Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Silver Meteor
It's 6:11 p.m. on Wednesday, January 21, 2004, and I've just arrived at Penn Station in New York, where I will be boarding the Silver Meteor, Train #97, on my way to Miami. I'm going down to Florida to attend a meeting in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys. Although the meeting begins on Sunday, I decided to come a little early and spend the weekend with friends in Miami Beach.
Of course, I could have boarded this train in Newark, However, I decided to go to Penn Station in New York instead. That way, I could avail myself of the benefits of the Club Acela lounge and board the train well before departure. At first, I thought that I might try going to Penn Station by train via Secaucus Transfer, but when I realized that that would require taking a bus to Fair Lawn, a train from there to Secaucus, and then another train to New York, I realized that this would prove rather cumbersome, and instead decided to take the Spanish van across the George Washington Bridge and then the subway to Penn Station.
Earlier today, I had purchased a new, huge suitcase with wheels. This suitcase felt quite heavy even when empty, and it must have weighed about 50 pounds once it was full. While I would ordinarily have had little problem walking over to the highway - even with this suitcase - there was a fair amount of snow on the ground, and I decided to ask my friend Jon for a ride. Jon was glad to oblige, and when he arrived at 5:20 p.m., he offered to take me all the way to Penn Station. The trip was quite smooth until we got below 79th Street on the West Side Highway, where we encountered quite a bit of traffic. After further delays along Ninth Avenue, we finally arrived at Penn Station at 6:11 p.m. The trip had taken us 50 minutes - about twice as long as it usually takes me when I drive in to board the Adirondack on Sunday mornings - but I still had plenty of time to make my train. I said goodbye to Jon, thanked him for driving me all the way into the city, and walked down into the station. (Subsequently Jon told me that it took him only about 20 minutes to get back to Teaneck via the Lincoln Tunnel.)
The first order of business was to obtain my ticket. Although I had made my reservation some time ago and had been in Penn Station several times since, I never bothered picking up my ticket on these occasions. But this was a simple matter - I had only to insert my credit card into the ticket machine, press a few buttons, and out comes the ticket. (So much for Amtrak's supposed requirement to show photo ID!) I then went into the Club Acela and checked in.
About 40 minutes remained before my train was scheduled to leave, but I had an important task to accomplish before I could board the train. Right before I left Teaneck, I had received an e-mail requesting me to submit an article about my Boy Scout troop's activities for the our sponsoring institution's bulletin. The article was needed by tonight, and the only way I could submit it in time was if I sat down at a computer and wrote the article, and then e-mailed it before I boarded the train. So I went over the computer in the business center of the lounge, signed onto AOL, typed out the article, and sent it in. This took until about 6:35 p.m. Then I made a few phone calls.
Right after I finished the final phone call, at 6:45 p.m., an announcement was made that Train #97 was ready for boarding on Track 13. I went out to the station concourse and - in view of the heavy suitcase I was carrying - took two elevators down to the track level. As I arrived on the platform, I heard the general boarding announcement for our train. I boarded my sleeper, the front sleeper on the train (Viewliner sleeper #62046, named Tranquil View), stowed away my belongings, and walked down the platform to record the consist.
Tonight's Silver Meteor is pulled by AEM-7 electric engine #941 and includes a baggage car, a crew dorm car, two Viewliner sleepers, a diner, a lounge (equipped with a smoking section), and three Amfleet II coaches. Interestingly, almost all of the equipment is new to me. The only equipment in the consist that has been on trains on which I have previous traveled is the engine, baggage car, lounge car and one of the three coaches.
We departed three minutes late at 7:04 p.m. Soon afterwards, the attendant came by and introduced himself. While waiting for the dinner call, I discovered that orange juice, along with tea and coffee, were still available to sleeping car passengers. Recent posts on the All-Aboard List had stated that complimentary sodas to sleeping car passengers were being discontinued, and that coffee and juice would be made available only during the early morning hours. But it seems that this rule is not being enforced, and while the sodas have disappeared, the juice, coffee and tea have not. So I obtained a cup of orange juice, which I enjoy at least as much as soda. (Later on in the evening, I got a cup of herbal tea.)
Right after we departed Trenton four minutes late at 8:05 p.m., the "first and last call" was made for dinner. I went back to the diner, where I was seated opposite a couple who were returning home to Florida after visiting two of their children in the New York area. The husband - a retired psychologist - has recently had problems with his lungs, and he was afraid to fly home. So, as late as yesterday, they called up Amtrak and booked a standard bedroom on the train. (As early as last week, Amtrak's website showed the sleepers as being sold out, but subsequently, I noticed that a single room was sometimes available, presumably as a result of cancellations.) We had a very enjoyable conversation, and all three of us enjoyed the camaraderie of the meal very much. Indeed, although our meals were served rather promptly, we remained at our table for about an hour and 20 minutes.
About 9:30 p.m., I returned to my room. The first thing that I wanted to do was to play with my new "toy." Just last Friday, I acquired my first cell phone! For years, friends had been telling me to get one, and I finally decided to do so. My upcoming train journey was the decisive factor that convinced me to finally get a cell phone. On past train trips, I would have to rush off the train at the few relatively long stops that we made, so that I could place a call from a pay phone at the station. There were long periods of time when I had no access to a phone, and sometimes it would have been really handy to have the ability to make a call from the train. My new Verizon cell phone has unlimited minutes during nights (defined as after 9:00 p.m.) and weekends, so I now could make as many calls as I wanted - for free! My first call was to fellow railfan Chris Blaise (whom I had met on my trip to Florida last month on the Silver Meteor), and I made a number of other calls, too. I then spent some time starting to write these memoirs, and - for the first time - I walked through the three coaches. I found the first and third coaches to be quite full, with every seat pair occupied by at least one passenger and most by two passengers. The second coach was half empty; presumably, most of the empty seats will be filled by passengers boarding in Washington.
We arrived on Track 26 at Washington Union Station at 10:35 p.m. I detrained, walked upstairs, and walked through this cavernous station. At this hour, the station was almost entirely deserted, as the last train of the evening (other than our Train #97) had already departed (the next departing train would be the 3:00 a.m. train to New York, unofficially known as the "mail train"). I went back down to the platform as Genesis engine #183 was being coupled onto our train. Our departure appears to have been delayed while a missing briefcase was retrieved, and we left at 11:09 p.m., ten minutes late. At Washington, two women boarded my car, destined for Fort Lauderdale, and they occupied Room #3, opposite my Room #4. (I subsequently found out that they had actually reserved a deluxe bedroom, but that for some reason, that room had been given to someone else, and they ended up being downgraded to a standard bedroom.)
I spent some time updating these memoirs, and then decided to go to sleep about midnight. As usual for me in Viewliner accommodations, I slept in the upper berth. As was the case last time, my room - on the left side of the train - had the larger head section in the front, so I reversed the bedding in order to permit me to sleep facing forward. I also turned down the temperature in the room (I prefer sleeping in a cool room) and took out a light sleeping bag that I had brought along to serve as an extra blanket. I watched as we passed through Ashland, where the train goes right down the middle of the main street, and I was awake when we departed Richmond at 1:33 a.m., 31 minutes late. I was also awake for our stop in Petersburg, half an hour later. But I slept through our stops in Rocky Mount and Fayetteville.
At 4:25 a.m., we came to a stop. On the scanner, I heard that we were in Smithfield, N.C. and that we were being held to permit Train #52, the northbound Auto Train, to pass us. The Auto Train came through ten minutes later, and we soon resumed our southward journey.
While in the Club Acela at Penn Station last night, I picked up a sheet which set forth some temporary changes to our train's schedule in light of trackwork being done by CSX between Florence and Savannah. The "interim schedule change" provides that the train will depart stations from Richmond to Fayetteville a few minutes early, and will leave Florence at 5:44 a.m., 40 minutes early. (There is about half an hour of makeup time between Fayetteville and Florence, and the interim schedule eliminates this schedule pad, thus providing additional time south of there, where it is needed for the trackwork).
As it turned out, though, this schedule change would not be affecting the times of departure for our train today. I woke up about 6:45 a.m., just in time for our arrival in Florence at 6:48 a.m. When we departed six minutes later, we were 24 minutes late, based on the original schedule, and one hour and four minutes late according to the revised interim schedule. I remained in bed for another half hour or so, watching it get lighter outside, then got out of bed around 7:30 a.m.
In the meantime, at 7:25 a.m., we passed through Kingtree, S.C. without stopping. Kingtree is listed as a stop on the schedule (the train is supposed to stop there at 6:58 a.m.), but the interim schedule states that this stop will not be made during the trackwork period. Presumably, the stop was eliminated to save time (the level of passenger traffic at this station is not very high, and the Palmetto also provides service to Kingtree). Right after we zoomed through the station, I heard on the scanner a comment by the engineer that a woman standing next to a car with some luggage didn't look very happy when she saw us fly by without stopping! Apparently, at least one passenger hadn't gotten the message.
The first thing that I usually do upon getting out of bed on a train is to take a shower. I went to the shower in my car and found that only a trickle of water was coming out. So I went back to the rear sleeper, only to find that the shower in that car was occupied by another passenger. After making a few more trips to that car, I found that the shower had been vacated. However, I couldn't find any towels in that shower, so I took one from the shower in my car. The water in the shower was quite warm, and although I couldn't find any bars of soap, liquid soap was provided. When I threw my used towel into the bin provided, I noticed that there were only two other towels in there. As has been my experience on other Amtrak trains, relatively few sleeper passengers bother to avail themselves of the shower on the train. Why, I don't know. I take a shower each morning at home, and I certainly don't want to pass up the opportunity to do so on the train!
As soon as I returned to my room, at 8:16 a.m., we arrived at the Charleston station. Situated in an isolated area in North Charleston, this non-descript modern station was built by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to replace the original station in downtown Charleston - located on a peninsula and requiring a back-up move to regain the main line. I quickly got dressed, stepped off the train, and walked down the platform to reboard the train at the coaches. Quite a few people detrained here, and about 15 passengers boarded. When we departed at 8:24 a.m., we were 27 minutes late according to the original schedule, and one hour and 13 minutes late under the interim trackwork schedule. The first two coaches were now quite full, although the rear coach was more than half empty. The attendant told me that this car, too, had been quite full earlier, but that a number of passengers had gotten off in Charleston. (It appears that from Washington to Charleston, the coaches were almost completely sold out.)
I now returned to my room, then went into the dining car for breakfast. At first, I had a table to myself, but I was soon joined by the same couple with whom I sat for dinner last night. During breakfast, we passed through Yemassee, S.C. without stopping (this stop had also been temporarily eliminated during the period of trackwork). We did encounter some actual trackwork south of Yemassee, and in several areas, our speed was restricted to ten miles per hour.
After breakfast, I returned to my room, where I updated these memoirs and called a friend from my cell phone to say hello. When we pulled into the Savannah, Ga. station at 10:27 a.m., I once again stepped off the train and walked to the rear of the train, where I reboarded. Savannah also has a modern station that predates Amtrak. When we departed Savannah at 10:35 a.m., we were 51 minutes late (the interim schedule provides that the train will regain its normal schedule upon arrival in Savannah, but since we had not adhered to the times set forth in that schedule, we were unable to regain the time lost due to the slow orders for trackwork).
We arrived at our next station, Jesup, at 11:26 a.m. It seems that we went a little too far before stopping, so the conductor had to call the dispatcher and obtain permission for a very short backup move. When we departed Jesup at 11:29 a.m., we were 50 minutes late.
I took out my cell phone and noticed that, for the first time on the trip, it read "extended network." It seems that Verizon Wireless does not provide coverage in this rather remote area of southern Georgia. This was of no major consequence to me, as I didn't have to make any calls right now, but it did point out the importance of ensuring that I check the nature of the service before making calls, so as to preclude my being billed for roaming calls that use the services of another provider at the rate of 69 cents per minute!
At 12:18 p.m., we crossed the St. Mary's River and entered the State of Florida. As we began to approach Jacksonville, my cell phone again began to receive Verizon service. Then, around 12:45 p.m., as we approached milepost 633, we slowed down for a restrictive signal. For the next two miles, we proceeded at about ten miles an hour, and we then crossed to the easterly track so that we could proceed into the Jacksonville station. I walked to the rear of the train to take a picture and then returned to my seat.
We finally pulled into the Jacksonville station at 1:08 p.m. I detrained, took some pictures of the train, and briefly walked into the station. At 1:15 p.m., a boarding announcement was made, and all passengers getting on the train at Jacksonville were requested to show their tickets and photo ID (!) to the conductor at the check-in desk. At this point, I got back on the train and walked into the dining car for lunch.
I was seated opposite Ron, a middle-aged man who was a professional musician (he plays the viola) but has been unable to secure employment in his field. He was moving from Long Island to Florida with his parents, and they were traveling by coach. Interestingly, Ron's tab for lunch (which included a burger, soda and dessert) came to $13.25, which sounded rather high to me for a lunch meal.
After lunch, I returned to my room, updated these memoirs, and then walked back to the end of the train. The last coach was still quite empty, and I decided to sit there for a while as a change of pace. This coach (unlike the first two coaches on the train) had been refurbished with blue seats and electric outlets at each seat. It was very quiet and peaceful here, and I spent about an hour and a half in this coach, looking out the back of the train and taking some pictures, doing some reading, and even falling asleep for a little while.
We made a brief stop at Palatka at 2:34 p.m. Although I did not step off the train here, I took some pictures from the back as we were pulling away from the station. Then, at about 3:15 p.m., we pulled into the siding at Barberville. On the scanner, I heard that we would be meeting the northbound Silver Meteor, Train #98, so I walked to the back of the train to see that train pass us. Train #98 was made up of a set of equipment identical to ours. It is scheduled to arrive in Palatka at 2:11 p.m., and thus was about an hour and 45 minutes late. After we passed the northbound Silver Meteor, we continued to proceed rather slowly along the siding. I thought that this might be the result of a speed restriction, but soon I heard another train coming by on the main line. This must be a freight train, I thought. Nope! It turned out to be another Amtrak train, the Sunset Limited, Train #1, made up of Superliner equipment. That tri-weekly train is scheduled to arrive at Palatka at 3:37 p.m., and thus was running only about 15 minutes late. As far as I can recall, this is the first time that I've been on an Amtrak train that passed two opposing Amtrak trains while waiting on the same siding!
We arrived at our next stop, DeLand, at 3:32 p.m. DeLand is the closest stop for Daytona Beach, and quite a few people got off here. As a result, the stop took four minutes. The DeLand station is situated right next to a grade crossing, and we were blocking that crossing during our station stop. When we departed at 3:36 p.m., we were precisely one hour late, having lost over ten minutes due to our meet with northbound Trains #98 and #1.
I now decided to return to my room. Soon, we passed the Auto-Train terminal in Sanford, where today's northbound Auto-Train, Train #52 - scheduled to depart at 4:00 p.m. - was getting ready to pull out of the terminal. On the scanner, I heard the dispatcher tell the Auto-Train that he would be giving them clearance to depart once our train got out of the way. Then we stopped at the Sanford Amtrak station at 3:55 p.m. Our stop lasted for two minutes, and since the door to my sleeper was opened to permit a passenger to detrain, I had the opportunity to step off the train and take a picture. Sanford has a 1950s-type modern station, with the southern end (formerly the baggage area) in rather deteriorated condition.
At 4:18 p.m., just north of the Winter Park station, we passed an Amtrak train pulled by two engines and consisting of 20 cars. Most of them were Horizon cars, and there was even a Superliner car at the rear! I was subsequently informed by the conductor that this was a special train, annually chartered to take schoolchildren from West Palm Beach on a trip to Washington, D.C. The train certainly made for a very interesting sight!
Just two minutes later, we pulled into the Winter Park station. This station is attractively situated adjacent to a beautifully landscaped park. No one was getting off the sleepers here, so I didn't have the opportunity to step off the train, but I did take a picture from the open window of my sleeper. When we departed Winter Park, after a brief stop, at 4:21 p.m., we were one hour and one minute late.
We now proceeded through a built-up area at a rather slow speed, and arrived at the sprawling Orlando station at 4:36 p.m. Orlando is a major stop, with a large number of people detraining and over 40 passengers boarding, so I had the opportunity to step off the train, walk into the station, and then reboard at the coaches. Besides the many passengers who were getting on and off our train, quite a few passengers were waiting for the northbound Silver Star, scheduled to arrive at 3:43 p.m., but obviously running over an hour late. There is some make-up time built into our schedule here, so when we departed Orlando at 4:45 p.m., we were only 42 minutes late.
At 4:58 p.m., a short distance south of Orlando, we slowed to pass the northbound Silver Star. This was the fifth northbound Amtrak train (including the special train) that we've passed within the last two hours! Then, at 5:07 p.m., the attendant came by for the "first and last call for dinner." I put away my computer and other electronic appliances (since the attendant mentioned that he wanted to make up my room while I was at dinner), washed up, and went over to the dining car. I wasn't all that hungry, having finished lunch only about three hours ago, but I wasn't going to turn down a complimentary meal, either. Before I got a chance to walk down to the dining car, we stopped at Kissimmee at 5:12 p.m.
Service in the diner tonight seemed a little slow to me. At first, I was seated at a table by myself, but soon I was joined by a man from Washington who was traveling to Fort Lauderdale to visit a friend who was celebrating his 70th birthday. He decided to take the train as a change of pace, having traveled on various Amtrak trains previously. Finally, about 6:00 p.m., our dinners were served.
During dinner, I overheard a conversation between a young woman sitting on the other side of the aisle from me and the couple sitting opposite them. She mentioned that she had to go to the Miami airport to catch a flight to Guatemala. When I heard this, I mentioned that I was going to the Miami airport to pick up a car, and that we could share a cab. She agreed that this was a good idea.
During the meal, the man sitting opposite me asked why there was only one dinner serving tonight, with all passengers required to eat dinner no later than 5:30 p.m. I told him that the crew goes off duty as soon as the train arrives in Miami, and they want to be sure that they have ample time to put everything away and clean the diner prior to arrival in Miami, so that they can jump in their cars and head home right away. He replied that such a practice would never be tolerated on trains in Europe, to which I responded that he was certainly correct, but things are different here in America with Amtrak.
I concluded my meal just as we arrived in Sebring at 6:41 p.m. When we departed two minutes later, we were 55 minutes late. I briefly returned to my room and then decided to spend some time in the lounge car. When I walked by the room of the young woman whom I had met in the dining car, she mentioned that we could possibly take Tri-Rail to the airport from the Hollywood station - provided that we arrived there before the last Tri-Rail train departed at 9:19 p.m. Given the lateness of our train, that does not seem very likely. The young woman also told me that she is from Grand Junction, Colorado and took Amtrak to Miami, rather than flying, because she wanted to experience the "adventure" of train travel. It turned out that the California Zephyr that she took east from Glenwood Springs arrived in Chicago arrived five hours after her connecting Capitol Limited departed, with the result that Amtrak had to fly her from Chicago to Washington to make the connection with our train! It seems that she did really experience some kind of adventure on Amtrak - although perhaps not exactly the type that she was looking forward to!
I walked to the end of the train and found that although the first two coaches were pretty full, the last coach had been closed off. The same thing occurred when I took the Silver Star down to Florida last month - apparently, an attendant gets off the train around Orlando and returns to New York on another train. The one remaining attendant can effectively serve only two cars, so the last car is closed off. Then I sat down in the lounge car, where I found an unoccupied table. I hadn't spent any time in the lounge car up to now on this trip, and I thought that this would be a good change of pace.
No sooner had I sat down at my table at 7:06 p.m., than I noticed that we were coming to a sudden stop. I asked the conductors what happened, and they replied that the detector at milepost 888.7 had indicated that we had an overheated bearing in the engine. The engineer went out to inspect it and concluded that it was not dangerously hot, so at 7:15 p.m. we proceeded on our way, having lost about ten minutes due to the alarm sounded by the detector. But then, the dispatcher informed the conductor that we would be held short of Okeechobee - our next stop - because there were three automobiles on the tracks ahead of us, and we could not proceed until those cars were removed. So at 7:32 p.m., we again came to a stop. This time, the conductor announced the reason for our delay on the PA system (although I could barely hear the announcement in our car).
We remained immobilized by the dispatcher for over an hour, with no further updates being supplied. Indeed, the only communication I heard on the scanner during this period was to give permission for a freight train ahead of us to make a switching move. After about half an hour, I returned to my room. I decided to get another complimentary cup of herbal tea, but discovered that the coffee pot and hot water service in my car had already been closed down by the attendant. So I went to the next sleeper, where hot water was still available. In the meantime, I noticed that quite a few passengers were getting very upset about our delay. We were so close to our final destination, yet we were just sitting in the middle of nowhere! As for me, I was comfortably ensconced in my comfortable room, with plenty of things to read and much reading material, and I had nowhere special to go tonight. So the delay didn't really bother me. But I was thankful that my cell phone enabled me to keep in touch with the outside world!
Finally, at 8:34 p.m, we received permission from the dispatcher to move ahead at restricted speed between the switches at Okeechobee. We proceeded ahead and pulled into the Okeechobee station at 8:43 p.m. I personally did not see any evidence of the cars on the tracks, but the woman in the room opposite me said that she saw a wrecker with a car on her side of the tracks. When we departed Okeechobee a minute later, we were 2 hours and 21 minutes late.
We now proceeded full speed ahead. On the scanner, I heard a communication indicating that the cars in question had apparently been blocking the "uptown track," rather than the main line. It seems that our entire delay may have been based upon a false premise! In any event, we were now once again on our way to Miami.
I remained in my room, doing some work on my computer and making a few phone calls. When we arrived at the West Palm Beach station at 9:42 p.m., just short of two hours late, I briefly stepped off the train. I then returned to my room and began to pack up my belongings, moving my huge suitcase to the next room (which had in the meantime been vacated) so that I could pack it more easily.
We were now headed straight for Miami, with nothing in the way to delay us. When I took the Silver Star down to Miami last month, we were delayed by meets with various Tri-Rail trains. But Tri-Rail doesn't run this late, and neither does any Amtrak train other than ours. So we will have the entire line to ourselves, with no obstructions and no meets.
We made brief stops at Delray Beach, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. Most people remaining on the train were destined for one of these stations. Thus, when we arrived at the Miami station at 11:10 p.m., one hour and 22 minutes late, only I and one other passenger were left in the two sleeping cars on the train. The attendant had taken my huge suitcase out to the vestibule and then carried it down the steps, so I gave him a tip when I stepped off the train.
The other passenger was the young woman who was headed from Colorado to Guatemala. Amazingly, she had no checked luggage and carried with her only a small backpack - about the size of the small pack that I use for my papers and my laptop computer! We walked down the platform and through the station to the front of the station, where a number of cabs were waiting. We both got into one cab and asked the driver to take us to the airport.
The trip was quite speedy, as the roads were deserted at this late hour. After dropping the young woman off at Iberia Airlines, the driver took me directly over to the Hertz rental location, where we arrived at 11:30 p.m. I soon signed all of the required papers, picked up my car, and drove over to my friends' home in Miami Beach, where I arrived at about 12:05 a.m.
My trip to Miami on the Silver Star worked out quite well. For most of the way, we were pretty much on time. Even though we lost over an hour waiting for cars to be removed from the tracks at Okeechobee, we ended up in arriving in Miami only about an hour and 20 minutes late. The trip, overall, was very pleasant and relaxing, and I'm glad I decided to come down to Florida by train.
POSTSCRIPT: After I arrived in Miami, I found out that on Thursday night, there was a derailment of freight cars containing hazmat materials on the CSX line near Charleston, S.C. As a result, the southbound Silver Meteor and Palmetto were being terminated in Florence, with passengers bustituted south of there. I am, indeed, fortunate to have taken the Silver Meteor on Wednesday night, which appears to have been the last southbound train that passed through Charleston prior to the derailment.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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