Silver Star Alexandria-Fort Lauderdale
April 18, 2004: I just returned from Florida on a round trip on the Silver Star. I was a little apprehensive about this one since it was the first trip my wife was taking with my son and I on Amtrak in a long while. I take Amtrak regularly and the service can be "hit or miss".
Heading south the train was on time to Alexandria. The sleeping car attendant was very polite. He showed us to our rooms, gave us a dinner reservation of our choice and had a great attitude. He explained the video screens did not work "Because they laid-off the people that fix them". He always had coffee, bottle water, juice and ice ready. We slept in Rooms 3 & 4, if you are planning a trip on a Viewliner, try to get those rooms. They ride much smoother than ones over the trucks (trust me, I discovered that on the way back).
The dining car staff were very polite and efficient. As usual, the food was excellent. I got great service at each meal, and tipped accordingly. The steak is still their best entree, and the overall quality of the food was great.
The Viewliners are starting to show their age a little. I remember riding them when they were brand new. Doors don't stay open, shades don't stay down and there are a lot more rattles than there used to be. I always travel with a roll of duct tape, and a well placed hand towel stuffed in the right crevice will get rid of most noises.
We stayed on time until Sanford, where we had to wait 30 minutes while they fixed the A/C in the lounge car. After years of rail travel, I consider 30 minutes late as being "on time" for Amtrak, so no complaints.
On the way back, the Silver Star was 3 hours late leaving Miami. There were massive signal problems the night before and the southbound trains were 8-10 hours late, thus they could not get the equipment serviced and turned around in time. I got a call on my cell phone from the station agent telling me the train was late. Since we were "out of our time slot", we ended up waiting for some Tri-Rail trains and CSX freights to get out of our way. We ended up about 5 hours late when we arrived in Alexandria, Va.
We met and passed a lot of CSX freights on the way north. Aside from the usual Q409, Q400, Q416 and K277, we passed two southbound grain trains, two stone trains in Florida and we watched Q176 go by us while stopped in Rocky Mount and then passed it a few miles later. Rocky Mount was packed with trains. There were to BNSF units at the engine tracks, one in BN green and the other in orange (pumpkin) paint scheme. I met a railfan from Philly who was returning from his first visit to Folkston, Ga. He was amazed at the constant parade of trains. This weekend is the Railfest there, and I noticed the spotlights were on and railfans at the platform on our way by in the middle of the night. Truly, one of the best railfan locations I have ever been to.
The service was excellent coming north as well. I was surprised to find the video screens working in both of our rooms. We had rooms 7 & 8, which were a lot worse riding than 3 & 4. The food was good and the dining car service was also very good. Maybe, just maybe, Amtrak has finally gotten rid of some of their "problem" employees. Everyone I met and talked to, including Conductors, were courteous and polite.
Now for the ride...obviously this is not Amtrak's fault. CSX between Alexandria and Rocky Mount was absolutely terrible! There was almost constant vertical and horizontal movement. The Viewliners suspension made up for some of this, but it was still like sitting on a roller coaster. When we were in the diner, you could really feel how bad the tracks were. On a couple of occasions, even the dining car crew commented on how bad the ride was. This was usually right after they spilled a tray of drinks due to a rough piece of track.
I'm not going to get into CSX bashing here, but all I can say is that you sure as hell knew when you left CSX and entered NS trackage. The ride from Selma to Raleigh on NS was like night-and-day. The trackage was MUCH smoother and no roller coaster effects. Raleigh to Hamlet on CSX was pretty rough, but south of Hamlet, the track got a lot smoother. Most of the Florida ride was better than up north.
Since we were so late coming north, it was interesting to arrive in Hamlet during daylight. The Seaboard engine and caboose have been moved to the other side of the relocated station and I saw a few railfans along the way.
I also noticed that the open-end observation car that used to be stored at the Rocky Mount public works building is now located on the private car track next to the freight house with the ACL (Atlantic Coast Line) whopper hopper and the caboose. There were people painting it Pullman green when we went by. Does anyone know the history/ownership of this car?
Overall it was a great trip. I hope CSX can get their act together and fix some of their trackage. The buzz from the train crews was how the two Florida trains will be combined during CSX trackwork in NC. They kept referring to it as the "Super Train". It is supposed to have two diners as well. Many Amtrak crews are suspicious that if it works, it may become permanent. We'll see.
Gregory H. Mazzie