Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ride The Rails With Amtrak

Riding the rails overnight on Amtrak from Florida to New York City

Jefferson Memorial seen from aboard Amtrak 

Amtrak overnight trains are the best way to travel across country.


There are plane people. And there are train people. Some people want to get there yesterday. Others, like me, enjoy the journey.  For train people, the trip begins when you step onboard, settle in and wait for that slight forward lurch as the wheels engage, signaling your  journey has begun. It’s slow travel; scenic, relaxing and sometimes adventurous, but never boring.

Postcard of Santa Fe Super Chief at Raton Pass NM Credit: Santa Fe Railroad
Old postcard of the Santa Fe Super Chief at Raton Pass NM Credit: Santa Fe Railroad.

I’ve been riding Amtrak since before there was an Amtrak. My first overnight train ride was a solo trip at age 12 aboard the Santa Fe Super Chief. My dad tipped the room attendant to “keep an eye on me,” I waved good-bye to my parents and as the train left the platform in Chicago, I was on my first train adventure, albeit only to Arizona to visit family.
Then, in 1970, Congress created Amtrak in an attempt to revitalize train travel. The following year, Amtrak officially took over the management of the nation-wide rail system. And so it began.
While the trains’ names may have changed, or worse, disappeared, some linger like the last flicker of sun setting behind the burnt-red colored rocks, ironically seen from aboard the long-running California Zephyr.  It’s quite a picture.
The City of Miami is gone, which ran from Chicago to, you guessed it, Miami. It’s been replaced with Amtrak’s Silver Service trains, running between Miami and New York City. There are two trains that bear this status; the Silver Star and the Silver Meteor, operating about four hours apart. While I’ve been a frequent passenger on both, last week it was the Silver Star that would take me from Winter Park, near Orlando, to New York City. A mere 21 1/2 hours train ride.

Winter Park Florida Amtrak Station 

My Amtrak journey begins.

6:30 pm – I arrived at the small but busy Amtrak station in the heart of downtown Winter Park.  I’ve tried the Orlando and Kissimmee train stations and prefer the one in Winter Park.  My train was scheduled to arrive on time at 7:41pm.  After checking in with the station agent, he graciously stowed my bags in his office so that I could walk across the street for a coffee.  I don’t think the gate agent for Delta could do that.  (Note: there is now a new train station in Winter Park that also accommodates the SunRail commuter train network.)
7:20 pm-ish – A five minute walk from the coffee shop and I was back at the station. I could have relinquished my larger suitcase to the baggage car, but I’ve done this run before and know how to safely secure my suitcase in my tiny roomette so it doesn’t take up too much space.

Silver Star arrives at the Winter Park Amtrak Station 
7:30 pm- The station agent announces the arrival of our train and all the passengers in the building scatter to their designated waiting points along the platform, carefully observing not to get to close to the yellow line.  Coach passengers going to various destinations had different places to stand for their train car. Sleeping car passengers, like me, had our own area to congregate, although there were only four of us compared to at least twenty-five coach passengers. With twenty-four station stops along the way to New York City, it was anyone’s guess who was going where.

Amtrak roomette on the Silver Meteor 

7:45 pm – My train car attendant checked my ticket, hoisted my luggage onto the train and carried them into my roomette.  I neatly put my bags where they always go; on a ledge, under the seat, next to the door and on a hook.  Tucked away into my little compartment, I said a quiet goodbye to Winter Park and watched out the window as we traveled from urban to rural in a matter of minutes. Another Amtrak adventure was under way.

Dining car without dinner time tablecloths 
Silver Star Dining Car at lunch time. For dinner, there are tablecloths.

Dinner in the Dining Car

8:00 pm- At the request of the dining room attendant who walked through to welcome the newly-boarded, I left my roomette and walked through two sleeper cars to the dining car for an eight o’clock seating.  The drill was familiar. Wait in the doorway until the Dining Chief beckons and tells you where to sit. You’ll be seated at a table for four and if you are lucky, the three others at your table will be friendly, conversant and all-around pleasant table-mates.

Dining car menu on the Silver Star 
While china plates are now disposable plastic, the cutlery is real as are the wine glasses. Except for the cooked to order steak, much of the food is microwaved. There is a vegetarian option as well as fish. Salad is served (packets of Paul Newman dressing are on each table) with your beverage while your entree is prepared. I choose the “grilled” salmon and rice which was amazingly excellent.  Dessert is always good especially when you can choose from a selection of Hagen Daaz Dixie cups. All meals (and bottled water) are included if you have a a sleeping compartment.

Dinner with new friends on the Silver Star 

As for my table-mates, I lucked out. Seated at my table were three other solo women travelers.  One woman, in her mid-sixties, was headed to New York to rendezvous with her new boyfriend that she reconnected with at their 40th high school reunion. Of the other two across from us, one was rather quiet and left for her sleeper right after coffee.  So the three of us closed the diner!

Room service dinner in your sleeping compartment 

If you’re not feeling sociable or just want to have a quiet dinner alone, you can order complimentary room service! Your room attendant will take your order and deliver it to you piping hot. You can do this for any meal. On one returning trip, I was tired and requested room service.  The steak arrived perfectly cooked-to-order and it even included a slice of New York-style cheesecake. (A brief hiccup from my vegan agenda.)

Roomette made up for sleeping 

9:30 pm – Upon returning to my compartment, my bed had been turned down, an extra pillow added (at my request), shades closed and the tiny reading light above my bed lent a welcoming glow to the room.  Trusty Kindle in hand, I read for a while, peeked out from the shades to see where we had stopped (Florence, SC). As the passengers stepped off the train, hugs were the norm as families and friends were reunited. Shades closed again, I went to sleep.

Nothing could be finer…

7:00 am – We were somewhere in North Carolina and the scenery was beautiful. Of course I couldn’t help but “play” the music and lyrics to that old song over and over in my head. Oh well, it goes with the territory.
8:00 am – Time to eat again. Unlike dinner where you have a reserved seating time, breakfast (and lunch) are open seating. For coach passengers, it’s pay-as-you-go, so many will choose to either brown bag it or get snacks from the Club Car.
Eggs, whether omelet, over-easy or scrambled, are prepared to order. No frozen eggs. Real eggs, real toast and even grits. Not to mention piping hot “train” coffee.  Years ago, the coffee was so strong it didn’t even need a cup. Now it’s mellowed a bit and your cup doesn’t stay empty for too long.
9:30 am – By the time I returned to my room, we were almost out of North Carolina, edging into southern Virginia and only ten hours to New York.   My room was already made up; the bed stowed into the wall and chairs popped back up.  A current USA Today was neatly folded on my chair and a fresh hand towel was placed above the sink.

Public shower in the sleeping car 
In case someone feels the need to shower, there is a public shower room in each sleeper car. No one ever seems to use it. On really long-haul trips, I’ll grab my shampoo and conditioner and head over to the shower room. It’s challenging to take a shower on a train going 80 mph, but fun to try. Each roomette has two electric outlets, so after your shower, you can use your hair dryer and charge your phone at the same time. Ooh. The simple things in life.

Instant replay

Before I knew it, the Dining Chief announced yet another meal; it was time for lunch. I closed up my laptop, put it away, slipped my shoes back on and made the “long” walk back to the dining car. Didn’t I just do this a few minutes ago?
1:00pm – Rather than repeat what I wrote about the last two meals, I’ll quickly note that lunch was quite good. There’s a selection of hot and cold sandwiches, a chef’s salad, soup and of course, dessert. There are always a few non-meat meals on an Amtrak menu.

Aboard Amtrak Silver Star somewhere in Virginia 
The day seemed to quickly pass and soon we were in Washington, D.C. En route, the train raced through Richmond,VA as well as a couple of university towns. It’s interesting scenery, so I probably spent as much time looking out of my window as I did trying to write a couple of articles.

Amtrak Silver Service Route.


This route is especially picturesque in winter, even better further north if there’s a dusting of snow. The train rolls past what looks like a scene from a Thomas Kincaid painting; singularly lit little houses and storefronts, no more than maybe two dozen yards away from the tracks. It’s almost like you were suddenly transported to the middle of a toy train set, one that was carefully assembled in a cozy living room over the winter holidays.  It’s all too quaint.
Since we were scheduled to arrive into New York City just a little before eight o’clock, there wasn’t dinner service, though the Club Car would serve lighter fare. The crew had to break everything down, tally up and clean up before reaching New York’s historic Pennsylvania Station.  The past eighteen hours seemed like an eat-a-thon anyway, so I wasn’t hungry. And it would give me something to do in NYC; find a restaurant with take-out, close to the hotel.

Taking photos from the train.

7:00 pm – Time to start organizing and putting away. Over the years, I’ve learned to pack for the train so repacking isn’t too difficult. It’s all the electronic miscellany that slows me down. Cords, charges, phone, camera, batteries…all have to be put away.  If you’re wondering why I have my camera out, it’s because I keep it at the ready to take photos from the train.

Jefferson Memorial seen from aboard Amtrak 

If you are remotely interested, it is very important to be ready because, going 70 mph, you have to frame and shoot pretty fast. Lighting is also an issue as is the reflection in the window. I find it helps to sit in the chair that faces forward, (there are two chairs in a roomette) then when you spot something coming up, you  quickly jump to the other chair that makes you sit backwards. The angle of looking back at the glass window diminishes the glare or reflection so you can get a pretty good shot. That’s how I was able to get the shot of the Jefferson Memorial.

Arriving New York City Penn Station

7:30 pm – Our train began its descent under the Hudson River which takes about 3-4 minutes in the one-way tunnel (built in 1910.)  The ascent begins, your ears pop and you emerge under the bright lights of bustling Penn Station.  Time to assemble my luggage. A train person had walked past my room just before arriving in New York asking if anyone would need luggage assistance. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear her.

Arriving into Penn Station in New York City 
As the train slowly came to a halt, the transom opened, the stairs unfolded and an extended arm from the attendant helped all of us alight from the train. I was the last to leave and to my dismay, the Red Cap had already left with his luggage cart filled to the max.  I was alone on the platform, hoping for another Red Cap to come by.  Not one in sight.
Just as I was about to haul my gear myself, the conductor steps off the train and asks why I didn’t already have the Red Cap to assist me. I said I didn’t hear the announcement and I was waiting to see if anyone would return with a luggage cart.
He said no, they had left, but he would help me.  I tried to convince him otherwise…it wasn’t in his job description for sure. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  He wheeled my two heaviest bags across the platform, up the escalator, and across the expansive station. Not only did he take my bags to the curb, he also flagged down a taxi!  When was the last time a co-pilot or flight navigator helped with YOUR luggage! Even though he refused, I insisted on giving him the tip that would have gone to the Red Cap. “Take you wife out for a drink or a movie,” I suggested, as she was patiently waiting for him on the platform when he sped past with my luggage.

How much did this trip cost?

Cost of the train ticket including accommodation, bottled water and three meals: $381. Taxi from Penn Station to my hotel: $6.50.  Italian take-out dinner: $31.  Time spent traveling aboard the Silver Star: priceless. (Sorry, MasterCard, it was too good to resist.)

Aboard the Sunset Limited somewhere in New Mexico 
N.B. There’s something magic about train travel. Maybe it’s the throwback to a simpler time or a childhood memory. Whatever it is; the sound of a distant train whistle, the rumble of the wheels as the train passes by or a wave from the engineer to a small, wide-eyed child, there’s something uniquely special about trains.
Photo credit: Santa Fe Railroad (Super Chief postcard) and the rest are mine.

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