TIRED OF DRIVING AND DON’T LIKE TO FLY? GO BY RAIL — IF YOU ARE NOT IN A HURRY
Though I grew up in a small town that was criss-crossed by east-west, north-south railroad tracks, I rarely took any trips by train.
If memory serves, I can recall only two leaving from my hometown station. I was like 2 or 3 years old for the first when my mother and I went to Fort Benning, Georgia, to visit my father. I have little memory of that one other than how I didn’t want to go and desperately clung crying to my grandfather as he lifted me up to my mother’s arms to get on the train. I assume I calmed down because she didn’t throw me out on the tracks anywhere.
The other was when I was of high school age and was a special excursion train from Vincennes, Indiana, to Cincinnati for a Reds-Phillies doubleheader. I really don’t remember a whole lot about that one either other than playing cards on the way back and losing as my father slept.
I can’t remember who won the games, though I’m pretty sure that the Reds beat my favorite player, pitcher Robin Roberts, in the opener.
Those two trips plus a special Monon run from Bloomington to West Lafayette for an Indiana-Purdue football game and trip from Jackson, Mississippi, to Memphis on the City of New Orleans are the only other train trips I can recall.
So I was looking forward to the trip when my wife and I decided to take Amtrak from Miami to Tampa recently to visit our son, who loves there, and our daughter, who was coming down from her home in Illinois for a week’s vacation.
It would take about the same travel time as going by car as we usually do, and the coach fare was quite reasonable. No need for a roomette or bedroom.
We left late Saturday morning, boarding right on time at 11:45 at the Miami station and quickly settled in. Unlike coach accommodations on plane, coach seating on a passenger car is quite spacious. You can recline the seat back without worrying about intruding on the space of the passenger behind you, and there are adjustable footrests on the back of the seats in front of you. Seat assignments are given as you board.
We checked our bags, but there is overhead storage available, and there is plenty of room for carryon bags on the floor or under the seat in front of you. The seats are as wide and comfortable as first-class accommodations on an airplane, and there is no middle seat but two on either side of the aisle.
Also, you don’t have to fiddle with seat belts, and you don’t have put the tray (which is large) back in its upright position when you pull into a station!
Rail passengers in many parts of the country enjoy scenic views on their travels with mountain vistas in the West, fall foliage in the northeast, and ocean views in some coastal areas. Unfortunately, no such views are available in South Florida.
The first half-hour or so of the journey is spent on crawl through the rail yards of north Miami-Dade County before the first stop is reached at the Hollywood station. It is the first of five stops as the Silver Star makes it way due north through the Broward and Palm Beach counties with stops at Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, Delray Beach and West Palm Beach to follow.
The tracks basically parallel Interstate-95 until reaching West Palm, where they leave urban environs as they turn to the northwest. The ensuing stops — Okeechobee, Sebring, Winter Haven, and Lakeland — are from 30 to 45 minutes apart depending on whether our train has to pull over to allow a southbound train to go through.
Apparently, southbound Amtrak trains have the right-of-way over northbound trains because three times we had to make the switch to auxiliary tracks.
The view from the large windows change from the industrial and warehouse areas as the Silver Star makes it way through the farmland and cattle ranches of central Florida.
Occasionally, we passed a lake or canal as we skirted around the northeast edge of Lake Okeechobee into the town of that name, and later on we passed many orange groves. Much of the time, however, we could see little through the thick small trees and other brush that made gave the appearance of traveling through a green, roofless tunnel.
The Silver Star did not include a dining car such as the one featured in the movie North By Nothwest, but you can bring your own food or purchase sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and beer (hooray!) at the cafe car. On our return, our car attendant, Joseph, offered to make food runs for our part.
Once past Winter Haven, the route bends to the southwest with a stop at Lakeland before heading on to Tampa.
We were happy enough being let out in downtown Tampa.
Train travel has its advantages over both air and car travel, but timeliness is not one of them.
Our return train was scheduled to leave Tampa at 12:30 p.m. with an arrival time in Miami of 5:58. Since our arriving train in Tampa had been about 30 minutes or so late, I wasn’t going to hold Amtrak to that schedule.
A good thing because late on Saturday morning, about the time we were leaving for Union Station, a text message arrived advising us that Train 91 would not arrive in Tampa until 2:20 p.m., nearly 2 hours after our scheduled departure time of 12:37 p.m.
The problem essentially is built into the system created by the Rail Passengers Act of 1970: 97 percent of the tracks that Amtrak passenger trains run on are owned by private companies that give priority to their money-making freight service when it comes to clearing the way ahead. Passenger trains simply must wait. (In the Northeast, where Amtrak does own some tracks, the on-time performance is much, much better.)
Our car attendant, Joseph, did his best to ease the annoyance of the delays, noting the problems with flooding and other blockages that had caused the earlier delay in getting to Tampa.
“Anybody want to know when you will reach your station?” he asked at one point.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Finally, at 8:12 p.m. or over two hours later than the scheduled time, our train pulled into the Miami station. Home at last!
Which brings up the question: Will we take the train to Tampa again? As I said earlier, it had both advantages and disadvantages over the usual five-hour journey up I-75. I would definitely take it over making the short hop from Miami to Tampa by air.
But I do like to drive.