Our trip began on December 11 by boarding train 449, Boston Section of the Lake Shore Limited, at Worcester, Massachusetts. Our Business Class tickets would have normally put us in the forward part of the Cafe Car. Because of some problem with that car in Boston, a regular Business Class coach (81503) such as is used on the Northeast Corridor had been substituted. We were directed into it while regular passengers were seated in the single other coach. The cafe attendant had brought in a supply of snacks and sodas that were stacked on a seat and the adjoining floor area at one end of the car. These were made available to both Business Class and regular passengers free of charge. The train seemed to be sparsely booked on this weekday run.
There was little freight interference and we arrived in Albany about one-half hour early. There are no longer any through cars from 449 to 49 and everyone must exit and wait in the station, a rather new, modern facility. The schedules seem set to accommodate late train arrivals. When things are on time, there is a layover here of nearly two hours.
We eventually boarded our sleeper on 49, the center one of three sleeper cars. We were fortunate to have Room #2, near the center of the car. It was on the south-facing side. We were shortly summoned to the diner and were the first to enter. We were allowed to sit opposite one another, rather than squeezing in on one side of the booth! Since I had enjoyed it on a recent trip, I again ordered the salmon dinner.
We first encountered the "diner-lite" set-up on a Thanksgiving trip and I commented on it in a previous report. The dining cars are actually converted former lounges. I observed that the staff on this train managed the situation much more efficiently. There were fewer piles of supplies clogging the seats and open areas. I'm sure the fact that the train was not particularly crowded played a role here. When we returned to the sleeper, our beds were already down. The attendant let us sit in a nearby vacant roomette until we were ready to turn in.
We awoke early the next morning and went to the diner for breakfast. Just one end of the car was being used. I might mention the appearance of the banana in the Continental Breakfast - first time we've seen that fruit in our 21 year of traveling on Amtrak! I used the shower later on - had to wait a long time for the water to get hot and then it was barely lukewarm.
The train arrived in Chicago about 20 minutes early. The Great Hall in the station was nicely decorated for the holidays. Gold Coast Hot Dogs was open again after renovation. My wife picked up her usual chicken salad from the Corner Bakery and we took our lunches to eat in the Metropolitan Lounge.
The conductor from Train 3 collected sleeper tickets in the lounge. We soon boarded our sleeper car, one of two on this train. Our Room #2 was found to be damp from water somehow spilled earlier, so we were moved to Room #9 by our attendant, a woman called "Pinky". (She said it was actually her last name). This was unfortunate, as people in this forum will know that #2 is preferable to #9. It was December 12, the day the new menus were to be introduced on the cross-country trains. Yet, we were not to experience that innovation until our return trip. We were not too pleased when our attendant disappeared into the lower lounge when we wanted our beds down. She finally returned around 9 PM.
At breakfast I ordered the Bob Evans Special, frequently panned in this forum. I happen to like it, especially for its contrasting combination of eggs, French toast and fruit. Not to worry, folks. It is now absent on the new menus!
We soon determined that the train was running three and one-half hours late. A layer of ice could be seen coating the grass, wires and occasional trees. The ice storm had affected the railroad signals. Those who know train procedures better than I will understand that such a situation would greatly slow down our progress. Dodge City was passed in mid-morning rather than in darkness at 6:00 AM. We were able to see places there we'd visited by car back in 2003. We were eating lunch at La Junta so I couldn't take an outside walk as usual during the longer stop there. I did so later at Albuquerque. A few vendor tables were set up on the platform even though it was after dark.
The next morning we were still running over 3 hours late. We decided to detrain at Fullerton rather than at L.A. Waiting there only about 20 minutes, we were able to catch the Surfliner on which we were originally scheduled! This may seem odd in view of Train 3's lateness. Three factors explain the matter: 1) padding near the end of the Southwest Chief's schedule, 2) a nearly one and one-half layover we would have had in the Los Angeles station had the train been on time, and 3) the half-hour ride each way between Fullerton and Los Angeles that we avoided.
The Business Class cars on the Surfliner are particularly nice. There is a beverage counter with muffins and Danish, plus the newspaper and comfortable, roomy seating. An attendant keeps things supplied and in order. Our checked baggage went to Los Angeles and came south on a later Surfliner. Our son picked us up at the station. After going to lunch nearby, we returned to get those bags.
We took the northbound Surfliner on December 27. Afternoon passengers in Business Class each get a snack pack. We sat on the coast side and were able to watch surfers on the beaches near San Clemente and at other spots. At Los Angeles, we rode with a red-cap to Train 4 on an adjoining platform. We found that dinner reservations had been taken in the station. When the steward came through the car, we had to settle for 8:15 PM, much later than we preferred.
Our roomette was #12, which most of you know is downstairs. Nothing was available on the preferred upper level when I made the reservation. The train was booked solid. Quite a contrast from our westbound trip when there was absolutely no one downstairs in our sleeper car. I found that we had Crew #5 and our attendant was Lori. She was very good and always seemed to be available. The 3rd bathroom downstairs was available for use, not locked and stacked with supplies as is sometimes the case. In contrast to an earlier train, the water in the shower was too hot. Cold water seemed inoperative on that side of the car.
The disadvantage of our late dinner reservation was compounded when the start of dinner was delayed about 40 minutes. I was told later that the chef wasn't ready. They had expected to have a second chef on this full train, but that didn't happen. We were called to the diner at about 9:15 PM!
On this train we did have the new menu. I was glad to see scrambled egg and grits listed again on the breakfast menu after a considerable absence. I tried the chicken/apple sausages but decided they were a little too much. One new item I appreciated on the lunch menu was the "cold sandwich". On this train it was a chicken/raisin/cranberry salad on wheat bread. Although I observed some patrons turning their noses up at the suggestion, I quite enjoyed it. It was the kind of thing I might choose for lunch at home.
At dinner, I had the holiday turkey dinner special. The thick slabs of turkey proved to be more than I could handle and I left quite a bit on the plate. My wife ordered the new steak choice, cooked medium. Instead it came quite rare. We probably should have sent it back, but did not do so.
Lunch and dinner reservations were handled in a manner I've never seen on Amtrak. The steward came through the cars and wrote down names on a list rather than handing out little slips. Then he would call each group (usually 10 or 12 people) on the PA system: "Now seating those with 5:30 reservations: Smith party of 2; Jones party of 1; Mary, party of 3", etc.
The Southwest Chief uses mainly Superliner II sleepers. There were two on this train, quite filled. I learned that another 10 sleeper passengers were housed in the crew dorm just ahead of the regular sleepers. These sleeper cars are beginning to get a little shabby, especially compared with the renovated Superliner I sleeper cars that we had in November on the Empire Builder. On this eastbound trip we did have a renovated Sightseer Lounge car where tables and benches replace the seats in one-half of the car. I find the tables handy for spreading out topographic maps and route guides that I bring along for the daylight parts of the journey. (No, I'm too old to start using a laptop and GPS devices like some have reported on this forum!)
There was no problem with ice storms now. The train kept good time and arrived in the Windy City only about one-half hour late. Some of the Food Court places were closed on the weekend. We shared an order of lemon chicken and rice from Kelly's Cajun Grill. I walked briefly outdoors around the station building. It was cold and getting dark. Even during that short walk, two men asked me if I had any money to spare!
As many know, Train 48's departure time is now 10:00 PM. presumably to ensure connections from late-arriving trains from the west. Sleeping car passengers can board at 8:00 PM and are treated to a reception of cheese, crackers, grapes and beverage. I turned down the wine this time in favor of sparkling cider. The dining car staff was quite welcoming and jovial.
Returning to our sleeper, we had our attendant, Eugene, put down the beds at about 9:15 PM. The heating system in this Viewliner Sleeper car was somewhat out of whack. Our room was unusually warm, while some others were cool. Adjusting our thermostat had little effect. Some readers who travel as singles may be unaware that there is considerably more headroom in the upper bunk than is the case in the Superliner roomettes. I can actually change clothes up there. Unfortunately, the upper bunk reading light was out. Even when they do work, they are often too dim.
The PA system in the Viewliner sleepers either doesn't work or is little used. The dining car steward came through announcing lunch the next day. We didn't go right away. Later, we were put on a waiting list. The steward soon came right to our room to let us know tables were ready! During lunch I sensed that the diner-lite arrangement is ill-suited to a rather full train.
In Albany, the Boston train was sitting on the next track, making the change quite easy. This time there was the usual Cafe car for Business Class. The train kept good time and we arrived in Worcester only 8 minutes behind schedule. Apparently the late departure from Chicago is helping time-keeping on 48/448. Now we were back in winter. About two feet of snow had fallen while were were enjoying the balmy conditions in San Diego.
Posts: 120 | From: Worcester, Massachusetts | Registered: Jan 2007
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I tried the Bob Evans Scrambler once.....on a trip where I had gotten terribly sick the day before.
My memory of that dish will always be linked with an awful sinus infection and a motionless #5 in Winnemucca, NV.
-------------------- David Pressley
Advocating for passenger trains since 1973!
Climbing toward 5,000 posts like the Southwest Chief ascending Raton Pass. Cautiously, not nearly as fast as in the old days, and hoping to avoid premature reroutes. Posts: 4195 | From: Western North Carolina | Registered: Feb 2004
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