Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Week on Amtrak and the Grand Canyon Railway in 1990

On Saturday, March 31, 1990, two friends, Rick and Phil Moser, and I began a week long Amtrak trip. For me there were three main interests in making this trip:
  • It would fill in a number of routes that I had never ridden.
  • It was a chance to spend time with some friends who live elsewhere.
  • It was a chance to ride the new Grand Canyon Railway.
The Southwest Chief pulled out of Chicago's Union Station at 5pm sharp. I settled into my economy room across the hall from one of my friends in the rearmost sleeper and watched as we rolled past the Amtrak Chicago maintenance facility. After the conductor took our tickets and the On Board Services Chief gave us our meal vouchers we headed for the lounge car for a cocktail before dinner. Dinner in the diner followed, with an expanded menu from my last Amtrak trip. The choices included a chicken dish, a seafood dish, a chef's special (often shortribs or lamb/pork kabobs), a vegetarian dish (usually lasagna), and a steak, or roast beef. Every meal I had was tasty and properly cooked with the exception of the steak which they never can get rare for some reason.

Not our menu (check out the prices!)
After dinner it was back to our rooms to watch the moonlit Illinois scenery. Then an evening drink in the lounge...which we quickly took back to our rooms...the movie that they were showing in the lounge made it impossible to talk. Then to bed. I slept like a rock. As I did, I recorded the first of my "new" mileage...the Santa Fe line through Topeka. Every time I had taken that train before it had bypassed Topeka. When I woke up we were around Garden City, Kansas and an hour late because of the change to daylight savings time.

Breakfast was an interesting experience. A companion and I both ordered corn flakes for breakfast and when they came we were amazed that the portions were so small. I had earlier noticed that they were using portion controlled servings. While I ate I noticed the waiter making up another order for another table and lo-and-behold he was splitting one of these portions between two bowls. Later on I complained about this to the On Board Service's Chief who talked to the steward who came back and told us we mistaken. (Subsequently another On Board Service's Chief told us that the steward and waiter were probably stealing...they'd pocket the cash from someone else's cash order).

The Southwest Chief
Going through Raton pass, one of the units died, so we crept along quite slowly, but made the hill...but not without turning off HEP to avoid a power drain. The second unit was eventually restarted and we were only a few minutes late out of Albuquerque, and virtually on-time into Winslow, Arizona. This was the high point of the trip (for stupidity). The Amtrak computer's had not dealt very well with the time change when it came to Arizona (the time does not change there). As a result, tickets issued for departure on April 1 within Arizona, had the wrong time printed on them, and our conductor decided that we could not leave the station until that time. So we sat in Winslow for nearly an hour (while other members of the crew tried to convince the conductor that he was wrong to wait). Anyway, we finally reached Flagstaff, rented a car, checked into a motel and went to sleep.

The Grand Canyon Railway
Early the next morning we drove the 30 or so miles to Williams where we went to the station of the Grand Canyon Railway. There we picked up our tickets (ordered well in advance) for the 10:00 trip to the Grand Canyon. The train consisted of a steam locomotive (I don't care enough about steam to have noticed what kind), and three Harriman coaches that I probably commuted in when I lived in the Bay Area. The coaches had been refurbished quite nicely and the whole operation was quite professional. This train, too, left right on time with 250 or so passengers, and headed through some interesting scenery. During the trip, car attendants (two per car) gave us bottles of Coke (in 6.5 oz bottles!) and cheese and cracker snacks. For part of the trip we were serenaded by a "cowboy" with a guitar. (Even though I am indifferent to steam, I would have preferred to hear the steam locomotive!) Arrival at the Grand Canyon, was about 2.5 hours later, and a quick walk up some stairs brought us to the El Tovar Hotel (where we had lunch overlooking the Canyon) and the south rim of the Canyon itself. If you've never been there, go. The Grand Canyon is indescribable. Four hours later we boarded for the return trip, and about 7pm pulled into the Williams station. Of course, this was more new mileage for me.

Part of our route including the Grand Canyon Railway
Then it was back to Flagstaff, a quick shower, and a MacDonald's salad, before getting on the Southwest Chief for the trip to LA. The car attendant made up our rooms while we had a drink in the lounge, and by the time he came to get us, we were ready to go to sleep. After a rough night (the only night I had trouble sleeping) I awoke just before we pulled into the Pasadena station (the train still took the old route then. Now much of the right of way from LA to Pasadena and beyond is the MetroLink gold line), and was ready to get off by the time we reached LAUPT. After breakfast at the station (alas, we did not know about Philippes at that point), and a quick walk around part of downtown LA, we boarded the Coast Starlight for the trip to Seattle. We were to be met by a friend who works for the SP at San Jose, so he could have dinner with us to Oakland where he would get off. Unfortunately he didn't show up so we dined alone. The Starlight also provided me with new mileage including the East Valley line from Roseville to Tehama, and Vancouver to Seattle. We were two hours late into Seattle, because of slow running up the coast and a medical emergency. Just south of Tacoma someone fell down the stairs in the lounge car and knocked himself out. An ambulance was summoned and he was removed from the train. We have no idea what happened to him.

In Seattle we checked into another motel and had a short night's sleep. The Pioneer left at 6am. This is a short little train to Salt Lake where it joins the California Zephyr and the Desert Wind to become a huge train. The train out of Seattle consisted of a diner, two coaches and a sleeper (all Superliner of course). The trip to Salt Lake was a wonderful trip, complete with new mileage for me (Portland to Salt Lake), and great scenery. It was only marred by an idiotic UP dispatcher who (according to our crew) deliberately repeatedly stabbed us for freights. In spite of being almost an hour late by the time I went to bed, we were nearly on time into Ogden, only to be put behind a coal train making us an hour late into Salt Lake.

The combined train left Salt Lake roughly an hour late with 16 cars! 4 baggage cars, a hi-level coach dorm, three sleepers, 6 coaches, a diner and a Superliner lounge. We immediately stopped because of a signal problem on the Rio Grande and all at once were an hour and 40 late. Extensive track work on the Grande caused us to be three hours late by the time we reached Glenwood Springs. On the radio we learned that the train would be picking up 400 skiers at Fraser (Winter Park). Sure enough, the train pulled into Fraser and there was a mob waiting. An hour later (it takes a while to put that many people and skis on a train) our nice quiet train had been turned into a madhouse. The skiers were mostly high school kids on spring break, and they behaved as such. Luckily, we were in the last sleeper and could barricade the doors against their incursions.

The next morning it was the dining car crew that suffered. We had decided to have breakfast and lunch at the last call since the train was likely to be at least three hours late into Chicago, and wouldn't be serving dinner. Around 8am the PA system announced that they were on reservation number 12 for breakfast. Around 9am it announced that reservations for breakfast would be taken for the next 5 minutes, so one of us when to get one and came back with number 98, just as they were calling number 33. About 10am we decided it was stupid to wait any longer and sent our porter for breakfast which we enjoyed in the privacy of our rooms. They eventually stopped serving breakfast at 12:30pm! Then they announced that they wouldn't start serving lunch until 2:30pm (I wonder why?) About 1pm, the On Board Services' Chief announced that Amtrak would be providing free Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners when the train arrived at Galesburg (actually, they put on 300 at Burlington, Iowa, and 280 at Galesburg). This significantly cut the crowd for lunch (which for non-sleeping car passengers cost real money). So we were able to enjoy a final meal in the diner without much trouble. (The crew did not look as happy as it had the previous day!) Anyway, the train backed into Chicago Union Station at 8:45pm on the Saturday following my departure, less than 4 and one half hours late.

Some observations about the trip:
  • The crews (with the exception of the potentially thieving dining car crew on the Southwest Chief) were consistently first rate. It is easy to rank them, but the differences are marginal. (From best to "worst": the Pioneer from Seattle to Salt Lake, the Coast Starlight, the Pioneer/Desert Wind/Zephyr from Salt Lake to Chicago, and the Southwest Chief). This is a big difference from my last major trip of a few years ago where the crew performance was really spotty (Chicago to Sparks on the Zephyr, Stockton to LA on the San Joaquin, LA to Chicago on the Eagle).
  • The scenic highlight of the trip is the D&RGW east of Grand Junction. Other first rate scenic portions included: the Southwest Chief between Trinidad and Lamy, the Grand Canyon Railway as it got near the Canyon, the Coast Starlight along the Pacific ocean, the Coast Starlight through the Cascades, the Coast Starlight and Pioneer along Puget Sound (with a great view of Mount Rainer), the Pioneer along the Columbia River, and the Pioneer/Wind/Zephyr climbing Soldier's Summit on the D&RGW.
  • The Superliner equipment is showing its age, perhaps due to not enough opportunity for maintenance. Amtrak really needs to get more Superliners so it can rotate them out of service for good overhauls more frequently. In one of my rooms a bolt was missing on the seat so it had to be proped up by a stack of Amtrak Express magazines. On the otherhand, another had been recently outshopped, had the latest retrofits, and was tight as a drum (hardly any rattles). (By the way, the latest retrofits include: an upstairs washroom, a public shower downstairs, and oversized upper berths in Deluxe Bedrooms.)
All and all a great trip.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Charlotte Circle Trip, November 1990

It seems like all of the really good trips come around the same time, usually in the Spring and the Fall. Fall of 1990 was no exception, and so, on Friday, November 2, I found myself out at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport waiting for my USAir flight to Charlotte. At the terminal I met my friend Dave from Wisconsin, who changed planes in Pittsburgh and flew with me to Charlotte. The flight left a few minutes late, but we were essentially on-time into Charlotte where we were joined by my friend Rick from Chicago. (Aside: Rick wanted to fly one way to Charlotte from Chicago. The best fare he could find was nearly $300. I got creative and booked him on a Chicago to Birmingham roundtrip on USAir for $128.00. Had we decided on the trip a few days earlier I could have booked him on the same flight for $54. Of course, to go to Birmingham from Chicago on USAir requires a change of planes...guess where?)

Anyway, we rented a Maxima from Hertz (for the grand total of $19.96 per day!) and drove to the hotel that the trip sponsors (the Piedmont NRHS folks) had recommended.  The Holiday Inn-North was an old Holiday Inn. The rooms had the usual old Holiday Inn musty smell, and the whole place looked seedy. As we parked the car in a nearly empty parking lot, I started worrying about whether it would be there the next morning. (It was, but that and an unexpected knock on the door in the late evening from a woman inquiring about something or other :-) caused us to shift our reservations to a Red Roof Inn for the next night.) So we went out for some southern BBQ and then played half a game of Rail Baron before calling it a night.

The train was scheduled to leave Charlotte at 7:30am on Saturday. Boarding passes were to be distributed starting at 6:15am. We arrived at the station at about 6:25am to discover that there was a long line ahead of us waiting for passes (which they didn't start giving out until 7am). Eventually we got seats in the 8th car (right behind the commissary) the first open window coach. The train was the Norfolk Southern Steam Excursion program's "B" train, a very mixed bag of equipment. The consist included open window and A/C cars, a commissary, and a sleeper lounge (Pine Tree State) for invited guests. The routing was from Charlotte to Winston-Salem via Barber Jct. on the Southern, Winston-Salem to Norwood on the Winston-Salem Southbound, and Norwood to Charlotte on the Aberdeen, Carolina and Western. Power was to be Class J 611 to Winston-Salem, a pair of Geeps (NS, and CSX) from Winston-Salem to Norwood, and a trio of GP7's and GP9's back to Charlotte. For me, the attraction was the new mileage: Charlotte to Barber Jct. and Winston-Salem back to Charlotte.

It was a beautiful sunny day for a train ride, and we left Charlotte only a few minutes late at around 7:40am. Things were going well for a few minutes when we ran into our first delay. 611 was having trouble negotiating a curve on a grade still within the Charlotte city limits (near a place called Atando where the line to W-S diverges from the main line). We took an hour to get up the "hill" with our 14-15 car train. Then we started to move, and all was again well with the world. A really nice photo runby was held at a place called Mt. Ulla, complete with a long sweeping right of way and plenty of brilliant fall colors.

611 on a photo runby -- though not on the trip being written about
Those of us into shortlines were really looking forward to the runbys scheduled on the WSSB and the AC&W. Alas it was not to be. About 20 miles from W-S, the 611 again had trouble pulling the train up a grade. It tried for about 30 minutes before they decided to double the hill. The plan was to take 6 cars off the front of the train to a siding at the top of the grade, come back for the rest of the train, rejoin the cars at the siding, and continue on our way. They made the cut and the 611 took off...a few car lengths. It still couldn't make the grade (I think I can, I think I can, ...., I can't!) So they radioed for diesels to come and get us and let us get off the train and stretch our legs in the middle of nowhere while we waited. Eventually two diesels showed up (the ones for the WSSB segment), and we took off after a 3+ hour delay with a CSX engine heading up the train. Some folks off the train got a great picture of the train being pulled by a CSX unit passing the disabled 611. (We later heard that it had sander problems...maybe.)

So around 4 hours late, we reached Winston-Salem and made the transfer to the WSSB. Switching there went faster than expected and we were soon heading through some spectacular scenery across high bridges, and along glistening lakes. I say glistening because due to our lateness we only saw the northern part of the railroad. The lakes were lighted by moonlight. We reached Norwood with no trouble, quickly made the transfer to the AC&W (which also involved hooking up another private car, the "Babbling Brook" to the rear of the train), and headed for Charlotte.

Due in at 6:30pm, the train did not make it until 10:30pm or so. We dashed off to our car, and went to check in at the Red Roof Inn, a much nicer place at less cost than the Holiday Inn (though inconsistent with the AAA ratings!) My friend Rick was catching the Crescent around 1am, so he used one of our rooms and showered while the rest of us went and had a late dinner at the nearby Waffle House. Then I took Rick back to the Amtrak station to catch his train, and left him to wait while I showered and went to bed at about 12:30am. At 7am I got up, and Dave drove me to the airport where I caught a flight back to Pittsburgh. Except for the fact that USAir had lost my reservation, this was uneventful.

The trip was a good one, even though there were delays. I've got a few observations however:

  1. When I ride a trip scheduled to be pulled by steam, I always assume it will be at least an hour late these days. Steam is dead, and the railroads (even those that want to) don't know how to deal with it anymore. If anything goes wrong it is magnified by the inability of the railroaders to deal with it. The should place less emphasis on steam on these excursions.
  2. The days of the NS steam program are (in my opinion) numbered. There seems to be very little high level committment to the program at the NS. Every NS trip I've been on in the last year has been late, sometimes due to equipment problems, and sometimes due to sabatoge by the dispatchers, etc. The passenger equipment is borderline. Some of it looks like it hasn't had any maintenance in years. There is no pride in the program on the railroad anymore. Moral: if there are trips you've been wanting to ride, ride them next year if they are offered. They might not be here in 92.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Broadway/Capitol Special Inaugural Train (1990)

Saturday, November 10, 1990 marked the last departures of Amtrak's Broadway Limited and Capitol Limit that traversed Conrail's Fort Wayne line between Alliance, Ohio and Chicago. Beginning with the next day's departure the Broadway would back out of Pittsburgh to the connection with the B&O at Bloom and then take an all B&O routing to Chicago via Youngstown, Akron, Fostoria, Garrett, and Napanee. The Capitol would continue on its present route to Alliance, Ohio where it turned north toward Cleveland and connected to the present route of the Lake Shore Limited. This made Pittsburgh to Cleveland travel by rail possible (albeit very inconvenient) for the first time since the inception of Amtrak.

To celebrate this new service, Amtrak ran a special inaugural train for dignitaries, travel agents, media, and other invited guests. I was lucky enough to be sent an invitation, and so on the previous Tuesday night I boarded a USAir F100 for Chicago. After a pleasant dinner with my sister and a friend, I went to bed early anticipating an early wakeup on Wednesday morning. At 4:20am(!) my alarm went off, and I got ready for a big day of travel. I arrived at Union Station about 5:15am and proceeded to track 28 where the special train was waiting.

The inaugural train
The train consisted of two F40's, a baggage car (for supplies), two Amfleet II coaches, a full diner, a dome, a Amfleet II lounge, two more Amfleet II coaches, and Amtrak 10001, a track inspection car. This was the first time I'd had a chance to see 10001. It was built from a wrecked Amfleet I car and had a standard office car configuration (from the rear: open platform, lounge area, a number of private bedrooms with bathroom and shower, a dining area and a kitchen/pantry area. The curved sides of an Amfleet car made the side standard side passage a bit awkward, but otherwise it was practically indistinguishable from Amtrak 10000. (In my experience the 10000 rode better, however.)

Amtrak 10001 brought up the markers
By 5:45, various of my friends who also had been invited, had arrived, and we settled into our seats in the lower portion of the dome car. The train pulled out a few minutes late at just past 6am. Shortly after departure, uniformed attendants passed out orange and apple juice, along with a continental breakfast. This was just the start of an almost continuous stream of goodies and souvenirs that were showered upon us during the two days.

For most of us the attraction of this trip was to be able to see the lines traversed in daylight, something that aren't possible with the overnight schedules of the regular train. The train pulled into Napanee, it's first stop at about 9am to an incredible crowd. This was Amish country, and there were horses and wagons surrounding the station. A very anachronistic sight. Probably 200 people showed up to greet the train and listen to the speeches by local politicians and Amtrak officials. About 100 of them boarded the train for the short run to Garrett, the next stop. This scene was repeated at every stop along the way, except with somewhat smaller crowds.

Amish at Napanee
The train was on-time all of the way across Indiana and Ohio. An unscheduled stop was made in Ravenna, Ohio, a town that felt slighted because it was not a scheduled stop on the route of the Broadway Limited. Amtrak officials thanked the crowd for its support, and indicated that they may consider this request at a future date. Also, the people of Lordstown, Ohio (where there is a big GM plant) were out protesting that it wasn't a stop.

At Youngstown, a major crowd (and a band) boarded, ready to party to Pittsburgh. My friends and I finished a game of Rail Baron (begun in Charlotte) in the lounge, but by the time we finished it the noise level of partying Youngstownites had made the car unbearable, so we retreated to the dome. It wasn't much better (the NARPites had taken it over as their private preserve), so we decided to ask the diner crew if they would heat some Steak n Shake burgers that had been delivered to us at trainside in Garrett (from Fort Wayne). While we waited an Amtrak attendant served us Korbel Champagne and we have photos of us eating Steak n Shake hamburgers in style.

The completion of a game of Rail Baron started weeks previously
The train refueled in New Castle (so that it didn't have to do so overnight in Pittsburgh) and this put us a little off schedule. We reached Field (on the B&O...Bloom on Conrail, hey it's in Bloomfield!) the junction of B&O and Conrail tracks in Pittsburgh a few minutes after our scheduled 7:30pm arrival and backed into Pittsburgh station at about 8pm.

After a all-too-short night at home in Pittsburgh (mine, not my friends), we reboarded the train (which had been turned overnight) for a 7am departure. This time we chased some of the NARPites out of the dome and settled into some seats there for part of the trip to Cleveland. Before we left Pittsburgh, one of the last eastbound Broadway Limiteds over the old route arrived. The run along the Ohio river to Rochester, PA was fun, complete with a scenic tour of Conway Yard once one of the biggest, and before long we were in Alliance, Ohio where we diverged north to Cleveland. A good sized group boarded at Alliance, including some of the Ohio folks who've been pushing for Pittsburgh to Cleveland service for years.

Alliance to Cleveland was a very busy railroad (Conrail routed much of its traffic from Pittsburgh to Chicago this way...hence the desire to downgrade the Fort Wayne line) and we found ourselves behind at least one and maybe two freights. We'd come upon signal after signal lit approach medium. The schedule accounted for this, and we were likely to end up ontime into Cleveland, when we came to a red signal, and there, just ahead of us was PIEL8 (Pittburgh, Elkhart, 8) stopped. It had gone into emergency for no apparent reason, and while they decided what to do we sat...just 7 miles from our destination.

The finally got the freight out of our way, and we did the last few miles to Cleveland in good time, arriving at Lakefront Station at about 11:30 instead of 11:00. There were bands and a good sized crowd there to meet us. We didn't stay for the celebration which was to go on until 7:30pm, with invited guests having luncheon on the train, and a public display before the train ran non-stop to Chicago (scheduled arrival 2:30am!)

My friends from the Chicago area rented a car instead, and railfanned their way across Ohio and Indiana. They planned to stop at the Fort Wayne Steak n Shake, and also to get pictures of one of the last Capitol Limiteds on the Fort Wayne line, and get home at a more reasonable hour (though at a higher expense). I caught a plane for Washington, and a business meeting.

A very enjoyable trip. Amtrak was to be congratulated. They knew how to throw a party.