Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Crescent
It's 6:40 a.m. on Thursday, June 6, 2002, and I've just arrived at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, where I will be boarding the Crescent, scheduled to depart at 7:20 a.m., en route to New York.
The purpose of this trip was to attend a committee meeting in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Boy Scouts of America. On Tuesday, I flew down on AirTran Airlines. That trip took about 11 hours door to door, including a three-and-one-half hour wait for a connecting flight in Atlanta. But the actual time spent in the air was only about three hours.
Although I had only one day to spend in New Orleans, my meeting lasted for only two and one-half hours, so I had ample time to do some sightseeing. This was my fourth trip to New Orleans, a city which I always enjoy visiting because of its historic character. I began my day by taking a five-minute free ferry ride to Algiers, on the opposite side of the Mississippi River. Although the ferry was nearly deserted when I took it (at about 9:00 a.m.), I was told that it is well patronized by commuters earlier in the morning. I then took a walk along the Riverfront, purchased a day pass for the New Orleans public transit system, and took a ride on the Riverfront Streetcar.
Unlike the St. Charles Streetcar, an historic streetcar line for which New Orleans is famous, the Riverfront Streetcar does not follow an historic trolley route. Rather, it runs along the right-of-way of the New Orleans Public Belt Railway, a freight line providing service to local industries, which is still quite heavily used (indeed, at one point, a long freight train ran alongside our streetcar for quite a distance). This line caters almost exclusively to tourists and - other than transporting tourists from one tourist destination along the waterfront to another - does not really serve a transportation purpose. After my ride on this rather short line, I did some sightseeing in the French Quarter.
Following my meeting, I took a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar out to Carrollton. This is the oldest continually operating streetcar line in the world, having first been built as a steam railroad in 1835, and it is quite a thrill to ride it. The most easterly section of the line, which begins at Canal Street in the heart of downtown New Orleans, features street running, but the remainder of the 13-mile line follows a dedicated right-of-way in the center of St. Charles Avenue and Carrollton Avenue. Unlike most such trolley rights-of-way, the ties are covered with grass, and large trees line the route. The result is that the line retains a bucolic appearance, quite unusual for an urban trolley line. The route passes through beautiful residential neighborhoods, which have retained their character and are still desirable places to live. Of course, many local residents utilize this streetcar line as their primary means of transportation (although it is also, to some extent, a tourist attraction).
The lush, grassy appearance of the St. Charles Streetcar line has resulted in the regular use of the right-of-way by joggers. I found this practice rather surprising, and it would be strictly unlawful in most places, but the use of this trolley line by joggers seems to be accepted and tolerated by local authorities. Generally, the joggers proceed against the direction of traffic and move out of the way when a streetcar is approaching. In any event, the streetcars travel at rather slow speeds and can easily stop when necessary.
In the evening, I went to the Amtrak station to pick up my ticket. I rode the St. Charles Streetcar for part of the distance, and walked the rest of the way. When I arrived at the station, I found it rather deserted. The inbound Crescent (scheduled to arrive at 7:50 p.m.) was about five hours late, and no trains are scheduled to depart at this time of the day. The station - built in the 1950s, and one of the very last large union terminals constructed in the United States - was never particularly attractive, and its appearance has further deteriorated in recent years. Half of the building is now used as a Greyhound bus terminal, and the waiting area for Amtrak passengers features unattractive molded plastic seats. As might be expected, there was no line at the ticket window, and I promptly received my ticket after presenting the requisite photo ID.
This morning, I left the Marriott Hotel at 6:20 a.m. and walked over to St. Charles Avenue, where a streetcar promptly arrived. (This was in contrast to my experience yesterday, when I had to wait up to ten minutes for a streetcar.) Even including the ten-minute walk from the streetcar line to the station, I arrived at the station at 6:40 a.m. As it turned out, even then there was no line at the ticket counter, and I could just as easily have obtained my ticket this morning.
Soon, an announcement was made that all checked baggage must be presented at the ticket counter by 6:50 a.m., or it will be subject to a 48-hour delay. This sounded rather strange to me, as the Crescent is a daily train, so even if the baggage were checked too late to be transported on today's train, it could be sent on tomorrow's train, resulting in a delay of only 24 hours. (When I questioned the agent about this, he replied with a grin that the announcement was merely designed to ensure that passengers check their baggage on time!)
Boarding for sleeping car passengers began at 6:55 a.m., with about ten passengers boarding at this time. The attendant walked into the Magnolia Lounge (the lounge for first-class passengers) to inform some sleeping car passengers of the boarding call (based on my past experience, I know that general announcements cannot be heard in this lounge). Coach passengers were allowed to board at 7:00 a.m., with passengers destined to stations from Washington north to New York being assigned to the first coach, and the other 36 passengers who boarded at New Orleans being assigned to the second coach. As I boarded my car, the friendly attendant, Cathi Oliver, assigned me to Seat #33, on the left side of the car. There were only 16 people in my coach (only four of whom were destined for Newark or New York), so I had two seats to myself, at least for now. Although an announcement was made that tickets would be collected before passengers boarded the train, that procedure was not followed, and no one asked to see tickets until the conductor came through to collect them after we were underway.
After stowing my belongings, I walked down to the front of the train to record the consist. Today's Crescent is pulled by Genesis engines #1 and #3 and includes a material handling car, a baggage car, a crew dorm, two Viewliner sleepers, a diner, a lounge car and three Amfleet II coaches. The first coach, #25085 (to which I was assigned), has the original red striped seats, while the other two coaches feature the new blue seats and have been retrofitted to provide electric outlets at each seat.
Although this is the third time that I'm taking the Crescent from New Orleans to New York, it is the first time that I'm traveling by coach rather than sleeper. Amtrak's charges for sleeping car accommodations have increased significantly in the last year, and when I checked on the Internet, the added cost of the sleeper was over $400! This sounded much too high, and even though I could afford to pay this amount, I decided to travel by coach instead. At least for now, the ride should be quite pleasant, as my car is far from full, and I have two seats to myself.
We departed New Orleans at 7:21 a.m., one minute late, and followed a rather circuitous route out of the city, passing by the well-known cemeteries, with above-ground burials. We proceeded along Lake Ponchartrain and then crossed it on a six-mile-long trestle, soon arriving in Slidell at 8:18 a.m. The historic station in Slidell, built in 1903, has recently been restored, and - according to a message I received yesterday on the Railway Station Historical Society List - the station was rededicated in a ceremony held yesterday. About half a dozen passengers boarded here. For some reason, Slidell is shown as a flag stop on the timetable, but the train has stopped here to board passengers each time that I have taken it.
The first call for breakfast had been made about 8:05 a.m., so soon after we departed Slidell, I decided to proceed to the dining car for breakfast. Just about every table was occupied, and I was requested by the steward to wait in the adjacent lounge car until a table became available. I was soon called into the dining car, where I was seated opposite a man who had boarded in Slidell and was headed for Culpeper, Virginia (ironically, also a "flag stop"). He commented that the renovated Slidell station was a big improvement and made the station a much more pleasant place to wait for the train. I got the continental breakfast, which included cold cereal, two small cups of fruit, a croissant and a cup of yogurt (which I do not care for). The dining car, #8552, had recently been attractively reconditioned (although I found the new seats, which have a large bulge in the middle of the seat back, somewhat uncomfortable). During breakfast, we stopped briefly at Picayune, Mississippi, where the "station" consists of a covered pavilion situated some distance from the tracks.
Since there was no electric outlet adjacent to my seat (actually, there was an outlet next to the seat in front of mine, but it was blocked by the seat and could not be used), when I went to the dining car for breakfast, I plugged my computer into an outlet towards the rear of the car to recharge it. Upon my return from breakfast, I retrieved my computer and moved to the lounge car for a little while. However, a designated smoking period began at 9:30 a.m., and although the smoking was restricted to the rear portion of the car, the odor of the smoke permeated the entire car to some extent. So I decided to return to my seat.
We arrived at the sprawling brick station in Hattiesburg at 9:42 a.m. The building seems to be in better shape than it was the last time I took this train, and a sign on the station now designates it as an "Intermodal Transportation Center." When we departed three minutes later, we were five minutes late.
Our next stop would be Laurel. I had heard on the scanner that a large school group would be boarding here, so I asked the attendant whether I could step off the train to take a picture. She replied that "they" would not allow me to do that, although I could step off the train when we stopped at Birmingham. I've traveled this route previously, so I wasn't too upset that I would not be permitted to step off the train, although I knew that there would be plenty of time for me to do so.
When we arrived at Laurel at 10:16 a.m., a large group of children and adults was waiting to board the train. As I had anticipated, the boarding process took six minutes. The entire group was assigned to the rear coach, which had been closed off since our departure from New Orleans. Once we were on our way, I walked back to the last coach and used the opportunity to look out the back of the train for a few minutes. Talking to some of the leaders of the group, I was informed that they were from Meridian and had taken a school bus down to Laurel. The school bus drove back empty to Meridian and would be waiting for them upon their return. I counted 63 people in the car, with only 60 seats, but a number of seat pairs were occupied by three small children, who easily fit into the two wide seats.
I returned to my seat and continued working on these memoirs. The scenery along this part of the ride is pleasant but not spectacular in any way, featuring mostly forested areas.
We arrived at Meridian at 11:16 a.m. Again, our stop here lasted for seven minutes to permit the large school group to detrain. The large new station here, constructed in a traditional style, seems far larger than needed for the one daily train in each direction that stops here. I noticed that a reporter for a local television station was present to record the arrival of the schoolchildren on the train - probably a major event for this relatively small city!
About this time, my computer's batteries died, so I moved to a seat adjacent to the one accessible electric outlet in the car and plugged in my computer so that I could continue using it. I fell asleep for a few minutes and then, about 12:30 p.m., decided to eat lunch. I had brought along a few cans of sardines and some crackers. I went to the lounge car and obtained a can of soda, and then returned to my seat to eat my sardines and crackers. (Although the tables of the lounge car would have been a little more convenient for this purpose, an announcement had been made that passengers may not bring their personal food into the lounge car, so I decided to eat at my seat instead).
We arrived at Tuscaloosa, with its charming brick station, at 1:03 p.m. When we left two minutes later, we were 15 minutes late, having lost a little more time due to some slow running between Meridian and Tuscaloosa. North of Tuscaloosa, we encountered another stretch of slow running, due to track work.
My computer having been plugged in during lunch and now recharged, I decided to move to a table in the lounge car, where I could spread out my papers and do some more work. After a while, we passed through the City of Bessemer, with an attractive brick station. There are many intersecting rail lines in the area, and an abandoned Pullman-Standard factory, which formerly produced boxcars, is visible on the left side of the tracks.
As we approached the outskirts of Birmingham, we passed a junkyard where the broken-down remnants of rail cars were visible. We crawled into the Birmingham station, where we came to a stop at 2:24 p.m. It was announced that passengers could step off the train here, so I did so briefly. Birmingham is an ugly station, with a former platform fenced off with barbed wire and apparently abandoned boxcars occupying an adjacent track. Although I did not have time to visit the station building itself, I remembered from a previous trip that it is a cramped, unattractive underground facility, with the former station having been demolished years ago. Our stop here lasted for 11 minutes, and when we departed at 2:35 p.m., we were eight minutes late, having made up some of our lost time. As was the case last time, we had to stop just beyond the station to pick up a conductor who had hand-thrown a switch.
I now returned to the lounge car, where I noticed that several people (including a crew member) were smoking in the rear section of the car, even though smoking was not permitted between 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Fortunately, relatively little of the smoke permeated to the other end of the car. I watched as we left the industrial surroundings of Birmingham and entered more hilly terrain, with numerous curves around which you could see the front of our train. I also noticed many areas which were entirely covered by the kudzo vine, which enveloped trees, houses and even abandoned cars! This is the most scenic part of the trip, but, unfortunately, it was cloudy and dreary outside.
My computer's batteries began to get low, so I decided to move back to the middle coach, where every seat had an electric outlet, and there were several empty pairs of seats. (The seats in my coach adjacent to the electric outlet had been taken by passengers boarding in Birmingham.) We passed through the short Chula Vista tunnel - the only tunnel on the line (south of Washington) - at 3:27 p.m. About half an hour later, we passed by the large Anniston Army Depot.
We arrived at the Anniston station at 4:13 p.m. This attractive brick station, with the wording "Southern Railway System" still visible above the entrance, is located at the outskirts of town, and is in less than ideal condition. I noticed that, since the last time I passed by this station, a chain-link fence has been installed between the station and the platform, with a gate that is opened only once the train is in the station. (I noticed that a similar fence had been installed at the renovated Slidell station, although that one is made of attractive wrought iron.) I had asked the conductor how many people were supposed to be boarding here, and he replied that the manifest shows only two passengers scheduled to board. But when we pulled into the station, over a dozen passengers were waiting. The reason for this soon became evident. Only two passengers boarded our train; the others were waiting for southbound Train #19, which had been scheduled to arrive at 10:40 a.m. Earlier in the afternoon, about 1:30 p.m., I had heard the conductors mentioning that Train #19 had just arrived in Gainesville, Georgia. I was now informed by the conductor that the southbound train would be meeting us at a siding just north of Anniston. Our stop at Anniston lasted for only a minute, and when we departed, we were 14 minutes late.
My computer's batteries were now charged, so I decided to move to the lounge car. Several people were sitting at adjacent tables, and I started talking to them. One man had boarded the train in Tuscaloosa and was headed for a conference in East Rutherford, N.J. A woman was headed home to Hiawasee, Georgia (near Gainesville) from a visit to her daughter near New Orleans (she had boarded the train in Slidell, and commented favorably on the recent renovation of its station), while another woman was traveling to New York for a vacation. A man traveling with us had been on southbound Train #19 a few days ago when it struck a car at Slidell, killing two people and delaying its arrival in New Orleans for three hours. Two of these people commented that they had considered upgrading to sleeper accommodations, but were deterred from doing so by the very high price of these rooms.
We finally passed the southbound Crescent at 4:26 p.m. The southbound train - which was about six hours late - was stopped on a siding, while we proceeded ahead on the main line. Soon afterwards, an announcement was made that the smoking period in the lounge car had just begun. This announcement seemed superfluous, as people had been smoking there all afternoon long! We now proceeded through an attractive forested area, with almost everything covered with kudzo vines. A number of curves afforded the opportunity to see the front of the train through the window.
We soon crossed the Alabama-Georgia boundary and entered the Eastern Time Zone, so we were asked to move our watches ahead by one hour. As we proceeded through Georgia, we passed through a number of small towns (including Bremen and Villa Rica) where the railroad runs on a dedicated right-of-way through the center of the main street.
About 6:30 p.m., my computer's batteries began to run low, so I moved back to the second coach and continued working on revising the minutes of yesterday's meeting. Right after we passed through the town of Austell at 7:20 p.m., an announcement was made that the lounge and dining cars are now closed and would remain closed until our departure from Atlanta. Passengers were also asked to return to their assigned seats, which I did.
On my previous trips on the Crescent, our train proceeded at track speed directly into the Atlanta station, which is located right on the main line. But this time, we approached the station at a very slow speed, and then stopped for five minutes just outside the station. From conversations I heard on the scanner, it appeared that the reason for this was that the engineer who would be taking the train out of Atlanta could not be found. Finally, we pulled forward into the station, where we arrived at 7:56 p.m., twenty minutes late.
The attendant had announced that passengers were welcome to step off the train in Atlanta, but due to safety considerations (the platform at track level is quite narrow), passengers who do get off the train here are requested to go up to the station and remain there until a boarding call is made. I stepped off the train upon our arrival and climbed up to the station, which was filled with passengers waiting to board our train. I checked my messages and made a phone call, and about 8:05 p.m., passengers started going down to board the train. When I returned to the platform, I noticed that two more coaches and two MHC cars had been added to the rear of the train by an NS engine. This is a change from the practice followed by Amtrak when I previously took this train. Formerly, there were four coaches on the train all the way from New Orleans to New York. Now, there are only three coaches on the southern leg of the route, which is less heavily traveled, but five coaches are provided for the Atlanta-New York segment, for which there is greater demand.
Passengers boarding in Atlanta were assigned to the third and fourth coaches. All new passengers were required to board at a single door, and the attendant gave out seat assignments to each passenger, which resulted in a delay in boarding the passengers originating in Atlanta. However, I was pleased that no new passengers were assigned to my car; thus, I could retain two seats to myself.
We finally departed from Atlanta at 8:24 p.m., eighteen minutes late. After updating these memoirs, I walked back to the rear of the train, where I found that the third and fourth cars were quite full with passengers boarding in Atlanta, while the fifth car was closed off. Then I decided to eat supper. Again, I had brought along some of my own food, which I supplemented with a bagel and cream cheese and a bottle of orange juice that I purchased from the service counter in the lounge car.
About 9:20 p.m., I returned to my seat just as we were about to arrive in Gainesville. At 9:24 p.m., we came to a stop. It seems that we had just pulled into the Gainesville station, where a relief crew was supposed to take over the operation of the train. But the relief crew hadn't shown up yet. So the train halted with the front end in the station but the rear end beyond the station platform. As a result, the ten-or-so coach passengers who were getting off here could not detrain. On the scanner, I heard the conductor call the dispatcher to find out the whereabouts of the relief crew, and finally I heard that the relief crew had just arrived at the station.
We sat in this manner for half an hour. No announcements were made by anyone as to what was happening (I guess there was no one to make any announcement, as it appears that no conductor was in charge of the train!). Finally, at 9:55 p.m., the relief crew pulled the train forward into the station, and after the passengers detrained and boarded, we pulled out of the station at 10:00 p.m., one minute short of an hour late. I subsequently questioned the new conductors as to the reason for the delay, and they confirmed that it was due to their lateness in arriving at Gainesville, where they had been scheduled to report for duty.
(The next day I was informed by a crew member that what actually happened was that the conductors from southbound Train #19 had been scheduled to take our train north from Atlanta. However, because of the severely delayed arrival of Train #19 in Atlanta, this crew ran out of time and was unable to take over our train. So, instead, a new crew had to be called. It would take this crew some time to get to Atlanta, so they called in a yard conductor in Atlanta and asked him to be the conductor of our train from Atlanta to Gainesville - a run for which he was technically qualified, but which he hadn't actually served on for a number of years. This conductor was wearing a T-shirt, rather than the white shirt and tie that passenger conductors are ordinarily supposed to wear, and he wasn't familiar with the ticket collection process, so he asked the attendants to collect the tickets instead! By having the substitute crew join the train in Gainesville rather than in Atlanta, we actually saved a significant amount of time.)
Since my computer's batteries had died, I again moved back to the second coach, where I could plug in the computer. After a while, I got a little tired and moved back to my assigned seat. I slept for a while, but was awake for our stop at Toccoa, from where we departed at 10:48 p.m. Soon, I moved back to the lounge car with my computer. The conductors who boarded in Gainesville had to fill out reports for the stretch of the route beginning in Atlanta, and since they were not aboard the train from Atlanta to Gainsville, I heard them call to find out the names of the conductors for this stretch, the time they went on duty, etc.
Our next stop was Clemson, S.C., where we arrived at 11:28 p.m. Clemson features a beautifully restored wooden station, which again has a wrought-iron fence separating it from the tracks (it seems that Norfolk Southern now requires that such a fence be installed whenever a station is renovated). When we left Clemson at 11:30 p.m., we were one hour and 12 minutes late.
I now returned to my seat and rested a little. We stopped at Greenville, which has a non-descript modern station, at 12:07 a.m. and left five minutes later. I went back to the lounge car, but was getting rather tired, so I soon returned to my seat and fell asleep.
I awoke during our next stop, Spartanburg, S.C., which has an historic station that has been restored. Again, there is a wrought-iron fence separating the station from the tracks. This one made little sense to me, as the northern end of the fence is at a grade crossing, where passengers can easily circumvent the fence. When we departed Spartanburg at 1:01 a.m., we were one hour and 18 minutes late. We seem to be losing some additional time at almost every stop!
For the next five hours, I actually slept most of the time. I was quite fortunate to have two seats to myself (most of the seat pairs in my car were occupied by two people), and this permitted me to stretch out over both seats. With the aid of the footrest that folds up from under the seat, I was able to rest in a horizontal position. I used a flannel shirt as a "blanket" and took advantage of the small pillow that is provided to all passengers. Of course, I did wake up a number of times, but in each case, I quickly fell asleep again. I slept through our stop in Gastonia, but awoke during our stop in Charlotte, N.C., from where we departed at 3:01 a.m. I also woke up during our stop in High Point, and I was awake for our stop in Greensboro (which features a modern, unattractive station), where we arrived at 5:08 a.m. When we departed 11 minutes later, we were one hour and 40 minutes late.
I finally woke up for good as we were approaching Danville, Va. Since we are scheduled to stop here at 4:41 a.m., when it is normally dark, I've never previously had a chance to get a good look at this station. The Danville station is a long brick building, with a peaked roof and arched windows. The style of its construction indicates to me that it must be well over 100 years old. Although not manned by an agent, the station is open for passengers, and I noticed a security guard help some passengers with their baggage. The track nearest the station is no longer in use, and again, there is a fence (in this case, an unattractive chain-link one) separating the platform from the station. The station building appears to be maintained in fair condition, but the area between the station and the one platform now in use is not attractive and could use some sprucing up. When we departed Danville at 6:27 a.m. after a four-minute stop, we were one hour and 46 minutes late.
Now that I was awake, I wanted to update these memoirs, but since my computer's batteries were nearly dead, I went to the second coach, where a number of seats had been vacated by passengers who had detrained at intermediate stops, found a vacant pair of seats, and plugged in my computer. The attendant announced that vacant seats in the coach I was sitting in might be needed for passengers boarding at the next stop, so prior to our arrival at Lynchburg, our next stop, I moved back to my assigned seat.
Lynchburg, where we arrived at 7:37 a.m., features a very attractive and historic three-story brick station. The top story is at street level, while the lower story is at track level (a ramp also leads down from the street to the tracks). The station appears to have been recently refurbished. Our stop here lasted for six minutes.
When we departed Lynchburg, I decided to go to the dining car for breakfast. Like yesterday, the car was full, and the steward asked me to wait for a few minutes in the lounge car. When I was called into the car after a ten-minute wait, I was seated next to a woman traveling by coach from Charlotte to Washington, and opposite two men who were returning by sleeper from Atlanta to Philadelphia. The woman, who grew up in Washington but now lived in Charlotte, was returning to Washington for a wedding. The two men, who worked for a large company in the Allentown, Pa. area, were returning home from a trade show in Atlanta. They explained that they decided to take the train because they both liked trains. Going down, they shared a standard bedroom, but they had a deluxe bedroom for their return trip. The round trip for both cost a total of about $1,200, but it was being paid by their company. Although the airfare was somewhat cheaper, they pointed out that this would have required them to stay in Atlanta two extra nights, and when the added cost of the hotel rooms is figured in, the train cost no more. Thus, their company was willing to pay for the full cost of the rail trip.
I spent about an hour in the dining car eating a leisurely breakfast. My three companions and I carried on a very enjoyable conversation, primarily revolving around rail travel. The scenery on this stretch of the route is very pleasant, passing through rolling country, with mountains often visible in the background. I ordered the same breakfast that I had obtained yesterday, but this time, I requested that a larger portion of fruit be substituted for the yogurt (which I don't eat, anyway). As a result, I was served two large cups of fruit. This turned out to be one of the most enjoyable meals I've ever eaten in an Amtrak dining car.
Finally, about 9:00 a.m., I returned to my seat. Soon afterwards, at 9:12 a.m., we stopped at Charlottesville. Here, the former main station building has been converted to a restaurant, with Amtrak now housed in a smaller adjacent building that used to serve the Railway Express Agency. When we departed Charlottesville at 9:16 a.m., we were two hours and 11 minutes late, having lost some more time since Lynchburg due to various slow orders along the way.
Our next stop, at 10:06 a.m., was Culpeper, which features an historic brick station at the edge of the downtown area. The station has an attractive peaked roof and has been nicely restored. Our stop in Culpeper was a brief one, with one passenger detraining and two people boarding our train.
I now walked to the rear of the train again. I found that the last car was still closed off, but there were over 40 people in each of the four coaches that were open. Hardly any pairs of seats were now unoccupied. Then I went down to the lounge car, where I noticed my attendant questioning the conductor as to our expected arrival time in Washington. She needed this information in order to rearrange connections for some passengers. Then, at 10:39 a.m., we made a very brief stop at Manassas. This classic brick station, with a large overhanging platform canopy, serves the Virginia Railway Express - a commuter line that connects Washington with suburbs in northern Virginia - and it has been nicely restored.
Soon afterwards, my computer's batteries died, so I went back to the coaches to find a pair of unoccupied seats next to an electric plug. The only seat I could find (other than one in the very front of the car, without a window) was at the end of the fourth coach, and I remained there until we were ready to arrive at Washington Union Station.
At 11:06 a.m., a short distance south of Alexandria, the southbound Cardinal, scheduled to leave Washington at 10:35 a.m., passed us. Due to the shortage of Superliner equipment in light of a number of recent derailments and the lack of funds to repair the cars that have been damaged, Amtrak recently converted the Cardinal into a single-level Amfleet/Viewliner train, and this is the equipment that was on the train that I saw.
There is about 18 minutes of make-up time built into the schedule between Manassas and Alexandria, but we weren't able to take full advantage of this, as we were delayed for about ten minutes at the AF Interlocking, just south of the Alexandria station. When we finally pulled into the station for our brief stop at 11:22 a.m., we were still two hours late.
We now passed the site of the former Potomac Yard and crossed the Potomac River into Washington, D.C., with the Washington Monument plainly visible. We proceeded through the tunnel under Capitol Hill and finally pulled into Track 26 at Union Station at 11:42 a.m. I detrained and walked along the platform, but didn't attempt to go upstairs to the station, as our train does not change engines in Washington. But quite a few passengers detrained here, and the rear MHC car was removed from the train. I soon reboarded, and about 11:57 a.m., I heard on the scanner that we were ready to proceed. But we had to await the departure of Acela Express #2164, scheduled to leave at 12:00 noon, so we did not pull out of the station until 12:03 p.m., just two minutes shy of two hours late. Upon our departure, Cathi, our attendant, announced that since no more passengers would be boarding the train from now on, everyone was welcome to move to any empty seat on a first-come, first served basis. She then announced approximate times of arrival at the various stations along the way, predicting an arrival at Newark at 3:30 p.m.
Soon after we departed Washington Union Station, I noticed a train pass us made up of MHC cars, with a dinette car on the rear. This presumably was Mail Train #13, a mail-only train that operates from Springfield, Mass. to Washington, D.C. Usually, an old, unreconditioned Heritage coach is used as a rider coach for the crew, but any equipment that happens to be available can serve this purpose, and it seems that this dinette car was not needed for any other train today.
About 12:35 p.m., I went to the dining car for lunch. I was seated at a table with two women, both of whom boarded in Atlanta and were headed to New York. One of the women was taking a class in New York which is given for one week every month. She normally flies from Atlanta to New York, but decided to try the train for a change.
The other woman was on the way to meet her husband, who was in the midst of a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He had started at Springer Mountain in Georgia and was going to be meeting her at Bear Mountain this evening. It was quite a coincidence that I, the editor of the Appalachian Trail Data Book, happened to be seated next to her! Her husband was a retired banker who always dreamed of hiking the trail and was now fulfilling his dream.
My chicken meal was quite good, and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch, then returned to a seat in the second coach, where I could plug in my computer. As we neared the Wilmington station at about 1:35 p.m., we slowed down and then came to a halt just south of the station. The reason soon became apparent - we were passed on the right by Acela Regional Train #142, the 12:05 p.m. train out of Washington. Generally, Amtrak's long-distance trains are accorded the lowest priority of all trains in the Northeast Corridor, since Amtrak recognizes that most long-distance passengers do not have time-sensitive schedules, while most passengers traveling wholly within the Northeast Corridor do. So we had to wait while Train #142 made its station stop, and then we pulled into the station at 1:41 p.m.
We arrived at our next stop, the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, at 2:13 p.m. Cathi, the attendant, told us that we could go upstairs, but warned us to be back on the platform in ten minutes, or the train could leave without us. I went upstairs to make a phone call, and when I returned in about ten minutes, the electric engine which would be attached to our train was nowhere to be seen. I walked to the front of the train and, after a few minutes, saw E-60 engine #608 pull up to our train. I returned to my car, but the electric power did not get turned on until 2:38 p.m., and we finally left at 2:40 p.m. Our stop in Philadelphia had actually lasted for 27 minutes, and we were now two hours and 15 minutes late.
As we pulled out of the station, I saw a passenger carrying a young child run along the platform. He wanted to get back on the train, but the train had started moving without him. I heard a call on the scanner for the conductor to stop our train, but the man managed to jump onto the moving train (apparently, a door had been left open), and the train did not stop for him.
We again stopped about 3:00 p.m., north of Philadelphia. This time, we were passed by Acela Express Train #2166, scheduled to leave Washington at 1:00 p.m. This train is scheduled to leave Philadelphia at 2:36 p.m., so it was obviously running a few minutes late. We arrived at Trenton at 3:19 p.m. for a brief stop. Seven minutes later, I observed the southbound Crescent, Train #19, pass us to the left.
The remainder of our trip was uneventful, and we arrived on Track 2 at Penn Station in Newark at 4:01 p.m. I walked downstairs, where my friend Geraldine was waiting to meet me. By 5:00 p.m., I was home.
My trip on the Crescent worked out quite well. Of course, it would have been a more luxurious trip if I had a sleeper, but I was fortunate to have been able to keep two seats to myself for the entire trip. Having been assigned a seat in the one coach on the train without electric outlets at each seat was somewhat annoying, but I was able to find a working outlet whenever I needed to recharge the computer's batteries. Finally, I was quite pleased with the friendliness and positive attitude of every crew member that I encountered.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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