Getting There: Long-distance train rides offer adventure
Updated 2:20 pm, Tuesday, September 19, 2017
While many people spent the summer traveling, hopefully it was without the disruptions my wife and I experienced.
In August, we flew to Chicago and drove to Wisconsin. That journey was relatively on time, but the return trip became an adventure when our flight from O’Hare airport was delayed five hours, and then canceled due to bad weather.
As you may already know, I’m no fan of flying. So I was happy to be grounded rather than fly through thunderstorms. But how do we get home? Why not the train?
There are three daily trains from Chicago to New York: the relatively speedy Lake Shore Limited, which follows the route of the old 20th Century Limited; the Capitol Limited, which goes by way of Washington; and the thrice-weekly Cardinal, which meanders way far south into West Virginia, along to D.C. and then New York.
Luckily, we were able to book a bedroom on the Cardinal, a.k.a. “the bird,” so named because the cardinal is the state bird of West Virginia and because this slow-poke of a train was rescued from being cut by former Sen. Harry Byrd, of neighboring Virginia.
While the Lake Shore Limited makes its trip in 20 hours, and the Capitol in 23 hours, the Cardinal takes 27 hours to go from Chicago to New York. That’s a long ride, even for a rail fan (and even longer for my saintly wife).
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As sleeping car passengers, we waited departure in the beautiful new Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago’s Union Station. We had priority boarding of the train where our attendant helped us get settled and showed us our new home for the next night and day.
If you’ve never taken a long-distance train, you’re missing out on a real adventure. Our bedroom had upper and lower berths, a private bathroom, which included a shower, and comfy day-chairs to watch the scenery.
As a member of Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program, this $1,200 bedroom was free thanks to all the points I’ve accumulated riding Acela in the Northeast. Also included in the fare were four meals: two dinners, a breakfast and lunch for each of us.
“The Bird” doesn’t have a fancy dining car with cooked-to-order meals like the Lake Shore and Capitol Ltd. We ate in something like a Café Car with pre-plated, pre-cooked, frozen meals, which were microwaved. The food was far better than what’s served on airlines, but hardly the cuisine of years past since Amtrak has been under pressure to cut costs, especially for food service.
It’s expensive to provide good meal service on a train. But when passengers are paying $1,200, they expect, and deserve, better than frozen food. But as a captive audience, what choice did we have but to gobble down what was offered?
The train’s meandering route was smooth, so we slept well. And the daylight portion of the trip was certainly attractive as we journeyed along river valleys past some beautiful scenery. But we had no observation car, unlike the Capitol Ltd.
“On time” is a relative term and shouldn’t be your reason to take a train. Sure, we were an hour late into New York City, but by then we had a real rail adventure to talk about.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Sen. Harry Byrd was from West Virginia.
Jim Cameron is a longtime commuter advocate based in Fairfield County. Contact him at CommuterActionGroup@