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Jack Halquist's Journey to Acela
Friday March 16th 2001
I left home in Anaheim California to catch the 3:28 Amtrak Pacific Surfliner to Los Angeles where I dropped off my luggage in the baggage check at Union Station. A rather odd little man with a beard who worked at the counter took my bags and gave me a claim check.
The real part of my trip doesn't start until 10:30 tonight when I leave on the Sunset Limited to New Orleans. From there I will take the Crescent to Washington DC and ride the new Acela train to Boston which is the primary reason for this trip. But I'm much to excited to wait until 10:30 tonight so I found something to do early to kill some time and put me in a travel mode. I decided to check out the new part of the Redline subway in Los Angeles and take it to Universal Studios City Walk to perhaps check out a movie.
I ate dinner at Tony Roma's and saw the movie "15 Minutes." I left the movie a half hour before it ended, (it wasn't that good,) and caught the Redline back to Union Station. Good thing I did, I had to wait nearly 40 minutes for a subway train to get the Universal stop. While waiting an announcement came over the loud speaker that there was some police activity at the Hollywood/Highland station and that it was closed. That stop was only one stop before this one and might have been what the delay was. The train finally came and as we passed the Hollywood/Highland station I could not see any police or odd activity. I guess they had taken care of the problem, what ever it was.
I arrived back at Union Station with no hitches and went to pick up my luggage. I stood at the window and rang the bell and no one answered. The sign on the window said "Gone, Back In 10 Minutes." A few minutes later the odd little man from earlier arrived at the door and said, "Step inside please." He was very nice but seamed to be just a little strange to be running this large luggage room. "I need to see your claim check," he said , I gave him the claim check and he got my luggage.
An announcement echoed through the entire station for all the "First Class" passengers to line up at the door marked C. The line at the door marked G was already quite long as it usually is, that is the line for the coach passengers. They are all aiming to get a good seat usually by the window. That's one reason I like to ride first class, it's not quite the cattle call that it is when riding coach. I have been in that line a few times and am always in a hurry to get on the train.
The station attendant at the head of our line told us to follow him and he would direct us to our train. As we went down the tunnel he made it very clear that train 22 (The Texas Eagle) were to turn right and train 2 (The Sunset Limited) were to turn left. Our car 2231 was all the way to the front of the train. We all arrived there first but there was no attendant there to let us on. There were about 20 of us waiting, had I been first in line I would have gone right on board. After about 20 minutes and all the other people were loaded on the train (even the coach passengers,) our attendant Lloyd Berry finally arrived. He said that he was sorry for the delay but never gave a reason why he made us all wait. The minute I got on board I went to sleep and pretty much slept soundly the whole night to the sound of the train in motion.
Day Two (St Patrick's Day)
I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and I could see the outline of the mountains in the distance. From the looks of it we were somewhere between Phoenix and Tucson. I headed to the dinning car for breakfast hoping it would not be full. From my experiences in the past on The Sunset Limited breakfast fills up quit fast. Much to my surprise there was only one other person seated. I thought they were going to seat me with him but for the first time on my travels with Amtrak (about 9 years,) I got to sit at a table by myself. Not having to make idle chatter with total strangers while eating made it a great breakfast. (Although in the past when traveling with friends or family I have sat exclusively with my own party.) I ordered hot cakes and one egg with hot fresh coffee, which was hot and delicious.
We are running about an hour behind schedule and arrived into Tucson about 10:00. It was a smoking stop and the first opportunity we had to get off the train and stretch a bit. Just about everyone on the train de-boarded. We also had a lot of new passengers get on. While waiting I always stand way back from all the smokers because it's very irritating to me to get the smell and smoke in my eyes it really burns them. It seems that most of the conductors and attendants smoke, maybe it is a requirement for becoming an Amtrak attendant. I went inside the Tucson station to check it out especially since I had never been here before that I remember. It was a rather small and dreary looking station maybe it's on the list of the ones they are going to re-furbish.
We left the station about 10:25 and then stopped again a mile or so out in the train yard. We had to wait for one of those ever so popular freight trains to clear the yard it took about another 30 minutes.
Between Tucson and Benson Arizona was some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in a while. Because of the recent rains the desert landscape was green and spotted with patches of yellow flowers and plenty of pale green cactus. There were even streams below the tracks that were flowing with water, I guess from the snow melting in the mountains nearby. It looks like it would be a nice place to pitch a tent and go camping or just stop and wade in the stream.
My sleeping car was one of the oldest in the Superliner fleet I think they call it a Superliner I. On the outside of the car you could see patches of the old large red and blue stripped paint-job, some of Amtrak's first cars. The inside was decorated in that burnt orange upholstery and bright red vinyl head cushions. It was number 32020 and it had no name on it like the new ones do. They are usually names of the states the one connected to mine was the Oregon and had the nice blue interior.
I went up to the sightseer lounge car to wait for the first call to lunch. It was a sold out train and I new if I didn't make the first calling it might be a while before I ate. As I sat there I noticed a few people walking inside the diner and asking to be seated. For any seasoned Amtrak traveler we know that is a big "no no" and a good way to get scolded. Two or three people did it not knowing of this and came out looking a little perturbed. I learned my lesson many years ago, NEVER ASK TO BE SEATED BEFORE THEY MAKE THE CALL.
They finally called for lunch at 12:15 and it seemed there was a made rush for the diner just like I thought. I made it in and sat with a mom and her son approximately 12 years old traveling together and another lady travelling by herself who didn't give many details about herself. Both parties were from Texas and just travelling a short distance on the Sunset Limited. The three adults had the Ruben sandwich with chips and the kid ate a plain hamburger dry with nothing on it. He didn't even eat his chips, I've never known a kid who did not like potato chips. We were seated and served first but were the last to leave the diner. For some reason the main dinning room attendant would not pick up the money from the two parties eating with me. Since I am in a sleeping car I do not have to pay so I could have left but I did not want to be rude and leave the others by themselves. They were quite upset and they couldn't just leave because they were paying by credit card. The funny thing was that there was already a long list of people who were waiting to be seated. We felt bad for those waiting since we were just sitting there chatting. I ordered a piece of German chocolate cake to take back to my room Amtrak is known for having great pastries, which are my weakness.
After lunch I took my traditional nap and slept for about an hour since I was up late (for me) the night before.
Stopped in Lordsburg for another smoke break, it was very cold and quite windy, I was glad because at least it blew the smoke smell away. The way they (Amtrak) stop in Lordsburg is rather odd. First they pickup the new passengers at the station and then they go about 2 football field lengths and stop again. I guess this is so they don't block the traffic on the city streets there and that big city of Lordsburg New Mexico.
I was very much looking forward to seeing the newly refurbished El Paso station it was on my list of things to see along the way. I have fond memories of the town of El Paso since I had lived there some twenty years ago and now call it one of my favorite cities. As a young person I used to sit on my driveway and watch the trains over on the ridge as they would come and go. At that time I thought the trains were in Mexico because they were on the other side of the Rio Grande but I found out later that they were actually on the US side.
I had made a diner reservation at 5:00 and soon after they announced that there were no more diner reservations left for dinner. Wouldn't you know, that right as we pulled into the El Paso train station I got called to go to dinner. I found myself debating in my mind whether I should go to dinner or visit the station, but my stomach gave in and I went to dinner. Maybe I am not a real train buff after all, I think most of them would have forsaken dinner to check out the station.
I ordered the vegetarian lasagna, which was great and comes highly recommended in many other rail travelogues. I sat with 3 individuals all from the coach cars, an older grandmother type, a middle-aged woman who did most of the talking, and a college age kid who was a tour guide in Alaska. He gave a lot of pointers on what to see when touring Alaska. We all ate desert and went our separate ways on the train.
After dinner I went back to my room and watched a few DVD movies on my computer, then to bed about 10:00PM.
I woke up to the sound of silence on the train, there was no movement at all and it was totally still. It's pretty normal aboard trains you get so accustom to the movement and the sounds of the train that when it goes away it is very noticeable. I looked out the large picture window and saw that we were in San Antonio Texas. The passenger platform was completely calm and vacant of people not even the attendants who usually stand outside their cars where there. I could faintly see a clock on the far wall inside the Spanish Mission style station that read 7:00. How could that be I said to myself, we were supposed to be in San Antonio at 4:00AM so we must have lost another hour overnight. I turned on my cell phone to see exactly what time it was just to make sure I was not seeing things. I was so groggy from such a good night sleep that I couldn't figure out how to make the phone display the time as I had done numerous times the day before. A few minutes later the train left the station and I verified with my attendant what time it was. Apparently we had some delays just west of San Antonio pushing us even further behind schedule.
I went to breakfast and ate with a couple from Pensacola Florida. They had traveled to El Paso Texas where they had rented a car and did some sightseeing there in the southwest. They saw Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon and where very excited about their trip until they got on board the Eastbound Sunset Limited for their trip home. Apparently their coach car was full of spring break teenagers that kept them awake all night. Why can't Amtrak keep teens separate from all the regular folks? They complained all through breakfast as I ate my omelet while nodding in agreement.
After breakfast I headed for the shower. There's nothing like a hot shower on board a fast moving train. I hunted for the towels but could not find them. Some Amtrak attendants keep them in the shower rooms and other keep them in their locked quarters however this time I could not find them anywhere. Usually when you're first board a sleeping car most attendants introduce themselves and explain those kind little details about the train, but Lloyd never did. Maybe he did to others and since I seem kind of independent he just by-passed me thinking that I knew my way around. I rang the bell to call Lloyd but he never showed up so I managed to catch one of the conductors passing through and he found a clean fresh towel for me. The shower was both hot and invigorating as it pummeled my body. On most of the other Amtrak trips I've taken the shower automatically turns off after a minute or so and you have to keep turning it on. But this one stayed on, so it was very much like taking a shower at home except for the bumps and rocking motion of the train.
I got off the train in Houston, which was a very small station located underneath one of the busy freeways downtown. There was a lot of activity on the platform as many people were de-boarding there and meeting family members. I went inside to find some Amtrak souvenirs, much to my surprise they had some and I bought a Sunset Limited mug that I didn't even know existed. There were two of them in the display case, a blue one and a black one. I asked the clerk for a black one but he told me they were out of the black unless I wanted to buy the display one. He reached under the counter and found a brand new black one and that's what I bought.
For the first time ever I decided to have lunch in my room rather than sit in the diner. I asked Lloyd while on the platform in Houston if he would get me lunch at the first call. He hesitated a little bit saying something about being busy at the time and I said that it was fine and that I was not in a hurry. About an hour later he came to my room and asked me what I wanted. I ordered the Ruben since it was so good yesterday. No idle chatter for me today at lunch, which is what I prefer.
I have heard several comments and have noticed myself how bad the track is here between Houston and New Orleans. Another observation is that we seemed to follow a local road or roads through this whole stretch into New Orleans. Because of this the engineer must blow his horn at every over-crossing which got a little annoying even though I love to hear the train whistle in the background. Since my sleeping car is the second one from the front the sound is very loud. Even so, it didn't seem to bother the hour and a half nap that I took this afternoon.
We are still two hours behind schedule.
I had a rather interesting dinner with a man in his 60s who was very well read and new everything about books and the poetry culture. He was on his way to visit his son in New York. Since I am, for the most part, a listener and he seemed to be a talker we made a good combination. Over a catfish dinner I listened to his stories about how he had been homeless in New York for a while and actually lived in the train tunnels under Manhattan. He told stories of being in Paris and living with a woman who always started a sentence but would not finish it. I told him I knew a guy at my work who always finished the other persons sentences and that we should get the two together to have a conversation. We both laughed at that thought.
It was a pleasant dinner even though I ate way too much and am stuffed. I will have to do some walking in New Orleans tonight to work off some of this food. That's one thing about Amtrak, like a cruise, they feed you way too much good food.
We got into New Orleans about 3 hours late it was about 10:00PM. I had heard horror stories about trying to catch a cab when arriving into New Orleans so I bolted off the train to try to be first in line to catch a taxi to my hotel downtown. I guess everyone else knew of the same taxi problem because everyone on the train was also standing out front hailing the next cab. I was very aggressive and managed to get lucky and finally got a cab even before those who had been waiting longer. When there is a crowd like that you don't know who is waiting for a cab and who is waiting for friends or a hotel shuttle. My guess is that most of these were people waiting for taxis. When I got in my cab I noticed a lady on crutches talking to my driver. All the sudden I felt really bad and sunk into my seat. Had I stolen a lady with crutches taxi-cab? She opened the front door and stuck her head inside and asked if I minded that we share a cab to downtown. Of course I did not mind since I kind of thought I stole it anyway. At the point I would have just given it to here had she asked.
I got to my hotel, the Days Inn on Canal Street and checked in. The room was dreary, un-kept and the curtains were hanging off the rod. I would expect more from a Days Inn but at least it was semi clean and a place to get a night's sleep, 5 hours anyway!
I caught a cab to the station at about 5:30AM. It's a short cab ride but I always leave a lot of time when catching a train or any method of transportation for that matter. You never know what can happen on the way to the station and I hate to be late or even miss my train. Some people wait till the last minute and always have to do a bunch of rushing around at the very end.
The station was for the most part empty with just a few people sitting here and there. I went over to the First Class lounge to sit and wait but it was closed. Good thing I decided to get a hotel, at one time I pondered staying in the station overnight and roughing it. I thought I could have stayed in the First Class lounge but I guess not.
One thing I noticed right off was that in New Orleans they allow smoking inside the train station. I guess I'm spoiled living in California where a smoker can't smoke anywhere inside public places. So now when I travel outside of California I notice the smoke smell much more. I don't mean to be picking on smokers in this travelogue but it is very important to me. I am being very mild now but I really complain about smokers in some of my European travelogues were you can't breath at all.
They started loading the First Class passengers for the Northbound Crescent, that's me. My car 2010 was way at the end and quite a walk but remember I needed the walk from dinner last night. I got on board and was greeted by an attendant named CJ. He was great and I could tell right away that he cared about his job and the comfort of the passengers in his car. He told me exactly where my room was and had a very friendly attitude.
As soon as the train left the station they announced that breakfast was now serving in the dinning car. Because I'm just like my father and both of my grandfathers, we like to get the eating out of the way and make sure it's right on time.
The diner car on The Crescent was old and dismal in appearance and like it was from the early fifties in fact it was from the early fifties. The servers looked like they worked in the haunted house at Disneyland. One of them reminded me of Lurch from the Addams Family. They were dressed in what looked like dark green tuxes with tails, (minus the cumber-buns) and acted very rigid and formal, unlike the Sunset Limited where the were very bouncy and even a bit cheery. Once again I think I am spoiled from riding the Coast Starlight so much in California. The staff there is required to be friendly and make service to the customer the number one priority.
I ordered the Western Omelet and hash-browned potatoes with kind of a Cajon flavoring, Amtrak likes to make its food regional. The potatoes were very cold but I don't like to complain so I ate them and enjoyed the rest of my breakfast. I sat with a man who is also in the computer industry so we talked about trains and computers over breakfast. Later he offered to show me his Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) software installed on his laptop. It will let you know were you are in the United States, in case you get lost. The reason we got talking about GPS was that I was a bit confused about the direction we were going and the sun was not out to use as a guide. Being disoriented was a bit odd for me since I have a natural sense of direction.
When I got back from breakfast, CJ my attendant who has been right on the ball, had placed a newspaper in my room. I love to read the paper after breakfast with my morning coffee. As I glanced at the front page a shrill went down my spine as I noticed the picture of an Amtrak train sprawled all over the countryside on a broken up railroad track. After reading carefully 1 person died and about 90 others were injured on the California Zepher a train I have taken many times though never Westbound. I asked CJ if he knew anyone on board the train and he said he was not sure but he does have a friend on that run. I noticed he played the accident down and was very low key and seemingly sad. I wonder if Amtrak tells their employees to not comment on wrecks when they happen?
While on a trip a few years ago, the California Zepher in fact, headed for Chicago there had been a derailment on the City Of New Orleans, which goes back and forth from Chicago to New Orleans. Apparently the accident site had been all over the news and in the papers. Out of concern friends and family members calling me at my relatives houses where I was scheduled to stop, making sure it was not the train I was on. They never know where I'm going to be on one of my crazy trips. I do know one thing I would rather be on a train and have a wreck then be on a plane and be in a wreck!
My Viewliner room was orderly, clean and comfortable although it did show signs of wear and tear for only being a few years old. Some of the paint was starting to come off where people prop their feet while sitting just like I was. The room was decorated with blues, grays, and have kind of a mauve color to its fixtures and hardware. It contains a toilet and sink that fold up into the wall. You would never know they were there if you did not look for them. I remember the old roomettes in the cars before these new Viewliners, you could hear the sound of the track and rushing wind through the toilet, even with the seat down. These new cars are much more soundproof and quiet. Like the Superliner bedrooms the Viewliner rooms have two comfortable armchairs facing each other with a fold out table in the middle just perfect for a laptop. One unique feature in the design is that no matter where you are in the room there are controls for your comfort. The lights, the entertainment, the environmental controls are all at your fingertips. And yes the temperature controls actually work keeping your room comfortable for you.
I had lunch with Ralph again, the man I met at breakfast, he had a catfish sandwich and I had beef vegetable soup and a grilled cheese. How's that for sophistication?
The countryside is beautiful through this part of the country, plenty of swamps, brooks, meadows, forests and open fields. People who say we are running out of countryside and only have urban sprawl, must not travel very much. It seems that 90% of the country is open wilderness, farmlands and the rest cities. When you travel by train, "fly over country" becomes "travel through country" and you sure do see plenty of it and appreciate it all the more.
I noticed the further north we go the less green things become and winter is still very much alive. The trees are still gray and the leaves from autumn are still on the ground.
The rest of the day I spent writing and watching the scenery go by from my room. I didn't even go to the diner for my evening meal, CJ was more then happy to bring it to my room. I had a rib eye steak that was the best steak I have ever eaten. I'm not kidding when I say that. After he brought the meal I noticed he hesitated a little bit as if he wanted the tip right then. I always thought you were supposed to tip the attendant when you got off the train, which I will. Since then he has not treated me any different so he must be hoping I don't forget him in DC tomorrow.
I watched a DVD called The Green Mile last night, it was a great movie although very long. That's one thing I love about my Gateway laptop having the ability to watch movies right in my own room or coach seat. I only do this at night when there is nothing to see outside otherwise it would kind of defeat the purpose of traveling by train.
After the movie I decided to try to sleep in the upper bunk for a change since I usually sleep in the lower bunk. It was a big mistake. I am sure it is fine for you little people but I am 6'5 at 300lbs and there is just not enough room up there to be comfortable. There was no place to put my arms and they kept falling off the bunk. There was also the faint sound of a radio or some kind or singing coming out of one of the speakers right near my ears. No matter what button I hit I could not turn off this sound. I tossed and turned for about two hours thinking I could find the perfect position but eventually gave up and moved back downstairs where I belonged. Once I got comfortable downstairs I couldn't get the upper bunk to stop rattling and so I became very angry but had know one to express it to since the whole train was asleep. I finally put my backpack up on the bunk, which stopped the rattling and then I went fast to sleep.
I woke up late and wondered if we had made up any time. We had not and in fact had lost another half hour in the middle of the night somewhere in North Carolina. The ETA to Washington DC was just before 10:00AM. After still being a little annoyed about last night's sleeping fiasco I did not want to have breakfast with anyone else so I went to the snack bar and got an egg Mc Muffin and an apple Danish which I brought it back to my room. I read the paper and prepared to detrain in DC.
The train arrived in DC about 9:45 just as CJ said it would. As we were pulling into the station he popped his head into my room and asked me if I needed help getting my luggage out the door. Since I travel very light I did not need help with my backpack and rolling suitcase. On my way out the door I handed CJ a twenty dollar bill for his extra special service on board The Crescent. His great service made up for my less then restful night tossing and turning in my bunk.
My original plan here in DC was to meet a close friend and do some sightseeing together but because of some problems with his kids and ex-wife he was unable to meet me so I had to improvise.
Upon arrival inside the station the first thing on my agenda since I had time to kill before the hotel would let me check-in was to finally check out Union Station. I had always heard such great things about it and wanted to see for myself if they were true.
It was grand indeed! The main hall was at least 5 stories tall with giant archways above each doorway. The ceiling had some sort of tile or mosaic design with intricate detail but it was too high to see exactly what it was. The lower floor was a large food court much like you'd see in a mall only much larger. The middle level was the main floor with all kind of shops and the Amtrak ticket area. And the upper level had yet more shops and interesting places to browse.
I needed to catch a cab to my hotel but noticed the line for people waiting to get taxis was quite long. It was cold outside where the line was so I decided to do some more looking around before catching a cab and having to wait in that long line.
At about 10:30 the line subsided and I caught a taxi to my hotel Howard Johnson on New York Avenue NE, the cab fare was $5.50. An Indian man checked me in but warned me that they usually don't check people in this early because others have not checked out yet. I knew it was risky getting there that early but was hoping for the best and got lucky. Plus I really wanted to take a shower and change before doing some sightseeing around Washington DC.
The room was a little better than the Days Inn in New Orleans and the bed was much bigger, I wish I had it last night on board The Crescent Train. The only problem I could see was the door to the bathroom would not stay closed and kept banging into the vanity but everything else seemed to be in order.
I got cleaned up and took a cab back to Union Station where I thought would be a good place to use as base camp. My hotel was a bit far to be coming and going a lot. This time the cab fare was $6.50, I'll write more about that in a moment.
I ate lunch in the giant food court and took a tour of all of Washington DCs sights on one of those tour trams. The ticket for the tour cost $22.00. I got off the tram at the Air and Space museum because I had not been there for many years. Much of it was under construction and they are opening a few new exhibits so there wasn't much new to see. I got back on the tour tram and took it around to the rest of the sights.
It was getting late so I went back to the room and the cab fare was $7.50. I asked the cabby why they did not have meters in the cabs in Washington DC and the driver told me it was because they were on a zone system and he showed me a chart. He told me it was a dollar more this time because it was rush hour. I didn't bother telling him I had already been charged 2 different rates.
I had a great night sleep and slept for 8 hours feeling very rested when I woke up. I called the front desk to have them call a cab for me but there was no answer. I took a shower and went to check out but the man at the front desk was sound asleep, I guess that's why he didn't answer the phone when I called. In the background the TV was on playing Porno videos, which I guess he had been watching before he dozed off. I yelled and he did not hear me so I banged on the thick bulletproof glass with my key to wake him up and that seemed to do the trick. He was rather startled and disoriented at first but then very helpful. After I checked out I asked him to call be a cab and the dispatcher told him it would be 10 minutes before a cab would be there. A half an hour later the cab had still not shown up so I went back to the front desk to ask him to call again. Unfortunately he was asleep again so I banged on the glass, woke him up and asked him to call again. After he hung up the phone he told me that the taxi dispatcher said I would be better off standing on the highway and trying to hail a cab that way. But I told him that it was pouring down rain and very windy and I was not going to do that in the middle of the night in Washington DC. So I continued to wait in the lobby with the sleepy hotel clerk.
The cab finally showed up 45 minutes later and the first thing he asked me was, what my name was. He seemed very friendly but said he could not pick me up if my name did not match the person who called in the order. I told him my name was Jack and he said that name did not match the name of the person who called the request in. I told him that's because the other name was the clerk in the hotel. And I really did not want to go through the process of waking the clerk up again and I convinced the cabby to pick me up anyway. He then told me that he had been robbed last week in a similar situation and that it is a known scheme bandits use to rob taxi drivers. He just wanted to make sure I was not going to rob him he told me. At the time I wondered how many bandits get picked up from hotels with 2 suitcases and going to the train station? When we got to the station he told me the fare was $8.00. I wondered if this was the "middle of the night" fare because it was the third amount I was asked to pay for the same destination. I paid him and he told me to get my luggage out of the trunk. Most taxi drivers assist you with getting your luggage however this one did not.
The door to the trunk was open so I took my luggage out and slammed the trunk door closed, just as I would my own trunk. The taxi driver jumped out of the cab and yelled at me saying "THIS IS A TOWNE CAR, YOU DON'T GOTTA SLAM THE TRUNK LIKE THAT. DO YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH ME OR SOMETHING?" I was a little bit frightened at the way he acted plus there was know one else around. I did not say anything and just walked into the station. As I walked away I kept thinking how could such a nice man change his attitude that fast?
The Acela Train
I was very excited as I boarded the slick new Acela train. The outside of the train set was blue and white with the Acela logo on the side. The design of the train looked very much like the TGV trains in France and it gave me that same feeling as I boarded, the feeling of sitting back and enjoying yourself. Inside everything was new and had the smell of a brand new car. The seating arrangement and the seats looked very much like the new Pacific Surfliner trains running on the west coast. The interior colors were blue, gray, and purple. The carpet was a blue nylon weave with red floor lights running down the middle isle. As you walked from car to car the door automatically opened. No more hitting the button to make the doors open, which can be awkward with hot coffee and a sandwich in your hand. I was the only tourist on board, the rest were business people traveling to important meetings in Philadelphia and New York. One group of men were actually having a business meeting right on board at a set of seats facing each other. It looked like it could have been an Acela TV commercial.
One of the men in a few seats in front of me commented as to how cold it seemed to be on board. He took out his coat from the rack above and put it over him as a blanket. I had to move to an isle seat because sitting by the window was so cold due to the breeze. As I went up to the Bistro car to get some coffee I mentioned to the conductor that it was freezing in our car and he said that he was just back there and did not notice it but would check for me. A few minutes later one of the engineers came to my seat and said that the computer said it was the right temperature, 70 degrees. He said there was nothing he could do about it and that it was Amtrak policy to keep it that temperature.
Later as the sun rose and the car filled with more passengers it did warm up. When I went to the Bistro car I took my Amtrak cup with me to get my free cup of coffee. I was told when I bought it that hot drinks were free on any Amtrak train as long as I had that mug. When I presented my mug to the Bistro attendant he said he could not fill my cup because it did not have a lid. I had it in my pocket and showed it to him and started to fill it with coffee. Then he asked me to pay for it and I told him about the free drinks and the mug offer from Amtrak and he had never heard of it. He went and asked his supervisor and she had never heard of it either but to avoid and un-pleasant incident, they gave it to me. I wouldn't have made it an un-pleasant incident by the way I'm, a pretty mellow guy.
The ride was slick and smooth indeed, we were traveling at 150mph announced the conductor and it was as smooth as can be. At one stop I got out and took a couple of pictures and will hopefully get them in this travelogue. As I was on the platform taking the pictures I notices another man doing the same thing as I was. In fact he looked very familiar to me and I realized he was a man who formerly worked for Amtrak and is still a Park Services guide on the Coast Starlight working out of the Portland office. I was sitting a few seats in front of him and later I heard him say this a few times to various people so I knew it was him. In fact, he made it clear to the whole train that Amtrak wanted him to come ride the new Acelo Train. I don't know if he is paid or just a train buff like me. On a side note I saw him later that day in Boston at the USS Constitution taking the tour as I was.
I arrived into Boston and walked to my hotel The Omni Parker House it was about a half a mile. The streets of Boston were very much alive and well with lots of people and activities. There were vendors selling roasted nuts, street dancers, beggars, hot dog stands, and plenty of common folk and business people going every which way. It was cold and windy but I made it to my hotel and checked in. The Omni Parker House is a very historic hotel it was Charles Dickens favorite hotel when he would come to the US and give his lectures. He spent many months actually living at the Parker House. There is a mirror in the lobby that was once in the room of Charles Dickens so when you're looking into it you are looking at the exact mirror he looked at. The hotel is also said to be haunted, but when I was there I saw no evidence of this although I do confess I looked for floating candelabras and ghostly figures.
My room was small but charming. In fact when I checked in they tried to upgrade me and told me that the rooms they sell on the Internet are all those really small sizes. He said that if I paid $30 more I could upgrade to a normal size room. I went and saw the room first and decided to stay in that room, it seamed plenty big enough for just sleeping. Their bait and switch didn't work with me and I wasn't offended at the offer to upgrade and they did not twist my arm.
Later I took a tour around the city of Boston it included; The City Hall, Cambridge University, China Town, The Boston Tea Party Ship, The Old North Church / Paul Revere House, and The USS Constitution, it was quite a full day.
That night I enjoyed a first class dinner at The Parker House dinning room and indulged in prime rib, mashed potatoes, vegetables and Parker House Rolls. For dessert I had Boston Cream pie which is said to have been invented exclusively there at the Parker House. It was very different than the Boson Cream pie I have always been accustomed to. It was a little round cake almost like a Ding Dong coated with nuts and creamy white frosting. It was very good but I like it better the traditional way.
I woke up and had breakfast at the hotel. The all you can eat breakfast bar was $13.95 but I did not want to pay, or eat that much food so I ordered blueberry pancakes, a croissant, orange juice, and coffee and paid $18.50. I should have got the breakfast bar and just not have eaten as much, so much for trying to save money.
I headed for the South Station to catch Amtrak's Lakeshore Limited and start my journey home. It was pouring down rain and as windy as could be. I did not want to take a cab and I kept reminding myself "It's The Journey That's The Adventure Not The Destination," well this leg of my journey turned out to be a cold and miserable. I spent some time in the hotel lobby battening down the hatches (so to speak) and making my suitcase somewhat waterproof. I got out my umbrella and started my trek to the station. It was the kind of rainy day that blows your umbrella inside out every few minutes so I had to keep ducking into office building along the way to straighten it out. As I crossed the crosswalks it was very difficult to watch the traffic, avoid the big puddles, and keep my umbrella straight all at the same time but somehow I managed and make it safely to the station.
Just inside the station there was a homeless youth who had collected broken umbrellas from the streets and was actually mending them right there on one of the radiators where it was warm. I stood there a moment and watched him while I got warm. I think he was planning on selling them when he was done fixing them. I thought that to be very industrious, maybe he'll be a millionaire some day.
The Lakeshore Limited
I finally dried off from my brisk walk to the station in the pouring down rain. Every trip I go on I always bring an umbrella thinking that it might rain. This is the first time I have had to use it and boy was I glad I brought it.
I was just a little bit nervous about this leg of my journey primarily because I was going to be riding in coach class. I'm very particular about where I sit and who sits next to me. I had horrible thoughts about someone sitting next to me who really needed a shower. I was also hoping that a mother traveling with two screaming infants would not sit right behind me and cry the whole way. I got lucky and neither of these thoughts came true all that worry for nothing.
They announced that The Lakeshore Limited was now boarding at gate 10. I had a head start since I watched them rolling the handicapped people to board early, this is usually a good indicator that they will be boarding soon. I was first on in my coach and felt very comfortable. This portion of the Lakeshore Limited (from Boston to Albany New York) was very small consisting of two coach cars, one Viewliner sleeping car, and a Cafe car. The rest of the train from New York would be meeting up with us in Albany to make one big train that included a dining car. The track between Springfield Massachusetts and Albany was very bumpy in fact it felt like there was no track at all just railroad ties. We arrived into Albany on time and had to wait for the other half of the train coming from New York City and then wait for them to marry the two trains. All went smooth until we left the station and had to wait for over an hour for some reason. If I would have had my scanner I would know some of these details, but a laptop and two suitcases is enough to worry about when you're on vacation.
While we were waiting to leave I decided to go up to the lounge car and get some dinner to bring back to my seat. On the way there I got stuck between two cars by a jammed door, with a lady and her son. We waited for about 20 minutes for someone to come and open the door. Since know one came I opened the control panel and switched a few of the buttons and the door opened. I was hoping the button I pushed did not unhook our car from the rest of the train set.
The line for the lounge car was quite long it had at least 15 people waiting to be served. After waiting in the line I ordered a ham & cheese sandwich, a bag of chips, milk, and a cookie. When the lounge attendant Ron Bailey gave me the milk it seemed very warm and I asked for a colder one, but he said that was all they had so I took a risk and drank it anyway. I was tired of coffee and soda.
The sandwich was good and after eating I watched a movie called The Wonder Boys about a frustrated writer and his life with some of his students. It was very good and I recommend it to those who have an interest in writing.
I woke up refreshed and very rested. I was rather surprised I felt so good after sleeping in coach all night and not really having a bed to stretch out in. As long as there is know one sitting next to you and no crying babies you can sleep quite well. My only problem was that it was quite warm in the coach and there is no thermostat to set, the heat is either on or off.
I went to the Cafe car to get some breakfast. Ron said "We not open yet, you gotta wait." "Last night they said you would be open at 6:00AM," I told him. He replied yelling "WE ARE NOT OPEN YET SIR!" So I sat in the lounge car and waited for him to open. It was difficult for me to sit in there because of the heavy smoke rolling through the car but I was really hungry because of my light dinner last night. Eventually there were about 10 of us waiting to get food and after a half hour of him preparing he said we could all get in line. I let a little old lady go in front of me since it looked like she was there first. She ordered yogurt and coffee, when she got her yogurt she asked Ron if she could have a colder one because it was very warm. Just like me with the milk last night and it was out of the same refrigerator (I guess it was broken.) Ron simply stated "That's all we got." I don't mean to be picking on Ron but it seemed like he really hated his job and did not want to be there at all. He kind of had an attitude like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. You had to order things "his way" or he did not want to cooperate at all with the customers, ("No Food For You.) Why does Amtrak put people who are not customer friendly in positions like that? It seems there would be a lot of other jobs at Amtrak someone like Ron could do rather than being on the front line with the customers. And the broken refrigerator, what will it take for them to fix it someone getting sick? In the case of the snack bar not being open yet, why couldn't he just say, I'm sorry sir I slept-in and am running a minute behind could you give me a minute to finish preparing? I am a big defender of Amtrak but sometimes there is no excuse for some of their attendants being rude.
So far my experience on the Lakeshore Limited has been a positive one and we are right on time. I love watching the rolling wheat and cornfields of Ohio and Indiana they remind me of when I was a kid living in the mid-west.
I think my attendants name was Frank, he was the kind you did not see very much of in my coach. Maybe there is not much to do in a coach car rather than a sleeping car. I did notice he let one of the girls in the seat in front of mine use the shower in the Viewliner right behind ours. When he did happen by our coach he would flirt with her and once even sat with her for an hour or so.
Train Nerd Alert!
I got off the train in Toledo Ohio to inspect the station and look for Amtrak souvenirs, well was I in for a surprise. In a display case near the front counter in the station was a bunch of unique Amtrak stuff that I've never seen before. I bought about $40 worth of mugs and other neat stuff that you can't find anywhere. People at work always complement the "Coast Starlight" mug I use to drink coffee at the office. I always tell them you can only get them on certain trains around the country, which is true but now I found a place to buy them directly. I bought a couple of mugs for people at work who like my coffee mugs.
We arrived into Chicago right on time. It was a beautiful sunny day there with what looked like a breezy day judging from the way the flags were waving. I have seen everything there is to see in Chicago on other trips but I might take a walk around the city just for something to do during my 4 hour layover.
I went to lunch at a great barbecue rib sandwich place there inside the station. It was very busy mainly because it was lunchtime and many people from the office buildings nearby come to the train station food court to eat lunch. I waited about 5 minutes in line and got my sandwich almost right away. Searching for a seat was a different story, I walked around the seating area with my tray for quite a while and eventually found a seat on the other side of.
Nearby at a bakery were some great looking brownies sitting in the window. I asked the person at the counter if they were chewy brownies or more dry and flaky brownies because I hate dry flaky brownies. She did not understand English at all and had never heard of brownies being chewy. I tried to explain to her how a chewy and fresh baked chocolate chip cookie tasted to compare that with a brownie but I was only digging myself in deeper with her and leaving her more confused.
I ended up buying one of the brownies and they were indeed very chewy and one of the best brownies I ever ate. I wanted to go back and tell her they were chewy after all, but she had left for the day.
I went up into the city to have a look around but as soon as the wind hit me I knew it was a mistake. They don't call Chicago the windy city for nothing. I went right back down into my cave and decided to wait in the Metropolitan lounge where the sleeping car passengers wait for their trains. I ended up plugging in my laptop and checking my e-mail and had over 90 messages to respond to, half of them were just Spam messages.
The Southwest Chief
There was lots of confusion just outside the Metropolitan lounge right before they started boarding the first class passengers. There were four or five Red Cabs there waiting to assist elderly as well as people needing assistants onto the train and they all had those big white luggage carts. Plus they all got mixed in with the coach passengers who were right there waiting to board as well. They use to do the first class boarding differently and have us leave from the rear of the lounge, which seemed much easier. I'm sure they have their reasons for changing this procedure.
The train left right at 3:40, which is the scheduled time, I was in room 5 car 0330 and my attendants name is Carol. She seemed to have things in order as I boarded, coffee brewing, the drinks were out, and each person had one of those great Ghirardelli mints waiting for them in their rooms. Later in the trip I saw boxes of these at various places and would always grab one or two to quench my sweet tooth.
Amtrak's mighty Southwest Chief pulled out of the station in all of its glory and got about 30 feet outside and then suddenly came to a screeching halt. An announcement came over the loud speaker that we had to wait for the mail cars to be hooked up to the rear of our train. This was a normal procedure because I see this first hand on Sunday mornings when I sometimes see The Southwest Chief pull into the Fullerton station. There are always the four or five mail and freight cars tagged on the end. While we were waiting in the Chicago yard, Irv (The Chief On Board) came to my room to collect my ticket. He saw that my bags had TWA stickers on them and we talked in length about how sad it was that TWA was going under. I told him I had forty thousand frequent flier miles to use up and hoped American would honor them. Irv assured me they would and told me what a fan TWA he had been over the years.
It was an hour and a half later and the train still had not moved out of the yard in Chicago. I thought we would just spend the night right there in the Chicago yard right at the foot of the big Sears Tower but finally they hooked up the extra mail cars and off we went into the sunset.
At Naperville, one stop out of Chicago what I describe as a "loud family" got on and their room was right across from mine. It was a mother with two little kids and a narrating grandma. The grandma was constantly narrating to the little kids what they were doing and what they were going to do next. "And now we're on the train, and now we are going into our rooms, and now we are going potty, let's all wave goodbye to daddy." I'm sure you get the drift. I prayed I would not have to listen to that the whole way to Fullerton.
I ordered a small dinner salad, a piece of cake in my room, went to bed, and slept like a child, (minus a narrating grandma.)
And what a great night's sleep it was, I didn't wake up once! I peeked my head out of my car to see if they had started seating for breakfast in the diner. I liked where my room was because you could look down the hall and see into the diner. I waited a few minutes until I heard some others going down the hall. I wanted them to go in first in case it was a rude dining staff. Much to my surprise we were all greeted with a smile and the host said "Welcome To Breakfast." I sat with a lady from New York who was going home to see her parents that she had not seen in 24 years. Her brother paid for the trip and she was more than elated. She had nothing but praise to say about her trip so far and how Amtrak was treating her like a queen. I was happy to sit with someone who was so positive. I sat there eating my pancakes as she talked and talked about how much fun she was having aboard the Southwest Chief.
Later at lunch I sat with a man and his wife he is a professional headhunter for corporate computer people. Since I am in the computer field we had a lot to talk about and spent the whole meal, talking about computers and the computer industry. We exchanged information and he asked if I was looking for a better carrier in the computer industry. I told him I was happy for now but one never knows. He seemed to be very aggressive thus making him very successful in that industry. He and his wife enjoy train travel as much as I do and take about two trips per year. I'm surprised I haven't met up with them before on one of my journeys.
As I sat in my room waiting for us to arrive into Albuquerque the dinning car steward came by and was taking reservations for dinner. I explained to him that I was going to wait for Albuquerque and have one of those famous burritos everyone talks about. He said that was a good choice and went on his was way.
A few minutes later I heard what sounded like a radiator pipe breaking underneath the dinning car. I didn't think anything of it really until we started breaking and I could smell something burning. The Chief On Board then announced that we had just hit a pickup truck at a crossing gate and that they had no further information than that and that they would keep us informed.
There we were in a very desolate area somewhere between Lamy and Albuquerque New Mexico stuck on the tracks waiting to hear something. I always wondered what it felt like to hit something on a train now I know you hardly notice it at all. Most people in the train did not even know there was a problem until we got the announcement. It seems that the truck had been left on the tracks and there was no one injured and no one to be found. We spent another hour there while they inspected the train for damage. The truck was completely demolished but the train had no damage whatsoever.
I guess burritos in Albuquerque were out of the question as we were now running 5 hours late. They told use the venders, including the burrito truck, would probably not wait that long. I guess I will have to wait for my next trip on the Southwest Chief to try one of those famous burritos.
I must complement the attendant in the lounge car, I think his name was Mr. Grusham. He made the whole trip very funny and entertaining by the comments and interesting things he said over the PA. I wish he could go train the guy back on the Lakeshore Limited. Everyone really had their act together on this train, I must complement all of them.
Woke up at 6:00AM and had pancakes in the diner, breakfast is definitely my favorite meal. It was particularly unique this morning because the sun was just rising over the east and it made the rolling hills of the dessert especially appealing to look at. I sat with a lady who was very quiet and very shy, kind of like me in many ways. We barely looked at each other the entire time only with an occasional glance. I would always smile but she would hurry and look away, perhaps she was engrossed in the moving scenery outside also. She ordered two scrambled eggs and asked the waiter if they had English Muffins and the waiter told her they did not. So she said that's ok I've already got one and she started rummaging through her purse much to my surprise she pulled it out and ate it with here eggs. I thought that it was a bit odd to have an English Muffin in your purse, much less ask the waiter if he had one, knowing you had one all along. Now I felt like the more normal of the two of us, I had no bakery goods in my pockets.
A lady in the booth across from ours asked if her teenage son could sit with us because there were no more seats left in her booth. I quickly said yes thinking he might bring something more normal to our table. He ordered pancakes and orange juice just like I did but his presents brought nothing new or interesting to our dull table. I spent the rest of my breakfast watching the sunrise and the rolling hills of the dessert quickly pass by.
When I got back in my room they announced that the train was now only 3 and a half hour late. They made it perfectly clear that Amtrak would stand behind their satisfaction guarantee clause that's part of their new guarantee program. They said to call the 800 number and some sort of arrangement would be worked out because of the lateness stemming to the hour and a half wait coming out of Chicago. I thought this offer was cool even though I'm not sure I'm going to take them up on it because it really didn't cause any hardship on me. If it would have been at the beginning of my trip and I missed some connection because of it, I'm sure I would take them up on their offer.
As I left the train in Fullerton I gave Carol a twenty dollar tip, telling her what a splendid job she did in our car. She thanked me and said she hoped to see me on a trip sometime soon.
The night I left I left my truck in Anaheim because the Amtrak Fullerton Station does not allow 24 hour parking even for it's traveling guests. I think that is rather odd since Fullerton is such a busy station with some long distance trains servicing their station. Now I had to take a short trip to Anaheim, just one stop on the Pacific Surfliner. As I boarded the Pacific Surfliner I noticed there was a lot of confusion as to what the passengers should do with their luggage when they get on the train. This is the 3rd or 4th time I have seen this utter confusion while boarding this brand new train. Most of these travelers where from the same train I was just on and some of them had quite a few bags to carry along and schlep up the narrow stairs. People were just leaving their large suitcases in the entryways and isles blocking the door, this made the conductor furious but what should they have done? The lack of luggage space might be because Amtrak had to build the handicap bathroom so big that there was no space left for luggage racks like on the old Horizon cars. I would recommend all travelers coming to California on long distance trains, check your bags through to the city you are going to. Even if you are in a sleeper car, pack as light as possible and only bring on board what you must have.
Overall I would rate this trip an 8 out of 10 as far as Amtrak goes for the most part they did a good job at seeing that I was happy and comfortable. And now if I may leave you with one parting thought;
"Remember its not the destination that makes a great vacation, it's the adventure of getting there!"
Jack S Halquist
Thanks for reading my Rail Travelogue, feel free to E-mail me with your comments at email@example.com .
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