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By Jack M. Turner

Photos by John C. Turner

    Having ridden every mile of the current Amtrak system after covering the last two missing segments in June/July 2010, I turned my attention to riding some of the commuter lines radiating from New York City.  At the top of the list were the Long Island Railroad line to Montauk and the New Jersey Transit route to Port Jervis as both had interested me for years.

    We started our trip by driving to Miami and making a side trip to Marco Island, located on Florida's southwest coast.  The drive from Miami to Marco Island took under two hours and carried us across the Tamiami Trail (US 41), a route that dates way back to the days when highways first began to link Florida's tourism destinations.  Most of this route took us across the edge of Everglades National Park where the scenery alternated between mangrove swamps, broad savannas, and Seminole Indian villages.

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The Everglades as seen from US 41 between Miami and Marco Island

    Marco Island is a beautiful small island that is part of the Ten Thousand Islands chain that stretches from Florida Bay into the corner of the Gulf of Mexico.  The island is dotted with homes owned by both year-'round and winter season residents and is known for its beautiful sandy beaches, gorgeous sunsets, and casual tropical atmosphere.  We stayed at the Marco Island Hilton, a lovely property situated right on the beach which allowed terrific views of Gulf sunsets and evening swims in the tropical swimming pool.

The outstanding beach and tropical swimming pool seen from our balcony at the Marco Island Hilton

    Back in Miami we visited family and took a quick look at my childhood stomping grounds before preparing to board the Silver Meteor bound for New York.  I would be accompanied on the rail part of this trip by my son John who was in his final week of summer before the start of his senior year of college.  We reached Amtrak's station located in Hialeah Yards about 30 minutes before departure time and immediately were taken in a golf cart to our sleeping car.  Sleeping car "College View" was the second of three sleepers on our train and we immediately noticed that the temperature inside our room was warmer than desired.  Our attendant blamed this on the morning sun and suggested closing the curtains as much as possible.  This didn't seem like a good explanation as we did wish to view the scenery; nevertheless we did draw the curtains over the room's upper window.

The northbound Silver Meteor prepares to begin its journey at the Miami Amtrak station located in Hialeah Yard

    Departure was on-time at 8:40am and soon we passed the familiar views of Opa-Locka, Hollywood, and Fort Lauderdale.  While much has remained the same through the years, the passage of time has seen this area grow tremendously.  During rides on the old Seaboard Air Line in the 1960s and early '70s, there was no Interstate 95 paralleling the railway through Broward and Palm Beach Counties.  In fact, much of the route was through barren scrublands where dirt bikes could be seen tackling the backwoods sand hills that dotted the area in those days.  

    Just north of Hollywood we were invited back to the dining car for breakfast and the diner's cool temperature was Arctic-like compared to our bedroom.  The standard railroad French toast was a good selection and we stretched breakfast out through stops at Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, and Delray Beach.  As the Meteor made its way into West Palm Beach we returned to our compartment and found the climate had not improved at all.  Our trusty travel thermometer registered 86 degrees and we could not understand how Amtrak could have allowed this car to leave its major maintenance base in this condition.  Our attendant noted that about 50% of the Viewliner sleepers suffer from poor air conditioning in the bedroom end of the car as apparently the Viewliners employ two separate cooling units for the bedroom and roomette ends of the cars.  Indeed the roomette end was comfortable as we passed through and we promptly wished we had opted for the smaller room type despite my need for the ample legroom of the bedroom.  However, all sleeper space was sold out thus prospects for a comfortable night were not bright.

    The route north of West Palm Beach is arrow straight as the old SAL route skirts just east of Lake Okeechobee so we rested for awhile in hopes that that, with the aid of our travel fans, we would drift in a heat-avoiding sleep.  We succeeded as we slept through the stop at Okeechobee and were barely cognizant of the stop in Sebring at 11:55.

    We retreated to the diner at noon and again appreciated the chilly temperature as we partook of angus burgers and all the trimmings while surveying the scene as the Silver Meteor stopped in Winter Haven then interchanged from the old Seaboard to the former Atlantic Coast Line route at Auburndale.  About 40 minutes later the Meteor stopped at Kissimmee where friend and fellow railfan Eric Harms boarded.  As we had first discussed riding to Montauk as far back as the mid-1980s, Eric was determined to join us once we announced intentions to make this trip.

    There was hope for our temperature issue as our pleasant conductor Herman Appleman advised that the train would make a special stop at Sanford in about an hour so the AutoTrain mechanics could try to fix the problem.  In the meantime, a huge throng of people awaited as we arrived in Orlando; many were indeed boarding our train but a similar number were waiting for the southbound Meteor which would arrive just after we departed.  Our southbound counterpart was met just beyond the station as we rolled through downtown Orlando.  Twenty minutes later we stopped at Winter Park, the most attractive town center on the Florida part of the rail line.  The train came to a halt at Maitland, just five minutes beyond Winter Park which seemed curious since this part of the route is double tracked. The scanner revealed that the engine crew had received a signal that there was an axle problem with the second engine so they reset the faults and determined that the traction motors were okay.  Almost immediately after starting forward the train stopped again and crew members could be seen walking toward the trailing unit.  As the train inched forward, the crew watched to see if the axles were turning and, satisfied, they gave the all clear to resume toward Sanford.  The mechanics now would have two issues to inspect and we likely would be at Sanford awhile.

    After passing through Altamonte Springs and Longwood, we arrived in Sanford at 2:59pm.  Outside our window there was a paved station platform, however the Sanford station was nowhere to be found as it was demolished by the CSX railroad after years of neglect and vandalism.  As a result, Amtrak's silver fleet no longer stops in Sanford though the popular AutoTrain terminal remains on an adjacent tract of land served by tracks that branch off from the mainline.  Outside a team of seven from AutoTrain's mechanical forces waited in golf carts in a scene that looked like a mechanics convention.  While part of the team inspected the engine issue, three mechanics looked over the cooling system in our sleeper.  Finally it was pronounced that this was a compressor issue and could not be repaired in transit.  

Weeds are all that is left of the old ACL/SCL/Amtrak passenger station in Sanford

The northbound AutoTrain as seen from the northbound Silver Meteor in Sanford

    Our prayers were answered in another way, though, as the kind conductor had told us that a member of the dining crew had not made it to work and his roomette was vacant.  By the time we reached Palatka at 4:40pm, John and I were cooling off in Roomette 11 in the forward sleeper "Mystic View".  We felt blessed that this room was open as we had already noted the car's cool temperature after stopping by Eric's room near the center of the car.  

    We had selected the early dinner seating and already had our meals by the time we passed through Orange Park.  The meal passed quickly as we had no need to escape a hot bedroom and no incentive to linger in the dining car where the fourth person seated at our table proceeded to tell us every detail of the business he owned.  We excused ourselves during the servicing stop at Jacksonville so we could stroll the platform and step inside the station where our trips normally begin.  Our friend, conductor William "Billy" Billy, took over here and would be in charge until Florence, SC.  His insight into the track layout south of Savannah was extremely valuable as we learned that at Burroughs we would take the ex-ACL line that travels east of the Savannah rail yards.  Normally the Amtrak trains are routed on the former SAL (which takes a more westerly route into Savannah) from Burroughs, however, the dispatcher has discretion to assign either route.  As a freight was experiencing a mechanical problem on the "S Line", we remained on the "A Line" all the way.  Most of the former SAL route through Georgia was pulled up south of Burroughs many years ago.

Our sleeper, Mystic View, at Jacksonville

    As evening set in, the Silver Meteor left Savannah at 8:28pm and met the southbound Palmetto at 8:40.  The all-coach Palmetto provides daylight service from New York to Savannah and was nearing the end of its journey.  After crossing the Savannah River and making the stop in Yemassee, SC the Meteor was restricted to 40 mph by a flash flood warning near Green Pond.  This lasted a mere few minutes and soon we resumed track speed to Charleston.  The 10:20 departure was just over a half hour late, not bad after our mechanical stops in Maitland and Sanford and the restricted speed north of Yemassee.  

    The comfortable temperature in our roomette facilitated sleep as I only noted our stop in Florence until awaking at 5:00am during the crossing of the James River at Richmond.  I even slept through a 22 minute stop in Fayetteville where an unruly coach passenger was removed.  After a ten minute stop in Richmond, I peered out at the pre-dawn darkness as we sped through Ashland then returned to sleepland until we were well into our stop in Washington at 7:30.

    Following another excellent breakfast, we sat back and viewed as the miles clicked past during our transit of the Northeast Corridor.  Our 10:44am departure from Newark was almost 30 minutes early but Saturday trackwork had one of the Hudson River tunnels used by Amtrak out of service.  While the Meteor waited, a series of eight southbound Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains passed before the one open track was cleared for us to proceed.  Despite the delay, arrival at New York's Penn Station came only one minute late at 11:37am.

    The timely arrival allowed time to check into the Affinia Manhattan Hotel, located diagonally across the street from Penn Station.  This all-suite hotel is perfect for the business or leisure traveler wishing to stay in the heart of the city with easy access to the station and most midtown attractions.  Our "L"-shaped suite was located on the 25th floor and contained a living room with a pull-out sofa bed, a full kitchen, and a comfortable bedroom.  Fortunately for us, we had noticed on the TrainWeb message board that some one bedroom suites are equipped with two bathrooms and our request was honored which expedited our daily routine.  With two subway lines within easy walking distance and a variety of food places close by, we could not have chosen a better place to spend two nights in Manhattan.  For information and reservations visit

The Affinia Manhattan Hotel as seen from the front of Penn Station

The attractive lobby of the Affinia Manhattan Hotel

Madison Square Garden as seen from the front of the Affinia Manhattan Hotel.  The entrance to Penn Station is just to the right of this view.

    After our brief visit to the hotel we walked two blocks to 32nd Street and caught the PATH subway to Hoboken.  The 15 minute ride took us back under the Hudson River and deposited us at Hoboken Terminal, once the home to Erie Lackawanna Railroad's famous Phoebe Snow as well as its Erie Lackawanna Limited and Lake Cities which linked Hoboken with Binghampton, Buffalo, and Chicago.  Today the terminal is served only by commuter trains yet the station maintains a dignified appearance with a comfortable waiting room, high ceiling, and manned ticket windows.  Fortunately we had time to walk outside where a sidewalk led us around a nearby harbor where we could enjoy the view of the classic station exterior.  A few steps further took us to a seawall overlooking New York Harbor with a commanding view of the Manhattan skyline.  Turning our attention to the water side of Hoboken Terminal, we noted the ferry docks that are currently being renovated.

Hoboken Terminal still wears a classic look

Inside Hoboken Terminal

The ornate ceiling inside Hoboken Terminal

Manned ticket windows at Hoboken Terminal

These doors lead to the trains at Hoboken Terminal

This departure board directs commuters to the proper track

Ferry slips at Hoboken Terminal are under renovation to restore direct ferry connections to Manhattan

The Manhattan Skyline as seen from behind Hoboken Terminal

Looking across the Hudson River toward New York City

    A few minutes after we returned to the station, NJ Transit train # 75 was ready to receive passengers for the trip to Port Jervis.  Five coaches comprised this Saturday afternoon train which would operate in pull mode with the engine leading on the outbound trip.  The 1:27pm departure was less than two hours after our arrival from Florida; the timely operation of our overnight Amtrak train had been critical to making this trip work.  Almost immediately our train passed through a tunnel built in 1908 before passing above the Susquehanna (NYS&W) rail line.  At Secaucus a large crowd boarded as this new transfer point from the Northeast Corridor is both a convenient and popular way to access this rail route from points south as well as from Penn Station.  Moments later we crossed the Hackensack River and the new Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands came into view.  Soon the lines to Spring Valley and Paterson branched off then train # 75 made its next stop at Rutherford in midst of a nice town center.  For approximately 20 minutes we would follow the Bergen County Line.

A Metro North commuter train is spotted at Hoboken behind a former Amtrak F40 engine

PL42AC # 4023 on the head end of NJ Transit # 75 from Hoboken to Port Jervis

GP40 # 4200 leads another NJT train

The new Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands

The view at the Glen Rock Boro Hall stop

    After making four more station stops, train 75 rejoined the Main Line and made its scheduled stop at photogenic Ridgewood.      A station built of stone at Ho-Ho-Kus was followed by a deep ravine that verified the notion that we had indeed left the big city behind.  Just beyond the stop in Ramsey inbound NJ Transit # 1718 rolled past and a couple of minutes later the rail line left New Jersey and entered New York State near Suffern.  At this point the rails ran around the base of a mountain and the route became rather twisting as it climbed the undulating terrain along the edge of the Catskill Mountains.  The stations for the final eight stops would be operated by Metro North since we were back in New York State.

The village center at Ridgewood

The station at Allendale

Eric Harms enjoys the views of the line to Port Jervis

    Ninety minutes into the journey we crossed 3200 foot long Moodna Viaduct which stands 193 feet above a broad valley between Harriman and Salisbury Mills.  The historic viaduct opened in 1909 and is one of the most scenic commuter train sights in North America.  Rural scenes filled our window as our train passed through forests and skirted by farms and valleys before reaching Middletown.  NJ Transit # 78 eased past at 3:31pm near Otisville where we passed through the appropriately named Otisville Tunnel.  Twenty minutes later we arrived in Port Jervis where there would be an hour and forty minute wait until the next train back to Hoboken.  The one-way trip had covered approximately 95 miles, a good distance for a commuter run.

The valley below Moodna Viaduct

The view from the opposite side of Moodna Viaduct

A view behind the train crossing Moodna Viaduct

Inbound train # 78 passes near Otisville

    There is no station building at Port Jervis but fortunately a Burger King restaurant is located directly across the small parking lot from the train platform.  In between rain showers we were able to inspect a variety of restored passenger train cars and a turntable that today belong to the New York & Greenwood Lake Railway.  There are a number of  other businesses within walking distance of the Port Jervis stop and the scenery is pleasing with mountains surrounding the area.  The NJ Transit/Metro North rail yard stands just beyond the platform and on this weekend day, there were several train sets waiting for their Monday assignments.

New York & Greenwood Lake Railway equipment at Port Jervis

An Erie E-unit at Port Jervis

This turntable is located behind the Burger King adjacent to the Port Jervis commuter train yard

Passenger equipment owned by the New York & Greenwood Lake

    After checking out the sleek Erie E8 engine and other restored equipment owned by the New York & Greenwood and grabbing an early dinner at Burger King, we joined a fairly large crowd on the platform to await the return from the yard of the same equipment we had ridden to Port Jervis.  Train # 80 departed a couple minutes after its 5:30pm scheduled time.  Rain had settled in reducing the view as we headed northward to Middletown before curving in a basically southeast direction toward Hoboken.  A meet with NJT # 77 occurred at the same siding near Otisville where we had met an opposing train on the ride out to Port Jervis.  Moodna Viaduct carried us high above the fog shrouded valley as we retraced our route to Ridgewood.  

Mountains envelop the Port Jervis commuter train platform

Train # 80 pulls into the Port Jervis "station" to begin the journey to Hoboken

    A large crowd boarded at each stop as urban residents returned from a weekend in the country.  After the 7:05pm stop at Ridgewood, train # 80 diverged from the route we rode on the outbound trip as we made a non-stop run over the Main Line via Paterson and Passaic.  A large crowd was discharged at the Secaucus Transfer stop then we eased on to our final stop, Hoboken, at 7:37pm.  The PATH subway train took us back to Manhattan and shortly after 8:00pm we were back in our comfortable suite at the Affinia Manhattan Hotel.

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