Alrighty, I guess I'm in the mood to talk about my Milwaukee and Chicago trip, so I may as well start on it.
I had to get up early on October 12th so I'd be prepared to get on the train. I took the #3 and #87 bus routes to get to Midway Station from my apartment. I figured I was going to be pretty early, since the scheduled time for bus 87 was something like 7:11 AM while the train isn't scheduled to pull out until 7:50 (well, as of October 2006 anyway). So, I was a bit surprised when I saw the train waiting to get through a rail yard just as the 87 bus was passing over the tracks south of Energy Park Drive.
A few minutes later, I got off the bus and started walking to the station. I saw the Empire Builder was just pulling in, so I guess it must have been on time or very close to it. Amazing, considering that it had come from Portland and Seattle (two trains combine into one in Spokane, WA), though it does have periodic "service stops" which take half an hour or 45 minutes, which is built-in buffer time. St. Paul is the last service stop before reaching Chicago.
I waited around for a while and gave my parents a call before boarding. The procedure is quite different for a train versus a plane: You don't need to do an initial check-in, unless you have big baggage that needs to be checked. But, carry-on requirements are less strict on the train, so few people need it. Since this is a long-distance route, we had to show our tickets before boarding, but that isn't always the case for trains. There wasn't any baggage screening, and nobody showed their ID as far as I'm aware.
The person at the counter handed me a slip with "MKE" printed on it as he handed back my ticket stub, and told me the number of the train car to get on. Well, I think he said "17, three cars to the left", but that's actually the last two digits of the car number—"8217" would be the whole number, if I remember right. Anyway, I got on the passenger car and followed the lead of the guy in front of me. There's a shelf area near the entrance for bigger bags that you don't want to lug upstairs, though most items could fit upstairs if need be. There are a few rows of seats on the lower level of the car (a "Superliner"), something like twelve or sixteen seats total, but most of the seating is upstairs.
I came upstairs and then proceeded to get very confused. For this train, you are assigned a car, but not a seat. My ticket had a "28" on it, but even as I tried to sit in seat 28, I knew that this wasn't really correct. 28 is the train number—specifically, the train that came from Portland. The 8 train comes from Seattle (correspondingly, the westbound trains are 7 and 27). Well, that took a little getting used to. Also, it's worth noting that there were a lot of people already on the train when it got there. It's obvious if you think about it, but I'm so accustomed to getting on a plane which is empty to start off with.
Anyway, eventually I moved back a seat when a couple came onboard and I figured they should sit a little closer together rather than kitty-corner. It was pretty obvious from looking around the cabin, but eventually the stewardess tasked with our car came by and had everyone put their three-letter ticket up above their seat along the aisle. This helps them make sure you get off at the correct stop, especially for those late-night runs. So, future Amtrak travelers, the way to find an open seat is to look for ones that don't have the tickets hanging above them (though you might be sneaky and find one with the three-letter code for the stop you got on at, since those folks have just left and the ticket hasn't been pulled down yet).
We pulled out at 7:50, right on time. I enjoyed the ride down quite a bit, especially the early part as we followed the Mississippi River south from the Twin Cities to La Crosse. There are places where the train is running 70 mph just a few feet from the water, so it's pretty amazing to see a huge body of water off to the left and then have the high bluffs of the Mississippi gorge off to the right. I was also pleased to see that the train was fairly quiet. Definitely much better than a plane, though there was still fan noise from the HVAC system. I also noticed that it's probably best to sit near the center of a train car (at least if you're on the top level), since the doors can let in a lot of noise when they're opened as people walk forward and back. Another thing I noticed was a quiet sort of "chucka-chucka-chucka" noise that I didn't expect, since it seemed more evocative of steam trains. My best guess is that it comes from slightly worn-down wheels that aren't completely round anymore, making noise as they roll along the track.
The seats also had a huge amount of legroom compared to a plane or even most cars. You can recline most or all of the way and barely bother the person behind you, plus there is a leg rest that comes up from your seat and a footrest that pulls down from the seat in front of you. I'd hate to be stuck in one for the whole trip from Chicago out to the coast, but it's quite nice for a day trip like mine.
Unfortunately, the train ended up running slow for a while. I'm not exactly sure when we started running behind, but by the time we got to Wisconsin Dells, it was about an hour late. I think the train made up some time between there and Milwaukee, but it still arrived 45 minutes late (for long trips, Amtrak considers anything within 30 minutes of the schedule to be "on time", so no, it wasn't even "on time for Amtrak", but it wasn't hours late like people have seen in some cases). But, I didn't really mind that the train ran late, since it meant that I didn't have to mill around wasting time before I checked in at my hotel. It was only about four blocks away, actually closer than I had anticipated.
The next day, after visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum (very futuristic architecture on the new bit), I took the Hiawatha train from Milwaukee to Chicago. This was different from the Empire Builder in several ways. First off, there weren't any reserved seats or cars, and I didn't show my ticket until after the train left the station. There wasn't even a specific day or time on my ticket! It's almost a commuter line, so the seats are closer together, meaning less legroom. These train cars also only had one level, and were designed to run bi-directionally (half the seats faced one direction, while half faced the other—two sets of seats in the middle were arranged to face each other). The heavy baggage storage area was less obvious to me on that one, but it still existed behind the rear-most or forward-most seats.
Since the Hiawatha only has a few stops between Milwaukee and Chicago, the conductor and stewards didn't bother writing down the destination for most people, though a small strip of leftover paper from the ticket was put up next to people who were getting off at one of the intermediate stops (most people just went all the way to Chicago).
When I arrived at Chicago's Union Station, I was pretty surprised by the layout. Chicago is a "big" station for the United States, but it felt tiny in comparison to an airport. Well, the big main hall was kind of blocked off, which was a disappointment, but it only took two or three minutes to get from one concourse to the other. Heh, I got out so fast that I forgot to get my visitor pass for the Chicago transit system, so I had to go back in and get one (I mistakenly paid for the $12 3-day pass, though I could have gone for the two-day one. I figured that I'd be in town for parts of three days, but the three-day pass is valid for 72 hours after you start using it...)
For my return trip, I ended up getting just as confused. The various train tracks are numbered, so I was confused when the arrival/departure TV said "Gate B". It turns out that Amtrak has some lounges for people to congregate in before boarding the trains. I'm just glad I figured that out before it was too late.
Anyway, I boarded the train again and tried to be smart by sitting on the right-hand side. I figured this would put me closer to the Mississippi as we headed north, but then I did a quick calculation in my head and realized it would be completely dark by then. And wow, did it get dark. With roads, there's usually some light somewhere, coming from houses or cars or street lighting. But the train lines have virtually zero lighting. Must be scary to be the engineer on one of those things zipping through the middle of nowhere late at night.
Another thing that people noticed was that cell phone reception is pretty bad on the train. That might partially be due to the fact that the metal skin of the train cars has a Faraday cage effect, but I'm sure that the cell companies focus on the Interstates rather than rail lines when figuring out tower placement... I want to see that Verizon guy try to make a call in the middle of Montana...
Oh, and on my way back, I made a dinner reservation. Breakfast and lunch are usually first-come, first-serve, but they take names for supper. I ended up sitting next to three other people from the Cities. Two had visited the Milwaukee Art Museum and the third works for the Minneapolis Institute of Art, so we talked art a fair bit. Of course, we also talked about the train and how we were all essentially trying to support a form of transportation that nearly got killed off in the U.S.
Back in my coach seat, I was sitting next to a lady who got on in Columbus, Wisconsin (that's the stop nearest Madison). I think it was her first train trip in decades, but she compared it very favorably to the bus which she had taken before. She said it cost about the same too, though maybe the comparison is a bit closer for seniors. There's much more space, you can walk around, there's an observation car, there's a dining car, the train doesn't lurch as much as a bus, etc.
Anyway, it was nice to finally go on a legitimate inter
citystate train trip in the U.S. and see how everything works. Sure, the thing stops once every half hour or so, but the non-service stops go by very fast in most cases. If they can run more often and just a little bit faster (with better priority compared to freight trains), then many more people would choose the train over their cars. If it can go a lot faster, many people would choose it over a plane. It'll be a miracle if I see that happen between the Twin Cities and Chicago in my lifetime, though.
If they do it, they'll probably have to move the stop to one or both of the downtowns. That was one very interesting thing about going to Milwaukee and Chicago—both stations were right in or near the downtown districts (Chicago's Union Station is only two blocks from the Sears Tower, for crying out loud). The current Midway station in St. Paul is weird since it's halfway between the downtowns and not really within walking distance of anything interesting.Posted by mike at October 19, 2006 05:56 PM | News