To at least make good use of the all the pollution I caused with my recent transatlantic flight, I'm combining business in Cambridge, MA with business in Tucson, AZ. And to avoid further flight shame, I am doing the intra-US leg of the journey by train, that is, Amtrak. Now that I have managed to get into the train from Boston to Chicago (advertised when booking as Lake Shore Limited, though that name doesn't come up often on the train or in on-board announcements), I plan to write a bit of a travelogue as I go.
Departing in Anguish (13:40)
I'm seeing all this through the eyes of a regular if unhappy user of Deutsche Bahn (DB; cf. the Bahn tag on this blog if you can read German). Thus, I immediately felt at home when the train was delayed at Boston's South Station, except things were quite a bit more nerve-wrecking here.
You see, riding on the DB I'm used to knowing in advance on which track a train will depart. DB tells you that in the schedules they thankfully still post in the stations. Of course, they occasionally lie about which platform a delayed train will end up being redirected to, but still: It feels reassuring when one stands on a platform and can be reasonably sure that if and when the train departs (usually delayed, of course), you cannot miss it.
Not so over here. The displays say “track TBD“ until something like five minutes before departure. Well, five minutes before the scheduled departure of my train the display changed to “12:50 South Station Delayed“ – no word of Chicago any more. I'd certainly have panicked had I not closely watched the displays, even more so because had I missed that train, I'd probably have reached Tucson with a delay of two days given how sparse the connections are.
Someone must have noticed that something was awry on the display, because it changed again a short while later, to “12:50 Back Bay Delayed“. Back Bay, in case you've not been to Boston before, is a rather posh part of the city itself. Well… at least the departure time still matched the actual train. But then some indication of what order of magnitude of delay to expect be would have helped soothe my anxiety a bit.
After five minutes of anguish the confusing line on the display eventually showed a “Track 2” instead of “Delayed“, I rushed there, and at the remote end of the platform (the South Station is a railhead), a surprisingly short train – three or four coaches – was ready for boarding. Whoa.
I was somewhat concerned things might become tight because the ticket selling machine in Boston claimed the train was 80% full. Well – at least for now it's not; perhaps 50% of the seats are taken. Instead, there's a (by DB standards) surprising amount of legroom:
And now we're going roughly westwards, though a land of woods, lakes, and parking lots. We've just passed Worchester. And I halfway feel like I'm in Once Upon a Time in the West every time the engine hoots. It does this quite a lot here in central Massachusetts with its relatively tightly-knit road network.
The First Hours (16:30, 42.4N 73.1W)
We are still crossing Western Massachusetts, where you get to see, as I said, lots of trees and lakes:
Meanwhile, before we entered Springfield, MA, a conductor walked through all the cars and called out the station. This felt oddly anachronistic, in particular because there were two additional announcement on the loudspeaker about only certain doors being available. But I still liked it. You see, it made me feel I could have asked a question, perhaps on a connecting train, if I had needed that. Granted, you couldn't do this sort of personalised service on a DB train with its (usually) much more frequent stops, and it certainly helps that this train has just three cars.
In Springfield, I also got a first taste of the disappearing railroad blues (as extolled in the 1972 song City of New Orleans):
I'm rather sure this used to be a platform, and there once was a roof on top of the upper beams. Ah well – how many trains will there stop in Springfield? I think it's already outside of the area served by the MBTA communter rail and then… I'd expect that to be a very lonely station.
A Break at Albany, NY (18:30)
Now, that's a variation on train travel I've not yet seen anywhere else: The train has just stopped in Albany, NY – for a bit more than an hour. Almost everyone left the train. That's probably a rational behaviour since Amtrak subsequently cut power and even the toilets won't work any more. At least there are some emergency lights in the cars.
Well – the power loss is a fairly compelling consequence of changing the engine, which this stop partly was about (see below). So, I should probably tone down the “cut” here. It's more that the power source was gone given HEP. Later on, however, my impression was that they're locking the toilets during stops at the station anyway. I'm not sure why they would do that, though, as in contrast to the Transsiberian (where they lock the Toilets like 5 minutes before entering a station), the Amfleet cars have closed wastewater systems (or so the Wikipedia claims).
The idea might be that people grab something to eat in the station hall; this mode of nourishment is popular on the Transsiberian, where they stop for about 30 minutes every 1000 kilometers or so to swap locomotives, and at least the locals get off and buy all kinds of stuff in little shops set up on the platforms. I frankly had not expected something remotely similar in the US.
On the other hand, the station hall in Albany has absolutely nothing in common with the dingy platforms of the stations along the Transsiberian. Actually, it is more reminiscent of an airline terminal than of what you would expect knowing DB stations:
Only… there's just one cafe-and-convenience place in there, which didn't really appeal to me. That's the food option. Hm. I suppose if I wrote a user manual for Amtrak, I'd research reasonable food places that will feed you so that you are back in the train within one hour. On the other hand, I think the first car of our train is a dinining car; it's locked at the moment, but perhaps it will open later?
Right now there has been a bump at the train's end – who knows, perhaps they were just waiting for another part of the train to join us?
Back and Forth (19:05)
Hu? They said the train would leave at 19:04 (of course, 7:04 pm), and then suddenly the thing started moving at 18:58, which made the (few) people in the car seriously doubt whether they were on the right train. And even though I had been on that train since Boston and they had promised it would go to Chicago, I started to worry, too.
Then, after a few hundred meters, the train stopped and went back into the station. Um… exciting. There's clearly some serious shunting going on. That's something familiar for DB users: Mildly scary things happen and nobody tells you what's going on.
A minute later: another fairly violent bump. So – are we longer now? And shouldn't we be already be out of Albany for, what, four minutes now? Ah, in all fairness: someone from Amtrak just came into the (still dark) car and explained that something is „a little bit… delayed“. I feel almost at home.
Over the next day I figured out what was going on: The Lake Shore Limited actually has two branches, the main one – including the sleeper cars – coming in from New York City. That's why the train was so short in Boston and until Albany, NY. There, the Boston branch was waiting for the New York part to come in. When it was there, the two parts were merged and then continued on together to Chicago. They probably even said as much in some announcement, but… well, another communality between DB and Amtrak is that the only announcements you can clearly understand are the ones you don't need.
The one thing I still have not worked out: why did the train have four (4!) engines in front of it when it arrived in Chicago?
Wifi and Emptyness (20:30)
Another thing feels as if I were in a DB train …