TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) “Surprise” and “travel” usually mean something negative, like a missed connection, lost luggage, or a late arrival.
My introduction to The Lake Shore Limited was a surprise in a good way.
I always looked forward to trips back to Connecticut when I was in college because they included a day-long train ride on the Water Level Route. For a train-lover getting there really was half the fun. The trains themselves were comfortable enough. Engine, four coaches and a snack car. Big windows. Good scenery. Comfortable airline-style seats with fold-down trays.
During one trip in October, my father was going to meet me in New York and I had to get into Grand Central as early as possible. The Lake Shore Limited was the earliest train, leaving Syracuse at 7:43 in the morning, and getting into New York City at 1:30 in the afternoon. I'd never ridden it before.
The two bits of advice I got from the ticket agent were “call ahead, it’s sometimes late” and “it’s crowded”. The Lake Shore Limited is the overnight train from Chicago, having left Union Station in Illinois the day before it had more opportunities to fall behind schedule during its route. And the Lake Shore Limited had a Boston section. It was the only train for students who were New England-bound, which meant it always had extra passengers.
The Lake Shore was on-time for my trip. And what an appearance she made! You could see her in the distance approaching Syracuse station. She was a long, stately train. Three engines, all pulling hard. Two baggage cars. Then the Boston sleeper and two Boston coaches. Then a snack car that was part of the Boston section, followed by a full-service dining car that was in the New York part of the train. Four more New York coaches followed, with three New York sleeping cars on the rear.
The Lake Shore’s coaches were old. (Amtrak called them “heritage” coaches, which seems better than “old.”) And old was better. They had bigger windows, and more space between the seats. And the interiors had deeper carpeting and softer lighting that was easier on the eyes. The coaches were boxy instead of the tube-line Amfleet cars, and gave the appearance of more headroom space to spread out.
I’d never seen the inside of a sleeping car before. The Lake Shore carried “6 & 10s” – sleepers that had 6 regular size bedrooms that took up the first half of the car, followed by ten smaller compartments, 5-to-a-each-side of a center isle. Sleeping cars hadn’t been manufactured in the United States in decades. These cars were hand-be-downs from other railroads. They were in various state of repair, with age being kind to most of them.
“For our passengers who got on at Syracuse, the dining car is serving breakfast for another half hour. Last call for the dining car.” I’d never eaten in a real railroad dining car before, so off I went.
I learned four things about railroad dining cars on my very first visit. First, you’ll sit with strangers. There aren’t enough tables for everyone to sit by themselves. If you’re a 'single', you’ll be seated with other parties that can't fill up a four-person table on their own. Strike up a conversation. Second, the food is over-priced. A dining car is more expensive to operate than a Denny’s, and the food is priced accordingly. Third, railroad coffee is strong and not very good. Fourth, the view out the window while enjoying a meal is priceless. My breakfast companions were an elderly couple from Chicago, and a freelance writer who was returning from California. We lingered over breakfast, enjoying coffee refills and looking at the farmland along the Erie Canal. The dining car closed at Schnectady to prepare for lunch. 20-minutes later we rounded the big turn and crossed the Hudson River into Albany.
The Lake Shore was scheduled for a 1-hour 15-minute station stop in Albany, far longer than the rest of the upstate New York trains that originated in Niagara Falls or Toronto. All trains changed engines and crew here. But the Lake Shore would be split into two separate trains, and that took extra time. I climbed down to the platform and watched the engines and train crew do their work.
The three engines were cut off, and took the front baggage car with them. They moved down the tracks about 500 yards to a siding. Two other engines were waiting on an adjacent track. They backed up to the rest of the train and coupled on. A car tonk climbed between the diner and the snack car, and separated the train there. The two new engines pulled the front half of the train down the line to a switch, then backed up the cars returning them to the station one track over. This was the Boston section: two desil engines for climbing through the Berkshire tunnel, a baggage car, a sleeper, two coaches and a snack car. An FL-9 electric engine trundled down the tracks to connect to the New York section, after collecting the other baggage car that was moved to the siding. All the while, the crew in the dining car was loading on supplies for lunch, and baggage handlers were sorting luggage for the Albany passengers. The entire operation was a railroad ballet, slow yet efficient, complicated but with purpose.
With a jerk the Boston-bound train pulled out of the station. We left five minutes behind it. Now train 448, the Boston cars veered off the main line at Post Road Junction a few miles down the line. Our train 48 stayed straight along the banks of the Hudson River, giving me the views that so captivated me on earlier trips.
The dining car was almost empty for lunch. I had a hamburger and chips. Looking out at the Hudson River, I thought everything about this train was different. It sounded different as the old coaches clacked across the rails. It smelled different with steam heat flowing through the cars. The service was different with sleeping car attendants and dining car waiters. And it still had the best window view on the East Coast. I would ride the Lake Shore Limited as often as I could.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communicatios-Wausau