Greetings from Roomette No. 1 (Updated with post script)

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Monday, September 28, 2020

Amtrak P42 No. 124, pictured at the end of its run at Chicago Union Station, led the combined 49/449 Lake Shore Limited from Albany, N.Y., on Sunday. Bill Stephens photo
Bound for Chicago and ultimately for a date with BNSF Railway and Union Pacific coal trains in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, I’m aboard Amtrak train 49, the westbound Lake Shore Limited. As I type, we are cruising along CSX Transportation’s historic Water Level Route somewhere east of Utica, N.Y., under the cover of darkness.

I boarded Sunday night’s train at Albany Renssalaer, N.Y., where the car attendant greeted me warmly on the platform, grabbed my bags, and escorted me to Roomette No. 1 in Viewliner No. 62004. I’m happy to report that my roomette in the 12th car of tonight’s train is clean, quiet, and comfortable, and the Lake Shore pulled out of Albany right on the advertised at 7:05 p.m.

The train was not yet clear of the Track 1 platform when a piping hot dinner was delivered to my roomette in a white paper bag. I waited until we crossed the Hudson River and began our assault on West Albany Hill before unpacking what awaited inside.

Amtrak's vegetarian enchiladas taste like what they are: Reheated on board. Bill Stephens photo
Much has been made of Amtrak’s decision to replace food prepared in the dining car with prepackaged meals. In the Before Times, I would have preferred to enjoy dinner in the dining car, as is proper, and making new friends of my tablemates in the process. But oh how things change during a pandemic. For now I am plenty happy to remain in my personal bubble and have a meal brought right to my door.

Amtrak now lets you select your dinner a few days before departure, a convenient feature done online after receiving an email prompt. I chose the vegetarian enchiladas. The best thing I can say about the enchiladas is that they are not terrible. They tasted like what they in fact are: Reheated in a microwave onboard. The entre was accompanied by a warm roll, a miniature salad consisting of iceberg lettuce, a few bits of chopped carrot, and a grape tomato. The bare-bones salad was fitting, I suppose, given Amtrak’s precarious financial situation due to the pandemic-related decline in ridership. A chocolate chip brownie – containing sustainable Peruvian chocolate and no genetically modified ingredients, its wrapper proclaimed – was a nice finish.

Given all the noise about the prepackaged food Amtrak is serving these days, I set low expectations that the meal met quite easily. In other words, the food was as disappointing as I thought it would be and unfortunately will not help Amtrak get the repeat customers that every business depends upon.

Still, there is something about dining in your roomette and watching the speedometer app on your iPhone hit 107, then flash ever so briefly to 108, in the 110-mph section between Albany and Schenectady. That is something no microwave can take away, and clearly the trio of old P42’s on the point still have some life left in their legs.

Hey, it’s not the 180-mph running I’ve experienced on the Florence-Venice run in Italy or, for that matter, the 180-plus of the TGV between Basel, Switzerland, and Paris. But if you’re looking for the perfect pairing for the glass of Chardonnay sitting on the table in your roomette, well, 107 mph will do just fine on this side of the pond.

The CSX dispatchers turn the Lake Shore over to their Norfolk Southern counterparts in Cleveland. We departed CSX rails on time, but were held out of the station for half an hour on NS. The tardiness had been cut to 16 minutes by the time we reached the station stop at Bryan, Ohio. It was all for naught, though, as we crawled across Northern Indiana at under 40 mph at times on the NS Chicago Line, the busiest freight main in the East. 

Although the dispatcher swung us over to Track 2 to run around a westbound stack train east of Elkhart, Ind., we were on the heels of the Capitol Limited and NS intermodal train 23Z. So against these obstacles, Elkhart arrival was 32 minutes late. We did make up some time skirting the steel mills along Lake Michigan on the approach to Chicago, and the train came to a stop on Track 26 at 10:11 a.m., 21 minutes behind schedule. Close enough.

The car attendant, ever so cheerful, grabbed my bags and delivered them to the foot of the stairs. As I tipped him, I asked if he knew whether he’d be staying on once the long distance trains shift to triweekly operation in October. He wasn’t sure, but said his 21 years of service may help. His attitude, like the rest of the crew I encountered, was a surprise of the trip. They were all professional, courteous, and seemed to enjoy what they were doing. And that’s more than you could expect during a pandemic with layoffs looming.

You could not get me to board a commercial flight these days. But I am looking forward to my return trip aboard the Lake Shore.


Post Script

Chicago Union Station was a ghost town on Friday, Oct. 2, before the departure of the Lake Shore Limited. Bill Stephens photo
My trip back home on Friday’s Lake Shore Limited was a good one. After an on-time 9:30 p.m. departure from a nearly deserted Chicago Union Station, I awoke as we were pulling in to the station at Erie, Pa., at 7:10 a.m. 

After we crossed the border into New York State, I texted my Uncle Giff, who helped spark my interest in railroads. He lives a few blocks from the tracks in Angola, N.Y. “Good morning,” I wrote. “I am on the Lake Shore Limited approaching Angola. Will you wave as I go by?” He and his grandson Josh were waiting alongside the tracks, as they often are on a Saturday morning, and gave a wave as we rolled by at 79 mph. It was a treat for the three of us.

Speaking of treats: Breakfast without meals prepared in the dining car is just not the same. The freshly prepared French toast was always a highlight of any trip on an Amtrak long distance train. The oatmeal was OK, but it cannot compare to what could be cooked up in dining car’s gleaming kitchen. And what about lunch, you ask? Well, I ordered the pasta and meatballs on the theory that there’s not much that can go wrong. It turns out there’s not much that can go right with the dish, either. It was like leftover pasta reheated at home in the microwave, and was accompanied by the same anemic salad, warm roll, and brownie served at dinner on the westbound Lake Shore.

Amtrak might say that it’s serving airline-style food. But the lunch and dinner were not nearly as tasty as meals I enjoyed while flying Air Canada last year or Lufthansa two years ago. It’s proof that Amtrak can – and should – do better with its menu for sleeping car passengers, who shell out a pretty penny for accommodations. Right now the food quality/ticket price ratio is out of whack.

But Amtrak’s on-board crew was fantastic, friendly, and professional. My roomette was clean, quiet, and comfortable. And our 12-car train arrived in Albany-Rensselaer about four minutes early despite heavy freight traffic on Norfolk Southern out of Chicago and a relatively busy CSX Transportation Water Level Route across New York.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on twitter @bybillstephens

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