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Martinsburg roundhouse

The 19th century Baltimore & Ohio roundhouse at Martinsburg, W. Va., photographed one cold February evening from the lounge car of a westbound Capitol Limited.

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FOR ME, the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, D.C., has been one of Amtrak's most solid, reliable and (happily!) predictable overnight trains. As the train speeds east through the night, I can usually expect at least a decent dinner and a restful sleep, then a tasty breakfast upon awakening in southeastern Pennsylvania, and finally enjoy pretty riverine scenery for the rest of the way into Washington.

The good old Cap, however, can still surprise me.

When my wife, Debby, and I boarded No. 30 at Chicago Union Station one day in February, we had a nice view of a private car, the Scottish Thistle, coupled onto the rear of the train. Of course I wanted to board her, but reality took us way up to the front where our sleeper awaited.

Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago

They also wait who ride: A family snoozes in Chicago Union Station's Metropolitan Lounge.

"No, Henry, you can't get aboard this private varnish," Debby seems to be declaring as we roll our bags up to the Capitol Limited's sleeping cars deep in Chicago Union Station.

There the attendant, Darrell, lifted our tickets at the door of the car as we boarded. When we reached our roomette on the second level, we discovered that Darrell had lifted the return tickets—the wrong ones.

Downstairs we went.

"My mistake!" Darrell groaned when we showed him the tickets, and he reached into his pockets. "So long as you have both parts of the ticket, you'll be okay."

Back up in the roomette we checked the tickets again. This time they belonged to somebody else.

Downstairs we went again.

"I really messed up!" Darrell said. He dug deep and finally found the correct tickets.

His forthrightness was welcome—sometimes Amtrak on-board crew try to blame their own blunders on passengers—but the error was not an auspicious start to our trip.

Half an hour later in the dining car, I had all but forgotten the incident. Since I'd last traveled aboard the Cap in November, 2010, Amtrak had upgraded the car to "Enhanced Dining Service," meaning meals are served on china and glass, not plastic crockery, and with genuine napery.

The controversial "Cross Country Cafe" car with banquette seating at one end and a lounge at the other was gone. In its place was a conventional dining car so recently refurbished that the interior looked spanking new.Two service attendants and a lead service attendant (as Amtrak calls its waiters and stewards) attended the passengers, instead of one steward and one waiter as before.

Best of all, our chef seemed to have mastered the techniques of sous-vide cookery, the French technique in which dishes are partially cooked and quickly vacuum-frozen off the trains, then finished aboard in convection ovens.

The top sirloin coulotte steak, tender and tasty, was the best cut of beef I've ever had on Amtrak, right up there with the fare at metropolitan Midwestern steak houses. The baked potato was firm, the way I like it, and the stringbeans not too watery.

As for the train's signature Maryland crab cakes, our dinner companion, a retired physical education teacher from Moline, Illinois, pronounced them excellent. She was both widely traveled and a train lover, and confided that she and her husband were planning to celebrate his upcoming 75th birthday aboard the storied Glacier Express in the Swiss Alps.

For dessert Debby and I split a chocolate tiramisu parfait and a citrus-berry-white chocolate torte, both first-class.

After dinner a few miles east of Elkhart, Indiana, the train stopped. And waited. And waited. I looked out the window, and a long freight on the westbound track was also stopped.

Soon the conductor announced helpfully over the PA system, "There has been an incident outside the train." Well, yeah . . .

Soon someone said, "Mechanical problem." That set me to fretting. If the Cap leaves Cleveland very late in the night, passengers might be "bustituted" from Pittsburgh to Washington and points between.

About ninety minutes after the train stopped, Darrell announced, "We hit a horse. As soon as they clean up the mess, we'll go."

"We hit a horse?" someone called. "We hit a horse?"

I turned in and slept fitfully, waking often to see if we'd reached Pittsburgh yet.

In the morning the lead service attendant explained everything. An Amish horse towing a buggy had been spooked by the noise of a westbound freight and had dashed across a grade crossing. At considerable speed the freight locomotive struck the horse, which bounced across the crossing right into the lead engine of the eastbound Capitol Limited.

No one, thankfully, had been aboard the buggy.

The attendant had no other details, such as how the horse escaped its owner, or where they had been when the freight announced its presence.

We were sorry for the horse but glad no human life had been lost.

At breakfast the scrambled eggs were done perfectly, and the pleasant woman across the table was interesting in an unusual way. She was a horseplayer, part-time racetrack employee, and mother of a racehorse breeder. She needed a new pickup truck ("all those bales of hay") and discoursed learnedly on the choices available to her.

Near Addison, Pa.

The Casselman River near Addison, Pa., greets early-morning diners. Usually a thick green screen of leaves obscures views of the various rivers, but this was a cold February morning.

Caboose cabin near Meyersdale

This must be a foamer's house: a cabin constructed in the shape of a caboose on a knoll near Meyersdale, Pa.

Salisbury Viaduct

The old Western Maryland Railroad's 2,000-foot Salisbury Viaduct, built in 1912, over the Casselman Valley near Meyersdale.

Plain People 1

This group of Plain People in the lounge car are probably Mennonites, several sects of which live along the old Baltimore & Ohio route in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

Plain People 2

Generally Plain People do not like to be photographed, but I felt a lot less intrusive when this young woman suddenly pulled out a digital camera and herself snapped photos inside and outside the lounge car. Some sects evidently are more modern than others.

Harper's Ferry, W. Va.

Harper's Ferry, W. Va., is the prettiest of the historic towns along the old B&O.

Debby and I spent the rest of the morning in the lounge car enjoying the scenery on the Youghiogheny, Casselman and Upper Potomac rivers, usually blanketed by green but in February, visible through the leafless trees of winter. We arrived at Washington Union Station only 40 minutes late.

As for absentminded Darrell, we tipped him generously. He was not only genial and hardworking but also present whenever we needed him. It did not surprise me when later his name cropped up on an Internet rail forum praising him as one of Amtrak's best sleeper attendants.

The return trip was uneventful, except for a similarly excellent steak, an excellent sleep, and an uniformly excellent crew. Tequila, our young, perky and conscientious sleeper attendant, told us she'd been working for Amtrak only five months and had been called from the extra board. If the railroad's new hires are as good as she, there's hope for more reliably uniform and professional service on Amtrak.

My four recent trips on the Capitol Limited have persuaded me that this train is one of Amtrak's best so far as service and ambience is concerned. While I'd warn first-time travelers on any American train to be ready for unexpected events and an unpleasant crew member or two, and to roll with whatever punches might be thrown their way, I do believe that taking the Cap to Washington would make a fine introductory train ride for anybody.

The westbound ride would be OK, too, but the morning scenery of northern Indiana in the approaches to Chicago is, well, ugly Rust Belt industrial backside. At least it's not a surprise.

Refinery at Whiting, Ind.

This refinery at Whiting, Indiana, is typical of the morning views from a westbound Capitol Limited. At least it's still in business, unlike many of the abandoned plants on the route.


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