Enthusiasm. It’s not terribly widespread among the traveling masses gearing up for the getting-there part of their journey.
Yet it’s a little after 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and travelers gathered at the Atlanta Amtrak station are eager – excited even – about starting their trip. The people arriving on the train are upbeat, too.
“Good morning, everybody,” says one disembarking passenger to a group waiting to board. “And God bless everybody,” says another, upping the ante on conviviality.
Clearly, this heartwarming scene is not unfolding in a US airport.
While giddy anticipation and goodwill toward men are not hallmarks of modern travel, a ride from Atlanta to New Orleans aboard Amtrak’s Crescent restored a bit of this traveler’s faith in the shared exhilaration of getting from point A to point B.
The romance of rail travel is alive – even if it’s more about novelty than efficiency for many American riders.
Taking the long way
I was definitely in it for the experience. While I’ve traveled by rail in other countries, this was my first long-distance Amtrak trip.
The scheduled 11 hours and 54 minutes aboard the Crescent meant leaving a day early for a work trip to New Orleans. In reality, the journey lasted 13½ hours.
The hour-and-a-half delay is pretty standard. In 2017, 67% of Crescent passengers – more than 173,000 – arrived late at their destinations, according to Amtrak.
The rails between Alexandria, Virginia, and New Orleans are operated by Norfolk Southern, and freight trains frequently cause Amtrak delays.
Amtrak operates nearly all the rest of the Crescent’s 1,377-mile route between New York’s Penn Station and Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans. The whole journey takes 30 hours, if the train stays on schedule.
But what the Crescent from Atlanta may lack in speed, it makes up for in atmosphere and amenities.
The food is pretty tasty – rail cuisine doesn’t suffer the same tinkering that goes into preparing food that will be served at 35,000 feet. The train is spacious; there’s a dining car, a lounge and you can walk around, recline, even lie flat.
For some passengers, the train is basically the destination.
Lorraine Carr decided to ride to Birmingham, Alabama, for lunch on a whim after a very busy month on the job managing an Atlanta carpeting showroom.
Bill Trammell, a retiree living in the Atlanta area with his daughter, son-in-law and two grandkids, hadn’t been on a train since he was 8 or 9 years old – about 60 years ago – and riding the train again was on his bucket list.
He was on a solo expedition, with plans to spend the night in Meridian, Mississippi. “I might find me a little bar. Get me something good to eat later on, spend the night and stay at the Holiday Inn there and catch it tomorrow morning and come back,” he said.
Others had weightier objectives. About 40 Catholic youth and their chaperones were on their way back to the New Orleans suburbs from Washington, where they had participated in a pro-life rally.
They had smartly booked sleeper car accommodations for their overnight journey.
Although my trip was a daytime event, I booked a sleeper, too – for the full Amtrak experience.
The adult one-way rail fare was $80. The “Viewliner Roomette” sleeper added an additional $138, for a total one-way fare of $218. Roomettes on the Crescent range from $138 to $383, depending on the length of travel and availability.
Three hot meals were included in that rate. I was traveling alone, but there’s room for two in the cabin, and meals are included for its occupants. So the $138 Roomette makes decent sense for two travelers (plus the $80 adult fare from Atlanta to New Orleans, times two).
All fare options include free Wi-Fi and two free checked bags. Tiered pricing involves varying levels of cancellation flexibility.
Coach cars feature comfortable reclining seats, outlets, tray tables, etc. But the spatial curiosities of the Viewliner Roomette – seats, lie-flat berths, a sink and a toilet all wedged into a space about as long as a single b