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Sunset Limited Travelogue

Amtrak's loss is Greyhound's gain. That expression best sums up a recent experience as I tried to broaden my train travel experiences. I wanted to sample just a short segment of Amtrak's Sunset Limited, from Bay Saint Louis, MS. to New Orleans, LA.--a distance of just 50 train miles or so.

I was here on a working vacation, with freelance writing and broadcasting assignments at the famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Music Festival. But since I am a native of Bay Saint Louis, I took the opportunity to visit with relatives and friends, and spend a few days at my family home in the small and quaint community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I planned to return to New Orleans by train.

It seemed simple enough, and very appealing I might add. For nostalgia sake, I wanted to compare AMTRAK service in my adult years, to that of the Louisville & Nashville's "Old Reliable" service as it was known in my youth.

As a young boy, train travel to and from New Orleans was a way of life. My father was an employee of the Louisville & Nashville, and with special tickets ...passes as they were called family made many trips to New Orleans, for shopping and recreation. Needless to say, this was in the hey-day of railroading, when the local service featured numerous passenger and freight trains daily, and a very busy depot.

To give you an idea of just how good the "good old days" of passenger service used to be, I paid a visit to my hometown newspaper, the SEA COAST ECHO, whose publisher/editor Ellis Cuevas by the way, is a first cousin. He and I perused editions of years past, and at random, chose an L&N advertisement for September 2, 1893. It listed four daily passenger trains, east and westbound and the ad also listed Charles Marshall as L&N Superintendent and J.A. Green as Local Agent.

Now, since the demise of the glory days of railroading, passenger service consists only of Amtrak's Sunset Limited through Bay Saint Louis three times weekly-westbound and eastbound.

From a scenic point of view, this stretch of now CSX track between Bay Saint Louis and New Orleans may not be considered one of spectacular grandeur, one of National Geographic standards. But it is one of unique beauty and worth seeing, perhaps more meaningful and appealing to a native like myself. Imagine if you can, a train trip bisecting lakes and marshes and bayous. On a day of bright sunshine, the vista is especially alluring. The waters, a mixture of salt and fresh, can glisten as far as the eye can see. Pelicans, seagulls, and white-as-cotton egrets glide to-and-fro, soaring or competing with prevailing winds. Fishing and pleasure boats of all sizes, shapes and colors chug and putt-putt in every direction. And then there are the countless duck-blinds and fishing shanties and cabins, rustic and weather-beaten, but treasured as weekend getaways. This is the visual appeal of the Sunset Limited's path through this area of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and southern Louisiana.

But, back to the gist of my discontent over plans for the trip to New Orleans on that recent spring day. As any traveler does, I called AMTRAK reservations to reconfirm my ticketing, and departure time. I was told the Sunset Limited was running about an hour late out of Orlando. That's no big deal. I am on vacation, and the extra time would allow me to visit a hometown buddy before leaving.

But the bad news kept mushrooming. On each subsequent phone call to AMTRAK, reservation agents told of continuing delays, for various and sundry reasons. The Orlando delay was caused, I was told, by the Florida citrus train getting priority. Then I was told that fixing a mechanical problem with the water system on the train's diner caused another delay. Then I was told that roadbed and track maintenance and repair work east of Mobile further delayed the train. By then I could easily imagine the Sunset Limited slowly making its way westbound across the Florida Panhandle. In reality, this continued and "Sunset" took on literal meaning, as it indeed was near sunset when the train finally eased into Bay Saint Louis, about eight hours behind schedule.

By then however, I was long gone, having exhausted my patience for this particular train trip. At that hour, I was once again in New Orleans, thanks to a Greyhound bus that operated on-time.

This encounter I've described with delayed service is by no means meant to "bash" AMTRAK. Instead, I desire only to share the happening with readers and/or train travelers so it can be compared with their own experiences.

Despite this disappointing experience with AMTRAK, I remain an avid train fan, and look forward to my next rail adventure. I am grateful that my hometown still can count itself among AMTRAK stops. I am thankful there is still the opportunity to have train travel in Bay Saint Louis--something that so many other communities across the United States have lost. I remain optimistic, and I say "better luck next time". Believe me, I haven't lost the desire for the train ride between Bay Saint Louis and New Orleans.


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