Tuesday, March 31, 2015

All Aboard: BOS-NYP-ATL with Mom

On March 25, two days after my return from Sarasota to Boston traveling in Amtrak's Reserved Coach class, I met Mom at Boston's Logan Airport; she was arriving from Atlanta for a two-week medical visit. I was road-weary but happy, wearing a fully-loaded backpack when I met her in Baggage Claim to begin our first two days together in Boston. I had truly enjoyed the 34-hour SRA-ORL-NYP-BOS trip, so much in fact, that I asked Mom, first thing, if she would consider returning to Atlanta by train instead of plane. I would make the trip with her.

"Neither of us likes driving anymore, and both of us are tired of flying," I said. "Why not make traveling an adventure, like it used to be?"

"Why not see something besides clouds out the window?" Mom replied. "OK. Let's do it!"

I called Amtrak reservations as soon as we got to the hotel. I explained my concern about Mom's safety getting around on a moving train, especially to and from the restrooms and Dining car. The agent told me about Amtrak's extensive services for people with disabilities.

In coach class, there is reserved space for passengers traveling in their own wheelchairs, as well as reserved seating and storage for passengers with folding wheelchairs. For passengers who need wheelchair service from station to train, Amtrak provides both equipment and assistance to those traveling with or without companions. In addition, Red Caps are available to handle baggage.

Reserved coach seating for passengers with disabilities and their companions is near restrooms, and meals can be ordered from a trainman and delivered to the passengers' seats as a courtesy.

For passengers traveling with equipment other than wheelchairs, and for those with special needs, Amtrak can help. The service menu for passengers with disabilities is impressive.

Since the trip from Boston to Atlanta includes an 18-hour leg on the Crescent (formerly the Southern Crescent), I asked about sleeping accommodations. Amtrak has a limited number of bedrooms designed especially for passengers who are mobility impaired, but not on all trains. I booked first leg of our trip, on the Northeast Regional, in Reserved Coach class; and the second leg, on the Crescent, in a Viewliner Accessible Bedroom. The price of this upgraded accommodation includes  the cost of meals as well as meal delivery to the bedroom.

Amtrak offers a 15% discount on the rail portion of the fare for the passenger with a disability and one companion, and a 15% discount on the upgrade to a Viewliner Accessible Bedroom. The cost of traveling by rail from Boston to Atlanta, as described here, is comparable to airfare plus a one-night stay in a hotel with meals. But, it promises so much more fun.

Additional information about Amtrak's Viewliner Accessible Bedroom is included below. Text (in italics) and all photos are courtesy of Amtrak.

Photo: Amtrak's "Crescent" Route Map

Photo: Viewliner Accessible Bedroom

Our Viewliner Accessible Bedroom is designed for easy access. The room can accommodate a maximum of three adults, but is best suited to two adults (one passenger with a mobility impairment and a companion). The room includes a sofa with seating for three, plus an upper and lower berth for sleeping. Upper and lower windows allow impressive sightseeing opportunities from both berths. A curtained window facing the aisle provides additional light when desired. Experience the Viewliner Accessible Bedroom now by taking the virtual tours. The virtual bedroom tours are representational only and may not reflect the current interiors.
Photo: Viewliner Accessible Bedroom (Day)

Photo: Viewliner Accessible Bedroom (Night)

Photo: Viewliner Accessible Bedroom Dimensions

6'8" x 7'1"

Lower Berth
3'4" x 6'0"

Upper Berth with Steps
2'4" x 6'2"

In-room Toilet: 1
In-room Shower: 1


2 Adults
1-2 Suitcases

Our adventure begins April 12. We hope you will join us!

Monday, March 23, 2015

All Aboard: NYP to BOS Aboard the Northeast Regional

The train arrives at New York Penn Station in time for me to catch the 11:00AM Northeast Regional instead of the 2:00PM. In less than ten minutes, I have a paper ticket for the earlier train in hand.

A quiet-spoken man from Maine, one of my fellow passengers on the Silver Meteor, has made the same ticket change. He's going to New London. We strike up a conversation about train travel while waiting for the track number to be posted. He says my backpack reminds him of travel adventures with his wife - back in the day.

We decide to sit together on the Northeast Regional. He knows a lot about trains and railways, both American and Canadian. Before his wife passed away, she worked for two rail companies. The Man From Maine is the kind of person I had hoped to meet on the trip. A real train buff.

I ask him about Canadian trains. He explains the history of the two Canadian rail systems. I ask about the Amtrak and its predecessors. He tells me his favorite routes and shares stories of travels that pre-date Amtrak - adventures when he "was young, single, and on his own." He talks about favorite trips with his wife, including a risky one to Alaska just a few months before his oldest son was born.

The Man From Maine is a widower; he still tears up when he talks about his wife. But, in spite of the loss, he has a zest for life. I see a genuine sparkle in his eyes. He travels often to widow and widower gatherings around the country - by train, of course. These are held in interesting places off the beaten path, he says. The Man From Maine is a writer too. He quotes his characters quoting writers (the writers that have influenced his work). What fun!

A young trainman who is collecting trash joins our happy conversation, adding his enthusiam for trains to ours. He sees my 40-year anniversary copy of the Amtrak book and tells us he bought one when he came out of Amtrak training. He has collected more than twenty autographs from people featured in the book.

The young trainman is proud as a peacock to be part of railway history. He encourages me to look for faces from the book among Amtrak employees when I take future trips. I think that's a great idea. As he goes on with his trash collection assignment, I feel sure I'll see this young trainman again - and maybe get introduced around to other trainmen.

I am sad to say goodbye to the Man From Maine when the Train 172 stops in New London. There has been a little magic in our chance meeting. My interest in trains sparked his fondest memories, and the stories he shared fueled my enthusiam for future train trips.

I'm in South Station now. It's the end of my Amtrak adventure, but I'll blog another - soon.

All Aboard ORL to NYP: Overnight Aboard the Silver Meteor

Around 7:00PM, I walk back to the Dining Car to make a 9:00PM reservation, but learn the group of 40 people traveling together and passengers who planned ahead have reserved all available times. One of the servers suggests I come back after 9:00PM when they will be able to make take-out orders. I thank her and return to the Cafe where I pick up a cheese tray, a soft drink, and a bag of almonds instead. I settle into a booth with the snacks.

The table across from mine appears to be unoccupied except for a Cafe take-out box filled to capacity with single-serve wine bottles and mini-bottles of spirits. Also on the table, three cans of beer and three soft drinks. I'm thinking somebody took last call for alcoholic beverages very seriously. Minutes later three Australians return to the booth. In my experience, Australians have always been friendly, fun-loving travelers. These are no exception. They have an 8:45PM dinner reservation. Before crossing the Florida-Georgia border, they purchased the makings of cocktails to drink before dinner and some wine and beer to enjoy with their meals. Smart Aussies.

By chance I notice my seatmate at the Cafe counter. I wave a greeting, but she doesn't acknowledge it. She gets her food and sits down facing me from the opposite side of the Cafe. I finally get the message she prefers to be alone for the duration of the trip. But, that isn't possible in coach. We have assigned seats. I make a mental note: "Next time you stand in line for a seat assignment, check out the people standing in front of and behind you. If they aren't smiling, move."

People are coming and going through the Cafe area, mostly on their way to and from the Dining Car. Some are aggravated because they can't be seated on time, others are complaining because they can't be seated at all. I put in my earbuds and smile.

After 9:00PM, the Cafe begins filling up with people who have ordered take-out from the dining room. I'm burned out from hunting and pecking on my iPhone's touchy keyboard for too long. The moving train causes countless hit and miss errors.

On the way back to my seat, I notice passengers in the next car are mostly families with small children. Some of their sleeping arrangements are cute and creative.  I especially like the large, rectangular, two-person tent made by draping a Hello Kitty flannel blanket over the backs of two rows of seats. Someone's kids are snuggled underneath, covered with small blankets of their own. Sweet.

A few rows up from Hello Kitty, I see a crooked, makeshift teepee; this one presumably made by the adult man sleeping in it. One corner of a thin blue micro-fleece blanket is tied to the curtain rod over the window next to the seat in front of him. The three remaining corners are stretched and fanned out to cover his seat completely. The teepee provides shelter from lights and some degree of privacy. I admire his ingenuity.

Unfortunately, neither tent nor teepee will work where I am sitting tonight, but I keep these ideas in mind for my next trans-Atlantic flight.

I decide to freshen up before returning to my seat. Unfortunately, the door on one of the two restrooms is stuck open; I use the other. I am fairly certain I have mastered the door lock on this restroom (it's different from the other one). But, while I'm figuring out how to make the water run into the sink [press up on a button under the center of the faucet spout], a young man enters. I'm surprised. He's embarrassed, mumbling apologies as he disappears outside.

I figure out how to work the bathroom door lock correctly [push the bolt in the direction of the "Close" arrow, then push the door handle in the same direction to illuminate the "Close" light], but decide freshening up will not be possible unless I'm willing to go into my backpack for sanitizing wipes. The bathroom has run out of water.

After returning to my assigned seat, I listen to an audio book and begin knitting again. My seatmate watches a movie on her iPad. Things go well until the lights dim. I reach up and turn on an overhead light. My seatmate says, "No." It's the first word I've heard her speak in hours. I turn off my light and turn on hers. "Better?" I ask, trying to sound considerate. She grunts disapproval. I turn off the second light and turn on the first one again, making a point to aim the beam as far away from her seat as possible. She watches me and grunts her approval. My feelings of sympathy for this woman are fading. She's kind of a pain.

I alternate between knitting and writing for a while. The motion of the train is relaxing, but I have no desire to sleep. I feel a chill in the air. The temperature outside must be dropping. By the time we reach Washington, my seatmate is sleeping on her side with legs spread out so I can no longer step over, around, or between them to leave my seat without waking her up, and she's pressing her backside firmly against my hip. I feel very uncomfortable. It's definitely time to make a change.

I ask the conductor if I can change seats, since so many people are preparing to leave the train in Washington. He says "OK." I just need to move the "NYP" marker above my old seat to my new seat. I reach over my seatmate to grab the bag with my knitting in it. She wakes up long enough for me to explain I am changing seats so I can get up and walk around without disturbing her. She says, "OK" and goes back to sleep.

I move to the next car and sit in an aisle seat across from a nice couple returning to Philadelphia from a Panama Canal cruise. They run an in-home boarding service where dog-guests can stay in gated bedrooms, in the couple's house, with twin-bed mattresses to sleep on, televisions for occasional use, and large outdoor runs for playtime. Conversation comes easily with these animal lovers.

The conductor announces breakfast and I excuse myself to get a cup of coffee. The Cafe host is promoting offerings in the Dining Car, so I follow a few other passengers, in search of eggs.

I am seated with a mother from Westchester and her two well-mannered daughters. The conversation focuses on academics and I'm all in. What a pleasure to chat with people who smile once in a while! The mother teaches; her girls are home schooled. I could talk to this family for hours, but the server politely asks if we can move our conversation into the Cafe to make room for people waiting to get a table. We decide to say our goodbyes and return to our seats.

The animal lovers and I pick up our earlier conversation as if we never stopped talking. They say goodbye at the Philadelphia stop.

I listen to music, feeling glad to have a seat to myself with no-one snoring, passing gas, and crowding me. Next time I travel in Coach, I'll follow my instincts and ask to change seats if I am uncomfortable sitting next to someone for any reason.

Before I know it, the train arrives in New York.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

All Aboard ORL to NYP: Daytime Aboard the Silver Meteor

The train-bus arrives at the Orlando station only seven minutes behind schedule, leaving me almost thirty minutes of free time to explore the station before the Silver Meteor is due to arrive. The train-bus drivers direct disembarking passengers toward the correct platform and the station building.

I decide to stop at the ticket office and ask the agent exactly where coach passengers will be boarding. "Just outside those doors," he answers, gesturing to his left. I see restrooms inside the doors and a hot dog vendor outside. I visit both.

Photo: Waiting for the Silver Meteor

Minutes later, I hear an announcement for "Train 97." The announcer means 98; everyone seems to understand. He tells us to form lines in several locations, depending on our class of service. I am near the front of a long, long line for coach seating. An agent walks the line asking groups of three or more to form a second line. Then, the boarding process begins.

After my e-ticket is scanned, I follow the ticket-taker's directions to one of the coach cars near the back end of the train. The conductor gives me a seat assignment. I thank him and climb aboard. After flying coach class many times during the past two years, the Silver Meteor's seats look super-luxurious.

The lady behind me in line has been assigned the seat beside me. For some reason, I have a sense she would rather be sitting alone, so I take immediate steps to indicate I will be a quiet, agreeable seatmate. A few minutes into the trip, I learn that the lady is a veteran train traveler. She has been making the NYP-ORL-NYP trip four times a year for twenty years to help care for her parents; only her father the last eleven years since her mother passed away. She has a handicapped, adult son at home, so it is difficult for her to be away. The lady confides she feels "torn" between responsibilities to her father and son. I don't wonder she might need time alone. 

After knitting for a while, I excuse myself to explore the train. I'm pleased to discover the Cafe Car is only two cars back; the Dining Car only three. The Dining host greets me warmly, but says they will end lunch service in fifteen minutes. He offers to take my order and deliver it to the Cafe Car. I am delighted. I order the chef's special lunch - meatballs with mashed potatoes - and hot coffee. The Dining host assures me my meal will be shellfish safe.

I choose a booth in the almost empty Cafe area. My table is clean, bright, and sunny. A few minutes later, the meal arrives carefully packaged in a white plastic shopping bag. I settle the check and unpack my personal picnic lunch. I enjoy the food so much, I order a second cup of coffee from the cheerful Cafe host.

I write for about 90 minutes, then lose all my work because of an accidental delete. [I am using the Speak function in the Notes app. Somehow, my finger inadvertently touches the screen after the Speak function has initiated a Select All. I see the letter "d" on the screen. I don't realize what I've done - and didn't do - until I delete the "d." The Note is blank. I forgot to Save. Fifty years of computer experience and I forgot to save!]

I spend the next twenty minutes trying to find a way to un-Delete in the Notes app. Bad news. There is no way to un-Delete. [I find a way to Undo - by shaking the phone to activate a pop-up menu featuring Undo, but I'm long past that solution.]

While I am repeatedly shaking my phone to test the Undo function in the Notes app [and looking a little crazy, I'm sure], people my age begin pouring into the Cafe area. They comprise a large group, traveling together; they are fifteen minutes early for a 5:00PM dinner reservation. The Cafe host encourages as many as possible to sit down for a few minutes until the Dining staff has completed setting up dinner service for them.

Two ladies with sweet Southern voices sit down across from me. The younger, who looks my age, shows interest in my iPhone 6S. She asks how I got such large type. She says her mother might like it. I show her how to get to the Accessibility settings. Meanwhile, the lady sitting next to her pulls out a 6S. She's the mom! I marvel at her adeptness with the technology and think again of my own mom.

I excuse myself as the group heads into the Dining car. We are arriving in Jacksonville shortly. I think of my friend Claire and her husband Bill, avid train travelers. I enjoy imagining they might board at any moment.

The Cafe host announces last call for alcohol before the train crosses into Georgia and South Carolina,  where Amtrak, governed by local laws, is not permitted to serve alcoholic beverages. I re-write the piece I deleted in the Cafe Car. Similar words come quickly. I touch "Done," the Notes app equivalent of Save.

We'll be losing daylight soon.

All Aboard: SRA to ORL Thruway Service

I am up, dressed, and out the door with my gear by 7:55AM. It's 75 degrees. The morning mist is giving way to a sunny day in Sarasota.

John drives me to Amtrak's pickup location downtown in front of the Hollywood 20 theater. We park in the first available public space 30 minutes before the 8:40AM departure time and wait. So far, it's been easy. Sunday morning is quiet in Sarasota.

"Train 6098" Thruway Service arrives at 8:30AM. I say goodbye to John and officially begin the first leg of my Amtrak travel adventure.

The driver scans an e-ticket from my phone and I board the "train." There are only three other passengers, so I have my choice of seats.

Train 6098 is clean, comfy, air-conditioned, and well-equipped, with a bathroom on board, wi-fi, and electrical outlets at every seat. Seats have headrests, armrests, and footrests. They do not recline, but there is enough space between rows for me to cross my legs, so I'm happy. 

Train 6098 departs promptly at 8:40AM. Travel time is scheduled for four hours and twenty minutes with a 1:00PM arrival at the Amtrak station in Orlando. I settle into my seat and begin knitting.

Photo: View of Tampa Bay area from my seat aboard Train 6098

In St. Petersburg, we pick up one more passenger, a new driver, and two more drivers in uniform traveling as passengers from St. Petersburg. They sit in the row directly in front of mine. Based on conversations I overhear among the three, I realize one of the deadheading drivers is actually training the other two; the one driving, and the other, a driver from Ft. Myers, who is taking route notes.

It's entertaining to hear the trainer giving the driver specific directions, including lane changes. I smile when the driver-in-training misses an exit. His trainer backseat-drives him through a course correction. We are few minutes late getting to the Tampa station.

We pick up a dozen or so more passengers. One is handicapped, traveling with a companion. I wonder how Mom would like taking the train.

Between Tampa and Orlando, the trainer and the driver taking route notes swap road stories about traffic patterns on East Coast highways, weather conditions in New Jersey and New York, and causes for traffic delays, including people who threaten to, and even do, jump from bridges in the Northeast. Their conversation fades into the background of my mind.

The handicapped man's companion, probably his daughter, makes every effort to be sure the man is comfortable and has everything he wants or needs. She makes light conversation about the trip. The man seems content to sit quietly. I think about how I fuss over Mom when we travel and wonder if she would rather have more quiet time instead.

I continue knitting. We pick a few more passengers in Lakeland. So far, I couldn't wish for a nicer trip.

Photo: Near Lakeland station, stopped for a passing Amtrak train.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Where's the bus stop?

It's Thursday. I won't be catching "6098 Thruway Connecting Service" from Sarasota (SRA) to "98 Silver Meteor" in Orlando (ORL) until Sunday morning, but I have some free time this afternoon and decide it's a good idea to find the bus stop before departure day, since I am not familiar with downtown Sarasota and I've never used Amtrak's Thruway Service before.

I logon to the Amtrak app, find my reservation, and tap on an arrow icon for driving directions. The Amtrak app connects to Google Maps. I follow Google's audio prompts to a dumpster behind a movie complex. The voice of the map-app navigator assures me I have reached my final destination.

I double-check the street address to be sure the Amtrak and Google Maps apps have the same one, then drive around to the front of the building looking for 1993 Main Street. There is no number on the building with the dumpster, but I see "1991" on three buildings in the complex and "1990" on a complex across the street. I decide to park and walk to "1993."

After walking the street, weaving in and out of a jumble of interconnected buildings, I find a fourth "1991," but no "1993" in that block or the next, and no bus stop of any kind.

I call Amtrak. An agent assures me there is a bus stop at "1993 Main Street in front of the Hollywood 20 complex." I tell her I see a Hollywood 20 theater, but no "1993." She says there is an Amtrak sign at the pick-up location, according to the information she has available. I tell her I will look again.

I repeat my walk, more slowly, with the same result. I stop in Applebee's, one of the businesses marked "1991," and ask about bus stops. No-one working the front of the restaurant knows of any bus stop in that block. They wish me well and I continue my search. I consider stopping at the YMCA, also marked "1991," but there are steep stairs and no elevator access. I stop at the Hollywood 20 theater box office instead. The lady in the glass box faces Main Street. She tells me the Amtrak bus stops right in front of her. She points to the parking spaces directly behind me, the place where I started my quest thirty minutes ago. I see two signs at the curb: one reads "Reserved for POLICE DEPT," the other "NO PARKING Any Time." I thank her.

Now, I am live-parked in the exact spot where the bus is supposed to stop. I call Amtrak again to explain there is no sign for a bus stop and to ask if there is any way to be absolutely sure I am in the right place. I read the agent the two signs. She asks another agent for assistance.

The second agent says the bus stop is in front of Bravo's Pizza and asks if I can see the sign for Bravo's. I can't. Bravo's Pizza is at "1995," nowhere near where I am standing. "1991" takes up the whole block, as far as I can see.

The first agent consults with an Amtrak supervisor who advises she call MARTZ, the bus service for Amtrak, and ask for particulars. After a few minutes together on hold, the Amtrak agent and I reach a MARTZ representative, who promptly transfers us to the MARTZ dispatcher. The dispatcher assures us I am in the right place, but he offers to call the bus driver on the route to double-check. He mentions they have been trying to get a sign at that location for quite a while, but there are problems.

The bus driver confirms the Hollywood 20 theater location and gives Applebee's as a second point of reference. I thank everyone and tell the Amtrak agent the only address marked on buildings in that complex is "1991"; there is no "1993." I hope she will make a note for the web site to be updated, and I hope they will get a sign for the sake of others using Thruway Service. Whew!

Photo: White car parked where Amtrak bus will stop (I hope).