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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited and Regional

It's 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 8, 2003, and I've just arrived at the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago Union Station. I arrived a few minutes ago on the California Zephyr and am awaiting the departure of Train #30, the Capitol Limited, scheduled to depart at 7:00 p.m. As usual, when I checked in at the desk, I was instructed to bring my luggage to Room 341. After doing so, I returned to the Metropolitan Lounge, where I made a few phone calls and signed online to retrieve my e-mail messages and reply to a few of them. I had some problems sending e-mail (the problem seemed to be an AOL one), and barely succeeded in downloading all of my messages by the time the boarding call for my train was made.

About 6:30 p.m., an announcement was made that the City of New Orleans, Train #59, would be leaving at 8:30 p.m., half an hour late, and that as a result, dinner would not be served on this train. Sleeping car passengers were offered a refund of the cost of the meal, and it was suggested that they eat dinner before boarding. This problem apparently resulted from the run-through of the Texas Eagle to the City of New Orleans and the late arrival of today's northbound Texas Eagle (the arrivals board shows the train arriving at 6:40 p.m.).

Next, an announcement was made that passengers for Train #30 who require redcap assistance should proceed to Room 341 to claim their luggage. That announcement was soon followed by a general boarding announcement for sleeping car passengers. I retrieved my suitcase and went to Gate D, where I was instructed to board our train on Track 24.

As I proceeded down the platform to the train, I noticed another train arriving on the adjacent Track 22. It was the northbound Texas Eagle, which was nearly three hours late. Having the Texas Eagle pull in on the same platform facilitated transfer of passengers between the two trains, but it also resulted in congestion on the narrow platform. I boarded my sleeper #32032, stored my belongings in the luggage rack and in my lower-level Room #11, and walked down the platform to record the consist. When I got to the baggage car, though, I was stopped by an Amtrak employee who forbade me to proceed further. I've never had this happen to me previously; perhaps it is the result of increased security. In any event, I'll have to get the numbers of the engines and baggage car at a later stop.

Today's Capitol Limited is pulled by two Genesis engines and includes a baggage car, a transition/crew dorm car, two sleepers, a diner, a Sightseer Lounge car, a coach with a smoking section on the lower level, and a coach with handicapped seating on the lower level. At the end of the platform was stationed another coach which had obviously been taken off the Southwest Chief, whose equipment runs through with the Capitol Limited. (That was further confirmed by the fact that a timetable for the Southwest Chief was placed in my room.) The consist is the same as that of the Train #30 that I took two months ago when I returned from Dallas, except that that train had Superliner II sleepers, while today's train has Superliner I sleepers, but a Superliner II Sightseer lounge car, #33026. I had previously ridden in that car on the Texas Eagle of October 17, 1994, when the car was on its maiden run. My sleeping car #32032 has been reconditioned with blue seats, and sports the new paint scheme which features the narrow blue, red and white stripes, but with Acela-style lettering and the new "three sheets to the wind" Amtrak logo. (The other sleeper on the train, #32064, retains its original red seats.) My sleeper appeared to be quite full, and the attendant advised me that every room in the car, except for one standard bedroom, was occupied. I also walked into the front sleeper and found that that car, too, appeared to be quite full.

We departed on time at 7:00 p.m., and stopped in the yard from 7:06 p.m. to 7:16 p.m. to add express cars. We then proceeded ahead, passing the Hammond-Whiting station (where we do not stop) at 8:46 p.m. (Eastern Time). After the conductor collected my ticket, I walked through the train, finding that nearly all pairs of seats in both coaches had at least one person sitting at them. The lower-level section of the rear coach was also quite full (ironically, the sign on the door leading into the lower-level coach seating read: "Sleeping Car passengers only"!). I also noticed that there was a group of about 10 people in one of the coaches who were destined to Waterloo, Indiana, our second stop. I then returned to my seat, where I started working on these memoirs and reading the AOL messages that I had downloaded at Union Station.

In the meantime, an announcement was made that the diner was not yet open for service. My attendant, Dave, came by and told us that he would check when the diner would be open. He soon returned and advised us that the diner was not yet open, and he did not know when it would open. I was getting rather hungry, and at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time - an hour and a half after we departed Chicago - the dining car was still not open. So I took out a can of sardines with Louisiana hot sauce and some crackers that I had brought along, and ate them along with a complimentary soda provided to sleeping car passengers.

About 9:35 p.m., at CP 473, we came to a stop, apparently waiting for a freight train to pass, and when we started moving about ten minutes later, we had "approach" (restrictive) signals for some distance. As a result, we did not arrive in South Bend, Indiana, our first scheduled stop, until 10:35 p.m., 42 minutes late. (By contrast, on my February trip, we arrived in South Bend at 9:44 p.m., nine minutes early!). And dinner still had not been called! We were off to a rather inauspicious start.

When we departed South Bend four minutes later, I heard the dispatcher informing our train that a freight train had gone into emergency several miles ahead, and that we would have to switch to another track to pass that train. I didn't carefully follow exactly what transpired, but it seems that this incident didn't result in our being delayed to any significant degree.

Right after we departed South Bend, Dave came down to inform us that dinner was finally being served. It was now 10:45 p.m., and we had left Chicago two hours and 45 minutes ago. I don't understand why it could possibly take so long to prepare dinner (I later found out that there was apparently some problem with the ovens) but, in any event, I was not about to pass up this meal. So I went up to the dining car, where I was seated with three women who were traveling from Chicago to Washington to attend a conference. The section of the dining car reserved for sleeping car passengers was quite full, but the coach section of the diner was nearly empty at this very late hour.

Service for dinner was not exceptionally fast, but I was eventually served my salmon dinner, which was pretty good. My companions were not exceptionally pleased with the meals they received, though. One of them ordered meat loaf, the special entree of the day, and didn't like it, leaving most of it over. The other complained that the coffee she was served was cold.

We remained in the diner for over an hour, during which time we stopped at Waterloo, Indiana at 11:51 p.m. When we departed three minutes later, we were 53 minutes late. I now returned to my room, and updated these memoirs. About 12:30 a.m., I decided to go to sleep, although I was not exceptionally tired. I pulled down the bed and did a little reading, but I soon fell asleep, awaking as we pulled into Toledo at 1:19 a.m. Of course, I did not get off the train here, but I was awake for our entire stop, until we departed at 1:34 a.m., 51 minutes late.

I slept reasonably well for the rest of the night, sleeping through our stops at Elyria and Alliance, and waking up only briefly when we departed Cleveland at 3:38 a.m. Finally, I woke up for good about 6:15 a.m. From the scanner, I ascertained that we were about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh. I also heard on the scanner, for the first time, that our train had 60 axles, thus indicating that there were five express cars at the rear end of the train. I remained in bed until about 7:00 a.m. and then got up and dressed in preparation for our arrival at Pittsburgh, where I wanted to step off the train. I tried to make up the room for day occupancy, but couldn't get one half of the bed to convert to an upright position. I asked the attendant to see what he could do, and he did succeed in pushing that half of the bed upwards, but only with some difficulty.

At 7:11 a.m., we arrived at the Pittsburgh station. I stepped off the train and walked down the platform, first to record the numbers of our engines and baggage car, and then to record the numbers of the five express cars at the rear of the train. I noticed that various pallets were being unloaded from some of the express cars. Also, to our right, on Track 4, was the equipment for the Pennsylvanian. This train formerly operated through to Chicago, but it now runs only from Pittsburgh to New York, and is scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m. Today's Pennsylvanian is pulled by Genesis engine #90 and includes four Amfleet II cars and a dinette/business class car. It is interesting to note that Amfleet II equipment is being used for this train, which is a daytime run. I was sort of tempted to transfer to this train, which would provide a more direct route to New York, but of course I decided to stay on my more scenic Capitol Limited.

I reboarded my train right before we pulled out of the station at 7:27 a.m. I walked through the coaches, which were not as full as they were when we left Chicago last night (many pairs of the seats in the front coach were now unoccupied) and then returned to my room. My next order of business would be to take a shower. The shower was occupied, but when it opened up a few minutes later, I went inside for my shower. The first problem I encountered was that no clean towels were to be found in the shower room (usually, a bag of clean towels is placed there). I asked the attendant about this, and he showed me that clean towels had been placed in the small closet that is found in every room. I don't recall having seen this done before, but perhaps it is standard practice on Amtrak. Next, as I prepared to take my shower, I noticed that there was no soap provided, either. So again I inquired of the attendant, who opened up a locked compartment on the lower level and gave me several bars of soap. Once I finally was ready for the shower, it worked out quite well. In fact, the water was so warm that I had to lower the temperature at one point.

I now returned to my room and got dressed. At 8:27 a.m., the train came to a sudden stop. We were at milepost 293.6, just beyond the rather picturesque town of West Newton. On the scanner, I heard that we had gone into emergency braking, and the conductor went outside to check the train. He reported that he could find nothing wrong, and at 8:40 a.m., we proceeded ahead. No announcement was made of the reason for our unscheduled stop, and I was very glad that I had taken my scanner with me.

Next, I proceeded to the dining car for breakfast. I was seated with three other people. The man sitting next to me was from Missouri, and was headed to New York to oversee his business of packing and unpacking crates of exhibits at the Javits Convention Center. The woman sitting opposite me was traveling from Chicago to Washington with her daughter to do some sightseeing in our Nation's Capitol. Her daughter decided to sleep late, and did not come for breakfast. The man sitting opposite me was returning to his home in northern Virginia after spending a few days in Chicago.

I was served my usual Continental breakfast, consisting of orange juice, Rice Krispies, fruit salad and coffee. During breakfast, we made a brief stop at Connellsville. When we departed at 9:19 a.m., we were precisely one hour and 30 minutes late.

After breakfast, I proceeded to the Sightseer lounge car to observe the magnificent scenery along the river valleys that we traverse as we climb to Sand Patch Tunnel, at the summit of the Alleghenies. There, I started talking to Simon and his son, from Southfield, Michigan, who decided at the last minute to take a quick trip to Washington, D.C. They purchased their tickets over the phone and drove to Toledo, where they boarded the train. Like me, they had taken a laptop computer and a digital camera along. I spent the rest of the morning in the Sightseer lounge car, talking to them, watching the scenery, and taking some pictures with my digital camera. It was rather cloudy out, but the scenery was still magnificent. We stopped at Rockwood for our crew change at 10:31 a.m. and departed six minutes later, went through the Sand Patch Tunnel at 11:03 a.m., and reached Hyndman, the base of the descending grade, at 11:33 a.m.

I now decided to return to my sleeper. Simon and his son followed me, and I gave them a tour of the car, including a deluxe room (whose occupants had presumably detrained at some previous stop) and the shower. I then returned to my room and get ready for lunch.

At 11:51 a.m., we made a brief stop at Cumberland. When we departed two minutes later, we were one hour and 37 minutes late, having lost only seven additional minutes since we departed Connellsville.

The first (and probably the only) call for lunch was made at about 12:10 p.m. I went to the diner where I was seated opposite a couple from Corpus Christi, Texas who were traveling from San Antonio to Trenton, New Jersey to visit their family in Toms River. They had taken the Texas Eagle that arrived at Union Station yesterday only 20 minutes prior to the departure of our train, and would be taking the connecting Regional (formerly known as Acela Regional) train from Washington to Trenton. This was their first train trip, and they seemed to be enjoying it very much.

Next to me sat a woman for whom this train ride was just the start of a major trip. She was from the Seattle area and had taken the Coast Starlight south to connect with the California Zephyr in Sacramento (she was on the same train that I had taken from Denver to Chicago). After taking the Capitol Limited to Washington, she would be connecting to a train to Florida, where she would be visiting her brother and then spending some more time vacationing. To complete her journey, she would be taking a Holland-American Line cruise back from Miami to Vancouver, B.C.! During lunch, we proceeded along the scenic Potomac River, and I noticed an old stone-arch bridge from the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal - mentioned in the Route Guide - to the left.

At the end of the meal, the woman sitting next to me asked the attendant for cheesecake for dessert. He sort of ignored her request. Later on, the woman informed me that the attendant finally informed her that dessert was not served for lunch. She was rather upset and decided not to leave a tip. I was a little surprised at this, as yesterday I had ordered, and was served, ice cream for dessert on the California Zephyr.

After lunch, I returned to my room and watched the scenery as we approached our next stop, Martinsburg, W. Va. A passenger from our car would be detraining there, and I heard another passenger ask the conductor whether he could step off the train to take a few pictures. The conductor replied that we would be making two stops at Martinsburg, so he was welcome to get off at the first stop and get back on again at the second stop. Conductors and attendants don't always permit you to do this, and I thought it was very nice of the conductor to offer the passenger this opportunity. Of course, if the other passenger could do this, so could I, so when we arrived at Martinsburg at 1:31 p.m., I stepped off the train and took a number of pictures of the train and the attractive Martinsburg station. We arrived on the track not adjacent to the platform, and the engineer attempted to spot the train precisely at a walkway that extends across the track adjacent to the platform. But, for the second stop, he stopped a little too soon, and the door of the coach which was opened was just beyond the hard-surfaced crossing. When we departed Martinsburg at 1:35 p.m., we were one hour and 50 minutes late.

I now packed up some of my belongings and watched the beautiful scenery. I heard on the scanner that an FRA inspector would be boarding the train at Harpers Ferry, and as a result, we made two stops there, with the first stop being to board the inspector at the crew dorm car, and the second stop for the coach passengers boarding and detraining. When we left Harpers Ferry at 3:04 p.m., we were one hour and 54 minutes late.

I went back to the lounge car to enjoy the views of the C&O Canal and the Potomac River (both on the opposite side of the train from my room), and walked back to the coaches to say goodbye to Simon and his son. I then returned to my room, where I updated these memoirs and completed packing up my belongings.

Our ride from Harpers Ferry to Washington was rather slow because we encountered a number of slow orders resulting from track work being performed by CSX. When we departed Rockville at 2:59 p.m., we were two hours and five minutes late. Although an hour is allotted for the 17-mile trip from Rockville to Union Station in Washington, which provides some make-up time, we even encountered slow orders on this last stretch of the route. Finally, at 3:35 p.m., we pulled into Track 16 on the upper level of Washington Union Station. We were one hour and 40 minutes late.

I detrained and walked down to the platform to the station. The first thing that I did was to go over to the ticket window to exchange my unreserved ticket for one valid on Train #178, the 4:05 p.m. Regional train to New York. There was no line at the ticket window, and the process went very smoothly (I wasn't even asked for photo ID). I next walked over to the information booth to obtain a timetable that included my train. I was astonished to find out that no such timetables were available! Amtrak decided not to publish a large-format Northeast timetable this fall, but at least it made the less-attractive card timetables available. Now, even these were gone! Luckily, I had a copy of the timetable I used to record the consist and times of Train #178 when I rode it in February, so I would not have to ride without a current timetable.

I now walked over to the Club Acela, where I signed in and briefly checked some of my AOL messages. I spent less than ten minutes there, as by the time I got there, it was 4:45 p.m. About 4:55 p.m., I walked through Gate G (a sign there states that "for safety reasons," only Amtrak employees may use this gate, but the sign is widely ignored), thereby bypassing the line that formed at Gate K, and I walked downstairs to Track 26 to board Train #178.

Today's Regional Train #178 is pulled by AEM-7 engine #943 and includes four Acela Coachclass cars, an unreconditioned Amfleet I coach, a café car and a Business Class car. I walked down to the first car -- an Acela Coachclass car that was designated the "quiet car" -- and sat down at a pair of seats on the right side of the train. We departed one minute late at 4:06 p.m.

This train was quite a contrast to the California Zephyr and Capitol Limited. Rather than being equipped with sleeping and dining cars and coaches with spacious seating, this coaches on this train have the rather cramped 84-seat pitch seating. People were riding it just to get from place to place in the fastest, most efficient manner, rather than for the sake of enjoying a leisurely train journey. Of course, I've ridden this line many times before, and I decided to use the time to work on the memoirs of the trip I was about to complete, rather than paying careful attention to the scenery. I also fell asleep for part of the ride.

As the first car of the train - the one furthest from the escalator going down to the platform - my car was rather empty leaving Union Station. Few passengers boarded my car at New Carrollton, and it didn't even fit on the short platform at the BWI Rail Station. But when we arrived at Baltimore at 4:45 p.m., quite a few people boarded my car, and every seat pair was occupied by at least one person.

Between Baltimore and Wilmington, I decided to walk down to the end of the train. I found that every pair of seats on the train was occupied by at least one person, and the rear cars were even more crowded than the front car. I also walked into the café car #85501. This is one of the few cars that was rebuilt during the Warrington administration from a dinette into what was considered more appropriate seating for a café car. To prevent the "abuse" of people appropriating tables in the café car as their permanent seats, all tables were removed, and small, uncomfortable stools facing small tables were substituted, with the exterior of the car being painted with infamous "green globs."

Fortunately, only a handful of café cars were rebuilt in this manner, as Amtrak soon ran out of funds. The concept of substituting small tables for large ones is not a bad one; indeed, the California Cars feature very attractive small tables, with comfortable seating. But the design of these "green glob" cars is, in my opinion, unattractive and wasteful. This is the first time that I can recall being in one, and I doubt that David Gunn will approve the rebuilding of any more perfectly good dinette cars into these unattractive "green glob" cars. (Interestingly, most of the seats provided were being occupied by passengers, many of which appeared to use them as their primary seats.)

Our train was on time until we arrived in Trenton at 6:25 p.m. We started to depart a minute later, but quickly came to a stop. I'm not sure why this happened, but we ended up not leaving until 6:28 p.m., three minutes late. We lost additional time on the way to Newark, and did not arrive at Penn Station, Newark until 7:07 p.m., seven minutes late.

Although it would have been faster for me to take the train all the way to New York and then take a bus to Teaneck, I decided to complete the trip as far as possible by rail. So I detrained in Newark and transferred to a PATH train, which I took to Hoboken (changing to another train at Pavonia/Newport). I arrived at Hoboken about 7:40 p.m. and walked into the waiting room to purchase a ticket for the next Pascack Valley Line train, scheduled to depart at 8:20 p.m. I then made a phone call. The magnificent high-ceilinged waiting room, recently restored, reminded me of the similar facility at Denver Union Station, from where I had just departed from two nights ago. Then, I went back outside and boarded my train, which had in the meantime arrived on Track 2. It was pulled by engine #4132 and included five Comet I cars, of which three were open. The train departed on time and arrived at the Anderson Street station in Hackensack at 8:45 p.m. I walked over to the intersection of Main and Anderson Streets where, after about a 15-minute wait, I boarded a #780 bus, which took me to within two blocks of my home.

My leisurely trip home on Amtrak was an interesting contrast to my quick flight out to Denver on Sunday. When I flew out there, I had no sense of actually traveling through the country. But on the way back, I had the opportunity to see the varied countryside of the United States from the comfort of an Amtrak train. As I was completing my journey, I realized that, on the way home from Denver, I had traveled on light rail, heavy rail transit, commuter rail, short-distance Amtrak corridor rail, and long-distance Amtrak trains -- just about every type of rail passenger service that exists in America! It was a great trip, and I hope to do it again soon!

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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