The Underground Brewery Stories about brewing beer and train traveling from Tom Coughlin

July 24, 2012

Syracuse to Michigan on the Lakeshore Limited (July 2005)

Filed under: — Tom @ 11:40 am

Meg and I traveled to Ann Arbor for the week of July 25, on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. Meg was going to a conference, and I tagged along to ride some trains.

Ann Arbor is on the Amtrak line between Chicago and Pontiac, Michigan, which complicates getting there by train. To do the trip entirely by train, you’d have to go via Chicago and spend a least a half-day connecting with a train going eastward across Michigan. Alternatively, there’s an Amtrak bus from Toledo to Ann Arbor, however there are two trains that serve Toledo from the east. Both arrive there in the middle of the night, and the bus doesn’t leave until both trains have arrived, which can lead to a long wait at the station at a point in the day when most folks would rather be sleeping.

After giving this dilemma some thought, Meg opted to take the train as far west as South Bend, Indiana. While not the most direct route, we would arrive there mid-morning, and depart from there before 10 p.m. on the way home, which would coincide with times when a nearby Hertz car rental office would be open. In South Bend, the car rental office is at South Bend Airport, a three-mile free shuttle ride from the train station. After settling on going via South Bend, Meg thought some more, and decided to leave from Syracuse, New York–far from where we live in Pennsylvania, but close to where she grew up, and she
could use the same itinerary she used to take get to college when she attended Notre Dame University as an undergrad. We started our trip by paying a visit by car to Meg’s Dad in Endicott, New York, who we recruited to drive us to the station.

We started out from Endicott on Saturday afternoon. Keith drove us up to Syracuse, and we stopped for dinner at Dinosaur Barbecue in town before going over to the train station. Built in the mid 1990s at a new central location near the Carousel Mall and the baseball stadium, the new station replaced the downtown bus terminal (which was built in the 1930s to serve as the New York Central train station) as well as the old train station in East Syracuse (a spartan brick building that the New York Central built in the 1950s, after they sold the downtown right-of-way to the highway builders). The new station is a
handsome structure with a single high-level platform that efficiently serves the frequent trains on the New York City-Buffalo route. Across the platform from the Amtrak track is ribbon of gravel–the long-unfinished rail bed for the On-Track diesel RDC rail car shuttle. The original plans for the station included extending northern end of the local rail shuttle a few hundred yards east of it’s present terminus at the mall to provide a direct rail connection between the Amtrak station, Syracuse University and the downtown area. Folks are still waiting for this train to come in, unfortunately.

Amtrak train 49, the Lake Shore Limited, was about a half-hour late arriving. What a big train it was–four coaches, a cafe car, a diner, three sleepers, a crew dorm and a baggage car, and two engines running back to back. Meg dropped our bags in our two-person “roomette” (which up to this year, Amtrak called a standard bedroom, but recently renamed). Robert, our sleeping car attendant was working from a manifest that he received in New York City and didn’t realize that I had been added as a passenger to my wife’s room–so only the lower berth was made up for sleeping. We sat in the the part of the cafe car which formerly served as the smoking lounge and waited for him to make up the upper for me. At 10:30 p.m. we went off to bed, still short of Rochester.

Whether or not you call it a bedroom or a roomette, it’s is pretty tight for two people. Amtrak’s decision to change the name of their “standard bedroom” accommodation to “roomette” was a acknowledgment that the room is measures only 3.5′ feet by 6.6′
feet, which is very close to the dimensions of the traditional Pullman Roomette as it was introduced in the 1930s. Of course, the original one was intended only for one person.

One legend from railroad history has it that Union Pacific Railroad President Averell Harriman first suggested the roomette. At the time, sleeping cars were predominantly open sections (which for those who don’t remember, consisted of an upper and
lower bed covered with zippered curtains at night, that folded into two small couches that faced each other in the daytime). The railroads had an interesting challenge when it came to marketing sections to the traveling public– people traveling alone would eagerly purchase the lower-berth ticket, but the upper-berth ticket was a hard sell, even at a discount. It seemed that many passengers would rather try to sleep in a coach seat than ride backward while trying to make small-talk with a stranger. Harriman concluded that the best solution was to reduce the number of sections available in a train to the point where the likelihood of both seats being sold was higher, and offer roomettes at a premium price to people who insisted on traveling in
solitude. (History buffs will note that this is the same Averell Harriman also gave us a nuclear test ban treaty in 1963, and
was sent by LBJ to Paris in 1968 to negotiate unsuccessfully with the Viet Cong.)

In the original incarnation of the roomette, Pullman only needed to jam one bed into that space, and was unconcerned that the
toilet disappeared when the bed folded down on top of it, murphy-bed style. Through the magic of modern miniaturization,
Amtrak was able to shoehorn two beds, a sink and a toilet into that space, and miraculously leave the toilet out in the open
when the beds are down. (This may seem like trivia to those of you who have never slept on a train, but the late night
sensations of rocking and rolling while one is trying to sleep are acutely magnified by the contents of one’s bladder. The
setup of the old roomettes was particularly inconvenient in this respect.)

The last time Meg and I traveled in an Amtrak roomette, we had trouble juggling bags, clothes and having only enough space for
one person to stand up at a time, and then only if the beds were stowed away. This time out, we were a little better organized
and had luggage that was more suitable for the cramped storage space. Our Amtrak experience was excellent this time–the car
was clean, everything worked, no rattles, and the attendant took care of us. We woke up just short of Sandusky, showered in
the general shower, and had breakfast in the diner–this one used to be a buffet and still had it’s sliding food tray and
steam table area. Then we waited for our train to arrive in South Bend.

Off the train in South Bend at 8:30 Central time (Indiana is one our ahead of Michigan and Ohio in the Summer). The Hertz
rental desk at the airport sent a driver over to get us, and take us to our car. Our first stop was the University of Notre
Dame, Meg’s undergraduate alma mater. Meg and I attended 10 a.m. mass, and then walked out to the grotto to light a few
candles. After church, we wandered over to their massive bookstore, and wandered around campus. It’s much bigger than when Meg
was there as a student a few years ago.

After Notre Dame, we drove east to Elkhart to pay a visit the New York Central Railroad Museum, which sits right next to the
Amtrak station–we’ve gone by it so many times on the train and have wanted to visit for years. They have a really nice
collection of railroad dining car memorabilia from the New York Central Railroad, with some concentration on the 20th Century
Limited. The inside of the museum was well air-conditioned, but outside it was 95 degrees and sunny–too hot for much of a
walk around the yard. Afterward, we drove to Ann Arbor, and arrived in early evening. After dinner in a seafood restaurant in
town we headed off to the Sheraton for the night.

Monday morning, after dropping Meg off at the University of Michigan for her conference, I took off in the direction of Canada
to do a little cross-border sightseeing–Ann Arbor to Windsor, Ontario, then up to Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron Michigan. In
Windsor, I purchased my tickets for a Wednesday VIA trip to Toronto, and then I drove north to Sarnia to see the end of the
Saint Claire tunnel, and the majestic Sarnia Grand Trunk station, which stands out in the middle of large railyard about a
mile south of town. A set of two Budd coaches and a VIA F-40 locomotive that had just been turned pulled past the station from
the direction of the tunnel, and pulled into a pocket track east of the station to wait for the evening run to Toronto. Since
the Amtrak International has been cancelled, VIA provides two trains a day to Toronto on the Sarnia line.  While photographing
the station and trainset, I attracted the attention of a railroad security officer who watched me from his patrol car from a

After Sarnia, I drove over the Blue Water bridge to Port Huron, Michigan. The US customs agent in the toll booth asked me
about a dozen question regarding my travel plans and rental car, but never checked my passport. I then drove to the Amtrak
station in Port Huron, which is the end of the line for a Chicago train at around 11:00 p.m., and the starting point for the
5:30 a.m. return trip. From the station, I can see the mouth of the tunnels in the distance.

On some future trip, I’ll try to travel this line by train– I’ll arrive from Chicago into Port Huron at 11 p.m., spend a
night in a hotel here, sight-see Port Huron and Sarnia on foot the following morning, and then catch the afternoon VIA train
from Sarnia to Toronto. You can’t do it with a private rail car, but you can do it by foot or taxi. Not sure about taking a
taxi to Canada however.

I arrived back in Ann Arbor around 6:00 p.m. and meet up with Meg, who was attending class, and we had dinner at the Red Hawk
Grill. After dinner, we wandered around town on foot. I stopped by the Amtrak station to purchase my tickets for my Tuesday
trip to Pontiac (I had previously rode between Ann Arbor and Chicago, but haven’t collected the milage in the other
direction). Back in the hotel room that night, I finally completed my Portland trip report which took two weeks to finish.

Tuesday, I caught a Pontiac-bound Amtrak train in Ann Arbor and rode to Pontiac and back. A vigorous cloudburst of about 40
minutes seemed to cause the train to stop in-route, and the train seemed to be running under a slow order for the rest of the
trip. The trainset was composed of three Horizon cars and an Amfleet One snack bar. The crew was friendly, and the passenger
load surprisingly heavy. After the trip, I met up with Meg and we went to the Michigan Theater to see “The Wizard of Oz” on
the big screen.

Wednesday, I had a great day riding between Windsor and Toronto on VIA–I rode out via Aldershot in the morning, and I
returned via Kitchener and Guelph in the afternoon. I’ll save the line between Sarnia and London for the next trip. As you
might expect, VIA, the Canadian passenger rail system, has lots of operational differences and similarities compared to
Amtrak. VIA is slowly getting rid of it’s F-40 locomotives, however, unlike Amtrak, there are a few still around. VIA operates
a fleet of General Electric P-42 engines that look similar to Amtrak’s. The LRC locomotives that Bombardier built for them in
the 1980s have all been retired, but the matching LRC coaches remain in service–I rode LRC coach trains exclusively
yesterday. There are some Budd coaches running in this service, and the trains that they are used on are given a few more
minutes on the timetable. There are snack-bars on VIA short-distance trains, they have airline-style galleys and use an aisle
cart to vend food and drinks. VIA has lots of crew on the trains (one person for every car to do the food service) which gives
it an airline-sort of feel. Passengers do not move around as much as they do on Amtrak. VIA toilets have a nasty tendency to
splash up at the moment that the big valve in the bottom of the toilet opens, so the johns are often smelly and in need of

The LRC coaches have active tilting mechanisms which the crew seemed to leave turned on all the time (it’s indicated by a
yellow tally light that’s in plain view in the front of the cars). Going over switches, the cars rolled broadly from side to
side. I didn’t see any of the new Renaissance trainsets in my travels that day. These are cars that were designed by Alstom
for Channel Tunnel service in Europe, and when the deal
fell through, VIA got a deal on them.

In Toronto, I rode the Spadina light rail from Union Station to the new underground station at the end of the line (my first
trip on it–it wasn’t open the last time I was in town). I also rode the new Sheppard subway (five stations are completed, and
they’re operating what’s already been built). The new Sheppard line runs entirely underground underneath a suburban artery,
several miles north of downtown. Opening in 2002, it was built using a boring machine with stations built using cut-and-cover.
A victim of changing governments in Toronto, it was envisioned that this line would connect two suburban commercial areas
(North York City Centre and Scarborough Town Centre), however only the central portion was built. As the scaled-back line is
entirely underground (there is a turnout east of the Sheppard-Younge station that connects the line to the Younge subway line
to get the cars back to the shop), the builders had great difficulties getting special trackwork and mechanical equipment onto

On Thursday, I took the day off from riding, and visited the Motown museum in Detroit, and took a side trip to Royal Oak to do
some antique shopping.

Friday, I spent the morning visiting the University of Michigan Museum, and in the afternoon met up with Meg. After dinner, we
drove the 180 or so miles back to South Bend, Indiana and returned the car back at the Airport at sunset. The Hertz people
were kind enough to give us a drive down to the Amtrak station, and as we pulled in, Amtrak train 30, the Capitol, heading
east to Washington pulls out of the station about an hour-and-a-half late.

At that point we realized that we were probably going to be in for a long night. We checked with the agent (a very friendly
and helpful woman who sold tickets, hauled bags, and didn’t get to go home until our train arrived), and she was not
optimistic. Julie (Amtrak’s automated voice system) assured us that the train was 51 minutes late and would arrive at 10:16,
but the agent explained that she called the crew on the train, and they were still in the station in Chicago, waiting for
connecting passengers transferring from the California Zephyr, which arrived four and a half hours late, and they would more
likely be about two hours late. Meg and I curled up in the aging shell chairs in the waiting room, and pulled out our reading.

Sitting in the South Bend Amtrak station must have given Meg flashbacks to her college days. When she was an undergrad at
Notre Dame, this building served not only Amtrak, but was the terminal station for the South Shore Railway. A squat,
cement-block building, built in the early 1970s when the South Shore gave up on running through the streets of South Bend, the
station has served Amtrak exclusively since the 1990s. There are been some ill-fated efforts to move the station either back
downtown or out to the airport, which has led to this building being overlooked for modernization and upgrading. The
through-the-wall air conditioner groaned in the humid midwestern heat, and the sounds reverberated around the bare block
waiting room.

Finally at 11:30 p.m. (central time, it felt like after midnight to us), the train pulled in. Meg and I quickly found our
sleeper, and headed straight for our berths. The air conditioning was blowing very cold in the car, and the room’s thermostat
didn’t seem to work. At 5:30 am I woke up in time to see Lorain, OH, and turned over and did some dozing as far as Erie, PA.
We lost some additional time overnight, and were now about three hours late. Meg and I smiled at each other–we’ll have lunch
in the diner before Syracuse. We decided to pass on breakfast, and I had to wander into the next car to find a working coffee

We tried to relax as much as was possible in our awfully cold and very compact Amtrak Roomette. We took turns showering, and
sitting and reading the paper, and placing the pillows on top of the air vents under the windows (we shut them off using the
sliding louvers, but the frigid air was leaking in with gusto). After dressing and getting our bags packed for a 1:15 p.m.
arrival in Syracuse, we wandered down to the Amtrak diner for some surprisingly bad food and service–complete with a coffee
cup with lipstick smudge already applied (a nice shade though), and a beef pot pie that been mashed and generally beaten up on
it’s way into it’s corelle dish, into which someone had thoughtfully left a long human hair strand to keep it company. Our
lunch companions were two railfans from Minneapolis and we had a great time chatting about our favorite Amtrak adventures. We
excused ourselves as the train approached Syracuse, and left the train to continue our trip home with Meg’s Dad, who was
waiting for us in the station.

I share with you my story about the bad food, frozen room and late train on our trip home because more than anything, it
struck us as funny, and in truth it didn’t really bother us that much. There’s something about the excitement of a train trip
that makes a certain kind of traveler want to forgive the discomforts. I guess that’s what travel adventures are all about. We
were only home for a few days before we started planning our next train trip.

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