Overall, it was rather positive - but it had its share of "bumps" along the way. I'm no Amtrak Apologist by any stretch, as I understand the conditions that Amtrak is working under. It happened a few times during my trip, but just imagine how it would impact the trips of those first-timers who wondered why something or other happened. First off, the weather was very good, both going and on the return trip. Sunny, with one exception being just east of Chicago when I was returning westbound. This was offset, however, by the trains punctuality.
In my case, what happened was that two days prior to my train, march 10, 2004, the BNSF had a derailment in North Dakota. This interrupted traffic over that line to the extent that my train, on March 12, 2004, was delayed by 6 hours. What Amtrak did instead was to send a bus from St. Paul, through Red Wing, and on down the route to Chicago, stopping at all the stations at the time the train would normally stop. However, Red wing is an un-staffed station, and Amtrak didn't note the existance of this bus on either its' web site or its' information line, so those of us who had to come from out of town had no way of knowing that a bus had come through to pick up passengers. This failure to announce the existance of the bus on the info line (aka "Julie," or Amtrak Reservations) led to a pleasant alteration of my trip. When talking to Amtrak Reservations about a half hour before the train came through, I learned that someone in customer Services in Chicago had changed my reservations so that I was now accomodated on the Three Rivers, and would catch #97 southbound in Philly, instead of catching the Capitol Ltd and connecting to #92. Going via the Capitol Ltd and catching #92 s.b. was what I had done a few times in the past, so I looked forward to travelling over some new route miles. the view from the train windows is rather entertaining at times, and I have found it pleasant to put the book down and just look out of the wndows and see what there is to see. You get a much different view of America from a train window than from any interstate.
Anyways, the Empire Builder didn't lose any more time as it travelled across Wisconsin, and so I arrived in Chicago around 9 pm. During its' traverse of the Badger State, Customer Service reps boarded at Columbus, WI. I made it a point ot get to see them, and to confirm the change in my reservation. This was a good thing, as the Customer Service reps had listed me as a no-show When the aforementioned bus arrived in Chicago and I was not on it. they went about calling Chicago, and reinstating my reservation aboard the Three Rivers. It turns out that not only was I able to have my sleeper accomodations, Amtrak Up-graded my sleeper from a Standard to the handicapped room. For those of you who don't know, this room is as large, if not larger than, the deluxe rooms. So, it is a good idea to make sure and follow-up with the customer service reps when things happen to your trains and reservations. Who knows? you might get an upgrade like what happened to me. However, the lesson remains: follow up with the customer service dept.
I was also lucky that the Three Rivers was there to be able to handle latecomers off of the Western Trains, like myself. While I was disappointed to learn that my reservation had been listed as a no-show when the bus that had not been announced arrived in CHI, it wasn't that big of a deal getting my reservation reinstated. Fortunatly, I had caught the matter in time.
So, I was now off on the 3 Rivers to Philly. the trip over Horseshoe Curve was picturesque enough, with the downside that we were behind a couple of slow frieght trains. This had cost us about 1 1/2 hours behind schedule, but there always were those who complained of the tardiness without knowing that it is the private RR's that handle all traffic control over their tracks. This led to some grumbling from a few passengers along the lines of "no Wonder These guys lose so much money - they're late so often" etc., but, when it was pointed out that these tracks aren't public in the same sense that the highways are, and that the Friehgt RR's do all of the traffic control (unlike what the FAA does for the arilines), they were more understanding. As it was, the 3 rivers was packed with folks going places, like for example Spring Break. (Notice: you will read about packed trains all throughout this travelogue. This is Spring Break, and the packed trains put the lie to the statement that "no one takes the trains in the US.")
We got to Philly with time to spare before I had to catch #97, so I had some time to walk around 30th Street station. This huge cavern of a station was clearly designed to move large numbers of people to all coners of the continent. The main waiting room made me think that this must be very expensive to heat in the winter. I can now see why Amtrak has so many costs associated with the NEC. With Stations such as 30th street, and Union in Chicago. The heating bills must be gargantuan. I grabbed some ice cream from one of the vendors there, and sat next to the Red Cap counter to await the arrival of # 97 to Ft. Lauderdale. For this leg of the trip, I was going to do something I had not done in over a decade: travel overnight in coach. I girded my loins for a night of fitful sleep. You see, I'm over six feet tall. That means that I seldom sleep in the car on overnight car trips, and I very seldom am able to sleep on the plane when flying overnight. I got coach tickets for this stretch of the trip as I wanted to save several dollars. As it turns out, the sleepers on # 97 were completely sold out, so there was no chance to up-grade there.
# 97 was packed. I mean, it was pretty full when we departed Philly, and after Washington, it was definitly full. I was pleased to see this, as it meant more money flowing to Amtrak, and more money might mean more ( and better) trains in the future. So, no complaints there. it was a very social train. I was surrounded by Bostonians, a few of whom were police officers, and when the got to talking about the cases that they had worked over the years. They proceeded to keep each other, and me, entertained for the rest of the trip, until they disembarked at Orlando. The one downside to the trains being so very full was that the bathrooms in both my coach and the coach following were a mess by the end of the trip. The coach following mine had a large group of teenagers who had embarked at Washington, and, as with any large group, one gets a few turkeys in the bunch. (DISCLAIMER: Not all teens are slobs. They are full of energy, which has to be channelled. Most Teens are good kids who just happen to be vibrant and talkative. This group also kept their music to theoir headphones, which is a lot better than some individuals.) In this case, we had a few slobs on the train. What can I say? we had a full train. There was bound to be at least one slob aboard. The train passed through some picturesque countryside, though, so there were plenty of opportunities to look out the window and see what there was to see. Due to railroads having a much more narrow right-of-way than your typical Interstate, one actually gets to see scenery along the way that one would never see from the highway. For example, the unique fair going on in Winter Park Florida, and the many of the picturesque older buildings in places such as certain parts of Virginia. I also got to see both the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, and those were unexpected treats. The scenery can off-set whatever other events occur along the way. The other downside to this leg of the trip was the terrible dispatching and traffic control along CSX rails. For those of you who don't know, much of the route from the Carolinas southward is owned by CSX corp. They certainly made no forends on this trip, or on the northbound counterpart, either. As I have explained earlier in this post, the Frieght RRs handle all traffic control over their rails. That means that it is they, and not Amtrak, who frequently are responsible for Amtrak's tardiness over certain routes. The Frieght RRs also perform and pay for all of their own railroad maintenance. They own the rails, so they can place speed restrictions where they want, and perform maintenance when they think it warranted. CSX apparently thinks that amtrak isn't worth the effort to get ther trains over the rails in a punctual fashion. Our train was placed behind slow frieghts time and again, and in one case, we had to stop because the train in front of us had its' crew "expire on the law." So, in the early morning of the Carolinas, we had to wait while CSX had to get a canine-catch crew for its own train in front of us. These events. combined with the slow orders and speed restrictions between Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale, made us 4 hours late into Ft. Lauderdale. When CSX treats amtrak like this it makes me wonder just how tardy they are with all of the rest of their shipments and customers. Does CSX ever get anything anywhere on time?
Fortunatley the crew aboard # 97 was very good in getting the word out about just who was responsible for the delays, and that it wasn't Amtrak's fault that they were so late. I got into Ft. Lauderdale at 11 pm, and then headed off to the relatives for some rest. (Another note: Bring a mobile phone along with you when you travel, if possible. Otherwise, let folks know about the info number, so they can call and find out if you're on time or not.)
The Northbound trip was better, in that I got to leave Ft. Lauderdale rested and tanned, and I looked forward to another train trip. The crews on all trains did well despite having to deal with passengers who wanted to know who to blame for all the tardiness. The crews did fairly good, and were polite, professional, and good-humored. There were several coach attendants who came back and lmade jokes with the passengers CSX, OTOH, tried its best to look as sloppy as possible, and to make Amtrak look bad.
Most of the issues on this leg of the trip I attribute to CSX' poor handling of their traffic control. Amtrak has best keep this in mind as there will be some folks who will say "never again" They don't want their train to be held back becuase some frieght further down the line has just had some mishap of sorts. Me? I understand that just one train ride doesn't represent the expirience (sp?) over the entire network. Anyhow, CSX did their level best to mess up the Amtrak schedule. Returning northbound, we left Ft. Lauderdale 1 1/2 hours late, and were 3 hours late by Jacksonville. By the time we got to Washington, we were 4 hours late. OTOH, I got to meet a few new yorkers, and a woman from around Baltimore. The crew was good-humored and polite. One coach attendant was a regular comedian. The train was as full as on the way southbound, however, there were no slobs aboard. either that, or the coach crew was doing a superflous job of keeping the washroom immaculate. I got the chance to partake of meals in the diner, and they were all served in in punctual and professional fashion. I was able to make my connection to the Capitol with time to spare. I even had the chance to leave the station, leave my baggage in the first class lounge ( I was travelling by sleeper from WAS to CHI, so I got to use the facilities), and I went for a walkabout from the DC station to the Mall and back. One interesting place to check out is the postal museum, which is just across the street from the DC Station.
The train departed on time, and arrived to Chicago on time as well. Apparently, the host railroad involved here doesn't feel the same level of antipathy as CSX does on the lines to the south. The ride was also smoother, as well. As I saw it, the train was filled with people, and the lounge car was quite full into the late hours of the evening. The Crew was polite and professional, but then they didn't have the same hurdles to overcome as the previous two crews I wrote about earlier. It also felt good to shower. Being rocked to sleep as one gets closer to one's destination is a pleasant experience. The food was good.
Returning on the Builder, we departed Chicago on time, and remained on time until somewhere between Winona, MN, and Red Wing. We had to do a few minutes of waiting for a frieght, but nothing like what CSX did to the trains on the Florida route. Sleeping car passengers get first dibs on the diner reservations, and coach passengers had best make their interests in eating in the diner known to the crews - or, just grab a snack from the lounge car attendant. Nothing like having a beer on the way home - and someone else is doing the driving
The crew was polite and punctual, and I arrived in Red Wing about 10 minutes or so late - not that big of a deal when one considers the tardiness on other segments of the route. Arrived home on March 21.
Overall, I would say that the On-board crew were professional and efficient in ther tasks, and in their responses to customers' quiries. They didn't seem to be as brusque or unprofessional as someother crews have been reputed to be. The food was good, and servered in a timely fashion. The crew were also good at explaining when there were delays, and some of the underlying reasons for those delays ( for example, the fact that the frieght RRs handle all of their own traffic control, and own the tracks outright. This is quite different than what most memebers of the public are accustomed to and aware of) The real downsides have been discussed at legnth above, and the majority of those can be attributed to the host railroad, CSX. CSX had better get its' act together, and Amtrak had best have some sort of alternative plan, otherwise CSX delays, poor maintenance, and general poor treatment of Amtrak trains will drive custmers away from Amtrak.
Overall, I'd say that I had a good trip. Part of it stems from knowing what to expect, but part of it stems from the crew getting the communication right about what was happeneing to the trains - and, importantly, why it was happening. Of course, it could also be that any trip to Ft. Lauderdale is bound to be a good one However, it could also be that I've become a more tolerant passenger as the years go by. I mean, tardiness happens to planes, busses, and cars ( ever been stuck in a traffic jam?) as well - and those forms of transport are a helluva lot better funded than Amtrak has ever been. So, for me, I had fun, and an ok trip (with a few exceptions, none of which were the fault of Amtrak), and have learned a few lessons along the way.
1. Always follow up with customer service, and check to see if they got things correct.
2. You can't make generalizations about Amtrak as a whole based upon one single experience in one section of one train. It is possible to have two different experiences onboard the same train based a number of factors.
3. Take a mobile phone with you when you travel. this way, you can tell those who are meeting you at the station if you will be on-time or not.
4. "Julie" doesn't always know about all of the busses that Amtrak may be running, but it is wise to use her as a source of information anyways. Not all stations are staffed, so there may be no one at the station who can answer your questions.
5. Just MHO, but if you're planning on taking the train overnight, you may be of the same opinion as I am about sleepeing in a reclined position versus sleeping while laying down. IOW, I prefer taking the sleeper.
In light of the comments made by Mr. Harris below, I should point out that CSx has taken good care of its' tracks where the 3 rivers and the Capitol Ltd travel, and I was disappointed to find that this was not the case in FL. however, the FL track maintenance is rumored to be on the higher-priority list of things to be accomplished soon, and the track upgrades being performed at the behest of Tri-Rail will obviously benefit all of the other users of that stretch of line. And, in the case of # 92's late arrival and departure from Ft. Lauderdale, what happened was the night previous, the conductors had not come off the clock until 3 am. They had to get their required 8 hrs off the clock. The equipment also wasn't dealt with in a timely fashion when it arrived in Miami from the sb run the previous day, which also contributed to the delay. yes, the track between Columbia SC & Raleigh NC was rough. I was unaware that business conditions on that stretch of line led the host railroad to spend its' maintenance funds elsewhere. , however. I understand. However, other customers most certainly will not be asunderstanding or tolerant, unless the crew can do a good job of explaining the reasons why a delay took place. See the thread "One writer's impressions of a trip on the Cardinal" for examples of how Amtrak crews can fail to communicate with the passengers.
[This message has been edited by CG96 (edited 03-23-2004).]