It is 4:15 a.m. in the Amtrak station in Cleveland. The westbound Lake Shore Limited should have been here a half hour ago. “Julie” says it will arrive at 5:10, the Amtrak agent at the ticket windows says 5:15. Whatever the case, the passengers wait.
Four Amtrak trains a day serve Cleveland and all are scheduled to arrive during the overnight hours.
It’s the reality of being located at the midpoint of routes for which trains are timed to best serve the needs of connecting passengers in Chicago, New York and Washington.
The seats in the Cleveland station are not overly comfortable, but I’d rate them to be better than those in the waiting lounge in Chicago.
Inside the station, it is largely quiet. A few low conversations can be heard, but most of those waiting – which includes some waiting for the eastbound Lake Shore Limited – are trying to nap, reading or using their smart phones.
Outside there is the periodic rumble of passing Norfolk Southern freight trains.
I moved to Cleveland in August 1993 and boarded my first train here the following April. The station hasn’t changed much since then.
If the station seems dated it is because it is. In my collection of Amtrak artifacts is an annual report from the 1970s that shows an Amtrak employee making a model of a “modern” Amtrak station that looks just like the Cleveland station.
During Amtrak’s early years, it was plagued with union stations in cities where there were just four or two trains a day.
These palatial depots were built for a much higher level of traffic and were wonders in their day but to Amtrak management they had become dinosaurs that burned precious cash.
The answer was to create a much smaller standard station that was more in tune with Amtrak’s needs.
When the Cleveland Amtrak station opened in 1976, Paul Reistrup was Amtrak’s president, long-distance trains were pulled by SDP40F locomotives and passenger cars had steam heat.
All of that has gone away, but the Cleveland station remains as a monument to another era. I am not sure why, but there is something vaguely comforting about that.
In many ways, Amtrak is an operation frozen in the past. Change tends to be incremental and comes in small increments at that.
It has the same basic route structure that it had in 1971, although with some additions and subtractions here and there, most notable of which has been the expansion and development of short-haul corridors funded by the states.
Construction of the Superliner and Amfleet equipment that is assigned today to the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited began in the 1970s, although some of it is newer.
So every time I catch a train in Cleveland it is a bit like going back to the 1970s when I was in college and what I see today in Cleveland was state of the art then.
Are any of those waiting passengers looking at their smart phones watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show? “Love is all around, no need to waste it.”
But it’s 2014 and not 1974.
Shortly before 5, I get up and walk out into the cold night air to wait for No. 49.
Soon, I see the lights of an approaching train to the east that has the unmistakable pattern of the headlight and ditch lights of an Amtrak P42 locomotive.
The Lake Shore Limited halts at 5:07 a.m. Eight minutes later, the engineer opens the throttle and we are Chicago-bound an hour and a half behind schedule.
And it’s still night time in Cleveland.