Rich Kimmel's 1999 Train Trip
Part 1 - Orlando, FL to New York, NY
June 26-27, 1999
Well, it's time for another annual train trip, and another story for Train Web. Like my journeys in years past, the planning for this year's trip began in January as I pondered the AMTRAK and VIA timetables to find a good itinerary which would cover at least a few new routes. The route I came up with this year took me from Orlando to New York and Washington, then off to the west to the Chicago area before heading back east to Toronto. I would then stay overnight in Toronto, then take the trans-Canada train to Vancouver, From Vancouver it was back south to Seattle for the night, then Seattle to the Bay area and on to Los Angeles via the San Joaquin Valley, followed by a final leg from Los Angeles back to Orlando. I reserved early enough that I was able to obtain sleeper space on all the overnight portions of the trip. And for the 3 or 4 months immediately preceding my departure, I religiously checked with http://www. reservations.amtrak.com once a week to check the on-time performance for the trains I would be on. I only found two somewhat consistently late trains, the Capitol Ltd, and the Coast Starlight, so would have to think about possible "contingency plans" if those trains run so late that I would miss connections. If you read my submittals from last year, you know that I always have a "contingency plan" for missed connections. One feature of this year's trip was that I had two overnight hotel reservations, so that cut down on the need for contingency plans for a couple trains.
I enjoy documenting my train trips with my Sony 8mm video camcorder, and this is the third summer trip I have thus documented. I took 6 hours of video on my 1996 trip, 9 hours on my 1998 trip, and in 1999, I would end up filming 11 hours of video! As you also know from my previous submittals, I have put together a collection of large-scale (1 inch = 2000 ft) topographic maps covering nearly all the AMTRAK routes in the country, which I have put together into several Acco Press binders. I carry these maps with me on all my trips, and enjoy spending most of my time following the routes I have mapped in these volumes. However, AMTRAK routes are constantly changing, so every few years I have to update some of the routes. Earlier this year, I updated the part of the Sunset Ltd route from Yuma to Tucson, Arizona, to reflect the "new" route of the train which bypassed Phoenix (this route has actually been in effect for a few years now, but I have not had the time or need to go to the map library at the University of South Florida in Tampa to update the maps until this year).
Just before noon on a hot muggy Saturday, June 26, 1999, my good friend Sue took me to the Orlando AMTRAK station on Sligh Boulevard to await the departure of the Silver Meteor, the first train I would be on. I had checked http://www.reservations. amtrak.com earlier in the morning, and seen that Train #98 was running approximately 10 minutes late, which, in most cases, could easily be made up by the time it got from south Florida to Orlando. Above the ticket counter in the Orlando station is a digital message board which contains information on the day's trains. When we got to the station, it said Train 98 was "delayed" until 1:30 or so, and I assumed it had somehow lost some time following a freight train or something. If it were half an hour late, however, that would certainly not affect my connection in New York, so I was prepared to wait for a half hour. Just to make sure, however, I asked one of the agents on duty to confirm the tardiness of the train, and he told me that the train would actually arrive on time today, and the digital message board had reflected the previous day's arrivals and had not been updated yet.
The Silver Meteor soon appeared from the south, just a couple minutes late, as the boarding announcement was made at the station, with the same consist it has been carrying for over a year now -- one Genesis unit (sometimes there are 2), a baggage/mail car, a dorm sleeper (where the crew sleeps), 2 Viewliner sleepers, diner, Amdinette lounge, and 4 Amfleet coaches on the end. I soon boarded and met Anna the car attendant, and settled into Room 8 of the Viewliner sleeper Palisades View. The other sleeper on today's Meteor was Sunrise View. Within minutes of our 9-minute late departure, both Anna and Wes Gladwig, the Chief, stopped by to introduce themselves to me and ask if I had any questions about my accommodations. Being a seasoned rail traveler, of course I had no questions for them. Chief Gladwig told me that lunch was currently being served in the diner, and also made an 8 PM dinner reservation for me. If you read my 1998 submittal, you know that I always go for the latest dinner reservation available, to allow me to maximize the daylight hours for my video recording without having to be interrupted by dinner.
Shortly after we departed Orlando, I went to the diner for lunch and sat with a young family from Delaware who had been vacationing with the kids at Disney World. This gentleman had a very young-looking wife, and I was not sure if she was his wife or his daughter, but I found out. The lunch was quite good, only the window by my table was probably the dirtiest window in the whole train! I somehow managed to get some halfway-decent video from it, but what I missed was not a problem, since I had videotaped the scenery through Orlando and Winter Park several times previously. During lunch, we had departed Winter Park 9 minutes late, and Sanford 8 minutes late, according to my watch.
One comment about on-time performance -- of course, AMTRAK has always had a problem with on-time performance due to freight traffic or mechanical problems. Even after almost 30 years of existence, these problems persist!! It is my hope that some day, AMTRAK will enter into some meaningful contracts with freight railroads, and will have mechanically sound equipment all the time, like the trains in Europe, so that rail travel can again become reliable and marketable to customers. AMTRAK's on-time performance during this 1999 trip was the worst ever! Although several trains left on time and remained on time for long periods, none of them arrived on time at the final destination outside the NE Corridor. And apparently, VIA Rail Canada has the same problems AMTRAK does! (see Part 4 of this story).
I sat in my room after lunch all the way to Palatka before I ventured into the Amdinette lounge. The Meteor departed both DeLand and Palatka 8 minutes late -- still not bad. The train had been running consistently since Orlando. As one travels through Florida by train, most of the scenery out the window is trees! As I stated in last year's submittals, it is hard to get good video of interesting scenery when much of what you see is trees! The other major problem I have with my video is the reflections which often cover the scenes I film from train windows, especially in certain kinds of outside light. The glass AMTRAK uses is quite thick and reflective, and really distracts from the scenes I try and film because of the reflections. I have a circular polarizer filter for the camcorder, which kind of works sometimes. A month before I had left on this trip, I had ordered a "super polarizer" filter from a local camera shop, but, as of the day I left, it never came in (I do not believe it was ever actually ordered for me!). But I got by okay on this trip without too many reflection problems. This year I encountered another video problem however -- rain!!! My camcorder has an "auto focus" feature, and when it is raining and the train windows are full of raindrops, the camera focuses on the raindrops and not on the scenery beyond the window! I first had this problem on the Meteor, but I also had it on other trains this year.
The Amdinette was remarkably empty during the first part of this trip, so I found a table to spread out my map book and continued filming the scenery through the rain. Between Palatka and Jacksonville, some of the crew were talking to a man who was not real sure where the train was going, and kept thinking he was on Train #2 in the Panhandle following Interstate 10. The crew told him several times that this train was going to New York, but I believe he got off in Jacksonville, which was his destination anyway. We arrived in Jacksonville only one minute late, and I got off the train and walked around for a minute, since it had temporarily stopped raining. Back onto the train, and we left Jacksonville 9 minutes late again. The rain continued as we traveled north through Georgia and into South Carolina. We departed Jesup, Georgia, 9 minutes late, but departed Savannah on time. We arrived early into Yemassee, where we picked up a very large number of passengers, then departed 5 minutes late. The departure from Charleston was on time, and later in the evening we arrived in Florence, South Carolina, early. I got off again in Florence for a few minutes and walked around the fairly large station area, where again it had stopped raining. I had dinner at 8 PM with a gentleman from Palm Beach who claimed to have an apartment in Seville, Spain. I do not know what line of business he was in, and was almost afraid to ask! Apparently he was riding the train to visit some friends in the Northeast.
Before we stopped in Florence, I had asked Anna to make up my bed, which she did. I had not noticed before that one end of the Viewliner sleepers is "narrower" than the other because of the location of the in-room toilets. Because of this design, the beds are traditionally made such that the head is at the "wide" end of the room, and the foot of the bed is at the narrow end next to the toilet. Anna had made my bed up in this manner, but that would mean that I would be riding "backwards" overnight -- as I look out the window at night, my view would be toward the back of the train, but I prefer facing forwards, even overnight where it doesn't make that much difference. Rather than ask Anna to remake my bunk, however, I quietly flipped the bedding myself so that I would be facing the way I preferred for the overnight trip.
Somehow we had lost quite a bit of time overnight, but I do not know where or why. As I awoke, we were traveling through northern Virginia, and arrived in Washing-ton DC 50 minutes late. I also realized, as we were approaching Washington, that I had somehow managed to lose my reading glasses somewhere. I still have no idea where. I searched all my suitcases, and every possible place in my room where they could have fallen or slid, but nothing!!! I reported the loss to AMTRAK, and nothing turned up. I would have to get by with my contact lenses and regular glasses for the rest of the trip, only it would be hard to read details on my route maps and on timetables while I had my contact lenses in. I cannot imagine why anyone else who may have found my glasses in a corridor would want them -- maybe I took them off the train with me in Florence or somewhere, and had dropped them...????? I have not a clue what may have happened to them! After I got home, I would go to my optometrist and have them replaced. Somehow I was able to read my maps and timetables in enough detail the rest of the trip to get by.
I again got off the train in Washington to stretch and walk around. It was as humid an hot in Washington as it had been in Florida! As I was walking around the platform, I noticed the Meteor was parked next to the Twilight Shoreliner, AMTRAK's overnight train from Boston to Newport News, VA. While on the platform, I watched the Genesis unit be switched off the Meteor, to be replaced with the traditional AEM-7 electric unit, the mainstay of AMTRAK's Northeast Corridor.
If the Meteor had been hopelessly late into Washington, I would have gotten off the train for good there, and hung around for the day to catch the Capitol Ltd later in the afternoon, but the Meteor was less than an hour late, so there was no need for this contingency plan! I soon reboarded the Meteor and we were again on our way toward New York. AMTRAK's Northeast Corridor, of course, is the fastest and most profitable section of the AMTRAK system, and the increase in speed and quality of the ride is quite noticeable once we left Washington and entered the Northeast Corridor main line. We left Washington 55 minutes late -- still no need for a contingency plan in New York, since I would easily make the next connection. I sat in the Amdinette lounge again, on the right (east) side of the train. The rain from the Southeast the previous day had long since left us, but now I had the opposite problem with my video -- too much sun! It was a very bright sunny morning, and from either side of the train, the combination of the bright sun and the speed of the train, turned much of my morning video into a blur of sunlight and green vegetation, and all the dirt on the windows now showed against the bright background! I don't know what the top speed in the Corridor is -- I believe it is 120 or so, but if someone reading this knows, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Still wondering what ever became of my reading glasses, I tried to forget about that and continue my trip. We only made 2 stops between Washington and Philadelphia -- we left Baltimore 45 minutes late, and Wilmington, Delaware, 47 minutes late. As we were leaving the elevated Wilmington station, we passed a large building with the words "Amtrak Consolidated National Operations Center." I thought that facility was located at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, but apparently the national operations center is now in Wilmington, just a couple block away from the Wilmington station. Since the Amdinette was rather full with people enjoying coffee and rolls for breakfast, I moved into the front end of the car for a while. The front end of the Amdinette cars are equipped with smaller tables and individual chairs, and that area is traditionally used as a "smoking lounge." Smoking is generally not allowed on most AMTRAK trains these days, except in private sleeper rooms, and it isn't allowed in rooms on some trains. To accommodate the needs of the smokers, many trains either have "smoking stops" at various stations, where passengers can get off the train for a few minutes and smoke on the station platform, or they have designated "smoking periods" in cars such as this. The Meteor has gone with the "designated smoking hours" concept, and has set aside three or four half-hour periods during the day when smokers may sit in this part of the Amdinette and smoke. Someone had made an announcement that the final smoking period of the trip would be from 8:30 AM until 9 AM in the "smoking lounge" on this train. Since I do not smoke, I moved back into the "dinette" portion of the car when the smoking period began. As the morning went on, and the Meteor got closer to New York, the crowd in the Amdinette dwindled considerably. As the train approached Philadelphia, the lounge attendant made an announcement that the lounge would close for all services upon departure from 30th Street Station.
We left 30th Street Station at Philadelphia 50 minutes late, and I remained in the Amdinette just long enough to cross the Schuylkill River after we left the station, so I could video the river with the downtown skyline in the background on the right. As we left 30th Street, someone announced that one of the new "Acela" locomotives was on display in the AMTRAK yards and was visible to the left of our train. As I looked for the Acela, alas, it was not there! The Acela locomotives represent the newest 21st Century technology that AMTRAK has, and they are scheduled to debut in the Northeast Corridor later this fall or winter. I have not seen one of these units yet, but they have been written up quite a bit in recent issues of Trains and other railfan magazines.
I stopped my video of this segment of the trip in Trenton, since I would be coming back on the same route in a few hours, on the New York-Washington segment of this trip, except for a few seconds of video to cover views of New York City from the route between Newark and New York. I did not record how late we left Trenton, New Jersey, but we departed Newark 42 minutes late, with a 45 minute late arrival in New York City, and still no trace of my reading glasses.
I immediately found the Metropolitan Lounge in New York's Penn Station, and stashed my luggage for approximately one half hour. The New York Metropolitan Lounge is rather nice, and looks very much like the Chicago Metropolitan Lounge, only the New York lounge has nowhere near the number of passengers as Chicago. I was surprised there were not more 1st class passengers in the lounge awaiting departures, New York being such a busy metropolis with such a large number of rail passengers. Since most of the Northeast Corridor trains are not overnight trains, however, there are few 1st class sleeping car passengers. It therefore makes sense that the lounge would not be very crowded. I thought there may also be a few 1st class Metroliner business customers, but there were very few of them either. Even though I was departing New York in coach class on a "Northeast Direct" train, I was still able to use the Metropolitan Lounge, since I had traveled into New York in 1st class on the Meteor. I soon walked upstairs and out into the plaza of Madison Square Garden, which is located directly above Penn Station. New York was as hot and muggy as Washington DC and Florida! I walked halfway around the block, took a few videos, most notably of the Empire State Building, which is several blocks east of Penn Station, then disappeared back into the grotto of Penn Station to wait for the next train.
Web page by Matthew J. Melzer.
|Click below for pages in the directory of TrainWeb sites:||