Midnight Train to Chicago: Redux

Chicago, Illinois. June 2017. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

In June 2017, my husband Jonathan and I took the Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Chicago for a week. Jonathan had a business trip and I tagged along to do the tourist thing. Jonathan hates to fly, thus the train.

Our trip began in a large crowd of Cubs fans. We walked into an Amtrak station reeling from an engine fire, a passenger train stranded in the mountains, a rescue from Norfolk Southern, and another train stranded by a severe storm.

And this was all before we left Pittsburgh.

Two different Amtrak routes stop in Pittsburgh. Just to simplify things, I am only going to describe the East – West Routes for each of these.

The Pennsylvanian runs between New York City and Pittsburgh, with a crew change in Philadelphia.  The Capitol Limited runs between Washington, D.C. and Chicago, with a crew change in Pittsburgh.

When things happen the way that they are supposed to, the westbound train for the Pennsylvanian stops in Pittsburgh earlier in the evening. Then, the westbound train for the Capitol Limited stops in Pittsburgh shortly before midnight. Therefore, a passenger can board the Pennsylvanian in New York, disembark in Pittsburgh, wait around the Pittsburgh station for a little bit, and then board the Capital Limited to continue into Ohio.

(In the past, Jonathan and I rode on the Pennsylvanian for weekend trips to NYC. We rode the on the Capitol Limited for trips to Washington. And we also previously rode on the Capitol Limited to Chicago as the first leg of longer trips out west.)

We planned to leave Pittsburgh for Chicago on a Friday night. We had booked a sleeping car for our trip. We intended to sleep through most of the trip across Ohio and Indiana, then wake up shortly before we reached Chicago the next morning.

We both went in to our jobs in Pittsburgh that Friday. We had respectable thunderstorms throughout the day. After our work days ended, we ate dinner at a restaurant a block away from Pittsburgh’s Amtrak station.

The Chicago Cubs were actually playing the Pirates IN Pittsburgh that same evening, and also for the next several nights after this. So, when we walked from the restaurant to the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh, we stepped into a crowd of people wearing Cub’s jerseys.

The Capitol Limited to Chicago was scheduled to leave shortly before midnight that evening. We arrived at the station about 2 hours early. (Jonathan loves to watch trains, and we showed up extra early to do just this. Many freight trains pass the Pittsburgh Amtrak station.)

We barely found a place to sit down in the Amtrak station.

The station was full of people waiting to pick up loved ones from The Pennsylvanian’s return trip from New York City.  

The Pennsylvanian was late.

Why?

Well, that’s because the Pennsylvanian’s engine caught fire near Altoona, Pennsylvania. The train lost its air conditioning and the toilets no longer worked.

Now, Altoona is near a summit of the Allegheny Mountains. So, the train had broken down near the top of a mountain.

Later that evening, I spoke with a fellow passenger of the westbound Capitol Limited who had been on the Pennsylvanian for this adventure. He travelled on the Pennsylvanian from his former home in Lancaster to Pittsburgh, with the intention to travel from Pittsburgh to his new home in Ohio. He told me that when the Pennsylvanian’s engine burned out, someone ran down the aisle yelling “Fire!” The train cars all carried the burning smell. The crew passed out the remaining food and drink from the snack car. This all happened during a thunderstorm.

An hour after we arrived at the Pittsburgh station, two Norfolk Southern freight engines towed the Pennsylvanian into the station.

All of the Pennsylvanian passengers rushed into the station. (I wonder how many of them went looking for the indoor plumbing.) They and their family left, except the ones who were connecting in Pittsburgh to the Capitol Limited.

All of us learned that the Capitol Limited would be a half hour late. Then an hour late.

We sat by the tracks, and we saw a train heading towards us.

It was a freight train. Not the Capitol Limited.

Another half hour passed. Another freight train passed us.

The station made an announcement. One of the storms had blown tree debris onto the tracks just outside of Pittsburgh. The Capitol Limited would not arrive in Pittsburgh until the tracks were cleared.

The Amtrak employees passed out bottled water to the crowd. A few people bitched.

The Capitol Limited finally showed up in Pittsburgh.

Jonathan and I boarded at about 2:45. Our train porter had our sleeping car set up with our beds. I fell asleep.

When I awoke, the sun was up and we were halfway through Ohio.

I went to eat breakfast in the dining car. Breakfast is included in the cost of a ticket for the sleeping car. Back in pre-pandemic days, if you had less than four people in your party, they sat you at a table with strangers. I sat with a mother and daughter who had travelled into Pitttsburgh from Latrobe on the Pennsylvanian. (Remember that photo that I posted of the oil-covered engine? Well, that photo happened – several years earlier – directly in front of the Latrobe Amtrak station.)

The train pulled into Union Station in Chicago a bit later than scheduled, but at least we were in Chicago.

That evening, we ate dinner at a Chicago restaurant full of televisions showing the Cubs playing in Pittsburgh.

At the end of our trip, Jonathan and I got back into Pittsburgh two hours late. Another storm had blown debris onto the track in front of the Capitol Limited, this time outside of Toledo.

We had no trouble with wind during our time in the Windy City, though!

One thought on “Midnight Train to Chicago: Redux”

  1. That was a fun trip, and it was long enough that I could do something I had always wanted to do: The great deep dish pizza tour! You put up with me doing that, too! Even with the delays, the train ride through the Midwest countryside is always worth the price of admission.

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