Saturday, April 22, 2006

Train 49: Welcome to Chicago

I return to my seat, and read, listen to music on my iPod, and watch the scenery roll by. Sitting near me are a mother and daughter who are returning after a trip to visit some colleges for the daughter. Mother is getting increasingly flustered because of the delay, and can't bear the thought of not making her "guaranteed connection". I hope she takes the plane next time. She is, however, very happy with schools they've seen ("very nice, very safe, and it's all included...") and feels that $20,000 a year is a very reasonable price.

And to think I'm still naffed off at having to pay any tuition fees...

We catch first sight of the distant skyline of Chicago almost an hour before we arrive. We're close to Lake Michigan, and slow to a crawl as the line carries us past the industrial plants and oil refineries south of the city. I'm still calm, collected, and looking forward to an afternoon in Chicago, but I can understand the frustration of many passengers. We are so close, yet so far, still the pawns in the game of a freight railroad dispatcher.

The line crosses into more densely built areas, and soon we are curving past green suburban neighbourhoods. Small ramshackle houses are built close to the tracks, but it's not long before I realise that the reason it's so green is that so many of the plots are vacant. Old houses have been or are being ripped down. The ones that remain gain a lot of open space, but a sense that the city is hollowing out from the centre.

The sign of an imminent arrival is marked as we slide past the Amtrak marshalling yards just south of Union Station. Dozens of silver coaches are here, being shunted around to form trains to every corner of the country. Maybe of some of these will be the ones that carry me west tomorrow.

Our coach attendant comes through the car to direct connecting passengers to this afternoon's long distance trains. The man headed for New Mexico who I first met on the Adirondack yesterday afternoon is quite relaxed: he has a couple of hours until his train departs.

We slide into the dark underbelly of Union Station almost four hours late. I 'detrain' and haul myself and my overpacked bags along the narrow, dark, crowded platform, and into the concourse. I emerge a few escalators later, dazzled by the sunlight, and cross the South Branch Chicago River on Jackson Boulevard. Below me, tour boats are chugging along, dozens of tourists gazing up towards the dazzling glass skyscrapers.


Train 49: Toledo, OH

Train 49: Passing the time

Train 49 is due into Chicago's Union Station at 09:30. However, this seems to be more of an aspiration that an indication of reality, and the train has become known as the 'Late for Sure Limited' by those who use it often.

I remain in the restaurant car for almost three hours. Although the train was pretty full last night, most coach passengers were going to the upstate New York cities and haven't come this far. The remaining coach passengers (who, unlike sleeper passengers, have to pay for restaurant car meals) are appearing in dribs and drabs. Many will have brought food with them, or will be taking something lighter from the adjacent cafe and lounge car.

I can't help but noticing that the passengers who are emerging from the cars in front of us (the two sleeper carraiges) are looking much less awake than the coach class passengers. Maybe paying more for a bed is a good thing, but then maybe roughing it in coach class creates a tougher kind of traveller who can sleep through anything?

Up to know we've been riding through dense fog. But suddenly, as we pick up speed and start through Ohio, the fog lifts and the sun burns through. It's rapidly becoming a clear day, with a warm blue sky above us. The landscape suddenly rolls out either side of us, revealing bare soil of freshly ploughed soil, with little barns and grain elevators dotted along the horizon. Suddenly I'm seeing the mid-west I know from the movies. Pencil straight horizons, and level crossings with roads that run a dead straight line away to the horizon, creating a brief illustration of the rules of perspective as we rattle across them.

I'm joined at my table by several other passengers. I love train travel in the USA for this reason, because as a single traveller it's a fantastic way to meet people and start up conversations. I'd almost say it's a requirement.

I meet Terry, a retiree from New York who's going to Chicago to meet his brother. He's let his brother choose the itinerary, and they're going to tour the north-east by train to see baseball games in the next couple of weeks. Next stop, after a night in Chicago, will be St. Louis.

We're then joined by a couple from sleeper class, and the conversation turns to theatre. They're due to go to a matinee in Milwaukee this afternoon, but seemed resigned to missing it because of our late arrival.

We reach Toledo, and I step off the train to stretch my legs and take some photographs.


Train 49; and so to bed...

I reckon I passed my first night with about five, maybe six full hours of sleep. Wow. I didn't think it would be that easy.

I followed some pieces of advice from past travelers and packed an eye mask (found for a couple of dollars in the Pharmaprix on ave. Mont Royal and Blvd. Saint Laurent in Montreal) and ear plugs (again, you can pick them up for a few dollars in your local pharmacy). With pink foam ear plugs and a black mask, you do look a bit wierd, but I slept like a babe for most of the night.

Amtrak will give you a rather meagre pillow, so an inflatable one is a good bet. If you sweet talk your coach attendant, you might be able to get another, and then it's just a matter of placing them and rolled up sweaters etc in strategic places to cushion your sleep.

I woke up at about 06:00. The coach was pretty quiet, with maybe one passenger for each pair of seats... many, like me, had been able to get a good couple of hours sleep in. Back home, I would normally wake up around 06:00, so I'm happy to un-mask, un-plug and un-fold my contorted body and watch the foggy morning creep past. We were maybe thirty minutes behind schedule when I went to sleep last night. Assuming we hadn't lost much more time, we should therefore be getting close to Toledo, Ohio.

I walked down through the coaches to the cafe car. Unfortunately, the look on the lead conductor's face who was there told me that we had lost some more time.

"So, how far behind are we now?" I ask in a bright, naive, British-guy-on-holiday tonne of voice.

"'bout three hours now. Couple of freight trains broke down near Cleveland last night. We should be getting into Cleveland soon."

And so the Amtrak dream continues. As I've mentioned before, and as most rail passengers know, Amtrak doesn't own many stretches of track. In fact, about 95% of the train lines that they provide service on belong to privately owned freigh companies. So if a freight train breaks down, runs late, or just doesn't clear the line as fast as it is scheduled to, Amtrak have to wait. That's the problem of being a company that is effectively stuck between being a government owned service and a private company.

I'm not phased, however, and make my way to the restaurant for breakfast. After all, I'm not making a rushed connection in Chicago, and after all the reason for this trip is the experience of the ride, not necessarily the destinations. If you're in a hurry, take a plane. If you want to see the scenery, take the train.

I'm one of the first in to the restaurant in the morning. The Lead Service Attendant is there, a friendly man who has the air of someone who has been doing this for a while. He's joined by two attentive and extremely polite assistants.

My budget for this trip is limited - after train travel (which covers my accomodation for half of the trip) I'm on just C$30 or about US$25. So on any one day, I ought to limit myself to having just one restaurant car meal. Other meals come in the form of tupperware boxes I'll be preparing at each big city layover.

Amtrak's menu isn't the world's most sophisticated, but it does what it does very well. As we pull away from Cleveland, I order pancakes. They come with coffee (weak, but I'm used to the quantity making up for that everywhere over here by now) and juice. Leaving Cleveland our train runs alongside the tracks of the city's light rail line. Just as I'm pouring syrup and melting butter on my three hot, soft pancakes (hey, I'm making up for the caffeine shortfall, ok?) I can't help but feel a bit awkward. A two car transit train is alongside us for a few minutes, and about a half dozen workers, all black, are on their way to their first shifts. I make eye contact with one, and feel less than comfortable sitting at my table, with shining cutlery and soft lighting.

Our trains parts as the Lake Shore Limited starts to accelerate, but I'm reminded of many differences in this world.


Train 49: Welcome on board

After just a few cross border trips on Amtrak's Adirondack, Vermonter and Maple Leaf, this easily takes the biscuit as the biggest train I've been on in this country. I'm sure that will change in the next few days, but the excitement is still fresh. I'm seated at the back of the train in one of the four coach carraiges. They're very similar to the other north-eastern 'Amfleet' trains I've ridden in, built in the seventies when Amtrak knew that they were going to soon feel the pressure from the ever popular and ever more affordable airlines. So the carraiges seemed to have been designed with the very intention of luring airline passengers. They're finished on the outside with a silver corrugated steel or aluminium, with small windows punched along each side. Their cross section curves in at the top and bottom, so inside the slight curvature of the body reminds you of being in an aeroplane.

But that's the end of the comparison, because this is much more comfortable than flying. The seats in coach class are comparable with an airline's business class (and to think the fares are comparable with Greyhound...). The seats recline further than on other short distance trains, and there's a hard wearing footrest which folds up to help you get as close to horizontal as you need to be for a good night's rest. The seat in front will, of course, recline towards you, but that's hardly a problem because when I'm sitting in my seat, I can't even touch it with an outstretched hand.

When you board and Amtrak train and the conductor takes your ticket, you will have a small slip of paper with a three letter code for your destination station stuck in the rail of the luggage rack above your head. After some guess work and cross reference to my timetable, I'm guessing everyone around me will be getting off at Utica, Syracuse and Buffalo, all before midnight, hopefully giving me the chance to expand across two seats later on.

And indeed, most people are using this Friday train to go home for the weekend, or to visit family after a long week at work. Next to me is a gentleman who works for the quality control department in a bank, and who is going home after four days in New York City. We talk a little about my trip, and he points out landmarks as we rush past in the suddenly dark night (such as Palatine Bridge, the place of the Lifesaver Mints factory).

We arrive at Utica quite quickly, and we bid each other farewell. Another friendly conversation and acquaintance has been made for me by the train.

As Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo-Depew stations pass us by, the occupants of the train change, and after Syracuse the lights are dimmed and PA announcements cease. I decide to give the sleeping in Amtrak coach class experience a try.


First connection: Schenectady, NY

There's something pleasing about the name Schenectady. This is a town that was meant to be where people change trains. It just sounds right. I have a "Schenection" to make.

The Adirondack arrives nearly seventy minutes late. However, I have plenty of time until the westbound Lake Shore Limited stops here just after 19.15hr. We have had a beautiful run down the western shore of Lake Champlain: once it has crossed into New York state, the Adirondack is without a doubt one of the most beautiful railway lines I've ridden on. The track climbs up out of Plattsburgh, and before you realise it you are riding high above the lake, twisting and turning through blasted rock cuttings in the side of the hill.

Below me us to the right, the water of Lake Champlain was stretching out in a overlaying mist of blues and greens. At the rocky shore below us, it was nearly clear over the rocks. I spent much of the time in the cafe car, enjoying the wider view afforded by not having such big seats, and chatted from time to time with other passengers... the English-Chinese student returning going to Poughkeepsie before heading on to family in Connecticut; the friendly French Quebecois who talked about how much he missed the long discontinued night service between Montreal and New York ('The Montrealer' or 'Le Montrealais').

I hopped off the platform at Schenectady with the increasingly style and deftness of someone who is working out how to travel with two rough equally weighted bags. Good thing I did't bring the laptop, I reckon I would have been off balance.

Schenectady is a tidy little town, and a good example of the peaceful middle America I'm happy to experience for a few hours between trains. The station is small, with the tracks up on a raised embankment through the town centre, and with a small one-box station below. After leaving my bags safe in the station with the friendly attendant (definitely a good mood day for Amtrak staff) I head out to stretch my legs on a short tour of the town. Schenectady's biggest feature is that it's the home of General Electric, and also of Thomas Edison. Although as my USA By Rail handbook explains, that's not how he started life:

Edison's first job was selling sweets to railroad passengers, monez from which he spent on chemistry sets and building a telegraph system out of scarp metal.

Just behind the station you'll find the Edison Exploratorium (I think that means museum) but's only available to visit by appointment, according to a sign in the window. I walk for an hour or two, buy some stamps from a stubborn vending machine that doesn't like my dollar bills, and then look for a place to sit down for a while. While exploring the smaller tree lined streets on the other side of the station, I find a small saloon called Slick's Bar and Restaurant. It's more bar and restaurant, though Slick seems to be doing good business with his sandwiches. I'm assuming it was Slick that I saw, because his hair was indeed particularly slick.

I drank a bottle of Samuel Adams, and watched the CBS Evening News that was on a television screen behind the bar. Tonight's top stories: the average price of gasoline across the States is now $2.86 a gallon (a bargain in the UK); the prices of building materials such as copper and plastic has increased dramatically in the last few months (apparently because of China's economic boom... all I can say is that you should go into any Wal-Mart and you'll see straightaway why there's a boom in China); and also... an exclusive helmet mounted camera view of an Iraqi soldier's duty in Iraq. I kid you not. English readers may remember a BBC news programme called 'The Day Today'. I think I have found it's American twin...

I finish my beer, thank the friendly Mr. Slick, and return through the evening sunshine to the station. The town must have a Wal-Mart or two: the selection of shops on main street is telling, and despite a clean and very attractively finished streetscape of plant pots, benchs and trees, the town is too quiet for a Saturday night.

I collect my bags from behind the counter, and climb the steps to the platform. Up here, free from shade and with just a cool breeze, it's the perfect end to a stroll o a warm spring day. I dip in and out of the copy of 'USA Today' I got from a vending machine, reading with particular amusement the coverage of HRH Elizabeth's 80th birthday. I shan't pollute this blog with my opinion on the matter (ie monarchist / anti-monarchist... if you know me you'll probably know) but I suspect Charles has a long wait ahead of him.

At just after 19.30, the rumble of a train, and the sound of a horn gets my attention. Arriving from New York City is train 49, 'the Lake Shore Limited'. It roars in, pulling a baggage car, a crew dormitory, two sleeper cars, a restaurant, a cafe and lounge car, four coaches and (apparently) a privately chartered car at the back.

I await the doors to open with much anticipation.