I've been to Chicago many times. It's one of my favorite cities in America. I've also ridden Amtrak many times. In fact I've been on every long distance train in the U.S from end point to end point, and many of the short regional routes as well. Seeing as how I recently moved back to New Orleans, which has excellent Amtrak service, I was looking forward to once again riding the rails. I decided to take the daily overnight service to Chicago on one of the most storied trains in America...the City of New Orleans...and spend the day in Chi-town before riding back. The schedule of the train allows for a perfect Chicago day trip, with a 900a arrival and a 800p departure. So sit back, relax, and come along with me as I ride "The Main Line of Mid America"...the former Illinois Central route linking two of America's greatest cities.
City of New Orleans
Dp NOL: 145p
Ar CHI: 900a
Car 5809, Room 20
I arrived at New Orleans Union Passenger terminal at 1:00p and checked in at the temporary counter. The main Amtrak counter is being renovated, and a new counter is being added for the new Pullman Rail Ventures luxury scheduled service which will begin twice weekly, year round service between New Orleans and Chicago in January (some test runs have already operated; www.travelpullman.com).
The friendly Amtrak agent gave me the passcode to enter the Magnolia Room, which is a private waiting area for Sleeping Car passengers. It was recently renovated as well...some comfy sofas and chairs (total seating for about 25 I guess), flat screen TV
, free coffee, juice, water, and snacks. The Conductor entered the room at 1:15p and invited us to board, bypassing the long line (about 70) who were boarding in Coach. There were about 25 of us boarding the Sleeping Car, and I was told the train would be totally sold out by the time it left Memphis. I walked down the platform to the first car on the train, right behind the locomotive. This is known as the Transition Sleeper. Half of the car is reserved for crew members, and the other half for fare paying passengers. I usually avoid this car just because I've found the service to be less attentive, but nothing was available in the regular Sleeper. I settled in to room 20 on the upper level. The room was clean and was stocked with two bottles of water, timetable, route guide, and safety card. Hangars and wash cloths were also provided. A few minutes later the attendant showed and introduced himself. Nice guy. Then at 1:45, right on time, we departed New Orleans. After a leisurely and on-time afternoon of skirting Lake Pontchartain, crossing swampland on a long trestle, and racing through the dense forest of southern Mississippi, dinner was served at 5:30, while we were stopped in Jackson, MS
. It's community seating in the Dining Car, and I was seated with a nice young couple going to Chicago for a short vacation. The conversation was welcoming and the steak was excellent. I then spent some time in the Sightseer Lounge Car before returning to my room around 8. The attendant turned my room into the sleeping configuration at around 9, and I settled in with a book. I decided to crash at 10, just as we were arriving Memphis. I made it a point to witness our crossing of the Ohio River in Cairo, IL
, at around 1:45am. The moonlight lit up the wide river as we lumbered across the high bridge. I then slept soundly until 6:30am. Woke up, took a shower (always fun at 79mph), and had a great breakfast with the same couple from the previous night. By the time I got back to my room at 7:30 it was (on request) turned back into its day configuration. We came to a stop at Chicago's Union Station on-time at 9:00am. Overall, a very enjoyable trip on train 58, with excellent meals, friendly service, and comfortable accomadations. Here are the pictures of the ride and a few from Chicago.
My train on the left. Private Dome Car (jealous!) on the right.
NOLA train station is located basically right downtown.
Chicago Union Station Great Hall
Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge
City of New Orleans
Dp CHI: 8:00p
Ar NOL: 3:32p+1 (actual 3:10p)
Car 5909, Room 18
After wandering around town for much of the afternoon, I returned to the station for 5:00pm to relax a bit in the Metropolitan Lounge, which is a much larger version of the Magnolia Room in NOLA. The lounge was still packed at 5, as there was a large number of passengers boarding the 6:10pm Capitol Limited to Washington D.C. Boarding for my train was called at 7:15p. Again, I had a room in the Transition Sleeper, and it was the same attendant from the way up so he was surprised to see me. Same Dining Car crew, too...but the funny thing is they recognized me from my past trips so I don't think they were too surprised! Anyway, we departed on-time at 8. Dinner was called at 8:15. Leaving Chicago they offer an express menu, which means only three entree choices, as opposed to six on the regular menu. The options were half a baked chicken, burger, or pasta. All come with salad and bread. I had the pasta, and it was good...penne with an alfredo sauce. Had dinner was a gentleman going to Yazoo City, MS
(an hour north of Jackson) after visiting family in MKE
. The Dining Car was full by 8:45pm...indeed, it was another very full train. I didn't leave the diner until nearly 10...and by that time, I was dog tired. My bed had been turned down when I got back thankfully, so I wasted little time in putting on the pyjamas and getting comfortable. Sleep came fast, and I slept straight on the through the night. I woke up at 6:30 to find us in Memphis, right on time. After a quick shower, it was off for breakfast. Pancakes this time, and they were delicious. My dining companion was a freight train engineer from BNSF railroad who was going down to NOLA for a few days of R&R. He had many interesting stories to tell. I went back in my room and fell back asleep until around 9:30, and then I had the attendant change the bed into seats again. The rest of the journey was uneventful and relaxing. Lunch was served at 11:30, after departure from Jackson. We passed right next to MSY
at 2:50 (my friend Tom got a video of my train passing the airport cargo area), and came to a stop at the station about twenty minutes later, well ahead of schedule. Here are the pictures from train 59...
The fairly spacious/modern shower room.
You just never know what you'll see from a train.
Link to video from the rear of the train in Louisiana:
If you have the time, Amtrak can be a great way to go. And if you have the money, getting a Sleeping Car room will make the experience even more rewarding. There's just nothing like lying there, looking up at the stars, and listening to the rythym of the rails rock your worries away. It's a forced way of slowing down your life. It gives you time to reflect and recharge. And the journey can be just as rewarding as the destination. Is Amtrak perfect? No. But throughout my travels, my experiences have been much more positive than negative. Give the train a chance if you can. You might be pleasantly surprised.