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Traincation 2016: Part 1 of 2

Traincation 2016: Cross Country Loop on Amtrak - Part 1 of 2

Chicago - Washington, D.C. - Fort Lauderdale - New Orleans - Chicago

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Trip Taken: April 28- May 2, 2016;  Published: June 2, 2016


In summer 2015 we learned that Amtrak Guest Rewards was going to change how it operates its redemptions and earnings. For nearly ten years, Robert had been racking up Amtrak Guest Rewards points with his travels and credit card accounts; he accumulated over 350,000 points by the middle of last year!  Robert was always saving his points for a “rainy day” – someday in the future to redeem for a major cross-country journey together for us in deluxe bedrooms.  That “rain day” came when we learned Amtrak Guest Rewards would be making significant changes to its program – effective January 2016. Prior to these changes, point redemptions were based on a zone system; after the change, point redemptions now depend on the value of the ticket price for the trip you want to take. As an example, under the old zone system, it cost the same amount of points to travel from South Bend, Indiana to Cleveland, Ohio (a 6 hour train trip) as it would cost from South Bend, Indiana to El Paso, Texas via Chicago (a 3 day, 2 night train trip). The reason behind this was in both examples, you would be traveling through two zones. Under the new Amtrak Guest Rewards rules, it will cost a much larger number of points for the South Bend to El Paso trip compared to the South Bend to Cleveland trip, because the latter is cheaper. Over time, some within Amtrak management began to think the old zone-based system for redeeming points was not good for the company’s bottom line, with extensive semi-loop trips done primarily by railfans all with-in one or two zones - costing the company a lot of lost revenue. Seasoned travelers looking to take long distance trips with-in a zone or two could get some really great deals under the old redemption guidelines. But – change it did!  Luckily, Amtrak Guest Rewards gave everyone about a four-month window for redeeming trips under the old zone-based rules before the fare-based changeover took place… so we were able to take one last “round the country” loop trip under the old guidelines.

In August 2015, we booked our 11-day cross-country trip under the old Amtrak Guest Rewards rules. We decided to go at the end of April and the beginning of May 2016 – as there would be a significant amount of daylight to see the sites, but it was still the “off season” and crowded trains with children would be kept to a minimum hopefully. We decided to go from Chicago to Washington, D.C. on the Capitol Limited, Washington, D.C. to Fort Lauderdale, Florida on the Silver Meteor, then fly to New Orleans and spend a few days, New Orleans to Chicago on the City of New Orleans, Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief, Los Angeles to Salem, Oregon on the Coast Starlight, and Salem back down to Los Angeles, again, on the Coast Starlight. Using the zone-based system, the stretch from Chicago to Miami via Washington, D.C. in a deluxe bedroom cost us 40,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points… the stretch from New Orleans to Salem, Oregon via Chicago and Los Angeles in a deluxe bedroom cost us another 40,000 points… and the final southbound leg from Salem to Los Angeles, also in a deluxe bedroom, cost us 20,000 points. The whole trip was 100,000 Amtrak Guest Reward points. Just for comparison – under the new point redemption guidelines – a trip of this magnitude would have cost us as much as 237,000 Amtrak Guest Reward Points. The actual cost would have been nearly $8,000.00 if we paid cash because as you may have noticed – we went in deluxe bedrooms on all of the trains.  Again, it was quite an excellent value redeeming for this trip under the old Amtrak Guest Rewards point redemption guidelines. Under fairness to the new Amtrak Guest Rewards program, some trips now do cost much fewer points now – most of those are for shorter distances, are for coach seating, or occur when a traveler can snag the lowest fare bucket price on a sleeper. Generally, if you are looking for long distance sleeper travel – especially out west – you will be paying out a lot more Guest Rewards points.

As for the routing – We decided to ride the Capitol Limited as we have never taken that train before eastbound. Neither of us had been on the Silver Meteor – so we wanted to add that one, too.  Kandace wanted to do the City of New Orleans and the Southwest Chief for their entire distances. And, Robert wanted to do a round trip on the Coast Starlight so that we could double our chances of having a Pacific Parlour Car on our trains (up until this trip we only had about a 50% odds of getting one of these beautiful cars on our trains – only three out of our last six trips had a Pacific Parlour Car only).

We decided to break this trip up into two parts for the purposes of our TrainWeb article. In this, our June 2016 article, we will cover the eastern portion of our trip – including from Chicago to Washington, D.C., down to Fort Lauderdale, over to New Orleans, and back up to Chicago. In next month’s TrainWeb article (in July 2016), we will cover the western portion of our trip – including from Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief, and our travels on the northbound and southbound Coast Starlights from Southern California to Northern Oregon.

Our trip begins with a Metra ride from Glenview, Illinois to Chicago Union Station

We arrived at Chicago Union Station around 5:00pm on Thursday, April 28th, 2016 and checked into the Metropolitan Lounge. They take dinner reservations for the Capitol Limited as soon as you check-in to the lounge. It’s an efficient procedure; however, it gives “dibs” on preferred reservation times to those who might have arrived in the Metropolitan Lounge earlier in the afternoon off the west coast trains than those who live in Chicago and might show up an hour or so before the train leaves. We were offered the option of eating at 8:30pm, 9:00pm, or just taking our meal “to go” in our room. Since we had a late lunch, we opted for the 8:30pm dining car time. Walking out to the train, we noted there was a Cross Country Café Car on the train instead of a traditional dining car. We heard various reports of a traditional dining car being on the train – and other people mentioning a Cross Country Café – so we really didn’t know what to expect for meals and level of food service quality. Meanwhile, while walking out to the Capitol Limited, we also learned from an attendant that the new Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago would be opening on June 13, 2016. While we are looking forward to a nicer and newer lounge with more rooms and showers, the old lounge closing is kind of sad for Robert because he remembered when it was built in 1991 (Robert was 13 years old!). On with progress, we guess.

Robert tries to maintain a coordinated wardrobe according to what train he is on - here, the Capitol Limited

For the first two hours of our trip on the Capitol Limited, we enjoyed watching the familiar sites on the South Side of Chicago pass by the train. On the right side of the train you can see the Chicago Skyway Bridge which carries Interstate 90, the longest interstate highway in the country that runs from Boston to Seattle. We also enjoyed watching the train travel through the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. If you have taken the Capitol Limited before, you likely noticed all of the industry – oil refineries and steel mills in particular – that are located between Chicago and the first station stop of South Bend. A group of environmentalists were very afraid that big industry would overtake the south end of Lake Michigan and ended up petitioning for a new National Park Service unit to be created – hence the birth of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. The park is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this summer. Passengers will get to see some natural sand dune areas, woods, and hiking trails mixed in the industrial buildings. We were pretty much right on-time to South Bend, Indiana. Robert mentioned to Kandace that the South Bend Amtrak station was not the same as the South Bend Metra station (which is located at the airport). One can connect between the two stations; it is about a $10 taxi ride.

Kandace looks out the window at the Chicago Skyway Bridge, about 20 minutes after leaving Chicago Union Station

The most disappointing part of the Capitol Limited trip for us was dinner in the dining car on the first evening. We received 8:30pm dining car reservations. There were no announcements made and finally by 9:00pm we went up to the dining car to see what was going on. There was just one LSA in the upstairs portion of the Cross Country Café doing just about everything – seating, serving, cleaning tables, etc.  She said that she was swamped and there were no tables available and that we should go and sit in the “lounge” portion of the Cross Country Café car. We sat and waited and finally by 10:00pm, Robert became so frustrated he decided to just to skip dinner and go and take his shower. Kandace decided to wait and was finally seated around 10:15pm. From the looks of it, there was indeed just one LSA working the entire dining car herself and there were one, maybe two, cooks downstairs. While the Cross Country Café car might be practical on a train like the City of New Orleans or the Texas Eagle that has just one full sleeper (and a few passenger in the transition sleeper), it is not very practical on the Capitol Limited that has two full sleepers.  Hopefully this will be something Amtrak might reconsider in the near future. A full dining car and extra staffing that comes with it would have made the whole dinner experience on the eastbound Capitol Limited a much better experience. Running almost two hours late for the dining car isn’t really acceptable in our opinion.

Waiting for our dinner on the Capitol Limited - Robert finally gave up, but Kandace got hers after waiting for almost 2 hours

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the real positive part of our trip was our sleeping car attendant on the Capitol Limited – Carlos Aguilar. He was really on the spot with everything. If you rang your call button – he seemed to be there with-in fifteen seconds. He provided some narration to us in his sleeping car about some of the sites along the way – including Harpers Ferry, Cumberland, and Washington, DC. He even mentioned some of the things about the route we didn’t know – pointing out some of the old locks on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. You travel through a portion of the National Historical Park on the train. We really enjoyed Carlos and he was one of Amtrak’s best… it would be great to travel with him again.

We slept pretty well – and woke up on the morning of Friday, April 29th as we were rolling into Connellsville, Pennsylvania. We slept so soundly that we didn’t even wake up while passing through Toledo, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh.

We got in the dining car for breakfast around 7:00am and were sort of dreading the experience after the delayed dinner the night before. In fact, the dining car attendant even recommend most everyone get their breakfasts to go in the morning because a heavy load was expected once again. To us, actually eating in the dining car is part of the experience of a long-distance train trip, so, we decided to try our luck again. It did go a tad smoother – we both ordered the French toast (which seemed to replace the pancakes again on all long distance trains).

Kandace is excited about the fresh air stop on the Capitol Limited in Cumberland, Maryland

Our Capitol Limited train set still had a heritage baggage car on it - they are slated to be gone by the end of this year

We spent the morning watching the scenery along the Potomac River through Maryland and West Virginia. We certainly enjoyed the chance to step off the train in Cumberland, Maryland!  Fresh air breaks seem few and far between – especially on the Capitol Limited it seemed – so always take advantage of them. We were not able to get off the train in Harpers Ferry, but our sleeping car attendant Carlos was nice enough to open the window so that we could get some nice pictures of the historic town and the river crossing. Harpers Ferry is where Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland all come together. Both of us got to explore the town on foot last fall when we did a trip out to the area in September 2015. Harpers Ferry is of course the spot of John Brown’s Raid and the historic arsenal.

Crossing the bridge over the Potomac River - where West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland come together

We rolled into Washington, D.C. a few minutes early – around 1:00pm. We had about a six hour layover between the Capitol Limited and Silver Meteor – so we planned in advance to attend a play at Ford’s Theater. Kandace really enjoys Abraham Lincoln history, so we booked the seats in the balcony as close as possible to the private booth where his assassination took place. In December 2015 we saw “A Christmas Carol” there and decided to buy tickets for a musical called “110 in the Shade” there. It was quite good; it’s about a small town Texas woman that must choose spending her life with the stand-offish town sheriff and a quick-witted salesman who came to town trying to sell “rainmaking” devices. We highly recommend attending a play at Ford’s Theater if you have time when in the Washington, DC area. We have been to Washington, DC numerous times in the last five years, so we have seen most of the monuments and museums already.

Attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC during our layover between the Capitol Limited and Silver Meteor

We took a taxi over to Ford’s Theater, but since we had time - we decided to walk back to Washington Union Station since it was such a nice day. The focus of our walk was to do a loop around the U.S. Capitol Building, which still appeared to be under construction. Some flowers were in bloom on the east side – it was a pretty sight! 

A "selfie" taken near the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC

From there, we returned to Washington, DC Union Station and spent an hour or so relaxing in the lounge with our friend Anthony who works for Amtrak. We chit-chatted a little about trains and got some advice for him about the remaining trains we had planned for this trip.  Anthony has been a friend of Robert’s for about ten years now and attended our wedding in 2012.  Before we knew it, it was 7:00pm and the Club Acela attendant was loading up the train. We parted ways with Anthony and followed the crowd out to the sleepers!

Boarding the Silver Meteor in Washington, D.C.

This was our first time on the Silver Meteor believe it or not – as we have covered most other long distance train routes. We could have taken the Silver Star to Fort Lauderdale instead – and were considering this routing so that we could see the back-up move into Tampa – but opted to go with the Silver Meteor so we could catch the play in D.C. and because Amtrak recently decided to remove the dining car from the Silver Star. Eating café car meals for three meals in a row did not really appeal to us. We boarded and were greeted by our sleeping car attendant Edwin. He was also nice and we appreciated the fact he made us 7:30pm dinner reservations already without us asking. We were a little worried we would get stuck with last call or would get no dinner at all. After organizing our room a bit, it was off to the dining car.

Kandace poses with our Viewliner sleeping car on the Silver Meteor at Richmond, Virginia

Kandace looked really surprised entering the dining car – and Robert realized she had never seen one of the green and pink heritage dining cars. Kandace remarked that the car looked like something out of a railroad museum. A little quick research between ordering and our meal revealed that the dining car we were eating in - #8551 – was indeed the oldest car in all of Amtrak’s fleet.  Car #8551 was built for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1948. This means that it pre-dates even the Pacific Parlour Cars and Amtrak’s last remaining dome car (“Ocean View”) by a handful of years. The more Robert sat there – the more he realized that yes – this really did look like some dinner train you might eat in at a railroad museum instead of something you might see on Amtrak. Since we don’t travel east as much as we do west on Amtrak, it was really a cool experience.

Our diner on the Silver Meteor was the oldest car in Amtrak's fleet - a 1948 former CB&Q dining car

A view of the former lunch counter area of the historic 1948 dining car that was being used on our Silver Meteor train

The dining car crew on the Silver Meteor made our trip extra special. Over the course of the trip between Washington, DC and Fort Lauderdale, we befriended one of the LSAs named George Worthington. He was stop notch and provided excellent service every second of the day. We got to chatting with George and he mentioned that Dining Car #8551 would probably be scrapped and/or sold off with-in the next year when the new Viewliner II Dining Cars come aboard. George mentioned that he worked already in the new prototype dining car already and that it has gone back to the Beech Grove shops for some tweaks. George invited us to come back to the dining car after lunch on the second day of the trip and he would tell us some more stories about the car and let us take some photos of the car with no one else in it. He even pointed out the lunch counter area to us. He mentioned back in the CB&Q days, passengers who wanted a formal sit-down meal would eat in the dining car portion, and those who wanted just a sandwich or something light would sit at the counter space. George mentioned that at some point the FDA came in and made Amtrak stop serving passengers form the bar area – apparently it’s a no-no to have food coming out from the kitchen pass so close to other folks eating.  Interesting.  We also enjoyed spending some time with Leo, who was another sleeping car attendant, who would help in the diner. He offered to make his specialty root beer float for Kandace for dessert.

George, one of our favorite crew members from the Silver Meteor Dining Car

Kandace gets the crew on the Silver Meteor to make her one of their signature root beer floats

Robert's other crib is a Viewliner!

Again, we found the Silver Meteor to be an interesting train because we had never rode that route before. On the morning of Saturday, April 30th, we had fun passing through Folkston, Georgia and seeing all of the railfans who were standing out at the Folkston Funnel. That is where the railroad lines from the east coast and Midwest merge together and head down to Florida. There is a railroad watching platform and a caboose you can rent to spend the night. We found it a fun experience because we actually went down to Folkston to railfan earlier this year. From there, you head down into Florida. We were surprised that the route was relatively flat with pine trees. We were expecting a few more swamps along the way like you see leaving or arriving into New Orleans, but didn’t see much of that. We got off in Jacksonville and Orlando – which were two of the fresh air stops along the route. There was a heavy passenger load getting off in Orlando; the load south of Orlando was very light – especially as we got closer and closer to Miami.

Kandace looks out at the railfan area at the Folkston Funnel in Southern Georgia, from the Silver Meteor

Robert and Kandace enjoy the fresh Florida sunshine at the Jacksonville, Florida Amtrak Station

A view of the Orlando, Florida Amtrak station

A lizard on the train platform in Orlando, Florida

Enjoying a meal on the dining car at Winter Park, Florida

Originally, we wanted to ride to the end of the line in Miami to say we completed the entire route of the Silver Meteor; we were even ticketed through to Miami.  However, we were flying out very early the next morning to New Orleans out of Fort Lauderdale Airport. Had we rode to the end of the line in Miami, we would have had to wait three hours for the next northbound Tri-Rail commuter train – getting us back to Fort Lauderdale Airport Station after 10:00pm. That just wasn’t going to work without 3:45am wake-up call. So, we talked with the conductor and hopped off the train in Fort Lauderdale. There was a Tri-Rail commuter train almost right behind us, so we connected with that and rode one stop down the line to the Fort Lauderdale Airport Stop.

Kandace on the platform at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida Amtrak station, moments before the Silver Meteor departs

Robert gets ready to board the Tri-Rail station between the Fort Lauderdale and the Fort Lauderdale Airport Station

From there, we rode the #6 Bus just a few miles to our Rodeway Inn hotel. Business was booming there because they provide free shuttle service to the cruise port (Port Everglades) at Fort Lauderdale, as well as Fort Lauderdale Airport. We didn’t explore much of Florida though, due to the early flight, and the fact we had spent a week in Florida the past two winters – for a week or so both times. It was off to bed early.

No one likes 3:45am alarms – but that is what our trip called for on the morning of Sunday, May 1st. We took the free 5:00am shuttle the hotel offered to Fort Lauderdale Airport. Amazingly, we were the only ones up that early and taking the shuttle to the airport. We caught a 6:55am flight over to New Orleans. Since this was primarily a train trip, we had hoped to take the train from Florida to New Orleans – but that is something that has not been possible since Amtrak suspended service in August 2005. There have been some rumblings about restored service – and we would really look forward to that happening. For now though, it was a quick two hour Southwest Airlines flight between Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans so that we could continue the trip.

We "cheated" on our Traincation by flying between Fort Lauderdale, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana

Robert and Kandace at the "Welcome to New Orleans" sign at the airport

We arrived in New Orleans on-time around 8:00am. We heard the person behind us on the plane talking about how we just got into New Orleans in time ahead of some “bad weather”. Checking the radar on our phones while waiting to get off the plane, we noticed a huge area of flooding rains about three hours off to the west of us. UGH!  We really hasn’t paid too much attention to the weather having been on the train the two nights prior to arriving in New Orleans. Our original plans called for a renting a car and driving over to Gulfport, Mississippi and taking a boat cruise on the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. We were supposed to head out to see Ship Island, which had white sand beaches and a Civil War-era fort. Seeing the radar we knew this would be more than likely cancelled – and a phone call to the boat company pretty much confirmed this. With the storms a few hours still off to the west, we still decided to head over to Gulfport and get some hiking in at a mainland portion of the National Park Service unit. We got about a one-mile hike in through a bayou area before it began raining. We were lucky to see a lot of wildlife – including an alligator swimming through a salt water marsh and some large frogs.

Spending the afternoon at the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Southern Mississippi

With several hours of rain ahead of us – we decided to grab lunch and head back to New Orleans. We were hoping things would clear up by the time we arrived at Jean Laffite National Historical Park, but no such luck. In fact, the heavy rains caused almost all of the trails and elevated walkways in the Barataria Preserve to flood over. We went to the Visitor Center and that was pretty much it.

We arrived at the French Quarter around 4:30pm and checked into our hotel – the Bienville House. In the past, we have stayed at the St. James House, but it was already booked – even last summer – because of Jazz Fest that was going on. The best deal on a hotel was at Bienville House. We were very impressed with their service and good price. We decided to upgrade to a room that had a balcony – feeling like that was “a must” for staying in the French Quarter. Bienville House was with-in walking distance of Canal Street and everything folks would want to do in the Quarter. We rented some umbrellas from the front desk and headed out on the town. Our first stop was at the French Market where we sat outside in a covered area and enjoyed a dinner of red beans and rice and fried alligator. From there we headed over to the Palace Café, which has some of the best bread pudding in all of New Orleans. Since it was still raining, we decided it would be a good time to take a ride on the Canal Street Streetcar line. It finally stopped raining on the return trip and we were able to walk up and down Bourbon Street and get a few drinks to cap off the evening.

Kandace and Robert enjoy the evening walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana

Riding the various street car lines is a "must do" when you come to visit New Orleans

We slept in a bit on the morning of Monday, May 2nd. Originally, we planned to take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River – but since we didn’t get to see as much of the French Quarter as we originally wanted to the night before due to the weather – we skipped it. We started off the morning with a walk over to Café DuMond for some benigs and coffee. We got in just in time because a long line was forming down the block by the time we left. We did a walking tour of St. Louis Cathedral to see the iconic image of the French Quarter. Robert was actually a producer/reporter for CBS News and spent several weeks at the Cathedral in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. From there, we headed back to the hotel and grabbed our bags.  We found out that some of our friends would be in New Orleans for Jazz Fest so we met up with them for lunch in the French Quarter before making our way back to the Amtrak station. We waited about 30 minutes to take the Loyola Street Car back to the Amtrak Station, but service was disrupted due to wires being down along Canal Street from the heavy rain. Instead of chancing it, we just cabbed it over.

Kandace and Robert explore the various sites of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana


Enjoying some goodies at Cafe DuMond in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana

Robert proves it's okay to be a little messy when you're in the Big Easy!

We arrived at the New Orleans Amtrak station at 1:15pm, just as the sleeping car passengers were being lined up. We actually didn’t even have time to use the Magnolia Room, but did sneak off one quick picture of the waiting area there for first class passengers.

Our City of New Orleans train departed right on time. We were pleased to discover that our sleeping car attendant would be Rion – again one of Amtrak’s best employees. I think we have had him before two or three times before – we remembered him as he plays the City of New Orleans song over the sleeper PA before coming into Chicago for his passengers. Rion is relatively young and is from Baton Rouge. We loved his Louisiana accent and knowledge about some of the towns that we would be passing through coming out of New Orleans. He mentioned there was a swamp area that we would be slowing down through while passing the southbound City of New Orleans – and that would be a great place to spot alligators – especially with the recent heavy rainfall. We were able to see two or three alligators swimming along trackside for a few moments – just like Rion told us to look out for. One of the highlights of any run on the City of New Orleans was of course crossing the bridges over Lake Ponchartrain.

Kandace spots three alligators swimming in a bayou from our bedroom on the City of New Orleans

Robert was quick with the camera and snapped this picture of one of the gators out the train window near Hammond, Louisiana

We were part of an experiment for Amtrak when it came to food service on the City of New Orleans. This was the first trip where they made everyone decide what they were going eat for dinner that night and breakfast the next morning ahead of time. I hesitate to call this “new”, as I kind of remember doing this same thing in the 1980’s on Amtrak when I was a kid. Basically, you are handed a card shortly after getting on the train and fill out your dining car time and meal selection. We both chose the lasagna for dinner and the continental breakfast. We also both chose just to eat in our rooms for both meals, given the bad experience we had with the Cross Country Café service on the Capitol Limited a few days prior to this. More on how all of this turned out – in a just a bit!

Our afternoon together on the City of New Orleans was spent playing board games in the lounge and watching Mississippi speed by us. We got an unexpected fun treat when we stopped in Jackson. Rion mentioned to everyone that there were some wild blackberries growing alongside the tracks and they were very tasty to eat. Rion said he only really had time to pick them while going north because they were right outside the door of where his sleeping car was positioned. Almost everyone in the sleeping car was able to pick a handful before the engineer was blowing his whistle to get back on the train. This is just one of those cool “only on Amtrak” stories you are going to be able to share on the train in future years with passengers – and maybe something only those who appreciate and enjoy traveling on Amtrak will really understand.

Kandace joins our sleeping car attendant Rion in searching for berries along the tracks at the Jackson, Mississippi Amtrak Station

Score! We enjoyed a handful of tasty blackberries from along the tracks at the Jackson, Mississippi Amtrak stop

Between Jackson and Greenwood – it was dinner time. We were interested to see how the new dining car meals and service were going to run. The lasagna was actually decent, but it was very clear it was just nuked in a microwave, as it was served to us with our sleeping car attendant peeling back the plastic top off of it right at our table. We were just picturing the Illinois Central Dining Car service rolling over in its grave!  Ugh!  Again, the food was decent – not great – but decent. Our greatest disappointment was dessert, which was listed as a “fluffy marshmallow treat”.  Yep, pretty much just a Rice Krispie treat still in its wrapper. I guess if dining car service is going to be cut to something like this I would rather see it on the City of New Orleans where you are really on for just two meals versus the Southwest Chief where you have the potential to be on for five meals – but we can’t help but home that someday meal service would be restored to where it was where there were local specialties on all of the trains.  That was one of the hardest things on this trip – the same menus day after day after day.

We jumped off at Greenwood, Mississippi for a brief fresh air stop while the conductors went through a crew change. There were only three sets of conductors on the City of New Orleans – one goes from New Orleans to Greenwood, then Greenwood to Carbondale, Illinois, and then up into Chicago. Between Greenwood and Memphis we ended up showering and getting ready for bed. We threw on some sweatpants to looks halfway decent for the longer stop in Memphis. We walked around on the platform and peeked our heads in the old station. We stayed up long enough to see some of the spots leaving Memphis – including Beale Street, Mud Island, and the Pyramid.  We used to only live about 60 miles from Memphis during our college days – so it was pretty cool.

Robert and Kandace hop off the train during the long stop in Memphis, Tennessee

We got a good night’s sleep and woke up coming into Champaign. Rion asked us that if we wanted our breakfasts – he would like to give them to us by around Champaign as he soon would become very busy getting ready for the arrival into Chicago. We got our breakfasts and got things together. Before you know it, Metra Electric trains were rushing alongside of us and we were just a few miles into Chicago. One of our favorite things is going across the “fly line” on the City of New Orleans coming into Chicago. This is the back-up maneuvered which gets you from the old Illinois Central line into Union Station. During this, Rion did his signature playing of the City of New Orleans and dedicated it to our 11 day train trip together!  Pretty cool!

Our northbound City of New Orleans arrived a few minutes early into Chicago – so we had about a six hour layover there before the western half of our vacation began. We spent most of the time, as planned, heading back up to our car, which was parked at the Glenview station. This worked out really well so that we could drop off one bag of dirty clothes (from the eastern half of the trip) and pick up one bag of clean clothes (for the western half of the trip).  We got back to downtown Chicago around 11:30am and spent a few hours with my friend Chris Wyatt, who is a pilot, and was in town before having to head out to Chicago.  We waited out the final few minutes of the first half of our trip back in the Metropolitan Lounge.

Our return to the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago marked the halfway point of our cross-country trip

Well, that concludes the first half of our TrainWeb report from our Traincation 2016. Our eastern portion of our trip included a grand total of 17 states – this included Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas (technically we didn’t go through it, but West Memphis, AR was visible from the train across the river at Memphis), and Kentucky.

Join us for next month’s TrainWeb article (in July 2016!) for an in-depth trip report about the second half of our Traincation 2016 – this will cover the western part of trip on the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlights.


Amtrak Guest Rewards Ford's Theater National Historic Site | The Folkston FunnelGulf Islands National Seashore

The Bienville House Hotel (New Orleans) | Cafe DuMondeNew Orleans StreetcarsJean Laffite National Historical Park


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