U.S., Amtrak: Hurricanes and passenger trains

Amtrak’s Silver Meteor at Winter Park, Florida in 2016. The Meteor is supposed to be back in service Monday, October 3, 2022 after months of not operating allegedly due to COVID constraints. Hurricane Ian may disrupt the plans for the Silver Meteor to restart operations. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; September 29, 2022

Hello, from warm, sunny Florida.

Well, not really, today. As this is being written midday Thursday from Jacksonville in the far-northeast part of Florida tucked just below Georgia, now-Tropical Storm Ian is still pushing from west to east across the Florida peninsula just south of Orlando and by later today the full core of the storm will be in the Atlantic Ocean.

Good riddance.

All of Florida’s transportation network has been interrupted and beaten-up. Trains, planes, buses, trucks and cars aren’t moving, and, for now, shouldn’t be.

Category 4 Hurricane Ian approaching Fort Myers, Naples, and Florida’s southwest coast on Wednesday, September 28, 2022. NASA/NOAA Wikimedia Commons photo.

Major airports in Florida have been closed, and remain closed. Amtrak stopped all service earlier this week and won’t resume service until the end of the week. Brightline in Southeast Florida has kept some service running between MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach, but that part of Florida hasn’t had much of a beating from Hurricane Ian.

Brightline maintained less frequent departures during Hurricane Ian’s march across Florida peninsula. Brightline publicity photo.

Anyone who has been in Florida for a few decades and has roots here knows someone who has felt the effects of Hurricane, now Tropical Storm Ian. Very few are untouched.

There was a time when passenger trains were considered to be “all weather” transportation. That was also a time when the railroads has legions of employees that numbered into the tens of thousands for many individual railroads. They could move mountains when necessary.

Today, railroads have been on a spree of laying off as many employees as possible due to the pestilence commonly known as Precision Scheduled Railroading. If only some of us are able to live long enough to know that phrase will have been relegated to the dustbin and railroads will get back to the proper balance between employees, managers, serving customers, meeting financial needs, and having the ability to maintain their networks and grow, too.

Early 20th Century post card for the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, also known as the Overseas Railroad. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

Most people who know railroad history know the story of the fierce 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys on Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad that was the southern tip of the Florida East Coast Railway. That was before hurricanes were assigned names. A heroic railroad rescue mission turned into additional disaster with more loss of life, loss of equipment, and, in the end, loss of the Florida East Coast Railway south of the Florida mainland. The devastation was so bad and the railroad’s economics also so bad in the middle of the Great Depression that it was easier to abandon the Overseas Railroad to the State of Florida than pay to rebuild it.

The devastating fatal wreck of the Florida East Coast Railway rescue train which was overcome by the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane which washed over the Florida Keys. Wikimedia Commons photo.
On the right is one of the original Florida East Coast railroad bridge structures in the Florida Keys which was turned over to the State of Florida after the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane destroyed the railroad. On the left is a modern replacement highway bridge now used for all vehicle traffic. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Since then passenger trains have always played a heavy role in evacuating tourists and residents in Florida when it was known a strong hurricane was coming. Not so, now.

In 1979, Hurricane David was bearing down on Florida. It had been around a while and it yo-yoed intensity from a light storm to a category two storm to a monster category five storm.

The August and September 1979 track of Hurricane David. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

It was another Labor Day weekend and your humble scribe was spending the long weekend in Miami with a cousin.

1980s/90s The Weather Channel logo. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

This was before cable television, The Weather Channel, the internet, and many other modern conveniences. Before leaving Jacksonville on Amtrak headed to Miami, the storm was already chasing around the Caribbean, but it was “iffy” if it was going to hit Miami and South Florida.

Off we went, with the confidence of youth. All was well for the first couple of days, then the truck with the megaphone drove through the neighborhood in Miami announcing an immediate evacuation because Hurricane David was on the way.

Oops! Time to leave a couple of days early. The first call was to Amtrak to change the reservations. A most friendly and helpful reservations clerk said the timing was good; there were exactly two seats left on the Floridian leaving Miami that afternoon. It was the last train out before the hurricane was supposed to arrive that evening. It quickly became a done deal.

Rapidly packed and then off to the then-relatively new Hialeah Amtrak station and the awaiting Floridian. Got to the station a bit early so had some time to go upstairs and say hello to the gentlemanly Amtrak division superintendent who was in his office overseeing preparations. He was determined his railroad was going to function as it should for his passengers.

Outbound passengers in 1978 waiting for departure at Amtrak’s Hialeah passenger train station in Miami. The offices on the second level allowed managers to monitor station activity. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The platform area of Amtrak’s Hialeah passenger train station in Miami in 2018 where a private car occupies the house track. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Things were under control; equipment was being placed in the former Seaboard Hialeah coach yard so it would be out of harm’s way as much as possible and the Floridian was fully prepped and loaded for departure to Chicago.

We left on time, and the consist was complete with a coach dome car. Once underway an inquiry was made with the conductor if any sleeping car space was unclaimed. He checked his diagrams and sure enough two roomettes which were booked out of Miami were not occupied. The rule was the train had to go three stations beyond the booking point and if still unclaimed, the space could be resold.

The Floridian in Thomasville, Georgia in 1973, complete with a dome coach. The Chicago to Miami Floridian carried a baggage car, dome coach and coaches, sleeping cars, a diner and lounge car. Internet photo.

Three stations came and went and the space was unsold. The rest of the trip was much more comfortable for each of us to have a roomette than sitting in a coach. Of course, the Floridian had a full dining car and lounge car. The trip from Miami to Jacksonville was really quite comfortable.

As we prematurely congratulated ourselves that we outran the storm and had put 300 miles between us an Miami, upon arrival in Jacksonville and leaving the Amtrak station for home, some things looked just like what we had left in Miami – boarded up store windows and other familiar hurricane preparations taking place.

Again, in the Stone Age of 1979 with no cell phones, no internet, etc., we had no idea Hurricane David instead of slamming into Miami decided to chase us up the Florida peninsula and was going to brush past Jacksonville the next day.

We still got wet. But, when you’re in your twenties, things like that are more of an adventure than an annoyance.

Grade crossing protect arms. When not properly secured can become a missile capable of impaling a person or any piece of property. Wikimedia Commons photo.

What was different in 1979 than today when it comes to passenger trains and hurricanes? A lot.

In 1979 not much was done to tie down a railroad in advance of a storm. Grade crossings had fewer automated crossing arms to protect both oncoming trains and drivers on the road. The railroads did not make much of an effort to tie them down or protect them when a storm was predicted to come.

Now, well in advance of a storm’s arrival the railroad is shut down and expensive property like crossing arms are fixed in place or simply removed to keep them from becoming detached in high winds and becoming a missile ready to impale any person or piece of property.

Today, only about a third of the nation’s freight moves by freight train. In 1979, that amount was considerably more. In 1979 there were more railroads than roads and highways and the railroads WERE the supply chain. Things had to keep moving, and the railroads had the personnel to ensure that.

So, here we are in the fall of 2022 and what is being labeled as the fifth most powerful hurricane in modern Florida history hit Fort Myers, Naples and Southwest Florida with a punch that left behind flooding, destruction and death. As Ian moved inland it quickly lost power but has remained a rainmaker, dumping months worth of rain in just a few hours. The winds have done their worst, too, in some places, adding to the mayhem brought by Mother Nature.

Often when we have these devastating storm events in Florida we just label them “unplanned urban renewal”. Everyone who has lived in Florida for more than 20 minutes can identify “before” and “after” sites that have been changed by the force of a visiting hurricane. Some good, some bad; all random.

File illustration.

From a transportation standpoint in Florida, things should be back to normal by the end of the weekend. But, when it comes to Amtrak, probably not so. During the time of this writing Tropical Storm Ian was upgraded back to Category One Hurricane Ian as it’s mostly out in the Atlantic Ocean and it’s pointed towards the Georgia and South Carolina coast lines.

Allegedly, the Silver Meteor was supposed to be back in operation on October 3rd, next Monday. Maybe not; it may be delayed a couple of days, thanks to a guy named Ian.

No matter what when it comes to Mother Nature and storms, the only real thing that can be predicted is they are unpredictable. Ask anyone in Florida who thinks they understand how hurricanes work. The best guess is often the wrong guess.

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