Location: [Home] [Train Travels] One Day to Washington
This was a trip that sounded crazy to various people, but we took it anyway. We needed a day away, and Evelyn got excited about a special exhibit of the work of Alexander Calder at the National Gallery's East Wing. We decided to go, and emailed some friends of ours in Alexandria, hoping that we could have dinner together while we were in the area. They decided that they would take the day off, too, to join us for the full day, and that we should have dinner at a favorite Korean restaurant of theirs in Alexandria. To leave time for this, we made reservations on a late-returning train. We made sleeper reservations for both legs of the journey, hoping to get enough sleep on the way down that we would have a good time in Washington, and enough on the way home that we could join a family excursion to New York City the next day. We were nearly successful!
Trip Segments: [New Haven to Washington] [Day in Washington] [Washington to New Haven]
Train 67, the Twilight Shoreliner, is a relatively new train. The schedule is much the same, but early in 1998 Amtrak changed its name, added sleeper accomodations, and described it as the flagship train of the Northeast Corridor. The marketing makes much of the amenities for First Class and Custom Class passengers, and the consist includes an extra dinette car called the "Twilight Lounge," accessible only to those holding First or Custom Class tickets. On the trip down I didn't expect to see much of the Twilight Lounge, as I planned to be asleep, but I was curious about how it would be on the way north.
The train arrived right on time, and we boarded shortly before the 11:50 pm departure. New Haven is a long stop; the train arrived pulled by two F-40PH diesel-electric engines which had to be removed for two E60 electrics for the trip to Washington, and the conductors' crew (though not the sleeping car attendant) changed. Directed by one of the new crewmembers, we headed for the Viewliner car visible at the end of the train, and were somewhat surprised to find its door closed and locked! Another crew member noticed us, told us to wait there, and passed through the dinette car before the sleeper to open the door, wondering aloud where the car attendant was. He led us down the car to our assigned room #5, and we soon found the attendant coming down the passage.
He showed us how to use various controls in a Viewliner room, and asked about a wakeup call for the morning. After some discussion, we agreed on 5 am (gulp!) as we both wanted to shower before beginning our day in DC. While we were doing this, the conductor came by to take our ticket. I asked if the Twilight Lounge was open, and he said it was, so I suggested that we sit there briefly while he made up the beds for us--one of the everlasting questions of train travel is, "Where do I stand while the attendant makes up the beds?"
The Lounge may have been open, but it was dark--the new engines weren't connected yet. I was surprised that the Viewliner had been as brightly lit as it was! Nobody was present to serve us anything, which wasn't really a problem, as we just needed somewhere comfortable to wait. The dinette's tables were covered with white tablecloths and had small flower vases on them, which I thought a nice touch. A leatherette menu on each table emblazoned with the Twilight Shoreliner logo told us about our food options, ranging from snacks to full meals, but didn't get specific about the offerings: "Ask your server." I wasn't sure, but I thought there might be table service when it was really open for business.
After the train pulled out, we returned to our room and settled in for the night. It was the first time I had been in one of the Standard Bedrooms with another adult, and it felt awfully cramped at first. Suddenly I remembered the trick for dressing in that room--raise the upper bunk. With the ceiling raised, we were no longer tripping over each other as much, and it went more smoothly.
We found some nice gifts in the room: a Twilight Shoreliner toiletries kit--a nice little bag containing everything from soap to toothbrush to razor--and some tasty chocolates in the shape of stars and moons. Good stuff! The kits came in useful as we'd both forgotten to pack a toothbrush. I also thought its compact size might make it useful on other trips.
We turned in, but neither of us slept soon; we were pretty excited by the train trip and just being away for a day. We were both awake coming into New York City, so that we could look out the windows (there are windows for both upper and lower bunks) to see the city lights of Manhattan from the elevated tracks in Queens.
I'm pretty paranoid about getting up before a designated stop, so I had set (1) a travel alarm and (2) my pager's alarm as well as (3) a wake-up call with the attendant. They all arrived within about ten minutes of each other, not in that order. Evelyn sleepily informed me from the top bunk that I could have my shower first, so I headed for the stall at the end of the sleeping car. The attendant had set out towels and soap for me, plus Twilight Shoreliner slippers. I'd brought my own lightweight ones, so I passed on those.
My first experience of a train shower was a real pleasure. I experimented a little with the temperature control, and found that I could get exactly the warmth I wanted--though it did take a moment to warm up at first (what doesn't?). The water runs on a timer which I activated with a button press, and it ran comfortably longer than I needed it. In fact, it ran so long I worried that I didn't know how to turn it off!
Back in the room, I dressed while Evelyn showered, and then decided to turn the lower bed back into seats, which didn't take long. Once she had returned and dressed, we went down to the Twilight Lounge car for some coffee and juice, which the attendant there provided quickly and courteously--and free of charge. We took it back to our own room to watch out the windows as we came into Washington.
I recognized a building I'd seen previously from the Beltway as we rolled in, and soon we were on the track in Union Station. We picked up our belongings and headed out to the platform. There were a few others disembarking here from the sleeper section; I think most of them had boarded either in Boston or in New York. We walked down the platform to the rising escalator, and had emerged into a hallway toward the station when I glanced at the outside pocket of the single bag I was carrying, which was where I had been keeping the ticket. It wasn't there, and Evelyn didn't have it either, so we rushed back to the train.
It was still there, now without engines (it would receive new diesel-electrics for its trip south to Newport News), and we went back to the sleeper. Sure enough, there was the ticket folder on the shelf by the larger seat where I'd left it the night before. With relief, we came off again, and I told our attendant we'd found our ticket. He assured me that he would have found it and turned it in for us, but we both understood why I was much happier to have found it now than later!
Locomotives: Two E60 electric locomotives
We had arrived slightly earlier than our 6:15 am scheduled time, and our friends wouldn't meet us until 8 am, so we wandered about. I have to say that Washington's Union Station gets my vote for the loveliest station I've been in. The old Great Hall is an architectural delight, with its gold leaf adornment and ranks of Saint-Gaudens statues. To either side of the Great Hall are shops, and within it a cafe-style restaurant. Beyond it, toward the gates, is a long room which is, according to the signs, long enough to hold the Washington Monument laying on its side. Shops occupy it in an arrangement that feels like an open city square, as their walls do not rise to the high ceiling. A curved staircase rises to the mezzanine, and another sweeps to the food court and movie theater below. Polished wood and brasswork gleams everywhere; it's simply gorgeous.
After wandering about the station a while, we went to the Metropolitan Lounge. The receptionist checked us in, telling us that we wouldn't have to worry about that later (meaning twelve hours or more later when we'd be back), and pointed us toward the baggage storage room, which is right behind the desk. We had decided to leave our overnight back there and carry a backpack around the city with some water and books in it. The Lounge was clean and comfortable, and pretty empty at this time of day. We read and watched CNN, and Evelyn did some napping; we also found the coffee maker and juice bar.
A little before 8 am, we walked out to find the Great American Train Store where Bruce and Polly had told us to meet. They appeared within about five minutes, not even time to window-shop! They suggested breakfast in the food court, so we descended and had bagels at a small shop down there. Polly had brought the Washington pages of a AAA Tourbook so that we could look up the opening times for the museum, which was 10 am. Even taking a lot of time over breakfast, we looked for something to do before that, and thought we found something: the book said the Library of Congress opened at 8:30. Fed and coffeed, then, we headed out of the station.
Union Station is about a block or two behind the US Capitol building; Polly led us around it and toward the Library of Congress buildings. We entered the Jefferson Building, which is a grand pillared structure from late in the last century, and pulled up in surprise when a guard informed us that the exhibit areas weren't open until 10. So much for the book. Without much else to do, we walked through one of the House of Representatives office buildings, and actually found one of the Connecticut delegation's office (though not our own Representative's). Polly led us through the tunnels which connect these buildings with each other and the Capitol, and somehow she succeeded in not getting lost, which Evelyn and I were in no time. We found ourselves returning to daylight at the foot of Capitol Hill opposite the US Botanical Museum (which is closed for renovations).
We drifted slowly across the Mall toward the National Gallery, looking at statues on the way. We arrived at the East Wing about 9:50, and took a seat on the steps with several other folks and chatted. When the doors opened we took a turn around an exhibition of early twentieth century French theatre program art (including some by Toulouse-Lautrec) to let the crowd thin out, and then began our trip through Alexander Calder's career.
The exhibit has now moved on, and it was astonishingly comprehensive. There were well over two hundred pieces, including two brass animals he fashioned as a young boy. I was startled at how early he found his principal medium of steel and string, and also at the variety he could find in combining movement with organic forms. Nevertheless, it was rather overwhelming. Evelyn loved every bit of it, and emerged from the halls well after the rest of us.
After lunch in the restaurant underground between the two wings of the National Gallery, we spent the rest of the afternoon touring parts of the West Wing and the National Air and Space Museum, including its special exhibit of models and costumes from the Star Wars films. We finished the day on the mall with a carousel ride, and then took a taxi (oh, our aching feet!) back to Union Station.
At the station Polly and Bruce picked up their car from the garage (which has, I think, pretty reasonable rates) and we drove to their favorite Korean restaurant in Alexandria. It was everything they had promised, and more. We had a wonderful time, and now full of food, we returned to Union Station so that we could make our train.
We had some anxious moments when the traffic slowed to a crawl, but it wasn't far to the fender-bender that folks were rubber-necking at. So we arrived at the station at about 7:50, not too much before our 8:20 departure.
We returned to the Metropolitan Lounge and safely recovered our overnight bag from the bag room. Then we eased ourselves in the comfortable chairs and watched for our train's boarding announcement. At about 8:05 the monitors showed train 76 as boarding, but there was no announcement in the Lounge, so I went to check with the desk clerk. She told me that someone would come to escort us to the train when it was time, so we waited some more. Almost instantly the train status changed to "Delayed." Even so, we were called only about seven minutes later, and an Amtrak employee gathered the small group of us to follow him out to the platform.
I didn't think that was necessary until I saw the route we used. We walked through what looked to be unused waiting areas until we had crossed in front of where the train's other passengers were waiting to be admitted; then we rode the escalator down to the platform. The sleeper car was waiting nearly at the foot of the escalator, and Tony, our car attendant, led us to our compartment, number 11. This was on the right side of the train, facing east; on the way down we had been on the right side of the train facing west.
We settled ourselves and our bags again, and surveyed the amentities: two more boxes of the chocolates (which we decided to be nice and save for our children) and one (?) toiletries kit (which we left there). We pulled out a little late, how much I'm not sure, and shortly thereafter Tony began his journey down the corridor. He took our tickets, explained the room controls, and we had something of a discussion about a wake-up. Evelyn insisted he could wake us on arrival to New Haven, as the power change makes a long stop. Tony wasn't so sure, but agreed to wake us just a little before the station.
Evelyn was pretty tired, and so was I. We decided to get some dessert in the Twilight Lounge and then head for bed. When we arrived there was one man in the kitchenette area and another (probably the Custom Class car attendant) waiting tables. Tony joined him shortly afterward, and took our order for some desserts. He seemed surprised that we weren't taking a full meal; while we were surprised that some others in the Lounge were! Evelyn had decaf coffee and I had a glass of wine, which were served in Amtrak's usual paper and plastic cups. I was pleased, however, that the silverware was metal, even if the plates were plastic and the meals microwave heated.
I'm afraid that for the Twilight Shoreliner to become a real premiere train, it will need full dining service. Though this is an improvement over the usual run of NortheastDirect food service, it isn't up to the standard of the overnight trains. I don't anticipate any great steps forward soon, however--there weren't a lot of people in the Lounge, although those who were kept Tony and his co-workers pretty busy.
Finished with our drinks and dessert, we returned to our room. Without much hope, I pushed the call button for Tony, who had been making up a room at the end of the hall, but he must have returned to the Lounge again. While Evelyn changed into clothes she could sleep in, I unfolded the seats and got the second mattress down from the upper bunk. I'm sure there's a trick to getting it down without having the sheets come loose, and I haven't figured it out yet. Still, since I didn't plan on crawling in (we'd be in New Haven about 2:50 am), it didn't matter too much.
Still too excited, I didn't sleep well on the trip north, either; we were awake for the station stop in Baltimore (from which, unfortunately, we saw nothing of the station and only a glimpse of the city) and I was aware of the stops in Philadelphia and New York. All too soon we were slowing in the cut before New Haven's Union Station. I woke Evelyn and packed our gear. Still halted in the cut, I popped down the hall to the doors for a look, and when I came back Tony was emerging from his room looking very sleepy. His alarm hadn't gone off. He was wider awake when we left the train, however, and saw us off well.
I really like the Twilight Shoreliner concept: a fast, comfortable, first-class service train down the East Coast. The realities, however, prevent some of its promise from being realized. Between New Haven and Washington, there simply isn't enough time to sleep, and there's really no experience of the Twilight Lounge. Coming north the time is also a problem; we decided the next day that we should have spent some more time with Polly and Bruce and taken a train into New York City for a family gathering there on the Saturday. There isn't much Amtrak can do about that short of slowing the train, which I'm sure would cause other problems. Trip-specific menu inserts would help, however, to speed up ordering in the Lounge. It's tough to decide what to eat when the options aren't before you!
In the end, as much as I enjoyed this trip, I'd probably try to make as much of it in daylight as possible next time, and get more sleep in a bed.
Locomotives: Two E60 electric locomotives