FOR FRIENDS OF AMTRAK
By Jack Deasy
This trip report details my journey from Alexandria VA to Kissimmee FL and return on Amtrak trains 91 and 92, the Silver Star.
An annual Navy leadership conference, to be held in Tampa FL on May 30th - June 1st, provides me with a requirement for travel from the Old Dominion to the Sunshine State. In planning my trip, I ruled out the Silver Palm because of inconvenient arrival (0627) and departure (2227) times at Tampa. I also ruled out the Amtrak Thruway bus connection between Orlando and Tampa because I wanted a vehicle in Florida. I considered taking my auto on the Auto Train and driving between Sanford and Tampa, but I found the round trip fare in a Superliner economy bedroom ($799) exceeded the cost of a Viewliner sleeper plus the cost of a rental car in Florida. Thus, I settled on the Silver Star from Alexandria VA to Kissimmee FL and return for convenient arrival and departure times. The tariff was $637 for a Viewliner standard bedroom; this was $164 rail fare and $473 sleeper accomodations charges. I would have a Hertz rental car at Kissimmee.
I arrive at the Alexandria station about 20 minutes before train 91's scheduled 1650 departure and park in the station's spacious free parking area. The refurbishment of the station is progressing slowly yet surely, so it is starting to look much nicer. The southbound Silver Star will be arriving on the northbound track, so passengers cross to the far platform under the watchful eye of one of the station staff. I ask him if i need to walk towards the far south end of the platform (or beyond) to board my sleeper, but he says he thinks the train will double stop to accomodate me. I don't have faith that they will double stop, so I walk to the south end of the paved platform so I do not have to lug a heavy bag thru several coaches, lounge and diner. To my pleasant surprise, 91 stops with her two sleepers near the crosswalk! I walk back and board, heading for room 9 in the 9110 car. Line number 9111 is the first sleeper; 9110 is the second sleeper. As you face the forward (vestibule) end of the car, room 9 is on the right side towards the rear (blind) end of the car. The sleeper attendant apologizes for the fact that he does not have any complimentary wine on the car to offer me; "they" did not give him any. I tell him I would be happy to have an ice tea instead. He says he will see if he can get me one. I am pleasantly surprised when he return within 15 minutes with a bottle of ice tea, a glass and ice - on the house. The Chief of Onboard Services stops by to introduce himself and gives me a single meal voucher good for the entire trip. I have my choice of 3 sittings for dinner in the diner - 1700, 1830, and 2000. I choose the last sitting. I inspect the Viewliner room closely. Everything is clean and appears to work properly with the exception of the ceiling blue night light. I compare the deatils of my room to the economy bedroom I rode on one of the two protoype cars; this car is a significant improvement from the prototype. To my surprise, I find a light switch that controls a light that does not exist. On the control panel next to the head of the upper berth, there is a switch marked wall light; there is no wall light for the upper berth and the switch controls neither of the two lower wall lights.
During our stop at Richmond, I walk the platform and note our consist: locomotives 31 and 825, baggage 1242, material handling car 1508, baggage mail express 1737, crew dorm 2440 PACIFIC BEACH, Viewliner sleepers 62028 PALISADES VIEW and 62045 TOWER VIEW, diner 8553, dinette-lounge 28001, and Amfleet II coaches 25073, 25068, 25091, and 25078. The "builder's plate" decal on 31 identifies it as a P42-DC, Genesis series I, with 4250 horsepower; the decal on 825 identifies it as a DASH 8-40BP, Genesis series I, with 4000 horsepower. We are at Richmond for about 10 to 15 minutes; mail/express is worked on the head end cars.
The large CSX yard (Collier Yard?) south of Petersburg is almost deserted. I see only about a dozen enclosed autocarriers. There are many empty tracks in this yard. At South Collier interlocking, a single track veers off to our right in a southwesterly direction. I assume this is a connection from the former ACL main line to the former SAL main line.
After leaving Richmond, I have the opportunity to chat with our Chief of Onboard Service for awhile. Our Chief used to work as the attendant on the Executive Sleeper (the NY-Washington sleeper that operated on the rear of the Night Owl) and thus is quite familiar with the two prototype Viewliner sleepers. He considers the 50 production models much superior to the 2 prototypes. He notes that Viewliner sleeper space is selling very well on the Silver Meteor and Silver Star, but not as well on the Silver Palm. The shower across the hall from the attendant's room has not gotten all that much use. He thinks it might be because some passengers are uncomfortable walking down the hallway to/from the shower, or are just not used to the concept of a shower in a sleeping car. However, the showers in the deluxe bedrooms and the handicapped accessible bedroom get regular use by the occupants of thes rooms. He hopes the plastic interior will hold up to the wear and tear of daily service.
Lounge car liquor sales have decreased significantly since the no smoking (with short scheduled smoking interludes) policy was introduced. However, the lounge car now has more of a peaceful family atmosphere since the drinkers are less prevalent. The Silver Star seems to do a lot of family business to/from the Disney parks due to the train's scheduled times at Orlando.
He has seen about 5 Heritage diners that have been thru the refurbishment program. I believe he said the work is being done at Amtrak's coach yard in Hialeah. The cars are brighter and have more pleasant colors. New carpeting, new wall treatments, new upholstery on the seats, etc. There have been no changes in the kitchen equipment. He is not aware of any significant mechanical work on the cars. Thus, it appears the refurbishment program is limited to a cosmetic interior decor facelift.
The dining car menu on the three Silver Service trains features lower prices than the diner menu on the Crescent, Lake Shore Limited and Superliner trains. As a result, a relatively higher percentage of coach passengers purchase meals in the diners of the Silver Service trains than other trains.
All of the Silver Service crews are based in Miami. This particular crew's assignment is to go north on the Silver Palm (90), spend the night in Manhattan, and return home on the Silver Star (91). He reminds me that Florida does not have a personal income tax.
Finally I ask why the consists were reversed (sleepers forward and coaches to the rear) with the May timetable change. He says they were told that the Intercity SBU wanted to change the order of the Lake Shore Limited consist for various reasons; this required that all 18 train-sets of equipment be ordered in the same manner so they could rotate thru assignment to the consists of 19/20, 48/49, 89/90, 91/92, and 97/98.
I walk back to the diner at 2000 and I am seated promptly. All 12 tables in this former New York Central 48 seat diner are in service. I wonder if my PV, the former NYC "ST. REGIS RIVER", ever locked couplers and traveled together with this diner along the Water Level Route anytime between 1949 and 1965? The final sitting appears to be fairly full. The entree choices on the menu are baked breaded codfish, baked chicken, an open faced Philadelphia style cheese steak sandwich, stuffed pepper, and a shishkebab. The most expensive entree on the menu is $9. There were 3 different choices for children under 12. The waiter takes my order in a timely manner. A small salad, roll and butter, and my hot tea are brought soon enough. The fish is tasty, but not all that hot - perhaps lukewarm at best. I decide not to send it back to the kitchen as I am hungry. The key lime pie is a delicious desert. My table companion, who also enjoys train travel, is making a round trip from Connellsville PA to central Florida and return. He regrets he was unable to get a sleeper for the southbound trip as he booked the trip on short notice due to a death in the family.
I stretch my legs during our stop at Raleigh, NC. I watch a little bit of a movie (the latest Star Wars movie) on the video monitor in my room. I turn in shortly afterword. I do not summon the porter, but make up my own bed. This requires adjusting the two seats, just like in a Superliner economy bedroom. I lower the upper berth, get the bedding, and roll it out in place. I lock the upper berth back in position. I am ready to retire. One can not make a Viewliner bedroom completely dark, like a roomette, for several reasons. First of all, the window curtains admit some light; they are not opaque like a roomette window shade. Some light comes in thru the small space between the bottom of the door and the floor track. Finally, all of the switches in the room admit a soft night light type of glow. I adjust to these differences. The bed is reasonably comfortable, but not quite as comfortable as a roomette bed. It is not as wide as a roomette bed. The bedding atop the seat cushions is not as comfortable as a roomette mattress. The armrest along the window reduces the lower berth's effective width by a few inches. The bed is several inches below the bottom of the window, while a roomette bed was about even with the bottom of the window. This alters your view when lying in bed and looking out the window. It is harder to see the landscape as you are looking slightly upwards rather than straight out the window. I drift off to sleep, but come to when we stop at Southern Pines, NC. It appears to be a crew change point. I awake sometime later that night when we are stopped for quite some time somewhere along the former SAL between Southern Pines and Charleston. It is nice to be able to use the toilet without having to raise the bed; this is an improvement over the old roomette! I think I slept more soundly and comfortably in roomettes. I resolve to try the upper berth on my return trip.
I get up somewhere south of Savannah. I head for the shower. It appears I am the first to use it on this trip. No waiting. Plenty of hot water. Clean towels. Good temperature control. Liquid soap in a dispenser. Pushing the button produces a steady flow of water from the low-flow showerhead for about one - two minutes. I feel refreshed afterward. This is the first time I have taken a shower on a passenger train other than onboard my own PV or onboard friends' private cars. It does make a difference.
I return to my room and get dressed. I walk back to the diner and am seated right away in a fairly full car. Service is timely. Orange juice, scrambled eggs, link sausage, grits, biscuit and coffee. The eggs and sausage are cool. Once again, I decide not to send them back to the kitchen. I am not sure why. Breakfast is good with the exception of that problem. I am finished before we get to Jacksonville. Later I ensure the Chief knows I have had two off-temperature entrees in his diner.
We spend some time at Jacksonville. The locomotives are fueled. Mail and express shipments are worked on the head end cars. While stretching my legs on the platform during our lengthy station stop, I notice a white hat (supervisor) who used to work at Washington Union Station. We depart at 0921, one hour and twenty one minutes late. The crew says we lost time during the night due to signal problems on CSX between Southern Pines and Jacksonville. I am reminded of Father Wayland Brown's comments on the reliability of the CSX signal system along that stretch of railroad.
As we depart Jacksonville, I see CSX switching three business cars in the yard south of the Amtrak station. I walk thru the train to see how things look in coach. The first 2 coaches closest to the lounge car are equipped with video monitors. The first 3 coaches are between 50 and 75% full. The last coach is empty. I am glad I am not traveling in coach; the scene in the coaches does not look appealing. I decide not to have lunch in the dinner. Some mail/express is handled during our stop at Orlando. We meet the northbound Silver Meteor (train 98) that arrives at Orlando a few minutes early at 1242. 98 has a single Genesis locomotive pulling 10 cars.
A few minutes after leaving Orlando we are rolling along when I hear the sudden rush of escaping air from the brake system - an emergency brake application! I shift to the rear facing seat and brace myself for a possible impact jolt. We stop without incident. A few minutes later we are again on the move. I notice a tractor-trailer with a grade crossing gate draped over the cab. The Chief announces that the tractor trailer started across the grade crossing after the flashers/bells were activated, but then stopped, hesitated and tried to back up clear of the crossing. Since we stopped with our locomotives past the crossing, it is good that the trucker was able to back up clear of the tracks. It would have been a low speed impact, but surely that would have delayed us a good bit further. We arrive at Kissimmee just about two hours late. The station's waiting room has some very nice lithographs of the famous Florida trains of the streamliner ers. A call to Hertz produces the courtesy shuttle. The Hertz office seems to be at least a dozen miles away, so I am glad I am not paying for a taxi.
The Chief of Onboard Services was excellent. He seems to have mastered the art of announcements. Clear speaking; no mumbling into the PA system. A pleasant DJ quality voice. The right balance between saying too much and not enough. My sleeper attendant was good, as was the dining car waiters and the lounge car attendant. Temperature control was good. My room was clean and everything worked properly. I give Amtrak an "A-" for the items under their control. I give CSX a "C" for their poor timekeeping. All in all, the southbound trip is enjoyable despite the poor on time performance.
One evening during my stay in Tampa, I get to take a look at the Amtrak station, currently served by The Silver Palm and Amtrak Thruway buses. It is about a mile from downtown Tampa, in a mixed industrial & residential area over towards Ybor City. It appears to be an Amshack tucked away behind a decaying closed ACL station building. Unimpressive. What American city of Tampa's size would have an airport this shabby? I also take note of trackage, through the streets of downtown Tampa, that I assume was used by passenger trains to reach St. Petersburg. The cover of the March/April 1993 issue of "Private Varnish" features a May 1992 photo of private car Georgia 300 (probably carrying the markers on the Silver Star) on this trackage along Franklin Street with the restored Tampa Theater in the background.
My ticket confirms I have Viewliner bedroom 9 in car 9211, from Kissimmee FL to Alexandria VA, on the Silver Star (train 92) of Tuesday June 2nd. After dropping off my rental car at the Hertz facility near Orlando's international airport, I realize I am closer to Amtrak's Orlando station than their Kissimee station. The Hertz staff suggests I ride their free shuttle bus to the airport and then take a taxi from the airport to the Orlando train station, in the interest of saving time and money. Unfortunately, their courtesy shuttle will not take me to the Amtrak station. Since train time is approaching, I take their advice. I get to Orlando about 1600.
The southbound Silver Meteor, train 97, arrives at Orlando at 1614. The consist is P42 locomotive 62, baggage 1133, crew dorm 2920 PACIFIC MIST, Viewliner sleepers 62004 BEACH VIEW and 62017 MAJESTIC VIEW, diner 8552, Amfleet II dinette-lounge 28014, and Amfleet II coaches 25063, 25003, 25122, and 25118. One engine for 10 cars; if the HEP fails on that single unit, it will be very hot onboard that train. As train 97 comes to a stop at the station, train 92 appears to the south of the station. Train 97 departs at 1618, 24 minutes late, and then train 92 enters the station.
Consist of the Silver Star, train 92, is locomotives 838 and 73, mhc's 1523 and 1541, baggage-mail-express 1738, crew dorm 2983 PINE ARROYO, Viewliner sleepers 62030 PATRIOT VIEW and 62035 SHORE VIEW, diner 8554, dinette-lounge 28010, and Amfleet II coaches 25097, 26053, 25038, and 25117. The sleeper attendants are working only one vestibule - the one at the forward end of SHORE VIEW. When I mention that I have room 9 in the 9211 car, the attendant notes he was expecting me at Kissimmee, but I did not show up there. I mention that Orlando was closer than Kissimmee, and he understands.
We leave town on the advertised. My room is clean, neat and ready for me. A quick inspection reveals only one defect - the reading light for the forward facing seat is not securely mounted in its housing. It is not dangling or rattling, so it is neither annoying or a safety hazard, but it is a small detail that may reflect a larger maintenance picture. The attendant brings me a complimentary gift consisting of a small bottle of Sutter Home 1995 vintage California Sauvignon Blanc wine and an Amtrak Silver Service wine glass. The Chief stops by to issue the meal voucher to me and welcome me onboard. I obtain a reservation for the final (8 PM) seating in the diner.
I go to the lounge car for an ice tea and a sample of the atmosphere. It is not too crowded. Custom class passengers get free non-alcoholic beverages in the cafe car, so how come first class passengers do not get the same privilege? The conductor, his assistant and the Chief of Onboard Services are working from the booth closest to the bar. Three young men take the booth farthest from the bar and begin a card game. Within a minute, there is an outburst of off-color language. I am impressed when the Chief and the Conductor immediately warn them their behavior is not acceptable in the family atmosphere of this lounge car. They remain under control for the half hour I spend in the lounge car. A woman loudly voices her discontent with the no smoking policy. When I am done, I walk through the four coaches to the rear of the train. I estimate the first 3 coaches are about 3/4 full; the last car is empty. The first two are equipped with video monitors. I return to the cool peaceful privacy of my room to relax before dinner. The attendant brings a chocolate chip cookie and a chocolate candy, compliments of Amtrak's Silver Service.
We pass the Auto Train terminal at Sanford, but train 52 has already departed for Lorton almost an hour ago. I understand Amtrak is rebuilding two Superliner diners into lounge cars, at this facility, for Auto Train service. I wonder exactly what modifications will be completed. I recall photographing some of the Auto Train Corporation's equipment here sometime (1980 or 1981) after the demise of the original Auto Train. We pass train 2, the eastbound (southbound) Sunset Limited, at 1833 when we are a few miles north of the Palatka station.
At 1932 we come to a stop north of the Jacksonville station. Although I was not paying strict attention, I did not notice us pass the station, so it appears we may have taken an alternate route around (to the west of) the station before we arrived at this point north of the station. We slowly back down into the station and couple onto a pair of material handling cars (1506 and 1545) that are bound for Philadelphia. We pull ahead and then back up onto another track. We come to a final stop and allow passengers to detrain at 1948, four minutes early. Many passengers hit the platform to have a smoke, stretch their legs or make a phone call in the station. I walk back to the mail/express dock and find a nice surprise - Amtrak 70000. The car is empty and the door open, so I take a few minutes to look it over. These boxcars, without HEP, will probably be an annoyance to many private car owners, obstructing their view of the track behind or blocking access to HEP. However, they can surely help put some revenue on the books. While on the platform, I talk to a guy who is traveling, with his wife and two children, in SHORE VIEW's accessible bedroom. He says they are pleased with their accomodations. Much to my surprise, he knew the fellow who owned private car ALDER FALLS (then known as LIONEL IVES) back in the 1970s. It seems we are in Jacksonville for about 20 minutes; I think we leave more or less on time.
Shortly after leaving Jacksonville, I have the opportunity to chat with the Chief for a few minutes. I compliment her for the manner in which she handled the potentially rowdy young guys in the lounge car and the woman who was irate about the limited smoking opportunities in the lounge car. We talk about the program to convert 10&6 sleepers into crew dorm - smokers lounge cars. It is apparent she does not favor the plan. She has three concerns. Her first concern is second hand smoke from the lounge; will the exhaust system suck it all out of the car and exhaust it oustide, or will smelly unhealthy second hand smoke permeate the crew dorm? Her second concern is security; will the crew and their belongings be safe and secure down the hall from the smokers lounge? Her third concern is noise. Will a rowdy crowd in the smokers lounge disturb the crew when they are off-duty; will an off-duty crew, unwinding from the stress of the trip, get a little loud and offend the passengers in the smokers lounge? All are valid concerns. She confirms that the crews do not like the prototype Viewliner diner. Many improvements to this design will be necessary if Amtrak ever buys a number of Viewliner diners to replace Heritage diners. She notes that Amtrak can not make the trains run much faster and they are not as inexpensive (in comparison to airlines) as they used to be, so all they really have to sell is customer service. This is an accurate and positive assessment.
I walk back to the diner; every table is in service and almost every seat is taken. I am late for the 8 PM seating because I spent more time talking with the Chief than I realized. Luckily there is room for me. The Chief resets the first table closest to the kitchen. I am seated with an older couple. I notice he is wearing a Seiko railroad approved wristwatch identical to mine and has a NYC pin on the lapel of his jacket. Have I the good fortune of dining with a retired NYC employee? Unfortunately, this fellow turns out to be a rather loud and boorish railfan. His loud excited tone of voice and barely restrained enthusiam for trains clearly embarasses his wife and draws some odd looks from other diners, especially after he removes his belt to proudly show me a cast belt buckle with a railroad motif. If diner 8554 had a "foamer alarm", it would be sounding an alert right now! My dinner is salad, roll, baked chicken, sweet potatoes, broccolli, hot tea and key lime pie. It is tasty and served at the appropriate temperature. Service is good. My table companion, who is also a volunteer member of a group restoring some equipment in the Cleveland area, starts talking about passenger cars. I realize a much of his information is incorrect and inaccurate, but somehow I feel I might hurt his feelings if I corrected him, so I listen politely while eating. I feel sorry for this guy's wife; she is doing her best to cope with her husband's exuberant performance. After dinner I tell the Chief that I enjoyed the meal; she introduces me to the chef in the kitchen so that I can pass on my compliments directly to the employee most responsible for my dinner.
After dinner, I adjourn to the lounge car. The atmosphere does not seem particularly inviting; Amfleet II lounge cars usually have little ambience, so I return to my bedroom in PATRIOT VIEW. I turn out the lights and watch the Georgia countryside. When we arrive at Savannah, I hit the platform, wondering if I will be greeted by Wayland Brown. I ask an employee up by the baggage car if Father Brown is on the property this evening, but the fellow says they have not seen him tonight. I would have enjoyed meeting our Railroad List & OS List correspondent from Savannah. Things seem peaceful and quiet during our stop of about 10 minutes at the nice station in Savannah. I recall that we (AAPRCO) had a nice regional meeting affair with about a dozen private cars parked at this station during the Saint Patrick's Day weekend in 1990. I notice the station has a small display of Amtrak merchandise for sale, including Silver Service and Atlantic Coast Route items. I found similar displays in Kissimmee, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
I decide to use the upper bunk tonight so that I can compare it with my use of the lower bunk on the southbound trip. I setup the bed myself; it lowers as smoothly and easily as a roomette bed. After climbing into bed, I decide to play it safe and hook up the two safety restraints. I have some difficulty hooking them into the ceiling fixtures. The upper berth is comfortable, although not as comfortable as a roomette bed. I do not feel claustrophobic - the upper window probably helps. I have heard that the upper berth in a Superliner economy bedroom is not as pleasant an experience as the upper berth in a Viewliner compartment. I sleep on and off thru the night. It is always interesting to look out the window at night and see a small town as you roll through the heart of it, or the lights of a distant farm. I am not sure which berth I prefer, the upper or the lower, for each has its plusses and minuses. I still think a roomette bed is more comfortable.
I awake sometime around 7 AM and head for the shower. It is unoccupied and appears to be unused on this trip. There are a number of boxes (the complimentary gifts) stacked on the floor in the compartment. I move them out of the way and stack them on the used towel hamper. No clean towels in sight. I unlock one of the cabinets (traditional railroad "pencil" lock) and find a supply of fresh towels. Why bother the attendant when you can take care of yoursel? I enjoy a leisurely shower. Plenty of hot water, good temperature control, and adequate water flow/pressure. While shaving, I note the size of the sink, placement of the sink, and placement of the toilet appear to make a Viewliner sink a little less user friendly than a roomette sink.
Breakfast is another positive experience. Although the car is pretty full, I am seated quickly. Orange juice, hot coffee, eggs over, grits and sausage. Hot and tasty. No temperature control problems with the 8554 and her crew. This diner is another NYC alumni that may have worked a trip with my ST. REGIS RIVER in years past.
As we approach the Richmond station, I note Western Maryland 4618 in Acca Yard. This locomotive is still wearing Chessie System colors. Several pallets are loaded into the mhc's at Richmond. We depart at 0945, 35 minutes late. We pass the southbound Carolinian, train 79, at 1105, a few miles north of Quantico. We arrive at Alexandria at 1126, 33 minutes late. My journey on the Silver Star is complete.
The Chief of Onboard Services was excellent. Like her male counterpart on my southbound trip, she seems to have mastered the art of announcements. Clear speaking; no mumbling into the PA system. A pleasant voice. The right balance between saying too much and not enough. My sleeper attendant was good, as were the dining car waiters and the lounge car attendant. Our engineers gave us a smooth ride. The Conductor and his Assistant were good. Temperature control was good. My room was clean and everything important worked properly. I give Amtrak an "A" for the items under their control. I give CSX an "A-" for timekeeping. All in all, the northbound trip is very enjoyable, probably about as good as one can expect on Amtrak in 1997.
By Jack Deasy --Alexandria, Virginia
RETURN TO FRIENDS OF AMTRAK HOMEPAGE
RETURN TO FRIENDS OF AMTRAK TRIP REPORTS MENU