The overnight train from North Carolina to Florida

We did an Amtrak trip from central NC to Orlando. Let me first say – the train (trains) weren’t all that late! Wow, Amtrak! I know that’s a rare thing for you, so I thought I’d give credit where credit was due.

First, we took the Piedmont train out from central North Carolina. This is really quite a lovely train, and they have a little cafe car where you get can bottles of water and coffee and tea for free. They used to also provide free snacks, but that hospitality was suspended about 8 years ago or so. Back in the 2000s, this train only ran twice a day; and then, around 2010, they increased it to thrice a day; and now it goes 4 times a day! It leaves Charlotte, NC, around 7 am, 10 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm (check the exact times on Amtrak that will suit your station: you’ve got Charlotte, Kannapolis, Salisbury, Highpoint, Greensboro, Burlington, Durham, Cary, Raleigh.) All of the cars are named after things important to North Carolina: The Honeybee, the Cardinal, the Boxing Turtle, the Gray Squirrel. Plus, the whole train just in general nice and clean.

Oh! And when you ride it, make sure to snag the complimentary bus tickets. They will get you one free bus ride and transfer at whatever city you’re disembarking at. So helpful, so thoughtful, when you’re already a little stressed about traveling by train that you don’t have to go dig in your purse for loose change to cover the bus fare. You have to ask them for the bus tickets, though; there are signs on the backs of the seat pockets to remind you.

We took the 3 o’clock train and got to Raleigh around 7 pm, because this train was 1 whole hour late. It was the latest of all our four trains, and considering Amtrak commonly manages to be 2 or 4 hours late, we’ll count this as a win. I was actually glad the train was late, because the Raleigh train station I remembered to be a small, dingy, ugly affair with plastic pea-green seats and stuffy air and glaring lights, in a part of town where there was nothing except empty roads. I soon changed my mind, however, because as we stepped out of the train onto the platform, a nice train station worker ushered us over the elevators. This was the first sign that something was changed! We took the elevator down from the platform to the terminal, then walked up a long, sloping, softly-lighted concourse with soothing white walls, large windows, and long slabs textured in milky-chocolate swirls and whirls pinned up in a long row. What a welcome.

I still didn’t quite realize what was going on, cause it wasn’t until we got to the top of the concourse and stepped out into the train station that I realized the whole thing has been rebuilt, and it is beautiful! Windows everywhere, a hushed feel, gentle lights way up on the high ceiling that goes up three stories; smart little cubbies wherein desks and seats are arranged; cushioned benches that you can nap on! I never saw such a train station! Modern and comfortable all at once.

When we saw all that, we immediately regretted that our train had been delayed after all; but we anyways rested and used the gleaming bathrooms and poked a bit around the station.

Right on time, we got ready to board our Florida-bound train at 8:45 pm. The sun was gone and the sky was dark as we returned to the platform. Peeking in through the train windows, it looked full of passengers who had clambered on in New York City (where this train starts) and D.C. and throughout Virginia. BUT, by some very lucky fluke, we and a handful of other passengers were ushered onto a completely empty car. So it was about 9 of us with 100 seats or so between us. And even though the train made stops all night long – in Southern Pines, in South Carolina’s state capital, in Savannah, Georgia about an hour before dawn – none of the incoming passengers were sent to our car, either. So we all were able to stretch out as best as we could on two seats and sleep. It’s not the most comfortable arrangement, because your legs will be compressed, but the key is to bring a blanket, and a coat, and something soft for your head. To be sure, I did wake up every 1 or 2 hours, but then I fell right back asleep. At 10 pm, they closed all the lights in the train except for a few emergency beacons, so nothing glared in our faces. And although during the daytime the conductors will march down the aisles and loudly proclaim what the upcoming stations are, they don’t do that at all during the night. So there’s no disturbances. If someone is snoring, the sound will probably get lost in the hum of the train.

Also, the cost of a ticket from Raleigh, NC, to Orlando, Fl, was only $79, and I only booked like 5 days ahead of time. The travel time is all at night, so you’re really not losing any time, and we got to see the new beautiful train station in Raleigh, and we got to travel overland and see how the landscape was changing – when we were awake – and it’s just a way more natural way of traveling. AND we got to enjoy our vacation in Orlando without worrying about all the carbon emissions we had carelessly caused for the sake of our fun.

One more thing: we were two people traveling, and so the combined amount was $158. A sleeper compartment cost less than $100 more, at $243. I didn’t think of it at the time but for two people, getting a sleeper could be very well worth the extra comfort. I was traveling with someone older and she was much less comfortable than me, so I kind of wish now we had gotten the sleeper. But for me alone, I find a regular seat very endurable. You lean your seat back as far as it will go, and you raise the cushioned leg-rest, and if it’s too low, then you can stick one of your pieces of luggage underneath to raise it up. I’ve done this trip twice now, to and fro, and it’s been great, even when I had to sleep sitting up all night.

You wake up with the sunrise and all that over northern Florida, and now it’s time for food. Four years ago when I took this trip, they had a dining car, and we had omelettes for breakfast! Alas, the dining car has been removed. So now there’s just a cafe car, but the Amtrak cafe menu was upgraded sometime in the last two years, and it’s pretty good. I got the turkey sandwich once, it was large and savory and filling. We had planned ahead and brought sandwiches, crackers, and biscuits with us. The dining car closed at 11 pm at night, and it opened up at 6 am the next morning. If you need a ‘brieg’, then the cafe car will also provide you with plastic cups, no explanation necessary (Arabs will understand this!)

And I guess that’s it – oh, other than that the train station in Orlando is historic! It was opened in 1927. There was a historic marker outside that gave lots of details. It’s a nice building. When I looked at the map, I saw that it is just a few blocks down from the PULSE nightclub, where the shooting happened. That was a dampening – when a place has been in the news so much, and you unexpectedly show up in the vicinity.

And that is it! The guilt-free, environmentally-friendly, and time-efficient, dare I say – given it’s overnight – way to get from NC to Florida. No stupid airport lines, no rush, no one yelling at you because your bag is too big, no security line, no cops all over the place, and no need to take your laptop and liquids out and take off your shoes. I mean, seriously.

 

The train in Pakistan is faster than Amtrak

Did you hear that, Amtrak?

Okay, it’s not always faster, but just lookie here:

The train in Pakistan goes from Rahim Yar Khan to Karachi in 10 hours. That is 386 miles, or 621 kilometers.

rahim yar khan to karachi

Meanwhile, I have been on the “Carolinian” between Charlotte, North Carolina and Washington D.C. about 50 times. The route, which does an annoying dip down to Selma-Smithfield, is 475 miles (764 km). Ostensibly, this trip is supposed to take 10 hours, too.

amtrak carolinian route

So far, it’s barely better than the Pakistani train. The problem is that the Carolinian is always breaking down, and in my fifty times of traveling on it, it must have come an average of 1.5 hours late. Seriously! Lots of times it’s 2 hours late or more. Last time I checked, there was a cute little statistic on the Amtrak site claiming that the Carolinian was on average 20 minutes late or something. Hahahahahaha … NO!

Pakistan’s train is traveling at roughly 38.6 miles/hour. Last time I rode the Carolinian, it was four hours late. I’m sorry, that’s just unacceptable! And when it is four hours late, it is traveling slower than 34 miles/hour, so yes, it’s slower than the Pakistani train. And even when it’s two hours late, which is very normal for the Carolinian, then the train is traveling at 39.6 miles/hour. Barely better. Come on, Green New Deal, we need you!

Stuck in Pakistan

I wasn’t stuck in Pakistan; but someone I knew was. Let’s call him Jassim.

Jassim went to Pakistan for two weeks to attend conferences at two different universities. Just so you are aware, purchasing a regular tourist visa to Pakistan, at least for Americans, costs almost $200, but because Jassim was going for conferences, it was considered a “business” trip and that bumped the price up to $350ish. He applied for the visa two weeks before his (already-purchased) ticket was set to depart. The visa arrived from the Pakistani embassy one day before he left, and I think that was only because he spent about four hours on the phone trying to get someone at the embassy to expedite things. He wasn’t talking to anyone; he was waiting hours while the “ding-ding-ding” on-hold music played until someone would pick up. Then as soon as someone picked up, the lined dropped; so he had to call again and listen to the “ding-ding-ding” music another hour until someone answered.

Right around as Jassim was arriving in Pakistan, a big explosion occurred that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India bombed Pakistan in retaliation; and then Pakistan shot down an Indian plane and took the pilot prisoner. We texted Jassim during all the commotion to ask, “are things tense?” and he goes, “no, not at all!” But next thing we know, all the internal flights were grounded in Pakistan. Jassim had just finished up the last items on his business agenda in a city called Rahim Yar Khan, and he was supposed to be in Karachi the next day to catch his plane out of the country. It is almost 400 miles (about 620 km) …

rahim yar khan to karachi

and he no longer had a flight to get there! Luckily, there’s a train. Google Maps says there is no train, but there is. It takes 10 hours, and it’s an overnighter. Jassim found out at 4:00 pm that the planes were canceled; and this overnight train was leaving at 4:30! He rushed to his hotel; he still had to pack up all his things. He grabbed everything, helter-skelter, ran down to the lobby, and made to get on his way. At least he wasn’t alone. All his university professor hosts, plus an entourage of about 10 students, were trying to make sure Jassim made the train. In the lobby, there was a hold-up. The rifle-carrying guards who apparently man all of Pakistan informed Jassim that his journey to the train station, seeing as it had been decided upon just minutes before, wasn’t registered and therefore they couldn’t give him permission to go. A big discussion ensued. The university professors were saying, “just get out of the way and let us go!” After a conference of about 5 minutes, the security police relented, and everyone rushed to the station. Three minutes after they got there, the train came chugging through: choo choo. The entourage of students grabbed all of Jassim’s bags and hurried him and his stuff onto the train. The train departed.

So he just barely made it, but unfortunately all the rush was for nothing, because by the next day, all the international flights were grounded, too, and Jassim’s flight out of Karachi, at whose insistence all the fuss with the train had occurred, was canceled.

Jassim’s train pulled into Karachi on February 28, in the morning. He called the American embassy, but they weren’t ready yet to haul in the military and evacuate all American citizens. They told him: call your airlines and keep updated.

On March 1, the airline Etihad announced that all flights had returned to normal operations. Jassim spent hours on the phone to get a spot, but you know that there were two or three days’ worth of missed flights full of passengers trying to do the same, and the earliest anyone would put him on a flight out was March 6. But he kept calling, and by some miracle, eventually a guy got him a seat on the flight leaving in less than 6 hours. Ta-da!

There were so many checkpoints and security lines around the airport that after all that hassle, he still nearly missed his flight. But he made it in the end. Now he was un-stuck from Pakistan.

Amtrak’s clever plan for getting from Houston to Chicago

Let us first examine the map, so we know what we’re talking about:

amtrak houston chicago

See that, Houston to Chicago, a straight shot north across the United States.

Here’s Amtrak’s proposal:

Step 1: take the Sunset Limited train from Houston to Los Angeles.

Step 2: take the Coastal Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon.

Step 3: take the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago.

amtrak houston chicago long way

In all, it takes you 117 hours (5 days) and you take a real scenic route through two thirds of the US. So what are you waiting for?!

Note: In Amtrak’s defense, that was their second suggestion.

 

The Concord, NC buses are not always 10 minutes late

The last time I rode the Orange bus on a Saturday – same bus stop, same time – it was 15 minutes late. So I thought there was no harm in now showing up 10 minutes late and still catching it, but it would appear that I missed it. Shucks.

And one time, I was catching the purple bus, and I again banked on a secure 10 minute cushion. So I showed up just about 3 minutes late to the stop. As I walked up, the bus pulled up from the other direction! I had to run to make it to the stop in time. And then, I actually delayed the bus further because I hadn’t had a chance to count out my change. I had to do it while the bus was waiting on me, and my $1-bills all disappeared at the crucial moment.

Update: I ended up catching the bus a bit later in the afternoon. Same bus, same stop. I got to the stop 3 minutes late, and the bus came 2 minutes after that. Wow!

The purple bus

I had to go to the license plate office to pay the car registration. It is in a very dangerous part of town, as far as driving goes – the streets are busy and scary, and cars zoom about like masterful bullies –  but luckily, I found out I can take the bus there! I started off on Union Street, then walked to the library (also on Union Street) and from there I went west about 4 blocks till I came to the bus stop. The bus was supposed to come at 10.42. Of course, according to tradition, it did not come until 10.52. But no matter, I stood and read a book, and all around me were beautiful views of hilly fall-colored slopes stretched in all directions.

IMG_20181031_103509

Then the bus showed up. I was only to ride it for 6 stops, or about 10 minutes. Just perfect! I didn’t need to transfer, it was a short walk to the bus stop, and I’d be on and off the bus in no time. And the bus made things easy because a women’s cool voice announced every single stop (and then a man’s stately voice repeated it in Spanish). So I was able to follow along and checked off four stops, but then all of a sudden the announcements stopped. I thought it was because we were passing through an empty stretch with no stops, but no! We whizzed past my stop without me knowing it. But I think it was for the best. Google maps had told me to get off at the stop right after the coffee factory, and then cross the street, and walk 3 minutes to the license plate office. But it’s dangerous to cross right there — certainly no pedestrian signal, and the traffic light is so crazy and has cars going in so many directions at the same time, I’m sure it’s not safe.

Luckily, the bus was almost at the end of its route, and getting ready to turn around. I was still expecting my Google-specified stop, when lo and behold, we pulled into the vast Wal-Mart parking lot. I have lived here nearly all my life, but it wasn’t until yesterday’s bus ride that I figured out where the Wal-Mart is in relation to everything else. Honestly, I haven’t missed much!

Passengers got on and off at the Wal-Mart, and then the bus maneuvered its slow way out the other end of the parking lot, and now started its clumsy way back-tracking its route. I got off at the very next stop, in front of the Aldi. I had to walk about 30 seconds alongside the highway (luckily there was a grassy bank; no sidewalk) till I came to a little shopping complex, and then I walked 5 minutes across the parking lot to where the license plate office is tucked in. I never knew until that day where the Aldi and license plate office were. I feel like a new person.

I was in and out of the license plate office in about 20 minutes (reading my book as I stood in line), and then I had about 20 minutes until the bus was *scheduled* to come back. So I went back across the parking lot, back down the grassy edge of the highway, and into the Aldi. I bought almond chocolate cookies, returned outside, found a nice spot on the grass a bit back from the road, and ate cookies and read my book, waiting for the bus to come back. It was expected at 11.57. I knew that means, “add ten minutes”, so you could have knocked me over when at 11.54, I looked up and saw a bus zooming past, en route to the Wal-Mart. I figured it actually might get to the Wal-Mart, unload, and spin itself about in time to come back to the Aldi stop at 11.57. But I waited and waited and nothing! Finally, at 11.02, another bus came zooming down the highway, en route to the Wal-Mart. This time I paid attention: yes, this bus was labeled ‘purple’, and I watched it as it proceeded to the traffic light, and turned into the Wal-Mart.

I checked the transit map and there’s no other bus that’s marked to come down that highway. I don’t know what that first bus was. At 11.08 (11 minutes late), the purple bus came back to the Aldi stop, and I rode it about 10 minutes till I again disembarked a few blocks west of Union Street. There was a hijabi lady on the bus, so I gave her a really big smile. The walk coming back to Union Street very very beautiful.

IMG_20181031_122843

It cost $1.25 each way on the bus. I had made sure ahead of time that I had exact change. But because I caught the second bus so soon after getting off the first bus, I thought my transfer pass might do the trick and save me five quarters. Unfortunately, the bus driver was very strict: transfer passes ONLY valid to get on a different colored bus.

Nothing to eat by the station

I was supposed to have a simple 4-hour trip by public transportation from Chapel Hill to Concord: Step 1, bus from Chapel Hill to Durham. Step 2, train from Durham to Kannapolis. Step 3, bus from Kannapolis to Concord.

First, I showed up to the bus stop in front of Carolina Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill at 9.16 in the morning, four minutes before the bus. The bus was on time, and I was at the Durham Amtrak station before 10 am. So far, so good.

I bought my train ticket, and since I had 30 minutes before the train showed up, I decided: wouldn’t it be nice and cozy to get something to eat (I hadn’t had any breakfast.) If you leave the train station from the main door, and walk across the crazy parking lot with the grass growing through cracks in the pavement and remnants of the old rail road tracks coursing through it, you come to a street, and you just walk on it for a block and you’ll be in a business district. There used to be a simple little cafe here where you could get quick sandwiches, but alas, it was nowhere to be seen. Instead, most everything was closed on this Sunday morning and the only thing open was a New Orleans (?) themed restaurant that doesn’t know what it’s doing. I only had 20 minutes left by this point, so I asked them: can you just make me an egg-and-cheese-biscuit, because I don’t have time for your fancy brunch.

Yes, we can, they said, except we don’t have biscuits, we only have English muffins.

Well, no problem, I say, but do you think it will be done in time so I can catch my train at 10:30?

Let me go check, I’m told. So someone disappears into the kitchen, and when she comes back, she doesn’t have a time estimate, she just tells me that they don’t have English muffins after all, it’ll have to be on toast.

And how much does this cost? Again, not sure, but another lady sets up the accounting ledger: it’s $1.50 for cheese, and $2.00 for bread, and such-and-such for the eggs.

All this has already eaten up another five minutes, and now they tell me, sure, it’ll be done in time, in like 15 or 20 minutes. So I give it all up as a bad job, run the five minutes back to the train station, and wait. At 10.32, I realize that we’re still sitting in the station, they haven’t made the boarding call to go stand outside on the platform which should happen 10 minutes before the train comes. So I go up to get information: oh, the train is delayed until 10:50. Well, if I’d known that, I could have taken my time at the New Orleans place, clueless though they were.

Right around 10.50, the train station makes a new announcement: actually, the train won’t come till 11.15. I run out of the train station again, in the opposite direction, but there’s no quick and easy and convenient food on this end either. I just find a cafe with overpriced scones, but it’s the best option compared to being grumpy the whole train ride from lack of food. I get a tomato, spinach, and cheese scone and run back to the train station, where the train now is not expected till 11.30 or something. And finally they tell us that there’s a complete system failure and no trains are moving anywhere – in the entire state of North Carolina? I don’t even know.

Of course, a little bit after that announcement, a loud freight train came whistling through the station. So they had to come back on the announcements and change the story.

The train finally showed up at 12.20, two hours after it was supposed to get to Durham – indeed, it showed up in Durham about the time it was supposed to deliver me to Kannapolis. But I kept my good humor through all this. What really made me mad was when I showed up in Kannapolis at 2:30, ten minutes after my bus to Concord had left – and the next bus wouldn’t show up for over 1 more hour. So not only did the train come 2 hours late, it managed to time things so I got to Kannapolis at exactly the worst possible time.

It was mid-afternoon and I’d had only had a scone to eat all day, and I was still two hours from getting home. I now commenced a weary trek of about 4 miles’ radius around the Kannapolis train station, to see if there was maybe just a crust of bread somewhere to be had. No, nothing! The whole of Cannon Village, which is right across the street and used to have a slim and revolving selection of restaurants, had now dwindled to nothing at all and the whole thing is torn up by construction and fences covered in big blue tarp, and I didn’t realize it so I followed one of the fences, thinking a surprise sandwich shop would pop up somewhere surely, and instead all I got was a dead brick end and more blue tarp. I don’t know what the people who work in the research buildings over there (unless they’ve also shut down) eat.

I was super mad at this point, and had also been completely abandoned by everyone who could have given me a ride. I went back to the train station (lugging my roller bag the whole time, of course) and struck out in the opposite direction. Again, nothing. I came across a white plank coffee-shop that promised pastries inside, and flag waving at its curb said it was ‘open’. But I knew that was all a trick and sure enough it said ‘closed’ at the front door. I literally walked a mile till I came to a gas station and finally was able to add pop tarts, peanut m’n’ms and a bag of chips to the sum of the day’s sustenance.

Then I had to walk all the way back to the train station and wait for the bus (still 15 minutes away). I took first the Brown bus to the bus transit center; had to wait 15 minutes; and finally the Orange bus left for downtown Concord. I got off at the bus stop at 4.25 pm. So it had been over 7 hours since I boarded the bus in Chapel Hill, there had been practically nothing to eat anywhere along the way, and I’d traveled a distance of 100 miles. It’s like being back in the horse and buggy days, though even those probably can do 100 miles faster. You know, the buses are clunky but they at least did what they were scheduled to do. It was the stupid Amtrak that threw everything off.