Long Distance NE Corridor-Florida Trip as Recorded by an Amateur Train Traveler
May 14-22, 2005
by Lisa Dominicus
To begin this report I am going to give a rundown of our trip with the highlights and the low points. As I have not traveled long distance in many years I had questions, one of which was how frequent the stops were that would allow time to smoke. I am trying to compile a report that will help people who are new to this as I was. I can't stress enough how much the forums helped me as most of what I experienced was exactly what I had read both positive and negative. I truly believe that by having the information that I did it helped me so that I knew what to expect therefore making the experience that much more enjoyable.
My husband and I decided to travel by rail to Florida to meet my family who flew down for a Disney vacation. 18 years previously I had traveled via coach one way from Orlando to Boston South Station connecting through NYP. I was very curious to try this trip both ways using a sleeper (viewliner roomette). I hadn't minded the previous trip but remembered how using coach on a long distance journey was much like sleeping in a dorm room. Being able to stretch out in the evening and get a full nights sleep was enticing. Thus began the journey.
We arrived at Boston South Station in the morning on Saturday, May 14th. With the help of one of the OTOL members (thanks Kevin!) I had very good instructions on where we needed to go in order to catch the train. We found the sitting area and waited for the regional to arrive heading to New York Penn where we would pick up our sleeper car to Florida.
Our regional out of Boston was on time. We boarded the train and were able to find two seats together right away. There was plenty of space above for our two carry ons. The trip was pleasant through rolling hills and the coastline in Mystic, CT was beautiful. It was a great ride to begin the trip. We arrived at NYP on time and had approximately 2 hours to wait for our connection out of NYP to Kissimmee. Penn Station is HUGE. Thankfully being that we were traveling first class we were afforded the Acela Lounge which was nice and quiet and relaxing. There was free soda, coffee, water, and snacks. It was a nice place to wait with the amount of time that we had. Also, they will announce when your train is ready to board. Be careful here. It was later than the announcement should have been made and a person that was traveling the same route who we were speaking with went to the front desk to inquire. The person behind the desk had neglected to announce that the train was boarding. It was a good thing that we had asked and as you will read later on in the report this one downfall was made up for tenfold.
Tip #1 When traveling by rail when using connecting trains you must be prepared to either wait for or be on the fly for your train. By going into the trip with this in mind you will be mentally prepared for whichever of the two may happen. If you are a person who expects that everything will flow smoothly at all times you may want to rethink your method of travel. When traveling by train the trip itself should be part of the experience and not just a mode of transportation to arrive at a destination.
We boarded the Silver Meteor #97 car 10 roomette 3. The room was much smaller than appears online however, for two people who are very comfortable with each other it's adequate. The sink and toilet are out in the open. If you have been married for quite some time then this shouldn't be an issue and the other person could leave the room for a few moments if need be. Once the train was in motion we were greeted by our attendant whose name was Zinnerman. Having read the forums and the ups and downs of attendants I concluded that by tipping ahead of time and being generous it would make for a good start to the trip. I had no problem giving him the double amount of what is considered as standard and by letting him know that I was a smoker and would appreciate knowing when the stops were. I can't say enough about this man. I fully believe that had I even given him the standard amount that he would have been exactly the same. He was extremely pleasant, helpful, and made sure that we had everything that we needed. It was obvious that he was a very happy fellow in general. Each time that we were preparing to come to a stop where we could smoke he would come to the room about 10 minutes prior and let me know which door we would be exiting. While on the platform he would let me know when the next stop would be. For those who smoke I would have to say that the longest amount of time that I had to go would be around 3 hours.
Tip #2 This is for the smokers. When you board the train you will see a pamphlet that tells you all the stops that the train will make. If you find the stops where you both drop off and pick up passengers it's a good bet that this will be a smoke break stop. If I remember correctly southbound it was Philly, DC, and Richmond. After that point it was time to hit the hay. When you awake in the morning this may be the toughest part as you must wait until the next long stop and depending on how long you sleep. On the return tip there seemed to be more areas. As I said above, it seemed that the longest was around 3 hours, most times it was 2 to 2 1/2 outside of the regional that we took from Boston to NYP that doesn't stop at all for smoking. If you know ahead of time how long you have it makes it easier as it's at least better to know when it will be as opposed to trying to guess.
So here we are at mealtime ,the absolute lowpoint of the trip. I am only being honest here as if you know this ahead of time then perhaps it will lighten things up for you. With what I am about to say keep one thing in mind. I am only one traveler out of many and this was only two trains out of many (this describes our dining car experience both down and back). You could quite possibly not have the same experience as I did. Maybe by my writing what I am you may find some source of amusement as we did on our return trip with our dinnermates. Also, I want to state for the record that I spent many of my younger days waitressing. I am a VERY easy person to please. I have tremendous respect for people who must wait on the general public and would never think of being picky or needy when at a restaurant. We headed down to the dining car at 5:00 which was first call for dinner. I was looking forward to trying the food as I had read much in the forums about it being excellent. We were seated by a gentleman who ordered us to a table as if we were a couple of derelict teenagers. I can't find any way to describe our experience in the dining car both on the way down and on the way back. I don't know what on earth was the problem with these people but we were made to feel like we were nothing more than a huge pain in the you know what. I actually pondered over and over how I could come up with an accurate analogy that would describe to you what we were treated like. I couldn't. At one point both my husband and I tried to joke with the waiter about everything bouncing around and how we gave him credit for being able to not spill things. We both said this with a laugh looking at him. What came back at us was a very cold, hard, stare. It was frankly almost embarrassing. I had the prime rib and I could barely cut through it with my knife. Although, my husband had the chicken and he said it was excellent. I guess that I just made the wrong choice for the evening. Throughout the entire meal when the waiter would approach the table we were not asked questions but merely barked at with directives. There was no "what would you like" but merely commands to what you needed to tell him next. There was only one man in the dining car the entire time down or back who was even remotely pleasant. On the way back, upon finishing my dinner, the waiter was going through the row with a dessert tray. He stopped at our table and I selected the brownie. I went to move my plate out of the way (no, it had not been removed yet after having sat there for a while) and he literally barked at me to leave the plate on the table. I believe that his exact words were "Leave that plate there, I don't have room for it on here". I am not downplaying any of this. So what can you do to soften the blow? Do as we did and joke about it. On the way back we discussed this with the couple that we were seated with. We would make jokes at each other if anyone moved anything on the table or needed to ask for anything. This was the one way that we were able to even remotely enjoy ourselves in the dining car. Definitely the lowest point of the trip. However, I do have something very insightful to say at the end of the report also.
We arrived in Richmond which was a smoke break stop. I got off to the platform and stood with other travelers and my buddy Zinnerman. There was another attendant from the next car down who was quite the joker. Very funny and very enjoyable to stand around with those two. When back on the train our beds were made and I climbed into the top bunk. After the train began moving out of Richmond I closed my eyes. A few moments later I felt the train stop and then begin to back up. We went all the way back to the station and at that point I fell asleep. Do not expect that the sleep that you get on a train will be the same sleep that you get when laying in your own bed. You will awaken every so often to the sound of the train whistle when traveling through populated areas. Also, the sleep state that you go into is not deep. It's very light where sometimes you will even still hear the train itself. You do sleep but I would call it a fine line between conciousness and unconciousness. It was not until morning when I woke up somewhere around Jessup, Georgia when I looked at the timetable and my watch that I realized that we were somewhere between 2 and 3 hours behind schedule. I found out later that a CSX had derailed in Richmond and it had held us up. No matter, in knowing full well what I wrote in tip #1 there was no stress involved. We arrived in Kissimmee, FL about 2 hours late.
We arrived at the Kissimmee station around 2:00 with our train scheduled to arrive and board around 3:00. We had decided to come back a day early and I had to switch tickets at the station. The ticket agent was on break and would be back at 2:30. When it came time I went into the station and got in line behind a man who was purchasing a coach ticket to NYP. I heard the agent tell him that #98 was very behind schedule due to heat restrictions on the tracks. Once again, tip #1 comes into play here so that was fine. I went outside and waited. The southbound Meteor was running about 3 hours behind as we were sitting next to a couple who were waiting. Since it was traveling southbound I have no idea why it was so late and never did find out. After much waiting #98 northbound arrived at around 4:50 (quite a bit behind schedule). We finally boarded and were on our way. We were so hoping that we would again have Zinnerman as I had asked when he was working next and he had said Saturday. We did not have that luck. We had a lady who was very nice and her name was Cecilia. My thinking was the same on the way back as it had been on the way down. Tip amply ahead of time to show forefront appreciation of service. When I attempted to give her the money she told me to put it away. She told me that I could wait until the end of the trip and make the decision as to her worth. So I put the money away. I don't know if this was too bad for her as she ended up getting half of what I was originally going to give. She should have taken the up front. One thing I do have to say. Whereas I really didn't need the attendant until the beds needed to be made up I noticed that I hardly ever saw her. Zinnerman was around at all times if there were any questions or if anything was needed. Don't get me wrong, she was perfectly adequate, I think I was just biased after having the attendant that we did on the way down.
The return trip was uneventful with the diner car service being all that I have already mentioned above. The only issue that we had was that our return connection out of Boston was leaving at 3:00. I don't know why the Kissimmee agent switched our tickets for that leg of the trip as we originally had the connection at 4:00 and with #98 being behind we most definitely would have not made it. All that we could do was to wait and see. When we got into Philly I asked our attendant as to what we needed to do about the connection and she told me that I needed to go and see the conductor. I still don't know why I needed to do that as what was the conductor going to be able to do for me? Still, I ventured down towards the dining car as I was told that the conductor would be in the lounge car. We were getting very close to NYP and I wanted to get this taken care of.
This, ladies and gentleman will give you some extreme insight into the dining car issues. I pressed the button to open the door in the dining car and walked in. There sat every person who worked in the dining car all at tables with their heads laying flat. If I could have painted a picture of the scene I would have framed it and called it "Sheer and Utter Exhaustion". These people were exhausted beyond extreme. Just looking at them all made me want to lay down on the floor and go to sleep. It was then that I came to a complete understanding of the attitudes and the situation in that dining car. I don't know if it's a possibility but I would be willing to bet that the train that we were on was staffed by people who had been working for many days. Then I thought, "Could have that been the case in both directions?". In any case, something needs to be done. If people are being worked to the point that they don't have the energy to crack a smile and treat someone who pays a fare where I'm sure part goes to their wage then something is extremely wrong. With all of our changes in tickets due to various circumstances we paid well over $1000 for two round trip first class tickets. That's a lot of money when we could have flown for probably almost half of that.
I never found the conductor so I decided to call Amtrak from my cell and get the tickets switched. This was done over the phone and we were told that we could switch them at the ticket counter at NYP. We arrived at 3:25 with our new connecting train leaving at 4:00 to Boston. We hurried up to the level where the ticket agents were and there was a line a mile long. Now I panicked. There was no way we were going to make that connection. I stood and thought about it and headed to the Acela Lounge. I explained the situation to the man behind the counter and he stamped the original tickets and initialed them and told me that we were all set. I was thankful and the issue of no announcement of our train being ready to board on the way down was cancelled as an issue. We made it to Boston South Station and were home a few hours later.
My husband has far less patience than I do so I don't believe that we will be doing any long distance traveling again. However, we did come to agreement that it would be a great way to get to NYC to see concerts if we were only staying for a few nights and didn't have a lot of luggage.