Location: [Home] [Train Travels] Overnight to Erie
This trip was a combination of a journey to get medical care and a business trip. I made the arrangements within a very few days of the trip, and was changing them nearly at the last minute! It all worked, however, quite well.
Our daughter had a doctor's appointment the afternoon on March 26 at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, on the Charles River in Boston. Our original plan was for me to bring her up on the train and meet my wife in Boston, as she would have to drive up to attend classes in Newton that morning. So I made reservations at our AAA agency which puzzled the agent a good deal: Two of us, one a child, would take the train from New Haven to Boston. Then the adult would take the train alone from Boston to Erie, and from Erie to New Haven. Where, wondered the agent, was the child? With some explanation, I successfully made the reservation and got the tickets.
One thing I don't like about picking up tickets at AAA--they print them on airline ticket forms, and they're hard to read. An astonishing amount of letters and numbers are poured onto these forms, and its difficult to see what means what. Nevertheless, I had them, and that was good.
The night before, however, my wife decided that she wouldn't be able to make the drive, and could she join me on the train? I called 1-800-USA-RAIL, and it was an interesting exercise. As with AAA, the itinerary made remarkably little sense to this agent, too! With some effort on both our parts (the agent was very helpful, if confused at what I wanted to do), we got the reservation made.
Segments: [New Haven to Boston] [Boston to Erie] [Erie, PA] [Erie to New Haven]
Our train left around 9:00 am to arrive at South Station at noon; which leads me to comment on an odd gap in Amtrak's NortheastDirect schedule. Going to Boston in the morning, you have the option of arriving at 6:00 am on the Twilight Shoreliner, or at noon. Why isn't there a train that arrives at 8:00 am, or even a little later? It seems like it would be very practical for business travellers, but I suppose they expect to stay over the night before.
In any case, we were running a little late, so I dropped Evelyn and Rebekah out front at Union Station and then parked the car in the adjoining garage. I actually remembered to note the floor and section on the ticket, and to give it to my wife, who would be driving it home that evening. She, in the meantime, retrieved her tickets from the window, and even got some coffee and bagels--with donut holes for Rebekah.
The train was running well on time, so we went out to board it. There is plenty of time for boarding in New Haven, as there is a power change: from the electric engines that have brought the train from Washington, DC, to the paired F-40PHs which will haul it along the shoreline to Boston. We found two pairs of seats across the aisle from each other (we'd hoped for a facing pair of seats, but didn't find one), and settled in. Rebekah spent the trip with various activities, including playing with her Fisher-Price people, talking with her baby doll, being read to, and trading parents back and forth across the aisle. We did have to move her out of the way a couple of times for the conductor to pass, but she mostly charmed our neighbors.
Arriving in Boston, with Rebekah now ready to get off the train and ride in her stroller, we took the escalator down to the Red Line rapid transit station which is below the railroad station--but first I checked my overnight bag at the Amtrak baggage counter. For just a dollar or so they would hold my bag until I claimed it, so I didn't have to haul it around Boston. In the Red Line T station some renovations appeared to be in progress, and the stations now have an LED letter board which displays general instructions (along the lines of "don't get yourself killed in the station, please"), but also flashes out the message that a train is coming. We rode just a few stops to the Charles/MGH station, which is just a block away from the hospital, had lunch in the cafeteria, and then made our appointment.
I unfortunately had to leave before the doctor was quite through, but I certainly didn't want to miss my train--there wouldn't be another for twenty-four hours! I returned to the MBTA, which soon delivered me back to South Station. I retrieved my bag and checked out my favorite book kiosk. It was a banner day: I found a new Orson Scott Card novel, Homebody, and Dominic Crossan's new book about the early church. I was already prepared with other books, but I couldn't pass these up--and I thought I'd be particularly virtuous by reading work material on this trip!
Not too long before departure, they called boarding for First Class passengers. I had reserved a sleeping compartment, as we would be arriving in Erie around 6:00 am, and I had work to do there which I wanted to be fresh for. South Station's platforms are perpendicular to the station itself, and the one Viewliner sleeping car was near the front of the train, so I had a long walk. The Attendant met me at the door and helpfully directed me to my compartment. I had never been in a Viewliner before, and I immediately goofed, opening the door to the handicapped room instead of making the turn to the side of the train. The occupants, fortunately, accepted my bewildered face and apology, and I soon found my way to my own room.
Viewliner rooms have been described elsewhere, (try www.amtrak.com) so I won't do it in detail, but I really like them. I particularly like the luggage storage area, which seems like a very efficient use of space--it occupies room over the corridor ceiling! I settled into the wider seat next to the television, and read while waiting for the train to start.
The car attendant came along shortly to instruct me on the room controls and tell me that the dining car would be attached in Albany, but I could get a snack and drink in the lounge car by showing my ticket. He thought I might want to turn in before the dining car joined us, but I'd never had a meal in a real dining car and wanted to check it out, so though I did grab a snack from the lounge car, I stayed up for my dinner.
The Lake Shore Limited Boston section follows the old Boston and Albany line, which was Boston's attempt to capture some of the Erie Canal traffic which would otherwise turn south down the Hudson River to New York City. It was not particularly successful, particularly when Boston's wealthy failed to buy the New York Central/Hudson River Railroad when it came up for sale. Instead, it went to "the Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt.
In Massachusetts the primary scenery is woods, particularly from Boston to Springfield, and after that sunset put an end to most sightseeing. I got a great look at the Providence and Worcester junction in the latter city; the B & A rails actually "flyover" the P & W tracks, with a connection, of course. I missed the junction with the old Vermont Central in Palmer, where the Vermonter makes its turn, but I got a good look at the Connecticut River as we crossed it beyond the Springfield station. The journey through the Berkshires, sadly, was pretty much in the dark. I saw only occasional light in the passing towns.
As we approached Albany, I hoped to get a good view, however dark, of our Hudson River crossing--I didn't realize, however, that the station is actually on the east side of the river, in Rensselaer. We had a long wait at this station, as the New York section was about forty-five minutes late. I wandered about the platform, took a look at a couple of Roadrailer trailers on our train (I was puzzled that I hadn't noticed them in Boston), and checked out the station. The snack bar was open, and so was a small souvenir and whatever shop, but the station is a fairly plain modern building with little architectural interest. I suspect that if the Central's station in Albany is still standing, it would be considerably more attractive.
The New York section finally arrived, the trains were united, we continued on our way, and I had my first experience of an Amtrak dining car. It was a winner: a very tasty prime rib dinner. My table companions were personable enough. One was a student returning to Colorado from an interview for medical school, and the other on her way to California from a family visit in New Hampshire.
When I got back to my Viewliner room, the attendant had made up the bed for me, so I settled in for the night. I chose the bottom bunk, though if it hadn't been made I might have done differently. The bed was fairly comfortable, but I didn't sleep well. For one thing, I was very conscious of wanting to be up before my stop. I suspect that I needed some acclimation to the movement as well.
We were about an hour or so late into Erie, so I had some time to read after waking; there wasn't an awful lot to see out in the darkness. It took some work getting the bed converted to seats, but I figured it out eventually. The attendant had apparently worked it out with one of the conductors to come fetch me, as he came by to let me know we'd arrive in about half an hour. I had plenty of time to get myself a cup of coffee from the refreshments area and pack up my bag.
As we arrived in Erie, I joined the conductor in the vestibule of the sleeping car. To my surprise, he told me to wait once we'd stopped, and after a short time the train pulled up to leave me on the platform right next to the tunnel entryway. I appreciated the service quite a bit, as I'd discovered in my journey to the dining car the night before that the Boston sleeper was a long way from the head of the train.
The Erie station is a sad relic of the glory days of rail. It used to have at least four platform tracks, if not more; two canopies still stand, but I only saw one track used either way. The road runs across Erie well above street level, so that descending into the tunnel which runs beneath the platforms brought me to a small waiting area off the main street. It's clear that this was once a large station, with only one small room now used by Amtrak. Some other small businesses occupy street-level space, but the whole building looks rather forlorn, particularly early in the morning.
I was staying at the downtown Holiday Inn, which is just a couple blocks from the station. I hoisted my bag to my shoulder and began the trek, wishing I'd not brought hardcover books! Check-in time, of course, was not for several hours, but I hoped that I could at least store my bag until the room was available. To my delight, the clerk found a room for me immediately, and gave me a ticket for the breakfast that would be served in a few hours. I found my room, which was comfortable and clean, and settled in for another hour's nap or so.
Breakfast was a pretty informal affair: a self-serve buffet in the restaurant. The food was decent if not spectacular. I noticed that most of the other diners seemed to be workmen, and discovered that they were engaged in renovating this very motel. I was grateful that my schedule for the day didn't have me at the motel very much.
I enjoyed Erie. It's a grid city, and a good town to walk around in. It was a good but not exhausting walk down to the lakefront, where they have a splendid public library, and the beginnings of a museum (the gift shop is open, but not the exhibits). I also found a store where I could pick up a grounding adapter with which to plug in my laptop at the motel--the things you forget!
My work in Erie was very satisfying and involving, and I returned to my motel room fairly late. There I had fun assembling my computer to retrieve and answer my email. The Holiday Inn had a very convenient outlet strip at the desk, but its grounded outlet could not be plugged into the two-prong wall outlets (thus my adapter purchase that day). In addition, the telephone was connected to the opposite wall, by the bed. It did have a data port, so I put the phone on the foot of the bed at the end of its cord, and ran another phone cord to my modem on the desk. After configuring my software for the necessary outside line dialing, I was connected and able to up- and download my email.
Before going to bed I called 1-800-USA-RAIL to check the progress of the Lakeshore Limited; it was running on time, so I set two alarms to get me up promptly in the morning.
When I awoke, I repeated my train-check call; it was now somewhat behind schedule. I packed, checked out, and reversed my somewhat overburdened walk down to the station. As I did, I watched a Conrail freight pass the station, and beyond the motel watched a local freight train make its noisy way (lots of horn blowing) down the city street. Erie is quite a railroad town; the day before I'd seen several more freights moving along the lake shore.
The station waiting area is small, but it certainly wasn't crowded. There was only one Amtrak employee on hand, and he seemed to be waiting for word on the Lake Shore Limited himself. It pulled in a little short of an hour late, and when the doors opened I headed for the one with fewer people boarding. Oops! That was the Boston section, so I walked back down the platform to the other door. Since this trip was in daylight, I was in coach, and I got the last seat in the car.
The scenery through Western New York changes relatively little: there are lots of farms and gentle wooded hills. In Buffalo the train passes what must be the old New York Central station: a massive building which looks to have eight to ten covered tracks, and then another ten or more tracks with overhead canopies. Trains no longer stop there, however; the canopied platforms were occupied by stored earthmoving equipment. I'm not sure whether those were railroad MOW vehicles or not. Buffalo's Amtrak station is a boxy industrial building.
Sadly, there was no dining car on the train that day; why I don't know. So I made do with the overworked dinette, though I really regretted the diner's absence. My seat companion was returning, apparently, from an all-night party--he slept nearly the entire distance from Erie to Penn Station! I moved my seat when the train emptied out in Albany to leave him more room.
Still late, we headed down the Hudson River's east side toward New York City. This is a spectacular ride for window-gazing, and my seat on the west side of the train was perfect for it. I saw West Point, and the New Haven Railroad's old bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie--not to mention all the other highway bridges with the soaring towers and cables. Coming into NYC, the train runs around the west side of Manhattan island before the tunnels enclose its run into Pennsylvania Station.
I'd been in Penn Station before, so I knew what to expect: a busy, noisy, yet still fairly comfortable space. I found my dinner (rather hungry by then) in the station, and waited for my train to arrive. Soon enough, it was called, so I made my way down the stairs to train 476, on the NortheastDirect trains.
At the foot of the stairs, the conductor asked my destination. My "New Haven" response meant that I could choose either a car destined for Springfield or Boston, as trains 176 and 476 split in New Haven. I found a seat in the Boston section, and had a seatmate who was heading home from college in Virginia for spring break. He was somewhat relieved to be there at all, as he'd missed his reserved train that morning--and lost his Custom Class seat. We talked companionably enough on the 100 minute ride.
Amtrak uses the New Haven Railroad's route into Penn Station, which first dives beneath the East River into Queens, then rises onto an elevated section which flies over some small islands on the imposing Hell Gate Bridge. It allows a spectacular view of Manhattan, as the train parallels the River on the elevated section--not at all like Metro-North's route, which is surrounded by buildings and then dives beneath Park Avenue. Both were originally NYNH&H routes, but the Pennsylvania Railroad's achievement in building a rail tunnel into Manhattan from the west allowed the New Haven to run its "Senator" passenger train from Washington to Boston without a detour north of New York City or a car ferry--once it built a connection to Penn Station, which it rapidly did.
Back in New Haven right on time, I actually had to wait briefly for my wife to pick me up. It was a very successful trip. I had made an important journey, combined it with necessary stops on the way, and returned home in good time. More to the point, I was tired, but not exhausted as I would have been making the same trip by automobile. Best of all, I enjoyed some beautiful scenery and some good books.
I'd make two changes to this trip another time: one would be to try to meet friends in NYC. I found myself waiting in Penn Station thinking, "Gee, I know quite a few folks in the city, why didn't I tell them I'd be here?" The second would be to use the train lounge more. Although I'm not a gregarious person, I was feeling some lack of human contact with my seat-mate snoring away on the trip to New York!