Romancing the rails on Amtrak's Crescent
Posted May 2, 2018 11:17 a.m. EDT
ABOARD THE AMTRAK CRESCENT (CNN) — Enthusiasm. It's not terribly widespread among the traveling masses gearing up for the getting-there part of their journey.
Yet it's a little after 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and travelers gathered at the Atlanta Amtrak station are eager -- excited even -- about starting their trip. The people arriving on the train are upbeat, too.
"Good morning, everybody," says one disembarking passenger to a group waiting to board. "And God bless everybody," says another, upping the ante on conviviality.
Clearly, this heartwarming scene is not unfolding in a US airport.
While giddy anticipation and goodwill toward men are not hallmarks of modern travel, a ride from Atlanta to New Orleans aboard Amtrak's Crescent restored a bit of this traveler's faith in the shared exhilaration of getting from point A to point B.
The romance of rail travel is alive -- even if it's more about novelty than efficiency for many American riders.
Taking the long way
I was definitely in it for the experience. While I've traveled by rail in other countries, this was my first long-distance Amtrak trip.
The scheduled 11 hours and 54 minutes aboard the Crescent meant leaving a day early for a work trip to New Orleans. In reality, the journey lasted 13½ hours.
The hour-and-a-half delay is pretty standard. In 2017, 67% of Crescent passengers -- more than 173,000 -- arrived late at their destinations, according to Amtrak.
The rails between Alexandria, Virginia, and New Orleans are operated by Norfolk Southern, and freight trains frequently cause Amtrak delays.
Amtrak operates nearly all the rest of the Crescent's 1,377-mile route between New York's Penn Station and Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans. The whole journey takes 30 hours, if the train stays on schedule.
But what the Crescent from Atlanta may lack in speed, it makes up for in atmosphere and amenities.
The food is pretty tasty -- rail cuisine doesn't suffer the same tinkering that goes into preparing food that will be served at 35,000 feet. The train is spacious; there's a dining car, a lounge and you can walk around, recline, even lie flat.
For some passengers, the train is basically the destination.
Lorraine Carr decided to ride to Birmingham, Alabama, for lunch on a whim after a very busy month on the job managing an Atlanta carpeting showroom.
Bill Trammell, a retiree living in the Atlanta area with his daughter, son-in-law and two grandkids, hadn't been on a train since he was 8 or 9 years old -- about 60 years ago -- and riding the train again was on his bucket list.
He was on a solo expedition, with plans to spend the night in Meridian, Mississippi. "I might find me a little bar. Get me something good to eat later on, spend the night and stay at the Holiday Inn there and catch it tomorrow morning and come back," he said.
Others had weightier objectives. About 40 Catholic youth and their chaperones were on their way back to the New Orleans suburbs from Washington, where they had participated in a pro-life rally.
They had smartly booked sleeper car accommodations for their overnight journey.
Although my trip was a daytime event, I booked a sleeper, too -- for the full Amtrak experience.
The adult one-way rail fare was $80. The "Viewliner Roomette" sleeper added an additional $138, for a total one-way fare of $218. Roomettes on the Crescent range from $138 to $383, depending on the length of travel and availability.
Three hot meals were included in that rate. I was traveling alone, but there's room for two in the cabin, and meals are included for its occupants. So the $138 Roomette makes decent sense for two travelers (plus the $80 adult fare from Atlanta to New Orleans, times two).
All fare options include free Wi-Fi and two free checked bags. Tiered pricing involves varying levels of cancellation flexibility.
Coach cars feature comfortable reclining seats, outlets, tray tables, etc. But the spatial curiosities of the Viewliner Roomette -- seats, lie-flat berths, a sink and a toilet all wedged into a space about as long as a single bed and 3½ feet wide -- provide at least an hour of entertainment.
I didn't notice the sink and toilet at first and later realized that my coffee cup was sitting on a toilet-cover-turned-stepladder. Ewww. Still, how efficient.
It took me about five minutes to wrestle the two floor-level seats into a flat lounger. But I far preferred the narrow, pull-down bunk above.
The bunk is a one-person affair (completely ill-suited to intimate encounters, one passenger reported from experience). And the compact toilet/table begs a high level of familiarity with your cabin-mate.
The trance state facilitated by the train's rhythmic bumping along the rails is reason enough to ride. And I cannot overstate how relaxing it is to loll on the top bunk, watching the sunlight change on the trees as the day rolls by through a smudgy body-length window.
The dining car
A 12- to 14-hour nap is really not a bad idea for someone heading to New Orleans.
But the food is included for sleeper car passengers, and the dining car is a social hub. Stories are swapped among strangers seated together in the dining car as swamps and streams and lumber yards and rickety barns with rusted tin rooftops fade in and out of view.
At dinnertime, the Crescent offers an abbreviated menu as the train approaches New Orleans (although it was still a ways off on this trip due to freight-train delays). So there were three entrée choices rather than six or seven: chicken breast, salmon or vegetarian pasta.
I had the salmon, and it was the best of my three meals. Served with a delicious spicy Thai curry sauce, green beans and potatoes, the salmon was perfectly cooked and much, much better than anything I've had on an airplane.
On the normal dinner menu, entrées for à la carte diners range from $17 to $39 (for the steak and seafood combo).
The omelet at breakfast was a tasty diner-style offering. The croissant would not win any awards. The side salad at lunch was simple, fresh and crisp, but the mussels were overcooked.
By and large, though, eating aboard the Crescent was a pleasant experience and a nice way to break up the day.
The 13th hour
The rest of the time, that top bunk was beckoning.
The rural landscapes occasionally gave way to church steeples and tract homes and Aldi and Krispy Kreme.
Admittedly, I was ready to get off the train by hour 12. And by then it was pitch dark.
I'd recommend embarking on this journey after Daylight Saving Time kicks in. When I rode the Crescent earlier this year, I missed most of the scenery rolling into New Orleans, including the stretch across Lake Pontchartrain.
But I did catch eerie, glow-in-the-dark glimpses of the city's elaborate above-ground tombs in a cemetery bordering the tracks on the way into town.
By then, many passengers had long since disembarked. Trammell was probably having a drink in a bar in Mississippi and Carr was likely back in Atlanta after her Alabama lunch expedition.
The large Catholic contingent was just starting to fan out in cars and buses from the Amtrak station in neighboring Slidell, Louisiana.
At the end of the line in New Orleans, we spilled out of the train, a jumble of passengers and luggage and Amtrak attendants. The platform cleared quickly. The journey was complete.
From Union Passenger Terminal it was about a 10-minute taxi ride to the French Quarter. Total travel time from my doorstep to the hotel: A little over 15 hours.
Would I do it again? Yes, but I had planned to hurry home from this trip.
My flight was delayed by several hours.
Tucked into a rigid seat at the airport gate, snacking on a bag of gummy bears, I couldn't help but think of the romance of the rails.