Trying to Get to Chicago

The Lake Shore Limited travels through Hastings, N.Y. (Photo by David Sommer via

My wife, Susan, and I just got invited to a wedding in Chicago on Oct. 11, two and a half months from now.

The Three Rivers hasn’t run since 2005, but there are still four ways to get from New York City to Chicago by train, which is the way we like to travel. Four good routes give us options, but we still have a problem.

1) The easiest and most direct way is via the Lake Shore Limited, a 959-mile route along the southern edges of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Michigan. Despite the proximity to the lakes, the most scenic part of this route is at the beginning, when you travel along the Hudson River between New York and Rensselaer. You leave Penn Station in afternoon and travel through Upstate New York until the sun goes down. You have dinner around Schenectady and sleep through until you’re in Ohio farm country west of Toledo. After a great breakfast, you’re refreshed and ready for your day in Chicago.

The second and third routes both involve transferring to the Capitol Limited, an overnight train between Chicago and Washington. The chief difference between these routes is where you transfer.

2) In the second route, you take the Pennsylvanian, a mid-range route without sleepers that runs between New York and Pittsburgh. You leave at ten minutes to 11 in the morning, have lunch around Philly and pull into Pittsburgh just after eight o’clock. There is a three-hour layover in Pittsburgh, so you should quell your hunger long enough to get dinner in downtown Pittsburgh. Does anyone have any restaurant suggestions? Then the Capitol Limited rolls in just before midnight. If you’re lucky enough to have a sleeper, you can fall asleep and wake up in rural Indiana just in time for a complimentary breakfast. This gets you into Chicago at 8:40 if the train’s on time. This route is actually shorter than the Lake Shore Limited, only 925 miles. But it takes longer because you have to change trains.

3) In this route, you get on the Capitol Limited at the beginning of its route a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. There are any number of hourly Northeast Regional or Acela trains that will get you to Washington, so which one you take depends on how much time you want to spend there. The Capitol Ltd. leaves at just after four o’clock in the afternoon.

4) The fourth route is the longest (1,147 miles) and most infrequent because it runs only three days a week. But you ride the Cardinal the entire way, so there’s no need to change trains, and you get to see appalachia up close and personal. You leave New York City at a quarter to seven in the morning, get breakfast, lunch and dinner on the train as you watch the landscape roll by. You’re in West Virginia by dusk, and the train chugs through the West Virginia mountains and travels along banks of the Ohio river before pulling into Cincinnati’s grand Union Terminal well past midnight. This station is every bit as elegant, sturdy and timeless as Grand Central Terminal. But where as Grand Central serves more than 3,500 trains per week, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal serves exactly six, and they all come through between the hours of 1 and 4 a.m. So ou sleep through Cinncinati and wake up in Indianapolis, or if not, rural Indiana. Breakfast aboard the train, as with the other routes, leaves you refreshed and ready for your day in Chicago.

Our wedding isn’t until October 11, but I wanted to book as early as possible, because the trains have been running very full lately, and Susan and I like to travel in the sleepers for long trips like this one. There is nothing like sleeping in a real bed as you travel through the night. Fortunately, we’re leaving New York City on a Friday, so we have the Cardinal as an option as well.

Unfortunately, the sleeping cars are sold out on all three of the trains that have them (the Pennsylvanian is a day train with coaches only). Let me emphasize as of today, July 27, 2008, the status of sleeper roomettes for trains to Chicago on Friday, Oct. 11, 2008:

Lake Shore Limited: sold out.
Capitol Limited: sold out.
Cardinal: sold out.

So we’re booked in coach for now (via Pittsburgh) and on the waiting list for a roomette. Between now and October, surely someone will cancel his or her reservation, right?

So does anyone out there care to speculate as to which train will have an opening first? Will we be traveling through Buffalo in October, or Pittsburgh, or maybe Cincinnati? Anyone want to wager as to when I might get that phone call from Amtrak telling me we’ve got an upgrade?

I assure you, readers, that if and when we do get that call, you will be the first to know. In fact, you’ll be able to read about it only here, at Starts & Fits. No other media outlets will carry this information.

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