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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Crescent
New Orleans-New York
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1999b09/1999b10a.html

It's 6:35 a.m. on Wednesday, February 10, 1999, and I've just arrived at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, where I will be boarding Train #20, the Crescent, on my way back home to New Jersey. After having arrived last night on the Sunset Limited, I caught the end of one of the Mardi Gras parades, and then spent some time on Bourbon Street. This morning, I left my Best Western motel on Tulane Avenue at 6:10 a.m. and took a bus down to Loyola Avenue. I then walked about half a mile along Loyola Avenue to the station.

Boarding of the train commenced at about 6:40 a.m. I walked down the platform to my Viewliner sleeper #62033, Scenic View, which is towards the front of the train. After storing my belongings in my room #8, I walked down to the front of the train to record the numbers of the head-end cars and the engines.

Today's Crescent essentially consists of one of the standard single-level sets of equipment used on the non-Superliner- equipped eastern runs. Our train is headed by two Genesis II engines, and includes a material handling car, a baggage car, a crew dorm (converted from a Heritage sleeper), two Viewliner sleepers, a Heritage diner, an Amfleet lounge car, and four Amfleet II coaches. All of the cars on the train, with the exception of the diner and one of the coaches, are painted in the newest Amtrak paint scheme, with one broad blue stripe topped by several very narrow stripes of red and white. The most interesting thing that I noted was that the lettering "New York Central" was clearly visible on the nameboard of the dining car (#8514). This is the first time in quite a while that I have seen such Heritage lettering on an Amtrak car. (My 1982 roster of Amtrak equipment indicates that this diner was constructed by the Budd Company in 1948, making it just over 50 years old! It is probably about the oldest car still in active Amtrak service today. And it is coupled to my Viewliner sleeper, which is just about the newest car that Amtrak has in service!)

We left New Orleans precisely on time at 7:00 a.m. The conductor soon came by to collect my ticket, and I watched out of the left side of the train as we passed the famous above-ground cemeteries on the outskirts of New Orleans. Then I walked through the train, and found that only 32 coach passengers were aboard. Those passengers going to Washington and points north were assigned to the first coach, with those going to destinations south of Washington assigned to the second coach. The rear two coaches were closed off. Although the coaches are virtually empty, a glance at a manifest that I saw indicated that 40 to 50 people would be boarding the train both at Anniston, Alabama and at Atlanta, and that by the time we got to Lynchburg, Virginia there would be over 200 people in the coaches (with a total available capacity of about 230 seats). So while the coaches appear deserted now, it looks like they will fill up later on.

The situation with the sleepers is similar. Only two economy bedrooms (including my own) are occupied in my car leaving New Orleans, and only one is occupied in the other sleeper. And only one deluxe bedroom appears to be occupied in each car. But the attendant in my car, Robert Robertson, assured me that the car will be full by the time we leave Atlanta.

Soon the first call was made for breakfast, but I decided to eat a little later. I watched from my room as we crossed the six-mile trestle over Lake Ponchartrain, said to resemble an ocean voyage, since for part of the way you cannot see land on either side. However, it was rather misty out, and you couldn't see very far in any event.

Shortly after we crossed Lake Ponchartrain, we arrived at Slidell, Louisiana, our first stop. There is a beautiful brick station here, which appears to be well-maintained and open at train time for waiting passengers. Several people got on here. We arrived three minutes early at 7:52 a.m. and left on time at 7:55 a.m. Then we crossed the Pearl River and entered Mississippi. Our next stop was Picayune, where we paused briefly to permit a single passenger to board and left on time at 8:16 a.m. There is a very short platform here, and shelter for waiting passengers is provided by a open wooden pavilion some distance back from the tracks.

Now I decided to go to the diner for breakfast. Almost everyone desiring breakfast had already eaten, so the diner was virtually deserted, and I had a table to myself. I had orange juice, coffee and an omelette.

The scenery in this area was not exceptionally interesting, consisting primarily of scrub forest and some swampy terrain. There were quite a few curves, though, which was a change from yesterday's mostly straight stretches of track. By this time, the mist had disappeared, although it was still cloudy out.

Soon after I finished breakfast, we arrived at Hattiesburg. There is a huge, old brick station here, located in a lower-class residential area, but the station seems to be entirely closed, except for a small office that is not open to passengers. The platform is covered by a very large wooden canopy, and two old steam engines are on display behind a chain-link fence. Only a few passengers boarded here. We arrived at Hattiesburg at 9:18 a.m. and left on time two minutes later.

I did some work on these memoirs while listening to the scanner. It seems that this stretch of track does not have signals directly controlled by the dispatcher, and I heard a number of track warrants being dictated in a southern drawl that I could barely understand.

As we were approaching our next stop, Laurel, an announcement was made that "the next stop will be Hattiesburg." Interestingly, no corrective announcement was made, but I don't think anyone was supposed to get off here. We made two stops here, one for sleeping car passengers, and the other for coach passengers. The classic brick station here has been recently rehabilitated, apparently for use as a community center or some similar function. The stop here lasted for five minutes, and when we left at 10:00 a.m., we were three minutes late.

For the next 25 minutes or so, we proceeded very slowly through an area where track work was being done. There was a long series of orange track machines on the track to our left, and it seems that the main purpose of the track work was to replace old ties with new ones.

After resting in my room for about half an hour, I decided to go to the lounge car, where I could spread out some papers on one of the tables. There were several passengers in the car, but it was far from crowded. At about 11:10 a.m., we approached Meridian, but we were delayed in reaching the station by several red signals that required us to pause for a few minutes.

We finally pulled into the Meridian station at 11:20 a.m. This old brick station has been restored, and a magnificent new building -- designed to resemble a classic, old train station -- has been constructed next to it to serve as a transportation center, housing not only Amtrak but also local and intercity buses, as well as taxis. There were about 25 passengers waiting to board the train, so the conductor -- for the first time on this trip -- let me detrain briefly to take a few pictures. When we left at 11:23 a.m., we were 19 minutes late.

I remained in the lounge car for a while, continuing to review a draft of a book written by a friend, and then returned to my room, where I observed us crossing the muddy waters of the Black Warrior River. Then, at 12:44 p.m., we passed the Mound State Monument on our left. Here are a number of mounds that were constructed about 800 years ago by Native Americans who inhabited the area. In the words of the Rail Ventures book, the mounds "flash by quickly," and were it not for the pages of this book that I had copied -- and for the Route Guide that I brought along -- I probably would never have noticed them, let alone have any idea what they represent. Moreover, the times set forth in the Rail Ventures book (it stated that we would reach this feature one hour and 20 minutes after leaving Meridian) turned out to be accurate within one minute, and were invaluable in permitting me to spot this interesting location.

This brings up the fact that neither the Crescent nor yesterday's Sunset Limited made any Route Guides available to passengers. None were in evidence anywhere on either train. In fact, on the Crescent, no timetables were provided in my "first- class" accommodation (although they were available in one of the coaches, with another coach having the Atlantic Coast Service timetables instead). And at no point did the Conductor, On-Board Chief or anyone else make any announcements of scenic features along the way. One very important reason why many people travel by train is to see the sights along the way, and if you don't know what to look for, you will miss many interesting features. Fortunately, I own a copy of the Rail Ventures book, and I have a collection of the original, "uncensored" Route Guides for almost every Amtrak long-distance route (and usually remember to bring them along with me). But most passengers do not have these materials available. I think it is a big mistake for Amtrak to have first downgraded these Route Guides by leaving out the bulk of the most interesting information, and then fail to supply them to passengers at all. (I should note that I subsequently inquired of the attendants in both sleeping cars as to whether any Route Guides were available, and the response was that neither had ever seen a Route Guide for this train in the over two years that they had been working it!)

A few minutes later, at 1:01 p.m., we arrived at the Tuscaloosa station (after some slow running south of the station). There is a charming brick-and-stucco station in good condition here, with the ticket agent's office being located in a circular projection from the building. This is a manned Amtrak station. Several people got off here, and two passengers boarded the train. Again, I was able to step off briefly to take a picture. When we departed at 1:03 p.m., we were 26 minutes late.

After stopping briefly at my room, I went to the diner for lunch. The diner was almost empty, with only a handful of passengers eating their noonday meal, and an equal number of crew members sitting down for their lunch at the two tables closest to the kitchen. It actually appears that more people had eaten breakfast in the diner than were here for lunch! (I had walked through the diner several times since lunch started, and at no point did the diner at all appear to be full.)

After I sat down (again, at my own table), I realized that I had forgotten to bring along with me to the diner my Route Guide and map. So I went back to my room to retrieve these items. When I returned to the diner, as I sat down at the table, the train lurched slightly, and I banged my elbow against the window sill, which had a hard, pointed edge. The result was that I cut my elbow slightly, and it started bleeding a little. After I assured him that the injury appeared to be quite minor, the attendant immediately brought over a wet paper towel and a band- aid, and soon returned with a small first-aid kit, which included an iodine wipe and some more band-aids. I thought that the actions of the crew to deal with the situation were quite satisfactory. However, the sharp, hard right-angle edges of the window sills in the diner represent poor planning on the part of Amtrak. Such edges are an invitation for an incident like mine to occur, and can easily be avoided by substituting slightly- rounded edges, as are found in the Viewliner sleepers. (I should note, though, that the aluminum track used for the window shades in the Amfleet II coaches also has a sharp edge, along with protruding screw heads.)

The dining car steward, who was sitting at the table directly behind me, started talking to his fellow crew members about his experiences with Amtrak. He mentioned that stewards are accountable for every single piece of food that they sign for, and explained how it was easily possible to improperly account for something as minuscule as a piece of cheesecake. Indeed, he stated, he was fired by Amtrak -- along with 56 other stewards -- in 1986 for failing to account for some minor item of food, and it took him about a year to get his job back. He referred to the Amtrak auditors in Philadelphia as "bean counters," and stated that all lead service attendants (LSA's) are subject to being audited at any time, with the rule being that they are guilty until proven innocent. In particular, he expressed frustration with having to account for items, such as chicken, that are supposed to come with a set number of portions per box. Although, for example, there are supposed to be 24 portions per box, in fact the box is sold by weight, not by number of portions, and there might indeed be 23 or 26 portions in the box, rather than 24. This, he explained, would create a major problem for the LSA. If the actual number was short of the expected quantity, he could at least make it up by paying for the missing item himself. But if the number exceeded what was anticipated, there would be no satisfactory way he could explain this. And the On-Board Chief could, at any time, conduct an audit and confront him with the fact that he has in his possession several pieces of chicken that he could not properly account for, and then subject him to severe sanctions! Moreover, he expressed concern that this problem would only be aggravated by the installation of computers, which are supposed to strictly account for each and every food item, with absolutely no margin of error.

He also pointed out that it is against the rule for one crew member entitled to a free meal to give his meal to another crew member, even if the first crew member has no desire to eat the meal. Moreover, he stated, a crew member may not take off the train any item that he or she is entitled to obtain for free. And, of course, crew members can be disciplined for violating these rules.

I listened to this conversation with a great deal of interest -- and a great deal of sadness. I have little doubt that what the steward was telling his fellow workers was -- at least for the most part -- true. Indeed, I have heard similar comments from other Amtrak employees. It is of great concern to me that the effectiveness of a steward is judged by Amtrak not upon whether he is really going the extra mile to make passengers feel welcome and to provide for all their needs in an exemplary manner, but rather upon whether he can make a satisfactory accounting for every single food item that comes within his jurisdiction. Who cares if a steward cannot account for a missing piece of cheesecake or an extra piece of chicken, or if an attendant takes a can of soda off the train? Whatever minor pecuniary benefit may accrue to Amtrak as a result of its procedures designed to avoid such incidents is far outweighed by the animosity towards Amtrak on the part of crew members that is generated by these procedures. Instead of concentrating on helping the customer, the LSA has to spend his time worrying about silly, minute details, and if he makes some relatively minor mistake, he can be disciplined or even fired. I have heard it said a number of times that the poor attitude of many Amtrak employees results not from any deficiency in the employees themselves, but rather from the way they are treated by Amtrak management. The conversation that I overheard at today's lunch only confirms this.

During my lunch, we passed through the industrial city of Bessemer, just south of Birmingham. I noticed an abandoned rail bridge crossing our tracks at a sharp angle, with the date of 1907 appearing on an adjacent concrete arch bridge of the same abandoned line. Then, at 1:50 p.m., we passed the southbound Crescent. It was headed by engine #91, and its consist was identical to ours, except that it had two baggage cars instead of a baggage car and an MHC car. Next, we passed the beautiful brick Bessemer station, no longer in use as such but converted to a museum (with a chain-link fence separating it from the tracks).

Soon after I finished lunch, we pulled into the Birmingham station. The attendant assured me that, despite the fact that we were running late, we would be spending about ten minutes here. So I went down to the station to make a phone call to the Trail Conference. The Birmingham station is a very unattractive, cramped basement facility, with several rows of blue seats crowded together in a small space. Apparently, there used to be a large station here, but it was torn down to build an office building. It seems that there are only two active tracks at the station, and the other track was occupied by a freight train. I quickly made my phone call. When I returned to the train about five minutes later, all passengers had already boarded, and soon all the doors were closed. We spent a total of ten minutes in Birmingham, and departed at 2:23 p.m. We were now 14 minutes late. On the way out of the station, we stopped to pick up one of the conductors who had to throw a hand-switch in front of the station.

After slowly proceeding through another industrial area at a slow speed, we continued through some hilly terrain -- the first of this type that we have encountered on this train. This was quite a contrast to the flat, swampy terrain that we have encountered for most of the way since Houston. We went around many curves and traversed quite a few rock cuts, and we even went through the rather short Chula Vista Mountain tunnel. Then the terrain flattened out somewhat, and soon we passed the Anniston Army Depot on the left. This depot -- which, the Route Guide says, is the largest military depot in the United States -- comes equipped with its own railroad (behind a chain-link fence), including a red engine lettered for the United States Army.

I walked back to the diner, where I noticed on a table a copy of a small booklet entitled "Laws Governing Railroad Employees Involved in Railroad Accidents." The steward, sensing by now that I was a railfan, said that I could keep this booklet. Essentially, it states that railroad employees involved in a grade-crossing or other train accident have no obligation to submit to testing for drugs or alcohol by state or local law enforcement officials, unless the official has a specific reason to suspect that a particular employee was actually under the influence of such substances, and setting forth an 800 number at which the Amtrak Police Department could be reached in case of a dispute. We started talking, and the steward mentioned that he lives in South Amboy, New Jersey, and formerly lived across the river in Perth Amboy. I told him that my grandfather lived in Perth Amboy for over 50 years! The steward also mentioned that the dining car crew for this train are all based in New York, while the sleeping car attendants are based in New Orleans.

We arrived in Anniston at 3:56 p.m. Here there is an attractive red-brick station, at the junction of two rail lines, that is still in use. A very large crowd of schoolchildren were waiting to board the train here, and they were all assigned to sit in the last car of the train. Due to the large number of people boarding (with their baggage), we stayed here for eight minutes. I had hoped to step off the train here -- and there was certainly plenty of time to do so -- but by the time I got to the last car, the group had started boarding, and my detraining at that point would have interfered with the orderly boarding process. So I remained on the train during our stop here, and just took a picture through the window of my car. When we left Anniston at 4:04 p.m., we were 22 minutes late.

For the first time, the rear car was open to passengers, so I walked to that car and spent a few minutes looking out the back of the train. Virtually every seat in the last car was filled with members of the school group. It turned out that the group was the eighth grade from the Alabama Avenue School in the nearby town of Albertsville, which was traveling to Washington with their American History teachers to observe history in the making. For many of these youngsters, it would be their first train trip. The next-to-last car was still entirely empty, and there were now a total of about 60 passengers in the first two cars.

At 4:45 p.m., we crossed the state boundary and entered Georgia. An announcement was made that we are now entering the Eastern Time Zone, and that everyone should move their watches ahead by one hour. As we passed through the town of Talapoosa, the first town we come to in Georgia, I noticed a miniature steam engine alongside the tracks on the left. I could not read the sign posted next to it, and nothing was said about it in the Route Guide or the Rail Ventures book, so I can only assume that it is a replica of an historic steam engine that had something to do with this community. We continued to go through rolling, somewhat hilly terrain, and from my room I was often able to observe the front of the train going around curves.

At 6:05 p.m. (Eastern Time), an announcement was made that the members of the school group who wish to have dinner should come to the diner at this time. We then passed through the town of Bremen, where an interesting spur line to the north passed on a very narrow right-of-way between two rows of commercial building. Just east of Bremen, we passed a Norfolk Southern freight train that was waiting on a siding for us to pass. The parked train was blocking a grade crossing, and I noticed several motorists turn around and head for another crossing that would hopefully not remain blocked for such a lengthy period. About half an hour later, thanks to the Route Guide and the Rail Ventures book, I was able to spot a "ramshackle, abandoned house" to the right of the train that was completed covered by kudzu vines. By this time, it was almost completely dark out.

Then, at 6:50 p.m., an announcement was made that the lounge car is closed, and all passengers were asked to return to their seats. In part, this was undoubtedly designed to facilitate the cleaning of the car, but it was not clear to me why so much time had to be allowed for this purpose.

We finally pulled into the Peachtree Street Station in Atlanta at 7:29 p.m. -- only 13 minutes late. (I might add that we proceeded at track speed all the way to the station, with none of the slow running that often characterizes approaches to Amtrak stations in major cities.) An announcement had been made that passengers could go out to the platform to smoke, but should not go upstairs to the station. However, we were not scheduled to depart Atlanta until 7:46 p.m., so there was clearly plenty of time to go up and make a phone call. So I walked down to the front of the platform, went upstairs and called home to check my messages. On the way, an Amtrak employee informed me that two "baggage cars" would be added to the rear of the train here.

The Peachtree Street Station in Atlanta was designed as a suburban station, with all trains terminating in a major station in downtown Atlanta. But that station was demolished a number of years ago, and Peachtree Street Station has become the main station for Amtrak in Atlanta -- something it was never designed for. The main approach to the one, narrow platform is via a long flight of stairs leading down from the waiting room. However, because of the sloping configuration of the terrain in the area, it is also possible to access the middle of the platform directly at grade from the street. Until recently, this was the way most passengers were instructed to board the train, but the station has recently been expanded, with a new ticket sales and baggage area added (and an elevator installed for handicapped passengers), and now all passengers board from the station itself. The waiting room retains its original beauty, with classic wooden benches, and a small exhibit on rail history (which I looked at briefly) has been installed.

I went back down to the platform around 8:42 p.m., but passengers were still boarding the train, so I had time to walk to the back of the train, where I recorded the numbers of the two material handling cars that had just been added. Interestingly, they had been pushed onto our train not by an Amtrak engine, but by NS engine #2432. While walking down the platform, I noticed that all of the passengers boarding in Atlanta were directed to one of the first two coaches, with the third coach remaining entirely empty. Then I reboarded our train, and we pulled out at 8:50 p.m., only four minutes late.

I returned to my car, where I noticed that a man who boarded in Atlanta had occupied Room #7, directly opposite my room. He lives in Jersey City and was returning from Atlanta, where he went to visit a friend. He told me that although he has no problem with flying, he took the train because he greatly enjoys this relaxing means of travel.

Soon, a second call for dinner was made, and I went to the diner, where I was seated opposite a man from Houston named Chuck who was on his way to New York for business. He had hoped to fly, but he decided to travel on relatively short notice and was, of course, quoted an outrageous price by the airlines. So he decided to take Amtrak instead. Rather than taking a bus connection from Houston (or traveling, as I did, the previous day on the Sunset Limited), he chose to drive to New Orleans instead. He left Houston around 12:30 a.m. last night and arrived in New Orleans about 6:00 a.m. this morning (he confessed to having driven as fast as 90 miles an hour, and to having been stopped once by the police and issued a "warning"). However, it took him some time to find the station in New Orleans, and by the time he got to the ticket counter, it was too late for the baggage he checked to get on today's train. So it will be sent on tomorrow's train, but this didn't bother him, since he doesn't need those items until Monday, anyway. He was enjoying the trip very much, and we had a very enjoyable conversation.

I first was served the fresh green salad that comes with every dinner, and then had a pot roast meal that was really delicious. Chuck ordered ham with a Heineken beer, and also enjoyed his meal very much. The dining car was not completely full, so no one else was seated at our table. During dinner, we made a very brief stop at Gainesville -- the rail gateway to the Appalachian Trail -- which features an attractive brick station which appears to be open to passengers.

After dinner, I again walked through the train. I found that, as predicted by the attendant, only one economy room in my car remained vacant. However, four economy bedrooms and both deluxe bedrooms in the front sleeper remained unoccupied. Almost every seat in the first coach was occupied, but there were several empty pairs of seats (and single seats) in the second coach, and the third coach remained entirely empty. Had I chosen to travel by coach, I would have been assigned to the first coach, and I know that I would have been quite upset if someone was assigned to sit next to me while an entire coach remained vacant! The lounge car was also quite full, with several tables occupied by students from the school trip who were playing cards.

After returning to my room, I again walked back to the lounge car, where I was greeted by a guy wearing a white Conrail polo shirt. I had previously seen him in the dining car during supper, and was going to tease him that he would soon have to buy a new shirt! It turned out that he was also a very serious railfan and -- having noticed the Sunset Limited cap that I was wearing -- had inquired of the dining car steward about my interest in railroads. His name was David Mangold, and he was the Vice President, Operations (what ever that means -- David wasn't sure himself) of the Amtrak Historical Society. I was certainly aware of the existence of this organization, but had never participated in its activities in any way. I brought my computer back to the lounge car, and I showed David my roster of the Amtrak equipment that I have traveled on, and also told him how to subscribe to the All-Aboard List. David mentioned to me that he formerly worked as a car attendant for Amtrak, but now is a conductor and student engineer for Conrail. He was quite excited about meeting me, and mentioned that my Amtrak roster might be of use to the Society.

While talking to David in the lounge car, we approached Greenville, S.C. The train is scheduled to stop here for five minutes, so I decided to step off the train here. I detrained from the rear of the second coach and walked down the platform and into the small, modern station, largely filled with molded plastic chairs. Then, noticing that the attendant in my sleeping car had opened the door and was standing on the platform, I decided to reboard the train there. Just as I reached the door, the engineer blew his whistle, signalling that we were about to depart. I climbed aboard, and we departed several seconds later. (Since I hadn't gotten off the train from my own car, the attendant did not expect me to reboard there, and he was just about ready to close the door when I climbed back on.) Our stop at Greenville had lasted just four minutes, and we departed at 10:45 p.m., five minutes late.

I spent a little more time with David in the lounge car, and then we returned to our respective accommodations. I obtained a cup of herbal tea from the beverage service provided in my car, and continued adding the very interesting events of this evening to the memoirs of this trip.

Although it was after midnight by now, I still was not tired. I went back to the lounge car and did a little reading there. When I returned to my room, I found that the attendant had already lowered the upper berth and set up the bedding. Although I had not asked him to do this, he was able to do so without in any way disturbing my computer, luggage and various papers that I was working with down below.

Then, at 12:53 a.m. -- ten minutes early -- we arrived at Charlotte, N.C. Since we were not scheduled to depart until 1:18 a.m., I got off the train and walked down a ramp and through a tunnel to the modern, rather unattractive station. I soon reboarded, returned to my room, and decided to go to bed.

I should note that my room was "facing backwards." The Viewliner rooms have two facing seats, one of which is narrower than the other, so as to allow room for the adjacent toilet. Also, the upper berth is tapered so that the end above the wider seat is wider, and the end above the narrower seat is narrower. This arrangement is designed with the understanding that one will be sleeping with one's head at the wider end of the berth, and this is how I found the bed set up. However, the car was positioned so that the wider end was in front, meaning that I would be sleeping facing backwards. I did not want to do this, so I turned the bedding around, and slept with my head in the narrower section of the berth. It was wide enough for me, and this way I could sleep facing forward.

I fell asleep rather quickly, and slept quite soundly for about five hours. Indeed, I slept through our station stops at Salisbury, High Point and Greensboro. I did wake up at 4:24 a.m., when we arrived at Danville, and 5:37 a.m., when we arrived at Lynchburg, but in each case I promptly fell asleep again.

Finally, I woke up for good at about 6:40 a.m., as we were approaching Charlottesville. I was thinking of getting off the train here to take a look at the new Amtrak station, recently converted from a Railway Express Agency building, but I decided to remain in bed. Since my room faced the "wrong" side of the tracks, I didn't even get a glimpse of the station. We made two stops here, and departed at 6:54 a.m., ten minutes late.

I stayed in bed for about another 20 minutes, watching the scenery, which now consisted mainly of farmlands and woods. Then I got up and walked to the back of the train. I found that all four coaches were now quite full. There was not a single unoccupied pair of seats in any coach, and there were two people sitting in most pairs of seats. The conductor was going through the coaches and handing out copies of the Washington Post to selected passengers, asking them to share their copy of the paper with others. (A paper had already been slipped under the door of my room.) By the time I returned to my room, the attendant had already remade the upper berth for the next occupant of the room! Then I took a shower. There were no bath towels in the shower room, but the attendant supplied me with one from a cabinet in the hallway. The water was very warm, and the shower was refreshing.

At 7:43 a.m. we stopped briefly at Culpeper, and soon an announcement was made that this would be the last call for breakfast. So I went back to the diner, where I was served the same breakfast that I got yesterday. I was seated opposite a man who was traveling in coach from Meridian to New York.

We made brief stops at Manassas and Alexandria. Although the schedule calls for the train to leave Alexandria at 9:00 a.m., this stop -- as well as every other stop for the remainder of our trip -- is made to discharge passengers only. So we actually left at 8:48 a.m. -- 12 minutes early. As we crossed the Potomac into Washington, D.C., I observed the Washington Monument covered with scaffolding for repairs.

We pulled in on Track 26 at Washington Union Station at 9:09 a.m. Passengers were warned not to go upstairs, and this time I heeded the warning, since this train now changes to an electric engine in Philadelphia, rather than Washington, and the dining car steward told me that he has seen the train spend as little as 10 minutes in Washington. I did get off the train, walk down the platform, and make a phone call. I noticed that mechanical equipment was being used to demolish the northern part of the canopy covering the platform between Tracks 23 and 24. A worker standing nearby told me that this portion of the canopy was being demolished because it was "not needed," and that it would not be replaced -- an explanation which I found rather puzzling. At 9:22 a.m., an all-aboard call was made, and I reboarded the train, but we did not actually depart until 9:38 a.m., having in the end spent nearly half an hour in Washington.

Now we proceeded north along the Northeast Corridor. At one point, I observed that we covered a mile in 36 seconds, which translates to 100 miles an hour. Our next stop was Baltimore, where we arrived at 10:12 a.m. and stopped only briefly. We were 26 minutes early when we departed Baltimore, so it appears that we will also be arriving at our final destination considerably earlier than the scheduled time.

Right after we departed Baltimore, the dining car steward announced that this would be the first and final call for lunch, and that the dining car would close upon our arrival in Wilmington! It was only 10:15 a.m., but another of Amtrak's stupid policies comes into play here. The rule is that the dining car must be all cleaned and everything stored away by the time the train arrives at its final destination. (And, of course, every missing piece of cheesecake or extra piece of chicken must also be accounted for!) So, that means that lunch must be concluded early enough so that the dining car staff has enough time to perform their complicated and detailed tasks before the train arrives at its final destination. As a result, passengers are required to eat lunch at 10:15 a.m.

Ordinarily, of course, I would have passed up this rather unusual opportunity. But, as a sleeping car passenger, I was entitled to a free meal. So I walked back to the diner and told the steward to begin heating up my meal. I returned to the diner about 10:45 a.m., and my lunch was served very promptly. I only ate the main dish, and took the dessert back to my room to be consumed later. I counted only nine passengers eating lunch in the diner -- not entirely surprising, given the time of day it is being served. I would presume that only sleeping car passengers bothered to eat "lunch" in the diner today, and even many of them, I'm sure, skipped their free meal. On the other hand, if lunch had been served at noon -- a more normal hour -- it is quite likely that many more passengers, including coach passengers who would have to pay for their meals, would have chosen to eat in lunch in the diner.

Just south of Wilmington, at 10:58 a.m., we passed the southbound Silver Palm. Then, at 11:01 a.m., we stopped briefly at Wilmington. The tracks here are being reconstructed, and the train therefore used the most easterly track, on which a makeshift high-level platform had been constructed for part of its length. Then, at 11:27 a.m., we arrived at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. An announcement was made that we will be there for ten minutes to change engines, and that passengers could go out on the platform but should not go upstairs, or they will "probably miss the train," since no departure announcement will be made. Of course, I ignored the announcement and walked upstairs, but soon returned to the platform, where I found that the rear MHC car had been taken off the train, and E-60 electric engine #602 was in the process of being added. We did not depart Philadelphia until 11:54 a.m., having spent 27 minutes there.

I watched us pass through the complex Zoo interlocking just north of the station, then moved over to the right side of the train and watched as we passed the Shore interlocking, where the trains to Atlantic City diverge. Soon I heard on the scanner that there appears to be a "hot spot" on car #25111, and we will have to stop to check this out. (Actually, there is no such car on our train, but the reference presumably was to car #25110, the first coach on the train.) The train soon came to a halt between Tacony and the Holmes Tower, the head-end power was shut off, and the conductor apparently went out to check the car in question. I tried to walk back to the coaches to see what was happening, but the lounge car had already been closed (another example of Amtrak's policies that do not inure to the benefit of the passenger), so I returned to my room in time to hear that we can proceed ahead, but only at the restricted speed of 80 miles an hour instead of 90 MPH (which, I think is the normal restricted speed of the E-60 engine that now powered our train). We immediately resumed our northward journey, having lost no more than about five or ten minutes due to this event. This was noteworthy as being the only occasion on the entire trip on which I heard any unusual event being broadcast on the scanner!

We stopped briefly at Trenton at 12:35 p.m. As we were leaving the station, I observed the southbound Silver Star, headed by engine #609, pulling into the station. It was right on time. A few minutes later, we passed the new Hamilton station, which looks like it is almost ready to be opened.

I did a little more work on these memoirs and then began to pack up my belongings. I passed many familiar sights along the Northeast Corridor, particularly noting the forlorn and abandoned Central Railroad of New Jersey station at Elizabeth, directly below us. Once a busy, four-track main line, the old CNJ rail line beneath us is now weed-grown. A short distance to the north, I noticed -- for the first time -- work beginning on the new Newark Airport station. How the station will connect to the airport is not evident, though. At 1:15 p.m., we passed the southbound Three Rivers. Then, at 1:19 p.m., we arrived at the Newark station. I had thought about getting off here, but decided to continue all the way to our final destination, Penn Station in New York.

We left Newark at 1:22 p.m., but immediately came to a halt in the middle of the drawbridge over the Passaic River, just north of the station. No announcement was made as to the reason for the delay, but I soon noticed that, to our right, a northbound Amtrak train was crossing the bridge on another track. It seems that that train was the Colonial, scheduled to depart Newark at 1:21 p.m. and arrive in New York at 1:40 p.m., and it would appear that it (understandably) is being given priority over our train. A few minutes later, we started moving again. We passed by the Secaucus Transfer station, also under construction, and finally arrived on Track 8 at Penn Station in New York at 1:45 p.m. -- 25 minutes early! Although arrivals ahead of schedule are not common for Amtrak, they are certainly not unprecedented (especially given the large amount of make-up time built into the schedules of all long-distance trains), and it does not even represent a record for me. In August 1996, when I took the Southwest Chief from Raton to Chicago, the train arrived 45 minutes early. And the steward on our train mentioned to me that, at times, the Crescent will arrive in New York up to an hour ahead of schedule.

I would normally have walked to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and taken the #167 bus back to Teaneck, but I decided that it would be only fitting to complete my trip by rail. So, instead, I walked over to the 33rd Street station of PATH and took the 2:07 p.m. PATH train to Hoboken, where I connected with the Pascack Valley Line train to Hackensack leaving at 2:35 p.m. This early-getaway train, which until a year ago ran on Fridays only, had over 80 passengers on this ordinary Thursday afternoon. Most of the seats in the two cars that were open were occupied by at least one passenger. We arrived in Hackensack at 3:02 p.m., and I took the #175 bus back to my home in Teaneck.

My first trip on the Crescent in about five years was rather uneventful from the point of the view of the train's operation, but it was one my most interesting train trips in terms of the people that I met onboard and their insights into Amtrak's operations.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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