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Trip Report

Florida-New Orleans-Chicago Trip 2003

April 16-27, 2003
Section 3 of 4


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Part 18: In New Orleans

New Orleans was built along the very curvy Mississippi River, and it extends up to Lake Pontchartrain. Its streets were laid out parallel to the banks of the lake and river. Consequently, the city shuns the use of words like north, south, east, and west. Instead, they use "Riverbound", "Lakebound", "Upriver", and "Downriver". Downriver, for instance, could be north, since alongside the French Quarter the normally south-flowing river curves to the north.

The first order of business was to get breakfast. I knew our best shot would be somewhere along Canal Street. Since we both prefer McDonald's for breakfast when we're away from home, our search focused on finding the golden arches. It was hot, already over 80 degrees, but thankfully we still had our shorts on from Florida. We walked about six blocks up Loyola Street until we reached Canal, and then Riverbound on Canal a couple of blocks until we arrived at McDonald's.

Tracks are in place in neutral ground of Canal Street for the Canal Streetcar, opening this fall After breakfast, we continued down Canal to the river. We got a good look at the construction of the Canal Streetcar line, which looks almost finished in places. I decided we would ride the Riverfront Streetcar first, since it was further from NOUPT than the St. Charles Streetcar. At the same time, I was looking for a booth near the foot of Canal Street where I recalled finding an all-day pass called the VisiTour Pass that would allow us unlimited rides on any New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) vehicles (although we were only there to ride the streetcars!). I found what I was looking for -- a simple tourist information booth, just across from the downtown casino and only a block from the Riverfront Streetcar.

Incidentally, besides the Canal Streetcar line now under construction, the RTA is also working towards restoring streetcar service along Desire Street. This is the line that Tennessee Williams made famous with his play. The Desire Streetcar is at the environmental impact statement stage.

Part 19: NORTA Riverfront Streetcar

We quickly located the Canal Street station of the Riverfront Streetcar. Since we really had no planned agenda, we could ride it in either direction, whatever arrived first.

Just upriver from the Canal Street station is the junction between the Riverfront and Canal Streetcar lines. This connecting track was built before the Canal Streetcar project began, in order to connect the Riverfront and St. Charles lines, and bring Riverfront cars to and from the depot on Carollton Avenue along the St. Charles line. When the Canal Streetcar starts running, it will use the existing Riverfront trackage between this location and the Esplanade terminus.

Riverfront Streetcar pauses at the Esplanade Avenue terminus in the French Quarter Soon a streetcar came in going in the downriver direction, towards Esplanade. It was marked "inbound". That's all we need, more confusion! The Riverfront Streetcar, unlike its older cousin on St. Charles, stays within either the Central Business District (CBD) or the French Quarter. The "inbound" car is headed towards Esplanade, which is the other end of the French Quarter from Canal Street (Canal is the dividing line between the CBD and the French Quarter). So "inbound" cars actually go away from the city's business district, which is an oddity. "Outbound" cars go two or three stops beyond Canal in the upriver direction, well within the CBD.

Well, whatever it said, we boarded it. The car was crowded with tourists like us. Most got off at the busier stops in the French Quarter, such as near the Jackson Brewery, the Moon Walk, and the Farmer's Market. By the time we got to the end of the line at Esplanade, there were only a few people on board besides Michael, me, and the operator.

Michael takes control of the Riverfront Streetcar at Esplanade Avenue station We planned to return with this same operator and streetcar to the other end of the line, so we stayed nearby while he prepared the car to head in the opposite direction. The operator was nice enough to shoot a photo of Michael and me in front of the streetcar, and he also let Michael sit in his seat while I stood in the gauge in front of the streetcar and took a photo of him there.

Soon it was time to leave, and we boarded once more, along with a few others. The car began to roll upriver, filling with more passengers as it progressed along the line. Our operator called out each stop, and what tourist sites were nearby. We stayed aboard at Canal, the point where we had boarded originally. To the left is the Canal Ferry to Algiers, and one end of the large Riverwalk Marketplace shopping mall. Two more stops, at Julia Street, we were told that this was the end of the line. We were still next to the large Riverwalk mall, but were now in line with its food court. We were told that only cruise ship passengers could stay on to the next and last stop. After we went up an escalator leading to a bridge over the Riverfront Streetcar's tracks that leads into the mall's food court, I could see the car we had ridden stopped in the next station. The operator was changing ends once more. For any railfan to get that trackage, he has to actually ride a riverboat as well!

A Riverfront car passes the New Orleans Aquarium I had notions of at least riding back to Canal, but we instead entered the mall and walked from the food court end to the end near Canal Street. Michael said he wanted to go back in and get lunch at the food court, but I told him it was way too early (it was only about 10:30 AM) and we'd had a late breakfast since arriving in town.

By this time, it was 86 degrees and humid outside, getting quite uncomfortable. We began to walk in the lakebound direction on Canal Street. We ducked into a Wendy's just to get soft drinks to consume while we walked. We were headed for the St. Charles Streetcar now, but first we made a right turn onto Bourbon Street, and walked up a couple of blocks. During the daytime, and safely two months past Mardi Gras, the famous narrow street with the balconies is pretty tame. We did not venture too far, because I wanted to do the other streetcar. I also wanted to have time to eat lunch in the city before leaving town on our next train at 1:55 PM.

We turned around and walked across Canal Street from Bourbon Street. On the other side of Canal, it's called Carondelet Street. It is here that the St. Charles Streetcar has its closest stop to Canal, essentially the beginning or end of the line. We had to wait about ten minutes for the next streetcar, and there were several people, tourists and lunchtime commuters alike, around us doing the same thing.

Part 20: NORTA St. Charles Streetcar

Surprise! A Riverfront streetcar is seen running along new Canal Streetcar trackage; it discharges some passengers at Canal & Bourbon Streets I noticed while we were waiting that a streetcar was running on the new tracks in the neutral ground (median) of Canal. The line won't be open for another six months, yet here was a car that was running on Canal, even carrying passengers. Some were discharged at the corner to walk on Bourbon Street. The car was still there when our St. Charles Streetcar arrived.

The arriving streetcar was packed to the gills. People began to file off the car from both the front and rear doors. The people in the street began boarding before the people already in the car had gotten off, which I thought was rude. Michael and I got seats, but they were just about the last ones. As more people boarded at this stop, they had to stand.

St. Charles Streetcar turns onto Canal Street, using a track parallel to the new Canal Street tracks The crossover tracks between the St. Charles and Canal Streetcar lines
The car makes a right turn onto Canal, running in its neutral ground for one block in the riverbound direction before it turns right again onto St. Charles Street. During its short time on Canal, the tracks run parallel to those that were recently laid for the Canal Streetcar. There are track connections between each line in this one-block stretch.

Our trip was very slow, mainly due to the heavy boarding as we progressed along St. Charles. Things were so slow that I realized we were not going to be able to safely go to the end of the line and return, and still have time to eat lunch. I decided that at some point we would have to bail out and return on the next inbound car. As we got further into the Garden District, I waited until I saw a streetcar coming in the opposite direction a few blocks away. Then I pulled the buzzer, and we got off and crossed over the tracks to wait for the approaching car.

The location was St. Charles and Third Street. We've been to the end of this line before, so it was not a necessity that we go any further. At least we got to ride parts of both streetcar lines during our brief time in the city.

An inbound St. Charles car approaches our stop in the Garden District Inbound St. Charles streetcar makes the right turn from Howard onto Carondelet

Well we went out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak. When the Canal-bound car arrived it was standing room only already. We had to stand this time. Michael eventually got a seat, while I stood near him. There was no place to move in the aisles. I began to worry that we would not be able to get off at Lee Circle, which is the closest stop to NOUPT, where Howard meets Loyola. As the car rounded the circle and began to head lakebound on Howard Street one block to Carondelet, I pulled the buzzer. We then had to make our way to the back door. The operator could not see us, and he almost left before we could get through the crowd to the back door. We finally made it, and were glad to be off that old sardine can.

Part 21: Lunch in New Orleans

Howard Street has some tracks and catenary that resembles those found along St. Charles, but except for the St. Charles Streetcars in one direction, they are not used on Howard. Maybe they were at one time. Once we got beyond Carondelet, where the streetcars turn right towards Canal, we headed straight on the neutral ground, until its grassy area ended. We then walked on the sidewalk the last couple of blocks to Loyola, in sight of Union Passenger Terminal. Then we turned right and headed towards the shopping mall that is near the Superdome.

We walked past a large post office facility, and then towards the Superdome. As we were walking, we heard a loud horn that was unmistakably that of a P-42. The time was 12:14, and it was the westbound SUNSET LIMITED, the very train on which we had arrived, finally preparing to leave. That loud blast was either an all-clear signal, or a you-better-board-or-else-wait-three-days signal. At 12:15 PM we heard the familiar two toots, and the train departed from NOUPT for Texas and ultimately California.

New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, as seen from the corner of Loyola & Howard By this time we had reached the mall, called surprisingly the New Orleans Centre. We found the food court on the street level. I had my favorite baked ziti & meatballs from Sbarro and Michael just had a slice of pizza. When we were done it was 12:55 PM. Our train would be leaving in exactly one hour. It was time to return to NOUPT, which was three blocks away.

Back at the station, the place was now full of fellow passengers waiting for the departure of the CITY OF NEW ORLEANS. My first order of business was to retrieve our suitcases. While Michael found two seats for us, I went out to the track area, where there was supposed to be somebody available to give me back the luggage that was being held. I found no activity, just a locked door. I went back into the station and began to stand on a line at the AMTRAK ticket counter where I had dropped off the bags in the morning. John, the fellow railfan who we had met on the SUNSET LIMITED, had seen my actions and he told me that I could avoid standing on the line, by going back outside to the track area and finding one of the baggage guys. We finally found the right person sitting on a golf cart. He was a big help to me; he told me to knock on the locked door I had found earlier. Somebody was in fact inside, and soon I was wheeling two suitcases back into the waiting room.

Part 22: The CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, Train 58(25), New Orleans, LA to Chicago, IL

By now, it was about 1:15 PM. Boarding would no doubt begin taking place soon. I noticed that there seemed to be quite a few handicapped people in the station, with various broken legs and arms. I don't know if they were some group traveling together, but obviously I did not think it was out of place that they began to line up at the gate for the train. Naturally, those needing more help in boarding should be allowed to board first, just as it is done in Washington and Chicago. However, when the other people waiting saw this, they began to line up as well. Nobody had announced that passengers should line up, so Michael and I remained in our seats, even when the line began to snake around the back of the station. Everyone was going on the same train, and I felt no need to stand on a line after all the walking we had done in the past five hours. Some people are amazing creatures; I see little difference between them and a cattle roundup on a large farm -- they just follow the animal in front of them.

When the initial boarding announcements were made, First Class passengers (along with the mobility-impaired group) were allowed to board first. So now all the coach passengers gathering at the door were in the way of the First Class passengers, who were slowly making their way from the Magnolia Room, located across the waiting room near the side door of the station building. To those who did form a line: I hope you are proud of yourselves, folks, because all it did was make the simple, organized task of boarding passengers take more time.

When the boarding of coach passengers began, they began letting people through by destination, not by where they were on line. A conductor came down the line and asked where people were going, and then directed that group to the correct coach. While this could have been done at trainside, perhaps it created less confusion for the coach attendants who were standing outside the doors of the train, in that they could seat people and not have to worry about putting people in the correct coaches. Those going to Chicago, as we were, represented the largest and last group of passengers to board, but with all the others weeded out, by the time we actually joined the line we were almost near the front.

Chicago-bound passengers were placed in the rear coach, which was also the last car of the train. After not waiting on line, we probably had one of the shortest walks anyhow for the boarding passengers. At trainside, we met our coach attendant, Daphne. She told us where to sit, and we quickly went upstairs and found our seats. By now it was about 1:40 PM. I decided that since the New Orleans station is not particularly railfan-friendly, I would not get the full consist until later on up the line. I thought that perhaps I could get off in Memphis since there was some dwell time there, or else I could do it upon arrival in Chicago the next morning. Since we planned to use the dining car on this trip, I figured I would get most of the numbers anyhow from the inside, save for the engine, baggage car, and sleepers.

As you will find out, I did not get our full consist until we arrived in Chicago. But for convention purposes, this is how the train looked:

201 P-42 locomotive 1246 Baggage 39011 Superliner II Transition Dorm/Sleeper 32051 Superliner I sleeper "Capitol Reef" 38035 Superliner II diner 33033 Superliner II Sightseer Lounge 31590 Superliner I coach/smoker 35010 Superliner I coach/snack (snack bar not used) 34097 Superliner I coach <- * * We were here

Just as the CITY OF NEW ORLEANS began to roll (about one minute early at 1:54 PM by my watch), we heard the departure announcements from the crew, and from Daphne. The speakers in our coach were working! I would come to regret that fact, believe it or not, by the end of our trip.

Our entire trip would be on the tracks of Canadian National Illinois Central Railroad (CNIC). It would all be new trackage for us, except for the immediate station areas in New Orleans and Chicago.

By 2:08 we were passing through suburban Metairie, LA. To our left I saw a long double-stack freight sitting on another mainline track waiting to enter the track on which we were traveling. Where it was sitting is the ramp that leads onto the Huey Long Bridge, over which the SUNSET LIMITED crosses the Mississippi River on its way to and from western Louisiana, Texas, and ultimately California.

We soon passed on our right the large Louis Armstrong International Airport. At 2:17 PM, we heard our first of many, many announcements by our lounge car attendant, Monty. He described the fact that he was in a Superliner II lounge car, which takes longer to prepare for service than a Superliner I lounge car. My feeling, Monty, is that if this is so, you should therefore have arrived at your Superliner II lounge car earlier (well before the passengers would be boarding) in order to best serve your customers.

At 2:19 PM, 25 minutes into our trip, we began to cross water. At first, we appeared to be moving at our maximum speed, as we were going faster than vehicles on the adjacent freeway. Monty got on the speaker and told us we would be going slowly at times through this area, known as the Bonnie Carrie Spillway. While we were crossing the spillway, which is designed to take excess water when the Mississippi River crests upriver in the Midwest to alleviate flood conditions, the rather large Lake Pontchartrain was off to our right. There was a little water at this time in the spillway itself but most parts of it were dry and grassy. When it is not full of floodwaters, people use it as a recreational park.

Having crossed the spillway, but still passing the massive lake to our right, we sped up once more at 2:27 PM. We were now facing due north, having curved gradually from running west around the southern portion of the lake. At times we crossed underneath I-55, and also its local counterpart, U.S. 51.

At 2:54 PM, now beyond the lake, we passed through the town of Ponchatoula, LA. That was followed six minutes later by our first station stop, Hammond, LA. I don't know what made me think of doing it here, but I decided to give a call to Mike Hammond in Cleveland to let him know we were on the way on Train 58 and we'd see him in the morning. I left him a message on his cell phone. We pulled out of Hammond two minutes down.

According to the timetable, we should have passed the southbound CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, Train 59(24) somewhere between New Orleans and Hammond. Since I did not see it, I called Julie the AMTRAK Robot and found out that it was running about four hours late. Ouch. I calculated that we would meet it around Brookhaven, MS.

Our dining car attendant, Tiffany, addressed us at 3:15 PM, saying she would be coming through the train taking dinner reservations. She said there would be seatings at 5:00, 6:30, and 8:00. This time we wanted to partake of dinner in the dining car, so I was quite afraid we would end up with an undesirable late seating because we were in the very last car of the train.

Meanwhile, we were passing through the town of Amite, LA at 3:19 PM. Tiffany had worked her way through the train surprisingly quickly, and by the time she got to us the 6:30 reservations were no longer available. We wanted 5:00 anyhow, so we were in luck. Tiffany did not give us anything with which to prove we had a 5:00 reservation, and she did not take our names; it was basically on the honor system.

Continued in next section

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