Scribe

Amtrak Adventures / Potential

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I like trains (fine, I love trains) and not just the idea of trains. With the South-East High Speed Rail ( http://www.sehsr.org/ ) in the works and making some progress and the Piedmont Improvement Program complete ( https://www.ncdot.gov//projects/pip/ ) I think it is a good time to start a thread like this.

For many work projects I've done in the north-east a train ride makes more sense (i.e. I am more productive) then a plane ride.

I have experienced Viewliner, Acela trains, even been in (toured) some old Heritage cars.  One thing I have never experienced is the Superliner trains. That will change next week, but I wanted to start a thread here to get your experiences, views and other train banter going.

I will post some observations about booking for a family trip vs. a business trip later. Hope to learn some valuable info in this thread -- and maybe some of my experiences can help someone else as well.

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The Superliners are pretty great since they are high enough to give you a very good view. Due to all the windows the lounge provides even better views, and often, more comfortable seats,  I tend to camp out there. 

The other important thing about the Superliners is the bathrooms are always downstairs (unless you are in a sleeper)

Have a good trip.

Edited by kermit
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Don't forget Canada. Via rail can be pretty spectacular (but expensive) West of Ontario and East of Quebec City. Business Class in the corridor (Windsor to Quebec City) is _totally_ worth the premium over coach (something that is only occasionally true on Amtrak -- basically just the 2-1 leather BC seating that you generally find on the Empire service and most Chicago trains to Detroit and St. Louis is worth paying for).

Edited by kermit

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We take the train to Raleigh from Charlotte a few times a year for a weekend trip, it is always a great way to get there.

I am currently in Roanoke, VA visiting my in-laws for the holidays and they have a new Amtrak train to DC and beyond. This is the first time the city has had Amtrak service in over 40 years. We took on Wednesday for a night in DC and it was great. It seems to be very successful so far and it has only been open a month. The latest ridership numbers are encouraging. Always great to see successful passenger rail expansion.

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Yea, Roanoke service will do really well and there is already talk of an extension of it to Christiansburg. VADOT does an excellent job finding $$$ for new service. 

I'll make a trip down to S Florida soon to check out the first new privately funded pax rail service in a generation when All Aboard Florida opens up in early 2018.

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5 minutes ago, kermit said:

Don't forget Canada. Via rail can be pretty spectacular (but expensive) West of Ontario and East of Quebec City.

That is also on the bucket list... but first up is the California Zephyr! I have been waiting to ride this particular train and route for some time.

First observation...

in the past I've booked 1 or max 2 tickets together, and 80% of it was business related. So, booking a trip for 4 was a new experience. (2 couples ringing in the New Year on a train somewhere over the Rockies!!!)

Because we were going back and forth on the exact route, (i.e. via DC, NYC or last resort Charlottesville) the roomettes and bedrooms would disappear in a few hours time. I ended up calling Julie (Amtrak's automated assistant) and getting an agent to book the final trip, because the website would NOT let us have sleeping arrangements for ALL legs of the trip.

Apparently, as you get close to 10 days of the desired departure dates these things tend to fill up (and the holidays do no help my case either).

Anyway, we ended up having to have a combination of roomettes and bedrooms and the trip is booked. So, that first observation, is that there seems to be plenty demand for Amtrak services (even the more expensive ones)

Second observation...

Outside of the Crescent overnight trips, most of my north-east trips were single legs out of one major station to another (think DC to NYC or Boston).

For this trip, it was very easy to find a single packaged deal straight out of Charlotte.  I truly expected to buy separate tickets from CLT to NYC then NYC to Emeryville (outside San Fran). Nope, I just entered CLT as origin and Emeryville as destination and you can get seats in an instant. (too bad I wanted sleepers on every leg :D )

This is not new for me, but the mobile app is actually very useful.

Third observation (and last one for now)...

I signed up for alerts of the Crescent 20 (northbound) train and have been monitoring it for probably the last 3 weeks. I do not think I have found a single day that it has been on-time at arriving in CLT!

We have a crappy boarding time of ~1:30 am to begin with (scheduled arrival 1:21 am, departure 1:46 am), but the train is late - what seems like - every day.

Over the last week, the minimum the Crescent 20 was late is 42 minutes... the maximum .... over 4 hours. What is going on between New Orleans and Atalanta??? (Note: for the train arriving tonight, it is already late by over an hour... so it is definitely something before Atlanta, maybe Birmingham... not sure)

The trains make up the lions share of the lost time in NC and VA as the corridor (thanks to the Piedmont Improvement Program) has removed most/many of the bottlenecks and become very efficient!

But, that does not change the fact that to hop on this train out of CLT with our crappy boarding time and the typical delays, there is no possibility of having a predictable/sane schedule for that night. Can't really go to sleep, because you need to check update/alert of train status so that you do not miss it. Staying at our current Amtrak station is not a viable option either.

Anyway, that is the only gripe I have -- other train forums also complain about the Crescent being late to Atlanta.

Amtrak-Crescent20-time-perf_12_22_2017.thumb.PNG.6b109fee7f40edf6a6c133876f73fbd9.PNGAmtrak-Crescent20-time-perf_12_18_2017.thumb.PNG.23b73d88fc3a1345906ad10ae5cfe273.PNG

Overall the train has some crappy on-time performance stats...

Amtrak-Crescent20-time-perf_2017.thumb.PNG.bf69b16f7c37cade6b8319133bb91d76.PNG

If you are not familiar with Superliner vs Viewliner, here is a decent article on the comparison: http://www.pointswithacrew.com/amtrak-superliner-vs-viewliner-whats-the-difference/

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Yea, the Crescent sucks for many reasons -- really crappy schedule into CLT is just part of it. If you have the time its a much nicer trip (and sometimes cheaper!) to go to DC, get on the Capitol to Chicago and then the City of New Orleans down. Since both the Capitol and CONO are superliner trains roomettes can be had fairly cheaply if you book in advance.

Beware with the Crescent over the next two months -- NS is doing lots of trackwork west of Atlanta (although the streatch from Bham to Atlanta is notorious for delays all the time). The Crescent will be annulled in Atlanta on _most_ days from the first until sometime in mid February and bustituted to New Orleans. This should significantly improve OTP in Charlotte. 

Beware that New York is a crappy place to get Westbound sleeper tickets. They only (easily) sell the Lake Shore and Cardinal. Both trains are notoriously expensive. Changing in DC yields the additional option of the Capitol Ltd and since its a superliner train it tends to be the cheapest way to Chicago.

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52 minutes ago, Scoopbth said:

We take the train to Raleigh from Charlotte a few times a year

The Carolinian and the Piedmont are gems and pretty convenient..

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The northbound Crescent is apparently delayed due to freight congestion between Birmingham and Atlanta.  See railroad.net: there is a thread in the Amtrak forum about it.

Superliner lounge cars are terrific, with the huge windows and outward-facing seats.    Superliner trains are definitely the best long-distance trains.  I take the Crescent every now and then, but find sleeping cars extremely expensive for the level of luxury you get.  I can fly first class (paid, not upgraded) for less and have a nicer experience.

Amtrak is great in the Northeast, particularly with NYC's terrible airports and airport delays.  Elsewhere, it's fine.  I don't see much hope of truly developing the full SEHSR corridor, but NC and VA invest in their passenger rail lines pretty well, and I would expect to see continued improvements in trip times and amounts of service in those states.  SC and GA, not so much.

Edited by PuppiesandKittens
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5 minutes ago, kermit said:

Beware that New York is a crappy place to get Westbound sleeper tickets. They only (easily) sell the Lake Shore and Cardinal. Both trains are notoriously expensive. Changing in DC yields the additional option of the Capitol Ltd and since its a superliner train it tends to be the cheapest way to Chicago.

Yes, I know, that is why I ended up calling. We are on the Capitol Limited out of DC to Chicago.

We looked at the Southwest Chief and Coastal Starlight route, but we really did not want to be in LA this time around and City of New Orleans was not an option this time around. New Orleans is a destination IMHO, don't want to just pass through.

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9 minutes ago, Scribe said:

The Carolinian and the Piedmont are gems and pretty convenient..

Yes they really are. Everything other than the Southbound Carolinian has very good OTP. The only bad part is that transit sucks so badly at every stop (including CLT for now) that it can be tough to get around. But, bikes are free on board (with reservation) and if you are going to downtown Greensboro (Grasshoppers!), Durham (Bulls!) or Raleigh (err, the convention center) then you can't beat the train.

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A few years ago the 7:30 AM from Charlotte to DC I was booked on had trouble the night before because a storm blew trees onto the track and it was hours late arriving in Charlotte. The same crew goes out in the morning on the return and they require X hours of off time so we left two hours late and lost our track priority so freight had track booked. We sat outside of Rocky Mount for 45 minutes for some freight moving until we could advance. After Rocky Mount it was no trouble but we were hours behind by then. Sharing the track with freight means once track time is lost, no way to advance.

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4 hours ago, tarhoosier said:

A few years ago the 7:30 AM from Charlotte to DC I was booked on had trouble the night before because a storm blew trees onto the track

Yeah, but that is an exception... with the Crescent, being late 1+ hours is the rule - it seems. They gotta find a way to fix the pre-Atlanta section of the route...

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I've been on Amtrak Cascades and the Pacific Surfliner multiple times. Both are very nice, and feature nice, modern "European" style equipment. 

It would be really cool to see the state invest in new train cars.

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I am finally back from my Amtrak Adventure... and an adventure it was!

Itinerary overview:

  • Crescent #20 [CLT > Penn Station]
    • one night in NYC, drinks and food
  • Northeast Regional #185 [Penn Station > DC Union Station]
    • DC sightseeing and food - steps away from Union Station
      • the convenience here is hard to explain on a forum,
      • Eaxmple: the Capitol is <5 min walk, Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Those alone are enough to keep you busy for a day (more if you want tours of each building).
      • Walk the National Mall - all the museums, stores, restaurants!
      • Metro Red line station is on the west end of Union Station! Quickly get to other parts of DC.
        • This also allows you to walk far away and get back to Union Station quickly without re-tracing your steps (with a transfer of course).
  • Capitol Limited #29 (aborted half way -- CSX derailment in PA http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2017/12/29/four-train-cars-derail-hazardous-materials-hyndman/ )
    • Still spent the entire night on the train (ate dinner and breakfast)
    • All toilets would not flush for the last ~3 hours of our return journey to Union Station.
    • Fly DC to Chicago (they wanted to bus us from DC to somewhere in Pennsylvania -- but that meant we would miss all of our plans and connections from then on)
    • Uber to Union Station
    • Arrive at platform at 1:55 pm for 2 pm departure.
    • Watch California Zephyr at the platform and be told you cannot board (like planes close 10 minutes prior departure - trains close 5 minutes prior departure)
    • Actually the agent said the train had departed, I could clearly see it at the platform and train personnel were still on the platform - but rules are rules, or something like that.
  • Rebooked on the Southwest Chief #3 via LA (3pm departure)
  • LA > Bakersfield on Amtrak Bus
  • Bakersfield to Emeryville (over the bridge from San Fran)
  • Uber to Union Square (hotel)
  • In San Fran
    • ride BART
    • ride Cable Car
  • A few days later ... fly home to CLT.

All to say, I did not get to experience the California Zephyr :(  but it was a ton of fun. And I got a LOT of reading accomplished that has been backlogged for months now!

Now some detail... (most likely multiple posts, will start with Charlotte...)

  • Charlotte:
    • Train was late 1hr 15 minutes to CLT
    • But we were only ~15 minutes late to DC (so the PIP project and whatever VA is doing definitely helped) and "on time" at Penn Station.
    • GA, MS and LA need to get their act together, the Crescent trains in both directions get bogged down behind freight almost every day -- I've been monitoring https://www.amtrak.com/track-your-train.html.
    • Gotta say again, our train boarding times for Crescent in both directions are complete garbage.
  • Charlotte Station:
    • We arrived at 2 am while the #19 was boarding.
    • Our train was still ~10 minutes out.
    • The lobby was full, the parking lot was 3/4 full (long term parking to the left of the station). About 8 Taxi/Uber/Lyft cars waiting right at the door.
    • In general, the station was full of life. (if you show up during the day and walk through, it looks like a ghost town)
    • That ~3000 sqft waiting room (that includes the bathrooms) can barely handle 2 trains within the same hour.
      • Hope they think about that for the CGS plans and the ability to handle up to 4 trains in 1 hour...
      • This also means having at least 2 tunnels to get to the train platform instead of one like CLT currently has.
  • Crescent #20:
    • This is equipped the Viewliner II cars
      • NE corridor cannot handle Superliner cars because of old tunnels -- that is according to Amtrak.
      • I've heard other reasons:
        • Penn Station platforms cannot support the cars..
        • The overhead catenary lines have caused problems..
      • We know that Superliner cars have been at Penn Station in the past, so it is "possible", but probably not worth the headache.
    • The sleeper car:
      • It was pretty clean - our beds were made and we put our luggage away and went straight to sleep.
      • I like the Roomette on the Viewliner -
        • because it has a toilet and sink - so at night you do not have to go down the hall.
          • Superliners do not have the toilet+sinks in the Roomette's
        • never use it for #2 as that just seems gross.
      • The Bedrooms have private shower, toilet and sink -- and the bottom "bunk" is like a full bed on all trains, 2 people can easily sleep on it.
      • The top bunk is a "twin" size aka, only one person,
      • on the Viewliners you have your own window on the top bunk... not the case on Superliners.
      • Lastly, sleeping car coffee is crap. :(
    • The Dining car:
      • This train had the new Dining car
        • Double stacked windows
        • Everything still had the new smell, look and feel. *shiny*
        • I'll discuss food in another post -- overall, I'll give it a solid C.

 

More later...

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56 minutes ago, Scribe said:
      • NE corridor cannot handle Superliner cars because of old tunnels -- that is according to Amtrak.
      • I've heard other reasons:
        • Penn Station platforms cannot support the cars..
        • The overhead catenary lines have caused problems..
      • We know that Superliner cars have been at Penn Station in the past, so it is "possible", but probably not worth the headache.

Classic Amtrak trip! Only a few-select people can put up with the BS that is required for US rail travel. Thanks for sharing.

Superliners don't fit through the Howard street tunnels in Baltimore or the Hudson River tunnels in NY/NJ (I believe catenry height is also an issue). NJ Transit does run bi-level cars into Penn Station but they are more than a foot shorter than Superliner cars.  A secondary issue with Superliners going North of DC is that they can only serve low-level platforms, the NEC only has high-levels.

The Superliners than have been in Penn Station got there via the Empire Connection (e.g. from the North via the tracks which run under the west side of Manhattan) not through the tunnels.

The next Viewliner sleepers (should be arriving 'soon') will not have toilets in the roomettes, the existing fleet will also get retrofitted to match (so no more toilets in roomettes)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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26 minutes ago, kermit said:

Superliners don't fit through the Howard street tunnels in Baltimore or the Hudson River tunnels in NY/NJ

Thanks for the clarification on Superliners. I figured the truth was most likely a blend of all the known limitations of the NE corridor.  I've been on the NJ Transit double deckers and know they are not the same as Superliners. Plus I think Viewliners give variety to the Amtrak fleet. This trip was more an experiment and to observe how long distance travel on Amtrak works.

26 minutes ago, kermit said:

Classic Amtrak trip! Only a few-select people can put up with the BS that is required for US rail travel.

I have my mom and my sister ready to take a cross-country trip, even with all the crazy stuff that I told them about. It was a fun trip, but the company helped (wife and being with friends) to pass the time. Got to meet lots of different people in the Cafe Car. I will do this again. Still want to go on the California Zephyr, but next time might go through New Orleans!

The mid-west and deep south (south of Atlanta) does not need "high-speed" rail - they simply need more sidings or double tracked corridors so that Amtrak can quickly pass the freight trains. The trains going consistently at 79MPH are perfectly fine for most of that area. The problem is getting stuck for miles upon miles behind a freight train going 30 MPH -- barely.

Edited by Scribe
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