Posts Tagged ‘Aboard Amtrak’

Amtrak Eyes Assigned Seating on Trains

June 2, 2020

Amtrak is considering assigned seats on more of its trains as way to aid in enforcing social distancing during the CVOID-19 pandemic.

The passenger carrier already has assigned seating in first class on Acela Express trains and business class on Northeast Regional trains

“We are working on options to expand assigned seating and reserved travel,” said Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams.

However, he declined to provide further details about when assigned seating might begin.

Amtrak for a time in the middle 1970s on its trains but the practice was short lived.

It is also common for conductors to assign seats to passengers boarding long-distance trains at some stations.

Amtrak Changes Full-Service Dining Car Menus

February 20, 2020

Amtrak has changed the menu on its full-service dining cars for the first time in nearly a year.

Although menu prices are largely unchanged the carrier has swapped out a few offerings while retaining others.

New to the menu are French Toast at breakfast in place of pancakes. At dinner, a cod entre has replaced Norwegian salmon while two vegetarian options are now available.

A baked three-cheese manicotti has replaced rigatoni and the vegan compliant selection is now a Cubana bowl. Also new at lunch and dinner are BBQ pork wings.

The full-service dining cars operate on the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle.

The new menus are dated January 2020 and Amtrak did not announce the changes.

The menu of flexible dining fare served on Eastern long-distance trains is dated November 2019 but remains unchanged from what was implemented last October.

This service is available to sleeping car passengers only aboard the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent and Silver Meteor. It will be extended to Silver Star sleeping car passengers on May 1.

Coach passengers on those trains must buy food and drink from the cafe car.

In spring 2019 Amtrak dropped train specific images from dining car menus.

Although the dining car menu offerings had been standard for several years there had been some slight variations by route. That ended in spring 2019.

The latest change means there are now seven entrée selections at dinner.

Some tweaks also have been made to the full-service dining car lunch menu. Gone are baked chilaquiles and steamed mussles. New are BBQ pork wings.

The entrée salad at lunch has been replaced with a Caesar salad. Like the entrée salad, the Caesar salad offers the option of being served with chicken breast strips for an additional charge of $3.50.

The complete full-service dining car menu offerings and prices paid by coach passengers are as follows.

Breakfast: Scrambled eggs ($8.50), continental breakfast ($8.75), French toast ($10.50), three-egg omelet ($13.75), and Southwestern breakfast quesadillas ($13.50).

Lunch: Ceasar salad ($12.50), black bean and corn veggie burger ($12.50), Angus burger ($12.50), BBQ pork wings ($14), garden salad ($3.50).

Dinner: Land and sea combo of Black Angus flat iron steak and crab cake ($39), Amtrak signature flat iron steak ($25), garlic herb cod ($23), thyme roasted chicken breast ($18.50), BBQ pork wings ($21), baked manicotti ($18.50), Cubano bowl ($6.50).

A garden salad is available for $3.50 but comes standard with meals served to sleeping car passengers.

The manicotti is described as filled with mozzarella, Parmesean and ricotta cheeses and comes with a vegetable medley and Roma tomato sauce.

The Cubana bowl is described as black beans, quinoa, mango, onion, red and green peppers, and jalapenos.

Amtrak said the Cubana bowl is a healthy option for those seeking reduced calories, fat and sodium.

The BBQ pork wings are described as braised bone-in pork shanks in Stubs smoky BBQ sauce with red skinned garlic mashed potatoes.

The land and sea combo comes with a choice of baked or mashed potatoes. The flat iron steak comes with a baked potato, the cod entree comes with rice pilaf and the chicken selection comes with mashed potatoes. All entrees come with a vegetable or vegetable medley.

The children’s lunch and dinner menu are the same and priced at $7.50. The options are a Hebrew National all-beef hot dog or macaroni and cheese.

At dinner those both come with a vegetable medley. At lunch the hot dog comes with kettle chips while the mac and cheese comes with a roll.

The children’s breakfast menu includes a scrambled egg with roasted potatoes or grits, and a croissant ($4.25) or French Toast ($5.25)

Deserts range from $7.25 for the Amtrak seasonal desert to $2.75 for vanilla pudding. The Amtrak specialty deserts are priced at $6.50 and include a flourless chocolate torte, New York style cheesecake or a rotating selection.

The Auto Train sleeping car passenger dinner menu is a stripped-down version of what is offered in other long-distance trains full-service dining cars.

Dinner entrees include flat iron steak, garlic and herb cod, pan roasted chicken breast and baked three-cheese manicotti.

All entrees come with a vegetable medley. The steak comes with baked potato, while the cod and chicken come with rice pilaf. Each entrée is accompanied by a salad and dinner roll.

The children’s dinner is chicken tenders or macaroni and cheese, with both coming with a vegetable medley.

There is a signature desert item that rotates but otherwise the choices are New York style cheesecake, vanilla ice cream or sugar free jello. Optional toppings include chocolate syrup, fruit toppings and whipped cream.

As is the case with on long-distance trains with flexible dining, the Auto Train offers sleeping car passengers at each meal a single complimentary beverage, including alcoholic beverages.

However, the cocktail, wine and beer selections on the Auto Train are more limited than what is available on full-service or flexible dining cars.

There is no breakfast offered in the dining car to sleeping car passengers aboard the Auto Train although an earlier Amtrak news release had said passengers receive a continental breakfast before arriving at their destination in Florida or Northern Virginia.

Back When No. 49 Had a Full-Service Heritage Diner

November 14, 2019

Inside the diner of Amtrak’s westbound Lake Shore Limited as the sun rises in western Ohio.

Amtrak retired the last of its Heritage Fleet dining cars in 2016, but these cars had already vanished from the Lake Shore Limited before then.

They were called “heritage” because the cars were ordered and built for railroads that operated their own passenger trains until the coming of Amtrak in 1971.

In the late 1970s, Amtrak began rebuilding some of these cars to give them head-end power capability as well as a makeover of their interiors.

Diners were among the last survivors of the Heritage Fleet still in revenue service.

Coaches, lounges and sleeping cars has long since been retired in favor of Amfleet and Viewliner equipment, but the heritage diners continued to solider onward.

I usually favored traveling from Cleveland to Chicago aboard the Capitol Limited because of its earlier departure and arrival times, but on occasion I would ride the Lake Shore Limited.

The images in this series were made inside diner 8532 as I was having breakfast in March 2012 en route to Chicago.

This car has an unusual history. It was built as a coach by Budd in 1956 for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which used it on the Denver Zephyr.

The Q named it Silver Halter and it carried roster number 4739.

Amtrak acquired it for use as a coach and gave it roster number 5016. It was rebuilt it to HEP capacity in November 1985 when it was transformed into a cafeteria car numbered 8716

It was rebuilt into a diner in November 2008 when it gained its last Amtrak roster number.

On one wall of the diner was an image of New York Central passenger trains at LaSalle Street Station in Chicago circa 1947 with some powered by steam locomotives and one pulled by a diesel.

Presumably, that rendering was a nod to the heritage of most of the route of the Lake Shore Limited.

It also is noteworthy that there were some etched glass panels at one end of the car.

All of these images were made as the train traveled along in western Ohio near Bryan shortly after sunrise.

You can still watch the sunrise while eating breakfast in western Ohio aboard No. 49, but you won’t be enjoying a meal freshly prepared by a chef in the kitchen and brought to your table by a server.

When The LSL Still Had A Wine and Cheese Reception

October 31, 2019

Sleeper class passengers boarding the Lake Shore Limited in Chicago were once treated to a wine and cheese reception in the dining car before No. 48 departed.

About a decade ago Amtrak used to treat sleeper class passengers boarding the Lake Shore Limited in Chicago to a wine and cheese welcome aboard reception in the dining car.

I got to experience it in 2012 and 2013 when I splurged and bought a roomette ticket for the journey from Chicago to Cleveland as I was returning home after visiting my Dad in downstate Illinois.

A sleeper wasn’t cheap, but I decided to spend the extra cash to be able to get some sleep for at least part of the seven-hour journey.

Then, as now, No. 48 was scheduled to leave Chicago at 9:30 p.m. Most of the trip would occur during the overnight hours and I find it difficult to sleep in a coach seat.

My 2012 trip occurred in early June. Prototype Viewliner dining car Indianapolis was in the consist.

It was my first and thus far only experience in a Viewliner dining car. All of my various trips aboard No. 48 or 49 back in the days when I was making those Amtrak treks between Cleveland and Chicago found a Heritage Fleet diner in the consist of the train.

Because of the late hour departing Chicago dinner was not served on No. 48.

The wine and cheese reception was a nice way to meet other passengers and my memory is that the Amtrak personnel were willing to give you a second serving of wine.

The glasses were not large so it’s unlikely that anyone became intoxicated.

It wasn’t a wine tasting event involving sampling various types of wines. There was one type of wine, a red, and that was it.

Your plate came with two types of grapes, crackers and a couple of slices of cheese.

As you can see from a photo that accompanies this post there were more grapes than cheese.

Amtrak used to do wine tastings aboard the Coast Starlight in the Pacific Parlour Car and if my memory serves me correctly it also once had wine tastings aboard the Empire Builder.

But I never rode either of those trains during that era.

In 2013 my roomette aboard the Lake Shore was in the Boston sleeper, which was toward the head end behind a baggage car.

Would the car attendant come through and invite us to make our way back through the six Amfleet II coaches and café car for the wine and cheese reception?

As the time to depart drew near nothing was said about it. Did this mean Boston sleeper passengers would be cheated out of the wine and cheese reception?

Not long after the train left Union Station the attendant came around with foil-covered plates of cheese, crackers and grapes.

He passed out small glasses and went from room to room to pour the wine.

It was nice but not quite the social event that it had been in the dining car when you could mingle with other passengers.

The wine and cheese reception aboard No. 48 in Chicago was discontinued long before Richard Anderson came onboard as Amtrak’s president.

Amtrak came under fire from members of Congress for its food and beverage deficits. Serving wine and cheese may not have been that expensive but didn’t look good during a congressional hearing when the carrier was running a deficit in food and beverage services.

Anderson has cited many times a congressional mandate to eliminate the food and beverage deficits as one reason why full-service dining cars were eliminated from the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited and have now vanished from the last eastern overnight trains to still have them, the Crescent and Silver Meteor.

The wine and cheese reception was part of an era when Amtrak sought to make the sleeper class experience something special.

Passengers once received complimentary newspapers in the morning, a small piece of chocolate at night, and coffee and juice.

At one time sleeper class passengers on the Capitol Limited received a glass mug with the train name and herald on it. I have one of those on a shelf in my office.

Amtrak might argue that it treats sleeper class passengers well, but the “perks” that Amtrak has been touting are either services that were always available, e.g., having meals served to you in your room, or something that doesn’t cost the company any money, e.g., “exclusive” use of a Viewliner diner as a lounge.

Service changes at Amtrak can be cyclical depending on who controls the White House, Congress and Amtrak management.

When I rode The Canadian of VIA Rail Canada in May 2014, I found that aside from full-service dining, sleeper class passengers were treated to wine tastings, onboard entertainment, and snacks.

If Anderson means what he says about having long-distance experiential trains we might see a return of these perks for those able to pay the hefty ticket prices.

Just for fun, I checked the prices to travel from Chicago to Cleveland on Oct. 31 in a sleeping car roomette.

The fares quoted on the Amtrak website a week before the date of travel were $228 on the Capitol Limited and $231 on the Lake Shore Limited. The least expensive coach ticket was $76 on No. 48 and $92 on No. 30.

The sleeper fares could have been higher. Back in September when I checked a roomette was $266 on the Capitol Limited and $316 on the Lake Shore Limited.  The least expensive coach ticket was $59 on both trains.

Booking two months ahead would lower the sleeper prices to $184 on No. 30 and $186 on No. 48. The coach fare was still $59 for each train.

Those latter prices seem more reasonable but it would take a lot of wine and cheese to entice me to buy a ticket at those prices.

But then again, when you’re trying to get some sleep, any sleep, in an Amfleet II coach seat your mind wanders not to wine and cheese or meals included in the sleeper class ticket price but the value of being able to lay flat for a few hours while having your own space.

Inside Viewliner dining car Indianapolis at Chicago Union Station on the eastbound Lake Shore Limited. It would be my only visit to No. 8400.

A glance inside the kitchen area of Viewliner dining car 8400 as it sat in Chicago Union Station. The bottles of wine are for the wine and cheese welcome aboard reception for sleeper class passengers.

This seat in a Viewliner roomette can be pricey, but what is the value of privacy and having a bed during the overnight hours of a train trip?

BE Tower From Aboard a Train

October 18, 2019

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Berea watching trains you are no doubt familiar with the south side of BE Tower.

It can easily be seen from the parking lot of the former Big Four station where railfans like to congregate.

But what does the north side look like?

It is quite familiar to train crews for Norfolk Southern who have passed it countless times and probably pay little attention to it.

If you wonder what the train side of BE Tower looks like, here it is.

A late running Lake Shore Limited last June afforded me the opportunity to get this grab shot as the train passed by.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles: Remembering a Circle Trip to Ride 2 Last Runs of Amtrak Trains 40 Years Ago

September 30, 2019

The last westbound National Limited sits in Indianapolis Union Station on Oct. 1, 1979. Amtrak would be absent from Indy for nearly a year before the Hoosier State began service to Chicago.

Forty years ago I found myself driving through the early Saturday morning darkness on Interstate 57 in east central Illinois on the first leg of a three-day adventure during which I would ride two Amtrak trains set to be discontinued the following Monday.

By the time I returned home on the afternoon of Oct. 1, 1979, I had been aboard four Amtrak trains, flown on two airlines and ridden Greyhound. It was an experience unlike any other I’d experienced before or since.

The logistics were complicated. On this Saturday morning, I drove 29 miles to leave my car at the Effingham Amtrak station, walked a couple blocks to the bus station, rode Greyhound for 79 miles to Champaign, walked another few blocks to the Amtrak station, and rode the Illini 129 miles to Chicago Union Station.

In Chicago I caught the eastbound Cardinal, disembarking just before 10 p.m. at Catlettsburg, Kentucky, to be in position to board the last eastbound trip of the Hilltopper when it left at 6:33 a.m. on Sunday.

I got off the Hilltopper in Richmond, Virginia, took a cab to the airport and flew to Indianapolis via a connection in Atlanta to be in position to ride the last westbound National Limited on Monday morning from Indy to Effingham.

What happened on the last weekend in September 1979 was the culmination of a political battle in Washington that had been going on for at least four years and ended in the discontinuance of six long-distance trains, the Floridian, National Limited, North Coast Hiawatha, Hilltopper, Lone Star and Champion.

There would have been more trains killed but for a political free-for-all that saw influential members of Congress conspire to save trains serving their districts or states.

It was a bloodletting the likes of which Amtrak had never seen in its then eight-year history.

The drive to Effingham, the bus ride to Champaign and the train ride to Chicago were routine.

My time aboard the Cardinal would be my first experience trip in a recently refurbished Heritage Fleet coach.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it because its earth tone interior colors were quite a departure from the cool blue shades of Amtrak’s early years.

I struck up a conversation with a guy in my coach as we trundled across Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic train travel advocate who said he took Amtrak every chance he got, including for business trips.

That latter comment struck me at the time as being odd though I rode Amtrak often myself. Maybe it was the fact that he was so open about his love of trains that struck me as unusual. I had never met such an unabashed passenger train fan.

Peru, Indiana, was a crew change stop and I opened a vestibule window to take a look outside.

The inbound conductor, who moments earlier had been a jovial sort, pointed at me and sternly said, “close that vestibule window.”

I might have gotten off to walk around in Cincinnati, and likely ate lunch and dinner aboard No. 50, but those meals were not memorable.

I was one of the few passengers to get off in Catlettsburg where I had seven and half hours to kill in a small 1970s era modular train station.

I passed some of the time talking with the Amtrak agent and two other guys who were spending part of the night in the depot waiting to board the last Hilltopper.

One of them, and maybe both, worked for Amtrak at the Washington headquarters.

The guy I talked with the most wouldn’t be specific about what he did for the passenger carrier.

The Amtrak agent locked the doors to the station because he didn’t want people wandering in off the street. It apparently wasn’t the greatest neighborhood.

At the insistence of the guy who worked in Amtrak headquarters, the station agent pulled the Hilltopper name and arrival and departure times from the train bulletin board as we made photographs.

At least I thought I made photos. I’ve never found those slides. Maybe I just watched.

The Hilltopper is widely remembered as a “political train” that existed because of the political clout of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

It was lightly patronized and lampooned as beginning and ending in the middle of nowhere. There was some truth to that.

The equipment, F40PH No. 278, an Amfleet coach and an Amfleet café car, arrived from the Chesapeake & Ohio yard in nearby Russell, Kentucky, to the west of Cattlettsburg where it had been serviced overnight.

Few people boarded. The conductor was not wearing an Amtrak uniform and told us to give our tickets to the next crew.

The Hilltopper originated on the Chessie System, but at Kenovah, West Virginia, about three miles to the east, it was handed off to the Norfolk & Western.

The two guys I’d met at the Catlettsburg station sat behind me and talked about Amtrak funding and economic theory, which suggested they might work in finance. It was not the typical conversation that you overhear aboard Amtrak.

For the first hour the Hilltopper lived up to its reputation. But then the nearly empty Amfleet coach began filling with passengers.

A woman who sat down next to me sat she was eating breakfast at a local restaurant when someone said Amtrak was making it last trip today.

She and several others went to the station to ride the train, probably for the first time.

They only rode to the next station and I didn’t record where she got on or off.

The Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society had arranged for three of its passenger cars to be attached to the rear of the Hilltopper for a trip to Roanoke.

I didn’t record where those cars were added, but it might have been Williamson, West Virginia.

One of those cars was former Illinois Central observation car Mardi Gras.

I had brought along two cameras. My own camera was loaded with slide film while the other camera, which I used at the newspaper where I worked at the time, was loaded with Kodak Tri-X black and white negative film.

Much to my later chagrin, I never made a single image aboard the Cardinal or the Illini.

The Hilltopper continued to be near capacity as far east as Roanoke. Many of those who rode went a short distance to experience the last passenger train on the N&W.

One of the passengers I met was an N&W management trainee. He used his company ID car to get into the cab and ride between stations. I was envious.

Someone else mentioned that the conductor working east of Roanoke was making his last trip before retiring.

Not only would he retire, but his ticket punch would also be retired. I bought a ticket to Crewe, Virginia, to get a copy of his ticket punch on its last day of “revenue service.”

It was the sort of impulsive action that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Initially as he would announce an upcoming station that conductor would give a little history of that town. But that practice abruptly stopped. Maybe it was too painful for him.

Near Bedford, Virginia, No. 66 met the last No. 67. I was standing in the rear vestibule when the meet occurred with No. 67 having gone into a siding for us.

No. 67 had on the rear the open platform car My Old Kentucky Home.

Passengers aboard that car had been allowed to disembark to make photographs of the meet. It was raining and some had umbrellas.

I was the only passenger aboard No. 66 to photograph the meet from the vestibule. The rain and overcast conditions hindered the quality of those images.

At Petersburg the Hilltopper swung off the N&W and onto the Seaboard Coast Line route used by Amtrak’s New York-Florida trains.

I got off in Richmond, Virginia, and headed for the airport where I boarded an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 bound for Atlanta with an intermediate stop at Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

In Atlanta I connected to a Delta Air Lines DC-9 for the flight to Indianapolis. It was the era when airlines had lower fares known as night coach.

I remember that flight as being smooth and kind of enjoyable.

I landed in Indianapolis after midnight and walked to a Holiday Inn on the airport grounds. At long last I was able to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I bought a copy of The Indianapolis Star which had on the front page a story about the last eastbound National Limited to depart Indy the night before two hours late.

Trains that originated on Sept. 30 would continue to their destination which is why the last National Limited through Indianapolis would be westbound.

No. 30 arrived 15 minutes early into Indianapolis Union Station. There was plenty of time before it would leave.

I walked around and made several photographs on black and white film.

As I stood near the head end of the train, I noticed a guy with a camera talking with the outbound engineer.

He identified himself as Dan Cupper, a reporter for a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper who was on assignment to ride the last No. 31 to Kansas City.

Dan wanted to ride in the cab out of Indianapolis. I immediately pulled out my wallet, showed the engineer my press card from the Mattoon [Illinois] Journal Gazette and made a similar request.

Engineer Russell Smith Jr. thought about it for a few seconds and then said he’d let us ride as far west as Terre Haute.

We climbed up into the cab of F40PH No. 310 and awaited the highball to leave Indy. It would be my first Amtrak cab ride.

Fireman L.W. Reynolds was still on the platform when it was time to leave, but Smith said “this will get his attention.”

He turned a couple knobs on the back wall of the F40 and immediately the generator creating head end power kicked into high gear, making that screaming sound that many associate with an F40.

As the train began moving Reynolds was standing on the steps to the cab looking backward.

He later explained that a passenger had given him his camera and asked him to photograph from inside of the cab.

Reynolds said about the time the train began to move the passenger had handed the camera back to the passenger, “and he was running like hell” to get back onoard.”

Reynolds said he wasn’t sure if the passenger made it, but he made the photographs anyway.

Maybe it was because he had an audience or maybe it was because it was his last run as a passenger locomotive engineer, but Smith wanted to show off a little.

He had hired out on the Pennsylvania Railroad and pulled the throttle on a number of Pennsy trains out of Indianapolis, including the Jeffersonian.

The top speed on Conrail at the time west of Indianapolis was 70 miles per hour, but Smith often exceeded that, hitting 90 mph shortly after leaving Union Station.

He said was going to reach 100 mph. Somewhere out on the straight away on the old New York Central mainline Smith let ‘er rip.

The speed recorder rose aboard 90 mph. I had my camera ready for when it hit triple digits.

But about 3 mph short of 100 a safety device tripped, a warning siren came on and the brakes started setting up.

“What did you do?” the fireman asked before breaking into laughter. “Russell you run too fast.”

Smith said he thought he had disarmed the device back in Indianapolis, but he hadn’t. Once the train reached a pre-determined speed the safety device kicked in and No. 31 came to a halt.

All of the fast running meant that No. 31 would be arriving in Terre Haute a half hour in advance of its scheduled arrival time.

There were grade crossings by the Terre Haute station and Smith didn’t want to be blocking them for an extended time. So we loafed along at 45 mph into Terre Haute.

Dan and I thanked Smith for allowing us to ride with him and got down.

I found a seat in a mostly empty Amfleet coach and then went to the café car to get something for lunch.

There were three passengers eating in the cafe car when I arrived. None of the four coaches was close to being full and one was empty while another had just three passengers.

After the cab ride, the rest of the trip to Effingham in the coach seemed anticlimactic. In a story I would write for my newspaper I would describe the mood as routine but somber.

Conrail crews were out rebuilding the former PRR mainline west of Terre Haute and there were slow orders for the MOW gangs.

No. 31 had to wait for an eastbound freight train west of Marshall, Illinois.

That put us into Effingham at 2:03 p.m., seven minutes late.

I made a few more photographs as No. 31 departed for the final time.

The first railroad photograph I had ever made had been of No. 31 arriving in Effingham a couple hours late in January 1977. So there was sense of symmetry to the moment.

* * * * *

Although the National Limited, Hilltopper and Champion made their last trips as scheduled, court orders kept the Floridian, Lone Star and North Coast Hiawatha going for a few days before they succumbed.

Forty years later Amtrak might be in a similar position to where it was in 1979 as another battle plays out over the future of the long-distance trains.

Amtrak’s president, Richard Anderson, has been playing up how much money those trains lose and Amtrak management has spoken of transforming the network into a series of short-haul corridors linking urban centers.

Although the 1979 route cuts were implemented in a short period of time, the fight had been going on in Congress for at several years leading up to that.

We don’t know if there will come another weekend when a sizeable number of long-distance trains begin their last trips. But it remains a possibility.

If it does come about, I doubt that I’ll be making a grand circle trip to ride some of those last runs.

It’s also a sure bet that Amtrak won’t be allowing any private cars to be attached and removed in the middle of a run.

It is noteworthy that 1979 was the last year that Amtrak launched a long-distance train, the Desert Wind.

Although portions of the routes that lost service in 1979 regained it in subsequent years, once an Amtrak long-distance route is discontinued it doesn’t come back in the form in which it once existed.

The Roanoke NRHS Chapter added three of its passenger cars to the rear of the eastbound Hilltopper for part of its final trip. The cars are shown in Roanoke.

Amtrak conductor F. M. Thompson gets photographed from both sides as he works the last eastbound Hilltopper at Bluefield, West Virginia.

For its last day at least the Hilltopper has crowds of people waiting to board. This image was made of passengers waiting to board in Roanoke, Virginia.

It’s not a great photo, but it is historic. The westbound Hilltopper waited in a siding near Bedford, Virginia, for its eastbound counterpart to pass. This image was made from aboard the latter.

Locomotive engineer Russell Smith allowed myself and another reporter to ride in the cab of the last westbound National Limited from Indianapolis to Terre Haute, Indiana. He is shown just before the train departed Indianapolis.

The view of the former Big Four passenger station in Terre Haute, Indiana, as seen from an F40PH leading the last National Limited into town. Terre Haute has been without scheduled Amtrak service ever since this day.

The National Limited departs Effingham, Illinois, for the final time. Train No. 31 was the first Amtrak train that I ever photographed and that image was made in Effingham in January 1977.

Hanging With the Hoosier State in its Final Week

August 11, 2019

Boarding has begun for the Chicago-bound Hoosier State on June 25 at Indianapolis Union Station.

By the time I arrived in Indianapolis Amtrak’s Hoosier State had just one week left to live.

I would experience No. 851 three times before it made its final trip on June 30, riding it once and photographing it trackside twice.

I had ridden the Hoosier State several times but not since August 1991.

Interestingly, my purpose for riding the Hoosier State nearly 28 years later would be the same as why I rode it in 1991.

I was moving and needed to go back to my former hometown to pick up a car and drive it to my new hometown.

In 1991 I had driven from Indianapolis to State College, Pennsylvania. In 2019 I drove from Cleveland to Indianapolis.

Boarding of No. 851 began shortly after I arrived at Indianapolis Union Station on the morning of June 25.

I was the second passenger to board the Horizon fleet coach to which most Indy passengers were assigned. The car was about two-thirds full.

The consist also included an Amfleet coach, an Amfleet food service car and two P42DC locomotives, Nos. 77 and 55.

We departed on time but a few minutes later received a penalty application near CP Holt that required a conversation with the CSX PTC desk.

We would later encounter a delay between Crawfordsville and Lafayette due to signal issues.

Yet there was no freight train interference en route that I observed. We stopped briefly in Chicago so a Metra train could go around us.

That was probably because we were early. We halted at Chicago Union Station 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

I had heard the former Monon can be rough riding, but I didn’t think it was any worse than other Amtrak routes I’ve ridden.

There wasn’t any of the abrupt sideways jerking that I’ve experienced on other Amtrak trains.

The journey did seem to be slow going at times, particularly through the CSX yard in Lafayette; on the former Grand Trunk Western west of Munster, Indiana; through the Union Pacific yard on the former Chicago & Eastern Illinois; and within Chicago proper.

Overall, the experience was much the same as riding any other Amtrak Midwest corridor train although it featured an entrance into Chicago that I had not experienced before in daylight.

The crew said nothing about it being the last week of operation for Nos. 850 and 851.

My next encounter with the Hoosier State came in Lafayette on June 28.

No. 851 arrived on time with a more typical consist that included cars being ferried from Beach Grove shops to Chicago.

These included a Superliner sleeping car, a Viewliner baggage car, a Horizon food service car, and a Heritage baggage car. There also was the standard Hoosier State consist of three cars. On the point was P42DC No. 99.

I was positioned next to the former Big Four station at Riehle Plaza so I could photograph above the train.

Although a sunny morning, the tracks were more in shadows than I would have liked. Nonetheless I was pleased, overall, with what I came away with.

After No 851 departed – it operated on CSX as P317, an original Hoosier State number – I went over to Fifth Street to photograph it sans railroad tracks.

One stretch of rails has been left in the street in front of the former Monon passenger station.

My last encounter with the Hoosier State would be my briefest.

I drove to Linden to photograph the last northbound run at the railroad museum at the former joint Monon-Nickel Plate depot.

No. 851 was 24 minutes late leaving Indianapolis Union Station and about that late at Crawfordsville.

It had a consist similar to what I had seen in Lafayette two days earlier. P42DC No. 160 had a battered nose with some of its silver paint peeling away.

I wasn’t aware until I saw them that two former Pennsylvania Railroad cars had been chartered to operate on the rear of the last Hoosier State.

They were Colonial Crafts and Frank Thomson. The latter carried a Pennsy keystone tail sign on its observation end emblazoned with the Hoosier State name.

It was a nice touch and after those cars charged past the Hoosier State was gone in more ways than one.

 

That’s my Horizon coach reflected in the lower level of the Lafayette station.

 

Watching the countryside slide by west of Monon, Indiana.

The Hoosier State has come to a halt on Track 16 at Chicago Union Station. That’s the inbound City of New Orleans to the left.

A crowd lines the platform in Lafayette as the Hoosier State arrives en route to Chicago.

The former Big Four station in Lafayette was moved to its current location to serve Amtrak. At one time it also served intercity buses.

Pulling out of Lafayette on the penultimate northbound trip to Chicago.

P42DC No. 160, which pulled the last northbound Amtrak Train No. 851 had a well-worn nose.

Two former Pennsylvania Railroad passenger cars brought up the rear of the last northbound Hoosier State.

Fast Action Saved the Day on Amtrak Trip

July 22, 2019

Amtrak’s Texas Eagle saunters into St. Louis in a vide made from a downtown hotel. That is the Mississippi River in the background and Busch Stadium in the right foreground.

Some quick thinking and fast action enabled Ed Ribinskas to avoid what could have been a major league disappointment traveling on Amtrak earlier this month.

When he saw that Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited was not leaving Pittsburgh he was able to rebook his trip to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited.

That was important because Ed, his brother Steve, and his nephew Justin were making a connection in Chicago with the Texas Eagle en route to St. Louis for a long weekend that included taking in a MLB baseball game at Busch Stadium.

No. 29 arrived in Pittsburgh 33 minutes late, but by the time it left the station it was five hours behind schedule.

It wouldn’t get any better. It arrived in Cleveland at 9:44 a.m., nearly seven hours late, and reached Chicago at 3:54 p.m., seven hours late.

Ed said he wonders if other passengers holding reservations aboard No. 29 that day were stuck in Cleveland until it showed up.

He said the Cleveland station agent made no announcements about the status of No. 29.

Yet at such stops as Toledo and Elkhart, Indiana, Amtrak onboard personnel said they were boarding passengers for both trains.

The crew on No. 49, Ed said, was very friendly and helpful.

To be sure, No. 49 was 31 minutes late arriving in Cleveland and 50 minutes behind schedule in Chicago, but Ed’s travel party easily made the connection to the Eagle.

That day’s Texas Eagle had Phase III livery P40 No. 822 on the point. No. 21 departed Chicago 36 minutes late and arrived in St. Louis 46 minutes down.

One reason Ed wanted to ride No. 21 was to have dinner in the dining car. It would be the only train of the four he rode with a full-service diner.

Ed’s party was able to get the first seating for dinner. When they arrived just three tables were occupied. “However, our waiter and the food were very good,” he said.

Ed and Steve had the Norwegian salmon with rice pilaf and baby green beans. Justin had the thyme-roasted with mashed potatoes and baby green beans.

The return trip to Cleveland began on a Tuesday morning aboard Lincoln Service Train No. 302 “[It] probably had the best crew I’ve seen,” Ed said. “It was just the conductor and café attendant but they did everything.”

There was no dining car, so Ed settled for having a cinnamon roll and coffee for breakfast.

In Chicago, Ed said he saw the 822 return with a late No. 22.

That night’s eastbound Capitol Limited left Union Station 41 minutes late and pulled into Cleveland 1.5 hours off schedule.

On the way past the Chicago service facility aboard No. 30, Ed managed to get some grab shots of a couple of Amtrak heritage locomotives.

He reported that he also twice saw locomotives wearing the colors of the Bessemer & Lake Erie, one in Gary, Indiana, and another near Joliet, Illinois.

But neither time was he able to get his camera out fast enough to get a photo.

In looking back on his trip, Ed said the crews on the Lake Shore Limited, Texas Eagle and Lincoln Service were good to very good. But the crew on the Capitol Limited was cranky.

Photographs by Edward Ribinskas

The Phase III P40 heritage unit brought the Texas Eagle back to Chicago. It is seen in the Amtrak coach yard.

The Phase IV heritage unit was also in Chicago as Ed passed by aboard No. 30.

Ed’s borther Steve (left) and nephew Justin show off some Cleveland pride at Busch Stadium, but note that they are wearing St. Louis Cardinals hats. The redbirds were hosting the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A view of St. Louis looking west from the Gateway Arch. Union Station can be seen in the distance.

One of the fabled Budweiser Clydesdale horses was an attracting during a tour of the brewery.

Waving Goodbye in Elyria

July 22, 2019

The railroad station has long been a focal point of life in American cities and towns, but in many places the Amtrak station is little more than a bus-stop style shelter.

Elyria, Ohio, is one of those places. Its station is new, but offers minimal amenities.

The city and county have been talking for years about having Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited stop at the former New York Central passenger station in Elyria, which is now used by local transit buses.

But that project is expensive and bogged down in red tape and political conflicts. Perhaps some day it will all work out.

In the meantime, the bus shelter station will have to do.

It is shown on June 26, 2019, from aboard the eastbound Lake Shore Limited, which was more than three hours late when it arrived in Elyria.

Two girls see off a friend who is boarding No. 48.

Planned Auto Train Dining Service Changes May be Predictor of the Future of Amtrak’s Long-Distance Trains

July 22, 2019

The recent announcement by Amtrak of changes to on-board service aboard the Auto Train might be a blueprint for the “experiential” long-distance service that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has alluded to in public comments.

However, the upgrades that the carrier is making for sleeping car passengers on the Auto Train stand somewhat in stark contrast with what is happening with onboard service on other eastern long-distance trains.

In a news release, Amtrak said that starting in January Auto Train sleeping car passengers will receive complimentary wine with dinner as well as better linens and towels.

The release spoke of new dinner and breakfast menus, but it is not clear if that will involve food freshly prepared onboard or prepared off the train by a catering company.

The Auto Train announcement came about the same time that news broke that Amtrak plans to extend its “contemporary dining” program to its other eastern long-distance trains.

That program began aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited in June 2018 and involves serving sleeping car passengers box meals in their rooms or in the dining car.

When “contemporary dining” began, Amtrak sought to sell it as an improvement in the sense that passengers received a complimentary alcoholic beverage with their meals, would be able to eat when they wanted, and would have exclusive use of the dining car throughout their trip.

Initially, all of the sleeper class food aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore was served cold, but after a couple months one hot offering was added at dinner and breakfast.

The Auto Train announcement also referenced expanding sleeping car capacity during peak travel periods, but no such move was made for the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Nor did Amtrak upgrade the linens and towels available for use by sleeping car passengers on those trains. Aside: those improved linens and towels may not be all that much. Amtrak is not about to become a high-end hotel.

Coach passengers aboard the Auto Train will be losing their complimentary dinner. Instead, Amtrak said it will expand the café car menu of meals, snacks and beverages. It also said it will have food truck vendors at the stations in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, that coach passengers can patronize.

That sounds like a 21st century version of the 19th century practice of passenger trains making meal stops at designated points.

Auto train coach passengers will receive a complimentary continental breakfast. That is more than coach passengers get on any other long-distance train.

Commenting on the Auto Train changes, the Rail Passengers Association noted that these changes are in line with the desire of Amtrak management to more clearly delineate travel classes. It also might be a scheme to delineate types of trains.

The Auto Train is unique among long-distance trains in not having intermediate stations. The clientele of the Auto Train is different in many ways from that of other long-distance trains and the more well-heeled among them might be the target audience Amtrak is seeking with the experiential trains.

I’ve long thought that Anderson might have in mind duplicating the Rocky Mountaineer or even VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, both of which attract a lot of affluent tour group travelers with disposable income to spend on experiences.

The Washington-Florida travel market has long been a strong one and is the only Amtrak long-distance market to have double daily service between endpoints even if those trains take different routes within North Carolina and South Carolina.

The implementation of “contemporary dining” on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited last year also represented a delineation between sleeper class and coach class in the sense that the latter are now limited to café car fare or bringing their own food with them aboard the train. But no food trucks.

In an analysis posted on its website last week, the RPA said Amtrak has hinted that the contemporary dining to be imposed on the Crescent and Silver Meteor, the only remaining eastern long-distance trains with full-service dining cars, will be different from that now available on the Capitol and Lake Shore. But RPA said it is not clear how or why it will be different.

“Meanwhile, problems with availability, choice and dietary restrictions have soured the perceptions of many repeat riders,” RPA wrote.

The rail passenger advocacy group acknowledged that Amtrak is trying to balance modern tastes and sensibilities within a long-distance ridership audience that includes large percentages of patrons who do not share those tastes and sensibilities.

RPA pointed out that one of its members wrote to say about “contemporary dining,” that “The food honestly is both better, tastier and more in line with how I eat when I am dieting like now and how my kids eat. Plus I like the dedicated lounge space in between meals.”

The latter comment reflects a facet of train travel that doesn’t get much attention.

If you are going to shell out the big bucks Amtrak demands for sleeper class, you want more than your own room and bed at night.

Amtrak argues that its surveys have found many passengers want less heavy meals and want to be able to eat when they choose rather that during fixed mealtimes.

Many passengers also don’t care for the community seating that has long been associated with eating in a railroad dining car. These passengers would rather not dine in the company of strangers.

Of course, RPA said, some passengers have found the food of “contemporary dining” to be terrible and even those who like the food have been put off by how it is presented.

That probably is an allusion to it coming in cardboard boxes and plastic containers, something that is being done because it is less costly and easier to manage.

In its analysis, the RPA said there are too few choices available with current “contemporary dining” fare, particularly with hot meal options.

“Members also tell us that kosher options are a problem, as are options for those with food allergies or sensitivities like gluten intolerance,” RPA wrote, “We’ve also heard from many of our members about entrees running out very early in the dining service.”

At the time that “contemporary dining” was launched, Amtrak said it would eventually allow coach passengers to purchase the meals made available to sleeper class passengers, but thus far that has not occurred.

Amtrak has said it is seeking to satisfy a Congressional mandate to cut its food and beverage deficit so the changes being made to the Auto Train and other eastern long-distance trains are being imposed with that in mind.

That means reducing the number of onboard employees involved in food and beverage service as well as trying to cut the cost of food and beverage acquisition.

The food trucks for coach passengers concept fits well into this framework because it shifts the risk onto an entrepreneur who probably is paying Amtrak a fee for the privilege of selling food trackside.

I wonder, by the way, what will happen when Amtrak begins getting complaints about food odors lingering in the air long after the food has been consumed.

Much of how Amtrak is framing these changes is akin to Michael Jackson’s fabled moonwalk in which he moves backwards while giving the illusion of moving forward.

Many railfans dislike “contemporary dining” but they are not necessarily representative of those who buy sleeper class tickets.

The sleeping customers are not necessarily looking for gourmet dining on wheels or trying to recreate the experience of traveling on the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, Twentieth Century Limited or the Capitol Limited during their heyday before Amtrak came along.

They want a good meal and friendly service that makes them feel that the hefty accommodation charge they paid was worth it.

Serving sleeper class passengers a complimentary alcoholic beverage and giving them exclusive use of a dining car turned lounge is fine, but can be negated by offering meals that too much resemble a school field trip box lunch.

RPA is correct in saying presentation is a problem here, but to get restaurant style presentation is labor intensive and reducing labor costs is one of Amtrak’s objectives.

Whatever shortcomings that “contemporary dining” may have, it could be worse.

Amtrak could borrow Southern Pacific’s playbook of providing food and beverage service from vending machines. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.