Varna Trip Report, day one

[day −1]
[day 0]

2023-06-07 20:50 UTC−5 (still technically day 0)

I had left the Met. Lounge briefly and returned to find that they were already starting to board 48.  The lounge attendant said that a redcap was on the way and I should stand with several others also waiting for redcap assistance.  The redcap finally showed up around 21:10 with room for only four people to ride.  He could carry all the luggage, but two of the more capable of us had to walk behind.  I was glad I wasn’t one of the walkers because the train had been spotted all the way at the other side of the station on track 30.

The train departed promptly at 21:30.  We have three engine units one of which has a CPRail paint job, the Boston sleeper, the café car, two Boston coaches, three New York coaches, a Viewliner diner, two Viewliner I New York sleepers, a Viewliner baggage car, and a coach that, I guess, is deadheading.

Maybe the Boston sleeper is the Viewliner II on this trip…I don’t know for sure.  Both New York sleepers are definitely Viewliner Is.

2023-06-08 00:25 UTC−4 (now it’s day 1), we’re departing South Bend, already almost half an hour late at the first stop.

I woke up for both the Toledo and Cleveland stops.  There must be some schedule padding because we were out of Toledo right on time and arrived in Cleveland early and had a long stop waiting for the scheduled departure time.

The dining car folks don’t like making announcements on the PA, so around 06:40, I headed for the diner to find that they were already serving.  Don’t believe what I wrote in earlier posts about better dining on the Lake Shore Limited.  The car you’re riding in is a Viewliner diner; but the food is from the “flexible dining menu”, the same crap that I got on the Texas Eagle and would have gotten on the Capitol Limited had I taken that train eastbound out of Chicago.

A bit under half an hour east of Erie at 08:00, as we were passing a freight train, we had an emergency brake application.  I gathered from the radio traffic that one of the air hoses between two of the cars had parted* due to a defect that was reported to, but not fixed by, Chicago Mechanical.  (Folks who follow Amtrak will not be at all surprised by the condition of the trains that come out of Chicago.)

They needed a tripple spot at the Buffalo-Depew station, first for a crew change, then for the coaches, and finally for the sleepers and the baggage car.  After finishing the passenger work, they spent some time double-checking the air hose that had parted earlier; and we departed Depew just under one hour late.

At about 13:30, the conductor announced on the PA that we’ve got a stop signal, and we’ll be waiting on two westbound freights.  One of them passed right away, and the second showed up about eight minutes later.  We’re pulling again at 13:40.

An announcement at 14:10 said that the café car was closed.  Why would that be?  It turns out that this is a trip on which the Boston passengers get bustituted, and the Boston section deadheads to New York.

We made up almost all the late time on the CSX and arrived in Albany-Rensselaer only seven minutes late.

It turns out that the Boston section isn’t deadheading to New York after all.  Around 15:40 the head-end power (HEP, the electricity for the train) went off; and the Boston cars including the three engine units we started out with pulled forward and then shoved back to the yard.  They then added a dual-mode engine that can switch to straight electric for use from Croton-Harmon to Penn Station.

We got the HEP back at 16:04 and departed right on the advertised at 16:10.

We stopped shortly after leaving the station.  It turns out that we had to wait for another Amtrak train.  We’re pulling again at 16:22.

The ride on both the Amtrak Hudson Line and Metro North was very rough.  I don’t remember getting bounced around that much the previous times I’ve taken 49 westbound.  We finally arrived in Penn Station about 40 minutes late, give or take.

I got a redcap expecting only to be taken up the elevator and to the baggage claim area.  She actually walked me all the way to my hotel, which was just a block away.  I was embarrassed to give her only $3.00 for a tip because that’s all the cash I had.  I’d have been happy have given her a ten for her trouble.

*The way that air brakes work on trains is that pressure in the brake line holds the brakes off, and brakes are applied by reducing the pressure.  If the pressure drops quickly, for example if the brake line parts somewhere, the brakes get applied as hard and as fast as possible from a special air tank on each car.  That’s an “emergency brake application”.

Varna Trip Report, day zero

[day −1]

2023-06-07 07:15 UTC−5

I checked a bag to New York and got let in to the Met. Lounge.  22 isn’t in the station yet…it usually is by now.  Dixielandsoftware shows it in southern Missouri, but doesn’t have a “status file”.  Amtrak’s own status page shows the train as “on time”.  We’ll see…

Amtrak’s status got later and later, but not my much; and we finally departed at 08:50, just :55 late.  I have no clue what the problem was.

The consist is really strange, the Cross-Country Café right after the engine, then a coach-baggage, an accessible coach, a sleeper, and a third coach.

This is my first trip using software called Maptitude.  The idea is that, given a GPS receiver plugged into a USB port on my laptop, it displays my current location along with some other information like latitude/longitude/altitude and my current direction and speed.  I didn’t like it at first because starting the GPS tracking requires going through several submenus with names that are not all that helpful.  I had to fire up my Verizon hotspot and use their on-line help to find the magic incantation; and it was almost 9:30 before I got it set up correctly.

The café attendant came by in the sleeper taking orders for lunch.  He said he had some cheeseburgers available, so that’s what I picked.

Lunchtime was supposed to be 11:00, so at that time I walked through the two coaches to the “dining car”; but lunch wasn’t quite ready yet; and it was around 11:25 before I got served.  I was expecting the “angus burger” that they have in the real diners, but what I got was a cheeseburger that was basically what one gets in the café on corridor trains, and it was served on a paper plate that was basically the same size as the sandwich.  I probably should have picked the ziti and meatballs.

The trip was mostly uneventful this time, so there’s not much to report.  We stayed about an hour late, give or take, all the way to Joliet; but thanks to schedule padding, we departed Joliet only 0:22 late.

It’s possible to lose time on the Canadian National between Joliet and Chicago, but everything went smoothly this time.  We had about a ten-minute delay waiting for a couple of trains to clear the 21st Street Bridge over the river; but we got on the bridge and entered Amtrak property at 14:10 and made our final stop at 14:16, just 0:32 late.  For Amtrak long-distance trains, that’s as close to on-time as makes no difference.

When we arrived, I had a layover of about 7:30 before the scheduled departure of the Lake Shore.  I checked in to the Met. Lounge, got caught up on my e-mail and FtB reading, and drafted and proofread this post up to this point.

At 18:00, I stopped by Sbarros and got a big slice of pizza for supper.  It was basically all dough, though, and I didn’t think it was any good at all.  I’ll have to rethink my choice of meals at Chicago Union Station for future trips.

I’ll make this the whole day 0 report.  Even though the Lake Shore will depart today, it’ll be late tonight, so I’ll save the whole trip to New York for day 1.

Time to get started on my Bernie Sanders book…

Varna Trip Report, day minus one

Tomorrow I’ll be on my way to Varna, Bulgaria for a meeting of the ISO standards committee for the C++ programming language.  This will be my first trip to Eastern Europe, and I’m looking forward to it.


I’ve decided to start out on the Texas Eagle, even though that will give me an extremely long layover in Chicago, because I don’t think I can trust Lincoln Service train 318 to make the connection to the Lake Shore Limited.  Also, riding on the Eagle, I can check a bag all the way to New York; but the Lincoln Service trains don’t carry checked baggage.

I’ll have an accessible bedroom on the Lake Shore, likely my first ride in one of the newer Viewliner II cars.  Several years ago I had a Viewliner I accessible bedroom* which has a separate room for the sink, toilet and shower; but from the diagrams that I’ve found on the Web, it looks like the Viewliner IIs have all the plumbing out in the room.  We’ll see…

I’m going via New York eastbound, and spending the night there, because I can’t count on the Boston section of the Lake Shore arriving in time to catch my flight out of Logan.

I don’t like flying very much, not because I’m afraid of it — it’s just as safe as riding on a train, and very much safer than blasting down a highway; but I couldn’t find good train connections between Western and Eastern Europe; so I’ll be flying all the way east of North America.  (There’s an overnight train between Sofia and Varna which I would have liked to take, but even getting to Sofia by train was a problem.)

I like to fly Icelandair across the Pond for a couple of reasons:  I actually like getting off the plane and stretching my legs in Keflavík; and I’m fortunate to be able to afford Icelandair’s Saga class if I don’t try to afford other stuff that I don’t really want that much anyway.  Trans-Atlantic business class on other airlines would probably be out of my price range.  I like to fly out of Boston because that’s the shortest flight between the U.S. and Keflavík.

The trip home will be basically the reverse of the eastbound itinerary.  I had originally booked an accessible bedroom on the Boston section of the Lake Shore; but I got a robocall from Amtrak saying that there would be a schedule change.  It turns out that there’ll be trackwork going on that day, which is not unusual in the summer, so I’d be on a bus from Boston to the Albany-Rensselaer station and board my sleeper there.  I decided instead to get business class tickets on a Northeast Regional train 171 to New York, and then on the Ethan Allen Express train 291 to Rensselaer.  (I had trouble making that change initially, but it finally worked out.)  I’m hoping that, once I get to New York, I’ll be able to check a bag on the New York section of the Lake Shore all the way to St. Louis.

The only drawback is that I’ll miss a few baseball games.  (I’m not the sort of fan who knows all the players’ WARs and where they went to high school, but I enjoy watching the games.)

[Timetables for the Texas Eagle, Lake Shore Limited, and trains 86, 171, and 291]

*I had booked a roomette from Boston to Chicago; but the Boston sleeper didn’t run on that day.  Passengers with sleeper tickets got special seating in the business class car and a complimentary meal in the dinette; and then in Albany-Rensselaer where the two sections of the train are combined, the plan was to move us to one of the New York sleepers.  When we got to Rensselaer, it turned out that they were one roomette short; and since I was a single guy traveling alone, and I was young and able in those days, I was, quite reasonably, the odd man out.  They put me in coach and refunded the sleeper fare.

I wasn’t happy about that, but there was no point in screaming at the ticket agents in Rensselaer…it wasn’t their doing, and indeed they probably found out about it shortly before I did.  I guess word about my behavior got passed along because the crew out of Rensselaer were unusually gracious to me. 😎

One of the accessible bedrooms was vacated in either Elyria or Sandusky, so during the stop in Toledo, one of the crew moved me from coach to that room; and I rode there for the last few hours of the trip at no additional charge.  I also got a free breakfast in the diner.

Good news for my Varna trip…

… but it started out scary.

I thought of changing my Amtrak reservation on-line, but when I looked it up, Amtrak’s website said that it couldn’t be found. I was afraid that one of the St. Louis ticket agents had cancelled the whole trip, so I called 1-800-USA-RAIL.

It was about fifty minutes after I initiated the call before I finally got connected to a person at customer service, but I’m glad I stayed on the line. The person I talked to knew immediately what my problem was, retrieved the reservation, put it back in effect, and added trains 171 from Boston to New York, and 291 from New York to Albany-Rensselaer, business class on both new trains.  And there was no additional charge:  he said he had “taken care of it” for me. 😎

And while I had him on the line, he made another change to a trip to Kailua-Kona, HI that I’ll be taking in November, and which involves Amtrak trains in the continental US.  The westbound trip will now start one day earlier, which I wanted to do to give myself some buffer if something bad happens to train 5 that day.  That also gives me a whole day to get from Amtrak’s Emeryville station to SFO airport, so I should be able to do that on the Emery Go-Round and BART instead of taking a taxi.

That cost me an additional $450 or something since I’m now in a higher fare bucket, but the good news is that I got room D instead of room E, and the electrical outlet will be on the “correct” side of the room.  All I still have to do is get a reservation for one night at the hotel across the tracks from the Emeryville station.

So now I’m a happy camper again. 😎  My day-minus-one post should appear this coming Tuesday.

A Problem with my Varna Trip

It often happens in the summertime that trackwork on the railroad that runs across Massachusetts affects the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited; and when that happens, the Boston cars deadhead to New York and get turned in Sunnyside.

It turns out that that affects the penultimate leg of my return trip from Varna, Bulgaria.  I’ll now be on a bus from Boston to the Albany-Rensselaer station where I’ll board the 449 sleeper.  That’ll be minimally acceptable, and not Amtrak’s fault.

But I’d rather ride on a train.  I stopped by the St. Louis Amtrak station this morning and asked the ticket agent to change my reservation to a business class seat on Regional train 171 to New York, then a coach seat on 49, the New York section of the Lake Shore, to Rensselaer.  He said that Amtrak’s reservation system wouldn’t give him 49 as an option, which made no sense to me because I can see it when I do my own query on Amtrak’s website.

I just thought of another option that I’ll try to get tomorrow morning:  171 as above, then a business class seat on train 291, the Ethan Allan Express.  If he can’t find that either, then train 235, one of the Empire Service corridor trains, will also work.  We’ll see…

We once had a ticket agent named Jeannine (sp?) who had worked for Amtrak for quite a while and really knew what was going on.  I’d bet a dollar to a doughnut that she’d have understood immediately what I wanted and given it to me lickety-split.  Unfortunately, all of the folks currently behind the ticket counter seem to be newbies who know less about the railroad than this passenger does.

Garl Latham

I’m saddened to report that long-time passenger rail advocate, Garl Latham, has died.

Although it would be presumptious of me to say that I was his friend, I met him several times at various TXARP meetings in both Dallas and Fort Worth; and I was looking forward to seeing him again a couple of weeks ago at a conference in Fort Worth that I couldn’t attend.  Garl greeted me personally on my first arrival at the current Amtrak station in Fort Worth, and I met him on his first arrival at the current station in St. Louis.

Garl was a deeply religious person, but apparently one who took Matthew 6:5-6 to heart.  I knew him as a very humble and caring person who never threw his religion in your face.  Our discussions were all about trains, and I learned a great deal from them.

My heart goes out to Garl’s family and close associates.  I know he’ll be missed…heck, I miss the thought of his being around, and I was never more than on his periphery.

More on My Aborted Trip

We can’t blame Amtrak for this one.  The storm damage in Little Rock would almost certainly have caused the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks that the Texas Eagle uses between Joliet, IL and Dallas, TX, to tell Amtrak not to send the train.  (Superliner rolling stock has a pretty high profile and can be blown over in extremely high winds more easily than single-level equipment can.)

I had actually shown up at the Amtrak station way early to beat the rains that were headed my way.  I had a sleeper ticket on the train, so I had access to the first-class lounge; and I wrote what would have been my day-zero trip report while I was there:

2023-03-31 13:20

Now begins my trip to Hurst, TX for the Southwestern Rail Conference 2023.  Although the venue is called the Hilton Garden Inn Dallas, it’s actually closer to Fort Worth.


I’m way early for 21’s departure, but the storm that hit California the other day is now bearing down on me, and I wanted to beat the rain.  There’s still over six hours until we start boarding; but since I’m in the sleeper, I get to use the first-class lounge.

I’m leaving a day early, and returning a day late, because I couldn’t get sleeper space on the Texas Eagle on the days that I wanted to travel, probably because other conference attendees were quicker making reservations than I was.  Fortunately, the folks at the meeting hotel gave me the conference rate for both extra days.

I finally got my BU-353N GPS receiver that plugs into a USB port on my laptop, and I’ve verified that I can see my current location using mapping software called Maptitude, but I haven’t tried it out while moving yet…we’ll see how well it works.  Like on my recent trip to Seattle, I also have my Oticon TV Adapter 3.0 which will plug into the earphone jack on my scanner and generate a bluetooth signal that feeds my hearing aids, so this train geek will be able to listen to the conversations between the conductors, engineers and dispatchers without disturbing any other passengers.

I have room D in both directions, so the electrical outlet will be near the window, and I’ll need only the power strip with the surge protector and four-foot cord on the train; but I’m bringing along the power strip with a longer cord just in case there’s no place to plug in the laptop near the desk in the hotel room where I’ll be using it.  (That was the case with the the first place I stayed in Seattle which seemed like it was designed by marketeers instead of hospitality folks.)

Even though we should depart with about four hours left in day zero, I’ll use the day-one report for the whole train trip.  I expect to be in my hotel room by late afternoon tomorrow, or maybe early evening, depending on how late the train is.

According to, so far this year train 21’s arrival into Fort Worth has averaged a bit less than half an hour early.  Here’s my own analysis with some abecedarian statistics.  Three no-data days are probably due to Amtrak’s server failure.

It turns out that the train actually made it as far as St. Louis, but terminated there.

I suppose that there are other ways that I could have gotten to Forth Worth, but taking an overnight bus trip (St. Louis’ Amtrak and Greyhound stations are in the same building) didn’t seem like something I’d want to do, and lots of flights would probably have been cancelled as well.  The very nice woman at the Amtrak ticket counter offered me a family room on today’s (Saturday’s) train; and since I was a day early anyway, I still would have made it to Texas in time for the meeting; but I declined because I worried that that train would be cancelled as well, although it appears that it’s running.  (21 is sitting in St. Louis as I write this, and Amtrak’s status page shows an estimated arrival in Forth Worth for tomorrow…no service disruption yet.)

Oh, well.  There’s a chance that the conference might be just feel-good speeches with not a lot of data anyway.  Attending it was mostly an excuse to ride the train.

Non-Trip Report

Well, that was a revoltin’ development.  Because of the storm that hit California the other day and is now around eastern Missouri and southern Illinois (at least that’s the reason I was given), Amtrak decided to just cancel today’s westbound Texas Eagle with no alternate transportation.  The woman at the Amtrak ticket counter was very nice, but the best that she could offer me was the family room on tomorrow’s train.  I decided to just cancel the whole trip.

So I won’t be attending the Southwestern Rail Conference after all.  My next trip that includes some train rides will be to Varna, Bulgaria the second and third weeks in June.

Bad Server!

I’ll likely be taking my next Amtrak trip starting on Friday; but a few days ago, a server for Amtrak’s Positive Train Control system crashed and stayed down for at least three days requiring that, basically, all trains except on Amtrak’s own Northeast Corridor were cancelled.  Scuttlebutt has it that the server is back up, and it seems that trains are departing from Chicago again.

But what really amazes me is that, apparently, there wasn’t a backup.  The system I worked on before I retired was actually four complete systems, one for development, one for system integration testing, one for customer acceptance testing, and one for production.  Each of those had three servers:  one for the Web component, one for the database, and a third for running background tasks.  Each of those servers had at least one backup.  The DEV and SIT systems had one backup for each server; the CAT and PROD systems had four of each server constantly sharing data back and forth so that they were pretty much exact copies of each other.  That’s the way you do it.  It’s really old news and well understood.

Another possibility, which also wouldn’t surprise me, is that security was so lax that a hacker could have brought the whole thing down for a ransomware attack.  If that’s what happened, they probably won’t admit it.

In any event, Amtrak could have done better by getting a server from the folks who set up my own little website.  They’re much more professional, it would seem.

Early Planning for my November Trip

I’m starting to think about my November trip to Kailua-Kona on the leeward side of the Big Island. I can’t take Amtrak to Hawaii, of course; but I can ride the train to the west coast and fly from there.

[edited 2023-02-20]

There are five options that I can think of, and I’m strongly gravitating toward my current fantasy.

[another edit on 2023-02-21]

Thanks to commenter, sjdorst, and several folks on the list, I’ve found out what the Emery Go-Round is and how it connects the Amtrak station to BART; so I now plan to use that westbound; and if the Zephyr is late enough that I’d miss the last Emery Go-Round bus of the day, I’d still have the taxi as Plan B so it wouldn’t mess up the whole trip.

Eastbound, it doesn’t really work because of the time of day and reduced service on Sundays, so I’m still stuck with a taxi fare of (probably) $120 to $150.

I’ve also decided to spend the night eastbound at the Hyatt House across the tracks from EMY.  It could be close to midnight, or maybe even after, by the time that I can even claim my checked bag and get a taxi; but my body clock will still be on UTC-10, so when I get to the hotel, I’ll probably still have enough presence of mind to get undressed and crawl into bed, and I’ll have more time for a leisurly breakfast in the morning.

I’ll still let it stew for a few weeks just in case I think of anything else I should consider.

I hope this is of interest to folks who might want to plan a trip involving Amtrak and I’m not just boring people with my personal problems.  If there are folks who do find it interesting, all my current travel plans, both actual and tentative, can be found here.