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North Carolina Amtrak Trip Report

Trip Report by Bob Grabarek

Every now and then, I get my fill of sitting in my windowless office at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, reading train ridership printouts and delay reports, and I begin to wonder what it's actually like to ride a passenger train. "Every now and then" in the case of the Piedmont and the Carolinian translates to "every eighteen months." I last rode these trains on October 4, 1997. My blood pressure is nice and low, and I like to keep it that way by avoiding unnecessary upsets.

Still, I felt the need to take a trip, and Saturday, April 24, was free. Keep in mind, as you read this report, that I'm liable to be grouchy when I haven't had enough sleep, and I have to get up early to catch the Piedmont!

The first indication that all was not well that morning was the lack of radio chatter on my scanner as I drove to the station. Departure time is 7:05, and by 6:45 there's usually something being discussed. As I crossed the Boylan Avenue bridge, the reason for the radio silence became obvious. The main track at the station was clear - there was no Piedmont there. Fuming that I had awakened early unnecessarily, I slipped into a narrow parking space at the station and entered the building. The waiting room was packed with adults and children, and one woman was announcing to a crowd around her, "Now, the train may be late getting back tonight (She must have made this trip before.), but if it's not, I'm not staying here past ten pm. You MUST pick up your child by then. Also, I don't have enough tickets for Discovery Place (in Charlotte), so if anyone can pay the five dollars himself, I'd really appreciate it!"

Out on the platform, the ticket clerk informed me that the taxi driver who picked up the crew had overslept. For that reason, the train would be late leaving the yard. It wasn't long, though, before I heard him blowing for the Hargett Street crossing, and soon he was backing into the station. Almost 200 people had reserved space for the trip today, and most of them were members of the three groups boarding in Raleigh.

NS train 73 Piedmont

I usually observe the passenger handling during the stops at Cary and Durham before stepping to the lounge car for breakfast, but today I thought of the heavy passenger load and made other plans. I went immediately to the lounge and found it empty save for a Marlinevents (Marlinevents is the contractor who provides food service on the Piedmont.) employee and two friends occupying one booth and another Marlinevents employee behind the counter. She was ready to serve. Soon I received a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and orange juice and seated myself at a two-person table.

A small crowd soon arrived, but they weren't looking for breakfast. Young people from the group in the head car settled in four of the six booths to play cards or pretend to play cards. The cook politely informed them that they could stay but only until the tables were needed for patrons desiring to eat. As it turned out, most of the few people who came in for breakfast preferred to take their food back to their seats. The breakfast crowd never materialized. I wondered if the groups were on tight budgets.

Mechanically, the train was in pretty good shape. One coach was a bit cool, and one toilet was not functioning. Otherwise, all appeared neat and clean.

At Burlington I had my first look at the new platform, parking lot and single-wide modular station. Everything looked fine. On a cool morning like this, the passengers apparently enjoyed being inside. It's a good thing there were only three of them, because they were a bit slow coming out of the station after we stopped. Did they expect the conductor to enter the waiting room and call for them by name?

It's not unusual for North Carolina's passenger trains to take siding for freight trains on the unsignaled single-track line between Durham and Greensboro, and number 350 was waiting for us on the main track at McLeansville. His conductor lined us in, and we eased through the siding at yard speed, not exceeding 10 mph. Our conductor handled the switch at the west end. By then, our schedule-adherence was ruined.

Raleigh 7:08- 7:14 am (9" late)
Cary 7:27- 7:32 am (14" late, using the wheelchair lift)
Durham 7:55- 7:57 am (18" late, slow orders over crossings)
Lv Burlington 8:41 am (18" late)
McLeansville siding 8:57- 9:13 am
Greensboro 9:32- 9:35 am (37" late, arrived Charlotte 25" late)

I guess there's not often any checked baggage to be picked up at Greensboro, so no one was in place to open the baggage car door for the station baggageman. Due to the extra length of the train, we lost two more minutes while the conductor walked up to add the two Greensboro bags to the three Charlotte bags already in the car.

There was a freight train stopped on track one at Pomona, so that meant the Carolinian was cooling her heels down at High Point awaiting the "local."

As usual, there wasn't room in the station for all the passengers and visitors waiting for number 80, so several of us stood out in the breeze. As we waited, train 221 arrived at Elm interlocking north of the station and was told to wait for a while, too. At last, our favorite train cruised in.

NS train 80, CSX train P080 Carolinian

Greensboro 10:00- 10:05 am (21" late, track warrant to MP H-32, following number 350)
Burlington 10:39 - 10:41 am (21" late, track warrant to MP H-56)
Durham 11:23- 11:33 am (25" late, using wheelchair lift, track warrant to Fetner, the west end of double track)
Cary 11:54- 11:56 am (23" late)
Ar Raleigh 12:10 pm (21" late)
Lv Raleigh 12:18 pm (21" late)
Selma 1:08- 1:10 pm (28" late, delayed running 25 MPH by some damn street festival in Garner, but the NS 4610 in SR green paint was there!)
Wilson 1:35- 1:39 pm (28" late)
Rocky Mount 1:53- 1:56 pm (26" late, arrived Washington 43" late)

The passenger load was light, with only about 160 folks expected to be on board by the time the train reached Rocky Mount. I strolled to the rear of the train as we left Greensboro. Taped to the door of the 25043 was a very unattractive hand-lettered sign reading "CUSTOM CLASS ONLY" and another reading "Reserved for Group." Inside, I found the car's ambiance to be quite pleasant. It had recently been redecorated, and I approved of the medium blue upholstery and carpeting. Sculpted ceiling panels had been added, and the overall effect was both striking and restful.

I asked the attendant why the video monitors were not in use. His response was that the system wasn't working. Furthermore, he couldn't remember making a trip when the video equipment had worked properly. I wasn't surprised, and I recalled previous trips on the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Carolinian in coaches with non-functioning video equipment. One wonders, though, why such problems persist as the years go by.

One situation of special concern to me on this trip was the lack of sufficient food storage space in the dinette. The subject had arisen during a recent meeting with Amtrak, and I was curious to see for myself what was going on. I passed through the 21078, also marked "Reserved for Group," and the other two coaches and entered what appeared to be a storeroom. Cardboard and plastic storage bins were stacked in the wheelchair-parking area. More boxes were in the overhead luggage racks. The two facing pairs of seats nearest the serving counter were also in use. On the right side of the car were several more boxes, some opened to reveal soft drinks. On the left side of the car a jacket was hanging from the luggage rack, and luggage was in the seats. When I took out my video camera and started taking pictures of the mess, the attendant nearly jumped over the counter in her haste to find out who I was.

After I identified myself and encouraged her to talk, she began to lament the food storage problems. I had to agree that there wasn't secure storage space for everything that was carried on the car. She commented that one box had been opened during the layover in Charlotte the previous night, and potato chips had been stolen. As she pointed out, there wasn't a secure place to store her personal belongings either.

An interesting aspect of the problem involved the stocking of items to be given at no charge to the Custom Class passengers. A coach passenger buying cranberry juice gets a 16-ounce bottle. A Custom Class passenger requesting the same product gets a complimentary 12-ounce can. It appeared that most of the stock stacked in the seats was "comp" items for Custom Class. Along with this practice came several annoying PA announcements. "Please tell the cafe attendant BEFORE you order if you're traveling in Custom Class." Later, after someone apparently violated these instructions, the announcement was repeated even more forcefully. Should Amtrak just put an ice chest and a supply of soft drinks in the Custom Class car?

Even though the LSA's (Lead Service Attendants) work through from Charlotte to New York, the dinette car was closed from 12:05 until 12:42 pm. When the car reopened, I was first in line. "What do you recommend for lunch?" I asked. "Bring it from home," was the LSA's answer.

I tried the meat loaf sandwich, at $3.50 the most expensive sandwich on the menu, and found it acceptable. In years past, I had determined that the tuna salad sandwich was Amtrak's best, but that's no longer stocked. Amtrak also offers two hot entrees, chicken teriyaki and lasagna, but both were marked "SOLD OUT" with tags pasted on the menu. Other items, such as bagels, AA batteries and playing cards, were also so marked. On the plus side, written on the menu in hand, was a listing for a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich.

A long line of customers formed when the car reopened, but during a lull, I asked the attendant whether the hot entrees sold well. When I commented that I noticed that they were both sold out, she said, "The chicken teriyaki is sold out, but I've got the lasagna, and I've got another variety with beans and rice. Want to see them?" She then handed me two cartons containing the frozen dinners. I'm not sure what I was supposed to see without opening the containers, and I wasn't going to do that, but I think she wanted me to appreciate how small they were. I guess she didn't plan to sell any of them on that trip.

The train crew that boarded in Raleigh earned points from me by setting up shop in the coach end of the dinette. The Charlotte-to-Raleigh crew had used two tables as their office. However, at lunch time, most of the dinette patrons took their purchases back to their seats rather than use the tables.

By then we were approaching Wilson, so I thanked the LSA for her comments and strolled rearward. The first two coaches were packed, but the third had only two or three passengers in it. Here's one way in which Amtrak differs from the Walt Disney Company. The Disney people pay attention to their customers' desires and try to satisfy them. Amtrak considers its own desires and tries to satisfy them. Amtrak has decided that grouping passengers with common destinations and putting as many passengers as possible in each coach is the most efficient way to "load" a train. The last thing the Disney people do is force customers to sit next to strangers (at least in my limited experience).

As a general rule, of course, Amtrak passengers aren't going to be able to have double seats to themselves. What I'm advocating is allowing passengers to use double seats when possible. If the train's only going to need 70% of its capacity, as on this trip, let people spread out a bit.

Devising a loading pattern for the Carolinian is a battle I fought and lost many years ago. On days of light loads, I'd want to open up all coaches to everyone. I remember several airline trips when the agent informed my wife and me that she'd block out the third seat in our row so we could use all three seats. That kindness cost the airline nothing, and we appreciated it.

This trip also afforded me my first look at the refurbished Wilson station. The place really looked sharp in its natural red brick color. The city also rebuilt the canopy along the track, but left it in its original location, about ten feet from the edge of the platform. It provides some shelter, but passengers are exposed to the elements for those last ten feet.

Memories of another lost battle with Amtrak came back to me at Wilson. There are two clerks employed here, and both of them were busy handling the checked baggage. No one had the passengers waiting at the proper locations to board the train, so they played the old "wander up and down the platform until you find an open door" game while the station personnel made themselves scarce at the rear of the train. We stayed four minutes in Wilson when one or two would have been sufficient to load 26 passengers into an empty coach. I used to beg Amtrak to communicate the conductor's wishes to the downline stations. All it would take would be a comment on the radio like, "We'll load the north end of the third coach at Wilson." In deference to my blood pressure, I'll drop the subject.

When I took a last look at Custom Class, I was pleased to see that the video equipment was working. The attendant reported that several seats had no audio but that he had managed to get the system working by fiddling with the circuit breakers.

I was looking forward to seeing the depot and the bus station at Rocky Mount. The refurbishment of that huge old ACL division office building had been underway for months, and I had seen the cost climb from $3.2 million to $7.3 million. I had recently been told that Amtrak would be occupying the building by the end of the year. The scheduled layover between 80 and 79 is an hour and nine minutes. 80 had departed twenty- six minutes late, but the friendly station clerk informed me that 79 was running forty minutes late. I would have enough time to take a good look.

After watching 80 breeze out of town, I glanced at the double-wide trailer serving as the temporary waiting room and turned my attention to the old building. My heart sank when I saw how much work remained to be done. The new roof was on, the CTC building had been demolished, and work had obviously been done on the exterior, but the interior appeared to be an empty shell.

Downtown Rocky Mount, never much of an activity center on weekends, seemed more deserted than ever. There weren't even many cars passing by, much less pedestrians. I circled the three-story station building and wondered how long it would take to complete the refurbishment. The dusty building site, enclosed by a sagging chain-link fence, had the look of decay rather than rebirth. The clouds of the morning had gone, and bright sunshine illuminated the dirt and debris attendant to the reconstruction project. The ugly duckling awaited its maturity.

The city wants to level the now-vacant (except for the construction company) buildings in the block in front of the station and create a park. The centerpiece of the park will be the former-ACL business car, "Thanis." Your federal tax dollars paid to have this car rescued from a children's camp near Gaston, moved to Rocky Mount and painted. (Don't be surprised if the state finds the money to also restore its interior before the project is completed.) Across the street west of the proposed park are two unoccupied two-story buildings of some architectural interest. One is the old fire station. The other may have been a gas station. It was built to allow cars to enter at street level and stop under the shelter of the second story. Perhaps these buildings can be reused as law offices - or should I be optimistic and say "travel agencies"?

There's a large YMCA south of the proposed park, but even that place seemed deserted. The former bus station, located east of the railroad tracks, has become "The Old Bus Station Antique Shop." The downtown businesses open on weekends include two antique shops and and a used-book store. Most of downtown Rocky Mount is an antique; the bus station might as well be "preserved," too.

To complete my tour of the Amtrak station's neighborhood, I strolled over to the "new" intercity bus station and city bus transfer point, formerly the Railway Express Building, recalling yet another lost battle. Years ago, I had convinced the Secretary of Transportation that there was plenty of room for an intercity bus ticket office on the first floor of the ACL building and that intercity bus and intercity rail should share the building in order to facilitate transfers between the modes. The Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce and the city's elected officials opposed the idea - I think they didn't want bus patrons hanging around their proposed showplace. On the last day of Governor Martin's administration, the Board of Transportation had approved what was to be the first installment of federal Enhancement funds for restoration of the Rocky Mount station. After the Board meeting adjourned, we met in the Secretary's office to sign the agreements. Normally, the agreements would have been mailed to the city for execution, but the Republicans thought the Democrats who were about to take office might veto the project as part of their purge of Republican influence on the state. (You laugh? Shortly after Governor Hunt took office, the DOT had to rewrite the report prepared by Governor Martin's Rail Passenger Task Force and remove all references to Governor Martin!) As we sat and discussed the project, the Secretary stood his ground. The unsigned agreements lay on his desk. Finally he said, "Let's make an executive decision that the bus station will be located in this building." The Rocky Mount people knew that without the state's backing there would be no project. They signed.

They backed down that day, but they ultimately won. Once the new administration was in place, the idea of building a separate bus station re- emerged. The former Railway Express Building adjacent to the passenger station was identified as the ideal spot for intercity buses and Rocky Mount Transit. This part of the project has now been completed.

I didn't like the concept, and I didn't like the execution. The building is interesting only in that it's old. It has few notable architectural details, and even though there are (bland) signs, the building's function is not obvious. It stands near a highway overpass, a YMCA and a train station, and its relation to any of these things is not clear. It's too far from the business district to be useful as a place to board a city transit bus; a building can't relate well to a highway overpass; we don't expect YMCA's to be equipped with bus stations; and why should we have to walk from building to building to transfer from train to bus?

I apologize for sounding like Mr. Cranky, but I think you can understand my motivation. Agreed, there are many buildings that wouldn't meet the standard I've expected of this one!

Rocky Mount Transit buses arrive at street level on the west side of the building. I wish the bus parking area hadn't been designed so that the buses have to back out after loading. Bus drivers can't see anything directly behind their buses, and I'm afraid someone's going to get hit someday.

Since the intercity bus waiting area is on the upper level at the south end of the building, a great deal of filling had to be done in order to build a ramp. The intercity buses have to back up to leave their loading places, too, but there's no reason for any pedestrians to be walking around on the upper level.

The Railway Express building is unattractive from the outside, and the inside is worse. The building's interior has been "restored," but I think the city went too far. They saved the motivational messages painted on the columns ("Care Can Curb Claims"), but they also preserved the two interior levels - track and street. Rocky Mount Transit is assigned the north end of the building, and half of its area is at street level; half is about five feet higher, at track platform level. Trailways, Greyhound and the rest rooms are in the south end of the building on the upper (track) level.

In the reasonable expectation that almost every Rocky Mount Transit user will be transferring from bus to bus and that very few patrons will actually walk in off the street to wait for a bus, the lower level waiting area is furnished with only four benches. (There are benches outside, too.) Rocky Mount Transit's users are barred from reaching the upper level at their end of the building by a locked gate. If Rocky Mount Transit ever wanted to hire a band to play soothing music for passengers transferring between buses, the upper level would make a dandy bandstand. The name of the band could be affixed to the old scale and the musicians could store their instrument cases in the cleverly-preserved accounting office. At bus departure time, the band could play "Good Night, Ladies."

Two vending machines provide food and drink to patrons, but if Rocky Mount is like most other cities you can't carry your drink and crackers onto the bus. Since all transfers are timed closely, consumers had better eat and drink rapidly. Four-ounce drinks might sell better than twelve- ounce drinks here.

Rest rooms are located on the upper (intercity bus) level at the south end of the building. Of course, this required the provision of a wheelchair lift for patrons who can't navigate the stairs. I guess the Trailways agent operates it. Presumably someone needing to use it would do something to get the agent's attention, like yelling.

I noticed upon entering the building that music was playing, and it wasn't the type of background music I would have chosen. The source was the juke box that had been brought over from the old bus station. The agent also brought all his vending and game machines. Patrons waiting for a bus can play Ms. Pac Man for a while, then try to win a prize from Ziggy ("Ziggy the Clown Talks to You!"). They certainly won't want to remain seated for long on one of the four hard, wooden benches that have been provided for them.

If this is the ambiance the City Fathers feared would come with the bus station, I can now understand their reluctance to show visitors their new intermodal facility!

My visit to the bus station was interrupted twice. I stepped to trackside to see two freight trains pass on the weed-overgrown main tracks. (2:27 pm southbound coal with CSX 259 and 330, 2:39 pm northbound merchandise with CSX 6204 and 8226) The raised freight platform on the track side of the Railway Express Building has been retained, and with the addition of a few benches would make a shady train-watching spot. For now, bring a lawn chair.

Don't try to follow the arrow labeled "Amtrak" in the bus station; it points to a brick wall. It does, however, point in the general direction of the temporary Amtrak station. I strolled along the new sidewalk to the trailer to await my train. Three other people were watching TV in the waiting area when I arrived. A note taped to the television stated that CNN was the only channel allowed. The news was from Littleton, and the viewers were transfixed. The place is also stocked with magazines for those who don't want to watch television.

A handwritten note taped to the glass at one ticket window read "Train 79 E. T. A. 3:10." The folks at Raleigh occasionally use "ETA" on their handwritten notes, too, and I don't like it. For one thing, I associate ETA with airlines, not railroads. For another thing, I doubt everyone understands what ETA means. Couldn't we bring back those Southern Railway train arrival boards marked "Due" for the scheduled arrival time and "Expected" for the actual time? Isn't that easy to understand?

The waiting room is of adequate size for most occasions. (My favorite clerk in Rocky Mount has a rule of thumb that he expects five visitors per passenger, but I think that's overstating the situation.) Many chair cushions are ripped, but I think the riders will understand that the situation is temporary. The carpet is badly stained in some areas, but overall the ambiance is still fairly pleasant.

So how is intermodalism, Rocky Mount-style, working? The southbound Silver Meteor is due in Rocky Mount at 3:07 AM. The advertised bus connection to Wilmington leaves at 6:00. The bus, after leaving the bus station, stops at the front door of the Amtrak station to pick up connecting passengers. The passengers are certainly much more comfortable spending their three-hour layover in the Amtrak waiting room rather than on the bus station's benches, though, to an outsider, it might appear odd to have two waiting areas about 100 feet apart.

About two weeks ago, the bus driver forgot to stop at the Amtrak station, and that happened to be the very day that there were two connecting passengers. They made their three-hour trip to Wilmington in a taxi, at Greyhound's expense, probably wondering why they had had to sit in Rocky Mount for three hours, only to depart in a cab. We can only hope that this doesn't become a common occurrence.

My reverie was broken when the clerk announced train 79's imminent arrival and recited Amtrak's safety rules. It was time to take another train ride.

CSX Train P079, NS train 79 Carolinian

Rocky Mount 3:19-3:21 pm (42" late)
3:22 pm meet northbound freight
Wilson 3:37-3:40 pm (43" late)
Lv Selma 4:03 pm (37" late)
Ar Raleigh 4:43 pm (31" late)
Lv Raleigh 4:49 pm (27" late, arrived Charlotte 7" late)

Conductor Durrell Key, who used to be a regular on 79 and 80 when the crews worked out of Richmond, was in charge, and it was good to see him again. The passenger-handling duties for the rest of the trip would be simple, primarily involving detraining passengers with few pickups. Our station stops should be brief and would require little advance planning.

As we blazed down the rock-solid double-track former-ACL main track at an easy 79 mph, I visited with the attendant in Custom Class and heard the same recitation of the video equipment saga - it often didn't work, but flipping circuit breakers could sometimes awaken it. The air conditioning unit in one end of a coach had failed, but otherwise the train was mechanically and cosmetically in good shape. Due to the light passenger load and the cleaning given the train between Washington and Richmond, the coaches looked pretty good.

The dinette was closed while the LSA from New York squared her records with the LSA who would work from Rocky Mount to Charlotte. I broke in to interview the LSA's and conductor about the food-storage situation. This crew was upbeat while still admitting that there wasn't enough space to neatly store all their supplies. The car looked better than the one on 80, but goods were still stacked in several locations.

I learned that some passengers still yearned for a full-service diner, especially those who sometimes traveled this route on the Silver Star. I also learned that changing the meat on the breakfast sandwich from ham to sausage had resulted in a drop in sales. Many passengers had liked the deli-style sandwiches formerly sold on the train, both because they seemed to be a good value and because chicken was available. The latter comment also reflected a desire on the passengers' part for "healthy" food like grilled chicken and salads. A salad is sold on Metroliners, but apparently the spoilage rate is too high to stock it on other trains. The most common complaints were about small portions and high prices. While the prices aren't high in absolute terms, passengers seem to think they're high compared to the size of the portions.

I asked about shortages of food, and the LSA warmed to the topic. Yes, she often sold out of certain items, but the trick was to offer what she still had in stock. She went on at such length that I had to admire her salesmanship while being dismayed that it seemed like a game played at the passengers' expense. For instance, if certain items would have to be condemned upon arrival at Charlotte due to the expiration of their freshness dates, she would withhold similar items and try to sell the old stuff. She was obviously well-schooled in the economics of food service and was quite pleasant, but the aim seemed to be the satisfaction of Amtrak's needs, not the passengers' desires. I could picture Amtrak giving awards for such behavior.

I'm sure other businesses have the same concerns, but compare Amtrak's actions with my grocery store's. Older packages of meat are discounted as their expiration date approaches. They don't try to sell me old lamb when I want hamburger.

In contrast to the northbound trip, the coach passengers were fairly evenly spread throughout the train. Anyone who wanted to sit alone had his choice of seats. In Custom Class, however, the conditions weren't as pleasant, because the car was fairly full.

It was a sunny, sleepy afternoon down South. We made the hard right turn at Selma and leisurely (maximum speed 49 mph) rolled through the woods on NS rails, with the pleasant music of the horn announcing our passage through Wilsons Mills and Auburn. These communities were once regular and flag stops for the Southern Railway passenger trains that used to ply these rails. Now they are hardly distinguishable from the rural countryside.

The slow order through Garner cost us only two minutes, and I got a quick look at the 4610. As we ducked under the Beltline highway near Raleigh and passengers gathered their belongings, the satisfaction of completing a pleasant train trip seemed to suffuse the whole coach.

The dinette closed as we approached Raleigh -who knows why and who cares? The Carolinian was in her home state, and we could at least take some satisfaction in that.

The Department of Transportation's Rail Division was recently audited by the State Auditor. (The report is posted on the Auditor's web page, but I'll write about that some other time.) I don't want these summary comments to sound too much like those of an auditor, so I'll list them merely as "observations" and "recommendations."

1. Train Operations

2. Checked Baggage Service

3. Food Service

4. Passenger Cars


Copyright 1999 - Bob Grabarek, RailroadInfo.Com

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