Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak trip reports’

Riding Amtrak Still an Enjoyable Experience

October 3, 2021

The southbound Saluki arrives in Effingham, Illinois, behind an SC-44 Charger locomotive.

Back in July Amtrak sent me an email warning that my Amtrak Guest Rewards account had been inactive for 24 months and my points would expire in mid September.

The email listed ways to keep my account active including buying an Amtrak ticket or redeeming points for travel or Amtrak-branded merchandise.

I filed all of this in my “to do” mental folder. As September dawned I needed to do something.

My account had 21,000 points, which isn’t enough for a spectacular trip, but I didn’t want to lose those points either.

I thought about using points for a day trip to Chicago on the Cardinal. I also considered making a short trip from Effingham to Mattoon, Illinois, on the Saluki, an Illinois Department of Transportation funded train between Chicago and Carbondale.

The distance between those two towns is 27 miles and the trip takes just 24 minutes. That wouldn’t be much of a train ride.

Instead I decided on something I hadn’t done since 1983.

The equipment for the southbound Saluki lays over in Carbondale for 2 hours, 20 minutes before returning to Chicago as the Illini.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I had on occasion ridden Train 391 from Mattoon to Carbondale and returned that evening on Train 392. In those days they were named the Shawnee.

Since I was last in Carbondale, the Illinois Central passenger station has been renovated and received an IC equipment display of a GP11 and caboose. I could photograph that.

Amtrak opened a new Carbondale station three blocks south in October 1981. I have hundreds of photographs of Amtrak trains on the former Main Line of Mid-America but none in Carbondale.

However, instead of leaving from Mattoon, I would depart from Effingham.

I planned to use points for the trip but that changed when I discovered a one-way non-refundable fare of $8. Even if for some reason I couldn’t make the trip I would only be out $16.

I booked it for Sunday, Sept. 12, a mere three days before my points were to expire.

Booking travel on Amtrak is more involved than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

You must click a box agreeing to wear a mask in stations and aboard the train.

Amtrak also tried to get me to buy trip insurance. Did they really think I was going to do that for a $16 ticket?

The afternoon before my trip Amtrak sent me an email directing me to fill out a short form online. Aside from the standard COVID symptoms questions that I’ve become used to answering every time I visit a doctor I also had to agree – again – to wear a mask.

On the day of the trip I arrived at the Effingham station three hours before train time to get in some railfanning before No. 391 arrived.

Effingham back in the day had a station used by the IC and Pennsylvania Railroad. Flanking the passenger station were express depots for both railroads.

Today the passenger station is a cosmetology school and the ex-PRR express depot is used by a catering company as a kitchen.

Amtrak uses half of the ex-IC express depot with the other half used by a tattoo parlor.

I arrived to find work underway to rebuild the Amtrak boarding platform, which complicated my photography due to high construction zone fences and orange fabric barriers.

CSX sent one train through town, an eastbound grain train, while Canadian National sent two northbounds and a southbound past the station.

A CN train working the yard came north of the diamonds for headroom and to clear the block before going back into the yard.

Three of the four CN trains had IC SD70 locomotives wearing the pre-merger IC black “death star” livery.

One of the southbounds had a motive power consist of two IC “death stars” and a Grand Trunk Western geep in its original livery. Talk about a heritage consist.

I also observed the coming and going of the northbound Saluki.

For nearly a year Amtrak has assigned Superliner equipment to its Chicago-Carbondale trains. The Saluki and Illini are pulled by SC-44 Charger locomotives owned by IDOT and leased by Amtrak.

My foray to Carbondale would be my first trip behind a Charger locomotive. Interestingly, my first trip aboard a Superliner coach was a day trip to Carbondale in June 1979 when the then-new cars were in break-service on Midwest corridor trains before being assigned to the Empire Builder that October.

No. 391 was about 15 minutes late. I stood alone on the platform, mask firmly in place, the only passenger to board on this day.

I wasn’t surprised. When I had bought my ticket Train 391 was shown as at 13 percent of capacity.

I presented my ticket to the conductor but he said he had already checked me off. About 10 passengers disembarked.

I was one of just two passengers in my coach. The conductor came to my seat and asked if I had ridden with Amtrak before.

Yes, I have – many times actually – but not since before the pandemic. The conductor noted there was a café car up ahead. I didn’t plan to patronize it but thanked the conductor for that information anyway.

I settled back in my seat and enjoyed watching the countryside pass by. It had been more than three decades since I had seen Southern Illinois in daylight from the vantage point of an Amtrak coach window.

As we slowed for the Centralia station, a northbound BNSF coal train passed on an adjacent track. It had a distributed power unit on the rear.

Centralia was once the home of a large IC car shop. As best I could determine, most of that complex is gone.

It used to be that southbound passenger trains went around the Centralia yard complex on the west side. That wasn’t the case today although I could see that track still goes over that way.

We passed the yard on the east side.

The yard had a moderate number of freight cars and some motive power, including the two “death stars” and GTW geep I had seen earlier. A massive coaling tower still stands in the yard.

Our next stop was Du Quoin where Amtrak shares a small modern depot with the local chamber of commerce. It opened in August 1989.

Carbondale used to have a large yard, too, but most of it is gone. The former St. Louis division offices were razed years ago.

All that’s left are a few tracks and the twin coaling towers that stand near where the roundhouse used to be.

Due to schedule padding we arrived at the Carbondale station 15 minutes early and slightly less than two hours after leaving Effingham

It turns out most of the Carbondale passengers had been in other coaches.

Shortly after No. 391 arrived, the crew backed the equipment north to the yard and turned it on a wye track.

I made photographs of the ferry move in both directions passing the former IC station.

It was a warm day and I walked to a Circle K to get a large bottle of Gatorade. I walked around a bit, photographing the old IC station, which houses a small railroad museum that wasn’t open on this day, as well as offices of the chamber of commerce and a non-profit organization that promotes downtown Carbondale.

A statue of an IC conductor pays tribute to the railroad’s long history in Carbondale, which used to be where St. Louis cars were added or removed from trains bound to and from New Orleans and Florida.

A northbound CN tank car train came through during my layover.

I was dismayed to find the Carbondale Amtrak station is only open during the day on Wednesdays. But it’s open seven days a week at night to accommodate passengers for the City of New Orleans, which arrives in both directions in the dead of night.

There were around 50 of us waiting outside the station.

There would be just one conductor on tonight’s Train 392. He opened two doors of the train and stood on the platform.

I was expecting him to come up to the crowd and announce that boarding was ready to begin.

Instead he raised an arm and waved it a bit, which I interpreted as a signal to come out and get on board.

I started walking toward the train and the crowd followed me. Everyone was put in the same car.

We left on time and made the same stops as we had earlier. In Centralia I spotted a young man running from the parking lot toward the train, which was about done boarding.

If the conductor saw him, he ignored him because the train began moving. I expected the conductor to see the guy and order the engineer to stop. But we kept going.

CN and Amtrak have been at loggerheads for years over a number of operating issues including CN’s edict that Amtrak operate with a minimum number of axles to ensure that grade crossing signals are activated.

That is in part why I was riding a train with seven Superliner cars with far fewer passengers than the train’s capacity.

Amtrak and CN also have sparred over dispatching with Amtrak accusing CN of needlessly delaying Amtrak’s trains.

I know from years of experience in riding Amtrak between Mattoon and Chicago that delays due to freight train interference are not uncommon, particularly around Champaign.

But on this day we didn’t meet a single CN freight during on my trip.

I was the only passenger getting off at Effingham. Seven people were waiting on the platform to board.

A woman at the back of the line was not wearing a facial mask and the conductor refused to let her board.

I don’t know why she was maskless, but as I walked to my car I noticed the conductor had placed the step box aboard the train and stood in the doorway as the woman gestured while making her case – whatever that was – for not wearing a mask.

The conductor was having none of it and No. 392 left with the woman standing on the platform.

It had been an enjoyable outing and not all that much different from other trips I’ve made on Amtrak. The number of passengers aboard was less than I expected given that it was a Sunday, which normally is a heavy travel day on this route.

Sometime within the next year new Siemens Venture cars are expected to be assigned to Midwest corridor trains and maybe I’ll do another Carbondale roundtrip to experience them.

A pair of IC SD70s and a Grand Trunk geep pass the under construction Effingham Amtrak boarding area.
The DPU on a northbound BNSF coal train in Centralia.
Disembarking at the Carbondale Amtrak station.
The equipment for Amtrak’s northbound Illini passes the former IC passenger station at it backs down to the Amtrak depot in Carbondale.
A northbound CN tank train passes the Carbondale Amtrak station where the Illini awaits its 4:05 p.m. departure.

Amtrak Trip Report–Part 2

June 10, 2013

The northbound Saluki arrives in Mattoon, Ill., on Thursday, May 23.

The northbound Saluki arrives in Mattoon, Ill., on Thursday, May 23.

I arrived at the Amtrak station in Mattoon, Ill., about 45 minutes before Train No. 390, the northbound Saluki was scheduled to arrive. I had checked Amtrak’s website before leaving and at that time No. 390 was running three minutes late. That would eventually widen to nine minutes late.

This edition of the Saluki was a near carbon copy of the southbound Illini that I had ridden three days earlier. It had the same conductor, assistant conductor and engineer. I rode in the same coach and the consist was the same as it had been on Monday. That was four Horizon coaches and three food service cars. Only one of the latter was in use and it was not clear why two unused food service cars were on the train.

The only difference was a locomotive change. P42 No. 126 was pulling this consist.

While waiting for the Saluki to arrive, I chatted with a guy who lived in nearby Shelbyville, Ill., but his wife lives in Connecticut because of her job. They spend weekends together at a small apartment they rent in Chicago.

She flies in, but he takes Amtrak. He said by buys a 10-ride ticket and never makes a reservation even though all of the trains on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans route are reserved. If need be, he said he’ll sit in the café car.

He said he’s ridden that all of the conductors know him. He boarded ahead of me and the conductor recognized him.

We met the southbound Saluki at Champaign yard and did not encounter any freight train interference en route to Chicago. We made a double stop at Kankakee because someone didn’t get off who was supposed to during the first stop.

I had the seat to myself to Champaign, but a guy then sat down next to me en route to Kankakee. No sooner had this guy gotten off at Kankakee, but his seat was taken by woman headed for Chicago.

I got to see firsthand how Amtrak’s new ticketing system works. The conduct scanned her barcode, but nothing came up. He manually entered her reservation number and nothing came up. It turned out that she had booked her trip on that morning’s City of New Orleans, but had decided to take the Saluki instead.

She had not called Amtrak to change the reservation and being a no show on No. 58 led to her reservation being canceled. She wound up calling her husband on her cell phone and having him make another reservation that wasn’t taken care of until the train was about to reach Homewood.

The Saluki is far more convenient for me schedule wise than the City of New Orleans. Whereas the City leaves Mattoon at 5:23 a.m., the Saluki departs at 9:31 a.m. The coach fare on the Saluki is also substantially lower than it is on the City, probably because the state of Illinois underwrites the Saluki and Illini.

For years, though, I had to ride the City of New Orleans to Chicago because it was the only train that got there in time to connect with the Capitol Limited or Lake Shore Limited.

After we left Kankakee, I made my way to the café car to get the Angus cheeseburger and cranberry juice. That would be lunch. The $9 price tag for those was exorbitant and only a $1.75 less than the crab cake breakfast I had had on the Capitol Limited.

Although nearly a half hour late leaving Homewood, we rolled into Union Station two minutes early.

I was booked that night in a sleeper on the Lake Shore Limited and I had a long layover. I checked in at the first class lounge where I left my suitcase.

Then it was off on Metra to spend a few hours railfanning on the BNSF raceway at Riverside. I am familiar with that town because my sister used to live here.

A westbound stack train was cruising past as I alighted and I just missed an inbound coal train. But there was enough traffic over the next couple of hours to make things interesting.

This included the coming and going of the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr. The outbound CZ had two California cars tucked in behind the locomotives and a private car on the rear. It was an open platform car operated by an outfit called – I think – Pullman Railtours Inc. The name on the side was “Suitsme” and it came in a livery that looked a lot like Baltimore & Ohio. The name “Pullman” was in the letter board.

I also saw the Penn Central heritage unit of Norfolk Southern, which was the third unit in a motive power lash-up pulling a tank car train west.

By the time I boarded my Metra train for Union Station just after 4 p.m. the skies were clearing and sunshine had returned. It had been a windy, chilly day. This was the same equipment I had ridden on to Riverside a couple of hours earlier.

I ate dinner at The Italian Village and hoofed it back to Union Station. I purchased at a Union Station newsstand the summer issue of Classic Trains and the special issue titled “Trains of the 1950s.”

I read them while passing the time in the first class lounge. In past years, the personnel in the lounge would announce the boardings of all trains, but that wasn’t the case today. Only those trains with sleepers were announced.

I had been told that boarding would begin at 8 p.m., but it was nearly 8:30 before we were summoned to the back of the lounge and led out to the platform. For a train with three sleepers, the number of first class passengers seemed light.

I was in the sleeper for Train No. 448, which meant having to walk the length of the train to get there. Up front were P42 Nos. 174 and 116.

It is interesting to see how Amtrak’s fares work. Although I never intended to ride the Capitol Limited back to Cleveland, I had checked to see how the price of a sleeper on No. 30 compared to that of No. 48. The fare for a single room on No. 30 was double what I paid. In fact, the fare for a sleeper on No. 48 was higher than that of No. 448, even though it is the same train between Chicago and Cleveland.

Just for the heck of it, I checked the price of a sleeper on No. 448 from Chicago to Cleveland a few minutes after I had purchased my ticket. The fare had gone up substantially. I guess after I purchased my room the fare kicked up to the next “bucket.”

I was booked into Room 2 of Viewliner 62047, the former “Village View.” The attendant greeted me on the platform and told me to go to the right after boarding. He said welcome aboard but didn’t offer to help me with my luggage.

Amtrak advertises a welcome aboard reception for first class passengers in No. 48’s dining car. On a previous trip in No. 448’s sleeper we had been given our wine, cheese and crackers in our rooms because the diner is next the New York sleepers at the far other end of the train.

I expected that to be the case this time, too, but the attendant made no move to serve us as we sat in Chicago as had been done a couple of years earlier.

When the attendant came around to introduce himself after the train rolled out of Union Station I asked him about the welcome aboard reception. He professed to know nothing about it. When I said that first class passengers are served wine and cheese in the diner, he said Amtrak only did that on the Empire Builder.

He also allowed that he had made only three trips on the Lake Shore Limited and no one had told him anything about this.

As I had trudged down the platform, I had seen another attendant putting a table cloth on a table in the dining car, which I presumed was in preparation for the welcome aboard reception.

Did this mean the New York sleeping car passengers got the reception, but the Boston sleeping car passengers did not?

More than a half hour after the train departed Chicago I noticed that the conductor had not come around to scan my “ticket.” So I went looking for him. It wasn’t that I feared losing my reservation because this was the last leg of my trip. But I feared not getting credit for the points in my frequent traveler account.

I ran into both conductors between the first and second Boston coaches. They told me that they had already entered the sleeper passengers. How could they have done that without scanning tickets? “We’re good,” one of them replied in jest.

They had checked the passenger manifest and entered the sleeping car passengers by hand. One of them said they knew who had shown up and who hadn’t. I didn’t bother to ask how they knew that.

Upon returning to my car I discovered our attendant passing out foil covered plates of cheese and crackers. The attendant came around with white and red wine. He even came back again to offer seconds on wine.

By then I was pretty tired and wanted to get ready for bed. I figured that everyone would want their room made up at the same time, so rather than bother the attendant I lowered the upper bunk from the ceiling, crawled up there and went to bed.

I didn’t sleep as much as I expected that I would. It beat being in an Amfleet II coach seat, though. For all of this train’s reputation as being the “late shore limited,” it tends to arrive in Cleveland on time or early. I am not sure why. After departing Cleveland one minute late, No. 48 would be up to an hour and a half late through New York State.  Maybe it’s because it gets on CSX in Cleveland.

On this day, we stopped at the Cleveland Amtrak station 9 minutes early. We met our westbound counterpart, No. 49, just west of the Elyria station.

I was awake and up well before No. 48 got to Cleveland. The attendant came to get me just before we arrived in the station. This time, he did help me with my luggage. He had been a nice guy and I think he wanted to be helpful. We shook hands after I disembarked and I gave him a tip.

I snapped a few photographs and headed for home. It had been an enjoyable trip and I had had a good time riding all four trains that I rode. I had nothing major to complain about regarding the service on any of the four trains that I’d ridden.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

The train pulls out of Kankakee.

The train pulls out of Kankakee.

Just missing the head end of a westbound intermodal train as I step off Metra in Riverside, Ill.

Just missing the head end of a westbound intermodal train as I step off Metra in Riverside, Ill.

My Viewliners sleeper room aboard the Lake Shore Limited.

My Viewliners sleeper room aboard the Lake Shore Limited.

Back in Cleveland, a last look at my Viewliner sleeper.

Back in Cleveland, a last look at my Viewliner sleeper.

Getting ready to unload the baggage.

Getting ready to unload the baggage.

A lone passenger occupies the lounge car at this early hour.

A lone passenger occupies the lounge car at this early hour.

Amtrak Trip Report–Part 1

June 9, 2013

The Capitol Limited calls at Cleveland in the dead of night on Monday, May 20.

The Capitol Limited calls at Cleveland on the night on Monday, May 20.

It was the dead of night when I called Amtrak Julie to inquire as to the status of Train No. 29 at Cleveland. “Train Number twenty nine is expected to arrive into Cleveland train station on time,” Julie replied.

So far, so good. The agent at the station, though, hedged a bit saying that the westbound Capitol Limited was expected to arrive close to on time. She noted it had been a few minutes late at Alliance.

I was en route to downstate Illinois to visit my dad and I would connect in Chicago to the southbound Illini where I would get off in Mattoon.  It is a trip I’ve been making once, sometimes twice, a year since 1994. Back then the Capitol Limited had heritage fleet coaches and dome cars.

I sat in my car and monitored the Norfolk Southern road channel used in Cleveland. In my experience, this is the best way to know when the train is getting near because I can hear it call signals several miles away.

In the meantime, the eastbound Capitol Limited arrived just over an hour late. No. 29, though, would arrive three minutes early.

I was the first to board and the conductor scanned my “ticket” on the platform. It was my first trip on Amtrak since it instituted this system last year.

In what may have been a first in all of my years of riding No. 29, it arrived at Elyria early and had to wait for time to depart.

I managed to catch a few winks in my coach seat in Superliner coach No. 34044, but didn’t get much in the way of restful sleep. Up front were P42 Nos. 39 and 131. The consist included a baggage car, three sleepers, diner, Sighterseer lounge and three coaches.

Shortly after sunrise, I went to the rear coach to try to photograph the sunrise (Photo 2). I should have been there a few minutes earlier when it the sun had been more red in color, but I was not on the sunrise side of the train.

I then made my way to the diner for breakfast. I was seated promptly and a server came around soon thereafter to take my drink order, which was water and orange juice. Both came out right away and were served in glass, not plastic.

I opted for the Chef’s Good Morning Special, which was described on the menu as a toasted wheat biscuit with grilled tomato slices topped with a crab cake and hollandaise sauce. I also got the potatoes and a side order of bacon.

The meal arrived on real china, but the plate holding the croissant was plastic. The utensils were metal and we had cloth napkins. I suppose this is the enhanced dining service on Nos. 29/30 that is advertised in the timetable.

I thought it appropriate that I was having a crab cake because that had been a specialty dish on the original Capitol Limited when the Baltimore & Ohio ran it. I never rode that train.

Amtrak menus also list the calories for each item and I got the highest calorie entrée on the breakfast menu. Indeed, it was the highest calorie entrée on the entire menu.

The guy at the table with me was returning home to Oregon after a cross country trip. He had taken the Coast Starlight from Klamath Falls to Portland and ridden the Empire Builder to Chicago. Then it was on to Washington, D.C. aboard the Capitol Limited. He would catch the California Zephyr later this afternoon and said he was looking forward to crossing the Rockies tomorrow. His wife would pick up him in Reno.

My breakfast came out shortly after I placed my order. There were three servers in the car plus the lead service attendant or whatever they are called these days. I’d rate the quality of the service as quite good.  The crew was friendly and helpful.

The car was mostly empty when I arrived, but began filling as I ate. The server sent one woman back to her room to get her shoes when she arrived in stocking feet.

I spent some time in the lounge car after breakfast before returning to my seat for the duration of the trip into Chicago.

We got hung up in northwest Indiana by construction zones and freight traffic. One of the crew noted on the intercom that we were late, but that he expected an on-time arrival. Left unsaid was that the schedule padding would make that possible.

However, we pulled to a stop at the Union Station bumping post eight minutes down. It had been an enjoyable trip.

I stowed my luggage in a locker and spent the layover walking around downtown Chicago and the lakefront taking photographs. I also rode to the top of Willis Tower (nee Sears Tower) before having a late lunch at the Berghoff.

Then it was back to Union Station to wait to board the Illini, one of two pairs of state-sponsored trains between Chicago and Carbondale.

There was a new wrinkle in the boarding procedure from years past. As always, business class, seniors, active duty military, families with small children, and the physically challenged got to board first.

But then the gate agent let through small groups of coach passengers, having one group sit on one side of the departure lounge and another group sit on the other. And I do mean sit. If you were standing, the agent would tell you to have a seat.

Those not in the two initial groups cooled their heels in the waiting area. We boarded in the order that we had been let into the departure lounge.

I took a seat in Horizon coach No. 54503 on the left side of the car.  On the point was P42 No. 26. The car was not full upon leaving Chicago, but that had changed by the time we departed from Kankakee when nearly every seat had been taken.

Shortly before we were to depart from Chicago, I heard a commotion in the car behind the one in which I was sitting. The assistant conductor had found a woman smoking and was putting her off. I heard him tell the conductor on the radio that the “whole train smelled like smoke.” That was an exaggeration, but I later heard him tell a passenger in my coach that all of the coach in which she had been sitting smelled like a cigarette.

The AC told that passenger that the woman claimed not to know that there was no smoking allowed aboard the train and that she tried to hide from him before he found her. The incident did not cause us to be late leaving Union Station.

Usually, trains bound for the former Illinois Central back out of Union Station, but today we pulled straight out, proceeding to the bridge over the Chicago River and then backing up to the BNSF Raceway and the Union Avenue interlocking to reach the St. Charles Air Line. I noticed that a Metra locomotive had derailed.

This may have cost us a little time because we arrived in Homewood four minutes late. There was no freight train interference or track work, but we still managed to be 10 minutes late into Champaign. Some of that was due to having to take the “slow track” through Champaign Yard to go around a CN freight that was on the other main.

In my experience, the area around Champaign is where the southbound Illini is most likely to incur delays. There always seems to be freight traffic in the area and often we meet our northbound Amtrak counterpart at Tolono.

Today was no exception. After departing, we took the siding at Tolono to wait for the northbound Illini. It took several minutes for No. 392 to show up. There were no more delays after that and we arrived in Mattoon just over a half hour late.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

Daybreak from the last coast of Amtrak No. 29.

Daybreak from the last coach of Amtrak No. 29.

A crab cake for breakfast. An Amtrak first for me and a Capitol Limited tradition.

A crab cake for breakfast. An Amtrak first for me and a Capitol Limited tradition.

The dining car eventually began to fill up.

The dining car eventually began to fill up.

Passing a stack train in Elkhart, Ind., as seen from the Sightseer lounge.

Passing a stack train in Elkhart, Ind., as seen from the Sightseer lounge.

The Chicago skyline as seen from the St. Charles Airline.

The Chicago skyline as seen from the St. Charles Airline aboard the Illini.

The end of the journey is the platform in Mattoon, Ill. I boarded my first Amtrak train here in November 1972.

The end of the journey is the platform in Mattoon, Ill. I boarded my first Amtrak train here in November 1972.

Heading south for Carbondale.

Heading south for Carbondale.