Amtrak’s Chicago to Washington Capitol Limited is a spiritual successor of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) train of the same name. The B&O was one of the first railroads in the United States and survived over 150 years before disappearing in mergers with the C&O and CSX in 1987. Talk about a railroad with history- the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence (Charles Carroll of Carrollton) laid the railroad’s first stone in 1828! The luxurious B&O Capitol Limited ran from 1923 until 1971, connecting Chicago and New York City via Pittsburgh and Washington DC.
After World War II, railroad passenger service declined precipitously as air travel became common and the Interstate Highway System heralded the new dominance of the automobile. Mail contracts were the last factor keeping many passenger train routes profitable. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the post office decided to cancel its railway contracts in 1967, favoring air and truck instead. In short order, virtually all intercity passenger rail was consolidated under the Amtrak umbrella in 1971 and the Capitol Limited was discontinued. Amtrak brought the Capitol Limited back in 1981, albeit with some changes in the route (today for instance it takes a more northerly path through Ohio to stop at Cleveland and Toledo). In addition, the old Capitol Limited was all-Pullman (sleeping cars), unlike the Amtrak version which has coaches as well as sleepers.
The B&O and Amtrak trains share the same route between Pittsburgh and Washington, passing through rural Pennsylvania, western Maryland, and West Virginia on tracks now owned by CSX. This historic B&O route winds along several rivers with names like Monongahela, Willis (Creek), and my personal favorite, the Youghiogheny. (I think that’s pronounced “Yuck-A-Gainy” in case you were wondering.) Scenery alternates between the rolling hills of the Allegheny Mountains, forests, and farmland. Although the line is double-tracked, meaning eastbound and westbound traffic can pass without trains having to wait in sidings, the nature of the tracks and terrain means the speed limit is rather low- I noticed it was 35mph for a while, for instance. Of course, if you were in a hurry you would probably have flown in the first place, so there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the scenery.
The best place to watch the scenery is the Sightseer Lounge. The upper level has seats and a row of windows on each side of the car, while the lower level has a snack bar. It might not have as good a view as the dome car on the old B&O Capitol Limited (in North America you’d probably have to ride Via Rail Canada or on one of the private cars that sometimes make an appearance added onto Amtrak’s trains for special excursions in order to experience true dome car style), but it’s the next best thing. Amtrak’s Lexan windows are hard to photograph through- there always seems to be distortions in part of the pictures, and you’d have to compensate for the tint in Photoshop to get accurate colors.
At the time of our passage, spring seemed largely dependent on fairly minor changes in elevation. Even though the Allegheny Mountains don’t get much over 4000 feet (they’re mountains only by East Coast standards), at the higher elevations the trees were bare while at lower elevations the trees had leafed out. The eastern redbuds, which despite their name are more of a pinkish color, were in full bloom in the forests along the tracks. At times we caught sight of the old Western Maryland Railroad right-of-way on the far side of the river. It’s now part of a 150 mile (241km) long network of rail trails known as the Great Allegheny Passage, connecting Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with Cumberland, Maryland. Even better, at Cumberland, Maryland hikers or bikers can pick up the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath and continue another 184.5 miles (296.9 km) to Georgetown in Washington DC! Even though I’m not a serious cyclist at the moment, I hope one day to complete one or both.
I spent the morning alternating between visiting with my grandmother in her compartment and the lounge car. As the train left Pennsylvania and entered Maryland, the train crew announced a brief smoker’s stop in Cumberland, western Maryland’s largest city. For non-smokers, it’s a chance to get some fresh air, at least if you can get some distance from the clouds of tobacco smoke. It seems like Cumberland would make a good destination for a weekend getaway- plenty of historic buildings, terminus for two major trails, the “mountains”, and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad to boot. After Cumberland, the train continued southeast into West Virginia.
Shortly after I sat down in the dining car for lunch, I got a first hand view of the customer service challenges that Dining Car Attendants face. After I was seated at a table, a group of hippie-looking youths came in. The attendant tried to seat them with me. But there are four of us, the lead hippie lady said. It was getting towards the end of service and they were only using half the car, so there wasn’t a lot of space. The attendant said he’d clear a table for them. After he did, the lady objected to the fact that the table was on the “sunny side” of the train, even though she had not voiced her preference before or while he was doing setting up. Amtrak windows have a significant tint and half the time the forest blocked the sun anyway. The lady sighed with irritation and they took their seats on the sunny side of the car. The attendant began handing them menus, but the lady said they only needed two because the other two members of the party were just visiting, not eating. What a pity. If only two were eating, they could have easily fit at my table…on the non-sunny side of the train!
During the meal, the train pulled into historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Part of the town is a National Historic Park, including the armory where John Brown famously attempted to begin a slave revolt in 1859, back when the state was part of Virginia. The scenic town sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers; a spot just east of town marks where the borders of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland come together. The famous Appalachian Trail (Georgia to Maine) passes right through town. There are plenty of hiking opportunities nearby including the C&O Canal towpath on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and the steep trails of the Maryland Heights.
The train crossed the Potomac River and re-entered Maryland, paralleling the C&O Canal for a time. Entering Montgomery County, suburbia began to appear for the first time all morning. My family gathered their belongings to get off at the station in Rockville, Maryland. The Sleeping Car Attendant advised my father that they’d arranged to pull into a platform that would be a little easier for my grandmother to get off at. Upon arrival, the crew assisted us with getting my grandmother and her luggage onto the platform. Overall, service on the train was very good.
The train had been running about 20-35 minutes late for most of the route, but there is some padding built into the schedule at the end. The schedule effective April 6, 2015 allows for 44 minutes eastbound from Rockville into Washington, even though 24 minutes are allowed for the same journey westbound. As a result, the Capitol Limited pulled into Washington Union Station at 1:10pm EDT, only five minutes late (which Amtrak considers on-time for a long-distance route). Train 30’s lackluster on-time performance of 56.7% in April is not the best (Coast Starlight, Train 11 with a 100% on-time performance for the month) nor the worst (probably the Texas Eagle, Train 22 with a 6.7% on-time performance in April) in the Amtrak system. I didn’t linger in the beautifully restored Washington Union Station, instead hurrying upstairs to catch the 1:20pm MARC commuter train back to BWI Airport where my car was parked.
Date: Thursday April 23, 2015 to Friday April 24, 2015
Distance: Amtrak timetable says 780 miles (1255.3km) – Wikipedia says 764 miles
Train: Amtrak #30 Capitol Limited
Equipment: GE Genesis P42 diesel locomotives (2, including special livery “Big Game Train“) and Superliner cars
Performance: On-time departure from Chicago Union Station 6:40pm CDT, arrival 5 min late Washington Union Station 1:10pm EDT (17.5 hours)