TRAINS: The Amtrak Crescent

One of an occasional series

It also could be called the train that walks on water and flies through kudzu.

Rather than fly from California to Washington DC, I decided to fly into New Orleans and from there, take Amtrak to the nation’s capital, a run of 27 1/2 hours

The Amtrak Crescent gets its name from New Orleans, nicknamed “the Crescent City.” Its roughly 1,400-mile route gently meanders up through the “Dirty South” to the Eastern Seaboard, terminating in New York City.

Three long-distance trains operate out of here — the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, the City of New Orleans to Chicago and the Crescent.

When I took my first big train trip out of here as a kid, the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal was still new. It was my own little Cape Canaveral — and it launched my dreams.

These days, the station exists in a kind of twilight zone — not old or ornate enough to look grandly “historic,” too plain and tired to be viewed as modern. There are few distractions inside beyond a 120-foot-long mural of Louisiana history.

RIGHT ON TIME
The Crescent offers sleeper compartments for its First Class passengers, but I was in Coach for this trip. There also were diner, lounge and baggage cars. Unless your suitcase is the size of a car, you probably can bring it aboard with you.

Train 20, the northbound Crescent, rolled out right on time at 7 a.m., passing the New Orleans Arena, as well as several cemeteries, with the above-ground crypts for which the city is famous.

We slid through the greenery and lagoons of City Park, crossed the Industrial Canal and rolled atop the levee that (theoretically) protects New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain.

On one side, the saltwater lake stretches 40 miles wide from east to west. On the other, mile after mile of swampy bayou, dotted with rickety fishing shacks of weathered wood, sitting on equally weathered wooden stilts. Here too are the abandoned ruins of Lincoln Beach, site of the blacks-only amusement park before integration closed it in 1965.

Back in the day, the bus ride out here from uptown New Orleans to this lonely spot out in the Ninth Ward seemed to take forever; it was the end of the line in more ways than one. Waiting there were carousels, bumper cars, a man-made beach and a swimming pool full of cloudy, chlorinated water, where you would be dive-bombed by huge, biting sand flies.

DOES THIS TRAIN FLOAT?
A lot of famed black musicians performed out here. Fats Domino was a regular.

Its only visitors these days arrive by kayak.

Then came the lake itself, and the VERY low railroad bridge that ran across it. A single, straight line of track, much narrower than the train it supported.

Look down from your window seat and you see nothing but water, a sight that bemused some and unnerved others. But we made it into the cross-lake suburb of Slidell without anyone getting wet.

Less than an hour later, we were in Mississippi, and our rail journey began in earnest.

In all, the Crescent has 30 stops between New Orleans and New York. Most of those stops are in rural country — four in Mississippi, three each in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, five in North Carolina and six in Virginia.

(If you wonder why Virginia made out so well, you need only look at its proximity to Washington DC.)

The route itself partly explains why Amtrak passenger service has survived, despite all political efforts to kill it off.

Its annual ridership of not quite 300,00 people puts it in eighth place among Amtrak’s 15 long-distance trains, but its importance to the region far outweighs the numbers. For a great many people, it’s their only real link to the rest of the country that doesn’t require them to drive hundreds of miles.

Hurricane Katrina disrupted the run for several months. Its ridership has risen every year since.

THE VINE THAT ATE THE SOUTH
The dining car menu is pretty much Amtrak-standardized, especially at breakfast and lunch. If the dining car ever offers any Cajun or Creole dinner specialties on this run, go for it.

This trip introduced me to kudzu, an Asian vine that was introduced into the South in the 1930s.

Somebody made a BIG mistake. Kudzu ran amok.

Miles of farmland have been swallowed up by it. Whole pine forests disappear under this stuff, along with telephone poles, tractors — and as you can see if you look carefully at the pic — the occasional house. In some places, it literally blots out the sun.

Down here, they call kudzu “the vine that ate the South.”

Pray that it doesn’t ask for seconds.

Many of the places that figured in the Civil Rights movement are stops on the Crescent’s route. Hattiesburg, Laurel and Meridian, MS. Birmingham and Anniston, AL. Greenville, SC and Greensboro, NC. A history lesson on rails.

You also roll through or past the ancestral lands of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes of Native Americans, the so-called Five Civilized Tribes.

HISTORY AND HERITAGE

Night had long fallen by the time we hit Atlanta, and on the northbound run, you sleep through the Carolinas to awaken in Virginia, rolling past Civil War battlefields like Manassas.

You know what happened here all those years ago and why, but you can’t picture it. These fields are too peaceful, too achingly lovely, to be sullied by mental images of smoke and horror and dying men. So your eyes drink in the beauty and the peace, and your brain says that’s enough for one trip.

At 9:30 a.m., precisely 27 1/2 hours after leaving New Orleans, we rolled into Washington DC and its lovingly restored Union Station. The train was now crowded with a mix of long-distance travelers from New Orleans and suited-and-booted professionals from the Virginia suburbs, commuting to their Capitol jobs.

The train would make four more stops before reaching New York’s Penn Station, but my journey ended here. It’s a journey I would love to repeat someday.

The 4-1-1
TRAIN: The Crescent
OPERATOR: Amtrak
ROUTE: New Orleans — New York (Train 19 southbound, Train 20 northbound)
DISTANCE: 1,377 miles (NOTE: The distance on the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle is exactly the same. Weird.)
STOPS: 30
TIME: 30 hours (approximate)
TRAINSET: Viewliner cars (single-deck), Coach seats, First Class roomettes & bedrooms, dining, lounge, cafe and baggage cars
RIDERSHIP: 300,000 annual (approximate), 800-plus daily average

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