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Trip Report

Seven Amtrak Trains in Seven Days

December 11-17, 2002
Section 2 of 3


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The Sunset Limited

I arrived back at Jacksonville station around 3:45 PM, collected my suitcase, and settled down to await the 5:00 PM arrival of the Sunset Limited. Train #1 was still listed as being on time on the variable message sign in the station. Sure enough the Limited pulled into JAX right on time at 5:00 PM.

Never having taken the Limited before, I was surprised to find out that they back the train into the station. About 5 minutes after arriving, the conductor came into the station where he started taking tickets from all of the passengers boarding the train. I had been outside watching the train back in and recording the consist numbers, so I had to walk back into the station to surrender my ticket.

Train #1's Consist JAX - NOL:

   15  P42 Engine
   12  P42 Engine
 1164  Baggage
39026  Superliner II Transition 
32099  Superliner II Sleeper 
        "New Mexico"
32070  Superliner II Sleeper 
38059  Superliner II Diner
33047  Superliner II Sightseer Lounge
34139  Superliner II Coach
34113  Superliner II Coach
34059  Superliner I Baggage/Coach
8 MHC's added at JAX, off at NOL

I walked forward to the sleepers, where I met my new attendant Ennis. He immediately handed me a dinner reservation slip as I boarded the train. There was no discussion of what time you wanted to eat; you just got whatever time he handed you. Thankfully he had given me a 6:30 PM seating which was acceptable to me.

My deluxe bedroom on the Sunset Limited I then climbed the stairs of the Superliner Sleeper "New Mexico", TSN 0130 and headed to my home for tonight, room "E" a Deluxe Bedroom. We pulled out of JAX at 5:33 PM, three minutes off the advertised. This seemed an auspicious beginning as I had departed exactly 3 minutes late the day before too. We headed out retracing the route that the Limited had just used to reach the station, through the nearby CSX yard.

Ennis came by a few minutes after we left, to find me sitting in the dark so I could see out of the windows better. He asked me if I was ok with the room, and I assured him that I was fine and knew where everything was, along with how to work it. He then left and went to his next meet and greet. From the start of the journey, I heard no announcements for dinner at any of the expected times.

Therefore at about 6:28 PM, I headed down to the dining car, which was the very next car behind my sleeper. I was seated almost immediately upon my arrival in the dining car. It was also at this point that I realized why I had not been given any choice of dining times, and why there had been no dinner announcements. Apparently based upon the passenger load, this dining car steward was able to implement a rather ingenious plan for seating his passengers.

The steward had set things up, so that he was seating 2 tables every fifteen minutes. He started with 2 sleeping car tables at 6:00, followed by two coach passenger tables at 6:15, followed by another two sleeping car tables at 6:30, and so on. This had the affect of providing a very smooth flow through the diner. The normal seating method tends to overwhelm the two dining car attendants each with over 30 people at once, not to mention the kitchen's needing to prepare some 60 odd meals all at once.

This way everyone received excellent service, as each group of tables was at a different point in their meals. While I suspect that this seating method would not work with a full passenger load on board, as you couldn't possibly feed everyone before midnight, it is definitely a far superior way to seat when the passenger load is lighter. Kudos to yet another Amtrak employee for using his head to the benefit of his passengers.

We called at Lake City, Florida at 6:39 PM, running 6 minutes down, while I was sipping my wine and waiting for my dinner to arrive. I had ordered the Cajun Catfish, the catch of the day, with a baked potato. It also came with those wax beans again, something that I was to tire of before the end of my journey. I followed that up with a piece of strawberry topped cheesecake again, just like I had done the night before.

I was seated with a very nice elderly couple headed to Los Angeles; they were on their first long distance train ride. Also sitting with us was a gentleman headed to San Antonio, who had traveled by Amtrak several times previously. Our dinner conversation was quite lively, and covered many varied topics, including Amtrak and trains in general.

The table opposite us even joined in on some of our Amtrak discussions, as did the dining car steward. Unlike some employees who simply consider Amtrak to be a job, the steward seemed quite knowledgeable about many areas of Amtrak. He had one opinion which I personally hope never comes to pass. He said that he believes within a few years that David Gunn will be forced to give up all the long distance routes. He believes that David will instead need to take Amtrak to a high-speed short-haul system, where one would need to change trains multiple times to ride from coast to coast.

While we were still lingering over dessert, we stopped at Madison, Florida at 7:41 PM now running 15 minutes down. Shortly after that I returned to my room and spent some time working on this report, in addition to looking out the window. Traveling at this time of the year offers one an excellent opportunity to view all the homes decorated with lights for the Christmas holidays. I saw many fabulous displays along the way.

Tallahassee, Florida came and went at 9:01 PM EST, right on the money. Shortly after leaving here the conductor made an announcement advising the passengers to set their watches back 1 hour, as we would be entering the Central Standard time zone. Next up was Chipley, Florida at 10:15 PM CST. We had lost 9 minutes along the way again. Shortly after Chipley I decided that it was time for bed, as it was really 11:15 PM to me.

Since I hadn't seen much of Ennis, I didn't bother with the call bell, and just setup the lower bed myself. As a veteran rider of Amtrak, I'm quite familiar with how to work the beds. In fact, I once had to help a brand new attendant on the Lake Shore Limited who didn't know how to unhook the safety harness straps from the ceiling in a Viewliner sleeper.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Once I had the bed made, I quickly dropped off to sleep. I recall waking for a station stop at 4:31 AM, which I assumed to be Mobile, Alabama. I also awoke again around 5:51 AM, which I believe was the stop for Biloxi, Mississippi. If I'm correct about those two stops then we were respectively six minutes and three minutes off the scheduled arrival times for those stations.

I awoke for good around 7:30 AM, and shortly afterwards headed back to the diner for breakfast. Once again I had my favorite breakfast: Railroad French Toast accompanied by sausage, coffee, and orange juice. By coincidence I was seated with the gentleman from the Silver Meteor who was headed to Houston for a funeral.

We talked some about the trip so far and the unfortunate circumstances that had required him to take this trip. He asked me if we were on time and I replied that I thought we were very close to being on time. He then expressed his hope that there would be no big delays from New Orleans to Houston, even though he had some time before the funeral on the next day.

After enjoying breakfast, I returned to my room to start preparing for our arrival into New Orleans. I discovered that Ennis had not yet made up my bed, so I tossed the used bedding into the upper bunk for Ennis to deal with later. I have to wonder if Ennis ever did change the linens, or if the new attendant boarding at New Orleans was greeted with an unwelcome surprise. I then returned the seats to their upright position. Next I proceeded to finish packing up my belongings in anticipation of our arrival.

During most of my breakfast, we appeared to be crossing through a bayou, although at times one could see the Gulf of Mexico off to our left. Now however, after watching the train go through the massive flood gates that help to keep New Orleans from flooding during severe storms, I knew that we must be close. Additionally the crowded, backed up freeways also served as a warning that we were arriving in New Orleans.

Sure enough a few minutes later I could see Amtrak's engine facility in New Orleans off to the left. The train continued straight across the top of a wye, so that we could back into the station. Our first backup move was used to park the 8 MHC's on the rear of our train, on one of the outer station tracks. We stopped at 8:20 AM so the MHC's could be detached.

We then pulled forward to clear the switches, and then once again made another backup move to position the train on an unoccupied track right next to one of the doors leading into the station. I considered our official arrival time to be when the train came to its final stop, and not when we dropped off the boxcars. Based upon my watch, that meant that we arrived at 8:43 AM, 37 minutes early.

During all of our maneuvers here, the crew did an excellent job of keeping the passengers informed of what was going on. Several announcements were made telling us what would happen next and why. They also implored us to stay in our seats and especially to stay off of the stairs during this time.

Amtrak engine #15 sitting in New Orleans on the head of the Sunset Limited I carried my luggage downstairs and detrained. Ennis did get a tip, but it was small and not nearly as handsome a tip as Larry had gotten. I felt that Ennis could have and should have done more for me, especially since the sleeper was not full. While it didn't really bother me to have to make my bed, the simple fact is Ennis should have come by to do it. For that matter he never even came by once to offer to put my bed down. I don't know what Ennis was doing, but from my observations it didn't seem like he was on top of his passengers' needs.

New Orleans Union Station

I then rolled my suitcase into the terminal and went looking for the first class lounge here. In New Orleans the first class lounge is called the Magnolia Room. By comparison, the Northeast Corridor's four Club Acela's and the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago are much larger than the Magnolia Room. There is seating here for only about 20 people, a typical automatic drip coffee pot that you would put in your house, and a water dispenser. There are no bathrooms in the first class area, nor is there even an attendant to check you in.

When I entered the Magnolia Room, there were already several people waiting for the westbound Sunset Limited from which I had just detrained. I took the opportunity to watch some news on the TV, which was showing NBC's Today Show. I hadn't seen any news for almost two days and had yet to read the USA Today that I had received on the Meteor. I also spent some time working on this trip report while watching the news. In addition I grabbed a cup of coffee to drink while I was relaxing.

After watching TV and working for almost an hour, I decided that it was time to venture out on the town. Accordingly I packed up my laptop and went in search of some place to leave my suitcase. Here in New Orleans, if one is traveling in a sleeper, you can check your bags for the day at the ticket counter for free. Coach passengers on the other hand, have to pay a buck fifty per bag. This is one area where Amtrak really should have a standard policy.

If baggage service is available at a station, then passengers traveling in a sleeper should either be able to check their bags for free at all stations or they should have to pay at all stations. The policy should not vary from one station to another. I also think that the fee that is charged should be uniform. While the two stations where I checked a bag for the day each charged a buck fifty, back in NY it is four bucks per bag.

Anyhow with my bags safely checked, except for a backpack containing my laptop, I ventured out in search of both lunch and a ride on one of New Orleans' famous streetcars.

St Charles Streetcar Line

St. Charles Streetcar on Howard Street bound for Canal Street Since I had not really prepared for New Orleans, I wasn't really sure just where the streetcar lines were, nor what areas they served. As luck would have it, I hit the St. Charles Line first at Howard Circle. I hopped on board a car headed for Canal Street not realizing that I was really only a few blocks from the end of the line. Upon arrival at Canal Street almost everyone detrained. Neither myself nor a couple left the streetcar and the operator didn't chase us off the car.

Again having no real clue to where I was bound, the car returned to Howard Circle where I had boarded and I just stayed on board. I also had no clue that the St. Charles line is over 5 miles long and that it takes close to 40 minutes to ride it from one end to the other. However it was a very enjoyable ride past many of the wonderful old homes in New Orleans.

When the car reached the end of the line, I was forced off this time along with a few other people. We all scurried to catch the next inbound car here. Unlike the Canal Street end that is really just a loop around the block, the cars don't loop here. Instead, the operator changes ends after stopping on one of the two tail tracks here.

After paying another $1.50, since I hadn't realized earlier that the operators could sell the one-day visitors pass, I was once again on my way back to downtown New Orleans. This time the operator was a bit of a maniac, getting mad at the idiots driving their cars in front of the streetcar to make a left turn. He would inch up until he was almost touching the side doors of the cars blocking the tracks. When one of the other passengers commented that he was blocking the view of the driver trying to turn, the operator responded somewhat gruffly, that he didn't care since he had the right of way and the car should not have been there in the first place.

St. Charles Streetcar running on St. Charles two blocks west of Canal Street I once again rode past Howard Circle, continuing on until we reached Canal Street. This time I detrained and went in search of lunch. After a walk of about three blocks, I found a Wendy's and wandered in for lunch. After finishing lunch it was around 12:30 PM. I briefly pondered walking over to ride a Riverfront Streetcar, but then not knowing how long the ride would be, I decided that it would be safest to return to Union Station to await the 1:55 PM departure of my train.

The sun had come out upon my arrival into New Orleans for the first time on my trip, so far. So with temps hovering around 65, I decided to save paying another $1.50 and walk back to Union Station instead of riding the St. Charles Streetcar again. Thanks to a rather brisk wind the walk did get a little chilly despite the light jacket I was wearing.

The Magnolia Room

Once I reentered Union Station, I first went to claim my bags from the baggage check room. To do this I actually had to walk out the door to the tracks and around to the luggage area in the back of the ticket counter. After claiming my bag, I then walked back into the main station and settled down in the Magnolia Room once again. There were at least 15 other passengers waiting for the departure of the City of New Orleans. By this time it was around 1:00 PM, so I figured that I had about a half hour to maybe 45 minutes before they would start boarding us.

Around 1:25 PM or so, in walked an Amtrak employee. I immediately and quite erroneously assumed that he was a Redcap, sans the red cap. I couldn't have been more wrong; it turned out that he was the engineer for our train. Apparently CJ, who would be our engineer, has a habit of coming into the lounge to introduce himself to the passengers.

He spent several minutes talking to those of us in the lounge, giving us some facts and figures about the engine and how it works. He talked about the alerter system or dead man's feature on the engine, and told us that he'd be the one blowing the horn and keeping us awake at night. However, since CJ was only taking us to Jackson, MS, he actually wouldn't be the one blowing the horn later that night when we retired for the evening. He also told us that he had been an engineer for Amtrak for over 10 years now, and had worked for a freight RR before that.

CJ then asked if anyone had any questions for him. A few people did indeed ask him questions. One person wanted to know how much fuel the engine would use on its way to Chicago. Someone else had another question about the alerter system. CJ patiently answered all of their questions. He had also brought along some candy, since he had expected to find some children in the lounge. However there were only adults in the lounge, so he then proceeded to hand out the candy to anyone who requested some.

Without a doubt, CJ was the best Amtrak employee that I encountered during my entire trip. He was a real class act to take his own time to entertain, meet, and greet some of the passengers whose lives he would be entrusted with just a few minutes from now. Even more impressive is the fact that he used his own money to buy the candy he handed out. Especially since he's not really on the front lines of passenger contact. I realize that the lack of trains running out of New Orleans and the size of the lounge helps to make what CJ did possible. However, it was also quite apparent that CJ loved his job and he enjoyed meeting his passengers.

I have to say that I was truly impressed. Having logged over 30,000 miles on Amtrak, I've yet to meet an engineer in this manner. We can only hope that Amtrak's President David Gunn can find others like CJ and nurture this type of customer service and enthusiasm. That plus some steady and realistic funding from Congress would really allow Amtrak to win over many more travelers.

By the time CJ had finished talking with us almost 15 minutes later and handing out the candy, he told us that they would start boarding the train in just a few minutes. He told us that we should grab our belongings and line up by the gate. CJ then left the room and those of us in the lounge proceeded to gather our belongings and headed out to the gate. As I stepped out of the Magnolia room, there was CJ handing out the rest of his candy to the few children who would be riding in coach, and were therefore waiting in the main hall with their parents.

The City of New Orleans

Less than a minute after lining up at the gate, along came the conductor who started pulling our tickets and allowing us to go out onto the platform. The conductor in addition to taking the tickets, instructed each person where they should go to board the train and what car they would be riding in. After handing over my ticket, I rolled my bag out to the platform. As I walked along I stopped every two cars to record the train's consist.

Train 58's Consist NOL-CHI

  121  P42 Engine
   80  P42 Engine
 1443  MHC
 1237  Baggage
39022  Superliner II Transition 
32115  Superliner II Sleeper 
38061  Superliner II Diner
34042  Superliner I Coach
31510  Superliner I Coach 
        Super Smoker
33004  Superliner I 
        Sightseer Lounge - 
        Rebuilt Beach Grove 1985
34069  Superliner I Coach
31005  Superliner I Coach/Baggage
32026  Superliner I Sleeper 
No MHC's or roadrailers.

I continued past my sleeper to get the baggage and the engine numbers. While I was writing down the Transition Sleeper and the baggage car numbers, an Amtrak employee came up to me to see what I was doing. He looked as though he might be some sort of supervisor based upon the way he was dressed, but I'm not really sure. All I know is that he had an Amtrak name tag and a radio. He politely told me that passengers weren't allowed up here and asked me if I was riding this train.

I apologized and told him that I was not aware that I wasn't allowed to go up and look at the engine, while showing him my ticket stub. He told me not to worry, that there was no way that I could have known that I was in an off limits area. I wasn't quite sure how a platform intended for passengers to board a train could be off limits, even if I was a little past the section of the train with the passenger cars. However since I was aware of the heightened security since 9/11, I didn't argue with him.

I did explain that I was merely trying to write down the consist numbers; so he offered to escort me to the head end so that I could accomplish my mission. Along the way he asked what I planned to do with the numbers, so I explained how I would be writing this story and that many people enjoy knowing what equipment I had seen. He seemed somewhat surprised that there was actually a place on the Internet to post Amtrak travel stories, let alone that people actually like to keep track of what equipment had shown up where and for what run.

By now we had reached the end of the MHC, so I again stopped to write down that number while my escort read me the engine numbers. A minute later along came CJ and he promptly climbed up into the engine to ready it for our departure. The worker then walked me back to the area of my sleeping car before saying goodbye. I thanked him again for his courtesy in allowing me to accomplish my mission and shook his hand.

Next I showed my ticket stub to my new car attendant Marcie, and started to climb aboard the sleeper "Washington" TSN 5800 to head for Room C, my new home for the next 19 hours. Before I could get through the door, the person ahead of me turned to Marcie to tell her that the person ahead of her had just dropped her full cup of soda on the floor.

Marcie quickly scrambled around me and jumped onboard, took a look at the mess, and asked the two of us to wait a minute. She then ran to the shower changing room and grabbed a couple of towels to throw on the floor temporarily until she could clean up the mess later. Marcie then let us on board, and after stepping over the mess, I then headed upstairs to settle into my room.

Shortly after I finished settling into my room, we pulled out of Union station right on the advertised at 1:55 PM. A few minutes after departure, I slipped downstairs for a quick shower, since there had been no hot water earlier that morning on the Sunset Limited sleeper. After my shower as I went to leave, Marcie was out in the hall trying to wash up the soda spill from earlier.

She asked if I knew that I had a shower in my room, and I told her that I did indeed know that. I told her however, that the main shower downstairs is so much bigger by comparison. She agreed with that and said that she also would have come downstairs to the larger shower.

Running through a Louisiana Bayou on train #58 Returning upstairs to my room, I could see that we were out of New Orleans by now and running on a spillway through another Louisiana Bayou. Only a few minutes after returning to my room at 2:35 PM, we were forced to stop when a defect detector informed us that we were dragging equipment. Our conductor, Ronnie, was forced to walk the length of the train.

A few minutes later he informed CJ that the main reservoir hose was dragging, but that he had managed to secure it once again. In the meantime the dispatcher was calling CJ to see what was happening as we were blocking the main. After a 5-minute or so delay, we were once again on our way.

We however didn't get too far before we were forced to take a siding at North Manchee, to clear for a freight train. Had we not been forced to stop for the dragging equipment problem, we would have met this freight train further north of here in a double track area. Then just to add insult to injury, we were then forced to wait for another 15 minutes because a bridge just past where we were stopped for the meet had opened for a boat to pass. While we were stopped, I walked through the train taking a few pictures of the car interiors.

Upper level of Sightseer Lounge on train #58 Interior of Superliner diner on train #58

Finally underway again, we had smooth running until we reached Hammond, LA at 3:39 PM. This had us running 39 minutes down thanks to the dragging hose and the open bridge. Shortly after Hammond, the dining car steward came by to make dinner reservations. I choose the 6:30 seating, as 5:00 is way to early for me to eat dinner.

I found that most of the detectors along this route still broadcast their former owner's name Illinois Central (IC) and not the name of their new owner Canadian National. Perhaps most interesting was that the detector's all finished their broadcasts with either "Have a safe trip" or "Have a good trip".

McComb, MS came and went at 4:30 PM, leaving us running 37 minutes off the schedule. As we left McComb, a station worker called the train to ensure that the conductor knew that a handicapped person in a wheel chair would be boarding at the next stop, Brookhaven. This would require spotting the sleeper precisely in front of the station.

We arrived next at Brookhaven, MS at 4:50 PM. CJ and Ronnie (the conductor) managed to put the sleeper precisely in front of the handicapped lady. With Ronnie, Marcie, and someone from the station all helping; they were able to board the lady onto the train rather quickly.

We left shortly after that at 4:53 PM still inching closer to the schedule now only 34 minutes late. Sadly that was as close as we were going to get to the schedule for a while, as we went into the hole (a siding) at 5:01 PM just north of Brookhaven, to wait for a southbound freight. We sat here for 28 minutes until 5:29 PM before we started moving again.

Our next stop would have been Hazlehurst, MS. This however is a flag stop and since there was no one detraining nor anyone boarding, we blew right through the station at track speed. It was 5:41 PM as we rolled through, so we were now running 58 minutes down.

We pulled into Jackson, MS at 6:21 PM, having made up a little time. We were now 37 minutes off the advertised. We also lost our wonderful engineer, CJ, at this stop; in fact I was able to see him walking down the platform.

Shortly after leaving Jackson, I headed down to the diner for my dinner. I was seated promptly, and a few minutes later two guys on their way to Los Angles joined me. Although one of them had been born here in America, they were living in Argentina, and were using Amtrak to travel our country.

They had started out in Florida coming west on the Sunset Limited prior to the one that I had used to reach New Orleans. They would switch at Chicago to the Zephyr taking that to Emeryville, after an overnight stay in Chicago. From there they would work their way down to Los Angeles. Once in Los Angeles they were going to house sit for about a month for a friend.

We talked some about traveling on Amtrak, and visiting America and their journey so far. I ordered the fish special, which once again was Catfish.˙Just like the night before on the Sunset, it was tasty and fresh. Tonight I decided on rice instead of the baked potato and once again the vegetable was waxed beans. Amtrak must have gotten a special on waxed beans, as that's all I saw during my trip. I washed all of that down with glasses of Chardonnay and water.

Once again I followed dinner up with another piece of strawberry topped cheesecake. At some point during dinner we must have passed by the flag stop at Yazoo City, MS. However since we did not stop and the crew did not mention it's passing over the radio, I have no idea when we went by the stop.

I had already returned from dinner to my room and was sipping the rest of my wine when we pulled into Greenwood at 8:14 PM. We were still running 37 minutes late, but at least we hadn't lost any more time. Marcie came by at around 9:30 or so to see if I wanted her to make up my bed yet. Since my body was still operating on Eastern Standard time, even though I was in the Central time zone, I told her to go ahead and ready the room for nighttime. I then stepped into the hall to get out of her way.

Marcie quickly and efficiently setup my bed for me and was on her way to the next room in less than three minutes. I settled back into my room sitting on the bed, while continuing to work on my computer. Around 10:30 PM CST, I decided that it was late enough, and headed off to sleep since it still felt like 11:30 PM to me.

Continued in next section

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