Mister Eclectic (howeird) wrote,
Mister Eclectic
howeird

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To New Orleans and Back by Train

Once again Sony told us contractors to take 6 days off without pay in
October, so once again I decided to use the time (10 days, counting two
weekends) for a long train ride, ending up in New Orleans. Last year I had
taken the southern route - San Jose to LA then LA to New Orleans. That trip
was a little bit boring, so this time I decided to take a slightly longer
scenic route from Emeryville (across the Bay from San Francisco) to Chicago,
and then south on the train they call The City of New Orleans. Yes, it does
go through Kankakee, and I have the pictures to prove it. ;-)

The adventure started long before the trip. We had been warned that we might
have to take time off about a month earlier, so I had gone online looking
for specials. Amtrak had discounts for all the routes I was interested in,
and there were decent prices available for hotels as well. However, the
discounts ended the day before we were officially told to take the time off,
so I missed out on most of those, and the hotel rooms had been long since
scarfed up. I was ready to go to Plan B, which was a short train ride to
Santa Barbara or San Diego, but hotels were just as pricey as New Orleans.

So just for a lark I went onto Priceline.com and gave them what I thought
would be an impossible deal: $50 a night for three nights (Tue-Thu) at a
3-star hotel. After 5 minutes the web page said forget it, nothing doing.
But an hour after I got home, there was email from them saying they booked
me a room at that rate at the Marriott on Canal Street, a block from the
French Quarter and three blocks from Bourbon Street. With that low a hotel
rate, I could now afford the Amtrak fares (they gave me 10% off for AAA).

But that was not the end of my good luck. A few days before the trip, Amtrak
called with an offer to upgrade my coach reservation from Emeryville to
Chicago to a sleeper. Not only does this mean a private sleeper compartment
for that leg of the trip, but also free meals. The upgrade, they said, was
$100, so I took it, since it's about a $300 value. It gets better. When I
went to get my tickets, I told the nice lady at the counter that I owed them
$100, and she said no, the upgrade was actually an exchange - my $92 coach
ticket for a $100 sleeper ticket. The $300 upgrade cost me $8!

Saturday (Oct. 18) morning I drove across the bay to Emeryville, north of
Oakland, and parked at the Amtrak station in plenty of time to catch the
9:35 AM California Zephyr. The train was about 10 minutes late arriving, the
track being blocked by a freight train. I boarded, found my compartment and
settled in for the long trip. I had my laptop with me, and my cell phone is
set up to act like a high-speed modem as long as there is a signal, and with
an AC outlet in the sleeper compartment I was all set to get my email and
browse the web. But while it was daylight I mostly watched the scenery. I
didn't take many pictures since I'd already photographed this first leg of
the trip on my last train ride from Reno.

With a late start, we just kept getting later and later. Here are the stops
along the way, scheduled and actual departure times:
City

Scheduled

Actual

Diff
Emeryville, CA (PT)

10/18/2003 9:35 AM

10/18/2003 9:45

0:10:00
Martinez, CA (San Joaquin Trains)

10:16 AM
Davis, CA

10:59 AM

11:20 AM

0:21:00
Sacramento, CA

11:35 AM

11:48 AM

0:13:00
Roseville, CA

12:01 PM

12:24 PM

0:23:00
Colfax, CA

12:47 PM

2:40 PM

1:53:00
Truckee, CA (Lake Tahoe)

3:03 PM

4:50 PM

1:47:00
Reno, NV

4:11 PM

5:50 PM

1:39:00
Sparks, NV

4:37 PM

6:40 PM

2:03:00
Winnemucca, NV

7:07 PM

8:50 PM

1:43:00
Elko, NV (PT)

9:49 PM
Salt Lake City, UT (MT)

10/19/2003 3:55 AM

10/19/2003 5:54

1:59:00
Provo, UT

5:02 AM

7:40 AM

2:38:00
Helper, UT

7:05 AM

9:36 AM

2:31:00
Green River, UT

8:27 AM

11:15 AM

2:48:00
Grand Junction, CO

10:55 AM

2:00 PM

3:05:00
Glenwood Springs, CO (Aspen)

12:43 PM

3:45 PM

3:02:00
Granby, CO (Rocky Mt. Nat'l Park)

3:53 PM

6:50 PM

2:57:00
Fraser-Winter Park, CO

4:23 PM

8:15 PM

3:52:00
Denver, CO

7:31 PM

10:20 PM

2:49:00
Fort Morgan, CO (MT)

8:46 PM
McCook, NE (CT)

10/20/2003 12:10 AM
Holdrege, NE

1:15 AM
Hastings, NE

2:03 AM


Lincoln, NE

4:08 AM

6:50 AM

2:42:00
Omaha, NE

5:36 AM

8:55 AM

3:19:00
Creston, IA

7:24 AM

10:05 AM

2:41:00
Osceola, IA (Des Moines)

7:59 AM

10:35 AM

2:36:00
Ottumwa, IA

9:54 AM

11:45 AM

1:51:00
Mt. Pleasant, IA

10:39 AM

12:40 PM

2:01:00
Burlington, IA

11:11 AM

1:35 PM

2:24:00
Galesburg, IL

11:59 AM

2:25 PM

2:26:00
Princeton, IL

12:50 PM

3:35 PM

2:45:00
Naperville, IL

2:02 PM

5:30 PM

3:28:00
Chicago, IL-Union Sta. (CT)

3:25 PM

6:50 PM

3:25:00

Note the times listed are local time, (PT) = Pacific Time, (MT)=Mountain
Time and (CT)=Central time.

An hour and a half was added to our delay time at Colfax, CA, which is at
the bottom of the Sierra Nevada foothills. We had passed the westbound train
a few minutes out of Colfax, but they decided we needed an extra engine to
get up the hill (we were towing two extra freight cars) so we backed up to
Colfax, and sat around waiting for the engine to be disconnected from the
other train and connected to ours.

That was the only big delay on this leg of the trip, but we kept getting
stuck behind slow freight trains and there were several times when the train
signals called for us to go slowly for no apparent reason. According to the
crew, the Union Pacific freight lines control the signals, and they
apparently like to jerk Amtrak's chain.

Meal service was very friendly, organized and the service was great. My only
complaint is those of us who chose later eating slots were likely to find
our first choice meal already sold out. That was easy to fix - eat earlier.

On the other hand, the sleeper car attendant didn't do a very good job. He
wanted to make the beds up while we were having dinner, which was way too
early for me. I ended up doing it myself this trip. As the trip wore on, he
was around less and less, and when he was around he didn't have any answers
to simple questions about how long we would be in a station, and such.

One of the things about eating in the dining car is they always seat you
with other people, and there were some interesting folks on the train. One
couple had spent 40 years being missionaries in the Amazon. There was a
woman who had been a marketing manager but took her ill-got gains and
invested them in a ranch and some horses. Her husband, who was not on the
train, apparently can afford the upkeep. There was one fellow who was on his
way to Chicago to get a better hearing aid. He was a bit of a challenge to
talk to. There was a fellow who looked almost exactly like one of the
members of the rock band Limp Bizkit, who wore a shirt signed by the band
for the whole three days. Almost everyone on the train had rude things to
say about airport "security", which is not surprising because most of us
would have flown if it wasn't for that particular hassle.

Originally there was supposed to be a 4.5-hour layover in Chicago, but with
the late arrival I only had enough time to scare up dinner in the train
station, and then catch my next train at 8 pm. The City of New Orleans train
was right on schedule for the whole trip, until we were about 5 minutes from
the station, when we were delayed half an hour waiting for a freight train
and an Amtrak train to clear the one track we were supposed to be on. Here's
the trip schedule:
City

Scheduled
Chicago, IL. (CT)

10/20/03 8:00 PM
Homewood, IL

9:23 PM
Kankakee, IL

10:34 PM
Champaign-Urbana, IL

11:13 PM
Mattoon, IL

11:37 PM
Effingham, IL

10/21/03 12:25 AM
Centralia, IL

1:21 AM
Carbondale, IL

1:26 AM
Fulton, KY

3:56 AM
Newbern-Dyersburg, TN

6:27 AM
Memphis, TN

6:50 AM
Greenwood, MS

9:00 AM
Yazoo City, MS

9:51 AM
Jackson, MS

11:20 AM
Hazlehurst, MS

11:56 AM
Brookhaven, MS

12:18 PM
McComb, MS

12:45 PM
Hammond, LA

1:43 PM
New Orleans, LA

3:40 PM

The coach seats are very comfortable, about as wide as the sleeper bunks,
with almost as much leg room. I had prepared some snacks for the trip, most
of which were in my checked luggage for the ride home. A ziplock bag filled
with mixed nuts, raisins and shelled sunflower seeds was good to munch on
all day, and I had a couple of "energy bars" as well. In addition to a
dining car, they also have a lounge car with a well-stocked snack shop -
sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers, all forms of microwavable and ready-to-eat
fare, as well as pop and bottled water.

Arriving in New Orleans, I took a cab to the hotel, they have a $10 fixed
rate for all fares from the train station or the superdome next door. I
remembered that from the last trip, and also remembered that this is not
posted anywhere, it just happens. Fortunately this time I got an honest
cabbie who understood it was $10 a trip, not $10 a passenger.

The Marriott had my reservation and it was pre-paid, with the $50 rate,
which was a pleasant surprise. Sometimes special rates get lost of messed
up. The room was on the 11th floor, with a terrific view of the French
Quarter and the Mississippi River, two queen-sized beds, a TV console, desk,
nightstand and an adequate-sized bathroom.

After showering and changing, I went out in search of bread pudding. My last
trip I fell in love with the way it is made in New Orleans, much different
from the somewhat bland variety which I'd had in British pubs in Bangkok, or
even the stuff I make myself. Long story short, here are the places I ate
during the trip, with bread pudding notes:

Tues dinner

Pierre Maspero's
440 Chartres Street
http://new.orleans.diningguide.net/data/d100185.htm
Crawfish
Bread pudding - horrible, flat, thin, watery sauce.

Wed lunch

Andrew Jaeger's House of Seafood
622 Conti Street
http://new.orleans.diningguide.net/data/d100381.htm
Alligator picante & blue crab louie (appetizer sized)
excellent bread pudding (#2)

Wed dinner

Ember's Steak House
700 Bourbon Street
http://new.orleans.diningguide.net/data/d100212.htm
Alleged T-bone steak - dry, thin
Alleged bread pudding - flat, thin.

Thurs lunch

Alpine
620 Chartres Street
http://new.orleans.diningguide.net/data/d100380.htm
Trout pecan
Best bread pudding
worst service
Thurs late dinner

Original Papa Joe's
600-610 Bourbon Street
http://new.orleans.diningguide.net/data/d100184.htm
Southern Fried chicken - underdone, probably Banquet (not made in-house)
Bread pudding - tasteless, served still partially frozen

After dinner each night I walked the length or Bourbon Street and back at
least once, doing some souvenir shopping and just enjoying the party
atmosphere. I didn't take my camera because experience had taught me the
digital snapshot camera I own is just not fast enough to be any use for
quick shots, especially using the flash. A newer, faster digital camera is
on the wish list for next month.

Wednesday afternoon I had booked a Grey Line "Super-City" bus tour, which
was excellent. It went all over the city, showed me some places I had not
heard of before, and the guide/driver did a great job. There were a lot of
commercial plugs for various businesses we passed along the way, but this
was worked fairly smoothly into the guide's patter, so it came off as
informative instead of annoying. We had two stops on the trip, one to visit
an old cemetery where everyone is "buried" above-ground, and it included a
tomb for the local Slovak community, complete with a statue of a saint from
that part of the world who may have lived in New Orleans for part of his
life.

Thursday morning I rushed down to the riverfront to catch the 9 am
paddlewheeler tour, only to find that the riverfront trolley was not running
yet, so I would have to hoof it, which meant I was not going to make it in
time. At about 9:20 I got there, and saw the boat still tied up to the dock,
and no line to get on. Hmmm. A look at the schedule showed the first trip
wasn't until 11:30, so I had time to walk down to the French Market and have
some beignettes and coffee and listen to some jazz.

My last trip there was a distinct lack of jazz being played on the streets,
but this time it seemed like every little cafe or market had a combo.

Last year my paddlewheel trip was on a fairly new boat called the Creole
Queen or something like that, this time I was on the Natchez, which is a
steam-powered boat modeled after one of the first paddlewheelers on the
river. They have a steam calliope mounted on the top deck, but thankfully
the calliope player was taking the morning off. It's an extremely annoying
sound, and can be heard for miles. In my humble opinion, the further away it
is, the better it sounds...

After the boat ride, I headed for St.. Charles Street, which has a trolley
through the Garden District, where there are lots of colonial-style homes,
two synagogues, the JCC, and Tulane University. It's about an hour and a
half each way, part of which we had covered on the bus tour, but the trolley
was a better way to get pictures, since it stopped every few blocks.

Friday I ate in the hotel cafe, which had good food but lousy service. They
were mostly counting on people to do the breakfast buffet, but it was $14
(twice what it was worth) and I wasn't interested in having that much food.
Check-out time was noon, the train was scheduled to leave at 1:55, so that
left time for a quick bit of lunch.

The trip back to Chicago was uneventful, and we arrived on time at 9 AM
Saturday morning. Since I had plenty of time before my 2 PM train west, I
went on a walking photo tour of the neighborhood around the train station.
The long-term goal was to find a steak house for lunch. Every street seems
to have a bridge across the river, and my timing was great - some sailboats
were coming down the river (or maybe up?) and each drawbridge needed to be
raised to let them through. It looked like there was one bridgemaster who
did all the work, raising and lowering the bridge, then walking a block to
the next bridge. At the second bridge, Adams Street, it got stuck after it
was up about a foot, so I walked around the block to the other side and got
a picture of the resulting traffic jam.

Lots of tall buildings of various architectures made for interesting photos.

I walked a couple of miles, but didn't find a single steak house. Apparently
most of the steak action is outside the downtown area. Surprising, since
that's where some of the best ones are in SF. I suppose I could have hopped
into a cab and asked to be taken to the nearest one, but by the time I
thought of this is was too close to departure time. I ended up having a
truly bland reuben sandwich at a chain called the Corner Bakery.

The trip back to California started out looking good. We were on time or
ahead of schedule all the way to Colorado (see chart below), and actually
should have been an hour early, since Daylight Savings Time kicked in at 2
AM Sunday morning. But they went VERY slowly between McCook, Nebraska and
Ft. Morgan, Colorado, so we actually ended up arriving there 5 minutes late.
City

Scheduled

Actual

Diff
Chicago, IL-Union Sta. (CT)

10/24/2003 2:15 PM

10/24/2003 2:15 PM

0:00:00
Naperville, IL (METRA/BN Line)

2:49 PM

2:49 PM

0:00:00
Princeton, IL

3:59 PM

3:59 PM

0:00:00
Galesburg, IL-S. Seminary St. &

4:52 PM

4:52 PM

0:00:00
Burlington, IA

5:39 PM

6:05 PM

0:26:00
Mt. Pleasant, IA

6:11 PM

6:30 PM

0:19:00
Ottumwa, IA

7:16 PM

7:10 PM

0:06
Osceola, IA (Des Moines)

8:32 PM

8:30 PM

0:02
Creston, IA

9:04 PM

9:19 PM

0:15:00
Omaha, NE

11:12 PM

11:27 PM

0:15:00
Lincoln, NE

12:44 AM
Hastings, NE (Grand Island)

2:17 AM
Holdrege, NE

3:04 AM
McCook, NE (CT)

4:13 AM

3:43 AM

0:30
Fort Morgan, CO (Sterling) (MT)

10/26/2003 5:35 AM

10/26/2003 5:40 AM

0:05:00
Denver, CO

8:05 AM

8:45 AM

0:40:00
Fraser-Winter Park, CO

10:11 AM

2:10 PM

3:59:00
Granby, CO (Rocky Mt. Nat'l Park)

10:39 AM

2:40 PM

4:01:00
Glenwood Springs, CO (Aspen)

1:57 PM

6:10 PM

4:13:00
Grand Junction, CO

4:15 PM

8:15 PM

4:00:00
Green River, UT

6:03 PM

10:45 PM

4:42:00
Helper, UT (Price)

7:26 PM
Provo, UT

10/26/2003 9:28 PM

10/27/2003 2:20 AM

4:52:00
Salt Lake City, UT

10/27/2003 12:06 AM

10/27/2003 4:00 AM

3:54:00
Elko, NV (PT)

3:44 AM

7:20 AM

3:36:00
Winnemucca, NV

6:01 AM

10:00 AM

3:59:00
Sparks, NV

9:05 AM

1:10 PM

4:05:00
Reno, NV

9:20 AM

1:40 PM

4:20:00
Truckee, CA (Lake Tahoe)

10:22 AM

2:30 PM

4:08:00
Colfax, CA

12:30 PM

4:50 PM

4:20:00
Roseville, CA

1:40 PM

6:25 PM

4:45:00
Sacramento, CA

2:20 PM

7:05 PM

4:45:00
Davis, CA

2:49 PM

7:25 PM

4:36:00
Martinez, CA (San Joaquin Trains)

3:31 PM

8:10 PM

4:39:00
Emeryville, CA (PT)

4:50 PM

8:50 PM

4:00:00

The big delay was just outside Denver, where there is a 6.2-mile tunnel
called the Moffett Tunnel. Apparently a freight train broke down inside the
tunnel, just as we were pulling up to the siding. It took 3.5 hours to get
the freight train fixed, and then they delayed us another 30-35 minutes to
"vent" the tunnel, on the theory that the broken-down train had fouled the
air in there.

We never did gain back any time, even though there was some opportunity in
Utah and Nevada to do so. Between Roseville and Sacramento they served us a
complimentary dinner - beef stew and dry dinner rolls - which was so bad it
might have been better not to have taken the trouble.

This trip's crew was truly bad. The car attendant spent most of her time in
another car, had no information for us about anything, let the trash pile up
in the restrooms, and collected people's pillows before they were ready to
give them up. I had breakfast in the dining car the first morning, but the
folks were so slow and rude I never ate there again. The delay did give
people a chance to chat, but we would have done that anyway.

Anyhow, I'm glad I drove to Emeryville instead of taking the Amtrak bus or
train from San Jose, since they arrived so late there were no more
connections that night. It was good to get home again, the cats yelled at me
a bit, but they had plenty of food and water left. I was a little worried
about that since while I was away Mountain View had a major heat wave, temps
in the 90's broke a lot of records.

I took lots of pictures - more than 400! - and they are online at
http://www.howeird.com/gallery/NewOrleans1003/
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