The Cardinal to Baltimore

We had planned well. With our laundry done and everything packed, we checked out of Ray’s and waited outside for our prearranged taxi to take us back to Chicago’s Union Station. We had arranged the taxi for 11:00am, giving us a comfortable amount of time to make the trip to the station, stash our bags, and then go out and have a nice lunch by the river before our 2:00pm departure. But then we looked at our tickets. Where the heck did we ever come up with 2:00pm? Both Nancy and I had that time firmly in our heads, but it was wrong. No, our train didn’t leave until 5:45. So after saying goodbye to our taxi at the station and checking our bags in at the luggage desk, we found that we had something like six hours to kill before our train. Oh, well, it could have been worse. At least the train wasn’t earlier than we had thought. We had planned to find a fun place to eat lunch somewhere, and we could still do that. It just meant that we could also do a bit of sightseeing, and that we would be spending a bit less time on the train, which, given that we only could get a roomette, wasn’t a bad thing.

Chicago’s Union Station is a busy place. I’m pretty sure it is the busiest in the whole Amtrak system. Folks traveling to or from the station in a sleeper can use the First Class lounge, as we do. The lounge is a cozy little oasis in the busy Amtrak station, providing soft couches, free coffee and soft drinks, TV and newspapers, an attended baggage storage room, bathrooms, power outlets, and free Wi-Fi. As well, with many of the trains you are taken directly to your train from the lounge, without having to go through the regular boarding gate along with the numerous coach passengers. We always take advantage of the lounge when we go through this station, as we did on this occasion. After strapping Nancy’s pillow and coat to her soft suitcase, I checked it and our two other bags in with the luggage room attendant. That just left us with a carryon-sized bag each (containing our iPads, phones, tickets, etc.), and Nancy’s purse. These we kept with us for our foray into downtown Chicago. We then took a moment to do a little online research so that we wouldn’t be wandering aimlessly. Nancy had a bit of business to transact at the post office, so we planned for that to be our first stop. There was also a restaurant that we needed to take a picture of for a friend, so we located a post office near that restaurant and set off.

As it turns out, we ended up hitting two post offices and a FedEx outlet before we managed to take care of our mailing. We finally had success in a post office in the Merchandise Mart, an absolutely huge 25-story office building right on the Chicago River that Motorola intends to make its corporate headquarters. At least, I think that they still plan to do so: before I was laid off they had announced that the existing corporate headquarters in Schaumberg would be sold and that Motorola would be moving into the top four floors of the Merchandise Mart. I haven’t heard whether that is still the plan, or if things have changed. In any case, we noticed a nice looking restaurant right across from the Merchandise Mart, with tables outside along the river, so we ended up having our lunch there. Our hunger satisfied, we then did some further Internet research, looking for some sort of market where we could get some wine and cheese for our onboard “piazza” time. We discovered the perfect place not too far from where we were eating lunch, so that became our next stop. The “Chicago French Market,” as it turns out, is actually in the Metra station (Metra is Chicago’s commuter rail system), not too far from the Amtrak station. Among the numerous boarding gates is a tiny mall, with a drugstore, a restaurant and bar, and the French Market. The Market is itself a set of individual vendors packed into a single storefront, all selling gourmet food of various kinds. We found one retailer selling high-end cheeses and wines, which worked perfectly for us. From another vendor we got some crackers and a cucumber (which we later sliced, to have cheese on). That took care of our food needs, so we headed back to Union Station and the First Class lounge.

The Cardinal originates from Chicago, and it was leaving on time. We retrieved our bags from the luggage room attendant and, when called, followed the Conductor from the lounge directly to our train. The Cardinal is a small train–the smallest Amtrak train I’ve ever ridden. It has only a single sleeping car, and a car that is half dining car, half lounge car. All of the cars on the train are single-level, so there isn’t a proper kitchen. The Cardinal diner has a somewhat abbreviated menu, and everything they serve is pre-prepared and then microwaved. Still, it all tasted pretty good.

It appears that everyone in the one sleeping car can fit in the diner at once, so they don’t do dinner reservations on the Cardinal. Instead, you just go whenever you want (when the diner is open). If you ever decide to ride this train, be aware that the server is also the cook: on this train diners need to be very patient. On the Cardinal going to Baltimore the server would take the orders from one table, prepare the food, and then serve that table before even acknowledging any other tables. It was a bit strange, and we had to wait quite a while before she got to us, but as I said the food was pretty good. And of course, it is included in the price of the ticket, so it’s worth waiting for. And besides, where else were we to go? Our only other option was to sit in our room, which had pretty much the same view…

Because the Cardinal has only one single-level sleeper, there are only three full-sized bedrooms on the train, and one of those is the handicapped bedroom. Thus, it is very difficult to get a full-sized bedroom on this train. I tried to fiddle with our schedule to find a way, but finally just settled for roomettes on both Cardinals (going to and returning from Baltimore). We’ve ridden in many roomettes over the years and know how to make ourselves comfortable, so it wasn’t really a problem. Plus, the roomettes in the single-level sleepers are a bit nicer than the ones in the double-level sleepers you encounter on Amtrak’s cross-country trains and on the Coast Starlight. For one thing, they have a second row of windows above the normal ones, meaning that the upper-level bunk gets to look outside at night (or not: there are curtains). For another, they’ve squeezed a sink and toilet into each roomette, so you only have to go down the hall to take a shower. Of, course, squeezing a toilet into a roomette has other drawbacks. For instance, if one of us wanted to use it, the other had to go wait in the hall. But you make do, and overall these roomettes were very nice. The beds were comfortable, too, so we slept well. I should note that, historically, the pillows have been awful: flat, insubstantial things. But across the line Amtrak seems to have upgraded them; the current pillows are great! Not knowing this, Nancy brought a pillow from home, which means that we carried a pillow from the West Coast all the way to the East Coast, for nothing…

The Cardinal is said to be one of the most scenic on the line, which is one reason why we took it. That, and so I could notch another Amtrak line in my belt. Plus, the two other options for getting to Williamsburg were New York or Washington (on lines I’ve already been on) and we wanted to go somewhere new. So, it was the Cardinal and Baltimore. The route that the Cardinal takes truly is beautiful. It spends a lot of time wending its way through West Virginia, through lush green valleys, gorgeous rock cuts with occasional waterfalls cascading down them, and alongside wide, fast-moving rivers. At least, the rivers were wide and fast-moving on our trip, which apparently isn’t normal. For a good part of the journey–for perhaps two hours or so–we were scheduled to follow one particular river eastward through West Virginia. It was a beautiful river, but clearly over its banks: we noted many trees growing out from the water, where they didn’t normally belong. And I saw great mats of sticks and branches (and some trash, unfortunately) snagged in the trees. As we progressed, the train slowed and eventually we heard an announcement: due to flooding (the river was quite close to the tracks) we were restricted to 45 mph. Not great, but not the end of the world, either. After all, we were still moving. For a while. And then we stopped, and for a long time there weren’t any announcements. We were sitting on a small bridge over a small river that fed the main one, looking out at the view, when all of a sudden we saw a couple of kayaks shoot out from under the bridge and into the main river. The river was really running, with numerous whitecaps and occasional logs floating by, so we wondered if these guys knew what they were getting into. They turned downriver and were quickly swept out of sight, so we can only wonder how things worked out for them.

We eventually started up again, and moved along slowly for a while before we once again stopped. Eventually we made it to our next stop, at Thurmond, West Virginia. At this point we were three-and-a-half hours late. Not great, but since we were due to arrive in Baltimore at 7:00pm, that meant that we’d get in at 10:30, which I could live with. If only that was the end of the delays…but of course it wasn’t. As it turns out, not only were the tracks threatened, but the water had taken out the signaling system. Since the part of the route we were currently on was single-track, it wasn’t safe to proceed from one section to the next without knowing that the section was clear. And without communication between the signals, we didn’t really know whether or not it was safe to proceed. Since we were in a deep valley in West Virginia, cell service was very spotty, meaning that the train didn’t have an easy way to communicate with the dispatcher. In the end, the train would approach each signal and stop. Then the conductor would hop down and flip the signal manually. That is why we were running so late, and it is why we continued to get later, at least for a while. When we finally pulled into Hinton, WV, we were four hours and twenty minutes late. By then we had moved away from the river so conditions had improved: we managed to get to the next two stations without falling any further behind. But then, as happens when a train gets off schedule, we started running afoul of freight trains, so by Clifton Forge, VA, we were over five hours late, and by the time we finally pulled into Washington, D.C. we were a full six hours late. Baltimore was the stop after D.C., and things didn’t improve. Our scheduled arrival: 7:05pm. Actual arrival in Baltimore: 1:00am.

Our original plan had been to take a taxi to the Baltimore airport–there isn’t a Hertz desk in Baltimore’s Penn station–and then drive to Williamsburg. When it became clear that we might not get to Baltimore until as late as 2:00am, we knew that driving to Williamsburg (which takes about three hours from Baltimore) was out. On the train, once we had gotten to a more populated part of Virginia, where we had solid cell service I called Hertz to let them know of our delay. Fortunately, the Hertz desk at the BWI airport was open 24 hours, so our car would be there no matter when we finally arrived. Nancy then called the Williamsburg Lodge and let them know of our predicament. They wished us well and assured us that there would be no problem; our room would be there no matter which day we arrived. Reassured that our trip would survive this minor hiccup, we then relaxed and enjoyed the ride through Alexandria and D.C., and into Baltimore.

At dinner on the train that night we had sat with a young man who worked for United Airlines out of Chicago, and who was taking this train for fun. His plan was to spend the night at the Baltimore airport hotel and fly back to Chicago first thing in the morning. Since he was in the same predicament as we, we decided to share a cab to the airport. That ended up working out well: when we arrived at Baltimore’s Penn station there were a couple of cabs waiting, even at that late hour. The cab dropped us off at the airport rental car center and then took our new friend off to the airport hotel. We then picked up our rental car and started driving south.

Due to the lateness of the hour, we had already decided that we wouldn’t try to go all the way to Williamsburg that night. Although the last-minute changes to our travel plans had given me a small jolt of adrenaline, I knew that it wouldn’t keep me awake all the way to Williamsburg. Instead, we decided to drive to just south of Washington D.C. where we checked into a Holiday Inn Express. That got us around the worst of the D.C. area traffic, so the next morning we would have an easy drive the rest of the way to Williamsburg. We made it to the Holiday Inn at 2:15 in the morning, and set our alarms for 7:30, hoping to be out by 8:00am.

This last part of our plan actually worked, although we didn’t get out until slightly later since we discovered in the morning that the hotel offered a complimentary breakfast, and we elected to take advantage of that in lieu of a muffin and coffee at a roadside Starbucks or some such. By 8:30 we were packed up and ready to hit the highway south, off to see Williamsburg and our niece Colleen.

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