A Trip & A Half on the Silver Star, Amtrak 91
April 13-14, 2003
I planned to join my wife in Florida so this was an opportunity to add some new trains to my list. I was going to travel from Philadelphia to Sanford, FL on Amtrak 91, meet my wife, have lunch in Sanford then travel back North with my wife on Amtrak 98 to spend several days visiting Savannah, GA. This plan did not work out the way I intended.
I started out Sunday morning driving to a friend's house in Malvern, PA where I was going to leave my car and catch a Septa train into 30th Street station in Philadelphia. This worked fine. Septa was on time and Amtrak 91 was early into Philadelphia. The consist included an electric engine, a crew car, two sleepers, diner, café car, four coaches, and a baggage car on the rear. No roadrailers attached. A second motive for this trip was to experience traveling and sleeping in coach. I discovered that Amtrak assigns seats in these reserved coaches as one boards. I wonder if you can specify a seat when you book? We left on schedule at 1:50 PM. The train made good time on Amtrak's main line to Washington, with stops in Wilmington, DE and Baltimore, MD. In Washington the electric engine is replaced with a diesel for the remainder of the trip. Ours was Genesis 172. During the exchange, the train is without head-end power so no air conditioning or bathroom flushing. We remained without power for about 30 min; much longer than it took to swap engines. I wonder why Amtrak does that? I am glad it was April and not August! After they restored power, about 90 coach passengers were boarded almost filling the four coaches.
We departed Washington about 20 minutes late. The car attendant came through soon handing everyone a pillow and taking reservations for dinner. I chose the 7:00 PM seating. After stops in Alexandria and Richmond, VA, I went forward to the diner and was pleased to join three ladies from Savannah who were happy to discuss their hometown with me. I had the special for dinner: beef short ribs with green beans and a baked potato. The ribs were very tender and had good flavor. The beans were plain. It is so easy and inexpensive to give vegetables some extra flavor, which would have improved the meal. The scenery south of Washington is a mix of farms, small towns and wooded stretches. The Florida service trains on Amtrak travel mainly in the flat coastal plain from New York to Miami. No mountain, lake or ocean vistas here. After we departed Raleigh, NC about 40 min. late, I got out my pillow, blanket and eyeshade and went to sleep. I think I actually slept if somewhat fitfully until I awoke because the train had stopped. It was just after 2:00 AM when I looked out the window to see if I could identify the station. All I saw was woods.
A purchase I made before my first long train trip in 1999 was a scanner. It has been interesting to listen in to the train crew's conversation and the equipment defect detectors. Most of the times in the past, conversation is minimum, car spotting at stops, slow orders, block status confirmations, etc. On my westbound trip in 2001 on the Amtrak Cardinal, I listened in as the train crew arranged a stop in rural Virginia alongside the eastbound Cardinal so that our dining crew could pick up some frozen hash browns from the other train. On this trip, the scanner was about to become a prime tool.
Since I was now awake and the train was stopped out in the middle of rural country, I got out the scanner and tuned in. It turned out that Amtrak 91 was stopped by some sort of control malfunction in the Genesis engine on a single-track section of CSX road near Bethune, SC. 91 was blocking the track for CSX freights and also for Amtrak 92, the northbound sister train. Amtrak 92 apparently was allowed to move into the same block as 91 because it had two Genesis engines in its consist. As I tuned in, the crews had uncoupled 92's lead Genesis engine 87, coupled it backwards to 91's engine 172 and were trying to get them to work as a pair. Apparently, the control problems on engine 172 would not let this pairing work, so the engineer on 87 took control and convinced the CSX dispatcher and the Amtrak dispatcher to allow him to attempt to back 91 about 7 miles to a siding in Bethune where he could drop the malfunctioning engine. The conductor made her way to the rear of the baggage car at the end of the train to be the eyes of this backing operation. It must have been quite a sight for anyone up and on the road at this hour to see an Amtrak passenger train backing slowly past a road crossing! The backup was an adventure as one of the control problems on Genesis 172 caused it to go into emergency stop every few minutes. We finally arrived in Bethune. The CSX dispatcher wanted to put 91 on the siding but the engineer refused as the siding was not known to be approved for a revenue train. Genesis 172 was uncoupled, placed on the siding and shut down. Genesis 87 was recoupled to 91 (still in reverse direction) and 91 was backed another 7 miles to McBee, SC where there was some double track and a wye. Genesis 87 was uncoupled again and started around the wye. Amtrak 92 quickly proceeded north past 91 on the double track. Both trains were now 6+ hours late. After 92 got past, the now reversed Genesis 87 came by 91 on the double track, recoupled to 91 and we started south again. By now it was 8:00 am so I went to the diner for breakfast. The diner crew was a bit harried as the train had been without power all the various times the engines were being shuffled about. After a lukewarm breakfast, I returned to my seat having decided to get off at Savannah and await my wife's arrival on Amtrak 98 that evening. Being 6+ hours late would put me into Savannah around 11:30 AM.
At about 10:00 AM the train went into emergency stop. I quickly got out my scanner and heard the engineer say that he had just hit a pickup trying to beat the train at a protected rural crossing somewhere north of Denmark, SC. I knew that meant at least another couple of hours delay as the various emergency responders arrived and did their thing. This train crew was having quite a shift! I was impressed with their professionalism as they handled these two crises. I also realized that a third problem was about to hit 91. The crew's eight hour mandatory time was up and we would have to wait for a replacement crew. Finally, about 2:00 PM, a new conductor came by and soon 91 started south again now 10 hours late! I arrived in Savannah at 3:30 PM just several hours ahead of my wife.
My fellow passengers, most of whom were going to Florida destinations, were not pleased with the 10-hour delay. Amtrak did not help the situation as during the engine problem in the middle of the night, the car attendants were asleep in the crew car and the train crew were all trying to swap engines, back up 15 miles, etc. so there was no one to talk to the passengers. Amtrak seems to have eliminated the crew chief position on these trains. The car attendants did provide accurate and timely information after the mid-morning crossing accident but they had lost the trust of most of the passengers by then. It is amazing how self-centered we humans can become. Passengers were complaining about all sorts of things because the train was delayed while some poor person (or more) just lost their life when the train hit their truck and an Amtrak engineer was going to have to deal with the mental anguish of being involved with this.
I was probably one of the few passengers who knew what really had been going on but could not tell anyone. I enjoyed watching the situation progress both on the part of the crew and the passengers. It was sad to see them drift apart without proper and timely communication by Amtrak.