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December 13, 2010

To Florida, By Train

Any regular reader of this column knows my long-held disdain of flying.  The recently added insult of irradiation or proctological examination by the TSA made it a no-brainer when I had to travel this week to Miami on business:  Amtrak all the way.

The Silver Star departs NYC’s Penn Station each day at 11 am.  Its sister train, The Silver Meteor, leaves at 3:15 pm.  Both trains end up in Miami within minutes of each other, but take different routes south of Richmond.  I’m on The Star, which actually goes to Tampa, then on to Miami.

Secure in my roomy bedroom compartment (complete with sink, shower and bathroom), I fire up my radio scanner to hear the conductor call an on-time departure from New York.

Even though our ten-car train (engine, baggage car, two sleepers, dining car, lounge and four coaches) has a mixture of old “heritage fleet” and newer Amfleet equipment, my Blackberry GPS says we’re doing more than 105 mph as we careen thru central New Jersey.

On this Wednesday departure the train is only half-full, though the attendant assures me “she’ll fill up along the way.”  Fares are not cheap. Coach fare NY-Miami is $125, but adding a ”sleeper” on top of that adds $509 for a single-person roomette or $769 for my commodious bedroom.  However, sleeper pricing includes all meals.  And believe me, though the china in the dining car is plastic, the food is freshly cooked and delicious.

Mind you, my own roundtrip is free -- thanks to points accumulated in Amtrak’s excellent Guest Rewards program.  All those Acela and Northeast Corridor trips in recent months really paid off.
On this journey, unlike my “land cruises” out West, the scenery is far from spectacular.  But as the terrain moves from the urban squalor of the Northeast Corridor to the scrub pine of the Carolinas to the palmetto plains of Florida, I can tell I’m transitioning southward.

Our train is on time the entire way, thanks to heavy padding of the schedule at stops where the crew changes and many passengers disembark for a fast smoke.  It’s amazing how fast I can consume a cigar when I know I have limited time (and hours till the next opportunity.)

A couple of Tylenol PM’s and I sleep well through the night, missing stops in Columbia, SC and Savannah, GA.  The CSX track is well maintained, welded rail with none of the “clickety-clack” of olden times.  I awaken just after sunrise and well past Jacksonville, as our zigzag tour of the Sunshine State begins in earnest.

This is the Florida you don’t see from the Interstates:  miles of orange groves filled with fruit… the cattle farms… wild birds taking flight from countless swamps at the sound of the loco’s blasts… and trailer homes tucked into the brush everywhere.  The occasional Christmas trees in small towns just don’t seem to fit.

Instead of heading due south to Miami, we turn inland to Orlando, then west to Tampa.  High speed rail is planned here, but we’re cranking along at 75 mph before we turn on the wye and ignominiously back into Tampa Union Station in Ybor City.  Alas, no time for a tour of the local cigar factories as we board maybe a hundred intra-state riders heading to the east coast.  Our inter-city train from the northeast is now a Florida local serving such hot spots as Lakeland, Winter Haven and Okeechobee before arriving on the Gold Coast (West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami).

At West Palm Beach we start sharing the track with Tri-Rail, Florida’s answer to Metro-North, also paralleling I-95.  Except these trains are newer double-deckers and painted for full effect.  Their gaudy colors are designed to be visible as they zoom past the congested highways, almost taunting the motorists.

It’s raining lightly but about 40 degrees warmer than when we left NYC 30 hours ago.  Hardly tropical.  But the billboards are in Spanish and the city lights of Miami glow in the distance as we arrive five minutes ahead of schedule.

I think it was the folks at Cunard who said “getting there is half the fun.”  Certainly true for cruising, and equally so on Amtrak. 

1 comment:

Zesty Zaftig said...

Great story! Next year, I intend to fly from Alaska to ride the Silver line from Florida to Maine over the course of thirty days (disembarking at many of the stations). I haven't found much material online about the experience, and really enjoyed your blog entry. Thanks for sharing!