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New Orleans Circle

> Subject: Travelogue
Date: Thu, 4 Jun 1998 20:43:24 -0400
From: "DKBN"


I really enjoy your web site. I recently completed a Syracuse, New York, to New Orleans circle trip. I have enclosed my write up on the trip as an html file and a Word file for you to post if you see fit.


Drew James

New Orleans Circle

5/11/98 - 5/17/98

Trip Preparation

At the end of March I found out that I would be traveling from Syracuse, New York to New Orleans, Louisiana on business. Unlike most business trips I take, this one looked definite and would involve three days in New Orleans. That meant that by only missing a single day of work I could take Amtrak. This was a welcome respite from the drudgery of air travel. I was tired of sitting in airports and being treated like cattle and quickly jumped at the opportunity to travel by rail.

I spent a lot of time at the Amtrak web site looking at schedules and trying to figure out how I could go to New Orleans and back by different routes without spending a layover night along the way. Since I couldn't get from Syracuse to New York in time to catch the Cresent, that was out. I tried to figure out a way to go down the coast to Jacksonville and then catch the Sunset across, but the days of the week were wrong for me. In the end I made reservations to go via the Lake Shore to Chicago and then the City of New Orleans in both directions. I was disappointed because I had wanted to go through Alabama in order to see one of the few remaining states I had never been through.

I picked up my tickets at the local station and also obtained the new Empire Corridor schedules which had just come out that week. Once I got home, I realized that the new schedules showed an early morning train to New York on Mondays that would allow me to catch the Cresent without spending the night! I called and changed my reservations the next day. Not only did I get to ride the Cresent, but the fare was less since there was one less night to pay for a sleeper.

Monday, May 11 - Syracuse to New York - Empire Service

My four car Amfleet train departed from Syracuse at 7:20am running on time. I had elected to use some of the money I saved on the sleeper accommodations to upgrade to Custom Class. I had no idea as to what Custom Class entailed, but I expected a larger seat and maybe some personal service. I was wrong. Custom Class is a separate section in the Cafe' car that seats about 20 people. You receive free soft drinks and coffee which you get yourself from the cafe'. The seats are the same size as elsewhere in coach and are 2 by 2. There were about 10 of us in Custom Class so we all had our own pair of seats. I noticed that I was the only male in Custom Class - a big change from riding first class on airplanes where at least three quarters of the passengers are usually male. The conductor made a comment to the woman in front of me that "they should eliminate this car to save money." That didn't make sense to me since they need some sort of food service car anyway since Empire Corridor trips can take 8 hours or more and the additional fare for Custom Class entailed nothing more than free drinks. The only thing I could think of is that maybe they only sell half of the seats so you always have two seats to yourself in Custom. That would be worth the extra fare on crowded trains. If that isn't the case, then I essentially paid for a $25 cup of coffee. I would like to hear from someone who has more insight into how Custom Class works in the Empire Corridor.

It was a very enjoyable trip across the state. Utica has an absolutely beautiful station that has been recently refurbished. At Utica I noticed an old purple Auto Train car on a siding. I found it interesting to see the three major historical transportation routes across the state so close to each other - the Erie Canal, the Thruway, and the New York Central. I have never seen a commercial barge on the canal west of Albany and wonder how much the state spends to maintain the canal for essentially just pleasure craft. The Hudson river was beautiful even in the rain. We arrived into Penn Station around 1:00pm about an half hour late due to track construction south of Albany.

I had not been in Penn Station since college in the mid 80s. I was very impressed with the changes. I can still remember the waiting area just being a circle of benches in the middle of the station with an attendant to keep out the homeless. I stopped in the Metropolitan Lounge and had a bite to eat for lunch and waited for the Cresent to board. The lounge was full of what appeared to be business men and women waiting for Metroliner service to Washington. My blue jeans and duffel bag stood out against their suits, briefcases and cell phones. Amtrak is clearly a major player in the Northeast Corridor. The attendants were friendly and made clear informative announcements.

Monday, May 11 through Tuesday, May 12 - New York to New Orleans - Cresent

The Cresent leg was the portion of the journey to which I was most looking forward. I had ridden from New York to Atlanta about 15 years ago, but never to New Orleans. I was in viewliner bedroom # 1 of car 1610. Charles was the attendant. There was a very nice souvenier Cresent toiletries bag waiting for me, but no schedule in the room. It could have been due to the very recent schedule changes. I was very impressed with the new viewliner sleepers. Everything is very well thought out from the storage area above the corridor to the placement of the room controls. I loved the ease of lowering the upper bunk and being able to look out the upper windows when in it. It is an outstanding design and clearly superior to the old eastern sleepers as well as the Superliner sleepers.

We departed on time and headed down the corridor to Washington. We changed from electric to diesel in Philadelphia, not in Washington as I expected. A passenger told me that they had recently started making the switch in Philly to speed up the departure from Washington for all of the long distance trains. However, in Washington they had to switch the order of the two Genesis diesels. The scanner revealed that the deadman's switch was not working properly in the lead loco and it was cutting in and starting to deaccelerate the train at random. That explained the deaccelerations I had been feeling on occasions since Philly.

I ate an early dinner at 5:30 and chose the salmon. It was very good as was the service in the dinner. The train must not have been too crowded since there were no reservations given out and the dining car had empty tables while I ate. My dinner companion was a pastor from New York on his way to Atlanta. His grandfather had worked for the Southern Railroad. We had an enjoyable conversation about various cities in the South.

In Washington I stepped out for some air while they changed around the engines. On the track next to ours was a beautiful private car named Cannonball. The attendant of the car seemed to be getting it ready for an excursion. I have never ridden in "private varnish" and continue to dream about doing so at some time in the future. I have never understood why people like Bill Gates elect to fly around the country in private jets instead of going the way of the Goulds and Vanderbilts and travel in high style on the rails. We departed Washington about a half an hour late due to the trouble with the engines.

I pulled down the top bunk around 9:30pm and climbed up to read and watch the scenery glide by. These viewliners are fantastic for just lounging around and watching the world go by. There was an early sunset due to the rain and overcast. I awoke to a full moon and beautiful clear skies early in the morning. I cleaned up and headed off to breakfast around 6:30am.

Breakfast was eggs, sausage, and - my favorite - grits. I was happy to see that the menus where "real" and not just check lists for the passengers to fill out. I ate most of my meal alone. I don't ever remember that happening before on my previous travels. Actually it did happen once before, on my way to Atlanta 15 years ago on the same train! My guess is that since there is such a turn over in Atlanta that departing passengers just wait until they arrive and embarking passengers have already eaten breakfast. Too bad because it sure was good.

After departure from Atlanta I decided to try out the shower. There was plenty of hot water and pressure and it was very enjoyable. The attendant had also turned the shower room heat up to high so it was fairly comfortable when I got out as well. The attendant had stored one of his bags in the shower compartment. I noticed that there was a pile of Cresent schedules on top of the bag. Don't know why he never bothered to put any in the rooms. I didn't notice anyone else taking a shower in my car. Although, the early arrival and large turnover in Atlanta could be the cause.

Between Atlanta and Birmingham I took the time to calculate my mileage for the trip. It came out to be 3,207 miles for the entire round trip - almost split exactly half between the two different routes I was taking to and from New Orleans. That brings my grand total up to about 38,000 Amtrak and Via miles.

Arriving in Birmingham we passed a freight going in the opposite direction as us while we were both going through several grade crossings. That must be a nightmare for engineers since autos stopped will start to go around the gate once the train has passed not realizing that another one is coming in the opposite direction. I had a classmate of mine killed in Jr. High when she walked across the tracks after the first train went past, but a second one was still approaching on the other track.

In Birmingham, there was a long Superliner train on the next track. Strange since there is no other service into Birmingham besides the Cresent. Mystery solved - it is an CSX employee excursion train going to Nashville. As we were departing I heard the conductor over the radio say "Number 19, let's depart the station in the fair city of Birmingham." Some people still have class.

I decided not to skip lunch and had a Philly Cheese steak since they were out of the vegetarian entre'. I was surprised since it was only 20 minutes after first call. On this train service was very quick and the food was excellent. The meals must be pre-cooked since they are delivered to the tables so quickly. However, I haven't noticed any decrease in quality and the service has been outstanding. I was in and out in about 15 minutes. In my entire trip I did not hear a single complaint about the dining car service. In the past many passengers expected the type of service you might receive in a restaurant and are disappointed when it doesn't measure up despite the best efforts of an overworked staff. Dinner was catfish and was delicious as well.

The timing of our arrival into New Orleans was perfect. We came over the lake just as the sun was setting. The trip over the low narrow causeway sure causes the sensation of being on a ship. We arrived about 45 mins late and I had no trouble catching a cab to my hotel.

Friday, May 15 through Saturday, May 16 - New Orleans to Chicago - City of New Orleans

I arrived at Union Station, New Orleans a little after noon. The City of New Orleans was scheduled to leave at 2:15pm. I first checked into the Magnolia Room and was surprised to see that it was already almost full. I signed in, sat for awhile, and then got a bite to eat for lunch. When I returned it was completely full. The Sunset Limited was scheduled to depart 15 minutes prior to the City of New Orleans so maybe that explains the crowd in the Magnolia Room - as well as its small size. I decided to wait outside in the main waiting room where I could observe what was going on better and walk around to stretch my legs and make a few phone calls. I chatted with a few other passengers including two women from South Africa who were visiting a good portion of the States by train. The City of New Orleans began boarding prior to the Sunset Limited, but the Sunset was in the station so it wasn't too far off of the schedule. The City's consist was three coaches, lounge, diner, and three sleepers.

I settled into my Superliner economy bedroom. It is comfortable, but I was spoiled by the new Viewliners on the Cresent. I was unable to plug my scanner into the "razor" outlet because the transformer on the plug hits the heating controls or the bottom of the panel depending upon which way I try to plug it into the outlet. Luckily I had working batteries as well so I didn't miss anything. I left one of my bags downstairs and brought my duffle bag along with me into the room.

Unlike onboard the Cresent, reservations were taken for dinner. I elected to eat at 5:30pm as I hadn't eaten much so far that day and I wanted to get to bed early. It turned out to be an excellent choice as I had the most enjoyable meal of the trip. I shared a table with two others. One was a football player on his way to Memphis to sign a contract and work out for Toronto in the Canadian Football League. My other table mate was a woman who travels and lives all over - including Alaska, Europe, and now New Orleans. I had delicious catfish and better conversation. We had a great time exchanging stories, laughing loudly, and discussing the trip. The waitress was fun and joined in at times. The food was the best I had on the trip and I treated myself to cheesecake for desert. This is what is so special about train travel.

After dinner I rode in the lounge for awhile and watched the scenery. I left when the movie started for the kids. I don't mind Amtrak showing the movie, but I just don't personally enjoy it. I'm sure others do - especially parents traveling with children. I turned in at 9:30pm. I slept until we arrived in Memphis around 11:30pm. In Memphis, some passengers boarded and moved into the next door bedroom. They were loud and talked out in the hallway and banged things around until past 1:00am. Most people who get on trains in the middle of the night are quite and respect those who are already in bed so I'm glad to say that this was the exception and not the rule. Upon departing Memphis we jerked to a very quick stop and then backed up. We started forward again after about five minutes. I found out later that a drunk had stepped in front of the train. Luckily no one was hurt.

I tossed and turned all night and awoke for good around 5:45am. I took a shower downstairs. Unlike on the other trains I rode this trip, other people were clearly using the shower as well. That surprised me since there it is a morning arrival into Chicago and I expected people to take showers in their hotels or homes after arrival. Maybe it is people like me who weren't staying in Chicago. For breakfast I had good company, good scenery, and good food. As long as I get grits I am happy. The train arrived in Chicago about an hour and fifteen minutes late.

Saturday, May 16 through Monday, May 17 - Chicago to Syracuse - Lake Shore Limited

I had an 11 hour layover in Chicago before the departure of the Lake Shore Limited that evening. I placed my luggage in a locker and set out to see some of the city. Layovers in airports imply killing time in the middle of nowhere. Layovers in train stations usually imply killing time right downtown close to things to do. I sat and read by the river, walked around Michigan Ave, went up to the top of the Sears Tower, and did some train watching. I looked into the possibility of taking a quick trip to Michigan on either Metro or Amtrak in order to pick up another state, but couldn't do it and feel comfortable about making the Lake Shore Limited.

I arrived at the Metropolitan Lounge at Union Station about an hour or so before scheduled departure. It was packed and I was lucky to find a seat. Unlike the Metropolitan Lounge in New York which was full of business travelers, this one was full of retirees. Several trains departed prior to the Lake Shore. About a half an hour prior to departure, the conductor came into the lounge to take tickets for those traveling in the sleepers. I didn't care for that as I would rather wait in my sleeper for the conductor than wait in line at the station. There was a lot of confusion. One of the heritage sleeping cars had to be replaced at the last minute and the replacement car did not have the same room configuration. As a result they were shifting everyone around. I ended up in a different room in a different car, but didn't really care since it was still a room in a Viewliner. We departed from Chicago about 45 minutes late.

It was late by the time I was settled into my room. I skipped the wine and cheese in the dining car since I wasn't feeling great and I hadn't had much sleep the night before on the City of New Orleans. I just pulled down the bunk and settled in with a good book and the scenery passing by the window.

In the morning I awoke feeling much better after a good night's sleep and took advantage of the shower at the end of the car. The attendant was using the shower to store a garbage bag, so it was another indication that not very many passengers use the shower. I had another good breakfast and was happy to be able to get grits on the Lake Shore. The waiter commented that the breakfast menu on the Lake Shore is not as extensive as on the Cresent since there are more passengers on the Lake Shore and they need to get them through faster. It is good to see that the individual trains are now able to adjust to meet unique needs. I spent the morning watching familiar upstate New York scenery glide by and departed in Syracuse around 11:30am about an hour late. The attendant told me we were arriving in Syracuse when we were actually in Rochester and tried to take my bags down until I looked out the window and corrected him.

Name: Train Word.doc Train Word.doc Type: Microsoft Word Document (application/msword) Encoding: x-uuencode

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