With my trek across Canada aboard VIA Rail's The Canadian fading into memory, I'm back on the home rails of Amtrak. This week I made a trip to Camp Lejeune, NC for work, and I decided to take the train. Camp Lejeune sits just outside of Jacksonville, NC, a typical military base town with the requisite fast food and hotel strips, short term apartments and mid-grade restaurants. While Jacksonville sits near active railroad tracks (some of which actually extend into the Camp itself), passenger service has been extinct from the region for decades. The closest that Amtrak trains come is probably Wilson, NC, but that's still a 90-minute to 2 hour drive away, and there are no car rental agencies left in Wilson. Rocky Mount represented the best place for me to rent a car, so that's where I got off of The Palmetto.
Amtrak's Palmetto, until about 8 years ago, ran from New York to Miami via Tampa and was called The Silver Palm. It was an overnight train and it ran with sleeping cars, a dining car, coaches, and a baggage car. Amtrak made the decision to cut that service back, however, and truncated the train's route to start and end in Savannah, GA, making it a day train. That meant the loss of the sleeping cars, which were replaced with Business Class and the dining car, which was replaced with a standard cafe car. I never was happy with the change in service (Florida lost a train that served cities that no other train reached), but in this case, it benefited me with an early departure from Baltimore and an early afternoon arrival in Rocky Mount.
I traveled via Business Class on the Palmetto, and the experience was pretty much identical to business class on any Amtrak train that runs in the Northeast Corridor. The seats are spaced further apart than in coach, each seat has a footrest, beverages are complimentary, and everyone gets a newspaper. Indeed, when I boarded in Baltimore, a USA Today was waiting for me on my seat, and the cafe attendant kept me well stocked with beverages whenever I walked back to his counter. The trip was uneventful, and on Amtrak, that's a good thing.
In Rocky Mount, the local Avis car rental office picked me up from the station, and I was on the road to Jacksonville within 20 minutes after completing some paperwork. Not all car rental agencies provide service to and from a train station, but I make it a point to take advantage of those that do. Some agencies even staff a desk in stations, like at an airport, which is a fantastic service that should be encouraged (stations that come to mind that offer this service are Stamford, Washington, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Flagstaff).
The reason for this blog entry wasn't to talk about my trip down on the Palmetto, but I have to mention that part of the trip to juxtapose it with the trip back north.
I returned my car to Avis in Rocky Mount this morning and headed to the train station to catch The Carolinian at 11:52 AM. The Carolinian, to the average rider, is indistinguishable from The Palmetto. It runs with the same equipment, and it travels the same route north of Rocky Mount. The service, however, IS different, especially if you are traveling via Business Class. The business class car is the same: widely spaced seats with footrest. But the perks are different, and that's a bad thing. There was no newspaper when I sat down. Instead, I had to go find one in the cafe car. The cafe does not hand out free drinks. Instead, the Business Class car is staffed by a dedicated attendant (which is a good thing). That attendant is in charge of assigning seats, providing newspapers, and handing out the free drinks. But the drinks only come approximately once every 2 hours, and don't dare ask for one in the meantime. Newspapers are available only if you seek one out, and odds are that I was the only one in my car who knew to ask.
Really, Amtrak needs some consistency. If Amtrak can't keep the Business Class experience consistent across two identical trains that serve the same ROUTE, imagine the discrepancies across the nation. Indeed, Business Class is completely different on the following services: Carolinian, Palmetto/Northeast Regional, Acela, Vermonter, Michigan Services, Hoosier State, San Joaquin/Capitol Corridor, Cascades, Pacific Surfliner. That's TEN different flavors of Business Class, and that doesn't even count the trains that lack Business Class at all, most notably the Long Distance services where you are forced to either go First Class Sleeper or coach.
That said, the Carolinian is running on-time so far, and at the end of the day, that's what matters most, at least today. But consistency in service offerings is a problem that Amtrak has suffered since its inception in 1971, and sadly, you need to be a pro to be really prepared on what to expect. It's just a darn shame that I had two completely different experiences with Business Class aboard two identical trains traveling the same exact route.