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» RAILforum » Railfans » Trip Reports » Springtime from RDW to FTL & return.

Author Topic: Springtime from RDW to FTL & return.
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Well, here goes. I returned the evening of March 23 from a rather enjoyable trip over Spring Break. I was invited to spend some time with relatives in Fort Lauderdale, so I set off the morning of March 15 on the Empire Builder from Red Wing. The train was 2.5 hours late, due in part to the fact that it was delayed earlier in the route on account of poor weather. Before this trip, I had concerns regarding this trian, as on March 12 & 13 BNSF annulled all traffic over Marias Pass. Apparently, Amtrak has no permission to use Montana Rail Link trackage, however, I was able to do a little sightseeing and shopping before boarding the train shortly after 11 am. The Mississippi River valley still hasn't completely greened up, and there were many barren trees along the route. OTOH, I saw several bald eagles from my coach seat. before I continue, I'd like to point out that the coach was almost full, and everyone getting on the train had to have an assigned seat. With this being the "Spring Vacation" season for many school districts, I wasn't surprised by the number of people on the train. It puts the lie to statements such as " Nobody rides the Train anymore." We stayed over 2 hours behind schedule throughout the remainder of the trip to CHI, and there were many passengers embarking and disembarking enroute to CHI. I also saw many deer and a few very large canines during the trip ( they sure looked an awful lot like wolves, but we passed them so fast I didn't have time to take a close look). We arrived in CHI with just under 40 minutes to spare to catch the connection with the Capitol Ltd. CHI was busy as ever, and the Capitol departed a little late due to the fact that one of the sleeper compartments had to be fumigated ( a young man, addicted to drugs, had overdosed and passed on during the train that the car was previously part of). The diring car also was delayed in recieving their resupply of food items. this was attributed to an administrative error by someone in CHI management. In any case. the Capitol finally got rolling out of town by 7:20 pm or so. The other sleeping car passengers and I missed the call to get on board on account of how noisy it was in CUS, and the poor PA system. However, I was on the train, so I was happy. Later on that evening, I was in the lounge, waiting for the dinner announcement. The PA in this lounge car was very hard to hear, and I got up to go to dinner only becuase I saw other passengers lining up for their dinner reservations at 9:40 pm. I was seated by 9:45, next to an older couple taking their grandson on his first train trip. The man was a football coach for a professional team that held their summer camp where I attend graduate school. The conversation was very pleasant, and they were a friendly couple from Kansas City. The woman wasn't as enamored of train travel as the man was, and the meal service on this dining car did nothing to persuade her otherwise. We were seated, and then the waitstaff took 15 minutes before taking our order. It was then another 30 minute before we recieved our orders, with no explanation as to what had taken the time. In fairness to Amtrak, this diner appeared to be understaffed, with only two waitstaff for the entire car, and only one cook. Back to dinner. The young boy was fatigued enough from the busy itinerary that the grandparents had taken him from K.C., and had his eyes closed by the time the meals showed up at our table. I could also overhear other passengers becoming very displeased with the slow, late meal service on this train, and many coach passengers headed to the snack bar instead. Make no mistake about it, Amtrak was going to be getting mail about the sloppy meal service on this train, and I'm sure that there were coach passengers who were saying " Never again." The staff member on my car was very helpful, and earned his tip in the first few minutes after I had embarked on board. The Waitstaff, OTOH, were disappointing, and were overheard to be more concerned with their upcoming days off. Some of them appeared to have started their time off while they were still at work, judging fom the service. Breakfast the next day was very punctual, yet for obvious reasons the dining car had sparse attendance for the rest of the run to DC. Somehow, the dining car attendant learned my name, and when she diriected me toward an open seat in the diner she addressed me in a tone of voice that angry police officers use when they are about to arrest someone. maybe she was just burned out from the job. Perhaps she was tired after seating people in the diner the previous night until 11:30pm. I did nothing to deserve this treament from her, if anything I was amoungst the best behaved passengers on the trip, considering the ill-tempered individuals she dealt with the night previous. Those were the only dissappointments of the trip, however. I was able to make the acquaintance of several nice people, some first timers who weren't privy to all of the attention & information that we recieved in the sleeper. I let them have my schedule and route guide. I also was able to point out that the freight railroads owned the track, and did their own traffic control and dispatching. This was news to the first timers, some of whom were under the impression that the FRA or the state handled traffic control, like what the FAA does for the airlines. There were also other opportunities to look out of the observation windows and see the kayakers along the river, running the rapids. They looked like they were having tons of fun. The Capitol arrived in DC about an hour late, but this gave me plenty of time to get out and look and take a walk. Then I boarded #91 for FTL. The ride on that particular stretch was rather bumpy between WAS and Richmond, but the engine driver was also passing cars on the nearby Interstate as though they were parked. The dining car was reservations only, and the staff member had taken the liberty of getting a 5 pm reservation for me before I had even boarded the train. So far, the sleeper was comfortable, much more so than the seat that I had to and from Bangkok over Christmas and the New Year. No observation car on this train, just a lounge. It was a very busy lounge at that. Lounge and diner both were packed, and #91 was fully booked. There were several interesting moments in the diner that dinner, with three other seasoned citizens who were a regular laugh riot, and a waitstaff who apparently had gyroscopes in their arms as they manuvered the trays around on such rough track, while the engineer was doing his (her?) best impression of Speed Racer. No spilled food, however. Also, no delays in either placing or receiving orders. These folks got their tip. North of Jacksonville on march 17, we were delayed by several freight trains, and were unable to overcome this 30 minute delay (Thank you CSX.) This train appeared to be well-patronized, and there were at least 2 dozen passengers embarking & disembarking at each stop between Jacksonville and FTL. The train seemed to empty out after Winter Haven, and the conductor who was on board south of DC was a real friendly guy, very personable. The barkeeper was nice, too.
Arrival in FTL on March 17 at 4:45 pm, scheduled arrival at 4:15 pm. Basically a weekend on the train. I liked it, despite some of the events that I have described. Departure from FTL, after a few days of fun in the sun, was March 21. On Time. However, we lost time due to all of the southbound traffic on the single line main. This traffic was the result of the slow orders that occured in the Carolinas and VA, so we ran into traffic that normally we wouldn't run into. We arrived in Jacksonville 1:10 late. I took the opportunity to get out and take a walk. Both coming and going, I was mildly surprised at the size of the Jacksonville station. I was expecting a much larger building, something on the order of DC, but it appears to be smaller than MKE. At least it was busy with passengers. Amtrak needs all of the passengers it can get. We departed after about 20 minutes or so, and then rumbled north. We never made up for being an hour late. Also, I noticed that the coach staff didn't do as good a job of explaining what was happening to the train as the sleeper staff did. Like the Capitol, there was one train, but at least two different experiences while on board.
I had a longer layover in DC this time, so I took the time to get out, walk around the capitol building, and down the Mall, before having to turn around and board the train again. I almost made it to the Washington Monument, but there was a large crowd of people milling about, and so I turned around and headed back to the depot. Departure was on time. So was arrival at CHI. Come to think of it, so was the departure of the Empire Builder that day. I took the time in CHI to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, which was a place I hadn't been to in years. there were several school groups at the Museum, even though it was a Sunday. The Empire Builder was busy as usual, and went to assigned seats for coach while at MKE. One benfit of this part of the itinerary between DC and RDW was that I had the opportunity to talk to several attractive young women. They too were all returning from their vacations as well. We were on time until just north of Winona MN, where we stopped for some unknown reason. We sat for about 20 minutes, before we rolled into RDW.

All in all, a good trip. I got to see what there was to see, the trains were full of traffic, and I had the opportunity to visit several places I hadn't been to in years. For me the train was part of the vacation, not a simple means to an end like so many other travelers. With the exception of the one dinner aboard the eastbound Capitol, the staff appeared to be professional in demeanor, and Amtrak should be proud. Some improvements would include making sure that the PA system in the coaches are in good working order. The PA in the sleepers work fine, but the coaches seemed to be very quiet, if not malfunctioning outright. Also, the coach staff on some of the trains seemed to be quite brusque with some of the passengers, especially some of the young adults on board. Third: On the northbound #92, there was a man in a business suit in the lounge car, who apparently was Amtrak managment - the first time I 've seen managment on board the train.

All in all, a good trip. Sometimes, one has to take the bad with the good, and, let's face it, nobody is perfect at all times. With some glaring exceptions, I found the staff to be good, and I have every intention of taking the train again.

Posts: 506 | From: Wisconsin | Registered: Mar 2002  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
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Thanks for the great review. It's really nice when someone takes the time to post a review and keep us all informed as to life on the rails.



Posts: 462 | From: Bakersfield Ca., 93312 | Registered: Jul 2000  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Geoff Mayo
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Good to hear of your experiences, good and bad.

FWIW the Silver Meteor had the worst crew all round, of all the Amtrak trains I've been on. I've avoided it ever since, although I realise I may have just hit on a bad day.

Geoff M.

Posts: 2426 | From: Apple Valley, CA | Registered: Sep 2000  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
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A few additional items: The food was quite good, though the prices were a little more expensive than what I'm accustomed to. However, the meals were good nonetheless. I made sure to get the meals in the diner, figuring that I might as well eat what I've already paid for. I mixed my tickets on this trip: Coach between Red Wing & Chicago, then sleeper between Chicago & FTL. So, I had the chance to experience and compare between the levels of service on Amtrak trains.

One other interesting tidbit: On the return Capitol ltd., there was a smoker who returned to the lounge car and remarked that she didn't want to have a smoke at that time due to the debate between pro-war and anti-war sides in the smoking lounge being so intense, heated, and emotional at the time.

[This message has been edited by CG96 (edited 03-26-2003).]

Posts: 506 | From: Wisconsin | Registered: Mar 2002  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
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Well, it came time for yet another Spring Break trip to Florida during grad school. Some of the highlights of this particular trip involve my earning my PADI certification while in Florida, and spending time with the relatives. Spring Break, March 2005. I should point out that I travelled from St. Cloud to Florida this time around.

The Builder showed up on time for my departure March 4, 2005. For me, that meant getting to the station at 5 am, not that big of a deal. The trip down the Mississippi was smooth and o.k., but not as picturesque as my Christmas holiday trip I posted earlier. I saw a couple of eagles and a few Canadian geese as the train wound its way southbound along Old Man River. The train filled as we went along, again quite the contrary to the impression that "no one takes the train." My experience is that people will travel by train if given the option. We arrived into Chicago on time, as well, and none the worse for wear. Another trip on the Builder, and all goes well as per the usual. I had an on-time departure aboard the Capitol Ltd., adn found my sleeper was in a car that gave me every impression that it was fresh out of the shop. Wow! This was nice! I liked it. Everything appeared newly rebuilt qand refurbished. I didn't take the time to see the coaches, though. The service in both the diner and the snack bar was good. The next morning, I awoke to the sights of the river east of Connellsville PA and watched as the rapids flowed vigorously and we traveled along downstream. The river's name escapes me, though. It wasn't the Potomac - yet. Perhaps one of the forum members here can list the river's name - the one upstream of the Potomac along the Capitol's route. We arrived in Washington DC on time. I then took the time to walk to the Capitol Mall, and go to the Smithsonian. The Air & Space Museum is a must-see for those who have the time. I also went and had lunch at the Capitol Brewery, which is located inside of the old Post Office complex immediately adjacent to Union Station. Yum, yum.

I embarked aboard #98 southbond that same day, and we departed on-time at 6:25 that evening. The dining car steward came around the sleepers a few minutes after departure and made arraingments for my dinner, at the latest seating. The food was good nonetheless. I think I had the steak that evening. Even though we were all going to Florida for the Spring Break, I have no wild holiday train bacchanals to relate - the passengers were all well behaved. We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale 20 minutes early, so neither my ride nor I had to wait. Even though I enjoy winter and winter sports, the warm Florida sunshine felt good.

The return trip began on Saturday, March 12. The train was about 20 minutes late, and once we got delayed by freight traffic around Jacksonville (what can I say? Jacksonville can be a busy port sometimes, and the landlord RRs make their money on freight.) which put us down about an hour or so. However, we made up the time by the time we reached DC the next morning, so we arrived only 20 minutes down. The entire trip, the lounge car steward made periodic announcements regarding the fact that she had every expectation we would indeed make up the time, as wel as annoucing what she had available and when she would be on break. The numerous announcements helped out in a few ways, and help to placate passengers who would otherwise be totally ignorant as to why the train had stopped out in the middle of nowhere. I say, Amtrak should continue this practice aboard all of its trains, as passengers appreciate being kept up to date on what's going on, who the landlord RR is, etc. I then took time in Washington to heaqd back to the Smithsonian (I just can't seem to get snough of that place) where I went to the History Museum. This is one side trip I would recommend for anyone taking the Capitol to DC - go see the Smithsonian. The return trip aboard the Capitol was unremarkable, with the exceptions being the view as the train worked its way west up the Potomac and ???? river valleys. Harper's Ferry looks very picturesque, and one can envision the soldiers martching up and down the hills during the Civil War, along with seeing the difficulties that a soldier of that era would face. I sat with a young college woman, who was taking her first train trip, and she seemed to like it as well. I think Amtrak made another return customer with this trip.
The sleeper I was in for the return trip via Chicago was one that wasn't new. However, it fit the bill for me just fine. We arrived into Chicago about 20 minutes late.
Unlike other Spring Break trips I've taken, this time I chose not to go to the Museum of Science & Industry, and, instead, I just hung aroung Union Station for the couple of hours. I had to continue to catch up on my reading for grad school, anyways.
The Builder left on-time, I had a nice dinner aboard, and then, when I felt I had caught up sufficiently with my reading, I wnt to the lounge car for a few nightcaps.

Overall, I had a fun trip. If I'm still in grad school this time next year, I shall do this a fourth time. All aboard.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the Earth all one's life."

Posts: 506 | From: Wisconsin | Registered: Mar 2002  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator

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