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Carolinian arrives at Alexandria

The Carolinian, bound from New York to Charlotte, N.C., calls at Alexandria, Va.

March 7-8, 2011

Photos by Henry Kisor,

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I'VE BEEN A BIT SPOILED. Almost all my Amtrak trips are in Superliner sleepers on long-distance trains over mostly scenic Western routes, with first-class amenities (endless free coffee and bottled water, paid-for dining-car meals). But my latest trip last week featured two workaday East Coast day trains--Amtrak's bread and butter, the kind most American train travelers ride.

Debby and I had United frequent-flier miles to burn, so rather than taking the overnight Capitol Limited as usual, we flew between Chicago and Washington National (I'm too set in my ways to call it Reagan) to visit family in Arlington.

At ORD and DCA security I had to endure the usual knee-replacement patdown (and yes, they touched my junk, the creeps) but the experience was mercifully short and impersonal. It could have been worse and sometimes is.

We have family in Richmond, too, so we took Amtrak from suburban Alexandria 109 miles south to Richmond Staples Mill aboard Train No. 79, the Carolinian. This is a day train, partly subsidized by the state of North Carolina, that covers the 489 miles between New York City and Charlotte, N.C., in a little less than 11 hours.

Alexandria is a busy stop on Amtrak's Atlantic Coast Service route, serving nearly a dozen trains each way every day. Some 30 people boarded the Carolinian when it rolled in exactly on time from Washington Union Station, and being older and no-longer-so-adventurous folk, we chose to pay the small supplement for business class.

The sole security at Alexandria seemed to be a cheerful Amtrak station worker who made sure his charges safely crossed a set of tracks to the platform on the other side and directed them to the proper spots for boarding.


The Carolinian's business class car had its own attendant, who briskly arranged tickets for the conductor, humped baggage, and cheerfully served soft drinks. The uncrowded Amfleet II car's appointments were not new, but in good shape all the same, and the bathrooms were reliably clean--and kept that way. (That alone is worth the extra.)

For lunch we bought packaged ham and cheese sandwiches and yogurt in the club car just behind the business car. Neither was gourmet quality, but they were still fresh and tasty, and the prices a fraction of what we've paid for similar meals at O'Hare Airport.

On arrival at Staples Mill Road, we were surprised to be met by a golf cart that trundled us and our bags from train to taxi stop outside the station. I suspect that's an amenity only seen on the "name" trains, not the routine Northeast Regionals. (The cartman waved away my offer of a tip, too.)

We overnighted at the historic five-star Jefferson Hotel in downtown Richmond, chosen for its genteel Southern luxury (we splurge once a year or so) and for its superb although pricey Lemaire restaurant, which serves a five-star Virginia pork chop and a particularly sinful creme brulee.

Jefferson Hotel, Richmond

The Jefferson, Richmond's finest and most historic hostelry. (Photo courtesy of the hotel.)

Jefferson Hotel room 1

Our more-than-spacious room in the Jefferson.

Jefferson hotel room 2

Debby working at the computer in our room at the Jefferson. The Wi-Fi connection, happily, was free. We've found that to be rare in a five-star hotel anywhere.

Our time in Richmond was short--its purpose was to touch base over dinner with kin--but if we had had more time, we'd have visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which through May 15 is hosting 176 visiting treasures from the Musee National Picasso in Paris while the French institution is undergoing renovations. Those works were chosen by the artist himself to insure his legacy.

Northeast Regional at Staples Mill

Train 94, an unnamed Northeast Regional, arrives at Staples Mill Road station, Richmond.

Back at Staples Mill the next day, we noticed that it was even busier than Alexandria, with upwards of 40 passengers waiting to board  northbound Train 94, a Northeast Regional that leaves Virginia Beach, Va., at 6:55 a.m. and ties up at  Boston South Station at 9:15 p.m. It arrived at Staples Mill at 10:59 a.m. and we were away at 11:04.

Evidently there are no business-class attendants on Northeast Regional trains, but the car on No. 94--an Amfleet I model--was OK. Though the hardware was in good shape, the carpeting and upholstery badly needed deep cleaning, as they always seem to do on vintage Amtrak rolling stock. That was a small complaint, though.

We could have scored free drinks in the cafe car at mid-train, but we chose to wait lunch until arrival in Alexandria at 1 p.m.

Both ways the trip was not only painless but actually pleasant. The scenery is unremarkable, just basic houses-and-thick-trackside-trees, with a little open water from time to time. The ride, however, is smooth, conducive to reading or napping, and business class always seems to be quiet and, at least on this run, uncrowded.

NS GP38-2

Just as we debarked from the Northeast Regional back at Alexandria, two vintage Norfolk Southern GP38-2s in shiny livery thundered past with a load of empty coal hoppers.

Our one real concern: The PA system on No. 94 was so soft and scratchy that Debby could barely hear announcements--only when she listened carefully did she hear the conductor call the Alexandria stop.  We're not sure if novice riders would have monitored station calls. Amtrak needs to be more careful about these small details.


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