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September 30, 2017

"Getting There" - The Slow Train from Chicago

How did you spend your summer vacation?  Probably by traveling, but hopefully without the disruptions my wife and I experienced.

In August we flew to Chicago and drove to Wisconsin.  That journey was relatively on time.  But the return trip became an adventure when our return flight from O’Hare airport was delayed five hours, and then cancelled, due to bad weather.

As any regular reader of this column knows, I’m no fan of flying.  So I was happy to be grounded rather than fly through thunder storms.  But how to get home?  Why not the train?

There are three daily trains from Chicago to New York:  the relatively speedy Lake Shore Limited, which follows the route of the old Twentieth Century Ltd;  the Capitol Limited which goes by way of Washington DC;  and the thrice-weekly Cardinal which meanders way far south into West Virginia, along to DC and then NYC.

Luckily, we were able to book a bedroom on the Cardinal, a.k.a. “the bird”, so named because the cardinal is the state bird of West Virginia and because this slow-poke of a train was rescued from being cut by then US Senator Harry Byrd of West Virginia.

While the Lake Shore Limited makes its trip in 20 hours, and the Capitol in 23 hours, the Cardinal takes 27 hours to go from Chicago to New York.  That’s a long ride, even for a rail fan (and longer still for my saintly wife).

As sleeping car passengers, we waited departure in the beautiful new Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago’s Union Station from which we had priority boarding of the train where our attendant helped us get settled and showed us our new home for the next night and day.
If you’ve never taken a long distance train you’re missing out on a real adventure.  Our bedroom had upper and lower berths, a private bathroom which doubled as a shower, and comfy day-chairs to watch the scenery roll by.

As a member of Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program, this $1200 bedroom was free thanks to all the points I’ve accumulated riding Acela in the Northeast.  Also included in the fare were four meals… two dinners, a breakfast and lunch, for my wife and myself.

Mind you, “the Bird” doesn’t have a fancy dining car with cooked-to-order meals like the Lake Shore and Capitol Ltd.  No, we ate in something like a Café Car with pre-plated, pre-cooked, frozen meals which were microwaved.  The food was far better than airline food, but hardly the cuisine of years past since Amtrak has been under pressure to cut costs, especially in food service.

It’s expensive to provide good meal service on a train.  But when passengers are paying $1200 they expect, and deserve, better than frozen food.  But as a captive audience, what choice did we have but to gobble down what was offered?

The train’s meandering route was smooth, so we slept well.  And the daylight portion of the route was certainly attractive as we journeyed along river valleys past some beautiful scenery.  But we had no observation car, unlike the Capitol Ltd.

“On time” is a relative term and shouldn’t be your reason to take a train.  Sure we were an hour late into New York City, but by then we had a real rail adventure to talk about.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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