My wacko day (and night)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 24, 2016

I write in my column in the December issue of Trains (soon to arrive in your mailbox) that I look upon every trip by train as an adventure. I’ve just had another adventure, one worth sharing. It began when I booked a trip from New York City to Jacksonville, Fla., on the Silver Star.

As you know, any extended trip on the Star is by definition an adventure, because it now lacks a dining car and therefore fresh food. My strategy on food became twofold. First, I didn’t really leave Gotham on the Star. Instead, I took the 9 a.m. Acela Express to Baltimore. A four-mile Uber ride got me to Petit Louie Bistro in North Baltimore, an adorable French restaurant that resides in what bills itself as America’s oldest shopping center, circa early in the Twentieth Century. A Ketal One martini, followed by trout almandine and a glass of white Bordeaux—what could be more civilized? Then back by Uber to Baltimore Penn Station to catch the Silver Star.

At Washington Union Station, off I march to stock up for dinner while locomotives are exchanged. A certain French carryout on the station’s west side prepares a ham-and-gruyere baguette peppered with gherkins that will stay fresh for hours and satisfy any hunger. I add a rich (and big) chocolate-chip cookie for desert and a fresh-looking banana for the next morning’s breakfast. Needless to say, a bottle of cabernet sauvignon is in my suitcase.

I have an enjoyable evening. We leave Raleigh at 9:13 p.m., a dozen minutes late. An hour later, one novel finished and another one started, I call it quits.

At 5:45 this morning, I come awake and peer outside. We’re at a station that is unmistakably that of Savannah, Ga. This means we’re 90 minutes late. I must have slept better than I remembered, because I never sensed we were standing still for any length of time. Jim the sleeping car attendant soon supplies the explanation. At some little town between Camden and Columbia, S.C., the Star struck the front of an unoccupied auto at a crossing. The car had been lodged on the tracks just off a road crossing. Its inebriated occupants, instead of calling 9-1-1 for assistance, phoned Geico for help. Then along came our train. Jim reports the girlfriend of the car’s owner was cursing the Star’s engineer for failure to stop on a dime. The cops arrived, breathalyzer tests given, arrests made, and we ended up losing those 90 minutes. But our troubles have only begun.

Every morning CSX intermodal train Q104 leaves Jacksonville for Charleston, S.C. Most days it bucks a string of Amtrak and other, higher-profile intermodal trains—sometimes six or seven—between Jax and Savannah. It’s slow going on Q104. But this morning the tables are turned. The train is 14,000 feet long, too long for most sidings. Plus, it is having trouble keeping its brakes released. So both our train and the southbound Auto Train ahead of us take the siding for the plodding giant as it stops and goes, stops and goes. We meet it at Broadhurst, south of Jesup, Ga., and lose another 30 minutes.

Now the sun it up, and at 8 o’clock sharp a “signal suspension” takes effect the last 15 miles into Jacksonville. That is, the signals are taken out of service for some sort of work, and trains are authorized instead by track warrants. So here we are, stopped at South Callahan, Fla., behind another train, waiting for a warrant. But the train dispatcher can’t issue one to either train until a switch tender shows up at control point Dinsmore to direct trains past power switches. I don’t know when the tender went on duty, but he doesn’t show up until almost 9.

We get our track warrant over the radio and the dispatcher clicks off. That’s when the conductor and engineer agree they’d never been given a completion time, and a warrant cannot go into effect without it. So 15 minutes more goes by while our crew tries to get the dispatcher’s attention. “I gave it to you, but I can give it to you again,” he says when finally answering calls from our train. We proceed to Jacksonville, Amtrak station, where we stop 5 minutes to hand throw the power switch into the station, arriving three hours late.

And did I remember to tell you that the toilet system on my sleeping car failed this morning?

For all these reasons, it was a fun trip, an adventure. I’d do it again.—Fred W. Frailey

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