Private car destination guide– Chicago

Downtown Chicago, as viewed from the coach yard.

Downtown Chicago, as viewed from the coach yard.

Why go: Chicago is one of North America’s great cities–birthplace of the skyscraper, home to some major museums, and beautiful, walkable neighborhoods. Very easy to get around without a car thanks to a comprehensive subway and bus system. Millennium Park, built on the site of the old, downtown Illinois Central trainyard feature “the bean’ (a two-story-tall, irregularly shaped gazing ball), fountains and gardens. Walk the Magnificent Mile and check out the shops in the Loop downtown.Out in Oak Park, you can tour Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. It takes about three days to see all the visitor hotspots.

Private Car parking in CHI: Cars are parked in the coachyard, south of the station. You and your car are in a safe place, and you’re close to the Roosevelt Road entrance ramp, which is a 3-4 block walk to the nearest El station. This is a active railroad yard–you need to be sober, wearing shoes, alert for moving trains, and aware of your surroundings at all times. Cars can get switched at any time, and it’s not unusual to leave a car for a few hours and not be able to find it when you return. Guests and owners are generally welcome (tolerated is probably a better word here), it’s not the safest or most convenient spot for staying on the car.

Chicago highlights for private car folks: If you’re working the trip, there’s a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s on Roosevelt that you can walk to, but the nearest Grainger Supply is a short cab ride away on the Lower West Side. If you’re sightseeing, public transit is great–a one day pass is $10 and can be purchased at any subway station. Provisioning highlights–Blommer Chocolates (a large chocolate factory very close to Union Station); and Paulina Market which sells wursts and premium butcher and deli items.

Other transportation: Easy trip to Midway Airport for Southwest and Porter flights. Station is a central Amtrak hub with trains leaving for both coasts every day, and there’s a Hertz car rental counter there.

Anything else: In the last ten years, Chicago has become chock-full of gentrified neighborhoods, wonderful restaurants, and beautiful public spaces– my favorite neighborhood strolls are Paulina and Andersonville, and I’ve spent a few rewarding rainy days at the Newberry Library, and Art Institute. Oh, and the beer: Chicago pioneered craft brewing in the 1990s with Goose Island– local favorite craft beer bars include the Hopleaf, and the Map Room.

Our summer of some very late trains

The Mount Vernon’s July 20-27 trip from New York Penn to Minneapolis was particularly noteworthy for very late trains. The Late Shore Limited left NYC more than six hours late, at 9:30 pm due to a rockslide on the tracks in Peekskill, NY. Arriving in Albany after Midnight, the train was held some additional time due to passengers missing the train in New York City. (Amtrak’s mistake, the train left without any announcements, and passengers had wandered away.)

We've been waiting for about six hours when this picture was taken.

We’ve been waiting for about six hours when this picture was taken.

Toledo used to be fully staffed a few years ago during the Roadrailer era at Amtrak. These days, there's just a couple of water stands and lots of desolation.

Toledo used to be fully staffed a few years ago during the Roadrailer era at Amtrak. These days, there’s just a couple of water stands and lots of desolation.

Then things got weird–the six passengers aboard the Mount Vernon went to bed, and when we woke up, the train was still east of Rochester, NY. We enjoyed our breakfast while riding through Buffalo, and got to see Cleveland in sunlight. Before long, Amtrak made the decision to turn the Lake Shore Limited in Toledo, and send the train set back to New York. Had they continued westward with that train set, there would have been an equipment shortage. The regular Amtrak passengers were put on four busses to Chicago, and another group of passengers heading east came in by bus from Chicago to take their place.

As for the Mount Vernon–the car was cut off here, and parked overnight. Early the next morning, the Capitol Limited arrived and picked us up. So far, so good. We’ve only lost one day. We arrived in Chicago pretty much on time that morning, and Amtrak gave us an unusual same day interchange and attached us to the rear of the Empire Builder, which left Chicago on time.

The Late Train Gremlin attacked again–this time it happened a few hundred yards short of the Milwaukee station, where we sat for hours. After a long wait, the train was pulled into the station, where we sat some more. It was dark when we left, when we finally we arrived in St. Paul in time for sunrise–about eight hours late.

Due to the delays, the locomotive engineer and conductor went over their hours of service, and could no longer operate the train. No replacement crew was immediately available.

Due to the delays, the locomotive engineer and conductor when over their hours of service, and could no longer operate the train. No replacement crew was immediately available.

The Minnesota Commercial Railway switches the Mount Vernon off of the Empire Builder, and on to the St. Paul parking track.

The Minnesota Commercial Railway ALCO locomotive switches the Mount Vernon off of the Empire Builder, and on to the St. Paul parking track.

What’s there to say about catastrophically late trains– train travel is not for people in a hurry to get someplace. Late trains can be ghastly (very overused bathrooms, empty water tanks, running out of food, crews that need to stop working due to hours-of-service rules.) If you’re an Amtrak passenger, Amtrak will usually do their best to make it up to you, and sometimes the make-goods are interesting travel treats. Meg and I once got to spend a night at the Allerton Hotel in Chicago on Amtrak’s tab, due to a missed connection, and they fed us, gave us an allowance for cabs and incidentals. A few years ago, we were very late arriving in Washington, DC and had to ride the overnight Amtrak train (train 66) back home to NJ. Amtrak arranged to have the train make an unscheduled special stop at our nearest train station so we would not need to call a cab.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to travel on a private car, you’re likely to get extra meals and have a chance to spend some more time sitting in the lounge.

Two nights under Montreal

The train ride from New York Penn to Montreal on Amtrak’s Adirondack is a perfect private car trip: eleven hours of beautiful New York scenery followed by two nights of subterranean intrigue while parked at a station track at Gare Centrale–literally in the center of a vast underground city that sprawls out for blocks in all directions.

Here’s some photos from last weekend:


From Montreal Weekend on the Mount Vernon, posted by Tom Coughlin on 11/13/2013 (5 items)

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Here’s a few reasons to come out of the tunnel:
Atwater Market– The smaller of the two city markets, it’s the better one to go to for deals on cheeses and prepared, ready-to-cook meats.
Broue Pub Bruhaha– It’s a neighborhood spot, the kind of place you’d go for hockey night. They usually have six in-house beers on tap, along with around 20 “invited” locally brewed beers. Order the fried duck legs or the Pizza Alsacienne (lardons, caramelized onions, creme fraiche, and local cheeses).
Blackstrap BBQ– located in Verdun (up until the 2000s, Verdun was a separate city to the immediate south of Montreal, and prior to the merger, a dry town) the restaurant scene is growing rapidly there. An unusual quirk of Verdun is that most restaurants have liquor licenses that restrict them to serving locally-produced beer.

Railroad History for people who like to acquire things.

Here’s a few shots from the Annual Gaithersburg, MD Railroad Collectible show last weekend. Enjoy!


From Railroad junk, posted by Tom Coughlin on 11/06/2013 (6 items)

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This show goes on once a year, and has about 4,000 attendees. I’m always surprised by the stuff people have in their basements and attics.

Private Railroad Cars in TV– The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969)

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Over the past few evenings, Meg and I have been enjoying watching our way through an old DVD reissue set of the 1960s TV Series, “The Wild, Wild West”. We both really liked it as kids, we’re both fans of cheapo western action serials of the 30’s and 40’s, and this series borrows very heavily from that cannon (literally–it was shot at CBS Radford, AKA the old Republic Studios lot–home of a very distinctive old western street set, along with props and sets previously used by John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, The Three Mesquiteers, Andy Devine, etc.). Compared to Republic serials, the CBS western shows were high budget–not a lot of reused footage, better writing, much better bad guys, and a much greater volume of breakaway bottles, chairs, windows, and pianos were consumed in the course of the fight scenes.

Private RR car fans frequently singled out this TV show as the main reason why they first became interested in the dream of owning their own private railroad car. Like any Homeric hero story, a lot of attention gets paid to the hero’s means of transportation. Heroes always need unusual rides–Jason had the Argo, Christ had a donkey, Batman had the Batmobile, Roy had Trigger, and Kirk had the Enterprise. In “The Wild Wild West”, James West and his assistant Artemus Gordon cruise the Old West “the Wanderer” an 1870s era wooden private car that typically traveled in a train with another car (a stable and workshop car). Never seen, but implied in the story, they traveled with a locomotive engineer, brakeman and a conductor–they must have slept in the coal bunker and survived on cans of sardines. The Wild, Wild West make it look like a very suave and sophisticated way for a secret agent cowpoke to get around the prairie. West and Gordon had lots of cool stuff on the car: hidden maps, telegraphy equipment, a chemistry lab, carrier pigeons, guns, explosives. Never had any trouble talking their dates into coming back to the car for some brandy.

The exterior shots of the train show an engine and two cars that were originally owned by the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. In the 1930s, they were part a large set of railroad equipment acquired by Paramount Pictures which appeared in many movies in the 40s and 50s. In the 1960s, Paramount sold the entire collection off, but happily, much of it wound up being saved and has found their way into museums. West’s loco and cars are currently at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City.

Though the exteriors were nicely painted for the show, the cars were very plain on the inside, and their interiors were never used in the series. The opulent Victorian Baroque car private car interiors seen in the show existed only as studio sets, but most historical rail equipment fans will remark about the strong resemblance between the sets, and well-circulated, published photos of the interiors of “The Gold Coast”, and the “Virginia City”–the two railroad cars owned by newspaper columnist Lucius Beebe and his partner Charles Clegg.
beebecleg
Beebe and Clegg’s first railroad car, the “Gold Coast” operated into the 1950s. At that point railroads had started to object to handling older wooden cars made prior to 1910, and put pressure on the pair to come up with a newer car. As a result, they built the Virginia City–a heavyweight-era open-platform Pullman car that had served lounge car on the Overland limited. Their friend, Hollywood production designer Robert Hanley, came up with the Baroque design for the interior, and along the way, found a method to make a fireplace work on a railroad car. Today, the “Gold Coast” can be found at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, while the Virginia City continues to carry passengers, and occupy the rearmost position on Amtrak Trains, privately owned and operated by Wade Pellizer. More information can be found at the Virginia City site: http://www.vcrail.com/vchistory_railcars.htm

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The federal government shutdown and how it affects rail travel

Here’s a quick blast on what’s happening on passenger railroads in the wake of the federal government shut down of October 1, 2013:

Amtrak will continue to operate trains as usual for at least the next five or six weeks. They have cash on hand to make payroll at present, and many of their subsidized train lines use funding that comes from states that they run through.

Virginia Rail Express, a Washington DC commuter railroad serving the Virginia suburbs, continues to run it’s regular schedule through Thursday, October 3. Today (October 2) they will make a decision on whether or not to run a snow day schedule on Friday. If the shutdown lingers on past this week, it is likely that they may introduce a reduced service schedule for the coming week(s). By commuter service standards this is not a big operation: 30 trains a day on two lines, with no service on the weekend.

MARC, a commuter line running north from Washington DC to Baltimore on two lines, and west to Cumberland MD, ran special mid-day trains yesterday to transport furloughed workers home. No announcements have been made regarding reducing service. Like VRE, MARC is a five-day-a-week operation.

METRO, the Washington DC subway system, saw a 22 percent decrease in ridership today as federal offices, museums and monuments were shuttered. Management is reducing the lengths of train sets to save money, while continuing to operate their normal schedule.

The good news–the bad news

A couple of things happened this week in the world of North American Passenger railroading, one really good, one truly disappointing. Amtrak’s November rare-mileage trip up the Susquehanna from Philly looks like it’s going to be a big hit. After selling out one entire train, this week they added a second section. To my knowledge, Amtrak has never had to run a second section of anything in it’s entire history–additional runs of trains using extra equipment at times of peak demand went out with the Jet Age about 50 years ago. More info:
www.amtrak.com/fall-foliage-aboard-the-autumn-express

Now the bad news–RIP the VIA Rail Canada “Chaleur”: the train between Montreal and Gaspe is now history. Operating for most of the last 20 years as a section of the train to Halifax (the two trains operated out of Montreal as one, and were uncoupled in Matapedia in the middle of the night). In August, due to deteriorating rail conditions, VIA substituted buses between Matapedia and Gaspe. As of Tuesday, this train no longer exists. Link:
http://www.viarail.ca/en/about-via-rail/media-room/latest-news/66251/22-august-2013-via-rail-service-between-matapedia-new-ca

Private Car trip scouting in Vermont

Babs and I are up in Vermont for the weekend attending a conference and doing a little private car destination scouting at the same time in Rutland, Vermont. Rutland is at the end of the line for Amtrak’s Ethan Allen train. The train arrives in the evening, parks overnight and leaves in the morning. I was up here with the Mount Vernon a few years ago for an all-too-short overnight stay, and didn’t get much of an impression of the town. Looks a lot nicer in the daytime–lots to do here.


From Rutland VT, posted by Tom Coughlin on 9/09/2013 (5 items)

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One limiting factor to a Rutland visit–no hotel power is available–a PV would have to run on it’s generator if it were parked here longer than an overnight.

Wintertime trip on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight–Portland to San Diego (includes brewery tours and lots of mass transit)

Here are some pictures from our latest post-semester cheapo cold weather escape. Using discount tickets on Soutwest Airlines, we flew to Portland OR, caught the Coast Starlight and Surfliner to San Diego (cashed in Amtrak Guest Rewards points), and rode the commuter rail system to Los Angeles. Visited breweries and beer shrines by mass transit. Came back with a tan, and great memories of first class service on the Coast Starlight, and sour beers from Upright Brewing in Portland, and The Bruery, in Placentia (Anaheim)–the two preeminent sour beer breweries in North America.

As a homebrewer and certified beer judge, it’s hard to justify a trip to San Diego without visiting a few of their world-famous breweries. Interestingly, two of their most renowned microbreweries are within walking distance from the Sprinter–a DMU light rail system that connects Oceanside CA (train station on Amtrak Surfliner, San Diego Coaster, and Los Angeles Metrolink system) with Escondido.

Important Suggestions for those wanting to go to Stone and Lost Abbey using public transit:

  • You’ll probably need to take Amtrak to Oceanside ($34 round-trip), as the lower-cost Coaster commuter train runs very infrequently during the day.
  • Do this trip on a Wednesday, when Lost Abbey/Port Brewing is open later and serves food.
  • Go to Stone first. They’re restaurant serves food all day, and it’s one of the best beer-themed restaurants around. Get there by riding the Sprinter to the Nordahl Road station and either walking or taking the 353 bus (runs every 30 minutes). (This is different than their instructions on their website, but it’s a faster trip.)
  • Go to Lost Abbey second. Ride the Sprinter to San Marcos Civc Center. Follow the instructions for getting there published on their website (Google Maps is has some major errors regarding walking trails that don’t really exist.) Leave by 7:30 pm–if you miss the 8:15 pm Sprinter from San Marcos, you’re in for a long wait for a train in Oceanside.
  • If you are a beer brewer, while you’re in town, work in a visit to White Labs’ tasting room (at their facility on Candida St.) for an interesting demo on how yeast selection affects beer making. The #20 bus can take you there from downtown or from the Fashion Valley Mall.

Please roll your mouse over the photo to see the complete caption.

“Pictures from our latest post-semester cheapo cold weather escape. Flew to Portland OR, caught the Coast Starlight and Surfliner to San Diego, and rode the commuter rail system to Los Angeles. Visited breweries and beer shrines by mass transit. Came back with a tan.”

From California Winter Trip 2012, posted by Tom Coughlin on 12/29/2012 (29 items)

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Five Winter rail travel ideas

Meg and I are hardcore off season train travel enthusiasts–we hate crowds and love deals. Listed here in no particular order, are some of the places where we had an astoundingly great time in places that are a little off the beaten path, or not well known. I liked these places so much I wrestled with keeping them secret, so they don’t get trampled by tourists. I want to go back to all of them. But no, you should enjoy. I insist.

The Hop Randal at Bruhaha

Herbs, spices, tea, hops–a lot of interesting stuff winds up in Brewhaha’s beer randal.

Dinner and Beer at Brew Pub Brouhaha in Montreal.
http://brouepubbrouhaha.com/
Montreal is one of North America’s most eclectic and culturally distinct cities, and the pub and beer scene here is robust. What makes Makes Montreal a worthy beer pilgrimage destination though is that you can reliably find really fine food being served along with your beverage. Brewpub Brouhaha is my favorite beer stop in Montreal–they’re are passionate about presenting local beers (both from their brew house, and from around the city), and they make a thin crust pizza worthy of a trip. Get There: Montreal is a picturesque day train ride up from New York City Amtrak’s Adirondack. Stay There: Lots of fancy hotels downtown offering $125 a night off-season rates. $75 to $100 per night double rates are easily found in the downtown Bed and Breakfasts. Check the rates and ratings at Tripadvisor or Booking.com

The Laxey Wheel in Mann

The Laxey Wheel in Mann

Ride the steam trains on the Isle of Mann,  and visit  Liverpool and Northern Ireland.
http://www.iomguide.com/steamrailway.php
Wintertime is low fare time to England or Ireland–the days are short, but the nights are long and lively. Irish Americans such as myself may see Mann as an alternate reality where the economic distress of the 1950s and 1960s never took place, and the pre-1950 romantic era never went away.  The steam trains and interurban trolleys still run in Mann, it’s a little like a Disney movie set–it doesn’t seem real, but people live there, retire there and run farms, breweries and hotels. Get there: Prices tend to bottom out on winter flights from New York to London or Dublin (two cities where hotel rates tend to always be high). From Dublin, a short ride on the Enterprise Train will take you to Belfast (cheap hotel city, and fun, to boot) and the Stena Ferry to Liverpool. From Liverpool, it’s a short ferry ride to the Island of Mann on the Steam Packet Ferry. From London, there’s quick, frequent service to Liverpool, where you can connect to the ferry. Stay there: There are many old hotels and a few new ones in Douglas, Mann’s largest city. Off-season rates are amazing.

A Podge tour

One of Podge’s tour group visits De Dolle Brewery.

Travel to Belgium with Podge
http://www.podgebeer.co.uk/
Based in Chelmsford, England Chris Pollard (AKA “Podge”) has been running beer pilgrimages to Belgium for at least 10 years. He’s got a group of regular customers–English and Irish mostly, they’re nice folks, and they’re fun to travel with. There are an increasing number of beer tour operations running out of the US, but choosing to go with an English group will put you on a bus with people who go there a lot more often, and are a lot more in-tune with what’s going on in the breweries. Yes it’s more complex joining the tour at the destination. You’ll probably find their trips to be lower cost, and much more efficiently run. Europe is a good travel deal these days–travel like a European (take the train, stay in non-chain hotels, talk to strangers). Get there: Hop a discount flight to London, or meet the group in Belgium. Podge will work with you to make sure you meet up with the group. Stay there: Podge trips always include hotel, transportation, tours and meals–all you have to do is eat and drink. You may wind up needing to spend a night in London or Chelmsford–beer travelers might enjoy staying at a historic inn owned by a brewery, and Young’s Brewery has small inns in both cities.

A park car

A Park Car (first class sleeper, lounge, observation tail car), rearmost on the Canadian.

Taking a winter “Express Deal” Cross country trip on Via Rail’s flagship train, The Canadian.
http://www.viarail.ca/en/deals
Imagine you and your favorite traveling buddy enjoying four nights in the dome car, eating the most wonderful food ever served in a railroad dining car, and enjoying elegant, well kept 1950s classic sleeping cars and lounges. Now image that you could do this for less than $250 a day (including meals and travel). In the winter, VIA runs some very deep deals, and its pretty easy to find $550 per-person fairs for for two people traveling together (food and scenery included). Also–winter is a great time for low fares on the cross country airlines. A modest 10-day cross country (fly one-way, and ride the train one-way) with stopover days in Vancouver, Portland or Seattle, and Toronto for around $1,100 per person. Canadian cities are chilly, and the nights are cold and long, but the camaraderie on the train is great, and it’s alway more fun to travel off-season. Get there: Look for cheap one-way cross country flights from Alaska Airlines and Southwest. Porter Airlines offers up to seven flights a day between Newark and Toronto at prices sometimes as low as $90 one-way. Stay there: The Madison Manor Bed and Breakfast is my favorite cheapskate hotel in otherwise overpriced Toronto–usually around $100-$120 this time of year. Clean, wonderful bed, and a great location. In Vancouver–The St. Regis is wonderful, small and always running deals.

A Mardi Gras float being prepared for use

A Mardi Gras float being prepared for use

Warm up in New Orleans in January.
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Tourism-g60864-New_Orleans_Louisiana-Vacations.html
New Orleans is back–Mardi Gras last year was the biggest event the city has ever had. Generally speaking, the city is cleaner and safer now than it has ever been. I feel like it’s becoming too scrubbed and whitewashed, but folks who live there are likely to disagree. Mardi Gras actually goes on for a couple of weeks, ending on Ash Wednesday with parades going on every weekend. Once Mardi Gras starts however, the hotel prices go up, so the trick is to do some research and get there right before the festivities start in earnest. Get there: Amtrak’s Crescent offers overnight sleeping car service from New York or Washington. If you’re impatient, Jet Blue offers direct flights from NYC. Stay there: The city has thousands of hotel rooms, and in January most of them are empty. Shop around and look for great amenities and deals.