For years I have been planning a visit to Holland, Michigan. I have always heard that it's a beautiful, scenic and friendly town with a well-preserved Dutch culture and identity.
Finding my way to Holland
Yes, there is an Amtrak station in Holland, but my biggest hang-up about planning this trip is the train schedule. If I took the Pere Marquette train from Chicago to Holland I would have to make an all-day connection in Chicago in both directions. Although I love Chicago, and I'm never bored when I'm there, I did not want my Holland vacation to involve two full days in Chicago. That would defeat the purpose of my trip! My other related problem was the Pere Marquette's late arrival in Holland at 9:30 p.m. and on return leaving Holland at 7:30 a.m. These service times would cut even more into my vacation time.
So, taking the Pere Marquette to Holland was out of the question for me. I looked into taking an Indian Trails bus instead, and here I had a few more hang-ups. The bus schedule required me to change buses in Benton Harbor or in Kalamazoo, and the arrival time would put me into Holland not much earlier than the train. The added time on a bus would not add anything good to my vacation experience. Also, Indian Trails serves the Chicago Greyhound terminal, and I make every effort at all times to avoid Greyhound! Granted, Indian Trails does serve Chicago Union Station, but I was not clear on which buses stop there and when. I think that Indian Trails is a good company, but their schedule from Chicago to Holland wasn't going to help me much.
I looked at renting a car from Chicago Union Station and driving to Holland from there, but I'm a small town guy who doesn't like to drive in big cities. I settled on taking the Wolverine service, train #352 from Chicago to Kalamazoo, renting a car from the airport there, and making the 1.5 hour drive from Kalamazoo to Holland. That turned out to be a very good decision.
Leaving from Memphis
The day of my departure I took a scenic route from my house to Memphis. Along the way I attended a church service, stopped to visit friends, checked out a Davy Crockett memorial, and enjoyed the scenery along the way. A friend of mine advised me earlier in the week that the parking lot at Memphis Central Station has been at capacity for months now. This is a by-product of the popularity of the train in recent years. (Memphis now handles well over 60,000 passengers per year and growing!) I made an effort to arrive at the station in plenty of time to secure a parking space. Sure enough, there were only four open spaces in the entire lot when I got there! I have caught the train out of Memphis several times over the years and never before have I seen so many cars in the station parking lot!
The parking lot at Memphis Central Station is also used by a precinct of the Memphis Police Department, which makes Memphis one of the safest train stations in the entire country. However, I noted there were far more police cars in the parking lot than I've seen in previous years and that too was causing some of the parking shortage. Perhaps some of these cop cars would serve their purpose well being parked on South Main Street.
With two hours to kill I left my car in the lot and walked along South Main Street up to the famous Beale Street. Fifteen or more years ago it would have been hazardous to my health to walk alone on South Main Street, but today this is a decent part of town. The Memphis Trolley and the revitalized Central Station anchored an ongoing revitalization. There are some empty buildings in the area caused by the economic downturn, but overall it's a healthy district.
Beale Street is what it's always been - a wild and crazy place with lots of music, beer, and dancing (but not to the extreme that Bourbon Street is in New Orleans!). There's a strong police presence there and it too is a safe place to visit. I listened to some of the bands playing, had a few drinks at one of the less crowded bars, and then made my way back down South Main Street to the station. I grabbed my bags from the car and sat down in the station waiting room to find my ticket print-out. (The City of New Orleans now has eTicketing.) As soon as I sat down, the baggage agent walked over and asked if I needed help or any bags checked. He took my eTicket print-out and printed a new one for me on ticket stock, got my baggage ticket fixed up, and then came back and explained how everything would work. I thanked him for being so helpful and he said, "Sir, I'm always glad to help…you tell me if you need anything because I'm here to take care of you." His level of service was more than what I expected.
The train station filled up quickly. I walked outside to see what was going on in the parking lot and the parking shortage was plainly evident. I have never seen a traffic jam at Memphis Central Station before and this one was a real problem. To make a long story short, several people waited in their cars for the train to arrive hoping that the arriving passengers would get in their cars and get on their way to free up some spaces.
Train #59 arrived about 16 minutes late. The growth in ridership at Memphis has created another problem. There's no clear consensus or written instruction on how to queue the departing passengers, or give the arriving passengers room to step off the train and get to the station amidst the swelling crowd, or to make space for the baggage cart to roll through. All we have to depend on in Memphis is the conductor yelling instructions above the noise. It's much more frustrating for the conductor than it is for the passengers. There's also no protocol at Memphis to give elderly passengers or passengers with small children any type of priority boarding.
The time has come, in my opinion, for a fence to be built under the platform canopy with posted boarding instructions. A fence would allow boarding passengers a place to queue up for the train while allowing plenty of room to sort out the arriving passengers. This would also allow provisions for elderly passengers and families with children to have priority boarding. I plan on writing a letter with that suggestion.
As we boarded the train I noticed that they were assigning seats. This was also a first for me. I quickly learned why as soon as I got on…the train was full and they needed every single seat. I, unfortunately, was assigned one of the worst seats in the house, seat #38. It's an upper level aisle seat right next to the stairway. The stairway structure blocks any view on the right side of the train, and there's a constant glare from the overhead stairway light. At first, I wasn't happy and thought about asking for a different seat. I then decided to not be selfish and stick with what I got.
Overnight to Chicago
I was able to sleep through the night, which was a huge relief in spite of the fluorescent glare from the stairway. I brought along a blanket and a neck pillow and the attendant gave out Amtrak pillows. Fortunately, my seat mate sitting on the window side was a quiet sleeper. I woke up about 5:30 the next morning and felt fine. I knew that the lounge car and dining car wouldn't be open for another half hour or so, so I grabbed my overnight bag and freshened up in one of the downstairs restrooms. It's tricky to freshen up on a moving train, but well worth it. (Always bring a towel and wash cloth when you travel overnight on a train!)
I bought a coffee from the lounge car as soon as it opened. Interestingly, this train did not have the usual Sightseer Lounge car. Instead it had two Cross-Country Cafes - one serving as a lounge and the other serving as a diner. I would have enjoyed a swivel chair and the extra windows, but at least I got to see out both sides of the train for a change.
I stayed in the lounge car until maybe 7:00 when I went into the dining car for breakfast. It was busy. They seated me at the only available table and three others joined me - a couple from New Orleans and a lady from Jackson, MS. Service involved the abbreviated "Express Menu" with three options (whereas the normal menu would have about six options). I chose the scrambled eggs with turkey sausage and raisin toast and my table mates all chose the French toast. We all agreed the meal was good. This was the couple's first train trip and they were so far pleased with the trip.
After breakfast I returned to my seat and rested a little more while my seatmate was still sound asleep. (Evidently he travels in coach better than I do!) We were on-time all the way into Chicago. After a short delay sitting on the elevated St. Charles Airline track, we pulled into the station only a few minutes behind schedule.
I got into Chicago Union Station and went to baggage claim. It took about 25 minutes for our bags to get on the conveyor, which was about average time. I changed shoes and stored my bags in a storage locker so I could go out on the town and kill a few hours before leaving on my train to Michigan. The weather in Chicago was perfect - I couldn't ask for better! I got plenty of exercise and big-city scenery to go with it. I picked up something else to read at a bookstore and got back to CUS about an hour before train time.
Train to Michigan
As I walked in the South boarding lounge the gate personnel were forming three different lines. Gate D was for families with small children, Gate E was for senior citizens and business class passengers, and Gate C was for general boarding. One of the gate attendants announced that the train would be near capacity. By the time they called for general boarding, I was worried that they wouldn't get the train loaded before departure time. We did make it out of the station on time.
I got to experience the 110 mph track on this trip, which was smooth. My only worry was the way we sped through the highway grade crossings.
Train 352 had plenty of passengers, but not a full load. Michigan trains for years have had the reputation as some of Amtrak's dirtiest. This train was very clean inside and out, including the restrooms and the windows.
Chicago Union Station
Every time I visit Chicago Union Station I see a greater need to update and improve this tired facility. It just can't handle the growth in train travel, period! I was frustrated knowing that Amtrak authorized a $40 million dollar renovation in the fall of 2010, and the only progress I see so far is the air conditioning in the Great Hall.
I did not see any progress being made on the new Metropolitan Lounge. This project alone must get done so that the South boarding lounge can be expanded. The south boarding lounge as it stands is far too crowded and too chaotic. Other parts of the plan, such as moving the ticket offices to the Great Hall, or adding additional restrooms in the concourse, can all wait a day or two, but the lounge revisions can't.
Another critically important part of the expansion is a new bus and taxi concourse. This inevitably requires outside construction, but it too is needed urgently. Watching buses, taxis and private cars fight for space on the streets outside the station is worrisome.
Horizon cars on the Michigan trains
I'm definitely not a fan of the Horizon fleet, but they have taken some measures to make them more liveable. For example, the Horizon interiors are covered in a relentless and dreadful grey paneling from top to bottom. It's almost nauseating at night when the overhead fluorescent lights on, which causes a glare that makes it difficult to see out the window. However, on both Michigan trains I noticed a few small modifications. The undersides of the overhead baggage compartments are painted in the same dark blue as the seat upholstery. This breaks the monotony of the relentless grey paneling. I also noticed a shield installed between the overhead baggage compartment and the wall, presumably to reduce the glare from the overhead lights and make it easier to see out the windows at night. Perhaps these cars will hold out until the new bi-level equipment arrives, but in my opinion the new equipment can't get here fast enough.
Holland Amtrak station
Granted, I didn't take the train to Holland, but I did go down on my second night to watch the Pere Marquette pull into town. They have a very nice station that also serves local and intercity buses. Like Memphis, this station has a decent parking lot that's starting to run short on space due to the growing popularity of the train. By observing the crowd, I see that this train mainly serves the local population. The schedule allows people to spend an entire day in Chicago and venture into the shops and museums. If they ever add a second round trip on this route, which has been discussed, it will boost the number of tourists taking the train.
Return trip to Chicago
I returned my rental car to the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek airport and got a ride back to the Amtrak station. Like Holland, this is a remodeled station with an excellent facility for local and intercity buses. It's a busy station, which I appreciate.
Train #353 was only about 10 minutes late pulling into town and the agent informed us that this train was completely sold-out. As we approached the train, the conductor informed us of the same and asked that we take whatever's available. He directed a large family to sit in the lounge car because seats in coach were scarce. I was impressed with how friendly and cooperative the passengers were on board this train. People were voluntarily changing seats so that couples could sit together.
The trip back to Chicago went smoothly as well. Later in the trip I heard the conductor tell another passenger that we were back on schedule, but we would have a delay when we got to Porter. It was only a 10-minute delay at Porter due to a freight train and we made it all the way Chicago with no further delay.
Back in Chicago
My return trip to Memphis was in the sleeper. I checked my large bag at the Chicago ticket office and then went into the Metropolitan Lounge to check-in and store my overnight bag. It was rush hour and the crowd of people moving through the station was downright impressive. I walked by the South boarding lounge and saw it crowded beyond measure. They were trying to board three different departing trains and I can only imagine the confusion and chaos. The lounge expansions must happen soon! I went back on the town to get some walking exercise and a snack to hold me over until dinner on the train.
I got back to the Metropolitan Lounge around 7 p.m. and it wasn't crowded at all. (There were only two trains left to board that night - the City of New Orleans and the Lake Short Ltd.) They called all passengers for train #59 at about 7:15 p.m. Around 7:45 p.m. the conductor got on the microphone and informed all coach passengers that the train was completely sold-out and that every seat would be needed, especially when we got to Homewood and boarded several more people.
Return to Memphis
We pulled out of Chicago right on time and made our way slowly through town toward the IC tracks that would take us south. I was in room 9 in the sleeper. The average passenger might not enjoy riding or sleeping directly over the axles, but I didn't mind at all. The sleeping car attendant was helpful and courteous, and I could see that he had a full car to work that evening.
The train made an unusually long stop at Homewood. Just before that the conductor reminded everyone again that we were boarding a large number of people there and they would need every available seat.
9 o'clock came and went and there was no call for dinner in the dining car. (We did hear an announcement that the lounge car was open.) Then around 9:20 p.m. our attendant and another Amtrak employee came into the car with box suppers. They gave me a turkey and swiss sub with potato chips and a Diet Pepsi. Granted, I was expecting to have menu service in the dining car, but I really didn't mind. The sandwich was decent and getting to eat in my room meant that I could turn in for bed a little earlier.
After supper, I went downstairs with my overnight bag to try and take a shower before bed. It was occupied, so I went back upstairs to wait a while. I went back down a few minutes later and saw another passenger just going in. Never before have I had to wait on the shower because in past experience I was the only passenger brave enough to give it a try! I decided to freshen up in one of the restrooms instead.
I didn't want to wait for the attendant to fix my bed, so I set it up myself and turned in. I was glad that I checked my larger bag because space is very limited in the roomettes. I turned in for the night a little after 10. I slept all through the night and enjoyed the ride.
The attendant woke all of the Memphis passengers up around 5:30. I decided to make a run for it and try to grab a shower before we pulled into the station. I did it with plenty of time to spare and still have time for a cup of coffee before we pulled into the station.
Back in Memphis
We were about 10-minutes early into Memphis and I had to wait about 30-minutes to claim my bag. I did notice something different at the station - there were more available parking spaces! As I drove away from the station I figured out why. While I was gone the police department moved about 15 police cars from the parking lot to South Main Street.
Edited by lepearso, 21 June 2012 - 09:06 AM.