I made reservation for the Silver Palm from Dillon, SC, to Baltimore, MD, round trip in January. Originally, I had planned on a Viewliner compartment as I can always work during the trip in the private room. Because of the short trip I settled for a coach seat. I was glad I did, as the sleeper and diner were taken off the Silver Palm (Nos. 89 and 90) a week before.
On Tuesday May 21st, 2002, I called the 800 number to check train status. Because of awards day at our children's school my wife had to leave me at the station at 8:45 AM. The friendly voice on the 800 number informed me that the train was running one hour and ten minutes late. I settled down in the waiting room in the Dillon station and did some work. At 9:15 I called the number again and found the train was now one hour and forty minutes late. Joined by a few other passengers, we lingered on until the train finally arrived at 11:14 am. This is one hour and forty-six minutes late now.
The consist was two P40/42's, one in the new Acela Scheme the other in the Northeast direct red white and blue stripe scheme. The locomotives lead two express boxcars, a heritage baggage, a business class coach, café, three more coaches, and two or three express cars at the end. I was disappointed not to see the Viewliner or the diner. I learned later that because of budget cuts the cars had been taken off the train. Another story said that the cars came off because of an equipment shortage. All I could think of was the advertisements on the web page and in the travel planner for the Silver Service.
I sat down on a very hard and dirty seat in one of the dirtiest and most ill maintained Amfleet cars I had ever encountered. The walls were grimy, seats were falling apart many of which the covers had pulled away from their seams exposing stuffing. The carpet had a black footpath worn in it and the restrooms were one level down from a port-a-potty. The train then crawled out of Dillon and didn't pick up much speed until a little before Fayetteville, N. C. where we made our next stop. The entire trip was this way. The train would crawl along at about 40 miles and hour, work up to a good speed of at least 80 MPH, and then stop.
The friendly older man from Newark, NJ, who sat beside me told me that some passengers were moved up into our car when there were mechanical problems with one in the back. He said the car had been left somewhere in Georgia.
Passing through Selma, NC, the Carolinian was waiting for us to get through on the curve. When we finally arrived in Richmond now two hours late, the Carolinian pulled onto the track beside up two minutes later. This very long frustrating trip grew even longer when we left Richmond, Virginia. The next stop was Alexandria and knowing the reputation for the old R.F. & P. main line, I knew we were sure to make up time. That was not the case. We encountered a number of freights north of Richmond. Then after Fredericksburg, Virginia, encountered Virginia Railway Express trains. Every bridge over every river had been reduced to one track so we sat and waited for commuter and then freight trains to clear before we could cross. The stop in D.C. was announced to be a short one but we were there a good 15 minutes. Our eventually arrival into Baltimore was two hours and twenty minutes behind schedule.
O.K. so the lateness and continued delays were frustrating but the crew on this train added to everyone's frustration. It began with the café attendant. She called every customer "Hone". I stepped in line behind two elderly people riding business class. When they were done I ordered the salad, a bottle of water and a package of M&M Peanuts. She put the Salad and the M&M Peanuts onto the cardboard tray and told me the cost. When I asked for a receipt she got flustered but eventually fond her receipt pad. "What about the water?" I asked. "You can get that in the coach, Hone. You're in Business class aren't ya." She said as a statement not a question. "No I'm not." I said. She quickly placed a bottle of water on my tray and then told me how much more I had to pay.
The Conductor conducted most of his business at the back table in the dining area of the Café. When passengers asked him if the train would make up any of the lost time he quickly said, "When wez get ta D.C. we'll get back on card." I knew what meant, but I also knew from the puzzled expressions and comments made out of the conductors hearing that the other passengers didn't understand, were more frustrated than I, and had very little respect for this man.
The service attendant for my coach was almost the same. He only appeared shortly before the train came to a stop. He never offered to help anyone with luggage, and told one man who needed some help, "There's only one of me and a lot more of you."
I got off the train in Baltimore thinking that I might book a flight home. The late arrival made me miss the clerk at the rental car office so the cab driver took me on to the hotel. This also meant that I had lost my car for the four-day stay. The older gentleman who rode in the seat beside me on the train continually said, "I'm writing to complain after this trip. They'll send me a travel voucher if I do. I would fly next time if it weren't for this ear problem I'm having." I also planned to complain which was a first for this veteran Amtrak passenger.
Baltimore MD - Dillon, SC, 5-25-02
On May the 25th, I checked out of my hotel and went to Penn Station at about 9:30 AM for an 11:45 departure. There was a good deal of press about terrorist threats to the railroads so I wanted to be at the station early should there be any security delays. That was a waste of my time as other then seeing two Amtrak Police on the platforms, things were Business as usual.
I checked my luggage and explored the station after stopping at Guest Services to register my complaint about Tuesday's trip. I was told to call the toll free number. I think I'll just send a copy of this. I found a nice café and grabbed a breakfast sandwich and juice. Then I found a stairwell to the light rail line. After using a taxi from and too the station, I discovered I could have walked two blocks from the hotel and gotten to Penn Station on this system for about $2.00. A train arrived and departed about every 15 minutes each carrying "BWI" on its letter board. From a small bench on that platform I watched the Amtrak and MARC action. Three Acela Express trains a good many Amtrak Regional trains came and went in the two hours I sat down stairs. The Crescent was running 40 minutes late and I was bound and determined to see its consists. At 11:10 it came into the station and I was happy to see it still had two sleepers and its diner as well as a good many coaches and mail.
Here's a cost issue I think Amtrak needs to address. Of the many different trains I saw equipment in so many different paint schemes. There was the old Red White and Blue stripe, the Northeast Direct big Blue and little red and white stripe, the Acela scheme and this horrible green and white scheme. Constantly changing the schemes and selecting those truly strange green and white schemes has to be costly. Why not paint the locomotives gray with a black roof and write Amtrak in large enough to read letters on the side with an engine number somewhere. Leave the cars silver-they are after all stainless steel for the most part and put Amtrak in Black letters somewhere and a car number or name on a plate somewhere. Sure this would be less expensive to do initially and surely less expensive to maintain than all those wild stripes. Oh, and the trains would appear to represent a unified organized company as opposed to a the very confusing mix of brand names that makes one wonder what Amtrak is trying to say about itself.
Here's where things got better. The Silver Palm #90 arrived in Baltimore on time and left for Washington on time. The consist was again two P40/42's, an express car, heritage baggage, business coach, café, and four coaches, I couldn't see the end of the train but there was a considerable amount of express on the rear. Arriving in Dillon I counted six express box and eight RoadRailers. I sat down in a clean coach but it was still in its original 1970's appearance. After we got moving I went to the café for lunch. The car ahead of mine had been newly decorated in a nice blue and lighter blue color scheme with wallpaper rather than carpet on the bulkheads. I used the bathroom during this trip and found it to be newly decorated using the same blue colors and wall paper. The café had also been refurbished. It had the dining area at one end and one of those glass enclosed smoking areas at the other.
The service hostess and the conductor were both there and each was friendly and polite. The entire crew on this trip was wonderful. I noticed that both the conductor to D.C. and the one that replaced him after D.C. continued to walk the length of the train from time to time. The fellow after D.C. actually took trash from passengers and put it in the trash containers for them. He would stop and chat with people and always gave an understandable answer to people when asked a question. The car attendant for my coach was also very personable. He made jokes with passengers, walked through the car during the trip and on one occasion I saw he had a trash bag in his hand. Then I observed him changing the trash container at the end of the coach. These men and women apparently enjoyed their jobs and wanted the train to be kept neat and clean. Announcements came early as to arrival locations. Passengers were helped with luggage. Even when we were put on a siding to wait the conductor made an announcement, but ended it when we started moving before he was finished. People like to know what is going on and when the crew communicates with the passengers it makes the trip much less stressful.
This train continually lost time. Between D.C. and Richmond there were many delays and at points the train crawled along and sat waiting for other trains to pass. The same problems occurred but less frequently through southern Virginia and North Carolina. My final arrival into Dillon, SC, was one hour and ten minutes late. That didn't seem to bother me as much and I think it was because of the crew. Also noteworthy was the condition of many of the stations through North Carolina. Wilson, Rocky Mount, Selma (we didn't stop just passed by) and Fayetteville, all have been refurbished and the area of town around the station has also seen renewal. These are positives that Amtrak can capitalize on in the south.
The Silver Palm didn't seem so silver without it's sleeper and diner. The condition of the equipment on the northbound run and the poor ability on the part of the train crew made this round trip less than average on a satisfactory scale for me. Trains need to be run on time and all of the equipment needs to be refurbished. I read today that Viewliners are being taken off of other trains and that the Silver Meteor and Silver Star are both carrying three sleepers in their consist. How about allocating just one back to the Silver Palm. Half of the journey is at night through Georgia and Florida, a sleeper is appropriate.
[Editor's Note: The name of the Silver Palm was changed to "Palmetto" later in 2002. The Viewliner Sleeping Cars previously on this train were being used to equip the Cardinal while it's former Superliner equipment was transferred to the Auto Train. All these changes were the result of Amtrak's severe financial condition in mid-2002 plus derailment damages to various equipment.]