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Trip Report

Birmingham AL to Atlanta
Amtrak's Crescent

July 2, 2006


On Sunday July 2 I bought a coach ticket at Birmingham's Amtrak station to ride No. 20 the eastbound Crescent to Atlanta. My wife and youngest son had driven to Atlanta earlier to a family reunion. To join them I elected to take the Crescent for $29 and save $6 on the usual $35 round trip gas bill. The train was an hour late and I sat on the floor in the small, crowded waiting room until called to the platform. There we waited another 25 minutes until No. 20 was cleared to enter the station. While platform gazing a CSX train with UP locomotives went by eastbound with a long train of enormous, red-hued pipes. They looked big enough to empty the Tennessee River. The Crescent consist included 2 Genesis locomotives, a baggage car, a dorm-lounge, 2 Viewliner sleepers, diner, lounge car and 5 Amfleet II coaches. All of the 20 or so coach passengers were directed to one of the 2 open boarding spots and forbidden to use the other where no-one got off.

The coaches were crowded with holiday travelers. I was assigned an aisle seat next to a 13 year old boy traveling from New Orleans to Anniston, our next stop. After crawling out of the station on to the Norfolk Southern main we came to a dead stop for another half hour. Finally, a westbound Norfolk Southern freight went by and we resumed our journey picking up speed through the eastern area of Birmingham and the suburb of Irondale.

Our cheerful, friendly car attendant offered me 2 pillows when I visibly squirmed while fighting a previously thrown back with nothing but Advil. I offered my young companion a Crescent timetable when he asked about our Anniston arrival time and remarked that this portion of the trip through wooded hills with lots of creeks was exceptionally pretty. His reply was "Yeah I know. I've done this a bunch of times". With that I headed forward to the lounge car for a late lunch.

The line was long but our efficient and taciturn attendant made for a short wait. I began by asking for my usual celebratory gin bloody mary. I celebrate train and plane rides with this favorite libation. The firm response was "No alcohol on Sunday"! "Why not", I cried. She replied "I don't know. I'm just following orders". So I ate a tasty ham and cheese sub with coffee.

As I sat in the lounge taking in the pretty woods and hills I realized I had never been confronted with this unpleasant situation in all my travels on Amtrak including Sundays in Alabama. It made no sense given the revenue and good will lost as I watched passenger after passenger being refused beer, wine, and spirits. My cheerful car attendant passed so I asked her "WHY"? She mused that perhaps it was due to Alabama blue laws. Then came the conductor. As she stood in line I asked her the question. She testily replied that Amtrak never served alcohol on Sunday, "not since prohibition". When I humbly challenged this bit of a-historical nonsense she gave me the "We're following orders" excuse. I wondered how the crowd of hungry and thirsty passengers boarding in Atlanta would take this news.

At our stop in Anniston I looked for my fellow railfan, pro-Amtrak buddy, Henry Gilliland who since retirement has volunteered at the station as an assistant station agent, greeter, porter and information source. Henry wasn't there but a near clone in overalls, bandanna and engineers cap with multiple rail logos was doing duty with Henry-type cheerful, reassuring banter.

At some point I asked the lounge attendant for a "virgin mary"--bloody mary mix without alcohol. She said, "I can't handle that kind of sale in my paperwork", so I settled for orange juice. After returning to my coach seat I dozed off and on as we passed through the Georgia towns that line US 78 and I-20 while the car attendant busily picked up trash and manned a little carpet sweeper. As we got closer to Atlanta, I noticed that the charming little towns had given way to suburban sprawl.

Suddenly a new car attendant came through our coach announcing that we were 30 minutes from Peachtree station in Atlanta and all air-conditioning was being cut off. At Inman yard, the train came to a halt and we sweltered. A third car attendant marched through asking "Who shut off the AC"? Someone mentioned the other attendant and he said "It's going back on", which it did to everyone's relief. Why was the AC cut off 30 minutes before arrival? Another mystery.

We pulled into Peachtree station at 8:35, an hour late. Detraining revealed a large crowd of Northeast bound travelers with impatient mien. Little did they know they would spend the rest of the evening on a dry train.

Absent the lack of alcohol, the unscheduled stops and lateness the ride was pleasant enough for this railfan who began riding Nos. 19 and 20 in 1972 when it was still the Southern Crescent. I have fond memories of sitting in the parlor car that Southern Railway ran between New Orleans and Atlanta until Amtrak took the train. There were few things better than relaxing in ones own swiveling, comfortable parlor chair with drink in hand while winding through the Alabama woods and hills.

David Coombs
Birmingham, AL.

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