Amtrak Summer Loop Tour 2017
Cleveland-Chicago-Kansas City-St Louis- Chicago- Cleveland
June 13-19, 2017
Tuesday June 13
It has been over a year since our last Amtrak adventure as health issues and moving to our new home took precedence over train riding. But after getting moved in late May, we decided it was time to ride the rails again. Using some AGR points and Amsnag we were able to find some reasonable fares in sleepers and a nice coach ride on the Missouri River Runner to highlight our trips. Our cat sitter was available to watch Mr. Gato so on the early morning of Tuesday June 13, we headed to Cleveland to catch Amtrak #29 for Chicago. It had rained earlier in the evening but now the skies cleared and we had a nice ride up I-71 to CLE.
A good parking spot in the CLE lot as we pulled our bags inside the station. Two new young agents were now in charge as our long- time friend had retired last year and the female agent we usually see was off. CLE has very limited hours now, opening at midnight and closing down at 7:30 am unless #48 LSL is running late. Not a huge crowd in the waiting room as we arrived at 2am. I had checked with Amtrak on our CL 29 train status and it was now running nearly 50 minutes late leaving PGH. We checked our large bag to Kansas City and then settled down for the wait. An NS eastbound freight came by with Reading Heritage Engine and 7 regular NS locos on the lead. A power movement back to Conway Yard was likely. CL 30 was also running a bit late and we then lost some station dwellers when it arrived. Now running with four coaches on the rear to accommodate summer traffic.
At about 3am, a large bus load of Amish folk arrived at CLE and took up most of the available seating. I counted 55 of them and although it is not unusual for Amish to board here, this was an extraordinarily large number. I asked one of the ladies what was happening and she said (with great enthusiasm) we are going to Alaska to take a cruise.. yahoo@. They were going to ride CL 29 to Chicago and then board EB 7 for Seattle, where their cruise would begin. Many Amish families would suffer a great hardship if long distance Amtrak service ended since they use the train to attend weddings and funerals, as well as conducting business and seeking health care (sometimes in Mexico).
We decided to sit outside and wait for the train so we could get onboard ahead of the big crowd. Our agent was waiting with the baggage cart, another good sign that the train is close by. At 3:40am #29 arrived (50 minutes late) headed by P-42s #22 & #177 and those really nice looking new baggage cars. The conductor was waiting at our car 2901 to scan our ticket. He was glad to see us at the door early since he had lots of work to do checking in the large Amish contingent back in coach. We made our way upstairs to Bedroom A (our first time in this room, after many trips in B-E). We now know why this room has such a negative reputation..smile.
With the beds down at 3:45am, it was a bit difficult to get past the area at the doorway (restroom is up front as opposed to in the rear on the other bedrooms) and there did not seem to be as much space near the chair. But we were tired so just get in bed and move on.. It took a few minutes to get everyone on board, which gave me ample time to get up in the bunk before the train moved. (which as I get older has become more of a challenge..smile). Soon we were on our way and although I know we stopped in Elyria, Sandusky and Toledo, they were only vague memories in our dreams.
We awoke about 6:30 and made our way down to the diner through Car 2900. Our SCA was a personable young girl who was already making up beds in the roomettes and welcomed us to the train. Unfortunately I forgot to get her name and she did not offer her card as some attendants are doing now. She had our bed made up when we returned after breakfast and kept downstairs restrooms in good shape (which I always check out even when we are in a bedroom).
We were seated in the diner with a couple who now lived in Santa Fe, NM but had been visiting old friends near DC where he had worked for the EPA in an earlier life. We had an interesting conversation about Amtrak, life in Santa Fe (we are plotting a trip to ABQ Balloonfest in October). Our dining car crew was very good as we ordered the omelet, potatoes and sausage & Creole scrambled egg bowl with grits, juice and milk. A nice ride across northern Indiana as an announcement came for last call as we reached Elkhart.
Lots of freight traffic, but we managed to knock off a few minutes of lateness and arrived in CHI about 40 minutes late. We wanted to take an architectural boat tour so were glad the train was not running too late. Always enjoy the run northbound in Chicago past the rail yards, “Cominsky Park” and crossing the Chicago River bridge. A clear day so the Willis Tower had a good view today. Past the Amtrak yards, which seemed a bit lacking in locomotive power sitting on the tracks. The dark cave entry into Chicago Union
Station signaled our time to grab our bags and detrain. Our first time back to Chicago since the new lounge opened so we had a bit of a longer walk than in the old days. Even though it was time for a change, I still miss the old lounge *especially the luggage storage room guarded by the Red Caps*.
We made it up to the Great Hall and one of the agents was standing at the door checking our tickets and putting a blue mark on them as the new entry pass (that was different). Told us to be back to the lounge by 2:15 for our boarding of the SW Chief at 3pm.
Quite a different experience as we entered the modern and in my opinion a bit sterile environment of the lounge. There were no snacks on the serving table, although there were beverages available. We were told that sandwiches were no longer served since people took advantage and hoarded them in their luggage. We found some seats and decided to put our bags in the new storage area(which is quite large but filled up fast as more and more trains arrived during the day. I put our bags on the highest shelf in back, took our electronic devices with us, and off to Canal Street to catch a bus.
It seems that traffic is now different on Canal Street and the buses are now housed in a transportation center along Jackson St. We found our Bus #151, which is the key route to reach Michigan Avenue, and settled in for a nice ride. Not many people riding in mid- morning so easy to find a seat. Bus dropped us off across the river and we walked down the steps to board our tour boat operated by Shoreline Cruises. Our guide was Pat, who did an excellent job of explaining the various eras of skyscraper construction, the varied styles and architects; and some interesting history of Chicago. We traveled up all three sections of the Chicago River and found the 90 minute tour to be worth the price. We finished the tour about 1pm and took the #151 bus back to Adams Street where we de-bused at Wacker Drive so we stop at PotBellies for a sandwich. We like their food, its quick and a nice view of the river from their outside tables.
Walked across the bridge and back to the lounge to await our boarding call. The attendant had placed several bowls of vegetables on the serving tables and some cheese snacks, but the thundering hoards had devoured much of it. He continued to try to replace some of the items and he did a good job of keeping the bowls filled. I had time to take a quick tour of the other sections of the lounge but they had the upstairs blocked off. (Did get to go up there on our return trip). I went down to the Amtrak store to get a couple of new pins for my hat and they had the Cardinal T-shirts on sale so I picked up two for us. A nice red cardinal on the front (our state bird in Ohio) and a good memory of our trip on #50 a few years ago.
Overall, I would say the new lounge is very nice and after getting accustomed to the environment, I would give it a thumbs-up. The restrooms are very nice and the staff seemed to be helpful in making it a pleasant experience. The luggage store room is still a negative in my mind as I had to crawl over several pieces of luggage left on the floor to get to our bags. And unfortunately, one guest had not had a shower in a few days and his aroma permeated the room..
The boarding process down the exit hall is interesting. We were called to the hallway at 2:45. We did not have a kindergarten escort, but just an announcement that Train #3 was boarding on Track 22 and you should now leave. We were at the front of the line and since we knew where the tracks were it was not a problem. Those in coach were now in the Great Hall and they would be released soon after we started toward the tracks.
We boarded our Car 0330 and met Shalita standing at the door. She directed us to our Roomette #2 and we got settled for our day trip to Kansas City. Decided to go with the roomette since bedrooms were a bit expensive in points and we were expecting arrival in KCS by 10pm. The conductor came around to scan our ticket and the dining car LSA soon followed for our supper reservation. We always take the 5pm slot since it guarantees most of the meal options will be available. Also I have to eat early for my stomach issues.
Our train left on time at 3pm and we made our way out of the cave and into the sunny day. Shalita stopped by and made several announcements about train rules, etc. She has worked for Amtrak for 10 years and is based in L.A. She has not been on any eastern trains and we talked for several minutes about riding the AutoTrain, Capitol Ltd and the Downeaster. She seemed to like her job and did a fine job in keeping restrooms clean and meeting passenger needs. We did not ask her to put our beds down since we expected to arrive in Kansas City around 10.
Well, as luck would have it, someone in coach was being rowdy and when we reached Galesburg, two local police cars pulled up and four officers boarded the train. Not sure what the specific problem was, but they delayed the train for about a half hour. The officers did not take anyone with them so I assume the problem was addressed. But now we were stuck behind some freights most of the way and our train would never make up the hour it lost that evening.
We went down to supper at 5 and were greeted by a friendly staff. We sat with Dave and Linda from Santa Fe. He had once been a station agent for Amtrak in North Carolina and we shared information about the future of Amtrak. He was impressed with North Carolina’s efforts to provide train service from Charlotte to the Raleigh Durham area and connections to the east coast. Wife and I had the new steak & shrimp dinner and it was very good with a baked potato and veggies and salad. And of course, I could not forget my cheese cake, which is now an improvement over the one I had with the heavy cracker crust a few years ago. The new menu does offer several new choices, which our fellow passengers tried and seemed to like.
We crossed the Mississippi River at Fort Madison but there was no smoke stop since we were running late. The smokers would have to suffer until we reached Kansas City. Oh my..8 hours without a cigarette..smile. We continued across Missouri as the sun set and we could not make up any time. One of our train crew (conductor?) got off in the burbs east of KC as a cab picked him up when we made a brief stop. We then proceeded into the station at around 11pm. Had to wait another 15 minutes to get our checked bag and then headed to the front of the quiet station to catch a cab. An Orange Cab was waiting in line and after a brief explanation of where our hotel was, the Somali driver took us there in quick order.
Our hotel was the Fairfield Inn on Union Hill, just a mile from the station. I had called the desk to let them know we would be arriving late and that the shuttle, which ends service at 11 would not be an option. We arrived to smiling faces at the desk and were given a room facing the city on the fourth floor. We had an accessible room, which we did not request, but figured it would be o.k. Beautiful view of the lights glowing on the skyscrapers downtown. Remembered this show when we stayed at the Westin during the St Louis Gathering in 2010. This time Westin rooms were nearly $300 per night so we opted for a less expensive hotel. Off to bed after a very long day of train riding, boat riding, bus riding and cab riding in America.
Wednesday June 14 We slept in a little this morning but went downstairs for breakfast in the room on the main floor. Typical fare of eggs, waffles, sausage, yogurt, cereals, breads, etc. Room kept very clean and staff kept the food items well stocked. The hotel has a shuttle service that will transport you anywhere within two miles of the hotel. It leaves on the half hour between 7am and 11pm most days. Since it is well situated geographically, you can go almost anywhere in the city.
After breakfast we decided to walk down the hill to the Federal Reserve Bank and its interesting Money Museum. After a brief check by security, you can view many exhibits and get a short tour of parts of the facility. You get to see the four robots that carry money from storage facilities to the room where bills are evaluated and then destroyed. Huey, Dewey, Louie and Ben were the robot names. President Harry Truman’s coin collection is also on display as well as many hands on activities. You even get a free bag of shredded money when you leave.
It was nearing 90 degrees outside but we chose to walk over to the World War I museum which is a fantastic collection of memorabilia, historic displays, films about the war 1914-1918. Lots of interesting information and a first class facility. Wednesdays the admission is only $8 and good for two days of admission. Highly recommend when visiting KC. Still hot outside but we walk down a long flight of stairs, through fountains and a park to Union Station. Wanted to arrive in time for the 2:00 KC Trolley Tour Bus but just missed it so decided to have lunch at Harvey’s Deli (great huge sandwiches) and then spend some time at the super large model railroad layout in the station. Many different layouts of all scales.
Checked out other things in the station including an aquarium, theatre, science museum and just enjoyed the beautiful architecture of this refurbed station. Walked out on the overhead bridge and saw Kansas City Southern F unit and passenger cars in the yard. The old freight house is now occupied by some restaurants. We returned to the trolley station, bought tickets for the 90 minute 4pm tour ($18) and boarded the nice mini bus with our guide Tom.
Only one other pair on the bus as we headed north toward the downtown. Tom had many interesting stories about KC’s history and growth into a large metropolis. We were impressed with the development of several urban neighborhoods (City Market, River District, Crossroad Arts District, Power & Light District, many fountains and shopping and brewery businesses).
Also toured around the Hallmark and Crown Center area and then around the WWI Museum and then the second half of the tour headed south to the art museums, Country Club Plaza Shopping District, historic Westport (Civil War engagement). Our guide was nice enough to drop us off at our hotel on the way back and saved us having to find transportation from Union Station. A well run tour and highly recommended as well. Rested up after a long day of touring. Burgers and potatoes for supper and some TV before retiring for the evening. Some Hagen Das ice cream downstairs also required. .smile.
Thursday June 15. Breakfast downstairs. Walked to an art gallery next door to our hotel. Buttonwood Art Space had a large collection gallery of local artists. Recent exhibit featuring Plein Air art from a local park. Some talented artists in the multi room venue. At 10 am we had the shuttle take us to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, one of the best museums we have seen in our travels. One of the best French Impressionist galleries in US, much of it donated by the Bloch Family, where a special wing of the museum displayed the many works. The museum is also known for its extensive Asian collection, especially Chinese works, along with a fine European gallery and a US & Native American collection that was quite good. We spent the morning on one floor and then had lunch in the Rozzelle Court Restaurant, surrounded by fountains and great art.
The afternoon was spent exploring the Asian and Egyptian collections and a discussion of lighting at the museum in the Bloch Gallery. Several tour groups were joined to add to our understanding of selected works. The museum has free admission and should be on the list of anyone with an interest in art. It was 97 degrees outside so our thoughts of walking around the Country Club Plaza were placed on hold for another day. Our shuttle picked us up at 3:30 and we decided to watch some US Open golf on TV before going to dinner at a local fish house. Large storm engulfed Kansas & Missouri in the evening and quite a lightning show from our room window. Glad we missed the tornadoes that hit Iowa and Kansas that delayed Amtrak trains and damaged several freights overnight. Getting packed for our journey tomorrow to St Louis.
Friday June 16 Up early to have breakfast before we leave for Union Station. Unfortunately, the hotel shuttle does not operate on Fridays until 8am since it transports people later in the evening for events. We had the hotel staff call for a cab as we waited in the lobby. We met two Amtrak conductors who were dressed for work and waiting for their ride to the station. Turned out they were our conductors on the Missouri River Runner later in the morning. Cab made the quick trip to the station and we sat in the old station waiting room until the call to lineup at 7:50 for our 8:15am departure.
The morning SW Chief 4 was running late so those passengers were held until we left. The rain had let up and it was going to be a nice sunny day today for our trip. Got some photos of our P42 #57 as the conductors guided the large crowd to their cars. Business class’-café was the first car behind the locomotive and then we were boarded in the next car. We were fortunate to find two seats together on the south side of the train and plenty of room for all of our luggage since there are no checked bags on the MRR.
As we are leaving the station I spot Kansas City Terminal GP 38-3 # 3855 in yellow paint getting ready for its day of work. Also a KC Southern freight hauling auto racks westbound. Our first stop at Independence took only a few minutes and we quickly moved toward Lee’s Summit where a number of new passengers boarded cars to our rear. Warrensburg and Sedalia also provided a few more revenue sources. Since we had an early breakfast we opted to run up to the café car for some Amburgers and dogs, chips and juice for lunch. A personable attendant who liked my Amtrak hat and pins and we talked about our adventures riding trains. Wanted to get our meals before arriving in Jefferson City since more passengers were expected to board there. Some nice old buildings along the railroad right of way and a quick visual of the state capitol building on the hillside. Would like to stop here someday and explore another state capitol on our bucket list. Several police officers on the station platform providing extra security. Not sure why?.
We are now following the Missouri River on our left. A few barges ply the waters as we move closer to Hermann. This old German town was an interesting visit for me last year when I took the MRR on a quick roundtrip from St Louis. Lots of interesting shops, restaurants, wineries, antique shops and a beautiful station and park to encourage tourism. Even a trolley bus to take you around town. We are only running a few minutes late and we have about 70 miles to St Louis.
Our next stop is Washington, with some neat old railroad buildings. Start to run into more freight traffic with CSX, NS, UP KCS & BNSF locos showing up in the yards around St Louis. Passed the great St Louis Transportation Museum that I visited last year and soon we reach Kirkwood, where many passengers detrain. Parking and access to western suburbs makes it a good place to terminate their train rides.
We continue on into St Louis Gateway Station arriving only two minutes late. Say goodbye to our friendly conductors and up the crossover bridge to the terminal. Love those colored windows. Go out to the parking area and find a cab. Not too happy cab driver when he finds our trip will be less than a mile but it was too hot to walk with our luggage. He drops us off on the side of our hotel with a large group of steps instead of the level access doors on the other side. Love cab drivers…NOT.
We arrive at our Drury Inn Union Station around 2:30 and find our room is still being prepared for 3pm check in. We wait in the lobby for fifteen minutes and then the desk clerk comes to let us register. A very nice refurbed railroad YMCA that has been turned into a fine little hotel. Beautiful chandeliers, wood décor, railroad art, model railroad exhibits, a nice pool and sauna area downstairs. Our room is on the fourth floor facing the railroad yards and part of the old Union Station tracks. We explore the hotel and then walk over to the station area which is being rehabbed after many of the former shops and restaurants have now moved out. I remember our Amtrak Gathering visit in 2010 and it is no longer of that quality. There are hotels there and a Hard Rock Café and a seafood restaurant but the south end of the station is vacant. So sad.
We walk over to the Metrolink station to get our tickets for tomorrow’s visit to Swansea Illinois and then take some photos of the multitude of streamlined passenger cars in the yard. Trying to imagine what this station was like in the 40s when traffic would have been tremendous. Now only a shell of its former self.
We return to the hotel for its nightly 5:30 dinner served to all guests. Baked potatoes, pasta dishes, hot dogs, salads, chips and salsa and three free mixed drinks or alcoholic beverages each evening per guest. A part of Drury’s attempt to draw in customers. Nice areas to dine if you get there early. We have our dinner and then watch some US Open golf. Some ice cream for dessert and then to bed.
Saturday June 17 We are up early for breakfast downstairs in the lobby. Eggs, sausage, gravy & biscuits, potatoes, fruit and juices. We walk across the parking lot to the Union Station Metrolink station and wait for our Red Line train. Trains leave every 20 minutes on the weekend so we did not have a long wait. Not many people riding this morning so plenty of seats. Fare is $2.50 or $7 for an all day pass. Cars are clean and stops plentiful in the downtown area. We are headed to Swansea, IL to visit with wife’s cousin and attend a big flea market at the local fairgrounds.
We leave St Louis at 8:30 and arrive at Swansea by 9am. Cousin meets us at the station and we move to the flea market. Lots of vendors on this nice morning but things heat up by 11am and glad the building is air conditioned. We head for White Cottage ice cream shop for sandwiches and ice cream for lunch and then out to Fairfield Heights to an antique mall. We spend some time at cousin’s home where we meet her two cats and enjoy her talents as a photographer and artist. Back to Belleville to check out the downtown shops and some pizza and drinks at Tavern on Main. Some nice galleries and specialty shops along Main Street.
Time to head back to the Metrolink station for our trip back to St Louis.
We arrive back at Union Station around 5:30, buy tickets for tomorrow’s short trip over to the Amtrak station and then head to the hotel for our evening meal. Place is packed as there is a concert at the ScottTrade Center arena and young girls are filling the aisles lining the bar and food tables. We find a place to sit down and then do some more exploring of the hotel. More storms and heavy rain expected tonight. Watch a great PBS special with James Taylor and Carole King in concert and then repack for tomorrow’s trip.
Sunday June 18 We check on Texas Eagle 22 train status and find its running about an hour late at Little Rock but decide to take advantage in the break in the rain and head for the Metrolink station at 7am. Board our train for the one minute ride to St Louis Gateway Station. Check our large bag to Cleveland and are directed to the Amtrak Lounge, first time in this small waiting room for first class passengers. Only three other couples and one single guy waiting. Only about 18 seats available. Has a fridge with water, a computer available and Wifi. A TV but everyone seemed to want quiet so we did not turn it on. Train arrives around 8am which actually would be on time under the old timetable, but because of Texas track work, the schedule was adjusted.
We walk across the overhead bridge to Track 2 and board Car 2220 Room 4. Locomotive P-42 #59 on the head end. Our SCA Tony directs us to the diner for breakfast. We are joined by a high school girl from Texas who is on her way to Chicago to spend part of the summer with her father. She is a sophomore and takes advanced placement classes. She plays in her band. She has ridden in coach since leaving Texas *I would be very leery about letting my teenage daughter ride overnight in coach but I guess I am just old fashioned* We had a cheese omelet, potatoes, etc. Service and food was good. Returned to our room and enjoyed the nice ride across Illinois. Lots of activity at Springfield and many college students boarding at Bloomington Normal. There was a call for an abbreviated lunch at 10:30 am. We went to the diner around 11 and had an Amburger with Larry, who had been in a hospital in Austin, TX with some serious health issues and was returning now to his home near Chicago. Some interesting conversations with this rather eccentric gentleman.
We arrived in Chicago about a half hour late at 1:15pm and walked to the Metro Lounge to find a few veggies on the tables and variety of nuts. I decided to walk upstairs for some photos. Few people up there and it actually was pretty nice with Pennsylvania Railroad photos and memorabilia. No snacks on upper floor. We went out and watched numerous boats on the Chicago River. Accosted by several panhandlers *need a ticket to Milwaukee* *couple dollars for a bus ticket:*.
Decided to stop at the food court, get a small pizza and drinks to tide us over until our 7pm dinner reservation on the Cap Ltd 30. Returned to the Lounge, several LD trains are running very late and SWC 4 and EB 8 would not make many of their connections today. Watched some TV news and then call to board our train at 6:30. We met our SCA Carlos at Car 3000 Room E and were cleared to go to the diner next door at 7. We waited for some CZ passengers running late to board so train did not leave until after 7. We would stay 30-40 minutes late all evening.
Dinner was with a couple from North Carolina who had been in Wisconsin on an anniversary trip. He was a model railroader and we talked about Amtrak and model trains. We chose the chicken dinner this evening. Mine was a bit dry but wife’s was very good. Probably should just stay with the steak. Cheesecake is always good..smile. We returned to our room and had Carlos put our beds down for the night. Off to sleep as we cross Indiana. Woke up in Elyria and are ready to disembark at CLE at 2:24. Pickup our checked bag and are on our way home, arriving around 4am. Our old cat greets us at the door and after some fur rubbing we head for bed.
General observations: Trains ran close to on time and staff was very good both in sleepers and in the diner. New menus offer some additional choices for those without stomach issues like me. Superliners continue to show their age but cars were clean and we did not have any mechanical issues. The new Metro Lounge in Chicago slowly grew on us and I now feel more comfortable with the changes. Need to work on getting more snacks out and I still do not like the baggage room, but life will go on.. Boarding process seems to work well for those of us familiar with the station.
Like to eat in the diner and meet new people. Lots of people ride because they will not fly.
Kansas City is a great city and I would advise anyone to spend some time there. We want to go back to explore the Jazz Museum, Negro Baseball Museum, more art galleries, Country Club Plaza and the arts district downtown. Lots of BBQ restaurants. And the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is very nice.
Recommend the architectural boat tour in Chicago. Pizza is still great too..
So now it’s time to return to unpacking boxes, playing golf and planning our next Amtrak adventure in New Mexico. Happy training@