Train time in Florida never gets old

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Southbound Silver Meteor arrivesIt has been (hmm) maybe a quarter of a century since Amtrak has operated a substantial New York-Florida train worthy of the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line streamliners. I was fortunate to ride those trains during the winters of 1969-71, after SAL-ACL had combined as Seaboard Coast Line. Santa Fe’s Super Chief had nothing on the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Champion (I never sampled the winter-only Florida Special).

Amtrak continued all four trains initially (the Special only in 1971-72), but mechanical problems that SCL overcame because it maintained a captive, compatible fleet of cars soon overwhelmed Amtrak, largely because with the best of intentions the new passenger train company mixed and matched cars from its predecessor railroads on these trains. In particular, air-conditioning failures became rampant.

Orlando station platformToday the Auto Train is the only distinctive operation Amtrak has in Florida. And it is toward this train in Sanford that I am headed today when on an impulse I leave Interstate 4 in Orlando and park at the 1920-era Amtrak station. Both the southbound and northbound Silver Meteor are due momentarily.

My curiosity has taken hold. What is train time like in Florida today? To my surprise, I discover the Orlando depot alive with activity. As I arrive, about half an hour before the first (southbound) Meteor, some 75 people mill about the waiting room or outside under the covered walkway, nervously watching an ominous storm roll toward town from the west. A connecting van and Martz (Trailways) bus stand ready, and a young woman sells several types of hot dogs to eager (or maybe bored) passengers. Meanwhile, more cars and taxis pull in, disgorging yet more passengers.

By and by the first Meteor appears, just as the first drops of what would be a torrential downpour splatter upon the concrete platform. This is today’s (and every day’s) Silver Meteor: two P42 locomotives, baggage car, three Viewliner sleepers, Budd dining car, Amfleet café-lounge and four Amfleet II, 60-seat coaches. Compare that, please, to this 16-car, Miami-bound Silver Meteor in the winter of 1968-69: three nose-to-tail E units, baggage-dormitory, four sleepers, sun-roof sleeper-lounge, diner, two more sleepers, two coaches (these last five cars separating at Wildwood, Fla., for Venice and St. Petersburg, Fla.), diner, three coaches and tavern-lounge-observation.

I’d lie if I said Amtrak’s Meteor is even close to the Seaboard Coast Line Meteor. The former is okay. The latter was a memorable experience.

But one thing hasn’t changed: Train time in Florida, even in the hot, muggy summer, can still attract a crowd and draw me to it—Fred W. Frailey

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