U.S., Amtrak: The excitements of a trip on Stephen Gardner’s sold out Silver Star

Amtrak Train Number 91, southbound Silver Star providing service from New York City to Miami and all points in between pauses at the Jacksonville, Florida station in 2020 during the pandemic. The scheduled departure time is prior to 7:00 a.m. Note the fuel truck filling the locomotive’s tank in the distance. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; July 26, 2022

Stephen Gardner’s Silver Star is doing yeoman’s work in Florida. Since the Silver Meteor was canceled for the summer and early fall months (allegedly returning October 3rd), the Star has been literally doing the work of two trains, but with an elongated consist of five Amfleet II refurbished coaches, five Viewliner sleeping cars, a diner for the sleeping car passengers only, a cafe/lounge car for coach passengers, plus a baggage car.

A recently refurbished Amfleet II coach. Wikipedia Commons photo.

The train is too long to fit alongside the new FRA-mandated level boarding platform at Tampa Union Station.

A recent intra-Florida roundtrip from Jacksonville to Tampa earlier this month offered some surprises that one can only hope Stephen Gardner’s management team in Washington is aware of and willing to do something about.

The trip is 246 railroad miles long and both Jacksonville and Tampa are intermediate station stops on the route. Between Jacksonville and Tampa are three other critical intermediate stops in Central Florida: Winter Park, Orlando and Kissimmee.

Florida tourism was invented by the railroads, specifically Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway in the late 19th Century and into the early 20th Century. The vintage mid-twentieth century postcard above shows FEC trains at the original Miami, Florida station with downtown Miami in the background. The FEC was the Florida partner of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad for hauling its east coast streamliners down the coast from Jacksonville to Miami. The original wood FEC Miami station was torn down in the 1960s after the FEC strike took place in 1963, effectively ending passenger service on the FEC with the exception of one pocket streamliner the government forced the FEC to operate between North Miami and Jacksonville until the late 1960s. Today, that same land where the original wood station stood is where the new Brightline MiamiCentral station stands with a solid future of a railroad again redefining tourism in Florida. After the strike began, the Atlantic Coast Line moved its streamliners onto Seaboard Air Line Railroad tracks for the run into Miami. Since the Coast Line and Seaboard had already agreed at the time to merge and were awaiting Interstate Commerce Commission approval to do so, it was easy to reach an agreement to handle the ACL trains on Seaboard tracks south of Auburndale and on to the Gold Coast and ultimately downtown Miami. Internet image.

Florida enjoys 118,000,000 visitors a year, making it a hotspot for tourism, and tourists arrive in every type of conveyance domestically and from all over the world. Orlando/Central Florida alone has 51,000,000 visitors and the Tampa Bay Area has 15,000,000 visitors. Florida is the third most populous state in the country behind California and Texas with a population of 22,000,000, with an average of 850 new residents a day moving into Florida.

Jacksonville, Florida has always been considered a banking and insurance city, but now Jacksonville is also noted for hosting Class I railroad CSX Transportation (headquarters building above, originally built as the headquarters of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, then became the new Seaboard Coast Line Railroad headquarters building before morphing into CSX) and more recently became the headquarters of the Florida East Coast Railway when its original historic headquarters in nearby St. Augustine was relocated to Jacksonville. Short line operator and freight rail services company Patriot Rail also is headquartered in Jacksonville. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Jacksonville’s metropolitan area population (2020 estimates) is 1,733,937 souls and the Jacksonville Amtrak station hosted 63,969 passengers in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

Internet image.

Orlando’s metropolitan area population (2020 estimates) is 3,129,308 souls and the Orlando Amtrak station (which is also a SunRail commuter rail station) hosted 127,186 Amtrak passengers in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

Tampa’s metropolitan area population (2020 estimates including the neighboring Pinellas County which contains St. Petersburg and Clearwater and 12 other municipalities) is 5,958,418 souls and Tampa Union Station hosted 110,309 passengers in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

Internet image.

Orlando and Kissimmee specifically are primary station stops for those traveling to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld in the resort area. The Central Florida attractions are the core of the area being one of the single largest vacation destinations in the world both for singles and families.

Internet image.

It’s important to note that Stephen Gardner’s Auto Train also serves Central Florida at its Sanford southern terminus, but Auto Train has no intermediate station stops between terminals and no passengers are allowed unless accompanying an automobile or motorcycle.

We have heard past rhetoric from Amtrak headquarters about long distance/inter-regional trains that don’t live up to their full potential because not enough passengers travel from terminal to terminal (such as is found on airlines).

We knew that was hogwash when first uttered, and we know it is hogwash today. The Silver Star is just one of many trains which prove this point.

First, let’s look at the Star’s route, from north to south.

The Star originates southbound in New York Pennsylvania Station and travels down the Northeast Corridor, calling at five NEC stations before reaching Washington Union Station and the swap of electric to diesel locomotives.

It’s another 13 station stops in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia before reaching Jacksonville, Florida.

Included in those 13 stops are state capitals of Richmond, Raleigh and Columbia and Georgia’s major coastal city of Savannah.

The route has always had strong intermediate stations.

South of Jacksonville, stops include Palatka, DeLand, Winter Park, Orlando, Kissimmee, Lakeland and then Tampa.

Once in Florida, south of Tampa, the Star stops at Lakeland, Winter Haven, Sebring and Okeechobee before reaching Florida’s Gold Coast which includes West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Deerfield Beach (Boca Raton), Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and then Miami at Amtrak’s Hialeah coach yard and station.

It’s notable that from West Palm Beach south to Miami, the former Seaboard Air Line/Seaboard Coast Line/CSX tracks run parallel a few miles apart from the Florida East Coast Railway/Brightline tracks. There is no point where any Amtrak route tracks intersect with Brightline tracks now operating or being built. Only after Brightline’s new tracks are built beyond its Orlando International Airport station will one track cross the other, south of Orlando.

A contemporary view of the Jacksonville, Florida Amtrak station waiting room. The station was originally built in the early 1970s as Amtrak’s first designed and built station, replacing the large downtown Jacksonville Terminal. Several other stations in the Amtrak system were built using this same layout such as Staples Mill Road station in Richmond, Virginia. The Jacksonville station enjoys a comfortable outdoor patio complete with benches and overhead fans overlooking the station tracks. Wikimedia Commons photo.

On a hot July summer Saturday morning, the Silver Star pulled into Jacksonville’s pleasant northside Amtrak station, three hours late, not uncommon in the summer of 2022.

Over 40 passengers detrained, and a larger group entrained, all the while many ongoing passengers were enjoyed a smoking break, the locomotives were being fueled and some car attendants were watering their cars; Miami was still more than 11 hours to the south and many passengers on the packed train had gone through a semblance of their morning personal care routine using a lot of fresh water.

Another contemporary Jacksonville station photo of the southbound Silver Star arriving before sunrise when running on time. The Jacksonville station can easily accommodate 18 car consists which Amtrak regularly used on Florida trains prior to the introduction of Viewliner sleepers in the late 1990s. To the right in the photo is the now unused Amtrak mail and express loading dock which saw frequent use in the late 1980s and 1990s. When the Palmetto was originally extended to Jacksonville from Savannah in the late 1980s one of the advantages was the prospect of hauling mailing and express in the Palmetto consist. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Attempting to detrain the passengers and the entrain the new passengers created chaos.

The more than competent, helpful and professional Jacksonville station staff were doing their best to keep things under control.

The car attendants – at this late date in the 21st Century – working with pencil and paper car diagrams, were trying to figure out where to put everyone.

“At the top of the stairs (at the boarding door) turn to your [left/right] and find any seat that’s open.”

The Silver Star began as a post-war streamliner of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad as a companion train to the railroad’s premier Silver Meteor. The Star maintained its status throughout the Seaboard years as part of the Silver Fleet, then into Seaboard Coast Line, and becoming one of the original Amtrak routes. Internet image.

Or, “Go back to the other open door two cars down and see if you can find a seat there. Take any open seat.”

This was the complete crew of two coach attendants trying to take care of passengers in five Amfleet II coaches; that translates to 270 passengers if every seat is taken.

Note to Stephen Gardner: Give these overworked but dedicated people some help. They are trying their best with a combination of passengers who have been on the train overnight or well into their second day mixed with new passengers who are anxious to get going after waiting for a three-hour-late train.

It’s also notable at major stations such as Jacksonville that tickets used to be collected at the station door before going trainside. Jacksonville is a train and engine crew base and there are always new T&E crews taking over a train, so an onboard conductor does not have to leave the train and come into the station.

Further, even though the Amtrak website required a COVID checklist for all passengers before boarding, no one ever asked to see the results, as well as when on the train, no one, either the car attendants or the conductor lifting tickets (so to speak, in these modern times with electronic devices) ever asked to see identification to see if the ticket matched the living, breathing passenger. Between the outbound trip and the return trip Amtrak did away with the COVID checklist, but on its website offered the standard “be safe” health advice.

Finally, everyone is aboard, the cars are watered, the two locomotives are fueled, there is the double toot of the locomotive horn and the train is southbound.

Everyone is aware of the true axiom “late trains only get later.” Happily, that did not hold true on this trip. The Star maintained being about three hours late the rest of the way to Tampa, varying by a few moments only. Surprisingly, the Silver Star “had the railroad” south of Jacksonville. For the approximately 120 railroad miles from Jacksonville to Sanford (a far suburb of Orlando), once outside the freight yards of Jacksonville, the train never passed another parked locomotive, freight car on a siding, or freight train until almost to the Auto Train terminal in Sanford.

South of Palatka, the first station stop after Jacksonville, Amtrak has assumed ownership of the railroad right of way all the way to DeLand which is the northernmost point of track owned by the State of Florida on behalf of the Central Florida SunRail commuter system. CSX has no customers over that piece of track and Auto Train and the Silver Star and Silver Meteor are the primary users of the track. CSX maintains trackage rights.

It’s also worth noting about this former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad main line into Central Florida that when CSX sold the heart of the line in the Orlando area to the state for SunRail, the State of Florida gave CSX – in addition to the sale price – hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the former Seaboard Air Line main line through Central Florida (to the north and west of the ACL line) exclusively for heavy freight usage. Multiple grade crossings were eliminated with automobile overpasses, signaling was improved and track was rebuilt. Today it’s an impressive, state-of-the-art railroad. And, that made the former ACL line redundant for the hopes and dreams of CSX and its freight service in Florida.

Back onboard the Silver Star, Palatka came and went with little change on the train. Ditto for DeLand, the northernmost Central Florida station and home to Stetson College.

It’s notable the SunRail track is maintained to high standards; even sitting over the wheels in an Amfleet II coach provides a smooth-as-glass, comfortable ride.

Winter Park arrived. The delightful new station built for the SunRail successful commuter service is a welcome diversion from the former mid-century Atlantic Coast Line small town station that was built with segregated restrooms. While ACL, SCL and Amtrak maintained the well-built station nicely and kept its appearance appropriate for the decidedly upscale Winter Park downtown area, it was time for it to yield to the superior station designed for and built by SunRail.

A surprising number of passengers both detrained and entrained at Winter Park. But, the main Orlando station, just five railroad miles down the line was the biggest surprise.

Historically for Florida trains – whether in the better days before Stephen Gardner started running Amtrak or the earlier days of Graham Claytor’s tenure at the helm of Amtrak when a gaggle of three daily trains served Florida’s peninsula – southbound trains emptied out at Orlando, with a few stragglers detraining in Kissimmee.

In the early days of the 1990s when the Sunset Limited operated into Miami as its eastern terminus, after Orlando the consist was a ghost town with very few passengers going beyond Orlando. That was the primary reason why the Sunset was eventually truncated to end first in Sanford at the Auto Train terminal (which was a terrible idea because the printed timetable emphasized Sanford and not Orlando and required a two-seat ride to the Orlando area on an Amtrak bus) and then more sensibly at Orlando.

When terminating/originating in Orlando, a deadhead move was required to or from the Sanford Auto Train maintenance base to Orlando, which took about 45 minutes. It was worth the effort because of the superior maintenance – both mechanically and from a cleaning/sanitation standpoint – provided by the Auto Train maintenance forces.

So, the expectation was when the Silver Star reached Orlando, lots and lots of passengers would detrain and there would be some breathing room in the coaches.

Not so.

The conductor announced just before arrival in Orlando that while a great many passengers would detrain, more would be boarding, and the train was a “sold out train.” Every coach seat would be occupied.

And, come they did. All remaining passengers took a deep breath, gathered their belongings strewn about on empty adjacent seats and waited for new seatmates.

But, wait, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The train was supposed to run light to Miami. Nope. Some new passengers were traveling the short distance to Tampa, and most were headed to the Florida Gold Coast cities south of West Palm Beach and into Miami.

The Silver Star lumbered on to Kissimmee, the southernmost Central Florida/resort area stop. The process was repeated. For every detraining passenger (and, there were many of them), a new passenger boarded.

Lakeland was next, and for what used to be a short station stop, a respectable amount of passengers were off and on.

The Silver Star in the Ybor City enclave of Tampa. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Then, on to Tampa, which required a backup move into the stub-end Tampa Union Station. As the crew announced, this backup move is the only one remaining on the Star’s route.

The magnificent Tampa Union Station main structure, built in 1912, is an Italian Renaissance Revival style building. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The new level boarding platform at Tampa Union Station on the former station Track 3. Internet photo.

The train platforms were recently butchered for the new, single, FRA mandated level-boarding platform. Here’s the reality: Tampa Union Station was built in 1912. The handsome station building, next to the Ybor City district of downtown Tampa is an Italian Renaissance Revival style building , complementing the neighboring Ybor City. Here is a brief description of Ybor City from Wikipedia:

“Ybor City is a historic neighborhood just northeast of downtown Tampa …. It was founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and other cigar manufacturers and populated by thousands of immigrants, mainly from Cuba, Spain and Italy…

“Ybor City was unique … as a successful town almost entirely populated and owned by immigrants. The neighborhood had features unusual among contemporary communities in the south, most notably its multiethnic and multiracial population and their many mutual aid societies. The cigar industry employed thousands of well-paid workers, helping Tapa grow…

“Italians were also among the early settlers of Ybor City. Most of them came from a few villages in southwestern Sicily.”

The main waiting room of Tampa Union Station is a blend of yellows and greens, complete with original design wooden benches. Anyone who has traveled through traditional late 19th Century/early 20th Century train stations has experienced these type of benches which are surprisingly comfortable for a hard surface. This photo was taken during a 2014 Train Day event. The station is owned by the City of Tampa. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Tampa Union Station has an interesting history. Again, from Wikipedia:

“Tampa Union Station (TUS) is a historic train station in Tampa, Florida. It was designed by Joseph F. Leitner and was opened on May 15, 1912, by the Tampa Union Station Company. Its original purpose was to combine passenger operations for the Atlantic Coast Line, the Seaboard Air Line and the Tampa Northern Railroad at a single site…

Tampa Union Station waiting room. Internet photo.

“In 1974, as Union Railroad Station, Tampa Union Station was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and in 1988 it received local landmark status from the City of Tampa. After its condition deteriorated substantially, Tampa Union Station was closed in 1984; Amtrak passengers used a temporary prefabricated station building … located adjacent to the station platforms …

“Tampa Union Station was restored and reopened to the public in 1998. Today it operates as an Amtrak station for the Silver Star line. It also provides Amtrak Thruway Motorcoach services to Orlando, Lakeland, Pinellas Park-St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Sarasota, Port Charlotte and Fort Myers.

Tampa Union Station in an earlier time when brick streets in Tampa were common. Many of the downtown and close-in neighborhoods in Tampa still have occasional brick streets; most of which could desperately use a smoothing process. Florida Memory photo.

“The station was originally built with eight tracks, although only one is in regular use today (designated as ‘Track 3’), with adjacent Track 2 also available for use by trains as needed. Amtrak added a new, 1,000-foot high-level platform and canopy to Track 3 to improve accessibility, which opened in November 2020. The construction of the new platform resulted in changes to track configurations at the station. Tracks 4, 5, and 6 were removed to facilitate the construction of the high-level platform, although there are plans to restore them in the future if demand warrants. Although some of the other tracks remain in place, they are out of service. Original track bumpers, constructed of poured concrete, are still located at the ends of several of the remaining tracks and at the ends of former tracks …

One of the now-gone Tampa Union Station original 1912 train platforms; not a “chamber of commerce” photo. The former baggage and restaurant building is at the left rear of the photo. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“Union Station consists of the main building which includes the waiting room, as well as an attached restaurant and baggage building. A detached express building located adjacent to the baggage building handled packages and freight transfers from trains to trucks (all structures remain on site with the exception of the express building, which was demolished in the 1970s).

“A train wash and car repair facility are also on the property. Both of these elements were added by Amtrak in the 1980s when Amtrak formerly maintained a Tampa maintenance base. However, both are largely unused today.”

Some additions to the Wikipedia entry: The train wash rack was moved years ago to a new location after the maintenance base was closed; many of the maintenance employees there moved over to the Auto Train maintenance facility in Sanford, north of Orlando.

“Largely unused today” is an overstatement. All of the tools have been removed and everything else related to the former excellent maintenance facility is gone.

In better Amtrak days, both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star had Tampa sections which were maintained at Tampa Union Station. The intentional and poor decision to close the maintenance base occurred because of the arrival of the Viewliner sleeping cars in the late 1990s. Because the Viewliner fleet was smaller than the Heritage sleeping car fleet it replaced, Amtrak arbitrarily restricted the consist sizes, revenue and carrying capacity of the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Silver Palm and consolidated all Viewliner sleeping car maintenance to the Hialeah coach yard in Miami.

Ridership on the Florida trains fell to historic low levels as a result of this. The poor decision was also made to provide Tampa service for the Silver Meteor by Thruway bus service from Orlando, and the Silver Star ended up with the circuitous route of Orlando-Lakeland-Tampa-Lakeland-Winter Haven and on to Miami, adding two hours of extra running time to the route.

As Tampa passengers detrained onto the new level-boarding platform two realities hit: First, a 13 car train is too long to fit the new platform. Passengers for the forward coach next to the locomotives had to use the vestibule door on the following coach. Second, with the baggage car on the back of the train it became visibly apparent why the baggage car is on the rear of the consist.

The baggage car has been on the rear of the Silver Star since the late 1990s when the Viewliner consists were introduced. It actually makes sense.

When the baggage car was in the traditional place in the consist directly behind the locomotive and before the first coach, the station agent had to drive the baggage wagon the length of the train and platform, unload the incoming baggage and load the outgoing baggage and, after all of that was completed, then drive the baggage wagon back to the station and the waiting incoming passengers to claim their baggage.

Now, with the baggage car on the rear, the baggage is unloaded directly onto the level platform and as detrained passengers walk by, they are able to immediately claim their luggage. As that is being completed, baggage is loaded onto the baggage car for stations down the line. It’s a system that works well, but the downside is the passengers in the lead coach experience the faint diesel fumes and the constant blaring of the locomotive horn instead of having the buffer of the baggage car next to the locomotive.

The Tampa station agents are friendly, professional and well-organized, just as the Jacksonville station agents are each day.

The return trip seven days later was much the same. The train arriving in Tampa from the Gold Coast brought a large amount of travelers to Tampa, but an equally large amount of passengers also boarded amongst great confusion as there were too few coach attendants and assistant conductors and too many passengers; an unfortunate combination. As the Star made it up the line to Kissimmee, Orlando, Winter Park and through DeLand and Palatka to Jacksonville, on/offs remained steady. A surprising number of intrastate passengers use Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak trains to move about Florida. When the Silver Meteor returns and there will be more convenient schedules and departure frequencies, then travel likely will increase again.

There are two other happy notes to proclaim. Southbound, the coach attendants passed through the cars twice with trash containers, urging passengers to deposit any trash as they walked by the seats, in exactly the same manner airline flight attendants do at the end of every flight. This helped tremendously keeping the trash levels down in the cars. The sad part was the various messes in the restrooms. No matter how much the attendants plead with the passengers over the public address system to keep restrooms clean and be considerate of other passengers, some passengers apparently were beyond redemption.

The other happy note was in Jacksonville after detraining. As many are aware, not every station has train watering facilities. Jacksonville has adequate facilities which can easily service a 13 car train such as the current over-sized Silver Star. Jacksonville is a crew base for train and engine crew members. The detraining conductor on the northbound train, at his crew base, delayed his departure for home by taking time to help water the train. That was a man determined to do what was best for his passengers and his company. He was a professional, friendly gentleman, too.

Last note to Stephen Gardner and his management team: Please, go ride your trains. Just stand back and see what’s going on; don’t rely on the usual reports and statistics. When you ride the trains you really learn what’s going on (And, by the way, don’t tell them in advance you’re coming nor make it known who you are; as low profile as possible is best because you really can see and gauge what is right in front of you, unfiltered.).

So many of Amtrak’s front line onboard services, train and engine and station agents are consistently doing their best to provide passengers with a good experience. Senior management needs to take a page out of the front line employees’ book and do the same.

Amtrak’s inter-regional trains have the greatest potential for advancing the cause of passenger train travel. Tell the world about trains; don’t continue to let Amtrak be America’s Best Kept Secret.

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