Steve's Spring 1997 Rail Journey - Third Segment: Travel on the Amtrak City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Chicago.
I woke at about 9:30 A.M. and decided to take advantage of the free buffet breakfast offered by the hotel. On my way out the door, I noticed a third large closet that I had missed last night! There is sure plenty of space in this room! I hope I can adjust back to spending the most of the next 4 days in the space of a Superliner Standard (Economy) Bedroom.
The Free Buffet Breakfast had just as much lack of orginization as the procedure for obtaining taxicabs last night! The only clear instruction was the "Please Seat Yourself" sign. I sat down and looked around. There was one waitress doing something at a cash register in the back service area and from some comments by other patrons, I was lead to believe there was another waitress around somewhere. A bus boy was also busy cleaning up some of the tables.
I really wasn't sure if I was suppose to wait for a waitress to come take my order for coffee and juice and bring me silverware, or if I was just suppose to go up to the buffet and start getting my food. Although the buffet was free, juice and soft drinks were $1 each. After waiting a short while and seeing that the one waitress in sight didn't look like she would be done with whatever she was doing at the cash register for a while, I decided to get up and get my food. I'm not sure what would keep a waitress so busy at a cash register when the only thing people pay for in the morning is the juice!
They had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage patties and hash browns. There was also a big empty tray for some item they had run out of. I don't know what it was but I guess it must have been good. People kept coming up with their plates to see if it had been refilled yet. I don't believe it got refilled at all in the entire time I was in the restaurant.
Since I had no cups on my table while other people did, I assume the waitress normall brings the cups for coffee. I did find silverware up by the buffet and obtained my own set. Curiously, the people at the next table had plasticware that comes out of one of those little sealed bags. I assume the waitress was suppose to bring napkins too since there were none on my table and none in sight. It just seemed very odd that service would be so slow when the restaurant wasn't very full and it was almost entirely self-serve. I was almost done with my meal and there was still no sign of a waitress. Some people kept jumping out of their seats and running over to the waitress to tell her they hadn't receive drinks they had ordered yet, or to tell her that their own waitress vanished, or to ask for cups of coffee or place settings.
I notice there were several stirofoam cups next to the coffee pot, so I finally got up and just poured myself a cup. There was already cream and sugar on my table and I had gotten my own spoon. Compared to california, the service seemed so unusual. In most restaurants, even the least fancy ones, someone usually seats you and they get service to your table pretty quickly.
As far as the food goes, that was excellent. I'm sure this is not one of the restaurants that New Orleans is known for, but even here the food was better than most convenience restaurants in hotels. I guess I'm going to have to give up the idea of trying to eat healthy while I'm in New Orleans. The vegetarian Jack Sprat Restaurant sounded great, but for breakfast today, I had to stick with some of the best unhealthy cookin' I've had in a restaurant for a long time!
After the fiasco with the taxicabs last night, I had decided to walk to the station. It looked like just a few blocks. I couldn't really tell as neither of the two maps I had displayed a scale. It wasn't more than 10 blocks so I figured that couldn't take more than an hour to walk. As I stepped out of the hotel, however, there were two taxicabs right in front dropping off passengers. I just grabbed one of those. This driver seemed real friendly. Maybe I was jumping to conclusions about the confusion and even the taxi meter last night. This taxi driver seemed surprised about the confusion that I described to him about last night. Also, this cab had neither a radio nor a meter! I guess meters are not required in this city so I have no idea if the driver last night was doing anything under the table. The cab fare from the Comfort Inn Downtown to the train station was just $3.50, about what I paid last night to get to the hotel. I gave him a $5 bill and told him to keep the rest.
The New Orleans Amtrak Station does not have a Metropolitan Lounge, but it does have a First Class Lounge that they call the Magnolia Room. This lounge has all the decor of a Metropolitan Lounge with service as friendly as the lounge in Portland, Oregon, but it is much smaller than any of the Metropolitan Lounges by a long shot. There is seating in here for 11 or 12 people at most. Thee are 3 rocking chairs, two comfortable sofas that could each seat 2 or 3 people, and 2 easy chairs. There is also one office chair. Two boxes of donuts and an urn of coffee was just waiting as I stepped in. There is a reception desk, but there was nobody at it when I went in. They did have a sheet where you sign in with your name, train number and room number. Two other people were already in the room when I arrived. They were sitting in the two easy chairs. I suspect that additional people may have arrived before me and then stepped out of the lounge. There seemed to be more names on the sign-in sheet than the number of people in the room, unless they had already left on earlier trains.
The Amtrak Train Station shares these facilities with the Greyhound Bus Line. I mean the overall facility, not the Magnolia Lounge. The Lounge is reserved for Amtrak Sleeping Car Passengers. If you are transitioning between bus and train, combining facilities makes that very convenient. However, I have heard that where Amtrak and Greyhound Facilities have been combined in several other places, the amount of vandalism and general trashing of the facilities has increased greatly. Evidently trains seem to attract people with more manners than buses in general. There were no signs of vandalism or trashing in this station, but that could be because they have police positioned right in the center of the station where they can view the entire station at all times.
Right in the New Orleans Amtrak Station you will find a tourist information booth, the Greyhound ticket office, a gift shop and a cafeteria. New Orleans is another one of those station like Seattle where they take a dim view of anyone wandering out to the tracks before they give the boarding call. Unlike Seattle, though, I don't think they lock the doors. If you needed to get some photos, you can do so through the glass doors. If you wanted to be a bit more adventuresome, you could probably get out to the platform area as long as you aren't within an hour of any scheduled train arriving or leaving. They seem to only keep a close eye on the doors for passengers attempting to board before the call.
My guess is that the New Orleans Amtrak Station is within a $3 cab fare of downtown and a fairly easy walk. The French Quarter is probably more like $6 and would be a fairly hefty hike, especially if you are carrying luggage. I wouldn't even recommend it with roller luggage as those wheels tend to wear out pretty quickly going down city sidewalks.
We are heading out of the station right on time! The Magnolia Lounge Attendant had called us to board the train at 1:25 P.M., but that was a mistake. The crew wasn't ready for us to board yet and not expected us to board until 1:45 P.M. Seems like we only had to wait about 5 minutes before they did start boarding. I guess they figured they might as well board us since we were all standing at the door anyway. They only boarded the First Class Sleeping Car Passengers. The Coach Car passengers weren't boarded until at least 1:45 P.M.
The Conductor stood by the door and collected tickets as people came through. He had a hard time reading mine since I had one of those blurry red ink thin paper tickets that are issued by Amtrak Vacations. He did the same think I did and turned to the white customer copy to be able to read by car and room number. I am in "005/5800" which means Room #5, Car #00 of Train #58. I had never seen a car numbered "00" before, but I guess a number is a number. Most Sleeping Cars I have seen are numbered "10", "20" and "30".
One lady showed her ticket to the Conductor and was pretty upset that she was going to have to change from one Bedroom to another in the middle of the night in Memphis, Tennassee. I see this a different way, however. I think this shows that Amtrak is at least trying to make efficient use of their space. Think of the alternative. The Reservation Agent could have told her that there are no bedrooms available all the way from New Orleans to Chicago. Would she rather have gone coach or not gone at all?
I don't know if it was a smart Reservation Agent that figured out how this lady could have a bedroom all the way, even if she had to change during the trip, or if the Amtrak Reservation Computer is capable of calculating on its own that two different bedrooms could be used different segments of the trip. I have heard that the computer in not capable on its own of figuring this out and would normally turn down the request for a bedroom if it cannot find one unique room that is available for the full duration of the passenger's entire journey. If that is the case, it is only because the computer was programmed that way. A computer can be programmed to figure out how to make efficient use of all available bedrooms.
You might be wondering how it came about that different bedrooms would become available for different segments of the same trip? If someone has a bedroom from New Orleans to Memphis, then why didn't the computer book the person that wanted a bedroom from Memphis to Chicago into that same room? Under normal circumstance, I hope that it would. But, there are frequent circumstances where that would not work. Lets say one person had Room 3 booked from New Orleans to Memphis. Then lets say I am traveling with my wife and two children from Memphis to Chicago. All the family rooms are already booked. Therefore, I instead want two bedrooms across from each other so that we can still travel together as a family. The agent tries to find two bedrooms across from each other. The person in Room 4 is going all the way from New Orleans to Chicago, thus we can't be booked into Rooms 3 & 4. The agent finds that Rooms 5 & 6 are available from Memphis to Chicago and books us into those two bedrooms.
Are you following this so far? Rooms 5 & 6 are now available from New Orleans to Memphis where my family will board the train. Room 3 is not available from New Orleans to Memphis, but it is available after that for the rest of the journey to Chicago. At some point the entire train has become booked except for Room 5 from New Orleans to Memphis and Room 3 from Memphis to Chicago. What should a Reservation Agent do when this lady asked for a room from New Orleans to Chicago? I'm sure she was told right there that she can have a room, but will have to change rooms in Memphis. The only other alternative would have been for her to sleep in coach or not take the train at all ... or to try to make reservations earlier next time when many bedrooms are still available.
As she passed through the doors on the way to the train, she told the Conductor: "Once I'm on the train, I'm going to speak to somebody about this!" I don't think she realized that the Conductor that just took her ticket was the most qualified person to solve this problem if any solutions was possible. The only other person that might be able to help would be the Sleeping Car Attendant. However, the Conductor indicated to her that there wasn't anyone on the train for her to speak to about this since the train was very booked and many bedrooms would be used by different parties during various segments of this trip.
Why am I pleased that a reservation like this was made? I often here Sleeping Car Attendants and Conductors complaining that there must be some conspiracy to put Amtrak under. They see that many bedrooms are often empty during the trip, yet they hear from many passengers that they got booked on one of the last rooms available. They also hear all the time about how hard it is to book a room on the train if you don't book early. I can see how these too facts make one suspicious of a conspiracy. How can it be so difficult to book a room on a train if the bedrooms are mostly empty on most trips? I think the answer lies in the above scenerio. With all the different permutations and combinations of passengers getting on and off, many rooms will often be empty. However, if the computer will not book a room for a passenger unless it can book the same room for the entire journey of that passenger, then passengers will often be told that no room is available. Hense, both the lack of bedrooms available for people trying to book them and the appearance of many empty rooms can be true at the same time. I don't think there is a conspiracy unless you consider the failure of the computer to automatically offer passengers the option of changing rooms mid-journey a conspiracy. I'd love a very experience Amtrak Reservations Agent to either confirm my suspicions about this, to deny that it is true, or to clarify any misconceptions I may have about the ability of the computer system to automatically book a passenger into different bedrooms during a single trip on a single train.
Speaking of switching rooms, I did something I have never done before on a train this trip. I got myself all set up in the wrong room! I think it was the Car Attendant's instructions reverborating in my head that created the problem. All I could remember was, go to the top of the stairs and turn to the right. I didn't need any of that since I already knew how to get to the area where Room 5 is located. The only thing I didn't know is whether to expect it on the right or left. Thus, the only part of the instructions that I didn't discard was the "to the right". Without thinking, I turned "to the right" and into a room as soon as I had passed Room 4! I set up the room my special way, but it didn't take long until a confused couple approached mumbling something to each other about "maybe there is another Room 6". I immediately realized my mistake, apologized for the inconvenience and moved my stuff across the hall.
In case you are wondering what I meant by setting up the room in my own special way, I'll provide those details. I don't use the pillows at all except when I am sleeping. Thus, I stuff the pillows that are on each seat into the bottom of the closet and place my jacket on a coat hanger and also place that in the closet. In a Superliner II Standard Bedroom, there is no closet, but there is a coat hanger and a place beside one of the seats where you can stuff the pillows in. I remove all literature from the window stand except the schedule and route guide, if provided, and put them either in the closet or on one of the shelves so that they aren't in the way of the window view. I always leave my roller luggage on the big luggage rack by the vestibule. I keep my backpack with me and place that on the top-step shelf next to one of the chairs. The backpack fits fine there with room to spare. My computer gets set up on the table. I always hide all the power cords. I don't want to take a chance in finding a Car Attendant or Conductor that takes that "Razors Only" notice on the electric outlet seriously. Between my large trackball with its cord, the computer power supply with its cord, and sometimes my digital display clock and my cellular charger, my room could quickly start to look like a gagle of wires if I didn't make special efforts to neaten them up and hide them from view! I also set up my up/down timer that times how long it has been since the last stop. That timer really makes it easy to follow the older Amtrak Route Guides or any of the independently published rail travel guides such as "Rail Ventures" by Jack Swanson. All the guides tell you how many minutes each item of scenery is from the previous station. Using a timer that you can reset at each station means you don't have to keep doing the math with your watch each time. I keep one of these rail guide books in a convenient place in the room so I can consult it from time to time during the journey. I also keep the train schedule and any Amtrak Route Guide directly under the center of the window. All items that I will need for a particular segment of a journey I try to keep in my backpack, including clothing. I like to minimize the amount of times I have to go down to the luggage rack to dig items out of my suitcase.
During most of this segment of the journey we have been traveling just west of Lake Pontchartrain. Interstate 55 has been visible much of the way. I-55 is built on cement piers to raise it above the Louisiana swamps, now called "wetlands". In my photos, these wetlands might look more like a river. That is because of all the flooding this winter along the Mississippi River. In the early part of this century, a "spillway" was built to allow the Mississippi River to drain into Lake Pontchartrain when the river was so high that it was causing flooding. That spillway has only been used about 4 times since its creation, including this time. What you will see in my photographs is overflow water from the Mississippi River pouring into Lake Pontchartrain. Normally this area would look like any other Louisiana marsh.
We arrived into Hammon a few minutes early and departed right on time. I got a photograph of the old Louisiana Express narrow-guage steam locomotive, but I missed "Charlie", the first 'gator to be caught in this area.
Just a bit north of Hammon is an interesting assortment of homes along the route. There are both very old homes and very new homes, some that are in a state of construction. Some of the homes are small run down shacks and others look as nice as any home in a modern suburb. Still, others both new and old, look like mansions! The older mansions show the styling of Louisiana with the porches, sometimes downstairs, sometimes upstairs and sometimes both, and these older homes often have gables.
I find it odd that these homes are pretty mixed together. There isn't all old homes in one area and new in another, or all shacks in one area and mansions in another. You can't tell what type of house the train will pass next based on the last house that was passed. They seem totally random. The only thing these homes have in common is that they are near the train tracks and not far from the Louisiana forests and marshes. Ever present just a few hundred feet behind these homes is the forest and marshes. Usually the trees are cleared from the yard of each home and they have a nice flat green lawn. Between and in back of each home however, are the trees that stretch on as far as you can see. I wonder what is like living in a home with a forest or marsh for a back yard? Could one walk far enough out their back door into the forest and get totally lost?
I haven't been able to take more than a couple of photos of these homes and am not sure how they will turn out. For most of this way there is an unpredictable row of trees along the tracks. Thus, I don't know if I have taken good pictures of the homes or if I have more additions for my tree and telephone pole collection!
Each time the train passes through a town, it passes many homes on the outskirts and then soon plunges deep into the areas of forests and marshes. Surprisingly, towns just keep popping up out of the middle of the densest forest when you least expect them and then they vanish just as fast as they arrived.
Several of these towns appear to have once had their own railroad stations. I think we have already passed 3 boarded up railroad stations and we haven't even arrived at the second stop on this route yet! The last one was in a town called Amite. If Amtrak continues to survive as a national system, I imagine the argument will continue about whether it is better to have fewer stops in order to improve performance, or whether it makes more sense to make more stops so that the train is convenient to more people. I've been to a lot of transportation meetings where people have said they would take the train if there was a train near them to take. Often these people did live near stations, but the stations had been closed long ago. It doesn't make much sense to take a train if the effort to just get to the train is a journey in and of itself!
Now this is weird! We stopped at the station. A freight train partially passed us. While the freight train was right beside us, we started moving. Both trains were moving at the same time in the same direction side by side sort of jockeying for position. Eventually we won out with our much greater speed than the freight train and left that train far behind. For a number of segments of this journey over the last hour there have been 4 parallel tracks, but it looks like we are back to 2 sets of tracks again.
So far, all of the staff on this train has seemed very friendly. This is definitely the "Comedy" train as both the Cafe Car Attendant and the Sleeping Car Attendant have added their humor. The Cafe Car Attendant announced that anyone walking into the Dining or Cafe Car without shoes will be sent back to their seat with a stern note to their mother! He also announced that passengers in the Lounge Car will not be allowed to look out the windows, talk or even smile! Our own Car Attendant had his own humor. He was making his rounds introducing himself to each person when he found one room with the door closed and curtain drawn. He knocked and buzzed. The voice from inside said they were trying to take a nap. He jokingly announced that naps are not allowed in his car and then added a humorous reprimand that the passengers should not have messed up the bed because some other passengers would be using that room as soon as it was vacated. Believe me, the tone of this was totally in jest. Everyone was laughing after this exchange including both the passengers in that room and the Car Attendant himself.
I do think that the Car Attendant did literally mean he had to make his rounds and introduce himself to everyone. I didn't see him explain any controls or featues of the car to anyone! He just went around and said hello and introduced himself! We already exchanged greetings when I went downstairs to get something from my briefcase. Thus, I guess he felt we were already introduced and he never even stopped by my room while he was making his rounds!
The Car Attendant did make sure we had lots of refreshments. He put out a case of spring water and a case of assorted soda, including my favorite, Diet Pepsi. He also put out a bag of ice and cups. I don't know if he made coffee. I was planning to get to bed early tonight and didn't even check. I also grabbed one bottle of the spring water. I like to have something near me to drink when I'm in bed as my throat sometimes dries out at night. I think it has to do with all that snoring.
The Conductor just announced that we should be into Jackson by 5:30 P.M., which is 27 minutes ahead of schedule! If I had know that, I don't think I would have made reservations to eat at 5:00 P.M. If we are going to be in Jackson for almost 30 minutes, I'd like to get off the train and walk around a little, maybe take a few photos. Well, maybe I'll be done eating early.
The people with 5:00 P.M. reservations were called right on time and I was the second person to enter the Dining Car. I sat at a talbe across from the first person to enter. Just to make some small talk, I asked him if he had also heard the Conductor's announcement that we will be arriving in Jackson early. He said he had and that he liked to think that what he was doing for his company had something to do with that. That immediately caught my interest. Turns out he works for the Illinois Central Signaling Department. He works out of Chicago, but was just down in New Orleans for a day to take care of a problem. The Amtrak City of New Orleans runs entirely on track owned by and signaling provided by Illinois Central.
We talked a little about railroads and Amtrak over the meal, but he didn't seem too interested in talking. He was friendly, but it seemed as though talking was an interruption to eating. That could just be my perception, but there were a lot of silent periods interrupted by an occassional short friendly exchange.
Trying to go for the non-meat entree for a change, I selected the Vegetable Lasagna. That turned out to be quite good! However, it was served accompanied by vegetables that I don't think anyone but chefs from New Orleans would think went together. Basically, the meal was a plate of starches: lasagna, corn, sweet potatos and rolls! Didn't matter to me. I love all those items even though they are not usually served all at the same meal. A dinner salad was also served with that and I ordered some White Zinfendel at my beverage for an extra $3.50. I didn't know if we were back to east or west of Chicago for the custom of tipping, so I split the difference and left my change from a $5 bill from the wine, $1.50. Since the only meal left on this train will be an early breakfast, I doubt I'll have much change to observe the tipping practices on the City of New Orleans.
We did arrive about a half-hour early into Jackson, Mississippi. I was in the middle of dinner when we arrived, but I did finish early by skipping desert and coffee. That gave me about 3 minutes to spend outside! Actually, there was still plenty of time left but the Car Attendant chased us all back into the train at 5:50 P.M. when the train wasn't scheduled to leave for another 7 minutes. Unlike most other train I've been on, they seem to like to have everyone already on the train when it is time to leave and not just start alerting people to get on board at the departure time.
After returning to my Sleeping Car, I was able to get a few pictures of Jackson, Mississippi. My Sleeping Car was sitting right on top of a bridge over the intersection at the corner of the King Edwards Hotel. The hotel was abandoned with most windows either broken or just left wide open. I got a couple of pictures of the hotel so you will get an idea of what I mean. I also took a couple of pictures right up Capitol Street which ended at a domed building that I assume to be the capitol building.
After we departed the station right on time at 6:57 P.M., dusk started settling in pretty rapidly. Once again, it doesn't look like I'll be taking any more pictures from this train until morning. My goal of an early dinner (actually only 3 P.M. Pacific Time) along with some wine is in hope of getting to sleep early and then getting up early for more viewing and photographing the scenery in the morning when the sun returns.
Seems like my page and cell phone have been working fine through most major cities on this route. I got a couple of pages while I was in Jackson and was able to check on the messages and return the calls using my cellular phone without any problems at all.
I went down to the Cafe/Sightseer Lounge Car to buy any souvenirs they might have of the City of New Orleans before they ran out of them. To my surprise, they didn't have any and the Cafe Attendant replied that they don't have any special souvenirs for the City Of New Orleans train! He only had the usual generic Amtrak playing cards and postcards. Who it the Product Manager of this train? Seems like they are missing a perfect opportunity. The City of New Orleans is one of the best known trains and one of the few if only train to have a song named after it. That makes it a perfect train to offer souvenir collector items!
Either my clock is slow or we are making great time. According to my clock, we are into this station 6 minutes early. If we leave before the scheduled departure time of 6:57 P.M., then I'm going to suspect that my watch is slow since these trains are not allowed to leave before the exact departure time unless a special "R" notation exists on the train schedule.
Shortly after we left Yazoo City, it became totally dark outside. Except when we go through towns with street lights, there is nothing at all to see outside.
There was a discussion in the hall about chartering private rail cars. If I am not mistaken, it was our Car Attendant that was giving information to a group of people in our Sleeping Car. His estimate was that it would cost about $1000 per person for a group of about a dozen people to charter are private rail car for whatever it was they were interested in doing. I'll have to look into this myself. Maybe through TrainWeb we could get enough of us interested and charter a private rail car for a special TrainWeb trip!
We changed crews (Engineeer and Conductors) at Greenwood and left right on time. Actually, we had arrived 10 minutes early and then left right on time. Shortly, after we left Greenwood we had to stop for a while for some freight traffic. We stopped at about 8:05 P.M. and didn't resume travel until 8:27 P.M. Now we can see how well this train does at making up lost time!
Morning! And the train is right back on schedule! We left Champaign-Urbana at 6:30 A.M. If Amtrak was able to keep all their trains this tight on schedule, that would be a feat to be proud of by both Amtrak and the host railroads.
I went to sleep not too long after my last entry above. As mentioned before, I wanted to get to bed early so I could be up at the crack of dawn to get as much viewing of the scenery in the morning as possible. I awoke at about 5:50 A.M., about 10 minutes before my pager alarm went off. The daylight was adequate for viewing out the window. As usual for me, I awoke several times during the night. This has never given me a problem as I'm always able to go right back to sleep. On the train, whenever I wake up I like to check the time, the schedule, and take a peak out the window for a few minutes. I have noticed that we are usually stopped at a station whenever I wake up. It must be something about the movement of the train stopping that wakes me up.
Usually when I travel alone I like to sleep in the top bunk. That way, I can leave my computer set up and get up to make entries whenever I wish at any hour. Since I knew I wanted to sleep through till morning, there was no reason to leave my computer set up. Also, I got really spoiled having a window right next to me while I slept in the Viewliner. I don't know if I can go back to sleeping in the windowless top bunk of the Superliner anymore!
Thus, I put away my computer and set up the bottom bed myself. I've set up the room so many times myself that it isn't much of a bother to do so. It is often less of a bother than to ring for the Sleeping Car Attendant and just sit and wait for him to arrive. After the bed was ready, I just layed there staring up at the moon and the trees as they raced by. Since the moon remains in a fixed position relative to the train, it actually looked like the train was in a race with the moon, with both of us zipping by the trees. As the train went around mild bends in the track it would look like the sometimes the moon was getting ahead and sometimes the train was getting ahead. I can't remember a similar experience to this since I was very little and would lay down in the back seat of my parents car. While laying down, I'd look up through the window and all I could see was the top of trees, phone poles, light posts and houses go buy. Just the top of things. That was in the days before seat belts existed in cars.
One thing I forgot to mention yesterday was that my top bunk had the tendency to come down all by itself. I've had this happen before in only one other train journey. When it happens, it can be quite startling and I imagine dangerous if you were standing up at the moment. The first time it happened on this trip, I returned the bunk to its position of being folded up into the wall and made sure it was very securely fastened. Didn't seem to matter though. About an hour later when we were going over some unusually rough track, it slammed down from the wall again! There is no harm done as long as you are sitting since the stops above the seat keep it from falling any further than that, but I would imagine you could get some minor bruises if you had been standing up when it came down.
After I awoke at 5:50 A.M. this morning, I got dressed and made sure that everything was packed away except for this computer. I even put the computer out of the way so that the bed could be made up more easily. I had left the computer plugged in and turned off all night so the battery could be rapidly charged up. I don't use the battery on the train, but I like to be ready to use my computer anywhere at anytime, with or without external electricity.
Last night we were told that breakfast would be served starting at 6 A.M. and that there would only be one sitting because of our early arrival into Chicago at 9:10 A.M. That didn't mean you had to head down to breakfast that early. They just wanted to let the early risers know they could get breakfast early and that would help get the flow of patrons through the diner started so they could accommodate everyone on the train that wanted breakfast in the Dining Car. Even now at 7:15 A.M. they are still letting peole know that breakfast is being served. They did warn us last night that no announcement about breakfast would be made at 6 A.M. They didn't start using the P.A. system until about 6:45 A.M. Just as I am writing this they are making last call for breakfast and it is now 7:15 A.M. The Dining Car will cease accepting new arrivals at 7:30 A.M.
As I left my room, I saw the Car Attendant right next door making up the bed and asked if he could make up mine while I was gone to breakfast. Generally that is when they like to make the beds. They usually close up the beds while you are gone to breakfast. If you would like your room made into the beds while you are gone to the Dining Car in the evening, it is customary just to pull your "Call Attendant" button and leave your curtain open so he can see the room is empty. If you aren't ready to have the beds set out that early, no problem. Just pull the "Call Attendant" button anytime later that evening when you are ready to have the beds set out. Alternatively, you can try to set out the beds yourself when you are ready. If you have never done it before and haven't been shown how to do it, it makes for great night time entertainment! Sort of like trying to solve a rubics cube. There are levers to pull, foot pedals to push, and mattresses to wrestle with. Once you've done it a few times, it becomes pretty simple.
Arriving in the Dining Car at about 6:10 A.M., only two tables had been seated so far. In a very short while, the Dining Car was almost full. I had the French Toast. The Dining Car Attendant almost had an argument with me and seemed dissapointed that I refused to order at least a side of bacon also. I tried to explain that I like to minimize my intake of meats whenever possible. I guess turning down well prepared meat dishes doesn't go over very well on the City of New Orleans train any better than it goes over in the actual city of New Orleans!
We are ahead of schedule again! The train isn't scheduled to leave until 7:39 A.M. I wish our Car Attendant was a smoker. I know that is a terrible thing to say, but when your Car Attendant is a smoker, they always open up the door and let out the passengers whenever the train is at least 5 minutes early into the station. This Car Attendant doesn't let anyone out unless you are getting off at that stop. He likes to have is passengers all on board so there is no delay when the train is ready to leave. Thus, we are just sitting in the station at Kankakee waiting for 7:39 A.M. to get here!
Except for the beautiful old domed building and church steeple in the backgroud, the view from my window is identical to Pomona, California. Once we go rolling, I could see that Kankakee has a very large old train station. Many of the stops in Illinois, including Champaign-Urbana, have had huge train stations. My guess would be that very little of these buildings is actually in use for the train station anymore. Usually the unused sections are just closed to the public or are rented out as office or retail space. All of these huge grand stations hint back to a day when the train station was the focus of the community and the major portal of transportation.
Just before Homewood we hit some pretty rough track, or maybe it was just so shakey because we were going so fast. But, at any rate, the overhead bunk came crashing down again. I'm just going to leave it down until I'm ready to leave the room.
Calculating the tip for the Car Attendant, I think $5 would be appropriate. This journey is less than 24 hours with only one night on board. Plus, very few services were required of the Car Attendant by me. Using the formula of $5 per day per person, I think this trip would count as one day. Don't go by the number of nights you spend on the train, however. I would count the Coast Starlight as 2 days even though you only spend one night on the train. The Coast Starlight, however, goes from 9:30 A.M. on the first day until after 8:00 P.M. at night on the second day. This train only goes from 2 in the afternoon on the first day until 9:10 A.M. on the second day.
A Chicago Metra commuter line starts here at Homewood. If I wanted to, I could actually get off here and take a commuter train the rest of the way. There are only 24 miles left between here and the Chicago station. We'll pass a lot of Metra stops along the way from here on, going express right through them. Seems the Car Attendant is trying to find one passenger that was suppose to get off at this stop. Oh well, if they miss their stop they will be in better shape than most people that might miss their stop. They can at least take a Metra train from Chicago back to Homewood.
With so little time left between here and Chicago, I'm going to have to pack up my computer and get ready to leave the train.
The train arrived into Chicago right on time, or maybe even a little bit early. There was only one Sleeping Car on the City of New Orleans. I've been told that there are two in the Summer. I think they could probably have used two even at this time of year. The Sleeping Car was booked solid with many rooms being used twice during the trip, including that person that had to switch rooms in Memphis. I can only imagine how many people were turned down becaue there were no available rooms.
It was interesting backing into the station. Since we were the only Sleeping Car and at the end of the train, the Conductor opened the door at the rear of the train and used the radio to guide the engineer in backing the train into the station.
As soon as I arrived, I went to the huge old waiting area. There is also a very modern waiting area (1970's vintage with plastic seats) and even a kid's playroom! Something more interesting that I found were two private waiting rooms that are coin operated! In the old waiting room I went to one of the many long empty benches. At this hour, the population of the old waiting room was about one or two people at each 50 foot long bench with many completely empty. I exchanged a few items between my suitcase and backpage, getting rid of items I would not need for the rest of the trip and putting a couple of items into my backpack that I would need in Chicago. Expecting to meet Vince McGraw of the Amtrak Intercity Web Page and Maintenance Training Facility, I didn't want to leave my suitcase unattended in the Metropolitan Lounge for so many hours. Thus, I parked it in the pay locker area.
The cost of the pay lockers varies depending on the size of the locker. I selected one that just fit my roller luggage as I would be keeping my backpack with me. I believe the cost of that particular locker is 75 cents per hour up to a maximum of $4.50 for 24 hours. You can keep your items in the locker for a maximum of 48 hours for $9 ($10 for any length of time if you loose your combination). After 48 hours, I guess they take your stuff out of the locker and I have no idea what you would have to pay to get it back. There are many change machines at the lockers and all the change machines will change $1 and $5 bills into quarters. Some will even change $10 and $20 bills into quarters. An Attendant is also present in the locker area between 7 A.M. and 9 P.M. to help with any problems.
I put my luggage in, locked the door, and then deposited 75 cents for the first hour. A receipt is then printed which contains the combination code that you need to use to open the locker later. When you return to collect your stored items, you enter the combination code and the locker displays the balance that you owe. After you deposit the balance, the locker opens. Once you open the locker, you can't lock it again without starting the process all over again with a new 75 cent deposit. I always make sure I go to the change machine and get enough change for the maximum possible charge before I lock my items in. I don't want to be rushing to board the train and find out that all the change machines have run out of change.
Along ever journey, I like to get the film on its way to be processed as soon as possible. The avoids having to carry the film and reduces the possibility that film might get lost on the way home. It also means that I'll have less of a wait for the finished film to be returned to me once my journey has ended. Thus, I mailed out the 2 rolls of 24 exposure film that I had take on my journey on the City of New Orleans. There is a mailbox in the old waiting area right where it joins the corridor to the trains.
With the camera loaded with a brand new roll of film, I went outside and took a photo of the Union Station building. This was a bit strange since the Union Station building was across the street from the building that I came out of! My understanding is that the main concourse of the train station actually runs underneath the buildings on both sides of the street.
I was wondering what to do with my time between 9:25 A.M. and the earliest possible time that Vince might become available which was 11:15 A.M. I do someday plan to travel all the Metra routes and wondered if I had time to take one round trip before 11:15 A.M. Unfortunately, this wasn't to be. Of the next trains leaving, one would be leaving at 9:30 and one at 9:35. That gave me 5 and 10 minutes respectively to buy the tickets and get onboard. Plus, the return trip from these trains didn't return until a bit after noon. That didn't meet my desire to get back by 11:15 A.M. I'll have to wait for another trip to Chicago to explore the Metra routes.
I had also planned to go to the top of the Sears Tower and take some photographs from there. Of all the times I have been to Chicago, I have yet to have had enough time to go up that building! The weather in Chicago was a heavy overcast. From outside the Sears Tower, you couldn't even see half-way up the building! I figured that would not make for good viewing from the top. Most likely all that would be seen by looking down is a thick haze over everything. I decided to skip that venture for this trip and try to do that tour on the trip in June that will have me in Chicago for a number of hours again.
I puchased 2 more rolls of 200 speed 36 exposure film. This next 6 weeks might be the last of the Texas Eagle and I want to make sure I get what pictures I can between Chicago and San Antonio. Between San Antonio and Los Angeles isn't a problem as that is also the route of the Sunset Limited which is not in danger at this time. In the Union Station lobby area there is an Amtrak Vacations stand with all their literature and another wall area with dozens of schedules. I can't pass things like that without taking one of everything! Unfortunately, there are no schedules for the Texas Eagle. I guess they don't think they will be needing them much longer. Fortunately I brough my own schedule card for the Texas Eagle and a couple of copies of the National Timetable.
At this point I headed for the Chicago Metropolitan Lounge. Checking into the lounge I guess is considered the start of the next journey, so I'll continue my writing in that travelogue.
Click here for the next segment of this Spring 1997 journey.