An Extra 11 Hours to Enjoy the Ride

February 20, 1994|By SANDRA McKEE

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Daytona Beach, Fla.--Trains. I love trains. What can I say? When I was growing up, one of my favorite songs was an old record of my grandfather's, "The Wabash Cannonball," a song that told you to "listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar."

I saw CBS news anchor Dan Rather sing that song on the David Letterman show not so long ago. Mr. Rather is not one of my favorites, but it turns out Mr. Rather, too, is a train buff, and with one of those old-fashioned striped engineer's caps on his head, he sang that song with something approaching glee. I liked him better for it.

But back to trains. I love the sound of them. The wheels clacking on the tracks. The vibrations that come right up through the seat and the gentle sway that gives a sense of well-being.

But the rumble and the roar turned into a meek murmur and chug last weekend on Train 81, which runs from New York to Tampa, Fla., with 28 stops, including one in Baltimore where I got on.

A trip that was to have taken 17 hours and deposited me in DeLand, Fla., at 7:33 the next morning, turned into a 28-hour forced march.

The feeling I have, when I step onto a train, is that I'm turning back the hands of time. Slowing down, entering into another, more relaxed era. And I like it.

That's why, every now and then, when I get to catch the train to New York, I consider it a treat.

And when February comes, and the work schedule breaks just right, I'm delighted to avoid the frenetic airport, book my roomette on Train 81 and spend 17 wonderful hours traveling to Daytona Beach, Fla., to cover the Daytona 500 Winston Cup stock car race.

It means a chance to catch up on reading, to escape phone calls, messages, faxes and deadlines.

Last weekend, the snow was snowing, the ice was icing and the airports were closed. But the trains were running, and when my train arrived in Baltimore it was only 2 1/2 hours late.

The first delay came in Washington, when we waited for a train from Chicago and about 100 additional passengers who had missed their connection.

The storm got much worse south of there. The train traveled at 15 miles an hour, due to the icing of signals, through Virginia and the Carolinas.

Traveling in a sleeping compartment, I had it easy. At least there was still food in the dining car for the 7 p.m. seating. Many of the 600 on board were told they'd have to make due with the snack bar for as long as it held out.

And it didn't hold out. When the snack bar attendant announced he was down to 24 beers at 10:30 that night, he faced a rush that would have rivaled a run on Fort Knox.

Because of the delays and forced slowdown, fuel ran out and the train coasted into Charleston, S.C., where it waited an hour for trucks to bring more fuel.

Water ran out about an hour outside Savannah, Ga. Everyone was advised not to use the bathroom facilities, because they could not be flushed.

The problem, the conductor said over the loudspeaker, would be solved in Savannah.

At that point, on a train that would arrive 11 hours behind schedule, the question was, would we ever reach Savannah?

At one point, everyone was shocked by the announcement that there was a thief on board.

He broke into several sleepers and made off with a purse full of cash. Everyone was advised to keep eyes open, their money with them.

As trains trips go, this one was unique. Certainly, for a time, it seemed like the train to nowhere.

Train 81 usually carries 540 passengers, and by 11:07 a.m. the morning after the trip begins it has reached its final destination. But not this time, and when lunch time rolled around, there was no lunch.

The chief conductor, who by the end of the trip sounded like President Clinton after a long speech, kept everyone posted. He apologized for the delays, for the lack of food, the lack of fuel and the lack of water.

He also promised everyone would be fed.

Amtrak did its best. It called ahead to station stops along the way and asked them to have the mom and pop groceries near the stations make as many sandwiches as they could.

When the train stopped, ham and cheese sandwiches in plastic bags were loaded and handed out. About 20 minutes after that, sodas were handed out.

The sandwiches couldn't have been fresher, and, when I think about it, they were a lot more substantial than that bag of peanuts I had on a recent noon airline flight.

A lot of people, those who did not think to bring anything on board with them to eat, those who had to sit up around the clock in the coaches, probably thought it one of their worst nightmares.

But very few acted on their irritations. Maybe it was the train. Maybe most of the people who ride trains feel the way I do about them. Another era. Turn back the clock and enjoy the ride.

Or maybe it was simply as my car's attendant said, "What choice do they have? It isn't going to do any good to get mad."

But once everyone realized the train was going to be incredibly late, most people made the best of it.

Men, women, children sat, almost happily, in the club cars smoking cigarettes, playing cards and drinking; or in their seats reading or watching the landscapes flicker past, like an old-time movie reel.

When it was announced that the train had crossed the state line into Florida, a cheer went up. The conductor and car attendants smiled. They were almost at the end of the line.

As for myself, in between listening to Berlitz French lessons, reading a mystery and catching up on my motorsports reading, I simply sat back and listened to the rhythm of the wheels going around.

When you travel by train, you can't be in a hurry. If you are, don't bother taking the train.

I still love trains. As Frank Sinatra once sang, "It was just a ride on a train." But what an adventure this ride turned out to be.

E9 Sandra McKee is a sportswriter for The Baltimore Sun.

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