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Rich's 1998 Amtrak Trip



Washington, DC to Chicago, IL

July 24-25, 1998

(Railroad Log #55b - CIN to WAS)

During my few hours layover in Washington, D.C., I checked my suitcases into the Metropolitan Lounge, which is a fairly nice area of the station. The most unusual thing to me was that there are rarely many other people in the Metropolitan Lounge. Considering the number of NE Corridor and long-distance trains that pass through Washington each day, I would expect the Metropolitan Lounge to be fairly full all the time, but on three or four occasions where I have used this lounge, I was about the only person there -- unlike the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago, which is a constant scene of crowds and confusion. I placed my bags in the storage area which was pointed out by the attendant, and felt that my bags would be pretty safe there. I have never had a bad experience with baggage at any Metropolitan Lounge. Unlike the Chicago Metropolitan Lounge, I did not have to get a "boarding pass" to use the lounge, and I did not have to place stickers on my suitcases with the train numbers on them, like you have to do in Chicago.

There is a door from the Washington Lounge which leads directly to the upper level of the station platforms. Most of the NE Corridor trains (including Metroliners), along with MARC trains, arrive and depart from the upper level of Union Station, while the trains which go south of Washington depart from the lower level, since that is where the 2 or 3 tracks which lead into the tunnel which passes from Union Station directly beneath the U.S. Capitol Building and onto the RFP/Southern main lines south of the station are located. To get to the lower level, one must take either an escalator or an elevator, and baggage carts are not allowed on the escalator. I usually opt for the escalator, and carry my suitcases from the top of the escalator into my car. Sometimes (but not always!) there are redcaps who will help you get your suitcases from the Metropolitan Lounge into your sleeping car. At the appointed hour, an announcement is made for first class passengers in the lounge to board, and one of the doors leading to the platform opens, and the group is greeted by a security guard right on the other side of the door, who personally escorts you to your waiting train (which generally leaves from tracks J or K for thru trains which go south of Washington).

I had a couple hours to wander around the station and make my usual stops (including the Great Train Store and whatever types of political souvenir shops happen to be in fashion at the time). Sometimes I eat in the station, or at least have a beer -- this AM I chose a big pastry and cup of diet cola from one of the places in the food court in the lower level. After breakfast I walked around, and took a short walk to the Capitol building, which is an easy 10-minute walk from Union Station. I took some video, then headed back to the station and sat in the Metropolitan lounge until train time. At 11 AM or so, the Cardinal was ready for boarding, so me and 2 or 3 other sleeper passengers who were in the lounge boarded at that time, and were escorted to track K by the security guard. I took the escalator down, and my sleeper was fairly close to the bottom of the escalator. I met Brenda the sleeping car attendant, and soon found room 4, on the upper level on the left side of the train the way it was consisted that day. On some trains, I prefer one side of the train or another for scenery purposes; however, I do not request certain rooms when I make my reservations, since one never knows ahead of time how any particular train will be consisted on the day I take it. The design of the Superliner cars (coaches and sleepers) makes it just as easy to consist any car "frontwards" or "backwards," and all passengers will still get a seat facing forward. I don't care what side of the train my accommodations are on, but I do like to ride facing forward, and sleep with my head at the "rear" end of the room. I spend most of my time on my trips in the lounge car, and do not spend a great deal of time in my room. When one is confined to his room, you are limited in seeing only half the scenery, unless you are lucky enough to have an unoccupied room across from you, or an occupied room in which the occupant keeps the door and window curtains open, and this is a very rare occurrence indeed!

After I got my bags situated in my room, I walked back outside the car to talk to Brenda and to walk the length of the train to see what equipment it had. But there was something missing! -- This train did not have a Sightseer Lounge!!! I was indeed very disappointed, as I had been looking forward to sitting in a Sightseer Lounge for 2 days now! Oh well -- I guess I'll have to wait another day -- until I board the Empire Builder in Chicago tomorrow -- the Builder will certainly have a Sightseer Lounge! I asked Brenda why there was no lounge, and she didn't know. but told me there was another kind of lounge somewhere on the train, yet she hadn't seen it yet. Well, neither had I, and I walked the entire length of the train, and saw no lounge car. I did not like the fact that I would be confined in my room for almost 24 hours with nowhere to go! But I'll survive.

After we got underway, I talked to John McConnor, the On-Board Chief, and he told me that the Sightseer Lounge which is normally used on the Cardinal was in Chicago for repairs. Apparently it had gone to Chicago on the last run of the Cardinal, but had problems, so it did not come back to Washington, and there are no other Sightseer Lounges available in Washington. He also told me there was a "cafe coach" car on the train, which apparently was a small lounge in the lower level of one of the Superliner coaches. I will check it out later.

The Cardinal left on time, and ran on schedule all the way to Manassas, Virginia, and I was stuck in my room for the entire length of the trip. Meanwhile, Brenda, who was very friendly, talkative, and informative, was talking to some other passengers in the same sleeper as me, and giving them hordes of information about AMTRAK, the sleeper cars, meals, and everything else. She had also made a comment to the other passengers that the Cardinal was "the most scenic" AMTRAK train there was -- well, I may qualify that by adding that it is one of the more scenic eastern trains, and is probably only topped in scenery by the Adirondack or the Vermonter. But the route of the Cardinal definitely is scenic.

As we began our journey through northern Virginia, I reassessed my video tape situation, and determined that I was in pretty good shape after all, since I had taped less than an hour so far, and there probably wouldn't be that much on this trip except the New River Gorge in West Virginia, and that I will have plenty of tape left for the best scenery in the western part of the country. But I still may need that 5th 2-hour tape! At one point early in this trip, I thought the air conditioning in the sleeper was not working, but after we had run a couple hours, it seemed to working fine. And Brenda spent most of the afternoon talking to other passengers in the sleeper. She is a very pleasant and efficient car attendant!

By the time we had arrived in Manassas, I had used up my first hour of videotape, but that was no longer a big problem. I was determined that I would need to use at least part of the 5th tape, and if I did, that was fine -- I would just have to dub anything over 8 hours onto a different "permanent" VHS tape when I got home, since the VHS tape I had bought to dub the vacation onto was only an 8-hour tape. Outside of Manassas, we passed the Virginia Railway Express yards, and I had lunch as we passed through Culpeper. At lunch I ate with a woman and her children who were traveling to Canada. On my train trips, I always go first class (sleeper), which of course includes 3 meals a day, but I do not eat breakfast, since I enjoy getting up early and finding a perch in the lounge car before it gets too crowded. I will eat lunch and dinner on my trips, and for dinner, I normally choose the latest serving time so I can maximize the daylight hours for sightseeing, map following, and videotaping.

After Culpeper, we had our first freight delay of this trip, and lost 15 or 20 minutes, so we were no longer running on schedule. From looking at the AMTRAK "Train Arrival Status" page on their Web site ( prior to this trip, I saw that the Cardinal was usually within a couple hours of schedule in Chicago, and I had a 4 hr 45 minute layover before I caught the Empire Builder. So the Cardinal could be as much as 4 hours late, and I would still have plenty of time to catch the Builder. I did not feel a "contingency plan" was needed for this connection.

After lunch I decided to check out the "cafe coach" -- what a disappointment! It is located in the lower level of one of the Superliner coaches, and consists of a small serving area with an attendant, and a couple long "bus bench" seats which face away from the windows, with a maximum combined capacity of about 8 people. And this was the only place on the train where people could smoke. I chose not to spend my time in that car, as my room would be more comfortable. The other unusual thing about the cafe coach was that the coach above the cafe was absolutely empty! Not one person was sitting there! Apparently, according to the Chief, this car was reserved for a large group of passengers who were getting on at Lafayette, IN, in the morning. I missed the Sightseer lounge badly!! So back to my room I went and continued my narrated video. The first place you can see the Appalachian Mountains on this route is Gordonsville, VA, which is east of Charlottesville. I had finished lunch long before Charlottesville, and an announcement was made that the diner would reopen for lunch after the Charlottesville stop to serve the passengers who got on at Charlottesville only. We made the stop in Charlottesville, and left 21 minutes late. A few miles before Charlottesville, I looked into the hills on the left to see if I could see Monticello. The famous home of President Thomas Jefferson is visible from the AMTRAK line, but it was either too hazy today, or I was looking at the wrong mountaintop, but I did not see it on this trip. After the Charlottesville stop, I was ready for a change of scenery, so I moved back to the empty coach about the "cafe" car, to the right side of the train, so I could get some video looking out both sides of the train. Back in the sleeper, the person across from me had his door closed, so I couldn't see the scenery on the other side of the train. I was going to stay in the coach all the way until Staunton, but that idea was quickly quelled, since my map book kept falling off the airline-sized tray table in front of my seat, and it was not worth the hassle to have to continually pick up maps and brochures and other junk which falls out of my books. Besides that, according to my maps and to what I was actually seeing in the scenery, the best scenery this part of the trip was on the left side anyway, as we were approaching the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, after 10 or 15 minutes in the empty coach, it was back to the room.

From Crozet, VA on, the scenery becomes very pretty, especially on the left, where there are many spectacular views of the Blue Ridge (between areas obscured by trees!). We left Staunton, Virginia 27 minutes late. Just past the Staunton station, there are a number of old passenger cars stored in a rail yard on the left, which were interesting to see and to photograph. Between Staunton and Clifton Forge, at "mile 410" of Railroad Log #55b (see the first segment of this trip report for an explanation of my milepost system and log/route map project), we stopped for several minutes to allow the eastbound Cardinal (Train #50) to pass. It happened to pass on my side of the train, and it had a Sightseer Lounge! Sure wish this train had one too! The conductor had made an announcement that we were supposed to get some "supplies" from the eastbound train as it passed, but the eastbound train did not stop as it passed, unless it stopped before it came into the view from my room.

At Millboro, VA ("Mile 407.5" on my log), we again slowed to a crawl for several minutes -- probably waiting for a freight train ahead of us. I was beginning to wonder if we would get to the New River Gorge while it was still daylight so I could videotape it. By the time we had departed the Clifton Forge station, we were 1 hour 19 minutes late. I was sure we would not get to the Gorge in daylight hours -- another disappointment. Just past Clifton Forge, the 5:30 dinner announcement was made, but I had made my reservation for the latest seating, which was 8 PM on this segment of my trip.

After passing through the Allegheny Tunnel and entering West Virginia, it was still light, so I then thought that maybe, just maybe we would get to at least the south end of the Gorge in daylight hours. Keep your fingers crossed, and hope for no more delays this evening. We stopped at White Sulphur Springs and had not lost any more time. The White Sulphur Springs station is located across the street from the world famous Greenbrier Resort, and many of the AMTRAK passengers who board or detrain here are customers of the Greenbrier.

I changed camcorder battery packs between White Sulphur Springs and Alderson, and put in a brand new battery pack which I had purchased a few weeks before this trip. In about half an hour (5 or 6 minutes of taping), the battery was half used already! Whaaaat??????? I must have gotten a bum battery, or one that isn't exactly the type I need or something -- oh well, I had at least 3 other "good" rechargeable battery packs, and I always have my battery charger and electric razor (which also needs to be charged when it is not in use) plugged into the 120v outlet in my room -- I don't know if I'm allowed to do that or not, since most of the outlets specify "razor only;" however, no car attendant or conductor or Chief has ever called me on that, so I guess it's okay. There is usually one battery pack charging at any given time on my train trips. When I sit in the lounge car for the day, I always carry a spare battery pack and tape cassette with me, so I don't have to get up, walk through the train, go back to the room, miss good scenery, or maybe lose my seat, when I need to change tapes or batteries.

We left Alderson, WV about 1 hour 19 minutes behind schedule, so we still had not lost any more time since Virginia. It was beginning to get dark, but we weren't very far from the New River Gorge, and besides that, my camcorder is very sensitive in "low light" conditions, and takes remarkably good video even when it is too dark outside to take a photo with a still camera. When I look through my viewfinder in the evening, the scene I see is often much brighter than the actual outside brightness!

The New River Gorge begins in Hinton, WV, where the Greenbrier River empties into the New River. We left Hinton 1 hour 18 minutes late. and, wouldn't you know it, it was now 8 PM -- dinner call! I took my camcorder to the diner with me, and enjoyed my meal with a woman and her somewhat heavy-set daughter, who had the room behind me in the sleeper. They were very nice, but I was more interested in looking at the Gorge than talking during this dinner. Luckily, service was very efficient in the diner that evening, and I finished my meal very fast, so I could still get back to my room and see the New River Gorge bridge near Fayetteville -- the one that you often see people bungie-jumping off of on television during the Gorge's "Bridge Days" festival each fall. And it was remarkably still light enough to see the bridge and the Gorge, and of course railfans who often hang out by the bridge to photograph the passing Cardinal and the bridge and Gorge. However, shortly after the bridge, it did become quite dark quite fast. I went to bed after the Huntington stop.

A few years ago, when I lived in the Cincinnati area, I rode the Cardinal between Chicago and Cincinnati often (my parents lived in the Chicago area). The schedule of the Cardinal in Cincinnati has never been one of convenience -- when I lived there, I would board at 2 or 3 AM in the morning going west, and 5 or 6 AM going east. Going to Chicago, I would go in coach, since I figured I had boarded the train in the middle of the night, and it would not be worth the money just to sleep a couple hours. I would just go to bed at home early that night (8 or 9 PM), sleep for 4 or 5 hours, then go to the AMTRAK station. On the return trip I would get a sleeper, however, since the train usually leaves Chicago 7 or 8 PM in the evening, and arrives in CIN 5 or 6 AM in the morning -- late enough to make it worth getting a sleeper.

On this trip, I had woken up at the Cincinnati station -- I guess it was the Cincinnati station, but my room was on the opposite side of the train from the station, but judging from the length of time we were stopped, the actual clock time, some lights outside my window, and a view of a myriad of rail yards out my window, I knew it was the station. I didn't look at my watch when we left, but I assume we hadn't lost any more time, but I was not worried, since I had plenty of time to make the connection in Chicago. There is a very brightly-lit power plant north of Cincinnati, which I had forgotten about. This plant was visible from my side of the train, and I had again woken up when we passed it, and used the upstairs restroom in the sleeper as long as I was awake. As I was walking through the car, the heavy-set woman who I had eaten dinner with asked me about the brightly lit feature we had passed. I don't understand how I could have forgotten about such a spectacular sight from this route, after all my night trips from Cincinnati, and I knew this was not something which was built in the last 5 years. I told the woman that it was a power plant, then I went back to bed, and woke up in the morning as we were pulling into the Indianapolis station.

For the last few years, AMTRAK has equipped Superliner sleeping cars with showers, which was a very good idea, an idea which was implemented far too late in the evolution of AMTRAK. The showers are interesting to use, and each train has somewhat different fixtures and problems. On this train, there were three problems -- 1) the water heater apparently was not working very well on this train, since the shower was only lukewarm; 2) in this train, you had to "pump" the shower to put out only a small stream of water at a time; you could not get the water to run continuously like you can on most other trains; and 3) the power in the train went out while I was taking a shower! It was fun taking a shower in the dark on the Cardinal! I believe we were at the Indianapolis station when the power went out, so it was not a major problem.

(Railroad Log #55a - CHI to CIN)

We had lost a few minutes overnight, and left Indianapolis 1 hour 22 minutes late. There would still be plenty of time to make my connection in Chicago later in the day. The pretty scenery was gone, and now we were traversing fairly flat monotonous farm land, with small towns every few miles. The route of the Cardinal out of Indianapolis follows a route which was used many many years ago by AMTRAK by a train called the National Ltd, which ran from Kansas City through Indianapolis, Dayton, OH, Columbus, OH, and on to Pittsburgh and New York -- that train was discontinued back in the mid-1970's. As the present day Cardinal passes the Indianapolis airport a few miles west of town, it makes a large bend to the north. At this point, the former route of the National went straight past the airport, parallel to U.S. 40. That route is gone now, and the tracks have been removed, and there is absolutely no evidence that there was ever a rail line there now -- no abandoned grades, bike trails, nothing. The site of the old right-of-way is now occupied by mobile homes and commercial buildings. At "Mile 181" on my log, there is a funny little "raceway" on the left, called "Indianapolis Motor Raceway" or some such thing -- not to be confused with the big racetrack where the Indy 500 takes place -- the big racetrack is nowhere near here. As we passed this little raceway, there was a festival of some kind taking place, and there were tents, cars, trucks, food booths, and other structures set up.

At Ames Junction, we switched onto the old Monon Line for the remaining trip into Chicago. It always seems like it is quite an effort for the Cardinal to negotiate the sharp curve onto this switch, since every time I have ridden this train, it passes the switch at an excessively slow crawl. Back when I was in college at DePauw University, 15 miles south of here, in Greencastle, many of us students from the Chicago area would ride the old Monon Line to Chicago for holidays. The old Monon had pretty good service, and good fares for students. The route we are now on is the same as the old route. We arrived at the Crawfordsville station soon. This is one of AMTRAK's "bus shelter" stations. The old Monon depot is right next to the AMTRAK "station", and I don't understand why they don't use the old station. Instead, passengers board and get off at a very small glass-enclosed station that looked more like a bus shelter than a railroad station -- no agent on duty, no posted timetables, and no baggage handlers. The Cardinal left the Crawfordsville bus shelter 1 hour 30 minutes late.

The rest of the trip was rather uneventful, and I was starting to get tired of being confined to my room in a Superliner train without a Sightseer Lounge. I was impressed with the new Lafayette station, which is located along the Wabash River, west of downtown. It is a very pretty modern station, and because of its location, the AMTRAK trains which serve Lafayette no longer have to use the old rail line which goes down the center of 6th Street in downtown Lafayette. I am sure the townspeople who drive cars on 6th Street on a daily basis are also pleased with the location of the new station! We left Lafayette 1 hour 32 minutes late. A few miles north of Lafayette, the railroad passes the Tippecanoe Battlefield Memorial Park, which is visible from the train. There is a large monument in the park which commemorates the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe. Unfortunately, due to the thick growth of trees in the area, the monument is difficult to see during the summer, but if you travel this route in the winter, it is much easier to see. On the day we passed through the area, there was another festival of some kind going on at the Park, and there were many vehicles, people, food and craft booths, and other activity in the area.

The last leg of this segment was Dyer, IN to Chicago. We left Dyer 1 hour 20 minutes late, and as I was following my maps north of Dyer, the train switched onto another track at a different location than my map showed. It took me a few minutes to realize, but I soon figured out that the route of the Cardinal between Dyer and Chicago had changed yet again! This route has changed several times over the last 15 years or so. I update my route maps once every 7 to 8 years, and it seems that each time I update this route, no sooner is that done than the route changes yet again! I can't keep up with it! I was wondering why the current schedule gives almost 2 hours to go the 28 miles between Dyer and Chicago Union Station. I know that most schedules have some "padding" in them to accommodate late trains, but it seems the last time I rode this train, there was less padding in the schedule. This new route was not shown on my 1:24,000 scale topographic maps (1 inch=2000 ft); however, I just happened to have a smaller -scale map of the area in my map book, a map at the scale of 1:250,000 (1 inch=4 miles). Maps of that scale are often hard to follow, especially in an area like Chicago, built up with so many different railroad lines. I was able to follow this route, however, and now I need to get back to the map library and copy the 1:24,000 scale maps with the new route (of course, by the time I do that, the route will probably have changed again!). Based on my map reading and interpretation skills, the current (as of July 1998) route from Dyer to Chicago is: switch from the Monon to the Grand Trunk 2 miles north of the Dyer station; take the Grand Trunk to the Chicago & Eastern Illinois; go north on C&EI through Riverdale; cross the Little Calumet River; cross the Illinois Central and continue north through Evergreen Park; pass beneath the Chicago & Rock Island; continue following the Chicago & Western Indiana (don't know where the track changes from C&EI to C&WI!); and enter the regular AMTRAK/Conrail/Metra north of Englewood, 5 miles south of Union Station.

We finally backed into Chicago Union Station and arrived 1 hour 18 minutes behind schedule, at 11:33 AM -- still plenty of time to catch the Empire Builder at 3 PM. I headed for the Metropolitan Lounge immediately, got my "boarding pass" to enter the lounge upon showing the attendant my tickets, which verified that I was indeed a sleeping car passenger holding valid tickets for that afternoon's Empire Builder. I got my "7" stickers to put on my suitcases (for Train #7, even though I would actually be on Train #27 from Chicago to Portland. Train #7 is the Builder from Chicago to Seattle. I guess the #27 number doesn't really exist until after the Builder splits in Spokane.) I had some time to kill, so I walked outside and down the street to Wendy's on Jackson Blvd. to get some lunch, then went back to the station and sat outside in the Marsh & McLennan Plaza, which overlooks the Chicago River. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, and several pleasure boats were cruising on the river, as well as some barges and other commercial watercraft.

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