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Subject: travelogue
Date: Thu, 29 Jan 1998 14:08:05 -0500

Over the past two years, I've taken three round trips on Amtrak's City of New Orleans. At the request of several friends I recently wrote the following short guide to help them know what to expect when they took their own trips. It might be of some use to other neophytes of train travel, and might provide some discussion points with veteran travelers too. Steve Albin

Mattoon, Illinois to New Orleans on Amtrak's City of New Orleans

* Pack light. You should have one large bag and one small bag - not only is that what they recommend but you should also keep in mind that you'll be carrying your own luggage, and sometimes quite a New Orleans you have to walk several hundred yards from the train to the station. (The porters are busy taking care of the rich people in the sleeper cars.) * When you get on the train you'll throw your large bag into a rack on the bottom level of the car, then take the small one with you as you climb up to the upper level (where the seats are). The small one will have your valuables, reading material, toiletries, etc, and snacks. * Snacks are important because the dining car is only open around mealtime and you'll probably find what's available at the snack bar in the lounge car to be a little limited and a little expensive. Don't try to carry on any drinks however...there's a good drinking fountain in every car and all kinds of drinks - both hard and soft - available at the snack bar. * Usually you have the freedom to choose your own seat and if so, you should sit near the center of the car. If you sit near either end you'll be more sensitive to the noisy doors that open and shut whenever someone walks from car to car. (Even during the night, crew members move back and forth fairly regularly.) By the way, this might be a good time to talk about the doors because sooner or later you'll have to negotiate them. They're electric but not automatically opened - when you get to the end of the car you have to hit the open button and then step into the space between cars. It will close automatically behind you and you then have to hit the open button on the door of the car you're going into. * The train is made up of the engine (or engines), then the crew car, then the passenger cars (3 or 4 or more) then the observation/lounge car (bubble-top viewing on upper level and snack bar/lounge on lower), then the dining car, then usually the sleeper cars at the back of the train. As you can imagine, there's lots of walking back and forth - especially in the daytime - and walking on a train can be quite an adventure. It's just like walking on a big boat - if you're going over a smooth section of track it's fairly easy even though it's swaying, but if you're on a rough stretch you'll lurch along, grabbing seat backs as you go, hoping you won't fall into someone's lap. Lots of fun! * You can walk as much as you want through the passenger cars and the lounge/observation car anytime you want although the ambient lighting is turned down lower. I have sat in the observation car at 2AM and watched the countryside go by - nice on a moonlit night, but tough to see much on a dark night. In fact, the way the City of New Orleans is scheduled means that both coming and going you'll be in the dark through Southern Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and in daylight on the Southern part of the trip. * The snack bar is not open all the time but more often than the dining car. Even when the snack bar is closed you can still go down and sit in the lounge or upstairs in the observation car. That car - both levels - is also where they show the free movies every night. They have a couple of big closed-circuit TVs they use, and they're a little like the movies on an airplane...fairly recent, and usually cut for family viewing. * They'll announce mealtimes for the dining car in plenty of time and might announce specials, etc, too. The food is pretty good and priced in the medium range (dinners $10-20). Be prepared because they'll tell you where to sit and will insist on 4 to a booth, even if it means sitting with strangers. This is just part of the whole experience...meeting other travelers is part of the charm. You'll probably also find yourself talking to strangers if you spend some time in the bubble-top observation car. * The trip takes about 16 hours and there are a lot of quick stops on the way but only a couple are long enough to get off the train and stretch your legs - in Carbondale, Illinois, and in Memphis. The only catch is that it's the middle of the night when they stop and there's a lot of activity going on, including train crew changes. You should just stay aboard. * You'll find all kinds of people on the trains, especially in coach - sometimes entire large families from the deep South ride the train back and forth, visiting relatives up North. In my experience, even though they may have a lot of kids they're always well-behaved and friendly, and it's kind of interesting to be walking down through a car and see a whole family breaking out a big meal of cold fried chicken with all the trimmings.

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