car remained on the train and served as the "lounge" car all the way to Chicago. On that train, the presence of this car was not particularly welcome, as it replaced the lounge car with table seating that ordinarily would have been provided. But on this evening's train, it is a delightful surprise!

The inclusion of Metroliner car #44790 on this train is also interesting. That car was on the Adirondack when I presented my interpretive commentary on that train on September 15th. The fact that it's now on this train may indicate that Amtrak has removed the Metroliner cars from the Adirondack and shifted them back to Northeast Corridor service. We'll see what kind of cars I find on the Adirondack later on this month when I next present the program onboard this train.

We departed Washington one minute late at 5:21 p.m. My car got quite full at our next stop, New Carrollton, because many passengers happened to be standing in the front of the platform, adjacent to my car. At the next station, BWI Airport - which has only two platforms, which serve only the two outermost tracks - flatcars were placed on the northbound track adjacent to the platform, which was out of service. That permitted passengers to walk across these cars to the middle track, not adjacent to any platform, that had been pressed into service to handle northbound trains. We lost some time at each of these stops, and when we departed Baltimore at 6:11 p.m., we were nine minutes late.

After we pulled out of the Baltimore station, I walked back to the end of the train. I found that virtually every pair of seats had at least one person sitting in it, and many pairs of seats were occupied by two people. There were between 300 and 400 people traveling in the eight coach cars that were open. When we arrived at the Aberdeen station at 6:34 p.m., I noticed about 30 people who were waiting to board our train, one of the few that stops at this station. Since there were hardly any vacant pairs of seats, these passengers had to find vacant single seats next to other Amtrak "guests."

I now took out some food that I had brought with me and made a pastrami sandwich for dinner. I also had a can of Snapple with me, so I didn't have to purchase a beverage from the café car (there wasn't any table seating in that car, anyway). The conductor made an announcement that since the train was getting quite full, passengers should move their belongings from adjacent seats, so that others could sit there. I decided to heed his request (it wasn't really fair for me to keep two Club seats to myself), and when we arrived in Wilmington, our next stop, a woman sat down in the seat next to me. At this point, all 18 seats in the Club section of my car were occupied.

We lost additional time between Wilmington and Philadelphia, and when we departed Philadelphia at 7:33 p.m., we were 17 minutes late. Several passengers detrained from my car in Philadelphia, and the woman sitting next to me moved to an unoccupied single seat on the other side of the aisle, so I now once again had two Club seats to myself.

We lost more time on the way to Trenton, and when we left that station at 8:07 p.m., we were 23 minutes late. Soon afterwards, an announcement was made that although our next scheduled stop is Metropark, our train has been instructed to stop at Princeton Junction, apparently to pick up some passengers who had missed their train. (Presumably, these passengers had intended to take Train #662, scheduled to depart from Princeton Jct. at 7:46 p.m.) We stopped at Princeton Jct. at 8:17 p.m., but it seems that no one boarded the train. Of course, we were further delayed as a result of this unscheduled stop.

By the time we departed our next stop, Metropark, we were 34 minutes late. We made a brief stop at Newark International Airport, and finally arrived on Track 2 at Penn Station in Newark at 8:57 p.m., 37 minutes late. I took the elevator downstairs and walked over to the waiting room, where my friend Geraldine was waiting for me. She had driven my car to Newark, and we drove home, arriving there about 9:40 p.m.

A 37-minute-late arrival is rather atypical for Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, especially in the absence of any special reason for the delay. I'm sure that there were a number of passengers on my train who were inconvenienced by the delay. But I had no special plans for the evening, and did not mind spending some extra time in my luxurious Club Car seat. I very much enjoyed my trip, which I found very pleasant and relaxing.

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

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