Thursday, October 19, 2017

Riding and Chasing Amtrak's 2017 Autumn Express

In the 1880s the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired a railroad built along the west shore of the Hudson river so it could compete with the New York Central on its own turf. In turn, the New York Central began building the South Pennsylvania Railroad to compete against the Pennsy on its turf. On July 10, 1885, J. P. Morgan brought William Vanderbilt and Chauncy Depew of the New York Central and George Roberts and Frank Thomson of the Pennsyvania together aboard his yacht, Corsair, and negotiated the "Corsair Compact" to end the wasteful competition. As a result the New York Central ended up with the West Shore line (and the Pennsylvania got the South Pennsylvania ... which was never completed and became part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike many years later.)

Most New York Central, and all Amtrak service between Albany and New York City traversed the Hudson line (along the east shore of the Hudson), and I had ridden that route several times. But, over the years I had missed several opportunities to ride the line along the west shore. So it was with great interest that I read an email in August of 2017 that contained a rumor of a probable Amtrak Autumn Express to cover the West Shore Railroad each of the two days of the weekend of October 14. In anticipation of the trip I immediately booked a room at the Hilton Newark Penn Station for the nights of October 13th and 14th and sat back to await an official announcement.

The Autumn Express approaching Peekskill, October 15, 2017
Said announcement came on September 1, with tickets to go on sale on September 12. On the morning of September 12 I booked a ticket on the October 14th trip, and also purchased tickets for traveling companions Rick Moser and Neil Lang. I then started watching air fares for flights between Pittsburgh and Newark. I had a credit from a canceled trip to Winnipeg in July (to ride to Churchill, a line that got flooded out) so given that sunk cost, I was only out of pocket about an additional $80.

At some point before purchasing the airline tickets I decided to join Rick on an outing to photograph the Sunday train in two or three locations. By the time I made this decision the rates at the Hilton had gone up and I ended up booking the night of the 15th at the Hilton Newark Airport.

On October 13, Barb dropped me at the bus to take me to Pittsburgh International Airport for my 12:30pm flight. The flight left the gate a full 12 minutes early and was at the end of the runway ready to take off by 12:30 when Newark instituted a ground stop. We sat in place, just off the runway, for 55 minutes and then had a smooth flight (though air traffic control continued to slow us down.) Still we were less than 30 minutes late arriving in Newark, around 2:30pm. (You should have heard the very old lady behind me saying she would never fly United again because of this...she was saying this to her mother!) Upon arrival I boarded the airport's Air Train and found friend Greg Molloy from Seattle and Cincinnati in the same car. We got off at the hotel shuttle staging area and 25 minutes later we were on our way to the hotel, where we checked in at 3:45pm.

Amtrak's Autumn Express at Rhinecliff, October 14, 2017
Neil had arrived the day before and was off with friend Greg Sommers exploring parts of the Long Island Railroad, the ferry from Port Jefferson to Bridgeport, and Metro North.

Rick arrived (late for the same reason as I) on his Southwest flight from Chicago Midway, and took the Air Train to the New Jersey Transit train which took him to Newark Penn Station (connected to the hotel), arriving about at the hotel about 30 minutes after I did. Rick and I met briefly for a drink in the executive lounge of the Hilton and then I was off to New York City by train to Pennsylvania Station. I stopped at the only Garrett's Popcorn shop in New York to see if I could get special edition gift tin (Japanese pop art) for Lizzy (I couldn't) and then made the short walk to Keen's Chophouse, where I met up with friends Patti Beadles and Steve Eisenstein for an excellent dinner (I had a wonderful Dover Sole) and even better conversation. Then a train back to my hotel and to bed before 11pm.

Haverstraw Depot, October 15, 2017
After too little sleep, the alarm woke me at 5:20am so that I would be ready to catch the 6:10am train to back to Pennsylvania Station where we were boarding the Autumn Express (there was also 6:15am train and then nothing soon enough for the 8am departure.) The line for the train started forming at Gate 10 at 7am and boarding started at 7:30am. Rick and I ended up in Car 2 (numbered from the south end). Neil and his friend Greg ended up in Car 5. From front to rear the train consisted of P42 locomotive #145, the "Veterans" themed Siemens ALS64 electric locomotive #642, the Amtrak conference car #9800, a food car, four coaches, another food car, four coaches, a cab car #9641, and another P42 locomotive #156 (pointed north).

The train left at 8:02am bound for Newark where it picked up additional passengers at 8:30am (we could have boarded there but we wanted to be sure of getting good seats.) A bit south of the Newark station, it reversed direction and began to slowly wind its way around the yard trackage of New Jersey until it found its way to the West Shore line at Weehawken about an hour later. The line is now owed by CSX and they have, in recent years, been unfriendly to passenger trains, but they handled this train really well and we made it to our northern most point (just south of Albany) almost exactly on time at around 1:50pm.

A southbound CSX freight at Iona Island
Enroute Amtrak handed out custom lapel pins and box lunches in an insulated souvenir tote. (The lunch was a huge turkey sandwich, chips, Milano cookies, and a bottle of water.) I took some opportunity to walk the train and chat with the various other friends aboard (I won't name all of them, but I estimate there were about 25 aboard...with at least an equal number on Sunday's train.)

Ok, so I'll try (sorry if I forgot you!): Me, Rick, Neil, Stan Hunter (who sat across from Rick and I), John Friedmann (who I never actually talked with), Greg Molloy, Dave Brown, Bob Douglas, Al Butler, Richard Maund, Phil Bush, Sheila Dorr, Rick Davidson, Jeff Mora, Judy Decker, Sy Reich, Robert Lawrence, John and Gloria Ehrlich, Nigel Eacock, Walter Zullig, Steve Cordwell, Hubert Horan, Brian Cutter, Scott Spencer, Phil Kondzelia, Dave Smetko, Gregg Sommers, Craig Willet and Matt Van Hattem. Several of these folks rode both days.

The Autumn Express at Iona Island
At location CP SK I thought my new mileage ended (but see below). The train reversed direction again, and headed across the Hudson to the line along the east shore. At about 3pm we pulled in to Rhinecliff, where the train paused for nearly an hour for photos. The train then went back to Pennsylvania Station where it arrived just before 6pm, over 10 minutes early. Along the way I realized that not only had I not been over the West Shore line, but I also had not been over the "new" connection from the Hudson River line to Pennsylvania Station before. (This new connection is probably about 20 years old.)

Five of us, me, Rick, Neil, Greg, and Stan Hunter, had decided to grab a meal before heading back to Newark. Upon arrival we ran into Steve Miller who joined us. We walked several blocks (boy those cross-town blocks are long) to the Heartland Brewpub in the Empire State Building and enjoyed a very nice dinner and conversation. We were back in Newark before 9pm and all exhausted. I watched the Cubs game until the Dodgers tied it up and then went to sleep.

Front (north end) and rear (south end) of the Autumn Express passing Newburgh
On Sunday, I was up at 6:45 and down to breakfast at about 7:15 where I met up with Rick, Otto Dobnick, and Nancy Anderson. Neil showed up a bit later. Rick, Neil, and I caught the 8:15 shuttle to the airport to pick up Rick's rental car and then headed to Haverstraw for a quick photo of the depot. From there we went to Iona Island near Stony Point where we caught our first shot of the special under overcast skies...but not before a southbound CSX freight came through. From there we drove to Newburgh were we caught the special again ... this time under mostly cloudy skies.

All of this time I sensed that something was not right with Neil. He was coughing and seemed (to us in the front seat) extremely uncomfortable. As we drove into Hudson, NY, Neil announced that he had to use a bathroom somewhat urgently (but not that urgently). We drove down Hudson's main street looking for a likely restaurant to stop for lunch (and for Neil) but nothing looked suitable. Instead I did a bit of googling using the doofarber and found a promising restaurant north of the city on NY 9. Bob's Restaurant turned out to be a real find. It had a nice diner-like menu, a great waitress, and a very clean bathroom with a window that was cracked open (though Neil has since assured me that the open window wasn't relevant!) I had a turkey club, Rick had a blt, and Neil, in spite of his problems, had a "deli-wrap" which came with soup (he substituted coleslaw), fries, and dessert. After lunch we went to the Hudson Amtrak station and found a place to shoot both a regular Amtrak train and the special.

The Autumn Express at Hudson
We had decided early on not to actually "chase" the train, but merely to catch it occasionally throughout the day. With that in mind Rick had planned for our last stop to be in Peekskill where the day before we had noticed a long sweeping curve along the river that could be shot from a pier. It seemed from the train that the sun would be exactly in the right spot for this shot. It turned out not to be in any the heavy overcast returned. As we were approaching the spot (and the time for the special to arrive was getting close) Neil announced that he, again, had urgent need for a bathroom. We quickly found a place for him and still had plenty of time to get to the location where we shot a number of trains including several Amtrak Empire State trains, the Lake Shore Limited, and a Metro North train before the special arrived.
The Lake Shore Limited just after leaving Peekskill
From Peekskill we went back to Newark. The plan had been for Rick and I to check into our new hotel, for the three of us to go to dinner, to drop Neil off at his hotel, and to return the rental car and catch a shuttle back to our hotel. By this time Neil was feeling so awful that he elected to be dropped off as soon as we got into the area. From there Rick and I went to Tops Diner, which was highly rated...though I thought overly so. I had roasted chicken and did not like the gravy they used at all. Rick had the roast turkey dinner which he appeared to like a lot. We both took a slice of cake back to the hotel for later.
Full view of the Autumn Express approaching Peekskill

We then drove to the hotel to check in and discovered that the front area was full of well dressed people and their cars and other vehicles to the point where it wasn't obvious where we should leave the car while we registered. I looked around for the valet or doorman and saw a person helping another person with their car...or so it seemed. You can see where this is going, right? I asked him if he worked at the hotel and as soon as I asked I realized that he did not. In my defense he was dressed almost exactly like the doorman when I found him. It turns out that the Nation of Islam was holding a fancy event (I think Louis Farrakhan was present) and that explained the fancy dress. (The gentleman was most gracious and friendly even though I was completely mortified.) When I walked into the lobby I saw what appeared to be a line of about 12 or so waiting to check in, so Rick and I decided to turn in the car first and register later. Other than "Julie" giving us directions to the wrong place for rental car return (user error) this was accomplished with no problem. We had to take the Air Train from the rental return area across the airport to the hotel shuttle area and surprisingly the shuttle (driven by a friendly driver named Percy) was there within about five minutes. Check in was easy and I was in my room before 10pm...where I watched the Cubs lose to the Dodgers while I ate my cake.

Neil spent most of Monday, the day he had planned to be out riding New Jersey Transit trains in his hotel room guzzling Robitussin instead. He returned to SFO the next day without any significant problem.

Rick and I headed home. We had agreed to text each other when we were ready for breakfast, but not to expect a reply if the other person was still sleeping or in the shower or ... I texted Rick about 8:15 and he answered so we met in the lobby and went to the hotel buffet...which was ok, but not great (it was better at the other Hilton.) Since our flights were at about the same time (both left around noon) we caught the 10am shuttle to the airport together, and both of us were through security by 10:30am, but in different terminals. Since I had over an hour to kill I used one of my soon-to-expire United Club passes. The plane boarded as scheduled and left early and we were early into Pittsburgh, but the flight was very bumpy and had no beverage service as a result. Rick reported that his flight was quite smooth at about the same time. The difference: I was on a regional jet, Rick was on a 737. It didn't matter that the flight was early because if it had been on time I would have caught the same bus home. I walked in the door at 3:15pm after a great fall getaway.

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