Location: [Home] [Train Travels] The Vermonter July 1998
You can already guess, I'm sure, that this trip didn't go as planned. In fact, very little went as planned from first to last. But to start the story at the beginning, I'll at least give its correct title:
Trip Segments: [Shifting Itineraries] [New Haven to Keeseville, NY] [Essex Junction, VT to White River Junction, VT] [White River Junction, VT to Springfield, MA] [Springfield, MA to New Haven, CT]
First of all, this trip was supposed to be on Thursday, July 30. Much as in 1997, my wife had a week off and I had half a week for a vacation trip to her family's camp in the Adirondacks, near Keeseville, NY. While last year I literally came up one afternoon and took the train home the next morning, this summer I expected to stay four nights and a morning--drive up Sunday afternoon, and take the Adirondack from Port Kent about 3:30 in the afternoon. Well, I didn't.
First my schedule changed. I was asked to attend a meeting related to Association business, and I (and even my wife) judged my presence important. Since it was at 4:30 on Thursday in southern Connecticut, I had to be back before then--which meant Wednesday. At least I hadn't bought the tickets yet.
When I did go to make my reservations, Amtrak's Internet Reservations System told me it couldn't handle the itinerary from Port Kent to New Haven, though I could price it. So I called 1-800-USA-RAIL and went through the automated system, which very nicely reserved a seat for me on train 68 and cut off without allowing me to reserve the New York to New Haven leg. Argh. I dialed the number again and punched "0," and soon had a very friendly operator who kindly corrected the booking for me, and mentioned she'd been doing that all night! We both thought that the Custom Class service from New York to New Haven, at about $10, was a pretty good deal. In fact, the fare increase from New York to New Haven was just a couple of dollars! I picked up my tickets at the New Haven train station a couple of days later.
However, I'd been reading the All-Aboard mailing list and the Trains Magazine Newswire. Heavy rains in the northeast in June had caused a lot of damage, including washouts in the access road to the Eddy family camp. Washouts had also weakened the roadbed on the Canadian Pacific rail line down the west side of Lake Champlain, and a freight train had derailed, sending one of the locomotives down the embankment. The notices I read said that work was scheduled for completion at the end of July--awfully close to my travel date. Hmmmm.
Since the friendly agent had said nothing about this, I doubted that a call to 1-800-USA-RAIL would tell me anything. I checked Amtrak's Northeast web site, which has a TalkBack board, and left a message asking about the Adirondack. Looking around a little further, I was chagrined to find an actual customer service email address, so I sent off my query: Would the Adirondack be running as a train on July 29, and if not, should I do anything different while waiting for the replacement bus?
The answer when it came was prompt, clear, and somewhat frightening: the train would not be running, and worse, the bus wouldn't stop in Port Kent! I suspect my original purchase had fallen through an information gap somewhere, and I do wonder what they planned to do if I'd still held my ticket and appeared on the conductor's passenger list! In any case, I promptly decided to switch to the Vermonter. I'm not that fond of buses, and I'll have other opportunities to ride the Adirondack. Unfortunately, that meant we had to get to Essex Junction, Vermont, at 8:30 am, which meant catching the ferry from Essex, NY, to Charlotte, VT, at 6:30 am. I'd be home earlier, but up much earlier, too!
After some thought, I decided to pass on Custom Class service on this train. Steve Grande recommends it, but I didn't think the $30 would add that much to the experience from Essex Junction to New Haven. For a longer trip I'd think harder.
The final change to the itinerary came just a few days before we were to leave: Evelyn found herself presiding at a funeral on Monday. So four nights finally dwindled to two.
This travelogue is about rail travel, not auto--suffice it to say that our drive to the Adirondacks had its elements of beauty, discomfort, and downright fear. The fear is easy: traffic from New Haven to Springfield, MA, to Albany, NY, and up the Northway to about Lake George is horrendous. The discomfort is clear: our van isn't air conditioned (at least it's not working), the seats haven't as much leg room as a train, and besides, we're driving. The beauty, of course, was equally striking: from the climb through the Berkshires to the winding course of the Northway through the eastern Adirondacks, there was plenty to see and admire. And eventually we arrived at camp.
I had a nice Tuesday with wife and children, featuring canoeing, playing, reading to myself and the kids, and napping. When dark fell we realized we had forgotten an alarm clock, but Evelyn found one she habitually packs and all was well. We settled down early to get a good rest before rising about 5 am.
The night contained some interruptions: a rain and thunder storm passed through around 3 am, and though the lightning passed east the rain hung on. When the alarm sounded light rain was still falling. The less said about getting two sleepy children up and dressed in a dark cabin, the better! Fortunately we had packed up their day activity stuff the night before, so we just had to get them into clothes and up to the car. It took some doing.
The rain cleared as we came up the path and bundled into the car. At about 6:15 we took the third place in line for the 6:30 ferry from Essex to Charlotte. This is about the earliest one can catch a ferry from west to east. There weren't a lot of cars, but a tractor-trailer and septic service truck boarded as well for the twenty-minute crossing. I bought a round-trip ticket for Evelyn and the kids to use on the way back.
We arrived at the train station in Essex Junction at about 7:30 am. The station is in the back of a bank building--or perhaps the bank is in the front of the station building--and fairly difficult to see passing by. I made the same mistake I made last year about which road to use to get to it, but quickly fixed the error. After a short goodbye Evelyn and the kids drove off to find a Friendly's Restaurant for breakfast, and I took my REI day-and-a-half pack and my camera bag into the station waiting room.
There isn't a lot of comfort at that station, particularly if you're the agent, who gets a closet with a top-from-bottom divided door to work from. There is an old wood railroad station bench with funny dividers, about an inch high and an inch wide, to separate passengers from each other. I waited on it and it wasn't comfortable, which just goes to show that not everything in railroading's "good old days" was that good. At 8:25 am I put my book away as the agent explained to another customer that the train was running right on time, and if we looked left we'd probably see lights; if we didn't, it was running late. I carted my stuff out the door and looked left to see the warning lights flashing a block over. Soon the locomotive's headlights appeared and the horn sounded its warning for at grade vehicle crossings.
As the train slowed, I noticed the side door of the baggage car open. I'm pretty sure the agent had been checking baggage, and I suspect it's a regular procedure to facilitate loading of unboxed bicycles, a Vermonter feature. One door opened at the second car (the first coach) and we climbed aboard from the ground-level platform. I quickly found a seat a little over halfway back facing forward: half the car's seats faced forward, and half backward, with a set facing each other in the center of the car.
Locomotive: Amtrak F-40PH #243
The seats in the three Metroliner coaches were blue with a silver waffle design, and spaced farther apart than those on NortheastDirect trains. They included a footrest, which many of the latter trains don't. My coach had orange walls around the ends of the car, but the other two were white. Amtrak has been renovating the Metroliner cars, and I suspect that mine was halfway through its conversion.
We left Essex Junction about on the 8:30 am scheduled time; I didn't look. The weather, regrettably, was still quite gray, despite the WAMC forecast I'd heard that morning which promised a mostly sunny day after morning showers. Of course, it was still very much morning!
I settled in to look out the window and read, but I soon made my way forward to the Cafe car just ahead. The smells were pretty appetizing. I noted that the Vermonter still has a special menu featuring a box lunch, which I made my plan for later in the day. For breakfast I chose a microwaved breakfast sandwich and coffee, and was pleasantly surprised. I decided to eat in the cafe rather than head back to my seat, as I was sure I'd see plenty of that over the course of the day. Mine wasn't a popular decision; those who came in tended to head back again, but I remained there past Waterbury.
John Pitt's USA by Rail, which I brought along, says that you can see Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest mountain, between Essex Junction and Waterbury. I'm sure I saw it, but I sure couldn't identify it, especially as low clouds shrouded the tops of most of the ridges.
We arrived in Waterbury at 8:59 am, 1 minute late. You get a nice view of the town, and it has a fine brick station at the end of the town green.
Up to Montpelier the line follows the Winooski River valley, with small farms visible to either side of the train.
The station for Montpelier/Barre stands at a rail junction (9:13 am, 1 minute late). One line bears off to the east up the valley toward Vermont's capital city, paralleled by a highway visible from the rails. The other heads south through the mountains down to Randolph, where it picks up the White River; that's the route Amtrak follows. The station is a small but pleasant wood structure, but it's way out at the edge of town. I always wonder how anyone gets into the city from there. I visited several years ago, and it is a lovely town with a striking capitol building.
We pulled into Randolph at 9:47 am (on time), where the old red brick and wooden passenger and freight stations still stand. A small shop occupies the brick building (the passenger station?) bearing the ubiquitous (in the northeast) sign for "Green Mountain Coffee Roasters." The grade crossing beyond the station gives a great view down what ought to be called Main Street, which is more perfect than Disneyland's imitation--and it was pretty lively at that hour on a Wednesday morning, too. There's still some places that resist the malls.
As the route follows the White River to its junction with the Connecticut, there are several towns along the line with lovely old stations but no stop. I noticed Royalton as we glided through at 10:07 in good part for the South Royalton House, which I'm sure was built as a hotel. It's at least still a restaurant.
White River Junction is one of the longer stops, what Amtrak calls a "smoking stop," and provided me with a convenient means to break up this travelogue. We arrived one minute early at 10:29, and I hopped out to check the consist and to get a picture of an old Boston and Maine 4-4-0 locomotive and caboose on a siding next to the station. The station itself is an impressive brick structure, clearly built to serve two intersecting rail lines. I believe it's still a stop on the Green Mountain Railroad.
We rolled out of White River Junction at the scheduled 10:35, still following the White River valley. The train rolled through Windsor at 10:54, a minute behind, because there were no passengers boarding or leaving the train there. Two minutes later, kindly notified by the conductor, we crossed the Connecticut River with a great view of the covered bridge between Windsor and Cornish, New Hampshire. Built in 1866, the bridge is the longest in the world at 542 feet. And yes, I copied what the conductor said!
Strangely, Pitt's USA by Rail says nothing about it.
We arrived in Claremont, NH, at 11:08, four minutes late. This wooden station is painted light green, and also seems to be away from the center of town. Our train halted on the main line, and the boarding passengers had to cross a siding to climb onto the train, which seemed strange until I saw a waiting New England Central train sitting on the siding just beyond the station. Four diesel units led the long consist, which consisted of mixed boxcars, bulkhead flatcars, lumber cars, and covered hopper cars.
Ten minutes later, the Connecticut River was back in sight, now on the right side, of course. We followed it until crossing over again to Bellows Falls, VT, where we pulled into the station six minutes late at 11:32. Bellows Falls is the terminus of the Green Mountain Railroad, which runs tourist trains and freight up the west side of the Connecticut River valley. The Vermonter follows the New England Central (once Vermont Central) route across the GMRR tracks at the station, which is another nice old brick structure. Beyond the station we crossed a canal, then passed through an old, narrow, tunnel, to find that the river had fallen quite a ways below us. Another rail line, with a line of freight cars parked on it, was visible on the east side of the river.
At 12:06, now five minutes late, we pulled into Brattleboro, VT, where the station is placed at the bottom of a fairly high retaining wall on the west side, with the Connecticut River a short distance away to the east. Hungry again, I made my way forward to the cafe car.
The tables now had some occupants in addition to the crew (who had a couple of tables for their business). I bought the Vermonter turkey sandwich box lunch, which comes with chips, cheese, an apple, and beverage; I also bought a souvenir baseball cap, and the attendant went through the labor of putting it on my credit card. With no card plate, it was a laborious task, but the two attendants were more than gracious about it. I have to say that those two men were the two most pleasant cafe attendants I've known on an Amtrak train.
I joined a woman seated by herself at a table, and we chatted about trains, politics, and trains for over an hour, enjoying it greatly. The conductor joined the conversation a couple of times to share his point of view on the shameful state of affairs by which the federal government funds other modes of public transportation much more heavily than rail--a point of view with which I quite agree. My companion seemed to believe that Amtrak could, by proper application of business principles, make a profit. With air and automobile so heavily supported by tax dollars, I have my doubts that it could ever compete on so uneven a playing field.
She was journeying back home to Washington after a trip to Vermont to attend her mother's burial (frozen ground had prevented that at her death earlier this year). She greatly preferred the train to auto or air, but wasn't happy with the rough track on the New England Central portion of the route. She was travelling Custom Class, and wasn't at all sure that it was worth the cost.
Somewhere around 1:30 pm, we arrived in Palmer, Massachusetts, making our entrance past an active intermodal yard. Despite the fact that there is a lovely old stone station there, the train does not make a passenger stop, but uses the junction to transfer from New England Central to Conrail trackage. The transition is a curious one, as I've remarked before. The tracks meet at about a forty-five degree angle, with the old abandoned station between the eastern legs of the New England Central and Conrail lines. Our train followed a switch track from NEC to Conrail and stopped. The engineer walked along the ground from the locomotive to the cab car at the rear, which now became the front of the train. With the switch thrown straight, we proceeded west with the locomotive now pushing the train from behind.
We arrived in Springfield at 2:07 pm, three minutes early and eighteen minutes before the scheduled departure time. The conductor's crew changed, and the cafe car crew loaded new supplies for the trip through Connecticut. A number of new passengers boarded, but I still had no seatmate for the trip further south, and I don't think the train ever exceeded 55% occupancy throughout my trip. Coming in I noticed a green lightweight baggage car marked for the Penn Central Railroad on a siding east of the platforms. Wooden steps had been placed before the two doors.
I used the time to walk the platform from front to back, and to walk through the train on my way back to my seat again. The cab car was closed off, and I don't know whether it was ever open. It had the usual red seats, but I don't know what the spacing was like.
Springfield's station is built on the old platform, but has a new passenger waiting area, which is architecturally undistinguished, but at least it isn't actively ugly. A much grander structure on the north side is, I think, the old freight house, and appears unused from the track side.
As we pulled out at 2:25, we passed an Amtrak train on a parallel track led by F-40PH #343. Several of its coaches wore the newer NortheastDirect paint scheme, and I suspect that it was train 475, the NortheastDirect/Patriot, which originates in Springfield, waiting for its 4:05 pm departure time. Another F-40PH, #241, sat on another track just past it.
Just beyond the station the train ventured beneath the towering I-91 overpass where there is a crossover; the Vermonter turned south onto Amtrak's own trackage, paralleling the Connecticut River again (which we'd last seen crossing after Brattleboro). I noticed an old railroad control tower built into the supports for the overpass (perhaps it was built over the tower?); it seemed vacant and lonely in the shadow.
We ran easily south along the east side of the river, and at 2:38 pm passed the north bound Vermonter. If it made the same time we did, it was early into Springfield. A cab car led the north bound, and most of its coaches seemed to be wearing the NortheastDirect color scheme, though it was hard to tell as we passed.
The Vermonter makes no stops along the river before Hartford, where we arrived at 3:04, six minutes late, and idled three minutes boarding passengers from the lovely old stone station. At 3:17 we stopped at the station in Berlin, another splendid old brick building, where tracks turn west towards Bristol and the old Canal Railroad line, now served (for freight) by the Springfield Terminal Railroad. At 3:38, still six minutes behind, we stopped at Meriden. The station itself is a little cinder-block building, but beyond it the train crosses Main Street at grade, where one can see the fruits of a lot of civic improvements made in the early 90s. An old manned traffic light booth stands in a small rotary visible from the train; I believe it was the last such booth in the state when it was retired in the 80s.
At 3:45 we reached the Amtrak Maintenance of Way yard at the Hamden/New Haven line. At the south end of the yard we joined the Shoreline Route on its short trip to Union Station. I saw considerable evidence of work preparing for the American Flyer high-speed trains: concrete bases for the catenary towers were in place, and a small crane mounted on a Hi-Rail pickup was erecting one as we passed. Ironically, the sun finally emerged in these last few minutes of my trip. I finally identified, I think, the place where trains diverged to go up the Canal line; it's about five minutes north of the station, where a traffic bridge has an extra arch that curves toward a blank embankment, now supporting a parking lot.
We seemed due for an on-time arrival, but we were held motionless just outside the station from 3:52 to 4:00 for what the conductor announced was a "traffic problem." When we continued, I saw the Connecticut Dept of Transportation's diesel #6694 in New Haven Railroad "McGinnis" colors parked just beyond a line of MU electric coaches. I wonder if it hadn't had to haul them beyond the catenary, but they weren't coupled. To the left side I spotted a linked pair of Amtrak F-40PHs #280 and #274. New catenary bridges had been set up, but the wires were still suspended from the old bridges, with possibly one exception on the westernmost track.
We stopped at the station at 4:04 pm, nine minutes late. The power promptly went out as the yard crew worked to change locomotives as quickly as possible. When I exited, I walked down to the head of the train where AEM-7 #915 was backing (only because it's double-ended, it looked like it was "fronting") onto the front of the cab car. At the tail of the train, #243 had been disconnected already when I walked back. Waiting on the track opposite was train 174, the NortheastDirect/Yankee Clipper bound for Boston at 4:10 pm. I think the traffic problem was probably its electric engine being cleared for #280 and #274 to back down onto that train. It left, as near as I could tell, a couple of minutes late.
My rail trip done, I made my way through the tunnel to the main waiting room of Union Station, and looked up to see the All Aboard flashing for those bound for Washington on train 55, the Vermonter. I turned toward the cab stand on the street, where a very friendly driver and I had a good conversation for the last leg of my journey home, where I arrived just before 5:00 pm.