(james benedict brown) on the road

Train 19: The Crescent

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 29 August, 2006

My pronunciation of New Orleans has already been corrected once or twice: it’s important to make sure it comes out as Noo Orl’ns. Even at Washington Union Station on Monday evening, I’m being reminded to get it right. Despite plenty of space on the electronic display boards beside the doors to my tracks, the final destination of my train is listed as New Orl’ns.

I’m not going all the way on the Crescent, but I will make it to New Orleans next week. Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed the city one year ago tomorrow: waiting for the train with me are families and groups of men returning to the city, perhaps for the celebration of the unfortunate anniversary. After Katrina hit New Orleans, Amtrak suspended all services to the city, gradually returning to normal service on the Crescent from New York City and Washington DC and on the City of New Orleans from Chicago over a period of a few months. Amtrak’s last remaining coast-to-coast service, The Coast Starlight is still to be re-instated along the lines east of New Orleans to Florida. There is no point tiptoeing over the social make-up of this train’s passengers. New Orleans is and remains (despite a significantly reduced population) a black city. And whereas my ride on the Chicago – San Francisco California Zephyr last April was amongst a mostly middle class mix of white Americans and tourists, this is a train that predominantly serves black passengers. It remains the cheapest way to reach New Orleans from the north-east of the USA. My ticket was actually a deeply discounted special fare promoted to encourage coach passengers originating in Washington DC back onto the train. The tourists have yet to return in the numbers that once flocked to this train.

We board fifteen minutes before departure, the long messy line reluctantly letting seniors and ‘those with children’ to descend to the through platforms first. We, the able bodied body of passengers, follow shortly afterwards, and have caught up with the slower passengers by the time we reach the coach class carriages at the rear of the train. Looking back down the platform, the Crescent is a mix and match of different profiled carriages: two diesel locomotives up front, an old baggage car for checked luggage, two sleepers with their distinctive ‘two-storey’ windows for both bunks, a refurbished dining car, a café-lounge car and four coach class seated carriages. As usual, this is where I am headed. Two female coach attendants are busy checking tickets and juggling allocated seats. I’m placed next to a young and wordless young woman, who gets up from her seat soon after I sit down next to her. We leave a minute or so early, passing under Union Station and emerging on the other side of the Capitol buildings, following a broad curve across multi-lane highways towards the Potomac River. Tabitha, who is already impressing herself upon me as one of the friendliest Amtrak coach attendants I have met, returns to tell me that I will be moving seats shortly. The juggling of coach passengers has not yet finished, and she wants to make sure that I am seated with other longer distance passengers, so that I am not disturbed when passengers board and disembark at the intermediate stations we’ll be calling at through the night.

I am eventually moved forward. We pass the girl who had left the seat next to me. Tabitha tells her she can return to her seat, to which she replies that she would rather remain where she is, next to a friend. She says that she doesn’t like to sleep next to strangers. Tabitha leans over to her and says “Honey, you paid for one seat. You’re gonna get one seat only, ok?” Tabitha turns to me and apologises with raised eyebrows and a “Well wouldn’t you know?”

I’m placed next to a friendly older man who is eating from a big bag of potato chips. We exchange the obligatory pleasantries (he’s going to New Orleans, he’s interested to hear that I’m going to Tuscaloosa, perhaps having not known this train stops there). Our progress out of Washington is rapid, and soon the light outside begins to weaken. I have not had good experiences of Amtrak’s evening meals, so before leaving Union Station I purchased a wrap from a counter in the lower level food court. I walk forward to the café car (all very seventies, Amtrak’s last hey-day, with variations on a theme of orange, brown and beige) and read the Theroux paperback I had bought earlier in the day. The friendly café car attendant sells me a bottle of beer. I’m already impressed by the crew on this train: perhaps it’s true that the further south you travel on Amtrak the better they get – the crew of the Maple Leaf to Toronto that I met back in January was surely the surliest I have ever had the misfortune to ride with.

The on board dramas of the evening are limited to a lady who misplaced her ‘fanny pack’ while in the café car. Cue much concealed sniggering from the only Englishman in the car. Numerous attendants and the conductor help look for the bag around the seat she had been occupying, but to no avail. Twenty minutes passes, and the language of the lady who has lost her bag has turned to such frankly accusatory phrases such as “Well the train hasn’t stopped since then, and nobody has got on off, so whoever has it must still be on the train.”

The bag is soon located, however, having been accidentally left in a toilet back in the lady’s coach car.

We are on time through the Virginia towns of Manassas, Culpeper and Charlottesville. At around ten o’clock, Tabitha turns off the main overhead lights in our car, and I take the hint. After a day on my feet in Washington, I am tired. My previous experience of night times in Amtrak coach class comes in useful. Although I may look like a thanksgiving turkey, all dressed up with ear plugs, an eye mask and soft cotton blanket (courtesy of Thomas Cook Airlines), it is relatively easy to doze. Leg room on these trains is comparable to business class on a trans-Atlantic flight; the seat reclines and a leg rest can be brought up. I get to sleep surprisingly quickly, only to have mean dreams that tease me with imagined train attendants telling me we were about to arrive in Tuscaloosa or the preceding station. When I wake up around 02h15, I am initially nervous to see that we are stationary (since Amtrak train seem to spend more time stationary than moving). Thankfully it is a scheduled stop, and we are still on time. I put my shoes on and walk back to the door that has been opened up to the platform. The coach attendants are there, chatting with the train’s compliment of smokers. I am in Charlotte, North Carolina, standing under the orange phosphorescent light of the rudimentary concrete station canopy. There are only two platforms: on the other track a freight train of hopper wagons is thundering past. It creates very little wind: what air does touch me is still as warm and humid as that that has formed a blanket over my body. I don’t make any effort to converse, except to ask the conductor where the crew sleeps. There used to be a dedicated sleeper car for the crew, but it’s been removed for several months now “while they do some repairs.” He gives that explanation with a look on his face that suggests it isn’t going to be coming back any time soon.

I climb back into the coach, and wrap myself up again to sleep.

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