The Ramblers ride Amtrak to New Orleans

The Ramblers have always liked trains, and have ridden a few in various parts of the US including the Durango and Silverton RR through the mountains of Colorado. However, we had never taken an Amtrak train anywhere. Since we’re not doing road trips anymore, and we wanted to visit our new grandson in New Orleans, we thought about taking the Amtrak as something different. We could, of course, fly but the train had potential. We would see the route we had traveled many times by car, from a different angle, which could be fun.  So, as the Rambler travel planner I investigated the possibilities. I did know there was a train that went from Atlanta to New Orleans so it should be doable.

I checked with AAA and found that Amtrak tickets were booked online, through the Amtrak website not at a travel agency. Here is the link. It is relatively easy to use after you play around with it.

https://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak

Amtrak does offer several discount fares, AAA, senior, children’s’  etc., , but I quickly found out that I could use either the AAA discount or the senior discount but not both at the same time. No double dipping here. Since the senior discount was slightly better, I eventually used it to buy our tickets. I found that coach tickets were not that expensive, a little less than a good deal for an airline ticket, and all seats reserved. Of course the schedule showed that the  train took a full 12 hour day to get to New Orleans rather than little more than an hour in the air. Unfortunately the Ramblers didn’t realize just how long it actually would take our train to get to NOLA.

Amtrak also offers 15 and 30 day passes which allows you to visit multiple cities during the stated time period, much like the Eurail passes in Europe. We didn’t consider this option since we only wanted to go to NOLA and back, but it might be something to consider in the future.

I purchased two senior tickets round trip for about $300. for a train that would leave Friday morning at 8:30 AM and arrive in NOLA at 7:30 PM. Not too bad, we thought, since we  would have a different view of the journey from the train and the seats were supposed to be comfortable and roomy. The train also had roomettes available, but they were quite pricey and our trip would only take about 11 hours so we didn’t consider them. It turned out we seriously underestimated the time it would take to get to NOLA on Amtrak.

The day of our trip the weather was sunny and warm in Atlanta. Our only luggage was the backpack I had recently bought.

A romantic poster from the heyday of travel which hung inside the station.
A romantic poster from the heyday of travel which hung inside the station.

We were pretty sure it would hold enough clothes and other necessities for our week-end trip. I planned to use it as my carry-on when we next flew overseas and this would be a trial run. Consequently we packed fairly light but as it turned out, we had more than enough for our trip except for several items we hadn’t considered necessary for a summer week-end in the South.

The Ramblers had never been to the Atlanta Amtrak station and were surprised at how small it was, and how high up.

A view of downtown Atlanta from the station parking lot. The stairs in the foreground lead to the track far below.
A view of downtown Atlanta from the station parking lot. The stairs in the foreground lead to the track far below.

The station  had a wonderful view of the Interstate highway and downtown Atlanta from its parking lot. I later learned that it had been built in 1918, almost 100 years ago, as a suburban station by a prominent architect.. Atlanta had then been much smaller and the close in neighborhoods of Decatur and Brookwood were then suburban and it was originally called the Brookwood station, but is now known as the Peachtree Station.

Peachtree Station in 2016
Peachtree Station in 2016

The main station of the Southern Railroad in 1918 was the Terminal Station, a magnificent 5 story building, in the heart of a much smaller downtown Atlanta. Atlanta was a city that had grown up around the Western and Atlantic Railroad, so it was not surprising that the city had a splendid terminal.

As you can see, the Terminal station was a magnificent structure.
As you can see, the Terminal station was a magnificent structure.

The Terminal Station  had been built in 1905 to serve the many train travelers of the day. There was so much train traffic that the Union Station was added a few years later. Both were eventually torn down after Amtrak was created to handle carrying passengers while the private companies continued to haul freight. Railroad passenger travel began its decline due to  the proliferation of  auto travel before WWII , and the growth of air travel after 1950 sealed its fate. Terminal Station closed in 1970 and was torn down two years later, as were the Atlanta Union Station and many other once magnificent railroad stations around the country. Amtrak took over the passenger service to Atlanta, mainly the Crescent which travels every day from New York to New Orleans with stops along the way.

Since there was no overnight parking at the Peachtree Station, our daughter and grand daughter dropped us off on their way to a shopping expedition.

Door detail of the Peachtree Station
Door detail of the Peachtree Station

However, just as we pulled up to the door, another car was pulling out. The driver told us that the train was delayed 4 hours and they were going out to breakfast. In theory Amtrak was supposed to text me if the train was delayed. Unfortunately the text didn’t arrive until we were already at the station. After a brief discussion, we decided to wait there, as it otherwise would be an inconvenience for them. The station already held quite a few disgruntled passengers, even though the Amtrak clerk had set out coffee and donuts for us to munch on as we waited.

What was the reason for the delay? clerkWell, the Ramblers hadn’t  realized initially that the Crescent originated in New York. Earlier there had been some bad weather along the route which caused the signals to stop working along a stretch of track. Thus the Crescent had to stop until the signals were fixed. Another thing we didn’t know was that Amtrak does not own or service the tracks its trains run on. They are owned and serviced by the major freight-hauling railroads, in this case, the Norfolk Southern, which are responsible  both for fixing any issues and giving the all clear.

The time seemed to move very slowly  as we waited for the Crescent ,and the oak benches, though aesthetically pleasing, were very uncomfortable.

These benches probably date from 1918, they were solid but uncomfortable.
These benches probably date from 1918, they were solid but uncomfortable.

We soon moved to the modern addition which had slightly more comfortable chairs.The wait did give me a chance to go outside and take some photos of the station and its surroundings. To our relief, we noticed that there was an elevator down to the tracks, as well as a very long flight of stairs.  When the train finally arrived at 12:45,  we couldn’t board immediately as the passengers traveling to Atlanta had to get off.

At last we made our way to our train car, and the conductor gave us our seat assignments as we boarded. On the Crescent, the reserved seats are assigned as the passengers board, and you can’t change your seat without the conductor’s permission.  The train was full, according to the conductor as more passengers would get on at other stops.

Many of the passengers made their way down or up the long flight of stairs to the Crescent which had stopped far down the tracks. The Ramblers took the elevator.
Many of the passengers made their way down or up the long flight of stairs to the Crescent which had stopped far down the tracks. The Ramblers took the elevator.

At last, we were underway. We left Atlanta behind and headed south. Thus began the most interesting part of the trip. You get quite a different, and sometimes fascinating, view of the  countryside from the train. All the seats in the car faced forward, although they could be flipped over. The seats were very comfortable, much more so than an airplane seat. The Ramblers settled in for an interesting experience but were uncomfortably aware that we would be getting to New Orleans much later than 7:30. At this point, we didn’t realize just how much later. We had talked to our son in NOLA about the delay and told him we would text when we got close. It was also possible for him to check the ETA of the Crescent on line.

When the conductor announced that the dining car was open, the Ramblers decided to have some lunch. Dining on the Crescent is not a gourmet experience, but we have had worse food.

The dining car in the evening after. We had just finished our stew and rice.
The dining car in the evening after. We had just finished our stew and rice.

Seating was family style at tables for four, as space was limited. We didn’t mind and enjoyed the company of the couple from New York who were traveling to the west coast by train. This turned out  to be a very good idea.

Back in our coach, we  were enjoying the scenery when the train slowed and stopped. There was no station visible, and the train at this point was traveling thorough a heavily wooded narrow valley in the Alabama foothills. Now what, we thought??? What was a tornado in the area.  Passenger trains have to stop if a tornado has been sighted for safety reasons. The conductor assured us that the train would be underway as soon as they got the all clear but this was very slow in coming.  Time really started to drag, as the sky darkened and the wind blew rain against our car windows. The tornado missed us, passing across the tracks in front of the train. Of course the high winds blew some trees across the tracks. AAAARGH! of course we were going nowhere until they were removed by the Norfolk Southern. By now, many of the passengers were downright hostile, and if they could have mutinied, they might have. But we were Amtrak captives at the moment.  By this time, we had been on the Crescent for 5 hours and still hadn’t gotten to Birmingham, AL which normally takes about 3 hours by car.

To pass the time, and gain a little good will, the Conductor announced they were going to feed all the passengers red beans and rice. I was pretty hungry as I had virtuously ordered a large salad for lunch, and even the senior Rambler was ready to accept the offer of food. We really shouldn’t be complaining, I thought as I watched a young mother with two small children manage them without tears and tantrums despite the delays. As it turned out, red beans was actually canned beef stew over rice with rolls and butter. Almost all the passengers ate their stew with few complaints and some even went back for seconds. Not only did it assuage our hunger pangs but it helped the time pass.

Three hours later, we were on our way again and chugged into Birmingham at dusk. The smokers, including the Senior Rambler, were allowed to get off the train and indulge their habit.

Smokers and passengers mix on the Birmingham station platform.
Smokers and passengers mix on the Birmingham station platform.

There is absolutely no smoking on the train. Unfortunately as the sun went down, the temperature in our car dropped like a rock. Most of the other passengers brought out fleece blankets and jackets and hunkered down. The Ramblers, of course, had neither and were really cold. The Senior Rambler got out some t-shirts and we put our arms into them which helped a little…If  you are planning to travel on Amtrak in the future, bring a jacket and fleece blanket as otherwise you will be COLD. Most of the people in our car were frequent train travelers so they were prepared for this. No where on the Amtrak website do they mention the temperature of the cars, but our Conductor told us they had three settings, hot, cold and off.

The sunset that night was beautiful, but it didn’t really make up for the fact that we still had many hours before we would reach NOLA.

A relic of Birmingham's steel and iron producing days, The Sloss Foundry is now an historic site visible from the tracks. One of the points of interest before dark.
A relic of Birmingham’s steel and iron producing days, The Sloss Furnaces is now an historic site visible from the tracks. One of the points of interest seen before dark.

There was no more scenery to enjoy, just scattered lighted buildings and a few stations. We finally got to New Orleans at 3:30 AM, and our son was waiting for us. We didn’t get to see much of the station as everything was closed and we just wanted to get to a comfy bed.

Would we take Amtrak again? Probably, as it seemed that everything outside of a breakdown or collision went wrong on this particular run.

Another view of the long abandoned Sloss Furnaces.
Another view of the long abandoned Sloss Furnaces.

People we talked to on board said they usually enjoyed riding the train, so we shall see. The Ramblers didn’t go back to Atlanta on the Crescent. Our children had arranged a birthday surprise for me in NOLA. The shopping trip was a ruse and my daughter and grand daughter drove to New Orleans, leaving after they dropped us off at the station. Naturally they got there hours before we did.  The next night I was mightily surprised when they walked through the door at dinner time.

Needless to say we rode back to Atlanta with them.

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