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Text by Jack M. Turner  Photos by John C. Turner

    Amtrak’s October 1, 2019  removal of cooked to order dining service on its eastern trains provided the impetus to schedule one last trip where we could enjoy nicely prepared meals in a Viewliner II diner.  My son John and I decided this would be the perfect time to take his son John on his first overnight train trip.  Interestingly, many years ago my parents took me on my first overnight train ride from Columbia, SC to Miami when I was 4 years ago.  My wife and I had taken our son on a Jacksonville to Washington trip (and on to Montreal) when he was 3 years old.  Now his son would experience sleeping on a train at that same age.

    We arrived at the Jacksonville station on Thursday, September 19 about an hour ahead of the scheduled arrival of the Silver Meteor and found that it was running about 15 minutes late.  By using the online train tracker we could follow train # 98 as it made its way north through Green Cove Springs, Orange Park and on toward the Amtrak Clifford Lane Station.  Its arrival at 5:07pm was exactly the time that the train should have departed, however, we were happy with a slight delay as an on-time train typically arrives in Washington around 6:30am the next day, a bit early for our taste.

    Our assigned roomettes were in car 9810, the sleeper directly adjacent to the dining car. The sleeping car still wore its name “Mystic View” on its end doors though the nameplate on the exterior simply said “Viewliner 62023”.   I told my son and grandson to take roomette 3 as its bedding is set up facing forward while even numbered rooms like my roomette 4 sleep backward.  Being across the hall from one another would be convenient for visiting with the doors opened during waking hours and provide ease should we need one another at night.  We were pleased to discover that the air conditioning was pleasantly cool on this 95 degree day and it would remain that way throughout the trip.


The author's son and grandson prepare to board our sleeping car

    We pulled out of Jacksonville at 5:25pm after an efficient crew change, boarding of approximately 30 passengers and baggage, and watering the dining car.  After crossing the St. Mary’s River into Georgia we made our way to the dining car, happy that the crew had reserved that sitting for passengers who boarded in Jacksonville.  As we took our seats, the train breezed past the railfan pavilion at Folkston which on this day was devoid of train watchers.  The dining car was bright and airy with its double row of windows, light interior colors, and etched glass partitions between tables.  Viewliner II diners are named for eastern state capitols and ours was the “Tallahassee”, appropriate since we are Floridians.  Curiously, my wife and I dined in the same car about six weeks earlier which defied the odds since there are 25 new Viewliner II dining cars in Amtrak’s equipment pool.


Dining car "Tallahassee"


The front of the dining car menu


The daily menu in effect at the time we traveled

    Our servers, Eva and Jacques, were arguably the best in the eastern part of the Amtrak system, an opinion I formulated based on their great service when Christine and I rode with them in August.  While southeast Georgia’s pine forests, marshes, and rivers flashed by our windows, son John and I enjoyed our steak dinners each complimented by a baked potato, green beans, and salad.  My grandson enjoyed his kiddie hot dog and server Eva commented that she had never seen a young child enjoy his salad like little John did. 


A dinner side salad aboard the Silver Meteor


A delicious dinner served on our September 2019 trip

    Back in our rooms we watched the miles pass quickly as the Silver Meteor rolled through Nahunta and other small communities.  The stop in Jesup added a few passengers to the manifest followed by another dozen or so people in Savannah.  After crossing the Savannah River into South Carolina we ate our desserts that had been brought back to our rooms from dinner.  The southbound Palmetto roared past just south of Yemassee where a few more passengers joined our train.  Overall this was a light travel date as evidenced by the fact only three coaches were in the consist.  There were, however, three sleeping cars, each with a decent load. 


The stop in Jesup, GA


Stopped in Savannah


Our roomettes were located in the center of the car

    The distinct sound of the train crossing a drawbridge signaled that we were passing over the Ashley River whose south shore is home to several beautiful plantations that are major attractions to the area.  About 15 minutes later the Silver Meteor glided to a stop in Charleston and it was about time to turn in since the next day would require detraining early.  The location of our roomettes at the center of the car provided a smooth ride but sleep still came slowly for me.  This seems to happen on the first night of train trips whenever I travel by rail.  The stop at Florence was interesting as the southbound AutoTrain stopped one track over for its crew change and servicing.  Finally after our station stop in Fayetteville, NC I drifted into a sound sleep until my alarm clock woke me about 45 minutes before our arrival in Washington.


The southbound AutoTrain at Florence, SC


Dining car in predawn hours


Sunrise approaching Washington, DC


A Metro Yellow Line train crosses the Potomac

    The train pulled into Washington Union Station less than 10 minutes late at 7:13am and we made our way into the grand station for a bite to eat as we had been concerned there wouldn’t be enough time for the dining car.  We caught the Metro Red line at one end of the station then transferred a couple stops later to the Yellow line for a mostly above ground ride to Reagan National Airport.  There we picked up a rental car as the rental agencies at Union Station did not have child car seats available.  A visit to the Air & Space Annex at Dulles Airport in Chantilly, VA provided my grandson a chance to view space shuttle Discovery and countless airplanes on display.  Then we visited Manassas National Battlefield, my son’s first visit to that historic Civil War site.  The night was spent at Embassy Suites in Alexandria where Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express trains could be seen from our window as they stopped at the Amtrak station.  Washington Metro trains also could be seen as they stopped at their Alexandria stop every few minutes.  During the evening we traveled back to Union Station aboard the Metro and walked three blocks to a high school football game, an unlikely venue since it was right in the heart of the city.


Our Metro train approaches


The viewing tower at the Air & Space Annex offers sweeping airport views


A stealth bomber and other places on display


Space Shuttle "Discovery"


Manassas National Battlefield


The view from our Embassy Suites window as a VRE train stops at Alexandria


Potomac River swing bridge used by Amtrak as seen from a Metro train


A Gonzaga Prep football game a few blocks from Union Station

    On Saturday we drove approximately two hours south to Ashland, VA for a couple hours of watching trains at the Ashland Amtrak depot.  This was a fun activity for young John who often likes to watch the Amtrak live web cam online and we couldn’t resist waving to my wife who was watching at home and to my friend Eric watching at his central Florida home.  Ashland is a great place for anyone who likes trains as a variety of CSX freights and Amtrak passenger trains pass on the double track mainline.  Amtrak’s Silver Meteor, Silver Star, AutoTrain, Palmetto, Carolinian, and regional trains linking the Northeast with Richmond, Newport News, and Norfolk pass Ashland daily.  Several of the regionals stop in Ashland under the watchful eye of the webcam.  The old Ashland depot today houses the local visitors bureau which offers a comfortable place to retire to for a few minutes as well as brick platforms on both sides of the tracks.

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The author with his son and grandson as seen on the Ashland web cam


The Ashland, VA train station/visitors center


Northbound CSX freight at Ashland


Southbound Amtrak “Carolinian” in Ashland

    Following train watching we walked around the adjacent campus of Randolph-Macon College and attended an RMC football game.  We were happy the Division III Yellow Jackets won as I attended college there for one semester in 1972 before transferring back home.  Back in the day I enjoyed watching the trains of second year Amtrak, the private Auto-Train, and Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac pass a few yards from my dormitory.  Indeed there was a sense of deja vu.


Randolph-Macon defeats Emory & Henry


The view of passing trains behind the author's 1972 college dorm

    After driving back to Washington on busy I-95, we returned the rental directly to Union Station then relaxed in the Club Acela first class lounge.  Around 7:00pm we were escorted to the escalator down to the platform where Train # 97 the southbound Silver Meteor waited.  Our sleeping car was the same as on the northbound trip but this time we had roomettes 5 and 6.  By again occupying the even numbered room I could view the sights along the opposite side of the train from the northward trip.


Dining car "Tallahassee" on the southbound "Silver Meteor" at Washington.

    Washington passengers were invited to the dining car as we departed at 7:27pm and it was fitting to enjoy our final on board cooked to order meals in the “Tallahassee”.  Once more Eva and Jacques provided impeccable service and we thought how sad that they will no longer serve passengers in the dining car.  Fortunately, both should still hold down jobs on the Florida trains so future guests will enjoy their hospitality in other ways.  For a final dinner, we again selected the steak with baked potato, green beans, and a garden salad.  Young John was happy with the child menu favorite, mac and cheese plus his usual salad.  Once more we enjoyed dessert back in our rooms with key lime pie and chocolate cake being our selections.

    Stops in Alexandria and Fredericksburg broke up the nighttime darkness and we enjoyed seeing our Embassy Suites hotel during the stop in Alexandria.  John noticed a southbound CSX coal train passing the Ashland webcam but it cleared by the time we rolled through that town at 9:24pm.  About 5 minutes later we overtook the coal train near Glen Allen and paced it until just north of Richmond where we stopped at 9:45pm.  The station stop took only 5 minutes then we sailed through a rainy night and watched the crossing of the James River south of the city.  A half hour later we stopped in Petersburg where a couple passengers boarded.  Pulling out of Rocky Mount, NC a few minutes before midnight it was time to turn in. 

    This time sleep came easily and I awoke 7 hours later at 6:59am as we departed Savannah.  In short order we were seated in the dining car enjoying pancakes, sausage, and breakfast potatoes.  My grandson recreated one of his father’s favorite childhood activities as he lined up packages of butter, cream, etc and pretended they were a “choo-choo”.  Back in his room little John was fascinated by the folding sink which provided entertainment for quite a while.  Meanwhile the stop in Jesup and passage through small south Georgia and north Florida towns ushered us toward our destination of Jacksonville.  Arrival at 9:32am was about 20 minutes late and shortly we were on our way home in our minivan.


Playing “choo-choo” with items found on the dining table


Breakfast was our final cooked to order  meal aboard an eastern Amtrak train


Enjoying breakfast on the "Silver Meteor"

    The trip was a terrific success and it was money well spent to see grandson John experience his first overnight train trips and first and only regular meals in the dining car, at least until he travels out west.  Our trains ran close to schedule, were in a state of good repair, and the crews were most pleasant.  Having traveled on the Florida trains over the past 60 years, I am sad to reflect upon the demise of the eastern full service dining car but hopeful that one day they will make a return. 


Amtrak/VIA Train Tracker
Air and Space Annex
Manassas National Battlefield Park
Embassy Suites Alexandria Old Town
Randolph-Macon College Football

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