National News

Direct New York-Chicago Train Out of Service for the Summer

Posted June 8, 2018 5:20 p.m. EDT

The train route between New York City and Chicago was once the apex of luxury travel: Passengers boarded after walking on a red carpet laid out on the platform and nibbled lobster Newburg on fine china in the dining car.

The nearly 1,000-mile route has been far less sumptuous in recent years. And as of last week, for the first time since the late 1800s, what was once considered the ultimate modern journey — a straight-shot between two great global cities — is temporarily out of service.

The suspension of the storied route is the result of repair work by Amtrak to a bridge and a tunnel that are part of the rail connection between Pennsylvania Station and upstate New York. From the end of May until Sept. 3, the Lake Shore Limited, the most famous of the New York-to-Chicago trains, will run only between Boston and Chicago. A second link, the Cardinal, which travels between New York and Chicago along a southern route, is also temporarily suspended because of the same repairs. It will run only from Washington to Chicago.

“We’d like to restore direct service as soon as possible,” Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based spokesman for Amtrak, said, “so New Yorkers can more easily enjoy better pizza.”

The stoppage of the service, even if it is brief, marks a precipitous fall from what was once the most advanced and glamorous way to get around — in the middle of the last century two train companies, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad, were in a race to provide ever more luxurious travel on fancier trains at faster speeds. The lines they operated carried renowned trains like the Broadway Limited and the 20th Century Limited.

“The 20th Century was probably the most famous train in the country — it had what we would call today ‘star-power,'” said Robert Holzweiss, the president of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society. “Before airlines, the famous people would travel by train, and they would travel very glamorously,” he said. The trains were well-appointed and sleek, “to express this kind of forward-looking, visionary futuristic style of transportation, when airlines were in their infancy,” he said.

There are now, of course, many other ways to travel between New York and Chicago, including connecting Amtrak routes that require switching trains as well as driving. There are also more than 50 direct flights a day between the two cities, making the trip in just over two hours — far less time than the 20-plus hours it takes on the Lake Shore Limited.

There are other differences, too: today there is no fine china or shellfish in a dining car. Whereas the 20th Century once touted in advertisements that passengers would “travel like the Shah of Persia,” an online review of what appears to be the current Cardinal Amtrak route is captioned, “never again.”

“You’re going to get a precooked meal, or you can buy the little snacky things in their convenience car which is the equivalent of reheated McDonalds,” said Dave Baniewicz, a member of National Railway Historical Society. But Baniewicz said his biggest complaint has to do with the temporary suspension of direct service, which he said still plays a vital, if diminished, role. In 2017, more than 110,000 riders rode some portion of the Cardinal train, while nearly 390,000 rode the Lake Shore Limited, according to data compiled by Amtrak.

“It is a disservice, because there are thousands of people who use those trains,” Baniewicz said.

David Bragdon, the executive director of TransitCenter, a transportation advocacy group based in New York, recalled taking the Broadway Limited to Chicago as a boy en route to vacations in Minnesota. “Something magical — far more magical than airplanes — was gliding out of the bedlam of Penn Station at rush hour, having dinner in the diner speeding across Pennsylvania Dutch farmland, going to bed climbing the Alleghenies, and waking up to see Indiana cornfields out the window,” he wrote in an email.

Magliari, the Amtrak spokesman, suggested that alternate routes — by which passengers can reach Chicago by departing New York and connecting to a Chicago-bound train at points north of the city or in Washington and Philadelphia to the south — have their merits. “It’s going to be a longer trip, but it’s going to have features that people might not normally have taken in,” he said, such as gorges and mountain ranges the trains don’t normally pass. Magliari said he hoped that by the end of the summer, when the repair work is scheduled to be completed, customers would believe that the improvements were worth the disruption.

“We are doing what we said we were going to do,” Magliari said. “We promised to make improvements at New York Penn Station — and we’re doing it.”