Sleepless to DC...

Forgive me for this pun and shameless appropriation of Nora Ephron's movie title "Sleepless in Seattle", but I just could not resist. Let me explain.

Brad and I were in Chicago for a few days last week. He had a meeting to attend and I, having never really been to Chicago, decided to tag along. The decision was made to fly from DC to Chicago and at the end of our little adventure we would take the train back to Washington DC, instead of flying the "friendly skies" of United. 

Amtrak's "Capitol Limited" train runs daily between Washington DC and Chicago, covering the roughly 800 miles in about 18 hours. So we booked ourselves a "Superliner" bedroom on train number 30. Amtrak assigned us bedroom B in "Superliner" sleeper 3000. "Superliners" are Amtrak's double deck long distance rail cars used on most routes in the West and on the route from Chicago to Washington DC. They are too tall for the North East Corridor and therefore not used on routes which use the corridor from DC to Boston. 

 Amtrak's "Capitol Limited"                                    Photo by Jason Lowe

Amtrak's "Capitol Limited"                                    Photo by Jason Lowe

 Floor plan of a "Superliner" sleeper                                                                   (Amtrak Publicity Photo) 

Floor plan of a "Superliner" sleeper                                                                   (Amtrak Publicity Photo) 

 "Superliner" bedroom information      (Amtrak Publicity Photo)

"Superliner" bedroom information      (Amtrak Publicity Photo)

 An Amtrak Superliner sleeping car.                     Photo by Marty Bernard

An Amtrak Superliner sleeping car.                     Photo by Marty Bernard

According to the timetable train number 30 leaves Chicago Union Station at 6:40 pm and is scheduled to arrive the following day at Washington's Union Station at 1:05 pm. 

According to the timetable train number 30 leaves Chicago Union Station at 6:40 pm and is scheduled to arrive the following day at Washington's Union Station at 1:05 pm. 

Amtrak counts sleeping car passengers as "First Class" passengers, therefore all the appropriate meals during the journey are included in the fare. Thus dinner on the day of departure and breakfast during the next morning were part of the deal.

Amtrak also operates lounges for sleeping car and Business Class passengers at their major stations.  These "Metropolitan Lounges" are akin to the airline clubs, except worse. And that is quite an indictment, because, like The Economist's Adrian Wooldridge says with conviction: "The American airlines are clueless: their business lounges are pig pens featuring bad food and blaring TVs."  

There was no food in the Chicago Metropolitan Lounge, or much of anything else for that matter. A bowl full of bags of Doritos was the culinary highlight. 

 Amtrak considers this "food"!

Amtrak considers this "food"!

The place was dingy, badly lit. The WiFi did not work. Even the hard wired computer station provided did not work. The lounge attendants were surly and absolutely harried, snapping at people. I have been to some awful lounges before: United Airlines' lounge at Narita comes to mind or the Air France lounge at Washington Dulles, but Amtrak's Chicago lounge takes the cake.

A bit after 6 pm we were marched to the waiting train to board. Brad and I settled into our cozy little compartment and, lo and behold, at 6:40 pm we started moving. The train slowly clattered out of Chicago Union Station, past the White Sox stadium, through South Chicago and then alongside the Chicago Skyway in East Chicago. Shortly we followed the Dune Highway through Indiana to our first station stop at South Bend, Indiana. By then we already had lost twenty minutes. Not that it mattered to us. We were in no particular hurry. If the Norfolk Southern Railway, on whose track we were currently running, had no interest in running trains on time, who were we to argue.

In due course our sleeping car attendant came by to introduce himself. He seemed a nice, gregarious young fellow, explaining all the technical intricacies of our sleeper compartment. The bunks were going to be set up by him while we were having dinner in the dining car. That was going to be happening around 9 pm and the dining car personnel would make an announcement to make our way to dinner. 

 Amtrak Sleeping Car "Bedroom" on the upper level of a "Superliner". Photo by Ralf Meier

Amtrak Sleeping Car "Bedroom" on the upper level of a "Superliner". Photo by Ralf Meier

And so it was. We made our way to the dining car a tad before 9 pm and were seated at a table with a couple who turned out to be from Los Angeles. They had come via Amtrak all the way from California to visit their son in Washington DC. Ever the curious person I inquired why they had taken the train all the way across the country. Well, they had the time the answer was. Besides, they did like trains. But they didn't like trains that much we were told: One way on Amtrak was quite enough, thank you very much. They were going to fly back to LA. 

 Amtrak "Capitol Limited" dining car.                  (Amtrak Photo)

Amtrak "Capitol Limited" dining car.                  (Amtrak Photo)

Dinner itself was surprisingly good and in due course Brad and I said good bye to the California couple and retired to our rolling bedroom. As promised the attendant had made up the bunks and now it was a question on who would sleep in which bunk: Top or bottom bunk? It was the bottom bunk for me, Brad would take the top one. Basically I wouldn't fit in the top bunk. That one was just 6 feet long, the bottom one was 6 feet 4 inches, which is what I am tall. 

So we tried to sleep. Not easy considering that the engineer constantly blew the horn on the lead engine and we were only two cars away from that racket. I began to think that maybe he or she just blew that horn to keep themselves awake!

Neither was the track conducive to a good nights slumber. The sleeping car trucks seemed to be hunting, there was a lot of up and down motion and on several occasions I honestly thought we would derail! Changing over from one track to another, which happened with surprising frequency, was always accompanied by violent jerking. Be that as it may, I must have fallen asleep eventually. I was awakened by another jolt and consequently noticed that it was day light outside the window. We were now somewhere in Pennsylvania and if the train was reasonably on time, we would be in Connellsville, Pennsylvania at about 7 am. Well, what do you know: We arrived in Connellsville at 7:35. Not bad for Amtrak.

For a really technical, boring and long winded explanation of railroad track and truck (bogey) hunting, click here.

I felt like I had been run through the mill. That dazed, not enough sleep feeling. Hopefully lots of coffee would get us out of this state of affairs and thus we made our way to the dining car for caffein and breakfast. The diner was busy and we had to wait a few minutes for a table. Eventually we were seated. Coffee appeared and some time later we got our breakfasts: Brad got his omelette and I started digging into my "Railroad Toast". A short time later we were joined at the table by two ladies on their way to Petersburg, Virginia. They had gotten on the train in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the ungodly hour of 5:30 am. Considering at what time they must have gotten out of bed to catch the train, those two were in a surprisingly jolly mood. 

Having finished our breakfast we excused ourselves and went back to our compartment. I just sat staring out the window, Brad sort of dozed off a bit. The station stop at Cumberland, Maryland came and went and the "Capitol Limited" seemed to be making good time, being only about ten minutes late. The train stopped at Martinsburg and then in Harpers Ferry, both in West Virginia. Our stop in Rockville, Maryland was next where we would catch a Metro subway red line train to Tenleytown. Only 30 minutes to go! Unfortunately CSX, on whose tracks the train was now running, had other ideas. 

At Point of Rocks we slowed to a crawl. According to my speed indicator app on my iPhone the train was barely moving at 15 miles an hour. 

 Point of Rocks in Maryland. The CSX main line trackage from Chicago splits here: On the left is the line to Baltimore, while then tracks on the right go to Washington, DC. This is Amtrak's "Capitol Limited" heading west bound towards Chicago.  Photo By Samual Ruaat

Point of Rocks in Maryland. The CSX main line trackage from Chicago splits here: On the left is the line to Baltimore, while then tracks on the right go to Washington, DC. This is Amtrak's "Capitol Limited" heading west bound towards Chicago.  Photo By Samual Ruaat

Eventually our train conductor made an announcement which was quite the understatement: "We are following a slow CSX freight". I guess CSX dispatchers have no idea that they have the "Capitol Limited" coming through at this point at the same time every day. In the 35 miles to Rockville we managed to lose close to an hour! Eventually we managed to get to Rockville on the wrong main. Brad and I got off to transfer to the subway. At this point Metro runs above ground and just a few miles south of the Rockville station we encountered the "slow CSX freight". Now it was not even going slow, but just sitting there. 

We finally got home. Brad pretty well summed up our experience: "Interesting trip, but I don't think I am going to do this again anytime soon!" 

I really do like trains, but I have to agree with him.

 The route of Amtrak's "Capitol L                     (from www.nanavor.com)

The route of Amtrak's "Capitol L                     (from www.nanavor.com)