Sebring, FL to Baltimore, MD and return on the Silver Meteor
March 1-4, 2004
My wife Irene and I, along with our Chihuahua Tina set out on an RV trip on February 19, 2004 to Key West, FL. On our return we stopped at an RV park in LaBelle, Florida near Lake Okeechobee where we participated in a "Rally" (get together) of our RV club. I had a one-day meeting in Baltimore on March 3rd. We realized we could not get home in time to leave from our home in Georgia on the Crescent, but we realized we could take the Silver Meteor from Florida and return to our RV. I was excited because this route would be new Amtrak mileage for me.
We looked at the Meteor's route and found that Sebring and Winter Haven were not too far from LaBelle. Amtrak reported some vandalism to cars left in their parking lot in Sebring, but not in Winter Haven. However, we could not find an RV park in Winter Haven, so we chose Sebring.
My meeting in Baltimore was from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm. We discovered the Meteor arrived at Baltimore at 7:00 am and returned at 9:54 pm. Therefore we would not need a hotel in Baltimore. We went up and returned the same day while our RV remained in the RV park in Sebring.
I carried a scanner that I programmed with frequencies for the Silver Meteor that I found on On Track On Line, and I also took a GPS receiver.
The following is an account of our trip:
Monday, March 1st
This morning we said our goodbye's to our fellow Overland Trailblazers in LaBelle, FL. We headed north towards U.S. highway 27 on a pleasant 75-mile drive to Sebring, FL. We set up the motorhome and drove the truck that we tow behind it into town to check out the route to the Amtrak station. On the way we dropped off paperwork at the vet where we will board Tina tomorrow.
George was very excited to see the station. It is the original Atlantic Coastline station and has been restored to its original beauty and glory. It is a Spanish style structure typical of those built by the Atlantic Coast Line. Three passenger trains pass through the station daily: the Silver Meteor, the Palmetto, and the Silver Star.
We talked with some people who were waiting on the Silver Star. It was delayed several hours by a freight derailment to the south which blocked the track. After visiting the station, we walked around the charming downtown circle and Irene visited several shops. After dinner in the RV we packed for the trip to Baltimore.
Tuesday, March 2nd
This morning we dropped Tina off at the vet on our way to the Amtrak station. We arrived sooner than we had predicted at about 9:30 am. The Silver Meteor is scheduled to arrive Sebring at 10:16 am, but was running about fifty minutes late.
What a trip this will be - 970 miles to Baltimore. We boarded sleeper 9811, standard bedroom 04. Our sleeping car attendant was Fred. He did a good job of keeping George supplied with bottled water.
The consist of our train was as follows: Genesis locomotive, baggage car, crew dorm car, sleepers 9811 and 9810, dining car, café lounge, and four coaches. The train length was 670 feet as determined by the CSX equipment defect detectors that George monitored with the scanner radio.
The trip began as we observed the many orange groves of this part of central Florida. There was an interesting railroad junction in Auburndale where Amtrak routes from Tampa and Miami join and go to Jacksonville. We went around a sharp curve there at 10 mph.
We had lunch with a young woman and her two-year-old daughter. She was headed to Fayetteville, N.C. to help a friend who is having a baby while her husband is in Iraq.
We met the southbound Silver Meteor, train # 97 at the area of the junction of FL Highway 40 and U.S. 17. The train follows Highway 17 at least through South Carolina. Near Orlando we saw I-4, and there was a lot of urban congestion that affected those in cars, but not us.
We went through the downtown area of Orlando and passed Church Street Station, a restored railroad station that now houses stores, restaurants, and shops all with a railroad theme.
A short way north of Orlando, we passed through Winter Park, a lovely town with a charming, well landscaped downtown park surrounded by shops and restaurants. It is interesting to travel along side the secondary roads of Florida instead of the Interstate that we are accustomed to in the car.
In Sanford, FL we saw Amtrak's Auto Train and maintenance facility, automobiles being driven up steel ramps into the upper level the auto carrier cars, a line of headlights of cars waiting to load, and the bi-level Auto Train cars.
We crossed the St. Johns River just south of Palatka about 3:00 pm. At 5: 22 pm we crossed the St. Mary's river that forms the border between Florida and Georgia. At 5:28 pm we passed through Folkston, GA, where we saw train fans along side the track. We had read an article called "Train Spotters" in Southern Living magazine about the gazebo the town built for train fans. The CSX, whose track we are on, and the Norfolk Southern pass parallel to each other through Folkston providing a lot of train traffic to entertain train fans.
At 5:21 pm the engineer called in a "dark signal" to the dispatcher and the train slowed to 15 mph. That meant a signal light was burned out requiring the engineer to get permission from the dispatcher to proceed.
We made a ten minute stop in Jacksonville. A tank truck pulled up alongside the locomotive and pumped in 1,400 gallons of diesel fuel. The driver said he sometimes pumps in as much as 2,300 gallons. The sleeping car attendant said Jacksonville is the only fuel stop between Miami and Washington. We were paying $1.75/gal.for diesel for the RV in Florida, and at that price the cost of the fuel added would be $2,450.
During dinner in the diner we passed through Savannah, GA. We dined with an interesting couple from Boston who had just returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands. They were both computer programmers for the FAA. Oddly, the person in charge of the diner waited tables as well, and the co-ordination between him and the server was not too good. The head guy brought our entrees and the server had not yet brought our salads. However, the food in the diner is good as we have found to be generally true on Amtrak.
Wednesday, March 3rd
We had a restful night's sleep and arose at 6:00am. The Meteor arrived in Washington, D.C. one hour late at 6:45 am. Approaching Washington we saw a beautiful sunrise during breakfast. In Washington we got an electric locomotive, and we noted a maximum speed of 109 mph between Washington and Baltimore (as recorded by GPS). The speed limit on this section of heavier rail on concrete ties is 110 mph for conventional Amtrak trains. Amtrak owns most of the track between Washington D.C. and Boston. The speed limit on the rest of the Amtrak system is 79 mph, though we saw speeds as high as 82.3 mph on the Meteor.
The late schedule worked to our advantage because it gave us time for breakfast before arriving in Baltimore. We arrived in Baltimore at about 8:00 am. George attended his meeting at the BWI Embassy Suites Hotel from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm. Irene wrote cards, walked, and read a book (The Ladies Auxiliary).
We set out from the Embassy Suites Hotel in the hotel van for a seafood restaurant near the airport. However we realized that the van service was too slow and unreliable to allow us enough time to eat and return to the hotel in time for our 8:30 taxi appointment to Penn station, so we returned to the hotel for dinner which turned out to be quite good.
Our train left on time at 9:54 pm. We had a surprise waiting for us in our sleeper room when George took off his shoes and discovered that the floor was wet. We asked for a different room, but the conductor was not very helpful or competent. He offered us a seat in coach with a refund of our sleeping car fee, but we were not interested in that. George queried whether the conductor had information about available rooms, but did not get a clear answer. The conductor just said that all rooms were taken. The conductor said he would see if there were any cancellations when we got to Washington. We later found out that Washington was the end of his run. George asked couldn't the conductor call in to find out about available rooms. Again, no answer.
George then went to the diner and used our cell phone to call Amtrak. George explained our situation and the conductor's response. The reservation agent told George that there were two standard bedrooms available all the way to Sebring and gave him the room and car numbers.
George presented this information to the sleeping car attendant. The attendant took this information to the conductor and came back saying for us to take one of the rooms. We were tired and very happy to get to bed.
The next day George talked to a new conductor who said conductors have a print out of the reservation status of all rooms, and there is a company phone in the diner that could be used to check the status of any bookings that were made after the print out was done.
Thursday, March 4th
This morning we awoke at 7:00 am just north of Florence, S.C. From the scanner George learned that engineer Bennett was at the controls of engine #5, an Amtrak Genesis, and we were on double track. We were on track #2 (westernmost). In Charleston the engineer requested and got permission from the dispatcher to move to track #1.
We enjoyed seeing the pine forests of the coastal plain. George spotted three Greyhound Scenic-Cruiser Buses in someone's yard - obviously a collector who might intend to convert them to RV's.
We crossed many rivers and estuaries. We also saw lots of jet contrails in the blue sky above. This area is obviously an air corridor between the northeast and Florida.
George enjoyed pancakes and turkey sausage for breakfast while Irene had eggs and bacon. At 10:46 am, between Charleston and Savannah, engineer Bennett radioed, "Conductor, this train is going into emergency in about five seconds." There was no response from the conductor. Then the engineer said, "He got out of the way in time." The engineer then described a gasoline tank truck that was not clearing the crossing ahead. The conductor finally replied, "We don't need none of that."
We left Savannah at 10:59 am one hour and fifteen minutes late. Just south of Savannah near the junction of U.S. Highway 17 and I-95 there was a big railroad junction. We departed Jacksonville at 1:48 pm, an additional fifteen minutes late due to the late arrival of the engineer for this shift. When we did get underway the conductor reported "179 on board."
Just below Jacksonville at milepost 649, the engineer was alerted by the dispatcher of a work gang on the track ahead and ordered to stop. He was ordered to proceed at 10 mph once the work vehicles were clear of the track. There were some pickup trucks and also some heavier work trucks, one of which had a cab like that of an eighteen wheeler tractor, that were riding the rails on rubber tires with the assistance of steel flanged guide wheels. The engineer radioed the conductor that we just made it across the St. Johns River draw bridge before it opened. That would have been an additional delay to stop for the drawbridge.
We had lunch with a couple from Manhattan, NY. She was a teacher of the blind and he was a building manager who worked in a building across the street from the Empire State building. They got off in Palatka, FL.
At Palatka the train was 1hr, 17 min. late. South of Palatka we saw dogwood trees in bloom, and also saw many white fire ant mounds. Clover was beginning to bloom along U.S. Highway. 17.
We departed Deland 1hr., 28 min. late. At 4:14 pm we passed the bi-level Auto Train at Benson which is seven miles north of the Auto Train facility in Sanford, FL.
At 5:10 pm we waited a few hundred feet north of the Orlando station because the Silver Star (train # 92) was in the station. When the Silver Star pulled out of the station, we took its place as the engineer was advised to look out for two drunks near the tracks. The day before the Silver Star was 11 hrs. late arriving into Baltimore due to engine failure.
We were due to arrive in Sebring a couple of minutes before 6:00 pm which would not have given us enough time to have dinner in the diner. Again, luck was with us and the approximately 1hr., 30 min. schedule delay allowed us time to have dinner before arriving in Sebring. We had dinner with a lady from Charleston, S.C. who was visiting her daughter in Miami.
Upon our arrival in Sebring we were pleased to find that our truck was OK in the parking lot. We stopped to buy some groceries before going "home" to our coach. We had a relaxing evening before retiring.