Silver Service surprises

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, October 31, 2017

In the past month I’ve gone up and then down the Atlantic coast twice aboard Amtrak’s Silver Meteor and Silver Star. Nice, predictable trains, you say? I would agree with that first part, but they are not predictable. I’m always surprised by something, and every now and then those surprises are pleasant ones.

Let’s get the unpleasant surprise out of the way. Bedroom A in Viewliner sleeping car 62027 has what I would call an unrepairable bathroom door. The southbound Star had no sooner left Washington Union Station on October 8 than it swung open. I shut it. A few minutes later, it opened again, and I shut it again. This went on a few times before the mechanic inside me became curious. I shut it yet again and then, holding onto the knob, tried to pull it open. Wouldn’t budge. I pulled with all my might. Nope. I let go and a minute later, the door reopened.

I observed that during station stops, the door naturally remained closed. Only when we were running at track speed would it pop open. I concluded that the toilet enclosure must flex internally as the car moves for the door to break free of the jamb.

I debated whether to mention this to the car attendant. Honestly, I can’t recall whether I told him or not. He could write it up for the people in the Hialeah coach yard to look into. But to what end? When the car is not in motion, the door works fine. A mechanic would conclude there is nothing to repair and turn his attention to something else. My solution was to place my suitcase against the door.

So somewhere out there today, Halloween, in Bedroom A of car 62027, someone is being driven batty by a haunted door.

While I’m on the subject of the Silver Star, let’s dispense with the matter of the dining car, or lack thereof. The Star lost its diners in 2015 as Amtrak’s legacy dining cars entered their seventh decade and began requiring expensive repairs. New Viewliner diners were expected within the year, so why bother with the expense, Amtrak must have concluded. Roughly $125 is taken off the price of a sleeping car ticket in exchange for the loss of what I call “real meals” served at a table. I’m happy to save money, and cope by buying what amounts to a French picnic at Le Pain Quotidien, an upscale takeout place in Washington Union Station, and bringing it aboard as my dinner, to be washed down by copious amounts of red wine. No complaint there!

All delays are unpredictable, but I loved the one train 98, the northbound Silver Meteor, bumped into on October 5 on the trip up. We were 36 minutes late out of Savannah, Ga., and whizzing along between Hardeeville and Ridgeland in South Carolina when the brakes took hold. I turned up the volume of the radio receiver.

Ahead of us stands Q410, going our way toward Selkirk Yard near Albany, N.Y., with 9,000 tons and more than two miles of train. Something (I forget what) had knocked out one of its two 4400-hp locomotives. The train had stopped for its engineer to secure the damaged locomotive. The minutes tick. A mile or so behind us, the Auto Train stops, and ahead of us at Kress, the southbound Palmetto waits at the end of two tracks.

An hour goes by, which is fine by me because I’m in no hurry to get to Washington the next morning. Then come these words from Q410’s Casey Jones: “Amtrak 98, I’m releasing the brakes, but I don’t know whether, with one engine, we’re going to go forward or backward. I’m on a slight grade. Are you prepared to back up?” A moment later the assistant conductor walks briskly through my sleeping car on his way to the rear vestibule.

No heroics were necessary—Q410 proceeded north at what it said was a trot—but following it to Ridgeland, where we could scoot around it, consumed another hour. We never made up any of the lost time, which meant I got to sleep late and see some of the Virginia countryside.

Two Thursdays later I’m going north again on the Silver Meteor, this time to New York City. We leave Jacksonville an hour late and stay that way. At 11:30 we’re nearing Florence, S.C., still not having met the southbound United Parcel Service intermodal train, the Auto Train or the opposing Silver Meteor. The late will get later, I sing to myself, hoping to be up before Richmond to watch us cross Virginia by first light. I’m asleep before we reach Florence.

Several dreams later, I’m bothered by a roar outside my sleeping car window. It’s loud and won’t go away. Slowly I come awake. What the . . . I think, and make an opening in the curtain. I see the letters “VRE” swaying outside on the flank of a locomotive. I look at my watch, which says 5:50 a.m. VRE stands for Virginia Railway Express, so we are racing one of its trains toward Washington, which means we left Richmond at least an hour ago and are somewhere north of Fredericksburg. And if that’s the case, I conclude, we’re on time! We made up an hour while I slept, which is something of a miracle along this route.

For the next ten minutes I’m entertained as first the commuter train and then the Meteor gains a slight advantage in the race. We’ll pull a bit faster, and I see scores of VRE riders either asleep or utterly uninterested in my train on the adjacent track. Then the VRE train gains an advantage and I’m listening to that locomotive pushing its train outside my window again.

The fun ends as the commuter train slows for a stop at the Quantico Marine Corps base. Gosh, what a nice way to wake up. And btw, we got to Penn Station 20 minutes early.

My next trip north, this time on the Auto Train, is approaching. I’m wondering what can top a haunted sleeping car, a train that doesn’t know which way it will go, or a spirited race between passenger trains in darkness. Have faith. Surely there will be a story to tell.—Fred W. Frailey

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