Go West, Young Man!
I have never been out west. Sure, I had journeyed across the Mississippi into suburban Missouri, but I had never seen the great vistas and the famous parks that my country is known for. I had never truly “gone West”. For years I had been telling myself that I needed to do this. But with news that the ex-Santa Fe route of the Southwest Chief may be in jeopardy, I no longer had any excuses. So thus I found myself standing in the wee hours of the morning on the platform at Union Terminal, preparing to board the westbound Cardinal and my Chicago-connection to the Southwest Chief.
This would be a trip of many firsts for me, and it began with my first experience in Amtrak’s sleeper class. I had booked a roomette as part of my 2-zone Guest Rewards redemption. With Cincinnati on the zone-border, that meant I could get to experience the Cardinal’s one single-level sleeper. Additionally, I could bring a friend in my roomette for the same amount of points.
When we boarded at Union Terminal, sleeping car attendant Jay only seemed mildly annoyed at having to wake for passengers at Cincinnati. Upon learning we had never been in a Viewliner before, he quickly flew through the basics of the beds, sink, and in-room toilet before leaving us.
Overall, I liked the Viewliner better than the Superliner sleeper we rode in later. The car was newer, with a few more creature comforts and a much more spacious upper bunk. Peering out the upper window, I found myself too fascinated to sleep as we rocked through Queensgate Yard. Due to heavy rains, there were several speed restrictions on the way north. I finally fell asleep sometime after Hamilton.
Since it’s inception as the James Whitcomb Riley, abandonments have forced the Cardinal to change routes between Cincinnati and Chicago three times. As anyone who has ridden it will tell you, the current route to is slow, curvy, and has extensive grade crossings. It doesn’t help that it takes the combined routes of 6 different railroads to get the train into Chicago Union Station. I didn’t realize this line was as much of an issue until riding it. The horn seemingly never quit and we seemingly never got above 60 mph.
The Rolling Party
Around seven I stumbled into the diner for breakfast, not realizing that I would soon find myself in a rolling party. It seems that this was the day of the famous St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Chicago. A group had boarded at Indianapolis and decided to start the party early.As we rolled through Northwest Indiana the crowd grew seemingly exponentially at every stop, easily taking over half of the Cardinal’s diner-lounge. On the diner side of the car, things were more subdued. I had the french toast sticks for breakfast, which was decent but no where near the quality of the food I had later on the Chief. To be frank, the service matched the quality of my food. I witnessed our server being sarcastic and borderline rude to another one of the passengers. I found this to be disappointing but did not let it detract from my trip.
Through the miracle of schedule padding, we arrived at the platform in Chicago only one minute behind schedule. The negative impressions continued as we entered Union Station. Compared to my recent visit of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Chicago was cramped, dirty, and old. It reminded me of an overgrown commuter station, with mazes of tunnels stuffed with people. Apparently our train was not the only one full of suburban visitors in town for the parade.
The only savings grace of CUS was the Metropolitan Lounge. A lot of people complain about it being tired and lame, with furniture that had it’s best days behind it. But I found it to be a refreshing base that allowed us to recover, store our luggage, and explore Chicago. It would be worth entry for the bathrooms alone, ten times nicer than the public restrooms on the concourse. The crowds were the only downside, becoming particularly bad as the Michigan and Illinois trains neared departure, but becoming lighter as the afternoon trains departed.
After our free pop and pastry in the lounge I began to explore, looking for the Great Hall and the Amtrak store. The store had closed after Christmas, but I had better luck finding the Great Hall. The bones of a real station still exist in Chicago. The Great Hall stood as an impressive space. Tall columns held skylights a hundred feet into the air. Sun streamed down through giving the space a cheerfulness not available in the caverns of the concourse. Near one end of the hall stood a large US flag, opposite a small display of Chicago’s station history. Traditional brown wooden benches lined the rest of the hall.
We had plenty of time to make our connection, and decided to explore downtown. Soon we were swept up in the crowds heading to the parade. Not since the last time I went as a student to Ohio State football had I been in group that large or rowdy. We didn’t see much of the parade but we did see the Chicago River died a deep emerald green.
In the end, going west on Train 51 gave me new appreciation for some of the challenges this corridor faces. Be that as it may, this trip was not about the Cardinal. It was about Superliners, the west, and semaphores. Check back next week for Part II of this report, the Southwest Chief.