The train is late. The train is always late. That characteristic turns out to be something that choo-choos and this traveler have in common; no wonder my first excursion aboard the rails since I was a child turned out to be so comfortable and familiar.
Let me qualify “late,” however, to clarify the timing of my initiation aboard Amtrak, departing Orlando and arriving in Fort Lauderdale. The additional 20 minutes of waiting for the train to arrive was just long enough to shake off my rushed taxi ride and allow me to posture myself like the rest of the patiently waiting ticket-holders, but I passed on the purchase of a “Mexican meal” from a vendor. In short, the scene at the Sligh Boulevard station is much like the LYNX bus station, only there are more suitcases and pseudo-suitcases – laundry baskets, shopping bags, boxes. All colors and age groups were represented: students with backpacks; parents with babies and strollers; middle-agers with ample reading material; the elderly, with “been there, done that” expressions.
Orlando’s train station is a worn but charming structure, built in 1926 by the Atlantic Coast Line, and finished outside in white stucco. There are arched, covered breezeways for on-hold passengers and the inside smells of the beautiful classic wooden benches that fill it; ticket-sellers stand behind an old-fashioned counter with iron bars instead of a window. On a practical note, the cost of a ticket is hard to pin down, because so many factors can affect it. Purchase them with a credit card a week in advance on Amtrak’s website, travel on a weekday, and you’ll likely get the best results. (Mine cost approximately $75 round-trip.)
For the romantics out there, it’s almost impossible to book an overnight trip in the state of Florida. All routes finish at the end of the evening and start up again in the morning. For a tête–à–tête, a sleeper car is the solution, if you can afford it. For example, it costs approximately $12 each way from Orlando to Tampa’s historic Union Station. A “bedroom” upgrade costs an additional $126 (sleeps two together) for both legs of the trip; the next level down is a “viewliner roomette,” $57 (upper and lower berths). A crisscross to Tampa from Orlando is a time-efficient adventure at four hours total. The only problem is that you can’t get off the train in Tampa; the engineer executes an old-fashioned turnaround and backs into the station, ready to head back.
Even before my designated iron horse roared into the Orlando station with the signature toots and hisses, the porters had passengers lined up and ready to board. No time is wasted on security and pat-downs; just get your ass on as quickly as possible, follow shouted directions and don’t be a knucklehead.
Seats are assigned, and they are super-big and comfy with foot rests; the temperature inside is icy. You never know who’s going to be your seatmate, and screaming kids can make or break a peaceful journey. The ace in the hole here, though, is that moving around the train is encouraged, and there are lounges for sitting, reading and gazing, as well as bathrooms, a dining car and a snack counter. Best of all – besides the boss-looking hats with silver adornment worn by the conductors – are the automatic doors that slide open with a pop of the “push” button, allowing you to cross to the next car. There’s an element of danger when you’re standing at the juncture of one car to another, wildly bouncing around, the raging of the train and the grinding of the wheels unmuffled.
Quick stops were made at quaint Florida towns on our way to Fort Lauderdale – Kissimmee, Lake Alfred, Lake Wales – before trouble started somewhere around Sebring. The signals that tell the engineer the tracks up ahead are clear weren’t working, and because it was so hot, there was an alert for expanded rails (an important reason to travel in cooler seasons). We traveled slowly, stopping after short distances until radio contact with the ruling CSX railroad assured that the tracks were clear.
What was supposed to be a four-and-a-half-hour ride stretched into nine hours. As the sun started to set, the dining car whipped into action to serve (at tables with white linen and silverware) every passenger a free meal of beef stew, string beans, mashed potatoes and iced tea. This forced a sharing of tables and conversations with strangers, another of my favorite pastimes. With gas costs so high, train travel for business or fun can be an adventure, as long as you don’t mind being late.