Rich Kimmel's 2002 Train Trip
Part 1 - Winter Park, FL to Philadelphia, PA
June 28-29, 2002
Train #98 - Silver Meteor
I haven’t taken an extended train trip since 1999, having spent my vacation time and money for the last 3 years snow skiing instead! So it was time to hit the rails again!! I began planning the 2002 trip sometime around New Years Day, 2002 -- I wanted to ride a couple trains I haven’t been on for a few years, so I came up with the itinerary of Winter Park (FL)-New York-Chicago-Los Angeles (via the Texas Eagle)-San Diego & return to L.A.-Seattle-Chicago-New Orleans-Winter Park. I always make my own reservations, since I don’t trust the many travel agencies who “specialize in AMTRAK.” Besides that, I always plan my trips for specific trains and specific dates, and specific accommodations (sleepers for ALL overnight legs). So I penciled out my plans and went to the Winter Park, FL AMTRAK station to make my reservations with the agent on duty. Since I had arrived just about the time the southbound Silver Star was due, the agent told me to call 1-800-USA-RAIL instead, since she was busy getting ready to offload baggage from the Star, and was then going to take a lunch break, so I went home, called 1-800-USA-RAIL, made my reservations, then picked up my tickets at Winter Park a week later. I always make AMTRAK reservations several months ahead of time for summer travel, since I know that sleeper accommodations do in fact sell out rapidly.
So, with reservations and tickets in hand, the countdown to the “big trip” began, and I began checking the OTP performance for the trains I would be on at http://www.amtrak.com. My preliminary conclusions were that the Texas Eagle and Sunset Ltd were a lost cause, and the Coast Starlight may have on-time problems also. And then we had the threat of a system-wide AMTRAK shutdown in June……….. But my long-awaited vacation finally came.
I departed from Winter Park, Florida. In the past, my trips have started and ended at the Orlando AMTRAK station, however, when our office (St. Johns River Water Management District - http://www.sjrwmd.com) moved from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs last fall, I too moved my residence from south Orlando to Apopka, FL (home of the U.S. championship Little League team!). I am a bit further away from the Winter Park station than my previous home was from the Orlando station, so I had to consider how I would get to the station. Previously, it was a $15 taxicab ride from my old home to the Orlando station, and it would be a $30 or $40 taxicab ride from Apopka to the Winter Park station. But Winter Park has free long-term parking for AMTRAK customers, and the station is located in a better, safer part of town than the Orlando station is. Additionally, those of you have read my previous travelogues know that I always have a “contingency plan” for missed connections, in the rare case that some of my connections might be missed. Having a pretty good idea of OTP performance for various trains, I can generally plan my vacations so I do not miss any connections, but you never know….. Anyway, approximately one month before my trip began, I saw that the eastbound Sunset Ltd (Train #2) had been consistently arriving into Florida 13 hours late. That would mean that it would have had to leave New Orleans at 11 AM or noon (rather than 10:30PM the previous night), with a Winter Park arrival of 9 AM the following morning. An overnight layover at the New Orleans AMTRAK station or an arrival back in Florida halfway through the morning I was expected back at work, would not be acceptable, so I made a hotel reservation in New Orleans for Tuesday night, July 9, and a Delta flight from New Orleans to Orlando (via Atlanta) for Wednesday, July 10, “just in case.” And if I did have to end up flying back home from New Orleans, the taxicab fare from Orlando International Airport to Winter Park would be much less than the fare from the Airport all the way to Apopka.
Friday, June 28, I had checked at http://amtrak.com, and found that the northbound Silver Meteor was running 24 minutes late as of 11 AM, which would put it into the Winter Park station approximately 1 PM. I was not sure whether they would still be serving lunch on the train when I boarded, so I stopped at one of my all-time fast-food favorites, Taco Bell, for lunch on the way to the station. As I arrived at the station, the southbound Silver Star, Train #91, was just arriving, approximately 1 hour behind schedule. Many people were waiting for passengers from the Star, and a few more were waiting to board the train for Miami and points south. Winter Park has a designated spot for long-term AMTRAK parking, and another designated spot for short-term parking, all of which is free. Additionally, the AMTRAK parking lot is right next to a free City parking lot, so if I couldn’t have found a spot at AMTRAK, I could have parked in the City lot just as well. All 4 or 5 spaces in the long-term area were taken, primarily by people waiting for passengers from Train #91, so I parked in the short-term lot for a few minutes, then moved my car to a long-term space when one became available. I then informed the agent on duty that the blue Olds Alero in the long-term area was mine, and that it would be there for 13 days, and not to think it was an “abandoned” car, and they told me not to worry, it would be fine there.
I waited outside for most of the time, and eventually walked down to “location 4,” the boarding area for the Viewliner sleepers, located across the street from the AMTRAK station, and across one set of tracks to Track no. 2. As I was waiting, the agent walked outside and told me that the northbound Meteor was picking up approximately 100 passengers down in Orlando, and that the train may be delayed a few more minutes, which was fine with me. In New York, at the end of this first segment, I had a 2½ -hour layover before I was to catch the Three Rivers. Recent OTP data indicated that the Meteor was generally within 1 or 2 hours of schedule into New York, but if it wasn’t, I could easily get off anyplace between Philadelphia and Newark, NJ, and still make the connection to the Three Rivers. Train #98 finally arrived, led by Genesis unit no. 82, a baggage car, dorm sleeper, 3 Viewliner sleepers, Amdinette, diner, and 3 or 4 coaches, the normal consist for all “Silver Service” trains. I boarded into Room 2 of the Viewliner sleeper Harvest View, with the sleeper attendant “Leo.” Also in the consist today were Viewliner sleepers Bay View and Sea View. We finally left Winter Park 43 minutes late, and somewhat to my surprise, they were still serving lunch, and of course I was entitled to a complimentary lunch with my first-class accommodation, but, since I had gone the Taco Bell route, I did not take lunch in the diner. Instead I began my trip video, and got out my always-present railroad maps, which I have been working on for about 2 years now, using state topographic map sets (“3-D Topo Quads,” published by DeLorme Mapping (http://www.delorme.com). Previously I have gone to map libraries and pulled hard copies of topographic maps, then xeroxed the maps to put together my famous (??) “railroad logs,” and highlighted the routes. The problem in the past, however, was that not all maps are available at map libraries, and I had to hunt for some maps at 2 or 3 different libraries (primarily university libraries) or order the maps myself from the USGS. Then of course all I got were black-and-white xerox copies. The DeLorme product consists of full-color scanned raster images on CD-ROMs -- much more convenient to use, but awful expensive!!! ($100 per state set).
I soon found the Amdinette lounge car before we arrived at Sanford, and the first thing I noticed was that this was a newer lounge (slightly different blue/silver outside paint scheme) which had wall plugs at all the tables! This was a great discovery for my videotaping efforts. To date, I have used rechargeable battery packs on my Sony 8mm camcorder, which tend to run down quite rapidly. The “3-hour battery packs” actually last closer to 45 minutes of actual videotaping, so I am constantly recharging the 3 new batteries I usually take on train trips. My charger has an AC adapter also, and can supply power to the camcorder when plugged into a normal 120v wall outlet. So I used the AC adapter on this leg of the trip, and did not have to use the rechargeable batteries at all, except when I stepped off the train at various stations. I had only hoped that the other trains I would be on would also have wall outlets in the lounge cars. Of course, all rooms in sleeper cars have 120v outlets, so I used the AC power most of the time when I was videotaping in my room on all the trains I was on.
We departed Sanford 47 minutes late, DeLand 48 minutes late, and Palatka 48 minutes late. I met up with an elderly gentleman from Jacksonville in the Amdinette, who was riding on an AMTRAK “Florida Rail Pass.” I had never heard of the Florida Rail Pass, and did not know AMTRAK had such an animal available. As we passed through Jacksonville and glided past the Naval Air Station, this gentlemen pointed out an M-16 fighter plane and some “hurricane hunter” aircraft which were visible from the train at the NAS, which I was able to take some good video of. South of the Palatka station, I was looking for the site of the April 2002 Auto Train derailment. From television news reports, I was able to locate the spot on my maps, but all I observed at that location was a very slight (almost non-noticeable) decrease in speed as we passed through that area. The site has been totally cleaned up by now, and there is no evidence whatsoever of the derailment anywhere.
I got off the train for a few minutes at the Jacksonville stop, where we arrived 29 minutes late. We had pulled into the track closest to the station, which is unusual, since, on most other trips I have taken, the northbound trains pull into Track 2, but today, the southbound Silver Meteor, Train #97, was pulled up on Track 2, and had arrived approximately 4 hours late. Hmm -- I wonder what happened to it. As usual, we took longer than the scheduled 27-minute stop at Jacksonville, and departed 48 minutes behind schedule again, after adding some express cars to the rear of the train. I soon made my dinner reservations for 8:15 PM. For those of you who have read my previous travelogues, you know that I always choose the latest dinner reservation slot, so I can maximize the daylight hours to take as much video as possible. Generally, it is dark or almost dark by the time the last dinner reservations are seated. I also began to realize that I have already taken more video than I had planned for the first day of this trip. I had 12 hours of video tape cassettes for this 13-day trip, so figured I had to limit my video to 1 hour per day, if at all possible. I did not count on traveling by train on the 13th day of this trip, since that leg would be on Train #2, which I will not be riding if it comes into New Orleans more than 5 or 6 hours late. But then again, I can always buy more video tape cassettes in New York, Chicago, San Diego, or Seattle.
We departed Jesup, GA, 38 minutes late, and Savannah 35 minutes late. I was following the route I had mapped into Savannah, and apparently AMTRAK now takes a different route to the station than it used to, since I was unable to follow the route I had mapped. From Burroughs (10 miles south of Savannah), I had the route mapped on a northern route which runs through Wildwood, and approaches Alabama Junction from the southwest. Apparently, the route now takes the southern route at Burroughs, passes through Grubbs and Lamarville, and approaches Alabama Junction from the southeast. If anyone out there can verify this, please e-mail me at email@example.com.
For dinner, I had the New York strip steak, a glass of wine, and a chocolate truffle. The truffle was not what I thought it would be -- I was imagining some kind of brownie with frosting or ice cream, but the truffle is a round cakelike concoction made entirely of chocolate, but without any type of frosting or ice cream. It is served warm, but is a bit dry to the taste, in my opinion. The AMTRAK menu is very limited and standardized now, and all the trains offer the same 3 or 4 dinner entrees -- not much of a variety of food for someone who is on an extended trip like I was! The food was generally pretty good on this trip, however, but I did tire of alternating between 2 or 3 items every day for dinner and for lunch! I sat with a man and a woman who were not very conversive.
We departed Yemassee 36 minutes late, Charleston 27minutes late, and Kingstree 31 minutes late. We then arrived at Florence, SC, on time, and I decided to get out and stretch my legs for a few minutes before turning in for the night. It was a warm muggy evening, as it often is in this part of the country in late June. I had Leo make up my bed, then I turned in for the night. I always have a hard time sleeping on the first leg of my train trips -- I guess it takes a day or two for my 53-year old body to get used to the swaying of the train, but after the first night, I generally sleep pretty well on the train. Sometime after we departed Florence (10 minutes late), the train stopped for quite a while. After the first hour we were stopped, I decided it was time to get up and investigate, which is the norm for me -- I always want to know why we are stopped and for how long we may be stopped -- maybe I am just restless, or worried about connections, but that is me. I can usually find out why we are delayed by knowing who and how to ask. I first went to the vestibule of the Viewliner sleeper and opened the window (something passengers are not allowed to do, but oh well! So I break the rules now and then -- I know enough to close the window when I need to and to not get hurt). No trains had passed us for the first 1½ hours we were stopped, but I did see a white light way ahead of the train past the red block signal, so naturally figured it was a freight train which would be passing any minute now. But no train passed, and several minutes later, the white light and red block signal were still there. I wandered into the Amdinette, which was empty except for the conductor, so I asked him. He said we were stopped because of a broken switch ahead of us (the white light apparently was the work crew), and that we were at a place called “Hay-mill,” north of Dillon, SC. I retrieved my map book then and looked for a place called Hay Mill north of Dillon, but did not find any such place. I did find a small town called “Hamer,” and showed the map to the conductor and asked him if that was where he meant. He studied my map for a few minuets, then said, “Nope -- that’s not it. We’re at a switch called ‘Hay-Mill’.” I can only assume that the “Hay-Mill” switch was most likely at the town of Hamer, since that was the only place shown on my maps that had a name anywhere near what the conductor said! We eventually got moving again -- and were now 2½ hours behind schedule. My connection in New York was starting to look “iffy.”
On Saturday morning, I awoke just south of Richmond, and we were still approximately 2½ hours late. I mentioned to the conductors and to Leo that I may have to get off at either Philadelphia or Trenton to catch the next train, the Three Rivers, due to our tardiness. Everyone agreed that was a pretty good plan, and the conductors suggested I get off at Philadelphia rather than Trenton. After I got up and got washed and prepared for the day, the first thing I did was to drop a contact lens someplace. The sinks and toilets in Viewliners are not easy to use, as there is not enough room to maneuver, and to put my contacts in, I had to stand on the toilet so I could get my face close to the mirror to make sure the lenses go in okay. I generally like the Viewliner sleeper rooms better than Superliners, but the rest room/washing/bathing facilities are easier to use in Superliners. I hunted for my contact lens for several minutes, but could not find it, so I assumed it had dropped into the drain in the sink -- I did have my regular glasses to use on this trip, and I had extra contact lenses at home (why didn’t I bring any extras?) So I got my camcorder and map book and headed to the lounge. I had mentioned to Leo that I lost a contact lens, and he said he would try and look for it in the sink after we stopped in Richmond. He apparently had a way to take the sink apart in the room and look down the drain for the lens -- I don’t know really know how that can be done….. As things worked out, though, he had made up my room a few minutes later, and when I went back in, I found the contact lens laying on the floor! It had begun to dehydrate by that time, but a quick rinsing in the cleaning solution for 20 or 30 minutes seemed to restore it to its original shape -- whew!!!
We arrived at Richmond 4 hrs 5 minutes late due to the overnight delay, and departed 4 hrs 17 minutes late. At Richmond, they had to add more fuel, since the train had used up most of its fuel during the 2½-hour stop overnight. Before we arrived in Richmond, the power went off a couple times in the train. When I asked why, I was told that the power had gone off because the fuel was low -- huh????? The fuel pump runs by electricity, and since the fuel was low, that‘s why the power kept going off. I think I missed something in that explanation….. After we departed Richmond, the power did not go off any more, however. The crew apologized to the passengers, and I was again told that I should detrain at Philadelphia to catch the Three Rivers. At one point, Leo had told me that the delay overnight was not a broken switch, but a broken down freight train ahead of us. The conductor, however (the same one who I had spoken to overnight) said no, it was indeed a broken switch. I believe the conductor. While I was sitting in the Amdinette car on Saturday morning, the 2 conductors were making “alternate travel arrangements” for some people who would miss their scheduled connections in New York. However, it seems most of them were going on north to Boston or Providence, and there are many many trains a day, all day long, from New York north. I don’t believe most of the panicked passengers had to worry about connections at all, but the conductors continued to make “alternate arrangements.” One gentleman, who appeared to be Middle Eastern, was giving the conductors a hassle and had changed his mind about what he wanted to do several times, only to frustrate the conductors more. I do not know what his specific situation was, but I believe he was asking to get on a “faster train” from New York to wherever he was going, or to get on a “faster train” from Washington to New York, and I also heard some conversation about him wanting AMTRAK to fly him from Washington to New York or something. He continued to hassle the conductors for quite a while before he finally calmed down, and at one time, the conductor who I had talked to overnight threatened to stop the train right where we were and have this fellow removed. At one point, the fellow tried to engage me in the conversation by saying that he is not from this country and is in a hurry, but people who live in this country are not in a hurry, and can accept these delays, but AMTRAK has “screwed up” his whole vacation, etc., etc. yadda yadda…. (Say what?????) I politely told the fellow that I did not care to discuss his problem with him, and that the conductors had been trying to help him, but he had refused their help. He eventually calmed down.
We arrived in Washington, DC 4 hrs 10 minutes late, and left 4 hrs 1 minute late. I got off the train again in Washington and watched the crew switch off Genesis Unit #82 and replace it with an AEM-7 electric engine. I thought perhaps they would replace the Genesis with an Acela engine, but they did not. I did see an Acela engine for the first time a couple tracks over, however. We soon continued north in the Northeast Corridor. We departed Baltimore and Wilmington both 4 hrs 5 minutes late. At the Wilmington station, a southbound Acela train had pulled in next to the Meteor, probably Acela Express #2205. Meanwhile I prepared to detrain at Philadelphia 30th Street Station to catch the next train. We arrived in Philadelphia 3 hrs 56 minutes late, and, as I carried my suitcases to the vestibule to get off, Leo and another crew member were sitting in the handicap room next to the door of the train talking, and Leo said to me “Oh, I didn’t know you were also getting off here!” I reminded him that I had told him that much earlier in the morning, but apparently he’d forgotten. He therefore did not get as much of a tip as I would normally give a sleeping car attendant.
In Philadelphia, the first thing I did was find the “Acela Lounge” (formerly known as the “Metropolitan Lounge”) to store my suitcases for a couple hours. The Acela lounge is a bit hard to find. It is on the north (?) side of the station, accessible by a hallway behind “Stairway no. 1” to the tracks below. You walk down the hall and up a flight of stairs, then you ring a buzzer to get into the lounge. The lounge attendant, however, has a video monitor at his desk, so he can see you approaching the lounge before you ring the buzzer, and will generally “buzz you in” before you have a chance to ring the buzzer yourself. The lounge is located in a balcony above the main concourse of 30th Street Station, and is separated from the station by a soundproof glass window. It is not as nice as the New York or Washington lounges, but it will do. I stored my bags behind a couch initially, then went back down to the station and looked for lunch and a shop where I could buy some extra video cassette tapes. There is a rather extensive “food court” at 30th Street Station, and a variety of meals are available. I chose a hoagie sandwich from one of the vendors, and sat at a round table in the food court and ate it. I then looked for some more video cassettes. The first place I went to was a gift shop, where I asked if they knew of anyplace which may have what I was looking for. I am not sure they really understood what I was looking for, and told me that no place in the station would have such a thing. I wandered around some more, and then found a music store in the station, and sure enough, they did have camcorder cassette tapes, so I bought a package of two, which would give me 4 additional hours of video coverage, should I need it. I then spent some time walking around the outside of the station taking video, and later I walked to the upper level of 30th Street Station, where the SEPTA commuter trains arrive and depart. I had never seen that part of 30th Street Station.