Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In Search of 75 "New" Miles

We encountered our long time friend and rail aficionado CBW the other day. He was polishing off a brisket and egg breakfast taco from Salt Lick BBQ while awaiting his flight at the Austin Texas airport. CBW enjoys riding trains and particularly trains that travel over routes that he has not traveled over before. So it was not unexpected that when he heard from a well connected friend that an Amtrak train would be detouring in Texas that he made plans to be on said train.

A passenger train detours when the normal route that it follows is impassable for some reason.  Often this happens when the route is blocked due to a mud slide or the derailment of another train, etc. Those detours are hard to plan for. In this case the detour was planned…the Union Pacific railroad was doing major work around Fort Worth that would necessitate a reroute for the train leaving Chicago on May 12 and crossing Texas on May 13. Instead of going from Longview to Dallas to Fort Worth to Taylor to Austin, the train would be going directly from Longview to Taylor via Corsicana. CBW was particularly interested in the 75 miles from Tyler to Corsicana.

The route of the Texas Eagle
A plan was quickly put together. CBW would fly to Dallas Forth Worth (DFW) airport the afternoon of May 12 where he would meet friends Rich and Ed for a flight to the East Texas Regional Airport (GGG) near Longview, arriving around 5:30pm. At Longview the group would meet up with Rick (who was coming by train from Dallas) and Dan (who was coming by bus from Dallas). Alas, it was not to be quite so simple.

The weather in the DFW area was nasty to say the least. Ed and Rich made it to Dallas and waited for CBW at the posted gate. About 45 minutes before CBW’s flight was due to land he was informed that the airport was closing due to weather and that the plane would be diverted to Houston before (hopefully) eventually getting to DFW. This put the connection to GGG very much in doubt. Actually that didn’t end up making a difference because that flight was canceled outright. But no worries there was a plan B – catch an evening bus from Dallas to Longview, or even a plan C – rent a one way car for about $300.

As he fretted on the plane while awaiting the plane's arrival in Houston (since onboard wifi was not working or overloaded at the time), CBW was pleasantly surprised to feel a lick on his left hand from one of his seat companions that sensed his worry. This was from Freddie, a Scotty-Poodle mix service dog providing emotional support for his other seat mate (and it turns out CBW!)

Freddie helped to ease CBW's worry
While CBW usually prefers to be seated next to a blonde, particularly his wife Barbara, Freddie came in a close second.

CBW in Houston consulted with Rich and Ed in Dallas and they said they would wait for him and either catch the bus or rent the car depending upon the timing. CBW discussed the likelihood of the plane getting to DFW at any reasonable hour with a very friendly pilot…who showed him a scary weather radar on his iPad and said probably 8pm at the earliest. (In the event the plane did not arrive until around 11:30am the next day!) At this point CBW called Rich and told him that he would try to catch a Greyhound bus from Houston to Longview leaving at 6:15pm and that they should go catch their own bus at 7:40pm. The two buses were scheduled to arrive at Longview within 10 minutes of each other and they could share a taxi to the Longview motel.  (It wasn’t until he was well on the way to the Houston Greyhound station that CBW realized he had made a rookie mistake – he had assumed that a one way rental from Houston to Longview would cost about the same or more than a one way rental from DFW to Longview. This was not the case – the rental would have been approximately the same cost as the taxi to Houston plus the bus to Longview – but by the time CBW realized it he was essentially committed to the bus option.)

CBW’s taxi arrived at the Greyhound station around 5:15pm with the bus due to leave at 6:15pm. While he was waiting he dined on a pair of McDonald’s finest hamburgers. (CBW is nothing if not an epicurean.) 6:15 came and went with no bus and no driver. Finally both showed up, but it wasn’t until about 7:30pm that the bus actually left Houston. It turns out that the driver originally scheduled for this run had disappeared and they had to call a replacement. The replacement was a very nice man who had been driving for Greyhound for three months and had never driven the route from Houston to Shreveport via Longview before. But have no fear, he had a Greyhound route guide and would do his best. Well it turned out that the route guide was somewhat cryptic and CBW ended up being the navigator with the aid of his trusty iPad.

The bus itself was at most half full throughout the trip. Each seat had a pair of electrical outlets (that worked), and the bus had wifi (that didn’t work very well.) The clientele was “interesting”. Mostly friendly but some of the passengers had “issues.” One lady, sitting across the aisle from CBW was berating the driver almost from the get go because she was going to miss her connection in Shreveport. She would not shut up and eventually the driver had to threaten to put her off the bus at Livingston (the first stop). She calmed down after that (and eventually offered fried chicken to many sitting around her. It looked good but CBW declined the generous offer.) Another fellow, a very polite and friendly cowboy who was in the fracking business was trying to get to Longview in time to catch a corporate flight to Oklahoma at 2am. He had been on the road a week longer than he had expected and had run out of cash and had to borrow $1.56 to pay for his ticket to Longview. He helped with the navigation chores as he knew a lot of the roads in the area.

Finally there was a fellow CBW called “the smoker”. The bus had been underway about an hour before it pulled into Livingston. He came to the front of the bus and asked if he could get off for a smoke. The driver said that he could not as there was no layover until Nacogdoches in another two hours. He muttered to himself but went back to his seat. About 45 minutes to an hour later the bus pulled into Lufkin where it was pouring sheets of rain. He again asked and was again told “no”. At this point he became extremely vocal to the point where the driver said that if he gets off the bus he won’t be getting on. This led to a bigger argument that eventually resulted in the driver calling the local police. They showed up and the guy got off the bus to talk with them and presumably smoke. While this went on about 10 or so other passengers also got off the bus to smoke. They all came back seriously wet and smelling of tobacco, but presumably calmed from their addiction. Oh, and “the smoker” also came back on the bus after apologizing and begging forgiveness. He was quiet thereafter. (It developed that his brother had died the day before and he was heading to the funeral.)

At Nacogdoches the bus stopped for 15 minutes at the sleaziest convenience store CBW had seen in a long time. The bus then made stops in Henderson and Kilgore before pulling into Longview at about 1:10am (it was due at 10:40pm.) As CBW got off the bus the driver thanked him profusely for his help – hopefully he made it to Shreveport okay. A call to Yellow/Checker cab resulted in a taxi about 10 minutes later and a driver who said to CBW that “I’m the psychic cab driver – I bet you want to go to the Comfort Suites.” Of course he had earlier taken Rich and Ed to the same hotel. CBW was in bed by 2am and slept very well until just before the alarm went off at 7am.

At 7:30am CBW, Rick, Rich, and Ed went to the Amtrak station in Longview for the 8:28am departure for Corsicana. Dan was waiting for the group at the station as were buses to take those Amtrak passengers destined for stations on the normal route between Longview and Austin. The station itself had recently been remodeled, an ongoing project that resulted in one of the neatest phone charging stations that CBW had ever seen.
A unique charging station
The train arrived nearly two hours late and disgorged all of those passengers leaving a very empty train for everyone else.

CBW and Rick had elected to get a roomette for privacy (and free meals) instead of a pair of coach seats. CBW in particular is of the opinion that one should always go first class when funds allow it. Unfortunately the lateness of the departure meant no breakfast and so CBW did not have the opportunity to dine on the fabulous Amtrak French toast. But there was always lunch and (possibly) dinner. As it happens CBW and Rick barely used the roomette as there was quite a bull session that went on in the lounge car all day. It turns out that other friends, Otto, Pete, Dwight, Mike, and Don had spent the night on the train, riding down from Chicago or St. Louis. CBW had considered that option but thought he would get a better/longer night’s sleep in a hotel bed. CBW is not always correct in his reasoning.
Passengers waiting to board at Longview
The train left at 10:27am and made its way to Big Sandy where the train maneuvered onto the line to Tyler and Corsicana. This involved a backup move and it eventually left Big Sandy at 11:11am.  CBW had previously ridden from Big Sandy to Tyler behind steam engine SSW 819 in the 1990’s so the new mileage didn’t begin for him until Tyler, which was passed at 11:44am.

At about noon the dining car steward made the first call for lunch in the diner. Since most of us had not had much breakfast (CBW had had none) the group of ten was among the first to arrive and was quickly seated and before long were feasting on steakburgers, veggie burgers, planko chicken,  or bratwurst. All topped off with a vintage Diet Pepsi.

The train reached Corsicana at 1:41pm and proceeded on to Hearne. CBW and Rick and others had previously traversed this portion of the line in 1984 on the World’s Fair Daylight  behind steam engine SP GS-4 4449 as it made it’s way to the worlds fair in New Orleans.

The train had to wait for almost two hours near Hearne because of freight congestion. It left Hearne for Taylor at 5:00pm. CBW and most of the others had ridden this route less than a year ago when the Texas Eagle did a previous detour. The steward made the first call for dinner at 5:15pm. The group had a reservation for this first seating because the train was due in Austin around 6:30pm. Wine and cocktails and iced tea and Diet Pepsi flowed followed by a fresh salad, rolls, and in CBW’s case a wonderful turkey shank dinner. Others at CBW’s table had the steak and the Mahi Mahi, with a triple chocolate mousse for dessert. The train pulled in to Austin at 7:25pm where a mob of passengers were waiting to board,. At this point the group split up heading in different directions. CBW, Rick, Rich, and Ed had reservations at the airport Hilton and while calling for a taxi were approached by a gypsy driver who took them to the hotel for $25. (CBW checked later, and the taxi fare would have run around $22 subject to variation., but the gypsy was there and no one wanted to wait.)

All day CBW had been trying to get his boarding pass for the flights back to Pittsburgh the next day. But American Airlines was having none of it. Also, because of a fire and weather in Chicago there were a lot of canceled flights throughout the day. CBW decided to go over to the airport to get his boarding passes ahead of time. Ed and Rich joined him and it’s a good thing they did as for some reason their reservations had been canceled. It took a lot of patience and firmness but Rich was able to get them back after a long discussion.

After getting back to the hotel, CBW pretty much went right to bed as he had to be up at 4:15am to be ready to take the 5:00am shuttle to the airport. Thanks to having the boarding passes already and TSA Pre-Check security was a breeze and this brings us to him dining on his brisket and egg taco. He reports it was delicious.

CBW later informed us that his flight to Chicago was a good one. Just before boarding they upgraded an individual and CBW was right there to grab the seat he had vacated, thereby snagging an aisle seat near the front of the plane instead of his window seat at the rear of the plane. This flight arrived early enough that the plane had to do some additional taxiing until a gate opened up for it. The gate for the Pittsburgh flight was practically across the hall from the arrival gate and, after buying a bag of “Chicago mix” at the world’s best popcorn shop (Garrett’s) CBW settled down to await the flights boarding at 9:45am (which eventually became 10:20am or so).  The flight arrived in Pittsburgh about 45 minutes late and CBW was home by 2:30pm.

We asked CBW if it was worth it for a mere 75 miles of trackage. He replied “you bet, I’d do it again in a moment”, then he thought a bit and added “but perhaps I’d rent the car the next time.”

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