Sunday, January 16, 2011
Aboard the City of New Orleans
Our train trip to New Orleans last week was the same as every other Amtrak ride we've taken in the last year: Fine, with a couple of niggles.
The niggles first.
The sleeping cars on the City of New Orleans both ways were reasonably comfortable, but they are showing their age. They were from the original two-story Superliner order of 1979-81, and were rebuilt some time in the 1990s. Now the refurbishing has lost its shine. The interior looks OK for the most part, but seams -- especially in the bathrooms -- are gaping and no amount of caulking can bridge them.
What's more, the in-room electrical outlets in our roomettes in both northbound and southbound sleepers were not working. Fortunately this was not a writing trip laboring over a laptop, or I would have been upset. I was able to recharge my iPod Touch in the "Cross Country Cafe" dining car, which has outlets at every seat.
The closet door of the southbound roomette wouldn't latch shut. This is why veteran Amtrak travelers bring along a roll of duct tape, the world's greatest rattle-dampener.
During the night on the southbound trip, one of the two footlatches that hold down the roomette seats to form a lower bunk slipped open, causing one seat to slide partially back and giving me the sensation of trying to sleep on the edge of a ski jump. This happened at 3 a.m. and I decided not to awaken the Lady Friend in the berth above me by calling the attendant for a fix. So I got up and read in an empty roomette until breakfast at 6:30 a.m. (Later I learned that it would have taken the attendant 20 seconds to push the bed back down and pull up on the footlatch to secure it.)
These sleeping cars clearly are due for another rebuild, but the refurbished dining and lounge cars were nearly spanking fresh -- no complaints there.
I did venture into one of the three coaches behind the lounge car to use a downstairs bathroom, and was horrified. All four bathrooms in the tattered old coach were damp, filthy and bedecked with tendrils and scraps of toilet paper. Either the riders had no manners or the attendant was too lazy or overwhelmed to police the place.
Otherwise I found no fault with the service crews in both directions. Our southbound sleeper attendant seemed to spend a lot of time chatting with other crew in the dining car, but he was always present when we wanted him. The northbound attendant was quite solicitous, checking with us often to see if we needed anything. And the dining-car waitstaffs were both efficient and friendly.
The cuisine? Acceptable American Road Food, nothing more -- and nothing less. I did not try the special New Orleans dishes. At lunch on the southbound, there was no salad to go with the gumbo, and at dinner on the northbound I decided the New York strip steak was likely to be the most reliable item on the menu. (Amtrak steak dinners are consistently superior to the other dishes.)
One does not ride the City of New Orleans for the scenery. Southbound in January, first light does not come until after Memphis, and the trackside views of Tennessee and Mississippi are unremarkable, unless one has a soft spot for derelict industrial buildings and auto graveyards.
Only in the last hour (or first, northbound) of the ride does the scenery become interesting as the train speeds through Louisiana bayou country and past Lake Pontchartrain. Hundreds and hundreds of egrets and pelicans nest in cypress swamps along the tracks. Getting good photos from the train is not easy, because the City of New Orleans pounds along seemingly at better than 70 miles an hour on the straight stretches. The scenery just zips by too fast.
There was a brief item of interest on the northbound train: three security dogs (two German shepherds and a black Lab) handled by a four-person team of Amtrak cops. They all watched the passengers passing through the portal at New Orleans Union Terminal, the dogs' noses close by. The two shepherds rode in the lounge car, their handlers telling passersby gently but firmly not to pet them because they were working. The Lab rode in the crew car behind the locomotive.
All three dogs debarked (excuse me) at the first stop, Hammond in central Louisiana, and did their sniffy thing in the hold of the baggage-coach behind the lounge car as we watched. It made sense. If drug smugglers or terrorists manage to slip through the Port of New Orleans, they might think loading their contraband or bombs at a station down the line would fool the cops. I suspect the dog teams inspect the trains at random, dividing their time among three runs that begin in the Big Easy -- the City of New Orleans, the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles and the Crescent to Washington and New York.
Or maybe it's all for show. When we asked a conductor in the lounge car if the dogs were hunting drugs or explosives, he rolled his eyes, waggled his eyebrows and said with a wry smile, "Sorry, I can't say."
The timekeeping? Both trains ran 20 to 30 minutes late most of the way, but thanks to schedule padding arrived in New Orleans and Chicago on time -- or close to it.