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By Bobbi Pohl
Two-Region Explore America Trip Taken May 29-June 20, 1998

For Friends of Amtrak

I took the Crescent from Washington, DC, to New Orleans for an Elderhostel course; the City of New Orleans to Kankakee, Illinois, from where I visited a cousin and did genealogy research in central Illinois; reboarded the City of New Orleans and transferred in Chicago to the Lakeshore Limited to New York City to visit my daughter; and finally returned to Washington, DC, on the Northeast Direct train 187. I used a sleeper for the overnight portions of the trip. I had a great time and enjoyed the travel. The complaints in this report do not override the pleasure of the trip.

I judged these trains against the remarkably high standard of the holiday trip I took in December and January from Washington, DC, to Omaha, Nebraska, and return aboard the Capitol Limited and the California Zephyr. That trip was on time all the way, service was excellent and the first class amenities on the Capitol Limited included free alcoholic beverages with the meals, information cards, schedule, and a scenic guide in each cabin, a travel kit and gift souvenir mug along with the standard included meals and beverages. I used coach on the California Zephyr.


My Explore America trip began late on the Crescent at Washington, DC's Union Station on May 29. It was scheduled to leave at 7:15 pm, boarded at about 7:50 and was underway at 8:07. The sleeping car was single level and included a lavatory and toilet and a tiny video screen in the compartment. The train was an hour late into New Orleans and then waited another hour for a freight train to change crew. Service was below par on this train beginning at boarding when neither the conductor nor the car attendant offered to help me lift my luggage aboard. The only information in the sleeping compartment was the safety card. The Chief of On-Board services, Bettelee Hall, came by and gave me a meal voucher, but the car attendant didn't make an appearance for some time. He was cordial and responsive enough, but took no initiative to provide information about available services, offer a wake up call or make up the bed at a convenient time such as when I was in the dining car. The coffee service in the car was not ready at 6:30 in the morning. I don't know when he got it going. At the end of trip I asked about a toilet kit and he said he had forgotten to give me one. He gave me two.

The dining car had cloth tablecloths, china and silver, fresh flowers and a nice menu with well-cooked and delicious food. However, it must have taken at least an hour to get served after being seated. There was a 160 member school trip aboard and the dining staff had not been notified to prepare for serving them. I had turkey, dressing, potatoes and gravy, and green beans that had apparently been stir-fried on the grill. Good. I was ready to leave when the waiter asked me to pay $5 for the glass of wine I had with my meal. It surely would have been nice to know that the wine was not included in the meal before I ordered it.

In the morning, not knowing what time breakfast service began, I went to the dining car at 6:25 a.m. The staff was sitting together finishing their breakfast and ignored me. When I asked what time they began serving, they told me to come back in 20 minutes. When I did, I found the car half full of people already being served. When I asked the dining manager what happened, he said, "Service began at 6:30; I wasn't in the car when you came in and don't know what happened." Humrph! They didn't have 2 of the 4 juices listed on the menu and the French toast was not served with pecans on the side as listed. Otherwise the meal was tasty and the coffee delicious. So was the lunch. I really liked the grilled vegetables on baked potato with grated cheese and the cheesecake. My lunch companions didn't like the Cajun potatoes that came with the cheeseburger. They expected them to be crispier. The catfish and grilled beans at supper was good, too. I didn't eat the salad at either evening meal because it was pale iceberg lettuce and "plastic" tomatoes (unripe, hard, and tasteless.)

When we finally got off the train at about 10 pm, the New Orleans station was unattended and there were no cabs at the cab stand. I didn't know how to get to my hotel until I found a security guard who told me to wait and a cab would come. I guess it was about a 10 minute wait until several arrived, but not enough for everyone waiting. I shared a cab with a couple going to a nearby hotel. That worked fine.


Eight days later on June 7, I was aboard the City of New Orleans at 1:50 pm and it pulled out of the station on time at 2:10 pm. I used the public restroom in the New Orleans station. It was filthy -- not a nice station for a major city. A couple I talked to on the train used the First Class lounge there. I didn't know there was one. They said it was small, had insufficient seating and luggage storage space, and the announcement speaker didn't work.

The sleeper was bi-level and had no toilet & sink in the compartment and no little TV. A schedule was provided, but no other printed information besides the safety card. The attendant, Charise was pleasant and helpful. The service and food was excellent and breakfast service began at 6:00 am! I had blackened catfish for supper and my table companions had roast beef, hearty servings, well prepared and served on cloth tablecloths with china, silverware and fresh flowers. There was no extra charge for the wine. Other menu items were chicken Kiev, vegetarian lasagna and kid's chicken dinosaurs. Dessert choices were bread pudding, ice cream with chocolate or strawberry sauce, and cheesecake. I arrived in the dining car for breakfast at 6:00 am, but the staff thought it was 10 minutes ėtil. They graciously seated me anyway and served me coffee. I had oatmeal, biscuit, and sausage.

I asked Charise about a toilet kit and learned the City of New Orleans doesn't provide one. The rhythm of the rails for this train was "Rock and Roll." The tracks were rough enough to disturb my sleep and I'm a sound sleeper. The train was 20 minutes late into Kankakee, Illinois, where the station is unattended. There didn't even appear to be a place to buy tickets, but there was an adequate restroom and benches for waiting both inside and on the platform.

On June 14 I was back on the platform in plenty of time to catch the train on to Chicago at 8:09 am -- plenty of time, the train was 3 hours and 10 minutes late. It arrived in Chicago at 12:20 pm and I checked in to the Metropolitan Lounge. I had a long lay over here as the Lake Shore Limited was scheduled to leave at 8:15 pm. The staff was not very helpful compared to those on duty during my December/January trip. First, I had planned to use the computer I had noted there during my earlier trip to send some e-mail. It was gone and the attendant said, "I don't know anything about it." Didn't care, either. They also didn't have a Chicago tourist guide in the lounge. I found one in a rack in the station and made a pleasant afternoon jaunt to the Art Institute of Chicago, about a 10-block walk from the station.


I was back in the Metropolitan Lounge in time for the efficient and helpful boarding procedure for the Lakeshore Limited. It left the station at 8:23 pm.

The attendant on this train, Thomas P. Finegan (he left his card) was very good. He helped me with my bags all the way to my compartment. This was a single-level sleeper. The room had a schedule, guest directory, package of Oreo cookies, and a souvenir planning calendar.

The dining car provided a delightful reception for first-class passengers -- wine or other beverage and a plate with sandwich, fruit, cheese, and sweet dessert. Breakfast was served at 6:30 am and started rather unpleasantly with a loud argument between the manager and one of the servers who was late to work. I had a bagel with cream cheese, oatmeal, fruit cup and coffee. Very satisfying. This train, too, uses cloth tablecloths, china and silverware with fresh flowers on the table. Lunch was a choice of three sandwiches served with beef/vegetable soup and potato salad. Good. There was a charge for the beer I ordered, but they warned me when I ordered it.

The train was delayed over two hours during the night by a broken down freight train. I watched the movie "As Good As It Gets," on the little TV. They have good, current movie selections. The attendant volunteered to move me into a vacant room on the other side of the train so I could see the Hudson River as we traveled down the valley. Great guy! We were 3 hours late into New York City.


The Northeast Direct Train left Penn Station on time and arrived in Washington, DC, 10 minutes early. It made 8 stops along the way and took less than 3 and a half hours for the trip. That's pretty good.


I liked the food and the coffee on all the trains. The dining and sleeping car service ranged from rotten to excellent. Three of the five travel segments were adequately on schedule, but I'd hate to have to depend on timing when two of them were 3 hours late. Since there's no standard for what to expect for services offered on the trains, each train being a separately managed unit, I think it's important to provide passengers with detailed information about such things as meal hours and procedures, and whether or not there is an extra charge for alcoholic beverages with first-class meals. Here's to a bright Amtrak future and many more rail trips for me.

By Bobbi Pohl Hyattsville, MD