Sunday, April 23, 2006

Train 5: Finally photographed

Railfans rejoice, James has finally taken the trouble to get off and take a photo of his train. Pausing at Ottumwa, Iowa, en route to Denver and Emeryville. My USA by Rail handbook usefully describes Ottumwa as follows:

Named after a Native American tribe when this was a trading post on banks above the Des Moines River. Ottumwa subsequently became a business centre and the 'home town' to MASH's Radar O'Reilly.

You learn something new every day...


Train 5: Ottumwa, IA

Train 5: Crossing the Mississippi

After we have travelled an hour or two out of Chicago, the train has begun to settle into its rhythm. Passengers are stretching out, reading, dozing, watching movies on portable computers or reading books. We're barreling across the agricultural flatlands of rural Illinois, much the same as the parts of Ohio and Indiana that I passed through on Saturday morning. The sun is shining, and from my comfy chair in the Sightseering Lounge, the mid-west is looking gorgeous. For me, this landscape is still unearthly. Everything is different. Even though I've lived in North America for over six months, I'm still a little islander by heart. Save for the Fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, there is nowhere back home that is as flat and vast as these agricultural belts of North America.

The further west we go, the greener it gets. In the last twenty minutes or so before we cross the Mississippi, the fields thin out and the greenery suddenly gets denser. We're rolling through leafy forests, with fresh leaves sprouting on all the trees, breaking the bright sunshine that is falling through to the moist forest floor. Still bodies of water start to appear, and then almost without warning, the train slows and we rumble onto the 600 metre bridge that carries us across the Mississippi. At 3780km, I have to admit that this is one of the longest rivers I can said to have crossed at ground level. Although it's not as long as my trip will be...

Immediately after the bridge, we pull into Burlington, Iowa. Crossing the river, we have crossed the state line and I find myself in another new state. There are many BNSF freight trains waiting here, and one is even following right behind us across the bridge. In the coming miles, we sometimes meet as many as one freight train every five minutes going in the opposite direction. It is the complete opposite of England, where there are too many passenger trains for any substantial rail freight.

It's sunny in Burlington, IA, but the once grand turn of the century five and six story industrial buildings in the town's small centre all appear vacant. Of the few shop units I see, several have 'For Lease' signs in their windows. Small town America is hurting bad: America is so used to the automobile that small centres of population simply can't rely on local business any more. Might as well hop in the car and drive 50km to a cheaper big box store. As we cross what looks like Burlington's Main Street, not one car waits either side of the level crossing for us.

About an hour or so later, we pull into Ottumwa, IA. I've spotted something out of my window, which I'm tempted to keep a secret that I will share only with my camera. So much for that rather selfish idea, when our conductor picks up the PA handset.

"Hey everyone, take a look out of the left hand side of the train; there are some beautiful hot air balloons here in Ottumwa for our entertainment."

Cue lots of oooo-ing and aaah-ing in the coach.

We have about ten minutes in Ottumwa. The smokers are outside faster than the passengers whose destination this is. The station has, to be very honest, seen much better days. There appear to have been as many as six platforms here at one time: now only one is used, and its surface is made of uneven and broken tarmac. The platform canopies are rusting and decaying in the elements.

I step away from the train to photograph the baloons, including one that appears to be a giant penguin. Something to strike fear into the hearts of at least a few toddlers today, no doubt...


Seen from a train: somewhere in Illinois

Train 5: Welcome on board

When in need of accurate info on the trains I'm riding on, I turn to my handy USA by Rail handbook by John Pitt. Here's what Mr. Pitt has to say about the type of train I'm riding on:

Manufactured by the Pullman-Standard Company for Amtrak between 1979 and 1981, these spacious, twin-decked coaches operate on all long-distance routes west of the Mississippi as well as on some in the east. Designed to be 'the finest trains anywhere in the world', the have air-cushioned suspension and were built with extra sound-absorbing materials. Each Superliner car measures 85ft (26m) long and 16ft (5m) high, weighs 75 US tons (68 tonnes) and has large windows with excellent views, especially from the upper level. The reclining seats, about equivalent to flying First Class, provide leg and foot restsm folding trays and personal reading lights ... Dining cars cater for up to 72 people and are on the upper level above the kitchen. Sightseer lounge cars and most kinds of sleeping accommodation are also usually available. Rest-rooms (toilets) are mostly on the lower level, with at least one accessible to disabled passengers...

So in that sense, contrary to what I've previously said about Amtrak trains, these vehicles are actually pretty good for disabled passengers. Access is level with platforms that are not raised above the tracks, and the lower level of seating is easy to reach for those with limited mobility.

A little meander around the train also gives me a chance to peer inside a sleeper car - tiny upper level 'roomettes' are available for one or two passengers, are slightly wider than the width of the two seats. These convert into two bunks, although in doing so reduce the amount of room substantially. Larger bedrooms are also available on the upper level. Downstairs is the Superliner's winning trick - a family bedroom with room for five that stretches the width of the car's lower level.

The Sightseer lounge is the most famous part of a Superliner train. The top deck is opened up with extra deep windows, and small curved roof lights that flood the car with natural light, and a satisfying view of the tops of trees as we thunder through forests and along cuttings. Leatherette swivel seats and combined foot rests and pockets under the windows make for a very comfortable viewing car, and I happily spend an hour or two here as we head towards the Mississippi River, and the boundary between the states of Illinois and Iowa. My only complaint is the colour scheme of these largely unrefurbished cars. Brown may have been a hip and trendy colour in 1981, but that doesn't justify keeping so much of it in the lounger car. If you go down the narrow steps in the middle of the car, you'll find a small cafe with tables for snacks and drinks... good for postcard writing and meeting fellow coach class passengers.

In addition to two Amtrak box cars towed along at the back of the train, I count (from back to front of the train) three coach cars, a sightseer lounge, a restaurant, two sleepers and a crew sleeper. At the front are two locomotives. From time to time the train turns on a curve, and from my window I can see the shining locomotives at the far end of the train hauling us along at speeds of up to ninety miles an hour.

At Galesburg, Illinois, I step outside into the sultry afternoon heat, and take a photograph or two. There is no longer any smoking accomodation on board this train, and it's soon easy to spot the regular crowd of addicts who beg the conductors to reveal when the next smoking stop will be. At each stop where we have a few minutes to let the train rest and make satisfying creaking sounds as hot metal cools, a little smokey crowd gathers close to the doors. I take a deep breath of rural Illinois air, and hop back on board, and we rumble onwards.


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.

Chicago to Denver

Seen at the Chicago Art Institute

Chicago: day two

I sleep well on the sofa of my hosts' apartment. The sun begins to shine in through the curtainless windows early, and I retrieve my Amtrak-geek eye mask to remain subconscious for a few more hours.

I rise and have some breakfast. One of my hosts has had to go to present a paper at university (on a Sunday as well... I am impressed). So when I walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water, I am greeted by the other host, who was out yesterday. We eat some cereal, drink some tea, and through the wonders of the Hospitality Club two complete strangers get to know each other over breakfast.

I re-pack, clean out my lunch boxes and make some instant pasta to take with me for tonight's meal. I'll be scrimping on food for as long as possible to maximise my budget, so it'll be a few more Sidekicks in tupperware until the taste of them makes my stomach turn.

I say farewell, and leaving the bathroom and kitchen hopefully as I found them, I head off. It's another beautifully warm sunny morning, with a fresh breeze that carries me back to Thorndale CTA station.

It takes about thity minutes to get downtown. I'm more than happy to peer out of the window as the train rides along the suburban elevated sections, looking down onto back yards and onto people's balconies. The architecture of this part of Chicago is much like the part of Montreal where I live: brick built three storey walk-up apartments, with leafy avenues and broad streets. This is an attractive city that is already demanding a second visit. From time to time I feel guilt for not doing this great place more justice by staying for longer, but I suspect it could get another stopover later in the year.

The tracks wind in between buildings, and at the first available transfer station, I cross to the brown line, which will keep me above ground and take me onto Chicago's famous downtown loop of 'el' tracks.

I ride as far as Adams and walk one block east to the Chicago Art Institute. I've decided that with just a couple of hours on my side in Chicago, it'll be better to do one thing properly that try to cram too much in. So I'm here, climbing the steps of this elegant museum.

And it's not just because I'm art lover. The clockroom here costs a dollar per item, but that's cheaper than leaving them at the station for a few hours (and I won't be checking them in). Plus, although the admission fees might seem a little steep when you walk in, take note of that small bit of writing under the list of tarifs. Yep, they're 'Suggested Donations'. So, my take on this is that if you can afford $10, you should pay it and feel proud for contributing to one of the best art museums in the USA. But if you're a penniless low-budget traveler like me, give them a dollar and promise to donate a Monet when you become rich and famous.

Not like they need another one, though, because the Insitutue has one of the best Impressionist collections in the world. If you have just one hour to spend, then spend it here, in the collection of rooms in front of you at the top of the main stairs. Impressionist art has become famous through poster prints on students' walls around the world: it's sophisticated, delicate, entrancing to look at, and immediate to comprehend. The finest examples of Impressionist art in North America can be found here, where you can see just how innovative the brush strokes of van Gogh, Seurat and Pissaro were. I was particularly taken by finally being able to see Monet's 'Poppy Field at Giverny' for the first time, and one wall is occupied in one room by the instantly recognisable 'Sunday Afternoon at la Grande Jatte' by Seurat. I float from room to room, spending as much or as little time as I please ignoring the description cards and getting sucked in by the paintings.

I would urge any visitor to a gallery such as this one to be brave, and not to attempt to do the whole museum at once. Choose five specific rooms on the plan, and stick to them. Spend an hour, and take your time. Growing up close to London, where virtually every major museum is completely free to the public, I have grown used to this strategy when visiting museums. Although a paranoia did kick in as the minute had turned on my watch, I resisted the urge to run amock, trying to see everything at once. There will be much more for me when I come to Chicago next time.

Before leaving, I did have one more famous work to hunt down. Tucked away in a side room at the back of the building, is Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks'. Nothing could have prepared me for the silence this painting brings with it. A stolen moment in a city diner is caught on canvas. Even though we are looking in to a brightly lit diner from the empty street, we can tell the room is quiet. Caught between moments, sentences and breaths, four people occupy a moment in time. It's a beautiful painting, even more stiking when you see it for real. The reproductions are good, but the sense of seeing it in it's natural habitat is even better.


Seen from an 'el' train: Chicago

Chicago: day one

If you think a C$30 daily budget is tight, bear in mind two things. Half of my nights will be spent on trains, so that's accomodation already paid for. The other half, I will be spending with friends and with members of the Hospitality Club. This free network of like minded travellers (now numbering well over 100,000 worldwide) offers travellers the chance to stay on people's floors, sofas or spare beds for free. It requires a certain degree of trust on both people, but because of that usually works out really well. Not only do you save money on accomodation, but you also get to see a 'real' side to the city you are visiting.

My hosts tonight live in the north end of Chicago. I take the CTA red line subway up to Thorndale, although unfortunately my late arrival has meant we've missed each other. Fearing a break down in my itinerary already, I hunt for a payphone and then realise I didn't note down my host's number. Somewhat sweaty and stressed, I return to the CTA station where I got off, and find a small internet cafe. Re-connected with the world, I am able to look up the phone number and leave a message advising my hosts that I will be around later. I also take the time to research a few back up options, just in case, and to make a quick long distance Sykpe call.

In the end, all goes well, and I get through to my hosts. By five o'clock, I've been welcomed into their clean, bright apartment just five minutes from the CTA line. I'm even offered a spare slice of pizza, which is just too good to resist. Now I know what a real Chicago deep pan pizza is like - those frozen examples in the supermarkets back home just don't come close, even to a reheated one :)

I take an hour or two to go out and ride the CTA line a few stops south. I'll leave downtown for tomorrow morning, so explore the busy streets around Wrigley Field baseball stadium, where neighbouring bars and pubs have built miniature banks of roof top seating for fans who want to watch the game from the balconies. I pick up a bottle of wine from a liquor store (and get ID'd... still a surprise when you're 23) before heading back.

One of my hosts has a friend visiting from England, so with the two Chicago visitors in tow, we are taken out for a night of live 'progressive jazz' at the Green Mill Bar in the near north of Chicago. The words 'progressive' and 'jazz' are probably two I would not usually go looking for when going out for a drink, but when in Rome...

Surprisingly, it had it's good moments, although unsurprisingly, I felt that they were outnumbered by the bad moments. With no disrespect to the band who were playing (formed by the members of two bands from the USA and Sweden, playing together for just two nights), I couldn't help feeling alienated by the music. The sounds that appeal to me the most come from bands who take a group of musicians and musical instruments, and who create something that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. I found this particular evening to be dominated by individual performers living it up in the spotlight, with no clear sense of where the music was coming together.

Am I a philistine? Or just culturally immature? There's stil time for me to be converted... ;)

We walk home, along North Broadway past restaurants and cafes that are closed by 23:00 on a Saturday night.