Steve's Spring 1997 Rail Journey - Second Segment: Travel on the Amtrak Crescent from New York City to New Orleans.
I have talked about these travelogues with many people that I have met on the trains before, but never have I felt so certain that some of those people are definitely going to take a look at this travelogue. To those people, I just want you not to be surprised if you don't find your names here. Since I did not get permission to use your name, it does not appear in this travelogue. Also, I would like to thank those of you that recommended to me where to eat in New Orleans. It seems everyone I met who was familiar with New Orleans had a great place to recommend. It is no wonder as New Orleans has some of the best cooking in the country! Unfortunately, I don't think I am going to see much of New Orleans on this trip other than the 4 walls of this hotel room. I've got quite a backlog of e-mail and a number of web pages to upload that will keep me busy for most of my stay in New Orleans. Fortunately there is a free breakfast buffet in the hotel or I may have left New Orleans without eating anything at all!
I checked out of the Hotel Pennsylvania at about 10 minutes before the official check-out time, 12 noon. I got a few photographs of the hotel room, the corridors, the lobby and the marque. I also took a photo of the entrance to the Amtrak Pennsylvania Station which is directly under Madison Square Garden. There is no longer an actual station building, but the underground area that comprises the station is bigger than most other train stations in the United States.
I ate at Houlihans Restaurant, Bar & Grill, just one of the many places to eat underground in Penn Station. There is also a Pizza Hut, Nathan's Hot Dogs, Dunkin' Donuts and other eating places whether in food courts or by themselves along the corridors and open areas. Last night I had a hot dog at Nathan's and was a little nervous with people wandering behind me all the time. This time I wanted somewhere I could relax for an hour or so at a table to myself.
Before I went in, I could see that the tables were pretty close to each other. New York City is known for restaurants like that. Personally, I like restaurants with a bit more privacy, especially the ones with lots of booths or high back benches.
Since it was lunch time, I was expecting the place to be packed. Fortunately, it wasn't. I had finished most of my lunch before they seated a couple at the table that was just about touching my own. Compared to restaurants like this in my own part of the country, such as Bennigans, T.G.I.Fridays and Chilis, Houlihans was pretty expensive especially for lunch! A small chicken sandwich with fries was almost $11. If you are looking for less expensive fare, you would be better off sticking with Nathan's hot dogs.
I took a few photographs of the Penn Station central area, including some of the shops, gift kiosks, train status boards, etc. Then, I made my way into the Metropolitan Lounge at a few minutes after 1:00 pm. My first encounter with Amtrak staff in the east seems to be living up to its reputation. The greeting was quite perfunctory, but no worse than Chicago. Nothing like the warm welcome and helpful attitude that I found in the Portland Metropolitan Lounge.
The lounge was pretty empty when I first came in. I scouted out the area and found 2 computer work stations that appear to be under construction. One already has a computer on it! The computer is from NEC. It barely fits on the desk area and there is no room at all for the keyboard. I guess you put that in your lap. There is also a printer on the desk. From the screen that was currently on the system, it looked like the last person to use it was using Microsoft Internet Explorer to try to reach the Internet. Thinking that it might be hard wired to the Internet, I tried to bring up my TrainWeb page. No luck! It attempted to place a modem call and the computer was definitely not yet hooked up to a phone line.
The computer station next to it was empty except for some loose wires. The shelf at this desk is much smaller and my notebook computer just barely fit on it. The palms of my hands have to hang off the table as there is no room to rest them on the shelf. There was also no power plug at this work station. I unplugged the built-in desk lamp which was plugged in at the other work station, and plugged in my notebook computer. That is where I am right now writing this!
There seems to be plenty of space to sit and relax in this Metropolitan Lounge. There are television sets, one with a local channel and the other showing the status of trains. There are also restrooms, lots of pay telephones, and a refreshment area. I tried to get some coffee at the refreshment area, but it just poured out one-quarter cup of diluted coffee. I guess nobody got the coffee ready yet. There was a good variety of soft drinks and ice, however. I didn't see any snacks or pastries as I have seen in both the Portland and Chicago Metropolitan Lounges. There is a conference room for passengers, however.
We were called to board the train at about 2:50 P.M. There isn't a special door to get from the Metropolitan Lounge to the tracks like there is in Chicago and Portland. You just exit the Metropolitan Lounge and head for the appropriate track number, merging in with the coach travelers. In this case, the train was on Track 12. I went down the escalator and mistakenly kept going straight down the platform next to the train. I know they said the sleepers were at the rear, but I thought I was heading to the rear. I went a couple of cars before turning around and heading for the other end of the train.
As I boarded the Viewliner Sleeper, I started to look for the luggage rack. There isn't one on the Viewliner Sleeper! I carried my suitcase to my room which was number 7. Keeping the suitcase in my room wouldn't be a big problem as I was traveling alone. I wondered how I would manage if I was traveling with my wife and had the full allotment of carry-on bags. I believe each person is allowed 2 bags, and I never count my backpack as a bag. I soon discovered a luggage rack at the very top of the bedroom. The luggage area actually extends over the ceiling of the outside corridor.
Overall, the impression that you get is that the Viewliner Standard Bedroom is slightly roomier than the Superliner Standard Bedroom. Both beds are a bit wider in the Viewliner Bedroom. They did a bit of a trick on the top bunk. They made the top of the bed much wider by extending it almost the full width of the room. The bottom portion of the bed where your legs go remains about the same width as the top bed in the Superliner upper bunk. This extra space is how you climb up into the bunk. The toilet and a ledge over the toilet are the steps up to the top bunk. Since you don't need the full length of the room for climbing into the upper bunk, they used that extra space to make the head of the bed much wider. This was also also possible because the bed lowers down from the ceiling and does not fold out from the wall. Folding out from the wall would require the bed to be a uniform width, but coming down from the ceiling allows the bed to be any shape.
Another great benefit of the Viewliner is the top set of windows. This allows the person in the top bunk to see out the window while laying in bed! It also allows the morning light to wake you up if you leave the curtains open. This is ideal for me. I had two problems in the Superliner bedroom. First, I like to keep my computer set up all night because I sometimes wake up in the night and want to jot down a few ideas. That meant I had to sleep in the top bunk which had several disadvantages. First, it was narrower than the bottom bunk. Second, I couldn't see out the window while I was up there. Third, I like to get up on the train when the sun comes up so I can get as many daylight hours of viewing the scenery as possible. I would sometimes get up late on the train because it was always dark in the top bunk, even after the sun was up! In the Viewliner, the top bunk is fairly wide, I can see out the window, and the morning light will stream in to wake me up at daybreak. Also, I won't even have to get up right away. I'll be able to relax in bed in the morning and watch the scenery from under the covers!
There is a luggage rack at the very top of the bedroom. The luggage area actually extends over the ceiling of the outside corridor. Since it is above the ceiling, people walking down the corridor have no view of your luggage, but in this way, the luggage takes up no space in your room. Even though my roller luggage isn't very big, it is pretty heavy with the items that I pack. Thus, it was a bit of a chore lifting the suitcase up to that overhead rack, especially since the upper bunk is kind of in the way. I would not recommend bringing suitcases any bigger than the average size roller-luggage with you in a Viewliner Sleeper. A regular size suitcase would definitely require you to open the upper bunk before attempting to manuever your suitcase into the storage space.
The mystery of where they fit the toilet into the room has been solved. My guess that they made the seats smaller than the seats in the Superliner Standard (Economy) Bedrooms was only half right. That is, the seat next to the toilet is smaller, but the seat across from the toilet looks about the same size as the one in the Superliner. This arrangement does not give small or medium size people much of a problem as it still leaves lots of room to move around. However, if I was here with my wife, I could see making good use of all that room in unconventional ways. For example, I might put a pillow on the closed toilet and prop myself up sitting on the pillow so I could look directly out the window. However, I think larger people might feel a bit more confined in this room than in the same type bedroom in the Superliner. If you are a larger person, have serious concerns about your comfort, and money isn't too great an issue, I'd suggest going for the Deluxe Bedroom.
There are a tremendous number of buttons and lights in the Viewliner Bedrooms! There is one set of 5 buttons that controls the audio/video (up/down volume, up/down channel, and a reset button). With these 5 buttons they have a sixth button used to call the Car Attendant. Next to this set of 6 buttons is another set of 3 buttons that control the lights. The top button controls the ceiling light, another controls the "wall" light which is really the big flourescent lamp directly above the headrest, and the third button controls the reading lamp. The reading lamp directly above my seat wasn't working, but the one above the seat across from me was fine.
Get a picture of the 9 buttons that I described to you, or look at the photo of them. In addition to these 9 buttons, there is also an LED channel indicator directly in the middle of the audio/video buttons. That set of 9 buttons and LED channel indicator is repeated around the room 3 times! One is above the headrest of each seat and a third is high up within reach of a person sleeping on the top bed. One additional set of just the audio/video set of 5 buttons, LED channel display and Call Attendant button has been placed directly above the flat screen LCD Color Television. I'm not sure why it is there since an identical set is just about a foot away above the passenger seat. Maybe so as not to disturb whoever is sitting in that seat while the person in the opposite seat tries to adjust the channel and volume to the television. I guess some people prefer to use controls directly by the TV than the ones by their own seat.
At the door there is another switch which controls the same ceiling light controlled by the other 3 sets of switches in the room. Both above and below the mirror are switches for the mirror light. The toilet flush button is directly above the toilet. There are also lights above the toilet to indicate that the sink is down or that the toilet is out of service. There are 2 110 Volt electric outlets. Unlike the Superliner Cars, there is no sign saying "Razors Only". By the way, the "sink down" light indicates that the sink is not properly folded away into the wall. A small sink folds right out of the wall above the toilet. If you do not fold it up into the wall properly after you are finished, the light will remain on. Also, the bright light serves as a warning in the night if you attempt to sit on the toilet while the sink is down. Without that warning, you might have your back hit the sink pretty hard when you try to sit on the toilet with the sink in the way!
There is also a thermostat which allows you to set the temperature in the room. This one seems much more sophisticated than the one in the Superliner sleepers. The thermostat has degree markings on it and you can set the temperature that you want. There are vents under the window that you can open or close. There are also two circular fans. One can be directed to blow at one bed and the other at the other bed, or during the day, can be directed to blow into the room. Each fan has an "OFF" position and 3 speeds: "LOW", "MED", and "HIGH". Thus, there are 8 more buttons!
I think I have itemized all the controls in the room. Unless I missed something, that is a total of 46 buttons in just one room!
Have you started to wonder how these controls interact with each other since there is only one TV and one set of speakers in the room? They must be using a microprocessor for guidance and control to figure out how all these controls inter-relate. Don't fret! They pretty much act the way you would expect them to.
With each control is a jack for headsets. The Car Attendant didn't offer me any, so I assume you are supposed to bring your own along. Any headsets that you have that work with a portable radio, CD or tape player should work fine! I tried my set which I use with all my electronics: scanner, radio, tape player, and that fit and worked fine.
If you plug your headset into a control, the volume, channel, and LCD channel indicator just work that headset. You will get the audio of whatever channel you select. Thus, you could have up to 4 people in the room all listening to whichever channel they wanted and whatever volume they wanted without interfering with anyone else's listening pleasure! (Though, the room might be a bit crowded with any more than 2 people).
If any one person selects a video channel (such as 4 or 5), then the TV will automatically turn on and set itself to the selected video channel. If someone changes the channel directly on the control nearest the TV, that one takes precedence and the TV will change to that channel. Everyone else will continue to listen to whatever audio channel they had selected, even if they selected the sound track of another video channel.
The speakers in the room work pretty much the same way as the television. The control nearest the television controls which audio channel is played over the speakers. All the other channel controls in the room only control what is played over the set of headphones plugged into them. Thus, it is possible to play no sound in the room and have everyone listen to the TV or other audio just over headphones. Or, you can select any audio channel to be played over the speaker while others listen to the sound track of the TV on just the headphones. Pretty much any combination is possible.
There are 5 channels active at the moment. Here is what is playing on them right now:
For additional details about the Viewliner accommodations, click on that selection when you reach the bottom of this page.
As soon as I arrived into my room I started unpacking the items from my backpack that I would use during my travel. First, I set up my computer. I immediately noticed there were two 110 volt outlets above the toilet. I plugged my computer into one. These weren't even marked "Razors Only" the way they are marked on the Superliner outlets. I then started to plug my digital clock into the other outlet. As soon as I plugged it in, a big yellow light directly above the outlet went on and the train fell into total silence! I immediately unplugged my clock and wondered if I had blown the circuit breaker for my room or even the entire car! I quickly checked next door and found their red light also on.
Rational thought soon took over and I knew that power does go out on trains while they are in the station quite often. I also realized that the yellow light was labeled "Toilet Out Of Service" and not "Outlet Out Of Service". It was just a coincidence that the electricity went out at the same time I was plugging in my clock. Once the electricity was restored, I plugged in my clock and my computer and everything was fine.
Yes, we are still in the station! The Conductor just announced that we should be leaving in about 10 minues. I'll try and find out what the problem was. I do know that they did change engines.
I just turned on the scanner and immediately found we are on Channel 12 (160.290). They were talking about needing the paperwork for the engines and then we would be ready to go.
Now For The Complaints: While the electric power is turned on in the train, the P.A. speaker has been making very frequent loud buzzing noises. Now that we are underway, the buzzing is constant! I hope they get this thing fixed or turned off very soon, it sounds almost as bad as a Jack Hammer! The only other problem seems to be the windows. They are the dirtiest most spotted windows I have ever seen at the start of a trip. I guess they don't wash the cars at the New York end of this route. I hope this doesn't affect the photographs too much.
We are finally underway and I think under the North River Tunnels under the Hudson River, known as the Twin Tubes.
We are at our first station stop. This station looks a lot like the subway stations that I grew up with in Boston. They are about the same vintage (though Boston subway stations have all been modernized since I was little) and the loading is at platform level.
This train sure does move fast! The ride is a little bit more shakey than what I am accustomed to on the Superliners, but what this train lacks in stability it sure makes up for in speed! I don't think I could take a photo out the window right and end up with anything other than a big blur.
I think the concept of a "megalopolis" existing from a big north of Boston all the way down to a bit south of Washington, D.C. must be a bit exaggerated. The train has been traveling through nothing but farmland and forests for about 20 minutes. Even when I used to live in Boston and drove to New York several times and once in a while all the way to Washington, D.C., I knew that it wasn't just cities and suburbs throughout the entire journey. There may be a higher concentration of cities and suburbs throughout the northeast than most other parts of the country, but there is still a significant amount of open land along the route.
Cheryl Hainey is the Car Attendant of my Viewliner Sleeping Car. I told her about the buzzing noise earlier. I thought I was nuts since nobody else had complained about it and she wasn't sure what I was talking about. Naturally, the buzzing had stopped while I was asking her about it. When it did start again, I wandered up and down the car and noticed it was loudest in my room and the in the hall and the room across from me. It was still annoying in some other rooms, but not as bad as in my area. In some rooms, the buzzing wasn't there at all. My guess was that the amplifier for the P.A. system was picking up transmissions either from the flourescent lighting or from the overhead power line. This train is pulled by an all electric engine powered by an overhead power feed from New York to Washington. Cheryl just returned to my room and asked if the noise was better now. It had stopped and I hadn't heard it for a while, so I assume that she did get it fixed. I thanked her for that. I wonder how they fixed it. Maybe they turned the P.A. system off and I won't be hearing any more announcements from the Conductor. If given the choice between getting the train announcements or avoiding the buzzing, I'll take the silence any day!
We took a couple of minutes less to get here than expected, but we are still running a bit more than 40 minutes late. We just passed by a very large Amtrak yard on the right with many electric locomotives in the yard. I was able to take a few pictures of the yard, but because they went by so fast, I wasn't able to take the angles I most desired. I will certainly try to get additional and better photos when I take my trips up and down the eastcoast this fall now that I know what to expect.
Radio Frequency: Channel 54 (160.920)
Just a note: This train has been receiving passengers little by little along the stops from New York City to here. A passenger finally occupied the room across from me at the last station, Philadelphia. Until then, I was able to hop back and forth to enjoy the view on both sides of the train or take pictures. The Crescent can only receive passengers as it travels from New York to Washington. You can not travel on the Crescent if you wish to get off at any station north of Alexandria, Virginia. There are many trains that you can take between any of the stops from New York City to Washington, D.C. They don't want those passengers using up space on this New Orleans bound train. Thus, you can only get onto the Crescent if you are going somewhere south of Washington, D.C.
I checked the movies on the television. Channel 5 is playing "Jack". I don't recognize the movie on Channel 4. I hope they play it again this evening. I like to spend most of my time looking out the window during daylight. It is already dusk. I took one photo of a bridge over a river, but I don't know how well it will come out in this low level of light. I think that will be the last outdoor photo for today.
I wonder how the meal service works on this train. It is already 6:40 P.M. and I haven't heard any announcement about the Dining Car being open. For that matter, I haven't heard any announcements since they got rid of that static buzzing noice! I bet they did turn the P.A. system off completely. I don't want to go eat now as our next stop is Washington, D.C. and we might be stopping there for as much as 45 minutes. Although, our stop might be a lot less to make up for the lateness of the train. No matter what, I think the train still has to stay long enough to change from an electric locomotive to a regular locomotive. The tracks are not electrified from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. If they stop serving in the Dining Car by the time we leave Washington, D.C., I might just have to buy myself a sandwich in the Cafe Car.
Here we change locomotives. I asked the Car Attendant how long we would be in the station and she said about a half-hour. Normally we are here for 45 minutes, but I'm sure they would try to shave some off that if they can to make up for the lost time. She asked me if I wanted to get off for a short while and I said I would certainly like to. It was a little cold and windy, but my light jacket was adequate.
I walked to the front of the train as quickly as I could and got there just before they disconnected the electric locomotives. I took a few pictures of them both before and after they were disconnected. The engineer gave me a friendly wave and I returned it after the engines were disconnected and they rumbled past me.
I waited about 5 minutes and got a few more pictures as they attached a pair of regular locomotives to the train. Then I headed back to my Viewliner Car as quickly as I could walk. I wasn't sure how long the train would remain in the station once the new locomotives were attached. I had little to fear as the train did remain in the station for quite a bit longer.
I stepped on board the Viewliner, but no sooner had I gone a bit down the aisle that the fire alarm sounded! Red lights were flashing, red signs were flashing indicating the fire alarm had been activated, and an automatic voice system was instructing passengers to leave the train and not to bring their belongings with them. I headed back toward the door where I had just boarded, but just found our Car Attendant there explaining that this always happens in the Amtrak Washington station. I guess it has something to do with the change of the locomotives and the power shutdown that triggers the fire sensors. She had to instruct each person to go back to their rooms as they approached the exit doors. I took a few more pictures of the interior of the Viewliner aisles while waiting for all the commotion to settle down.
It's dark outside. Not much scenery now. I turned on the televisions and am watching a movie called "Dear God". Seems to be a family movie with a bit of comedy. There is a little bit of static on the screen. That could be fixed with a slight adjustment to the tracking.
I went for dinner at about 8:00 P.M. There was just a short line with one family of 4 people in front of me. I sat with a couple that also do quite a bit of train travel. They've traveled much of the VIA system in Canada as well as quite a bit of travel in the United States. I told them about the Coast Starlight. They got so interested that they just about started making plans right there over the dinner table!
The dinner discussion was quite interesting since we both liked to travel by rail quite a bit. He asked about my web page and we ended up exchanging business cards. His company is considering puting up a web site, so this meeting might end up in some business for my company.
The dinner menu looked pretty good, but I sometimes have a little problem finding items that I like. I don't like any type of seafood (except tunafish), and I don't like chicken that is still on the bone. I like steak, but I usually avoid it if there are other appetizing selections. On most trains, the vegetarian selections are usually excellent and that is what I usually get. On this particular menu, the vegetarian selection sounded like they just left off the main course and gave you more of the vegetables. I don't know if that is what it wouild have tasted like, but the way they wrote the menu item looked like that to me. The other couple had sat down and ordered long before I arrived so they were already in the middle of their meal. They both had steak and it looked pretty good.
I ordered the steak and it came out pretty good. I had ordered the mashed potato but ended up with a baked potato instead. Why is a baked potato more healthy than a mashed potato? I don't know, but I have a hard time returning a more healthy item when it arrives by mistake instead of a less healthy item. So, I had the baked potato and it was quite good. I usually don't have dessert on the train, but I did order the apple pie a la mode. That topped off this overall less than healthy meal. I'll have to make up for this meal with a bit better eating for the rest of the trip!
We stayed at this station until 11:35 P.M. I'm not sure why we stayed here for 14 minutes. There is no extended stop scheduled for this station.
I'm sold on these new Viewliner Sleeping Cars! Forget any prior doubts I may have mentioned over changes they have made relative to the Superliner Standard Bedroom. The increase of perceived space, the openness, and the additional amenities and convenience of control make up for any minor shortcomings.
If you sleep in the top bed, the logic of the layout of the room becomes obvious. Unlike the Standard Bedroom in the Superliner Sleeping Cars, I can easily reach just about every control from here! The switch for the overhead/night light, the wall light, and my reading light are right next to the head of the bed. The channel and volume controls for the audio and video are also right there. Maybe the only criticism here is that I can't easily watch the TV from the upper bed even though I can easily turn it on and off and change the channel.
From the upper bed I can also reach the thermostat to adjust the temperature at night if I feel the room becomes too warm or cold. That is a great feature since a comfortable temperature often changes once you've been under the covers for a while. There is also a fan right next to me that I can either aim toward or away from me and I can easily adjust the fan speed right from the bed.
From the top bed, you can also easily reach your suitcase in the overhead storage area. However, depending on the shape of your suitcase, you may or may not be able to open it. My roller luggage is pretty thick and doesn't leave too much clearance between the top of the luggage and the top of the storage area. There was enough room however for me to slip things in and out of the front pockets and the main storage area of my luggage.
There are also a number of improvements over some of the features that you will find in the Superliner Standard Bedroom. The fold-out table has been made much more sturdy. I certainly wouldn't recommend sitting on it, but I honestly doubt it would suffer any damage at all if I did sit on it. I could never understand why they made the fold-out tables in the Superliners so fragile. It only took a minor design change to insure that any weight placed on the table could be managed by the structure. The table is also just a bit wider and maybe a bit longer. This is easy for me to tell. My notebook computer fits on it with room for my mouse. In the superliner, I always had a hard time figuring out where to put my mouse. Also, the cup holders in the Viewliner are much deeper than those in the Superliner. I've never seen a cup fall over in the Superliner, so I'm not sure that was really an improvement. However, this route at times has seemed to be a lot more shakey than any route I have taken west of Chicago. Maybe the added stability is needed for these tracks.
Another curious item is the ashtray. Next to the cup holder is the tiniest ashtray I have ever seen! It is about half the size of the one of the Superliner Sleeping Cars. On the Crescent Route, they do allow smoking at certain set times. I know that Amtrak's policy is to eventually eliminate all smoking except in specially provided smoking lounges. If you are a smoker, you should check the policy of your particular train before attempting to light up. I'm not sure of the rationale behind the tiny ashtrays. Since smoking is only allowed for so few hours, maybe they figure you won't generate as much ash. Or, since Amtrak intends to eliminate smoking from all Sleeping Cars soon, maybe they figured that ashtrays soon won't be needed at all so a small one would be good enough for now. It's a mystery to me.
The trash bin in the Viewliner Standard Bedroom is greatly improved over the one in the Superliner. The one in the Superliner is very small and you have to slide it out and back in to throw things into it. The size is totally inadequate. Usually, the Car attendant sets up two very large trash bags, one downstairs in the vestibule and one upstairs in the corner near the coffee service area. These are usually filled to the brim after a couple of days of travel. I didn't see any similar big trash bags set up in the Viewliner. Possibly because the size of the trash containers in each room is adequate. I don't know exactly how much bigger it is than the one in the Superliner, but it is easier to use and does seem bigger.
The sliding door closes very solid. There are very few vibration noises, but that could just be because these cars are brand new. Instead of curtains for privacy, the door and the window to the aisle have slide down shades. These aren't shades like the old days, but shades built right into the window frames. The shades easily slide up and down to any position. I like to leave the window shade to the aisle always closed. When it is open, all I can see is the wall across the aisle from me, but it does allow people walking down the aisle to look in on me. Thus, I see no purpose for leaving it open. The shade on my door I like to close just enough so that it doesn't block my view out the window from the bedroom across from me. As long as there isn't anyone sitting in the seat diagonally across from me in that opposite bedroom, we aren't staring each other in the face. Thus, I get a fairly good view out the windows on both sides of the train. Also, with the shade at half-mast, I don't make eye contact with people walking down the aisle. Don't get me wrong. I don't avoid serendipidous social contact all the time, just much of the time.
The outside window curtains have also changed. Both the top and the bottom are connected to things that slide in the grooves. Thus, there are no more tie-backs. There are also a couple of velcro spots to keep the curtains in place when they are open and a snap to keep them in place when they are closed. This seems to be an improvement over the old method, but I'm not sure why. The curtains to the upper window work in an identical manner, though I can't see why I would ever want to close those curtains.
Where do you put things during the day? I like to keep my backpack always at the ready and I keep a number of items that I might use at any time in there such as my camera, scanner, radio, books, schedules, pens, clothing for the day, etc. In the Superliner Standard Bedroom, it is just a little bit tight keeping my backpack on the steps that lead to the upper bunk. In the Viewliner Standard Bedroom, there is plenty of room for my backpack! Directly below the TV is a very wide long shelf where my backpack and additional items fit comfortably. For items that you don't mind moving whenever you need to use the toilet, there is plenty of room on top of the closed toilet seat.
The one major drawback just seems to be the way the seat next to the toilet has been made quite a bit more narrow than the seat across from the toilet. I sat there last night to watch television and didn't find it a problem, but I don't think it would be as comfortable for a larger person. This would be especially true if there are two larger people sharing the room.
I did mention before that I wasn't sure if I was sold on the idea of having a toilet and sink in the room. My concerns are still valid. Unless you and your roommate have an unusual lack of modesty, where does your roommate go when you use the toilet? Unlike the Superliner cars, there are no open areas in the Viewliner Car. I guess your roommate either heads for the Cafe Car, or stands in the aisle dodging traffic through the narrow passageway. For traveling alone, however, having the toilet in the room is a real convenience. No need to get dressed just to go down the hall. Also, it is a lot easier for washing, shaving, brushing your teeth, etc. since there is a lot more room in the Viewliner Bedroom than in the standard restrooms in the Superliner Cars. As a small side benefit, you don't have to miss any of the movie if you find you need to go during the movie. The toilet seat has a better view of the screen than the passenger seat that is right next to the TV!
If you look at the diagram of the Viewliner Bedroom, you might think that not much legroom is provided for using the toilet. The designers had their thinking caps on for even this one. Although the diagram shows the toilet facing forward, the toilet seat itself is actually diagonal facing in toward the center of the room. Thus, sitting on the seat, you are actually facing away from the corner of the room, not away from the back wall of the room. This gives you a lot more leg room than if you had to face directly forward.
The only minor inconvenience about having the toilet in the room, in addition to the one I mentioned above, is how to reply if the Car Attendant decides to knock on your door at that moment. This is something that is unlikely to ever happen while you are in the restroom on a Superliner Car. The Car Attendant would just assume you are "busy" and don't want to be disturbed at the moment. Maybe this isn't a concern at all. The only time the Car Attendant has ever knocked on my door during this trip is when I asked about coffee and she said she would let me know when it was ready. One other item you might be thinking about I don't believe is a concern. Between all the power fans and vents in the room, new fresh air appears to enter the room about as fast as you could ever desire.
One last but not least important item is the location of the toilet paper. Before you panic thinking you are going to have to call the Car Attendant before you can get off your seat, the toilet paper is in those two little cellophane packets across from you right next to the "TRASH" door. You might have mistaken them for packets of facial tissues which I have as yet to find in the room. You are not provided with a lot of toilet paper, but I'm sure you can ask the Car Attendant for more. However, those of you that have owned an RV or a yacht will probably agree with me that the amount of toilet paper provided is adequate. Until you have had to repair or pay for a very expensive repair of a portable waste system clogged with toilet paper, you don't appreciate how little toilet paper you really need to use. Amtrak is not trying to be stingy with the toilet paper, they just want to keep the system working. Also, I would not recommend bringing your own from home nor using facial tissue in place of toilet paper. These portable waste systems are usually designed to work best with single-ply tissue that can dissolve easily and don't take kindly to paper not designed for the system.
Ever hear one of the many jokes about toilet paper tearing everywhere except at the perforations? Well Amtrak seems to have solved the problem. They have found toilet paper with no perforations at all! I've examined it closely and can find no hints of perforations on the toilet paper at all. First time I've ever seen a roll like that.
Once we left the station, I wasn't sure if we were going through suburbs or rural areas. Compared to the density of housing in the Los Angeles area, this would definitely be considered rural. Every home has quite a bit of land, regardless of whether the home looks like a run down little shack or a beautiful mansion. Naturally, the mansions have a lot more land, but even the shacks have many times the size of land that I have with my house in California. The land in most people's yards is also very wooded here making it look like all these homes are out in the forest. That adds to the confusion of whether this would be considered a suburban or rural area.
These houses out in the forest seem to have a certain serenity to them, something that is lacking in the more sterile look of overly paved suburbia.
For the past hour or so, the train has mostly been going through forests with sight of a road or a home only once every 10 or 15 minutes. Traveling through forests gives me a bit of time to just relax. I don't have to hang by the window with my camera at the ready afraid that I will miss taking a photo of an interesting item along the route. This segment of the journey also gave me the time to write the extensive description of the inside of the Viewliner Standard Bedroom. During the remainder of the time I was just able to sit and look out the window and daydream. I don't know what it is about forests, but I could sit and look at them going by for hours without doing anything at all. I can't say the same for either deserts or farmland. After the first hour of desert or farmland, I've had about enough of them for the entire journey. Forests I like because I feel on some mysterious journey weaving among the trees. I like towns and cities too, but that is no time to relax as interesting items can pop up at any moment.
This station platform looks abandoned and like it is about to fall down any moment. There is also a station building that looks in a little better shape. Somehow we have managed to lose quite a bit more time. We are now running almost an hour and ten minutes behind schedule.
Ooops! I take that back. We've actually made up most of the time we lost and are only running 6 minutes late! I didn't realize that we had crossed from the Eastern to the Central Time Zone between Atlanta, Georgia and Anniston, Alabama. Since my body is still mostly running on Pacific Time, I was getting a bit hungry for lunch. I had skipped breakfast as 3 full meals is a bit much for me. Thinking the time to be 11:45 A.M., I headed down to the Dining Car. I was wondering why the Dining Staff was just sitting there with not a single person seated. I asked when they open for lunch and they said between 11:30 and 11:45 A.M. I stood baffled for a moment until the staff person looked at his watch and said that it was now 10:50 A.M.! That is the first time that I realized that we had crossed that time zone. So, I headed back to my room to wait another hour for lunch.
Out the window there are more forests with a field or a few houses popping up from time to time. Seems like a good time to get some more coffee to tide me over until lunch. Not a bad idea since I still have my shoes on anyway. That is another thing I don't understand about the Viewliner. It seems to just have a small coffee pot that maybe holds 8 or 12 servings. The Superliner has a huge coffee urn like the ones they have at banquets or cafeterias and probably makes at least 30 cups of coffee or even more.
We made up our lost time and left Birmingham right on time! There were a few interesting cars in the station and I got pictures of them. There was a "CD" Civil Defense Rail Car and a Pullman Car. The weather was very mild and no jacket was needed.
As soon as I boarded the train and made a few notations on the computer about my experiences and the photos, I headed straight to the Dining Car for lunch. There was no wait and I was seated at a table with one other person. They were traveling from Washington, D.C. They had already ordered and their meal was served just about the time I sat down. I did most of the talking. I don't think the other person minded as it gave her a chance to eat her meal and she occasionally interjected some comments.
It was quite a while before I was given a menu. I didn't mind much since I really wasn't in a rush to get anywhere. Possibly another person would have started asking for a menu and considered it poor service. Once I did get to order, the food was delivered to me almost immediately.
I ordered the meatloaf with macaroni & cheese and rolls. I can see I'm going to need to take some affirmative measures to make up for all this meat and cheese! I generally don't like eating so much meat and dairy products and usually try to stick with grains and vegetables as much as I can. However, once again there wasn't much else on the menu to my liking. If you have any diversity in your tastes, you wouldn't have had a problem finding one or more items appealing. I almost went for the ommlette, but the main feature of the ommlette was the creole sauce and I'm not much for spicy food.
The meatloaf was very tasty and I haven't had macaroni & cheese since I was a kid. It still tastes as good now as it did then! The rolls were warm and soft and quite good also. Actually, the meatloaf with macaroni & cheese is also what they offer as the children's meal at dinner time. I almost ordered that for myself last night until I noticed that it was "for our guests under 12". At lunch time, that item was on the main menu.
We arrived right on time, but we are a couple of minutes late in leaving. Cheryl, the Car Attendant, is very friendly and helpful. With that offer to make coffee right away after I boarded and then letting me know when it was ready pretty much guaranteed her my maximum tip. Also, last night when I rang for her to make my bed, she sized up the situation immediately. She knew right away that I would want to sleep on the top bed so I could work on my computer below. Instead of just making the bed, she demonstrated the full procedure to me and where I could store the extra mattress so that I could put down my bed myself when I was ready to go to sleep. She was concerned that I would not want the bed down until I was ready to get into it because of the low clearance. There would have been plenty of room, but I assume Amtrak doesn't want the liability of me suddenly standing up forgetting that the upper bed was down.
Overall, everyone I have met on the Crescent has been courteous. I can't come right out and say they have all been friendly. It takes something extra, some extra effort, to show friendliness. I definitely sensed that from Cheryl. Most of the other staff have been very efficient and have been providing their services with no attitude problems. It is just that it all seems so perfunctory and business like, without a smile. There are quite a few Amtrak staff people like that on trains west of Chicago too, but so far, they have all seemed that way east of Chicago except for Cheryl and a couple of other Car Attendants that left us in Birmingham.
Seems I have found something new about tipping in the Dining Car. If you read my section on tipping, you know I seldom have seen people tip more than $1 per person per meal. I have run into a totally different experience on the Crescent, my first train trip east of Chicago other than the Sunset Limited (which is also a west of Chicago train). So far, everyone who I have seen leave a tip has left $2 per person. A couple at dinner last night left $2 per person and the person I had lunch with left $2. This is too few observations to say there is a trend, but it does bring up the possibility that there are some differences between train travelers east of Chicago vs. west of Chicago.
Most of this segment of the journey has been through dense forests and swamps. Occasionally a town, a few houses or a road will show up. For the most part, however, there has been nothing but forests and swamps on both sides of the train.
Cheryl buzzed at my door with the part of the journey I don't like, when the Car Attendant has to make up the bed and get the room ready for its next trip. It still seems that this would be something appropriate to do after all the passengers have left the train. It is something that should be done while the train is in for vacuuming and washing. This seems to be the equivalent of a hotel maid demanding that you leave the room and stand out in the hall, or go sit in another room while your room is made up. This isn't Cheryl's fault. This is standard operating procedure on Amtrak Sleeping Cars. They will always come in and get your room ready for the next set of passengers hours before the train arrives at its final destination.
Looking up, I noticed that Cheryl did not push the bed up as high as I had pushed it up into the ceiling. When I pushed it up, I didn't have the pillows on top of the bed as she has now. If you would like more top window space to provide even more light during the day, you could move the pillows and mattress into the suitcase storage area (if your suitcase isn't already in there) and then you can push the top bed much higher up into the ceiling, exposing the upper windows completely.
We pulled into Meridian pretty early. We were scheduled to arrive at 3:32 P.M. and to leave at 3:37 P.M., a 5 minute layover. Instead, we arrived at about 3:05 P.M and will remain here for over 30 minutes. Cheryl did not open the doors to this sleeping car, but the Car Attendant of the sleeping car behind us, Viewliner #1911, did open his stairs. About 4 other passengers stepped out with me to just stand around on the outside of the platform. Even though I knew we would be here for probably 30 minutes, I wasn't too tempted to wander off. No other door was open on the entire train except for one way up near the front where the conductor was standing. I don't like stepping far enough from a train that I can't just hop right back on at the signal, regardless how unlikely it is that the signal will be given in a short time.
I did take quite a few pictures from where I stood on the station platform. There were several old passenger train cars parked on a siding across from us. I took a picture of each one. It also appears they are building a brand new train station in Meridian. I took a picture of the new station in its current state of construction and a picture of the old station. I was also able to take a few pictures of the buildings in Meridian along with the engines of a freight train in the foreground.
I got back on the train early and wandered down to the Cafe Car. I found the Cafe Car Attendant to be quite friendly. They had Crescent souveneir ceramic and plastic mugs, baseball caps, a purple T-Shirt and a black knit shirt. I really liked the knit shirt, but they only had it in XXL. I like XL, but that is just about 1/2 size too big for me, so XXL was definitely out of the question. I purchased a ceramic mug, a baseball cap and a purple T-Shirt, all with the Amtrak Crescent logos.
As long as I was in the Cafe Car, I decided to order a Bloody Mary. No deal! We were in a town in Mississippi that had Blue Laws and did not allow the sale of liquor on Sundays! I really find that strange and wish Congress would pass a law that exempted Amtrak trains from local county and state regulations. It is so weird to find the laws that an Amtrak train has to conform to change county by county as it travels across the country. I can't help but look at a train as something independent of the places that it travels through and not subject to local ordinances, much like an airplane while it is in flight. Imagine if an airplane had to observe the local ordinances of each county that it flew over. The Navigator would have to keep the Flight Attendants abreast of any changes to the flight plan in case it affected when liquor could be served!
I found out that I was right about the buzzing noise that was being made by the P.A. system. They had to shut off the P.A. system in this car to stop the buzzing. Hence, I have no idea about any announcements being made by the Conductor or the Dining or Cafe Cars. This trip was unusually quite pleasant without all those announcements. However, I do think that may be why I did not know about the time change this morning nor have any clue as to when the Dining Car is open for service. The Cafe Car Attendant probably even warned people, as they usually do, about buying any drinks they might want before we arrived into the "dry counties". But, as I said before, missing those announcements was certainly preferable to listening to a loud buzzing noise for most of the trip!
I also found out that something must have splashed mud pretty hard on this side of the train. I was over on the other side of the train and the windows on that side are relatively clean. There was just the usually light film of dirt that builds up on train car windows after a long trip. There were no big specks of dirt on the windows on that side as there are on my side. Thus, something splashed on just this side of the car since it was last washed.
This is a flag stop for the Crescent, which means the train only stops if someone wants to get on or off. I guess someone did since we did stop here. We are just leaving now at 4:41 P.M., just 5 minutes behind schedule. I suspect that we will get into New Orleans early. The distance between the last two stops is only 37 miles and the schedule allows 83 minutes to cover that distance! Even if the train only traveled 30 miles per hour, we would make that distance in just 74 minutes.
The Dining Car Attendant came through our car at about 5:00 P.M. loudly proclaiming "first and last call for dinner". Knowing I wouldn't have much time to eat in New Orleans, I decided to heed this call. Might as well since dinner was included in the price of my trip anyway. The Dining Car was pretty empty. I'm not sure that was because people were planning to have dinner in New Orleans or if there just weren't that many passengers left on the train. I sat down with another gal that had also just started looking at the menu. Since it was the same menu from the previous night, I was pretty sure I was going to order the vegetarian dish. Steak last night and meatloaf for lunch was enough red meat for a while for me!
My table partner ordered the vegetarian dish and a glass of white wine. That is exactly what I had in mind and ordered the exact same thing! I think she was a strict vegetarian, however, and ordered a salad with the meal. I ordered the vegetable beef soup, just so I'd have something filling if the vegetarian dish didn't turn out that well. After I finished my soup, the vegetarian plate was delivered and it actually turned out to be pretty good! They even brought some soy sauce with it. Give me some vegetables and rice and some soy sauce and I'm all set! The dish itself didn't come close to comparing with some of the fabulous vegetarian meals that are prepared on the Coast Starlight, but they seem to always forget to provide any Soy Sauce for passengers. I've been tempted to bring my own bottle of Soy Sauce along the next time I travel on the Coast Starlight!
We talked about quite a few things over dinner, but being a train person, the items that stuck in my mind was that her father was a train engineer for many years, that she used to ride trains a long time ago, and this was her first train ride in many years. Also, she recommended that I eat at "Jack Sprat's" while I'm in New Orleans because of the wonderful vegetarian dishes they make. I'm always up for a restaurant that can make great vegetarian dishes since there aren't any near my home at all. However, considering this restaurant is not open for breakfast and I have to be on my train by 2 P.M., I don't think I'm going to get to try "Jack Sprat's" this trip. It will have to wait until my next journey through New Orleans. Unfortunately, I did not write down the dinner recommendation from the previous couple before I forgot what it was. Doesn't really matter as I have their e-mail address and I won't have time to try that restaurant this trip anyway.
After returning to my room after dinner, I packed everything up, including my computer. That is why I'm writing this conclusion from the hotel room instead of from the train. I was very happy with the service from Cheryl and just followed my policy, and that recommended by every source I have consulted, to tip $5 per person per day. Since I was alone on this two day trip, I tipped her $10. For a full commentary on tipping, take a look at "http://trainweb.com/travel/tipping.htm". Just so that you don't try to incorrectly follow my own rule of thumb, I never exceed tipping $20 to any one person no matter how many people are in my party or how many days the trip, unless there are very unusual circumstances.
After leaving the train and the train station, I looked for a taxi and found a very unusual situation. Unlike the Chicago airport, there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the loading of taxis. There definitely was no line. Some taxis would only take people going uptown, others only people going downtown and still others only going to the French Quarter. However, no taxi driver seemed to make his intentions very clear. As a taxi pulled up, several people would approach every open window of the taxi asking the driver if he would take them here or there. Eventually, some people would get into the taxi and some people would walk away disappointed. I found this a bit frustrating, but humorous. This situation continued for quite some time. Some taxis would be loaded to the brim trying to take as many people as they could sharing a taxi, while others would leave with just a single passenger.
Some people got smart and called on the phone for a taxi. However, some people that called were told by some taxi companies that a taxi could not be sent specifically for them, but to just wait outside and several will soon be there. Some taxis did arrive looking for specific parties by name and would only accept the party that called them. However, I'm pretty sure I saw some taxis come and start to look for specific parties, but then just grab first-come-first-serve when they saw the confusion.
I pretty much waited until much of this died down. For one, I wasn't really interested in diving into this pandemonium, and second, an extra half hour wouldn't matter and would allow me to tell you about this taxi situation at the New Orleans Amtrak station. Next time I might stay at the Quality Inn in New Orleans. At least they sent a private van to pick up their guests! Finally a cab stopped in the middle of the roadway and remotely popped open his trunk and told me to put my luggage in the back and hop in. This guy definitely reminded me of one of those "hit and run" taxis that aren't allowed to serve airports, but often sneak in and grab passengers before being caught by the dispatcher. I hopped in and was a bit suspicious when he didn't run the meter. I don't know if they do things different in New Orleans, but I've known people that used to drive taxis. When they don't run the meter it usally means they are going to pocket the whole fare without telling the company about the pickup.
I finally ended up at the Comfort Inn Downtown. The size of this room was like a palace compared to the Hotel Pennsylvania! My entire room in the Hotel Pennsylvania could fit inside the bathroom of this hotel room! There are two huge king size beds in my room with plenty of room around both of them. I'm working at a fairly large table and there is a full dresser in here with a good size television and a room safe. The is a closet by the door and the bathroom is the size of another hotel room. There is another desk and closet in the bathroom! I guess that is the "vanity". I've often stayed at Embassy Suites hotels, but I think this is even bigger than any suite I've ever stayed at there. However, I would say the decor at the Embassy Suites is a cut above what is here, but the decor here isn't bad. It is definitely better than what I found at the Hotel Pennsylvania!
This room was part of my overall travel package through "Amtrak Vacations". I would imagine they get a very special rate with their bulk reservations. I don't remember the rate they quoted me, but they probably pay a lot less to the hotel than what I was charge. The check-in slip was marked "Amtrak Confidential Wholesale Rate".
The only thing I did find wrong with the room were there was at least 3 men and 1 woman in the room next door when I arrived who were all talking very loudly. One was cursing at the absolute top of his voice. If I was still in Los Angeles, I think I would have taken cover expecting the bullets to start coming through the plasterboard any moment. Not that I live in Los Angeles, but that is the impression that many of us that live even 40 miles out have of Los Angeles. I was even surprised to find there was no bullet-proof glass separating the passengers from the drivers in the taxis in New Orleans as there are in both New York and Los Angeles taxis.
Fortunately, everyone eventually left the hotel room next door and it became much quieter. So, that brings me right up the the present. I caught up to date with my e-mail, but I still have quite a few web pages that I'd like to update before I leave here tomorrow. First will be my attempt to upload this travelogue. If you are reading this before my journey has ended, then you will know that I got at least that far!
Click here for the next segment of this Spring 1997 journey.