To get to the Atlanta station, we drove to the Dunwoody MARTA station for the long-term parking and took the red line and 110 bus to the Amtrak station. We boarded #20 on May 28, and boarding in Atlanta could charitably be described as a circus. My mom requires the use of an elevator when long stairs and luggage are involved, and when asked, the first ticket agent indicated only one of us would be able to accompany her in the elevator to track level. The second person (the one doing the actual boarding) indicated that all three of us would be able to use the elevator (for the record, I didn't care if I went down the elevator or not, but my dad was rather insistent [and is somewhat stair-challenged himself] that we try and stay together). The Crescent arrived 10 minutes late and we lined up at the elevator with all the other people needing it, and the second person took the first group down once several loads had come up from the arriving train. She had told everyone to wait on her, but she never returned. After waiting a while and seeing two groups go down the elevator of their own accord, we finally just went down ourselves and boarded.
Onboard the train was quite a bit better than the station. The Crescent departed exactly as it had arrived: 10 minutes late and we proceeded down the tracks. The onboard crew was great! Both the operational crew, and the OBS crew! The conductor had a smile on her face, was pleasant, and made light conversation with us about punching tickets going away in favor of e-ticketing. The coach attendant and cafe attendants were awesome as well and just all around pleasant, courteous and polite every time we interacted with them (which admittedly wasn't too much). We had made up all but 1 minute at Gastonia and were 20 minutes early into Charlotte so had to sit for about 46 minutes till the scheduled departure time. After Charlotte, I finally began getting tired enough to try sleeping and the 79mph track north of Charlotte helped me get to sleep. I was usually awake when the train stopped, but probably managed two full but discontinuous hours of sleep before giving up at 5:30 near Lynchburg. My mom and I were 2 minutes early for breakfast and told to wait about 5 minutes by the Cafe Attendant, but after sitting down in the cafe for a few seconds, were ushered on into the diner by a conductor. The dining car crew was great and also had smiles on their faces and welcomed us warmly. We sat with a grandmother and her grandson from Mississippi heading to Williamsburg via Charlottesville. My mom and I both had the Scrambled Eggs and grits for breakfast with coffee. The portions were huge and the food was excellent, particularly for the cost. Bouncing through northern Virginia after breakfast, we made Washington 20 minutes early, made the engine swap for an HHP-8, and proceeded up the NEC about 10 minutes early, hitting some stations 30 minutes early, but arriving New York only 13 minutes early.
Our trip up was only partly over however, our hotel was in Garden City, very close to the Carle Place LIRR station. We took the first escalator we could find which put us in the Central Corridor of the LIRR concourse. I was turned around for a while before eventually figuring out how to get to the LIRR ticketing desk. My first impression of Penn Station was not a good one. The Central Corridor was almost deserted, and the low ceilings gave me a chilling "back alley" feeling, but the connecting concourse was a good deal more spacious and crowded and I quite liked the station once we reached that area. We got our LIRR tickets and were on the next set of M7s bound for Huntington at 2:29. As AlanB had said to me, the M7s certainly had plenty of room for all of our baggage on the overhead racks and the trip was smooth, fast and right on time. Arriving at the Carle Place station was mildly unpleasant however as we discovered there were only stairs down to street level, or ramps that spit us out in the middle of a residential area. We did take the ramps and found our way to the hotel which Google Maps said was 0.5 miles away. I can't remember why we didn't call a cab, but I believe it was due to the lack of level access to the westbound platform where there is ramp access to a street (we did use a cab on our return to NYP when going to Boston).
The next two days, we walked to and from the station (sans luggage) and rode the LIRR into New York for sightseeing, primarily using the subway to get around. Even after only the first day, I found myself falling completely in love with the NYC subway and LIRR. The subway was well signed, fast, reliable, and easy to decipher particularly with a map. I particularly loved the express trains and while we didn't get to use them except once, wish that other systems could run express services. My only complaint is you have to swipe the Metrocard instead of just tapping my wallet like I can do with MARTA's breezecard so I had to open my wallet for every station and bus we boarded. The LIRR was also fast, reliable, well-scheduled, comfortable and the crews were helpful and friendly and frankly, if there was a way to copy the LIRR, then paste the copy down on the Atlanta area, I'd do it! I am seriously in love with the LIRR and wished I could have explored the system further.
We returned to NYP on Friday to catch regional #86 to Boston. The train was about 25 minutes late. The boarding process at NYP could also be considered a circus with a huge mob forming right at the gate (track 9 East) in a "Kindergarden line" to have our tickets checked at the top of the escalator rather than on board. For the record, I don't fault the people, the gate agent didn't hassle anyone, took one glance for the train number, nodded, and the passenger proceeded down the escalator, but I think the procedure needs to be changed; too much confusion, too much pushing, and too much chance for groups to get separated. The person at the bottom of the gate was also pleasant, but not very clear. For everyone that came down, they said "Business class continue straight ahead, coach class turn right." The train consist was AEM-7, business class, quiet car, coach, cafe, rest of train. The rear vestibule of the first non-quiet coach was right at the bottom of the stairs, and I noticed most people taking "two" right turns at the escalator, one so they're facing the train, then another down the length of the train. My mom too, seemed to think this was how things worked, but I insisted we just make "one" right turn directly into the coach vestibule. While I disliked the ambiguity in the person directing people, I did rather prefer the lesser amount of people in our coach, particularly since one of the bathrooms was already quite messed up. The trip to Boston was pleasant with nice coastal scenery, and great crew, but felt slow until we left Kingston (where I made sure to wave at the_traveler ). The train was about 10 minutes early into RTE.
The next day, just my dad and I rode MBTA into Boston to see the USS Constitution and and IMAX at the Science Museum. The MBTA commuter rail was a few minutes late, but otherwise fast and comfortable (and dry!). Our bi-level coach had no station announcements and we got off at Ruggles instead of Back Bay because I had forgotten to get a timetable, but fortunately realized mistake about 6 inches from the train door, and quickly re-boarded for one more stop. The attractions were great, but the MBTA transit system in my opinion was old, rickety, loud, confusing, and poorly run. In chronological order, the Orange line from BBY to Haymarket was dripping wet inside, dirty, cramped, and the announcements were unintelligible. The bus driver to the USS Constitution ignored our stop request because she was talking with another lady stopping near, but after the Constitution stop and we had to walk about an extra 1/4 mile in the rain. Her directions for the return bus were also ambiguous and unclear, but we found it. The return bus driver made a quip about us "not walking all the way down" to the stop preceeding the one we actually boarded at. But it got really bad when the lack of bus announcements, coupled with miniscule "T" signage, and more bad directions from the driver, caused us to walk in a circle until we stumbled onto a street map and managed to work out where the Haymarket station was. We boarded the green line to the Science Museum station. Signage on the green line cars was either tiny, or nonexistant and we boarded the next train on the Lechmere track. Turns out, our train was terminating at North Station, with no warning until the station itself where the barely-intelligible announcement said something about "terminating." Fortunately the next train went past the Museum station so we boarded, went to the museum and returned. The return trip (though to South Station) was also bad. The train squealed enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if my glasses had shattered, or my eardrums burst. I don't care how curvy your track is, either fix it, apply rail grease, use steerable trucks, or insulate the train, or all of the above! Next time I'm forced to take the green line, I'm bringing a sound meter and filing complaints with...everyone. Boarding and riding the red line to South Station was a bit better, but the signage was still confusing and there weren't clear directions on which train to take to where, but we made it...somehow. The commuter rail back to RTE was a good deal better and included station announcements (on single-level equipment) though I do wish they'd post the expected track number sooner so you could position yourself near the gate rather than sitting around, staring at the electronic track board before making a mad dash to the gates. South Station was nice however, it was modern and efficient, and very spacious.
Returning to Atlanta, we boarded Acela 2159 on Monday right on time. The train however was full, and I couldn't get a window seat, and subsequently cellphone/GPS signal. The whole entire reason we paid an extra $300 was to experience the 150mph running. Thanks to Amtrak's decided lack of desire to allow seat selection at ticket purchase, I was cheated out of the entire experience. I did end up in a window seat around New Haven, but at that point, what's the point? Frankly, taking the regional and saving the money would have served us much, much better, particularly given the lack of time savings for BOS/RTE-NYP. You may consider this jerkish of me, but in my letter I plan to write to Amtrak (heavily praising the people we encountered), I plan to request a refund for the difference in price of taking the Acela over taking the Regional. The way I see it, all I can do is ask, if they say no, well we already spent the money, if they say yes, then all the better for us. But while I'm even more supportive of Amtrak now than I was prior to this trip, I am firmly a "never again" as far as the Acela Expressed is concerned, particularly north of New York. Amtrak's response to my upcoming letter may determine if I ride the AE south of New York.
The trip on the Crescent was just as good returning to Atlanta as going to New York. My mom and I ate in the diner before Washington and ended up with the same dining crew that we had going northbound! They even remembered us and were just as spectacular and nice as they were on #20 and I made sure to tip them well. At Washington, we were fairly early and I walked down toward the head-end to witness the engine change. The day before our northbound trip, Phase-III heritage engine 145 had come north on #20, so I projected the days until our southbound trip and it was well within the realm of possibility that #145 would be hauling our #19. Turns out I WAS RIGHT! Sitting just 3 tracks over was the beautiful red, white and blue painted #145, waiting to be put on our train! I reboarded before departure with a big grin on my face for this special happenstance. The rest of the crew were also excellent and very friendly and I would be pleased to be on any of their trains again. The Crescent was 13 minutes early into Atlanta, and disembarking was a good deal better than boarding just 8 days before.
To summarize, the trip was great, and the people were very nice and exactly the kind of people I wish all Amtrak employees could be. The food prices were hardly outrageous as we expected them to be and the trains were fast and comfortable and beat driving any day (I don't have any commercial airline experience, but airlines are already beat by the lack of security checkpoints and large seats). Hopefully Amtrak will realize the benefit that seat-selection can provide so people aren't at the mercy of a mad stampede at stations before theirs. Station operations could also be improved, but I know it won't change overnight, or even probably within the next few years.
Thanks all to everyone on this forum who has either answered my questions directly, or in answering others' questions, provided the answers needed to make our trip be the (mostly) successful trip that it was.
Edited by MattW, 24 June 2012 - 11:42 PM.