2014 Amtrak-Via Circle Trip: Day 1

In May 2014, I made a 10-day circle journey by rail that took me more than 6,000 miles on six trains through 10 states and five Canadian provinces. During that time I would make 4,740 photographs and meet countless people, most of whom I met only in passing and will never interact with again.

I was fortunate that none of the trains that I rode were excessively late and no calamities occurred that marred my enjoyment.  I was fortunate to have ridden the Capitol Limited before excessive delays into Chicago became a daily occurrence. Had I tried to make this trip later in the summer, I might have missed the connection to the Empire Builder.

A week after I rode the Empire Builder, Amtrak suspended it between the Twin Cities and Minot, North Dakota, at the request of BNSF which was dealing with track repairs due to freezing and thawing. Amtrak provided no alternative service to through passengers between those two points.

There were no snarly servers in the dining cars, no missed connections and no negative incidents. Overall, my experiences matched my expectations and then some

* * * * *

My trip came close to being called off at the last minute. On the day that I was to leave, I began feeling sick. This was not trip anxiety, but signs of the onset of a cold. My throat was scratchy and I felt fatigued. By early evening I had chills and a mild fever. Of all of the things that could go wrong, why this?

What should I do? It would be impossible to reach my travel agent to consult with him. I was scheduled to leave in less than eight hours. Amtrak would be of no help, either. How could I rebook this trip on such short notice? There were too many reservations to change, including bookings at hotels in Seattle and Toronto. It had taken a month to put this trip together and it couldn’t be revamped overnight.

I laid on the couch with a cold wash rag against my forehead and thought about how much I really wanted to make this trip. I had waited years for this day. I had to go.

Somehow, I willed myself to get better. Riding a train is not too strenuous and during the layover in Chicago I never left the station. I took with me a lot more mediations than I would have otherwise so I could fight off whatever I was coming down with. It must have worked because the fever abated and I was able to leave on schedule. I felt a little tired, but not all that bad. Maybe it was a case of mind over matter.

I took a notebook on my journey and recorded some thoughts and observations with an eye toward writing about my experience after I returned. This is the first installment in that series.

It was not an inexpensive undertaking and the price tag was a primary reason why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Although this trip had been years in the making, most of the details were worked out in the month before I departed. Sit back and enjoy the journey, which will be presented in chapters with photographs and text that each described a day during my journey. No, you won’t see every photograph I made or even half or a quarter of them. I’ll present a representative sample to give you a look at what I saw along the way.

Pick your description. It was a dream vacation, a once in a lifetime excursion or a “cross one off the bucket list endeavor.” In many ways it was a major accomplishment that I made the trip at all.

My primary objective was to ride The Canadian, the cross-Canada train of VIA Rail Canada. For years, I had yearned to make a circle trip by rail with riding the Canadian the centerpiece of that experience.

Perhaps only a dedicated train travel enthusiast would plan the itinerary that I put together, particularly the routing that I took from Toronto back to Cleveland.  A “normal” person probably would have flown for that part of the journey.

* * * * *

My odyssey began on Thursday, May 22, 2014, in the dead of night at the Cleveland Amtrak station.  I was booked on the westbound Capitol Limited, which the agent said would arrive between 3 and 3:15 .m. The scheduled arrival time was 2:53 a.m.

Outside the station were a group of guys with video cameras. They didn’t look or act like railfans. They interviewed a teenage Amish girl and a guy holding a guitar. I’m still not sure what they were doing.  Making a documentary?

No. 29 arrived at 3:05 a.m., 12 minutes late. On the point was P42 No. 39 with No. 9 trailing. I settled into seat 45 in Superliner coach No. 34133. We made good time across northern Ohio. We were two minutes down leaving Toledo and still holding to that out of Waterloo, Indiana.  Sunrise was near Edgerton, Ohio, and I made my way to the rear of the coach for some sunrise photography.

Not long after that, I had breakfast in the diner. I was seated with a guy who said he had begun his trip in Atlanta aboard the Crescent. He said very little. There was also a couple at my table, but they never said anything. We ate in silence and the guy from Atlanta didn’t leave a tip after he got up and returned to his sleeping car accommodations.

I ordered the chef’s good morning special, a frittata baked with spinach, mushrooms and cheese. On the side were potatoes, bacon, a croissant and orange juice. It cost $14.50. The frittata was OK, but I’m not sure I’d order it again.

As we neared Elkhart, Indian, the site of a major Norfolk Southern freight classification yard, the freight traffic picked up. I spotted the Penn Central heritage locomotive trailing on train 65R in South Bend. A maintainer called the dispatcher to get time to work on the three switches at CP 437, where the Canadian National (former Grand Trunk Western) mainline crosses NS in South Bend.

The Chicago East dispatcher replied that he needed to get four trains past before the maintainer could get to work. It was going to be that kind of day.

We came to a halt at CP 477 near Chesterton, Indiana, where we would spend quite some time waiting for traffic to clear. An eastbound B53 train on Track 2 had stopped because the crew suspected that it had sticking brakes. The dispatcher instructed the conductor to get off and do a visual inspection as the train rolled past.

In front of us was a stopped freight train and track work. I could hear on the radio the dispatcher talking about how he was routing Amtrak No. 350, the early morning Wolverine Service train to Detroit (Pontiac), which would diverge from the NS Chicago Line at Porter.

Once we got moving, it was slow going for a while and we didn’t get a clear signal until CP 485 at Burns Harbor. I counted three eastbound trains stopped immediately behind the B53.

As if things were not complicated enough, at milepost 499 near Whiting, Indiana, a crossing gate had come down on the hood of a semi-trailer truck. The driver and others were working to get the truck backed up and it was no longer on the crossing as we approached. They also had gotten the gate was off the truck’s hood.

Three of the eastbound freights had locomotives wearing warbonnet paint. I also spotted two eastbound Canadian Pacific run-through trains.

The freight traffic continued to be heavy. It was often slow going. We reached Chicago Union Station at 10:33 a.m. on Track No. 28, 1 hour and 48 minutes off the scheduled arrival time.

The train arrivals monitor inside Union Station said the inbound Lake Shore Limited was projected to arrive at 1:45 p.m., a half-hour before the Empire Builder was to leave. But having just ridden a train that had navigated a quagmire of freight train congestion, I thought that expected arrival time was too optimistic.

The travel agent who had arranged my trip had originally booked me on No. 49, but I had him change it to No. 29.

I was thankful that I had insisted on that because I had avoided a nail biter of a trip in which I would have been constantly worried about making the connection to the outbound Empire Builder.

I stowed my luggage in the Metropolitan Lounge, took some photographs in the Great Hall and had a chopped salad for lunch at the Corner Bakery restaurant.

I spent the balance of my time in the Metropolitan Lounge, which was crowded due to the Texas Eagle, California Zephyr, Empire Builder and Southwest Chief being scheduled to depart within a two-hour span. By now the arrival monitor projected the arrival time of No. 49 as 3 p.m.

Boarding of the Empire Builder began a bit later than I expected. No. 7 sat on Track 19 on the north side of Union Station. I had been assigned to Room 10 in sleeper No. 3200.

Car attendant Jeff greeted me at the door and welcomed me aboard. I got settled in and turned on my scanner in anticipation of an on-time departure.

What I heard instead was a discussion between the conductor and the Glass House – the Amtrak office that clears trains for departure – about whether No. 7 would hold for No. 49.

Neither the conductor nor the agent knew if that would be the case, so the agent made a phone call and found out that, yes, No. 7 would hold for No. 49, which had 50 connecting passengers for No. 7.

The outbound Southwest Chief, due to depart at 3 p.m., would also hold for the 32 passengers aboard No. 49 who planned to continue their trip on No. 3.

I passed the time watching Metra trains come and go. An inbound Hiawatha Service train from Milwaukee arrived on nearby Track 17.

The radio traffic indicated that No. 49 was arriving at 3:05. I spotted the first of the connecting passengers alongside No. 7 about seven minutes later.

Officially, No. 49 arrived in Chicago at 3:07 p.m., five hours and 22 minutes late.

I would later have dinner with a passenger who had been aboard No. 49. She said the connecting passengers had been told that No. 7 was being held for them.

But that announcement wasn’t made until about an hour before the train reached Chicago.

She said locomotive failure had caused a significant delay near Albany, N.Y.

The North Gate agent radioed at 3:18 p.m. that the last connecting passenger had cleared that checkpoint. At 3:23, the Glass House cleared us to depart. The conductor gave a highball over the radio at 3:25 and we officially left at 3:27, 1 hour and 12 minutes late.

* * * * *

As we ducked beneath the former Chicago & North Western tracks leading to the former C&NW station – now known as the Ogilvie Transportation Center – I could see the tops of the bi-level cars used on the ex-C&NW Metra routes.

Just after 4 p.m., we started getting approach signals and the crew of No. 7 speculated that we had caught up to Amtrak No. 337, the Milwaukee-bound Hiawatha Service train that had departed 12 minutes before us and which stopped at two stations – Sturtevent, Wisconsin, and Milwaukee airport – that the Empire Builder blows through.

We passed through an industrial area in Milwaukee that intrigued me. Most of the buildings appeared to be vacant.

We crossed the Menomonee River before going around a sharp curve and into the Amtrak station. Jeff announced that we could get off here.

A large crowd of outbound passengers was waiting to board. I also spotted a number of private cars that are apparently stored at the station.

We departed Milwaukee at 5:12 p.m., an hour and 18 minutes late.

I had opted for the second seating for dinner and was directed to a table with three women who were already seated. The table across the aisle had four women seated there. I was the token male at this end of the dining car.

One of the ladies at my table had boarded the Lake Shore Limited in Syracuse, New York. I don’t recall to where she was traveling, but she said that she enjoyed train travel. The other two women were from Las Vegas and I would end up eating lunch with them the next day. Unlike my tablemates on the Capitol Limited earlier in the day, these ladies wanted to have conversation and what an interesting one that it was.

The Las Vegas duo had flown to Seattle to ride the Empire Builder to Chicago. They said they had not been told of the April schedule change that had No. 8 departing Seattle three hours earlier. Consequently, they missed their train.

Amtrak rebooked them to leave the next day and they were able to get sleeping car accommodations.

Between missing No. 8 on Sunday and their train arriving at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, their Chicago sojourn became rather abbreviated.

Our server, Jean, recognized the two Las Vegas travelers. They had had this same on-board crew on their trip to Chicago.

Three of us, myself included, ordered the “signature” Amtrak steak. I usually don’t order a steak in a restaurant because I am not a big steak eater.

But I had heard good reports about the quality of the steak in Amtrak dining cars. Besides, the other entrée offerings didn’t appeal to me.

With the steak came a salad, roll, baked potato and a corn medley. Judging by other Amtrak trip reports I’ve read, the corn medley has been served on Amtrak for some time.

The steak was good, but I wouldn’t describe it as great. The best part of dinner was the chocolate parfait that most of us ordered for desert. It was great.

* * * * *

Much of the scenery in Wisconsin was lakes, wetlands and farm fields. There were a few dairy farms.

The terrain west of Wisconsin Dells is more rolling and we went through a small tunnel. My sleeper was positioned just ahead of the dining car and was the fourth car behind P42 locomotives 134 and 155.

Ahead of my car was the second Seattle sleeper, the crew sleeper and the baggage car. The Seattle section had two coaches. The Portland section was on the rear of the train and had a sleeper, Sightseer Lounge and two coaches.

I listened some to the radio traffic on my scanner. Based on my limited observations, we seemed to be getting good dispatching.

I even heard the dispatcher direct a freight to go into the siding for us. I only mention it because last summer there were reports about Amtrak getting less than favorable treatment by CP.

We crossed the Mississippi River at LaCrosse, Wis., after sunset. To my surprise, we crossed the Father of Waters three times, there being two islands here.

We had not gotten too far into Minnesota when I heard a Canadian Pacific freight give Amtrak No. 8 a roll-by inspection.

Didn’t he mean No. 7? No. 8 should have been in Chicago by now or getting close. I knew that No. 8 was running several hours late, but this late?

It was true. No. 8 did not reach Chicago until 2:49 a.m., which was 10 hours and 54 minutes late. I hoped that that wasn’t a harbinger of what lay in store for us in North Dakota the next day.

Winona, Minnesota, is a crew change point and Jeff announced that we could get off the train. After we departed Winona, I asked Jeff to make up my bed when he got a chance. I probably could have done it myself, but it’s been a while since I’ve ridden on an Amtrak Superliner sleeper. Making the bed was the only task that I expected to ask of the attendant.

Between fighting off whatever had hit me the day before and lack of sleep due to having to catch the Capitol Limited in the dead of night, I was pretty tired. I slept through the Twin Cities and the rest of Minnesota.  By the time we left CP rails, we had lost 45 more minutes.

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