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By Jack M. Turner

Our four hour layover in Chicago passed quickly thanks to the comfort of the new Metropolitan Lounge.  A few teething pains accompanied the first week of the new lounge as sleeping car passengers who were not using red cap service blocked the foyer between the waiting rooms and the gates to the tracks.  The old Metropolitan Lounge was very close to the boarding gates allowing an Amtrak agent to escort sleeping car passengers to the platform.  At the time of our visit sleeper passengers were left to navigate Union Station’s crowded corridors resulting in a crush of passengers approaching the boarding gate.  This blocked the path of the carts driven by the red caps until an Amtrak employee took charge and herded the non-red cap assisted folks into the old coach waiting room.  This was the one flaw of the new lounge that we noticed but likely will be corrected with some revised procedures.

The Capitol Limited consisted of ten cars including three Superliner sleepers and a transition sleeper as usual.  For the fourth straight time on this trip Christine and I occupied roomettes 3 and 4, this time in car 32034 immediately ahead of the dining car.  We had made dinner reservations in the Metropolitan Lounge as is customary for train # 30. 


Car 32034 (our sleeper) displays the wrong line number “5555” at Chicago

Our 6:58pm departure from Track 22 was 18 minutes late and moments later we passed the Amtrak yards and shops.  A string of Heritage fleet dining cars stood on a nearby track reportedly destined for retirement.  Almost immediately our 7:00 dinner seating was called and we headed to diner 37010 which was one of a few cars that had been converted to a cross country cafe earlier this decade.  These cars have since lost their curved banquette seating in favor of traditional booths which have a slightly curved appearance which, along with the 37000 series number, makes them identifiable. 

Leaving the Windy City we passed the Chicago White Sox baseball stadium and passed a maze of railway junctions and yards before turning east and passing a series of old steel mills around Gary, IN.  Dinner was slow in coming thanks to a disorganized and disinterested dining car crew who were the total opposite of the excellent dining crews aboard the Empire Builder and California Zephyr.  My steak was up to the standard set by those trains but Christine’s crab cakes were lacking.  Meanwhile, I was concerned that the conductor never came by to scan our tickets as I have heard stories that if a ticket is not scanned, a passenger’s reservation will cancel out after the next couple of station stops.  With fears of being awakened by a knock on the door at 2:00am or our rooms on the next night’s train to Florida being sold out from under our feet, I searched out the conductor.  His reply that he had verified with our car attendant that all passengers had boarded and automatically done the scan was somewhat reassuring but left me wondering how a passenger would know that had been done.


Passing the Chicago White Sox stadium on Chicago’s south side

Freight traffic was heavy which slowed us down as did waiting for marine traffic to clear the drawbridge over the shipping canal west of Gary.  As a result, we were over one half hour late at South Bend, the first stop on our overnight journey.  We still were just over 30 minutes late a couple stops later at Waterloo when it was time to turn in for the night.  Though it took awhile to fall asleep, the smooth rails induced a restful night that lasted until 9:00am when we were descending Sand Patch grade.  As lunch would not be served, we had waited until 9:15 to eat breakfast and the painfully slow server pushed the meal back even farther.  Once our orders were taken, the meals came quickly though without the friendly interaction of the crews out west.

The morning scenery was familiar but interesting with mountains, rivers, farms, and small towns sliding by our windows.  Station stops in Cumberland, MD, Martinsburg, WV, and Harpers Ferry allowed snapshots of historic communities that have retained traces of their origins.  Of these, Harpers Ferry is most notable as the town is designated a National Historic Park due to its role in the Civil War.  Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry stands at one of the region’s most scenic settings.  Upon departing that station stop, the Capitol Limited ducked into a tunnel leading to Maryland, a state already visited when the train paused at Cumberland.


The Capitol Limited descends curving Sand Patch Grade on July 3, 2016


The menu on the Capitol Limited


Arriving in historic Harpers Ferry, WV


Crossing the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry; the adjacent bridge carries a branch line to Winchester, VA and a hiking trail allowing river views

The Washington, DC suburbs enveloped the railway as we drew within 35 minutes of the nation’s capitol and soon Metro subway trains could be seen parallel to our line.  After stopping at Rockville and passing through Silver Spring, the Capitol Limited reached the end of its journey at Washington, DC at 1:13pm, just 8 minutes late.  We made our way upstairs to the first class Club Acela for the six hour wait for the Silver Meteor.  A late lunch and walking around Union Station’s stores, restaurants, Great Hall, and portico interspersed by simply hanging out in the Club Acela made time pass until the boarding call for train # 97 was made,


Washington Union Station’s Main Hall


The Club Acela first class lounge in Washington; the lounge will be moved to the second floor in the future

The Silver Meteor was pulled by a pair of P42 engines and its consist included a Viewliner baggage car, three Viewliner sleepers, prototype Viewliner diner 8400, an Amfleet II lounge, and five Amfleet II coaches.  The presence of the 8400 brought me full circle as it had been included in the Gulf Coast Inspection Train back in February (see “All Aboard the Gulf Coast Inspection Train” linked below).  For this trip we occupied roomettes 1 and 2 in car 62049 “Winter View” located immediately ahead of the dining car.

Departure from Washington was on-time at 7:25pm and shortly we left the District of Columbia via the CSX bridge over the Potomac River.  Fortunately we were able to be seated in the dining car for dinner and the on board service crew was excellent, especially our affable waiter who was originally from Jamaica.  We both enjoyed our steaks along with the views of Alexandria, VA, the Auto-Train terminal in Lorton, and Quantico Marine Base a few minutes later.  We also noted excellent wi-fi service on this train with instant access to a train status page showing a map tracking our train’s location.


Viewliner dining car 8400


Potomac River near Quantico

After the station stop in Fredericksburg, site of a Civil War battle, the Meteor continued down the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad a key north-south link.  We sailed through Ashland and Randolph-Macon College then rolled to a stop in Richmond in a light rain.  There was time to walk to the rear of the train and take a look at private car “Silver Foot” which had been added at Washington, bound for Jacksonville and transfer to its storage yard in Orange Park.


Richmond, VA Staples Mill Station during the Silver Meteor’s nighttime stop


Private car “Silver Foot” at the rear of the Silver Meteor at Richmond


The lighted drumhead on the rear of the Silver Meteor


Late night in Richmond: a Northeast Region train lays over (right) while the southbound Silver Meteor (left) works the station

On the south side of Richmond we crossed the tall bridge over the James River and continued to our stop in Petersburg.  I discovered a maintenance issue when I visited our sleeper’s shower room as the hand-held shower wand fell off.  I managed to improvise and rinse off using the hose that normally delivers water to the spray wand.  As we entered North Carolina I knew it would be a long night as my roomette was warm and got hotter by our next stop in Rocky Mount.  Inconsistent temperatures have long been an issue in Viewliner sleepers as a zone cooling system seems to sometimes make certain rooms too hot while others are perfectly fine.  Thankfully this issue hit us on our final on board night rather than on a two night segment.  I woke for three of our four subsequent station stops, a stark contrast from the prior trains when I generally slept through the night.

Breakfast in the dining car came as the Silver Meteor stopped in Jesup, GA and was accompanied by early morning views of lazy tree lined rivers in southeast Georgia.  A few rail fans greeted the train as we breezed past the rail fan pavilion at Folkston just after 8:30am.  Soon we crossed the St. Marys River into Florida and a half hour later we pulled into our destination of Jacksonville.  Our journey was not yet over as we had to take an Uber ride to the airport to pick up a rental car then make the drive back home.


A morning river crossing in southeast Georgia


Private car “Silver Foot” at Jacksonville

Overall our trip had been a success with mostly excellent train travels, great sightseeing in the West and some fine lodging during our visit to three western states.  Once again the convenience of rail travel in combination with national park visits was underscored.  We look forward to our next adventure.


All Aboard The Gulf Coast Inspection Train

Other reports by Jack Turner:

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