The Last Amtrak

47 arguments for nationalizing railroad travel

I take a stroll to the lounge car, past the distinguished-looking Chinese couple, the wide-eyed Euro-kid with the brightly colored backpack, the balding man with a rim of dreadlocks. And then there are those passengers, grave middle-aged types -- veteran train travelers? -- with their grocery bags of supplies, hunkered into their seats like soldiers prepared for a siege. Their jaws are set. What do they know that the rest of us don't?

Haines City. A citrus smell from the sprawling orange groves beside the track.

The conductor announces that Sunset Limited riders won't be getting off in Orlando, something about running late (us, them?), and instead we'll be making the connection in Jacksonville. It's a little unsettling, this news, putting a wrinkle in my smooth idea of the great trip. But the sun through the window and the monotonous landscape have made me drowsy, and as long as we keep moving like we do, pushing the Amtrak speed limit of 79 mph, it's all fine with me, I suppose. I think I overhear talk of a derailment, somewhere in north Florida, or maybe South Carolina. I go back to sleep.

We arrive in Jacksonville just after 4:00 p.m. to an already-packed station. Bored passengers sit amongst their luggage sprawled out on the platform while a news crew from local WJCX-TV loiters next to an idle train. I learn from the television in the lobby that there was an Amtrak derailment near Coosawhatchie, South Carolina. The train hit a log truck at a crossing. Of the 137 passengers, 15 sustained injuries; long delays for passengers resulted here in Jacksonville (the camera sweeps over people slumped with their bags along the platform). I assume the news anchor is right, since a harried station attendant tells a group of passengers to hold on, that the buses will be here soon to connect them to a waiting train north of the accident.

We wait, set adrift in the station without a word. And except for the occasional baggage handler, there is no one from Amtrak to explain the situation. I can only assume that as a train derails, so does a schedule, which must be often considering the almost weekly reports of train accidents reported throughout this summer. According to the Federal Rail Administration, Amtrak was involved in 191 accidents in 2001, leading to 715 passenger injuries and 3 deaths. But with a total of 2987 accidents for all trains this year (freight and passenger), the odds are high for delays somewhere along the line.

After several hours at Jacksonville -- a fifteen-minute stop, according to the schedule -- and with a vending machine for dinner options, a line starts to form at the door of the station. "I guess we're boarding," shrugs a man wearing a Coast Guard cap. I queue up with the rest of the fools and file past an Amtrak agent who has suddenly appeared at the door. He's sitting behind a card table, looking jaded; I show him my ticket and squeeze through the door past other squeezing people.... Finally: the Sunset Limited, with its massive 73-ton double-decker cars in streamlined silver. And true to its name, the train pulls out of the station as the sun falls over the horizon at around 8:00 p.m., three hours late. The train is more than half-filled, but I find two seats together in the first car of the coach-class Superliner, then check out the glass-covered observation car and lounge -- a snack bar with microwave pizzas, prepackaged sandwiches, chips, and beer. I'd chosen coach to be among the People, and because a sleeper would've cost an additional $500. The seats are comfortable enough, reclining with a footrest that pops up La-Z-Boy style, but the thought of this as my bed for the next three days suddenly seems a bad miscalculation.

Seated behind me are Ron and Karen, an early thirtyish couple from Tampa on their way to see her sister in El Paso, Texas. And behind them is the stocky Hector, a 25-year-old Puerto Rican guy with a Knicks jersey from Miami, on his way to Los Angeles to visit relatives. Like me, all are new to long-distance train travel.

The next morning I wake early with the sun slanting over my shoulder from across the Gulf of Mexico, stiff from six hours of "sleeping" in a chair in meat-locker-cold temperatures -- a whim of the conductor, who's naturally not around to complain to. After a breakfast from the lounge car of weak coffee and prefab corn muffin, I settle onto a couch in the observation car and watch the pelicans home in over the bayou as we approach Mobile, Alabama. It was here, on September 22, 1993, that a barge rammed a bridge support in the middle of the foggy night. Eight minutes later the Sunset Limited bound for Miami arrived at the damaged bridge and plunged into the water, killing 47 people and injuring over 100, the deadliest accident in Amtrak's history. But the serene views through southern Mississippi and Louisiana, as the train glides like an airboat above where the bayou meets the Gulf of Mexico, give no hint of disaster.

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