About Amtrak’s Crescent train
The Crescent, which travels between New York City to New Orleans overnight on a 19 hour journey bills itself as ‘the friendliest train’, our experience of it was quite mixed, but one or two individuals helped the train live up to its moniker, just about! Either way it was a fine and fair introduction to the Amtrak experience overall.
The Crescent departs from New York’s Penn Station. We’d heard not to expect much from Penn, but when the taxi dropped us off by the entrance we still optimistically cast our gaze across the street to the grand neoclassical US Postal Service building… before descending into the bowels of the prosaic 1970s cube edifice.
Our first experience of Amtrak customer service was not too encouraging: ‘Do me a favour’, barked the grouchy lady behind the bag check desk, ‘that is NOT the line. The line starts over there. Please get over there and I’ll call you forward when I’m ready.’
Penn Station is a gloomy, low ceilinged, crowded building distinctly lacking in charm, but fortunately sleeper and first class passengers get access to a private lounge at major stations like Penn, so that’s where we headed.
The Acela Lounge can be found hidden away between tracks 8 and 9. Buzz the buzzer for admission and flash your ticket and you can sit in a comfy leather armchair, check your email with the free Wi-Fi and help yourself to fruit juice, sodas, tea, coffee, crisps and muffins and read a newspaper or travel magazine, including Amtrak’s own excellent Arrive magazine.
If you need help with your luggage or getting down to the platform, an Amtrak Red Cap will be on hand to assist you, but be warned that this lounge does get a little chaotic at times, so allow for plenty of time when boarding.
The lounge was also where we had the first of many conversations with fellow travellers, who were predictably enthralled by our accents, even if one mistook me for German and also asked if I died my increasingly silver hair. She was taking the train to Jacksonville to visit her daughter, and was more than a little spooked by the Ebola hysteria currently gripping America and causing airline cleaning staff to go on strike.
On Board the Crescent
Boarding the train we were greeted by our Attendant Rob who showed us to our Roomette cabin. Mrs Jools was more than a little excited about boarding our first Amtrak train and wasted no time in telling Rob, who gave us a quizzical look and asked if she was ‘feeling alright?’, suggesting to us that he thought we might be high…
What to expect from an Amtrak Roomette
Rob gave us a little introductory welcome spiel, pointing out the rather compact cabin’s amenities, which included:
A pair of facing seats one slightly wider than the other, a pull-out chessboard style table with cup holders, a dinky square metal washbasin that pulls down from the wall, trash bin and two carpeted shelves which also function as steps.
One nice feature of the roomettes is that they have double windows, so you can still watch the scenery from the top bunk. One less appealing, but equally noteworthy, feature is the in-room toilet, which takes pride of place right next to one of the seats, giving the otherwise cosy cabin an unfortunate prison cell vibe! (Of course there are also several shared, though more private, facilities in each sleeper car, along with a perfectly usable shower cabin.)
Sleeper car passengers get issued with toilet paper (plenty of it, but of the thin not seen since primary school kind!), face, hand and body towels (surprisingly good, our microfibre travel towel was redundant and barely used), soap bars, a rather odd almond-scented handwash (marzipan hands anyone?), pillows (2 each and perfectly fine, no need to pack your own) and the all important Amtrak blanky, which Mrs Jools was especially grateful for.
(One surprising thing about Amtrak sleepers is that no matter how hot it might be outside and regardless of the in-cabin heating controls, the cars manage to maintain a fairly constant temperature, which gets slightly chilly at night, so expect to use that blanky.)
The call button was out of service, but Rob assured us that he would drop by regularly to see if we needed anything, and indeed he was good to his word, and then some. More on that later.
Dinner in the Dining Car
One of the signature elements of the Amtrak experience is their policy of communal dining at all mealtimes. Not only is this a fun way to meet an interesting cross-section of American society, learn about their lives and families, but it’s also a great opportunity to garner some local travel tips. Most people are more than happy to chat and some will be especially keen to discuss British politics and the economy.
Our first dinner companion was a rather bullish, grizzled businessman from Virginia, working in sports marketing, and sporting an enormous New York Yankees signet ring. Americans can be disarmingly direct when talking about their work lives and achievements. It’s rather charming, once you get used to it. Mr Signet worked with Pele, helped the first Special Olympics in 1968 get televised in the US and was writing a book about it. As he bid us a gracious goodnight ‘so you can enjoy your romantic Amtrak dinner’ and returned to his coach seat, he pressed his business card into our hands.
He advised us to go with the chuck steak burger (a lunch staple which can also be ordered as a ‘wildcard option’ at dinner sittings) but instead I went for the steak, which proved to be the somewhat limited menu’s star turn throughout our trip.
All meals and soft drinks are included in the fare for Sleeper Passengers, but there is no lunch sitting on the NYC departure day (the train leaves at 2.15pm and you’ll need to check in at least 30 minutes earlier) so get something at the station. A half bottle of wine with dinner (they don’t sell full bottles for some reason) will set you back $15 and you’re generally expected to tip dining car servers a few dollars a day.
Each attendant also provides free filter coffee, fruit juice and ice available in the car, and you’ll find two little bottles of still water each day in your cabin.
As we ate our Zarro’s Bakery sandwiches on the little chess board table, the famed Manhattan skyline disappeared behind us surprisingly swiftly. Soon after the commuter station of Trenton the landscape settles into that familiar pattern of urban railway hinterland of factories, car breakers, truck yards and crumbling, disused railway buildings, enlivened by the occasional more American brash billboard (cheesily suited lawyers leer out at us and the ubiquitous We Buy Ugly Houses) or water tower.
Within a few short hours we passed through Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, all fine, distinctive cities with much to offer visitors no doubt, but trackside they tended to blur into one big semi-industrial, urban sprawl. Outside Philly there were entire rows of ghostly houses boarded up in readiness for the wrecking ball. We catch a peek of the Museum of Art building, whose steps Rocky immortalised in pursuit of the American dream, but miss the City of Brotherly Love mural, instead we pass through tunnels where the graffiti tells a different story: ‘Worthless.’
Washington distinguishes itself by the pristine white domes of the Capitol Building, but equally by the smarter modern housing fringing the line, many with wide rooftop balconies. The sky takes on a crimson tinge, as a single motorboat speeds towards us on the Potomac River.
This is also where the train starts to really pack out by late afternoon – and consequently when the conductor’s announcements become sterner, presumably for the benefit of inconsiderate city folk, who are wont to take up two seats or leave the washrooms in a parlous mess. The humble lounge car lacks an observation deck and seems to be largely populated by train crew, who use it as their mess room and loudly trade gossip and grumbles, like a bunch of careworn off-duty cops.
By the time we reach Alexandria Virginia evening had fallen and the only obvious hints at the town’s history (home to George Washington’s estate, it boasts one of America’s best preserved old towns, from the 1740s ) are the unusual gaslight-effect lamps on the platform. I trace the flickering moon, fighting its way through the clouds in Virginia.
I settle into Mrs Jools’ lower bunk (yes, she always gets dibs on it!) and am out like the proverbial light for several hours before I eventually stagger my way up to my bunk. I never sleep too well on trains, but this remains one of my favourite parts of the journey, rattling gently along in that state between sleep and wakefulness as you wonder just where you are, with only the occasional streetlight or platform whirring past you in the immense blackness of night for clues.
Atlanta was our first, pre-breakfast, stop of the day, the platform cowers under a huge Coca Cola hoarding as the traffic barrels furiously past on the nearby highway in the hazy instagram light.
Stepping off the train at Birmingham Alabama, past the enormous cast iron Vulcan Statue, I quietly hum Randy Newman’s paean to the southern city to myself and feel the soupy hot air hit me, first twining its tendrils around my Amtrak chilled legs, then gradually working its way up the rest of me. After a good 10 hours of swaying train confinement I’m still in something of a daze when a mobility truck whizzing its way up the platform beeps me back into reality with a start.
Alabama, which soon reveals itself to be surprisingly green and lush with fewer signs of life out the windows. The settlements here are sparser with simple wood cabins amid vast patches of yard, with just the odd rusted refinery for company. What looks like a group of black vultures, but is probably just overfed crows, huddle over a patch of grass and at a timber yard huge stacks of logs are given a good spray.
After lunch with the much-vaulted chuck burger, the afternoon soon dissolves into a sleepy blur of swelling rivers and drooping dogwood fronds. As we pick up speed, it’s hard to tell if the little yellow flecks swirling about us for a while are autumn leaves stirred up by the wheels, butterflies or dragonflies.
‘What state are we in now?’ I ask Rob at the next smoke stop of Laurel, ‘Oh I think it’s the State of Confusion’ he quips, before obliging a middle aged couple with a quick platform portrait.
We find ourselves parked for an hour or so somewhere outside Anniston and witness a procession of high vised track staff marching purposefully back the length of the train. Rob explains that we clipped a truck at a railroad crossing. Fortunately the driver had a lucky escape and is just a little shaken, but it’s a potent reminder of both the power of the iron beast we’re riding – and America’s over-confidence in the all-conquering automobile.
Rain and foreboding skies greet us in Tuscalooosa, along with an endless procession of black iron Northern Suffolk freight beasts and there are perhaps the journey’s first stretches of farmland with hay bales and the odd white heron making solitary vigils in the marshland, before we pass the startlingly white cliffs on the banks of the Tombigbee River.
As evening falls we wend our way through Mississippi, where the tiny stations are cheerily decked out in fairy lights, before edging into Louisiana, a little disappointed to be denied our sunset crossing of Lake Ponchartrain, but still excited to be finally sidling up to the Big Easy. The train suffered a few freight delays, pulling into New Orleans just after 9pm, about 100 minutes late.
We bid a fond farewell to Rob at NOLA’s Union Station, who gave some more helpful advice to us about securing an upgrade on our next trip – and to some of our fellow passengers as he went about fluffing the pillows and helping them with their luggage off the train: ‘Get lost, have an adventure and be sure to wander down all the dark alleys and make some new friends!’
Service on the Crescent
Before we set out on our Trans-American trip an Amtrak veteran on the excellent Amtrak Discussion Forums gave me some sage advice: ‘Don’t expect too much from the food or the service – and pack a sense of humour!’ Indeed much of the experience was quite comical. There is always something mildly surreal about ‘living on a train’, even just for one night, but some of the antics we experienced definitely heightened the bizarro world that is Amtrak:
The serving lady in the dining car who, after plonking our cardboard bowl of salad remarked offhandedly ‘Is that black thing lettuce? Yeah, I think it’s lettuce. We’re good.’ The drawly, drawn out conductor announcements which sounded increasingly stoned the further south we got. My repeated failure to head in the correct direction back to the cabin after ‘de-training’ for a fresh air break.
But I was less amused when groggily staggering out across the lounge car to use the conveniences in the middle of the night I was reprimanded and called ‘unsanitary’ with a fairly stroppy tirade for not wearing shoes in public areas of the train. Sadly too many of the announcements had this same hectoring tone: ‘We’re expecting a full train, move your bag and don’t take up two seats’, ‘anyone caught smoking on board will be left at the next crossing’, ‘
Obviously staff need to say these things – and one can understand their weariness at having to repeat them several times over on a daily basis – but they don’t exactly create a welcoming atmosphere, especially for those of us taking a leisure trip. Curiously, the second day of the journey was noticeably quieter on the announcement front.
On the second day, as the train got quieter disgorging passengers at Atlanta and Birmingham, we saw more of attendant Rob, who took the time to stop by at intervals and chat to us about our trip. Originally from New Jersey but having spent many years in Georgia, Rob had a slight southern twang to his accent and had a polite, friendly demeanour which for some reason reminded us of Louis CK’s character on Parks and Recreation.
We learned that he works shifts of 4 days on, 5 days off, is based in the Florida panhandle and splits the rest of his time between New Orleans and New York. He was keen to ply us with local tips on where to go New Orleans and even came into our cabin armed with his laptop to show us a map of his favourite haunts, which he later emailed to us once we’d arrived! Rob was a great ambassador for Amtrak, clearly taking pleasure in serving his customers and was proud of the number of cameos he’d made in the media over the years.
The Crescent train costs
Costs vary depending on when you book, current demand and what accommodation you opt for. We paid $892 in total for a Viewliner Roomette for 2 people in mid October, booked one month in advance.
Expect to pay at least few hundred dollars more for a bedroom (more space, a long seat that can fully stretch out on, facing armchair, more storage and a properly enclosed toilet with overhead shower).
See this post for more on how to get the best Amtrak deals and fares.
So is the Crescent really Amtrak’s ‘Friendliest Train?’
Thanks to Rob’s above and beyond service ethic this was certainly borne out in our experience (no other Amtrak attendant we met was as attentive) but without him, it may not have been. Overall we really enjoyed the trip, possibly because it was our first, but we felt that because the journey is not the most scenic, a little more attention needs to be paid to consistently good customer service.