A NORTH AMERICAN LAND EXPEDITION Part 3
A NORTH AMERICAN LAND EXPEDITION
By Jack M. Turner
Photos By John C. Turner
PART 3 - EASTBOUND ON THE CANADIAN AND AMTRAK
Our first stop after picking up our minivan was
Amtrak's King Street Station for a quick glimpse at the visiting Disney
Christmas Carol train that was in the early stage of touring the country.
After a drive through the University of Washington campus, we drove across
the lake to Kirkland to collect our checked luggage from the Courtyard Marriott.
The drive north on I-5 passed quickly until we encountered a 45 minute delay
at the border due to exceptionally heavy weekend traffic passing through
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Disney's Christmas Carol Train welcomes visitors
at King Street Station, Seattle
The US-Canada border from I-5
Signs of the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics were
evident all over Vancouver in the form of banners, road signs, and various
construction projects. Our early arrival time in Vancouver allowed
time to drive through Stanley Park which, from past visits, is our favorite
public park. This park has something for everyone: walking, biking,
and roller blade trails along the harbor, athletic fields, an aquarium,
flower gardens, a children's zoo, and much more. Dinner at our favorite
Vancouver restaurant, The Old Spaghetti Factory, followed and we enjoyed
the restaurant's early 1900s motif which includes an authentic trolley
car in the center of the restaurant. The location of this popular eatery
is in Gastown, an historic area that today features many shops and restaurants
on the city's east side near the old Canadian Pacific rail line.
After dropping off our rented minivan we had time
to relax in the Silver and Blue (first class) Lounge at VIA Rail Canada's
Pacific Central Station. Our decision to check our luggage before
our sightseeing foray was a wise move as we beat the crowds and were free
of our bags before returning the minivan. One word of caution: VIA
takes baggage size seriously and we had to unpack one oversized suitcase
we had planned to carry aboard the train. Nice VIA tote bags were provided
to us which simplified this task. In addition to checking luggage
for the baggage car, we were able to drop off the luggage we wanted placed
in our room and it was waiting for us when we boarded the Canadian.
An outdoor waiting area was also popular with first class passengers as
a musician performed a variety of ballads and complimentary lemonade and
cookies were offered.
A classic trolley inside The Old Spaghetti Factory in Vancouver
A statue in front of the Vancouver skyline in Stanley
Vancouver's Central Pacific Station
VIA's first class Silver & Blue waiting area
Inside Pacific Central Station
We heeded the first boarding call and made the shortest
possible walk to the train as our car was located at the rear of the train,
a few steps from the waiting area. Kokanee Park, one of VIA Rail's
14 popular Park cars, would be our home for four nights. Our accommodations
were in Drawing Room "A", designated by VIA as a triple bedroom since it
contains three beds. Spacious as rail accommodations go, the drawing
room contains a cross-wise sofa that pulls down into a bed, two high backed
chairs that are stowed under the beds at night, a second lower bed stowed
in the wall by day, and an upper berth that pulls down from the ceiling.
An enclosed toilet annex, an in-room sink, and lots of luggage storage space
are also included. Our room was the closest room to the rear of the
train; just behind our room was the Mural Lounge, a popular gathering spot;
followed by the Bullet Lounge, where passengers can visit and watch the scenery
from the rear of the train.
Upper and lower beds parallel to the window in
our drawing room on VIA Rail's Canadian
The sink and vanity in our drawing room
The crosswise bed in our drawing room in Kokanee
Switches controlling lights and the fan in our drawing
room - all in working order
After organizing our carry-on bags, we made our
way to the 24 seat dome atop the Kokanee Park for a bird's eye view of
our departure. As we departed Vancouver at 8:40pm we passed the VIA
Rail shops and coach yard and paralleled the route of Vancouver's Skytrain
light rail line. Champagne and fruit juice was offered to passengers
in the Park car followed by hors d' oeuvres. We passed New Westminster
and curved onto the Fraser River bridge at 9:10pm with the massive Skytrain
bridge over the river on our right. The Canadian National line along
the south shore of the Fraser was busy with westbound traffic which slowed
the forward progress of the Canadian greatly. We were traveling against
the flow of traffic as CN and CP employ directional running along the Fraser
River lines with westbound traffic using this CN line. The Canadian
must travel along the CN at this point in both directions due to operational
issues related to the track layout from Pacific Central Station.
A classic FP9 engine and Tweedsmuir Park in the
Skytrain's route parallels the Canadian route through
The Canadian curves onto the bridge over the Fraser River
with the massive Skytrain bridge in the background
While most passengers had retired for the night,
John and I remained in our perch in the dome to watch our progress east
of Vancouver. Shortly after 11:30pm the Canadian left the CN transcontinental
main and curved left and crossed the Fraser River again into Mission City,
the eastern terminus of the West Coast Express commuter line. The Canadian
now was on home rails as it was originally the Canadian Pacific flagship.
An hour later we stopped at Agassiz and the effects of our earlier move against
traffic was evident as we were over two hours late at 12:40am. This
was of little concern as effective in December 2008 the schedule of the Canadian
was stretched from three to four nights by adding about ten hours to its
schedule between Vancouver and Toronto. This would allow ample recovery
time to make up delays.
My last ride on the CP route was in 1988 when the
Canadian served Revelstoke, Lake Louise, and Banff. Memories of squealing
flanges as the train navigated the curvy line at the foot of cliffs along
the Fraser remained fresh in my mind for over 20 years. The 2009
version of the Canadian didn't disappoint as the rails were singing as
our train twisted along the CP. The serenity of the dome car was
augmented by the view of the full moon casting beams upon the river with
the dark silhouettes of mountains across the Fraser as a backdrop.
At 1:05am we stopped beside a string of empty well
cars in a rural area. After awhile the headlights of a motor vehicle
appeared ahead, eventually driving toward us on a dirt trail. The
truck stopped on our left and a pair of railroad men climbed out. While
one man smoked a cigarette, the other climbed over the freight cars and
appeared to be inspecting our train with a flashlight. Apparently satisfied,
they departed the scene and soon we resumed our eastward journey. I
regretted that my railroad scanner was packed away and I was not about to
wake up my wife to locate it. However, being without that tool allowed
my imagination to run wild as I speculated what was going on. Satisfied
that all was well, I finally trundled off to bed.
The Canadian departed Kamloops at 7:10am as we awoke
for the day. The late night viewing from the dome car had shortened
my night considerably but this could be made up once we hit the prairie.
Today there were mountains to see. Unfortunately the good weather that
had accompanied us throughout our westward train trip, tour of Oregon, and
cruise to Alaska had abandoned us. A steady rain was falling and
these conditions were destined to stay with us through Edmonton. This
would limit our photography, however, good weather on our prior journeys
over this line helped us rationalize that we were due for this.
After passing through three sleeping cars we came
to dining car Alexandra for breakfast. VIA has retained the interior
appearance of the former CP dining cars which have rose colored seats at
tables for four and art deco etched glass partitions and lighting.
We were seated with a gentleman from Australia who was on his way to visit
his sister outside Toronto. For breakfast we enjoyed banana pecan
pancakes with sausage and the meal was deliciously filling. Back in
Kokanee Park's dome we found the sight of train # 2 snaking through forests
along the North Thompson River in a gentle rain to be relaxing.
We were glad we weren't driving as the rhythmic
movement of windshield wipers would have put us into a sleepy state.
We found our copy of the Canadian Trackside Guide 2009, published by the
Bytown Railway Society, most helpful in identifying locations throughout
our trip across Canada. Ordering information is available at www.bytownrailwaysociety.ca
North of McMurphy the river displayed areas of whitewater
as it churned along east of the railway. An hour north of Blue River
beautiful Pyramid Falls appeared a few feet east of the rails and the engineer
dutifully slowed down to allow a good look as mist from the waterfall splashed
upon the train windows. Soon it was time to visit the dining car for
a pleasant lunch and we each enjoyed a hot roast beef sandwich, coleslaw,
and lemon square. Following lunch we moved to the skyline dome one
car ahead of the diner to play Canadian trivia hosted by Gary, a veteran
Thick forests line the CN line north of Blue River
Towering Mt. Robson was visible through the rain
and fog as the Canadian turned eastward toward Yellowhead Pass. The
CN route to Prince Rupert traversed by VIA Rail's Skeena diverged from the
transcontinental main line at Redpass Jct. We left Mt. Robson Provincial
Park at Yellowhead Pass and entered Jasper National Park at the BC-Alberta
border. Moose Lake and Yellowhead Lake, headwaters of the Fraser River,
stood adjacent to the railroad for miles with soaring snow capped mountains
in the background.
The Canadian arrived in Jasper at 4:55pm and the
50 minute servicing stop provided time for a stroll around the town.
This brought back memories of a family visit to Jasper in the late 1990s
and reminded us how much we had enjoyed the restful pace of Jasper.
During the stop, ground crews washed the windows in each car and special
bucket trucks allowed the washers to clean the forward and side windows
Crews wash the Canadian's windows at Jasper
The Jasper station
Train # 2 at Jasper
A bucket lift is used to wash dome car windows
Kokanee Park's windows are cleaned during the stop
Departing Jasper a brown bear was spotted on the
north side of the railway and her two cubs could be seen climbing a tree.
Jasper is located in a region that is teaming with wildlife as elk and deer
often are seen grazing within the town limits. Earlier deer, a wolf,
elk, and a moose were seen outside our window. The Rocky Mountains
and the Athabasca River mark the entrance to (or in the case of our eastward
travels - the exit from) Jasper National Park at Park Gate.
On this evening we had the second seating for dinner
which began at 7:45pm Mountain Time. A different menu is presented
at each meal on the Canadian, a welcome change from the sameness of Amtrak
menus. The beef tenderloin, rice, mixed vegetables, and salad were
delicious topped off by smooth cheese cake for dessert. The elegant
appearance of dining car Alexandra enhanced our dining experience as we watched
the passing scenery. Sample menus for the Canadian, as well as all
VIA trains, are available online at: http://www.viarail.ca/en/useful-info/onboard-train/meals/onboard-menus.
VIA's website, www.viarail.ca, contains a lot of interesting and helpful information
including a list of active VIA cars.
Despite leaving the mountains behind, there was
ample scenery to behold. The forests gave way to large Chip Lake
which looked peaceful at 9:10pm. Within 10 minutes the Canadian crossed
a tall bridge over one of the region's many rivers. The suburbs of
Edmonton were reached an hour later and soon the backup move into the Edmonton
station commenced. Traditionally the Canadian served downtown Edmonton
via a U-shaped spur line that left the main line at West Jct. and returned
at East Jct. Westbound trains made this move in the opposite order.
Eventually the line was severed and the Canadian accessed the downtown station
from East Jct. which required a lengthy reverse move to return to the mainline.
Before our last trip on the Canadian in 1999, the downtown station had been
left in favor of a small suburban station just off the mainline. At
the time the eastbound Canadian pulled off the main at West Jct. and backed
out after the station stop. However, on our current trip the train backed
in at West Jct. and pulled out to continue east. A crewmember explained
that the prior practice was short lived due to complaints about engine noise.
The effects of the generously padded schedule were
obvious as we arrived in Edmonton at 10:35pm, almost a half hour early.
This provided time for a few nighttime photos of the Kokanee Park before
the rain that followed us from BC caught up. Departure came on-time
at 11:45pm and from the dome I could see the city skyline to the south followed
by a massive oil refinery that we passed 20 minutes later. A wonderful
night's sleep ensued as the beds aboard our sleeper were very comfortable
and the gentle rocking of the train made it easy to slumber.
A nighttime view of Kokanee Park at Edmonton
The Canadian pauses in Edmonton late at night
Morning found the Canadian traversing the prairies
of Saskatchewan. The stop at Saskatoon came during breakfast and we
were surprised to discover the nondescript station was located far from
downtown in a fairly remote locale. The rain had been left behind though
clouds hinted that it was not too far to the west. A 40 minute
stop at Melville preceded lunch which began with the train stopped at a rural
crossing waiting for a taxi to deliver some passengers who had missed the
train at Melville. I never found out whether they were boarding in
Melville or had left the train to look around and missed our departure.
What I did know was that they were fortunate that VIA was sympathetic as they
could have been stranded for three more days since this was a tri-weekly
Crossing the Saskatchewan River at Saskatoon
One of many lakes seen during passage through Saskatchewan
VIA Rail's station in Melville
Numerous freight trains were met during the afternoon
and priority usually was given to the freights though we never incurred
much idle time waiting on a siding. An hour east of Melville a large
potash mine was visible to the south and others would be seen in the next
half hour. The lush green QuAppelle Valley was reached at 1:45pm and
good views were made possible by the railway's elevated location. Ten
minutes later the Canadian crossed into Manitoba and crossed the Assiniboine
River which would be our occasional companion all the way to Winnipeg.
The Assiniboine River Valley came into view a few minutes later and a tall
trestle over the valley was crossed at 3:24pm just west of Minniota.
Our pleasant porter, Stephane, took care of our
needs throughout the first half of our journey including leaving one of
the lower beds down for us to use for naps. Generally we took turns
as two of us usually wanted to watch scenery from the dome at any given
time. A power nap before dinner energized me for the rest of the day's
travel. In addition to taking care of the Park car's three bedrooms
and one drawing room, Stephane manned the bar in the Mural Lounge, and
kept the Bullet Lounge stocked with complimentary juice, water, cookies,
and morning continental breakfast items.
A westbound CN freight at Yarbo
Crossing a trestle near Miniota, Manitoba
Dinnertime came at 5:30pm and continued past our
station stop at Portage la Prairie. On our Canadian trip in 1999 we
ate lunch while the train stopped at Portage; the new schedule had pushed
this stop back to the dinner hour. Chairs in the dining car had been
outfitted with blue cloth seat covers that lent a touch of style to the
Alexandra. We had experienced the same thing on one of our cruise ship's
formal nights as its chairs had white seat covers.
The station at Portage la Prairie, served by the
Canadian and the Hudson Bay
Park car porter Stephane Oystryk who served us
between Vancouver and Winnipeg
Winnipeg was reached just before 7:00pm, over 90
minutes early. The Park car came to a halt just outside the station
train shed which was fortuitous as the northbound Hudson Bay stood two tracks
over where we could line up photos of both trains. Back in 1999 John
and I made the four night roundtrip to Churchill and back on the Hudson Bay.
As the Canadian didn't leave Winnipeg until 11:30pm, we walked over to The
Forks Market, a nearby shopping and dining complex that occupies a former
CN freight warehouse. Here one can find a variety of souvenirs, food
products, candies, and other items. This area is popular with locals
for its outside patios overlooking the Red River near its confluence with
the Assiniboine River. After briefly returning to the train, we took
a walk in the opposite direction to the Hotel Fort Garry, a former CN hotel
located one block from the station entrance. This allowed us to observe
the station's green dome from the outside; inside the station the rotunda
has been tastefully restored. We also took a peek at the history-rich
railway museum located on the station's second level. A number of
pieces of antique rail equipment have been well preserved by museum volunteers.
Back aboard the train a hearty contingent of passengers congregated in the
dome for good conversation while awaiting departure from Winnipeg.
Once underway at 11:30pm we viewed the nearly full moon reflecting in the
Red River then headed off to bed.
As we traveled across Ontario, breakfast was served
by our new dining car crew, Ross and Caitlyn, who had boarded in Winnipeg.
Our new Park car porter, Jeff, had already introduced himself the night before
and his work throughout the remainder of the journey would be exemplary.
On board service personnel on the Canadian work either between Vancouver and
Winnipeg or Winnipeg and Toronto. All are based in Winnipeg; spare board
employees can be called to work in either direction or on the line to Churchill.
Interior view of dining car Alexandra
The Canadian's morning stops included Sioux Lookout,
Savant Lake, and Armstrong while midday stops during lunch included Mud
River and Ferland. A few more stops followed in the afternoon as train
# 2 passed through a forested region dotted with small lakes, and the first
hints of the rocky Canadian Shield. The westbound Canadian passed
at Tonderin at 4:17pm with the Yoho Park on the rear. We had ridden
that car from Halifax to Montreal exactly 364 days prior.
Little Jackfish River
Curving around Long Lake
A chapel beside Long Lake at Longlac
Passing a CN stack train east of Longlac
Yoho Park brings up the tail end of the westbound Canadian
A 35 minute service stop at Hornepayne came at 4:40pm
and many of the Canadian's passengers walked the dusty platform. The
tiny community of Oba came an hour after we left Hornepayne. The
Algoma Central line crosses here on its course from Sault Ste. Marie to
Hearst but there appeared to be no lodging in this town for anyone wishing
to connect from one route to the other. During this stretch we enjoyed
our final dinner on the Canadian, a sumptious pork roast with mashed potatoes,
vegetable medley, and VIA's signature chocolate cake. Remote Ontario
woodlands and several lakes dominated the evening views and we eventually
turned in a bit early as we would have a busy morning.
The eastbound Canadian follows the shore of one
of many lakes in its trek across Ontario
A westbound CN freight passes at Jackfish
One of the Canadian's two coaches is conveniently
spotted during a servicing stop
A pair of VIA F40s lead train # 2 at Hornepayne
A westbound Canadian National stack train prepares
to meet VIA # 2 at Hornepayne
One of the Canadian's three Skyline domes during
a 25 minute stop at Hornepayne
Alexandra is one of two dining cars on train # 2
A dwarf signal protects the rear of the Canadian
Kokanee Park brings up the rear of the Canadian
Our porter from Winnipeg to Toronto, Jeffrey Vernaus,
beside Kokanee Par
Dining car Alexandra is outfitted with fancy blue
seat covers for dinner on the final night of our cross Canada journey
Another small lake in remote Ontario
During breakfast the Canadian turned southward at
Washago then followed the eastern shore of massive Lake Simcoe. Modest
but expensive lakeside cottages dotted the landscape, no doubt a perfect
getaway for some Toronto residents. At Richmond Hill we entered GO
Transit commuter territory and a few minutes later the northbound Ontario
Northland Northlander rolled past near Oriole on its way to Cochrane.
Its route would diverge at Washago and head north through North Bay, Swastika,
and other communities. Soon Toronto's landmark CN Tower came into view
foreshadowing the end of our Canadian rail journey as the Canadian arrived
at Toronto Union Station 7 minutes early at 9:23am.
A lake in central Ontario
The northbound Ontario Northland Northlander seen from
the dome car
Toronto is a wonderful city with a huge variety
of attractions such as the fabulous Royal Ontario Museum; the impressive
Art Gallery of Ontario; the Hockey Hall of Fame; Casa Loma; and Ontario
Place, not to mention boat tours to the Toronto Islands; professional baseball,
football, and ice hockey; and enough commuter train and light rail routes
to satisfy any railfan's appetite. While a return visit to any of these
would have been enjoyable, it was time to head homeward as we had arranged
a vehicle from National Car Rental for a leisurely drive to Buffalo.
We had chosen the drive rather than a night in Toronto as it would break up
our trip back to Florida and enable us to take the Lake Shore Limited rather
than an all day ride on the Maple Leaf. Either option would require
an overnight in New York City or Albany so the choice for comfort won out.
CN Tower dominates the skyline approaching Toronto Union
Just west of downtown Toronto we exited the freeway
and took a local highway that paralleled the shore of Lake Ontario passing
beautiful homes and many mansions along the route though Mississauga and
Oakville. John and I discovered this route last year when driving
from Buffalo to Toronto as a way to bypass freeway traffic jams. This
time the drive was more enjoyable as we weren't racing the clock to catch
a train. After a couple of hours, which included a brief stop to view
Niagara Falls, we reached Buffalo and checked into the comfortable and
convenient Hilton Garden Inn opposite the Buffalo Airport. This hotel
offers nice large rooms and is within an easy drive of several fine restaurants.
Returning a rental car is easy since the airport is so close and, in the
morning, we were able to catch the hotel courtesy van for a short ride to
the Amtrak station in Depew.
The eastbound Lake Shore Limited arrived a few minutes
early and we settled into Bedroom B in Viewliner sleeper 62007. The
name Colonial View still appeared on the inside of the car's end doors but
had been removed from the nameplate outside. This recent change by
Amtrak, which has also removed most Superliner II cars' state names is a
dumb move as naming sleepers is a long tradition that gives first class cars
personality and helps passengers differentiate their car from other sleepers
on the same train. Only the Northern Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads
used only numbers on their sleepers in pre-Amtrak days; thankfully the cruise
lines still name their ships.
Departure from Buffalo was on-time at 8:40am and
an hour later the stop at Rochester was made. Our bedroom had a chair
fixed in place next to the window opposite the couch similar to most Superliner
deluxe bedrooms. The sleeper had great air conditioning which was
an improvement from our Viewliner sleeper on the Crescent. We reached
Syracuse 20 minutes early which gave me time to stroll the high level platform
and photograph the train as an eastbound CSX freight snuck past on the adjacent
track. The Syracuse station is an attractive modern edifice which
appears to be used for intermodal purposes. Nearby the Syracuse Sky
Chiefs baseball stadium was being prepared for an evening ballgame.
Outside our sleeper I overheard two passengers stating that it was cold which
set off my internal alarm. Indeed they must have complained to the car
attendant as shortly after departure the sleeper began to warm up.
Eastbound Lake Shore Limited at Syracuse
Eastbound Lake Shore Limited at Syracuse
Lunch reservations were taken since the Amfleet II
dinette car could handle only a few people at once due to limited food preparation
space. We secured the earliest sitting and made our way to the next
car forward at 11:45. It seemed somewhat strange to walk forward
to the diner on an east coast train as the sleepers had operated near the
head end until about a month before our trip. Two meals on the Crescent
had provided our first experience with this lineup in several years yet
both of our Superliner trains on the westbound trip were arranged with the
sleepers ahead of the dining car. Despite the limitations of the
dinette car, our lunches were very good. Of note was our wiry middle
aged waiter Alex whose limber movements reminded us of Dick van Dyke in
his heyday. Alex seemed able to tilt trays of food he was carrying to the
tables sideways at a 90 degree angle as the train lurched along the rails.
Watching him entertained us even more than the scenery passing outside
Eastbound Lake Shore Limited at Syracuse
Near the end of lunch the Lake Shore made its station
stop in Utica where the Adirondack Scenic Railroad excursion train stood
across the platform. Back in our bedroom the temperature had grown
uncomfortably warm which brought to mind my belief that you should never complain
about a cold sleeper in the summer. Experience has shown me that by
closing the vents in your bedroom you can moderate the temperature just fine.
However there is nothing you can do about a hot car. With the door
to the hallway opened, we could hear our car attendant trying unsuccessfully
to reset the thermostat but eventually the right adjustment was found with
the help of another employee and soon we were comfortable again.
Adirondack Scenic Railroad excursion train at Utica
The Mohawk River flowed peacefully to our south
with a few mountains visible in the background and occasional views of
dams and locks controlling the river. This scenic stretch of railroad
was busy with several westbound freight trains passing as they must have
in the days of the glamorous 20th Century Limited which once plied these
rails. At Schenectady we toasted the birthplace of rail traveler extraordinaire
Eric Harms then prepared for the end of the day's journey Albany-Renssalaer.
Before pulling into that station, however, the Boston section of the Lake
Shore had to be separated adjacent to the engine shops as is the current
practice for this train. The entire front part of the train, 2 engines,
baggage car, sleeper, 2 coaches, and cafe car pulled ahead to the station
while the New York section in which we were riding waited for a dual mode
P42 engine to couple up then proceeded to the station. This 20 minute
process set us back to a 6 minute late arrival which wasn't bad considering
this train's reputation for tardiness.
The Mohawk River parallels the Lake Shore Limited
route across upstate New York
A dam on the Mohawk River
A few minutes after our arrival the courtesy van
from the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Albany arrived to transport us to our hotel
for the night. This is a convenient stopover thanks to the shuttle
and for us was preferable to a stay in midtown Manhattan. The Crowne
Plaza is located in downtown Albany, 2 blocks from the palatial state capitol
building and within easy walking distance of many architecturally interesting
buildings. This business hotel caters to Amtrak passengers as its courtesy
shuttle is widely advertised, indeed making several daily runs upon request
across the river to the train station.
Interesting architecture is evident in buildings
in downtown Albany
The New York capitol building
In the morning one of the bellmen drove us back to
the Amtrak station as arranged the prior evening. The Albany-Renssalaer
station is perhaps the finest example of a modern train station on the Amtrak
system as its exterior is inviting with brick walls and ample glass.
The waiting room is inviting with lots of space and a generous amount of comfortable
seating. A coffee shop stands at one end of the station interior with
the ticket office and a combination news stand/gift shop in the center of
the building with a US post office at the far end. The station is actually
L-shaped with a wing protruding above several through tracks; access to trains
is via escalators, stairs, and elevators.
An old church stands near the convenient Crowne Plaza Hotel
Inside the new Albany-Renssalaer station
The northbound Maple Leaf meets a southbound Empire Service
train at Albany-Renssalaer
Train # 280, the morning Empire Service run from
Niagara Falls was ready for boarding at 9:55am and soon we were off for
New York City. We could have made a same day connection to the Silver
Meteor in New York yesterday by taking this train from Buffalo. However,
the prospect of its 4:00am departure and the Lake Shore's sleeper option
made our decision to stopover in Albany easy.
For this leg of our journey we were seated in the
rear car, an Amfleet business class car. The forward end of the car
contained lounge tables with the cafe counter at mid-car. The rear
half held five rows of seats with single seats on the car's left side and
two across on the right. A privacy curtain separated business class
from the cafe area. With all the two across seats occupied, we took
three single seats directly behind each other and found the spacious leather
seats and lack of neighbors quite pleasant. While the scenic Hudson
River was on the opposite side of the train, we were able to enjoy the river
views anyway and when we wanted to focus on specific sights we moved to
a table in the lounge area. For the most part, though, we were content
with our reclining seats and the leg rests that reminded me of those in
the former Union Pacific coaches that operated on Amtrak's Florida trains
in the 1970s.
Business class comes with a perk in the form of
free soft drinks or iced tea and we found the cafe lead service attendant
Gerald to be exceptionally friendly and efficient. With his having
been on duty since about 3:00am, this was quite impressive. The stretch
between Albany-Renssalaer and New York City is always a favorite with its
ever changing vistas of mountains across the river, towering highway bridges,
pleasure boat harbors, and passing cargo ships. The sights made this
ride pass quickly and our 12:35pm arrival at Penn Station was five minutes
Outgoing cafe/business class attendant Gerald aboard
train # 280
The scenic Hudson River
The layover in New York seemed quicker than 2 hours
and 45 minutes as we ate lunch in a restaurant on the station's lower concourse
then relaxed in the first class Club Acela waiting area. At 3:20pm
the final leg of our North American expedition began as the Silver Meteor
slipped out of Penn Station to begin the overnight journey to Florida.
We spotted the signature sign on a highway bridge at Trenton that states "What
Trenton makes, the world takes." The early dinner seating was called
at 5:00pm as we departed Philadelphia and dining car 8559 appeared to be
straight out of The Twilight Zone as it was very plain unlike any Amtrak dining
car we could recall. As a Florida native I have frequented Amtrak's
Florida fleet and this car had never been on any train I'd ridden.
Upon further reflection I surmised that it was originally operated by Southern
Pacific Railroad as the end doors both had a porthole window. Subsequent
research revealed this to be ex-SP 10210. Dinner was up to usual good
standards and service was fine; oddly our server resembled a 1950s lunch
counter waitress which added to the retro mood.
Comfortable seating in business class aboard Amtrak # 280
This famous sign is a landmark in Trenton
Bedroom B in sleeper Meadow View reflected what
one might expect from a passenger train in a third world country as the
plastic material used in its cup holders, cabinets, and countertop was
scratched and dinged from years of abuse. The attendant call buttons
were disabled (not necessarily a bad thing since impatient passengers sometimes
buzz incessantly late at night) and the reading light in the upper berth
did not function. Worse yet, the latch to the small coat closet had
been jimmied making it impossible to fully close the closet door. At
bedtime we would discover the closet light would thus shine constantly until
a copious amount of duct tape from our always available roll sealed the door
shut. A few weeks later an article in Passenger Train Journal referred
to Amtrak as "the duct tape railroad" and, as I read the article I figured
somewhere on the Amtrak system Bedroom B probably was still running around
with the duct taped closet door. Duct tape could not help Meadow View's
other two problems, a nasty rattle from the connecting door to Bedroom A,
a universal issue for all Viewliner deluxe bedrooms, and the lack of hot
water in the showers and sinks. The first problem was resolved by placing
luggage flush against the connecting door while the second was dealt with
by taking a fast shower.
A newly installed seat in our Viewliner deluxe bedroom
The fast run down the Northeast Corridor was highlighted
by the crossings of the Susquehanna, Bush, and Gunpowder rivers and we pulled
into Washington at 6:50pm. The obligatory change from electric to
diesel engines was accomplished, new passengers boarded, and we resumed our
southward trek across the Potomac River to Alexandria. The passage
through Ashland, VA held my attention as it always reminds me of the fall
semester I spent at Randolph-Macon College in 1972. Amtrak was new
at the time and watching its trains and the privately owned Auto-Train race
by was a daily ritual after classes. Departing Richmond the wide James
River was crossed at its fall line then we turned in for the night.
We awoke just in time to note departure from Savannah at 6:52am. Shortly
it was time for the ninth and final railroad breakfast of our trip as the
Silver Meteor dashed through the Georgia lowlands. Our 9:06am arrival
in Jacksonville was 17 minutes early, keeping our streak alive - all seven
trains we rode across North America and back had arrived at our destination
within ten minutes of schedule.
Sleeper Harvest View brings up the rear of the southbound
Silver Meteor at Washington, D.C.
Reflecting on our train travels, we were pleasantly
surprised by the timeliness of each train. As usual the scenery was
excellent, most of the train crews were effective, and some were exceptional.
The Empire Builder certainly took first prize among the Amtrak trains we rode
while the Canadian was the best overall thanks to its classic equipment which
included dome cars, a variety of sleeping accommodations, and an art deco
style to its dining cars. The poor dining service on the Crescent and
the worn out appearance and mechanical condition of two of Amtrak's Viewliner
sleepers were disappointments. Overall, the train again was the
way to see the sights across the continent and the experience was mostly
positive. The beauty of Oregon made our highway excursion a winner
and, of course, our Holland America Alaska cruise exceeded even our loftiest