Florida-New Orleans-Chicago Trip 2003
April 16-27, 2003
Kevin poses outside the SUNSET LIMITED dining car while the train paused at the Jacksonville
My son Michael and I took our annual trip to Florida. In 2002, we splurged for the AUTO TRAIN. However, this year, with the age of my car a major factor, and the desire to include places away from the East Coast on this trip, I decided we would use the conventional trains once more.
I scheduled our trip so that we would depart on April 16th, Michael's last day of school before his spring vacation. We would arrive home on the last day of his vacation, Sunday April 27th.
As it turned out, my car did not make it past the first week of March, so I purchased a new car that could have made the trip to AUTO TRAIN in Virginia and within Florida. However I had already made my plans to use AMTRAK's Silver Service and trains to and from the Midwest.
I am always looking for something new to do each year, so the Florida trips do not become monotonous. I decided that this year we would come back via New Orleans and Chicago, riding the CITY OF NEW ORLEANS for the first time. The advantage of being in Chicago also meant that I could do some preliminary scouting for an upcoming RailFest in the city that will take place in July, without making a special trip to Chicago. The Thursday Florida departure of the thrice-weekly SUNSET LIMITED worked well for us, and it would also conveniently put us in Chicago on a Saturday.
Meanwhile, AMTRAK held a sale during the winter months, which allowed a companion to go free with the purchase of a full price ticket. While Michael usually goes for half of the AAA rate (and I pay the adult AAA rate), having me pay full fare and Michael paying nothing worked out much better. For the trip on Train 97 down to Florida, this deal was blacked out because it was considered a peak holiday period. However for the entire trip back from Orlando to New Orleans to Chicago and back to the East Coast, Michael could travel for nothing. It was too good to pass up, so I had made and paid for my reservations by the end of January. The fare for the two of us between Chicago and Philadelphia was so cheap in my opinion that I chose to book a sleeper for this segment of our trip.
My original intent was to rent a car in Orlando, and drive us to and from my parents' home in New Port Richey. This would have not only freed them of the duty of picking us up and driving us to Tampa Union Station, it also would have allowed us to bypass the two-hour bumpy bus ride on I-4.
For several reasons, I was unable to rent a car, and the original plan had to be slightly altered. My parents offered to pick us up in Orlando upon our arrival on the SILVER METEOR. While this was very generous, it would have put them in rush hour traffic in Orlando, plus more traffic around the theme parks during a peak season. After consulting the timetable, I arrived at a compromise. I asked them to pick us up in Winter Haven instead, which is 56 extra miles by rail for us, and much less driving for my parents. Thus we would meet west of the theme park traffic and not in a major city. In April, a few weeks before the trip was to start, I purchased tickets for Orlando-Winter Haven (which worked out to under $11 for the two of us), and also booked the Thruway bus back from Tampa to Orlando for Thursday, April 24th.
I then made plans to do some travel on my own, leaving Michael with his grandparents. I chose to go up to Jacksonville once more, as I have not ridden the complete Skyway monorail system since it was expanded across the river. I would have to take the Thruway bus from Tampa to Orlando, the northbound SILVER STAR to Jacksonville, and then reverse the procedure the next day. I booked a hotel in downtown Jacksonville that is along the route of the Skyway.
Now besides all that planning, and the worries about renting a car and taking my side trip, I also had to find a cat sitter for the first time ever. Our cat, Fluffy, is 12 years old, but on previous long trips we had been able to leave her with a relative. With my parents in Florida and my brother having moved to California recently, we had nobody. Fluffy does not do well when she goes to the vet, so I would not be able to kennel her because they require pets to have certain shots before they will accept them. The only alternative left was to leave Fluffy at home and have a pet sitter come into our house. The one I found happens to be a veterinary technician, so I knew she would be in good hands.
All plans were finally in place a week before our April 16th departure. All that remained was executing our long-planned vacation.
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Part 1: NJ TRANSIT Train #4620, Cherry Hill, NJ to Philadelphia, PA
After Michael got home from school, we went through our last-minute frenzy to pack, and left home hoping we did not forget anything. On our way southwest to Cherry Hill, we stopped in Burlington Center to have dinner at a Chick-Fil-A. We arrived in Cherry Hill, and after negotiating the traffic on Route 70, I parked my car for its very first long-term stint in the NJ TRANSIT lot at the station.
It was the common drill of two trains scheduled within three minutes of each other at the Cherry Hill station. First, an Atlantic City-bound train came in. Most of the people waiting in the station boarded this train, 4621. It then had a left-handed meet just west of the station. Our train 4620 then came in, and we boarded. I noticed that both our train and the one just before it had just two Comet IV coaches; they have in the past had three or as many as four coaches, and only recently have they been upgraded to Comet IV's. As always, on each train the GP-40 engines were on the Philadelphia end of the train. As the train rolled into the station, the lone on-board crew member was a female conductor. That was the first and last time we saw her.
Our trip into Philadelphia was uneventful. It was so uneventful that our conductor never found her way back to the second coach to collect our tickets. She had to know we had boarded in Cherry Hill if she was watching the platform to close the doors. The train was very sparsely patronized, so there was no excuse for her not to collect our fares. That is four dollars of revenue NJ TRANSIT did not get: $2.75 for me and $1.25 for Michael, who goes for the reduced fare on weekdays. Our NJT train arrived in Philadelphia on Track 2 of 30th Street Station a few minutes early due to padding.
Once we were in the station, I purchased a cookie from a vendor in the waiting room to top off my recent dinner. The Solari board in the station was a mess; most trains coming from the north were seriously late, one as much as three hours late from Boston. I hoped our train would be able to originate from New York City on time. We then went upstairs to the Club Acela.
Part 2: Club Acela, Philadelphia, PA
We would be riding the SILVER METEOR in Coach Class, and thus we would not normally be eligible to use the Club Acela. I had a coupon to use, thanks to my AMTRAK Guest Rewards Select status. We went upstairs, and I showed the attendant my coupon. He allowed us in, but said that normally I would need to use one coupon per guest. The guy was nice and let us stay, but he said that others might ask me for two coupons to allow both of us admittance. I was under the impression that it was one coupon per party, which would have allowed Michael to use the Club Acela as well on my coupon. .
We spent our time watching television and consumed our complimentary soft drinks and snacks. I also had the cookie I had purchased earlier, and briefly used the personal computer. E-mail takes no vacation!
Alan Burden e-mailed my cell phone to inform me that Train 97 had left New York on time. However, we later heard an announcement from the Club Acela attendant that the SILVER METEOR, due to leave at 8:37 PM, would be about 15 minutes late.
Part 3: Boarding Fiasco
At about 8:50, another announcement told us to gather by Elevator 3, which leads to the platform for Tracks 5 and 6. A Redcap took us down the elevator with about eight other people. The others were all headed for the sleepers. We were told to wait between Locations E and F on the platform, while the rest went up to where the front of the train would be stopping. We were the only coach passengers on the platform at this time.
Then the cattle call was made in the station, and the people from the station were being allowed down the stairs and escalators onto the platform. As we stood underneath the sign for Location F, the other coach passengers formed a line behind Michael and me. I figured this was good. We would get the first choice of seats of the people boarding in Philadelphia.
It was about 8:55 when the train pulled into the station on Track 6. When the train stopped, we were between open doorways. Some ran back to a spot between Locations D and E, and Michael and I went to a closer door that was between Locations F and G. There was another Redcap there loading some bags onto the train, and an attendant who ignored us. Finally the Redcap told us to go back to the other door up between Locations D and E, where by now everyone else who was on line behind us had already boarded. Having been the first coach passengers on the platform, we were now the last to board.
I handed the conductor on the platform four tickets: a Philadelphia-Orlando ticket and an Orlando-Winter Haven ticket for each of us. The conductor, seeing two of us, said "Two?" I responded, "Yes." He then said, "No, four. I have four tickets here." I told him to read the tickets, and he finally understood that our ultimate destination was Winter Haven. After all of that, the attendant here luckily still had two seats together for us, and he sent us to Seats 13 and 14 in the second of the four coaches.
Once again, my biggest complaint about long distance train service is the boarding process. Time and time again there is mass confusion between members of the crew, the conductor, the station personnel, and the passengers as to where passengers should be seated on the train where they board. Compounding the problem are passengers who don't understand that the attendants have charts showing which seats are occupied, the destinations of those passengers, and which are not yet occupied. When they move, and fail to inform the attendant, other passengers boarding down the line are then sent by the attendant to a seat that is now occupied. This is a recurring problem that needs to be fixed soon.
Part 4: The SILVER METEOR, Train 97(16), Philadelphia, PA to Winter Haven, FL
While standing watching most of the SILVER METEOR come into the station and overshoot the line of passengers, I got almost its entire consist. The only one I did not see was the rear coach. I also knew we would get a diesel engine in Washington, but I figured I would get the information during the Jacksonville stop the next day. I will list the entire consist as it ran from New York to Washington here:
922 AEM-7 locomotive 930 AEM-7 locomotive 1751 Mail/Baggage 2517 Heritage crew dorm 62004 Viewliner sleeper "Beach View" 62008 Viewliner sleeper "Eagle View" 62034 Viewliner sleeper "Sea View" 8527 Heritage diner (Timoinsa rebuild) 28000 Amfleet II lounge "Miami Club" 25060 Amfleet II coach 25031 Amfleet II coach <- * 25018 Amfleet II coach 25029 Amfleet II coach * We were here
Well our seats were available, but somebody had been sitting there. We knew, because there was no place to put our luggage on the rack above the seats. Besides suitcases, there was an overnight bag and a tennis racquet above the seat we were issued. I grumbled about this, but nobody seemed to lay claim to these items. I was able to stuff Michael's suitcase above me standing up, thus blocking in the bag and the tennis racquet behind it. I had to go to the rear of our coach, more than four rows back, and place my suitcase in the overhead area in a spot where there were no seats. I was nervous about leaving it there, and I kept on checking to make sure it was still there. I noticed we had a coach with the television monitors overhead, but they would never be used during our trip.
Our train departed Philadelphia at 9:04 PM, 27 minutes late. As we moved down the Northeast Corridor, our deficit only got worse. At Wilmington we were half an hour late. Then at Baltimore, there was even more boarding confusion. It was obvious that the coach passengers were told where to stand, and then they were confused when the door the crew decided to open was not in the vicinity of where they were standing. The people all walked in one direction, and then at some point they all turned around and walked the other way. Clearly we lost more time, as the passengers were not properly guided to the correct place. When we departed from Baltimore, we were 32 minutes off the advertised.
Twenty minutes later, as we were at milepost 120, between the BWI Airport and New Carrollton stations (this train stops at neither of them), the train came to a stop. The engineer reported striking some "debris" in the gauge. He called the incident in to a dispatcher while the train's conductor walked the train to look for any problems. The engineer did not think he had hit a trespasser. Six minutes later, the conductor told the engineer to pull down about ten cars, so he could check the train as it went by him and then do a brake test. At 10:53 the conductor was back on the train, and he gave the OK to proceed.
Before we arrived in Washington, our attendant, James, announced that after we leave Washington we would pass through a tunnel and our coach might fill up with smoke. He said that this is normal and there is nothing to worry about. Presumably passengers have been alarmed by diesel smoke in the Capitol Hill tunnel. We stopped at Union Station, Track 26, at 11:12 PM.
While sitting in Union Station, on my scanner I also heard banter about one passenger who needed to transfer from the eastbound CARDINAL to our train. They said that Number 50 was expected to be out of Alexandria at 11:25. Since Train 97 does not stop in Alexandria, the transfer would have to be made in Washington.
At 11:15 PM, passengers began to arrive at trainside from the station. By this time all four coaches were almost full. This was a problem for those boarding who wished to sit together. I heard James groan when a party of eight people arrived. He told them he would have to seat them in different places. He was able to seat four of them relatively close together, and the rest were interspersed in single seats in other coaches.
It was during our Washington layover that a woman from across the aisle, who was traveling with her husband and two sons, tried to get at the overnight bag that I had blocked in with Michael's suitcase. Since she had not jumped to move it when we boarded and I had exhibited my displeasure back in Philadelphia, I made no move to help her. She eventually moved it and got her overnight bag free, and then moved it to the other overhead rack across the aisle where it should have been in the first place. A few minutes later, I went back and got my suitcase from the rear of the train, and put it over my head where it should have been. I'd rest easier knowing it was close by.
At 11:23 PM, the originating passengers were on board, and the baggage crew had finished their work at the rear of the train. The engine change had been completed. We still had to wait though, because we still had one connecting passenger coming off the CARDINAL. It arrived over on Track 23, behind P-42 engine #127. A station employee escorted him across the track area, instead of having us wait for him to go upstairs and then down.
We finally departed from Washington, DC at 11:40 PM, 41 minutes down. We would never recover that time. By this time, most passengers had gone to sleep. At this point I went looking for my sleeping pills, but was unable to find them. I therefore thought that I hd forgotten them. (They did turn up later!) I can survive without them, but they've been my recent secret to success in getting decent sleep in uncomfortable coach seats. I certainly was tired enough to sleep without them, but it does not take much to keep me up.
My problem was not the snoring going on all around me, but the two women two rows back who were talking about dogs. These two were yapping for at least an hour about their pedigree dogs, what kind of pets they make, what they feed them, how much they cost, etc. They had no idea that they were the last two people in the coach who were talking, and they their conversation might be annoying to others.
Nevertheless, I was able to fall asleep soon after we entered Virginia. I don't remember much overnight, except briefly waking up during our Richmond stop. My sleep was on and off all night, mostly on. Seven slightly broken hours of sleep is really not all that bad compared to my normal routine.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
Part 5: The SILVER METEOR, Train 97(16), Philadelphia, PA to Winter Haven, FL (continued)
When I awoke a little past 7 AM, we were stopped. There were no announcements why we were stopped, but I figured we were waiting for something.
From this point on, I had no scanner. I had purchased a new scanner online from JC Penney's website, but with everything going on, I did not have time to open the box and learn about it. I just threw the sealed box in my bag (along with a package of AA batteries), and figured I would set it up on board and use it right away. I admit to not checking out the instructions, and I should have read them before utilizing the appliance. What I did not know is that the new scanner uses Nickel-Cadmium batteries, not regular ones. Like a cellular phone, it has to initially charge for 12-14 hours before it can be used. I didn't do that, so by the time we had gotten close to Washington last night, I was getting indications that the batteries were weak. I had no outlet in my old Amfleet II coach to recharge the scanner, so I had to do without it throughout the rest of this trip.
Therefore I had no idea why we were sitting idle. My answer came in the form of a passing train to our left, which was Train 90(16), the northbound PALMETTO. One of the attendants, the female one who had ignored me at Location G in Philadelphia last night, told somebody that we were just north of Florence, SC. I had figured we would be further down the line by then. We began rolling south at 7:27 AM, and nine minutes later we arrived into Florence. We had to make a double spot there, and by the time we finally departed at 7:46 AM, we were one hour 22 minutes behind schedule.
It was during the Florence layover that Michael and I decided to go get breakfast. We had a choice of lounge car fare, or the diner. I decided we would splurge and try out breakfast in the dining car, so we went forward. I had not heard any announcements about the status of the dining car, but it was open and serving when we got there. It took ten minutes for one of the dining car crew to acknowledge us, and then finally we were seated. I noticed right away that if they served ice water, it would not thaw in there. Perhaps they were trying to preserve some meat or something, because it was extremely cold in that dining car.
Michael and I both decided to try the French toast. I got sausage with mine, but he decided not to have meat with his. We both got apple juice as our included beverage. A couple sat across from us, but aside from saying "Good morning", we really did not have any discussions. Since Michael and I had been seated before they were, we were the ones riding facing forward.
Although Michael and I had both ordered the same thing and ordered before our tablemates, our food was delivered in a strange manner. My food, as well as what the male half of the couple across from us ordered, came first. Three minutes later, Michael's French toast and the woman's breakfast came.
While dining, we passed through Lake City, SC at 8:07 AM. Fifteen minutes later, we came into Kingstree. Once we departed that station, we wrapped up our breakfast. I realize that railroad dining cars are not cheap, and that first class passengers don't worry about the cost because meals are included, but it was ridiculous that I spent a total of $17.75 for breakfast, including the tip. I would even be unhappy paying that much for dinner, but one does not expect that much expense for breakfast.
Back at our seats, I figured out that when we left Kingstree, we were 1:24 late. The female attendant, whose name I did not get, came through the coaches cleaning up crumbs from the aisle with a sweeper.
Charleston, always a popular stop on this train, was a five-minute stop between 9:14 and 9:19 AM. Then at 9:50, the female attendant came through asking where everyone was going. She even awakened several passengers who were still sleeping to ask them their destinations. I thought this was odd for several reasons: James had already done so the night before. This was not her coach; she was supposed to be in the back. Also, I had overheard her telling somebody that she would be getting off in Jacksonville, so the Florida destinations of most of the passengers on that train were a moot point for her.
We arrived in Yemassee, SC at 10:16 AM. We spent over three minutes here, which is good considering that they boarded a rather large group of kids and their chaperones traveling to Savannah. We were now one hour 29 minutes down. As we passed through the rest of South Carolina, it did not appear we were traveling at speed. Cars on parallel U.S. 17 were moving faster than we were.
Savannah, GA was reached at 11:06 AM. The group of kids who got on in Yemassee got off and boarded some vans that were waiting for them. Once they had cleared the platform, James got off and watered our coaches. I was not aware before that Savannah was a watering stop, but the hoses were certainly there at trainside.
Now an hour and a half off the advertised, we began to roll across Georgia. We made our only other stop in the state, Jesup, at 12:15 PM. We passed through the town of Folkston, GA, a rail junction town, at 1:08 PM. Shortly after that we crossed into the state of Florida. It was 1:16 as we passed Hilliard, FL.
We came to a stop in Jacksonville at 1:38 PM. That arrival time is padded, so we were one hour 16 minutes late upon arrival.
Off the train in Jacksonville, I noticed that our P-42 power, which was leading this train from Washington to Miami, was engine #184. I also noticed that another P-42 engine, #44, was sitting on the far side of the mail platform adjacent to the passenger platforms. I also saw several AMTRAK employees looking at something under the last coach (the last car of this train), but I never found out what the problem was back there. The female coach attendant who had awakened passengers for no reason, and ignored us in Philadelphia, mercifully left the train here. While standing on the platform, I called my parents to advise them of our progress, so they could better plan their drive to pick us up in Winter Haven.
Now as we left Jacksonville at 2:03 PM, one hour 25 minutes late, I knew what most other passengers did not know. From the timetable it was apparent that we would be meeting four AMTRAK trains between Jacksonville and Orlando. First we would encounter Train 98, the northbound SILVER METEOR. Then, since this was a Thursday, a SUNSET LIMITED day, Train 1 would be headed from Orlando to Los Angeles. Next, since we were late, we should meet the northbound AUTO TRAIN because we would still be north of Sanford at its 4 PM departure time. Finally, I expected we would come upon Train 92, the northbound SILVER STAR, between Sanford and Orlando. With four expected AMTRAK meets on the single-track line, plus any possible number of freight trains, my outlook for maintaining our deficit was not good. I figured we would be about two hours late before we got to our destination.
Out of Jacksonville 45 minutes, we slowed down, but at first we were not meeting another train. There appeared to be some trackwork going on, as there was a crane sitting next to the tracks. We then did pass a freight train and then we returned to track speed. At 3:04 PM we passed another freight, but did not slow down. Three minutes later, just north of Palatka, we encountered Train 98(17), our northbound counterpart. It appeared to be a rolling meet, as neither train had to wait for the other. The northbound METEOR was almost one hour late.
We got into the Palatka station at 3:10, and our double spot took about four minutes. We were back to one hour 27 minutes off the advertised. I expected that we would meet the SUNSET LIMITED in about 15 minutes, if it was running on time.
During this segment of the trip, I went to the rear coach, where I had a clear view out the back of the train. I got to watch all of the action behind us. I also got to see the place in Crescent City where the AUTO TRAIN had its fatal derailment one day short of a year ago. One could see the sharp curve, and how there was no way an engineer could see the defective track and have time to react in time as it came into view. It was also easy to see where the Superliner equipment turned over in the brush.
It was 3:35 that we came upon Train 1(17), which had taken a siding to wait for us. He appeared to have stopped to wait for us. This was a prime example of how one late train can have a domino effect on other trains in the system. We made Deland at 4:06, leaving there at 4:09.
Since it was now past 4 PM, our train and the northbound AUTO TRAIN should have been headed straight for one another between Deland and Sanford. With the AUTO TRAIN usually running longer during peak periods, I expected us to take a siding to let it pass. That did not happen. As we came upon the AUTO TRAIN terminal in Sanford, it was still there. In fact, it was not even close to departing. The auto carriers were still being loaded, and it did not appear that passengers had yet boarded the Superliner equipment that was still sitting in separate sections on both sides of the platform. I called AMTRAK and found out that Train 53(16), the southbound AUTO TRAIN due that morning, did not arrive until 12:07 PM, over 3-1/2 hours late. That delayed the northbound departure of 52(17).
We made our stop at Sanford's decrepit passenger station at 4:30, and our work there was complete in just two minutes. Still, our tardy train was now off one hour 36 minutes. I figured it would be possible to make up a little bit of time coming into Orlando, since the times there are padded. The schedule normally allows ten minutes because of the usually heavy unloading and loading that takes place there. We had to get there first however. In the town of Longview, FL, the northbound SILVER STAR, Train 92(17), apparently running half and hour late, was sitting on a siding. Our train then passed through Maitland, and then came to a stop in Winter Park, which we departed at 4:59 PM, one hour 29 minutes late.
Now we were approaching Orlando. Before coming to Orlando's station, the tracks pass through downtown Orlando. Parallel to the tracks was I-4. It was jammed with rush hour traffic. I was glad we had changed our plans, as we were neither renting a car there nor being picked up. Either way we would have been in that mess. When we rolled into the station, I could see Gray Line and Coach USA vans to the area attractions and hotels. Also visible was the Martz coach that represents the Thruway shuttle bus to the west coast of Florida, the coach we could have taken. I saw, for the first time, that the Martz coaches are now painted in AMTRAK colors, along with the words "AMTRAK's Thruway Service" on the side.
As is customary during busy periods, a lot of business was done in Orlando. Besides all the families getting off there to be sucked into the expensive vortex of theme parks, there were quite a few people boarding for an intrastate ride to points south. Our station work took 13 minutes. When we departed at 5:27 PM, we were one hour 23 minutes late. James came through the coaches sweeping up the crumbs again. Suzy Homemaker was at work, but it was appreciated.
We rolled west, past the Orlando Airport. Our arrival in Kissimmee, where more Disney-bound families alighted to head for their hotels on the U.S. 192 strip, was at 5:45 PM. We spent three minutes in town. At this time, the smell from one of the rest rooms somehow made its way into the body of our coach. James had put some cardboard down over the entire floor of the rest room, so apparently something had happened earlier in there that needed to be covered up. That "something" had now saturated the cardboard, so it could no longer hide the problem. We were in the last hour of our trip, so I tried to pay it no mind.
Continuing to run alongside U.S. 17/92, we passed through the towns of Davenport, Haines City, and Lake Alfred. Then at 6:30 PM we came to the all-important Auburndale, the railroad junction center of Florida. This is where, right underneath the U.S. 92 overpass, we would take a sharp left on the southeastern connecting track, and turn to head south on the line towards Miami. The track straight ahead goes to Lakeland and Tampa, but is only covered by the PALMETTO. That train uses a southwestern track connection on the other side through an industrial park. The track to the north of the intersection was downgraded and sees no passenger service anymore.
Since the curve to the south is more than a 90-degree angle, it is taken quite slowly. Once past Auburndale, we went up to track speed once more. I knew we had just seven miles, or roughly ten minutes, to go until reaching our destination, Winter Haven.
We arrived in Winter Haven at 6:43 PM, and my parents were there to greet us. We went directly to a Barnhill's Buffet restaurant right in that town. We then took a 90-minute drive to my parents' home in New Port Richey. On the way we went right through Auburndale once more, this time by car on the U.S. 92 bridge over the railroad junction.
We got to New Port Richey about 9:30 PM. That evening Michael and I slept very well. Overnight I gave my new scanner the good 12-hour charge it deserved.
Friday, April 18, 2003
Part 6: AMTRAK Thruway Bus #6092, Tampa, FL to Orlando, FL
After that long train trip, why not take another one? Our plans for the rest of the week dictated my taking this trip now. My parents and Michael were going to spend some time at the Channelside attractions in downtown Tampa, so they dropped me off at Tampa Union Station about a half an hour before the bus was scheduled to leave.
In the station I ate lunch, which consisted of two bologna and cheese sandwiches my mother made for me. I also had a banana, which I chose to save for later. I called Julie the AMTRAK robot, and found out that so far, my Train 92 was running 14 minutes late.
The bus, which comes up from Fort Myers, was a little late. About ten passengers boarded in Tampa, and there were only a handful on the bus who had boarded before Tampa. This bus connects to not only Train 92 northbound, but also Train 97 southbound. From what I could hear, roughly half of the passengers boarding were headed to the southeastern part of the state. The driver told us that so far, 92 was running close to schedule, and 97 was running two hours late. The bus, like the one I saw the day before, had its exterior painted in AMTRAK livery. The inside, however, looked more bus-like, not train seats as one might expect by looking at the outside. There was a multicolored motif, which was found on the aisle carpet, the seats, and even the ceiling.
We departed from Tampa at 12:39 PM, 14 minutes late. I knew the train was also 14 minutes late, so it was of no concern to me. Besides, I also knew that the bus schedule is padded, and that we should be able to get to Orlando long before the advertised time. What should have been quite a mundane bus ride to the train became a story in itself.
When we got to Lakeland, the driver first told us that we would have six or seven minutes here. Nobody was boarding at this station, but it became a smoking break for both the driver and several passengers. I surmise that if the driver were not a smoker, he would not have scheduled this break in the trip. However the short break we were promised was not to be.
While he was out smoking, the driver found that one of the left rear tires was flat. Unlike cars, buses have multiple tires on the end of each axle, so we did not get stuck before then. He did not feel, however, that it would be safe for us to continue further. He called his dispatcher at Martz, who was in St. Petersburg. He told us that we would be there at least another half hour. So again almost everyone got off the bus. We could go inside the station, use the rest room, etc. I did see a sign that the station's hours were recently reduced so that it would close at 2 PM, and it looked like we would be there well beyond that. The passengers from the bus got to smoke some more, and others sat upstairs near the train tracks where they could get some sun.
Obviously everyone was nervous about making their trains. Those on 97 now had less to worry about than me and the rest who were going to take 92, since the former was running so late. The driver said that if we did not get to the train on time, the policy is for the train to wait for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, the train has to leave, but the bus has to chase it. We could meet with the train in Winter Park or Sanford.
It was much more than an hour before the mechanics from Martz arrived from St. Petersburg in a pickup truck with a spare tire. The bus had a spare as well, but the driver cannot change it. For some reason they chose to use the spare that they had brought in the truck rather than the one the bus was carrying underneath the front bumper.
While the tire was being changed, the station agent came down to watch the operation. Everyone was chased downstairs out of the station and away from the track area. The station would not reopen until 6:30 PM in preparation for the northbound PALMETTO to make its daily stop.
With the tire now changed, and the bolts on all other tires tightened as a precaution, we were ready to go. As everyone was headed to board the bus, one man with two small kids was getting off. Here they sat on the bus for over an hour and a half, and now they were looking for a rest room. The one in the station could not be used because the station had closed. For some reason they could not use the one in the rear of the bus. They headed up the street to look for a place for the kids to use facilities. I don't know if they found anything, but their timing sure was poor, considering that these people also had to catch a train in Orlando. The driver left the station without this family, but he made a double spot and picked them up at the end of the station driveway as they returned.
Our driver called ahead to check on the train status once more. He found out that 97 was still running two hours late, and 92 had become half an hour late. This was good for us, and he was certain that everyone would make their trains in Orlando. If we hit any traffic that would kill us; luckily we moved pretty well up I-4. He spoke to the station agents again as we got closer, and while 92 had made up some of its deficit, he assured us that we would make it. The only questionable thing was how the checked baggage would be handled. He was told that the station was very crowded, as 180 people were boarding the northbound train, and another handful were there for the southbound.
Talk about timing! As we crossed a grade crossing to get to the Orlando station, I could see the headlight of our train as it was approaching. Had we been two minutes later, we would have been caught at the grade crossing behind our own train. I got off the bus, got my luggage from the bottom of the bus, and went over to the long line waiting to board the coach section of the train.
Part 7: The SILVER STAR, Train 92(18), Orlando, FL to Jacksonville, FL
More confusion. There were two doors open, but only one line. After a short while the conductors, who were lifting tickets right there on the line, told us that anyone going to points south of Washington, DC should board in the rear, and the closer entrance would be for Washington, DC and points north.
This train had two very friendly female attendants. They were wonderful with all the kids on board. The attendant for my coach, Liz, directed me to Seat 46. Traveling as I usually do with my kid, I usually don't have to worry about sitting with strangers. Now, I ended up sitting next to somebody else's kid. I took the window seat, next to a little boy whose mother and sister were across the aisle. They were also going to Jacksonville, but I believe they had boarded before Orlando.
Because of the hurried transfer from bus to train, I would not get the consist until Jacksonville. I did notice that the single engine was #52.
Train 92 departed from Orlando at 4:34 PM, 41 minutes down. I lucked out with a Capstone rebuild and a window seat, so I had an outlet at my disposal, which I used to recharge my cell phone. I also now had a working scanner.
We stopped in Winter Park at 4:52 PM, and left three minutes later, now 44 minutes off the advertised. After we left, a diner attendant came through taking reservations for dinner. I had no intentions of going to the diner for this short trip. The attendant said that the only reservations he had left were for 8:30 PM. Too late for anyone going to Jacksonville, since the train would be beyond there by 8:30.
The woman across the aisle from me with the kids asked him how she might get some food. He said he could not give her an earlier reservation. She did not know that the lounge car existed, and that her family might get a light meal there. Liz, our coach attendant, overheard this and told her she would help her out. Liz and the woman left (leaving the kids virtually alone -- nobody was asked to watch them). When she came back later, she was carrying a large white paper bag with handles, with foil-wrapped food inside. She was able to get dinner "to go" from the diner for her family. I must say I learned something there; I had no idea that this option was possible, or that one could circumvent the reservation process and get food whenever they wanted and consume it at their seats.
Our two-minute stop in Sanford was done on the left-side track. I heard on my scanner that another train was waiting for us to depart. They could not come into the station until our work was completed, since our train's crew and passengers would have fouled the other track. So at 5:19 PM, as we pulled north from the station, Train 97(17), the southbound SILVER METEOR, pulled in behind P-42 engine #4. That train was now two hours 23 minutes behind schedule. I then looked over to the right, and the AUTO TRAIN terminal was quiet. Today's Train 52(18) had gotten out of Sanford on time.
Deland was a four-minute stop. The 5:47 departure was 52 minutes late. At 6:02 the lounge attendant announced a Happy Hour in the lounge car, with Margueritas and Pina Collatas at reduced prices.
At 6:27 PM, we passed over a bridge. The tender on the bridge called our train on the radio to report that one of the doors in the baggage car on the rear of the train was open. The engineer confirmed hearing this, but I did not hear the on-board crew acknowledge this message. I figured they would quickly correct this problem in Palatka, our next stop.
We had lost another two minutes by Palatka, leaving there 6:37 PM. Seven minutes later, I heard another bridge tender tell the engineer that our rear lights looked fine, but that we had a door open in the baggage car. Sound familiar? I guess the possible loss of luggage did not concern this crew. The engineer usually has a stronger radio, but he should have made sure the conductor was aware of this. Hmmm, wasn't this Happy Hour in the lounge car where the crew hangs out? I would say an open door in the baggage car is reason enough to stop the train anywhere and fix the problem, as passengers' baggage could be lost before the train gets to the next station. I am glad I usually choose to take my luggage with me on board.
At 7:25 PM, as we were approaching the city of Jacksonville next to Roosevelt Blvd. (U.S. 17), Liz announced to the Jacksonville-bound passengers that we would be passing the station and then backing into it, in order to pick up some other cars. She did not want people to worry, thinking we had shot by the station.
It was 7:46 PM when we did just that. I saw the platforms and canopies to our right as we passed by at track speed. Only when the entire train had passed under the Edgewood Avenue overpass did we slow down and then stop. At 7:50 PM we reversed direction and backed onto the siding track closest to the station. We backed right up to the cars we were to pick up, and we were not allowed to detrain until the conductor gave the OK to the crew. I stepped off the train at exactly 8:00 PM, so officially we were 50 minutes late.
I now went to the rear of the train, and from there I worked my way forward to get its consist. There were eight Roadrailers being added to the train here. They extended well beyond the end of the station area, so I was not able to get their numbers. I also noticed that the P-42 engine on the other side of the express platform was different. The previous morning it was #44, now it was #63. By the time I got to the front of the train, it had two engines, one in front of the #52 engine I saw heading the train back in Orlando. I guess the extra power is needed with the Roadrailers. Obviously the express contract still exists on these trains, at least for now. The consist was as follows:
5 P-42 locomotive (JAX-WAS) 52 P-42 locomotive (MIA-WAS) 2505 Heritage crew dorm 62041 Viewliner sleeper "Summit View" 62021 Viewliner sleeper "Morning View" 62006 Viewliner sleeper "College View" 8521 Heritage Diner 28013 Amfleet II Lounge "Boston Club" 25058 Amfleet II coach 25104 Amfleet II coach 25065 Amfleet II coach <- * 25097 Amfleet II coach 1204 Baggage (8 Roadrailers added in JAX) * I was here
I had a bus to catch for downtown Jacksonville, so I had to go out to the parking lot and wait for it. My Jacksonville Transportation Authority NS-4 bus departed from the station at 8:23 PM. I still had my scanner on, and heard the SILVER STAR's crew give the engineer the OK to go at 8:32 PM.
Part 8: Jacksonville Skyway
I had a goal of riding the newest section of the Jacksonville Skyway, the part that branches off just west of the Central station and goes over the St. John's River to city points of interest on the south bank. Therefore, I did not have to ride the entire thing. I got off my NS-4 bus when I saw the Central station, figuring I did not need to ride the part up to FCCJ since I had ridden that already. It was about 9 PM, I had an early day coming up, so I just wanted to ride to the south bank and call it a day.
I had a problem accessing the system. I paid my 35-cent fare in the faregate, but it did not admit me. Somebody with a monthly pass came up behind me and swiped his card, which allowed me through. I thanked him for his generosity.
Once up in the station, I had about a seven-minute wait for the proper monorail train. The first one to come through was headed for the Convention Center. Mine was next. The ride was quite scenic, although I was seeing downtown Jacksonville at night for the first time. It was interesting running over the bridge, in a median between two directions of vehicular traffic, and railroad tracks belonging to the Florida East Coast Railway.
On the south bank of the river, there are three stops. The first, San Marcos, is near the cultural section of the city. The next two, Riverplace and Kings Avenue, are hotels and office buildings. The Hampton Inn where I stayed was near the Riverplace station, but I decided to ride out to Kings Avenue and return. I figured it would not take much more time to ride a little further and then come back to Riverplace on the same train. As I would find out next day, this was a good decision, as it ended up being the only way I was able to accomplish my objective of riding all the new "trackage" I had not yet ridden.
I returned to the Riverplace station, and after leaving the system on the ground level, I walked the short distance across a parking lot to the Hampton Inn.
Much to my delight, the hotel's front desk sells ice cream and other snacks, even late at night. I was able to purchase an ice cream sandwich and a 7-UP (this was no time for caffeine!).
After making sure I had three means to wake me up (hotel wakeup call, alarm clock, and my cell phone alarm), I retired for the night.
Saturday, April 19, 2003
Part 9: Before the train trip
I checked out of my hotel shortly after 6 AM, and took advantage of the hotel's complimentary breakfast. I had a glass of juice, and took a banana with me for the train later on. I called AMTRAK, and Train 91 was running only about 12 minutes late. So far, everything was going well.
Now, I don't know how I missed it, but I misread the Skyway's hours when making my plans. It's as clear as day that the Skyway does not open up until 10 AM on Saturdays. It's stupid on their part, considering that the system serves the main hotel district. I realized my stupidity when I got to the Skyway station and it was closed up tight. Now it was 6:15 AM, and I had a 6:53 AM bus I had intended on catching from the FCCJ Skyway station. Since this particular NS-4 bus originates at the FCCJ Skyway station (which is also the main bus terminal) without making the loop around town first, I had a long way to go. I was unfamiliar with the buses in this part of town, so I did the only thing I felt I had left to do. I hoofed it.
I had walked over the bridge quite a few years ago, so I did it once more. This is not the same bridge that the Skyway runs over, but a different one to the east, with its northern end on the east side of the Jacksonville Landing attraction. I kept walking north, and then cut diagonally across Hemming Plaza, a downtown park, to finish my walk underneath the dormant Skyway. As I got within two blocks of the FCCJ station, I saw the rear of a bus preparing to depart. I had no idea whether it was mine or not, but my watch did show 6:53 AM. I was resigned at that point to take a bus 30 minutes later and take the risk of getting to the AMTRAK station within minutes of my train. Then another bus pulled in, as I was just one block from the FCCJ station. I picked up my suitcase off its poor wheels, which had rolled for about a mile (including over a drawbridge), and ran. Luckily, it was my NS-4 bus, which was running a little late. The long walk, which ended up with a sprint, paid off.
I got to the station at 7:24 AM, a comfortable amount of time in advance of the SILVER STAR's arrival. The variable message board inside the station said that Train 91 was due at 8:00 AM, confirming the 12-minute deficit I had heard earlier when I called AMTRAK from my hotel.
Part 10: The SILVER STAR, Train 91(18), Jacksonville, FL to Orlando, FL
Eleven minutes late, but one minute ahead of the projection by the station employees, the SILVER STAR rolled into the Jacksonville station. As soon as it came to a stop, passengers came off the train to take their break. Although there were a few headed for Jacksonville as a destination, most of the people who detrained were just getting off the train for a few minutes to stretch their legs.
Meanwhile the ticket agent announced to the few originating passengers that a conductor would collect tickets from the desk inside the station, so we were to stay inside and not approach the train until our tickets were taken.
As soon as I saw the conductor enter the station, I made my way through the crowd to him and surrendered my ticket. He directed me to go out to the train, and turn right towards the coaches. My next coach attendant, Alan, greeted me. He sent me to a seat next to one that was obviously already occupied, but that person was not present. I sat in the aisle seat, and later allowed the woman to take her seat when she returned. Because of the boarding process in Jacksonville, I once again would not get my train's consist until I arrived at my destination, Orlando.
The train began to move southward at 8:20 AM, which was exactly on time. I was envisioning an on-time arrival in Orlando and a flawless bus ride back to Tampa. After the previous two days, I deserved that -- but that was not to happen.
About 8:48 AM, still in the Jacksonville area, we took at siding at Yukon. We sat idle for 20 minutes there while waiting for a long freight train, Q-456, to first approach and then pass us. The crew was good in letting passengers know why we were stopped. At least the speakers worked in this particular coach.
9:36 AM brought the last call for breakfast. I took that as my cue to peel and eat the complimentary banana I had taken from my hotel.
A deficit of about twenty minutes did not seem too bad. We however got progressively worse, being 21 minutes down at Palatka and 23 minutes off at Deland. At the AUTO TRAIN terminal, which we passed at 11:04 AM, the southbound train was in. Most of its passengers had already collected their vehicles and left the station.
Leaving Sanford's passenger station at 11:08 AM, we were 25 minutes late; by Winter Park at 11:36 the train had sunk to 27 minutes late. Our arrival in Orlando was at 11:55 AM, placing me at my destination 21 minutes late. Once again padding helped the train gain back some of the minutes it had lost since Jacksonville. Besides that freight train back in suburban Jacksonville, we did not encounter any other trains in the opposite direction.
This was another very busy train, and again a lot of the passengers on this train got off in Orlando. I walked the length of the train that had brought me here and got its consist:
172 P-42 locomotive 2501 Heritage crew dorm 62014 Viewliner sleeper "Imperial View" 62048 Viewliner sleeper "Wayside View" 62011 Viewliner sleeper "Gulf View" 8524 Heritage diner 28019 Amfleet II lounge "Charlotte Club" 25000 Amfleet II coach 25113 Amfleet II coach <- * 25114 Amfleet II coach 25042 Amfleet II coach 1715 Mail/Baggage * I was here
I was glad I had taken my luggage on board, because the situation at the outdoor baggage claim was messy. A long line of incoming passengers had formed there, and it did not seem to be moving.
Part 11: AMTRAK Thruway Bus #6091, Orlando, FL to Tampa, FL
I went to look for the Thruway bus in its usual location on the north end of the platform, but it was not there. I thought perhaps it was in another place, so I went inside the station to ask the ticket agent where the bus was. I was told that it should indeed be where it usually is, but that it was late. By the time I got back to the same location, the bus had arrived. It comes in from the west coast of Florida as 6098, and goes out as 6091. About 12 people got off the bus, headed for the northbound SILVER METEOR.
Once their luggage was taken off the bus, the driver started taking our tickets and loading our luggage into the bottom of the bus. Unfortunately, some passengers had checked their luggage to their final destinations, so the driver had to wait until those bags were taken to the bus.
The driver told us that he wanted to make sure no luggage was left behind. He went over to the station crews handling the luggage, and tried to expedite the process of bringing the baggage bound for points west over to the bus. Meanwhile, Train 91 left Orlando at 12:10 PM, 26 minutes late, for Miami. The station was still in a situation of bedlam, because not only were all the inbound passengers still awaiting their luggage, but also there were some departing passengers waiting for (and trying to check their luggage onto) Train 98.
At 12:34 PM, Train 98(19) arrived in Orlando. From the bus I could only see engine #184 and baggage car #1751; these two were on our Train 97(16) when we had originally traveled south. I assume that the rest of the consist was the same.
Once our bus was ready to go, the driver told us that the first stop would be Tampa (since there were no passengers headed for Lakeland). He then would stop in Bradenton and Sarasota, followed by Port Charlotte and Fort Myers. I was glad that we would not be stopping in Lakeland, as we would make up some of the time we lost from the late train and sitting waiting for the checked baggage to be transferred to the bus. He told us that it would be a slow trip, since there was a lot of traffic along I-4. He had seen three separate accidents along the way as he was coming east from Tampa. We finally got going at 12:37 PM, 22 minutes late.
We first encountered traffic around Universal Studios. We then hit our worst traffic jam in the Walt Disney World area. We were backed up for three miles, past four separate exits for Disney attractions, all for rubber necking delays to some accident that had long ago been cleared off the freeway before we got there. When we got near Lakeland, we got off I-4. Our driver said that a driver going the other way told him that traffic in the Lakeland area on the freeway was stopped. He said taking a detour through town, even though we were not supposed to stop there, would ultimately save us 10 or 15 minutes. We successfully bypassed that tie-up, but hit one more small jam near the end of I-4 at I-275 in Tampa. We ended up arriving at Tampa Union Station at 2:52 PM, 42 minutes late.
My parents and Michael had spent the morning at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. When I had called them from Orlando saying I would be late, they went to pass some time at the WestShore Plaza shopping mall. As the bus was approaching Tampa Union Station, I called them, and they were on their way from the mall. I waited about eight minutes outside, before we were reunited. We then drove directly to the Ybor City section of Tampa (not far from the train station), where we would park. We would then ride the TECO Streetcar.Continued in next section