Sunday, April 23, 2006

Train 5: farewell to Chicago

I collected my bags from the cloakroom of the Chicago Art Institute, and headed towards the station. I didn't have enough credit left on my transit card, so took the healthy but muscle-aching route by foot.

Chicago is the first big city in the USA that I have visited after New York. And as all Chicagoans will tell you, there's a big difference between the two. Admittedly I've only seen a small slice of the Windy City, and I've been here at the weekend, but the people I've met have been relaxed, warm and very welcoming. This is not the Big Apple, and I would like to come back again to spend more time here. If only Amtrak could work out a connection from Chicago to Montreal (it works going to Chicago, but not going back...). I will have to use this as an excuse for another trip later in the year.

Union Station does not recall the grand old days of railroad travel. I was lead to believe that there's an elegant ticket hall at ground level, but if there is, I didn't find it, entering instead by an escalator that took me below ground from Adams Street.

I descend from street level to the maze of subterranean concourses. I need something to eat, but also want to check which track the train will be in on and where I should be to get on board. Feeling the urge for a sandwich, I'm surprised that for the first time anywhere I've been in North America, there isn't a ubiquitous Subway concession. So I settle instead on something more substantial: a boxed meal from the 65 Chinese Restaurant in the Union Station Food Court. Down more escalators and round more corners, and I find the departure lounge. It's not exactly an elegant place to wait for a cross-country trip, but it does the job. Passengers are lining up and waiting to board the long distance afternoon departures.

Our train opens for coach class just after 13:20. First class (sleeper) passengers and those with children or disabilities have already been herded on board. We are directed to track 24, where our train awaits. If I thought Montreal's platforms were drab, my standards have reached new depths. It's a shame that passengers board these grand old trains in such a drab and unfinished environment. Surely it wouldn't hurt to install daylight bulbs and some decent surfaces? Or maybe it's a good way of reminding us that there is no way you can compare Amtrak with Greyhound.

The coach cars are at the back of the train, nearest the lounge, and along with other passengers for Denver, I'm directed to the second from the rear by the coach attendant.

Whereas most trains in the east of the USA are operated by single level cars, all the long distance routes in the west are run using huge Superliner double deck cars. If you've never seen one, they certainly impress you as serious pieces of kit. Like other Amtrak stock, their exterior is shiny steel. You board in the centre of the car, through a door that is very close to track level. To your right are some toilets and changing rooms. On the left is a small area of lower level seating, sold at a slight premium to the upper level. A narrow staircase is also here, opposite a large luggage area. If you climb the stairs, you arrive on the main level of the car - the whole length of which is coach seating. As with all North American trains, the crew will turn all the chairs in the car to face the direction of travel: quite why this is I'm not sure, I personally prefer the perceived safety of sitting facing backwards. Maybe that would just be too European...

Once everything is stowed, and friendly ice breakers have been exchanged with neighbouring passengers, I give way to temptation and eat my lunch. No-one mentions the sickly sweet smell of Chinese food that immediately pollutes the whole car... my apologies to all concerned.

Whereas the Adirondack left Montreal quite imperceptibly, at 13:50 exactly, train 5, the California Zephyr, jolts forward and hurls itself out of Union Station, rocking back and forth over switching tracks as we emerge into dazzling daylight. This train is about to take me 1670km, with another 2248km on Tuesday. The trip continues.

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