Amtrak Cardinal Travelogue
A Ride in the Dome Car
by Daniel Chazin
It’s about 10:50 p.m. on Saturday, October 30th, and I’ve just arrived at the Amtrak station in
Indianapolis, where I will be boarding the Cardinal, Train #50, on my way back to New York. The
reason I’m taking this trip is to ride the dome car on the Cardinal – the first time that this car
has been placed on this train.
Amtrak formerly owned many dome cars, and they were regularly assigned to several trains – including the Capitol Limited between Chicago and Washington. But in 1995, they were all taken out of service, with one exception – a full-length dome car built in 1955 for the Empire Builder of the Great Northern Railroad. That car was assigned to one set of the Surfliner trains that operate between Los Angeles and San Diego, and I rode this dome car on that route in 2002.
For the past four years, Amtrak has moved the car to the East Coast each October and has assigned it to the Adirondack between Albany and Montreal. I have ridden the dome car on the Adirondack once each season during the first three years it operated on the Adirondack, and this year, I rode it twice.
Around the middle of September, Amtrak issued a press release stating that this year, the dome car will also make two round-trips on the Cardinal, which runs between Chicago and New York (the dome car would operate only between Chicago and Washington, since it is too high to fit through the tunnels north of there). I hadn’t taken a long-distance Amtrak trip for nearly two years (my last overnight Amtrak trip was from Miami to New York in January 2009), so I thought it would be great to ride the Cardinal with the dome car.
Next, I heard from my railfan friend Tom Jankowski of Toronto that he was planning to ride the Cardinal with the dome car on the weekend of October 30-31, the first trip of the dome car on the Cardinal. I had nothing special going on that weekend, so I decided that I would plan to ride the Cardinal for the trip that leaves Chicago on Saturday night, October 30th and arrives in New York the following night. I also decided that I would board the Cardinal on Saturday night in Indianapolis, where I could stay overnight with some friends.
Towards the end of September, I decided that it was time for me to make my reservations. I first checked for flights from New York to Indianapolis on Friday, October 29th, and found a very affordable Delta flight on Friday morning for $92.70. Next, I made my reservation with Amtrak for the ride on the Cardinal, which cost me $77.40. This was, of course, for a coach ticket, but the sleepers were sold out, and I figured that, in any event, I would be spending most of my time aboard the train in the dome car.
The trip began on Friday, when I flew to Indianapolis. My Delta flight from LaGuardia Airport was scheduled to depart at 10:52 a.m. The previous day, I put a post on a local bulletin board inquiring whether anyone could offer me a ride to LaGuardia (or even Queens) on Friday morning, but I received no responses (except for one person who operated a commercial livery service and sought to take me there for a fee). So I decided to go via public transportation.
I left Teaneck about 7:05 a.m. and, after stopping at CVS to purchase some batteries (which I might need for my scanner or my camera), reached the Anderson Street station in Hackensack just as the 7:18 a.m. train was pulling into the station. I hadn’t yet found a parking space, so I couldn’t take this train, but I knew that another train would be arriving in 15 minutes. Since it was Friday – one of the two days when there is alternate-side-of-the-street parking in Hackensack – I had to park several blocks away, and it took me about eight minutes to walk back to the station. But I arrived in plenty of time to board Train #1610, which pulled in on time at 7:33 a.m. It was pushed by engine 4146 and included five cars. I found an unoccupied pair of seats in the rear car, Metro-North coach 6785, and used one of the seats to store my luggage. Although the car was pretty full, some aisle seats remained unoccupied after we departed Wood-Ridge, and we arrived at Secaucus Junction at 7:53 a.m., one minute early.
I walked upstairs and then down to the platform for Track B, where Train #3922 – a Northeast Corridor Trenton express train, stopping only at Trenton, Hamilton and Princeton Junction and operating non-stop from there to Newark – arrived six minutes late at 8:02 a.m. It was pushed by engine 4610 and included nine multi-level cars. I boarded the next-to-last car, 7531 (interestingly, this was the first time that this car has been included in the consist of any NJ Transit train that I have ridden). Since I was traveling with a relatively heavy suitcase, I tried to find a seat at the end of the car, where plenty of space is available for luggage (these seats are relatively uncomfortable, and I normally avoid them). But no seats were available, so I walked up to the upper level and found an unoccupied forward-facing aisle seat. I put my suitcase in the aisle, since there was nowhere else to store it, but that didn’t really matter, as our next and last stop was Penn Station.
We pulled into Track 8 at Penn Station at 8:13 a.m. To our right, the Adirondack, scheduled to depart at 8:15 a.m., was boarding on Track 6. I briefly walked towards the back of the platform to record the number of the last coach and engine, then walked forward, where I encountered a huge mass of people waiting to make their way upstairs. The stairways at Penn Station were not designed to handle the crush of over 1,000 people simultaneously trying to make their way from the platform upstairs, and the situation on this platform today was aggravated by the fact that the westernmost escalator leading to the upper level of the station was closed and taped off. Not until 8:19 a.m. – a full six minutes from the time that our train pulled in – did I succeed in reaching the base of a stairway leading to the lower level, and by this time, another crowded multi-level train had already arrived on Track 7 – on the opposite side of the same platform – and was now discharging its passengers!
I made my way to the upper level, where I retrieved my ticket for tomorrow night’s trip on the Cardinal from a machine – a process that took only a few seconds. Interestingly, when I looked at the ticket, I noticed that it showed the place of issue as “INT.” In the past, the code that would have appeared in this spot on the ticket would have been “NYP,” signifying that the ticket was issued at Penn Station in New York. At first, I thought that “INT” signified some new station code – and then I realized that it stood for “Internet”! Apparently, Amtrak now considers tickets as having been “issued” as soon as they are purchased on the Internet and, indeed, the “date of issue” shown on the ticket was September 28th – the day that I had made my reservation online.
I walked up to the Eighth Avenue 33rd Street subway station and boarded an E Train to Queens. As is always the case during rush hour on this line, the train was packed from Penn Station to the Lexington Avenue station – the last station in Manhattan – as it is used by many commuters to reach their employment locations on the East Side of Manhattan. But once we left Lexington Avenue and headed to Queens, the train was nearly empty.
I detrained at the Roosevelt Avenue/Jackson Heights station and went upstairs to board a Q33 bus to LaGuardia Airport. A bus pulled in immediately, and we left at 8:50 a.m. The rather short ride to the airport took a full half hour, as we encountered quite a bit of traffic along the way, but we arrived at the Delta terminal at the airport at 9:20 a.m. – an hour and a half before the scheduled departure of my flight. I was hoping to arrive at the airport by 9:30 a.m., so everything had gone perfectly up to this point.
I made my way upstairs, where I encountered a very long line for security. The line moved steadily, though, and by 9:50 a.m., I had made it through security and down to Gate 5A, from where my flight would depart. Since 9/11, it has never taken me more than half an hour from the time that I arrived at an airport to reach the gate, and today was no exception – although it did push the time period to its limit. I had reached the gate in plenty of time, as a full hour remained before the flight was scheduled to depart.
I obtained a cup of coffee from a Dunkin’ Donuts outlet and took out a pastry that I had brought along. I used the waiting time to read some newspapers and start writing these memoirs.
Boarding began about 10:25 a.m., and about 10:35 a.m. I decided to board the flight. Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that Gate 5A at the Delta terminal at LaGuardia Airport is not really a “gate” at all. There is no jetway leading to a plane; rather, after your boarding pass is examined, you have to walk down a flight of stairs that leads to ground level, where you board a bus to take you to your plane! I haven’t encountered this system on a domestic flight for quite a while, and I assumed that we would be transported to some remote location in the airport to board our flight. That, however, turned out not to be the case, either. We were driven a short distance over to the US Airways terminal (pausing along the way for a plane that was backing up in front of us), where our plane was stationed in front of Gate 21. Apparently, Delta has rented some gates from US Airways, since its own terminal is over capacity, and rather than setting up a separate check-in gate at that terminal, they have passengers check in at the Delta terminal and then bus them over to the US Airways terminal!
Yesterday, when checking in online, I was given the opportunity to change my seat. When I looked at the seating chart, I noticed that there was a pair of seats in Row 6 that was still unoccupied. So I decided to change my seat to the window seat of that pair, hoping that the aisle seat would remain empty. I lucked out, and no one showed up for that seat, so for the entire flight, I had two seats to myself.
We pulled away from the gate at 11:01 a.m. and took off at 11:19 a.m. The flight was uneventful, and I slept a little and used the remainder of the time to work on these memoirs. I also ate a salami sandwich that I had brought with me (along with a glass of Coke that I obtained from the attendant).
We landed at the Indianapolis airport at 1:08 p.m., and a few minutes later we arrived at the gate. After getting off the plane, I took a seat in a waiting area by one of the gates, took out my computer, and found that free wireless Internet was available at the Indianapolis airport. Signing on was a little complicated – you first had to register for the site and give them a password, then you had to check that stupid box that said that you agreed to their terms (which weren’t displayed unless you clicked on a link) – but once I managed to access the Internet, there was an excellent connection, and I easily succeeded in downloading a six-megabyte file.
I stayed in the airport for about an hour to check my e-mail and then made my way down to the Ground Transportation area, where I boarded the #8 bus of IndyGo, the local transit agency. I had done a little research online and discovered that IndyGo has a fairly comprehensive network of bus routes around Indianapolis and that I could not only use it to travel from the airport to downtown, but also take a bus to the home where I was staying. I decided to take the bus from the airport to downtown, spend a little time there, and then continue to the home where I would be staying for Shabbat.
I boarded the #8 bus at 2:30 p.m., and about half an hour later, we reached downtown Indianapolis. Since I had a little spare time, I decided to visit some place of interest in downtown. The bus passed right by the Indiana State House, the capitol building of the State of Indiana, so I got off there and walked into the historic building, opened in 1888 and recently restored. The last tour had departed at 3:00 p.m., but I was able to walk around the building by myself and at some point found the tour group (consisting of only a handful of people) and joined them. The legislature was not in session, and the building seemed largely empty, but I got to see both legislative chambers as well as the Supreme Court courtroom – the only one of the three rooms that retains its original appearance.
I left the State House building at 4:00 p.m. and caught a 4:10 p.m. #28 bus that would take me to the family that I would be staying with. I very much enjoyed the overnight stay, as well as the company of their family and friends who had been invited for the meals.
On Saturday night, I checked with Amtrak to determine that the train was on time. Then, at 9:50 p.m., I received a call from my friend Tom Jankowski, who was aboard the train. He told me that the Cardinal had just arrived in Lafayette (it is scheduled to depart Lafayette at 9:58 p.m.) and that it is pulled by two engines and includes a baggage car, a Viewliner sleeper, a lounge car, four Amfleet coaches, the dome car and two private cars at the rear. I was delighted to hear that the dome car was placed in the back of the train, thus permitting some forward views over the train. This was not possible when the dome car was on the Adirondack, as there it was the first car on the train, and the engine blocked any views out the front. The Cardinal normally has only three coaches; presumably, an extra coach was added to today’s consist because of expected high demand due to the presence of the dome car. I thanked Tom for the call and told him that I looked forward to seeing him aboard the train.
My friends’ son had offered to drive me to the station, so we left their home about 10:05 p.m. and proceeded downtown. When we arrived there about half an hour later, we found that the most direct route to the station had been blocked off by the police due to some large event in the area, so we had to take an alternative route. I was dropped off about three blocks north of Union Station, and I walked down Illinois Avenue towards the station.
Soon the magnificent Indianapolis Union Station appeared on the left (east) side of the street. Built in 1888 of brick and stone, the building features a tall clock tower and is one of the few historic buildings that remain in downtown Indianapolis. I thought that the entrance to the Amtrak trains might be through this majestic building, but the front door was locked, and there was no evidence of any activity inside. Next, I walked under the tracks (a huge steel viaduct, built to accommodate quite a number of tracks, spans the street), but saw no entrance to the station from there, either. I crossed to the west side of the street, where I noticed that a luxury hotel occupies the space just north of the tracks. I walked over to the concierge of the hotel, who informed me that to reach the Amtrak station, I had to walk back under the tracks, and the station was located on the other side – at the southwest corner of the viaduct.
I did so, and found that the station was a relatively large but unattractive facility located in the space under the viaduct that supports the tracks. The facility is shared with Greyhound and has no connection whatever with the historic Union Station building, located at the northeast corner of the viaduct. The waiting area contains wooden benches presumably moved from the original Union Station, but many of the wooden dividers separating the benches into individual seats have been broken off, permitting homeless people to sleep on the benches. (The adjacent Greyhound waiting area has more modern seating.) The single stairway leading up to the tracks was blocked off by a sign that warns “Restricted Area – No Trespassing – By Order of Homeland Security and Local Police,” and a row of vending machines contains the ominous warning: “Use at on [sic] risk.” The entire place had a rather creepy atmosphere, and – having expected that the Amtrak facility would occupy a portion of the original majestic 1888 station building – it was a major disappointment, to say the least.
When I arrived at the station, about 10:50 p.m., the Amtrak ticket window was closed, but an agent soon appeared, and the window opened at the scheduled time of 11:00 p.m. There were very few people in the station, and most of those who were there did not seem to have come to board the train. Several people came up to the agent to purchase tickets or make other inquiries, but it did not seem that very many people would be boarding the Cardinal tonight in Indianapolis.
At 11:38 p.m., I noticed that the conductor boarded the elevator to go up to the track level, indicating that the train would soon be arriving. Then, at 11:41 p.m., I heard the rumbling of a train upstairs, indicating that our train had arrived. No boarding announcement was made, though. At 11:45 p.m., I turned on my scanner and heard the station agent call the conductor to find out whether she should send boarding passengers upstairs. She was told to wait four minutes. In the meantime, people started walking down the stairway to the station (they had to push aside the “Homeland Security” sign to get into the station!), and I counted about 50 people who had detrained at Indianapolis.
A boarding announcement was finally made at 11:50 p.m., and I walked upstairs, where the dome car Ocean View was positioned right at the top of the stairway. It was nice to see this car again – I had ridden it in twice this season on the Adirondack from Port Henry to Albany, but this would be the first time that I’d be riding it on the Cardinal. All boarding passengers were assigned to the second coach, and the conductor collected tickets as you boarded the train. The second coach on the train was completely empty – presumably, it had been used for the passengers who were riding no further than Indianapolis – and it remained pretty much empty after we departed, as only about 10 passengers boarded in Indianapolis. (The first coach was quite full, with at least one passenger sitting in every seat, and the last two coaches were closed off.)
I put my belongings down and walked into the first coach, where I met my friend Tom. His seat had been appropriated by his seatmate, who sprawled over both seats when Tom was in the dome car, so Tom moved back to my car, where there were plenty of unoccupied seats. We asked the conductor whether the dome car would remain open all night, but he replied that both the dome car and the lounge car would be closing at midnight.
I returned to my seat, and we departed one minute late at 12:00 midnight. We stopped just beyond the station, while the engineer got clearance to proceed ahead, and we started moving four minutes later. I took out my computer and updated these memoirs until about 12:30 a.m., when I decided to try to get some sleep. I reclined over both seats, but I don’t think I fell asleep.
At 1:18 a.m., we came to a stop. I looked out the window and could see that we were at the Connersville, Indiana station. We were eight minutes early and had to hold for time (although I don’t think that anyone got on or off here). In the meantime, I heard on the scanner the conductor asking for permission to occupy more “real estate,” and the dispatcher soon dictated a revised train order. The conductor told the dispatcher that he expected to reach Hamilton by about 2:30 a.m., and we started moving forward on time at 1:26 a.m. Soon afterwards, we passed a defect defector, which announced that our train was 1,023 feet long and had 50 axles. The “odd” number of axles (the number is normally divisible by 4) is due to the fact that the dome car has six, rather than four axles.
I attempted to fall asleep again but once again did not succeed in doing so. I was awake when, as had been earlier predicted by the conductor, we passed through Hamilton at 2:30 a.m. Hamilton used to be a stop on the Cardinal, but for some reason, it no longer is. After Hamilton, I might have fallen asleep for a little while, but I woke up by 3:10 a.m., when I saw that we were approaching Cincinnati.
At 3:14 a.m., three minutes early, we pulled into the Cincinnati station. Since we would not be departing for another 15 minutes, I decided to walk upstairs. Unlike the case with Indianapolis, the Amtrak Cincinnati station is situated right inside the historic Cincinnati Union Terminal, which features a majestic lobby with a soaring arch. The building has been converted to a museum, but Amtrak occupies a small area above the single remaining station track (the former location of the men’s room!) which, although not as large as the waiting area provided in Indianapolis, is far more pleasant and dignified.
I soon returned to the train (only about half a dozen passengers boarded here, although quite a few people detrained) and we departed on time at 3:29 a.m. On the last two trips I’ve taken on the Cardinal, we passed through Cincinnati in daylight, so I knew that it was worthwhile to look out the window even though it was in the middle of the night. I watched as we passed the skyscrapers of downtown Cincinnati and curved very sharply to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky, but soon afterwards, I laid down over the seats and tried to get a little more sleep.
I woke up when we arrived at Maysville, Kentucky at 5:05 a.m. Maysville features an attractive brick station with a waiting room that is open for passengers. Two people got off here, and another two got on. When we departed at 5:07 a.m., we were 16 minutes late – probably the first time the train has been late since we departed Chicago. I think that some slow running just beyond Cincinnati may have been responsible for our lateness.
Our next stop was the Amshack in South Portsmouth, where we arrived at 5:57 a.m. Three passengers detrained here, and three boarded. When we departed two minutes later, we were 15 minutes late. Then, at 6:24 a.m., we paused for servicing at the CSX Russell Yard. Although not listed as a stop in the timetable, the Cardinal always stops here for servicing. Today, the servicing took 12 minutes, and we departed at 6:36 a.m.
Our next stop was Ashland, where we arrived at 6:46 a.m. In the travelogue of my trip on the Cardinal in 1998, I wrote that the old freight house in Ashland had been converted into an attractive passenger station. But now it seems that the station building is closed to passengers, with a small “Amshack” shelter having been erected on the narrow platform to provide some shelter for waiting passengers. About three passengers detrained, and three others boarded. When we departed at 6:47 a.m., we were 19 minutes late.
The attendant had told some passengers that the dome car would open at 6:30 a.m., but the car was still closed off when we departed Ashland. One of the passengers talked to the conductor, and he agreed to open the car. So about 7:00 a.m., I walked for the first time up to the dome car and took a seat at a table on the right side of the train.
After passing the original C&O passenger station on the left, we stopped at the newer Amtrak Huntington station at 7:09 a.m. This was our scheduled departure time, but there was a large crowd of people waiting to board. First, about 15 passengers boarded the second coach on the train, and then the train pulled up a little to permit a group of about 20 people to board the fourth coach. These passengers were part of a tour group headed to the Greenbrier Hotel. Since quite a few passengers boarded at Huntington, our stop lasted for 14 minutes, and when we departed at 7:23 a.m., we were 14 minutes late.
During our stop in Huntington, I walked through the train and up to the dinette car, where I purchased a cup of coffee. I brought the coffee up to the dome car, where I had it for breakfast, along with some Cheerios that I had brought along with me. By now, about 20 passengers had made their way to the dome car, and one of them mentioned to me that last night, when the train departed Chicago, the crew did not understand what the dome car was doing on the train, and at first did not allow passengers to ride in the car, thinking it was a private car! I now turned on the scanner and heard the conductor tell the dispatcher: “You might pass the word to the Allegheny dispatcher that we do have a dome car on the train this morning.”
It was now finally getting light out (we were in the western part of the Eastern Time Zone, and this is the last weekend before Standard Time begins, so it doesn’t get light around here until after 7:00 a.m.). By now, there were least 30 people in the dome car.
Two guides from the Colis P. Huntington Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society had boarded the train in Huntington, and they began to present a commentary in the dome car, utilizing the car’s PA system. They mentioned that they usually present their commentary in one of the coaches, but when they found that the PA system in the dome car worked, they decided to take advantage of it.
At 8:18 a.m., we arrived at Charleston. There were quite a few people waiting to board here – both regular passengers and additional passengers for the tour group in the fourth car. Non-tour-group passengers were boarded at the front of the second coach, but many passengers spilled over into the third car, which up to now was unoccupied. One of the passengers who boarded in Charleston took the seat next to mine. He was headed to Baltimore, where he would be working for his doctorate in political science at Johns Hopkins University. He mentioned that he was taking the train for transportation reasons, but that he was aware of the dome car and purposely took the train today because he knew that the dome car would be on the train. In fact, he ended up riding in the dome car for most of the trip. Our stop at Charleston lasted for seven minutes, and when we departed at 8:25 a.m., we were nine minutes late.
From Charleston all the way to Hinton – a distance of about 100 miles, which it takes the train a little over two hours to cover -- we closely parallel first the Kanawha River and then the New River. This is the most scenic part of the river, and I spent the entire time in the dome car. Unfortunately, because we passed through the New River Gorge so early in the morning, the glare of the sun was sometimes rather annoying. Moreover, as I noted in one of my previous travelogues, for the most part, trees have grown in between the tracks and the river, obstructing one’s view of the river. But the dome car made it possible to easily see the tops of the hills on the opposite side of the gorge, and the fall colors were at their peak. It was also possible to see the front of the train snaking through the gorge, although the windows at the front of the car were rather dirty, thus obstructing the view.
The dome car was pretty full for this part of the trip, with about 40 people in the upper level of the car, but not every seat was occupied, and there was no need for the conductor to ration seats for limited periods of time, as he had threatened to do earlier. For the most part, I sat at a table on the right side of the dome car, which faced the New River Gorge after we crossed the Crow’s Nest Bridge. One feature that I don’t remember observing previously was the three-mile “Drys” stretch of the New River, just below its intersection with the Kanawha River, where the flow of the river has largely been diverted into a pipeline that feeds an hydroelectric power station downstream, which itself was built to supply power for a huge plant a little further down the river (and also visible from the train).
We made a three-minute stop at Montgomery, departing at 8:58 a.m., although I did not observe any passengers boarding or detraining here. The railroad runs right through the center of Montgomery, with streets on both sides of the tracks and only a narrow platform serving as a station. About 50 minutes later, at 9:49 a.m., we passed through Thurmond – a flag stop – without stopping. And we reached Prince – which features a station built by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the Art Deco style in 1946 – at 10:05 a.m. When we departed two minutes later, we were 14 minutes late.
Beyond Prince, the New River Gorge widens, and in some places there are houses between the tracks and the river. We follow the New River until Hinton, where we arrived at 10:35 a.m. The Hinton station is a frame building built in 1892, and it hasn’t changed much since. I detrained and boarded the Cardinal here in 1993, when I attended a conference at the nearby Concord College. When we departed Hinton at 10:37 a.m., we were 15 minutes late.
The railroad leaves the New River at Hinton and begins to follow the narrower Greenbrier River. The sun was now higher in the sky, and I used the opportunity to take some photos of the front of the train from the front end of the dome car. This was not possible when the dome car was placed on the Adirondack, as then the dome car was right behind the engine, which is nearly as high as the dome car. But the dome car is the eighth car behind the engine on today’s train, which makes it possible to get some great photos of the train itself.
After we made a brief stop in Alderson at 11:07 a.m., I went down to the coaches. I counted about 40 people who were part of the tour group in the fourth coach, but there were only about 10 people in the third coach. Since the river was on the left side of the train, while my seat was on the right side, I temporarily moved to the third coach, where there were plenty of unoccupied pairs of seats. I plugged in my computer (as the batteries were nearly dead) and continued writing this travelogue.
When we arrived at White Sulphur Springs at 11:41 a.m., I knew that our stop would last for a while, as the large tour group sitting in the fourth coach would be detraining here. I detrained with the regular passengers who got off from the second coach and walked towards the rear of the train, where, for the first time, I saw the two private cars behind the dome car – Mount Vernon and Hickory Creek (the latter being one of two observation cars regularly assigned to the Twentieth Century Limited). The small red brick station here has been branded the “Christmas Depot” and presumably is used as a gift shop. It took five minutes just to unload the luggage of the group and then another five minutes for all passengers to detrain. So I had plenty of time to take some photos and get back onboard before we departed at 11:52 a.m. We were now 27 minutes late.
I now obtained a can of Pepsi from the lounge car and returned to the dome car, where I ate some sliced hard salami with crackers that I had brought along with me. I also spent quite a bit of time looking out the front of the dome car – an experience that I haven’t been able to enjoy in quite a while. I started talking to a few people who were riding in the dome car (by this time, only about 20 people remained in the dome car). One, Robert, was a police officer outside of Milwaukee. He was riding the train all the way to New York, where he would be staying overnight with his sister. He would fly back to Milwaukee tomorrow, then fly back to New York on Thursday to board Friday’s westbound Cardinal – again with the dome car. He mentioned that he had reserved a sleeper for travel both ways – at a cost (each way) of $600, making the trip quite an expensive one for him. (By contrast, the entire cost of my trip was less than $200.) Robert also mentioned that he is the head of the Trails and Rails program that is presented daily during summer months on the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Chicago.
The second person I talked to was riding in the private cars. He was from Kinnelon, N.J., and he explained that he had arranged a charter of the two private cars on the rear for a group of 14 people (including several children). He confirmed, of course, that the cost of his charter far exceeded the $77 fare that I paid for my ride on the Cardinal! He also mentioned that the private cars would be going all the way to New York and that, when the charter was arranged, he had no idea that the dome car would be on the train. He continued by commenting that a few days ago, Amtrak had tried to renege on the charter, claiming that they could not run the private cars if the dome car was on the train, but that they eventually relented and agreed to let the private cars remain on the train as had been scheduled.
Our next stop was Clifton Forge, where we arrived at 12:44 p.m. and departed a minute later. About half a dozen people detrained here, including one railfan who had taken the train to ride the dome car and would be returning on the westbound Cardinal, Train #51. The schedule allows five minutes for our stop at Clifton Forge, but we stopped for only one minute, and when we departed, we were 26 minutes late.
I watched as we moved onto the Buckingham Branch Railroad, formerly a branch of the C&O Railroad (with the main line curving to the right on the way to Newport News). We continued ahead until, about 1:25 p.m., we took the siding at Goshen to allow a westbound empty coal train to pass us. We proceeded at about five miles per hour onto the siding and stopped for several minutes while the train passed by, so we probably lost a total of about ten minutes due to the meet. After regaining the main track, we passed the Goshen station – a white-painted cinder block building – at 1:30 p.m. The scenery along this part of the route is less dramatic than the river gorges that we had traversed earlier, but it was a very pleasant rural farming landscape.
At 2:08 p.m., we arrived at Staunton, where the station has been converted to a restaurant. Interestingly, the dome car afforded a view of the upper story of the station building that is ordinarily blocked by the platform canopy. For some reason, our stop lasted for six minutes, and when we departed at 2:14 p.m., we were 43 minutes late.
I remained in the dome car as we went through the Blue Ridge Tunnel under the Blue Ridge mountains and emerged briefly onto a panoramic south-facing view. Then, at 2:54 p.m., we passed the westbound Cardinal, Train #51, at the siding at Crozet, about halfway between Waynesboro and Charlottesville. We remained on the main track, while Train #51 took the siding, but we stopped briefly, possibly so that the crew could exchange some items between the trains. I also started talking to another “domer” – a man from St. Paul, who grew up in Minot, North Dakota. He also made this trip just because of the dome car. He started by taking the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Minot, where he grew up and his mother still lives. Then, using his Amtrak Guest Rewards points, he booked a trip in a sleeper from Minot to New York (he pointed out that since Minot and St. Paul are in the same zone, the number of points needed for the trip was no greater than if he had booked the trip from St. Paul). Tomorrow morning, he would be flying back to St. Paul.
After passing the campus of the University of Virginia, we pulled into the Charlottesville station at 3:15 p.m. I had hoped to step off the train here, so I walked down to the coaches, where the attendant told me that Charlottesville would be a “smoking stop,” so I was welcome to detrain for the duration of our stop. When I stepped off the train, I noticed a huge crowd of at least 50 people waiting to board, so I realized that our stop would last a while. First, I stepped into the Amtrak station – the former Railway Express Agency building adjacent to the Southern Railway station, which had been converted several years ago into a restaurant. The building is a little small, but it is very attractive, and one wall has an exhibit that relates the history of Charlottesville and its railroads. I would like to take a more careful look at this exhibit sometime in the future when I have more time to spend there.
Next, I walked to the front of the train and, for the first time, got a close look and photos of both engines (168 and 511) that pulled our train. As I was walking back towards the station, the train began to pull forward. The first stop was for detraining passengers and unloading baggage, but a second stop was made to permit passengers to board near where they were standing on the platform. I reboarded the train with these passengers, and we pulled out of the station at 3:30 p.m. Our stop had lasted for 15 minutes, and we were now 43 minutes late.
I soon walked through the train and found that there were now about 140 coach passengers aboard the train. The fourth coach, which had emptied out in White Sulphur Springs, was now reopened to passengers, although only about 25 passengers were sitting there (all of whom were going no further than Washington). I returned to the dome car and watched as we slowed down when we reached G Tower at Gordonsville, the junction with a connecting C&O line to Richmond, at 4:09 p.m. We proceeded at a rather slow rate of speed until we reached Orange, where we join the Norfolk Southern line, at 4:34 p.m. Orange features a beautifully restored station, built in 1910, although Amtrak does not stop here.
I now called my friend Daniel Hutt. Our conversation was interrupted several times when I lost service, but I finally waited until I had three bars on my phone, at which point we were able to complete our conversation. Daniel expressed amazement how I could enjoy a train ride when we were running about an hour late! I also started talking with another person in the dome car. He had driven a friend’s truck down to Bluefield, W. Va., and then attempted to get back to New Jersey. The cheapest flight he could find would have cost $400, and it involved a very indirect routing. So he decided to take the train, and he purchased a ticket (at the last moment) for $106 and boarded the train at Hinton, W. Va. He would be traveling to Wilmington, Delaware, and used his GPS to estimate that we would arrive there at 8:30 p.m.
At 4:52 p.m., we arrived at Culpeper, our next stop. When we departed two minutes later, we were 54 minutes late. We now began to pick up speed, and the guy with the GPS determined that we were traveling at 79 miles per hour – our fastest authorized speed. A short distance beyond Culpeper, we were sent onto a diverging route at a high rate of speed, with a Norfolk Southern freight train visible on the main track just ahead of the diverging switch. Looking out the front of the dome car, it appeared at first glance that we were headed on a collision course with the freight train!
After passing the Virginia Railway Express yard and their Broad Run station, we arrived at the Manassas station at 5:28 p.m. When we departed two minutes later, we were 55 minutes late.
Another person who started talking to me was Jim Churchill. He had boarded at Charlottesville, wearing a T-shirt from Amtrak’s National Train Day last May. He now mentioned to me that he is a Regional Director of NARP, and he asked whether I knew Al Papp of New Jersey. I replied that I knew both Al and David Peter Alan, both of whom are very involved with NARP on a national and regional level. Jim told me that he had taken Greyhound down to Charlottesville in order to ride the dome car back to Washington.
I remained in the dome car until we reached Alexandria, when the conductor announced that the car would be closed. We pulled into the Alexandria station at 6:04 p.m. and departed two minutes later. We were now 47 minutes late. I packed up my belongings and headed down to the second coach, where my “official” seat was (although I hadn’t sat there since my seatmate boarded this morning at Charleston!). I knew that there would be a number of unoccupied seat pairs once we reached Washington, so I put my belongings down on a seat next to a passenger who would be detraining in Washington.
The woman sitting in the seat behind started talking to me. She was from Israel, had visited a friend in Indiana, and had boarded the train with me in Indianapolis to travel to Maryland, where she would be visiting another friend. She mentioned that she, too, found the Indianapolis station to be rather creepy when she arrived there last night, an hour before the train was scheduled to depart. She also inquired about the dome car, and I explained to her how I, as well as a number of other passengers, were riding the train specifically to experience the dome car.
At 6:23 p.m., we pulled into Track 25 at Washington Union Station. I detrained to watch the dome car being removed from the train and our two diesel engines replaced with an electric engine. First, I went to the back of the train, where the Amtrak personnel in charge of switching the equipment seemed to be confused as to how many cars need to be taken off the train. I explained to them that they needed to take off three cars, store the dome car on some storage track, then recouple the private cars to the train. In response to a question as to why the dome car was not just put on the rear of the train, I explained that the private cars needed to be the rearmost cars. Eventually, switch engine 792 pulled the three cars off, stored the dome (I believe) on Track 30, then returned and recoupled the two private cars to the rear of the train at 6:53 p.m. Interestingly, one of the switching people asked me what the number of the dome car was! Apparently, he hadn’t bothered to record it but needed it for a report that he was required to submit. In the meantime, the two diesel engines were taken off the train and replaced with HHP-8 engine 658.
At 7:03 p.m., the southbound Silver Meteor, Train #97, pulled into Track 26, the track opposite our train on the same platform. A few seconds later, the lights on our train came back on. Finally, at 7:07 p.m., we started moving ahead. Our stop in Washington had lasted for 44 minutes, somewhat longer than usual. On the one hand, the extra time could be blamed on the need to take off the dome car and then put the private cars on the train, but the private cars had been recoupled by 6:53 p.m., and it is not clear to me why we didn’t depart for another 14 minutes.
As is usually the case on long-distance trains from the south and west that terminate in New York, the ride from Washington to New York is a kind of anti-climax. The main part of the train ride is over, and you just move along as fast as possible – discharging passengers along the way – until you reach Penn Station in New York, the final destination. Today would be no exception.
When we pulled into the Baltimore station at 7:39 p.m., I said goodbye to Tom, who detrained there (he would be staying overnight in Baltimore and flying back to Buffalo tomorrow). We departed a minute later, now 46 minutes late. I took out some more crackers and salami and hoped to go to the lounge car to purchase a can of soda and eat my meal there, but I found that the lounge car was closed off to passengers. (The last coach was also closed off, with only the three coaches open to coach passengers.) So I ate at my seat.
We arrived at our next stop, Wilmington, at 8:29 p.m. and departed a minute later. Incredibly, my friend’s predicted arrival time, calculated by his Garmin GPS, turned out to be precisely correct! We were still 45 minutes late, but I figured that it was likely that we would make up a little more time before our final stop at Penn Station, New York.
We continued ahead to our final destination, Penn Station in New York, making stops along the way at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Trenton and Newark. Each station stop lasted for no more than a minute, and we encountered no delays of any kind along the way. At 10:07 p.m., our journey concluded as we came to our final stop on Track 11 at Penn Station. We had covered the 225 miles from Washington to New York in precisely three hours – faster than any Northeast Regional train, and only about 15 minutes slower than the Acela Express! We had made up some time along the way, and were now only 22 minutes late.
I detrained and, after picking up some Long Island Rail Road timetables, walked upstairs to the Amtrak waiting room, where I used the wireless Internet to check my e-mail (I hadn’t had a chance to check it since Friday). At this hour on Sunday nights, service on the Pascack Valley line is provided only every two hours. I had obviously missed the train that departs Secaucus at 9:32 p.m. (even if the Cardinal had been on time, I might not have made this train), and the next Pascack Valley Line train does not depart Secaucus until 11:32 p.m., with the official connection from Penn Station departing at 11:14 p.m. So I would have quite a bit of time to check my accumulated messages.
It turned out that very few messages of any significance had been sent to me over the weekend, and in about half an hour, I had reviewed all personal and railroad-related messages in my mailboxes. About 10:50 p.m., I heard a boarding announcement for the NJ Transit express train to Trenton, but that train does not stop at Secaucus. Then, at 10:59 p.m., boarding announcements were made both for the 11:07 p.m. North Jersey Coast train and the 11:11 p.m. Midtown Direct train to Dover. The 11:07 p.m. train would be departing from Track 2, while the 11:11 p.m. train would be departing from Track 3.
I walked down to the lower level, where I noticed that the train on Track 3 had multi-level equipment, while the train on Track 2 was made up of Comet equipment. I always prefer to ride in the multi-level cars, so I walked down to the platform for Track 3. But, much to my surprise, I found that although many waiting passengers were standing on the platform, the doors of the train remained closed. This is a very unusual phenomenon – almost always, the train is open for boarding before the boarding announcement is made. I didn’t want to take any chances of missing my connection in Secaucus, so I walked back down to Track 2 and boarded reconditioned Comet II car 5383, the second car of North Jersey Coast Train #7285 (the first car was closed off).
We departed at 11:08 p.m. and arrived at Secaucus nine minutes later. I walked upstairs, where I gathered some new NJ Transit timetables that are effective on Sunday, November 7th. After talking to a friend on the phone, I made my way downstairs to Track H, where my Pascack Valley Line Train #2133 arrived one minute early at 11:31 p.m. It was pulled by engine 4120 and consisted of four Comet V cars, of which the last three were open (even though all passengers could easily have been accommodated in two cars, or maybe even in a single car). We departed Secaucus on time and arrived at the Anderson Street station one minute early at 11:49 p.m. I detrained, walked several blocks to my car and drove back to my home in Teaneck, arriving there almost precisely 24 hours after my train had departed from Indianapolis the previous evening!
My trip from Indianapolis to New York on the Cardinal worked out exactly as planned. Riding a dome car at the back of a train is an experience that I have not enjoyed for quite a while. I am really glad that I made this trip, my first Amtrak long-distance train ride in nearly two years.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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