Rich Kimmel's 2002 Train Trip
After my delicious (?) dinner at McDonald's in Chicago, I headed back to Union Station to what may be the last segment of this trip, depending on how late the Sunset Ltd would be the next day into New Orleans. But, as usual, I was hoping for the best. I went to the Metropolitan Lounge to wait until boarding, and soon we boarded the City of New Orleans through the north boarding gates at Chicago Union Station, which was unusual, since we had come in on the Empire Builder to the south gate, and the City heads south out of Union Station. We boarded, and, sure enough, the City of New Orleans was the exact same train as the incoming Empire Builder was. The cars were still consisted in the exact same order as they were on the Builder!! No reconsisting to put the cars in a more reasonable order. I don't know if the two trains are normally reconsisted or not -- maybe since the Builder came in late, there wasn't enough time to do that. I also noticed later, that there were still Empire Builder brochures in the seat pockets back in the coaches!! I found my sleeper, and it was the same sleeper I was in on the Builder -- the Superliner 2 sleeper Oklahoma. I was in room 5, one room away from the room I was in before. Outside the door of the sleeping car was an AMTRAK employee who was not dressed in an AMTRAK uniform, but had only an AMTRAK employee identification tag hung around his neck, so I didn't know if he was the sleeping car attendant or some other employee. It turned out that he was indeed the sleeping car attendant, named "Mark." When they called the train for boarding, however, the train was not quite ready for boarding, but I assume AMTRAK wanted to make sure there was an on-time departure, or as close to on-time as possible. The power in the train was not even activated yet when they began to board, and supplies were still being loaded into the lounge and diner. I spent a couple minutes talking to Mark, and had asked him if anyone, by some chance, had found my lost camcorder filter during cleaning. He said no, he was not aware of anything like that, and even if it had been found, it probably would have been thrown out. He also commented that the previous sleeping car attendant had left the car quite dirty, and that Mark had to spend about a half an hour himself cleaning. I got into my room and again put my big suitcase on edge on the single-level shelf on the one end of the room, and placed the small map book suitcase on the floor between the two seats, and got ready for departure.
The power soon came on, and we soon left Union Station 10 minutes behind schedule. The City pulls out of Union Station forward, and goes all the way to the Chicago River, then backs onto the BNSF/Metra line heading west from the yards, then reverses and goes forward onto the Illinois Central "air line" which carries it over to the IC main line next to the Field Museum and McCormick Place convention center. In years past, the City had backed out of Union Station directly onto the BNSF/Metra line before reversing onto the air line. After departure, the dining car stewardess came through the sleepers and told us that, due to our "abrupt departure" from Union Station, the diner would not be open for dinner until 10 PM, but we, as first class passengers, were welcome to grab some complimentary sandwiches from the lounge car starting at 9 PM. Well, 9 or 10 PM is way too late for me to eat dinner, but I had gotten a meal in Chicago between trains, so I was okay. I soon went to the Sightseer lounge to get a beer before bedtime. We departed Homewood 25 minutes late, and Kankakee 24 minutes late. After the Kankakee stop, I was ready to turn in for the night, but couldn't find Mark the sleeping car attendant, so I made my own bed. I don't mind making my own bed, as I know how to do it, but it is the job of the sleeping car attendants to provide that service, and, as I have inferred before, the better service I get, the bigger tip the attendants get when I detrain!
The following morning, I awoke just north of Memphis, as we were passing the waterfront, the Mississippi River bridge, and the riverboat Memphis Queen, which was docked next to the tracks. I figured we were somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes behind schedule. I was not too concerned about our on-time performance on this train, because I knew there would be several hours between trains in New Orleans, since I anticipated the Sunset Ltd would likely be several hours late, and if it were too late, I had my contingency plan to spend the night in New Orleans and fly home the next day. We arrived at the Memphis station 40 minutes behind schedule, and departed 31 minutes late. I had anticipated getting off the train for a few minutes, but, by the time I had gotten up and set for the day, we were about to leave the station, so there really wasn't enough time. Next to the Memphis station is a parking lot for the local police department, and, while we were stopped, I saw several policemen walking from their cars toward the station. There must be a good donut shop nearby!!
I soon perched myself in the Sightseer lounge for the day. It didn't appear there were very many passengers on this train today, which was quite a contrast to the other trains I have been on this trip. Just south of Memphis there is a junction called West Junction. I had the route mapped as turning easterly at this junction, but the train does not turn east, but continues south through the junction, at a fairly fast speed. A few miles to the south, however, the two tracks come back together again. So it looks like I will have quite a bit of revisions to make to my route maps now! We were soon beginning our journey through the Mississippi Delta, which is a vast agricultural area dotted by endless fields of cotton, corn, and other crops. The Delta is not really a delta geologically, but is part of an ancient flood plain of the Mississippi River, which has changed courses many times through earth history. The ancient soils from former river bottoms are very rich and fertile soils for the crops which are grown in the Delta. We soon passed through the Delta town of Crenshaw, where we were delayed for approximately 45 minutes waiting for a freight train. In general, there were very few freight delays on this route. After we got going again, we passed a very interesting looking building in "downtown" Crenshaw, called the "Blue Oasis." I think the Blue Oasis has seen its better days.... After while, I walked to the rear coach of the train to take some more video out the back end, since we were not carrying any express cars on this train. Back in the Sightseer lounge later, an AMTRAK "Product Line Supervisor" was on board talking to a few other people in the lounge. I still am not sure exactly what a "Product Line Supervisor" does. This lady apparently was formerly an On-Board Chief of Services, which, of course, AMTRAK does not employ any more. She had confirmed that the Sunset Limited due into New Orleans that day would be delayed by several hours due to ongoing flooding in Texas, the same flooding which I had traveled through a week earlier. As I mentioned early in this travelogue, I always have a contingency plan for missed connections. I, of course, had known that the eastbound Sunset had been running 12 to 13 hours late consistently over the last couple months, and if it were that late, I would not be able to take it from New Orleans back to Florida, since it would not arrive until Thursday morning, when I was expected back at my office. So I had made a reservation at the downtown New Orleans Holiday Inn a few weeks earlier, as well as a reservation on Delta Airlines from New Orleans to Orlando the next day, through http://www.travelocity.com. I will continue to monitor the situation.
We departed Greenwood, Mississippi, 55 minutes late, and soon the first movie of the day was being shown in the Sightseer lounge, so I went back to my room for a while. Just north of Yazoo City we encountered yet another freight delay for approximately one half hour, and finally departed Yazoo City 1 hour 29 minutes late. It was soon lunch time, so I went to the diner and sat with a couple who were traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans, but couldn't take the Sunset due to the flooding in Texas, since the Sunset had been cancelled. They were subsequently routed Los Angeles-Chicago-New Orleans, and had ridden the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago. For lunch, today was Reuben sandwich day, so I had the Reuben and a beer. While I was at lunch, we stopped in Jackson, and departed that station approximately 1 hour 50 minutes late. It looks like there is currently some remodeling taking place at the Jackson station.
South of Jackson, the Product Line Supervisor was again in the Sightseer lounge, and had stated that the Sunset Ltd which was supposed to depart New Orleans that night had now been annulled due to the ongoing flooding in Texas. I asked if they were going to offer a bus to Florida, and she said maybe, but, as of now, all connecting passengers were "on their own" between New Orleans and Jacksonville. I was thinking that maybe they would "turn" Train #1, which would have left Florida yesterday, at Houston or someplace, then run it back to the east as Train #2, but I found out later that Train #1 never left Florida yesterday because of the flooding, and that the train had been annulled for a few days now. After all, the people I had lunch with had to be rerouted because of an annulled Sunset Ltd. So I planned on ending my train trip in New Orleans, and using my contingency plan to get back home.
I took some more video out the rear end of the train between Jackson and Hazlehurst, and counted a grand total of 5 passengers in the rear coach! This train was not very full today. And most of the other seats in the rear coach still had the Empire Builder brochures in the seat pockets. We then departed Hazlehurst 1 hour 48 minutes late, and departed Brookhaven 1 hour 31 minutes late. Then Mark, the sleeping car attendant, came into the Sightseer lounge and announced that he would be detraining at McComb, so would not be with us all the way to New Orleans. I later asked the Product Line Supervisor about that, and she told me that Mark was actually working as an "extra" on this train, and would be working his "regular shift" later in the day on Train #58 from McComb, the northbound City. The Product Line Supervisor took over Mark's duties in the sleeper between McComb and New Orleans. We soon departed McComb 1 hour 30 minutes late, and I saw Mark get off with his wheeled suitcase. I saw a sign at the McComb station, which read "Railroad Museum." Apparently there is a museum at the station -- it may be worth checking out on a future trip. Continuing on south, we passed through the town of Ponchatoula, just north of Hammond, Louisiana. When I had ridden the City northbound in 1996, there was supposedly a very large alligator named "Charlie" kept in a large cage right next to the tracks in downtown Ponchatoula. I looked for Charlie as we passed, but, although the large cage is still there, there was no trace of Charlie. We departed Hammond 1 hour 34 minutes late, and began the final leg into New Orleans.
I sat in my room most of the way between Hammond and New Orleans, and got some good video of the bayous along Interstate Highways 55 and 10, which are elevated on large risers above the swamps, and which parallel the route of the train. The route passes the New Orleans Airport, where I would be leaving from in the morning. The airport in New Orleans was formerly called Moisant Field, but is now known as "Martin Luther King, Jr. International Airport." We soon traveled beneath Interstate 10 and went around the large wye beneath the freeway, then backed into the station. An announcement was made that all passengers who were connecting to Train #2, the eastbound Sunset Ltd, should see the uniformed AMTRAK employee who would be waiting on the platform for the train. We arrived at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal only 40 minutes late, due to "padding" in the schedule. I detrained and found the uniformed AMTRAK employee on the platform and said to him "I hear the Sunset's been annulled," and he said yes, and that he would be meeting the passengers inside for alternate arrangements. I walked inside the station and went to the ticket counter, and asked if they were going to offer a bus to connecting passengers going to Florida, and was told that yes, they would be. I told the agent that I was not going to take the bus, and that I would just get a credit for my unused ticket, and would be staying in New Orleans overnight and flying home the next day. I believe he was happy to hear that -- one less customer he would have to deal with and make alternate arrangements for. I gave him my ticket for the Sunset Ltd, and he very pleasantly and gladly credited my VISA for the $251 accommodation charge. Since I had a multi-route ticket and got a special 3-region rail fare, I had no refund coming for the rail fare, but the accommodation charge on the unused portion was fully refundable.
I soon found a taxicab in front of the Union Terminal, and he took me down the street to the Holiday Inn-downtown, on Loyola Street. I asked how much the far was and he said "10 dollars." I thought that was rather high for the short distance, so I repeated, very politely and calmly, "10 dollars?" I guess he expected me to become argumentative, so raised his voice and said "Yes, Sir!! Ten dollars! That's the minimum we can charge! Here, I'll show you right here!!" as he grabbed a card of some kind. I said "Oh, that's okay! No problem." He did not get a tip, since I thought $10 was plenty, and should be inclusive of the tip! I checked into the Holiday Inn and soon found my room, and took one last video out the balcony of my room. My train trip had ended for this year, unfortunately a little prematurely. I got settled in the room and soon walked to the French Quarter to have dinner on Bourbon Street at a place called Patout's. I had been there before, and ordered jambalaya, but what I was served did not look like jambalaya, which I believe is usually in "soup" form. What I got looked like 3 rolled up rice balls on a plate!! It tasted like jambalaya, however, and I didn't really care.
I spent the evening exploring Bourbon Street, like I have done many times in the past between trains on my trips. Bourbon Street has not changed over the years -- it still draws quite a crowd of tourists every night, and is populated with T-shirt shops, restaurants (some of which are very good!), walk-up drink booths, many "adult entertainment" spots, one voodoo store, plus several jazz bars, again some of which aren't bad entertainment. Bourbon Street still draws a crowd, but it is still basically, well -- umm, "sleazy!!" I stayed a few hours, then walked back. I know everyone tells you not to walk around New Orleans at night by yourself, but, my experience has been that if you stay on the main, well-lit streets, you'll probably be okay. After all, there are other people just like you and me who actually live there and also have to go places at night. I have never had a problem, but, of course, the taxicab ride (for a minimum $10 fare!), is always available!
The following morning I checked out of the Holiday Inn and took a taxicab to the airport. My last experience on this trip was that, somehow I lost my reading glasses somewhere between the check-out desk of the Holiday Inn and the airport-- probably in the taxicab. To get back to Orlando from New Orleans, I had to fly through Atlanta. I took Delta Flight #720 to Atlanta and had time to eat lunch at the Samuel Adams Pub/Restaurant at Hartsfield Airport, then caught Delta Flight #2150 from Atlanta to Orlando. From Orlando I caught a taxicab to my car, which was still parked at the Winter Park AMTRAK station. When we got to Winter Park, 40 minutes and about $40 later, I left the taxi and got into my car just as southbound AMTRAK Train #97, the Silver Meteor, was pulling in, pretty close to schedule.
Over all, I enjoyed my trip very much this year. The crews on all the trains I was on were excellent, and the service was very good. Unfortunately AMTRAK continues to have timekeeping problems, which are not always AMTRAK's fault. I am hopeful though that those problems will be worked out with the freight railroads under the David Gunn administration, and I also hope that Congress and the American public continue to support this very important mode of travel. Now that the country has finally gotten over the notion (hopefully) that AMTRAK can actually make a profit, it is time to move on and concentrate on improving service, train frequency, addition of new equipment, addition of new routes, and respectful contracts with freight railroads.
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