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Remembering the Hoosier State

Today Amtrak resumes full operation of the Hoosier State, ending an 18-month experiment in which Iowa Pacific proved rolling stock and on-board services. I had an opportunity to take this unusual train in June 2016 while on a business trip to Indianapolis. What follows are my notes on the experience.

Aboard the Hoosier State

We’ve just wrapped up the CLAMP’s Hack/Doc Fest at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can read Ken Newquist’s daily updates to see how the conference went, including all the gory details on the updated annotation in Moodle 3.1. Short version: it needs love. I’d like to talk about a most unusual aspect of the conference: Amtrak and Iowa Pacific’s Hoosier State, which runs between Chicago and Indianapolis.

Background

Horizon coaches on the Lincoln Service in 2009. These are a common sight on the Hoosier State. Photo by Jeramey Jannene from Milwaukee, WI, United States of America (Train Boarding) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Train service between Chicago and Indianapolis has a tortured history in the Amtrak era. Amtrak does not, except in a few cases, own its own track, and must therefore rely on access to rails owned by private freight companies. The most direct routes to Indianapolis were abandoned or downgraded in the 1970s and 1980s as freight traffic moved elsewhere. Amtrak trains which serve Indiana have repeatedly moved to less desirable routes in order to maintain service.

By the 2010s the Hoosier State operated with a couple coaches and no food service on a slow, bumpy, five-hour journey. The train ran quad-weekly; on the other days the long-distance Cardinal ran over the route.

Indiana takes control

The federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act 2008 (PRIIA 2008) required states to provide funding for short-haul trains operating within their borders beginning in 2013. Indiana cobbled together an agreement involving state and local money for 2013, but only after prolonged debate. It was clear that Indiana wasn’t satisfied with its level of service and sought alternatives.

For 2014 Indiana decided to make a change. The discussions, negotiations, false starts, and accusations would take forever to recount here and make my head hurt. The end result is that Indiana brought in a private company, Iowa Pacific, to provide rolling stock, marketing, and on-board service personnel. Amtrak personnel operate the train itself; Amtrak sells tickets and the train remains part of Amtrak’s system. The new train began running on August 2, 2015 and after some hiccups it seems to be a success. According to a recent press release, ticket revenue is up, customer satisfaction is up, and delays are down.

Hack/Doc at Butler gave me a perfect opportunity to inspect this strange new service.

First impressions

Iowa Pacific coaches on the Hoosier State. Photo by David Wilson from Oak Park, Illinois, USA (20170205 13 Hoosier State @ Rensselaer, Indiana) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I haven’t been on this route in six years. In 2010, after the Hack/Doc at DePauw, I caught the Cardinal from Indianapolis back up to Chicago. I remember an unpleasant station, a crowded cafe car, and a slow slog through rail yards south of Chicago. The brioche French toast was pretty good.

We board from the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago, and you can’t miss the Hoosier State. Most of Amtrak’s equipment is stainless steel with red, white, and blue striping. Iowa Pacific has painted the cars for this service in classic black-and-orange Illinois Central Railroad livery. The cars themselves are unusual: an old Santa Fe Big Dome, the Summit View, and old Budd coaches with large picture windows.

Inside I’m impressed by the leg room. We’re in the Du Quoin, a 44-seat leg-rest coach. The leg room is comparable a long-distance Amfleet coach, maybe even better. There’s a proper 120V wall outlet and folding tray table. The picture windows have blinds which you can pull down. The upholstery is sort I’d expect to find on a couch or easy chair in my grandfather’s living room.

The bathroom is most unusual. It’s off to the side, about the size of a bedroom. You enter and there’s a couch, and two sinks. The toilet and urinal are in a separate room which locks. Ken likened it to a receiving room.

Crawling out of Chicago

The creature comforts on Iowa Pacific can’t do much about the route. You really do feel as though you’re sneaking out of Chicago. It’s 28 miles from Chicago to the first station stop in Dyer, Indiana. It’s timetabled for 90 minutes. A car could do it half the time, barring shenanigans on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

After a brief run down the Chicago Line and Metra track we hit the Belt Railway of Chicago at 75th Street and slow to a crawl. I took these notes at the time:

​ “Pretty good run here, but we’re doomed once we hit the Belt. There’s no escape from the BRC. Yep, we’re on the Belt and everything is slow and grinding. No one around me shares my concerns about the Belt.”

We use the Belt to reach the Union Pacific Railroad’s Villa Park Subdivision. This is a slow crawl through the south side, and it reaches its nadir at Riverdale. We have to cross the Little Calumet River, but there’s a freight train ahead of us which has to be recrewed and we need to cross a major interlocking. Having done all that, we will crawl past Dolton Yard.

We hit Dyer a little early at 6:50 PM. I can’t emphasize how frustrating the stretch on Union Pacific is.

Dinner time

The dining area on the lower level of the dome car. Photo by David Wilson from Oak Park, Illinois, USA (20170205 09 on board Hoosier State) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Business class passengers get meals as part of their booking (and sit in the dome!), but the dining car is open to everyone. We’re summoned by destination, with the Indianapolis passengers going last. As with standard Amtrak trains Iowa Pacific practices community seating. This is usually a high point of the trip. You never know who you’re going to be with.

As we hit Dyer I find myself seated in the lower level of the Summit View with my boss and a newlywed couple from Marion, Ohio. Their kids are down in Texas so they honeymooned in Chicago for the weekend. I had the pork chop, asparagus, potatoes, and a side salad. IPA to drink. Overall it was pretty good. I found the food service a little more competent than average Amtrak. I think they were a little overwhelmed—too many people summoned at once. No real complaint though.

What is to be done?

We made good time all the way to Indianapolis. The coaches rode well and we didn’t encounter many problems once we got on to CSX in Indiana. The A/C wasn’t working in our coach but it didn’t bother me much. We arrived at our destination before midnight and headed off to our hotel while the Hoosier State headed for the yard.

Fast-forward to March 2017. I appreciated the improvements in on-board service but wondered whether Iowa Pacific could really be making a go of it. The answer is that they couldn’t, although that may be more due to the parent company’s problems than the Hoosier State itself. Certainly they couldn’t have done it without Amtrak’s incremental access rights and logistical support.

What’s next? Amtrak probably puts Horizon coaches back on the Hoosier State. With everything else that’s going on a quad-weekly train from Chicago to Indianapolis isn’t high on their list of priorities. Iowa Pacific could afford to give this train individual attention; Amtrak can’t. The real question is this: what will Indiana do next? They don’t want to kill the train but they don’t like the level of service Amtrak gives them.

What needs to happen, but won’t, is finding a better route out of Chicago. That means real money; tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

Featured image by David Wilson from Oak Park, Illinois [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Toledo Option

Or, I reconsider the Lake Shore Limited yet again, and find a use for it.

A frequent complaint about Amtrak service is that “you can’t get there from here,” and it’s a fair criticism. As a Michigan expatriate living on the East Coast I’m sensitive to these limitations. Michigan itself has comparatively good service: three Wolverines to Detroit/Pontiac, the Blue Water to Lansing and Port Huron, and the Pere Marquette to Grand Rapids. Unfortunately for me all three services pivot on Chicago. Coming from the East Coast, I’m facing hours of layovers and backtracking.

As an alternative, Amtrak offers a Thruway Motorcoach connection at Toledo to various destinations in Michigan. Thruway Motorcoachs are contracted buses which you can book with trains to help get you closer to your final destination. I’d resisted this option for years because of the timings in Toledo and general uncertainty about the whole enterprise. After a positive experience with an Amtrak bus in Florida in 2014 and a growing desire to avoid driving on I-80, I decided to take the plunge.

The trains

The Lake Shore Limited at Croton-Harmon. Photo taken by Adam E. Moreira, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Lake Shore Limited at Croton-Harmon. Photo taken by Adam E. Moreira, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Amtrak has two trains serving Toledo, the Capitol Limited and the Lake Shore Limited. They are both long-distance trains running between Chicago and the East Coast; neither serves Toledo in daylight. The Capitol Limited runs southeast to Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; the Lake Shore Limited follows Lake Erie and serves New York City by way of Buffalo and Albany. I’ve previously written several posts about the Lake Shore Limited but I do not come here to bury it (again).

The bus

Amtrak contracts with local bus operators to provide bus connections. Trinity Transportation handles the bus from Toledo. Westbound, the bus is scheduled to depart Toledo at 6:30 AM, or thirty minutes after the scheduled arrival of the Lake Shore Limited and ninety minutes after the Capitol Limited. It will be held, barring major disruptions, for both trains. Eastbound, the bus arrives in Toledo at 10:35 PM, or an hour before the scheduled departure of the Capitol Limited and four hours before the Lake Shore Limited.

The bus itself is of the modern intercity variety, with comfortable seats, a restroom, and free Wi-Fi. When I rode the bus it was close to full between Toledo and Detroit but half the people got on (or off) in Detroit.

The station

The platforms at Toledo, OH. Photo by Prasenberg.

The platforms at Toledo, OH. Photo by Prasenberg.

Toledo is an intermodal facility, serving Amtrak, intercity buses, and local buses. It’s expanded from a New York Central Railroad station built in the 1950s. The station is open during the wee hours of the morning when Amtrak’s long-distance trains come through. It’s well-lit and there are comfortable chairs to sit on. Amenities include restrooms, Pepsi machines, a snack machine, a coffee vending machine. There’s also a small Subway sandwich shop which is open until midnight.

Where you can go

The bus serves five destinations in Michigan:

  • Detroit: the Amtrak station in the New Center neighborhood near Wayne State University.
  • Dearborn: the new Amtrak and intermodal station.
  • Ann Arbor: the Amtrak station along the river.
  • Jackson: the Amtrak station in downtown Jackson.
  • East Lansing: the new Amtrak and intermodal station off Troubridge.

I’ve done Ann Arbor and East Lansing; in both cases I needed to rent a car to complete my journey. There isn’t a car rental location near either station. In Ann Arbor there were taxis at the station; in East Lansing I needed to call one. The East Lansing station closes at 6 PM, an hour before the scheduled departure of the bus, but there’s an enclosed waiting area which stays open and which has not-entirely-uncomfortable seating.

Game planning

This is the itinerary I employed over the Christmas holidays:

Outbound

  • 3:40 PM (Day 1): Depart New York on the Lake Shore Limited
  • 5:55 AM (Day 2): Arrive in Toledo
  • 6:30 AM: Depart Toledo on the bus
  • 10:05 AM: Arrive in East Lansing

Inbound

  • 7:00 PM (Day 1): Depart East Lansing on the bus
  • 10:35 PM: Arrive in Toledo
  • 11:49 PM: Depart Toledo on the Capitol Limited
  • 1:05 PM (Day 2): Arrive in Washington, D.C.
  • 3:05 PM: Depart Washington, D.C. on the Northeast Regional
  • 6:30 PM: Arrive in New York

The choice of the Capitol Limited on the return eliminates an extra three hours layover in Toledo while not materially altering the arrival time in New York. Another option is to change to the Pennsylvanian in Pittsburgh but that makes for an early morning after a late night.

The big consideration here is meals. Unless the Lake Shore Limited is very late you’re missing breakfast westbound, and you’re definitely missing dinner eastbound. Assuming a big dinner the night before, missing breakfast is tolerable, but I suggest bringing along some granola bars or some such. Eastbound, the Subway at the Toledo station is a godsend.

Alternatives

A big theme in my travel writing and planning is resiliency: I want above all to maximize my options while controlling costs. I considered bypassing Toledo and the bus altogether in favor of South Bend, Indiana. South Bend is roughly the same driving distance from the places I would drive to in Michigan. With South Bend I had to weigh the following considerations:

  1. South Bend is 2 1/2 hours west of Toledo. Westbound that’s more time to sleep and gets you breakfast on board, but also adds that to your final ETA. Eastbound you still miss dinner and have to meet the train that much earlier.
  2. How do rental car prices at South Bend compare to the rental car prices in Michigan? What are the hours of the facility?
  3. How is taxi service in South Bend? How does Uber/Lyft availability compare to Ann Arbor or Lansing?
  4. If I encounter problems in South Bend, what are my fallback options? Is there a bus? Do I know someone who can pick me up?

These same factors applied to all the Michigan locations. I selected East Lansing because of rental car price, timing, and proximity to my final destination.

The verdict

This works as a travel option between the East Coast and mid-Michigan. Door to door it takes about the same amount of time as driving the whole way with an overnight stay, and can be price-competitive under the right conditions. It also eliminates someone sitting behind the wheel for 630 miles, and that has to be worth something.

Recap and reflections

This concludes a series of posts chronicling our difficult journey to the 2014 edition of B-Fest, the annual bad movie festival at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

We spent the whole day chasing a path to Chicago. All the improvisations between 10:20 AM and 4:35 PM were dedicated to catching the Capitol Limited, our best option. It eluded us. If we’d known that at 10:20, we’d have said the hell with it, canceled the outbound trip, booked Southwest out of Newark, and called it a day. Of course, you can’t know that. By the time we knew that the Northeast Regional (train 125) was delayed we were already in Metropark. This wasn’t avoidable. Also, we wouldn’t have been eligible for a full refund if we’d bailed out that early.

Next year it’s likely that we’ll fly out and take the train back. There’s more flexibility in flying out the day before; even if things go bad there are more options. Another possibility is the westbound Pennsylvanian. It departs New York around 10:40 AM and arrives in Pittsburgh at 8 PM. It has a guaranteed connection with the Capitol Limited, which arrives a minute before midnight. Four hours to kill in Pittsburgh isn’t awesome, but it’s time enough for a decent meal downtown.

Lessons

In no particular order:

  1. The Capitol Limited is still the best way to get from the East Coast to Chicago.
  2. One hour is not a safe connection in winter, even on the Northeast Corridor.
  3. I-78 is terrible.
  4. Despite all our tricks and toys Nature still calls the shots.

Modes of transport

  • 7:45 AM – 7:50 AM: Jeep to Easton Bus Terminal
  • 8:20 AM – 10:20 AM: Trans-Bridge Lines bus to Newark Airport
  • 10:45 AM – 10:55 AM: Newark Airport AirTrain to Newark Airport train station
  • 11:00 AM – 11:20 AM: New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor Line to Metropark
  • 1:40 PM – 4:35 PM: Amtrak Northeast Regional to Washington, D.C.
  • 5:20 PM – 5:55 PM: MARC Penn Line to BWI Airport
  • 6:00 PM – 6:10 PM: Shuttle bus to actual Airport
  • 9:40 PM – 10:25 PM CT: Southwest Airlines 3223 to Chicago Midway
  • 11:00 PM – 11:40 PM: CTA Orange Line into Chicago
Featured image courtesy of Alex E. Proimos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Decisions

This is part of a series of posts chronicling our difficult journey to the 2014 edition of B-Fest, the annual bad movie festival at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

In yesterday’s episode we were sitting in the cold at Metropark in Iselin, New Jersey, awaiting a late Northeast Regional (train 125), our connection to the Capitol Limited in Washington, D.C.

125 arrives at 1:40 PM, one hour and 35 minutes late. Its projected arrival in DC is 4:10, five minutes after the Capitol Limited departs. I’m not sanguine. Our chances hinge on 125 making up an unbelievable amount of time and/or Amtrak holding the Capitol Limited until we arrive.

This warrants a digression about Amtrak operations. We booked this as a guaranteed connection. What that means is that Amtrak will make it right, somehow, if we misconnect. This can take many forms depending on how late you are and the local situation. Options can include hotel vouchers, refunds, bus connections, etc. It all depends on what’s possible. Sometimes, if there are enough connecting passengers and it wouldn’t incur too harsh of a late departure, Amtrak will hold a train.

We make up some time on 125, but it’s not enough and the elements are against us. We arrive in DC at 4:35 PM, and then face a prolonged disembarking as the ice and cold have frozen many of the doors shut. The Capitol Limited departed on schedule at 4:05 PM. All our attempts to catch it up since jumping off the bus at Newark six hours ago have failed.

We head to the customer relations office to meet with the station manager. He’s very friendly and I immediately feel empathy for him despite my own situation. He’s had several tough days. I can see it in his face. We are offered two options:

  1. Hotel voucher, expense voucher, comparable rebooking on next day’s train.
  2. Full refund of entire trip and Amtrak-paid travel to point of origin (now Metropark).

This is more than fair. I think there were 4 or 5 of us who misconnected from 125. It’s not enough for a bus, assuming a bus could catch the Capitol Limited (debatable; every minute that passed it moved further west). Under most circumstances I’d probably have taken option 2 with a smile, but B-Fest starts in 24 hours. I can’t, and I don’t have time to explain why I can’t. I ask for the refund of the outbound portion only and head off to see a ticket agent about the particulars. I will never forget the crestfallen look on the manager’s face. I wish I could explain.

It was time to try our luck with the airlines. I’d been gaming this a little on the way down to DC as a backup. The legacy airlines were out: too expensive and too slow. We needed an airport with good transport links, which really meant National or BWI. Liz checked Southwest from both and located an 8:10 flight out of BWI to Midway while I finished up the refund. We then booked it for a MARC Penn Line train back up the Northeast Corridor to BWI. It’s my first ride on MARC.

Featured image courtesy of Ryan Stavely (ACS-64_FAIL_5Uploaded by Mackensen) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Metropark

This is part of a series of posts chronicling our difficult journey to the 2014 edition of B-Fest, the annual bad movie festival at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

When you last left us, we had bailed out of a badly-delayed Trans-Bridge Lines bus at the Newark Airport with the intention of hopping a train down to Metropark to catch up our Amtrak Northeast Regional (train 125) coming down from New York.

This plan unraveled almost immediately. We arrived at the AirTrain station around 10:30 in a bit of a rush. Two New Jersey Transit trains were scheduled to reach Metropark ahead of 125. One departed at 11:00 AM, the other at 11:30. The second train would be cutting things a bit fine (~10 minutes). Newark advertises four-minute headways on the AirTrain, and it’s about a 10-minute trip from Terminal A to the train station.

Time passes. No train. More time passes. Still no train. Apparently there’s some kind of mechanical issue. I pace and fret. It’s quarter of 11. The window is closing. Finally a train comes. Each minute feels like an hour. We hit the train station at 10:55. We’re sprinting. I buy tickets from the vending machine and we race for the southbound platform. There’s a train there. Our train? I rush up to the conductor: “DOES THIS TRAIN GO TO METROPARK?!” Yes, she says, with a big smile. We’re on. Thirty seconds later we’re rolling down the Corridor. It’s my first ride on New Jersey Transit.

We arrive at Metropark in good order and set about inspecting the station. I’ve seen worse. Much worse. The biggest knock is that the station is elevated, and to reach the station building itself from the southbound platform you face a somewhat long walk through a dank tunnel. Otherwise it’s fine.

We arrived at 11:20. 125 was due to depart New York at 11:35 and arrive in Metropark at 12:05. Meantime, in New York, another drama was playing itself out. It was cold today. Very cold. The creations of Man do not appreciate cold nor fine, blowing snow which gets into electrics and causes all manner of problems. In New York, the pipes froze on the consist which was to be train 125. FDA regulations do not allow an intercity train to operate without running water. Probably for the best. Unfortunately, this meant Sunnyside Yard had to cobble together a new equipment set before 125 could depart.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting outside at Metropark as a form of penance, an offering to the Transport Gods. It’s very cold. I don’t know about the equipment problem yet. I do know that 125 hasn’t left New York and the clock is ticking. I assume (wrongly), that the problem is weather-related congestion in New York; perhaps one of the North River tunnel tubes is out of service. More time passes. I explain to other passengers what I know about operations. As we stand there an Amtrak train arrives at the station, unheralded and unexpected.

“What train are you?”, I call out.

“645,” comes the answer.

It’s a Keystone Service, bound for Harrisburg. Normally it doesn’t stop here. Jovial conductors offer a lift to anyone headed there and points in between. It’s much appreciated but we’re all headed south of Philadelphia. They pass on the news from New York: 125 has an equipment problem.

Featured image courtesy of Hermann Luyken (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Bus

This is part of a series of posts chronicling our difficult journey to the 2014 edition of B-Fest, the annual bad movie festival at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

I’m sitting on a bench at the Metropark train station in Iselin, New Jersey. It’s January 23. It’s very cold. I’m pondering how it came to this. Some form of cosmic retribution for the near-perfect runs on the Vermonter and Silver Star earlier in the month?

It started well enough, with Ken dropping us off at the Easton Bus Terminal a little before 8 AM. We planned to take the 8:10 Trans-Bridge Lines bus, which would deliver us to New York by 10:00, more than enough time to catch the 11:35 Northeast Regional (train 125) for Washington, D.C.

It went wrong almost immediately, as multiple crashes in the cold, snowy weather turned I-78 into a gigantic parking lot. By 10:20 or so we had reached Terminal A at Newark Airport (nearly an hour late), and the traffic situation into New York didn’t sound promising. Google Maps predicted an arrival in New York at 11:20-11:30, which was far too close for comfort.

If we misconnected in New York with 125 we were out of luck on the Amtrak front. 125 is the last train with a valid connection to the Capitol Limited, and the last train period scheduled to reach DC prior to the Capitol Limited‘s departure owing to weather-induced cancellations. If we arrived late into New York the only choice would be to rebook for the Lake Shore Limited, accepting the necessary repricing and likely unavailability of sleeping accommodations. I’ve documented at length why the Lake Shore Limited isn’t a desirable option.

The alternative was to bail out at Newark, ride the AirTrain out to the airport train station (on the Northeast Corridor), and catch our train south of New York. Using the last of my laptop’s battery I worked out a plan. We would get off at Newark, ride the AirTrain to station, and hop a New Jersey Transit train to Metropark in Iselin. As we walked through the terminal I called Amtrak and adjusted our itinerary to originate from Metropark instead of New York. We left the Trans-Bridge bus to its fate.

Featured image courtesy of Adam E. Moreira (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Two new route guides

I’ve posted two new Amtrak route guides: the Pennsylvanian and the Wolverine.

Image of the Pennsylvanian by David Brossard [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lake Shore Limited redux

Back in March I enumerated seven reasons why I wasn’t going to take the Lake Shore Limited on future trips to the Midwest. To these I might also have added that the ex-New York Central route between Cleveland and Buffalo is particularly vulnerable to weather-related delays in the winter. Unfortunately I was called back on short notice to Michigan and the Lake Shore Limited was the only train I could catch in time. Let me quote from what I wrote in March:

CSX’s handling of the train in western New York. Amtrak is dependent on the freight railroads for dispatching. CSX does an absolutely terrible job between Schenectady and Rochester. They’re incapable of getting the train though on time. It’s just frustrating.

Now, here’s how my train fared across western New York last night, courtesy of the invaluable Amtrak Status Maps:

* ALB  1  620P  1  705P  618P  750P  Departed:  45 minutes late.
* SDY  *  *     1  731P  *     821P  Departed:  50 minutes late.
* UCA  *  *     1  844P  *     1009P Departed:  1 hour and 25 minutes late.
* SYR  *  *     1  941P  *     1130P Departed:  1 hour and 49 minutes late.
* ROC  *  *     1  1100P *     137A  Departed:  2 hours and 37 minutes late.
* BUF  1  1155P 1  1159P 300A  320A  Departed:  3 hours and 21 minutes late.
* ERI  *  *     2  136A  *     533A  Departed:  3 hours and 57 minutes late.
* CLE  2  327A  2  345A  818A  829A  Departed:  4 hours and 44 minutes late.
* ELY  *  *     2  418A  *     915A  Departed:  4 hours and 57 minutes late.

We were late leaving Albany because we had to wait for the eastbound Lake Shore Limited, which was late, to arrive. CSX is an equal-opportunity railroad; having stabbed the eastbound train it makes sure to stab the westbound train in compensation. Add that to the heavy snow and ice along the coast of Lake Erie and it’s not gone well.

I’m not complaining exactly. I’ve had a good trip: good meals, good company. My roomette is comfortable. I will arrive in Michigan well within my timetable. The snow is messing with the airports too. It’s just that the Capitol Limited, having come up from Washington and missed most of the weather, was only 57 minutes late out of South Bend and will probably hit Chicago within 20-30 minutes of its arrival time.

This is why I don’t take the Lake Shore Limited.

Image by AEMoreira042281 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

AmPets

Two congressmen have introduced a bill (HR 2066, the Pets on Trains Act of 2013) which would require Amtrak to formulate a policy for carrying domestic pets on certain trains. See the Huffington Post for a brief summary, and here for the actual text of the bill. What discussion I’ve seen focuses on a non-issue: that after three days in transit a dog wouldn’t be a good companion in the coach. That possibility is foreclosed by the text of the bill, but no one ever reads such things. I don’t see this going much of anywhere but I thought I’d offer some more detailed commentary.

Amtrak allows service animals only. No comfort animals or pets. I once sat across from a woman with a service animal for two days aboard the Empire Builder and it wasn’t a problem, but obviously (a) service animals are well-trained and (b) their owners are used to handling them in public.

The proposed bill, which includes escape hatches like “certain trains” and “where feasible” would require either that Amtrak either set aside a car where pets would be allowed as carry-on items, provided that the pet is contained in a kennel and that the pet as stowed meets the current carry-on policy or that Amtrak allow pets as checked baggage, provided that the area is “temperature controlled” and that the pet as stowed meets the checked baggage policy. In both cases the journey as ticketed would have to be 750 miles or less and Amtrak would be allowed to assess a commensurate fee. Finally, the bill provides that “[n]othing in this section may be interpreted to require Amtrak to add additional train cars or modify existing train cars.”

750 miles is a magic number in Amtrak transport planning; any route of 750 miles or less, excluding the Northeast Corridor, must be supported by its host state(s) according to a complicated cost-sharing formula. Routes over 750 miles are considered long-distance and may be fully-funded by the federal government. The specific verbiage, however, is “the passenger is ticketed for traveling a distance less than 750 miles. I assume that captures all short-distance services, all Northeast Corridor services, and all long-distance trains provided that you’re not going further than 750 miles. I foresee Amtrak arguing that the 750 mile limit would be hard to enforce within the current ticketing system, thus excluding long-distance trains (and upending the raison d’etre of the bill). This, coupled with the issues I’ll outline below, would seem to exclude any sleeping car passengers from traveling with pets.

The checked baggage section is similarly useless. Amtrak’s baggage cars are over fifty years old, some of the last remnants of the “Heritage Fleet” inherited from the private railroads in 1971. They’re in terrible condition and they’re not climate-controlled. Amtrak does have new Viewliner baggage and baggage-dormitory cars on order, but they won’t be delivered for at least another year and I don’t know whether they’ll be climate-controlled either.

That leaves setting aside a coach for contained animals. Anyone who knows anything about Amtrak operations knows that Amtrak is desperately short of equipment of all kinds. On many routes demand has long outstripped supply. Furthermore, this isn’t Western Europe. A 750-mile train trip can take the better part of the day. I can’t see passengers without pets happy with being seated in the pet coach. This places an artificial limitation on Amtrak’s carrying capacity. I would imagine Amtrak would levy a hefty surcharge on pet transport to compensate, but it still winds up losing passengers which hurts it down the road.

All that being said, if limited to carry-on there’s plenty of space in Amtrak’s primary coaches (Amfleet, Horizon, Superliner) for carry-on baggage, and there’s supplemental storage space on the lower level of the Superliner that could be pressed into service. I just don’t see many people taking advantage of it, and I don’t see Amtrak willingly implementing a policy given the issues I’ve outlined above.

HEWEBNE: outbound

This coming Monday I’m giving at talk at HighEdWeb New England about collaborative development in open source, focusing on liberal arts colleges. If this were one of my movie reviews that would be the “A plot.” The “B plot” is that I’m taking the train to the conference, and that unusually for me it’ll be 100% new mileage.

The conference is Mount Holyoke but I’m taking the Vermonter from New York up to Brattleboro. There are two reasons for this. The first is that my friend who’s picking me up lives closer to Brattleboro than Amherst. The second is that this train will be rerouted to the west bank of the Connecticut River in a year or two, and I want to ride the old route before that happens. Again, I’m that guy.

The ride in from Easton to New York was uneventful. Trans-Bridge Lines does a good job. Its buses are comfortable (for 90 minutes anyway) and the free wifi gets the job done. I-78 was remarkably empty. The only hiccup was finding New York Penn overrun with mouth breathing collegians dressed in green. Sigh. Amtrak Police finally showed up with a bullhorn and cleared them out. Yay!

Today’s Vermonter has five Amfleet cars: four reserved coaches and a cafe/business class car. At the front is an EMD AEM-7, one of Amtrak’s venerable “toasters” now in its fourth decade of service. It brought the train up from Washington and will pull it to New Haven, where we’ll swap it out for a GE P42DC “Genesis” diesel locomotive. We have to do this since there’s no electrification north of New Haven. Lunch today consisted of a turkey panini (good), hummus plus pretzel bits (okay), and iced tea. I’m pleased to finally ride over the Hell Gate Bridge but it really is more impressive from the park below looking up.

Early into New Haven and the power change starts at once which means no head-end power (HEP). I think of this as a staple of American railroading, though very few passenger trains do it now. The long-distance trains which travel south from New York (Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Crescent, Palmetto) change engines in Washington. The Vermonter does here in New Haven. The Pennsylvanian does in Philadelphia. I think some of the upstate New York trains do in Albany (switching from dual-mode electro-diesel to straight up diesels). Fascinating to think about the long-haul diesels which run, essentially uninterrupted, for fifty hours on the Western trains.

I hope I don’t offend anyone (too much) when I opine that Connecticut, at least what I can see of it, is ugly. Admittedly March is an unkind month for viewing the outdoors when there’s no snow on the ground.

We hit our dwell stops (New Haven and Springfield) with plenty of time to spare. Amtrak’s issuing a faster timetable on Monday, and I’d say that’s reasonable. I’ve arrived or departed from Springfield numerous times over the years but this is the first time I’ve headed east. We go as far as Palmer, and then perform a thankfully rare “backup” maneuver. There’s no northeast/southwest connecting track at Palmer, so we have to make what amounts to a J-turn in railroading–crossing the connecting track, stopping, throwing a switch (manually, no less), then reversing direction. The re-route I mentioned earlier will eliminate this step.

Here’s some very crude text art illustrating what we’re doing:

            C
            \_ 
             \\_________________
A_____________\_________________\(E)______B
               \
                \D

A-B is the CSX main between Springfield and Boston. C-D is the New England Central Railroad. The direct intersection between the two has no switch. We pull past toward B to the switch at (E), then backup on to the second track which links up at C. It’s horribly slow and inefficient. You leave Springfield at 3:15 PM. By 3:45 PM you’re just getting down with this nonsense and heading north.

Amtrak’s obviously embarrassed about it. There’s a nice long warning about it over the PA, emphasizing that this is normal and planned. I think the only constituency who enjoys this are the railfans who gather since it’s such a great photo-op.

I’m now on the stretch that Amtrak will leave in a year or two. This New England Central RR track is rough; some stretches are worse even than CSX around Buffalo, which has always been my “gold standard” for an unpleasant ride. It makes no sense to rehabilitate it of course when Massachusetts and the Feds are fixing up the new, more direct, route. I don’t disagree with the logic at all. Still, damn. There’s some talk of new service over this route to link Amherst with New London. I don’t see it getting done without serious federal money, and there are other more pressing passenger rail projects.

As I submit this we’re fifteen minutes out from Brattleboro and dead on schedule. No better way to travel.

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