OTOL Florida RailFest 2008
July 19-24, 2008
Photos by Eric Minton, Jishnu Mukerji, and Piotr Dzwonek.
Click small photos to see larger
Chapter 0: Introduction
OTOL Florida RailFest (FRF) 2008 was created to help our little group explore what the Sunshine State has to offer in rail transportation. It was chosen to be our major 2008 summer trip because we would like to travel to the West Coast the next two summers.
Our 24-hour stay in Tampa would feature the TECO Line Streetcar, a tourist streetcar line that connects the city's Ybor City neighborhood with the Channelside District and downtown. In Miami, we would ride the TriRail commuter line on its entire run through three counties, mostly adjacent to I-95. Our host within the Miami-Dade area would be Miami Dade Transit, who operates the heavy rail MetroRail and a downtown people mover called MetroMover.
Originally, a visit to a third Florida city was planned. We were to also have stopped in Jacksonville to ride the Skyway people mover run by the Jacksonville Transit Authority. However, in doing advance research six months ahead of time, we found that hotels near rail transportation were either already sold out or they were prohibitively expensive. Further research indicated that Jacksonville was hosting a convention of fishermen during the week in question. Faced with the choices of paying too much for a hotel room, being unable to stay at a hotel within our various loyalty programs, or kicking the fishermen out of Jacksonville, I instead dropped the city from our itinerary and shortened the fest by a day.
Although some participants flew in one or both directions, the majority travelled on Amtrak, making use of the Silver Service trains. That stretched what was essentially only two full days in Florida to six days.
Chapter 1: Preparation
As has become routine over the past eight years, a homepage was created to outline our plans and to provide links to other helpful information related to this event. This included our itinerary, which underwent many changes before the trip took place, and our participant list.
With all the other planning out of the way, I was looking for something to enhance the experience just a bit, given the fest would seem like a letdown after last year's Northern California RailFest and its accompanying transcontinental Amtrak trips. Luckily I noticed online that Hillsborough Area Transit Authority (HART), operator of the TECO Line Streetcar, was offering tours of their facilities. The last two weeks before the trip were spent working the phones, setting up a tour for our group on relatively short notice to HART.
Those of us who had reserved our trips relatively early were faced with a new crisis. We found that some of our reservations had been changed. The bottom line is that roomettes had been sold in three sleepers, and then Amtrak decided to run the train with only two sleepers. This resulted in passengers being juggled between the remaining rooms. Those who hadn't yet picked up their tickets had to do so from a live agent, while those who already had them had to see an agent to make the change. It was especially a challenge for Michael and me, since we were originally booked in the sleeper that had been cut. Our tickets had been mailed to the house because they were purchased by redeeming points through Amtrak Guest Rewards. However, neither Amtrak nor Amtrak Guest Rewards ever called me to inform me of the switch; I only learned about it because others from our group on the same train had noticed this problem.
I kept our participants up to date on the plans via e-mail, postings on the OTOL Forums, and updating the above web pages. Soon the day drew near, and our participants began travelling towards Florida from points as far away as Massachusetts and Hawaii.
Chapter 2: Tuesday, July 15 through Friday, July 18, 2008
Steve Weagant of Chicago had been able to combine the Florida Fest with a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico with his girlfriend Rosalyn Winston. They had flown from Chicago to Tampa the previous weekend. They were nearing the completion of the cruise and would be back in Tampa a day before most of us arrived in town.
On Tuesday, Eric Minton began making his way from Hawaii to the east coast. He would be staying with his sister's family in Maryland, outside Washington, DC, before and after the fest. He flew first from Honolulu to Chicago, and then to Newark, NJ. Alan Burden met him on Wednesday at the airport, and after they rode the AirTrain and NJ TRANSIT into New York City, they took an Acela Express train together to Washington. It was Eric's first Acela trip. Alan then returned home to New York on another Acela train, and Eric remained in the Washington area. He would be boarding our train to Tampa in Washington on Saturday.
Rick Metcalfe of Rochester, MA left the Route 128 station on Friday morning on Northeast Regional Train #95, headed for New York City. He then took Friday's Silver Star from New York to Tampa, arriving at the latter on Saturday (a day before most of the group would be arriving).
On Friday morning, Mike Hammond flew from Cleveland to Tampa. His intention was to spend Friday and Saturday at Busch Gardens riding rails that contain much steeper rises and dips than we would find on passenger rail. Unfortunately, Mike had trouble finding the stop for his HART bus to take him to the park, and he ended up getting soaked in a downpour and having his cell phone ruined. Poor Mike instead spent the rest of Friday working to replace his phone, including an expensive cab ride to the nearest Verizon Wireless store.
I had decided very late in the planning process that it might be easier for Michael and me to catch the Silver Star in Philadelphia if we went to Philly the night before and stayed in town. I had found a decent rate at the Hilton Garden Inn in Center City by Market East station. We left home Friday afternoon and drove Cherry Hill, NJ. Then we had dinner at an Old Country Buffet before going to the nearby NJ TRANSIT rail station where I normally park my car during long trips. Then we caught the 7:00 PM train into 30th Street Station, followed by a SEPTA train to Market East. The latter happened to be an R6 headed for Norristown. Since I didn't have any inbound Amtrak ticket stub to show for passage, I carry with me some stubs from an unreserved Paoli-Philadelphia Keystone trip we had taken back in April. Had we been challenged for tickets, I would have used those.
Chapter 3: Saturday, July 19, 2008
Saturday was the first official day of FRF 2008. The day saw many of us board the southbound Silver Star, while others were already down in Florida or planning on leaving home the following morning.
By Saturday, we already had four fest participants already situated in Tampa. Rosalyn and Steve had finished their cruise and were staying at the Marriott Waterside. Mike, who was also at the same hotel, spent what was now his only day at Busch Gardens. Rick arrived on the Silver Star about 20 minutes late and headed to his hotel, the Hyatt Regency.
The rest of the group travelling to Florida, with the exception of Jack Suslak, would be boarding the southbound Silver Star today. Jishnu Mukerji and Piotr Dzwonek made their respective ways into New York City from their homes in New Jersey. In the Club Acela in Penn Station they met Alan and his mother Grace.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Michael and I took a SEPTA R1 train (ultimately bound for the airport) from Market East to 30th Street Station. Then after purchasing some snacks for the long ride, we went to that city's Club Acela. First stop at Club Acela was to exchange our tickets. That process happened without a hitch.
Bill Magee left his home in Cherry Hill and drove to Philadelphia International Airport to park his car there. That was his most convenient option since he would be flying home on Monday. He then took a SEPTA R1 train into 30th Street Station and joined us in the Club Acela.Continued in next section