Transit Adventures

An All Nighter on MegaBus to Grand Rapids, MI to Ride the Late and Almost Busituted Pere Marquette

My all nighter easily began finding the Megabus stop. Its location is very clear, a mass of people standing and sitting on a sidewalk across the street, south of Union Station. I wonder a bit going back into Unoin Station, realizing McDonalds is the only thing open in the food court and at 11:30 a double-decker bus pulls up and I’m second in line. The bus is going all the way to Detroit with a first stop of Grand Rapids (also stopping at East Lansing). I booked my ticket too late to be on the driver’s reservation sheet but he believes my number although I here to confusion with other numbers. Im finally sitting in the front seat which seems to have a bit more legroom.

We leave on time, which I’m actually not happy with. The nearest all night diner in Grand Rapids is two miles away and the men behind me are eating their McDs. Getting the front window is probably not as good for napping though as I enjoy looking out over the road, listing to my iPhone zoning out trying to sleep. The bus takes the Chicago Skyway to Indiana before getting on I-94 to Benton Harbor. This all feels like a standard middle of the night bus ride with plenty of truck traffic. From there we take I-196 which has got to be one of the longest auxiliary interstate routes in the nation, up to Grand Rapids and has very little traffic on it, we barely pass any trucks. I guess its not on one of the long-distance truck routes. The bus makes a stop at a highway rest area a few miles out of Grand Rapids and at 4:10am EDT (losing an hour) I’m stepping off of it sleeping for maybe half an hour total for the night. I am across the street from a nice small Amtrak station.

At that point I walk two miles to the nearest open restaurant I have found. It is the Grand Coney diner and is two miles away and I have an uneventful walk through the deserted downtown. It feels similar to my early morning walk in Spokane, Washington on my Empire Builder trip (waiting for the Seattle section to arrive, stuck on the stranded Portland section). There similar sized cities with populations of 210,000 to 190,000 too. I get to the diner and sit down at the counter enjoying lots of coffee and the standard eggs and toast. There a few other people there and its a good way to get a little glimpse of the city. After an hour I leave around 6:00am and grap an ice latte and bagel for later and a nearby bagel shop, the first customer as it opens. I then wonder back to the train station getting there at about 6:50 for the 7:35 departure of the Pere Marquett. The station is already a little crowded and I notice it is manned by a security guard and not an Amtrak agent. The little stop slowly becomes more crowded as the scheduled departure time approaches but no sign of the train.
At about 8:00 a conductor shows up and asks for all families and disabled passengers (having Lower Level seats) to check in with her. She doesn’t say anything about the train being late. At 8:10 I call Julie who can’t give me any information. I hang up and call the Select phone number who tells me to call back in 15 minutes since she is waiting for an update herself. The friendly agent also says two other people have called about the same train.

At 8:20 the southbound Pere Marquette #371 finally pulls in. It is a P42 leading three Super Liner Coaches: the front one has a baggage compartment on the lower level, the middle has the conventional ADA lower level seating and the rear one has the cafe car area on the lower level. The train enters will all 3 regular doors plus the baggage door open. Stools are set-up for the middle and front door plus for the open baggage car. The passengers the conductor has already processed in the station have been given seat checks, they are directed to the middle coach. Everyone else is directed to front coach. I debate going to the rear coach where I see one person enter as it is stopped over a grade crossing (my preference for the back window) but decide not to push it, since I have never ridden this train before. I don’t want to be redirected to an empty aisle seat instead if that coach is being saved for passengers boarding down the line. I go up to the front coach and the conductor is directing passengers to board through both the door to the baggage area and the regular door. I make a point of going up through the baggage area and head upstairs chosing an oddball seat that has extra legroom. There is so much legroom that the tray table is uncomfortable to use and my feet don’t reach the footrest. I get a seat mate before we leave the station and the entire car is completely full.

At 8:26 We finally, slowly leave 51 minutes late passing a sewage treatment plant then a yard of dirt followed by a steel company’s yard. We then cross a river and then a train yard with a warning sign for remote controlled locomotives.

  • 8:36 — were still going along a train yard with the junk yard of the day off to one side of the train. Then is a yard of cars being scrapped including a public library bookmobile from LA.
  • 8:41 — the yard ends and now there are junked cars on one side and a river on the other. This is followed by a chemical plant as the conductor comes through scanning tickets. There still some tickets to rip. We enter the suburb Wyoming passing a lake. The car is quiet with all the kids seated in the next car. The train continues through Wyoming with trees on both sides of the tracks, a few more lakes and more strip malls.

The train continues through the suburbs of Grandville, Georgetown and Hudsonville following M-121 Chicago Drive with what seems like an endless supply of low-rise suburbs buildings. There are more trees and the fields are planted with grasses or other crops with just a few cornfields.

  • 9:00 — the area around us is more agricultural with a lot more trees than in Iowa or downstate Illinois. And we get announcement that there is a track delay from a broken rail on CSX and were getting bused from Bangor, damn it! At least I’ll get another tiny Michigan Station.
  • 9:03 — pull in front of a stone quarry as we go through Zeeland. The train continues by trees, passing more houses and suburban office parks.

At 9:11 we get an announcement we will probably be delayed in Bangor because of the time to gather buses as we come into Holland. We come to a stop in front of nice looking shelter. We finally leave the station at 9:20. We slowly go through town along unarmed grade crossings, passing plenty of houses. We then start passing nice, green cornfields with lots of trees (compared to Iowa and downstate Illinois) and a lake interspersed. The train is making good speed.

  • 9:30 — enter some trees, a nice dense forest on a hillside before it yields to more trees and we pass horses.
  • 9:34 — we slowly go through a forest and follow a river as it gets denser and cross it. Foliage continues interspersed with lakes.
  • 9:40 — go through the town of Fennville a back to trees and cornfields.
  • 9:43 — go through Clyde township and go through more small communities with many houses interspersed in the trees as well as fields.
  • 9:53 — pass a bunch of laborers picking something in one of the fields. This landscape of fields interspersed with trees continues, or more the other way around.
  • 9:58 — getting towards Bangor in very dense trees.
  • 10:00 — reach the edge of Bangor and we make a very brief stop at its shelter. It is announced that the train get get through the area of the broken rail and will continue all the way to Chicago, we reenter the trees and cornfields.
  • 10:11 — Go through Harford, a nice small town and then were back to trees and cornfields. I notice more unarmed grade crossings.
  • 10:17 — There are definitely more trees again and we come to a stop between them and a field.

We start moving again at 10:21 and I feel like I’m in a quiet car. It is that quiet. All the families are one car back. We pass more trees and fields. We come into Watervielt passing its grave yard and church and then what I assume was originally its train depot. We briefly reenter trees before starting to I through Coloma with another Main Street visible from the train.
At 10:31 we keep passing lakes and slowly start crawling. At 10:35 we come to the broken rail and start crawling across. A grade crossing has a good four CSX hi-railers parked at it. I walk to the last car where the cafe is which is nearly empty, the other two basically full. One of the conductors has blocked off the rear of the car with a trash can so no access to the back window. She says I can’t go to the back window they don’t want passengers to see the construction. I see the emergency snack boxes open as I buy my donut holes.

At 10:45 we slowly enter Benton Harbor which looks like a decent sized place. We cross the St Joseph drawbridge and see Lake Michigan and enter St Joseph at 10:47. There a good number of people waiting and the last car will be relatively full. They are saving it for a bit of a decent reason. The depot has been turned into a restaurant. Lake Michigan is visible of in the distance beyond some houses. I see some people come in with what look like the snack packs. I wasn’t told I could grab one. At 10:53 we get the double toot and run by nice looking houses. Soon a beach and Lake Michigan is visible through the trees.

  • 10:56 — leave the lake as we leave St Joseph with houses between the trees and start passing more warehouses in Shorehan
  • 11:01 — stevensville with houses.
  • 11:04 — between the trees comes a cement factory. Then we’re back to forests.
  • 11:09 — run between trees and the highway.
  • 11:13 — go through trees and the tiny town of Swayer and then the houses of Harbert. It’s all wooded
    between the houses. These houses in the woods continue as we go through Union Pier.
  • 11:19 — cross a river on a high bridge and head inland a bit continuing through the wooded landscape. We then crossover over on a bridge the Amtrak owned route used by the Wolverine and Blue Water.
  • 11:21 — see sports fields and the water tower of New Buffalo. Then a little historic depot with a few boxcars outside follows by a yard with all but one other track overgrown. The Pere Marquette used to serve New Buffalo until a new station was built along the alignment of the Wolverine/Blue Water.
  • 11:24 — EDT leave New Buffalo behind and enter forests with a few meadows.
  • 10:25 CDT — enter indiana in the woods still, this is unlike the other Michigan trains which run closer to the shore on the edge of the shore towns.
  • 10:29 — cross over another railway line as we cut through Michigan City on a more southern alignment. We’ve crossed the South Shore Line but I must have missed it. It’s a leisurely pace by backyards, not the 110mph of the high speed line nearby. We cross over numerous streets slowly and Ames Field in the backyards.
  • 10:36 — we have left Michigan City behind. I’m amazed how close we are to the Amtrak-owned alignment but don’t use it since there haven’t been any track connections. Trees continue in the greenery.

At 10:44 we pass above a Lake and a strip mall as we get to Chesterton and pass its subdivisions. We slowly start reaching the convergence point at Porter and stop at 10:47. I believe this is where the LSL/CL, Pere Marquette and Wolverine/Blue Water all join to enter Chicago. We stopped for Wolverine train #351 ahead of us. Realizing that I have stayed awake on caffeine for the new trackage on the Pier Marquette I decide it’s time for a nap. The old man next to me has gone and grabbed a snack pack which are complimentary from the cafe. I didn’t think we were running late enough for them, only an hour and a half but assume they were opened in preparation for having busing. There cheese, crackers, shortbread cookies, and dried fruit. As I go back there the 3/4 forward portion of the car is full with the conductor blocking the rest. I sleep on and off through the steel mills of Gary and into Chicago on the approach I’ve now done for I think the 8th time (some at night) and will again on Sunday on my way home on the Capital Limited.
The train arrives into Chicago at 12:03 on track 10. It’s one of the neat tracks that has a glass roof letting natural light shine down and mainly used by Metra. We exit the platform beyond the security guard who blocks the exit from the more restricted platforms. I walk across the loop to a camera store and finally buy a new lens so I can really take pictures again.

All in all I’m happy I can now check the Pere Marquette off my list of Amtrak trains I need to ride. The ride though I thought would be slightly more interesting with more views of Lake Michigan. I guess it was a little better in terms of scenery (all the lakes and trees) than the downstate Illinois routes like the Illini, Lincoln Service and Carl Sandburg (cornfields, although I really liked the Illini’s entrance, albeit slowly into Chicago). The fact it is the one short distance route from Chicago that uses Superliners also gives it higher marks than the others. It’s so much easy to sightsee from there larger windows and double height plus the bonus of the much more comfortable seats compared to the Horizons (and Amfleet-I) cars. I can’t say I’ll make another quick round-trip to Grand Rapids for no other reason than to ride the train again, like I did on this tiring 12 hours (almost exactly round-trip travel time). The fun (and safe) diner experience was what really made the trip fun and memorable, I found the crew’s seating rules (tons of empty seats by the back window, the rest of the train jammed packed) unnecessary and obnoxious, passengers like to spread out!