Amtrak’s Adirondack from the Head End

Posted by Roy Blanchard
on Sunday, May 30, 2010
Amtrak Train No. 68, the southbound Adirondack, will never win any speed records. But it passes through some of the prettiest scenery this side of the New River Gorge courtesy of Canadian Pacific and the former Delaware & Hudson Railway. The piece de resistance is the way the railroad hugs New York’s western shore of Lake Champlain between Whitehall and Plattsburgh and I wanted to see it in person. The best way to do that is, of course from the locomotive. And therein hangs the tale.
 
I’d been invited to give a short talk at the Canadian National Shortline meeting in Montreal May 13 and this gave me the ideal excuse. But you have to be dedicated (or perhaps a little nuts) to go by train to Montreal from Philadelphia (where I live). You start with Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train No. 110 departing Philadelphia 30th Street Station at 5:52 a.m., arriving in New York’s Penn Station at 7:17 a.m. in time to get the northbound Adirondack, Train No. 69 out at 8:15 a.m., arriving at CN’s Gare Central in downtown Montreal at 7:10 p.m. Elapsed time: 13 hours and a few minutes.
 
US Airways operates non-stop commuter flights that take an hour and a half or so. But that requires building in a two-hour lead time for security checks here, allowing an hour for customs on arrival and a harrowing (and expensive) taxi ride into town. Call it six hours center city to center city. But the round trip fare is over a thousand dollars. Amtrak is a hundred and change.
 
A ride along the Hudson River for the entire 140-mile trip between New York and Albany plus the hundred miles along Lake Champlain plus saving $800 plus taxis in Montreal and Phila both ways was a powerful incentive in favor of Amtrak. And so it was I called a friend at Amtrak who in involved with “host railroad” relations (dealing with the Class Is Amtrak uses) and told him what I was doing. He made arrangements for me to ride the locomotive on the return trip from Rouses Point, NY (the US-Canadian border) to Albany-Renssalaer, 191 miles to the south. 
 
The Adirondack is a modest affair, four Amfleet coaches and an Amfleet lounge car with tables in both sections exactly mid-train. I meet up with my host for the ride, Amtrak Road Forman Jim Ashley, on the platform in Montreal about ten minutes before the scheduled 9:30 a.m. departure, we exchange greetings and business cards, and repair to the lounge car for the 49-mile ride to Rouses Point.
 
After the US customs agents interview everybody on the train (all 70 of us), a thorough and professional and actually pleasant affair, Jim and I move to the head end and take our seats on locomotive No. 146, a GE P42, and engineer Tom Healy gets us rolling.  

We pull from Rouses Point at 12:29 p.m., 24 minutes late. We know there is half an hour worth of slow orders ahead of us but there’s enough slack in the schedule for us to be in Penn Station on time at 8:40 p.m., plenty of time for me to make my connection to Philadelphia on Northeast Regional Train No. 177 at 10:05 p.m.
 
However, it’s an old saying out on the railroad that the late get later and so it was with us. North of Plattsburgh a pickup truck tries to beat the gates, catches the arm as it comes down, and he departs the scene leaving the arm in the middle of the street. We stop, flag the crossing, and kick the broken gate out of the street onto the shoulder.

At the Plattsburgh station stop a young woman coming home from college gets on with a steamer trunk, five pieces of luggage and a lamp in a waste basket. That takes 20 minutes. We pull into Howard siding at 2:25 p.m. to meet No. 69, the Northbound Adirondack,  and we don't get out till three. We arrive Fort Ticonderoga at 3:45 p.m., an hour and 12 minutes late and meet a northbound NS manifest in the clear for us at CPC 99.  

It’s slow going what with all the slow orders – 20 in 100 track miles.  They’re so close together – some only a tenth of a mile long with only a mile-plus between them -- one can’t regain track speed before having to slow down for the next. Note to self: why not combine the short ones – most are 30 mph – and just let the hoggers set for that speed without burning up more fuel and brake shoes?

We hit Saratoga Springs at 5:30 p.m., Schenectady at 6:08 p.m. and Albany-Renssalaer at 6:25, exactly our scheduled departure time, and just 20 minutes off the advertised. The 110 mph track speed between Schenectady and Albany-Renssalaer was the biggest help.
 
The benefit of running late was it gave me an extra hour of cab time, time to chat with the Amtrak crew about what I was seeing. The bad news about slow orders is they cost you time; the good news is when the slow orders come off you’ll have a faster, more fluid railroad. And I get a lot better view of how the railroad hugs the edge of the lake at 30 mph than i would at 50.
 
There is freight business out there – I saw one train each way with NS power and another train pair each way with CP power.  Yards at Sarasota, Whitehall and Rouses Point held cars for local delivery and the turnouts into many of the passing sidings had been rebuilt recently. There are new wayside signals. And the track structure is some of the best I’ve seen of late.
 
Now I hear CSX wants to get rights over this line for a faster, more direct ride between Selkirk and Montreal than it now has via Utica and the Massena branch. Could it be we’ll see the return of the old D&H, “The Bridge Line” as it called itself fifty years ago? Based on what I saw it might very well do just that. Kudos to CP for its stewardship.
 
Roy Blanchard
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