By Andrew Selden- from the MinnARP Newsletter for Winter/2015
This is a short trip report marked by its ordinariness –something that is often missing in accounts of travel on Amtrak. Except as described in the President’s Column on the woefully inadequate food service on the City of New Orleans, everything actually went pretty well this time. Isn’t that what we all wish for in our train service?
In October, I returned to Minnesota by train from a conference in New Orleans, using the City of New Orleans and the Empire Builder, in sleeper on both.
The CNO was a shorter train, with one P42, a Heritage coach being deadheaded to Chicago, and a Superliner dorm car, sleeper, Cross Country Café diner/lounge, unstaffed Sightseer lounge, and three coaches (one a baggage coach being used for its baggage room). Six of eight available roomettes in the dorm car were sold to passengers. The rest of the train was completely sold out leaving New Orleans; even coach passengers were assigned seats by number, and the crew tried to enforce compliance. The inside of the sleeper and lounge cars were clean, but the windows were not.
Number 58 got underway on time at 1:45 PM, and within ten minutes, the lounge was open and quickly filled, and our sleeper attendant had taken dinner reservations (offered at half hour intervals, starting as early as 3 PM, to spread out the burden). We enjoy the marshes along I-10, and the run up the west side of Lake Pontchartrain and see many egrets and herons. At 2:29, we meet #59, on time, near Manchak, LA. It is carrying two Iowa Pacific “Pullman” service cars, but no full dome; that has gone to Indiana for the new Hoosier State service. In McComb, MS we see old IC equipment, including a steam engine and combine, a caboose, and a crane, plus a concrete coaling tower, probably preserved because it would be too expensive to take down.
The crew have blocked off the lower level of the lounge car with a trash bin, and several seem to spend a considerable amount of time down there. Substantial schedule padding is evident throughout the trip, including a 40-minute stop at Memphis, but there is little reason to speed up the train. For one thing, the track condition, especially north of Jackson, MS to about Carbondale, IL, is awful. The conductors make station announcements only as the train is slowing for the stop, rather than 10 minutes or so in advance. How many people miss their stops as a result?
My 6 PM dinner gets pushed back to about 6:45, as the one fellow working the entire diner is swamped by the time of my reservation, hopelessly behind his schedule, despite truly heroic effort. Whichever genius at Amtrak though this was a good idea should have to work a trip doing this job solo. When it comes, the food (a pouched-and reheated airline quality meal) is barely adequate in quality, and cheapened by being served on plastic. Lightweight stainless utensils come pre-wrapped in a light cloth napkin. To get a glass of wine with dinner, I walk down to the other end and buy it myself from the snack bar attendant, who is doing nothing to help out in the diner (and neither are any of the coach attendants). The menu has four choices: vegetarian pasta, a “diet fish” item, jambalaya, and truly disgusting-looking “beef tips” (whatever that is) priced for coach passengers at an astonishing $24. No wonder so few coach passengers patronize the dining car.
The next morning, breakfast is not available until after the train leaves Champagne/Urbana, rather than at a stated time. It consists of a sad “continental” plate, with four dead strawberries, a plastic dish with one of three cold cereals, yogurt, a crescent roll, juice and coffee. So much for “Full meal service” — if you want something hot, you have to go buy an “Egg McMuffin” sandwich from the snack bar attendant. The dining car is again swamped and the poor attendant struggles mightily to serve everyone before closing the car near Kankakee.
We have 29 minutes of pad in the schedule between Homewood and Chicago. We use all of it, as coming off the St. Charles Air Line connection from CN to BNSF and Union Station, we stop for 25 minutes, because, the conductor announces, BNSF’s dispatcher just cleared a switching movement to use the track we need, because, he says, “the dispatcher didn’t know we were here”! How is that even possible? Isn’t that precisely why there are dispatchers? Very scary. Eventually, we cross over to BNSF, then back into Union Station (at about 40 MPH through the 90 degree curve taken by the BNSF commuter trains) and stop about 20 minutes late.
I spend the 4½ hour connecting time walking around the Loop and after lunch, am back to the station by 1:15.
The Empire Builder is called at 1:30, surprisingly early for its 2:15 departure. I am in the “731” sleeper at the head end, so I enjoy a very long walk to get there, but that will be offset by a very short walk at St. Paul. We leave on time, and the LSA from the diner is takes dinner reservations (four seatings) before we reach Glenview. Despite stopping 10 minutes at Western Ave./Tower A-2 for two inbound trains, our engineer is on a mission today, and we reach Milwaukee on time. CP’s track is MUCH better than CN’s was last night.
My sleeper is properly set up, but Joe Boardman is still trying to starve the horse, and no amenities are provided besides a bottle of water. The coffee and juice service in the sleepers is now offered only for a few hours in the morning, and there is no route guide, newspaper, or shower amenities. The windows are clean, for once. This train has the normal EB consist of baggage car, dorm, two Seattle sleepers, diner (with a full crew of five, two chefs and three servers), two Seattle coaches, lounge, and two coaches and one sleeper for Portland.
On a random Saturday in October, an off-peak day, the train is 80% full, the sleepers are completely full, and the lounge car is 75% occupied before Milwaukee. We pass Columbus and Portage on time, and the dinner seatings are being called right on time. The dinner service is great, and with five menu choices the food is quite good, marred only by Joe Boardman’s cheap plastic plates and glasses. As always, we enjoy a nice dinner conversation with our booth-mates.
At La Crosse, we lose 20 minutes waiting for the drawbridge to close, and arrive St. Paul 10 minutes late. Very little freight traffic on CP on Saturday evening, means no traffic delays. At St. Paul, we are told, all of the passengers leaving the sleeper will be replaced by new ones, and in the depot we see a crowd of perhaps 60 waiting to board.