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Review: Amtrak Silver Star

Travel Service - Bus & train

United States

Silver Star overnight train to Orlando

  • By SilverTraveller phage

    24 reviews

    Ribbon

  • August 2008

64 people found this review helpful

A recent Facebook post asked for our rail experiences brought back memories of our rail tour of the American east coast back in August 2000. The trip was to be our last holiday together as a family, with the children being 16 & 17 and soon to be left to their own devices. After a week and a half enjoying stops in Toronto, New York and Washington, we had made our way back to Washington Union Station, to start the final leg to Orlando Florida with the indulgence of an overnight sleeper to enjoy before we would immerse ourselves in two weeks of Disney excess.

Union Station is certainly an impressive building, as befits the nation’s capital main rail hub; its architecture being of the classical monumental style in white limestone in keeping with the majority of the official buildings in the city. The main façade is based on the Arch of Constantine and fronted by six columns with large statues atop them. Its appeal made all the more impressive by virtue of the fact that the building is set in open space and is reached by a sweeping driveway, ironically very reminiscent of one of the old country’s stately homes.

We arrived to catch the overnight Silver Star sleeper service south, which was certainly to be a first for us. After checking in the bags for the trip, we absorb the scale of the station interior with its high vaulted ceiling and semi-circular windows with classical Greek statues overlooking the throng. After receiving suitably disinterested comments from our young ones on the building’s architectural charms, we continue by exploring the commercial parts of the station, before descending to have some lunch in the lower level food court. The time finally arrives for us to make our way to the departure lounge to wait, and wait and wait as the 15.05 departure time comes and goes with no sign of the train and no information except that the train is delayed. Finally after more than an hour we hear that the train has arrived following a ‘technical problem’ at New York and that we should make our way to the gate. After a short wait we are lead to the train, but instead of a platform that we are used to back home we end up walking out on the stone ballast at track level to get to our carriage and, as in the movies, climb that small ladder to the carriage door.

We are shown to our compartments, which are opposite each other, by our attendant who looked and sounded as though this was not the first time he had done this. He quickly instructs us on the finer points of the compartment furniture such as: how construct the bunks; not forgetting to attach the safety webbing for the top one; where the built-in toilet and wash basin were and how to operate the tiny 6” video screen. He leaves us to settle in and begin the usual bartering on who has to have the top bunk. The train slowly starts to pull away and the city begins to pass us by. We soon come to a town called Alexandria where we pass a building with a tall needle like tower, which we later discover is the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. A short stop at Alexandra station and we are on our way again, following the west bank of the Potomac River south. The train crosses numerous inlets and tributaries in this section passing over bridges of not inconsiderable length, easily comparing to the longest ones back home. Surprisingly, because it is so repetitive, even with its expansive nature, this view starts to become slightly tedious.

After a short while we hear the call to dinner and try to remember which way to turn to get to the dining car and on arrival we take our places and review the small menu. The kids do the kid thing and have hot dog and fries, whereas we decide to do the adult thing and chose the pasta dish. For about the only time in recorded history the kids chose the better option, because when our pastas arrive you could bounce it off a wall. It turned out that the “proper” meals were cooked at the normal time, but because of the delay they were kept warm, which does wonders for pasta. Being British, first timers and hungry we ate the fare and retired back to the compartments to watch the evening’s on-board entertainment, Walt Disney’s Inspector Gadget movie staring Matthew Broderick and Rupert Everett on the generous video screen.

Being unable to give my full attention to the movie, my gaze drifts to the carriage window and the passing countryside, or at least those parts that appear between gaps in the trees planted alongside the track to beautify the line and originally to protect the sensibilities of the good local folk from the ungodly sight of an iron horse passing at full speed. The parts I managed to see were strikingly similar and set in motion a tangential train of thought. Because this part of the continent has not been directly affected by geological forces it has had the time to develop into a coastal plane. Consequently, the resultant flatness has introduced a feature that is absent from the west coast, namely wide meandering rivers. Whereas the rivers of the west coast tend to rush to the sea, their east coast brothers are not in any particular hurry to meet their saline cousin

When the movies finished we thought that it might be a good time to try and remember how the beds are put together before everyone else in the carriage retires and we are left trying to rein act a Marx Brothers movie. After several attempts, and some skinned knuckles, the bunks are completed and I gingerly climb into the top one, my wife winning the fixed lottery for the bottom berth. Settling down I find the bed surprisingly comfortable considering its construction, although the lower berth occupant was not so appreciative next morning.

I tossed and turned for a while and must have dropped off to sleep, because I was abruptly woken by knocking on the compartment door. Climbing down and opening the door I found my daughter in a state somewhere between hilarity and concern, pointing to the strange shape above her bunk. After a few moments to allow my eyes to acclimatise, the vague shape coalesced into a vision that has stayed with me since. Our son, when constructing his top bunk, had failed to completely fasten the safety netting at the edge of the bunk and had turned over in his sleep. This resulted in him rolling off the edge and ending wedged between the bunk and the compartment wall leaving him with his backside hanging down swinging in the breeze, pleading for someone to help. With all hands to the pump, we managed to get him back into bed, reconnect the safety netting and finally get back to bed and sleep.

Suddenly I was woken by what seemed like the whole world shuddering. It stopped after a couple of seconds which left me wondering if I had been in fact been dreaming. However, a few seconds later after I had fruitlessly parted the curtains to peer into the blackness outside to try and see what had caused the possibly imagined shaking, the world shuddered again. I stayed quiet because we were still moving and as there was no noise coming from underneath and I did not want to encounter the wrath brought on by disturbing her sleep. So I sat there for a while helplessly waiting for the next event, and possible destruction, which thankfully never came so I eventually drifted off to sleep again.

We were woken in the morning by a knock from the carriage’s attendant informing us that breakfast would be served in 30 minutes. Probably because of being half asleep the last time I tried, I had forgotten how interesting it was to get down from the top bunk. However, after some grunting and groaning, I was down and after a quick wash in our generous facilities, we dressed and collecting the offspring made our way to the dining car, where hopefully a better experience than the previous evening awaited us. Finding our table we sat and made our selections. The others were boringly safe in their selections, crispy bacon, scrambled egg, wiener sausage and biscuits. Being on holiday, and an eternal optimist, I decided to be adventurous and ordered a portion of Grits with my bacon and felt somewhat smug at my attempted integration into local culinary culture.

While we were waiting for the orders to arrive, I asked an attendant what the juddering was last night. He told me that our route passed over a number of bridges in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge that were not in the most pristine condition and had speed restrictions imposed, which judging by our apparent speed on the journey so far seemed ever so slightly ironic. Looking out of the window while we waited for the food to come I began to appreciate what I had been told, because it seemed that every other sleeper in the parallel track was rotting away and if that were reflected in our track, then it is no wonder that we were not exactly racing along.

Before I had time to process these thoughts, and become slightly more nervous, our breakfasts arrived. The others took charge of theirs, which looks pretty standard fare and was summarily consumed. Mine was placed before me accompanied by what I still swear was a smirk on the attendant’s face. The plate had the same crispy bacon and wiener sausage, but also had a large dollop of white stuff, that bore a striking resemblance to frog spawn. Ignoring the suppressed sniggers from my family I confidently placed a forkful in my mouth along with a generous piece of bacon. After a couple of mastications I realised that my initial impressions were not so far from the truth. The sensation invading my mouth was not dissimilar to that some very average porridge mixed with fine road grit. I admitted defeat and just ate the bacon and sausage. Now I know that Grits is a particular delicacy of the South, so I am blaming my reaction on either a repeat of the previous evening’s catering problems, or more likely my British palate on my reaction. So suffering the inevitable taunts I trudged back to the compartment to pack up our belongings ready for our arrival at Orlando.

The morning movie starts, the cartoon version of Tarzan with songs by Phil Collins, which is a pleasant if undemanding way to pass the time. During the morning and during the film I snatch glimpses of the world going by outside the carriage window. Over night the landscape had become flatter and as we pass through Florida on the final stretch we are presented with the views of the outskirts of small towns interspersed with farmland, lakes and woods. Finally we begin to enter the outskirts of Orlando and eventually reach the penultimate stop of Winter Park, this signalled the frantic checking all nooks and crannies to make sure we had packed up all of our belongings. At last some 20 minutes later, after crawling through business parks and road crossings, with the archetypal ding ding of the crossing bell, we arrive at Orlando station and disembark some 19 hours and 899 miles after our departure from Washington DC.

I must say that stepping out of the train at Orlando was quite a surprise, not that of the heat and sunshine which I had been expecting from previous holidays here, but the fact that it looked like we had stopped at some small town halt somewhere in the Wild West. There was a single storey building which acted as ticket office and waiting room, a short raised platform opposite the luggage van and not a lot else. We waited while the staff off-loaded the bags of the dozen or so people disembarking, and then collected ours and made our way to the pay phone to call the hire car company to come and collect us. Fifteen minutes after it arrived, the Silver Star sounded its horn and began chugging slowly away heading for Miami, leaving us to enjoy two weeks in the loving grasp of a certain big eared mouse.

As I said at the beginning this is my recollection of a trip 15 years ago, so I am quite sure that what we experienced then was just a one off hiccup and that things are immeasurably better now.

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