2014 became a special year for me in November. Not because I’m yet another year older, not because it was another great year, but because 2014 is the first time I have ever taken 2 Amtrak trips in the same year. Will and I decided on a spur-of-the-moment trip to take the second-annual Amtrak Autumn Express out of Philadelphia. And what better way to get there than on our home train, the Cardinal.
The Cardinal has been in the news quite a bit recently. From about July through October the train ran with two Viewliner Sleepers. Speculation ran rampant all summer the reason for this. Some said it was a pilot for the new Viewliner II’s sure to be delivered soon, while others said it was the result of new revenue management requirements. Whatever the reason, the second sleeper had disappeared by November. I would have liked to see if the Diner Lite was as chaotic as was reported.
This also may have been my personal swan-song with the heritage baggage cars. 1715 did the honors on this trip. With many trains running without baggage cars during the lighter winter months and the recent delivery of 22 Viewliner Baggage Cars from CAF, their days may be numbered.
Cincinnati Union Terminal remains the perfect place to begin any railroad journey. This was my first time paying the $5/day fee to park, but I would gladly pony up the cash than leave from a more rural depot nearby. There is something strange sitting in the silent rotunda at night, where pulling out your chair eerily echoes across the largest half-dome in the Western Hemisphere.
Crowds in Cincinnati were lighter than on my previous trip, and the passenger load did not overflow into the third coach until we reached Charlottesville.
Time keeping on the Eastbound Cardinal was the best I had ever experienced it between Cincinnati at Charleston. The engineer must have had someplace to be, as we were early into every station between Cincinnati and Huntington. We stayed on time until just outside Thurmond, WV. There, I peaked out my window to find us stopped at a green signal. I had just enough time to register my confusion when the power went out.
Now without HEP, my friend and I quickly scrambled for the scanner. After some time finding the right frequency, we overheard the crew finishing up a procedure to reboot the locomotive. While I’m a big fan of the “turn it off and on again” strategy of computer repair, it’s a little disconcerting when you’re stranded on a one locomotive train in the mountains of West Virginia. Yet for all it lacked in technical fortitude, the trick worked and soon we were on our way again. As if to emphasize how close we came to a disaster, word soon came over the radio that a CSX freight had been holding in the next siding in case we needed a rescue engine.
The hour we lost in West Virginia remained stubborn, and every time we made some of it up we lost a little. There was surprising little freight traffic on the old C&O, not at all like I remembered it from before. For as many issues as Norfolk Southern was having that week, CSX remained a surprising ghost town. One reason may have had something to do with a scheduled track work. At one wye track we spied more MOW vehicles than I had every seen in one place, with at least twenty poised to begin the blitz.
I have but one story to tell about my trip west, and it is not one that I’m particularly proud of. Just outside of Baltimore the conductor scanned my E-Ticket only to stop and say, “This ticket is incorrect.” And my heart stopped. Just what does one do when they buy the wrong day on a train that runs every other day?
Turns out, the solution is to call an Amtrak Ticket Agent and make a reservation change. Because the train had already departed, this bumped me up to the high bucket and created an additional $90 in cost. That being said, it could have been much worse. I don’t even know what the policy would have been on a sold-out train. All in all, I consider myself another victim of the crazy three-day-a-week schedule that the Cardinal keeps. More than anything else, it is embarrassing to know that I of all people failed at passenger trains.
Any trip on Amtrak includes interesting people, both crew and passenger alike. We had a nice conversation in 30th Street with a lady connecting to the Zephyr in Chicago. But by far the most memorable was the high school group that boarded in Washington DC bound for Ashland, Kentucky. Sitting across from exchange student, they could not seem to understand why he would want to return to his home in Germany. It seemed a foreign concept that someone would want to leave the United States. I have nothing against patriotism, but I hope their experience on the train helped open their minds to a wider world.
Back in coach, my experiences with the crew were brief but entertaining. I recognized a few faces from my last trip on the Cardinal, and we had the same Indianapolis-based crew on 51 that we had on 50. It surprises me how much my job on the tourist railroad shares with their own duties. Something as simple as their discussion on which traps to open or their plan for platform positioning brought a knowing smile to my face.
But it was not all fun and games. For some reason, we lost about 3 hours between Maysville and Cincinnati while I slept. When deboarding, Will told the conductor to “Have a good night.” She quickly replied, “Too late.”
It’s hard to fault that honesty.