Boston to Phoenix, via New Orleans
We are an Australian couple, who after visiting our daughter living in Boston, decided to use Amtrak to travel to New Orleans and across the bottom of the country to Tucson, Arizona. We were surprised at how cheap this travel was- 3 nights in a (tiny) roomette and 7 meals included, traveling around 4800 km all for 920 USD for the 2 of us. Amtrak’s website is one of the best I’ve used and we booked it all over the internet. We also used the OTOL forum to get tips on travelling by Amtrak.
So here’s our trip story.
Our first leg was from Boston to New York, about 350km and taking 4 hours. After being caught in traffic, we made it to Westwood/Rte 128 station with 3 minutes to spare.
This is almost a ‘commuter’ run using single deck, electric trains along dedicated Amtrak rails at up to 140 kph. It's a very scenic ride, with good views of the coastline, inlets and harbours after Providence, and Mystic to New Haven. Sit on the left side if possible. However, there are no reserved seats and the attendants allocate seats when you get on. We didn't get 2 seats together till Providence where quite a few people got off. The attendants place little strips of paper on the luggage racks above your seat with the name of your destination to signify the seat is occupied.
These ‘coach’ services (ie economy in Australia) are very spacious with almost 1m of leg room between your seat and seat in front, a fold down table like in planes and a 110V outlet for your laptop or mobile phone charger. The windows however are quite small (40 cm high) and do not align with the seats, so some seats only look out onto the wall pillars. There is plenty of space for luggage in overhead racks and some space at one end of the car.
We spent a lot of time in the Café car – this has booth type seating and a snack bar with coffe/tea/hotchoc for only $1.80 (plus tip of course – this is America!). Beer and wine and snacks (pizza, hot dogs, potato chips) also available. It was surprisingly empty – usually we had it to ourselves - and gave a better view out of both sides of the train than our seats in coach.
The last hour into New York is all through cities/suburbs. New York is approached over the Hell’s Gate bridge, which was the inspiration for Bradfield’s selection of an arch for Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bridge is only half the length of SHB but has over 5km of approach trestles in a large ‘S’ shape which allow great views of the main arch and New York. Then it’s into a tunnel to New York’s Penn station.
We spent only 2 hours in NY, time to walk along a few blocks, have lunch and head for the Amtrak ‘Acela’ lounge. Being sleeping car passengers for the rest of the journey enabled us to use these lounges reserved for the high speed Acela train passengers. They provide quiet comfy seating, free tea/coffee/soft drink, internet and phone.
Then it was time to join the Crescent for the 2200 km, 1½ day trip to New Orleans. It was funny to join a long distance train at an underground station, at what was the last train-level platform we saw. The Crescent is single deck and on our train had 5 ‘coach class’ sitting cars, a club car, dining car and 3 sleeping cars.
We had a ‘Viewliner’ roomette which has 2 facing seats and a toilet & washbasin in the room. At night a top bunk folds down to give 2 beds which are wider at the head end and narrower at the foot end (to allow space for the toilet). The top bunk has its own windows. There is room for only small ‘hand’ bags (say 12"x12"x6"), so our suitcases were booked in the baggage car.
The roomettes are truly tiny with the beds down, say cozy or intimate, but great for privacy when sitting. In some ways the private toilet is more of a drawback than a blessing. You have to draw all the curtains and one person has to stand outside while the other uses it. And there is no other toilet available in the car. (Larger rooms are available with their own shower & toilet, but at about $200 a night more we couldn’t afford them.)
Bottled water was provided in the roomette and a route description.
The route description brochures leave a lot to be desired. They seem to be written by agents who have never been on the train and think the passengers are interested in which famous? baseball player or movie star came from that town. There was very little useful info such as "look to the left when leaving so-and-so to see such-and-such".
I had brought maps and the timetable with me so was able to follow our progress pretty well. US stations seem to only have one nameboard - on the building itself - not spread along the platform. So thank goodness for the American penchant for painting town names on their water towers!
We had bought some crackers and cheese with us and bought a 1/2 bottle of wine and sat in our cabin enjoying the progress. The downer was that only plastic cups were provided with the wine - we later found we could borrow wine glasses from the dining car.
The scenery on the NY to Washington segment unfortunately could best be described as either non-existent or just depressing. The line travels to Baltimore, Philadelphia & Washington through almost endless slums and derelict factories, with unbelievable lineside rubbish. When not in cities, the trees blocked any views. For some reason I had expected rolling farmland, but no.
The route from NY to Washington is owned by Amtrak, is 4 tracks, electrified and has a 125 mph speed limit, so it was exciting to watch the freeway traffic ‘going backwards’ as we overtook.
All-in-all, we enjoyed the roomettes, the only problem as with all sleeping cars is you can only see one side of the train scenery. We overcame this by again traveling in the club car – the same as the café car on the Boston train and again empty. (Don’t imagine the opulence of the Indian Pacific Lounge car here!)
By the time we reached Washington it was dusk and time for our first dinner. The Dining car was nice (again don’t imagine the IP Dining car). Food was good with a choice of 5 mains for dinner and lunch (no (australian) entrée – you automatically get a salad in America for that) and 3 desserts. Meals were served on plastic plates but with paper tablecloths and linen serviettes. Unfortunately for Pauline, only 2 of the meals seemed gluten free so she had limited choices. And the menu didn’t change from train to train we later found, so after 4 days it was a bit boring. But the food was good and a half bottle of wine was 13USD-about the same rip-off as on the IP. And being the land of the ‘free’, we were still expected to tip the waiter 15% of the meal cost even though it was included in our ticket!
By one of those strange coincidences, we were seated for dinner with a couple from Montgomery, where we were headed, and a few days later we met them again on a riverboat cruise in Montgomery.
Maybe there was better scenery between Washington and Atlanta, where it got light next morning, but we missed it in the dark. We had 30 mins in Atlanta to walk the platform and wonder why all the luggage trolleys said "welcome to Los Angeles".
From Atlanta to Birmingham there was a bit more open country with many small towns seemingly containing 3 Baptist churches and little else. This section is quite mountainous with slow speeds and winding track.
We broke our journey in Birmingham, Alabama to visit Pauline’s sister. We had traveled through 14 states in 30 hours. Luckily we were met by relatives - the Birmingham station seems to be situated in an oil refinery or something. You walk out a door in a brick wall to be met by - nothing. No taxis, info, maps or anything, just a car park and derelict buildings.
We continued on the same train a week later to New Orleans. This was a 7 hour journey in coach, so we got to see the 'other' American people (in the same way as economy class on the XPT can give an interesting insight into "3rd world" Australia).
The attendants seemed to be ushering younger travelers into one car and us oldies into another.
The car attendants were very helpful and kept the cars clean, even using a vacuum as we traveled to pick up crumbs.
Now we were on non-Amtrak tracks and speed was limited. Timekeeping seemed to be hit and miss – one station we would be 30 mins late and the next, an hour early, so we sat and waited for the timetable to catch up. Seems there is lots of leeway built in to allow freight priority. This section is through forest and swamps so little to see.
New Orleans is approached over a 10km long bridge over Lake Ponchartrain. The terminal station at New Orleans faces the wrong way for our train so we have to reverse about 2 km into the station, arriving dead on time at 7:30pm. Climb down to ground level platform and notice the track is ballasted with sea-shells! New Orleans Union station is nice and clean and also houses the Greyhound terminal, so there is a bit of other activity.
We got a taxi easily to our accommodation – we had booked into a B&B not far from the station ($10 taxi ride).
New Orleans is not particularly attractive, except for the French Quarter. We did enjoy some good jazz over lunch at an outdoor restaurant. We rode the streetcars, some original and some modern copies.
Our final leg saw us catching the Sunset Limited for the 2300km, 1½ day trip from New Orleans to Tucson, Arizona (the train goes on to LA). We arrived at the station an hour early to check our bags and then headed for the Magnolia Lounge. This had certainly seen better days. Stained arm chairs, and a couple of tables with seating for maybe 20 people total. There was a TV and it was the day that Rio was awarded the 2016 Olympics and Chicago lost. It was a good insight into the American psyche - racism and hatred of Obama being cited as the reasons for eliminating Chicago!
We had to show photo ID to some law official to get on the train. This is a completely double-deck consist. These sleeping cars have rooms on the top and a couple of large, wheelchair accessible rooms, along with 3 toilets and one shower, and some baggage space, on the bottom level.
I suspected that being up high would produce a lot of ‘roll’ but the ride was surprising smooth and quiet. This time we had a ‘Superliner’ roomette with no toilet in the room and even smaller than the single deck Viewliner. But it was still loads of fun. One drawback of the Superliner over the Viewliner was there was no window for the top bunk. And it was much harder to get into - I had to let Pauline be on top as I couldn't get my legs swung up there.
Free coffee/juice/water/ice were provided in each car. (What is the American obsession with ice? Even before we departed, people were badgering the conductor for ice.) There was one toilet upstairs which was well 'patronised' so it was usually necessary to go downstairs. The shower had a change room with a pile of towels, and was quite large - larger in fact than any hotel shower we encountered (not that there are many separate showers - they are usually over a bath in US)
Leaving New Orleans we crossed the Mississippi on the Huey P Long bridge, an unusual truss shape and 7km long including the approach trestles. It carries 4 lanes of road and 2 tracks.
The Dining car attendants came through the train before each meal arranging meal times at 30 min intervals. After lunch we retired to our room and put the beds down for a nap, then repaired to the observation car.
This route is much better scenery, from the swamps/bayous of Louisiana, irrigated farmland of eastern Texas to the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. These deserts have major mountains always visible in the distance and often very broken up landscape that the train winds through avoiding major valleys where possible, or suddenly jumping across rivers on high bridges.
The train included an observation car with windows wrapping around the roof and swiveling seats facing outwards. Downstairs was the ‘café’ where we could buy our wine and sip it up top while watching the scenery roll by. Truly civilized travel.
One minor irritation was the almost constant horn blowing. We hadn't noticed it on The Crescent where we were in the last car. But here we were 2nd car from the locos and the driver gave long- long-short-long blasts of the horn for every level crossing. In some places the crossings were so close together that the horn was just continuous for minutes on end. Didn't affect my sleep though.
The car attendant was most attentive to our needs. (again a tip of $10 per night was expected) Our expected arrival in Tucson was an hour early (10pm), so the car attendant had let us use her phone to call Pauline’s sister from the train so she would be there to meet us.
All too soon we reached Tucson to be met by a band playing on the platform – there was some sort of fiesta going on. A great way to end our train journey.
Would I recommend Amtrak? Definitely! But skip the New York to New Orleans trip. Maybe next year we'll try another route through the centre of the country.