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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Silver Meteor
New York-Fort Lauderdale
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1998a14a.html

It's 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday, January 14, 1998, and I've just arrived at Penn Station, New York where I will be boarding the Silver Meteor on my way to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A friend gave me a ride to Route 4, where I took a bus to the George Washington Bridge Bus Station, and then the subway to Penn Station. Upon arriving at Penn Station, I went to the Metropolitan Lounge, where I checked in and left my luggage. I heard the announcement that Train #49, the Lake Shore Limited, was ready to receive passengers on Track 8, so I decided to go down there and check that train out. I found that it was composed of the usual consist of four coaches, lounge car, diner, two Viewliner sleepers and baggage car. What was unusual, though, was the motive power. Rather than being equipped, as usual, with a 700-series Genesis engine, this train was powered by two Genesis II engines in Northeast Direct paint (#104 and #105), with AEM-7 #942 in the front to pull it out of the station. I also noticed the arrival of a train from Albany on the adjacent Track 7.

Then I went back upstairs, purchased a roll of film, and returned to the Metropolitan Lounge, where I obtained some juice and watched the news about how people in St. Jean-de-Richelieu, Quebec (near Montreal) were coping with the lack of heat and electricity due to their recent ice storm. There were only about 20 people in the Metropolitan Lounge at this time, and it looked pretty empty. At 6:49 p.m., the departure of the Silver Meteor from Track 12 was announced. I left the lounge to board the train, and noticed that the track number had not yet been posted on the public information screens outside the lounge. This is intentionally done to give sleeping car passengers the first opportunity to board the train. Since I had some heavy luggage, I decided to take the new elevators down to track level, which required a change of elevators at the lower level of the station. When I arrived at Track 12, I went to my room, left all of my luggage, and then walked down the platform to record the consist.

Tonight, our train has the normal consist of four coaches, lounge, diner, two Viewliner sleepers, crew dorm and baggage car. I have Room #7 in the forward sleeper #62018, Meadow View. What is noteworthy about this consist is that the crew dorm is the rebuilt dorm lounge Pacific View, now numbered 2502 (formerly numbered 2940). This seems to be the second car that Amtrak has converted to a smoking lounge/crew dorm. But looking in the windows, I noticed that there were no seats in the lounge area, and a sign on the door to the car indicated that the entire car was for the use of the crew only. Apparently, Amtrak never completed the conversion of this car to a lounge -- and, indeed, it is not clear whether it intends to do so. In any event, it is clear that this car will not be serving as a smoking lounge for this run of the Silver Meteor.

The consist of this train is what has become standard for all Amtrak non-Superliner, overnight East Coast train service which offer first-class service, including the Lake Shore Limited, the Crescent, and the three Florida Silver Service trains. There are now four coaches and two Viewliner sleepers on all of these trains. Including the lounge and dining cars, there are eight cars open to passengers. (The Lake Shore Limited has additional cars for the Boston section, and the Crescent adds an additional coach for local passengers traveling between Washington and Atlanta, but the Florida trains generally have no more than these eight cars.) This will be the fourth time that I have made this New York-Florida round-trip on Amtrak, and the consist of the trains I took in 1991, 1993 and 1995 differed significantly from the consist of tonight's train. In those days, the Florida trains would split into two sections in Jacksonville or Auburndale, with one section going to Tampa and the other to Miami. There would be three to five coaches going to each of these destinations, and a lounge car to each. In total, there could be as many as 16 cars open to passengers! Tonight's train will be much smaller. Also, in those days, the Florida trains offered Slumbercoach accommodations, which -- while not nearly as pleasant and comfortable as the regular Heritage sleepers -- cost less than half the price of those first-class accommodations. I would normally travel by Slumbercoach whenever possible, and would spend some time in the coaches to make up for the rather cramped seating afforded by the Slumbercoach rooms. For this trip, I have a first-class Viewliner economy bedroom, which is a very comfortable and luxurious accommodation for one person traveling alone. So I intend to spend most of the time in my room.

I reboarded the train, and we departed on time at 7:05 p.m. Soon, Russell, the attendant for my car, came by and explained all the features of the room. He also brought me a box with a small bottle of wine and a wine glass etched for the Silver Service trains. My friend George had previously given me one of these glasses, but I noticed that this one was slightly different, in that the name of the Silver Palm had been added to it. (The one that George gave me only had the names of the Silver Meteor and Silver Star). I took out my computer, plugged it in, and started writing these memoirs. (The following day, as we neared Fort Lauderdale, Russell gave me an extra gift box, so I ended up getting two such boxes on this trip. I gave the extra one to my uncle and aunt as a gift.)

After we left Newark (where I briefly stepped off the train), I walked back down to the rear of the train. The first and last coaches were quite full, as was the rear portion of the third coach, but the second coach and the front part of the third coach were largely empty. Presumably, they will fill up with passengers boarding at other stations.

I noticed that the first coach, #25059, was unbearably hot. After I returned to my room, I heard on the scanner that a request was being made to a carman in Philadelphia to check out this car during our station stop there, since the temperature was much too warm. When we arrived in Philadelphia at 8:30 p.m., I got off the train and walked up to the station concourse. We left Philadelphia two minutes late at 8:39 p.m.

At about 9:20 p.m., we slowed down and almost came to a stop. On the scanner, I hear that we are slowing down to permit Train #127 to pass us. And, sure enough, a few minutes later a train passes us on our right. That is the 7:30 p.m. Metroliner, scheduled to arrive in Washington one minute before us.

We arrived in Washington at 10:35 p.m., five minutes late, on Track 26. Opposite us on Track 25 was Train #66, the northbound Twilight Shoreliner, which was just leaving the station as we pulled in. That train was supposed to have departed at 8:15 p.m., so it is 2 hours and 20 minutes late. Interestingly, I noticed two sleepers -- Winter View and Wayside View -- at the rear of the train, both having their windows covered with the special "wrap- around" unique to the Twilight Shoreliner. When I took this train last September, it had only one sleeper.

I got off the train and went up to the station. At this late hour, the station was almost entirely deserted. I walked into the Main Hall, made a phone call, and returned to the train just as our two new Genesis II diesel engines were being added. Then I reboarded at the rear of the train and walked back to my car. Passing through the first coach, I noticed that it remained just as hot as it had been previously. I guess that all the efforts to fix it were unsuccessful.

We left Washington at 11:08 p.m., nine minutes late. I started doing some work with my computer, but soon got rather sleepy. At about midnight, I walked back to the lounge car to see what was doing there. I found that the smoking section of the car was quite full, with several people lamenting the fact that the counter was closed for service, so they could not purchase any more beer. I spent only a few minutes there, and returned to my room, where I decided to go to bed.

As was the case on my previous trip in a Viewliner economy bedroom, I decided to sleep in the upper bunk, taking advantage of the upper-level windows in the Viewliner cars. This, in fact, had been suggested by the attendant, who pointed out that doing so would permit me to leave all of my papers and luggage spread out on the seats below. Pulling down the upper bunk is also much easier than folding down the two seats to make up the lower bunk. This time, though, I located the safety strap (which prevents you from falling out of the bed) and hooked it up. I think I fell asleep relatively quickly, and although I was awake when we arrived in Richmond at 1:08 a.m., I promptly fell asleep again and slept pretty steadily until about 4:00 a.m. After that, I woke up a number of times, but succeeded in sleeping on and off until about 7:30 a.m. This was one of the best nights of sleep I've ever had on a train!

Although I seem to have slept through our station stop at Rocky Mount, I was awake when we stopped at Fayetteville, Florence and Kingstree. We left Fayetteville 22 minutes late (at 4:59 a.m.), but we got to Florence by 6:19 a.m. -- several minutes early. There appears to be about half an hour of make-up time built into the schedule between these two stations. I noticed at this point that it had started raining. At about 7:30 a.m., between Kingstree and Charleston, we passed the northbound Silver Palm. That train also seems to be exactly on time.

After we passed the Silver Palm, I decided to get up and take a shower. There were no towels in the shower at the end of my car, so I took one from my room. The water was only lukewarm, but it was nice being able to take a shower on the train. I returned to my room and got dressed. Soon, at 7:59 a.m. -- fifteen minutes early -- we arrived in Charleston. I stepped off the train and walked into the modern station, where I called home to check my messages. This station is located quite a distance from the downtown area in a suburban area. I reboarded at the rear of the train, and walked back to my car. On the way, I noticed that the last two coaches were now largely empty, but the second car was still quite full. Apparently, the last two cars were reserved for local passengers, many of whom had already reached their destinations and detrained. And the first coach was still unbearably hot! (I might add, though, that on later trips to this car I discovered that the problem had somehow been fixed, and that the car had been restored to a decent temperature.)

When we left Charleston, I went to the diner for breakfast. My order was promptly taken by the attendant, Terri Hostetler, and I was served about two minutes later. Contrary to what I had heard about china and linens being used for the Washington to Jacksonville part of the run, breakfast was also being served with paper and plastic utensils. On the other hand, my attendant was exceptionally friendly and efficient, and she gave me two packages of cereal. Overall, I enjoyed the breakfast very much. I was seated opposite a couple who had gotten on in Washington and were traveling to Okeechobee. They lived in Indianapolis, and the husband told me that he had been a supervisor for Amtrak in Indianapolis until he retired seven years ago. They had begun their trip on the Cardinal, and were now occupying the economy bedroom opposite me. During breakfast, we stopped at Yemassee, Ga., where we made two stops and left one minute late, at 9:06 a.m.

I also got off briefly when we arrived at the Savannah station, another new, modern structure. We arrived here on time, but left four minutes late at 9:59 a.m. When I reboarded, I spent some time in the rear coach, which by now was almost empty. Since there were no material handling cars behind the last coach, I could stand at the rear of the car and look out the back. But this section of the trip has rather boring scenery, and it was cloudy and rainy. So there wasn't very much to see.

About 10:35 a.m., at about milepost 531, we began to slow down considerably. I couldn't get anything on my scanner (my list of CSX frequencies did not include the channel being used for this segment of the trip), so I went down to the lounge car to find out from the conductor what happened. He informed me that we were proceeding slowly due to a broken rail. And, sure enough, just then we passed over the broken rail (at milepost 532) at about two miles an hour, with a CSX employee looking on. We continued our slow pace for another mile and a half, and then resumed our 79- mile-an-hour speed at about 10:50 a.m. We had lost about 15 minutes here.

Finally, at 11:02 a.m., we arrived at Jesup, Ga. We had to make two stops here, to permit both sleeping car and coach passengers to detrain. The stop lasted five minutes, and when we pulled out we were 17 minutes late.

But we didn't get very far. About two minutes later, we again came to a stop. I returned to the lounge car, where the conductor informed me that a CSX freight train was stuck ahead of us. After about 20 minutes, we moved up a short distance, but then stopped again. Apparently, the conductor did make some announcement on the loudspeaker as to the cause of the delay, but I could not hear it. We just sat, hardly moving at all, for nearly an hour, while the dispatcher figured out how we could move ahead. About noon, I walked back to the end of the train. The attendant had closed off the last car, which was now empty, but the door to the car was open, and the conductor was standing at the rear of the train, with the back door open. We had been given instructions to back up, and he would be overseeing the back-up move. I and another passenger stood in front of the open door, observing the move. Somewhat to my surprise, the conductor did not object to our staying there, even though the car was officially closed.

Finally, at 12:07 p.m., we started moving backwards, with the conductor giving the engineer detailed reports of exactly where we were. We backed up past the Jesup station, then switched over to the eastern track (we had been proceeding south on the western track). Then we pulled forward again, and stopped at the station. At 12:20 p.m., we again resumed our journey to Jacksonville, taking the western line from Jesup to Jacksonville via Waycross, which hasn't been used by passenger trains in years.

But, again, we didn't get very far. Five minutes later, we came to a sudden stop. The conductor informed us that someone had left a lawnmower on the tracks, and we had just run over it. Apparently, it ruptured an air hose, putting the train into emergency. So the conductor had to get out and inspect the train. This time, the power was turned off, too.

I remained in the lounge car, reading the story about the City of New Orleans in the latest issue of TRAINS magazine, and talking to the various people who were hanging out around there. We stopped for 17 minutes, and finally started moving again at 12:42 p.m. It turned out that the air hose had merely come apart, and it was not damaged, so all the conductor had to do was to put it back together again. We were now nearly two hours late; indeed, we should have been leaving Jacksonville by now.

Well, this special move will have one advantage: it will permit me to ride "rare mileage" -- track not normally covered by passenger trains. Much of the scenery we pass through on this route is not particularly outstanding, but I noted the quaint station in Blackshear, Ga., which we traversed at 1:12 p.m., and the interesting town of Waycross, with its large, boarded-up station, which we went by at 1:25 p.m. We slowed down considerably for our trip through Waycross, and I took several pictures through the open window of the door on my sleeper, including one of the front of the train as we went around a curve south of the town. By now, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. As it turned out, this detour was the most interesting and scenic part of the trip.

We rejoined the mainline at Folkston, Ga. at 2:02 p.m., and stopped there briefly to let off a pilot engineer who was required to guide us along the line on which our regular crew was not qualified. Finally, at 2:38 p.m., we arrived at Jacksonville. I got off, went into the station, and made several phone calls. I also noticed several RoadRailer cars parked on a siding. This is the first time I have seen these cars (actually, I had expected to find some at the end of our train). Soon passengers were asked to reboard, and we departed at 2:57 p.m. We were now about two hours and 15 minutes late, and somehow, I doubt if we will make up any time before our arrival in Fort Lauderdale. And, indeed, when I mentioned this to the conductor, he confirmed that I was right, noting that we are scheduled to pass four trains on our single- track right of way to Miami, and pointing out that since we are already late, it is probable that our train would be delayed further, rather than having the other on-time trains become late on our account.

I went back to the lounge car. Soon, it started raining again. At about 3:40 p.m., we took a siding and slowed down to await the passage of Train #98, the northbound Silver Meteor. That train passed us at 3:43 p.m., and soon we resumed our normal speed.

We arrived at Palatka at 4:14 p.m., and made only one brief stop, lasting about one minute. During our stop, we blocked a grade crossing of what looked like a rather heavily traveled street. Then, 4:50 p.m., at milepost 737 (south of Barberville), we slowed down again. This time, we had to wait for the northbound Auto-Train, scheduled to leave Sanford at 4:30 p.m. (If we had been on time, we would have arrived Sanford at 3:03 p.m., well before the scheduled departure of the Auto-Train.) We slowed down to a crawl (about 2-3 miles an hour, it seems), but did not actually come to a stop. Finally, the Auto-Train passed us at 5:04 p.m., and we resumed our normal speed.

At 5:16 p.m., we arrived at DeLand. Here, we made two rather brief stops. It was still raining pretty heavily when we arrived at the station, and the conductor held up his umbrella to shield passengers who were boarding the train. When we departed DeLand, we were about 2 hours and 40 minutes late, having lost another 25 minutes since leaving Jacksonville. And we still have two more meets with other trains to go!

The next meet, with the northbound Silver Star, Train #92, occurred at 5:36 p.m. Again, we had to pull into the siding and proceeded at a snail's pace for about ten minutes. Not until 5:49 p.m. did we arrive at the dilapidated station at Sanford, where we stopped for less than a minute. And our next stop, Winter Park, was equally brief.

The distance between Winter Park and Orlando is only five miles, but the scheduled departure time for Orlando is 37 minutes later than that for Winter Park. I thought we might make up some time here, but we hardly made up any. First of all, it took us 15 minutes of rather slow running through an urbanized area to get near the station. Then, at 6:28 p.m., we stopped some distance short of the station. Looking ahead, the reason was clear -- Train #1, the Sunset Limited, scheduled to depart at 6:50 p.m., was in the station, and this station can accommodate only one train at a time. At first, I thought that we would have to wait until 6:50 p.m. to get into the station. But it was decided to back up the Sunset Limited and let us pull into the station, where we finally stopped at 6:35 p.m. I got off and walked into this large, beautiful station. Our stop here lasted for ten minutes, partially due to the fact that a special lift had to be brought over to the train to permit a handicapped person to detrain. When we left at 6:45 p.m., we were precisely 2 hours and 40 minutes late. (Presumably, the Sunset Limited had enough time to pull back into the station and leave on time at 6:50 p.m.)

Soon after we left Orlando, I went to the dining car for dinner. By this time, most passengers had finished eating, so I had the car pretty much to myself (with the exception of some crew members sitting at the front of the car).

During dinner, we made a two-minute stop at Winter Haven at 7:53 p.m. The view from the train of the restored station at Winter Haven reminded me of my first trip by train to Florida, in January 1991, when our train was terminated at Winter Haven (whose station was then undergoing renovations) and we had to take buses for the rest of the trip to Miami.

After dinner, I walked back to the lounge car and started talking to one of the conductors, who was quite friendly. He was interested in my TRAINS magazine, and mentioned to me that he used to be an attendant on this train, but then decided to become a conductor. He also mentioned that the train uses channels 32 and 66 for communications between Jacksonville and Miami, so when I returned to my room, I succeeded in hearing the radio transmissions for the first time in quite a few hours.

About 8:30 p.m., we again slowed down, this time to pass the northbound Silver Palm, Train #90, which came by at 8:35 p.m. This is the fourth northbound Amtrak train that we have passed since leaving Jacksonville (not including the Sunset Limited, which we saw at the Orlando station). Although we were delayed somewhat by each of these meets, the delay in each case was not more than about ten minutes. Finally, at 8:43 p.m., we arrived at Sebring. Here, the station has been gutted and is being renovated, and a trailer now serves as the station. We made two stops here and left three minutes later. Had the train been on time, we would just have arrived at Fort Lauderdale now.

The couple who occupied the bedroom opposite me detrained at Okeechobee, where we arrived at 9:25 p.m. Originally, the train was going to make two stops here, but when it became apparent that no coach passengers were getting off and only one passenger was getting on, the conductor decided to have this passenger board at the sleeper and then walk back to the coaches. When we left Okeechobee at 9:28 p.m., we were 2 hours and 50 minutes late.

I walked back through the lounge car to the coaches and found that, by now, there were plenty of empty seats even in the first three coaches. The last coach, while completely empty of passengers and dark, was not closed off. I walked through it and found that one of the conductors was sleeping there. The lounge car was also pretty empty, with the attendant already starting to take his inventory (although the car remained open). The entire train was now very quiet. I returned to my room and did some more work with the computer. When we arrived at West Palm Beach at 10:25 p.m., I started packing up my belongings. The stops for Delray Beach and Deerfield Beach soon followed, and we finally arrived at Fort Lauderdale at 11:15 p.m., two and one-half hours late. The stop here took five minutes because one passenger had to be taken off via a wheelchair lift.

I ended up sharing a cab to my uncle and aunt's apartment in Lauderhill with the man who boarded the train at Okeechobee, and I finally arrived there at about 11:50 p.m. My uncle was still awake to greet me, although he had not bothered to call Amtrak to see whether the train was on time. Interestingly, I was not tired at all -- probably because I had actually gotten a pretty good night's sleep the previous evening on the train.

Despite the lateness of the train and the poor weather, I definitely enjoyed this trip. The sleeper worked out very nicely, and I actually got a lot of work done. I'm looking forward to my return train trip back to New York.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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