Birmingham to New Orleans and Back on the Crescent
September 26-28, 2003
On September 26-28, 2003 (Friday through Sunday), I participated in a weekend excursion to New Orleans via Amtrak's Crescent sponsored by the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum of which I am a member. The excursion was open to the public and we sold packages to 164 persons--the maximum allowed by Amtrak--who boarded at Anniston, AL., Birmingham, or Tuscaloosa. The package included round trip passage on the Crescent, a special lunch en route to New Orleans (N.O.), a special brunch on the return trip, and 2 nights at the Inter-Continental Hotel including a breakfast buffet on Saturday Nov. 27th. This was our 6th consecutive Amtrak excursion to N.O.
On Friday the 26th our passengers plus trip coordinators, Ralph Honeycutt and Henry Gilliland, crammed into the small remnant of Birmingham's former Louisville and Nashville station now used by Amtrak. We shared the waiting room with another excursion of 56 taking a cruise ship out of N.O. Most people were forced to stand or sit on the floor--not a great start but no one complained.
Ten minutes before train 19 arrived (35 minutes late) we were ushered upstairs to the platform and told to stand behind the yellow line and spread out where the coaches would stop. We had reserved 3 of the train's 5 Amfleet II coaches; the cruise ship people had one and regular passengers were in the remaining coach. Also in the consist, pulled by 2 Genesis locomotives, were a crew dorm-lounge, 2 Viewliner sleepers, a diner, Amfleet lounge car and a baggage car on the rear. Half of the lounge car was enclosed for smokers. Our group had assigned cars and seats but we were forced to board through one entrance in the middle car. This took about 25 minutes. A second entrance would have halved that time.
Our cars, which had not been occupied, were spic and span--even the windows were clean. For me seating in Amfleet cars is uncomfortable for long-distance travel but our excursionists seemed happy as we pulled onto the Norfolk Southern (NS) main line and into Birmingham's western sections, then Bessemer and on towards Tuscaloosa 50 miles away. The car attendant did not offer pillows, as is customarily done; we found unused pillows stacked in the car occupied by regular passengers.
I was seated with a young looking grandfather treating his "train-nut" 8 year-old grandson to a birthday excursion. Across the aisle sat an equally youngish grandmother and the wide-eyed, ecstatic birthday boy on his first train trip. When I worked up the nerve to speak of their youthful appearance, I was told that the boy's mother had married very young as they had. The gentleman owned a large plumbing business in a Birmingham suburb. We talked about his business and our mutual interest in World War II history. I recommended the D-Day Museum in N.O. but they had been twice already. Both grandparents seemed happy with the train and asked a lot of questions about Amtrak and the Crescent--does it run everyday, where else does it go, can you get a private room, etc.? I did my best to make new converts.
Between Tuscaloosa and Livingston, AL. the Crescent passed through the Sipsey swamp full of ancient-looking cypress trees, palmettos, and other jungle-like vegetation. Just beyond the swamp we crossed the Warrior and Tombigbee rivers on high trestles. Chalk cliffs lining the Tombigbee look like miniature cliffs of Dover. The Tombigbee is part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers about 20 years ago to link the Tennessee River with the Gulf at Mobile. It was built at great expense as a shortcut for barges. I believe it is mainly used by pleasure craft.
Both excursion groups were served the special lunch in 5 seatings. This was necessary in that we had one 44 seat diner. We began at 1:30 with the last seating at 5:30 near Picayune MS. just shy of the Pearl river and Louisiana state line. Regular passengers squeezed in with the 2 groups whenever there was an empty seat. I ate in the 4th seating with my 2 railroad museum buddies and a lovely woman from Providence RI going to a family reunion in N.O. She was allowed to eat from our menu and, as a self-proclaimed Amtrak frequent traveler, announced she had never eaten so well on the Crescent. From her I learned some new trivia: famed TV chef and New Orleans restaurant owner, Emeril LaGasse, is actually from Providence instead of New Orleans.
The meals were prepared on board by senior Amtrak chef John Long and 2 assistant cooks. Amtrak also assigned 3 fast moving but friendly waiters, a steward and a dish washer to get the meals out and the tables turned quickly. We had a choice of 3 entrees--filet mignon cooked to order, broiled catfish, or chicken cordon bleu with freshly prepared mashed potatoes, vegetables, a salad, rolls, red or white wine and other beverages. Dessert was Chef Long's special bourbon-flavored bread pudding. Meals were served on china on white tablecloths, changed at each seating. The diner interior was Acela-like done in soft pastel beige and salmon pink. We museum men had filets cooked exactly as ordered while our companion ate catfish. Passengers I spoke with said they were pleased with the lunch, even those who had to wait. However, grumbling ensued from some in the 5th seating because the bread pudding gave out and another dessert was substituted. Word had previously spread that the pudding was to "die for".
Chef Long has always prepared our excursion meals with never a disappointment. At Slidell, LA.,an hour out of N.O., he walked through our cars in fresh whites with his tall chef's hat asking how we liked the meal. In my car, folks applauded as he walked in.
The only other trip negative was the absence of beer, soft drinks, except for Pepsi, and most snacks in the lounge car. This distressed some of our passengers and me so I consoled myself with a bloody mary. I asked the 2 taciturn lounge car attendants why adequate beer, etc had not been put on or added in Atlanta. They shrugged and said, "we just aren't prepared".
As we sped southwestward through Mississippi at 79MPH on the NS mainline, Ralph Honeycutt and Henry Gilliland worked the cars chatting with passengers and handing out our museum brochures and info on New Orleans. Henry is a long-time Amtrak supporter, resident of Anniston, AL., and active member of our railroad museum. Since retirement, he can be found most days at Anniston's Amtrak station, helping the station crew and passengers and talking up the Crescent and Amtrak in general. Henry is the Godfather of our Amtrak excursions. His friendship with former Amtrak Board Chairman and mayor of Meridian, MS., Robert Smith, eliminated initial obstacles. On both trips, he was on a first name basis with train crew members who were delighted to see him. He identified our locomotive engineers both going and coming and commented knowledgeably on their operating methods.
After the crew change at Meridian MS., brief flag stops occurred at Laurel and Picayune with the obligatory stop at Hattiesburg where 2 confused, non-English-speaking Asians got on. There were no seats left in the car for regular passengers so they occupied 2 unused "bulkhead" (non-window) seats in my car. We crossed Lake Pontchartrain in the dark 40 minutes down. Thanks to schedule padding we backed into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal (NOUPT) only 10 minutes late. The speed limit across the lake has been raised from 40 to 60 MPH and this helped. De-training was through 2 doors and in minutes we boarded a fleet of buses for a quick ride to the hotel. Within an hour of Train 19's arrival, excursionists were headed for the old-time trolleys that serve the beautiful Garden District or toward the French Quarter 3 blocks away.
The next morning people got early starts on tours, shopping and personal sightseeing. I joined 45 on a quickie morning tour of 2 South Louisiana towns, Houma and Thibidoux. Houma is home to the Houma Indians, a remnant of the Choctaw tribe, while Thibidoux is predominantly Cajun. Both are surrounded by sugar cane fields and processing plants. On a superficial visit like ours, both seemed very similar to Alabama small towns with fast food restaurants, strip malls, and lots of pick-up trucks piloted by red-faced guys with ball caps. We also saw 2 early 19th century French sugar plantations, one of which had preserved slave and overseer cabins. Another bit of trivia: when the Cajun's ancestors were forcibly removed from Nova Scotia and dumped into Louisiana swamps 200 years ago they would have starved but for local Choctaw Indians. The Choctaw showed them how to trap game, catch shell fish, cultivate native plants and use their tree-hollow canoes, now called "pirogues". Thus, Cajun cooking owes as much to Choctaw as to European roots.
Saturday evening I rode the St. Charles Avenue trolley 3 or 4 miles into the Garden District passing boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, Tulane and Loyola universities and beautifully preserved 19th century mansions. In the late 50's city fathers decided to replace remaining street cars with buses. Somehow the St. Charles line, and its 1920 era open-window, dark green street cars with wooden seats, was saved. Today it serves local residents and is a tourist attraction like San Francisco cable cars. My car was filled to capacity with chattering visitors as well as little old ladies with shopping bags, Tulane students, etc. Recently the city restored trolley service on about a mile of the waterfront line along the Mississippi opposite the French Quarter. Cars are painted red and yellow and look as old as St. Charles cars except for brand new running gear. Currently double track is being relaid in the median of the city's main drag, Canal street. In the 1960's the Canal St. tracks were ripped up, the street cars sold and replaced by buses that traveled on busways in the median. Trolley service will be re-inaugurated next year.
Early Sunday morning we boarded our buses bleary-eyed for the short ride to NOUPT. The terminal was built about 1954 consolidating 3 passenger stations that surrounded the business district and required street running by some trains. It must be one of the last union stations built in a major North American city. Today it hosts the Crescent, Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans as well as Greyhound buses.
At 7:00AM we boarded Train 20 scheduled to depart at 7:20. Boarding was done on all 3 of our cars within 10 minutes. The consist was the same as Train 19s on Friday except that we had 4 instead of 5 Amfleet coaches; 2 Amtrak boxcars were attached to the rear while the baggage car was directly behind the 2 Genesis locomotives. This time the non-smoking half of the Amfleet bar-lounge was facing the diner such that these tables could also be used to serve the special brunch. Shortly after an on-time departure we crossed the enormous body of Lake Pontchartrain in daylight. Sleepy passengers came awake to look at waves lapping the causeway and pelicans circling near the train. To the left I could not make out the other side and thought this must be like riding the FEC Key West extension trains in the early 1930s.
Since the other excursion was not aboard and we used non-smoking lounge car tables, brunch was scheduled in 3 seatings. While waiting first call, crew members hustled through our cars with coffee and a big fresh blueberry or apple muffin for each passenger. At the same time a dining car waiter distributed pillows--somebody reacted to our complaint about their absence on 19. An hour and a half out, near Picayune, first call was announced. I ate in the 3rd seating about an hour later with my 2 museum companions. Brunch consisted of juice, scrambled eggs and bacon, cheese grits, fresh tomatoes, and 3 silver dollar pancakes. Red wine was optional and we optioned it. It went down well with strong coffee. Chef Long's kitchen crew was the same but the 3 waiters and steward were new and exceptionally friendly yet very efficient. After we finished, they immediately set up and served a regular lunch for other passengers. When this wound down Chef Long again walked through our coaches to praise and adulation. Its hard to imagine how he and his crew, working in small quarters, could feed 164 passengers in such a short time even with a set menu.
The remainder of the ride back was smooth and on the advertised--Tuscaloosa passengers de-trained at 12:55 and we arrived in Birmingham 7 minutes early at 2:10PM. I heard no complaints and a lot of "I hope you keep on doing this" and a few "How about an excursion to New York?" Excursions are, of course, special and rumor has it that we are especially well-treated because former Amtrak Board Chairman, Robert Smith, is a good friend. Still, if Amtrak approximated the service we saw on the return trip, ridership and these yearly debates about Amtrak's survival would be much less problematic.
David W. Coombs