If you have been around railroads for any length of time, then you know that things don’t always go as planned. One thing leads to another and before you know it, plan B has led to Plan C to Plan D and so on. So it can be at times aboard a private railcar.
What follows below is the tale of just one such adventure. Pull up a comfy seat and learn how making the best of the situation can be worth the trip!
New York to Toledo and Chicago:
41.5 Hours Aboard MOUNT VERNON on The Water Level Route
by Ellen Thompson and Jack Deasy
It’s Saturday afternoon July 19th and a group of seasoned private car travelers are looking forward to the first segment of a 10 days trip from New York to Chicago, Minneapolis – Saint Paul and Washington onboard MOUNT VERNON. We are scheduled to move from New York to Chicago on the rear of train 49, The Lake Shore Limited. The timetable indicates it is a journey of 959 miles, scheduled for 18 hours and 5 minutes. Tom and Meg Coughlin, Mike Martin and Bill Hakkarinen board the car at New York, while John and Ellen Thompson will board the car at Albany-Rensselaer, 141 miles and almost three hours to the north. Amtrak boards their coach and sleeper passengers at Penn Station, the train is quite full, and ready to head north by northwest from New York to Chicago on the Water Level Route. However, our scheduled departure time of 3:40 PM passes without a highball from the Conductor to the Engineer.
Eventually our radio reveals there is problem on Metro North Railroad’s Hudson Line between Peekskill and Garrison in the Hudson Highlands. A retaining wall has given way and rocks are strewn on the tracks, blocking the movement of Metro North and Amtrak trains. Whoops! Train 49 will be held at Penn Station until the tracks are cleared and inspected by Metro North Railroad. Unfortunately, no one seems to know how long that will take. So, we wait, and we wait, and then we wait some more. Train 49’s Conductor allows his passengers out on the station platform, with a warning not to stray too far, because departure might be imminent. Some go upstairs in search of snacks and drinks. On the MOUNT VERNON, we enjoy hors d’oeuvres and drinks in cool relaxed comfort.
Finally, about six hours after our scheduled departure time, train 49 receives clearance to depart Penn Station. A quick “All Aboard” and off we go. Did they leave anyone behind at Penn Station? The George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River and the New Jersey shoreline is nicely illuminated at night. In about half an hour, we make an unscheduled stop at Tarrytown. Unfortunately, our operating crew has run afoul of the federal Hours of Service law, so a new operating crew meets us at Tarrytown to take us north to Albany-Rensselaer. Minutes later, we are again on the move.
Our first scheduled stop is at Croton-Harmon. In the early years of Amtrak, locomotives were changed here, with P2-B box cab electric motors giving way to E-8 / E-9 diesel locomotives. In our current era, with Amtrak using dual mode P32AC-DM locomotives, there is no need to change locomotives, so this stop is usually brief, just enough time to board passengers. Unfortunately, one of the passengers who left the train at Penn Station is the mother of a five year old boy. He was sound asleep in his coach seat while his mother ran her errand in Penn Station. When she returned to the platform, she found the train had departed, to her horror. Now the Amtrak crew plays nursemaid to the young boy, while we wait for the taxicab from Penn Station that will reunite mother and son.
Meanwhile, up the line in Albany-Rensselaer, John and Ellen, who expected to board around 6:45 PM, hang out in the spacious modern station watching trains that are going nowhere and chatting with Amtrak employees who don’t know when the situation will be resolved. Train 48 (Lake Shore Limited), train 64 (Maple Leaf) and train 292 (Ethan Allen) are being held at Albany-Rensselaer waiting for clearance to head south to New York. Train 449 (Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited) is waiting to be joined to train 49. Most of the passengers from those four trains chose to get off, stretch their legs, make phone calls, and do the Thompson thing: hang out in the station and wait for an announcement. The passengers on the Boston section were very fortunate, as they re-boarded their coaches and sleeper about 10 PM and hopefully settled in to a good night’s sleep. Throughout the long evening and night hours Amtrak station staff exhibited an inordinate amount of patience, while regularly announcing that they had no new information about train 49’s expected arrival!
Shortly after it was announced that train 49 had finally left New York’s Penn Station, which was confirmed by a phone call from Tom, John and Ellen headed back to their auto in the station’s parking deck to gather up their luggage and transfer some provisions into a tote bag with ice. That ice is not a problem when you expect the train will arrive in less than three hours, but it does become a problem when the clock continues to tick away the hours, and no one knows when your train will actually arrive. By 2 AM a minor flood from melting ice had occurred, but not to fret, mopping the floor was a novelty to (almost) be enjoyed at that point of the night.
Train 49 finally arrives at Albany-Rensselaer and we get to board at 4:15 AM on Sunday morning, rather than the anticipated 6:30 PM on Saturday night. Bedroom suite C and D was such a welcome sight! The Boston section is combined with the New York section, but there is no departure highball, as there is another problem. It seems that in addition to the mother who had been temporarily separated from her son, there were several other passengers who didn’t make it back on board before the train left Penn Station. They arrive aboard a delayed Empire Service train a few minutes later, transfer to train 49, and The Lake Shore Limited finally departs Albany-Rensselaer, nine and one-half hours late.
Its time for a late breakfast on Sunday morning and we are in northwest Pennsylvania, rather than northwest Indiana or the Chicago suburbs. Like most PV travellers, we have found lemonade rather than lemons on this trip, as we get to enjoy “rare scenery”, since both the westbound and eastbound Lake Shore Limited usually pass through this area at night. We note our share of railway enthusiasts who are trackside at various locations, taking photos or videos of our rare daylight passage through this area.
It’s mid-day and Billie Ernest from Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC) calls MOUNT VERNON co-owner and General Manager Jack Deasy to inform him that Amtrak will terminate our train at Toledo, so that it can be serviced, turned and head back east as the next train 48/448. Passengers on our train will be bussed to their destinations between Toledo and Chicago. Billie offers Jack three options for handling MOUNT VERNON. After a discussion with all of us, Jack accepts Billie’s offer of spending the night parked in Central Union Terminal at Toledo, without ground power, where we will await rescue by the next westbound train 29 or 49, to bring us into Chicago.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Sandusky, where a stretch of one of the two mainline tracks is out of service for maintenance, the Norfolk Southern dispatcher holds us and one of its own westbound freight trains at an interlocking, allowing a fleet of eastbound freights to traverse and clear the single track ahead of us. We count them: one, two, three, four, five and six. Finally, after the sixth freight train passed, we get the signal to proceed west on the single track.
Train 49 finally arrives at Toledo at 6 PM Sunday evening, rather than the scheduled 5:55 AM Sunday morning. Twelve hours late! Amtrak’s tired passengers board busses that will take them west to Chicago, and we raise a toast to them and to the even more tired onboard service crew who have just put in over 26 hours on the train.
Amtrak sends a crew to Toledo to clean, resupply and inspect their train for its return to New York and Boston on Monday. The train’s consist is turned on a wye and MOUNT VERNON is setout on another station track. After the train heads back east, we are all alone at Toledo. At times like this you appreciate having a friend named Mister Stadco, who can provide you with electricity, lighting and HVAC, when Amtrak is unable to provide that for you. Unfortunately, Mister Stadco is not happy tonight, for we notice white exhaust smoke. It appears we have a fuel problem that has clogged our fuel filters. All is quiet after the diesel generator quits around 3 AM. We will attend to Mister Stadco’s problem at a more convenient time and location. After handling the passengers detraining and boarding at Toledo, train 29, The Capitol Limited, backs down against us at dawn on Monday morning, couples, and takes us the remaining 234 miles westward into Chicago Union Station. We arrive at 9:30 AM, close to an hour late, but after 41.5 hours out on the railroad, who’s counting? We are just happy to be in the Windy City, and even happier that Amtrak’s CNOC and their Chicago Yardmaster expedite switching and servicing the car, coupling us to that afternoon’s Empire Builder for the next segment of our trip to Minneapolis – Saint Paul.
When we look back on this experience, we recognize that almost all of the delays were the result of events beyond Amtrak’s control. We particularly appreciate the efforts of Amtrak’s Billie Ernest and those other Amtrak employees who did their best to take care of MOUNT VERNON and her passengers under difficult circumstances.
Postscript: The car was added to the Capitol Limited and went on to be part of very successful trip. But that’s a tale for another day…