Getting Back on the (Iron) Horse (Northeast Pennsylvania to Milwaukee 2023)

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Service Attendant
Sep 12, 2018
So, I meant to post this before Xmas, but stuff happened and I never got around to it until now. Last year, I took my semi-annual trip to Milwaukee for a convention in November, but this time I wanted to do it completely by train, no planes this time. My westbound itinerary was “supposed” to be bus to NYC -> 49 LSL NYP to CHI -> Hiawatha CHI to MKE, but thanks to a crumbling parking garage I had to take a Metro North detour going from Grand Central to CRT, then CRT to ALB via the Ethan Allen and THEN get on 49 to CHI. I had to book this new itinerary myself because the only options Amtrak gave me when they cancelled my NYP to CHI ticket was rebooking for a different day or a refund, so I went with the refund. My initial NYP to CHI ticket was in coach because I thought maybe this time it will be different and I’ll have a good time in coach. I even brought a neck pillow and noise cancelling headphones. Well, the closer my day of departure got, the more I began to have doubts about trying overnight coach again. When I had to cancel and buy the ALB to CHI ticket, coach was sold out on 49, but there were still some coach seats left on 449. Could I have saved money and bought the coach ticket for 449? Yes. Did I want to ride coach anymore? After the aggravation of having to cancel and buy new tickets combined with my own doubts on overnight coach and knowing this was the only big trip I was taking in 2023, I splashed out on a roommette, my first time doing so.

Bus to NYC was typical Martz ride. Seats that are comfortable at first, but feel cramped after awhile and legroom that pales in comparison to anything I’ve experienced on Amtrak. Was only a few minutes late arriving at PABT. Now, I had initially envisioned having a bunch of time in Manhattan, but thanks to the Metro North detour I now had to take, my time in the city was significantly reduced. After leaving PABT, I visited my favorite NYC park, Union Square, and bought a cold little bottle of apple cider from the greenmarket and sat in the park for a bit before going to a nearby comic book shop. When it came time for lunch, I decided to just go to Grand Central and have lunch there. I had lunch at Shake Shack, where I had an amazing burger, but the whole ordering process was confusing and it was unclear whether the pickup line was for dine-in customers too or just take out.

I killed time after that just walking around the station. I love Grand Central and always try to visit it whenever I have one of my solo adventures in NYC. I could see Xmas decorations going up in various places in GCT including the transit museum/gift shop. Eventually, it was time to hop on board Metro North to CRT. There was supposedly a sign posted somewhere telling you which Hudson line train to get on to connect with a specific Amtrak train at CRT, but I never found it. There were Amtrak employees at GCT who were there to answer questions like that, but in the end I decided to just wing it and take the next train to CRT. I boarded a Hudson line local which terminated at CRT. It was nice to sit down given that there are no places to sit in GCT aside from some of the restaurants. The train was an M7A, with the interior and seats being exactly the same as the LIRR M7s. So pretty comfortable with the typical commuter rail legroom. I had already covered most of the Hudson line during my 2018 LSL trip, so the only new mileage for me was the stretch from GCT to Spuyten Duyvil. Comparing this stretch to the Empire Connection, I think the EC is a bit better since you get to see the George Washington Bridge. The ride to CRT was still nice though and the Hudson river views were great. Slow ride due to being a local, but I didn’t feel like waiting around for an express.

I arrived at CRT about 20 minutes before the Ethan Allen’s scheduled departure. CRT is a pretty basic commuter rail station. Unlike GCT though, they had a place where you could sit and wait for the train. Just plain metal seats, but they did the job. The Ethan Allen pulled in on time, so I hurried over to the platform where there were quite a few people boarding here too. The line was split in two with Vermont/BC passengers going to the right and upstate NY passengers going to the left. We departed about 40 minutes late since we had to wait for the Hudson line train that Amtrak wanted people to take. Seats were typical Amfleet I seats, so basically like being on a Northeast Regional. I ended up sitting on the wrong side of the train though and I didn’t want to mess with the seat check, so I didn’t get a good view of the Hudson anymore. No one was sitting in the aisle across from me though, so every so often I would look across the aisle to see the river. Still, the views on the “wrong” side weren’t terrible either. There was still plenty of beautiful fall foliage to be seen. It was getting pretty dark by POU and completely dark by Rhinecliff, so no more visible scenery. In a way, I’m glad for this Metro North detour because if I had left NYC at 49’s scheduled time, it would have been dark way before POU.

(To be continued...)
Arrival at ALB was late, but not terribly so. What was late was 49. I think I waited 2 or maybe 3 hours for that train to pull in. Amtrak even called me and asked if I wanted to rebook or cancel! I didn’t take them up on it, though I was starting to think about Albany’s hotel options and flights to Chicago should 49 fall through. My patience paid off and 49 finally arrived. It was exciting to be in the line for sleeper passengers. My first impression of the Viewliner I cars was that the hallway is kind of narrow, especially with luggage. No centrally located luggage rack like on Superliners though, so I had to find room in my roomette, which I was able to do. I used the cubby on top for my backpack and over the shoulder bag and put my rolling suitcase in the top bunk (which was already down when I got in the room, while the lower bunk was still in day mode). My suitcase is short, but it is pretty thick. If I hadn’t filled it up all the way, it would have fit in the cubby, but as it was, it was just a little too thick, so into the top bunk it went. I remember awhile back on this forum there was a discussion about SCAs scanning tickets. I will say that my SCA on the LSL didn’t scan my ticket, but assured me that he had already told the conductor I was on board.

Not long after that, he started asking everybody if they wanted to go to the diner for dinner. While he did offer in room dining, I could tell by the way he talked that he encouraged those who were able to walk to the diner to do so. I was hesitant to go to the diner at first due to my fear of having to make awkward small talk with a stranger, but I also knew it was an opportunity to sit in the fancy new Viewliner II diner and like I said, I could tell my SCA wanted to save the room service for those who had trouble walking, so when he asked me about dinner I said yes and he told me I could go to the diner when I was ready. The diner was right in front of my sleeper car, so it wasn’t long before I made my way there and got to experience the horrors of flexible dining. I was quite impressed with how nice this new dining car looked. I got assigned a seat by the LSA and waited. Now this whole time, we were still sitting in ALB, not connected to 449 yet. There was enough power for the lights, but not enough to heat up the food, so we had to wait until the two sections joined together. Once that finally happened, the LSA took my order. I went with chicken parm with the buttercake for dessert. The chicken was decent and the sauce and noodles weren’t bad either. My plastic fork that they gave me broke, so that was kinda annoying. The dinner roll was pretty good though and the buttercake was out of this world. So yeah, my first flex meal wasn’t the best meal I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t the horror show I was expecting either. I got to see downtown Albany lit up at night as we made our way westward and stayed in the diner until after Schenectady. I did have a stranger sit with me, but we didn’t talk much. As my SCA was getting someone else’s room service order, he asked if I wanted the bed made and I said, yes. In hindsight, I should have said no because after eating that big dinner, it was too early to lay down,but it seemed like a good idea at the time since my SCA was right there. With no sights to be seen since it was pitch black outside, except for when we pulled into the stations, I just watched some videos on my iPod until I was ready to go to sleep. The “mattress” was comfortable enough and the Amblanket was fine and I wasn’t roasting like I was during my 2018 trip, but I still had a hard time falling asleep, so I took some Drammamine. I brought it with me in case of motion sickness (though after reading another member’s trip report, I really think that the “motion sickness” I experienced during my 2018 LSL trip was just the cafe car’s angus cheeseburger not agreeing with me). Drammamine normally makes me very drowsy, but it didn’t do a thing that night. I did eventually fall asleep though, getting maybe about 4 hours of sleep, which is way more than I got on my 2018 LSL trip in coach.

I woke up to the boring farmlands of Ohio. The power went out for a bit while we were sitting in Bryan, OH, but other than that nothing interesting to note for this part of the journey. Breakfast, much like dinner, was basically just come to the diner when you’re ready. The LSA didn’t assign a seat like last night, though. I ordered the pancakes, which were okay, but they felt kind of tough. I didn’t eat the sausage patty. I ran into my SCA on the way back to my room and he offered to put my room back into day mode. After that, I sat back in my room and just flipped between watching stuff on my iPod anddoing some writing on my laptop. I found the seats in the roomette to be pretty comfortable, using the seat opposite from me as a leg rest. Aside from the rail museum by Elkhart’s station, the scenery didn’tget interesting again until we crossed into Illinois. I could see various red line stations along with the stadium where the White Sox play. Soon, the Chicago skyline came into view and finally we arrived in Chicago about an hour late.

Due to this late arrival into Chicago, I felt like I had no time for any of the places I had planned on going to before getting on the Hiawatha. So, I decided to just grab some lunch in the station and wait for my next train. I got a chicken sandwich and fries from Chik-fil-a, which was pretty good. After that I just waited in the great hall until it was time to get in line for the Hiawatha. I saw the Xmas tree while I was in the great hall, which I thought was really cool. Loved seeing the Lackawanna logo on there along with the other railroads.

The line to get on the Hiawatha was long as usual. Once we got on the platform, I was greeted by the sight of something I had hoped I wouldn’t see...a consist with nothing but Venture cars. I had already seen the reviews on YouTube, so I kind of knew what I was in for, but I did not expect the seats to be THIS bad. Yes, the Venture cars look nice and clean looking and the transparent luggage rack above the seats is pretty cool along with the nicely sized luggage storage rack, but these just wow are they bad. The seats are incredibly hard and uncomfortable to sit on and the recline was a joke. I thought the recline was broken at first, that’s how little this seat reclines. Legroom was okay I guess and I got to sit in a forward facing seat for once on this route, but wow. The Hiawatha had been the one Amtrak route I had a consistently good experience on, but this trip broke that streak. The scenery was okay and we arrived on time at least. I had fun at my convention in Milwaukee. I walked everywhere, but I did ride the HOP at one point, which I meant to do in 2022, but forgot. I rode it after having lunch at Jimmy John's and seeing City Hall (wish they still had the letters up, like in Laverne & Shirley, but oh well). While I know the HOP has its shortcomings, I think it is a nice way to see the city.

(To be continued...)
So, now it’s time to talk about the return journey. My initial plan was to ride the Hiawatha back to Chicago and then take the Capitol Limited to WAS followed by an Acela to PHL and finally a Martz bus back to NEPA. I booked the CL in coach with the intention of using bidup to hopefully score a roomette. I also intended to do this with the LSL, but despite booking that initial NYP to CHI ticket over a month in advance, bidup was never offered. It was, however, offered for the Ethan Allen for a business class seat, depsite that ticket being purchased the day before I left for NYC. The Acela also offered bidup, despite me buying the ticket at $50 for a saver fare in Business, for a first class seat. Anyway, the only bidup I actually did anything with was for the CL. I placed one bid for a roomette and another bid for a bedroom. My heart sank when I checked my email and saw that both of my bids were rejected and the train was completely sold out. Initially I had resolved to continue on and ride overnight coach, but after my roomette experience, I guess you could say I had been spoiled, so when I woke up the next day and saw a roomette had become available, I took it. Again, using the justification that this was my only big trip of the year to justify the cost to myself.

My Hiawatha ride back to Chicago was way better than the ride I had taken a few days ago. This time the consist was nothing but Horizon cars, no Ventures here. Sitting in those Horizon seats never felt so good. I rode down to Chicago with a friend and we hung out in the Metropolitan Lounge before we each got on our respective trains. It was nice to hang out with a friend IRL, I don’t get to do that often. The lounge was really nice and I was able to store my luggage without any issue.

The CL was running pretty late that night, about an hour and a half late. When the boarding call finally came, I quick grabbed my luggage and got in the long line to the train. They let us out via a special entrance, parading us through the station until we got to our designated track. On the platform there were separate lines for coach and sleeper. Once again it felt cool to be in the sleeper line. This was also the first time I had seen Superliners close up like this. I was in the last car in the consist and in one of the lower level roomettes. I was hoping for upper level, but oh well, I was just glad to not be in coach. Unlike the LSL, the conductor scanned my ticket on the platform. I made use of the centrally located luggage rack for my suitcase and put the over the shoulder bag and backpack on the step stool leading to the upper bunk. The seats on the Superliner roomette were comfortable, but I think the Viewliner I’s were just a bit better. They were the old blue cloth seats. The sleeper car in front of us had the newer grey leather seats.

It was neat to see Chicago lit up at night, but that was it as far as interesting scenery goes that night. When we crossed into Indiana, my SCA asked what I wanted for dinner. The café car wasn’t open yet, so room service was the only option. I ordered the chicken enchiladas and got a brownie for dessert (unlike the LSA on the LSL, my SCA on the CL didn’t ask what I wanted for dessert, so the brownie was just randomly picked for me). I think this flex meal was the worst I’ve ever had...this was the horror show I was afraid of. The chicken had this weird texture and the beans and corn weren’t great either. The brownie was really good though. I didn’t even finish the enchiladas. Thankfully, I still had some lounge snacks with me, so I used those to supplement this awful meal. The café car opened a little before South Bend, but due to the time zone change and our lateness, it only stayed open for like an hour. I was gonna check it out, but decided against it. I spent the rest of the night just watching videos again, as there was no scenery to be seen due to how dark it was in rural Indiana/Ohio. Around midnight, my SCA went around asking everybody if they wanted the bed made and when he came to me I said yes. The “mattress” felt pretty good, but it still took awhile for me to fall asleep. Tried Dramamine again, but once again it was no help. I have to say though I think I may have gotten a bit more sleep than I did on the LSL. I woke up briefly in Pittsburgh to use the bathroom, but went back to sleep after that and didn’t wake up until 8:30, so I got maybe 5-6 hours of sleep if you paste it all together. I remember it being 8:30 because I said to myself, “if this was the westbound CL, I would need a wake up call, LOL.” I also remember pulling back the curtain and seeing the Youghiogheny river flowing past us. The scenery was really nice during this section of the route.

Breakfast required no reservations. All I had to do was show up at the café car, say that I was a sleeper passenger and pick out what I wanted from the flex menu. I chose some items from the continental breakfast selection: the blueberry muffin and a yogurt. They were pretty good, but I wish I would have picked some cereal too because breakfast was not that filling, but better than the LSL breakfast. This was also the only time that I got any upper level views. We were still following the Youghiogheny river, so I had nice views while I ate breakfast. My roomette was already in day mode when I arrived back from the café car. I basically spent the rest of the route looking out at the scenery while listening to music and trying to take pictures of the train going around the curves.

(To be continued...)
We arrived in DC less than an hour late and on the VRE side, oddly enough. It was also raining a little, though the rain would get worse the closer I got to home. This was my first time seeing Washington Union Station in person and my first impression is that it is very airport like between the architecture and even in the way the departure gates are set up. I didn’t check out the lounge here, instead heading to McDonald’s for lunch where I got a Big Mac and fries. I was going to explore the station more, but then I saw the track assignment for my Acela and I decided to just get in line.

The Acela looks really neat up close. As for the ride itself, it was such a contrast from the leisurely pace of the CL. We weren’t going at the Acela’s top speeds, but way faster than the CL. The seating was comfortable, but I think the Amfleet I seats are better. Perhaps I would feel differently if I was riding in First Class, but I feel like I am in agreement with others when I say I would rather stick to the Regionals and only do the Acela if it’s on sale. I got to see some new to me northeast corridor mileage with the WAS to BAL stretch. Nothing super interesting to see, but at least I can say I’ve rode it. Now I just need to ride New Rochelle to Boston to complete the NEC. The BAL to PHL stretch was familiar territory, but after not seeing it for 4 years, it felt rather nostalgic to see Baltimore Penn again (when my view wasn’t being blocked by a MARC train) and the Chesapeake Bay. My particular Acela was one of the ones that was trying out the program where they delivered food from the café car to your seat, but the page to put an order in wasn’t working.

I think ARROW must have put the majority of the Philly-bound passengers into the same car because when we pulled into 30th Street, almost everybody in the car got off. Much like WAS, 30th Street was super busy. Despite living in PA, this was my first time seeing 30th Street station and I have to say it does indeed live up to the hype as being one of the most beautiful stations. They also had a Xmas tree up, which was nice, but not as cool as the one in CUS. After having a burger at Wendy’s, I decided to try and locate where the Martz bus stop was. While there is signage for SEPTA busses, there is no signage inside the station for Amtrak Thruway busses. Martz bus does show up on the departure board, but with the gate and track sections just saying “BUS.” I eventually figured out that it was the eastern entrance (facing JFK Blvd and the Schuylkill River) where Martz and the other Amtrak Thruway busses pick up. There was no sign specifically for Martz, but I could see signs on the sidewalk for Amtrak thruway along with a long line of cars and thruway busses with a Martz bus far in the back of the line. One thing I noticed was that apparently Martz can’t scan the QR codes from the Amtrak app, so the driver had to ask me my name and check me in manually. The bus was pretty full and the traffic was horrific, a combination of PM rush hour and holiday travel. Compared to the last time I rode Martz from Philly, we made way less stops, and back then, the Greyhound station was the pickup location instead of 30th Street. Glad I don’t have to go to that station again. Ride was fine aside from the traffic. Seats are the same as the NYC route. Arrived back in NEPA almost an hour late.

So, what do I think of this odyssesy overall? I think I definitely find myself in the camp of “if I can’t afford sleeper I’ll fly.” It was nice to be able to take my time and not have to rush to ORD from Milwaukee. I also loved the privacy and the ability to lie flat. I’m not riding for the food, LOL. Would still like to take a ride on a Superliner coach seat some day though, maybe on a daytime journey. Between the two types of roomettes I experienced, I think I prefer the Viewliner I. I like having the in-room toilet and I liked the seats a bit more. I didn’t like how the only outlets in the Viewliner I roomette were right next to the sink though. The placement of the outlets was better in the Superliner roomette, being next to the headrest of my seat. I also heard the announcements more clearly in the Superliner roomette than in the Viewliner I. While there was enough space for me in the roomette, I would feel very cramped if I was traveling with someone else. I would much rather do two separate roomettes or get a bedroom if I was traveling with another person. Scenery-wise, I love the Hudson, but those views can already be seen on other trains, as shown by Metro North and the Ethan Allen. The rest of 49’s route is in darkness, during the time of year I’ve ridden it anyway. The only passenger train where you can see the Youghiogheny River views is the CL and the scenery in MD and WV is really nice, so I think the CL might win for scenery. Both of my SCAs were nice, so I can't say I liked one more than the other.

Not sure what my trip plans are this year, but I got an Amtrak gift card for Xmas last year and I really want to use it sometime in the near future. I think next time I do my Milwaukee convention journey, I will give 49 a rest and do the Cardinal or CL westbound instead. I also hope to snag a low (or lower) bucket roomette next time. I wasn’t sure if I could even do the convention trip last year, so I missed out on the cheap roomette fares since I didn’t book until about a month before the trip. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this trip report. I’ll post pictures later.
Very thorough and informative trip report! Thanks for sharing your travel experience on Amtrak.

I wish Amtrak employees, especially the highly compensated ones would read this trip report and others posted here in order to see Amtrak long distance travel through the customers' eyes. All too often, the sight isn't pretty for passengers paying high prices and getting a low quality product.

I found NEPATrainTraveler's comment, “if I can’t afford sleeper I’ll fly,” to be profound. It exactly mirrors my attitude and shows what a gap there is between levels of service. IMHO, Amtrak is missing a great opportunity to grow the long distance segment by filling the gap with Slumbercoach or equivalent equipment. A no frills, relatively inexpensive alternative to coach and current sleeper accommodations would be a winner.
Thanks everybody for your replies! I'm glad you all enjoyed my trip report.

I found NEPATrainTraveler's comment, “if I can’t afford sleeper I’ll fly,” to be profound. It exactly mirrors my attitude and shows what a gap there is between levels of service. IMHO, Amtrak is missing a great opportunity to grow the long distance segment by filling the gap with Slumbercoach or equivalent equipment. A no frills, relatively inexpensive alternative to coach and current sleeper accommodations would be a winner.
I agree. I really wish there was some kind of cheaper slumbercoach style option too.

Now that things have gotten (slightly) less busy for me in my life, I've had time to look through my photos and pick out the ones I want to post, so here's the photos I promised:


Saw this poster while I was waiting for 49 at ALB.


My Viewliner I roomette

Christmas tree at CUS. Loved seeing Lackawanna being represented.