Amtrak Trip Florida to White Sulphur Springs and Return
March 2-12, 2004
In March I traveled first class (I thought!) from Orlando, Florida to White Sulphur Springs for a weeks stay at the Greenbriar. My reservations were made on the Internet several months in advance and confirmed. I was to leave Orlando on March 3, 2004 on the Silver Star, train 92. I later changed to departure on March 2, 2004 and was told to exchange my ticket in Orlando. I was coming from my home near Port Charlotte, Florida and therefore had to take an Amtrak Thruway bus to Orlando.
The bus arrived at my stop in Port Charlotte, right off I-75 on time at 9:20 AM. having originated in Fort Myers. The coach was nice, large and very clean. I was the only passenger until we reached the stop in Sarasota where 2 others boarded. We proceeded up I-75 and I-275 to a stop in St. Petersburg where three people boarded. We then proceeded to the Tampa Amtrak station where many boarded, enough to nearly fill the coach. I was somewhat surprised at the poor condition of the exterior of the Tampa station. I did not get off the bus but was told the interior has been restored and is very nice. Outside the trainshed is falling apart, all rust and broken fittings etc. There are currently four bumpers (leads) with track of what looks to have been at one time about 12 tracks. The folks getting on the bus at Tampa were complaining of slow and disorganized Amtrak service in the station.
From Tampa we proceeded up I-4 to Lakeland where there is a nice, new Amtrak station. It looks fine outside, I did not get off the bus here either. As we left Lakeland the bus driver pulled to the side of the road and had a talk with a passenger who had been cursing loudly. He removed that person from the bus and talked some more outside. I heard him say that sort of language and behavior is not permitted by Amtrak. He did then allow the person back on the bus.
We arrived in Orlando 1.5 hours ahead of schedule. The driver explained the schedule was padded because I-4 can really be slow at times. The red caps were right there to check bags, if not already done so. I went in the station to exchange my ticket. There was no line but the woman who was at the ticket window was slow and confused and kept calling her supervisor for help. Finally they discovered her computer had a problem so the supervisor took my ticket to her office and promptly returned with my new on. She also told me she would waiver the $30 charge associated with a schedule change. I thanked her and considered my 30 minutes at the window well worth $30!
While on the platform a mixed freight went by with an orange BNSF unit and a War Bonnet trailing, facing rearward. Would have been nice to see the War Bonnet on the front! It was clean and newly painted.
Train 92 was scheduled to depart at 3:53 PM. We received an announcement that the P-42 had shut down near Sebring, on the CSX main line. 92 was now expected to depart Orlando at 5:00 PM. I ask the station agent about dinner on the diner. He said there should be plenty of time to eat. I was thinking if the engine is down there is no HEP so how can they cook? At 3:50 PM CSX engine 5854 ran light north then reversed back south towards Sebring. As it turned out this engine was used to pull 92 off the main and into a siding. Why they did not pull it on up to Orlando is a mystery.
At 5:30 PM train 97 came thru going south with P-42 number 840 on the rear to couple to train 92 in Sebring. Obviously 92 would not be in Orlando at 5:00 PM!!! We were then told that 92 "should" arrive at 8:45 PM. At 7:00 PM the Orlando station master sent out for fried chicken dinners and soda for all PAX waiting for 92. The Orlando Amtrak folks were very understanding and kept us informed of as much as they knew. The Station Master told us 92 had no HEP but the diner folks did make certain everyone then on the train got sandwiches and soda, including the coach PAX. Train 92 finally departed Orlando at 9:30 PM with the broken down P-42 on the rear ( I could not get the bad engine number due to darkness and the rush to board.)
My sleeper attendant later told me the P-42 had just come out of the Miami are shops and been serviced but no one put oil in the fuel pump so it seized and the diesel shut down. (Lets get that Amtrak budget fixed so proper maintenance is done!)
Went to bed about midnight and noticed we were put in sidings and stopped twice. At 1:00 AM we were stopped and HEP was cut off for 30 Min. No explanation. At 6:15 AM we were stopped on the main by a default detector which detected sparks from an engine axle, HEP was cut off again. Having a scanner I could follow all this. The crew discovered they had run over a chain on the tracks which had wrapped around the front axle and caused a burn-out of one traction motor. They could not trip the motor back on so isolated it, removed the chain and proceeded. This took about one hour with a rather angry CSX dispatcher on the radio every five minutes.
A little after 7:00AM breakfast was called and all coach pax were invited to eat free in the diner. This caused some complaints from first class as we had already paid for our meals and so far had gotten 2 small pieces of chicken and a soda and so had the coach folks. The diner was quite crowed of course and the only food available was hard cooked scrambled eggs or French Toast. I opted for the French Toast which was cold and soggy and no side orders of any meats. The hot coffee was very good however. At this point #92 is running seven hours behind schedule. We went through Hamlet, NC at 10:20 AM and as we passed the CSX shops and yard I saw many Conrail engines, still in Conrail colors and quite a few UP Engines in the yard there. We were again put in siding for CSX freights and at noon were running 8 hours late.
For lunch I had an Angus Beef Burger which was greasy, cold and the salad was wilted. Dining crew very surly by this time. They never had been very polite or organized. My car attendant on the other hand was a very helpful and polite fellow at all times.
As we were running now about 9 hours late the diner served dinner. The only item available was chicken which is my very least favored food, no deserts. I had already had chicken the night before, cold french toast for breakfast, an unpalatable burger for lunch and now chicken again! I had no choice if I wanted to eat. The chicken was cold and greasy (Please note: I am never fussy about food and will happily eat most anything but after paying in advance for eating in the diner I was getting very disgusted!) It seems to me that somewhere between Orlando and Washington D C that Amtrak could have restocked the diner!!
We arrived in Washington D C at 11:00 PM exactly 12 hours behind schedule!! Several Amtrak officials met 92 at Washington and explained they had reserved buses and made other arrangements for passengers making connections. This more or less fell on deaf ears to a group of about 25 coach pax who wanted to be put up in Wash DC hotels at Amtrak's expense. I heard one official state there was not a hotel room available that night anywhere in Wash. He was called various bad names and shoved around, finally Amtrak police had to show up and calm it all down. My opinion is first it was not that man's fault, second, things do happen sometimes and third Amtrak was pretty much at the mercy of CSX's schedules.
I have ridden Amtrak for many years and this is my first encounter with trains so late and food so bad.
The next day I met a friend and we stayed overnight in Washington. On the 4th we took the Cardinal for White Sulphur Springs. I had reserved first class tickets on this train and hoped for a really good (usually they are) lunch in the diner. Upon arriving at Union Station and checking in I was told that the Cardinal was downgraded for about a month with no diner and no sleepers. It seems the cars had taken a beating during the winter and had to be repaired. Amtrak had no replacements. (Are you listening Congress) We were given coach seats which was okay because we had only a 5 or 6 hour trip. I do pity those going to Chicago however! When we walked to our coach the Amtrak trainman there made us board at a door where water was shooting out from the fresh water fill spout all across the steps we had to mount. He did not apologize, put down the step stool or offer to help put our hand carries in the vestibule.(Guess he did not want to get his shoes wet!) We ended up with wet shoes as did all those who boarded there. The rest of the trip on the Cardinal was excellent.
On March 11th we boarded the Cardinal at White Sulphur Springs to return to Washington DC. The train arrived on time and there were no boarding problems. Amtrak train crew were polite, friendly and did lift our hand carries for us. At Richmond we were backed into a siding and sat for one hour which then resulted in a one hour late arrival in Washington DC. This section of the trip was also fine.
In the late afternoon of March 11 I boarded Amtrak 91 south, Silver Star, again first class. 91 left Union Station on time. The Acela Club Lounge there is great! Snacks and soda/juice etc. They board you first through a side door bypassing the main waiting room.
For dinner I had a very good and correctly cooked steak, coffee, pudding, potatoes and a green veggie, all hot and excellent. Went to bed around midnight . I might add these Viewliner economy bedrooms are quite small with the beds down. I found them to be tighter to get around in than the old roomettes. They are fine in the daytime with the beds up. I was alone and I just can not see how two people could move in there to use the toilet, etc., with the beds down. I did sleep fine although the bed was not as comfortable as the roomettes.
In the morning I was brought a newspaper and hot coffee to my room. I went for breakfast in the diner which was again excellent. Eggs up, bacon, home fries, coffee, toast butter jelly and more good hot coffee. Dining car staff busy but polite and friendly.
We arrived in Orlando 45 minutes late after an uneventful trip south. The Thruway bus was waiting and was a comfortable trip back. This was my first trip on Amtrak since 1993. Prior to that I traveled often by Amtrak.