Travelogue of Sean Porter's
Florida Sojourn Amtrak Trip
4/30/01 – We arrived at Chicago Union Station at 4:05 p.m., only 15 minutes earlier than the train would have gotten us here. Considering the number of stops the train makes between here and Minneapolis, I think the train timing is pretty good.
I have about three hours to kill before I board the Capitol Limited for Washington. Chicago Union Station is a huge structure and one can easily get disoriented. The signage however, is plentiful and easy to read. After the bus ride, I’m too tired to do any exploring so I pass the time reading and snoozing in the Metropolitan Lounge. The Chicago Metropolitan Lounge is a good size but if more than two trains are late, the seats fill up quickly. All in all, it is a great place to relax while waiting. Complimentary snacks and beverages (non-alcoholic) are available all day long.
At 6:00 p.m. initial announcements are made for boarding of the Capitol Limited. We are told that boarding would begin at 7:15 p.m. At 7:20 p.m., we are told that there would be a one-hour delay because the train had not been made up yet. This was known long before 7:15, so why were not informed at 6:00 p.m.? At 8:10 p.m. boarding began. The coaches were boarded first because the sleepers were not yet ready. What do they mean?! I tried to think of a logical reason not to get upset. I did. In order not be lose any more time, they would finish up the last minute details while boarding the coaches. Ok, I’ll accept that. The announcement also stated that there would be limited dining this evening. Only the chicken offering would be available this evening. Fair enough. We departed at 8:35 p.m., 50 minutes late. The hope is that we’ll make time during the night.
Hammond/Whiting – 9:17 p.m. – To my complete surprise and sheer delight, there was another offering on the menu for dinner. It was two skewers of medium sized prawns over rice. It was absolutely delicious!
South Bend – 10:45 p.m.
Elkhart – 11:15 p.m. Good night!
Pittsburgh, PA – 7:20 a.m. – 29 minutes late – not bad considering we were almost an hour late leaving Chicago. This is a service stop so we’ll be here a while. We depart at 7:40 a.m.
Connellsville – 9:33 a.m. – Lot’s of freight traffic.
Cumberland, MD – 12:02 p.m. – Lunch was a nice salmon salad. I thought the portion was a bit skimpy but it was well prepared. The overall salad was good but pales in comparison to the Salad Nicoise served on the Coast Starlight.
Martinsburg, WV – 1:47 p.m.
Harper’s Ferry – 2:20 p.m.
Rockville, MD – 3:05 p.m.
Washington, DC – 3:40 p.m. – Exactly 1 hour late. Not bad! Great for me since I have a 7-hour layover. Washington Union Station is beautiful! I must admit I never expected anything like this. Depending on where one is, one could easily forget that this is a rail station. There are lots of shops, places to eat and even a movie complex. The area immediately around the station is clean and attractions are not far away. However, a few blocks way from the station, the neighborhood changes and taking caution is advisable.
It’s tough to find a good place to do train watching here. Security is pretty tight. They don’t generally allow the general public trackside. One can casually stroll along with boarding passengers, but that trick only works if the guards don’t recognize you. It’s a real challenge. I did find a guard who was pretty nice when I explained that I was a train nut and had a long layover. I showed him my ticket and after that, he didn’t give me any trouble.
Amtrak train #97, the southbound Silver Meteor, is due to arrive at 10:30 p.m. and depart at 10:59 p.m.. It is here that the electric locomotives will be replaced with 1 or 2 diesels. At 10:30, it was announced that the train wouldn’t be here until 11:00 p.m. the Silver Meteor arrived at 10:57 p.m. and departed at 11:22 p.m.
Florence, SC – Arr. 6:22 a.m. – Dep. 6:26 a.m. We are right on time! That’s my train!
Kingstree – Dep. 7:10 a.m.
Charleston, SC – Arr. – 8:25 a.m. – We were held outside of Charleston for a tardy Sliver Palm. This station is actually in North Charleston, a separate city. From what I was able to gather, it’s about 4 to 5 miles to downtown Charleston. Judging by the age and weathering of the structures, this station has been here for some time. It’s nice to see that this wasn’t another of Amtrak’s bright ideas of putting stations out in the middle of nowhere.
Yemassee – 10:10 a.m.
Jesup – 11:07 a.m.
Jacksonville – 12:20 p.m. – This station is within the city limits, at least. Considering that Jacksonville is the largest city in the country in terms of square mileage, that’s not saying a lot. With the expected increase in passenger rail service, I’m wondering if the Clifford Lane station can handle the increase in traffic. On my last two trips down here, I’ve been held outside the station for tardy trains. Jacksonville Union Station no longer stands but some of its former track is still there. There is talk of building a new inter-modal station connected to a new convention center in downtown. Trains could be again serving downtown Jacksonville by 2004. We departed at 12:45 p.m. – right on time.
Palatka, FL. – 1:51 p.m. – On Time. This station provides no services but it does provide shelter and a rest room. There is also a small museum nearby but the hours are irregular. Palatka is a small city and serves as a hub for Gainesville and some of the coastal cities of Florida. The area around the station isn’t the most comfortable looking but there is a store nearby and there are frequent police patrols. Today is Wednesday 5/1/01 and I’ll be back here on Saturday 5/5/01 to begin my journey back home to Seattle.
5/5/01 – 5:15 p.m. – I arrive at the station. I decide to use Amtrak’s new feature of finding one’s train status via phone. This works great but to my dismay, I find out that my train #92 The Silver Star is about an hour late. This is due, in part, to the Sunset Limited. At 6:41 p.m., The Silver Star arrives, exactly 1 hour late. The crew seems rather harried and on the verge of being belligerent. I’m not in the mood for any guff, so they’d best get their act together. I can’t imagine what could have happened since the train left Miami to put the crew in such a bad mood.
Jacksonville – Arr. 7:55 p.m. - Dep. 8.37 p.m. – An announcement is made at 7:00 p.m. that the last dinner seating would be at 8:00 p.m.. It ended up being 8:40 p.m. before we were called. I ordered the chef’s special chicken offering. It was half a baked chicken with a nicely flavored gravy. It was good but the accompanying rice was soggy and the vegetables were so over-cooked it’s a wonder they held their shape. Amtrak bills these trains as Silver Service. This leads one to expect a certain level of luxury. I will admit that there has been a good deal improvement since Amtrak’s earlier days, but this isn’t The Silver Meteor and Silver Star service I remember. The gentleman across from me ordered the prime rib. It was the thinnest, grayest specimen I have ever seen. The Key Lime Custard pie was good but sweeeeeeeet! Man oh man! I could feel my teeth and gums shaking their fingers at me.
Savannah, GA. – Arr: 10:46 p.m. – Dep. 10:47 p.m.. We were there just long enough to take on several coach passengers. The station, or at least the platforms, are similar in style to the Charleston, SC station. Savannah’s station is about 4 mile south west of downtown. It looks like it’s been here a while as well. Not sure why the train doesn’t run closer to town.
Rocky Mount, NC. – Arr: 6:53 a.m. - Dep. 6:55 a.m. – Thanks to some 80 mph running, we made up a good deal of time during the night. Currently we’re only about 10 minutes late.
Petersburg,VA – Arr: 8:30 a.m. – We lost some time getting here due to construction delays.
Richmond,VA., - Arr: 9:05 a.m. – This is another station waaaay out of town. Considering the amount of train service Richmond gets, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been talk a whole lot earlier or reusing the Main St. station downtown. My early research shows that there are indeed plans to reopen the Main St. station but there are some routing issues that need to be addressed. I also read that the Richards Road station will continue to be a stop. I can’t imagine why. We were here 14 minutes due to heavy boarding and deboarding. Breakfast was good. I had pancakes and turkey sausages.
Alexandria – Arr: 11:00 a.m – Dep: 11:07 a.m. – This ended up being a double stop to accommodate a handicapped passenger. The crew was very patient and is to be commended.
Washington, DC - Arr: 12:09 p.m. - 1 hour late. Ok for me, I’ve got only 4 hours to kill rather than 5. A few comments about the Viewliner equipment. It’s beautiful but it’s already beginning to show its age. This is in no doubt due to the fact that there isn’t enough of it to go around. I’m not sure I really like the shape of the cars, especially when mixed with Amfleet equipment. The Viewliner cars are shaped somewhat like a barn. The sides bow towards the middle where they meet in a point. The resulting angle small but noticeable enough when looking down the length of the train. I miss the smooth lines of conventional equipment.
3:32 p.m. – Boarding for the Capitol Limited has just been called. Good timing. First class passengers first then the coaches. At 4:04, it is announced that they are going to start making dinner reservations in the coaches first. He’ll hear about that! The only way he doesn’t is that I get lockjaw! I paid $2,300.00 for first class service and I intend to have it. I’m now hunting for the COBS (Chief of On Board Services) with blood in my eye, murder in my heart, etc….Found him. It turns out that he started taking reservations at both ends of the train at the same time. I told that didn’t make sense. He thought about it and then had a talk with the dining car steward. I don’t know what he did but I got the reservation I wanted. We departed at 4:05 p.m., right on time.
Rockville, MD – Arr: 4:27 p.m. This is a suburban stop for the western areas of DC. It’s also a MARC stop.
Harper’s Ferry, WV – On Time – This is and interestingly put together town. I’d love to go exploring through it some time.
Martinsburg, WV - 5:50 p.m. – We’re running about 5 minutes late. Not bad, considering all of the freight trains we’ve encountered. All in all, the track seems to be in pretty good shape.
Cumberland, MD – 7:23 p.m. Right on time, I’m proud to say. Dinner was the chef’s special fried chicken. However, it wasn’t Maryland Fried Chicken as I think it should have been. It was more like Oven-Fry or a doctored version of Shake N Bake. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on them, it wasn’t bad after all. Cumberland is pretty good sized city. I’m surprised there isn’t more passenger traffic between here and Washington, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Connellsville, PA. – Dep. 9:52 p.m. We’re losing more time due to slow orders and freight traffic. There also seems to be a good deal of track work going on as well.
Pittsburgh – Arr: 11:55 p.m. – Dep. 12:20 a.m. – Still a few minutes late but nothing that can’t be made up during the night. There was a lady trying to board who had been misdirected several times and complaining bitterly. I conscripted a car attendant to help her since she had a lot of luggage. She was justified in her indignation because there was no visible help on the platform anywhere. Good Night!
Toledo, OH – 4:56 a.m. – Why am I up so early, you ask? It was a rough night! The track wasn’t this bad on the way out. Perhaps we were rerouted during the night. It seemed speeds were good but it was bumpy, noisy and with so much lateral movement, I though several times we were going to leave the rails for sure.
Waterloo, IN – 5:39 a.m. – Indiana doesn’t observe daylight savings time so scheduled look strange.
South Bend, IN – Arr. 7:53 a.m. – Dep. 8:08 a.m. – The old station closer to town isn’t used anymore. This station is in an industrial area but there is ample parking.
Hammond/Whiting, IN – We are gaining time thanks to schedule padding and decent running speeds. We departed at 7:56 a.m., due at 8:12 a.m. …no need to hang around, I guess.
Chicago, IL – 8:55 a.m. – A whopping 40 minutes early!!! How ‘bout that?! The weather here is not the greatest today so I don’t feel guilty about not doing any sightseeing. Besides, I’m a little tired from the rough night. There’s plenty of people watching to do in the station and lot’s of trains to see. Upon checking the arrival board, I notice that The Cardinal/Kentucky Cardinal is an hour late. When it arrives, I try to count the number of detraining passengers. I got to about 60 before a commuter train came in and unloaded it passengers. Next to arrive are a Milwaukee train, The City of New Orleans and The Pere Marquette. They all seem to be very well patronized. Back in the Metropolitan Lounge, I note that The Empire Builder is to leave on time at 2:10 p.m.. Then my heart sinks as I notice that were going to be bussed to Minneapolis. I could scream. I even considered, for the briefest of moments, flying.
Chicago, IL – 1:45 p.m. – The busses are being loaded with those that are going all the way to Minneapolis first and intermediate stops second. First class passengers were boarded first. There was plenty of space so I had a seat to myself as I did on my way to Florida. We pulled away from Union Station at 2:10 p.m. on the dot. We stopped at the same Burger King. In fact, the same manager was on duty as when I came through the first time. There were a lot senior citizens on the bus and when we arrived at the Burger King in Wisconsin Dells, the driver said we’d be leaving at 6:30 p.m. REALLY! I can’t believe his lack of consideration for our seniors. It took until almost 6:20 to get every off. I expressed my displeasure at his callousness. In actuality it was closer to 6:45 p.m. when we left. Back on the bus, I thought we were making pretty good time when the man behind me suddenly asks the diety to condemn the situation. He feels we’re going to be late. He probably doesn’t realize that the train can’t leave without us. He continues his tirade. The driver seemed to have sensed his feelings and then really poured on the speed. One would think this would satisfy him but no. This sparks more swearing and complaining, it’s all I can do not to laugh. “Now he’s going like a bat of hell! Now he’s gonna kill us all!” We get to the Midway District Station at 9:56 p.m.
Minneapolis/St. Paul – If we had taken the train, we wouldn’t be due here until 10:25 p.m. and depart at 11:15 p.m.. I have several problems with this situation. The train has been here since early this morning. Why are we not boarded immediately? Why were the first class passengers not boarded first? Why was no announcement made, as promised, when boarding to begin? I was hot as a spring jalapeno! I let one of the station agents know how displeased I was with this chain of events. As it was, we departed an hour and 2 minutes late due to a late arriving bus. I’m told by the COBS that the first class passengers would receive some kind of adjustment. We’d better!! To make up for the problems, breakfast is to complimentary for all. BIG DEAL since the menu is severely limited. The offering is eggs (scrambled only), bacon only, biscuits and gravy or cereal. A nice touch, however, is the fruit basket that was in our rooms.
Fargo, ND – Arr: 6:58 a.m. – Dep: 7:02 a.m. We are Flood waters still evident and there are lots of slow orders.
Grand Forks – Arr: 8:03 a.m. – Dep. 8:05 a.m.
Devil’s Lake – Dep. 8:58 a.m. – Thanks to, I’m sure, lots of schedule padding, we’re beginning to make up time.
Rugby – Arr: 9:19 a.m. – Dep. 10:22 a.m. Rugby bills itself as the “Geographic Center of North America”. I couldn’t find out why we were here so long as this is not a service stop.
Minot – Arr: 11:30 a.m. – Dep: 11:51a.m. – This is a service stop. Inside the station are brochures of things to do within walking distance of the station. I think this is a great idea. They do warn you that one should have at least an hour to look around.
Stanley – Dep. 12:45 p.m. – Lunch was “The Western Star”. It was a huge baked potato stuffed with chili, bacon & veggies. Cheese and onions were served on the side. It was quite good.
Williston, ND – Dep. 1:51 p.m. – We are running 2 hours 47 minutes late but speeds are improving as we move out flood territory. This is the last stop in Montana.
Wolf Point, MT – Dep. 2:24 p.m.
Glasgow – Dep. 3:15 p.m – At each station we either boarded or deboarded at least 3 or 4 people.
Malta – 4:35 p.m. – 3 hours 10 minutes late.
Havre – Arr: 5:57 p.m. – Dep: 6:13 p.m.
Shelby – Dep: 7:53 p.m – Since this is my last dinner on the train, I decided to go for broke. I had the New York Steak. The portion was ample and cooked to perfection. It seems that the chef’s on all the trains traveled so far concentrate on making the entrée as well as they can and spend less time on the accompaniments. I think this is a mistake. Make all the elements of the meal as best one can to make a meal truly memorable. It’s a big reason people take the train. A good meal can assuage some of the problematic elements of the trip. For dessert, I had the Turtle Pie. It was good, but not as good The Coast Starlight. This, I don’t understand. It’s not made on either train.
Cut Bank – Dep: 8:22 p.m. – Speeds are good and we’re making up time. It will be interesting to see how much more we make up during the night.
East Glacier – Dep. 9:12 p.m. – I think I’ll do some reading and turn in a little early.
Ephrata, WA – 6:05 a.m. – WOW! Did we ever make up time. We are now only 1 hour and 27 minutes late.
Wenatchee, WA – 7:05 a.m. –
Everett, WA – 10:34 a.m. - Lots of slow running. Oh well. We made a valiant effort.
Edmonds, WA – 10:55 a.m.
Seattle,WA – 11:40 a.m. – Considering that we were over three hours late at one point, this is not bad. I hate to get off but I have a warm puppy waiting for me and job to get to tomorrow. Looking forward to my trip next year. I usually take The Coast Starlight and The Sunset Limited to Florida. Next year, I’m going to be really risky and take the Cardinal between Chicago and Washington. This could mean having to spend a night in Washington, because the Cardinal’s timekeeping is dismal. However, it’ll give me another route to add to my repertoire.
Till next trip. Take Care, Sean P.