Product review: Lake Shore Limited

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, August 26, 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with this train. This is my fourth westbound trip on Amtrak 49 this year, so obviously I love it more than hate it. Here is why I keep coming back: The view of the mighty Hudson River for two and a half hours, the Rensselaer, N.Y., merge with our Boston section, the beautiful Mohawk River valley west of Albany at sunset, and the hustle and bustle of running the Norfolk Southern trainathon west of Elkhart, Ind., on the run-up to Chicago.

And I hate the train for one reason only: the attitude of certain on-board employees. In every case, it is the cafe car attendants, who on the previous three trips shut down the car 90 minutes from Chicago so they could leisurely pack up the merchandise without having paying passengers underfoot. The cafe car starts in Boston and serves as the train's lounge car west of Rensselaer. Closing the car early matters to me because it's the only place I can sit on the train and watch on both sides as we weave through the NS gauntlet. So we'll see.

The Hudson is beautiful, as always, and nearing Rensselaer my iPhone app shows our train approaching 105 mph, which is something for a single locomotive pulling 10 cars (five coaches, diner, two sleepers, baggage and deadhead sleeper, in that order). At the Rensselaer station, I take the escalator to the waiting area, only to be told I cannot reboard for at least 20 minutes. Natch. Out the front door I go, find stairs to the ground level and walk across to my platform. I wish the gatekeeper upstairs could have seen me.

My dinner seating was called as our train left Rensselaer. The diner is (as of now) the one-of-a-kind prototype, named Indianapolis, for the new Viewliner dining cars being built. As much as I cherish those 60-year-old Budd diners now working out their last months for Amtrak, I like the Indianapolis better. Two sets of windows let lots of light in, and along with the high ceilings create almost a bistro setting.

Here's my take on Amtrak dinner cuisine: You can't go wrong with the hanger steak. The roasted half chicken looks good but often as not is overcooked with skin like leather. Salmon is salmon and pasta is pasta. Beware of specials. I order the steak. It comes medium rare, as I ordered it, and is delicious. Ditto the baked potato.

My seatmates are Anita from Maine, an attractive woman on her way to visit relatives in Michigan, and Mike Rose, a former brakeman (for Norfolk & Western and Conrail) who is also a railfan, inasmuch as he knows David Ingles of Classic Trains Magazine. This is Anita's first overnight train trip, and Mike and I try to convince her the rough track will keep her awake all night. She's not buying it, however. As we get up, around Utica, N.Y., the Lake Shore is about 30 minutes late.

I fall asleep sitting in my roomette (too much wine) and when I wake up at midnight we're leaving Rochester, N.Y., 59 minutes to the bad. This is par for the Lake Shore. Upstate New York is often unkind to this train. Our delay east of Utica was getting round a big nighttime CSX tie gang, and I hear the next morning that a car stalled on the tracks did us in prior to Syracuse.

I crawl onto the upper bunk and sleep better than I do in my own bed. I come awake at 6 as we are departing Elyria, Ohio, now 1 hour 39 minutes late. I look upon this as business as usual for this train, and for me, a chance to see more of the railroad. By 6:30 I'm ordering scrambled eggs in the Indianapolis.

At Toledo, Ohio, Rob Jones, the sleeping car attendant, hands me a USA Today. It's not my favorite newspaper, but when I see it I always turn to the News State By State page, which devotes a paragraph to some news event in all 50. I read each item, starting with Wyoming and working up. At California, my patience is rewarded. It seems the state legislature is about to enact a law making it a crime to throw compromising photographs of your ex onto the internet. The practice is called "pornographic revenge." Please, where can I go on the internet to find these compromising photos? All you people out there: Be nice to your former spouses and/or lovers.

So far, this trip is deserving of an A. The food is good, Rob is super-attentive, the track is in excellent shape, the weather outside is late-summer gorgeous, I'm not put out by the late running, and so what's not to like about the experience? I make my way forward eight cars to the cafe lounge to watch us battle the Norfolk Southern freights the rest of the way into Chicago. Now this is a 15-car train, with the five cars from Boston (baggage, two coaches, sleeper, and cafe lounge, in that order) right behind the two locomotives. Every sleeping car space appears sold, as are about 85-90 percent of the seats in the seven coaches.

I take a seat in the booth just ahead of the conductor and AC. I'm prepared to start a sit-in if they declare the car closed too soon. I have my lines ready to say. They can carry my limp body off the train, by golly. And so I wait. We sail through LaPorte, 90 minutes out, then Porter and Burns Harbor. Gary and U.S. Steel's huge Gary Works flashes by, then Indiana Harbor. The car stays open. I hear the conductor telling the AC: "So this guy was in a coach playing his harmonica. I say he can't do this and he says why not? I say because it's bothering other passengers and he says the other passengers are playing their radios. I say it's because they are all wearing headphones and does he have a headphone for his harmonica? He says no, and I say to quit playing the thing. Next thing I know he's muttering to himself. I listen and it's whether to attack me. So when he makes a lunge I just grab him by the shoulders [the young conductor is the size of a refrigerator], lift him up, put him down in his seat and say if he gets up one time I will stop the train and throw him off."

And I'm going to stage a nonviolent sit-in against The Refrigerator to assert my right to sit in the lounge? My resolve wavers. It turns out I don't have to. We're just 30 minutes out when he asks folks to leave the car, and that is okay by me. I tell him I was prepared for Confrontation City, and we both laugh about it.

This is a good trip. Another A. Good service, good people, good food, a good night's sleep, and obviously good wine. Moreover, I didn't have to resort to civil disobedience to assert my right to sit in the cafe lounge. On the radio as we enter track 28 of Chicago Union Station the conductor says, "Train 49 to the Glass House. Mark us in at 11:19." On the one hand, that's 1 hour and 34 minutes late. But look at it this way: I walk the length of the train to the station, check my luggage in the Metropolitan Lounge, walk almost a mile down Adams Street, and enter The Berghoff at noon on the dot, to order my martini. The way I see it, I got to Chicago right on time.--Fred W. Frailey

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