I arrived at the Orlando AMTRAK station at noon or so on a sunny warm Thursday, about one hour before the scheduled departure of the northbound Silver Meteor. The 11:26 AM southbound Silver Star was long gone. I took my large suitcase, smaller (but much heavier) "map book" suitcase (which contained 10 Acco-Press binders full of route maps for all segments of this trip, plus essentials such as tickets, my journal, timetables, and writing utensils), and video camera case to the platform, and was offered a self-serve baggage cart to put my luggage on by one of the baggage handlers. Prior to this trip, I had come to the AMTRAK station at least once every weekend for the 4 or 5 months immediately preceding the trip, to watch either the southbound Silver Star or the northbound Silver Meteor pull in and out, and because of these trips, I knew the consist of the 1998 "Silver Service" trains by heart -- either 1 or 2 Genesis engines at the head of the train, followed by 1 or 2 mail or mail-baggage cars, a dorm sleeper (generally an older Heritage 10-6) used by the on-board crew, 2 Viewliner sleepers, diner, Amcafe lounge car, then 4 Amfleet coaches on the end. I knew my Viewliner sleeper would be near the front end of the train, so I waited at the appropriate location.
As I was waiting for the northbound Meteor from Miami, the connecting Thruway bus from Tampa/St. Petersburg arrived with 20 or so connecting passengers. Meanwhile, the perennial outgoing Thruway bus was parked at the north end of the station waiting for connecting passengers from Miami for Lakeland, Tampa, and the Gulf Coast. The bus driver was engaged in a conversation with the baggage handlers about threatening to quit his job right then and there, since he had again gotten a bus with no air conditioning and bad brakes several times in a row now, and had had it with AMTRAK and the bus concessionaire. In Florida, you definitely need air conditioning in a bus in July! A few minutes later, the bus driver was seen walking from the bus into the station with his suitcase, but 15 or 20 minutes later, he had cooled down, gone back to the bus, and had decided to finish his scheduled run that day after all.
As I was waiting, my good friend Sue had taken a few minutes out of her lunch break at a large Orlando law firm to come to the station, see me off, and capture me on my own video camera as the train pulled in. I have had the Sony "Mini-Cam" video recorder since Christmas 1994, and have videotaped several train trips so far. The last major project was my 9-day AMTRAK trip in 1996, from which I had produced 6 hours of videotape. This 1998 trip would be a 12-day trip, and I had estimated that I would probably produce 8 hours of tape this time. All my videotapes are narrated by me, and the scenery being taped is referenced to mileposts which I had marked in my map books -- not "railroad mileposts," but my own mileposts which begin at the beginning of my mapped log and end at the end. The map and log for this part of the Silver Meteor route begins in Jacksonville ("mile 0"). The Orlando station is located at milepost 148 on my log, and a different log covers the route from Jacksonville up to Washington D.C. My logs generally (not always!) progress from west to east or north to south.
By 12:45 PM, the northbound Meteor had not yet arrived, which is unusual, since on nearly all my weekly visits to the station, both Trains #91 and #98 had generally arrived 10 to 15 minutes early and left on time. Today must be one of the <5% of days the train would be late into Orlando. As I was checking my watch, a short southbound Florida Central (FC has trackage rights on CSX through Orlando) freight pulled through the station on Track #1, which was also unusual, since most southbound trains (freight and passenger) use Track #2, as Track #1 is generally used by northbound AMTRAK trains. I correctly figured that this freight would delay the Meteor, but it did not delay it very much. The freight switched tracks before the next grade crossing south of the station, and the Meteor soon appeared, no more than 15 or 20 minutes late. Sue was afraid she may not get to see the train, since her lunch hour was rapidly coming to an end, but she got to see the train, and saw me off after all.
In my video narrations, I always verbally keep track of the trains' on-time performances. I have actually always done that, but in the days before video, I would actually put together "OTP charts" for each train I was on, and keep track of the performance. Why would I do such a thing? Good question -- I guess I am interested in seeing how the performance of AMTRAK trains has changed over the years. Most AMTRAK trains outside the Northeast Corridor run consistently late. I don't know why this continues to happen on a regular basis after almost 30 years of AMTRAK, but it does. For several weeks prior to this trip, I checked AMTRAK's "Train Arrival Status" page in their Web site (http://www.reservations.amtrak.com) at least 3 times a week to check on the current on-time standards of "my" trains -- the ones I would ride on this trip. Most of them had been running within 2 hours of schedule on most days, except for the Sunset Ltd, which was running anywhere from 5 to 17 hour late! Nonetheless, I had a contingency plan for most of my connections, which often involved getting off the train early and catching the next train as it came the other direction on the same route, or getting off somewhere and catching a Thruway bus. As far as the Sunset was concerned, no problem -- I had an overnight stay in New Orleans the evening before, so it didn't matter when it left, and the other end of that route was Orlando, Florida -- home (no connections to make!)
I am in Room 11 of the Viewliner Sleeper "Majestic View," and my attendant is a British fellow named Peter (I think his last name was "Spacek"). Peter looked and sounded familiar to me, and I assumed that I had him as an attendant previously. While telling my friend Sue about the trip after I returned, we decided that Sue and I had Peter as our attendant in 1997, when I took Sue on her first train trip (her father was a safety engineer for the New York Central Hudson Division way back when!). We had ridden the Capitol Ltd from Chicago to Washington, and the Meteor from Washington to Orlando, and Peter had been our attendant on #97. In 1997, Sue and I had originally planned to go to Chicago on AMTRAK , via Train #92 to Sanford, Train #1 to New Orleans, then Train #58 to Chicago. That was the year after AMTRAK had the brilliant idea to terminate the Sunset Ltd in Sanford to save money in deadheading the train between Orlando and Sanford for servicing, where it is serviced at the Auto Train facility, next door to the regular AMTRAK station. This of course forced the Orlando passengers to either take a Thruway bus between Orlando and Sanford, or like we were going to do, take the Silver Star. Thankfully, the Sanford termination of the Sunset only lasted a year or so, and now Trains #1 and #2 provide service all the way to Orlando once again. Our AMTRAK trip from Orlando to Chicago was canceled 2 hours prior to train time because of a freight derailment in the Florida Panhandle, which resulted in cancellation of the Sunset that day, which was replaced by an overnight bus from Orlando or Jacksonville to New Orleans. Sue wanted no part of that long overnight bus ride, and I can't say I blame her, since it would have been quite uncomfortable for both of us. (A note: two hours before we were due to arrive at the station, AMTRAK telephoned me to inform me of the cancellation of the Sunset -- AMTRAK is very good about calling travelers with schedule changes, and have always called me if there has been even the slightest change in one of my reservations, even though I ghenerally knew about them before being called).
So instead of riding the train, we "cheated" and flew to Chicago 2 days later, but kept the AMTRAK reservation for the return trip. The cancellation of the first part of the trip turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, since, to my disappointment, Sue did not enjoy the 2-night train trip from Chicago to Orlando -- the motion made her nauseous, and even the deluxe bedroom accommodations (on both Superliner and Viewliner) were too cramped for her style. At least she tried it, and we are still good friends!
Meanwhile, back on board the Meteor, Peter helped me take my suitcases to my room. On my trips, I always travel first class (sleeper) on overnight trips nowadays -- this 50-year old simply cannot curl up in those coach seats any more, with the distractions of other passengers, noise, etc., and sleep a good night's sleep! I never check my baggage -- it always goes with me in my room, even on Superliners which have convenient baggage racks on the lower level of all sleepers. On my 1993 trip, I had ridden the Sunset Ltd from Orlando all the way to Los Angeles, a few weeks after the initiation of the transcontinental service on the Sunset. On the third night of the trip, I put my large suitcase in the downstairs luggage racks, and went to bed. The following morning, heading into Los Angeles, I discovered my suitcase had disappeared from the luggage rack! To make a long story short, it had been taken off the train unintentionally by a confused elderly couple who had detrained overnight in Tempe, AZ, thinking it was theirs. The conductor and car attendant had told me the following morning that they thought this confused couple had an awful lot of baggage for just the two of them -- why no one from the train crew looked at the name tags on all their luggage to help them at that time, I'll never know. After days of calls and discussions with Station Services personnel, baggage agents, on-board Chiefs, and conductors, my bags caught up with me 4 days later in Chicago! (I had to buy some new clothes during my overnight layover in Seattle, but AMTRAK kindly paid my taxi fare to a department store, and I got a credit from AMTRAK later). So that is why my bags travel with me now!
This was my first experience in a Viewliner standard bedroom, and it was a good experience. The extra upper window is nice, even if there is only one person in the room, and the presence of a toilet and sink in the room is welcomed. The Viewliner standard bedrooms are about the same size as the Superliner standard bedrooms (formerly known as "economy bedrooms"), which I also like; however, I believe the space is used much more efficiently in the Viewliners, and, as stated above, the Viewliner bedrooms have sinks and toilets; the Superliner rooms do not. In the Superliners, I generally fold out the upper berth and keep my suitcases there, so there is still plenty of leg room on the floor. I had assumed I would do the same in the Viewliner room, but I found out that I don't have to, since there is a nifty little crawl space at the top of the room above the sink, in which my suitcases just fit! Without having to crank the top berth down (yes, the upper berths in Viewliner rooms are operated with a very easy-to-use crank, rather than a fold-down system), I can still take full advantage of the double windows in the room.
We finally left the Orlando station about 18 minutes late, which did not bother me at all. I always have a whole set of "contingency plans" for late trains, and have learned over the years how to schedule my trips so as to minimize the possibilities of missed connections. On this particular train, we could be several hours late and it wouldn't bother me, since I had a scheduled layover in Washington DC of almost 6 hours, and the scheduled arrival time of 5:40 AM was a bit early for my tastes, even though I am usually awake at that hour on my trains trips -- but I am usually on the train at that hour, and not in a station in a city in which nothing will be open for 2 or 3 hours yet. I have never been much for sitting in a waiting room for an extended period of time!
Before we had arrived at the Winter Park station (15 minutes north of Orlando), I had found a table to perch at in the Amcafe (or was it an Amdinette? I don't remember the difference) car and had continued my video. AMTRAK needs to come up with a better style than the old Amdinette/cafe cars on non-Superliner trains. When Amfleet first came out, it was the greatest thing in rail travel since canned beer! 20 years later, I think Am-whatever cars are boring! I do thoroughly enjoy spending my time in Sightseer lounges on Superliner trains, but that will have to wait until I board the Cardinal in Washington D.C. tomorrow. These Amdinettes have got to go! Seating is limited in the "table cafe" section of the car, and I don't enjoy sitting in the "smoking lounge" section, even during non-smoking periods. The arrangement of tables and chairs in the smoking lounge section is not conducive to the type of scenery watching, map following, and videotaping that I do. The "table-cafe" section (if you have ridden in one of these cars, you know what I mean by the "smoking lounge" and "table cafe" sections! -- if not, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will explain!) is a bit more conducive to my needs, but I always feel like I'm "hogging" space that some coach passengers, who don't have the luxury of a sleeper, should be allowed to use. There did not seem to be a problem with this on the two Viewliner/Amfleet trains I rode this trip (this train and the Crescent). Additionally, the train crew normally sits in the table-cafe portion of the Amlounge, and, even though I enjoy listening in on their scanners (I need to buy one of those for me sometime!) and keeping up to date with the train operations, the constant jabber on the scanners sometimes interferes with the narration of my videotapes.
We had left the Sanford station 17 minutes late by my watch. Just past the station is the massive Auto Train yards and servicing facility (which also services the Sunset Ltd between trips from Los Angeles to Orlando and the return trip. I saw an unusual car in the Auto Train yard, which was labeled "Table Car." I had never seen such a car in all my years of travel -- all I can imagine is that is some kind of lounge car, maybe one which was formerly used on the Auto Train before it became Superliner (the Auto Train is about the only AMTRAK train which I have never ridden!)
Between Sanford and DeLand, we lost a few more minutes on the bridge which crosses the St. Johns River just south of the large Florida Power & Light power plant, which is readily visible from the train. The culprit for this delay was trackwork, and by the time we had left DeLand, we were now 32 minutes late -- still no problem to me!
As we passed through Pierson, Florida, a town in the middle of a productive ornamental fern-growing area, I saw one of the areas which was burned by the wildfires in Florida just a few weeks before this trip -- the fires came right up to the railroad right-of-way in some places, and the Silver Service trains were canceled for several days during the peak of the fires in June and July. To be honest, I was quite worried that, if the fires had continued a few weeks longer, this trip itself may have had to be canceled. As the afternoon wore on, we became 15 to 30 minutes late for various reasons -- mostly freight delays, AMTRAK's perennial problem! What ever happened to the attitude that freight trains were supposed to wait for passenger trains in sidings, not the other way around? More about this later in the trip....
South of Pierson, I listened in to the crew's radio, and heard something about this train stopping somewhere nearby so we could allow the southbound Silver Meteor to pass. We slowed to a crawl for several miles, and I wasn't sure if we were waiting for the southbound train, or delayed due to another reason, since the phantom southbound train didn't appear for several minutes. Finally, just south of the small town of Seville, it finally passed us, and our train soon picked up speed and continued north. We left the Palatka station 37 minutes late, and arrived in Jacksonville 31 minutes late.
About videotaping on a train -- I have two perennial problems with this: window reflections, and trees. The glass used in AMTRAK windows is very reflective heavy-duty glass, especially in Superliner Sightseer lounges. When videotaping through a window, I try and minimize the reflections by either angling my view or holding the camera close to the glass, but these techniques do not always work, especially in early morning and late afternoon/evening. Even on cloudy days, reflections can be a problem. I purchased a "state of the art" circular polarizer for my video camera, which sometimes works in minimizing reflections, but when it does, the finished video tape often contains weird splotches of orange, blue, or yellow in the views (but no reflections!). The effectiveness of my circular polarizer to eliminate reflections is somewhat akin to trying to stop a Genesis locomotive with merely your outstretched arms! I need a super polarizer-- anyone know of any such animal?
Even though I have detailed topographic maps (1 inch=2000 ft) showing every route over which I travel, they don't identify the areas in which your view is blocked by trees, which in the east, is extensive! I generally look for specific features to film based on my maps, such as small towns, river crossings, lakes next to the tracks, etc., but sure enough, by the time the feature appears and my video camera "clicks in," here come the trees! Especially in the summer, which is when I take my trips -- winter travel by AMTRAK is very often risky, especially if you have close connections.
Just south of Jacksonville, the Chief of On-Board Services announced that he would be making dinner reservations, starting at the sleepers and working his way back through the train. This is the standard procedure. I left the Amdinette lounge and walked up to my room for reservations. The choices tonight were 5 PM, 6:30 PM, or 8 PM. On most of the segments of this trip, I opted for the latest reservation time available, since I wanted to maximize the use of daylight hours to videotape as much of each route as I could. In most places through which I traveled, it was generally dark by 8 or 8:30 PM (except in the northernmost portions of the journey), so I generally chose to eat at that time. I chose the 8 PM seating on this segment.
While in Jacksonville, I walked around the platform for a few minutes videotaping the train, the station, and the people boarding and disembarking. As I was standing on the platform, the sharp beep of the horn on one of the baggage carts interrupted my taping, as I was nearly run off the platform by one of the baggage handlers! I stepped back and let the baggage cart proceed, then continued my taping. Wow! -- I just realized that I've only been on the train for 3 or 4 hours, and have taken nearly a half hour of video so far! I only have 8 hours worth of tape for the rest of this 12-day trip! I need to conserve tape (well, okay -- I brought a 5th 2-hour tape along "just in case."). It'll be great to see all this video when I get home, but who else among my friends would want to sit through 8 or 10 hours of video tape of a train trip?!
We left Jacksonville 32 minutes late, and most of what you see from the train going through Georgia is trees (refer to the problems of videotaping from trains, listed above!). I wanted to video the small town of Nahunta as we raced through, since I have driven on the highway through Nahunta before. I belong to a Singles Club in central Florida, and each year we take a trip to Jekyll Island, Ga., in November. One of our day trips is always a trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, and to get there from Jekyll Island, the only highway is the road through Nahunta. I enjoy seeing and videotaping places I have driven through from the train. But by the time my map showed we were in Nahunta, we had picked up speed and actually sped through town too fast to tape much of anything except a clearing in the trees, and the highway. And the tracks were getting rough. Back in the early days of AMTRAK, all tracks were rough everywhere in the country. Today, thankfully, resulting from years of trackwork and repair and a t remendous joint effort between AMTRAK and its contracting railroads, most tracks are fairly smooth, and it is comfortable to ride on them at passenger train speeds. However, the CSX tracks between Jacksonville and Washington, DC, are the roughest tracks on the system, in my opinion. And the Silver Service trains go fast down those rough tracks! (top speed 79 mph).
By the time we got to Jesup, we hadn't lost any more time, and were still 32 minutes late, after "double-stopping" at the station. Many of the smaller AMTRAK stations across the country do not have platforms which are long enough to accommodate a typical 10 to 15 car AMTRAK passenger train. At many of these stations, if there are both coach and sleeper passengers getting on or off at that station, the train will stop twice, once to load/unload the coach section, and a second time to load/unload the sleeper section. This is what I mean by "double-stopping."
After the Yemassee stop, it was getting dark and finally time to eat dinner. I went to the diner when the 8 PM reservations were called. Just a note concerning the AMTRAK dinner reservation system -- earlier in the afternoon, someone (either the dining car steward or the On-Board Chief) will come through the train and make reservations for dinner. Passengers can pick from a number of seatings, and are given a slip of paper with their seating time written on it, but the reservation maker does not need your name, or even your room number or car number. When you show up for dinner later, the little slip of paper is not collected by anyone, or even looked at. In my opinion, anyone on the train could probably eat any time they want to, regardless of what time their reservation was for! I guess AMTRAK has the reservation system merely for space utilization purposes, so that everyone on the train does not end up wanting to eat at the same time. I was joined for dinner on this first night of my trip by a woman and her daughter from St. Simons Island (next door to Jekyll Island) and a retired female military navy person who had served in Hawaii during World War II.
After dinner I went back to my room for the evening, except for a 20-minute trip later to the lounge car to get a soft drink before bed, and to enjoy the scenery in the somewhat quieter Amdinette lounge. I soon went to bed and had a hard time sleeping as we traveled across the rough CSX tracks overnight -- I usually have a little trouble getting re-acclimated to the motion of the train during the first night in a sleeper, but by the second night, no problem, and I sleep well the rest of the trip.
I woke up Friday morning around Richmond, Virginia, and soon discovered that we were now about 2 hours late, and I didn't know why. I hadn't remembered any long stops overnight, so apparently I had slept through them. Upon talking to some of the train crew, I found out that a truck had hit a bridge somewhere overnight, and the railroad had to inspect the bridge before it was safe for the train to cross it -- somewhere in North Carolina, I guess. We were then further delayed for about 45 minutes at the Richmond station, and I never did find out the reason for that delay. Most likely it was a freight delay -- in 90% of the cases where an AMTRAK train stops seemingly "in the middle of nowhere" for long periods of time, it is a freight delay -- there is either a slow freight ahead of AMTRAK traveling the same direction AMTRAK is, or there is an approaching freight train ahead of us coming toward AMTRAK, and AMTRAK usually ends up sitting in a siding while the freight passes. One of AMTRAK's perennial problems during its almost 30 years of existence.
I stayed in the room Friday morning and videotaped from my side of the train. We passed a number of Virginia Railway Express stations, some of which are located at the same site as AMTRAK. The VRE is a relatively new commuter service which connects Washington DC with many areas of northern Virginia, to serve the growing number of commuters who work in the Capital and live in the more rural and peaceful Virginia countryside. I took plenty of video of the Fredericksburg area, crossing the Rappahannock River, the Quantico Marine Base, and the approach into Washington. I have now taken nearly an hour of videotape, but still have 7 more trains to ride! I may need that 5th 2-hour tape after all.
We arrived in Washington DC at 8:20 AM, which was a much more reasonable hour than 5:40 AM, the scheduled arrival time, even though the arrival was 2 hours 40 minutes late. I had more than 3 hours until the scheduled departure of my next train, the Cardinal ,and I was looking forward to being in a Superliner train, with a Sightseer Lounge, which I enjoy so much more than the Amdinette lounge. I spent my time between trains walking through Union Station, having breakfast in the food court, looking through the myriad of shops and stores in the station, and taking a short walk to the Capitol building to take some more video from the little lake in front of the Capitol. It was a beautiful sunny morning in the Nation's Capital, even though later that day, after I had again left on the train, there would be a shooting inside the Capitol building, which dominated the network news for the next several weeks.