Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Lake Shore Limited

A couple of notes to our readers....

***** We arrived in Chicago to find the Amtrak 1st class wireless system was down. So we transferred the file via cell phone to Irene Rabinowitz, whose very successful BLOG about her travels to Israel is now online... Thank you Irene!

Pictures and other material will be added in Seattle...

1.Earlier posting are available from the menu on the right side of your Blog screen beginning with “Loading the Coal”. If you haven't already done so it is best to begin with that Posting since it contains the details of our trip.

2.We knew this in advance, but there is NO WiFi on Amtrak. We were hoping to find WiFi Hot Spots along the way but so far, no luck. With that in mind Postings will be made on Tuesday, Dec 29 when we get to Chicago then again two days later When we arrive in Seattle... Unless we get lucky. Posting from Seattle forward will be announced once we arrive in Seattle

3.We love comments but can not reply until we arrive someplace where there is a WiFi signal and time.

And now the Lake Shore Limited...

For the Amtrak Official guide and timetable for the Lake Shore limited, Follow these links: Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited Page  Be sure to see the Route guide PDF as well as the latest timetable PDF also located on this page.

Cliff, our Red Cap called at 11:30 as promised and delivered us directly to our carriage (4920 for the detail oriented). “Excuse me, pardon, let us by please” as he deftly moves us ahead of those poor souls queued up for Coach... How droll life must be for them. It is so sad seeing them all lined-up like that but makes us realize the very important role those of us in the Bourgeoisie play as an example to the less fortunate. However, I'm going to write to the President of the railroad company and suggest they put up a screen so we don't have to see them shivering and hungry as we proceed to our First Class accommodations.

Yeah, right... maybe that's the way it was many years ago but today Cliff is a very pleasant, very short, very round man, with rosy cheeks full of good cheer and great advice such as, “Be sure and check when you get to Chicago to see if the Empire Builder was able to get through.” Get through??? What's it doing, crossing the border from the Russian Front? No, he meant SNOW and lots of it! Gulp! Images of the Donner party flash before me...And with little more than a shift of his copious hips he drops our bag off the cart as he crams our tip into his pocket advising, “See the Attendant inside the car...” and is gone in a twinkle.

Our 'First Class Cabin' has only slightly less room than the handicap stall in a public restroom! Clark, our very pleasant but slightly harried Porter, bustles by, “Hi Guys, that your Room?” We show him our ticket. “Yep, that's you, I'll be right back...” and he disappears down the car. A few minutes later he's back, “Sorry for the delay, the train came in full last night from Chicago and we didn't have time to completely clean it. Here's some material about the trip today, the dining car doesn't join us until Albany but there's lunch for you in the Cafe Car.” and he's off to the next cabin where we hear, “Hi, I'm Clark your Porter, I haven't had time to make your berth yet...”

Not encouraging, but our car is clean and well stocked with water, soap, towels, empty trash containers, fresh bed linens, etc. I learned on a previous cross country train that if you want good service, tip the Porter, now called 'Car Attendant', in advance. So we gave him a fiver and settled into our 'cozy' compartment (the terms our Provincetown real estate friends Mona, Sue and Ruth would use in describing such a demure use of space). While it may not be large we do indeed have the advantage of location, location, location with the promise of both water and mountains views and the constantly changing views of New England in winter.

A little explanation less you think we are disappointed with our humble abode: For this first segment we are in an 'economy 'roomette'. It has two berths, one lower, which converts to seating during the day and one upper which pulls down and makes the space sort of 'two story'. On one side of the compartment is a combination compact sink above and toilet below. On the other side of the compartment is an area to hang clothes. There is a table which kinda 'pops' out of the window sill and a voluminous attic storage area which, while roomy, will not accept anything thicker than a pizza box, unless the upper berth is pulled down into the 'sleep position' in which case you can store a transatlantic steamer trunk if you can wrestle it onto the upper berth and give it a good shove. Finally, The compartment door slides open and shut and has a lock which can only be activated from within the cabin.This is true of all the rooms on all the trains. There is no external keyhole, so do not fall out of the upper berth and knock yourself out or have the misfortune to die in your compartment. Cutting you out of your compartment will cause quiet a mess, will delay the train and will thoroughly upset the railroad company. You've been warned!

Here is a link to the Amtrak description of a Viewliner standard roomette:Viewliner Standard Roomette

We're moving! Slowly we leave South Station as my last, desperate attempt to upload an earlier post disappears into microvoid. Did I happen to mention that there is NO WiFi on the train? Suddenly I'm beginning to feel like Ernie Pyle (Ah-Ha that will send you scurrying to Google...).

The suburbs begin to slowly click by, Newton, Framingham, as we pick up speed and head for Worcester. Did Clark say something about lunch? Like landlubbers with no sea legs we make our way up two cars for lunch in the Cafe Car. Explaining that we are from the sleeping car we are whisked to a waiting acre of Formica where the Cafe Attendant spreads a sheet of material similar in oh so many ways to linen, but not linen or any other kind of fabric. It is just amazing what they can do with paper these days. We were both so impressed we are thinking of using the material for sheets at Four Gables.

Anyway, choice for lunch was apple and brie on a baguette or chicken Marseille with rice and vegetables. Hmmm, could we hear the menu again, it all went by so fast. Seems on this 'consist' (train talk for a 'train') there is no Dining car but we are told we will hook up with one once we connect with the NYC portion of the Lake Shore Limited. So lunch is kind of like the old meals on airplanes where it was made ahead in some vast kitchen and kept warm until served. It wasn't bad... maybe a 4 on a scale of 10 but much better than expected, however, the desert was nothing short of spectacular, definitely and 11 out of 10! Something called a chocolate avalanche with a warm, buttery caramel sauce which was to die for... and with what I'm sure it did to my glycemic index, that is entirely possible. Wow, was it good!

Worcester now behind us we stagger (We're getting better) back to our compartment... Our cozy phone booth away from home...

Wall art along the tracks in Worcester

We are starting into the Western part of Massachusetts now, Springfield is just ahead then Pittsfield as we climb through the Berkshires, which today looks for all the world like the set of 'White Christmas'. The scene outside our window is fantastic as the snow swirls outside the train like a tornado of white while we recline in the warm, quiet, comfort of our room with a view out of our window which would give Norman Rockwell inspiration. The train's rhythm becomes hypnotic as we settle in for a good read, some tunes on the MP3 and perhaps, me thinks, a nap.

Trackside snow scene between Worcester and Pittsfield

We arrive in Albany around 5:30pm and have to wait to join with the New York City consist around 7:15 (you'll remember that is train talk for 'train'). Jockeying back and forth on the tracks we are finally all coupled up so we now have the complete, 12 car Lake Shore Limited and are finally heading West out of Albany bound for Buffalo...

A fine snow is falling outside our window and around 8:00p Bob and I head down 10 coaches, cafe cars and bar cars skating through snow which is seeping in through the space between the cars like dust through the closed windows of a house on a country road. We keep moving forward like climbers on a horizontal mountain till we reach the dining car. A lovely place with all the charm and character of a prison dining hall. The staff is pleasant and seat us immediately with 'Curt' from Kalamazoo Michigan, a substitute teacher on his way home from a holiday in NYC. Within about 5 minutes we discover we know a mutual acquaintance and enjoy dinner with a new friend. Dinner was creative and good. I had trout with rice and mixed vegetables, a 6 on a scale of 10. Bob had a baked half chicken which he gave a 5 out of 10. Again, the meals are mass prepared and brought on-board in hot boxes. The Trout fresh from the pan would have been outstanding. Desert was a cup of Hagen Daz. Boring in comparison to the lunch desert.

Settling in after dinner we watch New York State go by with views of drifts and blowing snow as we pass through the 'lake effect' region near Buffalo. By 11:00 we are both in our berths and ready for a good sleep. Well kinda... Bob sleeps fine on a train but I am a very light sleeper and depend on ear plugs and a sleeping pill to make sure I get a good nights sleep both of which are safely packed away in the baggage car unavailable to me until tomorrow..Oooops.

Outside of the North East Corridor Amtrak does not own the tracks it runs on. The original railroad companies still own the tracks. For example, on this leg of our journey the tracks we use are owned by Metro-North, CSX and the Norfolk-Southern Railroads. This agreements was made in the 1960's as part of a deal to get the railroads out of the hugely unprofitable passenger business. On these lines it is all about freight (you've no doubt seen the ads about how CSX can move one ton of freight 440 miles on one gallon of fuel) so for that reason The Lake Shore Limited often has to go onto a siding to allow higher priority freight to pass by. This can make the exact arrival time of the Lake Shore Limited a little unpredictable.

Around 4:20am I am aware of  bright lights leaking in around the curtains. I peak out and am startled by what appears to be the Mother Ship from 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' hovering just outside my window. Wondering if I was yet again about to be abducted by Aliens (third time this month!)I grabbed my trusty Palm-Pre and fired up Google maps, switched to the satellite view and the cursor showed I was sitting right next to The Cleveland Brown's Stadium. I took this as an omen that we must be getting close to Cleveland. I'm very perceptive and tuned in that way.

Close encounters or football in slumber?

We left our compartment around 7:00am to make the long march to the dining car for breakfast. Going from car to car had become a lot more precarious overnight as that seeping snow, mentioned above, had grown into sizable drifts and solid ice . The cast of characters in the coach sections en route to the dining car looked worse than the bar scene in the Star War movie as they looked like they were trying to contort themselves into their seats assuming there was some odd position that would afford them comfort. From the gaping, open contorted mouths of some to one young man who was completely turned around in his seat with his head stuck in the crack of the seat to the woman who obviously used too much hairspray and after a night of trying to sleep looked like Phyllis Diller on crack.

The Dining car looked a little more cheery in the morning light and we found a waiting table and were joined by Ed, a retired dairy farmer from Utica, NY traveling West with his wife to Colorado to visit their son and grand children. We enjoyed a nice breakfast of omelets, bacon, potatoes, turkey sausage, biscuits and croissants. The dining car is the place where you get the opportunity for 'random socialization' in that you share a table with whomever is there. Suddenly, you are thrust into a social situation with a total stranger and the results are always interesting. While our dinner partner, Curt, was only three degrees of separation from a close mutual friend who is the Maestro for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Ed, our breakfast partner, was able to make us smarter about the life of a dairy farmer and the trend toward corporate dairy buying of all the small farms, like his, and forcing him out of business. His wife had wanted him to go into farming for their four boys, but now the boys had all moved away and the farm was gone. As we finished our breakfast he asked if we had ever heard of the Gideons. We both nodded yes and he presented us with a Gideon Bible. A simple act of generosity between total strangers which bonded us to this unassuming gentleman and enriched our trip immensely.

Someone left the Baggage car door open so everyone's baggage was buried in snow.

We are not far out of Chicago now and it is time to sum up The Lake Shore Limited. It is Definitely not the same train I used to take in the 80's as a regular part of my job as a lobbyist for the Upjohn Company. The staff is exhausted, the equipment is worn out and the trains are packed and the food is not nearly as good as it was then. However, you can still be entertained, share interesting experiences and relax in your own compartment to watch the Northern edge of the North East corridor go gliding by. This train, like so many parts of the region we have just passed through, has been ignored and forgotten. However, as the crowds on this train still attest, it is still the best and only convenient way for many people to move around in these states or this region of the country.

All in all I'd give The Lake Shore Limited a 5 out of 10. Not recommended for someone's first, long-distance train adventure, but certainly a worthwhile trip for the experienced train buff.


  1. Loved the 21st century version of Mark Twain's "Travels Abroad". :) We had a smashing (literally) time of it here on Tuesday with 50 mph winds. I kept waiting for one of those trees in front to come crashing down on the XUV. Luckily, such did not, but several folks on the Cape were not so lucky.

    Oh, btw, does USPS.COM ring a bell? You might want to visit that site and put in an electronic mail stop, unless someone is supposed to be picking up the mail. Your cup overfloweth already.

  2. Just finished reading the Cape Cod Times and lo and behold on page 3 is an article about your blog. Now everyone on the Cape knows about your blog. :) They didn't publish the URL though.

  3. You missed another snowstorm boys.
    So glad to hear about the cabins size, appointments etc.
    Love the food ratings!
    We have missed you at Chach!
    Happy you were able to "patch" everything together for your blog.

  4. thanks for the great description - I'm a first timer looking for a train trip from Chicago for fun. Was thinking of this one as its cheaper... but you think there's better ideas? Destination doesn't quite matter as much to me...

  5. Loved your blog. Who said Americans don't have a great sense of humor. I'm thinking of taking that train next year and now have a very good idea of what to expect. Thanks. RQF Sydney

  6. On the eastboound leg, it leaves so late, they don't serve dinner. Can't see spring for first class, not getting to dinner and getting to NY late in the day. Used to be it left about 6 and got around noon. But too many people from western trains missed the connection and it was costing amtrak money flying them or putting them up. So I don't take my annual trip any more.