By Jack M. Turner
The following trip report covers a winter 2002 cross country trip. Since then Amtrak's Cardinal has returned to single level equipment, dining car menus have undergone numerous changes, and other revisions have been made to Amtrak schedules.
The tri-weekly Cardinal is arguably Amtrak's most scenic eastern train but is one that is typically overshadowed by the faster daily Capitol Limited for travel between Washington and Chicago. Having last traveled aboard the Cardinal years ago when it used Heritage fleet equipment, a February 8 westbound trip was booked to offer a chance to compare the current Superliner operation with past services.
To reach the Cardinal line my son John and I traveled between Jacksonville, FL and Richmond, VA via the Silver Star on February 7 to prevent John from having to miss school that day. After stowing our luggage in Room 1 of sleeper River View, we headed straight to the diner for a delicious dinner of stuffed pork chops, baked potato, salad, mixed vegetables, and key lime pie. Dining car 8531 was tastefully redecorated with green seats, art deco lighting, and pinhole lights in the ceiling that looked like a galaxy of stars. I noted an entry in my train journal that car 8530 had an identical decor during a trip in March 2001.
Sleep came easily after the Star left Savannah at 10:06pm and was interrupted briefly by only 2 of our 6 overnight stops, Denmark, SC and Raleigh, NC, where we waited 30 minutes for time. The former Seaboard main line through the Carolinas has always seemed smoother to me than the ex-Atlantic coast Line route through Fayetteville, perhaps due to slightly lower speed limits, undulations in the terrain, and fewer freights to beat up the rails.
We arose bright and early in the morning to allow time for a shower and breakfast before detraining in Richmond. Our 21 car train, which included 10 roadrailers, made an impressive sight rounding curves through the farmlands of southern Virginia as we finished off a hearty breakfast. Despite heavy opposing CSX freight traffic, we were into Richmond only 18 minutes late at 9:00am. We said farewell to our car attendant Preston, a most helpful young man who had worked for Amtrak for only a couple of months. As we strolled along the platform, the southbound Twilight Shoreliner was departing for Williamsburg and Newport News.
The northbound Silver Star after arrival in Richmond, VA on February 8, 2002.
Shortly after 11am we boarded the Thruway Bus to Charlottesville, a James River Bus Line coach. Departure was on time at 11:25am with arrival in Thomas Jefferson's hometown just after 12:30pm. Charlottesville Union Station stands at the diamond of the Norfolk Southern (ex-Southern Railway) and CSX (ex-Chesapeake & Ohio) lines and serves both the Crescent and Cardinal via separate platforms. The station has been refurbished and today offers a pleasing sight though the old waiting room now is a popular restaurant. During the early Amtrak years the Cardinal's predecessor, the James Whitcomb Riley, stopped at the old C&O station downtown but stopped at Union Station for persons connecting to the Crescent. Back in those days we could have taken the train directly from Richmond to Chicago as the Riley and predecessor, the George Washington, carried through cars from Newport News to the Windy City. At times this connection consisted of a single vista dome coach which coupled onto the main section in Charlottesville. That would, however, have required switching stations in Richmond.
The friendly ticket agent correctly predicted where sleeper Pennsylvania would be spotted and we were settled in Room 3 in time to watch our 1:15pm departure through the University of Virginia grounds (natives advise never to call it a campus). As train # 51 snaked uphill through Crozet and Afton to the crest of the Blue Ridge, we enjoyed BBQ sandwiches, cole slaw, and cheesecake in the dining car. The Blue Ridge Mountains stretched out to the south while the Shenandoahs reached off to the north. By 2:30pm we made our first sighting of patches of snow in shaded areas along the railway. The eastbound Cardinal glided past 20 minutes later near Jolly's Crossing.
Charlottesville Union Station formerly served Southern Railway trains.
The westbound Cardinal arrives in Charlottesville on February 8, 2002. At that time Superliner cars operated on this train.
At Clifton Forge, the ex-C&O James River line joined and the appearance of the town, station, and facilities was typical of C&O territory. The winding line and smooth riding Superliners made the ride comfortable as the scenery continued to draw attention. The wintertime absence of leaves on the trees allowed a deeper than usual look into the woods where small ice-covered streams meandered back and forth. The White Sulpher Springs stop delivered a few passengers to the famed Greenbier Resort as did C&O varnish of yesteryear. The mountain woodlands and hollows were covered with a couple inches of snow much to the delight of these Floridians while the railway's heavy coal traffic satisfied our railfan appetite.
For dinner the dining car was used as intended with first class passengers occupying one half of the car and coach riders seated in the other half. The menu offered enough selections to ponder awhile before settling on the succulent prime rib, mashed potatoes, green beans, and apple pie. Outside, the New River Gorge gurgled with its normal whitewater conditions. Though darkness had settled in between the West Virginia mountains by Thurmond at 6:20pm, a number of like-minded passengers joined us in the sightseer lounge to spot the towering US 19 highway bridge hundreds of feet above. Twenty minutes later the engineering marvel came into view from the side windows, silouetted against the darkness, then could be plainly seen directly above the roof windows.
The Cardinal schedule is earlier than that used when the train was equipped with single level cars that could operate through to New York. This permitted my first look at our two hour run along the south shore of the Ohio River and our 11:45pm crossing of the mighty Ohio. The neon lights of Cincinnati made an impressive entrance to Cincy as our train worked its way to Cincinnati Union Terminal at midnight.
Once again sleeping was no problem as our train rolled ever westward, adding the Kentucky Cardinal cars at Indianapolis overnight. Arrival in Chicago was a whopping 40 minutes early at 7:55am which gave us time to ride a couple of METRA commuter lines. The weekend pass sold by METRA for $5 includes unlimited travel and we squeezed in a round trip from the former Northwestern Station to Geneva and from Union Station to the Hollywood/Brookwood Zoo stop where BNSF freight trains could be seen storming along the Aurora line.
Our METRA commuter train at Geneva, IL on February 9, 2002.
This westbound BNSF train was one of several freights spotted during our brief stopover at METRA's Hollywood/Zoo stop.
Our eastbound METRA train approaches the Hollywood/Zoo stop for the return to Chicago Union Station.
When we returned to Union Station we relaxed in the Metropolitan Lounge and collected our luggage from the check room down the hall minutes before the scheduled departure of the Texas Eagle. At the last minute the dining car had to be switched out which resulted in a 50 minute delay and a 4:23pm departure. Our sleeper, 32018, was the only sleeper on this day's train and it appeared that most rooms would be full by St. Louis. Unfortunately, the car was turned backwards thus our room, number 3, was on the left side, away from the skyline side for Springfield and St. Louis. In Amtrak's early years one could reserve a standard bedroom and with confidence that the odd numbered rooms would be on the right-hand side, however, for many years it has been a 50-50 proposition.
Just beyond Lockport, an hour out of Chicago, train #21 went into a siding and the dispatcher told our engineer: "Your company wanted #22 to go first." Soon the conductor apologized to passengers via the PA system though his explanation that "The Union Pacific is single track and the Santa Fe doesn't want us" was probably hard for the average rider to understand. The eastbound Texas Eagle passed at 6:04pm, over 30 minutes after we had headed into the siding. The stop in Joliet came 5 minutes later and we were now already 1 hour, 45 minutes late. I was very happy we had not taken the former Rock Island METRA line to Joliet as that would have resulted in an agonizingly long wait. I would rather be on the train, late or not.
Departing Joliet, the dining car steward announced that dinner would not commence until 7pm and passengers did not seem amused. We had left late, lost even more time, and now had to wait on dinner. Fortunately, our sleeper was right next to the dining car so we didn't need track shoes to grab one of the rapidly filling seats when first call was made. The steak dinner was welcomed after McDonalds cuisine for lunch in Union Station and we enjoyed the company of a young couple who were relocating from New York to Dallas. The husband was originally from Morraco and his pregnant wife from China. This was their first Amtrak trip, a story we would hear from countless passengers during the next few days.
Outside a light rain fell as we headed down the old Gulf, Mobile & Ohio line through Bloomington and Lincoln, IL. Inside our sleeper the shower produced only freezing cold water and I concocted a new advertising campaign called Amtrak's Arctic Adventure in honor of this unforgettable experience. The state capitol at Springfield was soon viewed from the stairwell window since it was on the opposite side from our room. Shortly after Alton I moved to the now empty diner to videotape the St. Louis skyline and the Gateway Arch as the Texas Eagle now travels along the Illinois side of the Mississippi River opposite the Arch allowing beautiful views of the lighted silvery landmark. Until fairly recently, Amtrak used the Merchant's Bridge north of downtown St. Louis and entered the city along the west bank, traveling directly below the Arch. Now it crosses the river due east of downtown. I definitely preferred the current route which includes between 10 to 15 minutes of viewing the Mississippi and the lighted Arch.
Another great night's sleep lasted until about 7:30am and I anxiously awaited our stop in Malvern, AR to determine how late we were running as we had a 2 hour layover in Fort Worth before catching the much anticipated Heartland Flyer to Oklahoma City. When we pulled out of Malvern at 7:53am, it first appeared that we were nearly 3 hours late as I consulted the Texas Eagle schedule folder we had picked up in Chicago. Soon I realized that the folder matched the current national timetable which was incorrect as a revised schedule had subsequently been released for the Eagle. Using the revised timetable that I had accidentally found online, I discovered we were approximately 2 hours late. It would be close but the schedule appeared padded.
As John and I ate breakfast in the diner, a constant stream of eastbound UP freight trains paraded past. At one point five freights passed during a 20 minute span. There was a great deal of pleasant conversation among passengers and we enjoyed chatting with frequent train riders Tom and Patty of Marshall, TX. By Texarkana the Texas Eagle had shaved 15 minutes off its tardiness, 10 of which were given back due to freight meets before Marshall. The two story brick depot in Marshall has recently been restored to its original beauty when it served as a key cog in the Missouri Pacific system,standing at the junction of the St. Louis-Dallas line with the tracks from New Orleans via Shreveport.
We were back to 1 hour, 40 minutes late at Longview where a station sign proclaimed "Welcome to Longview, the scenic and entertainment capitol of East Texas." The sign was proven true four minutes later as the train came to a stop at 12:13pm, a few blocks west of the station. As the train was up to only about 25 mph, the stop seemed routine until I noted the conductor running down the aisle of the dining car as his radio blared "Emergency! Train 21." My scanner confirmed we had hit an SUV though oddly I had not seen it as we passed the wrecked vehicle which ended up on the side of the train on which we were seated. I could only conclude that I was giving my order to the waiter at the time. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet I found out the next day that a woman in her 20s was driving the SUV which was pushed into a utility pole after impacting the train. She was shoved into the back seat and cut out by the jaws of life and was in serious condition but expected to survive. This brought to mind my only other similar experience, a fatal grade crossing accident on the Sunset Limited several years ago. As an active Operation Lifesaver volunteer, I was saddened by this senseless mishap whose silent victim was the engineer who, predictably, was too shaken to continue. Fortunately, a relief engineer lived close by and was on hand by the time the police released the train at 1:35 pm.
We returned to our room in a somber mood as we were just over 3 hours late. The Heartland Flyer had been a major objective of our trip as Oklahoma would be my 49th state visited and John's 48th. The train crew had earlier told us that if the train reaches Dallas after about 3:30pm, connecting passengers are usually taxied to Fort Worth. There still was hope but it was flickering. A 13 minute stop at Grand Saline to again switch engine crews sliced a bit more of our leeway from the connection and we now were racing the clock. The Texas Eagle rolled to a halt in Dallas at 4:16pm and within 5 minutes we were on our way in one of two taxi vans that Amtrak had called. The sprint across Interstate 30 was not the way we had intended to leave the Eagle but we appreciated Amtrak having the taxi van ready to go. As the Fort Worth skyline came into view we breathed a sigh of relief as we had made it with a mere 25 minutes to spare.
A long line stretched from one end of the venerable Fort Worth station to the other. "Certainly this must be the Texas Eagle line", I thought until the ticket agent informed me the Heartland Flyer had a manifest of approximately 160 passengers on this trip. Nevertheless we found a pair of seats in a desirable location in coach 35008, one of a dozen snack bar coaches on Amtrak's Superliner roster. Up front an F40 NPCU was in charge with new P42 # 194 pushing on the rear. A pair of Hi Level coaches, once proud stars of the Santa Fe fleet bracketed our Superliner.
Somehow all 160 passengers were boarded within 10 minutes and the Heartland Flyer set sail for Oklahoma City on-time at 5:25pm. As soon as the conductor lifted our tickets we headed downstairs to the snack bar to purchase sandwiches for dinner. This was a wise decision as soon the line was 25 people deep. The city soon gave way to ranches, farms, and rural homes illuminated by a lingering prairie sunset. Darkness fell well before our first stop, Gainesville, TX, obscuring the view except when we entered one of the five intermediate towns at which the train stopped.
Reflecting back on the van ride, I recalled a similar, though scheduled, ride way back in 1976 when my best friend Eric Harms and I connected from Amtrak's San Francisco Zephyr at Ogden, UT and took a Rio Grande van to Salt Lake City to catch the Rio Grande Zephyr. That had been part of my first nationwide circle trip by rail as well as my first ride in a Hi Level coach as we had riden the Southwest Limited a few days earlier. Back then there were no Superliner cars though the popular Hi Levels had planted the idea of a double deck fleet in Amtrak management's mind. The intervening 26 years had allowed me to cover almost every mile of Amtrak's route map yet this line to Oklahoma had escaped me since the Lone Star had been cut off in 1979 during one of Amtrak's close encounters with elimination.
While in a retrospective mood, I strolled ahead to one of the Hi Level cars and found it to be tastefully upholstered though the lighting seemed more muted than in the Superliner. Downstairs two pairs of seats had been installed for mobility impaired passengers but the rest of the lower level looked about as I recalled with spacious restrooms and ample luggage space. On-time at 9:55pm the large Sunday crowd detrained at Oklahoma City and we easily pulled our luggage cart and rolling suitcase two blocks to the upscale Westin Hotel for our only night off the train. Weekends are generally the best time to visit Oklahoma City as downtown hotel rates are typically lower with business travelers absent.
Monday February 11 dawned a nippy 20 degrees but minus the ice that had knocked out power just a week earlier. The proximity of the Westin to the train station allowed us to remain in the hotel until 8am yet easily make the 8:25am departure. Once more we were assigned to the Superliner car as were our 40 or so fellow passengers which included a chatty group of 15 or 20 women on a shopping trip to a mall in Gainesville with a return on the evening's train.
Our first stop, Norman, yielded a look at the University of Oklahoma campus then we crossed the Canadian River and spotted several deer in a nearby meadow. This is cattle country and several ranches were passed including one where cowboys could be seen on horseback. At Purcell, an older gentleman sported a cap lettered "Amtrak Purcell, OK station master", and I wondered whether he was a paid caretaker or self appointed. A police car waited in the parking lot and drove off as soon as we departed, an apparent sign of cooperation between this town and Amtrak.
The Washita River and the Arbuckle Mountains near Gene Autrey, OK.
The southbound Heartland Flyer at Ardmore, OK on February 10, 2002.
The westbound Texas Eagle backed in 15 minutes early at 3:10pm as the eastbound Eagle departed. As we were booked in the thru sleeper to Los Angeles, we had a long hike to the rear of the train which actually was spotted on the new platform for the soon to open intermodal station that will serve Amtrak, Trinity Railway Express, and bus lines. Once more we had Room 3 and car 32011 was also turned backwards which was good as it would face the city as we passed through Austin.
The southbound Heartland Flyer (left) and the eastbound Texas Eagle display three different paint schemes at Ft. Worth on February 10, 2002.
Strolling back to our sleeper required passage through the lounge and four coaches but was interesting as the movie Chisum was playing in the lounge. I had to take a seat and watch for awhile as seeing a John Wayne movie while cruising through Texas is so appropriate. Back in our sleeper I was pleased that the shower had hot water. The neon sillouetted buildings of Austin made a nice evening sight as we called at the Texas capitol at 8:25pm. Later we made a twisting approach to San Antonio using the Hemisfair tower as a compass needle guiding us along a circuitous path to the Alamo city. Our 10:55pm arrival was 50 minutes early and seemed like the perfect time to turn in for the night.
A Caltrain commuter car is tucked between express cars on the westbound Sunset Limited in El Paso.
I awoke to find us 75 minutes late at Del Rio, not bad for the Sunset Limited. As we ate breakfast in the diner, we passed over the impressive 318 foot tall trestle over the Pecos River. National Park Service "rails 'n trails" rangers provided an interesting commentary on the region in the Sightseer lounge which made the journey through the desolate region enjoyable.
During lunch the Sunset made its station stop in Alpine, TX and soon a pair of police cars pulled up outside our window. It seemed as if every meal on our trip had featured either the day's best scenic highlight or the day's biggest adventure. An ambulance soon pulled up and a young man was removed from the lounge car on a stretcher, apparently to his protest. Rumors abounded that he was either on drugs or severely drunk. Either way, it was best for everyone to have him gone. This 45 minute saga placed the Sunset 130 minutes late which pleased me as there is major padding into LA and I did not want to arrive at 5:30am on Wednesday.
The remainder of this Tuesday would be highlighted by frequent meets with eastbound UP freights, a chance to stretch our legs in El Paso, and a glorious desert sunset with red, orange, and purple hues seen (of course) from the diner at dinner. Our tablemates were Randy, a businessman from Tucson and his mother Edith from Chicago. This was Randy's first long distance rail trip and he was enjoying the relaxing journey.
The clear desert sky allowed a memorable view of the stars from my bed as the constellations pivoted as if in a planetarium whenever the train rounded a curve. Memories like this are what makes train travel so captivating to me. After noting that we were only 83 minutes late at Tucson I nodded off for the night.
Overnight I gained new rail mileage as we traversed the cutoff via Maricopa, AZ. I slept soundly as we gently crossed the desert and made our way into California. When I awoke at 6:15am, I spotted an I-10 exit labeled "Mohawk Valley" and started seeing highway signs indicating Yuma, AZ was ahead. I reset my watch to 7:15 Mountain Time and calculated that we had lost over 6 hours during the night. I later found out we had been delayed by frequent freight meets and had covered 250 miles in 10 hours. No wonder the ride was so smooth! A crewmember stated "You can't spell stupid without UP."
The Salton Sea, located below sea level, and the Santa Rosa Mountains were visible thanks to the Sunset's late running. Normally these sights are scheduled to be passed at night.
A wind turbine farm stands behind the Palm Springs, CA Amtrak station.
the credit of the Sunset Limited staff, our dining car crew was
efficient and polite
despite being dog-tired from 6 nights on the rails with only a quick
in Orlando. Waiter Mike Apperson
distinguished himself as the hardest working waiter I have ever
the dining car steward was equally efficient. When
lunch time rolled around the diner was low on food as
the train was scheduled into LA at 8:05 am. However,
a satisfactory lunch was cobbled together for those
left on board as we traversed Beaumont Hill. Once
again mealtime meant adventure as an eastbound freight
went into emergency as it attempted to clear the mainline for us near
Colton. The ensuing 55 minute
delay shot down our hopes of making the Oceanside trip.
We would have to settle for a visit to
Olvera Street, the popular Mexican marketplace near Los Angeles Union
Terminal. Our last en route stop,
Pomona, was almost 9 1/2 hours late and the 2:35pm arrival in LA was 6
hours late thanks to the padded schedule.
As we prepared to turn eastward, we decided the Cardinal and Heartland
earned their wings but that the Texas Eagle must have had its
wings clipped this trip.
A visit to Olvera Street, across the street from Los Angeles Union Station, replaced the planned ride to Oceanside.