After 9 nights onboard, it was good to have at least one night in a motel. I stayed at the downtown Holiday Inn on Tulane Street in New Orleans, and spent the day on Sunday, August 2 in town. I checked on the status of the Sunset Ltd a couple times during the day. The first time I called, it was due to arrive in New Orleans 2 hrs 53 minutes late, which would put its arrival at 10:08 PM, which wasn't too bad. At least I would get home to Orlando at a decent time the following day.
I took the "Swamp Tour" with New Orleans Tours on Sunday afternoon, which consisted of a bus trip to Jean Laffite Swamp south of New Orleans, then a 2-hour boat ride through the swamp, the highlight of which was several dozen trained alligators who would swarm around the tour boat looking for marshmallow handouts from the Cajun boat guide -- a practice which, of course, is strictly illegal in Florida! Nevertheless, the tourists liked it. Back in town after the swamp tour, I again called AMTRAK to check on the status of the Sunset -- it was now scheduled to arrive in New Orleans at 10:30 PM, a few minutes later than previously anticipated, but still within reason for my travel plans.
Later in the evening I took a taxicab to Union Station, stored my two suitcases and video camera in the small and very poorly-staffed Metropolitan Lounge, then took another taxi to the French Quarter for dinner and walking around. I got back to Union Station at 9:30 or 10 PM and again checked on the status of the train, and it was now slated to arrive at 11 PM, which was still less than 4 hours late, and that was acceptable. I sat in the Metropolitan Lounge, and there were a few more people in the lounge now, also waiting for the Sunset. I talked to a grandmother from either New York or New Jersey and her teenage granddaughter, who were taking the Sunset to Orlando, then being picked up for the remainder of their journey to Port St. Lucie, which is about 2 hours south of Orlando on the Atlantic Ocean. The New Orleans Metropolitan Lounge is apparently not widely used, as there are rarely any passengers using it, and, most of the time, there isn't even an attendant on duty. If there is an attendant on duty, he or she is usually in the office in back of the Lounge and not in the main part of the lounge where the passengers are. There is a sign-in book at the counter in the Lounge, but I am not sure what use is made of that tabulation. When I had originally entered the lounge, I wanted to store my suitcases, but there isn't even a storage area in the lounge. After waiting several minutes for the lounge attendant to emerge from the office in the back, I finally gave her my suitcases, and she stashed them back in the office with her. When I had gone back to the lounge after dinner, the attendant was nowhere to be found, so I walked into the back office, which was left unlocked, and retrieved my suitcases.
The Sunset actually arrived at 10:45, 15 minutes earlier than the most recent ETA of 11 PM, but still 2 1/2 hours late. I found Room 2 of my sleeping car and was greeted by "Wendel," the car attendant. The cars on this train were Superliner I cars; therefore, my sleeper did not have a name. I got settled into my room and tried plugging in my electric razor and Camcorder battery charger, but the outlets in my room were not connected, so there was no electricity. This was the first time I had encountered this on my trip this year. Two things are essential to have when I take my train trips -- my electric razor, and my Camcorder battery charger, which both require electricity to operate! My electric razor is one of those Norelco rechargeable razors, and can run for a few minutes if it has not been recharged, but if it remains uncharged, it will not work. And I normally have to change my rechargeable Camcorder battery packs a couple times each day. I asked Wendel about the electricity, and he didn't know how to get the electrical outlets in my room working, so volunteered to plug my razor and battery charger into an outlet behind the coffee pot in the middle of the car, where there was barely enough room for the coffee pot, sugar, and cream, let alone some passenger's private electrical accessories. We finally pulled out of Union Station at 11:15, only 3 hours late. I went to the lounge car to get one last drink before turning in for the night, and found the lounge car had already closed for the evening.
In the morning I woke up somewhere around Atmore, Alabama, and estimated we were approximately 3 1/2 hours late. Upon departing Pensacola, I verified that we were actually 3 hours 40 minutes late. I found my usual perch in the Sightseer Lounge as we were crossing Pensacola Bay, and the lounge was rather empty this morning. I continued my video as we passed through the Florida Panhandle. There are a lot of trees blocking most views as the train travels through the Panhandle, so the video quality was again not as good as on other legs of this trip. And there were very few other passengers to talk to. As we pulled into both the Crestview and Chipley stations, just as I was beginning my video narration of where we were, how late we were, and what we were seeing, one of the rather loud fellow passengers came to me and began questioning me about my video camera or about my route maps, thus interrupting my narration. We left Crestview 3 hours 47 minutes late, and departed Chipley 3 hours 54 minutes late. A note to readers: There is a very interesting painted mural on a garage wall across from the Chipley station on the north, showing a old-fashioned train pulling into a station -- it's quite colorful and enjoyable....
The only other passengers who were sitting near me in the Sightseer Lounge were a Spanish-speaking family. I don't know what kind of funny stories they were laughing about in Spanish, but wish I did. The Sightseer Lounge remained relatively empty all morning. By the time we had left Tallahassee, we were 3 hours 24 minutes late, so had apparently "made up some time" since leaving Chipley. I often don't really believe that any AMTRAK train ever "makes up time," but that is what the unwary passenger is led to believe, due to extra "padding" that is usually put into AMTRAK schedules. It is important to the traveling public, as well as to AMTRAK itself, that trains run on time as much as possible. Yet railroad speed limits cannot be changed, and there are always delays due to freight traffic as well as to extra time required for loading and unloading passengers at stations. To "cover up" tardiness, AMTRAK often adds anywhere from 10 extra minutes to one extra hour to the published timetable schedules, especially near the terminus of the routes and around major cities. For example, look closely at the current (winter 1999) schedule of the Sunset Ltd between Winter Park and Orlando, Florida - the distance between the two stations is approximately 5 miles; however, the entire route is through an urban area, with 0 non-grade crossings (overpasses or underpasses). The speed limit is rather slow, and the area is quite urbanized. The eastbound schedule of the Sunset (toward Orlando) allows 35 minutes to travel the 5 miles, yet the westbound schedule (from Orlando) allows only 18 minutes for the same distance, traveled over the same tracks! The New York to Florida schedules show the same pattern. Actual travel time is generally approximately 15 minutes.
Passing through Madison, Florida, I had lunch in the diner with the grandmother and her granddaughter who I had talked with in the New Orleans Metropolitan Lounge. We were again losing time, however, due to a couple slow orders (most likely due to freight traffic), and departed Lake City 4 hours 4 minutes late. I soon decided that I would not be taking very much more video on this trip, especially after Jacksonville. I had been traveling for 12 days, and had taken nearly 9 hours of video. I was on the fifth 2-hour tape, and decided that I would cut it off at 9 hours, which gave me approximately 6 minutes of tape left between here and Orlando. Besides that, I had already taped the scenery between Jacksonville and Orlando on the way up (See Part 1 of this travelogue for that first segment of this trip).
Normally, the Sunset backs into the Jacksonville station, going each direction. Due to the configuration of the tracks in Jacksonville, and the location of the Clifford Lane Station in the far north part of Jacksonville, the Sunset heads into the Jacksonville station from the same direction going both east and west. Approximately one half mile south of the station is a crossing diamond with wyes on two sides of it. The eastbound Sunset enters the Jacksonville area from the CSX line which leads from the downtown area to the west, and the trains entering Jacksonville from the south enter the area from the main line which goes south. Both lines merge a few miles south of Clifford Lane Station, therefore, enter the station from the same direction. Since the New York to Florida trains continue north or south on the main line, they leave the station heading the same direction from which they entered it. The Sunset, however, actually changes direction at Jacksonville, and leaves the station facing the direction from which it came. To do this requires a back-up move into the station from either direction. So the train normally wyes onto the track which crosses the main line just south of the station, crosses a highway, then backs up and traverses the other wye as it continues backing into the station. When the train leaves Jacksonville, it is then facing the right direction (south) to continue its trip to Orlando. On this day, however, the train did not back into the Jacksonville station, but went in forward, for what reason I do not know. In order to face the right direction to continue to Orlando, however, it backed out of the station, onto the same wye it normally uses, then reverses and headed forward across the other wye and onto the main line to the south.
We arrived in Jacksonville 3 hours 33 minutes late, and, as we were stopped, I stepped off the train to walk around for a few minutes, as I usually do. Wendel the car attendant was talking to another man on the platform by the door to our sleeper, and the man had a Golden Retriever on a leash. I assumed this man was a friend of Wendel's, maybe someone who lived in Jacksonville, who happened to be out for a walk with his dog when the Sunset pulled in, until I saw the dog climb up the steps and into the sleeper! This was rather odd, I believed, and most likely strictly against AMTRAK's policies. A few minutes later, Wendel had told me in private that his "friend" was actually an undercover policeman, and the dog was sniffing for drugs. Wendel had told me the crew had been "suspicious" of a couple young men in the sleeper who were several rooms behind me, and laughing and talking for some time now, mostly in Spanish. I think the policeman may have even asked me at one time if I saw a couple dark-haired young men walk off the train, and of course I hadn't. Apparently the drug-sniffing dog did not find anything, and the Jacksonville station was not immediately stormed with SWAT team members, so I guess the two suspicious characters did not have anything illegal with them.
The Sunset backed out of the Jacksonville station 3 hours 50 minutes late, and I began to prepare for arrival in Orlando. I had been traveling for 12 days, and was ready to get back home, at least for another year. I took very little video beyond Jacksonville, since I had already taped most of it, and I also stopped keeping track of our on-time performance at the intermediate stops. I stayed in the Sightseer lounge until DeLand, then went back to my room to pack up and get ready to go home. Between Jacksonville and Orlando, we passed the northbound Silver Meteor, Auto Train, and Silver Star, in that order. We arrived in Orlando at 7:20 PM, exactly 4 hours behind schedule, and I soon took a taxi cab home.
As usual, I enjoyed my 1998 trip. I have ridden on almost all the trains and routes in the AMTRAK system over the last 20 years or so, and always thoroughly enjoy them, in spite of temporary inconveniences like late trains and a few missed connections. Over the last few years, I have become pretty wise over schedules and routes, and have developed my "contingency plans" pretty well. When I first began riding AMTRAK trains back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, I often found myself making major schedule changes enroute due to missed connections, and completely messing up my original plans. Over the last few years, the train equipment has generally gotten better, the on-time performance has improved, and the crews have definitely improved, even though I sometimes run across a less than efficient crew, such as on the California Zephyr. I will probably continue to ride AMTRAK around the country as long as there is an AMTRAK, or until I get completely bored and burnt out, which may not be for several years yet! So my 1998 trip has now come to an end, and it is now January 1999 -- time to plan my 1999 train trip! I will probably have already done that by the time you read these submittals!
I hope you enjoyed my travelogue -- look for another travelogue in 1999! Thanks -- Rich Kimmel. Please e-mail me your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, and keep reading Train Web!