A monorail to Chicago

Amidst cuts, train travel still shines

JOSEPH W. SMITH III/Sun-Gazette Correspondent The author enjoying dinner as Amtrak Train 50, the Cardinal, rolls through Indiana. Note the camera ready to hand for the amazing scenery along this route.

Recently, I was lamenting on Facebook that Amtrak seems to be dying the death of a thousand cuts. A friend replied by asking why we even still need trains at all.

So I pondered that question on a recent Amtrak odyssey between Washington, DC, and Chicago, going out on the Capitol Limited and returning at greater length on the Cardinal, which meanders leisurely through the lovely Appalachians.

Here are some answers we found on our trip:

Lots of fellow-travelers were older, larger or handicapped, and probably sought more room and flexibility than planes and buses offer.

Or perhaps their travel involved a tiny town in Kentucky or West Virginia that isn’t served by other public transportation.

Maybe they’re bringing something large or expensive — like the fellow who boarded in Washington with a heavy, wheeled oxygenator that he clearly could not do without; or the music student we met in Chicago, who had taken a trombone directly to its Wisconsin factory for repairs, not trusting his costly instrument to the perils of airline baggage-handling.

Or maybe you just want a nice relaxed look at scenery that can’t be seen from road or sky.

That would include the Cardinal’s trek along the New River Gorge, perhaps the most scenic Amtrak route in the East — and a principal reason for this August trip with a long-time friend.

It’s one of Amtrak’s smaller lash-ups: a handful of coaches, a cafe and one sleeper. John and I took a costly but comfy Viewliner bedroom, with its own sink, toilet and shower, plus a couch and chair facing each other across a pull-out table; at night, an upper berth drops from the ceiling, while the couch converts to a sizable bed. Equipped with free wi-fi, Viewliner cars also offer smaller, cheaper rooms, some with their own toilets.

Eastbound, the Cardinal departs three evenings a week from Chicago’s Union Station, where Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge just got an $8 million makeover. With a variety of free snacks and drinks, TV, music, a cash bar and plenty of comfortable seats, the lounge is open to sleeping-car and business-class passengers.

Unlike our earlier train to Chicago — the daily Capitol, which was an hour late out of DC — the Cardinal departed precisely on time as John and I enjoyed a celebratory shot of Fireball in our sleeping compartment.

Now there’s something you can’t do by plane, bus or auto!

Almost at once, we were greeted by the friendliest sleeping-car attendant I’ve ever had. A 36-year Amtrak veteran who insisted we call her “Momma J,” she was a fount of energy and cheerful conversation throughout this amazing trip. When I tipped her before de-training, I was rewarded with a hug and kiss — again, not something I ever got on Greyhound or United!

One item of interest on this trip was food, since Amtrak recently removed chef-cooked meals from both the Capitol and the Lake Shore Limited. Instead, boxed meals are provided in a diner reserved for sleeping-car passengers, along with generous free beverages. (Coach passengers still have their own lounge with the usual sandwiches and snacks.)

On the Cardinal’s “diner-lounge,” by contrast, a waiter serves meals in traditional fashion — but these are all microwaved pre-mades, and they weren’t very good. Despite widespread complaints about the Capitol and Lake Shore in the Amtrak fan-base, John and I actually preferred the fresh and tasty boxed meals. Mine was a crunchy vegan wrap accompanied by a quinoa-edamame salad, kettle chips, fresh fruit and a dessert bar — twice as much as I could eat; John’s cheesecake-in-a-jar was scrumptious.

Honestly, the Cardinal’s food paled by comparison; but even here, there were interesting mealtime companions — including Sasaki, a college-age fellow from Japan who chose to see America by cross-country rail (L.A. to New York); and a grandfather and grandson, for whom this trip was a high-school grad gift — and who brought a CB scanner to monitor railroad activity. (Late in the journey, when we temporarily ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere, they were the ones who informed Momma J it was a broken air-hose.)

But this trip’s highlight was the New River Gorge, a nature-lover’s mecca that offers backpacking, camping, fishing, wildlife and white-water rafting. The Cardinal winds through about 150 miles of this scenic wilderness, closely skirting the rapid-strewn river in many regions unreachable by car. Along its route, the train passes through at least 11 tunnels — some a mile long — and rolls beneath the famed New River Gorge Bridge. With a massive steel arch and a span of more than 3,000 feet, the bridge towers 876 feet above the water — third-highest in the U.S.

Along here the Cardinal serves such remote tourist destinations as Prince and Thurmond, WV, with populations of, respectively, about 100 and less than 10. The latter, mostly owned by the National Park Service, was the historic location of a legendary poker game reportedly lasted 14 years.

That final tidbit is from the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, which provides narration over the train’s P.A. between Charleston, WV, and Clifton Forge, VA.

The gorge is best seen from the eastbound Cardinal, as much of it is darkness on the westbound schedule (especially in winter). I’m also told that seats are at a premium in the fall, when ridership rises for the colorful foliage.

One more important note: In late August, Amtrak announced that due to an issue with the trackage on host railroads, it may well suspend the Cardinal at the end of 2018 — along with several other key routes.

That would be another of the thousand cuts — and a sad one for us. Well before reaching DC, John and I had already discussed taking this trip again soon.

Even if it comes without a hug and a kiss.