Transit-Oriented America, Part 4: The Trains

This is Part 4 of a five-part series on U.S. rail travel. (Parts 1, 2 and 3.)

Susan Donovan boarding Metro-North Train No. 737 on July 11, beginning an 8,000-mile rail journey at Grand Central Terminal.

I always find it a little amazing that a handful of times a day, one can descend into Penn Station — the place where you go to catch the 6:13 to Babylon or the 7:37 to Upper Montclair — and from the same platforms catch a train with beds and a dining car that will take you to Chicago, or Miami or Atlanta. In this case, we forsook that little pleasure for the much greater pleasure of departing for a transcontinental honeymoon from the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, where we ran into a friend getting his shoes shined who took our picture and good-naturedly warned us about what married life was like.

After the departure, we transferred at Croton-Harmon to the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. This is a train that ought to be used more for business travel than it is. If you can afford to leave New York in the late afternoon, this train gets you into Chicago at a quarter to 10, refreshed, well fed and relaxed, in time for your morning meeting or power lunch. Yes, I suppose it needs a better on-time rating to be used more by business travelers, but it is not uncommon for planes to run late as well. Our train arrived at 10:28, 43 minutes late.

The train’s name, evocative of the Lake Erie coastline, is a bit of a misnomer. You travel along the lake at night, so you never really see it (at least I never have and I’ve taken this train quite a few times to Cleveland). But can see something with majestic views that more than makes up for it. The wide and mighty Hudson, which the train hugs all the way to Albany.

View of ship traffic on the Hudson River from the Lake Shore Limited.

After spending time in Chicago we caught the Empire Builder for a three-day, two-night trip to Seattle. Pulling through Chicagoland’s suburbs, I noticed a number of shipping warehouses with spur tracks going into them that were buried and weedy, while trucks in large parking lots had taken over rail-marshalling yards. The freight railroads stock was on the rise for years before Warren Buffet started buying (look up BNI, UNP, CSX or NSC for some examples), and these warehouses indicate that they have plenty of room for continued growth if shippers continue to switch to fuel efficient freight rail. An hour and a half later, we were in Milwaukee, which seemed like a city we would have liked:

Milwaukee waterfront as seen from the Empire Builder.

After Milwaukee we rumbled into Minnesota, stopping at St. Paul and passing the Mississippi what seemed like four or five times. Then it was a long night and day roll through the northern prairie and big sky country of Montana before we got to the Rockies. To answer Ianqui’s question from the other day, yes, the trains generally seemed filled to capacity, although people would get on and off at intermediate stops to create an ever-changing dynamic. The Empire Builder was the most crowded, and it would have been impossible to book this one but we lucked out because someone cancelled. Here’s the scene at Whitefish, Mont., where we stopped at 10 p.m.

The Empire Builder stops in Whitefish, Mont.

The Empire Builder came to its final stop, Seattle, at 9:42 a.m., 43 minutes ahead of schedule. After our visit there we boarded the Pacific Northwest’s version of Acela: the Cascades. It’s a sleekly designed train imported from Europe that makes medium-distance runs between Vancouver, B.C., and southern Oregon. This is a train that is trying as much as possible to be an airplane. They have television screens that show your relative position over the land you’re traveling, which they sometimes show on a flight, and a looooong safety video that goes into way too much detail for a train. By the end of it, you’re waiting for them to say: In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device. But the food car has a counter where you can sit and a hip and modern ambiance.

Amtrak’s Cascades arrives in Portland.

After the Cascades took us to Portland, we switched to the West Coast’s long-distance train, the Coast Starlight, for two runs: An overnight trip to Oakland, and what was to have been a daytime trip from San Jose to Los Angeles. This train had the worst on-time performance of our trip, but it had the coolest lounge. Actually, it is called the Parlor Car, to distinguish it from the lounge car next door. With wood and glass paneling and plush swivel seats and benches, this lives up to its old-timey sounding name. The parlor car is where we had our second wine-and-cheese tasting. (The first had been on the Empire Builder.) Downstairs, there was even an unused movie theater. Here’s a photo of the Coast Starlight rounding a sharp bend as we approached the Bay Area.

The Coast Starlight rounds a bend in northern California.

CalTrain_Bike_Car.jpgWe pulled into Oakland four hours late and hopped the BART at Lake Merrit to San Francisco. After our time there, rather than go back on the BART again, we we rode the MUNI light rail (it was packed with baseball fans hoping to see Barry Bonds hit his 755th home run) to CalTrain for a ride south along the San Francisco peninsula to San Jose. CalTrain is a double-decker commuter train that has an incomparable feature that encourages intermodal, non-oil-guzzling transportation: The bike car. The bottom level has a large open space where you bring your bike in and tie it to racks on the wall. You sit upstairs. I’ll write it again because it is such a pleasure to type: bike car. Only in California.

At San Jose, we caught the second of the two Coast Starlights, and it was running even later. The morning we were to head to Los Angeles, a woman from Amtrak called to say that our train was running 12 hours late. It had gotten stuck behind a freight train in the Cascades mountains and that train had broken down. As she no doubt prepared for me to fly into an apoplectic rage, I just said, "Great! Give us a sleeper!" Actually, we had already been in touch with Julie, Amtrak’s ever-chipper automated agent, who told us about the lateness. (When traveling on Amtrak, you have to maintain constant contact with Julie, who always has up-to-date information and has the potential to reduce your wait time dramatically.) I was actually excited because the lateness gave us 12 more hours in San Francisco, time to sleep in, and saved us money because we were able to cancel a hotel room.

A little while after arriving in L.A. we departed on the Sunset Limited (the train that Pete Sessions tried to eliminate while we were on it), for the longest train of our trip — a 48-hour ride to New Orleans. We took a lot of photographs on that train because there were plenty of sights that illustrate humanity’s impact on the environment.

Automobile junkyard outside Los Angeles as seen from the Sunset Limited.

A desert wind farm. It would take a lot of wind farms to replace the oil we import.

Newly minted desert sprawl. It sells better if you have a giant red balloon to attract attention.

If you don’t have a giant red balloon, multicolored flags work well too.

Nature strikes back: A flooded automobile junkyard in east Texas.

Texas is so huge it took us 24 hours to cross it. Vast portions of the east side of the state were flooded when we passed, but thankfully this didn’t stop the train. We went through Houston and on to New Orleans. People along this route seemed especially friendly. I can’t shake the image of a whole crew of workers in some kind of big open warehouse stopping what they were doing and waving at the train. We pulled into New Orleans six hours late, but we didn’t care much because we were just excited to be there. After our time in the Big Easy, we rode our last train home: The Crescent. You see a lot of kudzu on that route.

Kudzu vines, as seen from the Crescent.

In Washington, the Crescent picks up an electric engine for the relatively speedy home stretch along the Northeast Corridor.

In Washington, an electric locomotive prepares to pull the Crescent to New York.

As we neared home, we passed into the old Northeast. The densely built-up cities in this part of the country are obsolete — relics of a past and much different economy that didn’t allow people to have the amount of private space and separation that people demand today. Future growth will happen in low-density communities, especially in the sunbelt. At least, that is the message or implication of a long line of pundits. Joel Garreau. Joel Kotkin. David Brooks. Robert Bruegmann.

But if those guys are correct, why the evident difficulty selling those subdivisions we saw? And why are skyscrapers rising in downtown Philadelphia?

Skyscrapers under construction in downtown Philadelphia, as seen from Amtrak’s Crescent.

The series will wrap-up tomorrow with a handy summary in chart form.

  • momos

    This is fascinating stuff. Thanks for the great photos. I’m especially interested in how the Northeast Corridor was the same or different than the rest of Amtrak’s network.

  • anonymous

    The bike car in Caltrain is a nice feature, and in fact I use it twice a day, every day now. There’s a very simple reason for that: I live in San Francisco, and work in Silicon Valley. And the public transportation in Silicon Valley is so bad that the bike is almost literally the only way to get from the station to where I work. Well, I suppose I could take a bus from the train, which would require taking a slower train and add maybe 40 minutes to my commute. They have those bike cars there because there’s a very significant demand for them!

  • ddartley

    Speaking of Amtrak, wish me luck–I just did a voiceover audition for a couple of their radio spots. Let there be karma!

  • Gee, this whole series is great!

    The Lakeshore ride reminds me of a train we have here in Washington, D.C. It also goes to Chicago, but it leaves from one of our grand old stations, that is still a train station, Union Station. It also uses the high level cars that Amtrak runs in the west. In fact, last time I checked, the equipment continued to L.A as the Super Chief.

  • Kevin Monaghan

    You have taken my dream rail trip; I am green with envy of your green adventure. Thanks for documenting it.

  • Mark

    It’s not only Caltrain that’s accommodating to bicyclists. All the Amtrak California routes (Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin, Capital Corridor) have bike racks in every coach. Amtrak California even publishes a brochure listing all the great biking routes/destinations that are accessible by train. The big commuter service in So Cal (Metrolink) also has racks in every coach.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Paul Theroux has taken some of my dream rail trips, although the way he tells them, they weren’t exactly dreamy.

  • Momos, I would say the northeast corridor is generally faster than the rails beyond. You don’t have to worry about getting stuck behind freight trains because Amtrak owns much of the right-of-way on the corridor. Of course it’s also electrified, which may or may not have an affect on speed or acceleration.

  • glad you had the parlour car on the coast starlight. i was surprised to get one on my trip and it made for the most enjoyable segment. wine+train=goodness.

  • Michael Gehl, MD

    Well! Someone else who enjoys trains! As the son of a railroad executive, I was lucky to be among the last generation to ride “The Great Trains”. I was in medical school on May 1, 1971 (“Amtrak Day”), and thought it was all over. Fortunately, not true. Living in New York City, I use the Northeast Corridor/Acela extensively, and try at least one or two times a year to make a long-distance trip, my most recent one almost identical to the author’s, only in reverse. Why would I wish to go any other way? Anerica (except a few junkyards) IS “The Beautiful”, and needs to be seen from the ground without gripping a steering wheel. Lets’ hope a new administration will finally let Amtrak spread its wings (oops – wrong metaphor…), and give us a “Green” mode of transport, both high-speed corridors and long-distance routes so we can All see “America the Beautiful”!

  • Steve

    This railway love-in would be incomplete without mention of the Sunnyside railyards at the Hunters Point Ave LIRR Station. On the weekends it is completely deserted and you can check out the various “specialty” cars up close (snow plow, rail car washer, tie layers, as well as watch the 6 or so different working passenger types in action. When we lived in LIC I used to visit here often with my son. Almost as much fun as the MTA musuem in downtown Brooklyn and its free!

  • D Rock

    Not sure the NEC is fastest due to electrification; that only makes a significant difference for frequent starts and stops. (FYI: the TGV isn’t electric.) NEC isn’t even up to 150 MPH in many parts due to track curvature. But Amtrak’s ownership of tracks matters a lot.

    A case in point: Amtrak owns a large portion of track around the IN-MI border on the Chicago-Detroit “Wolverine” line — and trains on that section of track hit 110 MPH in regular service. As for getting stuck behind freights: the Chicago-Milwaukee “Hiawatha” service has the highest on-time percentage of anything Amtrak runs — although it is limited to the FRA usual of 79 MPH.
    – – – – –
    Too bad you didn’t ride the South Shore train froom South Bend, IN into Chicago — and then take Metra north to connect with Amtrak. And I woul dhave liked to have read someone’s impression of LA’s Metrolink. But hey, great trip!

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Sorry to quibble, D, but the TGV is electric:

    Sadly, political fumbling means we still haven’t gotten high-speed diesel-electric trains on the Empire Corridor:

  • Dave H.

    TGV’s are electric. From Wikipedia:

    “It was originally planned that the TGV, then standing for très grande vitesse (very high speed) or turbine grande vitesse (high speed turbine), would be propelled by gas turbine-electric locomotives… The first prototype, TGV 001, was the only TGV constructed with this engine – following the increase in the price of oil during the 1973 energy crisis, gas turbines were deemed impractical and the project turned to electricity from overhead lines. The electricity was to be generated by France’s new nuclear power stations.” But it is true that Acela-like speeds can be reached by gas-turbine trains, like Bombardier’s jet train.

    The NEC is only 150mph in two places – both short stretches between New Haven and Boston. Between New Rochelle and New Haven, I think track speed is a measly 79 mph, often even lower. This does prove your point about Amtrak-ownership, though: New Haven to New Rochelle is the only non-Amtrak dispatched and maintained section of the NEC (it’s owned by ConnDot and NYDot and dispatched by Metro-North).


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