More by chance than by design, Amtrak's Washington-Chicago Capitol Limited has become a kind of rolling museum of the passenger train. On this overnight run, you can find -- in addition to sleeping cars with old-fashioned roomettes and bedrooms -- two nostalgic, nearly vanished pleasures once commonplace aboard the best trains: a dome car for viewing scenery (which the Capitol offers in good measure, at least in seasons when days are long) and dining-car tables laid with linen and crockery.
Among my boyhood memories is the practiced efficiency with which waiters aboard dining cars reset their tables. The steward would usher us into the bustling, fragrant diner and seat us at a table where once-snowy linen had coffee stains and crumbs. Up came our waiter, steady on his feet in the lurching car, fresh linen and clean flatware in hand.
Thud, thud, thud. Creamer, sugar bowl, menu holder and bud vase -- all gleaming silver, monogrammed with the railroad's initials -- were shuttled to the table's near end, where he'd already plunked down his fistful of flatware. The crisp new tablecloth, still folded, was laid down, smoothed, unfolded once and smoothed again; holloware was moved back by the window -- thud, thud, thud -- and joined by flatware and napkins; the cloth was unfolded fully and smoothed again. Finally, flatware was slid into position like chessmen.
Done in less time than the telling takes, this act was repeated thousands of times in a career by waiters whose dexterity was legendary. And like many similar rituals, this one apparently became obsolete when, in the early 1980s, linen disappeared aboard Amtrak diners, and crockery and glassware turned to plastic.
But in the last year or two, waiters aboard the Capitol (and the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight and Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief as well) have had to learn all over again how to change tables, thanks to Amtrak's "experimental" program to restore dining-car amenities on these trains.
Headed east on the Capitol not long ago, I'd walked from my roomette down the swaying corridor to the diner for an early breakfast. Fog hung dense in the valley of the Casselman River as I sat at a table spread with a linen cloth. In front of me was placed a brown-rimmed crockery plate holding what is perhaps the most traditional of all railroad meals: thick-cut French toast, served with sausage. (For dinner the night before, rolling east across Indiana, I'd had another dining-car staple: a grilled-to-order steak with baked potato.)
Swinging through mountains soft with mist, listening to the rattle and clatter of crockery and glassware in motion, and enjoying a good, fresh-cooked breakfast is indeed a civilized way to travel, and I enjoyed every bite. But make no mistake, Amtrak's Capitol Limited is no time machine. For one thing, had this been 25 years earlier -- same train, same route -- the dishes would have been Baltimore & Ohio's famed "Blue" china.
Staffordshire-inspired, that elegant pattern, officially called "Centennial" since it was created in 1927 for the railroad's hundredth anniversary, featured on various pieces half-a-dozen different scenes from along the right-of-way, including Harpers Ferry, the Potomac River Valley and Cumberland Narrows.
And 25 years ago, the maple syrup would have been poured from a silver pitcher, not dribbled from a plastic packet.
Much of the Capitol's current equipment -- including the diner and the sleeping cars, with roomettes for one and bedrooms for two -- is what Amtrak calls its "Heritage Fleet." These are thoroughly rebuilt cars dating from the late 1940s and early 1950s, acquired from the private railroads by Amtrak at its creation nearly 20 years ago. Cynics might say that this moniker is a way to glamorize obsolete equipment, and no doubt the term does make a virtue of necessity. But the cars are comfortable, roomy, functional and, for those with fond memories of railroading, nostalgic.
Another Heritage Fleet car on the Capitol is the dome -- a vehicle rare indeed these days on Amtrak. Other than the Capitol, only the Auto Train to Florida and the Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans (and its Kansas City connection, the River Cities) run with domes.
In the last great years of the streamliners, virtually every train of consequence in the West carried dome cars. But in the East, B&O was the only line to operate these cars; elsewhere, too-tight clearances through tunnels and under bridges ruled them out. In 1950 the Capitol became a Domeliner (and remained one for about 20 years, nearly up to the Amtrak era), forecasting its status today.
"Unreserved upper level seats for panoramic viewing" is how the Amtrak timetable describes the dome car, and that's no exaggeration. In fact, the dome car's replacement, the "sightseer lounges" now operating in the West as part of Amtrak's double-deck Superliner fleet, lack the forward vision that makes domes unparalleled perches for gawking at scenery.
Gawking is just what I did after breakfast. From my seat in the dome, I watched as we climbed the Sand Patch grade. Framed in the lopsided front window, our silver train swung back and forth, insinuating itself opportunistically through those passages presented by the formidable Allegheny Mountains.
There's something satisfying about following a river to its source, which is what we were doing. In the wee hours we'd hugged the Ohio River into Pittsburgh, then left along the banks of the tributary Monongahela, lined with massive steel mills. At McKeesport we'd taken up with the Youghiogheny, noted for the white water favored by rafters and kayakers, and then, at appropriately named Confluence, the Casselman. Our final climb up Sand Patch was along the rushing, rocky course of little Flaugherty Creek, whose waters would reach the Gulf of Mexico via the Ohio and, ultimately, the Mississippi.
At last the sun burned through the fog, adding splashes of yellow to the gray-green palette. We met a set of "helper" locomotives, dropping down off the mountain alone after giving an eastbound freight a boost up, and then passed under now-defunct Salisbury Viaduct -- a gray, spidery bridge flung across a wide valley. At Meyersdale, the brightening sun highlighted the facades of the quiet old downtown and the trim clapboard station.
I watched the signals ahead change as the locomotive passed them, vertical green clicking over to horizontal red. Flaugherty Creek was now a trickle I could jump across. At Sand Patch summit, where an elevation marker read 2,258 feet, we crested the Alleghenies.
Heading downgrade -- and this is the steeper side of the hill -- the Capitol plunged into a tunnel; the pinpoint of light at the far end swelled, shimmering on the fluted stainless-steel roofs of the cars ahead. Flanges squealed as the train slunk around tight reverse curves.
I noticed that we were again beside a lovely little stream -- but one flowing in the opposite direction, eastward, toward the Potomac River and, ultimately, the Atlantic. Two hip-booted fishermen carefully drifted flies on its tumbling waters; I spotted a pair of young does, down for a drink in the cool of morning.
This was Willis Creek, and before long we were entering Cumberland through the Narrows -- a steep, tight passage the creek had carved (and one that westering settlers, then railroad-builders had followed) through the Allegheny Mountains. Cumberland, which grew up at Willis Creek's confluence with the Potomac, was the western terminus of the C&O Canal.
The Capitol takes the same route into Washington that the canal did, paralleling it closely for much of the way, so I spotted plenty of canal artifacts: stone locks and locktenders' houses, as well as the now-overgrown ditch that was the canal itself.
At historic Harpers Ferry, hemmed in by mountains on all sides, our train crossed the Potomac just as it mingles with the Shenandoah. By the time we rolled past the wonderfully Victorian Point of Rocks depot, a gabled, steeple-capped Gothic classic in brick and sandstone, I had the quickening sensation of journey's end.
Washington was less than an hour away. The best scenery was behind us, so I could walk without regret back to my roomette and pack my bags.
Part of my baggage aboard trains is always memories. More than 20 years ago, I'd taken a farewell ride on the Capitol in its final days as a Baltimore & Ohio train, Blue china and all, before it disappeared altogether for a while in Amtrak's early years. That was some train, with an observation lounge just for sleeping car passengers.
Amtrak's Capitol Limited can't compete with the B&O's version. Still, in an age of fast food and chain motels, today's Capitol is a remarkable train. Snuggling down in a roomette, eating meals served on china and watching the glorious mountain vistas of Pennsylvania and Maryland through the windows of a dome car are timeless pleasures.
A one-way ticket for two, including a bedroom and all meals, on the Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago is $490 now, $434 after Jan. 1; a round-trip ticket for two is $782 now, $672 after Jan. 1. The train leaves Washington at 3:50 p.m. and arrives in Chicago at 8:40 a.m. Eastbound departure from Chicago is at 4:30 p.m. for an 11:07 a.m. arrival in Washington. For information and reservations, call 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245).
Karl Zimmermann is a freelance writer in Norwood, N.J.