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AMTRAK TRIP REPORT by Walter Zullig, Jr


By Walter Zullig, Jr.
March 28-29, 1998 - Amtrak's Silver Star

For Friends of Amtrak


I had been home in New York nearly all of March while my wife remained in Florida. Our plan was for me to return toward the end of that month. We would spend another week in the sun and then drive home together.

My return trip to Florida was made on March 28-29, a Saturday and Sunday, on Amtrak #91, the Silver Star. I departed my house at 10:15 AM for the 8 minute walk to the Larchmont station with my new featherweight suitcase on wheels. Metro-North Train #6317 departed on time at 10:25 and reached Grand Central Terminal a few minutes early at 10:59. It had 5 open cars and a full load including many families with baby strollers. I emerged from the subway at Penn Station 13 minutes later and headed for Amtrak's ticketed waiting area. Most of the passengers there had wheeled "carry on" luggage like mine and a convoy of these would leave the area whenever a train was announced.

There were no frozen switches in Sunnyside Yard or other delays--the train was called at 11:30, a full 20 minutes before departure time. The boarding process was casual, the way I like it. Just go down to track level, state your destination and take any seat in a particular car. When I told the jovial car attendant, Walter Tinsley, my destination, he started singing "Hooray for Hollywood..." I spotted a nice seat in the middle of the car but passed it by upon spotting a baby in the seat ahead. No need to be near a crying baby if you can avoid it! After out on-time departure at 11:50, the conductor collected the tickets and Mr. Tinsley noted the destinations on a car diagram. Those boarding down the line were given seat numbers at the door but the tickets were collected on board. Soon Mr. Tinsley announced that he would be giving out all the empty seats "so if there's anyone you'd like to sit with, please do so now." He said the train would be full out of WAS (Washington, D.C.) but the peak load point actually turned out to be after Raleigh, North Carolina.

Since I had experienced the "family style" lunch on the northbound train a month ago, I had packed my own lunch which I enjoyed at my seat. Train 20, the Crescent, passed at Trenton. It was somewhat early and had MHC's (Material Handling Cars) on front and rear. At PHL (Philadelphia) a rather large man with a cute 3 year old daughter, Amanda, took the seat behind me. They were en route to a week at Grandma's in Deerfield Beach. The girl was quite active and ran around the car visiting other passengers. I suspect the father may have been divorced since he kept telling her not to do things and let her do them anyway!

The Washington arrival was 5 minutes early, giving a full 41 minutes to wander around and browse the "Great Train Store" upstairs. This also provided the opportunity to note the consist which was: E 60 to WAS, single AMD-103 thereafter, 1 MHC, 1 baggage, a former 10-6 sleeper for crew, 2 Viewliner sleepers, 1 diner, 1 Amfleet II lounge and 4 Amfleet II coaches. Departure was on time at 4:30 with 85 new passengers on board. Soon the Train Chief, Carol White, reminded everyone to be sure to watch for the cherry blossoms on the right side of the train. They made a beautiful sight. The new train crew made a ticket sweep after WAS, "just to make sure." Soon the car attendant came by with reservations for the 8:15 dinner sitting, said to be the only one available. Amanda's father got into quite an argument over this in that his daughter couldn't wait that long. An offer was made to bring her meal to her seat at a more reasonable time. Since Mr. Tinsley couldn't create reservations he didn't have, I went forward to seek out the Chief. We literally ran into each other in the narrow passage alongside the kitchen. After a brief inquiry she said I could be accommodated at the 5:30 sitting. It turned out that only 37 of the 48 seats were being reserved. Two tables were out of service due to a water leak in the ceiling and three others were to be occupied by families of three. She had attempted to get the leak fixed at WAS and was rather distressed that the repairs had not been made during the 41 minute stop there. Help was promised at Richmond--I told her I'd heard that one before but she was determined that it would be fixed there if at all possible.

At 5:30 I jumped up from my seat just as the call was being made and was seated with a family of 3 from Augusta, ME. They had started their Amtrip in Boston and were headed for Raleigh. The next day they would continue to Jacksonville, El Paso, Ambus to Albuquerque with an ultimate destination of Santa Fe. A week later they would ride the Southwest Chief from Lamy to CHI (Chicago), thence the Lake Shore Limited back to BOS (Boston). Since this was their first long train trip I described the features of the trains and routes they would be riding and mentioned that I was green with envy. For dinner, I had the Oriental Surprise, chicken, rice, peppers, etc., which was delicious, a fact which I mentioned to the crew.

Near Franconia we overtook a southbound freight and passed the northbound Tropicana Juice train. There was no sign of activity at the Auto-Train terminal; the ATC should have departed over a half hour ago so would be ahead of us. I was still in the diner at Richmond but left shortly after arrival there. The scheduled 10 minute stop there extended to 31 minutes as repairs were made to the diner. The 6:45 and 8:15 sittings were pushed back about 30 minutes as a result so I was glad I had been able to eat earlier. Ms. White got the repairs made; she was an excellent Train Chief who always was right on top of problems.

At 9:43 PM we passed from the ex. ACL (Atlantic Coast Line RR) to an ex. SOU (Southern Railroad) line at Selma [NC] Jct. A number of train watchers were on hand and there was a sign about renovation of the "Historic Selma Depot" which is used by Amtrak's Carolinian. About this time I got chatting with the conductor who mentioned that the normal load is about 220. The coaches are sometimes between 60% and 100% full but the sleepers are nearly always sold out. He also mentioned that he can sell sleeper space at a 47% discount if he has any available. That was news to me. The speed on the Selma- Raleigh section seemed faster than on previous trips so I assume the track has been upgraded. Signal-wise, it's still "dark territory.".

Upon pulling into Raleigh there was a large crowd on the platform. About 75 boarded here, making the train just about at capacity. The seat next to me was taken by an architect in his 40's en route for a week with his Dad at Deerfield Beach. He had started his trip at Greensboro and used the connecting Piedmont to Raleigh. As I've had happen before, his was the only reading light on in the entire car until I suggested that he read in the lounge car so I could get to sleep. He was wide awake but turned off the light. I stirred a little at Columbia and Savannah but really slept through until Amanda started talking about 7 AM, as we were nearing JAX (Jacksonville, FL). Recalling the Chief's advice to get in the diner before JAX, I quickly washed up and walked forward. A lady and I were seated at the only empty table. Just as we got our orders in, an announcement was made that the diner now is closed "until after the train departs Jacksonville." Breakfast was delicious although my daughter would get upset if she saw me eating scrambled eggs, sausage and home fries. I only eat that way when I'm traveling.

Several members of the dining crew changed during the JAX stop, which must have been the reason for the closure. After breakfast I detrained briefly to stretch my legs and reboarded shortly before our on time departure at 8:06AM. It was cloudy--where is the famous Florida Sun? Next stop was Palatka. I've always wondered why this station has a cyclone fence with barbed wire and a gate for passengers to pass through. It isn't very long so anybody who wants to get trackside could easily walk around it. And why the barbed wire?

The Florida Sun was out in force for our Orlando arrival. Since it was 15 minutes before departure time and large numbers of passengers and baggage detrain here, there was ample time for a photo stop for some riders and a smoke stop for others. A very elderly and frail man was unloaded from a sleeper with a hand crank wheelchair lift--upon reaching the platform he got up and took off with his walker. The crew looked on in bewilderment and concern that he'd ever make it to the station; I guess he didn't want to be wheeled around. Further inspection of the consist reminded me that our train and engine numbers were identical, train 91 with engine 91.

On two occasions during the trip announcements were made imploring passengers not to put paper towels or other refuse in the toilets. One such was after Orlando. Both toilets in one coach and one in another now were closed due to malfunctions. To make things worse, the rear coach with two working toilets, was locked after ORL as all its passengers had been en route to that station. Keeping that car open for bathroom use would have shortened the waiting lines in the other cars. This brings me to another point: The two bathrooms provided in an Amfleet II coach really are inadequate for a trip of over 24 hours' duration. At the very least, some additional washrooms similar to those on the Metroliners, would help. I've often suspected that those responsible for this design never traveled overnight in a coach.

First call to lunch in the diner was made at 12:15. The Chief read the "menu", the same single "family style" item I had 5 weeks ago. "No thanks;" I adjourned to the lounge car and enjoyed a cheeseburger and chips. The diner had a printed "Silver Service" menu showing at least 4 lunch items but, unfortunately, this was not in use.

As usual, the train gradually emptied out as we headed south. However between 10 and 15 new riders did board at each station in Florida. We had a 2 minute stop at Haines City to meet northbound #98, running about 15 minutes late. The switch from ACL to SAL lines at Auburndale was efficiently done in 12 minutes--not bad considering the need to hand throw switches and run through yard trackage. The Florida Fun Train passed us at Delta Siding, south of Okeechobee. It had an Amtrak F40 on the north end and one of the two Fun Train F40's on the rear. We moved passed it slowly and I could tell there was a very good crowd on board. Earlier we had passed #92 which I missed as I had dozed off. We were nearly on time at WPB (West Palm Beach) but lost 12 minutes in the siding at Boynton Beach awaiting northbound Tri-Rail #686. The conductor explained the delay was waiting for "what we call a lizard train--it has 3 levels. Be sure to watch it pass by."

Soon a rather attractive young woman came by to chat with Amanda and her Dad. She mentioned that her Grandmother in Delray Beach is frail but if she can get away she would phone Amanda's Dad so they might be able to meet. After she went forward, her Dad mentioned, "That was Lisa--remember we met her in the lounge car and visited her in her cabin this afternoon?"

Perhaps the start of a new romance! Amanda said goodbye to everyone and detrained with quite a few others including my seatmate, at Deerfield Beach. Soon came Fort Lauderdale and then my destination station of Hollywood, where we arrived 15 minutes late at 4:30 PM. My wife, Suzanne, was on hand to meet me and seemed surprised when I walked up from the back of the train as she had been expecting me to emerge from one of the sleepers up front. I told her "that little walk saved us $200!"

The trip was fun but it was good to rejoin Suzanne in the Florida sun! It was out in full force.

By Walter Zullig, Jr.