Here I am in Chicago again! It seems as if it were yesterday I was in Chicago Union Station waiting to board a train, walking around outside freezing my ears off. Actually it has been eleven months since my last visit. On this trip, I have only a 4.5 hour layover until I catch train #48, the Lakeshore Limited to New York City. The California Zephyr arrived 39 minutes early, which made the wait even longer. The first order of business was to go to the Metropolitan Lounge (for first class or sleeping car passengers) to check in and drop off my luggage. One can rent luggage lockers for a nominal fee in a room tucked in the far corner of the Great Hall. I used them once but thought it too expensive if I can store them for nothing in the Metropolitan lounge. I am tall and can put my luggage on the very top luggage shelf in the luggage storage room. When I arrived, there was a HUGE line of people from the California Zephyr. After checking in and stowing my bags, I had a glass of Slice and then went outside for some fresh freezing Chicago air.
I spent a lot of time walking around Union Station noting the changes that took place since my last visit. There were none! Actually I did notice a new ice cream shop on the food level near McDonalds so I had a chocolate shake. Delicious! I did venture outside--burr, a very cloudy overcast day in which snow showers were in the forecast. I looked at a few restaurants on Jackson and Adams Streets but nothing seemed too appealing. There was "Jackson's" restaurant that looked good (from the posted menus on window) but it was closed for an unknown reason. No note or sign anywhere indicating why it was closed. Another restaurant was called "Union Depot Restaurant" but that place didn't look very clean so I went back inside Union Station and ate at McDonalds. Lots of panhandlers on the streets discouraged me from venturing further away.
After that wonderful double 0.25 pounder with cheese, French fries, diet coke and the chocolate shake (later on), I headed on down to the Metropolitan Lounge to relax. I must have walked at least two miles on the streets outside the depot and a mile inside. The lounge was still quite full, though not as congested when I first entered it thanks to the departure of the Southwest Chief. After the Cardinal departed to New York, the room was half empty. Did that computer near the front desk EVER work??? I have used Chicago's Metropolitan lounge three times spanning over two years and there has always been an "Out of Order" sign taped to the monitor! I think it's always been like that. What was it used for? Did it have Internet capabilities? The sign said it was sponsored by IBM and Prodigy. Settling into a big easy chair, I drifted in and out of sleep until my train was called for boarding at 8:10 PM. I was told by the lounge attendant that boarding would commence at 7:45 PM. Maybe they had mechanical problems with the train before it was brought into the station?
The train had been backed into the station and my car was nearly at the front of the train. While walking to my Viewliner sleeper (Island View), I dictated the train consist into my tape recorder as far as my sleeping car. Forklifts and station personnel were blocking my path to the locomotives and it appeared that passengers weren't allowed there anyway. It looked like we were about ready to go so I only ran ahead to read off the next few car numbers beyond my sleeping car. The locomotives were also beyond the platform so I couldn't reach them. Once in my room, I realized that I forgot to get the car number of the last Viewliner Sleeper (only got the car name). I could accomplish that oversight by walking through the LONG train and reading it off the door.
Everything I had heard about the Viewliner rooms was true! Most of what I had heard were positive so I was a very happy "sleeper." The controls have been described in great detail already by Steve Grande so I won't go into the details of every control. I think that it's too repetitive having so may sets of buttons but it is convenient. I like having all those fans in the room! I turned them all off except the one under the window (which I couldn't turn off) in which I simply closed the vents using the lever adjacent to them. My first impression upon entering the room was utter surprise! These rooms are HUGE compared to the Superliner I and II rooms. There is a very large storage space by the top bunk that extends over the hallway! Incredible! I had no idea there were so many lights either. One nice feature was that a sink and toilet were in the room so the inconvenience of having to go downstairs or to the end of the car to use the facilities was now a memory. There was a shower at the end of the hallway. The big gripe I have is that the sink water outlet sprays with such force that when you put your hands under the water, some of it ricochets to the sides, wetting down your seat or the person sitting there! I had a scanner plugged into one of the TWO outlets and it got wet. The first time I used the sink, I didn't see any drain anywhere! Am I supposed to fill the sink with water and wash that way? After playing in the water and splashing it all over the place, I lifted the sink to fold it back into the wall and still didn't see where the water was to drain. I feared that if there was a clog, it would leak through the seam at the bottom of the assembly when folded up. Then I spotted the three drain holes on the bottom side of the sink in which the water drained through. I had no problems once I got the hang of hand washing with that sink. If I kept my hands as close to the bottom of the sink as possible, then splashing outside the sink would be minimized. The toilet takes up a lot of space which reduces the width of the bed/seat. I can't afford to loose any with my long legs. I like to spread out my belongings and the toilet cover makes a nice table, so when I have to use the facilities, I must move a great deal of my belongings. The temperature control is very accurate! It even has the temperature marked on the thermostat dial. The heat or air conditioner comes on immediately upon selecting your desired temperature. In the Superliner sleepers, it takes a long time to feel any change when setting the temperature dial. Lastly, there are so many hooks to hang stuff off of! I was thinking of my J-pole antenna right off, but there's something about that kind of car that muffles the signal horribly. I moved it half a dozen times before I found a "so so" spot. The best spot was when I tied it off from the top window curtain rod. The signal is best if I place the antenna as close to the window as possible. If too far away, then the metal of the car disrupts signals.
Upon entering my Viewliner standard bedroom, there were two Viewliner guest directories with train schedules, handsome datebook/planner, complimentary copy of Byte Magazine, napkin and small package of Oreo cookies. My car attendant, Henry, took me through the basics on the operation of the lights and TV monitor. They only had two channels running with "Empty Nest" and "John Laroquette Show" Sitcoms. The tape quality was not that good either. There was no audio entertainment on any of the other channels but I was content enough listening to rail traffic.
On the Lakeshore Limited, they had a welcome aboard reception with wine, cheese, crackers and fruit bowls immediately following our departure from Chicago. It was nice to eat in a Heritage dining car again! It brought back many memories of my early train riding adventures. Even the slide-down yellow-tan colored window shades were the same. The car had been obviously refurbished with new carpeting and the lighting was florescent. The tables were still the original mustard yellow color I remember! What I found most moving was when traveling from my brand new Viewliner sleeper (the newest rolling stock in the Amtrak fleet) with it's electric-powered slide-open double doors, to the 40-year old Heritage Diner with it's heavy bright orange car door that you need to manually unlatch a metal handle to open it! I hope I get the same car combination on the Silver Star. Henry had made my bed by the time I returned to my room.
I found out during the reception that the reason for our late departure from Chicago was caused by a late arriving Empire Builder from Seattle. They had encountered blizzard-like conditions in Montana and North Dakota and were forced to snowplow for themselves! They had to back up a few times and ram huge snow drifts blocking their path.
Breakfast consisted of French Toast, turkey sausage patties, orange juice and coffee. All food was served on real Amtrak china. The people I sat with didn't utter a word to me or each other which made for a quiet, peaceful meal. They looked like hardened New Yorkers.
Lunch today consisted of a reheated cheeseburger, potato salad, very thin pickle wedge and a Slice to drink. I was in the mood for desert but it was not being served after lunch--not brought on the train I'm sure. As far as the menu went, they were out of one of the four items offered! The cheeseburger was not the greatest I've ever eaten. It had been previously cooked and this was the reheated version. The bottom bun was very greasy and wet while the top one was rubbery and hard in some places. Oh well, it looks like the 1980s again on Amtrak with the food quality. The dining car staff was not particularly friendly nor rude, just cold and talked in a monotone-like voice. A far cry from the service aboard the Coast Starlight!