Ode to a grounded Cardinal

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, August 19, 2011

The cardinal is one of the finest and prettiest creatures on God’s earth. I guess I’m partial to the bird because my hair used to be that color. However, the uppercase and italicized Cardinal is the least and lowest of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. I’m here to tell you why.
I bet you don’t know how the Cardinal leaves Chicago. All the experts I consulted didn’t, either. Here’s how: Starting at Chicago Union Station on Amtrak rails, it enters the Norfolk Southern Chicago Line (think: Pennsylvania Railroad) at 21st Street. Just 2.3 miles later, at CP 518 (51st Street), it leaves NS for the Metra Southwest Line, the former Chicago & Western Indiana (think: Dearborn Station). But not for long. At 74th Street, it’s bye-bye Metra and hello again NS, on a brief tangent that brings it briefly to Belt Railway of Chicago before it finally reaches Union Pacific (think: Chicago & Eastern Illinois) at 81st Street. 
Most nights the Cardinal trundles south another eight miles to Dolton Junction, where it stops to let the tower operator give priority to UP and Indiana Harbor Belt trains.Tonight we don’t make it even that far. The Belt holds us 45 minutes because the way isn’t clear to UP at 81st Street. Then Dolton Junction clears us without delay, and we’re in luck again at Thornton Junction, where we head east on Canadian National (think: Grand Trunk Western) until at Munster, Ind., we enter the realm of CSX (think: Monon, Chesapeake & Ohio), our host for the next 700 or so miles. By the time we reach the first scheduled stop, in Dyer, Ind., we’re 71 minutes late. 
Verily, a camel can more easily pass through the eye of a needle than the Cardinal can leave Chicago unimpeded. 
By the time I wake up the next morning, we are closing in on two hours late. And as the day wears on, we'll keep losing time. But I don’t mind, because I get to see the whole Portsmouth-Russell-Ashland-Huntington complex in daylight. In fact, I rather enjoy this all-day stroll through West Virginia and Virginia. The mountains, the rivers, the little coal-country towns I hadn’t seen in decades all combine in a pleasant collage. The two women in the Amdinette serve sleeping car passengers something close to full-service meals using nothing more than two microwave ovens; I am impressed.
The standard Cardinal consist: one P42 locomotive, a baggage car, Viewliner sleeper, Amdinette, and three Amfleet II coaches. It wouldn’t take much to make the Cardinal a train worthy of its name again. Just eight Superliner cars, in fact, would equip each of two bi-level trainsets with two coaches, a diner-lounge and sleeper. Surely Amtrak can scrounge the equipment from its many hiding places. Even better would be daily instead of tri-weekly service. But that would require top Amtrak executives putting hammerlocks on their CSX counterparts. So far, that hasn’t happened. A proposal to make the Cardinal daily remains stuck at the staff level. 
Thank you for coming across North America and back with me. I enjoyed the experience, and enjoyed sharing the high and low moments, too. As much fun as it was, it's nice coming home — Fred  W. Frailey

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