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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Big Guava still on Amtrak fringe

The rain that had been blowing in sheets slowed to a drizzle as “Ol’ 98,” Amtrak’s Silver Meteor, came rolling into the Orlando train station earlier this week.

Sitting on a bench a few feet from the tracks, you can’t help but still be awed at these great machines, and I felt the same way I did the first times I saw a train up close when our family went to went to Chicago when I was a kid.

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I figured as long as everybody either seemed to be on furlough or not working for the government, it was time for a vacation and the Frau and I decided to take the train to Fort Lauderdale.

Of course, we’re going the long way, riding the rails to New York City, on to Montreal and then climbing onto a boat in Quebec City that will go down the St. Lawrence Seaway out to Nova Scotia and then down the eastern seaboard back home.

The train out of Tampa is actually a bus, which isn’t the most glamorous way to leave town. For years The Big Guava has been on the fringes of Amtrak’s routes, despite spending millions of dollars to fix up old Union Station.

Today the train only comes through town twice a day, and it is scheduled so you cannot make any connections unless you take that bus to Orlando.

For awhile it appeared we were going to be on the cutting edge, with billions coming our way to build a high speed rail to Orlando.

You already know that Gov. Rick Scott, who would apparently rather see us have a stage coach run, turned down the money and Tampa was sent to the back of the line for another shot at high speed rail.

Once on board the Silver Meteor, we headed down to the dining car (I know you’re surprised) and ate a couple of burgers as the train slowly pulled through Orlando and Winter Park before heading north. The train stopped in Winter Park and the town’s great park, surrounded by expensive retail and restaurants.

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Now I noticed a fence that had not been there before and heavily armed police in black with cords running from their ears and shirts that proclaimed them to be “Homeland Security Police” along the length of the train.

It was a little eerie and reminded me of taking the train from Frankfurt to Berlin back during the Cold War.

The difference was that train ran at night so that you wouldn’t see anything.

Seeing armed security in a town such as Winter Park with its overpriced ice cream shops and boutiques was something else.

Not that I was complaining; airplanes aren’t the only potential targets of terrorists.

I noticed, staring out the window, that every few miles there are huge parking lots under construction.

I asked the conductor when he came by checking tickets, and he told me that was part of the new regional transit system being constructed that he said might be in operation within two years.

I told him that we were from Tampa and that didn’t make us feel all that good.

About the best we could expect was that in the next few years or so they might have a few more lanes of Interstate 275 completed that will already be out of date when opened to traffic.

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