This report details some notes from my first trip onboard Amtrak, a round-trip from Picayune, MS to Albany, NY spanning the 2007 New Year's weekend.

Froggie's Amtrak Adventure

I recently took my first trip onboard Amtrak, part of an extended (to me) weekend to spend New Year's with my other half in southern Vermont. I took the Crescent (#20) up to NYC Penn Station then the Empire Service (#255) to Albany, and back the same way (#280, #19). Below is a quick synopsis of my trip.

I decided on Amtrak for several reasons:

- at the time I was planning this trip, I wasn't sure what the weather was going to be like so I assumed the worst for New England in the winter and figured the train was my most reliable mode...definately more reliable than the airports in winter weather.

- about the same amount of time involved as driving.

- didn't feel like driving all the way up and back (which is a rarity for me).

- with my military discount (yes Amtrak has one), my tickets wound up being about $70 less than plane tickets, and roughly the same amount I would have spent on gas and a hotel room had I drove.

- A plane ticket still would have required driving to New Orleans, Gulfport, or Jackson MS. By contrast, Picayune has a stop on the Amtrak Crescent line that is only 5 blocks from me. Was easily able to walk to the 'station' (which isn't anymore than a paved path up the train tracks, but it's still a station stop).


- The lack of security checkpoints at stations was a minor security concern to me, but greatly reduced the amount of time waiting at the station.

- Amtrak coach seats are somewhat more roomy than airplane seats...not really so much in width, but they definately have a lot more legroom.

- Each set of seats had at least one power outlet available (the Empire Service #255 had 2 outlets per set of seats). I took full advantage of that and had my laptop plugged in most of the time.

- Both a 'dining car' and a 'lounge car' were available on the Crescent. Though the 'dining car' was only open during normal meal hours, the 'lounge car' was generally open about 17 hours every day (nominally 6am-midnight except during a couple stops).

- The ability to go up to 110mph along the Northeast Corridor was a plus, and helped make up some of the time we lost on the trip north (more on that below).

- I was supposed to take train #293 (the 'Ethan Allen') from NYC to Albany, leaving NYC at 5:45pm. Got into NYC early enough to where I was able to sneak on train #255 leaving at 2:45pm. Got me into Albany 3 hours earlier and the conductor honored my ticket without me having to get a new ticket for the earlier train.


- Though the seats were more roomy than airplane seats, trying to sleep in one was about the same.

- Amtrak appears to have minimized maintenance on its rolling stock, and it showed in the material condition of the coach cars on the Crescent.

- As mentioned above the Crescent had both dining and lounge cars available, but the food/item prices were VERY expensive...made airport food prices look cheap in comparison.

- Track conditions/geometry between Birmingham and Atlanta did not make for a very fast trip...maybe 35 MPH average.

- The biggest frustration of the trip is one that Amtrak doesn't have much control over: having to stop and/or go slow due to other train traffic. This obviously isn't a problem along the Northeast Corridor and wasn't much of an issue between Atlanta and was *MOST* problematic between Picayune and Birmingham. Norfolk Southern doesn't NEARLY have enough sidings along this stretch to handle the number of trains, and it showed plainly in the amount of time we lost. Compounding the problem was a new policy put in a few weeks ago that one of the conductors talked to me a nutshell, even more 'breathing space' was made mandatory between opposing trains or trains going the same direction but at different speeds. It was put in after some near-misses the past few months, but the effect is that it killed Amtrak's schedule between New Orleans and Atlanta and made it very frustrating when we came to an all-stop in the middle of nowhere, SEVERAL TIMES, while we waited for another train to get to a siding so we could continue. Even worse was right after we left Picayune where we were sitting still for an hour while waiting for 3 freight trains to pass us in the opposite direction. We were 2 hours late into Birmingham because of that and a couple other stops, though we made up a good chunk of that time on the way up and got into NYC only 25 minutes late. Though it was killer on the way home...left Birmingham only 20 minutes late but was 2.5 hours late getting into Picayune.

General comments:

- The Crescent was very busy between Birmingham and D.C in both directions.

- On the way north, I met this old man who was in the Navy during the Korean War. We traded sea stories and compared the Navy of then with the Navy of today over breakfast while watching the sunrise between Lynchburg and Charlottesville.

- In the D.C. area on Friday (the 29th), I noticed that the park-and-ride lots for MARC were a lot busier than the park-and-ride lots for VRE. Both were about the same on the return trip on Wednesday the 3rd.

- Albany/Rensselaer has a very nice train station...looks recently rebuilt.

- While in Albany, we paid a visit to Best Buy and I picked up a GPS receiver (DeLorme Earthmate LP-20). On the trip back to Picayune I plugged it into the laptop to monitor the trip back. Once I got it configured it worked pretty well, though it had a problem with tunnels, road overpasses, and a few high rock cuts along the Hudson and in Alabama.

- I took several photos of things I saw from the train along the way...part of that was trying to get a shot of every station we stopped at during daylight hours. I also took a number of photos while 'on layover' in New York on the return trip...basically from Penn Station up 7th Ave and Broadway to Times Square and back. I'll eventually post these photos on my website as time allows.

- While sitting at a few of the 'forced stops' on the way back, I was thinking about ways to speed up the trains and make the timetable more reliable. Obviously, between Birmingham and New Orleans more sidings are needed, but I doubt Norfolk Southern is going to go out and build them on a whim. Though I hate to think that Congress needs to fork out cash to Amtrak for operating expenses, I think some capital investments are needed. Though these are private railroad companies we're dealing with, I think offering Federal funding for track upgrades, in return for higher-priority/more-favorable status for Amtrak trains would be worthwhile. Each side gets a plus...the rail companies get some needed track upgrades on the Federal dime, and the improvements will allow for faster Amtrak trains and more consistent schedules (and hopefully no more of the '2.5 hours late' I saw getting into Picayune).

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(C) 2007, Adam Froehlig