The second seating in the diner of the City of New Orleans is just getting underway as the trains heads north through the Mississippi delta country on March 20, 2009.
Just over a week ago, my wife and I returned from an Amtrak trip between our home in Cleveland and New Orleans. The journey covered more than 2,500 miles and involved riding the Capitol Limited between Cleveland and Chicago, and the City of New Orleans between Chicago and the Big Easy. Here are a few observations about our excursion.
Timekeeping was pretty good on all trains. No. 29 was seven minutes late arriving in Cleveland, but that was largely because the train had to do a run-around move and then back into the station. Arrival in Chicago was 31 minutes early. No. 59 reached New Orleans 48 minutes early and No. 58 halted at Chicago Union Station 15 minutes early. The eastbound Capitol Limited was three minutes late arriving in Cleveland.
To be sure, schedule padding had a lot to do with the early arrivals at the terminal points. No. 59 was late departing every station except Homewood and Jackson. The other three trains were often late at intermediate points, as much as 44 minutes late leaving Newbern on the southbound City of New Orleans.
Granted, I was asleep during many hours of our journeys, but I noted very little freight train interference en route. The longest delay we incurred was when the northbound City of New Orleans sat for a while next to the New Orleans airport waiting for the southbound City to clear the single track ahead.
Upon leaving Memphis on No. 58, I heard the CN dispatcher tell our engineer on the radio that a freight would be in the siding at Tipton and that we might catch up with another freight ahead of us and experience a slight delay. I’m not sure if that was the case or not.
Arguably, it helped that the track work season has yet to start in earnest. There was no severe weather to contend with. We traveled in March and in my experience that’s a good month to ride Amtrak. Perhaps with the recession there are fewer freight trains to get in the way. Still, it seemed that the dispatching provided by the host railroads has improved.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meal service in the dining cars. Amtrak seems to slowly be upgrading food quality and perhaps the worst of the “diner lite” era is over. On the Capitol Limited to Chicago, I noted that you have something of a choice with the omelet. Last September when I rode the Capitol you had no choice because, I was told, the omelet was made from a mix and you could not leave anything out that you didn’t want.
It was my first experience with the cross country diner on the City of New Orleans and I couldn’t tell any difference in the quality of food or service in this car compared with other Amtrak diners. I did note, though, that the New Orleans style cuisine touted in the Amtrak timetable did not live up to its billing. There was no bread pudding in either direction, no jambalaya or red beans and rice. The menu did feature seafood gumbo, which I did not try.
The diner on the southbound trip did not have the chef’s special of crab cakes. The server claimed that those are put on by the commissary in New Orleans, which had failed to stock the diner well enough for the trip to Chicago and return. The crab cakes were
available on the northbound trip. I found them quite good, accompanied by a very tasty sauce. Sure, the crab cakes were not as good as the one I had in a French Quarter bistro, but given what Amtrak has to work with that is probably not a fair comparison. It was good enough that I ordered the crab cakes on the Capitol Limited.
For the most part, the menu on the City of New Orleans was the same as that on the Capitol Limited, but with some variation. The City offered a cheddar and broccoli quiche at breakfast that was more like a casserole. It was so good that I ordered it twice. This offering was not available on the Capitol Limited, whose catch of the day at dinner was Mahi Mahi as opposed to salmon on the City of New Orleans. I sampled the salmon on the southbound trip and found it good, although not great. It was enhanced with a nice sauce and garlic mashed potatoes. The latter tasted like homemade, not instant.
On all four trains, we had diners set up in the new configuration. I’m not sure what to think about this. Yes, it does give the diner a non-traditional look, but if you draw one of the short tables, you wind up sitting with your back to the window. That I didn’t like. Yes, I could see out the window on the opposite side of the car, but that required looking over someone else’s table.
I wonder if this new seating arrangement has reduced the capacity of the diner. That did not appear to be much of a problem on the City of New Orleans, but was an issue on the Capitol Limited. Shortly after leaving Chicago, a dining car employee announced he would soon come through the coaches to take dinner reservations with the earliest seating at 9 p.m. The train departs Chicago at 7:05 p.m. Serving begins as early as 6:30 p.m. but sleeping car passengers get first crack at reservations. With three sleepers on the train, there are a lot of first class passengers to feed.
The dining car guy never did come through the coaches to take reservations. When he announced the 9 p.m. seating, he apparently said something about open seating now. We went to the diner and were promptly seated. That the server never came through the coaches was hardly surprising. With just two servers and seatings every half-hour I just didn’t see where there would be time for anyone to break away to the three coaches to take dinner reservations. On nights like these, the diner could use some more help.
If you have not dined on Amtrak lately, they are still using the paper plates and stainless steel silverware with cloth napkins at some meals. This does not appear to compromise the quality of the food much, although real china would be better.
The on-board personnel of the City of New Orleans in particular was friendly and accommodating. There were coach attendants on the Capitol Limited, but they never seemed to be around much and I had no dealing with them.
New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal has a first class lounge called the Magnolia Room. It is not staffed and you enter it by punching in a code that you must get from the ticket counter. It was a nice lounge, although it does not have enough chairs. Also, if you don’t wish to watch TV you are out of luck.
From my observations, all of the trains were full or near capacity. Although we had sleepers on the City of New Orleans, I heard an announcement as we sat in Chicago that the train was full and that every seat was needed. This was in March on a Monday night.
Presumably, Amtrak would be able to sell more seats during the peak travel season this summer if it has cars to add to the trains.
In summary everything worked out the way that it should. The few glitches that occurred were not significant enough to spoil our enjoyment. We both had a very good trip. This was Amtrak as good as it can be given the resources it has and the conditions under which it must operate these days.