OTOL Southern California RailFest 2009
July 13-25, 2009
Photos by Piotr Dzwonek, Patrick Galligan, Lynn Hammond, Eric Minton,
Jishnu Mukerji, Chris Stephens, and Jack Suslak.
Chapter 0: Introduction
OTOL Southern California RailFest 2009 was another quite memorable event. A record 28 people partook in this event. Our 13 days of fun included two transcontinental rail trips and a focus on rail transportation in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas that lasted six days.
Chapter 1: Preparation
As many know, I plan these events well in advance. This one underwent many changes along the way. For example, at one point our intended route would have been via Jacksonville, Florida instead of New Orleans. That of course was back before Amtrak "suspended" the Sunset Limited route east of New Orleans in advance of Hurricane Katrina and to date has not restored it. In addition, our transcontinental rail trips were originally in the opposite direction, namely the Southwest Chief westbound and the Sunset Limited eastbound. The latter was changed because a very late eastbound Sunset would get into New Orleans, after sunset, and we would then have missed the dramatic Huey P. Long Bridge crossing in daylight. The northbound Crescent departure from New Orleans is also a bit too early in the morning for some.
Also in the original plans for this Fest, our itinerary included a 24 hour stopover in Albuquerque, in order for us to ride the local commuter railroad, New Mexico RailRunner Express. However as we began making plans it was realized that a stopover there would potentially cost us another $350 or so, including a hotel room. So it was decided to remain on the Southwest Chief through Albuquerque and instead visit there in the future.
Potential Fest participants were kept up to date on all the changes and developments on our Forums and via e-mails and the home page. The home page has links to local transit lines, our itinerary, the list of participants, and other important information.
Besides planning our train rides on Amtrak and around Southern California, as the event got closer the choices for our meals together were evaluated. I usually go for mall food courts to provide variety for everyone, but we also like to have a few nice sitdown meals as well.
In the final days before the July 13th start date, I continued organizing everything and keeping everyone abreast of changes, while other participants counted down the days until their respective departures from home for what we knew would be a great time.
Chapter 2: Monday, July 13, 2009
The first official day of our Fest saw participants based in the East and Midwest boarding the Crescent en route to New Orleans. Group participants boarded the train in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.
Chapter 2.1: The Fest begins
Fest travel actually began as early as Friday, July 10th when Steve Weagant boarded the eastbound Capitol Limited in Chicago for Washington. He and his girlfriend (who flew to BWI Airport) had a family event in the area to attend over the weekend. Lynn and Mike Hammond took the same train Sunday night from Cleveland to arrive in Washington on Monday morning. The three would then board the Crescent in Washington later that day.
Meanwhile, our two New England participants, Rick Metcalf and Jack Suslak, left Massachusetts on Monday on Amtrak Northeast Regional 171 to New York. After lunch in the Big Apple, they would be among the group who kicked off the Fest at New York's Penn Station.
Besides Rick and Jack, Piotr Dzwonek also started from New York City even though he lives in New Jersey. His friend and neighbor, Stan Rozewicz, was supposed to accompany Piotr throughout the trip, but at the last minute he had obligations at work and had to cancel. Rounding out the five people who kicked off the Fest in New York were Alan Burden of Queens, and his mother Grace who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania.
As our group of five was assembling in New York's Penn Station, Michael and I were in the Philadelphia area. We always park at the Cherry Hill NJ TRANSIT station and ride in from there. To avoid having to ride a substitute bus around a summer trackwork project, we left home very early in the morning and got to Cherry Hill shortly past 8 AM. Although the last Philly-bound train before the trackwork window had already left, there was one more Atlantic City-bound train. We took that to Lindenwold, and then rode the PATCO High Speed Line from there to Philadelphia. From the 8th & Market station, we then noisily dragged our suitcases through the Gallery at Market East mall to the SEPTA Market East station, where we hopped an R5 train to 30th Street Station.
After leaving our luggage at the Club Acela, we still had hours to kill. We took one of our point generating trips on Amtrak's Keystone trains. First we went west out to Lancaster, and then returned east to Paoli. After lunch there, we continued east back to Philadelphia.
Because I was doing a dry run during the Keystone run of "Tweeting" from trains, John Corbett (one of our regular Fest participants who unfortunately would not be able to make this one) met us at 30th Street station as we arrived on Train 650. On a break from work, he was able to drop by and meet us and work his way into this report! :) . After speaking briefly with John, we finally returned to the Club Acela to await the Crescent.
Chapter 2.2: Amtrak CRESCENT, Train #19, various east coast points to New Orleans, LA
Grace, Alan, Piotr, Jack, and Rick left New York aboard the Crescent 3 minutes late at 2:18 PM. I was kept informed of the train's progress by text messages from Piotr and Jack. By Trenton, the train had made up a minute and was just two minutes late.
I also received a text message that those on board had already made a reservation for the ten of us who would be aboard the train beyond Washington. I later found out that the intent of the Lead Service Attendant (LSA) Sharlene was to seat all passengers getting on the train north of Wilmington before we got to Washington, so that those boarding in Baltimore and Washington would have their fair share of seatings once the train left Washington. Since a later seating is usually preferred by the majority of our group, and since we all wanted to dine together, she very graciously honored the request for ten of us to be seated together after Washington.
Michael and I, along with one other first class passenger originating from Philadelphia, were sent down to track level from the lounge in an elevator about ten minutes before the train was due to arrive. We were not told what location to stand in, but knowing the sleepers are now at the rear of the train, we remained near where we had landed on the platform.
When the Crescent arrived, we walked to the sleeper behind the dining car, which I knew to be the 1910 car. As he took our tickets, the attendant from this car mumbled his name, and then told us to board the train and turn left. Had we followed his instructions, we would have ended up in the dining car. I verified with him that we had to turn right, and he agreed.
The Crescent left Philadelphia on time at 3:55 PM. Once settled in our roomette, we made contact with Piotr, whose room was diagonally across the hall from us, and then went to say hello to Rick, Jack, Grace, and Alan in the other sleeping car. While commencing my social duties for the Fest, I noticed that the 1911 car where most of our participants on this train were staying was very cold. I sent a text message to warn Steve, Lynn, and Mike that their car was cold, so that they could perhaps prepare for it in some way.
The attendant in the 1911 car, Christel, seemed a lot friendlier than the still nameless guy we had in the 1910 car. She was fine with our group hanging around in the hallway, including us visitors from the other sleeper.
Lynn called me back to confirm I wasn't kidding about the cold sleeper. Our discussion triggered a last minute shopping spree, since the Hammonds had packed their jackets in the piece of luggage they had checked to New Orleans. Lynn went through the ritzy shops at Washington's Union Station, but could not find anything appropriate, warm, and within her budget. In the end, everyone decided to tough it out.
Meanwhile, our train was doing fine. We were one minute late out of Wilmington, and left Baltimore on time. We looked forward to arrival in Washington, where the contingent of Midwestern core participants would be joining us. Our train came into Washington's Union Station at 5:49 PM, eleven minutes early. Most of us detrained to stretch our legs and watch the engine change. Since the sleepers are now at the rear of the train, we had a fairly long walk towards the front of the train. We stood for a while and watched as the electric engine that had brought the train from New York was removed. It proceeded out of sight into the tunnel, and then later reversed and went to the Ivy City yard on another track.
As usual, there was a lot of activity on the platform. Smokers from the train were doing their thing. Golf carts came past us frequently taking elderly and handicapped passengers who needed assistance to the train. A tram carrying outbound luggage for the Crescent approached from the south, and then its driver made a wide u-turn to approach a narrower section of platform between the train and an escalator, in order to get to the baggage car. His turn was not quite wide enough, as we saw one piece of luggage get destroyed as it got pinched between the tram and a pole.
Soon, the passengers departing from Washington were let down to the platform, and we greeted Steve, Lynn, and Mike. They continued to their accommodations to drop off their carry-on bags. We meanwhile waited and waited for the engine change to be completed, but it took a while before we saw the diesel engines backing onto the train. Some in our group gave up and went back to their rooms.
The engines were finally coupled with the train at about 6:30 PM, the time we should have been leaving. Once that was done, we hurried back to our sleepers and reboarded. The Crescent finally left Washington at 6:44 PM, 14 minutes late. We had been in the station for 55 minutes, almost twice the time allowed for in the timetable.
Our late departure unfortunately put us behind a Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter train. We soon slowed down while the VRE train stopped at L'Enfant Plaza. We had to wait for the commuter train to clear Alexandria too as we made our stop there at 7:08 PM, 19 minutes off the advertised.
The downtime in Washington had allowed the cold 1911 car to warm up. Gone was the worry that our participants would be freezing all the way to New Orleans. Christel had obtained some extra blankets for her people while in Washington, but they were luckily not needed.
At 7:15 our group, now up to ten people, reported to the dining car for our scheduled seating. We were greeted by Sharlene, who seated us at three adjacent tables. Our waitress Zenolia was very friendly and efficient. There was a third person in this crew, but he appeared to be a trainee and did not do much in the way of serving passengers. Sharlene and Zenolia did most of the work.
Meanwhile, we did not maintain the highest allowed track speed, because we continued behind a VRE train to the end of its territory. We made our Manassas stop at 7:44, 22 minutes down. Beyond the downtown Manassas station, there is only one more commuter stop at Broad Run, but it's off the mainline so our time behind VRE was over. However, the damage was done. We pulled into Culpeper at 8:36 PM, now 41 minutes late.
Our dinner took a very long time to come out. Knowing this crew was short-handed, we really didn't put much blame on them as they were playing the cards they were dealt by Amtrak. It was shortly after leaving Culpeper that we finally finished our dinner and returned to our accommodations. Everyone said "goodnight", as they would be preparing to go to sleep for the night.
Our attendant, whose name I still didn't know, came and told somebody in an adjacent roomette that they had to have their beds put down by 10 PM, as he would be going to sleep. Having just gotten back from dinner a little before 9:00, the last thing I wanted to do was to go to sleep. I was annoyed by this statement as it was my impression that there is supposed to always be an attendant available around the clock; those in adjacent cars spell one another as they take turns sleeping.
At 9:32 (after our train had left Charlottesville, VA 38 minutes late), I decided to make use of his services while he was offering them. After putting our beds down, our attendant asked me what time I wanted to get up in the morning. Knowing that breakfast starts at 6:30 in the morning, I told him 6:30. I took his question to be an offer to awaken us at that time. The last station I remember seeing was Lynchburg, VA at 10:42 PM. I then fell asleep knowing that we were 36 minutes late, certainly not insurmountable due to padding at several stations along our route to New Orleans.
Chapter 3: Tuesday, July 14, 2009
On Day Two of the Fest, we completed our Crescent trip to New Orleans. Two more people joined us for relatively short portions of the journey. Some of us then rode the city's famous St. Charles Streetcar.
Chapter 3.0: Amtrak CRESCENT, Train #19, various east coast points to New Orleans, LA (continued)
The wakeup call we expected never took place. Michael and I awoke naturally at 7:03 AM. We had to quickly get dressed and go to breakfast, so that we could be finished before we got to Atlanta. Given how long dinner had taken the night before, we were doubtful that would happen.
The agreement we all had was that while we would try to have lunch and dinner together aboard our long distance trains, breakfast would be subject to whenever we awaken and choose to eat. By the time we got to the dining car at 7:15 AM, some from our group were already completing their meals. This time however, the kitchen did much better. We ordered, were served, and finished our meal within 35 minutes. Good thing too, because the train arrived into Atlanta at 7:55 AM, 18 minutes early! In fact, we had been back on schedule since the overnight stop in Charlotte, NC.
Bill Haithcoat, who hails from Atlanta, was to meet us there and join us for a short segment of our trip to Birmingham, AL. He would then take the northbound Crescent back to Atlanta. Little did any of us know that morning that he had a very interesting day in store for himself!
All of us took a walk and stretched our legs on the narrow Atlanta platform. Soon the originating Atlanta passengers were let down to track level, and we met Bill. We stood and talked with Bill for a while before we all got on the train. Bill had been assigned to the roomette next door to Michael and me, but he did not make much use of it. He first went to get a quick, late breakfast, and then spent much of his short trip in the other sleeping car chatting with others from our group. The Crescent departed from Atlanta exactly on time at 8:38 AM, now with eleven from our group aboard. Very quickly we were in that city's western suburbs headed for Alabama.
Michael and I still were waiting for our attendant to put our beds up for the day. Most decent attendants do so while one is away having breakfast, but he failed us once again. Piotr let Michael sit in his room, and I was in the other sleeper chatting with the others.
Anniston, AL was our next stop. We left there at 10:09 AM, nine minutes late. It was right around that time that Michael texted me that our room has finally been attended to over three hours after we arose.
As we approached Birmingham, we began to say goodbye to Bill Haithcoat. We arrived there at 11:43 AM, two minutes ahead of schedule. We had one more incident with our attendant, who today did have his name on display: P. Truitt, Jr. This one a safety issue. Mr. Truitt opened the door, and Bill had begun walking down the stairs before it was realized that there was a large drop from the train to the platform. Luckily somebody told him to stop, and the attendant then grabbed the step stool and placed it on the platform before Bill continued down.
With another long stop, we once again were able to stand outside for a while. After saying final goodbyes to Bill, we reboarded and the ten of us headed for the dining car since we had a 12 Noon lunch reservation. We left Birmingham at 12:03 PM, right on time. Lunch was good; like our previous meals on this train we were handled very well by the crew. Service was much quicker than last night's dinner. One strange thing we noticed at this meal was that the napkins had the Acela Express logo on them.
The next person who would be joining us was Jay Hadley, who lives in the New Orleans area. Jay's original plan was to take the northbound Crescent from New Orleans to Tuscaloosa, AL and then turn and join us for the southbound run. He had reserved the Handicapped room in the 1911 car. His dilemma was that although the timetable shows that the northbound Crescent is scheduled through Tuscaloosa before the southbound, he knew that sometimes the northbound is held outside the station until the southbound does its station work. Were that to happen, he would miss our train. To decide whether to take the risk at Tuscaloosa or make his turn at Meridian, MS instead (the next stop south), he had to watch the progress of both trains closely while he was headed north. By 11 AM he had already decided that since we were close to schedule, he would detrain at Meridian instead and meet us when we came through around 3 PM. Our group notified the conductor and Christel in that car that Jay would be boarding in Meridian instead of Tuscaloosa. So he had four hours on the ground in Meridian while our own drama at Tuscaloosa unfolded.
The railroad had made the decision to have the northbound Crescent do its station work in Tuscaloosa before us. That set up a meet north of the city. We had to pull into a dead-end siding, await the northbound, and then back out onto the main before we could continue south. The result of this meet was that we finally arrived into Tuscaloosa at 1:42 PM, 28 minutes late. In the long run, Jay could have stuck to his original plan and made his turn here. However he had decided to play it safe.
We had one mishap before getting to Meridian, as a defect detector sensed dragging equipment. Our conductor had to go out and inspect the train, a process that lost us about eight more minutes.
Our train, now behind schedule for the remainder of the trip, arrived into Meridian at 3:32 PM (37 minutes late). There was enough time to step out onto the platform once again, and it was there that we met Jay. We didn't hang too long outside because of the heat, so we were soon aboard once more. Our departure was at 3:38, still 37 minutes down. The group was now back to eleven people for the rest of our trip to New Orleans.
We were called around 4:30 PM for an abbreviated dinner period. Some of us had not expected this, so it was nice to be able to partake of another meal aboard the train instead of looking for a place to eat late at night once we got settled in New Orleans. Zenolia and Charlene did their best as usual, but the kitchen was as slow as the night before. Despite the need to get the passengers through dinner in a limited amount of time, we were seated for an hour and a half.
During our dinner, we made our station stop at Laurel, MS, a flag stop, at 4:35 PM. Still 37 minutes off the advertised, we figured that if we kept up the pace, padding would bring us into our destination fairly close to schedule. Then Hattiesburg, MS came at 5:14 PM, 40 minutes late.
Much of the rest of the trip we spent in Jay's large room talking trains and other topics. While all eleven of us were never in there at once, we still had a good sized crowd in one room. By the flag stop at Picayune, MS we were 46 minutes down at 6:24 PM. We made Slidell, LA at 6:47 PM, 44 minutes late.
Right after Slidell, we began what is by far the highlight of the Crescent's trip, the crossing of Lake Pontchartrain on a causeway. Being summer and relatively close to schedule meant we saw it in daylight. Once past the lake, we were in the outer portion of the New Orleans area. We all prepared for our arrival by making sure we were packed and ready to detrain. At 7:37 PM we began to back into the station. We came to a stop at 7:44 PM, only six minutes late. The first long distance trip of this long journey was in the books. Our host for most of this journey, Norfolk Southern, had done a fair job of dispatching us.
In retrospect, our sleeping car attendants were like night and day. Christel, we found out, was only working for Amtrak several months. However given her relative inexperience, she did a wonderful job, especially when compared to her colleague, Mr. Truitt. In the end, Mr. Truitt got either nothing or a very minimal amount as a gratuity from the people from our group in his care. Except for the slow service from the kitchen at dinnertime, and the one apparently new employee in the diner, our meal service was excellent on this train. Hats off to Zenolia and Sharlene for a job well done!
We later found from Bill Haithcoat that his return trip on Train 20 was not without incident. While he left Birmingham on time, he did not make it past Anniston, AL on his train. Right after our train has passed through there, a freight train derailed somewhere between Atlanta and Anniston. It was still blocking the tracks when the northbound Crescent got to Anniston. After sitting a while, Atlanta-bound passengers were offered a substitute bus directly to Atlanta. Those headed beyond Atlanta would be taken on a detour route that would eventually pass through Atlanta but take substantially longer. Bill opted for the bus, but later regretted the opportunity to ride rare trackage. He did give up his comfortable roomette, for which he was later compensated with a voucher. We were extremely lucky that we weren't also affected by this incident.
Chapter 3.1: In New Orleans
The Hammonds had a bit of a scare with their luggage. It was not among the items that had come off the Crescent. They had expected that the luggage would have traveled via Washington as they did. It was found out that it went via Chicago, so it actually beat them to New Orleans by a few hours.
Before the Fest began, Jay offered to drive the arriving Fest participants to their hotels since his vehicle would be parked at the station. Luckily our hotels were pretty much concentrated in the Central Business District, because it took him three trips to deliver everyone to their destinations. On the first trip, he took Grace, Alan, Michael, and me to the Hilton Garden Inn French Quarter/CBD. On the two subsequent trips, he dropped off Steve, Lynn, and Mike at the Renaissance by Marriott Pere Marquette, Rick at the Wyndham Whitney, Jack at the Intercontinental, and Piotr at the Comfort Inn & Suites Downtown.
Then Jay left us to drive to his home in the suburbs. The plan for the rest of us was to check-in and get settled in our hotel rooms, and then meet and take a moonlight ride on the historic New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) St. Charles Streetcar. All ten of us didn't make it. Rich opted not to go. Our contingent at the Renaissance ran into a problem where they were "walked" due to unavailability of rooms. The Hammonds and Steve were at first very upset that this part of their vacation had hit a snag, but they were quickly appeased when they were sent to the Ritz Carlton at the expense of the first hotel. Content to live like royalty for a night, they also decided not to ride the streetcar. After they dropped off their luggage, they went to Cafe Du Monde for beignets.
So just six of us met at the corner of St. Charles and Gravier Streets to take a ride on the streetcar: Jack, Grace, Alan, Piotr, Michael, and I. We had to wait a while, and then one came at about 9:03 PM. Since it was a hot night, the Streetcar's "air conditioning" system was in effect. With its historic nature preserved, every window was open. A good breeze was provided, but there were many tree branches that scraped the sides of the cars and thus could have also hurt somebody sitting near a window.
We arrived at the end of the line at Carrollton & Claiborne at 9:37. The operator let us remain on board for the return trip while he went outside to move the trolley wire. We all put our second fares into the fare box. We were on our way back towards the Central Business District at 9:45, and we got off at Carondelet & Gravier at 10:20 PM.
While not everyone was able to join us, this was not an official streetcar ride. Hopefully we will be able to return to New Orleans and ride all of the streetcar lines in a few years.
Chapter 3.2: End of Tuesday's activities
All of us returned to our respective hotels and got some good sleep in a stationary bed. The overnight stay was a good way to recharge our batteries for the next segment of our trip, which would be much longer in both mileage and time.Continued in next section