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Trip Report

Amtrak: Birmingham to DC and Back

April 10-13, 2002


On April 10th I rode Train 20, the Amtrak Crescent, from Birmingham to Washington, DC. The Crescent arrived in Birmingham on time at 2:00pm headed by 2 Genesis locomotives pulling 2 material handling cars, a crew-dorm sleeper, 2 Viewliner sleepers, a diner, an Amfleet lounge-dinette and 3 Amfleet II coaches. The train appeared one-third full upon leaving.

Rolling eastbound through the Woodlawn area of Birmingham I settled into a "standard" bedroom in Viewliner "BayView" with the assistance of a helpful and friendly car attendant. The room was small but spotless and comfortable. The attendant suggested I could still do lunch in the diner. Meals are included with sleeping car accommodations, so I enjoyed a moderately good cheeseburger with apple crisp dessert while a colleague, en route to the same meeting in DC, consumed a "fair" grilled cheese special. The diner was comfortable with large tables and free-standing chairs. Service was efficient and friendly. During lunch we had the pleasure of viewing Appalachian woods and streams with dogwood in bloom between Birmingham and Anniston. Subsequently, we worked in the lounge at a table with plug outlets for our laptop.

The dining car steward recommended via the PA system that passengers "desiring" dinner show up just before Atlanta to avoid the rush created by 80 passengers boarding there. We took his advice and followed a late lunch with an early dinner of Maryland crab cakes. The crab cakes were not great but sufficient to blunt hunger pains that might have occurred before morning. After post-dinner lounging, I retired to my room to work, read and watch the movie Oceans 11 on the tiny TV monitor. The movie experience was dissatisfying because the picture was overly dark and could not be adjusted. Thus, I skipped Harry Potter shown afterwards and turned on the music channel to relax while we sped through North Georgia and South Carolina. The music was on a continuous tape of country, rap, rock, jazz and then I turned it off. Personally, I would have preferred light jazz and classical for that setting.

After tossing and turning I watched High Point or Greensboro, NC pass by and then fell asleep until a wake-up call at 7:15 just shy of Culpepper, in Northern VA. Viewliner standard beds are narrower and thinner than Heritage roomette beds and thus less comfortable. On the plus side the narrower bed allows nocturnal use of the "facilities" without stepping into the corridor to raise the bed as in olden days of roomette travel. My colleague rode coach and was initially annoyed by an inebriated "Rhode Island Redneck" (her description), but found 2 empty seats elsewhere thanks to a friendly car attendant. She nevertheless slept only 3 hours and when the lounge opened at 6:30 went forward for coffee. There she had an amusing encounter with another male passenger who unsuccessfully tried to engage her in a game of blackjack for $1 a hand.

Breakfast in the diner was good except for the canned juice and cold cheese grits. My table companions were 2 middle-aged women who regularly used the Crescent, one to travel between Greensboro and New York on church-related business and the other to shuttle between Lynchburg,Va. and Wilmington, Del. to see grandchildren. Both said they couldn't drive or afford airline tickets on a regular basis and expressed great dismay that the Crescent may be cut. I was urged to write my Congressmen.

Arrival was on time into Union Station where we transferred to the METRO for a direct 21 minute ride to our meeting place in Bethesda, MD. Such convenience--the Bethesda METRO stop is adjacent to our hotel.

My colleague took Train 19 back to Birmingham on April 13 while I did so the next day. While waiting I saw passengers line up far down into the station corridor to board an Acela regional train and a Metroliner to New York. Likewise there was a long line in front of the Amtrak ticket counters. CNN had reported the day before that ridership between DC and Boston on the high-speed Acela Express trains alone was pulling even with the Delta and Continental shuttles. Obviously, the Northeast corridor trains will survive cutbacks; we have to let the powers know that we also want the Crescent and other long-distance trains.

We left Union Station on time at 7:45pm with an almost full train while I was ensconced in another small but cozy standard room in Viewliner "TowerView". The attendant was helpful but not as solicitous as on #20. The train consist was the same except that we carried just one material handling car and 4 Amfleet II coaches. Dinner in the crowded diner was crowned by an excellent cut of prime rib with a nice dry Cabernet. The kitchen staff, 2 waiters and steward were more than busy but they did a great job getting dinners out in a timely fashion and keeping the "guests" satisfied.

My dinner companions were a librarian from Shreveport, LA. who had driven to Birmingham and left his car with relatives to take the Crescent to Philadelphia, and 2 women from Birmingham chaperoning a car-full of 8th graders returning from a school trip to the Northeast. They had originally intended to fly but the authorities forbade air travel to DC or New York so they opted for Amtrak. The other option was a bus but the train was preferred so the "kids" could roam. Indeed they had taken over the lounge car for card games and conversation that could be easily heard by all. Coincidentally, one of the chaperons knew my wife Jody from their previous lives as La Leche League leaders. This diner was done up in the very attractive Acela colors of light green and blue with an art-deco look. On the downside, tables were smaller and chairs replaced by benches that provided less space.

After a nightcap in the lounge car I settled down to watch Disney's Atlantis in my room. The picture or image was good but of course no bigger. I later found the music was the same so I turned it off and watched the darkened Virginia countryside pass. At Charlottesville and Lynchburg a good many people de-trained while about half as many got on. The air-conditioning faltered making the room overly warm but I fell asleep just over the NC state line and awoke about 7:00am between Clemson, SC and Toccoa, GA. when the dining car steward announced first call for breakfast over the PA. The diner was crowded requiring a relatively long wait but my breakfast was near perfect--good OJ and coffee, unblemished scrambled eggs, hot tasty home fries, warm biscuits and bacon exactly as ordered. The Steward remarked that he would lose one of his 2 waiters at Birmingham and thus make do with one waiter into New Orleans and back to Birmingham the following day. All this thanks to budget cuts but "we still have plenty of managers".

Number 19 was on time into and out of Atlanta where many de-trained but a fair number got on. As we pulled into Anniston, I glimpsed member Henry Gilliland on the station platform. I rushed to find an open door for a salutation but the train left before I could find one. The conductor knew Henry and tried to raise him on the radio to no avail. An hour out of Birmingham I had a better cheeseburger in the diner with the same librarian and a youngish physician from the University of Mississippi Medical Center at Jackson. The doc had driven to Meridian, parked and took the Crescent to Philadelphia. Because of a large Federal research project he headed he frequently traveled to DC and often took the Crescent. He loved the train but bemoaned the lack of good service that he felt made Amtrak's job of selling survival more difficult.

Arrival in Birmingham was on time at 1:00pm. Overall I enjoyed both trips and hope it won't be my last.

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