Monday, October 27, 2008

Upstate New York in an Amtrak Dome Car

This past weekend my wife and I took Amtrak to upstate New York just for the hell of it.

I'm old-school when it comes to travel. Funny thing is I always have been; it's not just happening as I get older. I am not some crotchety old crank who can't get his head around these newfangled "flying machines". I'm only in my 30's! I'm just a hopeless romantic, that's all. Not many people seem to be when it comes to travel anymore.

I love traveling for its own sake, and I love history. And I believe in the old cliche that life's about the journey, not the destination. I love to be able to see where I'm coming from and going to, I like to be comfortable when I'm doing it and I really don't like being rushed.

I know that at this time of year, upstate New York is supposed to be really beautiful, with the changing leaves and the hills and the lakes and all that. And I had heard that Amtrak was going to be running a dome car on their train that runs up there this year. I couldn't pass that up.

I've been amazed to discover that there are people out there that don't know what a dome car is. Our travel expectations have fallen so far so fast that we no longer feel entitled to anything other than a cramped little seat and a tray table. People used to demand a lot more. (Take a look at what travel by train used to be like. Though it sure seems like VIA Rail Canada still do a reasonable facsimile.)

This is a dome car:

This is also a dome car:

(I'm gonna get geeky for a minute: please don't call these "observation" cars. This is what an observation car looks like.)

Amtrak's got one of the cars pictured above now - there were four built:

The great thing about a dome car is, obviously, the view. Massive windows curving all around you, including front and back. Riding in one of these things is a unique and special experience. You are literally in an enclosed glass bubble above the train.

(Incidentally, Amtrak's west coast trains do have "sightseer lounges", which are similar but not the same because you can't see front or back. It's not a 360 degree view, and you're not above the train. Still fun, though.)

It's pretty rare to see one of these things around here. Amtrak's only got one left, and because of tunnel clearances they hardly ever ran much in the east even in the old days. Yeah, this is the last of Amtrak's domes, and it's more than 50 years old. Not many exist anywhere anymore. So sad!

There are booths behind us in this picture, where we sat most of the time. I actually like the shorter domes (like the top picture) because there's less ceiling and more glass (like this), and it's easier to see out front and back. But beggars can't be choosers in this country. And those windows are bigger than they look.

The train we took is called the Adirondack, and it's a pretty nondescript train most of the year, with five cramped coaches and a cafe car. It runs basically straight up the eastern New York state border, hugging the Hudson River for a while, then Lake Champlain, finally ending up in Montreal. For the past two years, over two months in the fall, they've stuck the dome car on at Albany. It's too bad they can't run it out of Penn Station, because some of the best scenery is in the Hudson River valley, but I guess they like the top on the car. Can't blame them!

Our coach was stifling hot and smelled like the bathroom. We made a beeline for the dome as soon as they hooked it up and we never left. We were amazed at the fact that hardly anybody followed us. (A few people did.) Again, I don't think most people know the score here. They just sat in their sauna-like, smelly, cramped little sardine can coaches, never knowing what they were missing.

We rode up to Plattsburgh. You may wonder why we didn't just go the extra 50 miles to Montreal, a real city where everybody speaks French and we could get some culture. Simple, really: it was more expensive, we wouldn't have gotten to see much of it anyway and we'd have to deal with US customs on the way back. The point of the trip was New York scenery, not visiting Montreal. So we saved some time and money and aggravation by getting off at Plattsburgh, a town that I'm sure is lovely and has a great tradition of higher learning but which we were simply using as a base camp.

After a drunken, restless night in a cheap, paper-thin walled Best Western, we ate our continental breakfast and then walked the two miles back to the train station.

The dome's already hooked up on the way down. But like before, it wasn't that crowded.

The weather was a lot better the second day, so we got to see a lot of stuff we'd missed coming up. Lake Champlain was heavily obscured the day before, but we could see all the way across to Vermont and the mountains on the other side on Sunday. Parts of the ride through that area are actually a little scary - the rocks from the cliffs along the shore are literally inches away from the train (see the video I posted) and there are a lot of trestles and other bits where it looks like the train is just hanging there either in mid-air or over water. And there's one point where you're about 300 feet up, and just looking down off a sheer cliff into the lake. I kept wondering how tightly packed the earth there was...

The train was late (par for the course), and was held up a couple times. I snapped this as we were sitting at a red signal at one point - click the image and look closely:

That horse was obviously wondering what the hell we were doing on his property.

Because we were so late, I was really hoping it'd get dark before Albany and we'd get to spend part of the night in the dome. It's always so quiet and peaceful up there at night. Sunset in the dome car:

Excuse the dirty windows.

As soon as the sun went down, they kicked us out. Really annoying! One thing I used to love about Amtrak when I was a kid was that they'd let you do anything. You could roam all over the train and stay wherever you wanted. You could even open the dutch door in the vestibule! (That's how people used to get great shots like this.) I rode a dome car on the Capitol Limited all night once, by myself. Nobody else in the car. It was so cool. Nowadays, they kick you out at dusk. Everything's become so sanitized, everybody's got so many rules. We need a little bit of 1970's-style anarchy in this country.

We watched the car get disconnected again at Albany and literally fade into the darkness. It was like watching a relic of better times ride off into the night. Bye bye, dome...

For all I know, that might be the last time I ever get to ride in one.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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