AmnotTrak – a Cautionary Tale

AmnotTrak – a Cautionary Tale

o here was the plan – drive my snowbirding mother up from Daytona Beach and drop her at my sister’s in Norfolk. Then, after a few days of bookstores and coffee shops, pick up an Amtrak train south to ride back to Orlando, Florida. After all, I like trains. And I’d just suffered a long flight and crippling legroom of Icelandair. I didn’t want to fly. I wanted to ride a roomy train. What could go wrong?

The train picked was 91 which I’d board at Staples Mill Station, Richmond at 5:30 PM. I figured I’d sleep on the train overnight in those large seats and arrive fresh as a daisy at Winter Park, Florida at 10:30 AM. That was the plan, anyway.

So my sister dropped me at Staples Mill at 3:30 – a little early but I was trying to get her out before Friday rush hour (in that, I failed – they got caught in an accident and spend an hour or more in a jam). And me, I hung around the station. No TSA checks – nice. And I could sit outside watching the passing freights – saw four of them, including a CSX painted in New York Central heritage colors. Way cool. My train ended up delayed 30 minutes but all online indications showed that they could easily make up that time. At about 6 PM it pulled in. I stepped aboard after being assigned a seat by the conductor.

She evidently hated me, since I picked up an aisle seat on one of the few rows you can’t see out of – the window separator was right there, and on the other side, some sort of blanket-cocooned troll had her window curtains drawn. Well, shit. At least I had books and my computer (with headphones) to play with.

Oh wait – the only plugs are at knee level to the window side, and I wouldn’t want to bother the older gentleman slumped in his seat, so I guess it would be only books then.

We got out of the station okay and were slowly rolling back the delay, minutes here and there. Then, sometime in the evening, we stopped at one station and were told that our engine was suffering a problem and they were working on it (assuming that means a chalked pentagram and a gutted chicken?) So we sat and waited five minutes… ten… twenty. And then, yay! Problem solved! We were quickly on our way, now about forty-five minutes in the hole but we had all night to make up time.

As far as that sleep I’d planed? No chance of that. Between the woman with the one year old who screamed and shouted all night (and her loud attempts to quell it), and two or three twats with phones playing hip-hop, there was not a chance for sleep. Ironically, when I left my seat to go find a late dinner in mid-evening, the other cars had settled down in quiet subdued slumber. But not my car, bedlam-express. Apparently they’d grouped all the Jacksonville people there (which tells you all you need to know about Jacksonville) and there would be no sleep that night.

Then, about 2 AM, while I was sitting in a daze, listening to someone playing BLM-protest hip-hop the next row up and the baby climbing the seatbacks, I felt the brakes go on, hard (not emergency – they didn’t want to risk injuries, but still good and solid). I’d heard no horn so it wasn’t someone at a grade crossing – then I felt the train shudder as if it were a car with ABS. Finally we ground to a stop in the middle of dark woods. There was a long pause.Then finally the conductor told us we’d hit a fallen tree on the tracks and the crew was trying to shift it out of the way and check the engines. Okay, insert your “If a tree falls” line here.

Back on the train, after a long thirty minute wait, the conductor passed through, tossing over his shoulder the news that there was engine damage and they’d have to swap our engine for another one. This would take three hours. No time for questions or anything – he was gone that quick. Following this, the train limped up to a siding a mile or two up, opposite a factory that steamed and fumed through the night, hellish with lights and activity. And there, the engine uncoupled and left us. And that meant no power, only emergency lighting. All other illuminations failed. The ventilation cut off. And, of course, the toilets wouldn’t flush.

And so we sat there. Three hours. Either the conductor went with the crew or he’d gone off for a long smoke in the woods – we never saw him and never got any updates. The toilets quickly turned into punchbowls from Hell. There was no toilet paper. I took a look around the train – all the other coaches were quiet, the passengers quietly sleeping away the delay. In our coach, it was a Jacksonville street party. People talking loud. That kid running up and down the aisle, his mother screaming and waddling after him, and phones playing idiotic sitcoms or rap music.

All I could so was make earplugs out of a paper towel, cover my head with my jacket and try to get some sleep. I actually managed to catch a catnap or two like this. Only later did I realize (about 5 AM) that the coach in front of us only had three or four sleeping people in it; all other seats were open. To my dying day, I’ll regret not having disassociated from the Florida men and women, grabbing my backpack and computer bag, and shifting forward to sleep. But I didn’t, so I was up all night.

I will not travel on airplanes or trains again without earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. People are rude with phones – they don’t give a shit. Lesson learned.

Finally about 5 AM, an engine grudgingly returned. Power, air and sewage were returned (you could smell it in the cars by that time, but at least you couldn’t smell the factory exhaust for the shit). And then, with the sky lightening as our hellish night ended, we started forward once again.

Well, for a mile or so. Then we stopped.And without word or explanation, we jarred into reverse again. And back we went, back to our favorite siding where we stat for a bit longer.

And this was where Amtrak really failed. From the moment we were told we’d be cut off, there were no announcements. No updates. Nothing. That was what really pissed everyone off, this sense of being dropped off in the middle of the woods at night without a single crew member or representative around. That was the total corporate failure on their parts – inexcusable.

Finally Amtrak got their engineer pants on and we got moving again. Yes, we were five and a half hours late. The old guy next to me was supposed to get off at Columbia, two stops up, at 2:30 AM. He’d had to call his daughter to wave her off over and over. Finally it seemed he’d make it now so he called her and cleared her in. As for the rest of the passengers, I heard one woman tell the conductor she’d ride a freight train back before ever using Amtrak (I agree with her). Another woman called a friend at Camden (next stop) and arranged for her to meet her there – she abandoned the rest of her trip. As for the rest of us, we stuck it out. Surely this had to be the end of our bad luck.

We hit Camden and then pushed off for Columbia (to my seatmate’s relief). We finally got there in full morning daylight (we were supposed to be there at 2 AM). The train started to slow. The Columbia debarkers stood. The train stopped. Woods to either side. WTF?

Our new (and surly) conductor passed through, telling us we might have engine problems (but miss, this is a new engine! Miss? Miss!). And there we sat.

There might have been a full-scale riot excite that I was checking Amtracker, a neat little site that shows where all Amtrak trains currently are. I’d early seen that 92 (our opposing sister train) was three hours late out of Jacksonville. Playing a hunch and using my dispatcher’s intuition, I checked the site and sure enough, 92 was currently IN Columbia. I’m not sure what the station layout is and if they can work multiple trains in that station at one time – smaller stations usually don’t want another train coming in while another is in the platform. Also, it’s single track outside of the station. That meant that the dispatcher had held a five-hour overdue train (91, and specifically, me) for a three-hour overdue train (92). My insight quelled a full scale riot and grumpily, the Jacksonville denizens went back to their phones.

A friend of mine saw this shot of MY train on the day of, sitting outside Columbia. I’m the third coach back, sitting on the opposite side, and most unhappy. We should have been here at 2 AM, but you can see that the sun is up, the birds are chirping, and we’re fucked.

After that, it was actually smooth sailing. I got the window seat (a slit, but better than what I’d had) for the rest of the trip down. Checked out the areas my train club models around Folkston GA, smiling at the changes. At Jacksonville, we jettisoned the human rubbish and now the car was much more roomy – I slipped over to a better seat that I could see out of. The rest of the trip went well except that outside of Jesup, while the train was blowing for a grade crossing, I felt the brakes come on hard again. We were slowing fast and went over the road crossing and I noticed a swirl of dust hanging in the air – apparently a motorist had gone around the crossing gate arm and nearly got pegged by our train. Another Florida Man, trying to add to my blog.

Man, was I relieved to get off that train at 3:40 PM. It had turned into a twenty-two hour ordeal. And even through Amtrak tried to win our hearts and minds back with pizza later in the day, it wasn’t enough. They had all the customer relations of a bad medical office, where you sit and wait without word or courtesy. They literally abandoned us in those woods for hours. I can’t say that I won’t ride Amtrak again. However, if you glance at that Amtracker site I included, you’ll notice that most of the trains are shown in red (delayed). Keep that in mind if you think you might ride.

I’ve ridden on trains in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, India and Japan. Every one, every last one of those journeys were on time. And in ONE NIGHT, Amtrak showed themselves to be an inconsiderate, bumbling organization. They should be ashamed but, of course, their isolated directors don’t give a flying fart.

If you ride with them, expect the worse and be ready for anything.