Enough trains already! Well, maybe not just yet. In an effort to escape grey drizzly skies, snow flurries, biting cold, and the weatherman's twisted concept of 'partly cloudy', I made a January pilgrimage to the Gulf Coast of Florida. It was a quest to find that most elusive dream, a coastal drinking village with a fishing problem. The kind of town where you could swear that you just saw Ernest Hemmingway, and where the bar stools are occupied at 10 AM. A writers' haven filled with colorful characters who spin tales of adventure, and where even the morning coffee has an umbrella in it.
At the check-in booth near the station entrance, I received my car number and instructions as to what to do next. Guided into a temporary parking space by one of several auto attendants, I gathered up my overnight bag and ticket paperwork while my car was video-documented for pre-existing damage. With number 430 magnetically attached to the driver's door, I stood watching as my car was whisked away, up a ramp and into one of the numerous cavernous auto carriers. I could only hope that it would find a cute little compact or a brightly colored Corvette to get chummy with during the long night's journey.
Inside the station, I was startled by the number of people already there. Almost every one of the hundreds of seats was occupied, some by people with enough luggage for a two week trip rather than an overnight stay. I couldn't help but wonder where they intended to put it all, and why they felt the need for so much 'stuff'. There comes a point where you cease to look like a traveller and start to look like a refugee.
The check-in process was brief and efficient, giving me my room assignment, dining schedule, and the other general information required for the trip. After a wait of half an hour spent watching the media's panic over the approaching weather, passengers were called to board.
I have ridden trains before, starting as far back as the late 1950's. Then, my mother gathered up my brother and my pre-teen self to catch a Chicago bound train at Connellsville, PA. At that time it was a one and a half day trip, and a wondrous adventure for a kid. With a sleeping room, the trip was far less testing than it would have been in a "comfortable reclining chair" in the coach section. Many years later, in the 1990's, I took the Auto Train to Florida and was surprised to find the same room accommodations, rolling stock, and positive attitude toward customer service that I remembered from the 50's. One of my favorite features of both trains was the "observation car", a glass-domed car with elevated seats that allowed passengers to look around freely at the scenery and out over the train while it snaked through the countryside. I was to be disappointed on this trip by the absence of that car.
During that 1990's trip, a walk through the coach section during the night had shocked me. What had been an orderly place with rows of seats like an airliner had been transformed into something from a third world country. Pajama-clad children lay trying unsuccessfully to sleep across seats and in the aisle, food bags, toys, blankets, pillows, and drink bottles lay strewn about, while disheveled, exhausted adults struggled in vain to pacify their young. All that was missing were the goats and chickens. I remember wondering why AMTRAK had not reinstituted the old Pullman cars where coach passengers could sleep in upper and lower burth (bunk) beds behind privacy curtains. That would have to be better than the 'cattle car' atmosphere in the coaches. It appears that someone at AMTRAK had a similar idea, but applied it to the sleeper passenger cars instead of the coaches.
My previous trips had been in a reasonably comfortable bedroom that slept four and had a private bathroom. That was then, this is now. The new 'Superliner Sleeper Cars' have two levels of full-sized bedrooms, handicapped-accessible bedrooms, and communal toilet and shower facilities on the ends with rows of 'roomettes' in between. A 'roomette' is 3'6" by 6'6" with two single seats that convert into the lower bed while an upper bed folds down from the ceiling. It has no toilet or wash facilities. With the sliding door closed, there is room to stand and turn around, but this is no place for a claustrophobic. That being said, I found the arrangement infinitely roomy when compared to the extreme confines of airplane travel. My cubicle was on the upper level of the car, providing me a better view than those on the lower level. (Right click and 'open in new window')