Riding the Rails
Amtrak's Crescent crossing Lake Pontchartrain (Amtrak)
One of the most interesting rail journeys is Amtrak's Crescent, which travels between New Orleans, Louisiana, and New York City. It follows the route of the Southern Railway's train of the same name as it passes Slidell, Louisiana; Meridian, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; the Mid-Atlantic Piedmont; Washington, DC; Baltimore, Maryland; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before it glides under the Hudson River and comes to a stop at Penn Station.
Let's begin with the train's consist. Today, it's a bit different -- the last of the Heritage cars have been replaced with new models -- but for some years, the consist was as you see in the picture above. Two General Electric P-42 locomotives pulled Amfleet and Viewliner cars, while a former Southern Railways dining car, still in its dark-green decor, provided meals to passengers.
Interior of Heritage diner in Southern Railway color scheme
After leaving New Orleans' passenger railway terminal, the train meanders its way past old cemeteries with their mausoleums. The water level is so low that burials must be made above ground. In time, the train reaches Lakefront Airport, with its delightful 1930s art decor terminal building. Once, it was the city's commercial airport. Now, it is a general aviation facility. And, then, the train makes its way across Lake Pontchartrain. So low is the railroad bridge that one almost feels as if he is riding on the water. The train passes fishermen in their boats and US Route 11, which began its trek at the Canadian border. It was the first completed highway under the Federal Highway Improvement Act of 1921, with its two ends meeting at Christiansburg, Virginia.
Once again ashore, the train makes its way past the sleepy towns of Slidell, Louisiana and
Hattiesburg and Laurel in Mississippi before it rolls into Meridian, Mississippi. There, the train stops before a new station that replaced an old, wooden structure. Meridian is preserving its architectural past. The old opera house has been restored due in part to the efforts of William Elliott, better known as the actor Elliot Street.
New station in Meridian, Mississippi (Webmaster)
The train passes through the rolling hills of Alabama to Birmingham, where it has a lengthy stop for refueling before it continues on. East of Birmingham, the train enters a hilly woodland area that is the southern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. There, one might see hunters in their bright orange vests -- or one might simply enjoy the wooded scenery. All too soon, the train enters steeper hills as it makes its way toward Atlanta.
The Peachtree Southern Station in Atlanta is interesting. Constructed in the Italian Renaissance style, it is bi-level with passenger operations on the upper level and track operations down below. One can stand at a large picture window and watch the trains come through.
Peachtree Southern Station in Atlanta (Webmaster)
Sad to say, but I can't tell you much about the trip between Atlanta and Charlottesville, for the train moves through the darkness. I can tell you that it is the Piedmont region with hills and trees and small towns that I wish I could have seen. Dawn is breaking as the train reaches Charlottesville, Virginia, and by 8:00, it has passed through the rolling hills and reached Manassas. From there, it continues on through Alexandria, then crosses the Potomac river, into Washington, DC. There, the diesel-electric locomotive is replaced with an electric one, for diesels are frowned upon up the Northeast Corridor. Passengers enjoy disembarking and watching as the locomotives are swapped out.
And, then, with two toots of its horn and the ringing of its bell, the train continues on its way. I haven't ridden the Crescent north of Manassas, but I would imagine its trek up to New York is very similar to riding the Metroliner (now, Northeast Regional). The route is the same. The speed limits are the same. Most of all, the scenery is the same.
One piece of advice: If at all possible, get a bedroom. This is a very long trip filled with freight delays, especially between Birmingham and Atlanta, that make it even longer.
Manassas Train Station
(J P Mueller, Creative Commons license 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)