Saturday, November 17, 2018

Train travel is picking up at Tampa's Union Station


Light shines through arched colored-glass windows and skylights in the coffered ceiling of Tampa Union Station, built in 1912 in the grand style befitting the luxury of train travel. In decades past, the cacophony of footsteps on gleaming terrazzo was near constant, as the multitudes bustled to and from trains arriving throughout the day.

The station on the edge of Ybor City is still surprisingly busy, but only twice daily. That's around 12:34 p.m. and 5:05 p.m., when Amtrak's Silver Star arrives. Passengers on the later train are bound for New York or stops along the way; those on the early train are headed to South Florida.

Tampa ridership has climbed to 133,400 in 2013 from 73,100 in 2007, according to Amtrak. Ridership nationwide has set Amtrak records for 10 of the last 11 years. In the fiscal year ending in 2013, Amtrak reported moving 31.6 million travelers.

Air travel has become less appealing, gas prices have skyrocketed and road traffic is more congested; those are a few reasons for the increase in train ridership, said Ross Capon, CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Also, more teenagers are putting off getting their driver's licenses, and more people have become aware of Amtrak, which has added such 21st century features as online ticketing and Wi-Fi.

"The biggest change that took place, the security measures after 9/11, made air travel for shorter trips much less attractive,'' Capon said.

The Tampa to South Florida passengers can vouch for that.

Sandy Turcotte, waiting at Union Station on a recent weekday for the southbound train, said it takes almost as long to fly there, considering the drive to the airport, the need to get there early, and the time-consuming line through security.

A couple of uniformed Homeland Security officers watch the crowd at the train station, but Turcotte doesn't have to go through the TSA gantlet, as she would at the airport. Also, she could never fly to Hollywood for the senior price she paid for her one-way train ticket: $31, or $3 off the regular price.

"It's a lot more relaxing than driving,'' said Turcotte, a retired executive secretary. She drives to Miami to see relatives most of the time because she needs her car there. But this time, she planned to return with someone else.

"I can take a nap, or I can have a glass of wine, read a book, whatever.''

Gertrud Romeo actually preferred flying to West Palm Beach for visits to her nearby condominium, but Southwest Airlines dropped the route and the cheapest air ticket she could find was $250, one way, she said.

So she bought a senior ticket on Amtrak for $25. Trouble is, Romeo, a woman of German and French heritage who grew up in Europe, finds that she was spoiled by train travel there. The retired languages teacher at Gaither and Chamberlain high schools said she and her family traveled in Europe over Christmas, and the trains were always on time "to the second.''

She can't say that about Amtrak.

"Today it's late, a half an hour late,'' she said.

If you have to wait, the restored station, designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, is not a bad place to be. Its high ceilings and color scheme, mainly the citrus hues of yellow and green, give it an airy feel. Memorabilia from railroading's glory days — china, old baggage claim tickets, a deck of pinochle cards — are on display in one glass case. Another contains models of Seaboard Coast Line and the other trains that once stopped here.

For Carolina Munoz, the romance of train travel rolls on. She likes to relax in seats far roomier than airline offerings and watch the passing scenery. The tourist from Colombia, who does not speak English, flew to Tampa to visit her cousin, Angelica Gans, and is headed to Miami to visit other relatives.

Gans always gives her the option of flying or taking the train, and she always chooses the train. "She said, 'I love the train.' ''

British citizens Bob and Jane Parle step off the Silver Star when it arrives. They sailed to New York on the Queen Elizabeth and paid $450 for a sleeping compartment for their overnight trip to Tampa to visit friends.

"It was an experience,'' said Bob with a grin, when asked how it went.

"It's quite an experience to find that you have the toilet next to the bed and no curtain and no privacy,'' he said. "And when they put the two beds down, I would have to lose a few more pounds to be able to climb up into the top.''

They inquired about a bigger compartment, but none were available. And it's doubtful that they would have taken it, because upgrading "would have cost us exactly the same as eight days, full board and a cabin, on the Queen Elizabeth,'' he said. "They wanted another $700.''

Striking a positive tone, Jane said the service was very good and the staff very kind.

"But,'' she said, "I would say that the cleanliness needs to be sorted out.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.

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