Friday, 31 August 2018

Amtrak across the USA. Part Two - Washington D.C. - Chicago

So after a brief interlude it's back on the train again, as we travel on the second and much longer section of my journey on Amtrak. This time we'll be travelling all the way from Washington D.C. to Chicago; a journey of around 17 hours.

After making the relatively short journey from Richmond VA, I boarded the impressive double-deck Amtrak Superliner at Washington, and the previous article ended with my train pulling out of Washington's Union station. We were already 20 minutes behind schedule as we rolled through the capital's suburbs, and after a hot and humid afternoon, it was not surprising that we ran into a couple of  really heavy thunderstorms.

As I sat in my comfortable compartment, watching the changing scenery outside, I felt a real sense of excitement to be travelling on the legendary train known as the Capitol Limited. The following morning the train would be pulling into  Chicago's main station, also called Union, but that would be tomorrow and for the time being, I wanted to enjoy the now.

I described my "roomette" compartment in the previous article, but what I didn't mention was it was on the lower deck of the train. So not wanting to see things from track level, I decided to head up to the dining car.

I found out where this was from a woman I'd met in the queue, whilst waiting to board the train. Her name was Jamie and she turned out to be quite a seasoned traveller on Amtrak, so when she chanced to pass by my compartment, I decided to join her upstairs for dinner.

I was busy chatting and nearly missed the train pulling into the historic settlement of Harper's Ferry. I mentioned this town before, and the part it played at the start of the American Civil War, but it wasn't until we crossed the River Potomac, at a point just upstream from where it is joined by Shenandoah River, that I realised we were there.

This point also marks the state boundaries between Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. There would be a further four such boundaries before reaching Chicago, but before then I had dinner on my mind.

I sort of knew what to expect, as a friend had warned me that Amtrak have recently abandoned their traditional "silver service" dining on certain routes. So passengers no longer sit down to a freshly prepared, three-course meal, but are instead "treated" to airline-style, pre-prepared dishes.

The bonus was I didn't have to wait long for my meal as, after showing my ticket to the dining car manager, my food arrived pretty quick. The rib beef with dumpling, vegetables and gravy, served in its own plastic dish, was quite palatable and there was dessert to follow.

I sat there chatting with my new-found companion, and also with several other occupants of the dining car. With windows on both sides, and its prominent top-deck position, it was just the place to sit and admire the passing scenery.

The scenery was certainly spectacular, as our train made its way along the course of the Potomac Valley, with the hills slowly becoming steeper and more prominent. These views were certainly the most spectacular of the whole journey, as by sunrise the following morning, we were passing through the comparatively un-interesting flatlands of  northern Ohio and Indiana. During the hours of darkness, we had travelled through Pennsylvania, but I slept right through all that, including the train stopping to change crews in Pittsburgh.

I didn't turn in straight away as, along with a number of fellow passengers, Jamie and I were roped in by the dining car manager, to play a panel type game, called "Family Feuds." The manager told us that she and one of the stewards, arranged this game on most evenings, once food service had finished for the evening. It helped pass the time before they turned in for the night, and was a good way for people to get to know each other.

We were sufficient in number to make up four teams of four, and as we started playing I realised that "Family Feuds" was the same as our TV game "Family Fortunes." It was good fun, playing along and although we were a real mixed bunch of travellers, this was a good way to get to know each other. The team I was in came second, with the winners receiving a bottle of wine to share between them.

I had already decided to have a booze-free day, following the excesses of the previous three days, so wasn't bothered about missing out on the wine. I'd even forgone the earlier "Happy Hour". With the conversation turning to drink,  Jamie told me that her favourite tipple was Stella Artois; a beer I didn't know was available in the States. I didn't mention that Stella is sometimes known as "wife-beater" back in the UK.

When I got back downstairs, I gave the attendant a call and he made up my bed. It was all very ingenious the way the two opposing seats slid together. The mattress, complete with ready fitted sheet and blanket, was then retrieved from the upper bunk. After a quick trip along to the toilet and washroom, I undressed and slid into my cosy and surprisingly comfortable bed. I latched the door shut, and was soon slipping into a restful sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train.

I mentioned latching the door closed, and whilst this provides security whilst the roomette is occupied, the compartments cannot be locked from the outside, whilst they are unoccupied. This does mean it is a wise precaution to take valuables, such as laptops etc, with you when leaving the compartment.

As mentioned earlier, I slept really well; the motion of the train helping to rock me gently off to sleep. I did wake a few times in the early hours, mainly to try and get some idea of where we were when the train drew to a halt. Some of these stops were due to having to give way to freight trains; more on that subject later.

I made it up to the dining car at around 7am, and found that breakfast was being served. It was a healthy option of sliced melon and other fruit, with a yoghurt to go with it. Personally I would have preferred something more solid, but I told myself the fruit and yoghurt would do me good; but not as good as the unlimited coffee, which was available from urns strategically situated in each coach.

I bumped into Jamie on my way back down to my compartment. She had overslept and consequently missed breakfast. With several hours to go before reaching Chicago, I put the time to good use and bashed out a few draft posts on the laptop, whilst keeping an eye on the changing scenery from time to time. The attendant gave out announcements on the tannoy every time we stopped, mainly to inform us that the delays were due to heavy freight traffic.

We ended up running two and a half hours behind schedule, so I was pleased I'd changed my original plan, which was to travel by Greyhound Bus from Chicago to my sister's place, close to Cleveland. I'd initially thought that a couple of hours would be ample to make the connection, but a conversation with a friend, prior to my trip, had persuaded me other wise. Instead I'd booked a flight from Chicago to Cleveland, with a late afternoon departure.

As the train neared Chicago, we passed through what can only be described as the mid-west "rust-belt." With blast furnaces standing empty and silent, and massive gantries rusting away, this was an eerie landscape, but it wasn't long before I could make out the windy city's towering skyscrapers in the distance, glistening away on the horizon.

Eventually we pulled into Union Station, which was journey's end. Alighting from the train I made my way to "baggage reclaim" where, just like at an airport, I waited for my suitcase to appear. I then made my way out to Chicago O'Hare Airport by means of the CTA mass transport system.

My flight to Cleveland took just over an hour, but due to hazy conditions I saw little of our course over lakes Michigan or Erie, which was disappointing. My brother-in-law picked me up from the airport, and 30 minutes later we were pulling onto the drive of the picturesque, weatherboard house, he shares with my sister.

I spent six very pleasant and enjoyable days there, and after the travelling I'd undertaken, it was nice just to chill out and relax with the American members of my family.
We visited our fair share of bars and brew-pubs of course, but my brother-in-law and I also got plenty of walking in.

I will be writing about some of these later, but for now I will just say that the beer scene in northern Ohio, is every bit as good as what I experienced in Virginia, earlier in my trip.


Russtovich said...

"We were already 20 minutes behind schedule"

I'd make a joke about Amtrak but to be honest it's not much better up here in Canada. ;)

" but are instead "treated" to airline-style, pre-prepared dishes."

Ugh. :(

"The rib beef with dumpling, vegetables and gravy, served in its own plastic dish, was quite palatable and there was dessert to follow."

So, not as bad as it first looked.

"With windows on both sides, and its prominent top-deck position, it was just the place to sit and admire the passing scenery."

Agreed. I've been lucky enough (many many years ago) to do that going through the Rockies on the Canadian national railway line. :)

"we were passing through the comparatively un-interesting flatlands of northern Ohio and Indiana."

Typical North America that. Great scenery on both coasts but the interior can be pretty dull.

"and was a good way for people to get to know each other."

Good for them. Not a bad idea.

"I didn't mention that Stella is sometimes known as "wife-beater" back in the UK."

It's funny how that works. A lot of 'international' beers are not well liked in their home country (e.g. Foster's, Stella, and Becks off the top of my head).

"Personally I would have preferred something more solid, "

Unless you go to Texas what you had is considered normal, even in hotels that have buffet style breakfast included (though those would have scrambled eggs and waffles as well as muffins etc.).

"Instead I'd booked a flight from Chicago to Cleveland, with a late afternoon departure."

A wise move.

"but for now I will just say that the beer scene in northern Ohio, is every bit as good as what I experienced in Virginia, earlier in my trip."


And you didn't miss much flying over the Great Lakes. One body of water looks pretty much like another. :)


PS - "that we ran a really heavy thunderstorms."

I'm guessing that should be into.

Paul Bailey said...

Russ, I would love to do that rail-trip through the Rockies – either in Canada or the other side of the border. I might look at the California Zephyr train next time (probably not for a few years though), as Chicago to San Francisco, or vice versa, would complete my idea of a coast to coast trip across North America.

ps. Would still have liked to see the Great Lakes from the air. I had a limited view when we began our descent into Cleveland, and the same applied when I left on the first leg of my homeward journey, but it was getting dark by then.