The Tampa Union Station looks grand from the outside. It was built over one hundred years ago. It is red brick, imposing and evokes a feeling of history. In my mind’s eye I picture ladies in long dresses and gentlemen in suits and top hats gathering here in the early 1900’s to travel in style. I’m not sure why, but I have a highly romanticized notion of “riding the rails”. Most likely the result of excessive movie watching.
I’ve never taken a train trip of any significant length but I have always wanted to. Traveling by train through Canada is high on the list of things I want to do. I’m also a fan of local train travel. I took a recent trip to New York and rode the subways there, which has left me all jazzed about public transportation. It just feels so “big city”. When I lived in Atlanta, I loved to take the MARTA to the airport, rather than fight through the snarly traffic. As college students in Miami, my friends and I made use of the Metrorail-mostly to go to concerts in the downtown area. Between the clogged streets and our copious alcohol consumption, it was the smarter option. Plus, the train allowed us to avoid the scary guys at red lights who would wipe a dirty rag on your windshield and then demand a tip for “cleaning” it.
Suffice it to say, I am definitely pro-train. Air pollution from cars, overcrowding on the roads, gas expenses, being able to read or work instead of driving-it just makes sense to go by rail. I wish we had a local system in the Tampa area. We have nothing to speak of other than the trolley; basically a tourist shuttle from Channelside to Ybor City with a round-trip total of about 2 miles. Completely useless for actual transportation. Tax dollars well spent!
But we do have Amtrak, with passenger service from Tampa to lots of places, so I’m taking my first long train trip to visit my best friend in south Florida. And, as excited as I am to experience the throw-back charm of train travel myself, I am even more thrilled that I get to take my daughter on her first train ride, too. I’ve imagined us relaxing in our seats, lazily watching the scenery fly by, the kindly conductor coming by to offer us hot chocolate….oh wait…that’s Polar Express. Anyway, I start to realize that my fanciful idea of how this is going to go might be slightly off-base right about the time that the station gates open and hordes of people carrying plastic grocery bags as luggage swarm around and in front of us, jostling us out of the way.
Boarding the train is a chaotic traffic jam.. There are no loudspeaker announcements, signs, or people directing us where and/or how to board. I’m pretty sure that no one in my vicinity has ever been on a train before either because, as a group, we have no clue what we are supposed to do. “Excuse me sir, do you know if we are in the right line if we are traveling to Hollywood?”, I ask a man who is blatantly crowding past us in our confused line to nowhere. He just stares at me and keeps pushing past. So much for being all in this together. I’m trying to play it cool but even my seven-year old daughter is getting stressed out. She grabs the tickets from my hand trying to determine if there is any useful information there, declaring that she doesn’t think I’m doing it right. After a few more minutes pass with no movement she frustratedly huffs, “We should have just gone the normal way!” (Driving.)
We finally get within ear shot of the lone ticket-taker who is instructing everyone that, “We have to fill in every seat so try to pick someone that looks clean”. Oh god. That sounds like a tip-off that, in general, you stand a good chance of sitting in close proximity to a smelly person on the train. I prepare for my nasal passages to be assaulted and, wow!, I am not disappointed. If you’ve ever left a McDonalds bag in your car for a few hours, you know the smell. Dirty, fried garbage food combined with a hint of urine, that pretty much describes the aroma. I admit that I have overly sensitive olfactory glands and a touch of germaphobia. I really try to keep it in check because I don’t want to go over the edge and end up as a shut-in ritually slathering myself with hand sanitizer. But my cause is not being helped by having to remove the crumbs and dirty napkins-god, please let them be napkins and not used tissues-off our seats before sitting. Between the smell, the sticky armrests and not knowing what kind of funk I’m resting my head on in these seats, I’m feeling particularly squeamish.
After we get underway we lurch along the train to the “lounge car” (one of those things that sounds nicer than it really is) and this is actually fun. I can feel and hear the rhythmic thump of the train on the tracks as we pass from one car to the next and I try to keep my balance without having to grab any handlebars. This is my favorite part of the trip because, despite the fact that every single table is covered in filth and trash lines the floor, the windows are big (did I mention we ended up in seats with no window?), I have a diet coke and Callie is happily eating Doritos. Though the scenery is mostly industrial or otherwise downtrodden, it still is an interesting perspective from the train.
Back in our seats, the two women sitting behind us carry on a conversation at an incredibly loud volume. They scarcely take a breath as they expound on one topic after the other, yelling at the top of their lungs the whole time. I try to read but can’t concentrate with their incessant babbling. I happen to know they will be with us all the way to West Palm Beach because, of course, they have each blared their vacation plans in minute detail. I’m hoping that one or both of them will blow out a larynx in the next couple of hours. I shoot them a few of my best, “please shut the F*#! up” looks, but they seem to be immune to my annoyance. It is with great relief that I exit the train at Hollywood station.
Here’s the crazy thing, the trip home is fantastic. Right away at the station it shows much more promise for enjoyability. There are frequent loudspeaker announcements telling passengers where to board the train–helpful advice which we were sorely lacking on the first ride. The crew is cheerful. Our assigned seats not only have fresh disposable headrest covers (yay!) but also contain a refreshing lack of detritus. In fact, the entire car is clean, as is the lounge car. Hallelujah. This finally feels like the train experience I was hoping to have. It is a relaxing ride home, plenty of time to read, write, and peacefully look out the window .
I don’t know how to explain the disparity between the disgusting ride down and the rather pristine return trip. Maybe we boarded the train toward the end of a long trip that started in New Jersey or Connecticut and the crew simply ran out of motivation and cleaning supplies by the time they got to Florida. Maybe it has to do with management; the crew on the first train seemed much more miserable than the returning crew. Who knows? Amtrak needs to work that out. In the end, the return trip was nice enough that I would definitely consider traveling by train again. My caveat being that, in case I happen upon another dirty yuck-train, I must be armed with noise-canceling headphones and a big canister of Clorox wipes.