It's 2:10 p.m. on a warm but overcast early April day in Wallingford, Connecticut. My family and I are about to embark on our first trip aboard Amtrak's new "Vermonter," financed in part by the state of Vermont following Amtrak's cancellation of the overnight "Montrealer." My wife and I paid a total of $130.00 round trip for three as our part of the bargain.
With our car now parked in the free, unattended lot, we make our way across the tracks to the concrete platform of the newly renovated, historic, Victorian station.
First things first.
I drop my bags and hastily pull out my camera, a Canon Elan.
Three teens eagerly await the train.
"Easter weekend," notes my wife Ann.
"Must be college kids going home for Easter. The train could be full."
"Going home for Easter?" I ask a reticent, clean cut young man. He nods affirmatively.
Home is in Montreal and with the death of the "Montrealer" he must now catch a connecting bus in St. Albans, not far from the Canadian border.
A jovial young woman in oversized garb of muted colors hugs a boyfriend who is there to see her off.
"This train is late," she calls out, looking down the line toward New Haven.
"I'm gonna kill it," she adds anxiously.
While my ten year old daughter, Chloé, privately quips that Congress will kill the train for her, I politely inform her that it's only 2:21 and the train is not due for two more minutes. I wonder whether the young lady speaks from a sense of youthful cynicism or just reputation--Amtrak trains, late again.
I know better.
A veteran rider in my 40s, I've called ahead before leaving home. Train #56 is on time out of New Rochelle, New York. The northeast corridor, with its high rate of on time performance, bodes well for us. Any delays are likely warranted by a change to diesel motive power in New Haven.
Sure enough I spot the bright light beyond. The horn sounds in the distance as the train approaches the grade crossings ahead. The protective gates come down simultaneous with the clanging of bells.
I shoot the obligatory photos before grabbing my bags to board the streamlined Amfleet 1 consist of two coaches, a cab car that doubles as a coach and an Amdinette. To the disappointment of many, there is no baggage car on this train.
An amiable conductor helps us aboard, directing us to the Amdinette, Amtrak's equivalent of a minimally equipped cafe with both table and coach seating.
We first have to make our way around the passengers queued for luncheon fare. Sandwiches, snacks and beverages are the standard menu items.
Ann was right. This train is nearly full to capacity.
"Where's the smoking section?" asks the jovial young woman following us.
"There is no smoking on Amtrak," retorts the conductor perfunctorily.
We settle in at the far end of the Amdinette, just behind the F-40 diesel, number 299. The seating is roomy and comfortable. Unlike commercial airliners, there is sufficient leg room to stretch out.
Within minutes, the conductor checks in on us. There are enough seats and plenty of floor space so he invites us to spread out. Chloé wastes no time in doing just that, opening her art kit and a large sketch pad.
Our teenage companions from Wallingford sit nearby. Tara is an insouciant 17 year old who is moving to Vermont to live with her finacé. A former employee of McDonalds, she joins my daughter on the floor and opens her suitcase displaying a collection of happy meal toys. Fortunately, this is the closest we will get to the mass culture of the Golden Arches on the entire trip.
A young woman, attired in sartorial splendor, sits opposite my wife. Otherwise engrossed in a Clancy novel, she appears moderately amused by the casual demonstration of playfulness that unfurls before her.
Beyond the large brownstone station in Hartford the procession through the Amdinette begins to abate. As I await a soda, I engage in conversation with a dapper, middle aged travel agent from St. Albans. He's commiserating over the plight of the sole cafe attendant who's been congenially working non-stop since leaving Penn Station in New York.
Before leaving Connecticut we pass the Windsor Locks canal and one of the oldest continually operating companies in America, C.H. Dexter & Sons. A sign on the venerable old factory proclaims "Established 1767."
Crossing the Connecticut River we make our approach into Massachusetts. Meanwhile our congenial conductor visits with a children's Amtrak activity book for my daughter.
Approaching Springfield, the train must enter the station in reverse. The F-40 stops beyond the diamond at the interlocking while the cab car now leads us to the station platform.
Over half the passengers depart in Springfield. After a ten minute stopover involving a crew change, a fresh but stolid conductor directs the platform smokers to reboard the train.
From here the cab car transports us to Palmer with its wide midstate vistas. For the ride eastbound I retreat to the cab car where I get a straightaway view of the mainline ahead.
About halfway along the line we encounter youngsters standing on the tracks. The engineer leans on the horn. A rapid succession of short bursts manages to deter three of the youths. The fourth stands in defiance as our train rapidly approaches. I brace myself for a possible sudden halt by the engineer, still sounding his horn. At the very last moment the kid casually walks off as the others laugh.
"Do you see this kind of thing often?" I inquire of the engineer.
"Everyday," he replies.
"Thing is, if they get hit they'll sue the railroad."
In Palmer a light rain begins to fall but there are at least two dozen railfans of all ages awaiting the train at the junction. Palmer is a popular hot spot for the "foamers," a term reserved for those particularly zealous rail buffs.
"If all these foamers rode the train we'd have four Vermonters each day," declares one crew member.
The reversal maneuver begins once again as the F-40 takes over northbound along the tracks of the former Central Vermont Railroad.
To the south I spot a superliner coach set along a siding. A Massachusetts Central engine with double stack containers passes along the east. The sky becomes heavily overcast making it much too dark to take photos through the window.
The ride upstate to Amherst is less than smooth and I find myself having difficulty taking notes. My daughter suggests a snack and the avuncular attendant obliges with a winsome smile like a character out of the popular children's television program, "Full House."
Beyond Amherst, en route to Brattleboro, Vermont, the myriad farmhouses, silos and occasional Victorian or Gothic homes punctuate the rolling landscape.
In the Amdinette, children, total strangers for life, playmates for a day, happily engage in a game of 500 rummy. Conversations among the newly acquainted adults ensue as to our whereabouts. Millers Falls, perhaps.
Grade crossings are ubiquitous. The horn sounds its repetitive song of two long, one short and another long blast. Over bucolic country roads and small streams adorned by stone culverts, the Vermonter makes its winding path among the abounding white birches and scotch pines.
Looking out the window one sporadically notices men and women with children in tow waving at our passing train just beside the right of way.
Traversing the hilly countryside on elevated trackage, nature's breathtaking beauty entices me. The music of the horn, the rhythm of the rails, the pastoral scenery all seem to lull me into an enchanting state of hypnotic relaxation.
The Richie Havens tune for Amtrak, "there's something about a train that's magic," rings true. I sense the real fabric of America here, an instinctual affinity, identity, well rooted among the family of passengers and crew.
At Northfield the train crosses to the west side of the Connecticut River on its way to Brattleboro, Vermont. It is in Brattleboro where the sprawling rail yards now host the New England Central freights.
We continue to follow the Connecticut River northbound to Bellows Falls. In the distance are the restored vintage coaches of the Green Mountain Railroad, a tourist excursion line to Chester. The Green Mountain runs seasonally so a return trip in summer is looking mighty promising.
In Bellows Falls the train passes through a short, narrow, single portal tunnel with structures erected atop it and a river below. The larger bilevel Superliner equipment would never be able to make the low clearance.
Departing Bellows Falls we grab a bite to eat while crossing the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. Claremont, New Hampshire has the distinction of being Amtrak's only station stop in this state.
Once again we span the Connecticut River back into Vermont at Windsor which boasts the nation's largest covered bridge, easily visible from the train. This route along the banks of the river is one of the most picturesque that the Vermonter offers.
At twilight we arrive in White River Junction ten minutes ahead of schedule, our point of departure where we wistfully impart our farewells to fellow passengers and crew.
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