Florence SC to Orlando FL Round Trip
Silver Service Outstanding
November 9-12, 2004
I am very happy to write the following comments covering observations of my recent trip on Amtrak from Florence, South Carolina to Orlando, Florida during November 9th, 2004 and November 12th, 2004. I found the service on board the train to be much improved over my last trip on the Palmetto. There were some flaws but Amtrak is benefiting from good leadership and investments in maintenance of equipment. The only major issue hampering the total success of this trip comes from CSX and perhaps the current schedule that took effect November 1st, 2004.
Finding a Schedule and Getting Tickets
My trip began in August 2004. The annual seminar that I must take as an individual who works on Medicare Cost Reporting for a hospital was listed by HFMA with the Orlando location. Knowing the dates of the event, I called Amtrak and got a wonderful deal on a coach seat. Initially the trip was to have been made from Dillon, S.C. to Orlando with a train change in Jacksonville, Florida. This changed with the November 1st, 2004 restructuring of Amtrak schedules on the East Coast. The Palmetto was cut back to Savannah, Georgia rather than continuing on to Miami. I thought this was a smart move. The Palmetto notoriously operated late due to the mail and express operations. This was according to the train crews. Amtrak's exit from this business line helped it focus on its core business of moving people. The schedule change moved me to Amtrak's Silver Meteor train departing from Florence, S.C. With the change and a new departure time of 1:56 AM, I questioned the price of a sleeper and found it was four times that of the coach fare I had already paid. Traveling from Florence, South Carolina, a twenty mile commute from my house to the station compared with seven to the Dillon, S.C. station, offered a direct route to Orlando without the change in Jacksonville. As the weeks grew near to my trip, I contemplated the sleeper fare again but opted out at the price that stayed at three times more than my entire ticket for space on only one leg of the trip. The thought of ridding coach all night was not something that I looked forward too either. About a week before my departure date, Amtrak's marketing department called offering sleeper space at a reduced rate. The price was affordable and I chose the sleeper southbound. My return trip was a 3:55 PM departure with a 2:00 AM arrival. I thought I could handle coach during those hours. So I bought a sleeper southbound.
With the change in schedules the Palmetto now departs northbound from the Dillon, S.C. station around 11:05 AM. I normally take my lunch break at that time. To date the Palmetto has been in the Dillon, S.C. station at that time every day since November 1st. The southbound train has been consistently within a half hour of its scheduled time through my home town of Latta each night. I do not see it, but recognize the distinctive air horns of the train as it passes through the town. I hope this timely operation will continue as I am planning a trip to Washington, D.C. in January.
The Southbound Trip
I left my home in Latta, South Carolina at 11:30 PM. This allowed me time in Florence to convert my ticket at the station to the sleeper and check baggage. McLeod Health owned the station building in Florence and its security patrolled the parking area around the station as the building sat on the hospital's main campus. I left my vehicle safely in the parking area and went into the station. The agent was very capable of changing the ticket and checking my bag. He was also very polite and answered my questions clearly. He was detailed in explaining to me how to board the train when it arrived and that my car would more than likely be at the front of the train.
While waiting for the train which at that time was reported on time, I found that a Spanish speaking lady had difficulty with her luggage. She had surpassed the weight limit on a single bag and bought boxes from Amtrak to pack some of her belongings in out of her luggage. I am not sure what she owned, but did know after speaking with her daughter and friend that she was visiting her daughter from Miami and returning home. I suspected she had made a few purchases while visiting. The daughter lived in Myrtle Beach. In all it took three of the Amtrak boxes to meet the new strictly enforced weight restrictions.
The weather that time of year in South Carolina was trifling. It was cool enough outside to require heat in the station. It was warm enough in the station that after a while a walk out of doors was needed to stay awake.
I walked outside to the platform. Switching in the CSX freight yards in Florence, I found locomotives 4720 and 6104 working the track closest to the main line through the yards. This train backed into the yard and then was locked down. I figured it was made up for departure later in the morning. On the next track over a leased Union Pacific locomotive number 4775 with a CSX unit (the number I could not read from the distance in the dark) worked another train. This continued during the duration of my wait for Amtrak's southbound Silver Meteor. I returned into the station just in time to get an announcement that my train was delayed north of Florence. Apparently it was behind a CSX freight with mechanical problems and was at a point where it could not pass. This announcement was made around 1:45 AM.
Engine and conductor crews for Amtrak had arrived and were sitting about the waiting room. One locomotive crewman was in the station when I arrived. I later learned he was the engine crew for the Auto Train. The northbound Silver Meteor crew (engine and conductor) sat down near me. The northbound engineer and conductor commented to one another. "I hope that we do not get stuck behind the Auto Train. If we do it will lay bricks all the way north and we'll never make up any time." The Auto Train engineer having heard this asked the conductor, "How do you like your new schedule." To this the young man responded, "Love it." He was not being sarcastic in the least bit. From his very neat attire and positive expression, I could tell he was very happy with the schedule. Comments were made by the Meteor Crew that they didn't understand why their train was not allowed to pass the Auto Train. One stated that it was more than likely because the Auto Train was non-stop and their train made stops. A comment was made that the dispatcher probably didn't understand that the Meteor was a faster train than the Auto Train service even though it was a non-stop train. They contemplated this for a few more minutes then moved on to other issues like where to get the best hot dog in Florence.
It was announced that the Auto Train from the south was arriving at around 1:50. I walked back out on the platform to see this. I heard air horns from the south soon there after and was happy to see headlights come around the curve into the yard. This train was headed on the closest track in the passenger station, so I thought it was the Auto Train. CSX locomotive 4736 with a TOFC consist arrived and stopped on the platform near the CSX crew building. I could not help but think that with passenger trains approaching from two directions that it was not very smart to tie up platform tracks with a freight train. This trains' crew climbed down and another came out of the CSX building. My next thought was that the train would depart immediately. This was not the case. The TOFC train lingered on the passenger track for quite a while.
I heard the sound of more air horns and the Auto Train arrived at 1:52 AM on the outer most passenger track. The Auto Train was an impressive operation. The Superliner cars gleam in the electric platform lights. The appearance was of a well organized and maintained operation. I thought this a fitting symbol of what Amtrak as a system should strive toward. All of the cars matched in their striping. The train was lead by P40 Amtrak locomotives 840 and 833 in the blue and gray scheme that many call Shamu. When the train stopped I looked down the platform north to see a local company diesel fuel truck waiting to fuel the locomotives. This obviously was the only stop for Auto Train during its trek through the night. It was not a location to take on or discharge passengers although Amtrak might consider this for passengers going south to Sanford and perhaps northbound to Lorton from Florence without their automobiles. I doubt there would be much interest or revenue generated, but since the train stops already and at a time that the station is opened it might be something to experiment with.
I was cold again so I headed back into the waiting room. The CSX TOFC train departed about that time. I was impressed with how quickly that train picked up speed and that the trailers on flatcar consist was so long. I watched it depart from through the station window.
A young woman was on cell phone with a friend she was meeting on the southbound Silver Meteor. She shared with me that the train was moving again and from what her friend said was not far from Florence. I was happy to hear that as I was tired and looked forward to the comfort of the Viewliner accommodations. The northbound conductor collected passenger tickets in the waiting room about that time. The southbound conductor followed his lead and did the same. Seeing my sleeper assignment, the conductor said, "When we get on the platform, I will tell you where to go when the train gets here."
The daughter of the Spanish speaking woman asked if I would look after her mother when the train came. Both she and her friend had a long drive back to Myrtle Beach and needed to sleep before getting their children off to school. I was happy to help.
Auto Train departed behind the CSX train. I did not return to the platform to see this. I knew it had because when I did go back outside the shinny train was gone.
The northbound Silver Meteor was announced, and an update on our southbound train was given. I walked out on the platform to see the northbound train arrive. I let the Spanish speaking woman know that this was not our train. This was at 2:40 AM. Amtrak P40 locomotive number 49 led the consist. There was a baggage car, heritage crew lounge, two Viewliner sleepers, diner, Amfleet lounge, and four Amfleet coaches. All matched in their striping. The train quickly loaded its passengers, changed crews and departed.
At around 2:50 the announcement was made for my train. I let the Spanish speaking woman know that it was time and went back out on the platform. Amtrak P40 locomotive number 7 appeared with the train. The train consist was similar to the northbound with a baggage, crew lounge, two Viewliners, diner, Amfleet café and four Amfleet coaches. The conductor pointed me forward to the only open door on the Viewliner sleepers. As I approached the platform a crewman standing on the platform asked, "May I help you?" I told him I had a sleeper ticket. He nodded his head and sent me on.
The attendants at the Viewliner opening were not aware of a passenger at this point. The man looked at my ticket and looked at his manifest. "I see you. There you are." He said finally. Follow me. He led me to my room and quickly made up the lower bed. The car was "Atlantic View". I stored my bag in the overhead space that went out over the hallway, and sat my brief case next to it. The strap on the space next to the wall was broken so I was unable to store the brief case next to my bed. I turned the video monitor channels and found no music or movies were playing. The train began moving so I opened the curtains and looked out of the window until I drifted off to sleep.
Here I must comment on CSX. The ride from Florence to Charleston was relatively smooth. It was sometimes after Charleston and before Savannah Georgia that I was tossed awake due to the condition of the CSX tracks. I have experienced wonderful comfort in Amtrak's Viewliners on the Northeast Corridor on trips to Boston in the past on the Twilight Shoreliner train from Washington and knew just how wonderful a ride it was end even more so to sleep in one of these cars. The CSX track however was more than the cushioning that this car was designed for could buffer. I continued to look out of the window as we bounced along.
After Savannah, Georgia I was awake and hungry. I headed to the dining car. Here I was very happy to see that the heritage diner had been refurbished. The walls were a pleasant color and apparently new tables and seats installed. The light fixtures were even eye appealing. The tables were dressed with starched linen table cloths and stainless flatware. The windows were not the traditional two pain Amtrak windows but solid pain tented windows. This was heritage diner 8553. I remembered the elegant setting of the diners on Southern Railway from my childhood and thought that these cars were very close to those in appearance.
I ordered the omelet with grits and bacon. The meal was served on a real plate. The omelet was tasty. The biscuit was good, but the grits were true to form northern style. Boiled water and grits made a wonderful wall paper paste. I added butter and crumbled up some bacon in the order and that did very little to improve the taste. (I'll offer a secret here. Use half water and half milk and include chicken bullion and a spoon of butter when it boils. For out of this world grits add cheese after the grits have simmered.) Despite the grits, I was very satisfied with the breakfast, the service and the appearance of the car.
I overheard the following conversation between a passenger and a diner crewman. The passenger complained of the lateness of the train. We were about one hour behind schedule at that point. The crewman proceeded to tell the passenger that Amtrak had no control over the lateness as CSX dispatched the train. He also said that CSX often dispatched their trains over Amtrak. He suggested that the man write his congressman and ask the government to give Amtrak its own tracks to Florida. In hearing this I became just a little angry but stayed out of the conversation. This was not the first time that an Amtrak employee has requested that a passenger write congress about more funding for Amtrak in my presence. I wondered if this was a corporate policy that encouraged suggesting passengers ask congress for more funding. (Needed or not, it is my opinion that not all of Amtrak's problems need more funding to repair. The constant request by Amtrak employees to petition congress on their behalf is annoying.) A recent complaint to Amtrak Customer service about not having a business car in the proper place on the Palmetto resulted in the "We need more money" excuse. I did not see then and still do not under stand how millions more in funding would have helped the trainmaster put the business class car in the proper location, or the train crew to make the decision to use a coach in place of business class car just because the car was in the wrong position.
I returned to my room. Here again CSX track made the trip interesting. I was jostled and at one point tossed up out of my seat.
About one hour late the train arrived in Jacksonville. This was a fuel and service stop. Passengers were advised that they could wander the platform but also to pay attention to boarding calls as the train would leave when ready. I was very happy to get off the train to stretch my legs in Jacksonville.
I found the following interesting. Amtrak was out of the mail and express business. Yet, Amtrak locomotive 516 with a few express cars was stationary in Jacksonville. The express cars were interesting and appeared to be refrigerated. They carried a logo for Express Track. I had never seen this type of car before. With such an investment in equipment, I questioned the exit from that business line. I appreciated the companies desire to focus on moving people well. Yet, express and mail was profitable according to the last Amtrak financial report. Perhaps rather than loose the business line all together it might have been wise to operate mail and express trains with fewer stops and very little passenger space. I remember the Mail Train in the Northeast Corridor in the 1980's was mostly mail cars with a single coach tacked on the end.
I wandered along the side of the train finding our crew lounge was heritage sleeper "Pacific Park" number 2511. I walked back to the Viewliner door and climbed back up returning to my room.
I encountered another wonderful event there. Homeland security checked the luggage of a man in one of the rooms in my sleeper. I had to wait in the shower room as this man's luggage was opened and searched in the hall by two of the three agents. One of which I believed was an Amtrak employee. I am security minded, and do not have a problem with this process. I would much rather the agents be a deterrent or actually find something at this check point than find myself turned over in a train wreck some time later because of a bomb. The agent I spoke with while waiting was very professional and polite. He assured me that the inspection was routine and apologized for any inconvenience it may have caused me.
We departed Jacksonville a little over an hour late. The track here was much more smooth and I enjoyed looking out of the window at some of the turned over trees and buildings still boarded up from the past hurricanes. Just out of Jacksonville the train encountered a very sharp right curve. This is something unique about this trip on the old Atlantic Coast Line. For the most part of the trip between two cities, the train follows an old rule, "The closest way between two points being a straight line". After each city there was a curve followed by long straight running or gentle unnoticed curves. At this point out of Jacksonville, I looked out of my window and saw clearly the locomotive a head of where I sat and the last Amfleet coach to the rear. The freight yards in Jacksonville were next. The tracks were also busy with two switch engines operating on parallel tracks and a number of made up trains ready to depart or having just arrived. We passed a freight train after the yard and our speed increased as we disappeared into an area of trees and suburban homes before paralleling a highway.
I checked the video monitor again. There were no movies or music playing. One more glance out of the window where I took all of sights in and then I read for a while.
It was near Sanford, Florida that I started train watching again. I was on the right side of the train so I could not see the Auto Train facility there. I did discover an aggregate operation across from the station with two locomotives in service. They were painted white with clever red and blue stripes almost in a patriotic theme. One was a GP30 2105 the other was perhaps a GP9 321. They were lettered for CYXX. The one in service pushed hoppers with gravel and I watched as huge dump trucks were loaded from mountains of rock, sand, and other substances piled on the lot.
Our train arrived in Winter Park Florida shortly after Sanford, and lingered at the platform for a good ten minutes. Then it crept from Winter Park to Orlando and for apparent good reason as the tracks run through the middle of a highly populated area with many grade crossings from this point.
I was happy to arrive in Orlando a little over an hour late. The weather was warm. The crew at the Orlando station was pleasant.
Collecting checked baggage was an experience. This was done outside of the station at the north end of the platform. Crewmen matched claim tickets to bags and carried the luggage over to the passengers waiting in line. Three men worked and were quick about the process.
Hertz has a car rental agent on site when the train arrives. I had a reservation for a car which was quickly processed by the agent. I expected to be taken by a bus to a lot near the air port but was happy to find that the company keeps rental cars on the property.
I had used Map Quest to get directions from the station to the Hilton Disney Resort. Orlando traffic on Interstate 4 was a good reminder as to why I chose the train over interstate 95.
I stayed at the Hilton Disney Resort in Orlando. This was 14 miles from the Amtrak Station. It was a very attractive hotel easily reached from the station using interstate 4. I wanted to point something out here. I had a suite on the top floor with a view of the Disney World attractions from my window. That was nice, but I had no hot water in my room when I woke up the next morning to get ready for my meeting. I make the point to show that even blue chip companies that are leaders in their industry like Hilton have problems at times. I reported the problem to the maid. When I returned to the room later a note was left that the problem was being worked on. The next morning I had hot water for about ten minutes before it turned icy cold again.
I arrived at the Orlando station to return my rental car at 12:00 Noon on Friday November 12th , 2004. Apparently the southbound Silver Meteor had just arrived and departed. I went into the station to check status on my northbound train to find it was already one hour late. The Hertz man was busy with another customer so I walked about the station looking around. When I was ready to return my car the Hertz agent was gone. The Amtrak baggage man told me that the Hertz agents were only at the counter when trains arrived. He pointed to a return box and told me most people just put their key and receipt there. Looking at a 4:55 PM departure over a 3:55 departure at 12:00 Noon, I returned to the rental car and took a drive around for a while longer.
I discovered that the station was a short distance from the down town business district so I drove down the Orange Blossom Trail until I found Church Street and then headed into the business district. At the old Church Street Station area I found a steam locomotive with a few heritage cars one a dome on display. This was something I had been unable to see from the train due to my room being on the opposite side of the train when passing the area. There were a number people taking lunch breaks in the open areas beneath the tall buildings. At one point a woman stood at the curb doing kick-box moves at the traffic. She was a heavy set person who I was happy to see getting exercise. I could not help but laugh when she kicked in the direction of the rental car I was driving.
Returning to the Orange Blossom Train, I followed it away from the city. At some point the road was paralleled by a secondary rail line. Just out of the city limits I found two orange and yellow locomotives marked for the Central Florida Railway. There was no where to pull off the road to investigate further, so I kept going until I found a service station to turn around and head back to the Amtrak Station. On the return I saw that both locomotives, one a GP the other a GE product, were powered up with headlights burning. I was afraid at that point that I might get lost and as it was getting close to 2:30 PM I headed back in the direction of the station. In the back of my mind was the constant reminder of Julie (Amtrak's reservation system personality), that rains sometimes make up lost time.
I returned at 3:00 PM and was met by the Amtrak baggage man at my car. He asked if I had any bags to check and then took the one I identified. I followed him and got a claim receipt. The station was crowded and I learned that the train was now delayed to 5:05 PM. It was also sold out. I began to think about riding coach through the late hours knowing our arrival would more than likely have been early morning than middle of the night in Florence, S.C. I checked for rooms on the sleepers at the counter, and was told that although when the clerk had checked earlier finding no space that there were three spaces open at that point. Once again I was told that the fare would be three times my original ticket price. I commented about the offer I had been made and the clerk informed me that she was unable to make the same offer. I went across the street to the Cuban restaurant and called my wife on the cell phone while I waited for a sandwich. She located the number I had used returning the marketing department call the week before. I called that number again. I explained my situation and that I would like to have a sleeper at the same price if possible. The clerk placed me on hold and then returned with a room number and the really nice fare. I returned to the clerk to update my ticket after my sandwich. The station agent was very impressed at what I was able to do.
I must comment on something that happened while waiting in line to upgrade my ticket. A man from Savannah in front of me grumbled under his breath about the train being late as we waited in the cue line. He asked me if I was riding the 3:55 train. I told him that I was and then he proceeded to tell me that on his trip south the train had been over three hours late into Savannah and even later getting into Orlando. He was not all happy that the northbound departure was already late. I explained that I have seldom ridden a train that was on time, but felt that an hour was reasonable as I understood the airlines all operated about an hour late. He was called to the window of the lady who handled my ticket exchange. He proceeded to rudely fuss at the woman shouting loudly, "You don't care. You still get your money no matter what time the train gets here." The clerk politely said, "Sir I do care. I am sorry that the train is late. I have no control over that though." His response was a louder, "You're all alike. The government running these trains has ruined them. The government ruins everything it puts its hands on. You're just another Government employee. We need to turn this railroad over to a real company to run and then let's see if the trains run on time?" He marched of angrily. I was impressed at the calm manner the clerk handled this mans obviously planned rude attack.
During my turn at the window, I apologized to the clerk and shared that I understood that she had no control. Another passenger at the next clerk window shared, "You should tell him that he's the reason the trains are late. Old fat men like him that take forever to get on and off the trains." I thought that rude, but added, "I could tell him about a time I was on a train that was running on time. We stopped in a little town in Florida and a lady got off. We left the station and had to stop because the lady forgot her luggage and then when she got back on the train took twenty minutes to find it because she couldn't remember which car she was riding in." The other passenger and the clerks chuckled at my comment.
On the platform I found a family traveling from Pennsylvania. The Grandfather was a rail fan with camera in hand and a T-shirt that read, "Still Riding the Trains." With each approaching train he hurried over to the tracks and photographed the movement.
As I sat on the platform in the comfortable weather I watched the trains pass as well. The first move was what appeared to be an SW1 with markings for the CYYX number 712. However, the number on the head light marquee was 8301. This locomotive took four of the hoppers sitting on the siding and pushed them south into the industrial area. Next, CSX locomotive 5562 came with a short local freight consist and made little time passing through the station.
The activity on the platform picked up around 4:00 PM. The bus connection from Tampa arrived and other passengers for the train began to join those of us waiting. All were unhappy to hear that the delay was now for a 5:05 PM departure. A woman from Darlington sat down next to me on the bench. She proceeded to tell me how she loved to ride the trains and was use to the late operations. Then loudly she shared that since the man who owned the trains had turned it over to Amtrak the service had gone down hill. She was under the impression that the president of McLeod Health had owned the railroad and gotten out of the train business and was focusing on hospitals. "They's all rich over there in Florence. They keep put'n' up buildings. You know they has money." She said. Then she repeated again how the trains had gone down hill since the man had given his trains to Amtrak but still liked riding them instead of a car.
I spoke with the Daughter of the family from Pennsylvania. I learned that the group (her mother, her two children ages six and eleven and father) had planned a trip to Disney on the train for July. However, the weather had caused the trip to be canceled off as Amtrak service was suspended following the hurricanes. Amtrak had exchanged their ticket for the ones the family was traveling under during that week in November. The family had ridden from Harrisburg, PA which was a short drive from their home in Summerville, PA. The young lady also explained that she had suffered a fire loosing everything she owned in the past year and prior to leaving for her vacation had been diagnosed with pneumonia. She had enjoyed her visit to Disney World and Orlando and I was happy for her after hearing of her misfortune.
Only traveling by train, have I met people who share their life stories so willingly. Air travel does something to people. It makes them less human. Part of the experience of rail travel for me has been these little encounters with people who seem ready to share a part of their life with fellow travelers. I think the atmosphere of the train contributes to this openness. Someone once referred to rail travel as more civilized than air travel. If not more civilized, it does make people friendly.
At 4:55 PM the announcement was made that the train was approaching the station. Passengers were directed to locations on the platform for Sleeping cars and to proceed to a cue line for coach. This was strength of the Orlando station I observed on a prior trip to the destination. The station crew does an excellent job in organizing passengers boarding the trains on the platforms, which makes boarding the train a quick operation.
A family traveling from upstate New York stood near me at our assigned location. "What do you bet the train isn't here at 5:05?" I asked the man standing next to me.
"I bet you are correct." He said. As we waited past 5:05 PM for the trains' arrival at 5:20 I learned that he had taken his daughter and grand-daughter to Disney World for a week. They also had had a late vacation due to the hurricanes.
There were many people who were traveling with children that I thought should be in school. Most had postponed their vacations due to the weather in Florida during the summer. Mickey Mouse seemed to take precedence over education. That was only how it appeared. Each traveler with children that I spoke with shared that they had gotten homework and other assignments for their children prior to their trip.
I'll dispense with the commentary over my observations of fellow travelers. With two plus hours spent on the platforms waiting for the train observing people was something I did a lot of to kill time that day.
The train arrived in Orlando around 5:20 PM. The consist was P40 number 205, baggage car, crew lounge, two Viewliner sleepers, heritage diner, Amfleet Café and six Amfleet coaches. Once more the crew attendant was caught off guard by me. I obviously was not on his passenger manifest. He was however very pleasant and directed me to room 12.
The sleeper was named National View. I was happy to find that the video equipment was working and the room was very clean. The presentation in the preparation of the room was very impressive. White starched linen towels were laid out on the table with a welcome card that introduced me to the train. I settled in storing my carry on bags and brief case. I was able to secure my brief case on the table next to the seat with the strap in this car. The room temperature was comfortable and the interior very clean. I wondered if the car had just been returned to service after an over haul.
The train lingered in the station. A number of passengers passed through the hallway headed toward the dining car. A few minutes later they returned.
An older woman came to my room door and asked if I could help her operate the video equipment. I walked to her room and showed her how the system worked. She thanked me and I went back to my room.
Once the train started moving the attendant "Mike" appeared. He asked me what time I wanted to be awakened for my stop. I told him to wake me twenty minutes before the stop. I asked about dinner and Mike told me that I might want to try to get in then. He said they were able to work a single party in for him a few minutes before. When we finished speaking I headed to the diner.
Again, the diner was impressive. It was number 8504 apparently newly decorated. Unlike the car I had breakfast in on Tuesday of that week, it had the two pain windows. The tables were set with white linen, and stainless flat wear. The diner chief asked me if I had a reservation. I told him that "Mike" had suggested I try and get worked in. The chief told me to go back to Mike and tell him to give me a 6:30 PM reservation.
I went back to my room. Mike met me in the hall and I told him what I had been told. He disappeared for a while returning with a reservation ticket with 6:30 marked on it. "I don't know if this will work." He said, "It seems like he has a lot of people for 6:30."
This was an area of opportunity to improver service. Better communication between the diner and the sleeping car staff could avoid passenger frustration. I did not mind the two car length walk back to the diner and back. However, those passengers less familiar with rail travel might not have been so understanding.
To find the name of my sleeper I took a walk forward looking for closed end doors. The car names were etched into the door at both ends but I found that the door between the two sleepers remained open during both legs of my trip. I was riding in National View as stated earlier. The car that followed was Sylvan View. I found both at the far end of each car where the doors were kept closed during travel. Returning with the name in my notebook, I heard a tapping at a room door. A call for "Help" followed the knocks. I opened the door to find the lady I had helped earlier with the video equipment.
"I was trapped" she said. "Can you show me how to work this door latch?" It appeared that the lock was broken and she and I feared she might get locked in. I suggested that she call "Mike". The lady thanked me again and said, "You're my hero, you've come to my rescue twice so far."
The train made a stop in Winter Park and once more lingered for a very long time.
At 6:30 PM I headed to the diner and found that the older lady was a head of me. We were seated at a table with a couple traveling from the gulf coast to upstate New York.
The diner experience was awesome. I ordered the T-bone steak with baked potato and chocolate cake with ice cream for desert. The staff was very organized. A waiter took the orders. A second waiter arrived with the beverage order. A third waiter arrived with our salads. A waitress returned with bread. The first waiter returned with the main course. The second waiter returned with our desert. The first waiter returned with our checks. This did not happen as rapidly as written but at the proper time for each course of the meal. Each member of the dining car staff was very professional and polite. In addition to the great service was the dinner company. I enjoyed a great political and travel conversation with the three people that I sat with. Only on a train in a diner are strangers seated with one another. Only on a train in a diner do people interact so freely in conversation with strangers.
At the stop in Jacksonville, Florida an announcement was made once more that passengers were free to walk the platforms while the train was serviced. It was also announced that Homeland Security would board the train and check baggage as well. I climbed off the train and took a walk. The locomotive and express cars from Tuesday had been moved. I walked back to the café car and climbed up inside. I found that it was one of the rebuilt café's with the smoking partition section at one end and tables at the other. A mural of the Richmond, Virginia skyline decorated the service area wall. What I found strange about the smoking area was that signs were posted that read `No Smoking'. If plans were to eliminate smoking all together on the trains, perhaps the area could be used for a video viewing area for children or passengers in general.
I returned to my room to find that Mike had lowered the upper bed. I prepared myself for a nap and climbed up. Despite the rough ride, I quickly fell asleep as the train traveled north between Jacksonville and Charleston.
It was after departing Charleston that I woke up. I climbed down and dressed myself and gathered my belongings. Again this part of the trip was on an almost perfectly straight line. If there were any curves they were so slight that any went unnoticed. The track was much smoother than it had been earlier in the trip that evening. I looked for familiar land marks trackside, and was happy to see Lake City, South Carolina where the train made a brief stop to take on a passenger. Minutes from Florence, I was happy that the train was still about an hour and thirty-minutes late.
True to our agreement, Mike tapped at the compartment door. "Florence in twenty-minute" he said. I got my carry on bag down from the storage space and sat it in the seat across from me. I also took my brief case down and checked to insure that I had not forgotten anything.
I sat back watching the dark forest and parallel track beside the train rush past. I recognized an area near the Lowe's store in South Florence as the train began to slow down. At that point in the trip south of Florence there were two tracks on the CSX main line leading into the yards and station tracks in Florence. The train continued to slow down to the point of what I call a crawl. Then the train stopped. This was about five minutes after Mike made his twenty minute announcement. Five minutes later a southbound CSX freight train passed. I suspected that when it passed that the Silver Meteor would continue on. I did not know what train activity was in the Florence station area. I could only recall the activity of Tuesday evening where the northbound Auto Train, and both sections of the Silver Meteor as well as a CSX TOFC train arrived at the same time. That night the northbound train I road lingered at the point where it had stopped south of Florence for thirty-minutes. I was so frustrated knowing that I was less than a mile from the station that I actually began to mutter, "Come on let's go. What's the problem?" Every possible reason for a delay here ran through my head. I feared that the engine crew had met its hours of service limit and we waited for a new engineer. I thought about mechanical problems or having hit a person or vehicle on the track. Finally I heard two blasts of the air horn and the train accelerated making quick work of the short distance into Florence.
Here was where Mike dropped the ball. When the train stopped I opened the door and headed forward to the forward vestibule where Mike had let me into the car the evening before. He was not there. I went back in the other direction and found the second vestibule also closed. I headed through the dining car beginning to panic. I met Mike between the diner and café.
"I'm sorry. That conductor was spose to wake me when we got to Florence. He didn't" Mike said. He led me to the vestibule on the café and opened it for me. I climbed down into a very cold morning and waited on the platform for the luggage to arrive.
The checked baggage process was quick in Florence and I headed through the depot to my vehicle before the train left the station. I noticed in the station waiting room passengers were still waiting for the southbound train. I knew that we were around two hours late and that this meant that the southbound train was equally as late.
Driving home a small deer ran into the side of my vehicle on Highway 301 in the Pee Dee community of South Carolina. There was no damage except a small scratch near the passenger door. This was an example of an obvious disadvantage to the nocturnal schedule of the Florida trains in the Carolinas. I would hope that in the future a day light operation will be restored if only extending the Palmetto to Jacksonville so that a connection can be made with other trains south of that point.
South of the Pee Dee community highway 301 parallels a double track section of the CSX. It was there that I found a southbound CSX freight waiting on the siding. Further north in the Sellers, S.C. area, I found a second southbound freight waiting. This was more evidence that there is a bottleneck in Florence, S.C. with four Amtrak Trains and any number of CSX freights arriving so close together. At one time there were four station tracks in Florence. Currently there are two. Perhaps capital investments in the station area to add a third siding might help this problem or adjusting one of the trains' schedules slightly.
This trip was one of the best I have had on Amtrak in the past two years. For the first time in a long time both legs of a round trip were equal in experience. The condition of the equipment especially the dining car was impressive. The service for both dining experiences was superb and I must commend the dining car staff on both trains. The Viewliner experience was well worth the discounted but additional fare. I was disappointed at the operation of audiovisual equipment and know that had my ten-year-old movie-loving daughter traveled with me I would have been frustrated. However, the attention of the service attendants in both sleepers was adequate and overall the on board experience was above what I expected. This weakened any frustration I might have had over the late operations and the condition of track in some areas of the trip. I traveled alone. Had my wife been with me there would have been complaints about the late trains as she commented on my middle of the night departure prior to the trip.
Many have commented on the future of Amtrak. I am aware that Amtrak pays a fee to freight rail roads like the CSX for use of track and dispatcher services. A friend who works for CSX has shared with me that two things an employee doesn't want to do is delay the TOFC and Amtrak Trains. As a stock holder in the corporation I agree with my friend. TOFC is a very profitable business for CSX. Amtrak is a paying customer that directly impacts the corporations' bottom line. A solution to the Amtrak problem might be to change the structure of the corporation. Let Amtrak do what it does best. It maintains and operates a fleet of passenger cars with an experience crew of on board service staff. In the tradition of the Pullman Company, Amtrak could get out of the operation of locomotives and contract with the freight lines to move the trains. Thus Amtrak would be free of engine crew labor and the cost to service and replace locomotives. Power cars could be used to provide the train with the needed electrical energy and road units of the host freight lines could pull the trains. If rates were similar to those paid to move the TOFC operation, perhaps CSX would be more incline to insure on time operations and look at Amtrak as one of its main priorities rather than a bother. One thing is sure it could make for some very colorful passenger train operations especially if the railroad took pride in the operation.
What ever happens, I enjoy taking the trains and sharing my experience with whoever is interested. This is particularly true when the experience is a good one. Now if I could just figure out how to make a living doing this I am sure I would be a happier person.
About the Author
Alexander J. Stoops, Jr. a tidewater Virginia area native currently lives in the town of Latta, South Carolina on the CSX main line. He has been riding the trains since he was four years old beginning with the C&O and including trains of the Southern Railway into the Carolinas. Trips have included extensive travel in the US and while working abroad the Hungarian National Railway, British Rail, and the Euro star service. He is a published author. His current title, The Good Reverend, ISBN: 1-59286-133-4, is available by searching here.