“There are going to be Superliners on the Cardinal tonight. We should go watch it come through.”
“Now the real question is can I think of a reason to go to West Virginia?”
“You know, that might actually be possible…”
That was how it all began. Several hours and one visit to Amtrak.com later, I was on my way to Cincinnati Union Terminal and seriously questioning my sanity.
The foreward to this story truly began on February 16th. That day, a loaded CSX crude oil train derailed on the New River Subdivision near Mount Carbon, West Virginia. Several tank cars went into the river. Fires started during the crash also lead to several explosions and an impressive fireball. Luckily no one was injured, but the line was closed until February 26th for the extensive cleanup and investigation.
So Saturday’s train #50 became the first Amtrak train to traverse the line in over two weeks. For some time it was unclear exactly when the Cardinal would run again. As such, Amtrak had used its single level equipment to protect the Lake Shore Limited, which had run into its own delays due to bad winter weather. Thus began the game of musical railcars. With the Cardinal’s trainset scattered to the wind, Amtrak’s Chicago Coach Yard put together a consist of spare Superliner equipment. This equipment had been freed up from the shortened winter consists that had been running on the western long-distance trains.
The ticket agents were in good spirits at Union Terminal. Tom even mentioned that the other ticket agent has baked a treat for the train crew, provided “that they stay on time.”
Things had been slow without the train running, and dealing with stranded passengers is never fun. On the nights the Cardinal had been scheduled, a bus ran from CUT to Indianapolis and connected with a short Hoosier-state like train. However, passengers ticketed from Cincinnati to points east of Cincinnati were out of luck, with Amtrak providing “No Alternative Transportation”. Several on the passenger we spoke with had been on previous trains that were annulled, with the travel plans being flexible enough or their options limited enough to wait for the line to reopen.
At 3:28 AM, just 11 minutes late, Train #50 pulled into CIN in double-decker glory. Four Superliner cars had made the journey. Two coaches were more than enough to handle the crowds, with only one being opened as far east as Charleston. A Superliner Sleeper and the Diner Lounge car provided room and food service for the handful of sleeper passengers.
I had never been on Amtrak’s Superliner equipment before. Initially I was sceptical of the claimed improvements versus the standard single-liner. Yet the ride quality was noticably improved, and the windows provided a spectacular view of the always-scenic New River Gorge. The only thing missing was a Sightseer Lounge in the consist. Nothing short of a true dome would provide a better view on the Cardinal’s route. The more and more I ride in a Amfleets, the more I understand what the critics are saying.
On my third trip east from Cincinnati the route of the C&O has come no where near routine. The fresh blanket of snow reflected much more light in the darkness. I sat transfixed by the light until well past the I-275 bridges. I finally dozed off somewhere around Maysville and slept until Russel.
Around 8 AM we decided to splurge and ate breakfast in the dinner. It was another first for me, and I had the three-egg omelet. The food was adequate but overprice, which perfectly met my expectations for Amtrak’s meals. My friend mentioned that while the dinner had been upgraded, the menu was still the limited fare that was common on the Cardinal. While we ate we were the only patrons in the dinner, and the service was quality without going above and beyond. In general the train was heavily staffed, with 2 people in the dinner more than the typical train 50.
There had been some debate within my group on just how far we could take the Cardinal east and still be able to make it back the same day. The schedule listed Staunton as the last station stop before the meet. But expecting to be on time after a derailment in winter and on the Cardinal no less meant that was not an option. We considered Clifton Forge long and hard, as we would be able to visit the C&O Historical Society. In the end however, we aired on the side of caution and decided to visit White Sulphur Springs and the Greenbrier Resort.
It was just as well. We arrived in White Sulphur Springs 2 hours and 4 minutes late thanks to a frozen switch between there and Alderson. With two feet of snow on the ground, the resort town was clearly in summer hibernation. We were able to photograph a few CSX trains at the depot, and then viewed the Greenbrier and walked to town. Dressed like a trio that had spent 10 hours on a train in coach, we passed on the Greenbrier’s elegance and ate at a small downtown restaurant called the Mason Jar.
Things were beginning to get a bit chilly as the sun set and we waited for a late-arriving train 51. We chatted with a nice older later who lived on a nearby mountaintop. With the help of her neighbor and a sled, she had braved her two mile driveway to reach the bottom and her parked car. She had booked the Cardinal’s sleeper to Chicago where she planned to transfer to the Southwest Chief and visit her kids in Los Angeles. She claimed to have been taking the train for over twenty years and had the NARP. Though in her younger days she was more inclined to ride coach. Today, coach was “much more crowded than it used to be” and she couldn’t stand sleeping back there. She did wish that “there were more trains available” and found no disagreements from the rest of our group.
One short snowball fight later, train #51 arrived about an hour late. Passengers we spoke to mentioned some freight congestion near Orange. It was not a moment too soon, as a chill had descended on the platform along with the setting sun.
While the Superliner equipped Cardinal had plenty of space, Amtrak was woefully under-prepared for the train that went back west for the first time in two weeks. Only two Amfleet-II coaches were provided, and the train was seriously oversold. The coach attendant did his best, but you could tell how stressed he was space for every party on board. I wonder how difficult it would have been to find an extra coach somewhere in the northeast. The Cardinal usually runs with three, and it would have required no additional staffing. While I have no problem matching train length to demand, someone in this scenario seriously screwed up.
The rest of the trip west was not the pinnacle of efficiency. CSX ran into a number of issues due to the freezing and thawing weather. Crossing circuit malfunctions and leftover derailment slow orders put ended up putting us 1 hour and 40 minutes behind into Cincinnati. The passengers on board did not help the situation. There were several groups near us who left their manners on the East Coast, and one person who insisted on carrying on a cell phone conversation between the hours of 2 and 3 in the morning.
These minor complaints do not take away from an otherwise fine trip. Amtrak and their crews deserve credit for getting the line back in service in some form just a few days after the reopening of the CSX mainline. There were few regrets when it came to this spur-of-the-moment trip.