Miami to Los Angeles and return
The background on this trip is that for more than a year my wife and I have planned to take the Sunset Limited from coast to coast. We live in Miami, and I regret not having taken this train in the mid-90's, when it came all the way here from Los Angeles. However, it is a short hop to Orlando, so our goal was to travel in a deluxe sleeper from coast to coast, enjoy the sights of southern California, and return the same way. My wife is very indulging of her hubby's railfan enthusiasms, and has become quite the veteran train traveler. I salute her as she watches her husband become a little boy each and every time we board a train.
We were ticketed on the 12th of January, so this trip has truly been in the works for some time! Later I booked the remainder of the trip through Amtrak Vacations, a Chicago-based operation managed by Globetrotter Vacations, which has arrangements with Amtrak to provide travel-related services. If you have seen the beautiful Trip Planner magazine that Amtrak puts out each year, describing all its routes and the sites to see along each, as well as the attractions in the cities in which Amtrak stops, you have seen the promotions for Amtrak Vacations. If you plan such a trip, I cannot say enough about the professionalism of the staff at Amtrak Vacations, who offered superb service before and even during our trip. The package I chose included our stay at the lovely New Otani Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, our rental car from Union Station and tickets to a variety of attractions, including Disneyland, Universal Studios, a tour of Hollywood star homes, etc. It was extremely convenient to do all of this with a single phone call, and deal with travel agents who are Amtrak-conscious!
The Sunset Limited leaves three times a week from Orlando at 1:45PM. (When I booked the trip it still departed at 1:00PM.) The Silver Meteor leaves Miami daily at 7:00AM and gets into Orlando at just after 12 noon. With less than an hour's window at the time and less than ninety minutes under the current schedule, I would not recommend anyone time their connections so close. I certainly was not willing to take the chance of missing the Sunset Limited and having a deluxe sleeper from coast to coast, so we took the Silver Star up from Miami to Orlando the afternoon before, and spent the night at a motel near the station. When we boarded the train in Miami we were asked for photo ID--a new feature of train travel in the 9-11 world, though we were never again asked for ID at any point in our travels!
We showed the gate attendants our ID and proceeded to board. We were to ride in coach from Miami to Orlando, since it is only several hours. I wondered if the conductor would also ask for ID, so I kept my driver's license out with my wife's ticket and my Florida railpass. I placed these in the seat pocket in front of me. As it turned out, the conductor did not ask for ID, and I put away the tickets and my license--or so I thought.
No sooner than we arrived at the Travel Lodge in Orlando did I realize that I did not have my license. It was obvious that I had left it in the seat pocket on the train, which was en route for New York. I also knew that I would be talking with the lost and found at Penn Station in New York and that, even if the license were found and turned in there, it would do me no good when renting a car in Los Angeles! I had visions of my poor wife having to drive around southern California, following my directions read aloud from maps. While we certainly could have done this, I felt bad that she would have to take on this unanticipated task, which she would probably not find congruent with a supposedly relaxing trip. I generally plan our trips, and she has become accustomed to that. I also wondered what type of marital discord might conceivably arise with me in the passenger seat, map in hand, saying in a typically husband-like voice, "No! Not here--turn on the next street!"
I called the lost and found and left a message. All I could hope was that my license would be mailed back home. After a while my beautiful bride came up with a brilliant observation and idea: she pointed out that A) we were still in Florida, and B) our train did not depart until early afternoon. She suggested that in the morning I try to find a license bureau and obtain a duplicate license. Since I carry several forms of photo ID, this would not be difficult. I located the license bureau addresses in the phone book, though it took some effort to find out which location was closest to our hotel. In any event, I set out the next morning by cab and the place was all of fifteen minutes away. While at the bureau I found out that I was close enough to my renewal date that I could renew for an additional $15, and only THIRTY MINUTES later I was out of there with a new license valid until 2009! (Having a safe driver designation helped greatly expedite the process.)
The Cancellation of the Sunset Limited
After the great license caper, I went back to the motel and we had breakfast. When we returned I decided to call Amtrak just to check our train status, not expecting to be told anything by Amtrak's computerized voice "Julie" other than the train was departing on time. (One can usually count on Amtrak trains departing their original starting point on time--it is usually later that delays develop.) Surprise! Julie said, "Due to a service disruption on the line, I'm going to have to connect you to an agent." This, of course, is never good news. However, I expected that they would tell me that the train's departure would be delayed for several hours for whatever reason, something that did not greatly concern me.
The agent with whom I spoke put me on hold while she checked. When she came back, she hemmed and hawed quite a bit--clearly there was something she was trying not to tell me. Never would I have imagined what would follow. She read to me a prepared statement--it sounded like an AP news wire report--telling about a Union Pacific freight derailment between El Paso and Alpine, Texas that had occurred two days earlier. Passengers on the east and westbound Sunset Limited had to be bused or flown to their respective locations. I understood the report and how it had interfered with travel, particularly with train #2, at the time headed east to Orlando. Since the report did not mention damaged rails, I still was not clear on how this would affect our westbound train #1. After she finished the report, I asked how this affected us. She paused a few seconds and softly said, "Your train has been canceled." Clearly, she expected an explosion from me, but I was stunned; I simply responded, "What?" My wife was sitting on a nearby chair, reading a book throughout this exchange; she began to peek over the top. The agent repeated her statement and this time I parroted her words, so that my wife could hear what was happening. When I incredulously said aloud the words "Our train has been canceled?", her eyes opened wide, but then she went back to reading her book. I later found out that she was determined to remain quiet and calm until I either got off the phone or required wifely soothing to prevent an outburst while still on the phone. This was a wise choice on her part. However, being an experienced train traveler and knowing what I do about Amtrak operations, I realized that the freight derailment was not Amtrak's fault, and there was nothing Amtrak could do about it, since the tracks in Texas belong to Union Pacific. I remained calm throughout the entire ordeal, a fact that amazed and pleased my wife.
The agent explained that Amtrak had tried to reach me the day before. I responded that we had traveled up to Orlando (by train, no less) the day before, so as not to miss the connection. I always turn off our answering machine when we go away on long trips. I then said to the agent, "OK, I guess now is when you pass me to one of those well-trained managers who deals with stranded, frustrated passengers like us."
While being connected, I told my wife what had occurred. She, obviously, was as stunned as I was. Here was our entire vacation trip, a year in the planning, being taken out from under us. She later told me that she wondered at the time if we would go back to Miami and plan another trip or stay in Orlando and visit the sites there. The most adventurous part of her thought maybe we would travel on to New York and visit my sister. I, on the other hand, was immediately thinking of SOME lengthy train trip we would be immediately undertaking, be it San Francisco, Seattle, or wherever. I knew we would go SOMEWHERE, and that Amtrak would refund partial fares, if necessary. I also was pleased that we had used Amtrak Vacations, knowing that altering arrangements through them would be much easier, given their association with Amtrak.
The manager came on and I immediately identified myself as an Amtrak Guest Rewards member, a NARP (National Association of Rail Passengers) member, and someone familiar with train travel. I also warned her not to confuse my calm demeanor at the moment with someone who was going to be led blindly. I must say that she was up to the task. She was a polished professional, knew what to say and how to sound sympathetic, apologetic and helpful. She was most articulate, something which I thoroughly appreciated at the time. I worked for ten years for a major hotel corporation, and I know the managerial skills involved in this type of situation. This individual exemplified those skills.
She told me that Amtrak was prepared to refund my entire fare, even if it had been a non-refundable one. I asked about the Thursday Sunset Limited train #1. She explained that an all-clear had not yet been given for trains to proceed through the derailment area, though one was expected later that day or the following day, at the latest. Even assuming the all-clear was given, she explained, Thursday's sleepers were naturally sold out. She also mentioned that there were people from California and other western states that had to be transported back, whereas we were in our home state and had not yet commenced our travel on this reservation. (Miami-Orlando had been booked at a later date, and only for my wife, since I have a Florida railpass.) She checked further and found all deluxe sleepers on train #1 full through the first of August.
Knowing the routes, I quickly flipped through my timetable and said, "How about we take the Silver Meteor or Silver Star from Orlando to Washington, then the Capitol Limited or Cardinal to Chicago, then the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles"? She was surprised that I took it upon myself to suggest such an alternate route, but responded "That might work...Let's see what's available in deluxe sleepers." Here is where I expected that my scheme would not work--I figured that with three different trains, there was no way a deluxe sleeper would be available on each, in the middle of summer, at the height of train travel. She checked the Silver Meteor and told me that the only sleeper left was a handicapped room. Familiar with this accommodation on the Viewliner train, I readily accepted this. There was one night down. I figured the usually crowded Capitol Limited to Chicago would be the tough part, which was why I was willing to consider the Cardinal, if necessary. She said there was just one deluxe compartment left on the Capitol Limited. Oh boy--two trains down, one to go. She then checked the Southwest Chief and said the only sleeper left there was another handicapped room. Though I was less familiar with the Superliner's handicapped accommodation, I knew it would be roomy for the two nights involved on that leg, so I accepted. Wow--it looked like we would actually make this trip. We had previously been on the first two trains, but not the Southwest Chief, so this would be a neat opportunity to ride a different train and see other parts of the country. It would also serve as a sort of personal compensation, since I realized that we would not leave Orlando until the next day and would take an extra day to travel through the longer routing, ultimately arriving in L.A. two days later than originally planned.
The manager agreed to wait while I discussed this with my wife who, though still typically hidden behind her book, had followed my part of the phone conversation. The wonderful wife said that we would still have five days to visit L.A., and that rather than go elsewhere, it seemed sensible to proceed with our original trip in this way. The wifely assent being given, I went back on the phone and completed the rebooking. The manager seemed pleased that she was going to be able to resolve our situation successfully, which is probably more than could be said about many others. At least our file was going to be closed.
I mentioned that we had booked our trip through Amtrak Vacations and that I would be calling them to arrange for the later arrival at the hotel and rental car. To my surprise, the manager insisted on calling Amtrak Vacations herself and connecting us via three-way conference call, to ensure that my arrangements were properly modified. Wow--she really wanted to resolve this matter thoroughly! She did, and the Amtrak Vacations representative was as superb at handling the situation as Amtrak had. With me on the phone, she notified the hotel and rental car people of our later arrival, and credited me the amount for two fewer days' use of each service. It just cannot be handled any more successfully than this, and I am writing both Amtrak and Amtrak Vacations to thank them.
I got off the phone and reviewed our revised itinerary with my darling. We were both relieved. We also decided to stop by the Amtrak station later that afternoon and change the tickets then, rather than going earlier the next day. There were plenty of people who would have to be reticketed and we wanted to go at a less crowded time. That worked very well, and the agent at the station seemed pleased that we had done so. She also liked the fact that I had arranged the rerouting myself by phone, rather than saddling agents at the station window with this chore. With the extra time on our hands that day, my even more wonderful wife suggested that we visit the nearby Central Florida Historical Museum. (We are members of the South Florida one.) This turned out to be a wonderful experience.
Orlando-Washington via the Silver Meteor
This trip in handicapped sleeper H on train 98 was excellent. We were in the front most sleeper on the train, meaning that there was little traffic passing by our compartment. The attendant was Charles, an old time railroader. Our train was on time and all was well through bedtime.
The next morning, I noticed that we were well over two and a half hours late. We were not aware of any lengthy stops during the night, but we were tired from our adventures the previous day, so I guess we missed it. When we got to the dining car, the passengers were told by dining car steward Vincent that shortly after midnight the train had hit a car at a crossing. The car had tried to race the train and had become trapped between the crossing gates. The driver, fortunately, bailed out of the car, so no one was hurt. The usual delay followed, as police and fire personnel responded, and reports had to be made to the railroad.
We arrived into Washington two hours late, but this was no problem for our connection, which was not for another four hours. We enjoyed Washington Union Station, the finest in the country, with its elegant shops and restaurants. We shopped for some books and had lunch at the restaurant in the main lobby. After lunch we went to the Amtrak first class lounge, Club Acela, and waited for our train there. From Club Acela one is called for boarding ahead of other passengers, being led out a side door directly to the platform.
Washington-Chicago via the Capitol Limited
Train #29 was, as usual, booked to capacity. We rode in compartment B on an older Superliner. The interior of this sleeping car was still the old red/orange color scheme--very seventies. Lou was our attendant and was a most enthusiastic individual. This train was on time the entire way.
The children in the next compartment found the many tunnels on this route most interesting. They had never been west of Philadelphia, so this was quite an exciting trip. I enjoyed the chocolate truffle for dessert at dinner. Having ridden on this train, the Silver Star and the Crescent within the last month, the standard national menu is a downer, but the food is always good.
We arrived on time into Chicago Union Station, another grand old edifice. Like before, we had several hours before our next train, so we window-shopped and ate lunch. I took pictures of the station and videotaped the stairs where Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia tried to nab Al Capone's bookkeeper in The Untouchables. My wife rolled her eyes as I narrated the scene on my video, but no sooner than we finished than a young Asian woman came over and asked us to take her picture on the stairs, since a "famous movie" had been filmed there!
We finished the time in the first class lounge, which was typically crowded, given the Amtrak activity through the station. We checked our carry-on bag in the baggage room just down the hall from the lounge, at the direction of the lounge staff, since the baggage room in the lounge was so full. This was quite convenient and we were given time to retrieve the bag before boarding.
Chicago-Los Angeles via the Southwest Chief
Train #3 was also booked solid. We were in handicapped compartment H in a third sleeping car that had been added to the rear of the coaches. Behind our car were 28 freight and other cars! H is on the lower level of the cars, at the rear end, near the bathrooms.
The first thing we noticed as attendant Erika greeted us was that our sleeping car was behind four coach cars. This, alas, meant a long walk to the lounge and dining cars. This is frequently done during peak times, and prevents the train from having to be split in the middle, merely to add another sleeper. This train was the same train we had arrived on from Washington, as generally the Capitol Limited set becomes the Southwest Chief later in the day. The other thing we realized was that the Superliner handicapped room did not have a shower, as did the deluxe sleepers, though it was right next to the car's shower. The toilet and sink area in this lower level compartment are separated from the sets/beds by a long curtain, which was also less than desirable. But there naturally was plenty of room.
This train was amazingly punctual all the way through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. It fell behind about an hour through New Mexico and Arizona, and was ninety minutes late (not too bad) into L.A. Joseph in the dining car recognized me from being at a pharmacy around the corner from Chicago Union Station during our layover! Joseph ran many seatings for dinner on this train, the latest being 9:15. Since our compartment was at the downstairs rear of the last car on the train, we were last for dinner reservations call and are rather late.
An interesting mishap occurred as soon as we left for Chicago. When I heard the conductor coming, I set the tickets next to the seat, on the blue armrest, which is also the step to the upper bunk. Unfortunately, the tickets slipped down the millimeter-wide crevice between the step and the wall and there was no apparent way to see, let along retrieve, the tickets. Erika searched in vain for a wire hanger, but only plastic hangers could be located. In addition to the conductor's need of the tickets for accounting purposes, I needed the stubs for Guest Reward purposes, to prove that I had been on this train, since we had not originally been booked on this route. I did not want to lose the considerable amount of points that this leg of the trip was providing! Erika had a flashlight, though it was barely working. When the conductor came and I explained what had happened, he went and got a pry bar from the emergency kit. He literally forced the partition wall back from the step and, with the help of Erika's fading flashlight, I could at least see the tickets--along with an old menu, a timetable and who knows what else. However, there was certainly no room for even a small hand to reach in there.
Once again it was wife to the rescue. (Did she ever earn wife points on this trip!) She reached into her purse and pulled out a pen--but not just any pen. She pulled out my teacher's telescopic pointer pen, which extends to three feet long. Therefore, with Erika holding the light, the conductor prying the wall back and me with the pointer, I was able to scrape out the tickets, one at a time. Everyone was quite relieved.
Later that same day, another passenger from down the hall came to me and asked if we were the passengers who had lost something that the conductor had to use a special tool to retrieve. He then showed me how he and his wife had dropped an old stylus between the seat and the same step. This was even harder to reach than our tickets had been. I retrieved the pry bar from the emergency kit (I wasn't going to wait for the conductor or attendant this time) and my wife again supplied the telescopic pointer. The guy's wife put scotch tape on the end of the pointer and was able to retrieve the stylus--another happy ending!
As it turns out, the wife was also a teacher and ran a technology resource program in Chicago that I had researched several months earlier, for a graduate degree program. Small world!
Los Angeles-Orlando via the Sunset Limited
Finally, our trip in Los Angeles was over and we would head home on train #2. The train did not depart until 10:30PM, but we had to have the rental car back to the Hertz desk at Union Station by 6PM, or else return it at the airport, which would have been extremely inconvenient. Our hotel was four blocks from the station, so it was convenient to bring the car back there. We planned to return the car, have dinner at Traxx, a very nice restaurant in the station, and check out the newly renovated station and the subway station. If anyone has opportunity to be at Union Station, I strongly recommend Traxx. It is the only restaurant in the station and admittedly, it is not inexpensive, but the food and service are both excellent. Amy and Todd were great servers, knowledgeable about the menu, and generally outgoing, which I like in servers.
We called to board at 9:22PM, which is the earliest I have ever been called to board a train, one hour and eight minutes before departure. We were in compartment B in the second sleeping car and our attendant was Ken, who epitomized the old time rail attendant. He was courteous, polished, respectful and kept an eye out for us, which was good, since he would be with us for the next three days. Our car was a newer Superliner II, built in 1993 and recently refurbished, so it was nice. Ken had the beds already open for us and after having visited the Reagan Library in Simi Valley during the day, we were tired and happy to see the beds ready for us. Despite our early boarding and true to the Sunset Limited less-than-timely tradition, we did not leave until 11:40PM, as we maneuvered repeatedly to add freight cars to the back of the train. Of course, I was just pouring some cranberry juice in the refreshment area when the first set of cars was coupled; the jolt caused me to spill juice all over my shirt. But that is all part of the fun and adventure of train travel...
This train was also packed, with the greatest number of passengers going to New Orleans. Ironically, all five of the deluxe sleeper families in our car were going to Orlando. Next to us was a high-powered attorney who had quite an array of electronic toys with him, including a GPS-equipped laptop computer that precisely pinpointed our whereabouts on the North American continent. He could see where we were and then zoom in, à la Mapquest, to our exact location, down to the street and landmarks. He could tell us the speed of the train and how many miles/yards/feet we had until the next state line or anywhere else. Some system!
We headed east through the deserts of California, Arizona and New Mexico. As always happens on the Sunset Limited, the delays for freight trains were considerable. We saw literally hundreds of freight trains during the course of the trip. When we reached El Paso, we were already three hours late. We fully expected this and did not mind in the least. We were planning to spend the night in Orlando before returning to Miami, just as we had done when setting out.
Our departure in El Paso was delayed because of an incident in the dining car. We did not witness the beginning of it, but we arrived to see the latter part. An older couple that had 7:30 reservations came early and demanded to be seated. I do not know on what grounds they did this, but I was told that when they were refused service before their reservation time, the husband became quite belligerent and pounded on the table. We arrived to witness the latter part of the confrontation between the dining car steward Joy, a true professional, and these folks. I would have originally given the benefit of the doubt to the couple because of their age, but the man's intransigent behavior would not listen to reason--the couple declined to give up their seats and refused to leave the dining car. This refusal was inconveniencing many other passengers arriving for their 7:00 seating. The conductor was called, but the couple still refused to move. An Amtrak representative from the El Paso station boarded the train and attempted to reason with the couple, but they were defiant. They were not loud at this point, but their defiance was delaying the departure of this already late train. Next Union Pacific Police boarded (we were in a UP yard), and the couple was facing eviction from the train. The man even held out his wrists and told the officer to arrest him. Needless to say, those in the dining car were eager to have this incident end. The UP officer escorted the man from the dining car and I do not know what happened next, but the couple was ultimately spared being put off the train. They ate at the very end of the evening, after having caused an additional hour's delay. This couple was staying in our sleeping car.
From Houston to New Orleans the Trails on Rails volunteer (from National Park Service) was on board and provided commentary along the route. He and his wife are from New Orleans, so much of his talk promoted that town. He is a retired principal and teaches graduate school now, so I enjoyed talking with him.
Somewhere east of Houston, we stopped at a crossing. This was late at night, and I happened to be passing through the lounger car on my way to bed. I noticed that we were stopping at a crossing gate, at which a police car with its flashing lights was waiting. Remembering the car we struck while on the Silver Meteor, I jokingly said aloud, "OK, what did we hit now?" The other passengers explained that there was an unruly, intoxicated passenger on board, another fellow in our sleeping car (poor Ken!). Sure enough, two police officers boarded the train and removed the malefactor. Not bad--two police responses on one run.
By the next morning, we were six hours behind, which was still within what I had expected us to be. Then we began moving very slowly. The conductor came on and informed us that Tropical Storm Bertha was off the coast of Louisiana and a tropical storm warning had been issued. Under federal regulations, all trains within such an area must operate at 15MPH, which we did for the next three hours. This was quite a trip for our travel diaries, I thought. I also realized that we would not need to stay overnight in Orlando; we would probably end up arriving in the wee hours. I also suspected that we might end up detraining in Sanford, rather than Orlando. When the Sunset Limited is very late, this is sometimes done to save time, since the train normally drops passengers off on Orlando, then rides deadhead back up to Sanford (two stops, forty minutes away) for servicing. The next afternoon it does back to Orlando to begin its run. With an early morning arrival and a 1:45PM departure, I thought, Sanford is a likely possibility.
I kidded with both Ken and Joy about Sanford. I teased them that I would tell everyone on the late train that we would not even be detraining at Orlando. Joy is not regularly assigned to the Sunset Limited; she is a floater out of Los Angeles and divides her time between the Sunset Limited, the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight. She said both of the two previous times she rode this route she was very late, but had not detrained in Sanford. Ken knew this was a possibility, but did not admit it until later. Sure enough, as we prepared to go to sleep on our fourth night on the Sunset Limited, Ken said the decision would be made in Jacksonville, but that Sanford looked likely. At that point we were ten hours late. Either way he would awaken us. It was difficult to sleep, knowing that we would be getting up early, without knowing what time.
At 6:20 Ken knocked on our door, saying that we would arrive in 30-40 minutes. We wondered where we would detrain, but within five minutes we stopped at Deland, so I knew the next and final stop would be Sanford. As we stopped in Deland, the conductor came on an announced that the train would terminate at Sanford and that passengers would be bused to Winter Park and Orlando stations. He made this announcement very quickly, so much so that showering or even groggy passengers could easily have missed it.
A Martz bus was waiting for us when we arrived in Sanford. Our luggage was put on the bus for us and we were off. There was much traffic going into Winter Park, so that ride took forty minutes by itself, then it was another fifteen minutes to Orlando. We arrived there at 8:35, nearly twelve hours late, and six hours after I had expected us to arrive. However, for us this was no problem, since the Silver Star for Miami was due at noon. We checked our luggage and went for breakfast at the same diner we had eaten breakfast on the way out. The employees there remembered us and eagerly asked about our train trip. They did not get as nearly a detailed report as you all received! We even used the same taxi driver to get us back to the station, as we had kept his card.
Our trip in coach back to Miami was fine. A final reminder of the last part of the trip was provided when we crawled through Broward County, from Fort Lauderdale through the Miami-Dade County line. No reason was given for this, but when I heard the news that evening, I found out that a tornado had touched down in Hallandale. A tornado warning having been issued for the area, I then understood why once again we had been crawling.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip, even with its mishaps. We fully expected many things that occurred, and even the things that we did not expect merely added to the adventure. For better or worse, this is what one must expect when one travels on trains in American today. Perhaps when Congress decides to abandon the ridiculous notion that passenger rail should be profitable--when nowhere in the world is it profitable, and when private industry got out of American rail 30+ years for that very reason--we will see a change for the better. Perhaps when passenger rail ($521 million per year) is subsidized at rates similar to the airline ($6 billion) and auto ($4 billion) industries, we will have better service. In the meanwhile, I am amazed that Amtrak does as well as they do with the meager funding they receive. As in all areas, the better-informed one is and the more one knows what to expect, the easier time one has. We were informed and we knew what to expect, so we were able to relax, take in the sights and enjoy our fellow passengers. I, for one, am glad we took this trip.