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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Amtrak 90 trip report

Usually I don't post these detailed Amtrak trip reports to my blog, but I thought I'd post this one from yesterday just in case someone is interested in trains. Prevailing style for trip reports like this is first-person in present tense.

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A detour of Amtrak 90, the northbound Palmetto, through Hamlet and Raleigh gives me an opportunity to ride Dillon-Hamlet for the first time and to see Hamlet-Raleigh in full daylight. I buy two tickets, one Florence-Selma and the other Selma-Florence (on train 89, which did not detour) and hop in my car to face I-95.

Along my uneventful drive, I see many campers with NY tags headed south. Snowbird season is beginning! Economically the Florence area has its problems evidenced by shuttered businesses along US 76. I dip under the SAL bridge which hasn’t carried any tracks in years. (Yes, the SAL did serve Florence – an interesting story for another day.)

I arrive at the Florence station and am fortunate to find a parking place near the station. Parking for the nearby hospital often overflows. Built in 1996 to replace the ex-ACL station next door, the Amtrak station is holding up well. The ACL station featured high-level platforms – rare in the South in those days – and sufficient tracks for cars to be exchanged among trains for Atlanta/Augusta, Columbia/Sumter, Florida, Wilmington, and Richmond. In other words, Florence was to the ACL in those days what Atlanta is to Delta now.

20 passengers board train 90, and we depart 31 minutes late. The train is one-third full. After crossing the Pee Dee swamp, the ACL mainline takes a hard left to avoid a huge auto junkyard. The original mainline to Wilmington continued straight. It was mostly abandoned in the late 1970s.

Approaching Maple – the junction of the SAL at Dillon – I hear the engineer getting authority by radio to enter work limits. Those work limits are the reason for 90’s detour. We join the SAL route and meet two freights on our way to Hamlet. The line is signaled, and at 50 mph it rides quite well. An Amtrak hot dog isn’t cheap, but it tastes good and the lounge attendant is friendly.

At Hamlet there is a short delay while we get a new engine crew; we depart at 12:43. Moving from track 3 to track 1 is a slow process, so we’re treated to an extended view of where the freight yard was prior to the 1950s. Eventually we begin to make 75 mph for a brief sprint before we reach FRA Class 3 trackage.

A passenger sitting behind me is actually headed to Raleigh. He’s surprised to learn that he’ll be put off the train in Raleigh two hours earlier than he expected and will not have to make a connection to 79 in Wilson. This is good thinking by Amtrak. Why was he ticketed to Wilson instead of Selma? Ask Amtrak’s computer.

In places the ride on the ex-SAL is rough at 60 mph. Is it time for the FRA to make another inspection? I see some substantial trees growing where the second track and sidings on the S-line used to be; it’s been 20-25 years since those tracks were removed.

At Sanford we encounter a delay due to crosstie replacement in downtown. We stop and flag two street crossings. A local is working in north Sanford, and we meet F741 at Fetner. The North Carolina State Fair is underway, so we run at 10 mph from Powell Drive to Royal Street. The yard at the Raleigh station is full of frieght cars that block the view of the city skyline. After a brief station stop we depart Raleigh at 2:49.

We meet an NS freight at Auburn and then stop short of the platform at Selma while the engine crew is changed again. Finally we pull to the platform, and I detrain at 3:45 which is almost 2 hours off schedule – even though 90 is departing Savannah one hour earlier to allow for the detour.

In a few minutes 79 passes through Selma with NCDOT 400010 “Box Turtle” on the rear. A CSX freight and an NS freight cross the diamond, one of whose bolts lies broken on the ballast. On one of the CSX main lines, the crossing is in bad shape with low joints and mud. I don’t trust that diamond at the posted 50 mph speed limit.

I have time to look around the Selma station and am disappointed to see deteriorating interior walls. The building was renovated only 8 years ago. I wonder if NCDOT provides adequate annual maintenance money for the stations it renovates. Also, the station displays an Amtrak national map of 2003 which is no longer accurate. Can’t a new map be displayed?

89 arrives and three passengers climb on. The train is two-thirds full. We don’t leave until 5:11, or 41 minutes late, because the crew must copy 7 new slow orders by radio. These are for spots where work crews were active earlier in the day.

I’m always surprised by how much of the A-line second track is still jointed rail. Along the sections where the second track was pulled up 50 years ago, I’m surprised by how visible the roadbed still is – compared to my observation about the disappearing SAL roadbed earlier. Lastly I’m surprised by how much scrap steel I see along the right of way. Scrap prices must be way down from five years ago.

Slow orders delay us further, but the good news is that the dispatcher annuls all the stop-and-flag orders. We arrive Florence 7:57, 57 minutes late. I get in my car and head for I-95.