Riding trains, and sampling craft beers in Ireland.

IMG_2557   A very brief compendium of interesting trains, and refreshing stopovers (March 2015).

Trains around Ireland:

Touring Ireland by train presents a transportation dilemma–trains serve the main cities and towns, but much of what makes a trip there interesting (scenery, ancient ruins, craggy coastlines) is way off the train network. On the other hand, driving around Ireland is hardly a vacation–the roads are narrow and winding, and the speed limits are low.

After substantial service cutbacks in the 1960s and 1970s, and lesser ones in the 1990s, Irish Rail has been on a pretty stable keel for the last ten or so years. Dublin is the center point of the rail system–from there, there’s frequent service to Cork, Galway and several other smaller cities. The high-speed Enterprise train connects Dublin and Belfast, and from Belfast, Translink (Northern Irish Railways) operate frequent service to Londonderry, as well as suburban trains. Service on the lines is primarily operated with modern diesel multiple unit equipment, though you’ll see push-pull sets on the Enterprise train, and on many Dublin-Cork trains. For Irish Rail tickets,  the cheapest way to purchase them is to buy them on the web a few days ahead. Pay using a credit card, and pick up your ticket from vending machines located in most stations before you depart. Translink recently introduced the MLink iPhone app– which makes it possible to purchase point-to-point tickets good for the entire day in advance of your trip, at a substantial discount using PayPal.

For wayside scenery and architecture, the Enterprise Line tops the list, followed by the Belfast-Londonderry line. Both lines feature sweeping views of the coastline, craggy hills, old fishing villages–and some interesting pints along the way if you have the time to make a stopover.  Giant’s Causeway (a volcanically-formed seacoast vista featuring black hexagon-shaped basalt stones that resemble paving stones) is an easy side trip from the Colerain train station on the Londonderry line, which can be visited using connecting Translink buses. Pay attention to the bus schedules, as missed connections may leave you cooling your heels for couple of hours.

Belfast eats: The farm-to-table restaurant Made in Belfast offers amazing food in a funky, eclectic decor (they have two locations which are pretty similar). Like many restaurants in Ireland, they have few draft taps but mostly serve beers in bottles from the fridge. Mourne Seafood is often rated as Belfast’s top restaurant, and deservedly so. Strangely, until recently, seafood was just not trendy in Ireland—it was view as something eaten for lent, or food for the poor. With the ascendancy of the slow food movement (Cork chef Myrtle Allen is often celebrated as the godmother of the movement), culinary interest in the Irish fishing and shellfish industry is on the rise. Belfast oysters are big and ugly, but tender and slightly briny, and also a good deal when you can find them.

IMG_2529 A couple of Pubs in Belfast really stand out: The Woodworkers, a new craft beer oriented pub in the vicinity of the Botanic train station is attached to a beer bottle shop, and offers an amazing selection of bottle beers along with rotating draft taps. The Sunflower Pub, a small, cozy pub hiding behind the library with a surprising assortment of local beers in bottles along with a handpump and a few taps. Most evenings, there’s frequently musical performance (folk, or trad sessions depending on the night).


  IMG_2530Belfast Beers: Belfast has two co-op owned breweries of note: Farmageddon – who gets a special mention for their slightly sour and liquorice-noted India Export Porter. Also the soon-to-open Boundary Brewing, under the supervision of brewer and former West Coast US resident Matthew Dick, they’re IMG_2558planning both IPA and American Pale Ale style beers. Hilden Brewing in Lisburn makes some great beer, and has a restaurant and brewery tour that can easily be accessed by train. Everything they make is good.

Dublin Pubs: The Harbour Bar, Lonely Planet’s “Best Pub on the Planet” is a short train ride from downtown Dublin on the DART commuter rail system, very close to the Bray station. It’s pretty indescribable— rooms decorated with 1960s furniture, nautical chachkies, and pub furniture that goes way back. The locals are equally eclectic, and the team of trained housecats will entertain you. Beer selection is excellent. L. Mulligan, Grocer, on Stoneybatter St., is Northside Dublin’s premier craft beer pub, and features an excellent menu of farm-to-table fare. Honorable mentions to W.J. Kavanaugh’s, The Beerhouse, and The Back Page who are emerging as reliable places for craft beer in Northside Dublin.

IMG_2610Dublin Beers: There is so much craft beer in Dublin these days, there now exist a few pubs that do not serve Guinness. Irish-made beers from breweries such as N17, 8 Degrees, Wicklow Wolf, Brown Paper Bag Project, White Gypsy, and Franciscan Well continue to make marketing headway, and deservedly so. The craft beer scene is similar to where things were in the US in the 1990s (some beers truly great, and brewers having to work around supply problems with hops). Spending your night looking for a “perfect pint of Guinness”—that’s about as meaningful as spending a night in a supermarket produce section looking for a perfect mushroom. Be sure to ask about bottled beer—much of Ireland’s craft beer production gets bottled, which is easier for the retailers and the supply chains to handle. Also, there’s a lot beer made as a limited run—given the small breweries and the difficulties getting hops, brewers tend to rotate their production, just a farm-to-table restaurants adjust their menus to take advantage of what’s available at the market on a given day.

Private car destination guide– Boston

725276737442 copyWhy go: Full of history and culture, Boston is in many ways our country’s first city– home to The USS Constitution, Fanueil Hall, The Old State House, and Harvard University. Also home to the oldest subway system in North America, which also happens to be America’s oldest light rail system.

Private Car parking in BOS: While rail cars often need to get parked in the coachyard on weeknights, it is possible at the option of the station master to have a private car parked in the station at a bumper post on weekend nights. Station parking is really enjoyable–you are less than 50 feet from the main waiting room, and a three minute walk from there to the station’s subway station.

Boston highlights for private car folks: If you’re working the trip, and doing a little provisioning, you can get to food stores on the Green Line, but may wind up calling a cab to get back to the station: Traveling West on the Beacon St. Green Line, there’s a Whole Foods Market near St. Mary Street. Ride a few more blocks and there’s a Trader Joe’s at Harvard Street. The nearest Grainger Supply is on Arsenal St in Watertown (take the #70 bus from the Subway Red Line Central Square station). If you’re sightseeing, public transit is great–a one day pass is $12 (seven-day pass is $19) and can be purchased at any subway station. Despite being the most northeastern terminus of the Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, due to the high speeds used on the NEC, there’s only two Amtrak trains that will move private cars in and out of Boston: Amtrak’s 448/449 (Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited) which connects via Albany, NY, or Amtrak’s 66/67 (Overnight NEC train), which will accept private cars in Washington, DC, but not New York. Amtrak’s car services includes water, dumping, and a car wash. Station crews are easy to work with, and very professional.

Other transportation: At the north end of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, there’s frequent service to New York, Washington and points south by train. Airport is accessible by the subway Blue Line, and also via the Silver Line (bus rapid transit) from an underground bus platform alongside South Station.

Anything else: In the last ten years, Boston has become chock-full of gentrified neighborhoods and wonderful restaurants. My favorite neighborhood strolls are long walks through Brookline and Cambridge, and I’ve spent some happy rainy days at the Gardner Museum, and at the Co-Op book store in Cambridge. Oh, and the beer: Boston is the home of Harpoon Brewing, which has great tours. Favorite local spots include Redbones in Somerville (Davis Square) and Deep Ellum, in Allston.

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)

the_wild_wild_west S 2
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.
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


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:

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:

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.