Friday, November 12, 2010

Overnight to Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Amtrak's Capitol Limited ghosted into Washington Union Station yesterday, it occurred to me that this Chicago-to-Washington overnight train is the perfect one to introduce small children to the joys of traveling in a sleeping car.

The fellow in the next roomette had brought along his seven-year-old lad, who was so wide-eyed with wonder in his compartment, in the dining car and in the lounge car that his behavior was remarkably subdued for his age. The trip is just long enough (17 hours 25 minutes, half of it abed) for a kid to appreciate the newness of sleeper travel without becoming overly antsy.

As regulars to this blog well know, this 70-year-old small boy never gets tired of the train.

My latest trip began Wednesday afternoon in the Metropolitan Lounge for Amtrak sleeper passengers at Chicago Union Station, where I fortified myself with free Pepsi and munchies and caught up on e-mail (the free wi-fi was working, for a change).

The two Amtrak lounge personnel on duty were friendly and efficient and made sure their deaf passenger moved to the departure door without worriedly hovering, as some of them do. On boarding at 6:15 p.m. Cliff, the burly sleeper attendant, was also cheery and after our departure six minutes late told me the dining car was running half an hour late and my 7 p.m. call would be made at 7:30.

In the meantime I took stock of my surroundings. The sleeping car is one of the original Superliners built in the late 1970s that had been very recently rebuilt from the trucks up. Room clean, bathrooms clean, all furnishings in tiptop shape.

My two-person compartment, Roomette 13, lay on the on lower level. I don't mind these ground-level rooms in the two-story cars, because the swaying at speed tends to be much less at a low center of gravity.

The dining car was a newish "Cross-Country Cafe," with the long end serving dinner to passengers and the short end meals to crews. Many rail buffs dislike this kind of diner, but it was fine by me.

My roast chicken arrived 20 minutes after the rest of the meal, because the chef's timing of her needs was a little off. I did not mind, because my dinner companions were interesting conversationalists. Both were Orange County, California, landscape architects. One was from Costa Rica and the other Peru. Their season had ended and they were traveling for a month before returning to spend the winter drawing up designs for the next spring's work.

Once it arrived, the chicken, so often a bit dry, was perfect.

The steward was jolly and apologetic for the delay in the main course, but the South Americans made the time fly. I could not lipread their Spanish-accented English, but we communicated with a pen and notebook that the Costa Rican quickly pulled out when he realized why his speech baffled me.

On my return to the compartment the bed had been made up for the night, as I had asked. For eight solid hours I slept, untroubled by rough track. I probably sleep better in a berth than I do at home.

I awoke to a foggy morning shortly after the train left Connellsville in southwestern Pennsylvania, and after morning ablutions set off to breakfast. Alas, my table partners, a young couple from Milwaukee, were dour and painfully shy, rebuffing my attempts to engage them in conversation. Probably they were just not morning people.

The French toast I had would never be mistaken for the railroad classic, but it was sufficiently tasty and attractively plated, arranged around a cup of blueberry preserves and dusted with powdered sugar. What Amtrak meals have lost in finesse over the years they have gained in American Road Food reliability.

Across the aisle, the seven-year-old lad eagerly scarfed his French toast and bacon while the two elderly ladies on the other side of the table complimented his father on the boy's polite demeanor.

The small dining car crew was, as before, quick, cheery and efficient -- and busy. They had time just for one refill pass with the coffeepot, and they handled demanding diners with aplomb. Reports are that Amtrak has been sending its on-board crews to the railroad's equivalent of charm school, and it shows.

On return to my compartment Cliff had made up the room neatly, and the ubiquitous hotel copy of USA Today was waiting. I much preferred the old tradition of placing a local newspaper under the compartment door; even the fusty right-wing Omaha World-Herald (on the route of the California Zephyr) has more personality than McPaper.

For the rest of the morning I rode in the lounge car while the Capitol followed the historic Baltimore & Ohio line along the Monongahela, Yougiogheny and upper Potomac Rivers to Washington. The hilly West Virginia and Maryland scenery is very pretty, and Harper's Ferry, W. Va., is absolutely picturesque. One expects to spot wild-eyed John Brown tearing on horseback down to the old armory.

The train tied up at Washington Union Station just 20 minutes past the 1:10 p.m. scheduled arrival, close enough to be On Time in my book.

The Capitol Limited has been one of the better long-distance Amtrak trains, if you don't count on-time performance, which can be spotty. It makes a relaxing respite from the TSA-fueled tension of flying between Chicago and Washington.

I'm sure that boy and his dad would agree.


  1. Happy travels, Henry! What are you reading? Can you take pictures in transit?

  2. Sir: If you have any plans to visit the Museum of Natural History while in DC, you must ask to view the Ontonagon Boulder. It also traveled one leg of its journey from the Ontonagon River to Washington in 1843 by train (i.e. from Buffalo to Albany).

  3. paragraph four: choose "with" or "on", don't use both

    Otherwise, it sounds lovely!

  4. Marshall: On the trip I finished Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns," about the great black migration from South to North from World War I to the 1970s. It is spellbinding and is bound to be chosen for many "Ten Best of the Year" lists. Alas, I wanted to travel as light as possible, so didn't take a camera on this trip. That was a mistake.

    Green Lantern: Didn't see the Ontonagon Boulder on this trip, but I did view it at the Smithsonian about 30 years ago. Impressive.

    Anonymous: Thanks for the fix!

  5. Lucky you! I am jealous! A few short train rides earlier, then after 2 or 3 Amtrak treks in 2004 totaling about 10,000 miles, I have hardly been on a train! One reason is that my rail buddy has moved away and to ride Amtrak to visit him would take DAYS (Birmingham to WDC to Jax, FL, to Tampa, FL) whereas I could go by SW Airlines in a couple of hours.

  6. Sounds like a great way to travel..My husband and I will be traveling on "The City of New Orleans" in December...I can hardly wait !!!!

  7. My daughter still talks about the rail journey the two of us took when she was 9 or 10. We followed the Red Sox on one of their West Coast road trips -- Oakland to Seatle to Chicago -- and ended up for a couple of games at Fenway Park. And we did it all by train. She has a three-year-old now and had admonished me to hang in here around long enough to introduce her daughter to the pleasures of train travel.

  8. The return trip last night and this morning was just as good, for the same reasons. What's more, no airport security theater at all. No tension in the patdown lane, no hissed warnings of "don't touch my junk or I'll have you arrested."