Dillon, S.C. to Philadelphia Amtrak the Good and the Bad
May 4th and 9th, 2003
Having ridden this same route annually for the past six years usually for business I have grown used to the many changes in Amtrak service. There has been change for the good and change for the bad. This trip offered both. Years ago I road the coach only Palmetto that originated in Jacksonville, Florida and terminated in New York City. It was a typical coach only train with café service that for the most part ran on time and offered clean comfortable equipment. That train gave way to the Silver Palm that initially featured coaches with video monitors for movies, sleepers with comfortable roomettes for business travelers, and a full diner. It was a Miami, Florida to New York City train boasting what Amtrak named Silver Service. It was nice and had the amenities that one would expect on a long distance train. That gave way about a year ago to a new Palmetto that is a Miami, Florida to New York City train but is a coach only. It is a mail train south, as the number of mail boxcars and other mail handling equipment out numbers the passenger consists two to one most days. It features standard Amfleet II coaches that in the past few years have proved to be worn out and dirty thirty year old cars that have seen better days, an Amfleet II café with adequate snack service, and it boasts a business class coach. The business class coach features the movies and free beverage service. It's what a passenger once got on the Silver Palm for a coach ticket. Aside from the change in equipment I have learned that one never knows what they are going to get when it comes to the Amtrak crews. They are often superb and the reason I return. They are at times ill tempered, lack organization skills, poorly productive, and often rude individuals that make me think twice about recommending the train to friends or returning. Trains running on time generally feature happy crews that pass on that good spirit to their passengers. Trains that run late normally feature tired frustrated crews that have a difficult time hiding their mood from the passengers. On time performance is something that Amtrak thanks to CSX has been irregular in with the Palmetto for some time. My home is only two blocks from the main line. My office is the same distance from the station in Dillon, SC. I have observed the northbound Palmetto running as late as 4 hours from my office window on more than one occasion over the past few months. Most days it operates within an hour of its scheduled time. The evening southbound never passes at any specific time. When it does whistle for the crossing around 7:30 PM my family and I comment aloud. "There goes the Amtrak. It's on time for once."
Still with all the changes and irregularities I can not find another mode of transportation that lets me leave my home, travel 7 miles, board, and arrive with in two blocks of my destination in any major northeaster U.S. City directly the way Amtrak does. That is the good about Amtrak. There is no parking problem at the station on either end. There's no strip searches or hassle with my luggage. With Amtrak if I can carry it, it goes with me. The best part is the economics of not having to pay a $25-50.00 airport limousine service between the airport and hotel at each end of my trip. Nor do I face hefty tolls on the highways and turn pikes in the north. I also avoid often as much as $50.00 per day for the hotel to park an automobile for me at some hidden garage. Amtrak is basically door to door service.
This trip started pleasantly in February. Having made a reservation for my trip in May. I stopped by the Amtrak station in Florence, S.C. early in February. This insured a very ticket price. The Dillon, S.C. station is unmanned, but now has a very clean and comfortable waiting room. In years past passengers were required to wait out of doors. Their only protection from the elements including excessive heat in the summer was the large overhang of the turn of the century station's oversized roof. In Florence, I was greeted by the station agent who actually said, "Mr. Stoops, we've been expecting you." I paid with a check issued by my company and a voucher that I used to upgrade this trip to business class. This voucher was the result of a horrible trip from last year's visit to Baltimore. The agent was quick to print out my ticket and then asked if I had any questions. I was aware of a schedule change from 9:20 to 7:30 and asked if that would be the schedule of the train in May. The agent said, "The ticket says 9:20. If there is a change someone will contact you." I left the station with a good feeling. About two weeks before my trip I received two phone calls from Amtrak telling me the corrected train time.
The day before my departure my family spent a day at Carowinds near Charlotte, N.C. We were there with the Latta Middle School Band and did not get home until around 11:00 PM. Utterly exhausted my wife recommended that I call for a train status before we went to bed. We both hoped the train would be late. It was running 3 minutes late when I called.
The next morning May 4th, 2003 I was up at 5:00 AM and made the call again. Julie (Amtrak's automated reservation voice) said that the train was running 2 minutes behind schedule. That meant it would arrive in Dillon on time.
My wife and I arrived at the station 15 minutes before train time. It was a little cool that morning, so we went into the waiting area. Posted about the room were posters stating that Monday through Friday buses would transport passengers from station stops between Florence, S.C. and Wilson, N.C. due to CSX work on the right of way. This was northbound only. It put me in mind of 1994 when Amtrak had been cut back once again due to congress refusing to fund the system and eliminated a train that stopped in Dillon going directly to Tampa. The agent told me that my family would have to travel by bus between Orlando and Tampa. We canceled that trip. I pay to ride the train because I do not like bus travel. I was happy not to be traveling during a weekday. I am sure that the right of way work will help increase the train's speeds and hopefully smoothen out the ride.
At 7:38 exactly as scheduled the train arrived. A single P42 in the new blue and gray scheme lead a consist of Amfleet II Business Class coach, Horizon Fleet Café, three Amfleet II coaches and a Heritage Baggage car. As the train slowed to a stop the female car attendant for the business class coach announced that business class passengers would board with her. Coach passengers were directed to the cars behind the café. This was where the good part of my trip began.
The young lady car attendant helped me with my luggage and then directed me to take any seat that I wanted. I chose the single seat at the rear of the car. I was then given what the pursers on British Air call a debriefing. I was told about the beverage service, where the lavatories were, about the café, and the video system. Then I was asked if I wanted a pillow or blanket. I was told, "We're sold out today so it might get a little tight later on." She also said that the train had been making good time and that I should reach my destination on time." This young lady had boarded the train in Jacksonville, Florida the night before and was in great humor. She went about doing her job with a smile on her face.
We left Dillon and remained on schedule to Fayetteville, NC. In Fayetteville a good many passengers joined us and the attendant stayed busy directing passengers to vacant seats. When everything was filled she moved her belongings from the seat she had occupied and offered it to the last standing passengers. She went through the debriefing for the entire car. Then announced she would begin passing out headphones for the video entertainment. She was very detailed in her explanation as to where to plug the set into the chair arms and operated the channels and volume. As soon as we left Fayetteville she turned on the video system.
The train to my amazement remained on time through all of North Carolina and we actually arrived in Richmond, Virginia a head of our scheduled time of 12:23. A good many passengers left the train in Richmond. Not as many joined us there.
I made my way to the café for lunch as we departed Richmond, VA. The attendant there was a very pleasant man who actually pointed out the condition of a salad to the party of ladies that stood before me in line. It was the last one he had in stock and the lettuce at the bottom of the transparent bowl had turned into black goop. The ladies declined and he joked with them as they ordered other things. At one point one of the ladies was particularly rude to the man. He returned her rude comment with a joke that I think made the lady even more unpleasant to him. When they walked off he commented that the ladies had been difficult the entire trip, but he wasn't going to let that spoil things for the rest of us. I ordered a nice sandwich, chips, and pastry. The price was a bit more than the quality for snack food. This is to be expected when traveling. Beverages were available in the business class car so I did not have to purchase any. 535000 was the number of the Horizon Café and was my first ride in that equipment. I found the ride much more smoother than the Amfleet equipment and it felt bigger with its square walls compared to the tube like interior of Amfleet. The attendant commented that the counter space was a couple inches lower in that equipment than in the Amfleet cars which took a little getting used to. I made my way back to my seat, left the food on the tray table that drops down from the back of the seat in front of mine and then went to the beverage cooler for a bottle of water. I must comment on this service in business class. Amtrak placed a box like cooler in the place of two seats at the rear of the car. It was fully stocked with soda, juice, and bottle water. Hot water and coffee were mounted on top of the cooler on a shelf. Passengers were free to help themselves during the trip. The attendant kept this area clean and well stocked with cups, napkins, and other needed items. The car was also decorated in a nice blue color and the seats were in good repair. However, it was much like what coach was a few years ago on the Silver Palm. I guess the additional fare was for the drink cooler.
Between Richmond and Washington is my favorite part of the trip as there are so many historic points of interest track side. Randolph Macon University and the beautiful homes that line Rail Road Street in Ashland, Virginia are highlights of the trip for me just a few miles north of Richmond. The train slows as it traveled down the middle of a street through the town. It is a beautiful little city. Following Ashland I look for the little town of Doswell with it's big white farm houses and the crossing of the old C&O line with a beautiful brick station that is still used by CSX . Near Fredericksburg, Va. I look for the Stonewall Jackson shrine. This is the place where General Jackson actually died. The Virginia Park Service has done a wonderful job maintaining this place. If traveling by car I highly recommend a stop there in the summer. There are educational tours of the house and often a re-enactor on the grounds who shares all he knows about General Stonewall Jackson. After Fredericksburg, I look for the marine base at Quantico, Virginia where the Presidential helicopters are stored and often find two or more on the tarmac near the tracks. The Auto Train center is not long after that followed by the Masonic Washington Monument which is directly behind the beautiful Alexandria Virginia Union Station. This is followed by crossing the Potomac River, a view of the Washington Monument, and Jefferson Memorials after the bridge. This marks the beginning of the Washington, D.C. area. As the train slows through this area in preparation for going under Capital Hill there is much to be seen from the left side of the train. Many buildings of the Smithsonian Institute, the White House roof if one knows where to look, and the Capital Dome are visible just before the train ducks under Capital Hill.
Our train arrived in Washington, D.C. 20 minutes early according to the car hostess. It was announced that Washington would be a long stop and that passengers who wanted to stretch their legs were invited to step onto the platform. We were told not to go up into Union Station as we might get left behind and also told that the diesel engine would be removed and an electric motor would be added. The car attendant shared with me that this was done in Washington now because the train didn't carry mail north any longer. I got off the train and went forward to watch the power change. In previous years this was discouraged and Amtrak employees would ask that passengers not go near the locomotive. P42 145 was uncoupled and moved forward. AEM7 959 came down the track and after a couple of attempts coupled onto the train. The electrical crew worked quickly in attaching the power cables. Break lines were connected as well. The process took all of 15 minutes. I returned to my seat just as the power in the coach was turned back on.
The car attendant announced to passengers still standing on the platform to return to their seats. "They've given us an open road and we'll be departing in a couple of minutes." I heard the stairwell close and two blasts of the AEM7's air horns and we started moving. A passenger asked the attendant what time she thought we would get into Penn Station New York. "We're way a head of schedule," The young lady answered. "We're leaving Washington before we're even suppose to be here. I am sure we'll be there on time. Weekends are the best time to travel on these trains. There's no traffic on the freight lines down south and not a lot of commuter trains to deal with up north."
Leaving Washington the train was off of CSX maintained track and on Amtrak's owned and operated Northeast Corridor. This makes a big difference in traveling conditions. The train doesn't vibrate, sway, or jolt as much on the NEC. The speed of travel was also noticeably higher. Quickly the stops in Baltimore, Maryland, and Wilmington, Delaware were reached and the stop at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station was announced with in a two-hour period.
Arriving in Philadelphia, I stepped off the train onto the platform, road the escalator up to the concourse, and walked out to a cab in all of 5 minutes. A taxi ride to the hotel, check in and elevator ride up to my room transpired before I looked at the time again. It was 4:30PM eighteen minutes before my train was scheduled to arrive in Philadelphia that day.
This was the good part of the trip.
Now here is the bad part of my experience.
On May 9th, 2003 I left the Loews Hotel at 8:00 AM for 30th Street Station. My departure time was 10:19 AM and because 30th, Street Station had been remodeled and included a nice food court and shopping area I planned to have breakfast and look around during my two-hour nineteen minute wait. I checked the big board for status of the southbound Palmetto. It was not listed at that point. I looked for a nice place for breakfast other than McDonalds. I failed as most of the food service locations are targeted more at business lunch trade than breakfast. I ended up in the McDonalds. Other than a bookstore gift shop type place there was little that interested me elsewhere.
Because I had a business class ticket I thought I might go to the Metro Lounge. Before I did that I thought it best to check with Amtrak Guest Services, as I was not sure just what that class of ticket entitled me. I found out that it really just got me a cleaner seat, video service, and free beverages, as the metro lounge was not open to me. I bought a magazine and sat watching the big board. The Palmetto was listed with the notation "On Time" next to it by that point. This remained as the board was updated and the train name made it's way up the board throughout the morning.
I must note here something that I as a rural southerner could not get accustomed to during my visit. This is the public use of fowl language. During my visit in Philadelphia after the meetings that I attending from 7:00AM until 3:00PM I visited the attractions around the city. Every where I went I found people using profane language at a level that everyone could hear. Even small children used words that my mouth would have been washed out over at their age with no regard for those walking near them. As I sat in 30th Street Station that morning four very attractive young ladies dressed in professional clothing made their way across the concourse. Their conversation included a number of vulgar words that were heard plainly by all but the "S" word was said very loudly by one of the young women and it echoed through the entire waiting area. A number of people looked in their direction and I could not help but feel badly for parents of children near them and for these women as I know they did not realize how ugly the use of this language made them appear.
At 9:50 AM the Palmetto was announced and passengers allowed down stairs to board the train. I couldn't help but think that perhaps I was destined for a second early arrival. On the platform I was frustrated as a large number of passengers were boarding the one coach open and no one was directing business class passengers forward. After a couple of minutes I walked around the crowd and went behind the elevator shaft. I walked past the café and up to the business class coach. I entered the car and was met by a dumfounded car attendant.
"You a business class passenger?" He asked.
"Yes" I replied.
"Can I see you're ticket?" He asked.
It was already in my hand, "Sure." I replied.
He looked at the ticket as if he had never seen one before then turned pointing forward. "You can go sit," He gave a seat number and I walked forward. Mind you I was carrying a briefcase, a large travel bag that I could not wheel down the isle, and had a PC strapped over my shoulder. He did not offer to assist with my bags.
I found the seat. Pushed the luggage up overhead and sat down. Another passenger joined me. He was a very nice elderly man who had retired from the postal service and spent his retirement as he explained "riding the trains". He had traveled all over the US on Amtrak and was headed home to Clearwater, Florida after a trip out west. We chatted for a few minutes before the attendant came along and asked for our tickets again. I think he marked our seats with the destination. That's when I realized that the lights were off and a locomotive change was being made. As I continued to chat with my seat companion, we both began to wonder what was going on. We were due to leave at 10:19AM, had boarded early, and yet we sat in the dark well past 10:19. People around us began to ask question among one another and the car attendant was no where to be found. After a forty-five minutes delay the lights came on and the familiar two blasts of the air horns sounded and we began to roll. The conductor made an announcement over the AP system as to the difficulty but it was very difficult to hear. All we heard was "Ladies and gentlemen we apologize." The rest was garbled. We later learned that there had been trouble with one of the two P40's that were pulling the train.
We were on the mail train that I spoke of earlier. There were two P40's on the point followed by our Amfleet II Business Class coach, an Amfleet II café, three more Amfleet coaches, a heritage baggage and at least 8 mail handling cars. I never got a chance to actually see the true consist. There is good reason for this. I will explain later. We slowly negotiated the interlocking tracks south of Philadelphia and then picked up speed for a while.
A highlight to this part of the trip was an Acela train that passed the Palmetto between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. At speed an Acela locomotive appeared outside the coach window to my right. It glided past followed by a number of cars and then the tail unit disappeared ahead of us. The train was most impressive in its appearance and I hope one day to actually travel on one.
It began to rain and the Palmetto began to loose time. That was the beginning of what would ultimately be one of the worst Amtrak experiences I have ever had. We arrived at every stop late beginning with Wilmington, then Baltimore, and finally Washington about one hour late. The delay grew longer with each stop.
Being late was frustrating enough. This was compounded by a number of other things. First, A group of businessmen boarded in Washington and sat in the seats across the isle from my postal friend and myself. These fellows continued to make and receive cell phone calls from the moment they sat down until they got off the train in Richmond, Virginia. The two across from us were elderly gentlemen who I hope didn't have anything confidential they didn't want heard as they spoke loudly and in angry tones. I know all the details of their failed business deal in Washington. Next, the video equipment was finally turned on. My travel companion and I found that there was something wrong with our terminals. We plugged in the headsets and turned the sound up to full blast but only got whispers. This was disappointed especially as it is something we paid extra fare for. We attempted to tell the car attendant but each time we tried to get his attention he ignored us. That was when he was actually in the car. He had claimed four seats at the front of the car seated in the two that faced rear. He was seldom there but seemed to appear for a few seconds then disappear again. That was frustrating so my friend and I gave up and did our best to listen to the movies. Next the weather turned nasty. The wind blew hard enough to shake the car and the sky was so dark that it was almost like night in the middle of the day. This got worse as we went on.
In Richmond I got revenge on the loud businessmen across the isle from me. The train pulled into the closest track to the terminal. Our Business Class car stopped practically at the door of the terminal. A very large crowed had massed under the awning despite the heavy rain. I figured the business class passengers would be let down and then the train pulled up to do the same for coach passengers. Because we were late and another train occupied the next track over, our train pulled to the end of the platform. Because of the number of mail cars on the rear this mean going almost to the end of the platform. There was no rain shelter at the point we stopped and the businessmen were forced to step down onto a wet platform and walk in heavy rain a very long distance. I hope that work will be done to mail equipment so that it can be handled at the front of the train. This would allow stops like Richmond to be more passenger friendly than the long walks due to mail equipment at the rear of the train. It would also help with the diesel exhaust issue. Having the business class coach directly behind the locomotive means that exhaust often fills the car. The tunnels under Baltimore and Washington are especially bad.
The stop in Richmond was another extremely long stop for no apparent reason. As we sat there two other Amtrak trains passed us by headed north. We finally departed and crawled out of Richmond until we crossed the James River.
Our next station stop was Pettersburg, Virginia. We arrived there about two hours late. The sky was black. The wind was blowing. Rain was falling. I felt badly for anyone getting of there as well. Our stop was short and I felt as if the engineer was trying to make up time. That was until we passed a freight train, slowed down to cross tracks and pass another freight train on the other side and then came to a complete stop in the middle of a field.
Despite the delays to that point I was happy being an hour or so late. When we sat in the filed in the rain for over an hour, I knew there was no way that I would arrive in Dillon South Carolina anywhere near 7:10 PM. My traveling companion (the retired postal worker) announced that we were already 3 hours late. About that time the conductor walked past with the car attendant. An announcement had been made some time ago that our car had not heard. The conductor announced to the car that a tornado had passed through the area earlier and that trees were down on the track. He told us that we would have to wait until crews cleared the track. The passengers began to moan, but I thought about how lucky we were. Had the train been on time, we might have been at the location that the trees had fallen when the tornado passed through. The train might have been derailed and rather than sitting safely in our coach seats, we might be laying beside the tracks in a ditch. This was the only good thing I could find in this extremely frustrating situation. It was a situation that could have been less miserable had the crew maintained a positive attitude and communicated with the passengers.
I took this announcement as my invitation to get something to eat as I would surely miss dinner with my family. In the café I found a group of women drinking and playing cards. They were all talking about the tornado that was going to hit the train. A man behind me on his cell phone was telling someone in Baltimore that we were stuck in the middle of (He used a bad word here) nowhere and a tornado was going to hit the train. The conductor heard this as he walked passed and he asked the café attendant if the announcement had been heard. He was told that the AP system was not working well in the café either. He made the announcement about the trees and people returned to less panic stricken activities. I returned to my seat and ate a meal of Pizza, and Crystal Hamburgers. The burgers were OK. To this day I still taste them. The pizza stuck to the plastic sack it was cooked in and I ended up picking the cheese off the raping. That was frustrating. The café was already running out of food. I was lucky to get one of the last bottles of water from the business class cooler. I mentioned that the café was running short of things and my traveling companion shared with me that he had learned from a crew member on another train, that cafes are often turned and put back into service without stocking supplies for the next trip. We got into a wonderful conversation about the Pullman Company and an article I had read there after.
The delay for what turned out to be two sets of trees was about six and one-half hours. This allowed me to see all four of the movies and to get very frustrated again with the headsets. Passengers around me were curious about the train's status. The car attendant and all other crew excluding the café attendant had disappeared. At one point tired of sitting I walked the length of the train. I found our attendant in the open vestibule of the last coach talking to a young conductor standing track side. The rain had given way to a beautiful amber sky at that point. I asked the attendant, "Do we have any idea when we'll get moving again." He shrugged his shoulders. I could not help but think, "This is the type of employee that someone lets work business class." Amtrak was getting to be like the airlines with their often rude flight attendants. Later back in my seat a lady near us caught the attendant again and asked, "Do we have a status?" The attendant replied, "We don't have a status" abruptly. As he walked away the woman asked loudly, "What does that mean?" The lack of information but more so the unwillingness of the crew to keep the train informed was the worst part of the trip. It would have helped if the conductor periodically would have come through the car and told everyone, "We don't know any more than we did an hour ago but as soon as I know something I will share that with you." At the end of the long wait, the conductor announced that the first of the two downed trees had been cleared and we were moving forward. The train traveled about 2 miles further south before stopping again for another twenty minutes or so. When we started once again the train maintained optimum speed until the next stop.
We made a quick stop at Rocky Mount, N.C. and then resumed a quick pace. This was around 10:30 PM and the video equipment was turned off. The car attendant took his space and I watched as he went to sleep. A woman traveling with her daughter (a teenager attached to a cell phone) and her two elderly parents approached the attendant near Wilson. She asked for a wheel chair for her mother. This put the attendant into a panic. He left the car and returned with word that the station had a wheel chair machine that would be used. The conductor appeared and said he would help get the lady off at Wilson. He wasn't sure if the station had the device. We stopped in Wilson at about 11:00 PM and helping this elderly couple off the train added to our delay. I'm not sure if there was a wheel chair machine or if the couple were carried down. Between Wilson, N.C. and Fayetteville, N.C. the attendant returned to sleep. I took a walk back to the café. It was closed with a sign saying the attendant would return at 12:30 AM. That's when I discovered that it was already midnight.
Returning to my seat I road worried that I might fall asleep and the attendant fail to wake me for Dillon. We stopped in Fayetteville, NC, which actually woke up the attendant. He helped a few people off and a few on. As he passed my seat I asked, "How long until Dillon." He turned and looked at me as if he had never seen me before, "You're going to Dillon?"
"Yes." I replied.
"Not much longer."
I watched the young man return to sleep as we got closer to South Carolina. When we crossed the state line where the South of the Boarder lights are visible in the night from the coach window I began getting my bags down. The conductor appeared and asked if I was going to Dillon.
I replied, "Yes."
"I'll let you off back here." He said. "Can I help you with your bags."
That was nice but but this point I just wanted off and would care to my own things.
I arrived in Dillon, S.C. after 1:00 AM met by my wife and my daughter sleeping in the back seat of our car. I was happy to hear from my wife that the 800 number representatives had been very informative of our train status while my wife waited the additional six hours it took to meet my train. She had called and Julie kept reporting the lengthening delay until finally the voice instructed her to request to speak to an agent. Fearing the train had derailed, my wife spoke to the agent who as my wife puts it was very helpful telling her exactly what the delay was caused by and where the train was last reported.
Detraining at around 1:20 AM I did not get my usual look at the train other than the two locomotives. We were lucky to cross the tracks before the train pulled out of Dillon so I did get a good look at the amount of mail on the rear.
I did not mention the condition of the equipment I rode in. The Business Class coaches I occupied southbound other than the broken video equipment audio system were in fair condition. The toilets were clean and both were refurbished to include blue striped wallpaper on the wall in the lavatory, seats with comfortable cushions and clean upholstery. Both Café cars were clean but the menus displayed often offered items that were not in stock. Amtrak must do a better job of stocking the food service cars. On most trains there is not much more one can do than look out of the window and eat. I am happy that the Palmetto at least has a Business Class car. I still do not understand why Amtrak doesn't offer passengers traveling 977 miles over 25 hours sleeping car space. I appreciated the small compartments as a business traveler. There I could work on the laptop in privacy. Business class doesn't offer the privacy and balancing a laptop on that pull down tray table is not easily done. Some people can ride in a coach seat over night and sleep comfortably. I could not and would never take the Palmetto south as the majority of the trip through South Carolina, Georgia and some of Florida is at night. As I left my retired postal worker in Dillon, I thought of how he would sleep in his chair for the next 12 hours with only a small pillow and lap blanket to keep him comfortable. That was his only option on the Palmetto. Both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star host three sleeper per train set. Could one of those trains give a sleeper back to the Palmetto? Diner service isn't necessary, but I think the sleeper would be welcomed.
My northbound trip was excellent. The southbound trip left me wondering why I bother with the frustration each year. I'll see how I feel next spring. I am sure I will travel Amtrak again. It's very convenient. I just wish the company could get it's act together and provide the same quality of service in both directions.