Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak City of New Orleans
It's 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 17, 2002, and I've just arrived at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, where I will be boarding the City of New Orleans on my way to Chicago. I arrived here late Tuesday night (more accurately, early Wednesday morning), and stayed for two nights at the Ramada Plaza Inn on Bourbon Street. This is a first-class hotel, situated right in the heart of the French Quarter. Ordinarily, rooms at this hotel would be priced much higher than I would want to pay, but I was quoted a rate of $80.00 a night when I searched for hotels at Travelocity.com, so I decided to stay there. It turned out to be an excellent place to stay, with an elegant lobby, attractive courtyard with swimming pool, and well-appointed rooms. It even had a small Business Center, which I used to print out some of my train travelogues. My room faced the rear of the hotel, and it was very quiet. I would gladly stay at this hotel again if rooms were offered at this low rate!
Since I was up so late the night before, I took my time waking up and getting dressed on Wednesday morning, and did not leave the hotel until about 11:00 a.m. I had arranged to meet a friend for lunch, and we agreed that we would meet at the end of the St. Charles Streetcar line at 12:30 p.m.
I walked over to the streetcar stop at St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street and waited for several minutes, but no streetcar came by. One finally passed, but it was marked "out of service." Finally, a bus arrived with its destination board reading "12 St. Charles." It turned out that one block of St. Charles Avenue was closed for filming of a movie, requiring that streetcar service be suspended. So, I boarded the bus instead. At first, I assumed that the bus would be substituting for the streetcar for the entire run, but when we got to Lee Circle, at the southern edge of downtown, everyone got off the bus and boarded a waiting streetcar, which carried us the rest of the way. I was glad that I did have the opportunity to ride this interesting and historic streetcar line once more. One unique feature of this line is that for the entire distance south of Lee Circle, the tracks - which run in a median in the middle of the street - are covered with grass, and I observed several workers cutting the grass as we passed by.
Partially as a result of the delay caused by the substitution of bus service on part of the route, I did not arrive at the end of the line on Carrollton Avenue until 12:50 p.m. My friend was waiting for me. We went to a restaurant in Metairie for lunch and, after showing me some sights around town, took me back to my hotel.
I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Cabildo. This historic building - a short walk from my hotel - is situated right next to the cathedral. Formerly the seat of government and the site of many historic events, the building now houses the Louisiana State Museum. Its interesting and informative exhibits discuss the history of Louisiana from its beginnings to the Civil War period. I spent about two hours visiting the museum, staying until the museum closed shortly after 5:00 p.m., and could have used more time. I hope to visit the museum again on a subsequent trip to New Orleans.
Next, I took a ride on the Riverfront Streetcar down to Canal Street. On the way, our streetcar was passed by a very long train of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, whose tracks parallel those of the trolley line. I detrained at Canal Street and walked down this street, which will soon once again be the route of streetcars. Tracks have already been installed in part of the median strip, and work was in progress to install additional sections of track.
After returning to the hotel and spending a little time in my room, I walked over to a nearby restaurant for dinner. I spent some time after dinner walking down Bourbon Street and also took a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar from Canal Street to a short distance beyond Lee Circle, thus covering the portion of the line that I had missed earlier in the day.
The next morning, I checked my e-mail messages and spent some time revising my last set of Board minutes for the Trail Conference. I went out for lunch, then returned to my hotel, finished packing my belongings, and checked out at 12:50 p.m. I could have taken a taxi over to the station, but decided instead to walk along Bourbon Street to Canal Street, take the St. Charles Streetcar to Lee Circle, and walk from there to the station. That way. I'd experience a little more of this fascinating city and get to ride the streetcar one more time.
I reached the corner of Carondelet and Canal Streets at 1:00 p.m. A streetcar arrived five minutes later, but it took 15 minutes for us to reach Lee Circle, due to heavy passenger boardings (just about every seat in the streetcar was taken, and some people were standing) and congested traffic. Then, I walked over to the station, arriving there at 1:30 p.m., just as the first boarding call was made for sleeping car passengers. I briefly looked inside the first-class Magnolia Lounge and then walked out to the train, recording the consist on the way. After boarding my sleeping car #32029, a reconditioned Superliner I car, with blue seats, and putting my belongings away, I continued down to the front of the platform.
Today's City of New Orleans is pulled by three Genesis engines and includes an MHC car, a baggage car, two sleepers (the first one being a Superliner II car), a dining car, a coach, a coach with a smoking section on the lower level, a Sightseer Lounge car, and another coach in the rear. The unusual arrangement of the equipment in this consist is explained by the fact that this consist runs through with the Empire Builder, which has to have the lounge car separated from the diner because the diner runs to Seattle, while the lounge car goes to Portland. (In fact, the number shown on the outside of my car was 830 - the designation of the car on the Empire Builder - rather than 5800, its number for this trip on the City of New Orleans, and there was a copy of the Empire Builder Magazine in my room.) This also explains the placement of the extra coach on the rear of the train. But it does not explain why there is no crew dorm car in our consist.
I was assigned Room #5 on the upper level. In the room opposite me sat a couple who were traveling to Memphis, along with four large pieces of baggage - including a set of golf clubs. For some reason, they carried all four items up the stairs and tried to squeeze them into their room, eventually lowering the upper berth and stowing them there. I commented to the husband that I didn't think he would need his golf clubs during the train ride to Memphis! Finally, I think they got the hint, and the husband eventually brought all four items back downstairs and stowed them in the luggage racks on the lower level, where there was plenty of room.
We departed New Orleans on time at 1:55 p.m. I watched from my room as we moved away from the downtown area, running along Interstate 10 for some distance. Then, rather suddenly, the scenery changed. We were now passing through the bayou country for which this area is famous. Cypress trees with hanging moss grew out of swamps, and pelicans were visible in the distance. This is the most unusual and interesting scenery along the route, so I decided to move over to the Sightseer Lounge car, which offers the best viewing.
First, I walked through the two sleepers and found that less than half the rooms in my car appear to have been occupied. Hardly any rooms were occupied in the first sleeper. However, my attendant assured me that our car would fill up by the time we reached Memphis. As for the coaches, there were only about 25 people in the first coach, and the other two coaches were entirely empty. In fact, the last coach (behind the Sightseer Lounge) was closed off. I estimated that there were about 20 sleeper passengers and 25 coach passengers on this train - a very low number for a train that could accommodate as many as 200 coach passengers.
I watched as we passed along the shore of Lake Ponchartrain and then again got deeper into the bayous. After about an hour, the bayous ended and the scenery became more mundane, so I returned to my room.
On our way to Jackson - our first major stop - we were delayed three times due to meets with freight trains. The first of these meets - at Manchac, where the Pass Maurepas connects Lake Maurepas to the west with Lake Ponchartrain to the east - resulted in a 13-minute delay for our train, while the other delays were for five and nine minutes, respectively. The Illinois Central line from New Orleans to Chicago used to be entirely double-tracked, but about ten years ago, in an economy move, one track was removed, and the line is now single-tracked, with frequent passing sidings. We also had to slow down for some speed restrictions. Interestingly, in each case, I heard the dispatcher remind the engineer of the speed restrictions as we approached the areas where they applied.
Our train makes four short stops on the way from New Orleans to Jackson. The first stop, Hammond, has an attractive brick station with a peaked roof. The next stop, McComb, has a frame depot which is now mainly a railroad museum, with a steam engine on display on a track near the station building. Brookhaven has an attractive brick station, but it is closed, the platform has been removed, and passengers detrain and board at an adjacent grade crossing. In each case, our stop lasted for about two minutes, and a few passengers got off or on. When we departed the last of these four stations, Hazelhurst, at 5:18 p.m., we were 39 minutes late.
At 5:51 p.m., we arrived in Jackson, Mississippi. This is a major stop for our train, so I had the chance to step off the train and walk down the platform. Only one passenger boarded the sleepers (he was in the first sleeper), but about half a dozen coach passengers detrained and over a dozen coach passengers boarded here. The Jackson station is being rebuilt (apparently, as an intermodal transportation center), with a new platform being installed on the east side of the main station track. Although Jackson is the capitol of Mississippi, with the capitol building visible to the right of the train and many tall, modern buildings in the nearby downtown area, the area immediately surrounding the station is deteriorated, with the hulk of the abandoned 15-story King Edward Hotel - nearly all of its windows broken - towering above the station. This is a crew change location, and baggage had to be unloaded from the baggage car, so our stop took some time, and we did not depart until 6:00 p.m. Just prior to our departure, I heard on the scanner the conductor informing the ticket agent that a certain passenger had a prepaid voucher for a ticket, but that no actual ticket had been issued. The agent replied that it was too late to issue a ticket at this point, and that he would call the Memphis station so that the ticket could be printed and picked up there. There is some make-up time built into the schedule between Hazlehurst and Jackson, but we still were 26 minutes late when we departed from Jackson.
From Jackson north, this ride would be new mileage for me. The last time I took the City of New Orleans, it operated via the traditional Illinois Central passenger route, serving the communities of Canton, Durant, Winona, Grenada and Batesville on the way. But that line had become a secondary freight line of the Illinois Central, and it was being maintained to passenger standards only because of the one daily train that Amtrak operated over it. So several years ago, Amtrak agreed to reroute the train over the westerly Illinois Central line serving Yazoo City and Greenwood, and this is the route that we would be covering today. The next 220 miles of the route will be trackage that I've never ridden on before.
Of course, that meant that both the Route Guide and the Rail Ventures book would be of no use to me, since they describe the old route no longer used by Amtrak. In any event, it was now getting dark, and there wasn't much that could be seen outside.
Again, I walked back to the end of the train and found that there were still only about 25 coach passengers aboard, all assigned to the first coach. A movie, being watched by seven people, was being shown in the Sightseer Lounge car, with the lower level of that car entirely empty.
At 6:30 p.m., the second call for dinner was made. I had made a reservation for this dinner sitting, so I proceeded to the dining car, where I was seated opposite a man from Rhode Island who had just boarded the train in Jackson and was headed to Chicago. He had a room in the first sleeper. As might be expected, given the low passenger count on this train, only 14 people were eating dinner at this time, with only the front half of the car used for this purpose. The rear portion of the dining car served as a kind of crew lounge and conductor's office, there being no crew dorm car on this train.
During dinner, the man sitting opposite me mentioned that there had been a major derailment on Sunday at Amite, Louisiana, on the line we had just traveled on (Amite is between Hammond and McComb), and that the line had been closed for several days because the derailment involved hazardous chemicals. As a result, the City of New Orleans had to be detoured via a roundabout route, with significant delays. When dinner was over, I talked to the conductor, and he confirmed this report and stated that the detour was via Hattiesburg. Apparently, the City of New Orleans departed from New Orleans on the route followed by the Crescent, took that route as far as Hattiesburg, then headed northwest to Jackson on a normally freight-only line. The line through Hammond was just reopened yesterday, and it appears that today's City of New Orleans is the first train that has traversed its regular route since Sunday.
After I finished my vegetarian dinner, I returned to my room and continued working on these memoirs. Our next stop was Greenwood, where we arrived at 8:04 p.m. Greenwood is a crew change point. There is a large brick station here, with portion of the station set aside as a crew base, and another part of the station used as a waiting room for Amtrak passengers. I stepped off the train briefly here. Several coach passengers boarded, as did a couple who had a room in my sleeper. When we departed Greenwood five minutes later, we were 42 minutes late.
For a change of pace, and to facilitate spreading out some papers, I decided to move to the lower level of our Superliner I lounge car, where six "good" tables were available, and only one or two were being used by other passengers. There was a movie playing in the car, and the loud noises emanating from the sound track of this movie were rather annoying, but I could pretty much ignore the movie and concentrate on my work. Finally, after about an hour, the raucous sounds of the movie (particularly during the final credits) ended, and peace and quiet were restored to the lounge car, with only the melodious clickety-clack of the train's wheels now being audible.
About 10:00 p.m., we slowed down considerably, and the lounge car attendant informed me that we were approaching Memphis. So, about 10:15 p.m., I decided to return to my sleeper. The lounge car was now entirely deserted, as was the smoking lounge, and there were still only about 25 passengers in the coach. Passing through the dining car on the way to my room, I started talking to the conductor, who assured me that we would be at the Memphis station for at least 15 minutes, and that I would have the opportunity to walk into the station if I so desired. The conductor also informed me that a bridge on the Illinois Central line just north of Memphis had recently collapsed under the weight of a freight train, with three gondola cars ending up in the river. As a result, he stated, we would have to "see-saw" through the yards south of the station and then travel on the CSX line north of here, of course with a CSX pilot. This, he indicated, would result in a delay of several hours!
Well, I would be covering some "rare mileage" on this trip after all! Unfortunately, I do not have the SPV Rail Atlas that covers Tennessee, so I won't be able to follow our progress on a map. But I will attempt to find out what routes we take so that I can add them to the list of rail routes that I've covered.
We pulled into the Memphis station at 10:31 p.m. In the travelogue I wrote on my 1994 trip on this train, I characterized this station as "decrepit" and "decaying." Since then, though, the station has been restored, and the cut-off stanchions, remnants of platforms that formerly served stub-end tracks south of the station building, have been replaced by a parking area. A new platform, with attractive lighting, has been built to serve Amtrak passengers, and the station building itself has been renovated. The large, high-ceilinged waiting room has been converted to a community room for special events, and a relatively small area on the upper level of the station, which formerly led to the stub-end tracks, has been renovated to serve as an Amtrak ticket office and waiting room for passengers, with some of the original wooden benches installed here. Interestingly, the original neon signs that directed passengers to the various tracks on the upper and lower levels of the station have been restored and are lit. (Of course, today there is only one track used by Amtrak, and the access to that track is from the upper level.) Railroad memorabilia are displayed in the Amtrak waiting room, including a schedule from many years ago that showed 17 trains from three different railroads using this station. Although, in my view, the Memphis station is not really a magnificent building, it is nice to see that the building has been tastefully restored and is now an attractive place for Amtrak passengers to wait.
A number of passengers detrained in Memphis and others boarded. I reboarded the train about 10:40 p.m., and we started our backwards move out of the station at 10:49 p.m. We had made up most of our lateness, and were now only 14 minutes late. But I knew that we would soon lose considerably more time as a result of the detours that we would be taking.
We slowly backed out of the station and proceeded south to East Junction, making a number of stops along the way to throw switches or get permission from the yardmaster to proceed further. Our backwards move lasted until 11:23 p.m. In the meantime, I decided to return to the lower level of the lounge car, where the attendant had showed me that there was a plug on the baseboard near one of the tables in the back of the car. Now, a number of people came down to purchase food and/or beverages, and several passengers remained in the lower level of the car. Among them was a man who had worked for the Illinois Central Railroad for 45 years, most of them as an engineer. I heard one person comment that the bridge that collapsed will not be replaced for at least two months.
Now that we had reached the southern limit of our back-up move, we proceeded forward, soon reaching track speed. Unfortunately, since I didn't have any rail atlas for this route, I couldn't figure out where we were going. I remained in the lower level of the lounge car until about midnight, when I started getting very tired and decided to return to my sleeper and go to sleep. Earlier, when the attendant asked whether he could make up my bed, I told him that I would do it myself when I was ready. So I pushed down the seats to make up the bed, took the bedding down from the upper berth, and climbed into bed. It took me a little while to get to sleep, but I did get a decent amount of sleep during the night although, as usual, I woke up a number of times. I slept through our stops in Newbern-Dyersburg, Tennessee and Fulton, Kentucky (actually, I'm not even sure if we actually made these stops, as they might be on the line that we had to bypass due to the collapsed bridge). I did wake up at 4:55 a.m., when our train was stopped at the Carbondale station. I could not see the station building, which was on the opposite side of the train from my room, but I noticed a set of Horizon equipment - the consist of the Illini, a local train that runs from here to Chicago - parked on the adjacent track. When we left Carbondale at 5:07 a.m., we were nearly two hours late. I had thought that we might have lost even more time due to our detour north of Memphis, and was pleased to discover that we weren't as late as I feared we might be.
I went back to sleep, although I awoke for our stop at Centralia, where we departed at 6:02 a.m. Finally, about 7:00 a.m., right after our stop in Effingham, I decided to get up and take a shower. The water was hot, and the shower was quite delightful, although the instructions posted in the shower were a little strange (they stated that the water temperature was not adjustable, although controls were provided to adjust the temperature, and they said that if you "must" stand, you should hold onto the bar provided, but in fact there was no seat in the shower, so you had no alternative but to stand!). When I finished my shower, I returned to my room and got dressed, just as we arrived at our next stop, Mattoon. There is a huge station here, which could use some work, although it is open for waiting passengers. I noticed that most of the passengers were told to board the second coach, although one passenger who used a walker was instead directed to the first coach - the only coach with the lower-level seating used to accommodate handicapped passengers.
I now walked back to the end of the train. I found that there were now about 50 passengers in the first coach and about 30 in the second coach. Obviously, quite a few passengers had boarded at the four stops we had made this morning - Carbondale, Centralia, Effingham and Mattoon. I also discovered that although the last coach was still entirely empty, the door leading to this coach was now unlocked, so it was possible to walk to the rear of the train and look out the back window - something that has become impossible to do most of the time nowadays on Amtrak long-distance trains, due to the prevalence of express cars attached to the rear of the train. I suspect that this car was not intentionally opened by the crew; rather, what probably happened is that the conductor had to go into that car last night to act a lookout for our back-up move out of Memphis, and he probably didn't bother closing the car when he left. In any event, I spent a few minutes enjoying the view out of the back of the train, and I then returned to my room. (Subsequently, I noticed that five passengers had moved into this car, although the absence of seat checks indicated that they had not been assigned to sit there by the train crew.)
At 7:55 a.m., the final call for breakfast was made, so I walked into the dining car, where I was seated opposite a couple who had boarded in Mattoon. The husband mentioned that he had Parkinson's Disease, and it turned out that he and his wife were the ones that I had seen walk towards the first coach during our station stop at Mattoon. He told me that the Mattoon station had been purchased by the city and was in the process of being renovated, noting that at present, one must negotiate 48 steps to descend from street level to the platform (the tracks passing through Mattoon are in a cut). He also was upset about the lateness of the train, pointing out that he left his son's home in nearby Charleston at 4:00 a.m. in order to be certain of having plenty of time to catch our train, scheduled to depart Mattoon at 5:23 a.m., and that he ended up waiting nearly three hours for the train to arrive. It turned out that he considered himself a railfan and subscribed to TRAINS magazine.
I had my usual continental breakfast, consisting of orange juice, Rice Krispies, fruit salad and coffee. The dining car was largely empty for this sitting, with only a few tables on one side of the car being used. During breakfast, we stopped at Champaign-Urbana at 8:03 a.m. Our stop lasted for four minutes, as quite a few passengers boarded here. Champaign-Urbana features a large, classic station with tall windows, which has been beautifully restored. Although my breakfast was served very promptly, I remained in the dining car until about 8:35 a.m., talking with the couple sitting opposite me. I then briefly returned to my room, after which went down to the lower level of the lounge car, where I continued to do some work.
At 9:00 a.m., just south of Clifton, Illinois, we slowed down for a freight train to pass us. This meet was very well arranged, as we did not have to stop at all, and probably lost less than five minutes' time as a result. In the meantime, I started talking a woman sitting at the table opposite me, who had boarded the train at Centralia, where we arrived at 6:00 a.m. She told me that she had been instructed by Amtrak to arrive at the station half an hour early, so she had been waiting there since 3:30 a.m. The station building was closed, so she had to wait outside in the cold along with three convicts who had just been released from the nearby state prison, accompanied by a guard. Needless to say, she was rather upset that Amtrak had not advised her that the train would be late (in this case, something that could easily have been predicted in advance, since it was known that the detour due to the bridge collapse would add significant time to our trip), and I encouraged her to call Amtrak and ask for a refund.
We made a brief stop at Kankakee at 9:16 a.m. The beautiful brick station here appears to have been nicely restored, but our stop was so brief that I didn't get a chance to get a very good look.
At 9:38 a.m., just a few miles south of our suburban Chicago stop of Homewood, we again came to a stop. An announcement was made that we were waiting behind a freight train. In the meantime, the woman sitting behind me mentioned to the attendant that she had boarded the train in Jackson, with her ticket having been prepaid in Milwaukee. Since there was no time for the agent in Jackson to issue her ticket, they told her that she would be able to pick up her ticket in Memphis. (I had heard the conversation between the Jackson ticket agent and the conductor on the scanner, and reported on it earlier in this travelogue.) But she never got her ticket when we passed through Memphis and was now concerned that she needed a ticket for the Chicago-Milwaukee portion of the trip and didn't have one. I encouraged her to speak to the conductor about her problem, as it seemed possible to me that her ticket had in fact been printed out already by the station agent in Memphis, and was either still at the Memphis station or else with the conductor onboard our train. Another Amtrak employee who was sitting nearby stated, though, that the procedure is that if a ticket is issued and not picked up by the time the train leaves the station, the amount paid for the ticket is automatically refunded.
This time, our delay lasted for quite some time. We were on a single-track section of the line, and it seems that our delay was due to a freight train ahead of us, which had to pull over to a siding before we could proceed. Not until 10:21 a.m. did we move forward again. I had assumed that we would be arriving in Chicago about 10:30 a.m., taking into account the half hour of make-up time built into our schedule. Of course, we will now arrive much later than this. I couldn't care less, as I'm enjoying my time on the train, and am in no rush to get to Chicago anytime soon. But I'm sure that many other people on our train will be seriously inconvenienced by our extended delay.
We now passed the University Park METRA station, the southern terminus of the electrified commuter service on this line. The commuter line, which uses overhead catenary wires rather than third rail, has its own double-tracked route to the west of our rails. Soon, at 10:31 a.m., we made our station stop at Homewood. A number of passengers detrained here, finding this suburban stop more convenient than the downtown Union Station. When we departed Homewood two minutes later, we were nearly three hours late.
From here on, we did not encounter any major delays. We again came to a stop at 10:47 a.m., just south of Kensington, apparently due to track work in the area, but we started moving again about four minutes later. Kensington is where the electrified Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad joins the suburban Illinois Central line. Soon we passed, to our right, the historic brick buildings of the Pullman shops, severely damaged by fire several years ago. We continued running north parallel to the electrified IC line, many of whose stations still have wooden platforms, with no shelter provided for waiting passengers.
After crossing from the Illinois Central to the Burlington Northern main line via the St. Charles Air Line, we started backing up onto the approach to Union Station at 11:21 a.m., and after pulling forward again, we came to our final stop on Track 19 of Chicago Union Station at 11:36 a.m. We had arrived two hours and 36 minutes late. Since our train turns to become the Empire Builder, it uses the one through-track at Chicago Union Station, and it is positioned on Track 19, a north-side track, so that it is ready to depart in a few hours on its way to Seattle and Portland.
I detrained, walked into the station, and headed for the Metropolitan Lounge, where I presented the stub from my sleeper ticket for admission. A glance at the schedule for the METRA Fox Lake Line indicated that the next outbound train would depart at 12:35 p.m., so I called my cousin Debbie and arranged for her to pick me up at the Edgebrook Station at 1:00 p.m. I was going to sign online and retrieve my e-mail messages, but I seem to have lost the phone cord for my computer, so I will have to wait until I reach my cousin's home before signing online. Instead, I read one of the complimentary newspapers provided in the lounge and obtained some apple juice to drink. Before I knew it, it was time to buy my ticket for the 12:35 p.m. train.
To my surprise, my four-car train to Edgebrook was quite full. Nearly every pair of seats, at least in the last three cars, was occupied by at least one person. Since there is absolutely no place to store luggage on METRA gallery-style commuter trains, I needed two seats to myself so that I could store my luggage on one seat and sit in the other seat. I did find such a pair of seats in the second car of the train, and settled down to enjoy the last part of my rail journey to Chicago. When we arrived at the Edgebrook station about 1:00 p.m., my cousin was there, and she drove me to her home, where I would be spending the weekend.
I very much enjoyed my trip from New Orleans to Chicago on the City of New Orleans. I was not in any way inconvenienced by our two-and-one half-hour delay in arriving in Chicago; in fact, I welcomed the extra time that I had to spend on the train. So far, my latest Amtrak trip is working out quite well.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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