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April 2001


VRE Seeks to Add Mid-Day Train

Virginia Railway Express is negotiating with CSXT to add a mid-day train from Washington to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to begin operating sometime this spring.


John Snow Given Marco Polo Award

CSX Corporation chairman and CEO John Snow has been named this year's winner of the Marco Polo Award presented by the U.S.-China Foundation for International Exchange. This award, considered the highest honor given to a foreign business leader, is presented to corporate leaders who play a significant role in China's economic development and who demonstrate a humanitarian commitment to improving Chinese society.


Operating Income Ahead of Business Plan, CSXT President Says

"Our financial performance is trending in the right direction," said Michael Ward, CSXT president, in a letter to employees. "After two months, operating income is ahead of our 2001 business plan. This was accomplished on slightly less traffic compared to the same period last year. Overall, the efforts to turn locomotives and cars faster and reduce fuel consumption are helping to keep expenses in check." But in the issue of safety, he added, "Yet these results through two months are tempered by our inability to dramatically improve our safety performance." He said that special teams are evaluating safety practices in the field to capture the best ones and make them available to others.


Railroad Retirement Bill Reintroduced in House

The Railroad Retirement and Survivors' Improvement Act of 2001 was introduced on March 21 by the leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It is House Bill 1140, and is virtually identical to last year's H.R. 4844, which failed to reach a vote in the Senate. The bill contains improvements originally agreed to by rail management and labor, including full retirement for rail workers at age 60 with 30 years of service.


BNSF to Expand Service Guarantee

Burlington Northern Santa Fe will extend its money-back service guarantees for intermodal shipments to four new routes - Memphis-San Bernardino, Chicago-Denver, St. Paul-Portland, and St. Paul-Seattle - for a total of 10 being offered by the company.


Amtrak Reform Council Issues its Report to Congress

The Amtrak Reform Council has recommended that the Northeast Corridor be turned over to a separate authority. This was one of several recommendations made in the council's annual report to Congress. The Amtrak Reform Council does not make policy, just recommendations. Among other suggestions the council made, Amtrak should be divided into a government entity and train operating company, and to consolidate all federal oversight and responsibilities. The council noted that Amtrak is running $100-million behind its business plan and has tripled its debt to $3-billion through sale and lease-back of equipment.


Amtrak to Expand Acela Express Service

Amtrak will double its Acela Express service between Boston, Providence and New York on April 29, providing two morning and two afternoon roundtrip trains on weekdays, and introduce weekend service.


Britain to Upgrade its Rail System

Britain's Strategic Rail Authority has announced a 10-year, $88-billion plan to upgrade the country's railway system. Its goal is to promote a 50 percent increase in passenger business and an 80 percent increase in freight for the network, according to news reports.


By Amtrak to Sacramento

[By Allen Brougham] . . .

Well, here I go again! One of the first things I had planned upon retirement (which I recommend for everyone) was to go Amtraking in the winter. Indeed, it had been nearly three decades since I had taken a cross country trip at that time of the year. So here I was, with plenty of time for traveling (at long last), and off I went on my first adventure of 2001 (there will be others).

One thing for sure: I love snow! (When I don't have to drive in it.) And I love being sequestered within the warm comfort of a train gliding effortlessly through the worst kind of weather. And never mind that it was somewhat mild when I began my journey; I was certain to be rewarded in my quest before it all ended. (I was.)

It bears mention that going across the country and back by train presents the risk of missed connections, being housed in a hotel, or other uncertainties at any time of the year; wintertime travel exacerbates these possibilities. Accordingly, I made no specific plans to be back home when scheduled. In fact, I allowed an entire day at the end of the trip, fully prepared that it be a day of travel, just in case.

Once again, I brought along Harry Ladd's U.S. Railroad Traffic Atlas (Ladd Publications, P.O. Box 1671, Orange, California 92856), a very useful tool to identify the country's rail lines and traffic density, all neatly contained in a single paperback book that can be slipped into a suitcase without taking up a lot of room (ideal for Amtraking).

The adventure began on February 6 (Tuesday) in Washington, in the Metropolitan Lounge, purposely arriving well ahead of time to glean the full amenity of first-class travel prior to departure. My itinerary would take me by way of Chicago on the Capitol Limited, transferring to the California Zephyr. Soon it became evident one of the advantages of cross-country travel in February - I would have much of the train to myself.

The train left exactly on time, and for the initial leg of the trip, from the site of former QN Tower to Point of Rocks, we operated entirely on number 2 track. Walking through the dining car en route to the Sightseer Lounge, I got my first whiff of its distinctive and very memorable aroma to befit the occasion. Wow! The best was yet to come!

It was almost dark as we left Martinsburg, I then being perched on the right-hand side of the lounge with a glass of White Zinfandel to toast the new site of Miller Tower. As we passed the site, with the tower quietly resting in sections in the compound of the Martinsburg Roundhouse (to which the building had been moved just two days earlier), I spotted two fellows wearing hard hats. I gave a wave; they both returned it. I thought I recognized one of the gents to be John Hankey (but, again, it was almost dark), and I was hoping that they might recognize me a little better than I could recognize them. Was one of the two indeed John Hankey? (Yes, it was, he later wrote.) John is the one who had introduced the idea of moving Miller Tower to the Martinsburg Roundhouse for historical display.

I gave a second toast to the former site of Miller Tower, but (completely dark by that point, and lacking lighted landmarks) I could only estimate the precise spot for my toast, so I made it a lengthy one. Then, eight minutes later, as we zipped past Hancock Tower (from which I had retired eight weeks earlier), I gave yet another toast, a promise I had made to a number of folks at the time of my retirement that I would give the place this particular tribute on my next Amtrak adventure going past. "I'll be watching," I had also said to the operators I had left behind, although at 60 miles per hour passing Hancock such opportunity to watch and toast at the same time goes by rather quickly.

Next came "exercise" time, to wit: walking through the train - and I only counted 32 passengers in the upstairs sections of the two coaches.

I had intentionally selected last call for dinner (there were two), in order to allot the earlier time of the first seating for my obligatory tower toasts from the lounge. My selection was Pheasant Mountain Grilled Strip Steak, I having a table all to myself in the almost empty car. Landmarks were not easy to spot in total darkness ascending Sand Patch grade, but once on the other side of the hill I did get a good glance passing Myersdale, having wondered if they actually do roll up the sidewalks at night. (Yes, they do.) For dessert I enjoyed Amtrak's Turtle Pie (this time noted on the menu as "Caramel Turtle Ice Cream Cake"), something I reserve sparingly for such first-night-out dining experiences owing to its super rich content. Such a fine experience: a leisurely dinner in the diner, with periodic refills of White Zinfandel - ah, but the pleasures of Amtraking! Try THAT on an airplane. Ha!

Retiring to my accommodation (early to bed and early to rise is my ritual while Amtraking), I opened the curtain to my darkened room and watched the trees and lights and sundry things overhead as they passed in the night, but within minutes the rhythmic sounds of motion lulled me to sleep. Indeed, I even remember a dream I had - of our train (get this) street-running through a neighborhood of Cleveland, up one street, down another, with stop signs, etc., much as if we were a 1000-foot-long streetcar.

Wednesday morning found me up early and to breakfast just as the diner opened. It was here that I had a long chat with Lou Drummeter of Martinsburg, a train attendant whom I had first met on the Capitol Limited back in 1996.

A flashback: The never-to-be-forgotten blizzard of January 7-8 of that year found me on duty at Miller Tower, stuck there for all of 30 hours, and it was the eastbound Capitol Limited that stopped there that second evening (it was late) and took me to Martinsburg where my car was parked. Lou Drummeter was on the train, and I drove him to his home en route to my motel room once we got to Martinsburg. Later that year I was a passenger in his sleeper on a Chicago-Washington run, and just a few days later I met him again at the Martinsburg station dedication where he was staffing the Amtrak display table. Then, when a restaurant was open at the station, and I would stop there for lunch, he would often be there too. It was great seeing Lou once again and to get caught up on happenings in the area.

It was cloudy when we got into Chicago, with the hint of light snow in the air. We backed into the station - and wonder of wonders... we were 29 minutes early. No kidding!

A layover in Chicago in the midst of winter is not a tourist's delight, but I did manage to make my way to the Chicago Board of Trade for a gallery visit once I had tended to my obligatory visit to the Great Hall of Union Station to pay it homage.

Owing to the time of year and travel being light, the Metropolitan Lounge was uncrowded. Boarding was delayed due to an unexplained mechanical problem, and once it was announced that the train was ready, I found that my luggage had been moved to another location (which they had not told me). I then got caught up in the confusion of the boarding of coach passengers (exacerbated by the fact that the coaches were on the rear, and the sleepers were on the front), and although the train was spotted on the runthrough track, it was not next to the lounge as it probably should have been. Also, there were seven mail cars to walk past before even getting to the passenger portion of the train. We left Chicago 45 minutes late with (I am told) only 91 passengers on board.

My friendly sleeping car attendant gave me his card - printed (I suppose) by Amtrak, complete with (get this) his social security number! He had punched holes in the social security number (understandably), but the question of the day is why on earth had it ever been printed on the card in the first place. Do other Amtrak employee business cards provide this unnecessary, personal information?

Dinner (again, last seating) was enjoyed in the company of a French Canadian from Montreal (who spoke perfect English) and a gent named Mike from Hagerstown, Maryland, who owns a restaurant in Frederick. Mike was en route to California for a meeting, saying this was his first ever train ride - and never again would he fly. Right on! Mike and I became good friends during the course of the trip, ultimately with a couple of others forming a group of four as we climbed into the Sierras two days later.

Retiring for the night in Iowa, sadly I note that five weeks later, the California Zephyr, on that same portion of track, had a tragic accident with injuries and a loss of life. I am always saddened when tragedy strikes, especially on a train I have known and loved. It may be just a little comfort to say that I consider train travel to be safe, in spite of such incidents, and I am not deterred from enjoying trains for the pleasure they serve, again and again. Amtrak is still the way to go.

Thursday morning found us in Western Nebraska. I was joined at the breakfast table, briefly, by the train's conductor, and then by a 90-year old gent (he looked much younger), who was a retired school teacher (but still working as a substitute) who began his career at a one-room school in Minot, North Dakota. I told him of my own pleasant trip to Minot several years ago (by Amtrak, of course) in which a high point was a visit to a one-room school on display at their pioneer village.

Back in the Sightseer Lounge (my spot for most of the trip) it had begun to snow rather heavily; such a thrill it was to repose within my bubble of comfort, protected from the elements whisking all around the glass enclosure. The outside temperature was 11 degrees, according to the conductor.

The sun shone faintly through the clouds with a light snow falling as we arrived in Denver. When we left there, it began to snow more heavily again, but it let up enough to avail a spectacular view of the terrain as we ascended into the mountains. The scenery, to those who have already seen it, needs no description... but in the winter it is just so much more spectacular than at any other time of the year.

Lunch (which included our passage through Moffat Tunnel) was enjoyed with Mike (the restaurateur from Hagerstown) and a couple from Iowa en route to Salt Lake City. Lunch in the diner is always such a pleasurable experience, perhaps because of the unhurried nature of those trains that get to serve it.

Returning once again to the Sightseer Lounge, it was only about a third full. Such abundance of things to see in company of so few to enjoy it! To lull away the time within such pristine splendor is a joy to behold.

We were one hour and 44 minutes late when we left Granby, Colorado, and we lost some more time west of there due to signal delays (or maybe it was a train ahead). At the very least, the delay - running at restricted speed for nearly half an hour - was within an area of lavish scenery; it gave us a better look at things, including a herd of elk. But by then it must have been nap time, or maybe the folks had become tired of the scenery, as I counted only nine people still in the lounge. One of those remaining was a Don, a gent from Vancouver, Washington, returning home from Denver. He had gone eastward over the route just the day before, and he told me a lot more snow was on the ground this time than there had been the previous day. Later we saw a bald eagle. (That bird was BIG!) We met the eastbound CZ at Dell, Colorado. We were two hours late leaving Glenwood Springs, by which time the skies had cleared.

It was dark when we got to Grand Junction, a service stop allowing passengers to get out and stretch (which, of course, I did). On my visit to this place in 1997, I noted the efforts to restore the classic old depot for use as a restaurant and how its fenced-off appearance greatly distracted from the decor of the area. Well, things have not gotten a bit better, to my dismay. But now comes word that there may be plans to turn the depot back into a depot once again. I hope this is right. Grand Junction deserves better than what it has now, especially since it is a service stop with so many folks getting to see the place first hand.

We were one hour and 47 minutes late leaving Grand Junction. Fifteen minutes later, we stopped. I could see the red signal (we were on a curve) from the window. We stayed there 25 minutes, and no trains went by. No explanation for the delay was ever given. A short while later, during dinner (Prime Rib) we had another delay of 30 minutes. Again, no explanation.

Friday morning I awoke to the very earliest glimmer of light, aided by the moon, and I was treated to an ascent around a horseshoe curve so perfect in every way that I would say it to be quite a bit more spectacular than any I had ever seen (even more so than the one near Altoona). Arnold Loop is what it's called, according to Mr. Ladd's atlas, and such a pity it is that in neither direction of the CZ does the train visit this spot in daylight - unless the train is very, very late.

For breakfast I was joined by a geologist from Denver en route to Reno. We were discussing the world's need for energy. What he says is scary; the world will be unable to produce its own petroleum needs, at the current rate of consumption, after the next five years or so. The problems in California are only the beginning, he says. What is needed are immediate solutions - geothermal, solar, expanded use of hydro, windmills, a more efficient electrical grid, better conservation, etc. As for transportation, do you see an expanded use of trains in this equation? Think about it!

Following breakfast, I reposed to the lounge. By now the train had stopped just east of Elko, Nevada. The sun glimmered through the clouds, but a light snow was falling. After about ten minutes, the conductor announced that our delay was due to a freight train ahead of us waiting for its crew. I could hear over his radio that the freight train's conductor was having to check his train due to an error in the consist. After a 30-minute delay, we moved, ever so slowly at first, and then to our stop in Elko (which must be one of the most obscure stops - at the end of a street - on the Amtrak system). The characteristics of the line in that area (double-track, with single-directional signaling) do not easily permit one train to get ahead of another, and we crept along behind the freight train (a general merchandise one, not a fast-moving piggyback), consuming considerable time, until (at the suggestion of the freight train's conductor) we ran through a yard track at Carlin, Nevada, so we could get ahead. Right on!

We were five hours and five minutes late leaving Winnemucca (now on single track CTC), thence to a control point with a siding known as Colado, stopping with our crew on the law! Ha! Our train was so late, our crew had run out of time. A new crew was being sent to us by van from Sparks, Nevada, but it would be some time before they would arrive. About 20 minutes later, a westbound piggyback train arrived on the adjacent track, but departed just a couple of minutes later. (I surmise that the dispatcher was hoping our new crew would have arrived by then, but when it had not, the piggyback train was allowed to go ahead of us.) But eight minutes later, our new crew did arrive, and we departed.

Mike and I were having a very pleasurable discussion about train operations, being joined by Richie, a young fellow from Modesto, California, as we came to the next control point west of Colado. With but wishful thinking that the dispatcher would have somehow allowed for the piggyback train to take the siding at that point to let us get back ahead, I remarked that we might see it in that siding (but probably we would not), and I almost went through the roof with excitement when we saw the piggyback train waiting for us at the other end of the siding. "Wow! I take back everything I've ever said bad about the Union Pacific," said I. "Now, that's good railroading!"

Sparks, Nevada, essentially a part of Reno, is a service stop. Passengers may get off to stretch, if they choose, but there is not much to see. The Union Pacific is very restrictive of areas to be visited; everywhere there are signs saying "no admittance," or "do not enter," or "passengers not allowed beyond this point," etc.

Because we were so late, there was concern over passengers' connections in Sacramento and Emeryville. Normally, when the train is as late as it was today, connecting passengers would be transferred to buses in Reno, since buses can cross the mountain more quickly than a train. But this would not be done today. The reason: There was heavy snow in the Sierras, and buses were having trouble getting through.

We were five hours and 40 minutes late - by now, almost dark - leaving Reno. Our group, including Mike and Richie, were joined in the Sightseer Lounge by Don, the gent I had met earlier from Vancouver, Washington. Don had worked for the Northern Pacific from 1946 until 1949, first as a signal maintainer, and then as a fireman (making only one trip in the engine before being dismissed because he did not have the endurance to maintain the fire). The four of us then became a group as we enjoyed our climb into the Sierras.

It was announced that a special supper was being prepared - complimentary to all passengers, since we were so late - to be served in two seatings. Our foursome began to make predictions as to what would be offered. My prediction was Salisbury Steak (a.k.a. TV dinner) with paper plates and plastic utensils. (I've seen it done before.) But grandiose thoughts of some sort of "gourmet surprise" were bandied about, too.

Meanwhile, it was snowing rather heavily as we ascended into the mountains. Traffic on the adjacent Interstate 80 was being stopped, with a long backup, as the highway department was (presumably) telling truckers and those without 4-wheel drive to "chain up."

Call for the special supper was made for sleeping car passengers first, but we were able to sneak Richie (who was traveling coach) in with us so we could keep our foursome together. The meal was Meatloaf (I was close), Mashed Potatoes, Corn, Roll and Beverage (no dessert), and it was served on paper plates with plastic.

No, I'm not complaining about the meal. The special supper was offered since our train had been so much delayed. Normally, we would have arrived at our destinations by this time and no evening meal would be offered. It was not up to typical Amtrak standards, but still better than simply giving us goodies from the snack bar. Amtrak, you're OK in my book!

We arrived in Sacramento five hours and 14 minutes late. On arrival at the motel, the desk manager, a gent named Ralph Ferguson (who noticed my B&O jacket), told me he had been an Amtrak conductor in Washington in the 1980's. Golly, he knew some of the same folks I know. What a small world!

My first of two full days in Sacramento was a Saturday. My initial order of business was (of course) to visit the California Railroad Museum. And as luck would have it, this day was freebie day - a once a year opportunity to visit the museum without charge. I arrived early, just as the place opened, and joined the long line of visitors. It's a very popular place at anytime, but especially so on freebie day (which included free admission to other museums in the area, too).

Were it not for the fun of coming to Sacramento by train, and then returning afterward, the visit to the California Railroad Museum would have made the whole trip worthwhile nonetheless, and everything else I did here was secondary.

The museum, which is the first in the country to be built exclusively as a railroad museum (not converted from something else), is situated in the part of the city known as Old Town, along the Sacramento River waterfront, just a short walk from the train station. There are numerous shops and restaurants, and the entire downtown area is within a moderate walking distance.

On Sunday I went to the State Capitol Building and took the tour. But what intrigued me most about the building, which was not included in the tour itself, was its working seismograph. Situated in the back lobby, just a few steps from the governor's office, it displays a recorder drum which makes a revolution every half hour. I was watching it for no more than about five minutes when - suddenly - it began to blip rather noticeably. Oops! I felt nothing. (But the sensor is not near the building.) The next morning, I checked a couple of newspapers, and nothing was mentioned of an earthquake on Sunday.

On Monday, I got to the station in plenty of time for an on-time (11:35 a.m.) departure. Not so fast! When I arrived, I learned that the eastbound train was "being delayed." It had not even departed from Emeryville, its origin, and at best it would not be arriving in Sacramento until 2:15 p.m. Gulp!

I asked them if I could store my luggage at the station so I could do some sightseeing. Yes, I could - for $1.50. What! Admittedly, $1.50 would not break me, but I don't think it would enhance Amtrak's bottom line by very much either. I paid the money, but I do believe it was asinine for them to charge me to store my luggage when it was not my fault that their train was being delayed. Oh, well.

I went back to the State Capitol Building. This time I watched its seismograph for about 20 minutes. There were some blips, too, about once every five minutes. It's scary; seemingly there are seismic motions happening somewhere in the world at just about any time. Only the big ones make the news, but little ones are happening almost constantly.

I then took a ride on the light-rail line.

I got back to the station at 1 o'clock. Further delays. In fact, it was not until 4 o'clock when the train arrived - and both it and the westbound section arrived at exactly the same time. We left at 4:10 p.m., four hours and 35 minutes late. Our explanation was that there had been engine trouble, along with a freight train derailment that had blocked the shop area.

At this point I was somewhat sullen. I had counted on seeing the Sierras in daylight. Both the westbound and eastbound trains are scheduled through the Sierras in daylight; I got to go through them them in both directions at night. But I made the best of it - perched in the Sightseer Lounge - at least content to make out the silhouettes of the landscape brightened somewhat by the fresh fallen snow... until... they began showing some stupid movie on the monitors!

Tuesday morning I was up and finished breakfast in time to visit the Amtrak station in Salt Lake City. I might never have seen this station but for the extreme lateness of the train. I cannot say I'd have missed anything had I never seen it at all; it is utilitarian, but lacking in any level of creativity. Oh, well, what can we expect for a stop that is blessed only with trains scheduled to stop in the wee hours of the morning! Then, at least, the building might not appear so bland to those who use it.

Coincidentally, the "station" at Salt Lake City is situated about two blocks from the historic Rio Grande depot, which is still standing.

If there is a consolation for our tardiness, it is in the stupendous scenery east of Salt Lake City, some of which would have been covered in darkness if the train were on time.

For dinner that evening I was joined by Dean and Kathy, en route to Denver, whom I had dined with the previous evening. My selection was Trout. It was great!

It was dark well before reaching Moffat Tunnel, but I had covered that section in daylight on the westbound portion of the trip, so I was not disappointed.

I met a couple of noteworthy folks on the eastbound run. First was James Miculka of the National Park Service Trails and Rails Program, who was returning to New Orleans following a meeting to expand Amtrak's on-board lecture presentations. Second was Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), who was returning to Washington.

Wednesday provided me with a bonus, of sorts. That is, I had four meals in the diner, not just three. It happened because we were given a "special supper" (leftover hamburger) on the CZ, because our train was running so late, and then I got to eat the regular dinner on the Capitol Limited upon leaving Chicago.

Both the Lake Shore Limited and the Capitol Limited were held in Chicago for connections off our train. I was one of ten passengers who were transferring from the CZ to the Capitol Limited. The CZ arrived in Chicago at 7:43 p.m., three hours and 23 minutes late. The Capitol Limited, in turn, pulled from Chicago at 8:32 p.m., 47 minutes late, and then had our mail added to the rear and followed the Lake Shore Limited (which was due out ahead of us) - we pulling from the outer yard at 9 o'clock.

We arrived in Washington Thursday afternoon at 5 p.m., two hours and 20 minutes late.

All in all, it was a great adventure. Except for missing the Sierras in daylight, both ways, I am not particularly disturbed that most of the trains were late. Indeed, that merely added to the value of the trip (acknowledging that I enjoy my travel by the hour, not necessarily by the mile). It was fun (but tiring), and I look forward to my next adventure. All I have to do now is select a destination.