This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Amtrak Adventure (Part 1)

On another site I have a list of things to do in Rensselaer and surrounding area, a list I would update if I found the time and motivation. Riding Amtrak is number three on that list. About a week ago I took an Amtrak adventure.

We hopped the Amtrak going north to Chicago. Amtrak wants you to buy your tickets before you travel, and you can do that on their website. You need a credit card, and after you purchase your tickets, they will be mailed to you.

The trip to Chicago was uneventful. The daily trains through Rensselaer are either the Cardinal, which originates on the east coast, or the Hoosier State, which is a smaller train that starts from Indianapolis. However, recently all the trains had been the Hoosier State because a train derailment between Cincinnati and Indianapolis had damaged a bridge, and Amtrak could not do that portion of the route.

I was impressed with how many of the rural crossings had lights and gates. Based on the crossings near Rensselaer, I expected far fewer.

We arrived in Chicago roughly on time and had some time to kill before the second stage of our journey, on the California Zephyr all the way to Colorado.

That train started on time, leaving Chicago heading west. It ran almost the entire route to Denver on Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, and for a considerable portion of the route, the track was double track. It passed through many little and medium sized towns, but only stopped in a few. One thing I noticed is that quite a few of the towns it bypassed still had their old train depots. I know some Rensselaerians who are still upset that Rensselaer lost its old depot, but which is worse, to have lost the depot or to have lost passenger service? The reality is that so few people board at the small stops and the time that each stop adds to the schedule makes it impractical to have more than a few stops on a route like the Zephyr, which takes more than two days to get to its destination near San Franciso, CA.

We crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa on an old metal bridge.

We had a number of fellow Hoosiers on the train from us, a group of Amish from Shipshewana, and they were on their way to the same destination as we were, Glenwood Springs, CO. One of them was in the furniture business because we heard him talking on his cell phone to a customer or potential customer, quoting prices. This group (we saw quite a few groups of Amish on our travels because Glenwood Springs is a popular vacation destination for them) was gong to spend some time in Colorado before heading further west to California, then north to Oregon or Washington, and then back home. If you have the impression that the Amish are poor farmers struggling to make a living, reconsider. Hard work is rewarded in America, and the Amish are hard workers. I asked an older Amish fellow on the return trip, a trip he was taking with eight of his grown children and their spouses (but not with any of his 60 grandchildren or 30+ greatgrandchildren) how many Amish there were in the Shipshewana area. He said that spread out over an area of thirty miles by forty miles, there were about 30000.

Among themselves the Amish would often speak a language I recognized as Germanic but which I could not understand. Again, I pried and asked still another Amish fellow about that. He said it was Pennsylanian Dutch corrupted with English.

The stop in Ottumwa, by the way, was a smoking stop. That meant that any passenger could get off the train and walk around for a few minutes. I tried always to take advantage of those opportunities.

There was a lot of freight traffic on our route, and that that traffic had been increased because of flooding along the Missouri River. As a result of that flooding, many freight trains had been rerouted. In fact, the Zephyr was bypassing Omaha, a major stop, because of flooding. The Omaha passengers had to use the Lincoln, NE stop, and then Amtrak bussed them to and from Omaha. More than half the freight traffic was coal.

Our train, by the way, was a large passenger train. After the two engines, there was a baggage car and then a sleeper car that I eventually learned was the crew car, where members of the train crew could relax and sleep when they were not on duty. Then there were three coach cars, each holding about 80 passengers, then the lounge car and the dining car, then three sleeper cars for passengers. Passengers who were traveling by coach were not supposed to go into the sleeper cars, so I never did see what they were like.

 Below is the train from the lounge car to the back.
Also on the train was a group of almost fifty people from Akron, Ohio on a canned tour. They were headed for Provo, Utah. From there they would travel by bus to several national parks: the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and finally Glacier. From Glacier they planned to take another Amtrak train, the Empire Builder, back to Chicago. We met and talked to several of them, most of them retired and all friendly. We also talked to a couple who had the last name Cocain and learned the humor and travails of having that surname.

Evening came before we left Iowa so we did not see the Missouri River on the trip out. The train did not make its scheduled stop at Omaha because of the high water along the Missouri. Rather those going to and from Omaha got on the train at Lincoln, NE. Amtrak bused them to and from Omaha.

We had chosen to travel by coach because it was cheaper. If you are older and used to sleeping in a bed, you probably will not get as much sleep as you normally do. I was under the impression that the train had traveled at high speed all night long because when I was awake, it was zipping, passing the rare cars that we saw on the highways. I guess that I slept best when the train was stopped or going slowly because by the next morning as the sun rose over western Nebraska, we were a bit behind schedule.

The train stopover in Denver is quite long. Lots of people leave and a lot of new ones get on the train. There is also some servicing of the train. The man below is supplying our car with water as one of the Amish passengers watches.
Traveling by Amtrak may be the most social way to travel. People on airplanes or busses and most especially in cars do not interact a lot with those traveling with or along side of them. You can do the same thing on Amtrak if you choose to simply stay in your seat, put on our earphones, and block out the world. But if you go to the lounge car or the dining car, you often can meet and visit with fellow passengers. When the scenery is farmland, a lot of people use the lounge car to play cards. Near meal times, a lot use it to wait to be called for meals. (Meals are by reservation--you must schedule a time.) But after we left Denver and entered the mountains, most of the people in the lounge car were watching out the windows.
The route from Denver to Glenwood Springs is considered to be the best part of the route of the Zephyr. The train starts climbing almost immediately after leaving the station in Denver. It goes north of the Interstate, going through many short tunnels until it gets to the continental divide, where it crosses in the six-mile long Moffit tunnel.

Can you tell what is happening in the picture below?
After a couple stops at high mountain resort communities, the train finds the Colorado River and follows it to Glenwood Springs. The scenery is spectacular, and the engineering feat to putting a railroad though this rugged country is impressive. (Taking pictures through the windows often results in some reflections that are more distracting in the photo than they are when you are on the train.)

As we got closer to Glenwood Springs, the Interstate joined the train in the Colorado River gorge. To meet the challenge of putting a four lane road into a narrow canyon, the road designers gave each of the two sections different paths. Sometimes one part of the highway goes through a tunnel while the other does not, and sometimes on flow of traffic is directly above the other lane.

Next to the Interstate a bike path runs along the river for miles. The bike path was closed six miles above Glenwood Springs because of high water and also damage to the path, which you can see below.

We arrived in Glenwood Springs on a couple hours behind schedule. The heat in the Midwest and the rerouted freight traffic was playing havoc with the train schedule, and one of the trains a few days before ours arrived in Denver eleven hours late. We would get to experience that havoc on the return trip.

By the way, if you ever travel by Amtrak, you might find this site useful. It shows roughly where all the Amtrak trains are, and if you click on one, you will get both the scheduled and actual times of its stops and learn how late (or early--which can happen) the train is.

More later.


Anonymous said...

I recently took the Amtrak from Rensselaer to Chicago and then boarded another to to Flagstaff, AZ. Loved it and am planning another trip to Washington, DC this fall by train.

Anonymous said...

Just a note from Amish country - Pennsylvania Dutch is Low German corrupted with English. When the Amish settled in Penn. and were asked where they were from, they replied Deutschland (which is "Germany" in the German language). They were mistakenly thought to be Dutch, and came to be called Pennsylvania Dutch.

Anonymous said...

I was on the Californa Zephyr last year. Went to Sacramento,changed trains and went on to Seattle and returned on the Empire Builder back to Chicago then to Rensselaer.It was the BEST Vacation I ever took. I had a sleeper, and all the meals are included, plus there are many more advantages included with the sleeper. Sleeping was very relaxing.I am intending to always travel on amtrak when possible. It's a plus for traveling!!