50th High School Reunion
April 9 - 22, 2010
I used my 50th high school reunion in Mobile, AL as an excuse for a train ride and bike trip. The basic plan was to drive across Illinois to Champaign, take the City of New Orleans to some point on the CNO's route, bike to Mobile, bike back to a different station on the route, and take the train back to Champaign. The candidates were Brookhaven, McComb, Hammond, and New Orleans. Early on, New Orleans dropped out of the running because I could not find lodging 30-40 miles east of it (my wife's daily bike ration is 30-40 miles per day). After a lot of study using Google maps I purchased tickets from CHM to MCB and HMD to CHM.
Then I spotted the Longleaf Trace, a 41 mile rails-to-trails conversion (Mississippi Central) that looked too good to pass up. Using this would only make sense if we detrained in BRH. So the final itinerary was:
CNO - CHM to BRH Bike - BRH to Mobile Bike - Mobile to HMD CNO - HMD to CHMPlease. No need to point out that I could have saved a lot of time and sweat if I could have transferred to the Sunset Limited from NOL to Mobile.
Amtrak does not offer baggage service at Brookhaven and McComb; and I was unsure about Hammond (the Amtrak website shows baggage hours at Hammond; but the time table does not). Thus folding bikes were the only option; so this would be a test of my Dahon Speed P8 as a touring bike (I had already successfully biked the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany on a Dahon MuP8, which my wife would be riding this trip). Hammond turned out to have baggage service, so we could have used our full-size road bikes had we started and finished in Hammond; but I preferred the variety of separate east and westbound routes
CHM - BRH
We arrived in Champaign several hours before the 10:34PM departure of train #59, the City of New Orleans; and scouted out the long term parking situation, picked up our tickets, took a quick auto tour of the U of I campus, had supper, and walked around the downtown area near the station that contained quite a few sidewalk restaurants. I had a travel voucher that I wanted to apply to the fare. The agent simply refunded the previously paid fare and recharged me, less the voucher amount. He also verified that it would be OK to detrain in BRH, rather than MCB, the next station down the line to which I had been ticketed.
The CHM Amtrak station is part of a modern, inter-modal transportation center called the Illinois Terminal. It sits across University Avenue from the former Illinois Central Railroad station, now filled with restaurants, and across a side street from the former Illinois Terminal Railroad inter-urban station, now an office building. Long term free parking is available in a well lit lot under camera surveillance on the other side of the tracks. After parking you have to walk about a block around the corner and under an overpass to get to back the station. You are required to sign a sheet at the ticket counter for long term parking. The constant automated heightened security, no smoking, and no littering announcements in the station were annoying and seemed unnecessary.
The train arrived about 20 minutes late; and boarding seemed very inefficient. Even the sleeping car passengers were not allowed to board until the large number of coach passengers had detrained. They seemed to arrive in three widely scattered waves from the three coaches. We were near the end of a large line of coach passengers waiting to board. By the time we were allowed to board, we had to run; and even then we heard the two toots of the horn signaling departure as we reached the sleeper.
The train's consist included a single P42 engine, transition sleeper, sleeper (refurbished Superliner I), diner-lounge (formerly known as a cross-country-cafe, now used exclusively as a diner and crew hangout), sightseer lounge, and 3 coaches (one being a coach-baggage car). The train seemed fairly crowded; and a high school class that had boarded at Mattoon was still aboard after Jackson. The downstairs community luggage rack in the sleeper was full; the sleeping car attendant has us put our folding bikes in the unused handicapped room.
The late evening departure didn't leave time for a night cap in the lounge. So we retired right away; and I didn't wake up until Memphis around 6:30 AM, despite the constant loud horn. The standard 2 longs, a short, and a long at each crossing seemed to be replaced by long, random blasts, sometimes as many as 20 in a row. Also, at least in Illinois, there seemed to be a relatively low volume sound, followed by a much louder, closer sounding blast, sort of like a reverse echo.
The City of New Orleans calling at Memphis. Our sleeping car was the one partially visible to the right. Normally, between the lead engine and the transition sleeper/dorm (car between the engine and ours), there are a second engine and a baggage car, both lacking on the City of New Orleans. This made the engine horn seem that much louder.
We left Memphis on time after which we had our usual breakfast of veggie omelette and sausage for myself and the continental with bacon for my wife. The food was good and service better than average for Amtrak. We arrived early in Jackson making for a long smoke stop, since the train can't leave before its scheduled time. Up until this point the ride had been surprisingly smooth. Leaving Jackson on the so-called Yazoo District, to which Amtrak had been moved a few years ago, it became a bit rougher. Then it smoothed out again south of Greenwood.
Since we were predicted to arrive on time in Brookhaven at 12:16, we had our sleeping car attendant (who received a well-deserved tip) bring us a takeout lunch of veggie and angus burgers from the dining car. They tasted even better than usual about an hour later sitting in a shady spot along side of US 84. Since BHR is a flag stop (stops only if someone is scheduled to board or detrain), I made sure both the conductor and SCA were alerted that I not be going as far as my ticket said I would (MCB).
Ready to roll. As the sign indicates the large former Illinois Central station is now occupied by the local Parks and Recreation Department. The actual station was a small, glass covered, school bus stop style bench (not shown).
HMD - CHM
We survived the ride from Covington, LA on the two-lane US 190 with no shoulders and made it to Hammond with 4 hours to spare for the 2:45PM departure. Amtrak occupied about a third of the very large former IC station. Hammond wouldn't make it to the top of my list of small town, pre-Amtrak era stations; but it was nice nevertheless. In addition to air conditioned seating inside there were church pew style seats in a breezeway between two parts of the original station. After having our tickets printed, the agent kindly let us store our stuff inside the office while we explored downtown Hammond and had lunch and took care of business at the library.
The train was about 40 minutes late - a bad ordered coach had to be swapped out before leaving New Orleans. The train's consist included a single P42 engine, transition sleeper, sleeper (Superliner II), diner-lounge (acting as a diner), diner-lounge (acting as a cafe car), and 3 coaches (one being a coach-baggage car). The attendant said this was his second run in a row with a D/L. Consensus AU opinion to the contrary, I've found no difference in food quality, service, and ambiance in the D/L's compared to "real" diners, except the D/L seems to have poor acoustics. It is somewhat difficult to carry on a conversation when the car is full and people are in a festive mood, which often is the case in a diner. On the other hand, I definitely prefer the sightseer lounge as a lounge. For me, the sighseer lounge's seats are more comfortable for sightseeing, lounging, or reading than the tables, which is all D/L's have. As far as I am concerned, the D/L is really only a diner with a different configuration.
The luggage racks were again full and the handicap room was occupied, so the sleeping car attendant put the bikes against the door in the vestibule. Apparently, he moved them each time he had to open the door opposite the one he opened previously (again, he received a well-deserved tip). I commented to the SCA that we were so close to the horn that I couldn't tell whether it was ahead or behind us. He said that was because the engine horn was aimed backwards, i.e., toward us. Huh!
The first place I headed was the shower to get rid of the road grime picked on the ride from Covington.
For dinner we both had the flat iron steak wihich I thought was excellent. The service was better than average, in fact almost up to my standard, namely that found in any small town spit-n-whittle cafe in the Midwest.
By Memphis, the deficit had been make up. After departing I retired, not to wake up until Mattoon. Fortunately about 3AM while I was asleep between Carbondale and Centralia, a severe storm knocked out power to the signals and caused a 90 minute delay. I say fortunately, because we were able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the dining car rather than have to stagger off the train in Champaign at 6:10AM. Note: I don't know if the storm was part of the same system that spawned the tornado that hit Yazoo City (a CNO station) the next day.
My main purpose in writing this report is to counter the opinion sometimes expressed here that the CNO is the bottom of the Amtrak barrel, the step-child, the runt of the litter. Sure, no free wine tasting like the Empire Builder. But the cars were as clean and well maintained as any other LD train, no roomette rattles or mechanical malfunctions, the service was excellent, and we were more or less on time except for the weather caused signal problem. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride with one exception: being so close to the engine with the loud horn.
I don't know if it is my imagination, but is seems to me that based on 10 long distance rides over the last 6 months, on-board service has improved; by that I mean it has been consistently good, with no jokers in the lot.
Oh yes ... I did enjoy the reunion.
Rebuilt route of the former Sunset Limited - East between Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis. I can remember when it had wooden pilings that had been replaced with concrete after an earlier hurricane. The concrete was not able to stand up to Katrina.
Between Mandeville and Abita Springs on the Tammany Trace, another rails-to-trails conversion (Illinois Central with Gulf, Mobile & Ohio trackage rights), I came across a couple of passenger cars rusting away under an open shed - a Pullman car in Illinois Central colors and an Illinois Central baggage car.