Amtrak: Anniston, Alabama to Vermont, Maine, and Return
October 11-19, 2003
Our trip started at the Amtrak station in Anniston, Alabama on Saturday, October 11, 2003. My wife Elaine and I came down from our home in Fayetteville, Tennessee and arrived about 3:30 p.m. to find the station still locked, even though the northbound Crescent (train #20) was due in thirty minutes at 4:00 p.m. The station caretaker, an older retired gentleman I recognized from previous trips on the Crescent, finally arrived about fifteen minutes before train time and unlocked the station. About this time, a charter bus pulled up to the station to wait for detraining passengers, possibly from a New Orleans excursion trip. The train arrived right on time and was double-spotted, first for the sleepers, and then the coach passengers. The platform at Anniston is in the worst condition I have ever seen and a chain link fence and gate has been erected to keep passengers away from the track until just before train time, The east end of the platform where sleeper passengers were formerly boarded appears not to be properly maintained and footing is unsafe. I have heard that the station is soon to be refurbished, after much delay and not a moment too soon.
The scenery from Anniston can best be described in one word: kudzu. It was growing all over everything that wasn't moving, from junk cars to the tops of medium-sized trees. The alignment of the Norfolk Southern Alabama Division, East End District, through rolling hills that form the southern end of the Blue Ridge, is such that train speeds are almost agonizingly slow, thus affording good viewing opportunities for kudzu. If this line is to be upgraded as a part of the proposed Southeast High Speed Corridor a lot of civil engineering and earthmoving will have to be done to straighten out the kinks of its nineteenth-century alignment. Some of the curves are limited to only 30 mph, with most varying from 35 to 55. There are 48 separate speed restrictions for curves between Anniston and Austell, Georgia. At Austell, the Alabama Division ends and joins the Georgia Division line from Chattanooga. Double track begins here for the remaining ten miles to Atlanta.
We decided to go to the dining car for dinner before arrival in Atlanta to avoid the crush of passengers that usually board there for the overnight trip to DC. I had the Turkey Tenderloins, turkey medallions wrapped in bacon and grilled. Elaine had Beef Tenderloin, blackened. Both of us agreed that the food and service was excellent, a truly fine dining experience. We departed the diner and returned to our sleeper just as the train pulled into Atlanta, on time.
The Viewliner standard bedroom offers more than adequate space for two for daytime travel. Once the berths are made up, though, standing room is definitely limited. Also, even if you are very intimately acquainted with your travel partner as we were after nearly 28 years of marriage, using the toilet in the standard bedroom is, well, somewhat disconcerting, what with it being "right out there" in the room. That said, I have to hand it to Amtrak, they were very creative in the design of the Viewliner. By squeezing another bed into the ceiling to make a two-person accommodation, they used about the same amount of space as a one-person roomette in the old 10-6 sleepers. If you can afford the extra cost, though, I would recommend upgrading to the deluxe bedroom for more space and personal privacy. Also, having a shower available in the Viewliner is an added plus over the 10-6.
Elaine liked the small screen TV in the room. Both kids at heart, we enjoyed watching the Bugs Bunny cartoons that were shown prior to the movie selections. I don't remember too much about the movies since I was watching the small towns and the moonlit countryside go by. I had brought along a bottle of German wine to drink (inspired by the lyric's of Joni Mitchell's 1973 song, "Just Like This Train"), but as it turned out we didn't even uncork it. We finally had the beds made up somewhere between Gainesville and Toccoa. I graciously took the top bunk, turned out the lights, pulled back my curtains, and watched the full moon keep pace with us.
We continued on time until Clemson, where we waited at the station about fifteen minutes for a southbound freight to clear. After leaving Clemson, I finally fell asleep and remained so until shortly before arriving at Lynchburg. Being an early riser, I got up and went down the hall to get a shower. Let me tell you, taking a shower is quite an experience at 79 mph. Afterwards, I came back to our room and climbed back up in my bed. I laid there in the predawn light and watched the Virginia countryside come to life. By the time we got to Charlottesville, the sun was finally coming up and Elaine was coming to life as well. We both got dressed and headed for the dining car for breakfast. She ordered the Continental breakfast with oatmeal, croissant, and yogurt. I ordered two eggs with grits and biscuit, since I figured this would be the last "Southern" breakfast I would have for several days. The scenery from Charlottesville is typical Piedmont Virginia, with numerous cattle and horse farms and occasional glimpses of the Blue Ridge to the west.
As we approached Manassas, the ever-expanding Washington suburbia became apparent, especially after passing the VRE commuter train terminal at Broad Run Airport. After departing Manassas, we returned to our room to await our arrival in Alexandria. Passing through Clifton, we saw folks dressed in period costume for Clifton Days, a weekend festival celebrating the town's history. Clifton was spared much of the devastation visited upon nearby countryside during the First and Second Battles of Bull Run (or Manassas, if you're from the South).
Thanks to schedule padding, we had made up the fifteen minutes we lost during the night at Clemson and arrived in Alexandria right on time. We were greeted by our oldest daughter Melanie, who now lives and works in Alexandria. After dropping off our bags at her place, we went on a walking tour of Old Town and the Alexandria waterfront. The recent flooding from Hurricane Isabel was apparent as many businesses near the Potomac were either closed or undergoing repair of water damage.
The next morning, we had to rise quite early. Since it was Columbus Day, VRE was running an abbreviated holiday schedule, thus limiting our choice of inbound trains. We boarded VRE train #324 at 6:33 a.m. in Alexandria and arrived at Washington Union Station at 7:00. After arriving in Union Station, I went down to the food court and picked up some breakfast for Elaine. She was not feeling well because she suffers somewhat from motion sickness, which for her was aggravated by having an empty stomach.
About 7:15, boarding was announced for train #56, the Vermonter, from Gate F. We departed right on time at 7:30. The conductor announced that the train was completely sold out as far as New York, so passengers were advised to not leave their belongings on the seat next to them as they WOULD be asked to move them to make room for passengers boarding at Baltimore and Philadelphia. We were lucky to have gotten on at Washington, since we got seats together. Couples boarding later were not so fortunate. Nearly 200 people boarded at Philadelphia and by the time we left Metropark, folks were standing in the aisles.
This was my first time to ride on the NEC since 1978. My overall impression is that the railroad and the trains are not "gold-plated" as many NEC detractors would have you believe. Yes, there are a lot of trains scheduled up here, but they are nothing fancy compared to the long-distance trains like the Crescent, just basic utilitarian transportation.
Leaving Newark and crossing the Meadowlands, the Manhattan skyline came into view. When I was last here in 1978, the then-new World Trade Center towers dominated the skyline. This was my first time to see them gone. Arriving at Penn Station, nearly half the train emptied out. This was somewhat misleading because by the time we departed, the train was nearly full again. Imperceptibly at first, but increasingly so as we went on from New York, the train was changing character from just another Corridor train and was truly becoming the Vermonter. We left the business travelers behind in New York and picked up loads of college students heading back to the U of Mass, Dartmouth, the U of Vermont and others, along with regular folks like us heading for the mostly smaller towns up the line.
We paused at New Haven to change from a single electric locomotive (HHP #664) to a diesel on both ends of the train. No ex-F40 "cabbage" car for us. We're headed for the Green Mountains, so we'll be able to use that horsepower climbing upgrade. Leaving New Haven, we leave the urgency of the NEC behind for the slower pace of Amtrak's Springfield line. No more will we see 100+ mph speeds. We now pass through the center of towns with the intimacy found only on single track lines like this. We are now back in 79 mph territory. Arriving in the Connecticut capital of Hartford, I see that several tracks in the station have been removed in years past. It always saddens me to see this, especially in these days when railroads are crying that they don't have the track capacity to add new passenger trains.
The further we went the more color we saw in the autumn leaves. This was especially noticeable after we left New Haven and headed directly north and inland away from the climate-moderating effect of the Atlantic Ocean. We also started to see more hills, especially north of Hartford.
After leaving Springfield, we head east on CSX's Boston and Albany line to the junction with the former Central Vermont, now the New England Central, at Palmer, Mass. Until the early 1980's, this train's predecessor, the overnight Montrealer, went straight north from Springfield through Northhampton on the Boston & Maine RR. Because of deteriorating track on the Guilford's B& M, the train was rerouted to the CV. Because of the track configuration at Palmer, the train reverses direction for the remainder of the trip; hence the diesel on both ends as we now head north. There are numerous slow orders for what appear to be track deficiencies. In one case, we actually slowed to walking speed while a track supervisor crouched down to watch our wheels pass over what I guess must have been a broken rail or a soft spot in the roadbed. Between Amherst, Mass. and Brattleboro, Vermont we had to stop and back in to a siding to allow the southbound Vermonter #55 to pass. This only took about fifteen minutes or so, not bad when considering the extra time it took us having to back in.
Since the Vermonter is a Vermont state-supported train, we stop at just about every town we come to once we get into the state. I find this to be very interesting in that it demonstrates the benefits of rail passenger service to small towns with no other transportation options. It just seems like a human-scaled system that is very user-friendly. This train, unlike the Acela Express, is definitely not trying to be an airplane without wings. It is doing what the long-distance train does best, i.e. providing transportation service to "flyover" country. Critics of long-distance services like the Sunset Limited bray about how "no one" would ride a train three days from Los Angeles to Orlando. True, most folks don't ride a train from end to end like air passengers obviously must do. But, even though most people don't stay on for the full length of the trip, the train stays fairly full because people are getting on to replace those getting off at intermediate stops. Unlike a plane, trains can roll up to stop just about anywhere and let people on or off. That is their niche.
Ever since we got to Brattleboro, we have been paralleling the Connecticut River. By the time we leave White River Junction it is dark outside, so we are going to miss seeing the Green Mountains in daylight. Our train has to back in to another siding near Montpelier to allow a southbound freight train to pass. It is already waiting on the mainline for us, so our delay is minimal.
We finally arrive in Essex Junction about twenty five minutes late at 8:25 p.m. We are staying at the Willey's Farm B&B in Essex for a few days. Our host, Lynn Willey, has graciously come to the station to pick us up. Her B&B is located just a half-mile away and is right across the road from the tracks north of town.
Leaving Vermont on Thursday morning, we begin heading east to New Hampshire and Maine on US 302. It is cold day with off and on rain. As we approach the summit of Crawford Notch in New Hampshire, the rain begins to change over to snow. Coming down from the Notch, we can see the Conway Scenic Railroad clinging to the mountainside on our right. We will have to come back in the future to ride this spectacular line. We are headed to Boothbay Harbor, north of Portland, for the night.
After leaving Boothbay the next day, we make our way down the coast toward Portland. We stop in Bath, home of the Bath Iron Works shipyard, and visit the Maine Maritime Museum located at the site of the historic Percy and Small Shipyard. Percy and Small built wooden schooners from 1894 up to 1920, including the six-masted Wyoming, the largest wooden sailing vessel ever launched in the United States.
Arriving in Portland Friday night, we checked in to our hotel and then I drove to airport to drop off our rental car. It sure would be nice to be able to do this at the train station. While waiting at the airport for the hotel van to pick me up to return to the hotel, a chill comes over me as I realize that this is the airport from which Mohammed Atta and some of other 9/11 hijackers began the infamous journey.
The wake up call Saturday morning comes very early. We are leaving Portland on train #680, the Downeaster, at 6:05 a.m. The train has a "cabbage" car up front, four coaches, a café car, and a diesel pushing on the rear. It is still dark when we leave and remains so until we near the New Hampshire state line. Like the Vermonter, there are quite a few college students on this train, especially at Durham, home of the U of NH. We cross into Massachusetts just before our stop at Haverhill (rhymes with Averill). I am struck at the great number of abandoned and closed factories along the line. This pattern exists all the way to Baltimore.
Arrival in Boston's North Station is a few minutes late, but still leaves us plenty of time to get to South Station in time for our departure on train #2253, the Acela Express, at 11:00 a.m. Getting from North Station to South Station is not too difficult unless you are carrying luggage. Fortunately, most luggage sold nowadays is wheeled. Even with rolling luggage, it is a bit of hassle considering we had to go through three turnstiles and two subway lines (Orange and Red). Note to Amtrak: provide Downeaster passengers connecting to South Station with some kind of shuttle service; the transfer could be fairly seamless experience for the passenger, but right now it's not.
Once we arrive at South Station we head for the ClubAcela, the first class passenger lounge up on the mezzanine level of the station, which we are entitled to use by virtue of our first class tickets on the Crescent from Washington later the same day. It is a very nice and fairly quiet place to wait for our train. There are complementary light snacks, soft drinks and bottled water, newspapers and magazines, and several computers with internet access. I log on and check my home e-mail while we are waiting. Soon enough it is time for us to leave.
This is my first experience with the Acela Express. The seats are very comfortable, but the interior looks a little bit too much like an airplane to suit my taste. I guess it's the overhead storage bins, complete with door, instead of the traditional overhead luggage rack that makes the difference for me. It seems as though Acela is ashamed to be considered a mere train and instead strives to be an airplane without wings. I suppose mimicking an aircraft cabin was a conscious effort by the Acela designers to offer a known commodity to the business traveler that the train caters to. The cars are semi-permanently connected by drawbars instead of couplers, so the noise of banging buffer plates and diaphragms is eliminated.
Once underway, the performance of this train is astounding. With 12,500 hp, acceleration is almost comparable to that of an automobile. Braking is blended dynamic/air and almost as dramatic as acceleration. We were thrown off balance more forward and backward than we were from side to side. Once we left Route 128, the much-awaited 150 mph running began. We really didn't notice much change from mere 120 other than the fact that the scenery was going by very quickly. After leaving Providence, 150 mph resumed. At one point, our conductor, Dave Bowe, announced on the intercom, "This is Kingston.that was Kingston". I have known Dave for several years from the All Aboard list on Yahoo Groups, so I went up front to introduce myself.
After we reached the Connecticut shoreline and we had to slow for the many curves and occasional drawbridges and grade crossings. Amtrak's ex-New Haven Shore Line will never be a true high-speed line unless it is thoroughly realigned and all the drawbridges and grade crossings are eliminated. Dave explained that the excessive curvature of the right-of-way is a throwback to the nineteenth century wishes of wealthy and influential landowners who did not want the railroad bisecting the property and had the political connections to make sure their wishes were upheld. Just goes to show that NIMBY-ism is not something new to our age.
Approaching New York we were held up by Metro North Railroad stop signals for several minutes. By now we were about eight minutes late and arrived at 2:50 p.m. We had an elderly lady on the train hoping to make a tight connection to the westbound Lake Shore Limited in New York. At Dave's request, the station dispatcher routed us to the track adjacent to the Lake Shore to enable a simple cross-platform transfer for this lady. I thought that this simple act of kindness would go a long way toward establishing Amtrak's reputation as a compassionate organization in that lady's mind, one she probably would not soon forget, and would likely tell her family and friends about. This is the kind of publicity Amtrak can't buy and needs more of.
I bid goodbye to Dave at New York and returned to my seat. We settled back for the remainder of the journey through the post-Industrial Age landscape of the NEC. We passed the southbound Crescent at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Thanks to the Crescent's generous dwell time there and its slower running time, we were able leave New York ten minutes after its departure and arrive in Washington well over one hour before it did. After arriving, we again repaired to the ClubAcela to wait for advance boarding of the Crescent.
After boarding the train and stowing our bags in our room, I got off and walked up the platform to record the consist numbers. As I was writing down the engine numbers, a suddenly energetic station employee came screeching to a halt in her golf cart conveyance and in her most intimidating voice asked just what did I think I was doing. At my age, I am not easily intimidated and calmly replied that I was recording the car and engine numbers of the train's consist. This flew all over her. She fairly screamed that I could NOT do that because of national security reasons. I matter-of-factly said that that was fine, that I would just record the numbers somewhere else down the line, perhaps at Charlotte or Atlanta. At that, she flew off in a rage to report me to the Authorities. Soon enough, another "gentleman" asked me, as my previous accoster had, just what did I think I was doing and furthermore, why was I doing it? I told him the same thing I told her, that I had been engaging in this activity for over thirty years and, moreover, I did not see how this could possibly be considered a security breach. By now, visions of being hauled off for FBI questioning instead of traveling on the Crescent that night came to mind so I deferred any further escalation of the brouhaha and began trying to come up with some sort of exit strategy.
Just then our sleeping car attendant had come to my rescue and told them that, for goodness sakes, I was just a railfan and that recording engine numbers was just one of the harmless behaviors fans engage in. He asked them, rhetorically, that if the engine number was to be kept a secret, then why were they applied in three-foot tall reflective numbers on the side of the locomotive? To say that this did not endear him to platform "police" would be an understatement. He later said that was the most animated he had ever seen them become in the years he had been in Amtrak's employ. I didn't really let down my guard until after we left Washington and the Union Station hysteria behind.
As soon as we left the District, we decided it was time head to the dining car. We were seated across from a very obnoxious elderly woman and her son from Franklin, NC. She complained loudly and constantly about everything, especially the menu selections, and that Mr. Gunn was going to hear from her. It turned out that they "loved" riding the train and had been doing so for last thirty-three days on a North America Rail Pass. I thought silently that even if they liked riding trains more than I do, perhaps it was time for them to take a break from the train. I made a mental note to myself to postpone going to the diner for breakfast until after they get off the train at Toccoa.
I wish I could say that the dining experience that night was as memorable as the one we had on the northbound Crescent the week before. Even though we had the same dining car crew as then, tonight we had the other waiter named Stephanie. She was pleasant and courteous, but she was just not very attentive to details. She took forever to bring our iced tea and when she finally bought out our salads, they were devoid of any dressing. I ordered the steak cooked medium, and received it well done. Elaine ordered blackened catfish and got it definitely not blackened. By this time it was 8:30 and we were too hungry to offer any protest. After dinner, we returned to our room, watched the movie and then went to bed.
I woke up as we braked for our station stop in Charlotte at 2:45 a.m., some fifteen minutes early. We already had thirty minutes dwell time, so we sat there for 45 minutes. I woke up again as we crossed Hartwell Lake into Georgia, just as it was just getting light out. We crossed the spectacular Toccoa Viaduct in the predawn light. Remembering my mental note from the night before, we went to the diner for breakfast after leaving Toccoa behind, along with our dinner guests from the night before. Also recalling the inattentive service from Stephanie last night, we made sure to sit on the other side of the diner so we would have the same friendly, efficient waiter who served us on the way up.
Unfortunately for one of the diners across the aisle, Stephanie was not paying much attention to them either. When this lady inquired of the dining car steward as to when she would receive her orange juice, he replied in a very rude manner, "Am I your waiter?" Evidently, she did not care if he was her waiter; he was in charge of the dining car, so she repeated her question. Again, but with more emphasis, he repeated, "Excuse me, but am I your waiter?" Everyone at our table was taken aback at his rudeness toward a paying customer. Apparently, the steward, an older black gentleman, must be carrying some sort of chip on his shoulder. Whatever his problem may be, he does not belong in a service occupation if he cannot act in a civil and courteous manner toward his guests.
Arriving in Atlanta still right on time, we gathered our belongings and moved back to coach for the remainder of the trip to Anniston. True to my word, I took advantage of our lengthy station stop to record the consist as our sleeping car attendant feigns alarm. We had a good laugh after recalling last nights incident at Washington.
After traveling almost nonstop for over 24 hours and on three different trains since leaving Portland, we are ready to get home. After winding through the hills, we arrive at Anniston two minutes early. My mother is waiting for us at the station. We load our bags in her trunk and after another three hour riding in her car, we'll be home.