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You seen one cornfield, you seen 'em all.

Even for rivet-counting railfans, there is nothing particularly exciting about today's Illinois state-supported Lincoln Service Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis, Mo.

Unless one is a connoisseur of airport-flat Midwest farmland, the sparse scenery along this corridor is mostly forgettable. It's just as well that views from the train are hobbled by the squinchy windows of the slab-sided and homely but serviceable Horizon Fleet short-haul coaches used on this route. (They're comfy enough, however, slightly better than cramped commuter coaches.)

On the other hand, to residents of the Illinois towns of Summit, Joliet, Dwight, Pontiac, Bloomington/Normal, Lincoln, Springfield, Carlinville and Alton, it's economically important, even vital, to have two daily trains each way to the metro areas of St. Louis and Chicago—plus the Texas Eagle, which skips Summit and Dwight on its daily route between Chicago and San Antonio, Texas. (Three times a week the Eagle goes on to Los Angeles, coupled to the Sunset Limited from New Orleans.)

Lockport, Ill.

On the way south the Lincoln Service trains speed past the refineries at Lockport, Ill.

Joliet Union Station

At Joliet Union Station, push-pull Metra trains from Chicago use the old Rock Island Line while the Lincoln Service crosses on the historic old Alton Route.

Illinois cornfields

A vast sea of cornfields under a big blue sky: That's the usual view from the Lincoln Service.

Illinois 2

Sometimes the view offers some interest.  Above: The two strips of concrete in the background belong to Interstate 55 while the highway in the foreground is the storied old U.S. 66. Below: The Illinois State Capitol at Springfield is briefly visible before the train arrives at the station.

Illinois Capitol at Springfield
Especially on weekends, these trains also carry thousands of students from Chicago and St. Louis to college and university towns along the old Alton Route (later Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, later Illinois Central Gulf and now plain Illinois Central, a subsidiary of the Canadian National, plus the Union Pacific south of Joliet).

Clearly the Lincolns are a necessary service, like the si
milar Northeast Regional trains from southern Virginia to Boston. Amtrak, the federal government and the State of Illinois surely think so. They have big plans for the future, and are already workin' on the railroad.

Last week Debby and I rode Amtrak 302 and 303 to and from St. Louis for a speaking gig. Here's what we found:

No. 303 was late boarding at Chicago Union Station, but the Amtrak personnel got the sizable crowd—a full load on a Monday morning—on the train quickly. The assistant conductor, a young woman, looked barely out of high school but was polite and efficient, and despite her diminutive size helped passengers wrestle aboard their oversized luggage. (There's no checked baggage on the Lincoln Service.)

The train—three Horizon coaches and a Horizon cafe car behind one P42 locomotive—left exactly on time at 9:25 a.m. As I settled into my seat, I noticed that the windows were dusty, not ideal for photography, but the results turned out to be usable with a little Photoshop sprucing up afterward. The seats were comfortable enough, although the seat pitch is fairly short, giving just adequate leg room. No complaints there.

S4M switcher

This one's for dyed-in-the-wool railfans: Can you identify this unusual locomotive at Granite City, Illinois? It's an S4M, a 1950s-era Alco S4 switcher later re-engined with a surplus General Motors 567 diesel prime mover under a raised hood. It's now owned by Foster Townsend Rail Logistics.

Half an hour out of Chicago a powerful toilet smell permeated the car, but after a while it dwindled as the ventilation system got up to speed. The bathrooms in our coach were clean enough, but suffered from overeager sink faucets, and by Springfield the floor in one was awash in splatter. Someone with a mop was needed to keep the bathroom usable, but there are no coach attendants on this run, just a cafe car lead service attendant and the two conductors.

No. 303 arrived at St. Louis on time at 3 p.m. The ride was smooth and uneventful, and the mostly boring scenery was leavened by a few good subjects for photography, despite the mostly cloudy and often overcast day. We actually enjoyed the trip.

St. Louis station

View from the overhead walkway at St. Louis Gateway Multimodal Station, which serves Amtrak, local commuter trains, and Greyhound buses.

St Louis Union Station 1890s

St. Louis Union Station a block west of the Amtrak station as it appeared in 1890 and with few exceptions as it looks today. It now houses a hotel and a mall underneath its massive trainshed.

Union Station Marriott

The headhouse waiting room now hosts the lobby of the St. Louis Union Station Marriott.

We stayed two nights at the St. Louis Union Station Marriott, a surprisingly nice downtown hotel a half-mile cab ride from the Amtrak station. It features a huge mall underneath the massive old trainshed arches, and the hotel lobby, the old headhouse space, is beautifully restored. A couple of upscale chain restaurants sit close by, as do several mall-style fast-food joints under the old trainshed.

On our return trip, the northbound Horizon coach seemed to be better behaved. The bathroom water spigots in this one were civilized and didn't splatter willy-nilly. I thought the car rather warm, but Debby said she felt quite comfortable.

On the river at St. Louis

View from a northbound Lincoln Service train as it trundles over the Mississippi.

St. Louis skyline

The early-morning skyline of St. Louis as seen from a slowly moving northbound train.

Because of the 6:40 a.m. departure on No. 302 from St. Louis, we missed a decent breakfast, so had to grab Amtrak cafe food aboard the train. Its quality, let's face it, is about that found in a convenience store/gas station. I forgot to ask the attendant to slit the plastic of my breakfast sandwich, and the result was limp, soggy and steaming. The cold turkey-and-cheese sandwich I had later was dry and bland, and the label said "Best before 9/03/12." (Debby's bagel said "8/12/12." ) This stuff sits around in a refrigerator for six months? Maybe Amtrak cafe-car cuisine has benefited (or perhaps suffered) from the embalmer's art.

On the other hand the cafe attendant, a woman in her 50s, was warm, pleasant and efficient, an excellent Amtrak employee. I wouldn't be surprised if she was ashamed of the sandwiches she had to serve.

Barge crossing river at Chicago

A gravel tow cools its heels waiting for Amtrak No. 303 to cross the railroad lift bridge over the Chicago River and enter Chicago Union Station half a mile north.

Would we drive to St. Louis rather than take the train? Nope.

Driving is indeed faster—about 5 hours (at the speed limit) for the 297 miles via Interstate 55 instead of 5 hours 20 minutes for the 284 miles by train.

By 2014, however, federal stimulus-supported "high-speed" improvements on the tracks that began two years ago will include 110 mph running on the 183 miles between Dwight and Alton, instead of the present 79 mph top speed. (Some segments will go to 110 later this year.) If all goes well, that might cut the total train travel time to just about four hours. Already, the ride is smooth and bump-free nearly all the way.

New trainsets equipped with wi-fi are on the way, too—reportedly double-decker coaches outfitted for corridor travel.

And, praise the Lord, Amtrak promises "improved food/beverage service."

Taking today's train one way from Chicago to St. Louis cost the two of us a total of $40.80 with the 10 per cent senior discount.  If we had driven the 297 miles, the cost would have worked out to $163.65 one way at the 2011 federal business tax mileage rate of 55.5 cents a mile. If that has any relation to actual automotive costs, it's four times cheaper to take the train than to drive. I won't even mention the stress of fighting traffic, let alone the carbon footprint one leaves in a car.

Going by jet is of course faster—one hour in the air plus an hour at each airport, or three hours total. But the cost for two would be $368 one-way via major airline.

Those with smaller budgets who are not white-knuckled fliers might consider Air Choice One, a tiny carrier that flies single-engine Cessna or twin-engine Piper propeller planes for $160 one-way for two. It stops in Decatur, Illinois, lengthening the flight time to 2 hours 15 minutes (or 4 hours 15 minutes allowing for an hour at each airport).

Of course, if one is really cheap, one could take the Megabus. One-way fare for two from Chicago to St. Louis would amount to $28 to $34, depending on time of departure. Travel time would be 5 hours 30 minutes.

But it's a bus. Enough said.

high-speed poster in union station

Posters promoting future higher speeds, new trainsets, wi-fi and better food on the Lincoln Service can be found all over Chicago Union Station.


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