Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Silver Star / Palmetto
It's 9:25 a.m. on Wednesday, January 28, 2004, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in Miami, ready to return to New York. My meeting at the Florida High Adventure Sea Base in Islamorada concluded yesterday - a day early. Originally, we were supposed to have a session this morning, too, and on that basis, I made my return reservation on Train #98, the Palmetto, scheduled to leave at 3:00 p.m. But on Monday, we decided to have a session on Tuesday afternoon, instead of the planned Wednesday morning session. Since I would not have to be at the Sea Base on Wednesday morning, I decided to change my reservation to Train #92, the Silver Star, scheduled to depart at 10:35 a.m. I was informed that I could do so upon payment of a $30 charge, to which I agreed. Once I arrived at the Miami Amtrak station, I could switch my ticket for one valid on Train #92.
That was the plan, but when I checked my All-Aboard List mail and Amtrak's web site last night, it appeared that things might not work out as planned. The east coast of the United States was being hit by a rather severe storm, with ice and snow conditions from Georgia north. As a result, Amtrak's Florida trains had been subject to very severe delays, with some trains - including yesterday's northbound Silver Star - having been cancelled altogether. Yesterday's southbound Silver Meteor, scheduled to arrive in Miami last night at 9:46 p.m., and the southbound Palmetto, scheduled to arrive yesterday at 12:10 p.m. (just after noon) have not arrived here yet, with the Palmetto running over 24 hours late! That being the case, it seemed to me that there might not be a set of equipment available to run today's northbound Silver Star, scheduled to depart at 10:35 a.m. And, indeed, when I checked Amtrak's web site for the status of that train, it indicated that there was a "service disruption," and that I should call 1-800-USA-RAIL for more details.
Nevertheless, I decided to proceed on the assumption that the Silver Star might be running on time. Indeed, when I called the 800 number, about 7:30 a.m., "Julie" assured me that, to the best of her knowledge, the train would be departing on time. I left my motel in Islamorada about 7:15 a.m. and, despite encountering some traffic around Miami, reached the Amtrak station at 9:15 a.m.
The Miami Amtrak station, built in the 1970s to replace a downtown Miami station of the Seaboard Air Line, is built in the Amshack architectural style. Similar in design to other stations built around the same time in St, Paul, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Richmond, Va., it is a rather large building, with seating for over 100 people (indeed, a sign posted near the door indicates that the maximum occupancy of the building is over 1,000 people!). But it is situated in a rather seedy neighborhood in Hialeah, an isolated area, and is not used by most travelers, who prefer to board at Hollywood or other stations to the north. I walked inside the deserted station and was informed by the ticket agent that a decision had been made to combine the Silver Star with the Palmetto, with both trains departing at 3:00 p.m. I wasn't entirely surprised. In the meantime, some more passengers came into the station to hear the news. A number of them were rather upset that they had not been previously advised of this change by Amtrak. I remained around the station until about 10:30 a.m., noting that even then, only about two dozen passengers had arrived.
At that point, I decided that I might as well put my time waiting for the departure of Train #90 to good use. I decided to drive over to Miami Beach and go to a museum there. I left the museum about 12:15 p.m., stopped at Bagel Time to get a whitefish sandwich for lunch, and then drove to the Hertz Rent-A-Car location at the Miami Airport to return my car.
Having discovered that the Hertz Rent-A-Car location is immediately adjacent to the Tri-Rail Miami Airport station, I decided that it would be most appropriate to take Tri-Rail to the Miami Amtrak station, after returning my car. At first, I had planned to take Train #P610, which departs at 9:13 a.m., but when I realized that my train might be cancelled or delayed, I decided not to do that. Now, though, I could take Train #P616, scheduled to depart at 1:29 p.m. I got stuck in some traffic near the airport and, after stopping to fill the car with gas, arrived at the Hertz location at 1:20 p.m. That gave me only nine minutes to wait for the attendant to give me a receipt, walk down a ramp and proceed over to the Tri-Rail station. But I was able to do this without any problem. This time, I decide to purchase my $2.00 ticket from the agent at the booth rather than from a machine.
Today's Tri-Rail Train #P616 is pushed by engine #811 and includes coaches 1002 and 1001, cab car 501, coaches 1004 and 1006, and cab car 508 leading. It is obviously a combination of two three-car trainsets. The last two cars were closed off, so I boarded the first open car, #501. I left my heavy suitcase on the lower level and walked upstairs, where I sat down at a four-seat group for my ten-minute ride to the Metrorail Transfer station. We departed two minutes late at 1:31 p.m. and were still two minutes late when we arrived at Metrorail Transfer at 1:41 p.m. I detrained and walked over to the Amtrak station, which is located several blocks away. Although it is possible to make a direct connection between Tri-Rail and Amtrak at the Hollywood station, where both trains use the same platform, I elected to board the train at the Miami station, the train's point of origin, so that I would have plenty of time to record the consist and get settled. Although I had a very heavy suitcase with me, it has wheels, so it was not all that difficult to pull it along with me.
At 1:51 p.m., as I reached the Amtrak station, I noticed a train pulling in. It was southbound Train #97, the Silver Meteor, scheduled to have arrived in Miami at 9:46 p.m. last night. This train was 16 hours and 5 minutes late! But the stellar performance of this train was overshadowed by the next train to arrive - also on the same Track 2 (in back of Train #97). The southbound Palmetto, Train #89, which was supposed to have arrived yesterday at 12:10 p.m., pulled into the station at 2:05 p.m., just five minutes short of 26 hours late! As might have been expected, only a handful of passengers detrained from each one of these trains. I walked down the platform to record the consist of Train #97, but didn't attempt to do so for the later-arriving Train #89 (although I did have the opportunity to do that once the boarding of my train was announced).
At first, I had assumed that the equipment from arriving Trains #97 and #89 would have to be turned around to make up our train. But I was assured by an Amtrak employee that our train would consist of a fresh set of equipment taken from the yard, and that we would depart promptly at 3:00 p.m. He turned out to be correct about the equipment, but not about the time of departure.
About 2:20 p.m., the equipment for our train was backed in onto Track 1 (the most easterly track at the station), and a boarding call was made at 2:35 p.m. Passengers were asked to present both their tickets and photo ID for inspection at the gate (this is only the second time since 9/11/01 that I've actually been requested to show photo ID before boarding an Amtrak train). I was told to board the first coach (reserved for passengers traveling at least as far as Washington) and to take Seat #47, which turned out to be a window seat with a very good view. I was also fortunate that this coach, #25035, has been reconditioned with blue seats and electric outlets at each seat. After storing my belongings (I left my huge suitcase in the space behind the handicapped seat at the rear of the car), I walked down the platform to record the consist.
Today's combined Trains #92 and #90 appears to have been made up of equipment from Train #91 that arrived very late last night (presumably, the equipment that had been designated for use on yesterday's Train #92, which was canceled, was used to make up this morning's Train #97). Our train is pulled by Genesis engine #96 and includes a baggage car, a crew dorm car, two Viewliner sleepers, a diner, a lounge (equipped with a smoking section), and four Amfleet II coaches. I reboarded the train about 2:50 p.m. and awaited our on-time 3:00 p.m. departure. But 3:00 p.m. came and went, and we just sat in the station. I listened to the scanner, but couldn't hear any information regarding the reason for our delay in departure. At one point, I heard the attendant ask another crew member whether the engineer had arrived, and the answer was in the affirmative. In the meantime, I plugged in my computer and started writing these memoirs.
We finally pulled out of the station at 3:47 p.m. and headed north. As we proceeded through the Amtrak yards just north of the station, I noticed two things of interest. First, we passed the trainset for the Palm Beach County special train for schoolchildren visiting Washington, D.C. This trainset, which utilizes mostly Horizon equipment taken from Midwest corridor trains, has been the subject of considerable discussion on the All-Aboard List. I also noticed - much to my surprise - quite a bit of other Amtrak equipment lying around the yard, including a number of coaches and Viewliner sleepers, and at least one lounge car. This made me wonder why this morning's train was essentially cancelled - it would seem to have been possible to use the various cars in the yard to make up another trainset.
Once we got onto the CSX line, we proceeded ahead at a very slow speed. We passed the Tri-Rail Opa-Locka station at 3:58 p.m. and the Golden Glades station at 4:09 p.m. (Tri-Rail trains are scheduled to cover the distance between these two stations in only five minutes). Beyond Golden Glades, we got a clear signal and started moving ahead at normal speed. In the meantime, I walked through the coaches, finding 11 people in our car, five people in the next coach, and ten people in the third coach (the rear coach was closed off). I also noticed that the lounge car was still closed to passengers.
We arrived at the Hollywood station at 4:23 p.m. Somewhat to my surprise, hardly anyone boarded our train here. I noticed two people frantically running for the train, and when they reached the open door, flashed their Tri-Rail tickets at the attendant - who informed them that this was a northbound Amtrak train, not their southbound Tri-Rail Train #P617, scheduled to arrive at Hollywood at 4:19 p.m. We departed Hollywood at 4:25 p.m., just about one hour late, but almost immediately came to a stop just north of the station to await the passage of the aforementioned Tri-Rail Train #P617. In the meantime, an announcement was made that the lounge car was now open and ready for service, so I briefly walked into that car - which has four-seat tables on one side of the aisle and two-seat tables on the other side. While there, I overheard an Amtrak employee tell our conductor that southbound Train #89 (the Palmetto) has been cancelled tomorrow (apparently, the conductor would normally work that train going back to Miami).
The southbound Tri-Rail train passed us at 4:31 p.m., and we continued ahead to our next stop, Fort Lauderdale, where we arrived at 4:44 p.m. With the acquiescence of the attendant and conductor, I stepped off the train here to take a picture. After we departed at 4:48 p.m., I talked to a few of the passengers who had just boarded. One young man, on his way to New York, was scheduled to take the Silver Star this morning, and didn't find out about the delayed departure until he showed up at the station at about 11:00 a.m. A couple sitting opposite him were scheduled to travel in Business Class on the Palmetto, but they had been downgraded to ordinary coach, since our train does not have a Business Class car.
I also stepped off the train at our next stop, Deerfield Beach, which took three minutes because the few boarding passengers had to walk down some distance from the station building to our car. When we departed Deerfield Beach at 5:06 p.m., we were one hour and five minutes late. After a brief stop at Delray Beach, we continued north, passing through the Boynton Beach station - where I turned around on Sunday's Tri-Rail trip - at 5:36 p.m. (Parenthetically, I should note that riding this route on an Amtrak long-distance train is a completely different experience than riding the very same route on a Tri-Rail commuter train!)
I also stepped off the train upon our arrival at West Palm Beach at 5:48 p.m. West Palm Beach has a classic, ornate station, but the coaches were at the end of the platform away from the station, so I didn't have chance to walk up to the station building itself (although I noticed, as we passed it as we left the station, that part of the building is used as a restaurant, and another part serves as a Greyhound bus terminal). When we departed West Palm Beach at 5:52 p.m., we were one hour and six minutes late.
I now decided to walk to the back of the train again. I counted 28 passengers in my car, 11 passengers in the second coach, and 34 people in the third coach. That makes a total of only about 75 coach passengers having boarded along the southern part of the Florida coast. There were still empty pairs of seats in all cars, and it seems that, at least in my car, the attendant was making an effort to let people traveling alone occupy a pair of seats. The last coach was now open, although there was only one person sitting there. That permitted me to walk to the very end of the train and observe our train running along a newly-installed stretch of second track with concrete ties, part of the double-tracking of the line by Tri-Rail. At 6:00 p.m., we passed southbound Tri-Rail Train #623, scheduled to depart from Mangonia Park at 5:56 p.m., and we passed the Mangonia Park station - the northern terminus of Tri-Rail - at 6:04 p.m. From here on, we would have only Amtrak and CSX freight trains to worry about.
I started talking to a young man who was destined for Waldo - a stop on the route of the Palmetto. Our train will instead be proceeding via Orlando, so he will be bustituted from Winter Haven. He was rather upset that he would not be able to take the train the entire way to his destination.
Our next scheduled stop was Okeechobee. On the scanner, I heard the conductor tell the engineer that no one was scheduled to get on here, so the engineer stated that he would slow down and look to see if any passengers were waiting. The historic Okeechobee passenger station is closed, and only a small Amshack is provided for shelter. When we arrived at the station, the engineer noted that a car was parked adjacent to the Amshack, but the conductor looked out and determined that no one from the car would be boarding the train. So we continued ahead without stopping. It was now 6:59 p.m., and we were one hour and 20 minutes late.
For dinner, I decided to have a deli sandwich and a chicken cutlet that I had brought with me from the Sea Base (a large amount of food was left over from our meeting, since we had ordered food for 25 people, but only a dozen people ended up attending). I took my food to the lounge car, purchased a Pepsi, and sat down at a table to eat. Although a number of Amtrak employees were sitting in the lounge car near me, no one objected to the fact that I had brought my own personal food to the lounge car (which is sometimes alleged to violate FDA regulations). On the table opposite me sat an Amtrak engineer who was deadheading to Lakeland, from where he would be taking Train #89 back to Miami tomorrow. Normally, he would be the engineer on Train #90 from Miami to Lakeland, but since that train was not operating in its own right today, he had to deadhead on our train. (Actually, our train does not go to Lakeland, but he will detrain at Winter Haven and be bustituted from there.) The engineer pointed out that a single engine crew takes the train all the way from Miami to Jacksonville on those trains that operate via Orlando, but since the route is longer via Lakeland and Tampa, two crews are required for the trains that take that route. During my meal, we stopped at Sebring, which has a nicely restored station that is open to passengers. When we departed Sebring at 7:46 p.m., we were one hour and 30 minutes late.
Our next stop was Winter Haven, where we arrived at 8:29 p.m. Prior to our station stop, the conductor announced that passengers destined for Lakeland, Tampa, Dade City, Wildwood, Ocala and Waldo would have to detrain here and take a bus to their destination. Sure enough, a bus was waiting in the parking lot adjacent to the station. I stepped off the train here to take a picture, and when we departed at 8:33 p.m., we were running one hour and 35 minutes late - on the schedule of the Palmetto.
We now diverged from the route of the Palmetto and began to follow the route of the Silver Star. Indeed, the train is officially known as Train #92 and will be proceeding via Columbia, rather than Charleston. So, as the conductor put it, we're really running six hours late!
Soon, it was past 9:00 p.m. - the time when free calling on my cell phone begins! So I made several calls, one of which lasted for 20 minutes. I was on the phone when we stopped at Kissimmee, but when we arrived at the Orlando station at 9:44 p.m., I stepped off the train, walked down the platform, and took a few pictures (which actually came out quite well, using both flash and the lighting at the station). I noticed that an interesting system was employed at the Orlando station for trains that come in on the platform adjacent to the station (southbound trains usually use the other platform). A chain has been installed lengthwise along the platform, with passengers boarding the train told to wait on the far side of the chain, with the area between the chain and the train used by detraining passengers to access the station. Our station stop lasted for only five minutes, and when we departed at 9:49 p.m., we were four minutes shy of six hours late - measured by the schedule of the Silver Star! About 20 passengers boarded our train in Orlando, and quite a few of them were assigned to my car. Nearly every pair of seats in my car now had at least one person sitting in it.
Soon after we departed Orlando, the attendant shut off the overhead lights on our car, as it was now past 10:00 p.m. Soon, I decided to go into the lounge car to obtain a cup of tea. However, when I got there, I was informed by the attendant that no hot beverages would be available from the lounge car for the entire trip, as the pump to the water heater had broken. So much for that idea! Nevertheless, I brought my computer to the lounge car, sat down at a table, and did some work. Soon, I got a little tired and decided to return to my coach seat, where I stretched out over both seats and tried to get a little sleep.
After brief stops at DeLand and Palatka, we proceeded ahead towards Jacksonville. We passed the station at 12:44 a.m., then backed up into the station in order to couple onto a long string of RoadRailers, coming to a stop at 12:52 a.m. I detrained and walked into the station, where about 50 people were waiting to board our train. Then I walked towards the back of the train in order to record the numbers of the RoadRailers that had just been added. I got most of the numbers, but the last few RoadRailers extended beyond the end of the lighted platform, and I couldn't get the numbers of those cars.
I reboarded at the last coach and walked through back to my car. Many of the passengers who boarded here were directed to the second coach, but at least a few passengers were assigned seats in my car. The man sitting in front of me had apparently been reassigned to another seat, but someone else was occupying that seat, so he took the liberty of sitting in the seat next to mine. I really wanted to have two seats to myself, so I moved over to a pair of seats in the very front of the car, with no window or tray table, which remained unassigned. I took out my computer and started updating these memoirs.
On the scanner, I heard that our train could not leave Jacksonville until a bus carrying passengers from Tampa had arrived. Then I heard another interesting communication. It seems that we needed an extra engine to provide enough power to pull the long string of RoadRailers, and no extra engine was available that could be added to the train. As a result, we would have to leave the RoadRailers in Jacksonville! Our whole back-up move and coupling operation was apparently for naught.
We moved forward at 1:18 a.m. and came to a stop at 1:22 a.m. There we sat until 1:32 a.m., when we backed up again to the station, coming to a stop on the western track at 1:38 a.m. Here, we cut off the RoadRailers, which we left behind us. In addition, the bus from Tampa had finally arrived, and the 20-or-so passengers on that bus now boarded the train.
In the meantime, a young man who had boarded in Fort Lauderdale and was headed to New York sat in the pair of seats on the other side of the aisle from me. He wanted to go to the lounge car, but that car had been closed off, and he was informed that it wouldn't be reopened until we arrived at Savannah, our next stop.
We finally departed the Jacksonville station at 1:47 a.m., having spent nearly an hour there (the schedule allows for only half an hour at Jacksonville). We were now 39 minutes late according to the schedule of Train #90, but just over six hours late as far the schedule of Train #92 is concerned. In the meantime, quite a few people came forward, attempting to get into the lounge car, which was closed for "restocking" until Savannah. As one of the passengers said to me, they could certainly close the service counter if they wanted to, but why shouldn't passengers be allowed to go into the lounge car to sit down?
I stretched over the two seats at the front of the car, covered myself with my sleeping bag, and tried to fall asleep, which I probably did, to some extent. At one point, I noticed that we were being passed by another Amtrak train, which, I was later informed, was Train #89, the southbound Palmetto. That train was scheduled to arrive in Jacksonville at 1:43 a.m., so it is running several hours late.
At 3:53 a.m., we came to a stop. On the scanner, I heard that we were at Borroughs, which is about ten miles south of Savannah. It was stated that there had been some signal trouble, but that although the signals had been fixed, we were now being held for some trains ahead of us. This was followed by the comment: "So the fun begins." I noticed that the lounge car had been reopened, so I walked in there and sat down at one of the tables. There were about half a dozen passengers in the smoking section of the car, but only five crew members (including both conductors) in the non-smoking section. I brought my computer with me and continued working on these memoirs. Finally, at 4:11 a.m., we started moving again.
In the meantime, I was joined by a Joseph, who had boarded in Orlando and was bound for Boston, intending to make a connection with a Regional train at Penn Station in New York. His final destination was York, Maine (in the southern part of Maine), and he was traveling with his wife, another couple, and a total of five children. His wife and children were in a Deluxe Bedroom (they got the handicapped room, which is the largest room on the train), and the other couple also had a Deluxe Bedroom, but he let his wife and two children share the bedroom, and he sat in my coach. He expressed concern that if our arrival at Penn Station is unduly delayed, they might miss the last train of the evening to Boston, and would have to wait for as much as five hours for the Federal, the overnight train to Boston, which departs about 3:00 a.m.
We finally pulled into the Savannah station at 4:32 a.m. I briefly stepped off the train here - and it was quite cold out! To my surprise, only four passengers detrained, and the same number of passengers got on. I soon reboarded, and by 4:36 a.m., we were ready to depart. However, we remained at the station until 4:48 a.m. because we had to wait for Train #53, the southbound Auto-Train, which came by at 4:46 a.m. On the scanner, I heard that the conductor should record that the station stop ended at 4:36 a.m., with the remainder of our delay being charged to the meet with Train #53. When we finally pulled out of Savannah at 4:48 a.m., we were one hour and 17 minutes late according to the schedule of Train #90, but nearly seven hours late when measured by the schedule of Train #92.
I spent a little more time in the lounge car, and then moved back to my bulkhead pair of seats and tried to get a little more sleep. While in the lounge car, I overheard the crew discussing the person who occupied the fourth car of the train. He boarded at some station south of West Palm Beach and was headed to New York, and was originally assigned to my car. However, he had a very unpleasant odor, and was therefore moved to the rear car, where he could be by himself. Comments were made that this person should not have been allowed to board the train in the first instance, and that he might have to be put off at a subsequent stop if it became necessary to use the rear car for other passengers. (I spent some time in this rear car, and although the person in question certainly had a noticeable odor, one could sit in the rear portion of the car without being unduly affected by the odor.)
I'm sure I succeeded in getting some sleep, but I was awake enough to note that our progress from Savannah to our next stop, Denmark, was extremely slow. We stopped from 5:38 a.m. to 5:51 a.m. because a switch was not working properly, and the conductor of a freight train ahead of us had to throw it manually. I also heard communications relating to problems with the interlocking at Fairfax, where we crossed another CSX line at 6:34 a.m. Subsequently, the conductor informed me that they had received instructions that the protection at certain grade crossings was not operating properly, so that we had to stop and flag these crossings. It seems that there were also problems with other switches. All in all, it took us two and one-half hours to get from Savannah to Denmark - a distance for which the timetable allows only one hour and 19 minutes.
We made a brief stop at Denmark at 7:13 a.m. to pick up three passengers. The Denmark station building is no longer used by Amtrak; rather, it is now the headquarters of the Downtown Denmark Redevelopment Corporation (although I'm not entirely sure what there is in downtown Denmark that could be redeveloped!). We were now just short of eight hours late (measured by the schedule of Train #92).
It was now getting light out, and I would have the opportunity to experience some "rare mileage." Well, not rare mileage in the technical sense, as this route is traversed daily by Amtrak's Silver Star, and I myself have already covered this route several times - most recently, on my Amtrak trip to Florida just last month. But the Silver Star is scheduled to cover this stretch of the route both ways in the dark, and only when a train is very, very late is this portion of the route covered in daylight.
Soon, we passed through a town with the unlikely name of North, South Carolina. I wonder how the town got its name - it's not even located along the northern border of the state! I now decided to move over to the lounge car, where I continued working on these memoirs. First, I sat on the right side of the car, but the sun was getting in my eyes, so I moved to the left side, where I had to clean off a table that was left in a messy condition by the person who previously sat there.
At 8:28 a.m., we arrived at Columbia, South Carolina. Quite a few people got off here, and about 20 people boarded the train. I stepped off to get some fresh air and take pictures of the station. Columbia has what appears to be a relatively new station. Although it has a sloped roof, it is constructed out of corrugated metal and is not particularly attractive. The inside of the station, in particular, is devoid of character. When we departed Columbia at 8:39 a.m., we were still just short of eight hours late.
It was now time for breakfast, so I went into the dining car. Soon, I was joined by Al, who was traveling with his wife from Kissimmee, Florida to Baltimore. He and his wife spend their winters in a mobile home in Florida, and they were coming up north to celebrate his grandson's second birthday. They were traveling in a deluxe bedroom. Al mentioned to me that they had originally planned to return north on Monday, but at the last minute, due to the snowstorm that was predicted to hit the Northeast on Tuesday, they managed to change their reservations so as to travel on this train, instead. For breakfast, I had orange juice, coffee, Rice Krispies and two portions of fruit salad (which the attendant gladly provided me with, when I mentioned that I did not want the yogurt or croissant). Al and I enjoyed each other's company, and I ended up spending about an hour in the dining car.
During breakfast, we made a rather brief stop at Camden, South Carolina, which features a small brick station and an historic platform canopy of an interesting design. When we departed Camden at 9:34 a.m., we were eight hours and nine minutes late.
When I was finished with breakfast, I thought that I would spend some time sitting in the lounge car, but all tables there were occupied. So, instead, I walked into the third coach, where quite a few seat pairs were unoccupied, and sat down there. I ended up spending most of the next four hours in this car.
I started talking to the woman who was sitting in front of me. She was scheduled to take a bus from Tampa to Orlando, where she would connect with Train #92 to Raleigh, and then take Train #73, the Piedmont, to Greensboro. But things did not at all work out as planned. She arrived in Tampa in time to make a 12:25 p.m. bus, but was told that that bus had been cancelled. Instead, she had to wait until 9:00 p.m., when a bus arrived to take her to Jacksonville, where she boarded our train (she was on the bus for which our train was held). Train #73 departed Raleigh at 7:15 a.m., so she obviously missed that connection, and would presumably be connecting instead with the Carolinian, Train #79, which is scheduled to depart Raleigh at 4:40 p.m. Needless to say, she was very disappointed with her experience, and said that she would never ride Amtrak again. She did mention, though, that she had already obtained a refund for the cost of her ticket.
At 10:45 a.m., in Wallace, S.C., we came to a stop to permit a southbound CSX freight train to pass us. Then we continued on our way to Hamlet, N.C., where we arrived at 11:11 a.m. Hamlet features a station of unusual design, built at the junction of two railroad lines, that faces both of them. The station was formerly located in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of the two lines, requiring one to cross an active track to reach the station. As one might expect, CSX objected to this arrangement and insisted that the entire station be moved to a different quadrant of the intersection, so that it could be accessed without crossing an active track. That was accomplished last April, and work is now progressing on the restoration of this beautiful, historic station (which is, in the meantime, closed to the public). Checking my stored e-mail from the RSHS Depot list, I saw that the cost of moving and restoring this historic structure was estimated at $7.3 million!
I had ample time to take a number of pictures of this historic building. As we approached Hamlet, I heard on the scanner that our crew, which had boarded the train in Jacksonville, was about to exceed its maximum hours of service. As a result, we had to wait here in Hamlet until a relief crew arrived. The time needed for the relief crew to arrive was estimated at half an hour. Much to my chagrin, no announcements were made to the passengers of the reason for our delay. Nor, for that matter, had any other announcements been made during the entire morning. I informed the passengers sitting around me of what was going on, and when I walked through the two other coaches, I told the passengers in those coaches of the reason for the delay. (Indeed, noticing my scanner and Sunset Limited cap, most of these passengers initially thought that I was an Amtrak employee, and I had to assure them that I was an ordinary passenger, just like them!) As I mentioned to these passengers, I thought it was completely unacceptable that I was the one who was informing them of the reason for the delay, and that the crew of the train made not a single announcement.
Although my cell phone had read "extended network" for a long period of time between Camden and Hamlet, now that we were in the center of Hamlet, I got good Verizon Wireless reception. So I spent some of the time during our very long station stop checking my messages and returning several phone calls. In the meantime, we were blocking a grade crossing adjacent to the station, and a long line of cars waited for over 15 minutes before finally concluding that our train would not be moving anytime soon, and turning around to find an alternative way to cross the tracks. Again, I would have thought that some crew member could have gone out to inform the motorists what was going on.
At 11:47 a.m. - after we had been sitting at the station for over half an hour - some crew member finally made an announcement over the PA system. He mentioned that the historic Hamlet station was being restored, and that signals along the way had been affected by recent ice storms, causing delays to our train. Because of these delays, he stated, the operating crew, which comes under Federal law, have exhausted their maximum time on duty. He continued by stating that a relief crew is en route, and that they should be here in about ten minutes. But the ten minutes came and went, and no relief crew showed up.
Finally, at 12:18 p.m., I heard a message on the scanner from the relief crew, stating that they were about a mile or two away. An announcement to this effect was then made on the loudspeaker. But we still waited and waited. In the meantime, I heard another communication on the scanner stating that both the lounge car and the diner had run out of ice, and wondering if someone could find somewhere to obtain two bags of ice!
At long last, the relief crew arrived, and we moved forward at 12:39 p.m. We had wasted one hour and 28 minutes at Hamlet, waiting for the relief crew, and we now were 12 minutes shy of ten hours late! But I now heard a communication that the relief crew was not qualified between Hamlet and Southern Pines, and it might have to just take the train to the North Hamlet yard (thereby, at least, getting our train off the main line, where it was blocking other trains). It was stated that a CSX pilot engineer was available to accompany our train to Southern Pines, but the dispatcher had to decide whether the pilot could come with us.
We proceeded ahead, but came to a stop at 12:50 p.m. On the scanner, I again heard communications relating to our need for a pilot, and finally, it seems, the decision was made that CSX would supply a pilot. I noticed a CSX truck to our left that made a U-turn. As I subsequently found out by talking to the new conductor, that truck dropped off our pilot engineer, but we then had to wait another 15 minutes for the dispatcher to give us the signal to proceed. So not until 1:15 p.m. did we start moving again. All in all, we had lost another two hours waiting for a new crew and relief engineer at Hamlet.
Yet again, we soon slowed down and came to a stop at 1:28 p.m. This time, we stopped for only four minutes, but the new conductor, J.L. Walker, took the trouble to announce on the loudspeaker that we had stopped because we had a red signal ahead.
It was now time for lunch. Since I had originally intended to travel on the Palmetto, which does not have a dining car, I decided to bring along some packed, pre-cooked meals prepared by a company called La Briute. This would be the first time that I've tried these pre-cooked meals, which include an element to heat the food. As the instructions indicated, I poured a small package of salt water onto the heating element, and you could immediately feel the heat! In fact, steam came out of the box when I reinserted the meal, as per the instructions. After waiting the recommended 14 minutes, I started eating the meatballs and spaghetti entree, which was very good and - as promised - hot!
In the meantime, we passed through the town of Aberdeen, which features not only an historic brick railroad station, but also the Aberdeen and Rockfish Railroad - one of the oldest short line railroads in the country, and one which has gained some fame because it generally appears first on an alphabetical list of all the railroads. Then, at 1:49 p.m., we arrived at the quaint town of Southern Pines. The railroad right-of-way through this small town is surrounded by dense plantings, and the old wooden depot is still open to Amtrak passengers (it also serves as an Amtrak crew base). A van was waiting to deliver the two requested bags of ice to our train, and two passengers boarded here. When we departed Southern Pines at 1:53 p.m., we were 10 hours and 19 minutes late - at least according to the schedule of the Silver Star.
The La Briute meal also includes a package of soup mix, for which you need a cup of hot water. As mentioned previously, the hot water heater in the lounge car was not functioning; however, I was subsequently informed that hot beverages could be obtained from the dining car. So I went into the diner and asked for a cup of tea, with which I was provided without charge. On the way back to my seat, I noticed that a large table in the lounge car was now vacant, so I moved my belongings to that table and continued working on these memoirs. I soon fell asleep for awhile.
Our next stop was Raleigh, North Carolina, where we arrived at 3:12 p.m. Quite a few passengers detrained here, including some bound for other destinations, who would be taking a connecting train or a bus to their final destination. For the first time on this trip, much of the platform was covered with snow and ice, and the attendant took out a shovel to clear some more of the platform. Of course, I stepped off the train here, and so did some other passengers (for most passengers, this would be the first time all day that they would have the chance to step off the train and get some fresh air). The conductor, J.L. Walker, left our train here. But rather than just walking away as soon as we arrived in Raleigh, he stayed to assist detraining passengers. Then, when several other coach passengers mentioned that they wanted to get a little fresh air, he suggested to them that they walk down the platform and then reboard at the sleepers. And he then took the trouble of radioing down to the assistant conductor who was at the front of the train, thus ensuring that the coach passengers would be allowed to reboard there. Mr. Walker demonstrated sincere concern for the needs of the passengers, and he is a real credit to Amtrak!
I joined these passengers in the stroll down the platform, providing me the opportunity to take a glance into the relatively modern Raleigh station. At 3:21 p.m., once everyone had reboarded, we pulled out of the station. Our stop had lasted for nine minutes, and we were now nearly ten hours late.
I now decided to walk to the rear of the train and look out the back for a little while. The first two coaches were quite full, but the third coach was nearly empty, with everyone in that car going no further than Richmond. And there were only two people sitting in the rear coach. After I returned to my table in the lounge car, just north of Selma, we stopped for seven minutes to permit a CSX freight train to pass us. Then, at 4:16 p.m., southbound Train #79, the Carolinian, passed us to the left. That train is scheduled to arrive at Selma at 3:51 p.m., so it was running about 45 minutes late.
As you can imagine, quite a number of passengers came over to me throughout the trip to ask me various questions. One interesting question was now posed to me by a woman who was traveling on our train to get from Miami to Atlanta. About the only way one can do this via Amtrak is to travel via Washington - which, of course, is completely out of the way. (I suppose that once could also take the tri-weekly Sunset Limited and travel via New Orleans, but that would be even more indirect.) She was supposed to make a connection in Washington with the Crescent, scheduled to depart at 7:10 p.m., although she could also make the connection at Alexandria, from where the Crescent is scheduled to depart at 7:29 p.m. I told her that it is unlikely that we would get to Alexandria by then, and that it was also very unlikely that the Crescent would be held for the arrival of our train.
At 4:43 p.m., just south of Rocky Mount, my cell phone rang. I could tell from the display that it was Marty Swan from Minneapolis calling, but the display also indicated that I was on the "extended network," meaning that "roaming" charges would apply were I to answer the phone. While I wanted to update Marty - a friend from the All-Aboard List - on the progress of our train, I did not want to incur roaming charges, so I elected not to answer the phone. I will return the call later on, once we reach an area with Verizon Wireless service.
A minute or so later, we came to a stop. There was a red signal ahead of us, and I subsequently heard on the scanner that we are waiting for two trains to pass us. First, a freight train ahead of us was stopped because a defect detector indicated that it had two hotboxes, and the crew was now walking the train to check for these overheated journals. Second, we are waiting for Amtrak Train #89, the southbound Palmetto, to pass us. Train #89 is scheduled to arrive at Rocky Mount at 4:50 p.m., so it seems to be running on time - at least up to this point. Soon, the conductor made an announcement that we were stopping to permit these two trains to pass us, although he did not mention the reason why the freight train was stopped. He estimated our delay as ten minutes, but it would seem to me that we will probably be here longer than that.
As I figured, I turned out to be right. Finally, at 5:15 p.m., I heard on the scanner that we will be given a signal to proceed into the station, just ahead of us, but we will have to wait there until the two southbound trains pass us. And we had to position the train between two crossings, since we would be sitting there for a while. We started moving ahead at 5:17 p.m., arriving at the station at 5:20 p.m. Since we had to position our train far enough back to avoid tripping the circuits for the grade crossing ahead of us, the engine was in front of the station entrance, and the coach that was opened towards the rear was a very considerable distance from the station building.
I knew that we would have plenty of time here, so I detrained and walked down the platform to the station, having to cross a very slippery patch of ice on the way. The Rocky Mount station is a large historic brick building which must have served as the division headquarters for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad that built it. The attractive waiting room, with a high ceiling, has been beautifully restored, and a smaller adjacent room, which serves both as ticket office and waiting room, has also been restored to its original grandeur. This is one of the most attractive Amtrak stations of this size and scale that I've ever seen!
After taking a few pictures, I returned to our train. Other passengers had also stepped outside to get some fresh air. There was very little to be heard on the scanner, and we were just sitting here, waiting for the two trains to pass us. At 6:07 p.m., we finally got the clearance to proceed ahead, and we departed the Rocky Mount station. We had lost another hour and 20 minutes here in Rocky Mount, and we were now eleven and one-half hours late, measured by the schedule of the Silver Star, and even measured by the schedule of the Palmetto, we were eight hours late. Although it was still light when we arrived in Rocky Mount, it was completely dark when we departed.
It ended up that neither the freight train nor Train #89 passed us; rather, we passed both of those trains as we proceeded north, and I couldn't understand why we weren't able to have done this earlier. I did hear on the scanner that the freight train actually moved a short distance southward, but since it was pulled by one SD-40 and had 11,000 tons, it could barely move any distance, and it stopped short of the crossings in the town because the crew feared that it might stall in the middle of the town, thus blocking the grade crossings. (Subsequently, the assistant conductor informed me that CSX has a rule prohibiting any train from passing another train that has set off a detector. That being the case, it seems that we had to wait until the other train set off the defective cars, and only then could we pass him.) We proceeded slowly ahead, first passing the freight train, and then passing Train #89 (which was now over one and one-half hours late) at 6:25 p.m. Soon, we continued ahead at normal speed.
I now decided to eat dinner, which would consist of the second La Briute meal that I had brought along - this one featuring turkey and mashed potatoes. This time, I first obtained a cup of hot water from the dining car and used it to make the soup, while I used the heating element to heat the main meal. The turkey dinner was quite tasty, although it was a little salty. After I finished the main dish, I obtained another cup of hot water and used it to make a cup of tea, which I had with the cookies provided as part of the meal. Overall, it was not a bad meal, and I will definitely consider taking these La Briute meals along on future trips.
For the entire duration of our long stop at Rocky Mount, I was getting "extended network" service on my cell phone. This "roaming" continued for some distance north of Rocky Mount, too. Finally, about 7:30 p.m., I obtained Verizon Wireless service, and I used the opportunity to call the Trail Conference and speak to Maureen Walsh, who was at the Publications Committee meeting at the Trail Conference that I had originally hoped to attend. Around this time, we stopped for about ten minutes to permit a southbound train to pass us.
At 8:22 p.m., we arrived in Petersburg, which has a modern brick station that predates Amtrak. When we left four minutes later, we were 12 hours and 26 minutes late, measured by the Silver Star schedule, and even by the Palmetto schedule we were nine hours late!
Our next stop was Richmond, where we arrived at 8:59 p.m. Here, the train was fueled and watered, and our stop lasted for 15 minutes. A number of people detrained here, and I walked down the platform to the unattractive station, built by Amtrak in the 1970s in an inconvenient location well north of the city. The historic Main Street Station in downtown has been restored and is now used once again by Amtrak trains, but only by those few trains whose destination is Newport News. When we departed at 9:15 p.m, we were just short of 12 hours late, based on the Silver Meteor's schedule.
A new conductor boarded the train at Richmond, as the other conductors would have exceeded their maximum hours of service before we reached Washington. Also, an Amtrak representative boarded the train to assist people who missed their connections. He announced that people with connections in Philadelphia or New York should go to the Customer Service office in those stations when we arrive there, and that passengers connecting with Train #29 in Washington should go to the Customer Service office there, which will make arrangements for them to stay overnight and take tomorrow's train. (I spoke with several passengers who had planned to connect with the westbound Capitol Limited, and they were relieved that they would be staying overnight in Washington, rather then being bustituted to Pittsburgh to connect with their train there - something that had previously been considered.) Those people connecting in Washington to trains to Boston were informed that we will not make the connection with Train #66, which leaves at 10:00 p.m., but will make a connection with Train #190, which departs Washington at 3:00 a.m.
I spent some more time in the lounge car but finally decided to move back to the third coach and try to get some sleep. I'm quite sure that I did eventually fall asleep, as I missed our stop in Alexandria, and woke up as we were crossing the bridge over the Potomac River into Washington. At this point, I returned to my car (the first coach on the train) and noticed that my large suitcase was missing. It turned out that a family detraining in Washington had a suitcase that was nearly identical to mine, and had brought my suitcase out to the vestibule instead of theirs! Once I noticed what had happened, the suitcases were easily exchanged, but I was really glad that I had taken the trouble to check the status of my luggage!
We pulled into Track 26 at Washington Union Station at 11:21 p.m. According to the schedule of the Silver Star, we were 12 hours and 20 minutes late, and even judged by the Palmetto's schedule, we were eight hours and 36 minutes late. I stepped off the train and walked upstairs, where I noticed that southbound Train #97, the Silver Meteor, scheduled to arrive at 10:59 p.m., was delayed and would not arrive until 1:30 a.m. I also noticed that the Great Hall was closed off for a private event. Although I expected that our train would be remaining in the station for a while to change engines, I didn't want to take any chance of missing the train, so I went back down to the platform. I walked down to the front of the train and noticed that our diesel engine had not yet been removed. It was very cold out, though, so I returned to my seat, took out my computer, and resumed writing these memoirs.
On the scanner, I heard the conductor ask the stationmaster whether personnel would be on duty at Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia at this hour to accept checked baggage for these locations. He responded that someone would be on duty, at least in Baltimore. The lights went back on at 11:56 p.m., and we pulled out of the station a minute later. Although I did not actually observe the engine, I heard on the scanner that our train was now being pulled by HHP-8 engine #653.
Since I would be getting home very late tonight, I took out my sleeping bag, found two mini-pillows, and stretched out across a pair of seats in the first coach (many of the passengers in this car had detrained in Washington, so plenty of empty seats were now available). I kept my scanner on, but - unlike the situation while running on CSX, where every signal is announced - about the only communications you hear on the Northeast Corridor relate to the train's readiness to leave each station. When we departed Trenton at 2:42 a.m., I got up, put away my slippers, sneakers and sleeping bag, and put on a sweater and boots. I then walked through the coaches, finding that there were still passengers in each car, and returned to my coach, where I updated these memoirs.
Earlier in the day, I started talking to a passenger in my car who mentioned that he lives in Dumont, New Jersey - just a few miles from my home in Teaneck. When I asked him how he was planning on getting home, he mentioned that he had contracted with a limousine service to pick him up in Newark. I then asked whether I could get a ride home with him, and he replied that I probably could, although I might have to pay extra for the ride. Being that I would have no other way of getting home at this unearthly hour of the train's arrival, I told him that I was more than willing to do so. He did not have a cell phone, so I let him use my cell phone to call the limousine driver and leave a message that our train was delayed and would not be arriving in Newark until after 2:00 a.m.
As we approached the Newark station, I noticed that my friend from Dumont was still sleeping, so I woke him up. (Actually, it would seem to me that the attendant should have woken him up well before we arrived in Newark, since his seat check read "NWK," but for whatever reason, he did not do so.) When arrived on Track 1 at Newark Penn Station at 3:15 a.m., we detrained and walked through the waiting room at the track level and down to the concourse level. The track level waiting room was occupied by about 20 people, one or two of whom appeared to be waiting for a train, but the rest of whom seemed to be homeless people just hanging out there. On the concourse level, the main waiting room and front entrance to the station were closed at this late hour, and several police officers were patrolling the portion of the station that remained open (why they didn't remove the homeless people from the upper level waiting room, I'm not sure).
My friend had checked his suitcase (which, ironically, was much smaller than the huge suitcase that I had carried onboard), so he had to retrieve the suitcase from the baggage room. Surprisingly, the suitcase had already arrived when we walked over to the baggage room. The agent mentioned to me that the baggage room is normally closed at this late hour, but that it remained open tonight due to the late arrival of our train. We then walked out via the back entrance to the station and proceeded around the side of the station to the front, where the limousine was waiting for us. We departed at 3:28 a.m. and arrived at my home in Teaneck at 4:00 a.m. I was charged $40 for the ride, but a cab would have cost me even more, so I was not about to complain.
Having just attended the Florida High Adventure Sea Base, I was prepared for the "high adventure" that this trip represented. But most of my fellow passengers were not. While some (but certainly not all) of the delays that we experienced were probably unavoidable, the general attitude of indifference exhibited by the crew was not. There was no excuse for the failure to keep the passengers informed as to what was going on. And the failure to offer the passengers even a small token in return for the inconvenience that they were experiencing compounded the problem. This will certainly not be my last Amtrak trip, but for many other passengers, it probably will be.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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