Low-speed rail

Published on: March 24, 2011

Amtrak’s Silver Star pulls into the station in Orlando.  The train provides daily service between Orlando and Tampa for as little as $10.  The schedule isn’t commuter-friendly but taking the train was a fun way to spend a morning. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Amtrak’s Silver Star pulls into the station in Orlando. The train provides daily service between Orlando and Tampa for as little as $10. The schedule isn’t commuter-friendly but taking the train was a fun way to spend a morning. Mitch Traphagen Photo

By Mitch Traphagen

ORLANDO — After dozens of airports and hundreds of thousands of air miles, the Amtrak station in Orlando was a relief. There are no body scanners, no humiliating pat downs or odd official groping sessions; and I didn’t have to remove any articles of clothing to pass through security. There was no security.

A proposed high-speed rail system between Orlando and Tampa has been a point of contention in Florida for years. At one time, its creation was even written into the state’s constitution—and then it was removed. The federal government planned to toss in $2.4 billion to get it started, but Florida’s governor said no. For all intents and purposes, the fast train has been derailed, possibly forever.

But what about low-speed rail? Amtrak provides daily service between Orlando and Tampa and tickets start at only $10. The schedule is not exactly commuter-convenient, but there is service and, judging from the full cars, it is popular.

The train arrived within minutes of the scheduled departure. As it pulled to a stop, a clump of people emerged to light up cigarettes. Except for the Auto Train, Amtrak is non-smoking. As the clump lit up, the conductors counted the passengers waiting to board with open seats in mind, pointing families traveling together towards one car, people traveling alone to another. The train was full. I found an open booth in the snack car as the train pulled out of the station and headed towards the first stop in Kissimmee. To my disappointment, no one shouted out, “All Aboard!”

The passengers were an eclectic mix, running the gamut from train buffs, tourists, locals and families to a handful of young guys with their pants hanging down much too low. Given the traditional nature of rail travel, I was somewhat surprised that a conductor didn’t smack them upside the head and tell them to pull their pants up. But they were quiet and respectful of others—except for their underwear exhibition, that is.

The Amtrak Silver Star that provides service between Orlando and Tampa begins its journey in Boston. From there it travels through most of the large population centers along the east coast, entering Florida at Jacksonville. In boarding a coach car in Orlando, it was evident that some of the passengers had been aboard for quite some time. The seats in coach class are roughly on a par with the first class seats on most airlines, perhaps a bit better. The seats are much like recliners at home, and have an enormous amount of legroom. Walking down the aisle, I could see what appeared to be encampments — luggage, clothing, heavy coats and laptops formed jumbled piles. In a few seats, people were sleeping, the novelty of stops long since worn off.

The snack car is a popular place. Sharing a table is expected and strangers either engage in conversation or stare into their smart phones, although most seem to prefer the former. As the miles roll away, the conversation in the car becomes louder and more animated. With the trip occurring between breakfast and lunch, however, there was plenty of room for everyone. No doubt, there were people wondering how I could order a Diet Coke at 10:30 in the morning, just as I wondered how they could order a beer.

The train is an outstanding way to travel. There is no stress and someone else is doing the driving. There are snacks and it is easy to get up to walk around. Amtrak even provides electrical outlets at each seat and table to plug in a computer or charge a cell phone. On board, there is no one telling passengers to turn off their electronic devices and make sure seats are in the upright and locked position. No one is strapped into a seat and all are free to visit the snack car or use the restroom regardless of whether the train is standing in the station or rolling down the rails. Cell phones can remain on to call anyone at anytime.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoThe train moves quickly through the countryside occasionally hitting 60 or even 70 miles per hour, but slowing to 10 or 20 miles per hour through towns. Roughly paralleling I-4, it is more scenic than the freeway, traveling much closer to trees and scrub. From the perspective of the freeway, there is very little undeveloped space between Orlando and Tampa. From the train, however, much of it appears pristine. I lost myself in thought staring into the sun-baked nothingness just outside of the window.

“Lakeland! Lakeland!” The conductor’s shout broke my reverie as he made his way through the cars. Trains are such a cool way to travel, how did we let it get away from us? Train travel is more prevalent in the northeast, but even that is nothing like Europe, where they tend to be fast, punctual and, most importantly, frequent. There is no way to do an easy day trip from Tampa to Orlando. The daily out of Tampa leaves in the evening, requiring an overnight stay in Orlando. From the train station just south of downtown, Disney and the airport are a $25 cab ride away, a price that, when considering traffic and parking, may be well worth it if an overnight stay was already part of the plan. Of course, there is much more than the leg between Tampa and Orlando. The Silver Star can take you to Miami or all the way to Boston, or any of hundreds of stops in between. America may love cars but many Americans love convenience even more. There is nothing more convenient than letting someone else drive.

Certainly, on I-4 there is nothing more convenient. Driving to Orlando at 7 a.m., traffic was already heavy in both directions. The freeway seems to be a study in extremes with the lunatics attempting to maintain 80 miles per hour and the cautious holding firm at few miles per hour below the speed limit. The results are sometimes deadly.

From Plant City, the train slows for more small towns, passing through scrub and orange groves, rolling by fast food restaurants and cows. From my window I had a never before seen look at seemingly endless mobile homes in varying stages of decay alongside convenience stores and light industrial parks, also in various stages of decay. The train passed several abandoned train stations and platforms, stark reminders of days gone by. Trains rarely, if ever, pass through gated communities.

At first glance, the full train might suggest that high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando could have worked, but one glance doesn’t take into account other factors. Although a few dozen people boarded the train in Orlando, it was filled mostly with tourists coming from further down the tracks. A bullet train would have required considerable support not only from tourists but also from local commuters. Both Tampa Bay and Orlando are sprawling metropolitan areas and, without a significant investment in public transportation on both ends, riders may well end up wishing for their cars after being dropped off by a bullet train nowhere near their desired destination. A fast train to Tampa is still many miles from St. Petersburg or the beaches.

On the other hand, the Interstate highway system began with a few miles of pavement running through Topeka, Kansas; thus proving, you have to start somewhere. A national network of high-speed trains could change how America travels. But certainly not today or tomorrow.

Tampa is not the most beautiful place to arrive by train. The Silver Star passes through the industrial side of Ybor City before coming to a complete stop for a track switch and then backing into Union Station. Unlike in Orlando, where most of those disembarking were nicotine addicts seeking a fix, hundreds of people got off the train in Tampa. On the train platform, friends, relatives and cab drivers waited, a smaller version of a scene repeated hundreds of times a day at Tampa International Airport. It’s not the end of the road for the Silver Star, though. From Tampa, the train will return to Lakeland and then head south for Miami.

The children are still bouncing; it’s the adults with the disheveled hair and bags under their eyes that seem more than ready to get off the train. I wasn’t among them because my trip only lasted for two hours; but I enjoyed every moment. It was the most relaxing form of travel I’ve experienced since airline travel went insane after 9/11.

With a limited daily schedule, the Silver Star isn’t an option for commuters nor will it decrease congestion on I-4, but it was an inexpensive and fun way to spend a morning. Perhaps next time I’ll pick up a $37 ticket to Miami — that is cheaper than buying gas and the five hour trip is roughly the same as it takes to drive. According to the logo on the snack bar menu, Amtrak’s motto is “Enjoy the journey.” I did, and very much so. For my next vacation, I’ll skip the so-called friendly skies and take to the rails instead.