Amtrak Travelogue by Steve Grande
Note: This rail travelogue was accidentally deleted and lost for many years. We managed to recover it in late 2010 from archives and re-post it to TrainWeb.com. These are some of my earliest rail travels and travel writings. My experience and understanding of Amtrak and other rail operations was quite a bit less than today and my writing style may have been a bit less experienced back then. So please pardon any problems that you might find in these earlier rail travel reports. A number of these earlier reports also have few or no photos or very small photos which was intentional to reduce download time during the early days of the web when almost everyone had slow dial-up connections to the internet!
Steve's Spring 1997 Rail Journey - First Segment: Air Travel to New York City and Hotel Pennsylvania.
Is the end of March really considered Spring? I have to assume so since my children have just started their spring vacation. I can't tell from the temperature. It was in over 90 degrees Farenheight when I left Los Angeles and was 45 degrees Farenheight when I arrived in New York City!
I usually like to upload my travelogue to the web from each hotel along my journey so that I can make this as close to a "live" broadcast as I can get for those of you that like to follow along the way. Unfortunately, that won't be possible on this first night. The phone system in this hotel is so old that everything is hard wired! There are no phone jacks! I used to run into this problem often years ago when modems were a new concept. I had a special device that I would take with me that allowed me to plug my modem into the handset slot instead of the wall jack. Since most hotels now have wall jacks and many even have built-in data ports, I haven't needed that device in years! Thus, I won't be able to plug in my modem tonight to upload my web pages nor to read my e-mail. Let's hope for better luck in New Orleans for Sunday night.
Today was the last day of school for my children for 3 weeks. They are in a year-round school program where they get 3 weeks off every 8 weeks and then only 5 weeks off in the summer instead of 3 months off. I've arranged all my rail travel for this year to be during one week of each of the 3 week periods that my children have off from school. In that way, my wife doesn't have the burden of trying to get the kids off to school all by herself which is what would happen if I took these trips during a school week.
I would love to take my kids and/or my wife with me on these trips, but by now it has become quite evident that they don't share my enthusiasm for train travel. They can get excited about a train trip, but a week long trip is something they could tolerate no more than once every year or maybe every other year. I think they are just happy that I have reduced my rail journeys to only one week every 3 months.
My father-in-law, who is at the tail end of a two week visit to us from Florida, gave me a ride this morning to the Fullerton Amtrak Station. I arrived at about 8:30 in the morning. I went to the window to pick up a pair of tickets that I had purchased from Amtrak through the Internet, the first time I had ever used Amtrak's on-line reservation system. The reservation number was 248518 and it was for $14 for round-trip tickets between Fullerton and Los Angeles. I wasn't able to use by Auto Club discount because I saw no instructions of how to apply it through the on-line Reservation system. I did get an e-mail back from Amtrak Customer Service telling me I had to put it in the special field that I think was called the "PCL Number". I wondered what that was for when I booked my reservation. However, I still don't know what to put in there. Do I put my Auto Club membership number in there? Amtrak Customer Service wasn't clear about that and I'm still waiting for another reply from them.
Stepping up to the Amtrak Ticket Window with my reservation number, the transaction only took a few of seconds to complete. I had a $20 bill ready to pay for the tickets when the agent took me by surprise and asked humorously: "Is that a $20 tip for me?" I knew she was joking about the tip, but I didn't realize she was serious that the tickets were already pre-paid! Then I remembered that I used a credit card when I purchased my tickets from Amtrak through the Internet. How convenient! Doing it this way even eliminated the time it takes at the window for the ticket agent to process the credit card or cash purchase! If I can get the final answer on how to use my Auto Club discount through the Internet, I might purchase all my furture Amtrak tickets this way.
The ticket prices were a bit interesting. Going from Fullerton to Los Angeles was $6, but returning from Los Angeles to Fullerton was $8. The reason for this is that travel for the first ticket is during the off-peak discount period and the return trip is during the peak travel period.
I took the 9:03A.M. San Diegan Express train from Fullerton to Los Angeles. This train was fairly full. On the earlier San Diegan Express I've usually been able to get one of the single seats in the California Cars. I had to sit next to someone else in one of the pairs of seats in the California Cars this time as all the single seats were already taken. There was also a very large number of children that got onto this train. I think they were on some sort of school outing. There was a luggage rack conveniently located just 3 rows back from me where I was able to stow my roller-luggage. My backpack I just placed on the floor in front of me. There is usually plenty of room in both the luggage racks and the overhead bins on the San Diegan trains since most people are not on an overnight trip and usually don't have more than just a briefcase or small carrybag with them.
Earlier in the week I had made a reservation with Metropolitan Express Vans to take me from Union Station to the Los Angeles Airport. The cost is $14, but a tip of $1 or $2 is also expected. I didn't really need to make a reservation. The Metropolitan Express meets all trains in the Los Angeles Union Station. I think that even includes the Metrolink trains. So, if you need to get anywhere from Union Station, just head down past the baggage area and you will find a Metropolitan Express van waiting.
I did use a Metropolitan Express van one other time about a year ago. I parked my car at that time at Union Station, took the van to LAX to take the first segment of my journey by plane, and then returned back to Union station by train where my car was waiting for me. The previous time that I did that, we got from Union Station to the airport very fast. I was the only passenger in the van and we made no other stops!
This time, however, I wasn't so lucky. There were 3 passengers in addition to myself. We first dropped someone off somewhere that I think was quite far south of the city. We had to take I-110 and I-405 from there to get back to the airport area. We also dropped someone off at the convention center, which I think was before we got onto the highways. My train had arrived into Union Station at 9:38am and we didn't get to the airport until after 10:50am! I could have driven from my house to the airport in that time. A direct drive from Union Station to the airport should not have taken more than 10 or 15 minutes, not an hour and 10 minutes! I didn't mind much as I got a bit of a tour of Los Angeles and my plane wasn't scheduled until 11:30am anyway. If you ever take an "express" van, be sure to tell them when your flight leaves. I've taken airport express type vans before and they have always arranged their schedules and accommodations to make sure all their passengers get to their gates in time, even if they have to call for additional vans.
Not everyone was so patient, however. The passenger next to me was a blind man going to a convention demonstrating assistance devices for the handicapped. Someone mistakenly told him that the Metrolink goes near the airport. From the time he left his house, took a Metroling from San Bernardino to Union Station, and then took this van that went around the world, the total one-way time was over 3 hours! He was pretty discusted. He planned to grab a bite for lunch, make one quick trip around the convention and then head home early in fear of missing the last train back. He decided that he would take a short-hop communter flight from San Bernardino to Los Angeles next time he needed to do this.
The time wasn't completely wasted, however. He rode a lot of trains back in the 1930's and 1940's and he know the names of many of the trains from that time and all about the accommodations on those trains. We had a wonderful discussion about that. I brought him up to speed about how much Amtrak had changed over the last 5 years. I agreed that rail travel will probably never again be the way it was in its heyday, but Amtrak has brought back real china, silverware and linens to the Dining Car and even candlelight to the tables! Amtrak is doing what it can to bring back the spirit of what people remember of trains, including the first class service to passengers.
He was very interested in knowing the address of my web pages. Evidently he uses one of those assistance devices that allow bling people to read the contents of web pages. Naturally his first question was about the ratio of text to graphics. Graphics obviously has little appeal for him. I did explain that of any web site, he should enjoy TrainWeb since it is almost entirely text with very little graphics except for the gallery.
The lines at the airport were not too long. I got my boarding pass and to the gate fairly quickly and boarded the plane within a few minutes of my arrival at the gate. I had a window seat in row 18 right over the wing. The plane was a Boeing 767, so it was a fairly good size and the seats weren't too cramped. During the flight, I watched the movie "Star Trek: First Contact" for the second time. I wanted to see the holo-deck bar scene that was filmed in Los Angeles Union Station. I paid close attention to that segment of the movie, but there were so many people and so much activity in that particular segment that it was impossible for me to recognize any of the surroundings in the scene.
We arrived on-time at JFK airport in New York. The taxi fare is a flat $30 from JFK airport to anywhere in Manhattan. There is a toll of $3.50 that is expected to be paid by the passenger and a "suggested" tip of $5. Thus, the ride from JFK to my hotel, Hotel Pennsylvania, cost me $38.50! This rate information is all printed up and given to each person by the taxi dispatcher at the airport and is then printed on cards and taped to the inside of the glass partition.
The Hotel Pennsylvania is a very old and historic hotel. I would recommend to anyone traveling by train through New York City to stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania strictly for its historical significance, its convenience to Pennsylvania station, and convenience to many tourist attractions. The Hotel Pennsylvania is just 2 blocks from the Empire State Building and directly across the street from both Madison Square Garden and Amtrak's Pennsylvania Station. Not only can you board Amtrak trains from this station, but you can also board the New York subway trains, the Long Island Railroad, and the New Jersey transit trains.
The Pennsylvania hotel was built in 1919 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was designed by the renowned architecture firm of McKim, Mead & White who also designed the original Pennsylvania Station and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I belive the original Pennsylvania Station was torn down to make room to build Madison Square Garden. The Glenn Miller Orchestra forever immortalized the hotel and its phone number in the 1938 hit, "Pennsylvania 6-5000", which still remains to this day the hotel's phone number!
Hotel Pennsylvania is located on Seventh Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets. What was my first impression? Well, when I stepped into my room, it looked like a cheap small dark motel room. It also had the damp musty smell of the same. Overall, however, I wouldn't let this disuade you from staying in the hotel. You have to remember that this hotel is very old and historical. The fixtures are old, the design of the rooms is old, and you are going to get that look and feel from many hotels of that era. What it really reminded me of was the design, look and feel of my grandmother's house that I can barely remember from when I was a small child. At least the hotel does have a push button phone and a flush toilet. My grandmother's house had a pull-chain toilet and the phone didn't even have a dial on it! It just had a voice that would say "Number please" whenever you picked it up.
Unlike the hermetically sealed hotel windows in California (and the Amtrak passenger trains), the windows in this hotel actually open, even on the 14th floor! Be careful. Don't fall out the window!
I walked across the street and explored Pennsylvania Station. This station is unlike any other station I have ever been in. It reminds me of some of one particular subway station in Boston where many stores have entrances right down inside the subway station. The major difference is that Pennsylvania Station is bigger, much much bigger. There seem to be dozens and dozens of stores and places to eat in the station. There are thousands of people going here and there, and this was at almost 10 P.M. at night! The activity at this station reminded me of the amount of activity you usually see at an airport. The major difference is that the structure of the station itself is much older. I'm sure that most train stations in major cities around the nation looked much like the way Penn Station looks today during the peak of rail travel. Penn Station itself must have had many times the activity that it even has now in those days, but I believe that New York had quite a few rail stations in those days.
A lot of people love New York City. Generally, I don't really like cities, period. New York City, being one of the greatest cities on earth, probably has more of what I don't like about cities than most any other place on earth. So, I don't plan to comment much more on New York City. Many people love to live or visit this city. Many people could not dream of living anywhere else on earth. I'm not one of those people, so rather than bias you with my own perceptions of cities, especially New York City, I'll leave it up to someone else to sing the praises of New York City.
I like quiet train stations. I consider the Chicago Amtrak station to even be quiet compared to the jumble of people in Penn Station! There is just no end to people going in every direction in this station. So many people just make me nervous. This is a nice place to visit for a few hours, but I'm very glad I'm leaving on a train tomorrow.
It is now 12:23am Eastern Time on Saturday morning. Even though it is only 9:23am my time (Pacific Time), I better turn in so that I can get up in time to check out and head down to the station. My next entry will probably be from the train tomorrow unless I think of something I want to get in before I leave the hotel in the morning.
Click here for the next segment of this Spring 1997 journey.