Leaving the Amtrak Acela lounge and walking down the long platform in Union Station DC, I can’t help but be impressed by the huge size of the train and it’s Superliner carriages. Monstrous in proportions, and with a retro look of silver and fins – they appear to be part inspired by Airstream and part by Dan Dare. Without getting a tape measure out, they must be taller than the Duplex TGV trains in Europe.
As I have time to spare I take a walk down to the front of the train where two locomotives are already attached to haul us west. The train is made up of two sleepers, a dining car (with bar area), an observation car and then two more regular seated carriages.
My carriage is number 2900, and on returning to it I find that the conductor has locked the door thinking everyone was on board. No need to panic, I have lots of time in hand. I wave through the window at him whilst trying to look calm. Once he has finished a speech on the PA he opens the door to let me in, helps me with my bag and introduces himself as Cliff. He seems very friendly. After showing me to my roomette on the lower deck (no 13) he checks that I have a table reservation for dinner and explains how things work. He also books in a time later on to make my bed up for the night.
Washington D.C. (departs) 16.05
Pittsburgh (departs) 23.59
Cleveland (departs) 02.59
Toledo (departs) 05.22
Chicago (arrives) 08.45
764 miles, 1230 km
My first thought is that I wish I was on the upper deck, but once we get going I realise the degree of sway up top is significantly magnified, and it feels like we have put to sea in a moderate swell up there. Instinctively – like being on a Boeing 747 – I aspire to be up top looking down, but I think the lower deck here has other advantages. Passengers walk between cars on the upper deck, so down here is quieter and less disturbed as there is a dead end at each end of the carriage – just the doors onto the platform half way along and the stairs up to the top deck. There are also two toilets and a shower nearby (but not too nearby) – there is only one shared by more roomettes on top. I shall update on this view as I will probably be on the upper deck for a later journey.
My roomette reminds me of the Australian (Indian Pacific) single room layout, as I will be sleeping in the direction of travel – in my opinion this is the most effective solution for good rail based slumber. It’s compact, but well laid out. It also has a second berth up top, but I will be using it just for single occupancy. I decide to unpack as best as I can in a space 6 feet by 3 feet, and wonder what to wear to dinner. I can’t help but think of one of my favourite train films, “Silver Streak”. All the cues of the film are around me, even though this particular type of carriage wasn’t built until a nearly decade after it was released. I have that film on my iPad, and will try to watch it later on. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
With no immediate tasks to attend to, I explore the train in the manner of a small excited boy at the start of a new term at boarding school. Climbing up to the top deck I walk straight through to the restaurant (easy to use the press button air powered doors), meet the chefs, then through a bar area and on to the observation car. The train feels quite empty and I think the passenger density is low for the amount of space we have. Can you imagine an observation carriage (or even a proper bar) on the train from London to Edinburgh?!
I enjoy a couple of Yuengling beers in the observation car before dinner. As we pass through Virginia the scenery at first appears to be the stuff of picture postcards. White washed wooden boarded houses with neat lawns and stars and stripes flapping in the gentle breeze. Eagles flying over lush forests and river valleys. But behind the trees I can spot hidden trailer parks, rusty cars and higgledy shacks.
We pick up speed after a short stop and I notice that other than the swaying motion, the ride is quite smooth. No rough points or clattering bogies most of the time. Hopefully that bodes well for some sleep later. On the subject of sleep, I purchased some combined painkilling and sleeping tablets from a local drugstore yesterday as I have been having a bit of foot pain, I took one last night and fell asleep almost instantly – I didn’t even manage to get out of my chair and into bed they worked so fast. A couple of glasses of merlot might have accelerated their effect!
I’m liking the mix of people on the train, and wonder who I will be sat with at dinner. It really does look like a slice across American life here. The college student on one side of me has a star intriguingly tattooed at the top of her right breast. The elderly couple on the other side of me are Amish and wear gowns and aprons. The man has a big white beard and is very friendly. Other than testing my knowledge of Chaucer he asks me questions like “What are your hopes for the trip?”. It’s a good question, and I have no immediate answer.
Dinner turns out to be a pleasant surprise – ranch salad, a carefully cooked steak and half a bottle of Cabernet. The price of the food is included in the cost of the roomette. The table policy is called “community seating” – you get to sit with people you don’t know, which is great fun or a disaster, depending on how you feel about that. I found it great, and we all agreed how people don’t even make eye contact on planes these days, but on trains like this you get to enjoy dinner together.
I retire early and when I get back to my room I see that Cliff has been busy, it’s now two beds with no space to do anything other than sleep. The bed is very comfortable and I fall asleep after watching the first five minutes of “Silver Streak”. The driver toots his horn throughout the night, but I find it a soporiphic noise, more reminiscent of a Wild West film than a disturbance. I sleep so well that I rise well rested at 6am to have breakfast and watch the sun rise.
Breakfast is a bit weird, but I’m determined to try new things. I opt for Creole scrambled eggs with grits. I can’t really describe what this tastes like. It’s my first experience of grits, and combined with the spicy sauce, I might just as well have been eating spaghetti bolognaise for breakfast. Whenever I hear the very word “grits” I always think of a rather unexpectedly good film, “My Cousin Vinny”. Grits become a key part of the plot, and I won’t reveal why, but the film well illustrates the reverence with which some Americans treat their breakfast dish of choice. Having tried them with an open mind, I have to tell you that I’m not a fan at all. It will be French toast for me next time.
It’s beginning to get light outside. Good morning Indiana! The timetable says we are due to stop at a place called South Bend at 07.51, and here the clocks go back an hour as we cross the state line and enter Illinois. Things are going too well though – Amtrak trains take second priority after freight, and we get delayed by around an hour before we can get going again. At 09.45 we arrive into Chicago Union station – and it looks very familiar. It doesn’t take me long to work out why. The steps on one side of the lobby where I exit the station were featured in “The Untouchables” (1987). Sean Connery at his very best!
I only have a day or so in Chicago before getting back on the rails. It seems like a very civilised city and I wish I had longer here. I shall report back from the Californian Zephyr in a couple of days – next destination – Denver, Colorado.