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Chicago To Florida

SPRING BREAK ON AMTRAK (PART 3): CHICAGO TO FLORIDA

By Jack M. Turner

Photos by John C. Turner

    Through the years overnight stopovers and layovers between connecting trains have provided a chance to sample many of the commuter rail lines radiating from Chicago.  While the western BNSF line has garnered many rides as its various station stops provide great train watching locations, rides on some of the other lines have left indelible memories.  The old Rock Island route to Joliet provided the feel of an interurban with stops every few blocks during one stretch.  The former Chicago & Northwestern line to Kenosha, not only crossed the border into Wisconsin, but provided me a forward view from the cab control car during a ride 20 or so years ago.  The southwest line to Orland Park was squeezed in during a nocturnal ride a few years back.  Other commuter routes were traversed more easily during numerous visits to Chicagoland.  Finally in June 2010 the elusive South Shore Line was covered as we made a round trip between South Bend and Chicago.  That left one Metra route to cover: the route to Antioch which is the newest Metra line other than short extensions on various routes.

    Metra train # 103 eased out of Chicago Union Station at 9:00am and soon diverged east of the coach yard at Western Avenue.  After branching off from several other lines, we made our first stop, Belmont Avenue in Franklin Park at 9:23.  From there the stops came often as numerous prosperous suburbs enveloped the railway.  The fourth stop, O'Hare Transfer, offers connecting shuttle busses to nearby O'Hare Airport which was visible just to the west.  After four more stops, the scenery turned rural at Vernon Hills as woods, a bike trail, and golf course stood beside the tracks just beyond the station.  An hour had elapsed since train 103 left Union Station and various streams, lakes, and other placid scenes replaced the bustling city views closer to Chicago.  At 10:15 we paused at Grayslake/Washington Street and I learned from the conductor that the Fox Lake line's stop for Grayslake was a few miles to our east.  At 10:29am we reached Antioch, the terminus for commuter service.  After discharging all passengers the train trundled out of sight to the north leaving me to inspect the surroundings.  The station building in Antioch is fully enclosed though without a ticket agent.  Benches, restrooms, and a water fountain provide the basic necessities though food is not available.  A marsh across the track provided a nice setting complete with the sounds of chirping birds.  As the station is located in a mixed light industry/residential area, sources of food were not readily apparent thus it is important for the day tripper to bring food and beverage.


Schiller Park Metra station on the line from Union Station to Antioch.

Southbound Metra train passes at Wheeling.

The Buffalo Grove station.



Round Lake Beach station.


The frozen water of an adjacent lake as seen from the train.

Northbound Metra train # 103 pulls away from the Antioch station to clear the block between runs.

    Southbound Metra # 114, composed of the same train set operating in push mode, departed at 11:00am.  I learned from the conductor that this route was originally owned by the Soo Line then passed through the hands of the Milwaukee Road, Wisconsin Central and eventually the Canadian National who presently operates the line.  Along the way the route was abandoned a couple of times but somehow always bounced back. After 15 intermediate stops we pulled back into Union Station at 12:30pm. where we ate lunch then prepared for another commuter ride.


Southbound Metra # 114 arrives Antioch with the same equipment used by northbound train # 103.

The view from the forward center window approaching a crossover and a track inspection hi-railer.

Approaching the diamond where the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway crosses the Canadian National at Leighton.

A double diamond south of Prospect Heights where the CN crosses a Union Pacific (ex-C&NW) belt line.

 

Crossing a triple diamond with the (ex-C&NW) Union Pacific/Metra line to Crystal Lake and Harvard.

Branching onto a CP (ex-Milwaukee Road) line at Franklin Park.

The triple track Metra line curves through the northern suburbs.

Metra's Western Avenue yard.
 

Paralleling a southbound Metra train beyond Western Avenue.

Pacing the other Metra train en route to Union Station.

A maze of tracks nearing The Loop.

Our companion train pushes downhill approaching Union Station.
 

Position light signals handle traffic control on the approach to Union Station.

The other inbound train stretches out nicely on a curve.


A Metra train passes above on the line to Ogilvie Transportation Center  (former Northwestern Station).


    Westbound Metra # 1225 departed Union Station at 2:30pm and ran express to LaGrange Road, skipping 9 or 10 stops.  We detrained at Downers Grove at 2:54pm and enjoyed watching 6 trains, including the eastbound and westbound Southwest Chiefs, pass during our 80 minute layover.  At 4:19pm we climbed aboard Metra # 1272 for the 40 minute ride back to Union Station leaving about an hour to cool our heels in the first class Metropolitan Lounge.


Westbound Metra # 1225 at Downers Grove.

 A bilevel coach wearing a BNSF letterboard.



Metra # 1225 pulls away from Downers Grove.

The Downers Grove station.  This triple track line demands caution when crossing the tracks and stopped Metra trains now cover up the crossing to prevent commuters from walking around the front of a stopped train since the center track hosts express trains.
 

The eastbound Southwest Chief rolls through Downers Grove.

The westbound Southwest Chief zips through Downers Grove.

The rear of the westbound Southwest Chief.

Another westbound Metra at Downers Grove.
 

This car's letterboard indicates BNSF ownership.

The afternoon parade is on as another westbound Metra pulls into Downers Grove.

Eastbound and westbound Metra trains meet at Downers Grove.

The eastbound train pushes out of Downers Grove en route to Union Station.
 

A westbound BNSF intermodal train runs through Downers Grove on the center track.

John watches the BNSF freight which has piggyback cars on the rear.


Eastbound Metra # 1272 arrives in Downers Grove.  We will board this train to Chicago Union Station.

    Capitol Limited sleeping car passengers were shepherded to the train at 6:05pm, over one half hour before scheduled departure.  After relaxing in roomette 8 in sleeper 32074 "Colorado" (another car we had never ridden), we were summoned to the dining car for dinner and our excellent oriental braised beef entree arrived as the train began its journey at 6:40pm.  Compared to some less efficient meal sittings in past years, we had to salute the diner crew for starting dinner so promptly. 

    The south side of Chicago soon gave way to the steel mills of Gary, IN then some nocturnal rural scenes as the Capitol sailed along toward its first stop, South Bend, IN, at 9:30pm Eastern Time.  We were pleased that the car's temperature was comfortable but disappointed that its water system did not function thus rendering the shower and sinks useless.  Fortunately the facilities in the adjacent transition sleeper ahead and sleeping car to the rear worked fine. 

    After a couple of nights in stationary hotel room beds, sleep was somewhat fitful as I was awake to observe stops in Toledo, Sandusky, and Pittsburgh at about midnight, 1:00am, and 5:00am respectively.  Daylight brought the descent down Sand Patch Grade then a scenic run along fast flowing rivers swollen by snow melt.  The white water scenes reminded of a mini-Colorado River making the twisting passage through the mountainous region even more visually appealing.  As the Capitol Limited drew closer to its destination, the oft-seen stations in Cumberland, Martinsburg, and Harpers Ferry gave a comfortable feeling of familiarity that reminded us that we were on the old Baltimore & Ohio line.  After passing through the tunnel at Harpers Ferry which leads the train from West Virginia into Maryland, we rolled past the MARC commuter train yard at Brunswick then passed the iconic Point-of-Rocks, MD depot where the former B&O Main Line to Baltimore diverges from the Metropolitan Subdivision which leads to Washington, DC.


A morning view of a flowing river along the route of the eastbound Capitol Limited.

An old Western Maryland trestle passes above our ex-B&O route.

Heavy snow melt provides rushing waters along the Capitol Limited line.

The head end of our Capitol Limited is visible in the mountain curves of southern Pennsylvania.
 

Rapids and ample whitewater follow the rail line's south side through the mountains.

The historic station at Point-of-Rocks, MD.  The diverging line is the ex-B&O Main Line to Baltimore.

    The suburbs of the nation's capital soon enveloped the railway as train # 30 eased through Gaithersburg, stopped at Rockville, and on through Silver Spring.  Due to slow orders necessitated by flash flood watches, we lost time along the way and finally reached Washington Union Station at 2:22pm, about 70 minutes late.  After storing our luggage in the first class lounge and checking a suitcase that wasn't needed on our final train, we met up with my college friend Carol Moeller and her husband Bud for a late lunch in Georgetown.  It was a delight to catch up on the past 35 years and recount college memories over lunch before being dropped off back at Union Station.


Washington Union Station.

    The southbound Silver Meteor departed Washington on-time at 7:30pm and, in a change from prior practice, the sleeping cars were at the tail end of the train, trailed only by the baggage car.  Sleeper 62038 "Spring View" was another car we had not traveled in previously which once more defied the statistical odds and roomette 7 would be comfortable throughout the night.  Shortly after departing Alexandria, VA we made our way to the dining car as the crew had reserved the 8:00pm sitting for sleeper passengers who boarded in Washington.  Given the late hour I opted for a lighter entree, baked chicken, rather than the usual beef dishes.

    Being familiar with the track layout at Ashland from my semester at Randolph-Macon College in 1972, I found our left-hand running (actually a slow pace) down the usual northbound track to be rather peculiar.  The reason soon became apparent as flashing police car lights and the presence of a tow truck in front of southbound Amtrak train # 87 signaled trouble.  A large number of local residents lined the scene to watch the proceedings bringing to mind the night that a huge crowd watched the privately run Auto-Train made a promotional stop in Ashland during my time at the college.  During our stop in Richmond 15 minutes south of Ashland it was learned that an automobile had become stuck on the tracks but thankfully the approaching train was warned and stopped in time at the north end of the Ashland depot platform.  Just before the Silver Meteor departed Richmond, the headlight of # 87 brightly illuminated the rails and that train pulled within a couple car lengths of the Meteor.

    The next couple of hours featured tall trestles over the James, Rappahannock, and Roanoke Rivers then we turned in for the night as our train streaked into North Carolina.  The usually bumpy CSX "A" Line didn't live up to its reputation as I slept through several station stops and was amazed when I awoke at 8:15am during the stop in Jesup, GA.  We had expected to be over an hour late due to the change to daylight saving time which advanced the clock one hour overnight.  There was barely time for a quick shower before we made our way to the dining car for breakfast before reaching Jacksonville.  A confused dining car crew took 25 minutes to take our order and another 20 minutes to deliver our meals as the Silver Meteor crossed the St. Marys River into Florida. We managed to wolf our meals down with just enough time to return to our roomette before our 9:35am arrival in Jacksonville.  We had not expected to be just 12 minutes late given the time change but welcomed the opportunity to arrive home after a 2 1/2  hour drive home in a rented car.


Passengers detrain from the sleepers near the tail end of the Silver Meteor at Jacksonville.

    Our hastily constructed trip had been a success as our trains were comfortable, offered nice meals, and were mostly close to schedule.  Our stopovers in LA, Flagstaff, La Plata, and Chicago had lived up to expectations and we had traveled through the desert southwest, wintery mid-America, and the thawed heart of Dixie all in the span of just 11 days.


Click Here for a Slide Show of all photos in this report in large format.




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