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Amtrak Rail Travelogue
Between Los Angeles, CA; The Northeast; and Seattle, WA
July 19, 2001 through July 31, 2001
By Matt Melzer of TrainWeb.com
(http://www.trainweb.com/travelogues/mattmelzer/2001g19a.html)

Click on any following link to go to that portion of the travelogue:

If you are looking for the 360x360 degree virtual tours produced during this trip, they are not yet posted to the web. However, when they are, you will be able to find them at www.360360.com . They should be posted within the next couple weeks. Thank you for your patience.

Although I have taken numerous train trips over long distances throughout much of America, I usually do not ride a large number of trains in one fell swoop. But in the case of this trip from my home in Los Angeles, California, to the East Coast, it would be quite an extended journey! Traditionally, I take one trip every summer to somewhere in Eastern America, often to Ohio to visit relatives. But, while planning my trip as early as April, I decided to do something a little different this time. I wanted to, in one trip, be able to visit a variety of destinations, while at the same time ride a wide variety of trains. The basis for my trip was the idea of visiting my friend Justin for a few days. Justin used to live in Los Angeles, but moved to Northern Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, a few years ago. We had not seen each other since 1998, and agreed that I should change that on my trip! The next thing I thought was that, since I would be so close to the Northeast Corridor at my presumed destination, I should make a point of it to ride Acela Express, ideally all the way from Boston to Washington. I then had to consider how I would get to and from the East Coast. I had $932 in Amtrak Service Guarantee Certificates, and 25,000 frequent flyer miles with America West Airlines FlightFund.

After investigating my options, it seemed my best option would be to fly to Boston (on Continental Airlines, an America West partner) and take Acela Express to Washington. After spending a few days there, I would take a Northeast Corridor train from Washington to New York, take the Three Rivers from New York to Chicago, take the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, and fly home from there on America West. The Three Rivers and the Empire Builder were two routes I had never taken, and I would certainly achieve a vast breadth of scenery and equipment with the trains I would be taking! The Acela Express, with its high performance and modern beauty, the Three Rivers, with its half-century-old Heritage Sleeping car, and the Empire Builder, a big Superliner train across the Big Sky country, would make for a journey I could never forget. Moreover, this itinerary would allow me to use both my Amtrak vouchers and my frequent flyer miles to their fullest.

While I was still planning my trip, I learned that a deal had been struck between the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and the Guilford Rail System that would allow Amtrak's long-awaited Downeaster passenger service from Portland, Maine, to Boston North Station to begin this summer. Supposedly the operating contracts would be smoothed out almost immediately, and the Downeaster could begin running as early as mid-June 2001. It was exciting news for me personally, as I realized I could fly to Portland and take the Downeaster to Boston, instead of flying straight to Boston. My gamble would be on the service initiating to begin with. If the service did not begin by mid-July, the time around which I'd leave for my trip, I'd have to waste a few hours riding a Vermont Transit bus from Portland to Boston because there'd be no train! But it was a gamble I was willing to take, nevertheless.

My first step was to redeem my miles and book my flights with America West. The FlightFund Membership Guide stated that miles could be used for an open jaw trip in which the traveler may return to the point of origin from a city other than the one originally flown to. In other words, I could fly from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine, and return to Los Angeles from Seattle, without having to use any additional miles! However, when I went to book my trip, the FlightFund agent gave me a hard time, saying the open jaw rule does not apply in my case because the distance between Portland, Maine and Seattle is too great! I thought that might have been a fluke, and called back the next day to try again. Again, I was told 25,000 could not get me this trip. I demanded to speak to the supervisor, to whom I politely explained that the Membership Guide made no explicit or implicit exemptions to the open jaw allowance, and that my itinerary is in fact less of a financial burden on the airline than if I was to fly round trip to Portland, Maine! The best she could do was give me the address of a high-ranking official at the FlightFund office in Phoenix. I wrote to the official, complaining of deceptive and potentially false advertising on the part of America West Airlines, and explaining that I am a loyal customer of the airline. My persistence paid off, and I was granted tickets for my itinerary! I was to fly to Portland overnight on July 23, arriving there on July 24, and fly home from Seattle on July 31. To show what I did to overcome America West's nonsense, I have copied the letter below:

Dear [-]:

My name is Matthew Melzer, and I am a devoted America West client, and I have been a FlightFund member for over four years. After four years of patronizing America West Airlines, giving to it my business (and to others my recommendation) time after time, I recently decided to capitalize off of this long period of continuous ridership by taking a vacation using my FlightFund miles. I wished to first fly from Los Angeles, CA to Portland, ME (using Continental Airlines), but return to Los Angeles from Seattle, WA (I would be getting from Portland to Seattle through other means).

When I called America West to book this trip, I was told that it's not allowed, as it would be considered two one-way trips. However, according to the most recent version of the FlightFund Membership Guide (January 2001), this kind of itinerary fits perfectly into the given definition of an open-jaw trip, which, for the purposes of mileage redemption, is treated the same way as a round trip. Needless to say, I was distraught to be told that my itinerary is not an open-jaw trip.

I am not upset that frequent flyer programs have all sorts of fine print and restrictions. That is to be expected (after all, its members are getting travel for free). However, it is completely unacceptable for the airline to lie to its customers about rules as a method of persuasion to attract new customers. I have generally found the FlightFund program extremely attractive because of its relatively liberal terms of membership, which I greatly appreciate. One such term can be found on page 11 of the Membership Guide: "Open jaw travel is permitted on America West and Continental flights within the 48 contiguous United States… Open jaw travel is defined as flying to a city and returning from a different city." That is very clear and simple. There are no asterisks, nor any fine print to indicate restrictions. I understand that rules of these programs tend to fluctuate frequently, but [-], the supervisor at the Service Center who handled my call, said that restrictions on open-jaw travel have been in place since day one. If this is so, then the restrictions should be printed in the Membership Guide. I also understand the ultimate rule of the FlightFund program: "All rules are subject to interpretation by designee(s) of America West Airlines." It is indeed the job of your office to interpret your own rules for us customers, but there is little to be interpreted from what America West tells its members is the rule for open-jaw travel. In black and white, the rule as it is published allows for my travel on my desired itinerary. Any other way, and it is false advertising on the part of America West Airlines.

Thank you very much for taking your time to hear my complaint. [-] was courteous enough to go ahead and place my itinerary on hold in the America West computer. Should you wish to review my itinerary, the record locator for it is [-]. I would greatly appreciate any action you could take to rectify my situation. I have given America West Airlines much of my time, money, and praise, and wish to continue to do so in the future. Thanks again for your time.

I then got to the fun part of planning my trip: Booking train tickets! I could purchase tickets for all segments of my trip, except Portland to Boston, for which tickets wouldn't go on sale until June, at the earliest. While planning my train trip, I got to talking with Harris Cohen, a fellow teenage rail advocate and rail travel fan, and President and Webmaster for the Association of Rail Travel in the US. He, too, would be taking the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle around the same time as me! We coordinated such that we'd have bedrooms across the hall from each other. We agreed he'd stay in Standard Bedroom 7, in the 0730 car, and I would stay in room 8. We each purchased our train tickets at the same time to guarantee that our coordinated schedules would work. So, I purchased my tickets on Acela Express from Boston South Station to Washington for July 24, Washington to New York on July 28, Three Rivers from New York to Chicago on July 28, and the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle on July 29. The price for the tickets, including First Class on Acela Express, Business Class on the Vermonter, a Heritage Roomette on the Three Rivers, and a Superliner Standard Bedroom on the Empire Builder, as well as the 10% National Association of Railroad Passengers rail fare discount, came to $1130. Using my vouchers, the entire trip would cost $198! What a great deal.

My trip ran into problems in May, and started to become a vacation with a rapidly changing itinerary. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority announced regret for the rumors that the Downeaster might start by June. A spokesman clarified that it was unlikely service would begin before the Fall. So much for that! I would have to go through the hassle of flying to Portland for no reason and taking a bus, or create alternate arrangements. Fortunately, an option for the latter became possible shortly thereafter. My mother decided she would take a vacation of her own to Burlington, in Northern Vermont, around the time when I would be out of town. She urged me to alter my plans and join her in Burlington a few days earlier than I had planned to fly to Portland. At first I was resistent, but then realized this could prove to work out well in the end. If I went to Burlington, I would have the opportunity to ride their new Champlain Flyer commuter train, then leave for Boston and the Northeast Corridor on the Amtrak Vermonter, a train that follows an interesting and scenic route! This change in plans would necessitate a change to my airline itinerary. America West allowed me to change my inital destination from Portland to Burlington for a fee of $75 (which, along with other costs incurred as a result of these new plans, my mother cheerfully offered to pay for). I would now fly to Burlington on July 19, and leave from St. Albans on the Vermonter on July 23, to New Haven, Connecticut. I could then take an Acela Regional to Boston, spend the night there, and leave the next day on Acela Express as planned. After investigating hotels in Boston, I found that hotel rooms there are exorbitantly expensive. My mother suggested that I find a more reasonably priced hotel somewhere else along the Northeast Corridor, spend the night of July 23 there, and continue on to Boston on July 24. I found my easiest and most reasonable option would be to stay at the Radisson New London Hotel, in New London, Connecticut, an hour Northeast of New Haven. The hotel had fairly inexpensive rates, was in close proximity to the Amtrak station, and offered free shuttle service. Staying there seemed almost natural, and I promptly booked my room.

Fate tried to throw another wrench into my plans in late May, when an Amtrak track inspection of the New England Central Railroad (a small Class 3 railroad over which the Vermonter operates north of Palmer, Massachusetts) revealed that the railroad had hundreds of track defects in countless areas. If the Vermonter was to continue normal operations it would had to have run under speed restrictions so severe as to cause the train to run 2.5 hours late each and every day. Amtrak halted Vermonter service and implored the New England Central to clean up their act by cleaning up their tracks. As a substitute, Amtrak ran a "bustitution" from St. Albans to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Amtrak's own trackage begins. But that only lasted for a few days, and Amtrak soon cut all service north of Springfield until further notice. They even laid off all of the train crews and station agents along the 300+ -mile affected portion of the route. My chances of getting to ride the Vermonter looked grim! My best second option would have been to get driven the 70 miles from Burlington to Rutland, Vermont, and take the Ethan Allen Express to New York, then go on to New London. But even then, I could not get to New London before 9 PM, whereas taking the Vermonter could get me there by 6:45 PM. For the time being, there was nothing I could do but sit and wait to see how long it would take New England Central to make itself healthy again. (I might mention that the predecessor to the Vermonter, the Montrealer, once ran on the New England Central as far south as New London, the end of the line, where it meets up with the Northeast Corridor. However, in 1990, Amtrak identified the current route of the Vermonter through Springfield held more ridership potential, so Amtrak moved the Montrealer off of the NECR south of Palmer at that time. Also, that portion of the NECR's trackage deteriorated so badly, and permanently, that Amtrak decision to not to even bother with it anymore was reinforced by the painfully slow running time between Palmer and New London. To be specific, the train now departs from the New England Central at Palmer, takes the CSX to Springfield, and takes Amtrak's line southward from there.)

While I was busy biting my nails about the future of the Vermonter, Harris Cohen informed me that he could not join me in the Seattle section of the Empire Builder! He would still be on the train, but would be in the Portland section, going to Portland instead. It turns out that, for some reason, he would not be visiting his family in Seattle as originally planned, but would take the Coast Starlight from Portland to Los Angeles and visit family there. So, both Harris and I would be headed for Los Angeles, but I would beat him by 24 hours by flying! Ironically, not only would he be coming to Los Angeles, just like me, but he would be staying only five minutes from my house! I might as well have planned to join him to Portland and on to Los Angeles, but I wasn't going to worry about it. At least we'd still be on the same train as far west as Spokane, and would still see each other in Los Angeles.

Getting back to the issue of the Vermonter, I received good news from Amtrak on June 22: that the NECR had repaired their tracks sufficiently such that the Vermonter could once again operate on its normal schedule. Amtrak hired back all of the crews and station agents, and resumed service smoothly on Sunday, June 24, much to my relief. Unfortunately, a few weeks before my trip, I received another call from Amtrak, informing me that the CSX railroad would be doing trackwork on its Palmer-Springfield line the day I would be traveling, and that the Vermonter would have to bustitute from Brattleboro, Vermont, to Springfield. I decided not to worry much, since I did not have much choice in the matter anyway.

In the meantime, I shared my travel plans with my boss at TrainWeb, Steve Grande. Steve and I established that perhaps we should look into me taking one of TrainWeb's 360x360 iPix Virtual Tour cameras on my trip, since I will be riding on much equipment, and through many stations, that TrainWeb rarely has an opportunity to cover. The week of my trip, Steve was able to obtain a letter of permission from Amtrak Communications and Government Affairs in Philadelphia allowing me to take 360x360 pictures in Boston South Station, New London Union Station, New Haven Union Station, and New York Penn Station. I would not need to do pictures in Washington or Chicago Union Stations, since we already have virtual pictures from those stations. During the first few days of my trip, Steve would also work on getting me permission to board the Three Rivers early so that I could do a 360x360 tour of one of the Heritage 10/6 Sleepers, all of which will be permanently retired from Amtrak service on October 1 because they do not have retention tanks, and the FRA exemption on the rule would soon expire. On my own whim, I sent an e-mail to the Champlain Flyer office of the Vermont Railway in Burlington. Richard Watts, a community activist who runs the Champlain Flyer web site, said Vermont Railway would be more than happy to allow me to take all the pictures I wanted to take of the trains and facilities.

Before I was to leave, there was one more change in the long list of changes in my itinerary. Amtrak announced that it would significantly change its Northeast Corridor schedules on July 9, mainly by adding more Acela Express trains. This would bode well for me, as on the day I travel from New London to Boston to Washington, I could travel on an itinerary exactly two hours earlier, departing New London at 10:57 AM (Acela Regional train 170) instead of 12:45 PM (Acela Regional train 172), and arriving into Washington at 9:44 PM (Acela Express train 2171) instead of 11:44 PM (Acela Regional train 2175), which means it would still be early enough to take the Metro to Justin's house! 2171 would be a new train, departing Boston at 3:12 PM, and I was glad I would be able to ride that one instead of 2175.


July 19, 2001

My date of departure came around quickly. With my mother having already departed for Burlington on Saturday, July 14, I had a few days to prepare before I was to leave, on Thursday, July 19. A few days before my departure, I called SuperShuttle to arrange a ride to Los Angeles International Airport. Although I happily drove my mother to the airport for her trip, I refuse to leave my car there for almost two weeks during my own trip! It just costs too much. The night before my trip commenced, I set my alarm for 7 AM. My shuttle was to come at 8:30, and my flight wasn't until 10:30, so I'd have more than enough time to get ready. However, having gotten a restful night's sleep, I woke up on my own at 5:45 AM. With so much extra time on my hands, I decided to go out for a real breakfast, as I knew I wouldn't get fabulous food during the course of my flights to Burlington. I walked two blocks to a local cafe that is well known for its breakfasts, and at 6 AM, they weren't even open yet! They didn't open until 7. So, I walked back home and drove to Jerry's Famous Deli, where I wound up having breakfast. I got home at 6:45 AM, which still gave me more time than I needed! After listening to a CD and watching a little television, my shuttle came on-time at 8:30 AM, and I got to Los Angeles International Airport at 9:20 AM. After checking my suitcase and the iPix camera briefcase curbside, I went directly to gate 60 to obtain my boarding pass. I changed my seat to one in an exit row, seat 15C, since it affords much more legroom than the rest of the economy seats.

My first flight, which was to Newark, New Jersey, departed at 10:50 AM, 20 minutes late. This flight, Continental 136, was being flown using a Boeing 757-225, which is a long narrow-body aircraft featuring two Rolls Royce engines. I actually don't particularly like this type of aircraft, since it packs many passengers (150+) into a long cabin, but without the spacious feel and two aisles that a widebody aircraft provides. Due to padding in the schedule, my flight by default made up some time, but lost a little more, as we had to take a less direct, more southerly route, to avoid thunderstorms in the Midwest. We arrived into Newark at about 7:30 PM, 35 minutes late. I had an hour and 20 minutes to make the connection to my commuter flight to Burlington. Upon arriving at the hectic area from which Continental Express flights depart, I discovered there was no need to rush, as most flights were running somewhat late due to late inbound planes. So, while I was waiting, I decided to make a few phone calls. I then discovered that my cellular phone did not work! I was able to call Verizon Customer Service, and was informed that all cell phones entering the New York area from outside of New York are automatically disabled as a fraud protection, since so many phones are cloned in that area! So, my first impression of New York leaned towards the stereotype of rampant crime and fraud. Within a few minutes, my cell phone was activated, as my number was added to the database of numbers approved for use in New York. My flight to Burlington, 3014, did not board until around 9 PM, although the departure time was 8:50 PM. The passengers on my flight had to walk down several flights of stairs to the tarmac, where a waiting bus transported us to a remote area where Continental's commuter planes are parked. Flight 3014 was flown with an ATR-42-320 turboprop aircraft. It has a capacity of 46, but there were no more than 20 passengers on my flight. We were able to make up some time, and arrived into Burlington's charming, but modern new airport at 11:15 PM.

July 20

In my first of three days in Burlington, I decided to explore the Champlain Flyer operations in downtown Burlington. When I arrived at the tracks along Lake Champlain, there was a New England Central local train operating on trackage rights towards the Vermont Railway's Burlington Yards. I walked a couple of blocks north to Burlington Union Station, where the Champlain Flyer's passengers services are based. I spoke with the gentleman there, and explained my communications with Richard Watts, and that I was ready to take some photos! He called a supervisor in the yard, a few blocks south, who invited me to come on down. I did, and after signing a release, I was allowed to take any pictures I wanted to in the yard and on the Champlain Flyer trainset, which was parked for the mid-day. The Champlain Flyer operates with a repainted Vermont Railway EMD GP38-2 engine, #202, which I assume was retrofitted to provide head-end power for passenger trains. The cars used are former Virginia Railway Express commuter cars, which were originally self-propelled rail diesel cars. It appears Vermont Railway has about eight of these cars, but only two were being used on this particular day: a coach and a coach/cab car.

A while after taking virtual pictures of the train, I walked back to Union Station, where I met and spoke with Richard Watts for a short while. I then boarded the Champlain Flyer's 2:40 PM run to Charlotte, 13 miles south of Burlington. The trip takes 25 minutes, which is highly competitive with Highway 7, which becomes very congested during commute hours. However, the Champlain Flyer would not be so competitive if it weren't for various public funds, made available mainly by the State of Vermont, which was eager to initiate the service last year. These funds were used to make substantial upgrades to the track, including installation of heavier, welded rail, over which the trains can now operate at 59 mph (as opposed to the former speed limit of 25 mph). New signals and grade crossing protections have also been installed. For the first few months of service, the Champlain Flyer was free, to encourage residents of Shelbourne and Charlotte to try the train for their commute to Burlington. One-way fare now costs $1 each way, to be deposited in a fare box upon entering the train. It is still a bargain compared to transit in most regions.

I informed the train crew that I had not had the opportunity to do a virtual shot inside the cab of the 202 locomotive. They kindly arranged for me to climb onto the engine as soon as we arrived back into Burlington at 3:35 PM. I did so, and met the engineer, Brion, upon arriving into the locomotive cab. He realized it would take me a little while to set up the camera and take my photo, but the layover in Burlington before the next trip was only 5 minutes. He invited me to take my time and stay for the ride to Charlotte! Passing through the Burlington Yard, I noticed that a few of the Champlain Flyer cars had been claimed by vandals. Brion, however, had a healthy attitude towards the predicament: While it's inexcusable for vandals to encroach upon the property of others, some graffiti artists are in fact true artists, and really need a legitimate creative outlet. No one should have to resort to spraypainting on railroad cars. I couldn't agree more! It was a thrill to ride in the cab of the GP38 down this renewed railroad, and I am more than grateful to everyone at Vermont Railway for their hospitality. They reflected a common Vermont attitude of being laid back, and not so high-strung, as I often find in Los Angeles. It's a rare and admirable trait which I am going to miss until my next trip to Vermont!

July 23

I spent my other two days in Vermont mostly relaxing, though we did take a day trip to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The only rail-related item from that day was that it was my first opportunity to see some of VIA Rail Canada's operations there. Crossing over the St. Lawrence River into Downtown Montreal, one can see VIA's yards. What I saw most clearly was a car very similar in appearance to the Pointe St. Charles private rail car, which, in its dark blue and yellow paint, stands out from VIA's stainless silver cars. I also saw the exterior of Gare Central du Montreal (Central Station). It appears not to be its own building at all, but is below the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, originally constructed by Canadian National.

The Amtrak Vermonter departs St. Albans at 8:05 AM. It's about a half-hour drive north from Burlington to St. Albans, so I figured if I got up at 6:45 AM and left at 7, I could have more than enough time to check my suitcase to New Haven and explore the station area! Indeed, I got to St. Albans at 7:30 AM, bid farewell to my mother, and walked inside the small brick station. The train was soon thereafter brought the quarter mile south from NECR's yard to the station. My train, train 55, was led by an 800-series P40 engine in Phase IV paint, and had a Vermonter baggage car (in Acela paint), Club/Dinette car 48159 (my car, which was used for Business Class seating), 3 Acela Regional Amfleet Capstone coaches, one unrefurbished Amfleet coach in Phase IV paint, and another P40 trailing.

The Club car has very spacious seating, and is better than what Amtrak advertises Business Class to be! My only complaint is that there are no footrests. I was surprised to see so many Amfleet Acela coaches being used on this train, when it's not even an Acela train. I'll have to inquire at some point as to why the equipment is being used this way. We left St. Albans on-time, but had lost about 25 minutes by the time we arrived into Brattleboro at 12:30 PM for the bus connection. We lost most of this time due to slow orders imposed on the site of an NECR derailment a few months ago, where wrecked containers and trailers still lie trackside! After exploring the train, I noticed that only the first two coaches were open, so I asked the conductor if I could go into the third Acela coach to do a 360 tour of it. She graciously allowed me to do so, and I got a bonus tour, one that I had not expected to do!

Before arrival into Brattleboro, the other conductor on our train explained the procedure for the bus bridge to Springfield. He said there would be two buses, one going straight to Springfield, the other making a stop at Amherst along the way. He said that Business Class passengers would be given precedence to the nonstop bus. He also made sure that each Business Class passenger had a beverage for the road, to consume on the bus, where there is no food service. He then told us that we could have the accommodation charges for our tickets refunded when we got to our destinations! Moreover, we would have Metroliner equipment going south from Springfield, so it would still be fairly nice. I'd say this was not a bad deal at all. To be honest, I did not dislike the bus ride as much as I had thought I would. It lasted about an hour, far less than 2+ hours the Vermonter is given to get from Brattleboro to Springfield. In fact, both buses arrived into Springfield and almost all passengers were loaded back onto the train a little while before the Vermonter would have pulled into Springfield on a normal day!

After obtaining my refund at the ticket counter in Springfield, it was only a few minutes before I could board the new train, and we departed at 2:30 PM, right on time. This was my first trip in Metroliner equipment, which I found to be quite comfortable. The Business Class car, though it is in Phase IV paint, appears to be in the process of being refurbished to the new Acela Regional design. A few rows have been removed at either end of the car to allow for future installation of tables. There are new luggage racks in the car, as well as a Railfone. Also, the restroom is the same as in the Acela Regional coaches. Each of the seats have footrests, but not swing-out legrests, as on the Concept 2000 Custom Class cars I'm used to riding in Southern California. I do not know what will become of the Metroliner full dinettes once all Metroliners are replaced by Acela Express. These dinettes are similar to other Amfleet dinettes, but the modern colors are far more attractive than the brown, beige, and oranges usually found. Along the top of the wall are illustrations of Metroliner trains, which I'm sure can be easily removed. The Metroliner decals appear to have already been stripped from the sides of the cars, just as the NortheastDirect decals have been stripped from regular Amfleet cars. Theoretically, most or all of the Metroliner Business Class cars will become Acela Regional Business Class cars. I assume the Metroliner Club cars will be released for use as Business Class on non-Acela Regional services, such as the Vermonter, Maple Leaf, and Ethan Allen Express. Or, perhaps, Amtrak could use these cars to create a premium coach service on eastern long-distance trains. I've always felt that there should be an option for travelers somewhere between regular coach and sleeping cars, and this would be a good way to go. However, the first long-distance train to offer Business or First class seating should be the Pennsylvanian, since its trip is very long and has no sleeping accommodations available.

We arrived into New Haven at 3:57 PM, on time. I went into the station to find one of the two station representatives I was supposed to be escorted by while doing my tour. Station Services informed me that neither was on duty! However, I was informed I could claim my bag, leave my belongings in the Station Services office, and do the tour on my own. I did so, without being at all hassled by Amtrak Police or security. It was a joy photographing this station, which had deteriorated in condition but has been beautifully restored to its original glory. Upon returning to the Station Services desk at 4:10 PM to pick up my belongings, I realized that I would not have to wait until 5:59 PM to take Acela Regional train 94 to New London; I had finished early enough that I could catch Acela Regional train 86. It is scheduled to depart at 4:08 PM, but was running ten minutes late. It worked out perfectly! A conductor assured me that my coach ticket for train 94 would be honored on train 86. Train 86 featured one of the new HHP-8 locomotives, five Amfleet coaches of mixed type, a Club/Coach cafe car, and an Acela Regional Business Class car. I had difficulty finding a seat, as this was a very full train! I left my suitcase at the end of the third coach, and managed to find a seat, albeit not my own seat pair, in the cafe car. I was quite disappointed that my train did not have a new Acela Regional cafe, but I did notice that the cafe was in an interesting state of refurbishment. The seat upholstery on both sides of the food counter was in an attractive blue, but the plastic fixtures and carpet were still brown, and the walls inside the food service area were still orange.

We arrived into New London at 5:05 PM, an hour and forty minutes earlier than if I had waited for train 94! Our train arrived on track 2, which has a low-level platform, and is right in front of the station. However, I did notice that the east end of track 1 already had its new high-level platform in operation. So, presumably, Acela Express will begin to call at New London in the near future. It would not hurt the train's running time significantly, as the track speed through New London is just 25 mph as it is. Walking into the old brick station, I was slightly disappointed in the job done refurbishing the station in the 1980s. While I must appreciate that, like New Haven, New London's station was basically brought back from the dead, the interior of this station did not stay true to the original design, and had the standard plastic/foam/vinyl chairs that one would find in an Amshack. I walked to the front of the station, where local SEAT buses wait to carry Amtrak guests to the nearby Foxwoods Casino. I called the Radisson Hotel to request a pick-up by its complimentary shuttle. I was informed that the driver was off duty, but that the hotel was only a few blocks away. Being that I had so many bags, I opted to just share a taxi with another traveler and pay the few dollars. I was checked in and in my fourth floor room by 5:30 PM. I had hoped that, on the off chance, perhaps I could have a room that faces the Amtrak railroad tracks. But I knew that was unlikely, as that would've meant having a waterview room, which I'm sure costs more than the special rate I had. Nevertheless, my room did have an acceptable view of the town.

After getting settled in to my room and freshening up, I went downstairs to inquire about local restaurants, so I could get some dinner. I was informed of the area in town, not far from the hotel, where most restaurants are. I wound up eating at the Whaler, a depressed, largely empty diner. The waitress told me that New London is, for the most part, a dead town, except for a couple weeks in the summer, when a sailing show comes to town! Indeed, the mostly deserted streets hinted that this town was not exactly the place to be. But I felt comfortable there, as there is a large police station one block from my hotel, near the train station. Plus, there's plenty of Northeast Corridor rail action waiting to be had just steps away from my hotel! I would return to the train station in New London two more times that day. After dinner, a bit before 7 PM, I walked to the station to take the 360x360 shots. Upon approval from the station agent, I promptly took my pictures. I then saw Acela Express 2175 cruise through the station, and that was my first time seeing the new Acela Express in person!

After spending most of the rest of the night in my hotel room catching up on the news, making phone calls, and showering, I went back to the train station again at 10:30 PM to see train 67, the southbound Twilight Shoreliner, pass through the station. It was led by refurbished AEM-7AC #946, one of several AEM-7 electric locomotives not only to be repainted into Acela colors, but have its traction motors be converted from DC power to AC power, as well as the cab console be modernized and computerized. The Twilight Shoreliner was the last train to operate with diesel power north of New Haven since the entire Northeast Corridor was electrified, but a few months ago, it too was converted to electric. I then noticed the absence of a baggage car on the train. It had two material handling cars behind the engine, but otherwise just passenger cars. Recently, a New England bicycling foundation financed the refurbishment of Twilight Shoreliner baggage cars to handle sports equipment, just like the baggage cars of the Vermonter, Adirondack, and Ethan Allen Express do. However, there was no baggage car to be found on this train! Lastly, I noted that there is no longer a Twilight Lounge on this train. That car, a specially modified cafe car, was for lounge and dining use by sleeping car and Business Class guests, but Amtrak recently discontinued it, presumably as a cost-cutting measure. Now it looks like the Viewliner sleeping cars may be removed as well in October, to replace the outgoing Heritage sleeping cars on the Three Rivers. Take your trips on both trains while you can, as the services may soon change drastically!

July 24


Left: Acela Regional approaching New London, Conn.
Right: Acela Express First Class car.

I returned to my hotel room at 11 PM, and turned in for a restful night's sleep about an hour later. Soon after waking up at 9:30 AM on July 24, I had a room service breakfast of oatmeal, eggs, and tea. It was worth the $8.50 for this breakfast, as it sure beat getting dressed, going out, and trying to find one somewhere else! At around 10 AM, I packed up, got dressed, and went downstairs to check out. I was then taken to the Amtrak station in the hotel shuttle van, and went inside to exchange my tickets for trains 172 to Boston and 2175 to Washington, for trains 170 and 2171, respectively. The ticket agent told passengers taking train 170 that it was on time, and would be arriving on the low-level section of track 1 (the portion of the platform west of the State St. grade crossing). I couldn't understand why the train could not stop on the high-level platform, which would've made loading easier and faster, as the platform was intended to do. But in any case, the train arrived on time, right where it was supposed to, and I boarded the refurbished Business Class car. Indeed, it looked just like the Metroliner Business Class car I had the previous day, except it was equipped with conference tables.

I was dismayed to learn that this, my second Acela Regional train, did not have a refurbished cafe, and practically none of the coaches were refurbished (though the AEM-7 was in Acela paint). I was looking forward to seeing the new Acela Regional cafe car, but the two Acela Regional trains I rode were not enough. Train 170 was equipped with a full dinette, with the old beige, brown, and orange colors. I then thought back to riding on the Vermonter, and all of the Acela Regional coaches it had. Clearly, Amtrak is mismanaging their equipment, letting trains advertised as Acela Regional run with old equipment, and letting the new equipment wind up in places where it shouldn't be. It's somewhat similar to the problem in Southern California of Amtrak running single-level trainsets on the Pacific Surfliner routes, when the entire route has been marketed with the gleaming new double-decker trainsets. If Amtrak is going to run old equipment on the Acela Regional trains, the names of those trains should revert back to NortheastDirect, so the traveler is not misled into thinking that the train travel experience would be any better on this so-called "improved" train. In any case, I was grateful that at least my own car was refurbished.

Amfleet cars seem to ride quite smoothly and quietly on the Northeast Corridor tracks. For the most part, I only have experience riding them in California, where the rails are not in nearly as good condition. The acceleration of the train was hardly noticeable, and before I knew it, we were going 110 mph in Rhode Island! This is the stretch of track where, on my southbound Acela Express trip, I would be able to experience 150 mph. In fact, a trainset with Acela Express car shells set a North American train speed record in this area a while ago, reaching 168.2 mph, a speed most American train travelers are certainly not accustomed to! After slight delays at Route 128 and Back Bay stations, my train arrived into Boston South Station at 12:55 PM, ten minutes late. Upon entering the large station (which was, unfortunately, not air-conditioned) I had difficulty finding the Metropolitan Lounge. I eventually located it, and had to press a "doorbell" to gain admittance.

After storing my bags in the storage area behind the counter, I showed the attendant my letter of permission for photography and the name of the person I was supposed to meet. Just like in New Haven, that representative was not on duty when I arrived! Instead, the attendant arranged for another Station Services representative to escort me when I was ready. But first, I wanted to have some lunch. I got lunch at the food court with Amtrak conductor Dave Mellen, a railfan and somewhat of a rail advocate. He works out of Boston with Dave Bowe, a conductor well known among his peers and on the internet for the work he does in rail advocacy and employer-union relations. Dave Mellen tagged along with the Station Services rep. and I as we made our way through South Station with the 360x360 camera. Once we were out on the platform, I noticed there was an Acela Express trainset sitting on the platform, and I thought what a perfect opportunity this would be to do a 360 of it! The doors were closed, but Dave said we could enter through the power car (locomotive). I took photos of all the major areas on the train, until we reached the First Class car, where the train's crew was stationed. It was somewhat startling to run into them, and I'm sure they were startled as well! With the Station Services rep. by my side, the crew had no problem with me taking photos, but informed me the train was about to head back to Southampton Yard. So, the three of us detrained and headed back into the station. I was disappointed that there was not enough time to be able to photograph the First Class car, which would have made for a complete tour of Acela Express. But I should just consider the photos I did get as icing on the cake!

Upon returning to the Metropolitan Lounge and exploring a bit, I stumbled across two internet terminals with high-speed access! It must be a new feature, one I wasted no time taking advantage of to check my e-mail. At 2:45 PM, pre-boarding started for First Class guests of my Acela Express train 2171, which was set to depart at 3:12 PM. A Red Cap assisted those of us traveling on my train with luggage, taking it right to the train door. I loaded my bags into the car-end luggage rack, and took a seat at my assigned seat, 4F, a single seat (Acela Express First Class offers 2-1 seating, like in Club cars). Upon sitting down, I was a little tired from walking around and schleping my bags so much in this hot, humid, East Coast summer weather! The weather had been mild for the first few days of my trip, but it began to become more seasonable on July 23rd.

There were three attendants on hand to serve the First Class guests, who really receive the royal treatment. They came by almost immediately offering all kinds of beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and gave each guest a bowl of warm mixed nuts. All of the passengers for my train were loaded by 3:05 PM, but at 3:15 PM, we were still sitting in the station. The conductor came on and announced that the extreme heat of this day had "frozen" a switch in front of our train, and that it would be a few minutes before we could depart. Across the platform from my train was Acela Regional train 175, which was set to leave at 3:20. It, too, was delayed by the malfunctioning switch, and continued to sit with our train, becoming delayed as well.

Our train finally departed at 3:45 PM, 33 minutes late. I presume that train 175 departed shortly thereafter. Shortly after leaving Boston, we passed an MBTA commuter train, which had a bumper sticker on the cab car reading "North/South Rail Link". This is obviously a message of advocacy to local and state government to build a direct link between Boston's North and South Stations, which currently does not exist (it's a similar situation as in New York with Grand Central and Penn Stations). But I wonder if these bumper stickers are sanctioned by MBTA management, or if the T employees themselves are placing them.

A moment which I had been waiting for was finally close at hand when my train departed Providence, RI. We were entering the 11-mile stretch of track where the engineer could really open up the throttle and bring us up to 150 mph. We quickly began to accelerate until we seemed to reach a peak velocity. At that, I was traveling 150 miles per hour on rails! It was an exhilarating experience which I had never previously been exposed to. The speed almost seemed unreal, as the quiet whisper of the fine-tuned wheel trucks over the smooth rails was barely audible. And I was enjoying the speed in complete comfort, being waited on hand and foot by an overinflated service staff! It was a moment to be savored, and one that I surely would not experience again for a while. About an hour after that, dinner was served to the First Class guests. A menu offered three entree selections, and I chose the steak and purple mashed potatoes, with espresso mousse for dessert. The food was not bad at all, considering it is not cooked on board.

Our train did not lose any more time until we entered the territory of Metro-North Railroad in New Haven. Metro-North owns and dispatches the tracks from there to New Rochelle, NY. Much of their catenary is the original triangular catenary installed by the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad a century ago. Amtrak's AEM-7 locomotives have never had any problems with this old catenary design. But for some reason, the design of the pantographs on Acela Express power cars has led to problems both while transitioning between Amtrak's catenary and Metro-North's, as well as while under the catenary. Not every Acela Express train is afflicted with these problems, but ours was. Several times on the Metro-North, our train lost head-end power, often slowing to a crawl, sometimes stopping. One angered passenger complained that if he wanted to sit and get delayed, he would've flown. But he did not expect this on the train! The conductors, however, were quite apologetic, and urged guests to obtain Service Guarantee Certificates for the trouble (I knew that's what I would do once I got home! I didn't pay for this premium service to be faced with such poor timekeeping.).

Despite the delays, it was nevertheless thrilling to have such a great view of the New York City skyline as we glided over outlying suburban and industrial areas upon the Hell Gate Bridge on our approach to Manhattan. Just after our train passed Amtrak's Sunnyside Yards in Queens, we entered the Penn Station tunnel. I was surprised to notice that my cell phone worked and had full reception in the tunnel! My understanding was that the tunnel was not yet fitted with cellular sites, but I guess it is. By the time the train arrived into Penn Station at 7:50 PM, we were over an hour late. A few minutes later, Acela Regional train 175 pulled in alongside us. Indeed, it must have been running right behind us this entire time!

South of New York, the sun fell over the horizon, and the lack of scenery outside made me more interested in exploring inside the train. The Acela Express trainsets are designed quite tastefully and efficiently. Little cost has been spared with Acela Express, since Amtrak is putting all of its eggs into this one basket. The comfortable seats resemble the seats in Surfliner cars, which is no surprise, given that Alstom took part in manufacturing both types of equipment. I also noticed that, like on most Surfliner cars, the speakers by the doors of Acela Express cars make an automated announcement when the doors close. On Acela Express, the female voice says, "Please stand clear of the closing doors." On Surfliners, the same voice can be heard simply saying, "Closing doors," the tail end of the Acela Express announcement! Now I know where that voice comes from.

Unlike the grimy vestibules in most Amtrak cars, the ones on Acela Express are just as clean as the rest of the train. They feature digital displays, fueled by on-board GPS, displaying the origin, destination, and next station. The cars are articulated, and even the little area right between the cars is sealed off and climate controlled. The doors at the ends of the cars are made of glass, and are motion-sensored (no need to press a large, hoaky "PUSH" button). I was particularly impressed by the restrooms, which feature chrome fixtures on the toilet flush and sink faucet handles, a large, backlit mirror, a baby changing table, and a space to keep a laptop computer! The "Cafeacela" Bisto car is designed well, with a service counter that faces back, not towards the side, so the line for service naturally forms right against the wall. There's a limited number of bar stool seats, and there are two televisions featuring CNN news reports, but with Acela Express advertisements instead of regular commercials.

Acela Ad
Example of a strange Acela advertisement!

From time to time, I noticed a few Acela billboards along the sides of roads parallel to the tracks. The Acela Express ads are kind of bizarre! They try to sound simple, yet dramatic and intellectual. One such billboard shows a businessman peeking his startled face out from under his trench coat, and the ad reads, "Depart from your inhibitions." A different ad shows the visage of a woman with one eye open and the other closed, and the ad reads "Arrive at a decision." All of the advertisements have a small Acela logo, image of an Acela train, and the slogan "life on acela". From what I understand, Amtrak is suing their ad agency, DDB Needham, for leaving Amtrak stuck with these ads that are so strange that they go right over most people's heads!

My train finally arrived into Washington Union Station at 10:51 PM, 1 hour and 7 minutes late. The trainset I was on was accepted by Amtrak in December 2000, is designated Trainset 6, and has the following consist:

  • Power Car 2031
  • Firstclass 3215
  • Businessclass 3554
  • Businessclass 3549
  • Cafeacela 3302
  • Businessclass 3555
  • Businessclass 3417
  • Power Car 2030

Upon arriving into Washington Union Station, I noticed that Amtrak car 10001, Beech Grove, the company business car, was parked against the bumper at one of the station tracks. I assume this is where the car is based, as Amtrak's general offices are at Washington Union Station. As I entered the station building, I went to Customer Service to express my concern that I might have missed the last Metro subway train that connects with one to Vienna, Virginia. The agent told me to try to catch it, and if I miss it, to come back and Amtrak would provide alternate transportation. Though it turns out the subway was running, perhaps I should've just come back and let Amtrak get me a ride! It was kind of tough traveling in the subway with all of my luggage. I first had to catch a Red Line subway train westbound to Metro Center, then transfer to an Orange Line train westbound to Vienna. I like the Washington Metro subway system, probably because it's easy to use, and the stations have a futuristic feel. Not the kind of modern feel we're used to today, but the kind of thing you'd see at the old Tomorrowland at Disneyland. This subway was opened in 1975, and I'm sure the station designers wanted to make the stations look like how they envisioned the future at the time. So, each of the underground station platforms feels more like some kind of big combination between a cave and a tube, with softer lighting than would be expected. The rail vehicles used were built by Breda Construzionni Ferroviarre, the same company that built the subway cars for Los Angeles. Though the trains are much older in Washington, they seem to sound the same while gearing up and down as the subway trains in Los Angeles. One thing I noticed in the Washington Metro is that my cell phone works, just as it does in Amtrak's Penn Station tunnels! Again, I did not expect it to work, but it did. If only the cellular companies could provide service in the subway tunnels of Los Angeles.

July 25

I finally got to Justin's house at 12:10 AM. We visited a little, but I had to hurry up and get settled in so I could go to sleep ASAP! We both had to get up at 5:45 AM to head into town for our guided tour of the White House, which was scheduled for 8:30 AM. In his years in the DC Metro area, Justin had never visited the White House. So, I figured it would make sense for him to visit along with me while I was in town. I obtained my tickets for the White House tour from Congressman Henry Waxman, a Representative from Los Angeles who helped expedite the process of the INS granting citizenship for my father, who was a Canadian citizen, but had originally emigrated from Hungary. I also wanted to meet Mr. Waxman to thank him personally on behalf of my father, so I arranged to meet him during this trip, on July 26. But first, Justin and I would have July 25 to visit the White House, as well as any other site we were interested in seeing. I did not get to sleep until 2:45 AM, and I had to drag myself out of bed at 5:45 AM for a long day. But it was going to be an exciting day, visiting the White House for the first time. And for that night, Justin decided to throw a party in my honor, which would afford me the opportunity to meet his friends!

The White House tour was extremely fascinating, even though it does not involve any part of the West Wing or the important operational centers of the White House. It featured the room containing samples of Presidential china, the color-themed rooms, and the main ballroom and dining room. After leaving the White House and having breakfast, Justin and I walked to the Washington Monument in the center of the Mall, hoping to get a view of Washington from the top, as it was recently renovated. Unfortunately, there was unscheduled maintenance being perfomed on the elevator, and we could not go up. So, we went on to the National Holocaust Memorial & Museum, a site Justin had already visited, but was more than glad to visit again. We obtained exhibit tickets which would be valid for entry at 11:45 AM, over an hour later. I decided perhaps I should use this time to go to Representative Waxman's office at the Rayburn Congressional Office Building to confirm my time for meeting with him the next day. It was only a few stops down the Orange or Blue Metro lines.

Justin and I took care of that business, and walked back to the Capitol South Metro station to return to the Holocaust Museum. We took a seat on a bench on the platform, waiting for our train. There was a Metro system map behind us, and an older gentleman who had a hard time seeing asked me to help him interpret the map for him. I asked him where he was going, and he said he had to go to the US Department of Transportation headquarters to do some research. I told about my interest in transportation, particularly passenger railroading. The gentleman then introduced himself as Alan Boyd, former President of Amtrak and Secretary of Transportation! What were the odds that I would run into a former President of Amtrak? Alan Boyd served for Amtrak between 1979 and 1982, and worked to have W. Graham Claytor, Jr. appointed as his successor. Mr. Boyd told me that the number one action he's proud of during his term as President of Amtrak was getting Claytor into office. He obviously knew that it's highly doubtful whether Amtrak would even exist today if it wasn't for Claytor. It was an honor to meet Alan Boyd, and made for quite the surprise for the day!

Justin and I were both extremely touched by what we saw at the Holocaust Museum, especially since we are both Jewish and we both had relatives who perished at the hands of the Nazis. After spending some time walking through the permanent exhibit at the museum, we headed to Union Station to have lunch at the Corner Bakery. At the B. Dalton bookstore in the station, I found a laminated fold-out map of passenger rail along the Northeast Corridor! I purchased this handy guide for future reference. Justin and I then took the Metro back to Vienna. Before having to get ready for Justin's party, I had time to take a nap, which certainly put me in a much better mood for that night. The party was great, as I got along with Justin's friends quite well. So well, in fact, that it looks like I'll be coming back to Virginia in December to attend a New Year's Eve party one of them is throwing! I managed to get almost six hours of sleep that night, so I could feel a little more well rested for my second day in DC on Thursday, July 26.

July 26


Left: At the Capitol Building.
Right: With Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA, 39th Dist.)

The first order of business of the day for Justin and I would be to attend a constituent breakfast held by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, in which she discusses her office's operations, as well as issues important to Californians. As Justin and I walked into the Hart Senate Office Building and headed for the elevator, I encountered two kids from my school in Los Angeles, dressed in suits! All of us were quite shocked. I quickly figured out that students from the Junior State of America Summer Program at Georgetown University were going to attend Senator Feinstein's breakfast. JSA is a political and debate organization in which I am deeply involved during the regular school year, but I didn't expect to run into it here! Great minds think alike, I guess. I then saw Jeff Harris, who runs the Junior State nationally out of San Mateo, CA, as well as some other student officials from the California Junior State. On one hand, it was neat sharing the moment at the breakfast with fellow "JSA-ers," but I felt somewhat uncomfortable being there, but not with them! Plus, Justin and I had to sit with a couple of students who I don't particularly like and have butted heads with over political views at JSA conventions. But nevertheless, the breakfast was interesting and informative.

All constituents in attendance were then invited on a tour of the US Capitol building from Senator Feinstein's staffers. Justin and I went off with one of the groups. There is a subway system that connects the House & Senate office buildings with the Capitol to allow for quick and easy access between them. In other words, the lawmakers have their own private Metro system! Our group took it to the Capitol, and saw most parts of the building, except for the ornate Rotunda, which was closed off for the ceremony that day honoring Navajo code-talkers during World War II.

The tour lasted a couple hours, but before my scheduled meeting with Representative Waxman, Justin and I had some time to walk around and grab lunch. We again had lunch at Union Station, but this time we got panini sandwiches, from a small cafe. Justin then walked with me to the Rayburn Building for my meeting with Representative Waxman. My meeting with Mr. Waxman was brief, but I had the chance to discuss a number of issues with him, including my father's citizenship, and the High Speed Rail Investment Act, about which Mr. Waxman has not yet taken a position. During my meeting, Justin went to the Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institute, and we met back at the Vienna Metro station at the end of the day. My next and final day in the DC area would be my day to relax.

July 27

I slept in until noon, and I don't believe Justin had gotten up much earlier himself. The only thing we really did that afternoon was play a match of tennis (I won), and watch some television. That night his mother took us and Justin's grandmother out to dinner. Our topic of conversation became a somewhat heated debate over how Amtrak should be managed! Cooler heads prevailed in the end, though, and we wound up having an extended discussion on a wide range of social issues. Justin and I visited for a little while once we got home, then he went to bed, as he was to get up along with his mother to take me to Union Station early the next morning. I, however, really overslept on that day, and had a hard time sleeping the next night. I would spend some time in bed, then watch some TV, then spend more time in bed, then go online for a while. The cycle continued, and I got no sleep that night. But I just didn't need it at the time. I had slept way too much the night before!

July 28

I got dressed at around 5:30 AM and made sure I had all of my belongings together for the beginning of the longest stretch of this rail journey, all the way to Seattle. I was to head out of Washington Union Station on Amtrak train 56, the Northbound Vermonter. We left the house at 6:20 AM, and I was at Union Station by 6:55 AM. I checked my suitcase through to Seattle (it would get to Chicago on train 29, the Capitol Limited, later that day). That left me with just my duffel bag and the 360x360 camera, a more manageable load. At 7:17 AM, boarding for train 56 commenced, with special assistance passengers, those with bicycles, and Business Class guests being allowed to pre-board. I was traveling Business Class again, and again had a Club/Dinette car, this time numbered 48155. I took a seat in one of the single seats as I noted that our train was being pulled by an AEM-7 engine, and had a Phase IV baggage car in addition to the Vermonter baggage car. Soon after an on-time departure from Washington, I fell asleep. I woke up around Wilmington, Delaware, and purchased a breakfast burrito. At Wilmington, Amtrak's new Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC), the nerve center of Amtrak, is visible on the east side of the tracks. I then slept most of the way until some time after Philadelphia. A few minutes after departure from Newark, I gathered up my belongings and headed for the door to detrain at New York Penn Station, where we arrived at 10:50 AM, 5 minutes early.

I headed upstairs into the Metropolitan Lounge, where I stored my luggage and was told how to get to the Station Services office to meet my contact for the photo shoot. My contact was there, and he told me that his supervisor had granted me full permission to shoot in all of the station areas, and that I should return to his office around noon to see if the Three Rivers had pulled into the station yet, so I could board early. I assembled the camera and began the process of shooting in and around Penn Station, which is quite large! Despite the fact that the original station building was demolished in the 1960s, and the current facility is really just the basement of Madison Square Garden, there is still a lot to photograph. Amtrak has done a nice job in recent times upgrading the station area, making lighting brighter, modernizing and clarifying signage, replacing the old Solari train status board with a new digital board, and creating a separate waiting area for Business Class guests on Acela Express and Metroliner. Throughout my photo shoot, I was not given a hard time by one Amtrak employee or Police Officer, even though I had a rather large tripod. I can only assume that they were notified of my impending presence, which made things go smoothly for me, so I appreciated it. I was done shooting around 11:40 AM, so I went back to the Metropolitan Lounge, had a soda to drink, made some phone calls, then walked back to Station Services with my belongings in hopes of boarding Amtrak train 41, the Westbound Three Rivers. It was 11:55 AM, and I was told the train had just pulled into the station, and that someone would be waiting for me trainside on track 16.

I went downstairs to track 16, and indeed the train was there! I was first greeted by my sleeping car attendant, Ronald, who said head-end power had not yet been turned on, but would be soon. After putting my belongings into my room, Roomette #4, I went outside to take a better look at my train. It had the following consist (updated to include the consist for the entire trip):


Dave A. Gay, Product Line Supervisor, Amtrak Three Rivers.

My sleeping car for this trip, Beech Grove, is of 1950s Union Pacific heritage. Amtrak's business car, 10001, a converted Amfleet car, which I had seen in Washington, is also named Beech Grove. However, the two cars were not named after the same thing! The former UP sleeping car was one in a series of 10/6 sleepers manufactured by Budd for Union Pacific to be named after trees, with other sleepers assigned names such as Magnolia Grove and Cypress Grove. The Amtrak business car, however, was named after Amtrak's major maintenance facility, Beech Grove, Indiana, where most cars and locomotives to be refurbished, repainted, or otherwise repaired majorly, are sent. So, the fact that these two cars have the same name is a complete coincidence!

The Beech Grove sleeper is a true throwback to a bygone era, with light brown steel surfaces, soft lighting, and almost all original facilities, including a fan in each room! Some features, however, have been modified from the original. During the 1999 refurbishment program, Roomette 9 was converted to a shower, which looks just like a Superliner shower. Room 10 was converted to an accessible roomette, in order to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The room has been lengthened, with the sink, vanity mirror, and toilet in the front of the room looking like they came straight out of an Amfleet restroom! So, that end of the roomette looked totally out of place. Throughout the car, the seats have been reupholstered, and the door curtains replaced, with more modern green and blue colors. All of the decals in the car indicating features and amenities are clearly Amtrak stickers. At each end of the car, as well as in each room, there is a sticker which reads, "Quiet Car... Please be considerate of your fellow travelers." I also couldn't help but notice that there was no sign indicating that guests should not flush the toilet while the train is stopped in a station. Most old rail cars not equipped with retention tanks advise passengers, for obvious reasons, to not flush the toilet while the train is at a platform. One original decal that remains, however, is that indicating a slot in which passegers can dispose of used razor blades. I doubt Amtrak even cleans out that receptacle, as hardly anyone shaves with a real razor blade anymore! I was pleased to see that the rooms are equipped with 120-volt AC electric outlets. Someone had mentioned to the contrary, and I just assumed that in 1950 there was no need for them. Fortunately, that was all wrong! So, I was able to plug in my cell phone charger and other devices as the need arose.

I almost did not have a Heritage sleeper for this trip! While Steve Grande was trying to obtain permission for me to do a 360 of the sleeper, there was a miscommunication between him and the Three Rivers Product Line office. His contact with the Three Rivers cheerfully granted permission for me to board my train early and do the 360, but was under the impression that we wanted to photograph the modern Viewliner sleeping car, the current standard for single-level sleeping cars in the United States. He was not aware that we specifically wanted the Heritage sleeper so that we could capture images of it for historical purposes! He was ready to put an order in to have a Viewliner sleeper be in the consist of my train instead of the Heritage sleeper, which does happen from time to time should a Heritage sleeper be bad-ordered. Fortunately, Steve was able to clear that up, and I had my Heritage sleeper.

Not only did my train have a Heritage sleeper, but it also had another car that does not usually appear on the Three Rivers. I was pleasantly surprised to see a refurbished Amfleet II lounge on this train. In general, the Three Rivers is equipped with a Horizon dinette for food service. It reeks of cigarette smoke, as smoking is allowed during most parts of the day on the Three Rivers. However, the refurbished Amfleet II lounges have an isolated smoking room. Moreover, the colors are modern and more attractive, and the windows are larger than on Horizon cars.

While photographing the Heritage sleeper, I was greeted by Dave Gay, Supervisor for the Amtrak Three Rivers Product Line. He was flanked by another employee of similar position, and the two generously offered for me to call upon them should I need anything to make my trip more enjoyable. Dave also instructed the lounge car attendant, Justin, to take care of me during my journey. Dave would be riding the train as far as Philadelphia, and would then head back to New York. I was grateful for the kind of hospitality I was shown on the Three Rivers, and will never have anything but kind words to say for the fine people who run that train.

Train 41 departed New York Penn Station on-time, at 12:45 PM. The train begins the trip going backwards, then goes forward from Philadelphia on. During this first stage of the journey, the train is almost always pulled by a veteran of the Northeast Corridor, the quarter-century old E60MA engines. They are ugly, but get the job done. Once they are retired, Amtrak would like to have long-distance trains on the Northeast Corridor be pulled by the new HHP-8 Acela locomotives. However, in test runs with Silver Service trains, they have been having technical problems, related, I think, to the braking mechanism.

After making a few phone calls and having a somewhat lengthy conversation with Dave Gay, we arrived into Philadelphia's 30th St. Station around 2:50 PM, a half-hour late. On the suggestion of the train's sole coach attendant, I walked upstairs to check out the beautiful station during our layover, which involves a crew change, change of locomotives, and addition of express cars. As soon as I got to the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a mob of anxious guests, restrained by fabric barriers, waiting to board the train! I decided that if I walked any further into the station, it might take forever to get back on the train. So, I took in the view, went back downstairs, and walked around on the platform a bit. When passenger boarding began, I went back to my roomette and made up my bed, to give it a little test. Soon after we departed Philadelphia, I laid down in the comfortable bed, put down the shade, and took a nap. I woke up an hour and a half later, sometime after our station stop in Lancaster.

About 20 minutes later, we passed an eastbound Keystone service train, then arrived into Harrisburg. The station there features a beautiful, classic Pennsy GG-1 electric locomotive, but I am told that it was gutted of its innards some time ago at New Jersey Transit's scrap shops, then later donated to the group that currently owns it. So, in every sense of the term, it is non-operational. Speaking of electric operations, I've heard conflicting reports of the status of the overhead catenary between Philadelphia from Harrisburg. Some say it was de-energized by Amtrak some time ago, because they did not want to keep paying the maintenance costs necessary to safely run trains at track speed with electric power. So, since then, diesel engines have been used for all trains west of Philadelphia. However, I also understand that Amtrak will occasionally run a Keystone service train using electric power, and that the switch to diesel had more to do with a lack of usable electric motive power. SEPTA still uses the catenary on a daily basis on the portion of the line east of Thorndale. Either way, fortunately, Amtrak was wise enough to not downgrade their own infrastructure, and kept the overhead wire in its place. Now it looks like the State of Pennsylvania may help pay to rehabilitate the Philadelphia-Harrisburg line in general as part of the conversion of Keystone service to an Acela Regional route!


Passing the center of Horseshoe Curve.

Soon after departing Harrisburg, the Three Rivers begins to follow the Susquehanna River for a while, then other rivers as the train winds through the Allegheny Mountains. At around 6 PM, I went to the lounge to have dinner (unfortunately, not a freshly cooked meal). I opted to have a hot dog, which actually did not taste half-bad. Amtrak has recently switched from Oscar Meyer to another, independent brand, which is juicier and tastes much better! After dinner, I returned to my room to listen to music and view the scenery. About ten minutes after we departed Altoona, I headed to the vestibule of my car to take in the view at the Horseshoe Curve. A Norfolk Southern trailer train then began to pass us on the side the curve would be on, so I started to get a little nervous that the train would block my view as our train went around the curve! Fortunately, it passed well ahead of our trip around the curve. Towards the center of the curve, in a grassy clearing, there is a former Pennsy GP-9 diesel engine, #7048, and a building next to it, which serves as the northern terminus of the Horseshoe Curve funicular. The view at Horseshoe Curve was not as breathtaking as I had hoped, as the curve is no more spectacular than the horseshoe curve north of San Luis Obispo, California, on the Coast Starlight route, over which I have traveled numerous times. It is, however, neat to be able to say that I have traveled over two of the most famous horseshoe curves in America!

As the sun went down and the scenery became darker, I decided to take a shower. The shower worked well, and had plenty of hot water, but took a little elbow grease to shut off. A while after taking my shower, I went to the lounge to obtain the last food I'd have for the night. Though the lounge stays open all night long on the Three Rivers, I knew I'd sleep through the night. I had a fruit bowl, which consisted of honeydew melon and canteloupe. At 10:35 PM, we arrived into Pittsburgh on-time. During this lengthy stop, I decided to walk to the front of the train to get a better look at that end of the train. I also noticed a private rail car being housed two tracks west of our train. I noticed something bizarre on two of the Material Handling Cars. These cars have, in chalk, what appears to be the image of a soda can, with the label reading 'Love Juice'! I had seen the exact same thing on MHCs in Los Angeles a few weeks before, so it appears an Amtrak Mail & Express employee is trying to spread some kind of message through the country, in chalk! Upon returning to my sleeping car, I had a new sleeping car attendant, Camy. The entire on-board crew for this train changes in Pittsburgh, including the coach, sleeper, and lounge attendants. We departed Pittsburgh at 11:05 PM, on-time. After crossing two of the rivers that give our train its name, I went to sleep.

July 29

I woke up at 5:30 AM Central Time, so I had gotten about 7 1/2 hours of sleep. We were running almost two hours late, as we had apparently departed Fostoria, Ohio, not long before I awoke. It was somewhat foggy outside, with a soupy mist (which would eventually burn off) hanging over the farmlands. I had a hot breakfast sandwich and hot tea, then returned to my room to begin packing up my excess belongings for the trip. I noticed that there were a few Amish guests on the train, which did not surprise me at all, since for Amish folk traveling long distances, it is of course impractical to bring the horse and buggy! I also understand that they prefer train travel because a train literally represents a horse and buggy in the way that it works, with the locomotives being the horses and the cars being the buggies. Or, to be more precise, the basic principles of the operation of a train are in line with that of a horse and buggy, and the basic technology existed almost 200 years ago. So, the Amish are not betraying their tradition of shunning new technology by taking the train!

I spent most of the remainder of the trip in my room, listening to the scanner and my music, at the same time! How do I do that? As you can see above, I use a reverse audio splitter. It allows me to listen to two separate audio devices with just one output device, my single pair of earphones. The catch is that the sound is not stereo; I hear one device (my scanner) in one ear and one device (my MiniDisc player) in the other. Still, this cheap adapter from RadioShack has allowed me to listen to railroad radio, without getting bored by just listening to railroad radio! It was a wise and inexpensive investment.

The train stopped for a while after losing head-end power outside of Hammond-Whiting. The crew decided to bring the train into the station and try to restore power there, which they successfully did. We then proceeded to Chicago's 22nd St. Yards to drop off the mail & express cars at the end of the train, but not the MHCs. For some reason, that procedure took over twenty minutes, and we squandered the padding in the schedule at the end of the trip. The result was an arrival into Chicago at 10:40 AM, two hours and fifteen minutes late. However, I did not mind our tardiness much, as I had little to do in Chicago while waiting for train 7, the Empire Builder, which would not depart until 2:10 PM! Harris Cohen would meet me about halfway through my layover, but until then, I had time to spare. After putting my belongings in the storage area of the Metropolitan Lounge and obtaining a pass for re-admission into the lounge later on, I went to the ticket counter to check in the iPix camera for the duration of the trip to Seattle, as I would not need it anymore.

Chicago Union Station is rather deserted on Sunday mornings, such as this one. However, a few of the restaurants were open, and I purchased a sub from Tony Panino's, which is located in the upstairs food court. The sub was delicious, but I couldn't finish it! I'd have to finish it later. I then purchased a few magazines and a pack of gum from one of the lobby shops, then returned to the Metropolitan Lounge to put those items, as well as the rest of my sandwich, in my bag. After reading the Chicago Tribune newspaper, I walked over to the area of the lounge with a television to get caught up on the day's news with CNN Headline News. One of the top stories was the somewhat minor derailment of Amtrak train 22, the northbound Texas Eagle, in Missouri! The news came as a surprise, and it was incredibly ironic that I learned of it through Amtrak's own television at the train station. I then wandered upstairs into the beautiful main hall of Chicago Union Station. I walked outside onto Canal St. to take a look at the exterior of the station building. On Canal Street, one can see that the original station hall is completely separate from the Amtrak facilities, as the main entrance for Amtrak guests is across the street, at 210 S. Canal, at the base of an office building, and all of the station services are below that. If the original station building did not exist, Amtrak Chicago facilities would be much like today's New York Penn Station!

After walking down Madison Street to Starbucks to obtain a decaf Frapuccino, I received a call from Harris, who informed me that he would be getting to Union Station from his Metra commuter train from Highland Park soon, by 12:30 PM. I went back down into the station, and waited for Harris in front of the Metropolitan Lounge. He soon showed up, I greeted him, and we both went into the lounge. Harris brought his laptop computer with him, and took it out to go online from the Metropolitan Lounge. He first let me check my e-mail, then went online himself. He showed me that, on that very Sunday, Amtrak launched their completely redesigned web site, which now allows users making online reservations to obtain the 30% 30th Anniversary Discount.

The Metropolitan Lounge began to fill up, as it inevitably does before the arrivals and departures of several long-distance trains during the afternoon, some of which come in and out almost simultaneously. The conductors for our train, 7/27, set up shop around 1:30 PM to collect tickets from the sleeping car guests. After having my ticket lifted, I attempted to go into the storage area and grab my duffel bag before the mad rush of passengers to get their luggage ensues! But the lounge attendant would not let me bring it into the lounge area, even to set it under the table at which Harris was sitting, which would not have taken up much space. So, the no luggage rule seems to be strictly enforced. When setting my bag back in the storage area, I placed it on the floor, just inside the doorway, to make it easily accessible once the time comes for me to get it.

An early announcement for boarding of the westbound Empire Builder, trains 7 (to Seattle), 27 (to Portland), and 807 (for accounting purposes, the train number on the tickets of guests detraining at St. Paul-Minneapolis or earlier), was made at 1:55 PM. I was able to quickly pick up my bag, and split up from Harris, whom I would see later on board the train. I walked down the long train, which already had its mail & express cars coupled to the end, to my sleeping car, designated as 0730. I was warmly greeted by my attendant, Thomas Murray, and walked into the car, 32001, an unrefurbished Superliner sleeper, and upstairs to my room, Standard Bedroom #8. Thomas had the soothing sounds of jazz master Diana Krall playing on his stereo at the top of the stairs. The music did a good job at setting the stage for a relaxing ride to the West Coast. Harris soon called my cell phone from his, at the other end of the train, to touch base and plan on meeting in the lounge later. Walking through my car, it appeared that all of the Deluxe Bedrooms were already occupied, while most of the Standard Bedrooms were empty. Thomas told me that they would almost all eventually fill up.

We departed Chicago at 2:15 PM, five minutes late. Leaving Chicago, the Empire Builder and Hiawatha trains follow the Chicago River for a few miles, then pass the yards of Metra commuter rail. The first 20 or so miles of the route are shared with Metra's Milwaukee District West line, skipping many commuter-only stations. However, Amtrak does make a station stop at Glenview. About ten minutes after departing from Chicago, I finished my submarine sandwich. Soon thereafter, I went back to Harris's room to see his sleeping car, which was refurbished. He then came with me up to my room. It was a long walk between our two sleeping cars! As you can see from the consist below, there were six cars in between.

Harris brought his scanner along so that he could program all of the AAR channels 2-97 into it permanently, like I did with mine. We soon arrived into Glenview, and heard over my scanner that we would have a meet with train 8, the eastbound Empire Builder, to take on dining car menus. Apparently, our train left Chicago without menus! The train also left without many copies of Empire Builder magazine. Fortunately, I grabbed a copy of my own in Chicago so that I could take advantage of its route map & guide. Harris complained about one of Amtrak's latest cost-cutting measures: eliminating paper fiber headrest covers seemingly nationwide. He thought it was kind of sick knowing that the heads of everyone sitting in a given seat were all exposed to each other. I told him he should spray his own headrest with Lysol, but apparently Harris's car was not equipped with any cans of Lysol! That was sort of unacceptable, so I told Harris he should borrow one of the many cans in my car. After a while, Harris went back to his room, since there was a possibility that he might get to have a final farewell with his family at Milwaukee, since his parents had to drive there anyway to pick up his sister from camp.

At 3:45 PM, we arrived into Milwaukee, which plays home to three gorgeous private rail cars, whose heritage and ownership I will have to investigate! We departed Milwaukee around 4 PM, ten minutes late. I soon got into a conversation with my car attendant, Thomas, about the Diana Krall music that was playing. As it turns out, Thomas's old career was as a jazz musician, playing horns, until he hired out with Amtrak one summer eighteen years ago. He never left the job since then! I myself am a great admirer of jazz music, and it always makes the train travel experience more enjoyable when I am able to relate to those with whom I will be spending a few days, with common interests such as music.

At 4:20 PM, I put down my bed, shut the curtains, and laid down for a nap, having already obtained a dinner reservation from the Dining Car Steward, Rick, for 6 PM (Harris's reservation was for 7, so we would not be eating together at this meal). I woke up an hour later, refreshed, and made my bed up. I then headed to the lounge car and conversed with some fellow travelers until my seating for dinner was called shortly after 6 PM. The Empire Builder seems to have one of the most extensive dining car menus I have ever seen! There are at least five choices for each of all three meals of the day, which is not all that common, plus a separate dinner menu for the second night. I had the barbecued ribs for dinner, which were quite tasty. For dessert, I had the caramel turtle ice cream cake, a decadent treat which was originally available only on the Coast Starlight. However, it became so popular that Amtrak began to offer it on all of their western long distance trains. One of my table mates was a lady who was returning home to Seattle from Chicago. She said that, on her eastbound trip, she saw both goats and a bear as the train passed through Glacier National Park in Montana! That definitely made me look forward to the portion of the train ride which lay 24 hours ahead, in which I would have my own chance to view the spectacular natural scenery of Glacier Park.

Harris and I figured out that, while all three sleepers on our train were Superliner I, all three of them were at different levels of refurbishment! The least refurbished sleeping car was mine, #32001. It was completely unrefurbished in its interior decor, and still sported the original orange and other earthy colors. The more refurbished sleeping car was Harris's, #32068. The upholstery was blue, grey, and purple, just like in Superliner II. However, many surfaces were not covered in carpet at all, but in a corrugated white plastic material. All the white makes the bedrooms look slightly more empty than they should be. Also, some of the other plastic surfaces in the car were still orange, brown, or olive green. Then, there was the really nice sleeping car! The other Seattle sleeper, #32026 looked exactly like a Superliner II sleeping car, but in some ways was better! Firstly, it was completely reupholstered into the blue, grey, and purple colors, including all of the carpets in the rooms, on the floor, and on the walls. Also, the old plastic surfaces were replaced with ones of matching modern colors. But there are two things about 32026 that make it better than Superliner II sleepers. In the restrooms, the wash basins are designed extremely well. They come in one solid piece, and are very deep, so it's actually hard to splash much water around. Just about any water that is splashed around just rolls right into the wash basin! What really made that car nice was the shower. The shower door in that car was a real glass, swing-out door! Almost all showers in Amtrak sleeping cars have curtains which must be buttoned to the wall, and it is often inconvenient to have to line up the button. Also, water can often splash onto the floor outside of the shower. But it must be very convenient on all levels to have that real shower door. Harris asserted that perhaps this car was refurbished in the early stages of the Superliner refurbishment program, before Amtrak ran into cash flow problems. That very well may have been the case. All in all, Harris and I were quite jealous of the guests in the 32026 car.

During the next few hours of the trip, in which the train skirts the Mississippi River, I went back and forth between my car, Harris's car, and the lounge, spending some time by myself, some with Harris, and some with other travelers! Going through western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota, the time passed rapidly. In the lounge car, the movie "Cast Away" was shown, but I was not particularly interested in seeing it. Before I knew it, we were in St. Paul-Minneapolis! The train stopped short of the platform to uncouple the express cars that would leave the train at that station, then proceeded into St. Paul Midway station at 10:20 PM, five minutes early. Here, the rear coach on the train also gets cut off, as there are enough "train 807" passengers to justify having an additional coach between Chicago and St. Paul.

At St. Paul, there was someone waiting for me! Jennifer, a good friend of mine whom I had met online two and a half years before, decided she would come meet me trainside during my train's stop in St. Paul, which is near her house. She wasn't sure she would show up, but she did! We had a lovely time visting in person, until I reboarded at 11:10 PM, in time for our on-time departure at 11:15 PM. The first few minutes out of St. Paul are slow, as the train leaves Canadian Pacific's Soo Line and goes onto its original Great Northern route (now BNSF). I soon thereafter took a shower and went to bed at about 12:30 AM.

July 30


Left: Harris Cohen, President & Webmaster, Association of Rail Travel in the US.
Right: Izaak Walton Inn, Essex, MT.

I woke up around 7:30 AM among the signature plains of northern North Dakota. I promptly got dressed, freshened up, and went to the dining car for breakfast. I ran into Thomas along the way, and asked him to please make up my bed for the day. I had the french toast for breakfast, which tasted fine, but would've tasted much better had Amtrak offered real maple syrup, as opposed to the prepackaged, artifically flavored Heinz syrup. As you might've gathered, I don't exactly eat with the goal of optimum health while I'm traveling by train. I view the train as an epicurean oasis, one in which I should be able to do such things as eat poorly and act lazy, without having to worry about it. I can eat well and exercise once I'm off the train!

We arrived into Rugby at 7:40 AM, 21 minutes late. After breakfast, I went back to Harris's room to see if he was awake yet. Indeed, he was, and had just gotten dressed. I asked him if he wanted to step off the train during the service stop at Minot, but he couldn't guarantee that he would, since he wanted to take a shower soon. So, I went back to my room until we arrived into Minot at 8:40 AM, six minutes early, having made up the lost time through padding. I stepped out onto the platform and got a deep breath of clean Big Sky country morning air. There is not much to see in Minot, but there are so many people on the platform at this station that it's fun to mill around with everyone else. Then, out of nowhere, came a big surprise: A CP Soo Line train crossing the tracks right in front of us! It turns out the Soo Line, which the Empire Builder takes from north of Glenview to Minneapolis, crosses the Great Northern again in Minot. The unexpected visitor made for a good photo-op, passing right in front of our own train. We departed Minot at 9:06 AM, on-time.

I finally realized during this trip how little I desire to travel overnight by coach on Amtrak. Whenever I take a long-distance train trip, I always wait to purchase my tickets until I can afford sleeping accommodations, since I've known all along that it's nice to be in a sleeper. But I never completely understood how good sleeping car travel is, and how bad coach travel can be, until this trip. It started when I was walking through the train, passing through the Coach/Smoking car. To begin with, it smelled like an ash tray. Then I walked by a person who kept bad hygeine. Then I soon walked by someone else who was eating some kind of disgusting smelling food. The three scents simultaneously made me nauseous, and I wondered, how much fun could three days of that possibly be? How could I enjoy myself? That leads me to another reason why long-distance coach travel could be no fun. After a little while, the guests become miserable, realizing they have nothing to do for days but sit in a chair, watching themselves and everyone around them look and smell worse as time progresses. The passengers bring the misery upon themselves, curling up in a ball for days for no good reason except they'd rather be somewhere else. The inherent problem is, if one person becomes miserable, it slowly but surely will have a snowball effect on everyone else in the car. If a coach car full of riders had a more optimistic attitude, it might be a different story. I could actually imagine the guests giving themselves sponge baths and changing clothes everyday to keep clean. I could imagine them realizing what beautiful scenery they have in front of them -- America, right out the window. I could imagine the guests being enthusiastic about the journey, and getting out of their seats and celebrating the event with their fellow travelers. I could only imagine. Surely I romanticize too much about a day gone by, in which passengers actually did care about the train, and themselves while on board the train. By and large, those days in which the train was respected in that way are gone. Perhaps most coach guests would not characterize themselves as 'miserable', but certainly when you walk into a coach car after about a day, the mood could hardly be characterized as festive. More than anything, though, (and I say this with tongue firmly planted in cheek) I'm probably just drawing from my delusional little world in which train travel is fun for everyone, and is greatly enjoyed by all! That, obviously, will never be the case.

However, with one's own sleeping compartment, the traveler is able to create his or her own mood for the journey, be it adventurous, festive, romantic, or serene. I just feel blessed that I am able to work to finance my vacations in sleeping cars. Of course, it may help that I don't spend my money on much else except for telephone bills and gasoline. I am not a big shopper, and am able to save my cash for the train trips, a priority for me. And even when I travel in a sleeping car, I am still able to meet people representing the brilliant socioeconomic, age, gender, racial, religious, and ideological cross-section of our country that can be found on a train. Some choose to isolate themselves in their bedrooms for the duration of the journey, but just because I have a room doesn't mean that I will hide out in there the entire time. I am just as social as I would be in any other situation. But the difference is, I have my own private haven to run off to if I feel like it. Train travel in sleeping accommodations is beautiful.

Mostly for the kids on the train, "The Emporer's New Groove" was shown in the lounge car on this morning. There are even more Amish people on this train than were on the Three Rivers (including some that were on it, as well). Apparently they are going on vacation to Glacier Park. Seemingly all of their kids flocked to the lounge to watch the movie! I can only assume this is because they are afforded a rare opportunity to view what the rest of the country sees. But, to be honest, the 98% of American households with televisions are not necessarily better off than the other 2%. Despite some funny moments in the movie, I, for the most part, tuned it out in my head while I was in the lounge car, playing cards with fellow travelers.

Before long, a call was made for lunch in the diner. By the time I got there, a wait list had formed, and I put Harris and I on it. We were twelfth in line, and would have to wait about 35 minutes to be seated. At about 1:15 PM, we were seated, across from two other solo travelers from my sleeping car. I had the Gardenburger with cheese, which sounds contrary to my epicurean philosophy on dining aboard trains, but it actually tastes very good! Besides, I'd start to feel disgusting if all of my meals were heavy.

We arrived into the service stop at Havre, Montana, at 3:15 PM, having made up any lost time. We weren't scheduled to depart until 3:43 PM, so many passengers took advantage of the opportunity to step off, stretch their legs, view the Great Northern steam locomotive on display, purchase ice cream in the station, or even walk to the store in town! I stepped off here to take some photos, as did Harris. I also walked to the front of the train to get a better look at our train's new P42DC locomotives, which had just rolled off the production line at General Electric in June, 2001. I then noticed that the station agent was loading five Flashing Rear-end Devices (FREDs), with the message "RETURN TO AMTRAK 22ND ST. CHICAGO" stenciled on them, into the baggage car. I don't know how so many of them wound up in Havre! We departed Havre exactly on-time, at 3:43 PM.

If I am not mistaken, the second day of the trip of the westbound Empire Builder is the longest day of rail travel one can possibly take in the United States. For starters, the train is the northernmost east-west train in America. In fact, the only train in the entire Amtrak system to operate to a more northerly location is the Cascades to Vancouver, BC, Canada! Thus, during summer, the sun rises very early and sets quite late. Also, the Empire Builder passes through three time zones on its second day, with two hours gained. Lastly, the Empire Builder operates on a fairly fast schedule, one of well over 50 miles per hour on the second day of travel. So, it could be said that, during the summer months, the westbound Empire Builder has the single longest day of rail travel in the country! Conversely, during the winter, the eastbound train would have the shortest day of rail travel.

As the Empire Builder treks westward from Havre, the scenery starts to become more interesting. Small rolling hills slowly but surely become larger. However, we were still over one hundred miles from the perimeter of Glacier National Park, where crystal rivers flow and mountain goats run free. Rick, the Dining Car Steward, came by my room for dinner reservations. I elected to eat at 6 PM, just like the day before. However, I later found out that Harris booked his dinner reservation for 7. So, I would not be having dinner with him again.

Scenery passed, as did the hours, and my seating for dinner was soon called. For this meal I was seated with a couple from Chicago and their son, all going on vacation to Seattle. I had the fettucini alfredo. For some reason, I do not eat pasta on trains that often. But the fettucini was certainly more than satisfactory. For dessert, I again got a slice of caramel turtle ice cream cake, only this time I got it to-go. I then went to Harris's room to hang out with him and eat my dessert there. Soon after our on-time departure from East Glacier Park, Harris's seating was called for dinner. In the meantime, I went to the lounge, to discover that, as the train got closer to Glacier Park, a crowd of teenagers aboard the train began to swell in the lower level of the lounge car! It was an interesting scene. The lounge car attendant, Bill, was telling irreverent jokes. Some kids were playing cards. One was even showing off a sports car magazine to a young Amish man. After Harris had dinner, he himself made his way down to the lounge.

Not long after the train departs East Glacier Park, the scenery starts to become quite spectacular as the train begins to climb steep grades, hugging the hills as it goes deeper into the park lands. There are also several snow sheds along the route, originally constructed to protect the trains from potential avalanches during the winter. Though our train would not have to worry about snow, it was raining for a while, and the ambient temperature dropped into the low fifties Farenheit. At 7:45 PM, the train made a brief stop at the dirt platform in Essex, with a connecting van to the famed Izaak Walton Inn, which is visible just to the north of the railroad .2 mile north of the Essex stop. Though the sun was not yet down, the movie "61*" (about baseball in the era of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle) was shown in the lounge.

Our train stopped in West Glacier (originally called Belton) for a good half-hour-long service stop, in which many adventurous travelers boarded and alighted with what was clearly hiking and camping gear strapped to their backs. I guess it takes a certain type of person to take in what nature has to offer at this location! Shortly after departing West Glacier, the train passes a small grass airfield accessible only by helicopter or small Cessna or Beechcraft plane, which I presume is the only place in the area one could fly into or out of, as the unforgiving terrain does not look suitable to house an airport! The breathtaking scenery continues for about another hour, until after Whitefish, Montana (where the vacationing Amish from our train detrained), at which time the train begins to leave the area of Glacier National Park. Conveniently, during the summer, the sun does not begin to go down until around that time! It was not completely dark outside until about 10 PM.

After the sun set, Harris and I chatted for a while with the lounge attendant, Bill, who continued to crank out the jokes! For example, "How many union mechanics does it take to fix an engine's ditch light? 22 -- you got a problem with that?!" After Bill closed up shop for the night, Harris and I went back to my room to converse for the last time before we'd meet again in Los Angeles, as we'd both be going to bed soon, and when we each wake up in the morning, the other would be gone, on a different train! I took Harris downstairs in my car to show him what it's like to ride in an open vestibule window. This practice is not allowed by Amtrak for safety and insurance reasons, and indeed can be dangerous if done in a careless manner. But I'll be the first to admit that there is no experience quite like riding in an open window, letting the fresh air blow in your face! Harris had obeyed the rules ever since he began to ride trains, but I convinced him to make an exception this time and step up to the window, as the cool mountain air and fresh pine trees made for an unforgettable scent that made the open window a worthwhile risk. We did not get caught, but even if we did, I would not have cared much! We then went back upstairs and said goodbye, and each went to our own room to retire for the night. I, however, still needed to take a shower and get ready for bed, which I did. But when it came time to brush my teeth, I could not find my toothpaste, even after looking seemingly everywhere! I then realized it was still in the pocket of the sweatpants I was wearing, from the night before. I thought it was kind of amazing that the tube had not fallen out. I set my watch back an hour, as we would be in the Pacific time zone before our arrival at the next station, Libby, as well as for the duration of the trip. Around midnight, I went to bed for the last night of rest for me on my trip.

July 31


Left: Thomas Murray, Sleeping Car Attendant & Jazz Musician!
Right: The USS Abraham Lincoln in the Puget Sound.

I was briefly awoken some time after 5 AM during our tardy stop at Ephrata, Washington. I went back to sleep until about 6:30 AM, when we were 15 minutes outside of Wenatchee. I understand that, starting this fall, Amtrak will initiate a new express contract with an apple distributor in Wenatchee, which is the "Apple Capitol of the World." The new service, dubbed Pacific Fruit Express, would utilize Amtrak's new ExpressTrak refrigerated boxcars, which are currently being delivered to Amtrak from the manufacturer. These cars would carry apples eastward from Wenatchee to Chicago on the back of the Empire Builder. I am not sure how this would complicate the switching procedures with the Portland section of the train in Spokane, but supposedly this new service is all but guaranteed to start at some point.

I got dressed and went to the diner for breakfast. With no lounge car on the Seattle section of the Empire Builder, a few tables at the rear end of the dining car are set off for the sale of lounge car food items, from a limited menu. If guests wish to purchase beverages, they are served drinks from the dining car kitchen. I sat down for a full breakfast with a couple heading for Seattle, and had biscuits & gravy. After taking a walk through our now-short train, I headed back to my car to take some photographs of the scenery, as the train was passing through the Cascade mountain range. The views were not quite as spectacular as in Glacier National Park, but are still beautiful nevertheless.

Around Snohomish, we lost about twenty more minutes waiting for an eastbound BNSF freight to pass. However, thanks to padding in the schedule, we arrived into Everett at about 9:50 AM, a little more than an hour late. The train then hugged the Puget Sound, where the navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, as well as a smaller vessel, were visible performing exercises in the sound. About a half hour after our brief stop at Edmonds, the train slowly passed BNSF's Bayside Yard, then the Space Needle, and soon dove into the Seattle tunnel leading to King Street Station. We arrived into Seattle's King Street Station at 10:40 AM, twenty minutes late. The weather was immaculate outside, with scattered clouds, a light breeze, and temperatures in the mid-sixties. I walked into the run-down station (which should be restored to its original glory sometime in the next few years) to wait for the baggage to be unloaded from the train and placed on the carousel.

The bags took about ten minutes to be released, and within a few more minutes I had my suitcase and the iPix camera in hand. Before doing anything else, I had to rearrange all of my luggage! I had a heavy duffel bag with everything I had needed for the previous four days, but still plenty of room in my suitcase. So, I took out my messenger bag, which was in my suitcase, transferred to it the few things I'd need for the day from my duffel bag, then put the duffel bag and the rest of its contents in the suitcase! The suitcase closed surprisingly easily, and I checked it and the iPix camera briefcase in the Amtrak parcel check for the time being. I was left with just my messenger bag, making it easy to explore Seattle for a few hours on foot. I did not have to be back at the train station until about a quarter to two in the afternoon, to go to the airport and catch my flight home, so I simply started walking! I had been to Seattle before, and was somewhat familiar with the nearby Pioneer Square area. I walked down 1st Street, the so-called main drag of Pioneer Square, then I decided to turn left on Occidental and catch the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar (Sound Transit route 99). However, I still did not know where I wanted to go! I caught a streetcar for the waterfront, and made a spur of the moment decision to exit at Pike Street.

I walked up the hill leading to the back entrance to Seattle's famous Pike Place Market. After exploring in some of the shops, I went upstairs to have lunch at the Waterfront Grill. From there, I called America West Airlines to confirm my flight reservation. I then made a call to Gray Line of Seattle, the company that would be transporting me from Downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac), which is several miles south of Seattle, and is actually closer to Tacoma! While Gray Line is best known for operating tour buses, every day they operate dozens of buses from Seattle area hotels to Sea-Tac in a service known as Airport Express. They also offer reserved connecting vans to and from the buses at several other key destinations in Seattle, including Amtrak's King Street Station, where I would be picked up. I had ordered my Airport Express tickets online a few months before my trip, and was advised to call the day of travel to order my connecting van. I did, and was told to be back at King Street Station by 2 PM in order to get me to Sea-Tac at 2:55 PM, exactly two hours before my flight. Sound Transit operates a public bus route to Sea-Tac for just $1.50 each way, but to me it was worth the $11 to have the peace of mind of a guaranteed ride, especially in a strange town.

After lunch, I walked around a bit more, purchased a cup of coffee from the original Starbucks store, which was opened in 1971, and began to walk back to King Street Station. The weather was so beautiful that I had no need to find a ride back to the station! Walking through Pioneer Square again, I noticed sporadic damage from the February 28 earthquake that rocked the Seattle area, and hit the brick structures of Pioneer Square particularly hard. However, the remaining visible damage paled in comparison to what I remember seeing after the 1994 Northridge Quake we suffered in Los Angeles. I was back at King Street Station by 1:25 PM, and walked inside to claim my bags. After resting for a while, I purchased a Gatorade from one of the vending machines, and went outside to wait for my connecting van. While I was waiting, Rick, the Dining Car Steward from the Empire Builder, pulled up in a pickup truck and got out, still in full uniform. He remembered me from the train, and was surprised to see me there. He asked me what I was doing at the station, and I asked him the same! At least, it was kind of a shock that he was still in his uniform, name tag and all.

My Gray Line connecting van picked me up promptly at 2 PM, and dropped me off fifteen minutes later in front of the Westin Hotel, the second to last stop for the Airport Express before heading to Sea-Tac. The next scheduled bus was supposed to depart at 2:30, but a Gray Line representative there said it was running slightly tardy. The bus came at 2:45, and the driver collected everyone's tickets or cash fares at the final stop before the airport, the Warrick Hotel. During the drive, I dozed off briefly, and we arrived into Sea-Tac at 3:10 PM. I checked my bags curbside, and walked into the Terminal B building, which was almost completely refurbished, with some repair still to be completed. I got to the departure gate so early that the gate agents were not yet set up to check passengers in, and wouldn't be until 3:55 PM, one hour before departure time. Doubting that I would get any kind of substantial meal on the flight, I purchased a personal Pizza Hut pizza and drink. Shortly thereafter, I was able to obtain my boarding pass for my flight. I was then informed that I would have to make a connection to another plane in Phoenix before I could go on to Los Angeles. I knew that my flight, America West 37, made a stop in Phoenix, but I was not told anything about having to change planes! I was assigned the same seat for both segments of my flight, so the two planes for two legs were supposed to be identical.

Because the inbound flight from Phoenix was running slightly late, the plane that would turn to serve my flight was not done being serviced until 4:30 PM. Boarding promptly began, and I was in my seat a few minutes later. The plane was an overhauled Airbus A320-200, with America West's new paint and attractive seat decor. We departed at 5:10 PM, fifteen minutes late, and I soon learned that there would be meal service after all on the flight! Passengers were served turkey wraps with a few small sides. It was nothing substantial, but the parts of it that I ate complemented my earlier "meal" quite well. The two-hour forty-minute flight passed rather quickly, as I passed the time chatting with a young lady seated across the aisle from me, listening to music, and reflecting on my trip. The reflection about my trip was almost overwhelming; it was close to impossible for me to fathom the incredible experience I had just had. I traversed the nation, mostly by myself, seeing important aspects of our nation's history, as well as its present; meeting some of the leaders who set the course of our nation that will be written in the history books; reuniting with an old friend; spending time with new ones; and seeing America at see-level, from the windows of many trains in the still diverse Amtrak system. It had by no means been my longest journey in time or distance, but it was one for which I had planned for a very long time and worked hard to make go smoothly.

The trip, however, was still not quite over yet! We arrived into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, the largest hub for America West Airlines, at 7:50 PM, just a few minutes late. Fortunately, I did not have to walk very far to my connecting plane, as it was just two gates over! The continuation of flight 37 was scheduled to depart at 8:28 PM, and boarding commenced just a few minutes after I arrived at the gate. As it was supposed to be, the plane was a carbon copy of the one from the previous leg: The exact same type of Airbus A320! When I got to my seat, 18C, it was already occupied. The lady seated in my seat showed me her ticket stub, on which her seat had been manually changed at check-in to what was supposed to be my seat! She was acting kind of snippy, so I decided to play it cool. I walked to the aft galley, where two of the flight attendants were standing. I explained the situation to them, and remained standing in the galley while one of them sought to fix my problem. Boarding was complicated by a large school tour group, so I had to wait a few minutes before we could see where I could be seated. In the end, I was given a better seat, 11E, which was in an exit row. So, I had more legroom, and was closer to the front of the plane I had planned to be. The lady who was given my seat got to keep it, and I had no problem with that!

We departed Phoenix at 8:40 PM, twelve minutes late, but would be able to make up the time en route, as the flight only takes an hour. There was just enough time for one beverage service, and we arrived into Los Angeles International Airport at exactly 10 PM, three minutes early. I went downstairs, claimed my baggage, and caught a SuperShuttle back home. I got home at 11:15 PM, 12 1/2 days after I had left! My long journey had come to a close. I got to sleep in my own bed that night. I would not let myself be let down just because the journey was over. In a larger sense, the journey has barely begun, and I know this travelogue serves as one tiny chapter in my mental book of travels. I had traveled much before this trip, and would travel much more after it. But this vacation was fulfilling, as it allowed me to do a number of exciting and memorable things all at once, and, as you can see, come home with good reason to share the memories of it with the world.

Epilogue: A few days after getting home from my trip, I requested my Service Guarantee Certificate for the tardy Acela Express I took from Boston to Washington. Upon calling Amtrak Customer Service to request it, I had expected to be asked questions about exactly what went wrong with the trip and what, if anything, the crew did to rectify the situation. However, as soon as the representative with Amtrak found out my sub-par trip was on Acela Express, she immediately said I'd have my voucher right away, without asking me one question! I actually had to stop her and express my dissatisfaction with the tardiness of the train. She said she would pass it on to the appropriate person at the train's product line, as well as send me my voucher. I indeed received my voucher just two days later, for the full value of my ticket. I figured out that, for just a little more money, I could use the voucher to take the Cardinal from Washington to Chicago in a Standard Bedroom! In comparison with my trip on Acela, that's over twice the distance and three times the length of trip time, but in much nicer accommodations! Obviously the Acela Express is expensive, while the Cardinal is one of the more inexpensive Amtrak routes. In any case, I will be returning to Washington, DC to take this trip on the Cardinal at the end of the year.

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