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Trip Report

Birmingham to New Orleans and Back on the Crescent

January 13-15, 2004


Birmingham to New Orleans

On Tuesday, January 13th, son Robert and I traveled from Birmingham to New Orleans on Train 19, the Crescent, returning the 15th on Train 20. Train 19 departed on time at 12:45PM behind 2 Genesis locomotives. The consist included a Heritage-style crew dorm car, 1 View-liner sleeping car, dining car, Amfleet cafe-lounge, 4 Amfleet II coaches, baggage car and Amtrak boxcar. Our coach, behind the cafe-lounge, was about two-thirds full. The second and third coaches were half full; the fourth was closed and empty. Robert quickly fell asleep, so I went to the empty cafe-lounge for a bloody mary. The attendant was staring out the window at a nearby table and seemed unhappy at being interrupted. Despite her surly demeanor she correctly prepared a very good bloody mary which I sipped at a table while reading and sightseeing. The cafe car interior was attractive in colors of burgundy and black with yellow stripes.

In the western suburb of Bessemer we passed the abandoned Pullman-Standard freight-car manufacturing facility. It was closed several years ago and attempts are being made to recycle the physical plant to other industries. Our local railroad museum was donated an almost new box-car, wooden templates for designing freight cars, and dozens of standard letter and blueprint (flat-file) cabinets. The cabinets were a railfan treasure trove of rail car blueprints, records of car orders and specs, wage data for different crafts, memos re. union affairs, etc. dating to the 1940s. There were also dozens of metal employee badges dating from the 1940s each with a model of a standard pullman car stamped onto the badges.

At the last call for lunch in the diner, Robert and I proceeded forward. He ordered a vegetable frittata--a pie-like omelette with veggies embedded--while I had pastrami and cheese sandwich. Both were quite good as was the service by our elderly, friendly waiter. The diner interior was in pastel Acela colors of green and burgundy with green seats. We were allowed to linger over coffee and admire the cypress trees and palmettos in the Sipsey swamp area between Tuscaloosa and Meridian. Unfortunately, catfish farms are encroaching so this scenery may not endure. We were on time out of Meridian and as we passed the joint KCS/NS yard just beyond the "Union Station" I noticed an EMD locomotive of undetermined type in KCS colors lettered for the Gateway Western.

Entering Hattiesburg, I observed on a siding 4 large lived-in house trailers on flat cars. I presume they're dorms for NS track workers. In a park adjacent to the Hattiesburg station are an ancient 0-4-0 tank engine, a standard baggage car and a small 2-8-2. All appear very neglected. A local "Friends" organization for cosmetic restoration is needed given the municipality's lack of interest. After Hattiesburg a first and only call for dinner was issued. Robert and I decided to eat in New Orleans.

Train 19 was 15 minutes down at Slidell, LA. but the conductor predicted early arrival at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. After Slidell we crossed Lake Pontchartrain at the new speed limit of 60 MPH and began our circuitous route through the sprawling city. We backed into NOUPT (New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal) 10 minutes early at 7:45.

Highlights of our brief visit were the 75 degree weather, the D-Day Museum, featuring the USA's involvement in World War II, and rides on the venerable St Charles street car line. The restored Canal street line opens in March. I recommend the museum to those interested in our part of the greatest war--thus far--in human history. Robert started with exhibits on the war's prelude which segues into the European theatre. I went to the Pacific theatre exhibit which starts with 1930s Japanese expansion in Asia and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We spent almost 4 hours until closing--I ended at the signing of the peace treaty on the battleship Missouri while Robert reached the Normandy invasion. We should have started earlier.

The presentations are informative and emotionally stirring. In addition to the fighting, they show, for example, how our weaponry and support technology rapidly and successfully adapted to carrier-centered warfare on water and land battles with jungle terrain, heat, monsoon rain and tropical diseases. Interestingly, many movies shot by the military in the Pacific are in color. Some, such as color shots of flame-throwers used on Japanese dug into bunkers, may be too gruesome for small children. Flame-throwers and "satchel bombs" (backpacks crammed with TNT) were the most effective means of combat against the heavily reinforced concrete and steel bunkers that survived aerial and naval bombardment.

New Orleans to Birmingham

Thursday morning, we boarded Train 20 for the return. The train consisted of 2 Genesis locomotives, a baggage car, crew dorm car, 2 Viewliners, dining car, Amfleet cafe-lounge, 3 Amfleet coaches and an Amtrak box car. Two coaches were barely one-third full, the third had 2 passengers. After our 7:20 departure we passed a freight led by 3 multi-colored locomotives with HCLX markings and then slowly passed an NS tie-replacement crew using an endless string of track machines.

Lake Pontchartrain was crossed in bright sunlight; at Slidell, the lounge and dining cars opened for business. In the diner, Robert had the "continental" while I ate American scrambled eggs, sausage and hash browns. Except for cold hash browns we were pleased and again were allowed to linger over coffee that our friendly waiter kept fresh and hot. This dining car interior was a combination of browns and tans that seemed time-worn. The cafe-lounge had a glass enclosed smoking section occupying one end that proved to be popular. On the way down smokers had exited at 2 brief stops, lit up and frantically smoked about half a cigarette.

Passing Picayune I noticed a well-preserved Heisler locomotive near the depot. At Hattiesburg 15 passengers boarded. Train 20 then quickly sped through Mississippi to Meridian where 4 passengers got on and I glimpsed an EMD locomotive in KCS colors with TFM on the side--Transporte Ferroviario Mexicana if memory serves. This is KCS's Mexican partner which it meets at Nuevo Laredo. Meridian's "Union Station", with lots of outside benches, should be a great place to train watch what with a busy NS main line and a major connection with KCS. Next to the station one can also inspect ex- Southern Ry. heavyweight passenger coach, "Miss Alva" and 2 cabooses, an ex-Southern in red and an ex-Meridian and Bigbee in blue and yellow.

As Train 20 passed into Alabama we skipped the first call for lunch and snacked in the cafe-lounge. The jovial cafe attendant seemed glad to see us. Arrival in Birmingham was 4 minutes early at 2:15PM and we de-trained with 12 other passengers. About the same number waited to board for Atlanta, the Carolinas and the Northeast. All-in-all two good trips. Thursday's New Orleans Times-Picayune, featured an interview with Amtrak CEO David Gunn who was inspecting NOUPT and the 3 Amtrak trains using it. Gunn bragged about increasing ridership and revenues and stressed the need for adequate investment for a viable national rail passenger system and alternative to air travel. His words and our rides made me feel better about Amtrak's survival.

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