This travelogue covers my journey on the Amtrak Pere Marquette round trip between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
YEAR MON DA DAY Actual-Departure-Time (Scheduled-Departure-Time) Time Zone
1999 MAR 25 THU 17:35 (17:35) Central Time Chicago IL
Click here for more photos of the Automat Food Service Car.
The Amtrak Pere Marquette is the train with the Automat Food Service Car. I know the idea of having this car on the train instead of a regular Cafe Car with a live Cafe Car Attendant is controversial, but my overall impression of this car was much better than I expected.
One half of the car has 10 full size tables that are larger than those in the Superliner Dining Cars. The other side of the car has 3 similar tables. Each table can easily seat 4 full size adults or up to 6 younger children. The space between the seats and the tables is large enough to fit adults of almost any size. There are electric outlets under most of the tables that are compatible with notebook computers.
The walls are lined with windows that are quite large when compared to windows in Horizon or Amfleet Cars. Actually, I think they are quite a bit larger than even the windows in the Superliner Coach and Sleeping Cars. Although the windows can get dirty, they are relatively free of scratches and discoloration. The color scheme is that of all recently refurbished cars and the Superliner II's: most everything is medium grey with highlights of light grey and blue curtains.
The floor is made of a grey rubber like material. The walls and ceiling are carpeted in medium grey. The soft simulated leather seats are medium grey while the tables and window trims are a lighter grey. The curtains are made of the same blue material used in the Superliner II Cars and in the Superliner I Cars that have been refurbished recently. Lighting is provided by florescent lights in the center of the ceiling.
This car provides a great deal of room to eat, play games, or work comfortably. The train I took wasn't very crowded, so most of the tables were empty. My guess is that there is probably space for everyone that wants to be in this car most of the time since this train is usually short and only a small percentage of the passengers want to be in this car at any one time.
There are several vending machines in the room which dispense sandwiches, snacks, cold drinks in cans or by the cup and coffee or hot chocolate by the cup. There are two industrial strength microwave ovens for heating your purchases from the machines. There are also two sinks in the counter across from the microwaves. The couter also has plenty of ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, and other food preparation supplies. Most of the machines will take either dollar bills or coins. There is also a machine at the very end of the car that can change either $5 or $1 bills.
I would rate the quality of this lounge car above the Amfleet and Horizon Cafe Cars and even above the Superliner Sightseer Lounge Car. The only lounge cars that I feel are superior to the layout of this car are the Pacific Parlour Cars on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and the Full-Length Dome Cars on the Amtrak San Diegans. If they had these cars on other coach trains, I'd spend my time at a table in this car instead of at my coach seat. I'm working from one of those tables right now as I write this and have my notebook computer plugged into the power outlet under the table (via a surge suppressor, of course!).
There is one drawback to this car. Unfortunately, that drawback has to do with the purpose of this car: the food service. First, the vending machines don't make a good Bloody Mary. Actually, they don't make Bloody Marys at all. They don't dispense any alcoholic beverages at all, for obvious reasons. I think that is probably the major drawback of not using a live Cafe Car Attendant.
I suppose Amtrak had a good reason for not providing a live Cafe Car Attendant. Maybe the revenue from the food service on this run didn't cover the cost of the person. I know it can't be that the journey is too short since this is almost a 4 hour trip from Chicago to Grand Rapids. That is almost twice as long as the trip from Los Angeles to San Diego and live Cafe Car Attendants are used for that run. Maybe the lack of sales is due to this being a small train with an inadequate number of passengers to make enough purchases.
Assuming for whatever reason that there was justification to automate the food service, I don't think there is any excuse to not refill the machines each time the train comes into Chicago. That was a major problem on this train. The sandwich machine was almost totally empty. Of the selections that had not run out, many of the slots in the machine contained the same items: steak sandwiches, fish sandwiches and hamburgers. The sandwich machine did have a lot of rows, but they were almost all empty.
Since I checked the machine right after we left Chicago, it obviously was not refilled in Chicago. Maybe they only refill the machines in Grand Rapids. If that is the case, then Amtrak needs to change their policy and also refill them in Chicago. This is something that would not happen with a live Cafe Car Attendant. Such an Attendant might run out of supplies enroute, but it is unlikely that he would come onboard in Chicago without bringing in new supplies! Keeping the machines stocked might not even be that big a job. The only machine that seemed to be low on supplies was the sandwich machine.
If Amtrak kept the machine stocked with a good diversity of sandwiches, it would eliminate any major complaints that I have about the Automat Food Service Car. I would love to see a car like this on every Amtrak coach train, but would not like to lose having a live Cafe Car Attendant on those trains. I'd rather see most Cafe Cars set up like this car, but with a live Cafe Car Attendant instead of machines.
1999 MAR 25 THU 18:02 (18:02) Central Time Hammond-Whiting IN
1999 MAR 25 THU 19:51 (19:51) Eastern Time New Buffalo MI
1999 MAR 25 THU 20:20 (20:20) Eastern Time St. Joseph-Benton Harbor MI
1999 MAR 25 THU 20:56 (20:56) Eastern Time Bangor MI (South Haven)
1999 MAR 25 THU 21:35 (21:35) Eastern Time Holland MI
1999 MAR 25 THU 22:30 (22:30) Eastern Time Grand Rapids MI
1999 MAR 26 FRI 07:45 (07:45) Eastern Time Grand Rapids MI
Click here for more photos of my rail travel on the Pere Marquette from Grand Rapids to Chicago.
I think I put in a little too much safety margin this time. Since I did not know how much traffic this area has in the morning nor how long it would take a taxi to travel the 7 miles to the train station, I left my hotel at 6:00 A.M. It only took about 20 minutes and I was down at the Amtrak Grand Rapids Station before 6:20 A.M. That was 1 hour and 25 minutes before the departure time!
There was a guard in the station, but it was all locked up. The weather was cold, but not freezing. I explored the area around the station and took a couple of photos of the station. The guard opened up the station somewhere between 6:30 A.M. and 7:00 A.M. Wanting to warm up a bit, I went inside. Within 15 minutes, I started to hear the Amtrak crew requesting permission from the Dispatcher to bring the train down into the station. So, I picked up my bags and headed outside. The train didn't actually come into the station until around 7:30 A.M. I think they ran into some small mechanical difficulty.
Although I was the first to arrive, there was a pretty good size crowd at the station by the time the train pulled in for boarding. Everyone was placed into one coach car, the one that was directly in front of the Automat Car at the rear of the train. There were plenty of seats for everyone in just that one car, but I do think that almost every pair of seats ended up being taken by either one or two people. I think the plan is place people that board at other stations down the line into the other coach cars.
Just before I boarded the trains, one of the Conductors asked me: "Weren't you with us last night?" I replied that I was and got a chance a little later to talk with the Conductor and explain what I was doing. I would imagine they don't get too many passengers that arrive one night and leave the next morning. There isn't time to do much between those two trains other than sleep!
As soon as my ticket was lifted by the Conductor, I headed straight for the Automat Car with my notebook computer. For about 15 minutes, I was the only one in the car. After that, a few people came, purchased food, some stayed to eat, but everyone was gone again by 9:00 A.M. except for 3 people playing cards. The Conductors have also set up their base of operation at a couple of tables at the end of this car.
Checking the inventory in the sandwich machine, it looks like they don't refill this machine in Grand Rapids either! I thought they might have stocked it up with at least a few breakfast items, but there is nothing in the machine other than the same items left over from yesterday! Anyone for hamburgers or chili dogs for breakfast? I sure hope they plan to refill that machine before it heads out of Chicago today with the weekend crowd!
Having almost eaten nothing yesterday beyond the sandwich and soda that I purchased from those machines, I was pretty hungry this morning. The snack machine had a donut and a pastry with sticky frosting. I don't like frosted pastries, so I went for the donut. The coffee machine had a nice selection and I punched up a French Vanilla Coffee with maximum sugar and cream. Lids are available across from the machines which makes it a bit safer to carry around the hot cup of coffee on the train.
Something interesting that I noticed when I boarded the train is that all the seats appear to have been turned around! Yesterday, the Automat Food Service Car was at the head end of the train and all the seats were facing that head end of the train. Today the Automat Food Service Car is at the rear of the train and all the seats are facing away from it! So, either they flipped all the seats around or they actually moved the Automat Car from one end of the train to the other.
1999 MAR 26 FRI 08:25 (08:25) Eastern Time Holland MI
1999 MAR 26 FRI 09:06 (09:06) Eastern Time Bangor MI (South Haven)
This place seems to have a station that is all boarded up.
1999 MAR 26 FRI 09:43 (09:41) Eastern Time St. Joseph-Benton Harbor MI
Just before arriving at this station you can begin to see the lake. From the station and beyond you get a view of the lake for several minutes from the west side of the train. Facing in the same direction that the train is traveling, seats on the right side of the train have a view of the lake.
There are now people sitting at five tables in this car. Not counting the Conductors, that still leaves seven empty tables. I think this train usually runs with just three cars plus this Automat Car as I overheard one of the Conductors saying that he is going to request an extra car to handle the extra number of passengers expected during the school spring break.
The Engineer just got a bit excited as we just missed hitting a car at the grade crossing He mentioned that to the Conductor. The Conductor commented that it must have got him real excited as he just called out the wrong milepost: 120 instead of 123!
1999 MAR 26 FRI 10:12 (10:10) Eastern Time New Buffalo MI
1999 MAR 26 FRI 10:20 (09:58) Central Time Hammond-Whiting IN
1999 MAR 26 FRI 10:50 (10:40) Central Time Chicago IL
The detectors are reporting that the train has 24 axles and is 502 feet long.
Click herefor the travelogue of the next segment of this rail journey.
Click herefor the travelogue of the previous segment of this rail journey.