This trip was thrown together within a few days. Michael had the first Thursday and Friday of November off from school on account of the annual teachers conventions here in New Jersey. I took the same week off so I could spend the time with him. But up until the middle of the week, I had no idea where we would be going.
I don't know how the Altanta idea came up. Michael had wanted to return there sometime to revisit the World of Coca Cola attraction, and I had some MARTA heavy rail mileage to add to my personal collection. The schedule for the CRESCENT, the only train that serves Atlanta, has a morning southbound arrival around 9 AM, and a northbound departure at roughly 8 PM. Eleven hours in town would be enough to accomplish our goals, and we would not have any need for a hotel room.
Around the same time, AMTRAK came up with this 35% off fare, for those booking over the internet. When I first checked it out, I could have booked us at about $120 each way for the two of us. However, still not sure what we were going to do, I had ignored the fine print that said the 35% fare is only valid if booked 3 or more days in advance. When I tried to book it Tuesday evening for a Thursday departure, I could not utilize this discount. And because it was so close to departure, all of the cheaper seats were already gone. I ended up paying about $260 (more than double!) for the two of us for our southbound trip, but was able to get the $120 fare for the northbound trip on Friday evening, since it was still 3 days before that trip.
Our trip would involve stopovers in Washington, DC in both directions. Since the CRESCENT does not stop in Metropark, my preferred place to park for a trip of this duration, we would have to change trains someplace. Washington was chosen because we could then have dinner off the rails on the way southbound, and breakfast off the rails on our way northbound. So we would use Acela Regional between Metropark and Washington in both directions, and only take the CRESCENT south of Washington.
Thursday, November 7, 2002
Acela Regional, Train #93(7), Metropark, NJ to Washington, DC
The trip started out poorly, as we found out that Train 93, an Acela Regional from Boston to Richmond, was late. It first was reported to be 15 minutes late, then 20, and then later half an hour. Meanwhile, another train that was going from Boston to Washington, 171, was very late. It should have been in Metropark at 1:07 PM, and it had not yet arrived there when we departed two hours after that. Our intended 2:37 PM departure was not expected until 3:07 at the earliest. An announcement on the platform said that 93 would be the first train, and 171 would be the second train on the southbound platform. However, in rolls a spanking new NJ TRANSIT consist, with Comet V coaches and an ALP-46 engine on the rear in push mode.
While the NJ TRANSIT train was in the station, an AMTRAK train passed by on the express track behind it. I could not see it, but I later found out it was the CRESCENT, Train 19, which we would be on later that day. Sure, there was some uneasiness knowing the train we would eventually be taking was passing us by. But 19 is slower than the Regionals, and it spends a lot more time in Philadelphia, particularly for an engine change.
All bets were off now, since the second train to enter the Metropark station was now AMTRAK 93, not 171 as announced. The crew of 93 knew that 171 was running late behind them, but they would not let anyone not reserved on 93 to ride it.
Once aboard 93, we observed that there were plenty of empty seats in the coaches towards the front. When I later walked to the rear of the train, there were coaches where every seat was taken. It is amazing how many people would rather be uncomfortable than to walk the train in order to get more elbow room. And being in the front would put us closer to the station in Washington, DC anyhow.
I got our train's consist from inside the train, and had to miss the BusinessClass car's number because I was not allowed past the cafe car:
955 AEM-7 locomotive
82519 Acela Regional CoachClass
21241 Amfleet I coach (we sat here)
82058 Acela Regional CoachClass
21176 Amfleet I coach
82089 Acela Regional CoachClass
82030 Acela Regional CoachClass
43002 Amfleet I cafe
81XXX Acela Regional BusinessClass
We sat in what appears to be one of the non-Regional coaches; however 21241 had undergone an interior Concept 2000 rehab but had not been repainted outside or renumbered.
Departure from Metropark was at 3:10 PM, putting us 33 minutes in the hole. But we moved well, and in fact we passed 19 somewhere in Bucks County. I am not sure why the CRESCENT was routed onto the local track, but I guess they figured the time could be made up with the layover in Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, I saw what appeared to be a mirage, the THREE RIVERS sitting over on Track 7. The time was 4:05 PM, so it was there at least 20 minutes early!
Again, passengers boarding our train were told that they must have reserved tickets for Train 93 only, and that those awaiting 171 had to wait for it to come.
The rest of our trip was uneventful, save for the setting sun which made it impossible to read, write, or see anything within our coach. Amfleet I's lack the curtains that long-distance coaches have.
We made Baltimore-Penn Station at 5:12 PM, meaning we were 36 minutes off the advertised. Arrival into Washington Union Station, Track 25, was 5:49 PM. We ended up 29 minutes late. We had a little over an hour before we would have to board our next train.
Darkness and dinner at Washington Union Station
It was dark by the time we reached Washington, which was a big issue, because the station was having a minor blackout. It only affected the lower level (Virginia-bound) platforms. The lights were out on the platforms and especially over the escalators. Station personnel and AMTRAK police shined their small flashlights at the escalators on both ends so people find where the first and last steps were. But the ride in between was pitch black. Once at the top, there were lights in the station.
We had a relaxed dinner in the lower level food court, and then returned to Gate K, from which our train would be departing. When we got to the gate area, the CRESCENT was already in the station on Track 25, having followed our previous train after it departed for Virginia.
The CRESCENT, Train #19(7), Washington, DC to Atlanta, GA
As is the custom at Washington Union Station, the boarding process let sleeper passengers, families with small children, and the elderly board first. I could have gone with the "families" group, but with Michael getting so big I don't want to milk it too much. As it turned out, the major problem on this train was that it had been overbooked. That is why the cheaper fares had been gone so quickly when I reserved it too late. Every coach seat was taken, and I later saw some people sitting in the lounge car with their suitcases.
We once again had to contend with the blackout problem, another very dark escalator ride.
There was the usual confusion with the attendant assigning seats to passengers as they boarded, only to find those seats already occupied. When will AMTRAK realize that this is a system that does NOT work, as long as people ignore it? The attendant must ascertain before a major stop that everyone is sitting where they were assigned, so that they don't send people onto the train to an occupied seat. It turned out that everyone had to temporarily sit somewhere other than where they had been assigned, until some who were sleeping where they should not have been had to be told to move.
We departed Washington right on time at 7:10 PM. And we remained on time throughout our Virginia stops. The only time I can recall us going into the hole for a freight was at 9:43 PM, just beyond Charlottesville, but it was a slow-moving meet that did not require us to stop.
15 P-42 locomotive
19 P-42 locomotive
1556 Material handling car
to New Orleans
2505 Crew dorm
62034 Viewliner sleeper
62007 Viewliner sleeper
8507 Heritage diner
28002 Amfleet II lounge
25052 Amfleet II coach
25046 Amfleet II coach
25050 Amfleet II coach
(we sat here)
1516 Material handling car
1439 Material handling car
All Atlanta-bound passengers were put into the last coach of the three coaches. (The lack of a fourth coach might have been the reason for the overbooking, although this time of year is when some trains operate without their normal consists for scheduled equipment maintenance.) There was virtually no foot traffic through our coach, and nobody was bothered during the night by boarding or detraining passengers, except for one family headed to Lynchburg who were misrouted into our coach.
One thing I inevitably forgot to pack upon our hasty exit from home was my sleeping pills. I don't necessarily require them, but sleeping awkwardly in coach seating is just another excuse for insomnia to set in. I had a horrible time that night, although I must have slept a bit because I do not recall the train making a few stops. I was very conscious of our stops in Lynchburg, Greensboro, High Point, and Charlotte. The latter stop was for the full half hour (3 AM to 3:30 AM) in the timetable since we had remained on time. I also saw when the northbound CRESCENT passed us at 2:25 AM somewhere between Salisbury and Charlotte. Michael also had a rough on-and-off sleep.
Friday, November 8, 2002
Aboard the southbound CRESCENT
When it became light, and any further sleeping was impossible with other passengers moving around, we sat up and took stock of our surroundings. We made an on-time stop at Gainesville, GA at 7:43 AM, and then highballed towards Atlanta.
Just like in other cities, you know you're getting close when you start seeing the rapid transit system and its stations adjacent to the railroad tracks. We were running parallel to MARTA's Northeast line, and I saw stations at Doraville, Chamblee, and near the Lenox Square Mall.
The train arrived at Atlanta's station at 8:48 AM, which was 10 minutes early! Timekeeping on this trip was excellent, as we were never behind schedule. So the padding lengthened the train's dwell in Atlanta. By the time we got off the train, the two Atlanta-bound MHC's had already been removed from the back of the train by a switcher. The now totally-vacant coach we had left became the last car of the train.
First order of business was to have my suitcase held for me, so we would not have to lug it around the city for eleven hours. To do this, we had to wait for the lone ticket clerk, who was still busy with the train on which we had arrived. Not until 19 was rolling out of sight was he free to handle other duties. We paid our $1.50 and lightened our load. After briefly visiting the Jack Martin garden (dedicated to the late NARP President), it was off to enjoy the city.
In Atlanta: New MARTA trackage, and lunch at Peachtree Center
Since it was almost 9:30 AM by the time we left the station, I decided that we would skip breakfast and instead have an early lunch. Since we both love Chick-Fil-A, which is native to this region (it started in suburban Hapeville), we would make sure we were at the Peachtree Center Mall after 11 AM so we could have lunch at the Chick-Fil-A there. So that would give us enough time to do my MARTA new trackage ride first.
To get anywhere from Atlanta's AMTRAK station by transit, one must take a MARTA 23 bus. A 7-minute ride southbound leads to the Arts Center station on the North-South transit line. Transfers between bus and train and vice versa are free at most locations; the buses pull right into the paid areas of the rapid transit stations. Other cities should learn from this; the only other place I have seen this is in Toronto. Where the buses don't come into the rail station, free transfer cards are given to each passenger for use in the faregates.
Base fare on MARTA is $1.75, but with the unlimited transfers one can feel they got their money's worth. We paid cash on this first bus ride, but later got tokens at face value for the rest of the day.
Once we arrived at Arts Center, I decided we would take a northbound train and cover the "new" territory first. Northbound trains alternate to one of two termini: Doraville, or North Springs. It was the extension a couple of years ago from Dunwoody to North Springs that had I had to make sure I rode, so we did that first. Of course a Doraville train came first, so we boarded it but switched at Lindbergh Center, the last station before the lines split. (Lindbergh is also home to MARTA's headquarters building.)
The North Springs line runs primarily in the median of a toll road called Georgia 400. We even passed by a set of tollbooths along the way. The rail line leaves the highway alignment for a while to serve Dunwoody, and then it goes underground to stop at the Sandy Springs station. Just before the Sandy Springs station we passed by some advertising that was strategically placed on the tunnel wall and lit with flashing lights to make sure you see it. So impressed was I by this spectacle that I don't remember what the product was. Between Sandy Springs and North Springs, the line comes out of the tunnel and comes very close to GA 400 once more.
Once at North Springs, we ran across the platform to board another train that would be departing first. We now took this train south towards downtown. When we got near Peachtree Center, it was only about 10:30 AM. So I decided we would stay aboard and ride down to the airport and back. When we got to Hartsfield International Airport, we again crossed the center platform to board the next northbound train. And this we took back to the Peachtree Center station, where it was now about 11:15 AM.
This station lies deep under Peachtree Street, and it requires a very long escalator ride. Once in the mall, we had our lunch, and then devised our plans for the rest of the day. I wanted to go to Grant Park, which hosts a good zoo, as well as the Cyclorama, a must-see circular painting that comes to life with strategically placed lighting. To get there, we would have to take another bus. MARTA's 31 bus runs right by Peachtree Center and also goes right to Grant Park. We had to wait about 20 minutes for this bus, which runs once an hour.
In Atlanta: Grant Park & The Cyclorama
After a 20-minute bus ride, we were at Grant Park. We walked through the park to the Cyclorama, where we learned that instead of just admiring this painting, there are scheduled showtimes. A preview movie is first, to set the stage for the Battle of Atlanta, which the Cyclorama depicts. Then our guide took us into the special theater, which rotates 360 degrees so that everyone can see the entire painting and accompanying diorama that encircles them.
Since we had spent so much time at the Cyclorama, there was not enough time for Zoo Atlanta. A shame, because they had a Panda exhibit in there that we would have liked to see. We had to catch a bus back downtown in order to get to the Coca Cola exhibit before it closed. So we departed Grant Park and went across the street to wait for a bus. The time we spent waiting for buses could have been put into other more exciting things, like riding more of the rail system. We took a 32 bus this time, which instead of taking us right downtown, went to the King Memorial station on the East-West rail line. For this transfer, the bus driver gave us special farecards that were used in the faregates in lieu of tokens.
We rode westbound two stops, to the Five Points station. Five points is the center of the MARTA rail system, where the North-South and East-West rail lines come together. It is also considered to be near the center of Atlanta. There is a tunnel leading from this station to the Underground Atlanta attraction. And through Underground Atlanta to the other side and across a small paved courtyard is the World of Coca Cola.