A Southern train plus e-bike adventure (part one)

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, December 15, 2021

I just returned home to D.C. from a 4.5-day trip on Amtrak’s Crescent that brought me and my three-month-old Co-Op Cycles CTY e2.1 pedal-assist electric bicycle to New Orleans for 31 hours (it was supposed to be 35) and Meridian, Miss. for 24 hours. The Crescent is my ‘home train’; I use it several times a year to go between D.C. and Greensboro, N.C., where I grew up and where my parents live, and have been riding it since 2004. This was only my fifth time riding it south of Greensboro and only my third time traveling with a bicycle on Amtrak (my first with an e-bike).

Checking in my e-bike for loading onto Amtrak's southbound Crescent at Washington, D.C. Union Station on Dec. 8, 2021. All photos by the author.
Overall, the trip was very enjoyable. Amtrak crews handled my bike to and from the baggage car without incident at all three stations (albeit in a slightly different manner at each one). Packing everything I needed for five nights in two saddlebag panniers and a medium-sized backpack worked out fine (though took more creative planning than packing a standard suitcase). Using the e-bike as my main means of getting around New Orleans and Meridian gave me a goodly amount of exercise. 

The trip featured weather extremes: from 50 degrees and cloudy in D.C. to a muggy nearly 80 degrees with mixed sun and clouds in New Orleans, to cool rain and wind followed by cloudless sunshine and crisp 40-to-50-degree weather in Meridian. I packed prepared with multiple layers, carrying a rain jacket that I wore around my waist when not wearing it and a vest that could fit in my backpack when not needed. I peddled a just over 23-mile circular trek around New Orleans and Metairie, La. in shorts and a T-shirt, rode under three miles in Meridian in light rain, and wore a long-sleeved undershirt, sweatshirt and vest for a 17.5-mile tour of Meridian in crisp fall weather, which was echoed in D.C. upon my return.

I brought my e-bike to the ticket counter at Washington Union Station for departure. They gave me a claim check and instructed me to take the bike to the train’s baggage car. Once there, I helped the conductor lift it into the baggage compartment of the Viewliner II bag-dorm car, where he secured it to one of the bike hangers. (I removed the battery from the bike first, both to make it lighter and for safe keeping and charging in my Roomette.) Arriving in New Orleans, I walked back to the baggage car where one of the baggagemen handed my bike down to me. I secured the panniers to the bike on the platform and rode it down the platform (as I saw another passenger who retrieved a bicycle do), walked it through the station building, then rode away.

The Crescent’s consist has returned to three Amfleet II coaches (up from just two early in the fall) and has retained two Viewliner I sleepers plus the Viewliner II bag-dorm (whose eight Roomettes are for crew only), but it still has yet to have a Viewliner II diner added back to the consist (the Crescent and Cardinal are the only single-level long-distance trains without a full diner). All food service is handled from the Amfleet II cafe car by one food service attendant, assisted by both sleeping car attendants. The cafe closes to coach passengers for 30 to 60 minutes around most meal times so that the staff can focus on serving complimentary ‘flexible dining’ meals to sleeper passengers. 

The ‘flexible dining’ menu has expanded to included two new breakfast items (railroad French toast and an egg white omelet) and there are five items for lunch and dinner (same menu for both meals), all served with a side salad with two choices of dressing, dinner roll with butter, and choice of brownie or blondie. Amtrak still has yet to announce a timeline for restoring traditional dining to the overnight trains that still lack it: every train going east or south from Chicago or south from New York, plus the Texas Eagle.

P42 no. 207 changes engineers as it leads a 2.5-hour-late (at this point) southbound Crescent at Atlanta's Peachtree Station on Dec. 9, 2020.
The most frustrating experience of the trip came at the very beginning and was emblematic of the current state of Amtrak’s diesel locomotive fleet. The ACS-64 electric that had hauled my train 19 to D.C. from New York was swapped for a pair of Genesis P42s, as is customary, and the train pulled out of Washington Union Station at 6:37 PM, seven minutes late. We came just out of the First Street tunnel and stopped just before the Virginia Avenue junction with the CSX main line, within sight of the U.S. Capitol dome and the U.S. House office buildings. At first, it appeared we were simply waiting for train traffic ahead to clear so we could get a clear signal, but as two southbound VRE commuter trains and two other southbound Amtrak trains passed us on the left, I knew something more was going on. It turned out that the engineer was encountering unresolvable error messages on the computer that connects the locomotive with the host railroad’s positive train control (PTC) system. 

After a couple of failed attempts to start moving forward and being stopped for over an hour trying to troubleshoot the computer, it was decided to reverse the train back to Union Station to swap out the head P42 for a different unit. We pulled back into the station around 8:15 PM and waited 45 minutes for a new diesel to take the lead. Departing a second time, I wondered how far this unit would get us. We rolled forward to just before the tunnel exit and stopped again for about 15 minutes, then reversed back to the station without explanation. Throughout this, there were only a few apologetic P.A. announcements, mainly informing us that we could step off on the platform during both dwells at the station and that the cafe car was closed due to lack of head-end power. I also received two apologetic push notifications from the Amtrak mobile app regretting the delay caused by “mechanical issues.”

The same process repeated, with a slightly longer wait for a third P42 which we hoped would be the charm. This unit, no. 207, was pulled from the consist of the Capitol Limited that had arrived from Chicago that afternoon. Its nose bears a small sticker depicting the Great Northern Railway’s Rocky the Goat insignia. I found out from a friend that no. 207 was one of the last P42s delivered, and is thus perhaps Amtrak’s newest diesel in the long-distance pool. At 10:30 PM, a full four hours after our scheduled departure, we reversed about 50 feet along the platform, then started moving forward, and actually kept going this time. 

My e-bike is offloaded from the Crescent after it arrives at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal four hours late in the early morning of Dec. 10, 2021.
The run from DC to Atlanta was without further interruption, and we left Atlanta only 2.5 hours down the next morning at 11:30 AM (after enjoying the rare sight of the pretty South Carolina Upcountry and northeast Georgia sections of the route in daylight) thanks to generous padding in the Crescent’s new (since July) schedule. However, with heavy freight traffic that put us on numerous sidings between Atlanta and Birmingham, and again around Meridian, we lost all the time we gained back. It got dark before we reached Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the train finally winded into New Orleans around 1:00 AM Central time, four hours late. I biked 2.5 miles from the station to my hotel in the Marigny neighborhood across a mostly quiet central business district and French Quarter. 

This is not the first time I’ve experienced multi-hour delays on a southbound Amtrak train leaving D.C. due to mechanical problems with P42s dispatched from the Ivy City Shops. For whatever reason, the Crescent is often the train that gets assigned problematic units. It makes me wonder whether the crews at Ivy City do thorough inspections and checks on locomotives to make sure all systems are go before sending them out, or is the facility so short-staffed and the pool of available locomotives so thin (or a combination of both factors) that they are unable to check every unit thoroughly, or whether they dispatch units with known potential issues because ones in better shape are not available. 

Sleeping till 8:00 AM the morning I arrived, I spent most of the day touring around by bike, visiting parks and gardens and riding the bike trail hugging the Mississippi River west to a point under the Huey P. Long Bridge (the famous joint rail and road span crossed thrice weekly by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited), then spent the evening enjoying a variety of live music along Frenchmen Street. When checking in back at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal the following morning for train 20 to Meridian, the agent at the ticket counter took my bike there (I removed the panniers and the battery) and walked it to and loaded it onto the train. When I arrived in Meridian (only 30 minutes late, owing to having to take a siding for a freight in mostly single-track territory), the bike was already waiting for me on the platform under the canopy (thankfully, as it was raining lightly).

Underneath the Huey P. Long Bridge on the bicycle trail hugging the Mississippi River's east bank through Metairie, La. on Dec. 10, 2021.
In part two of this post, hear how I spent my 24 hours in the east Mississippi railroad town made famous first by native son Jimmie Rodgers, a railroader in railroad family who blended the blues with European folk music to create what later became country music and rock ’n roll, and more recently noteworthy in passenger advocacy circles for the train station-focused downtown revitalization effort championed by former mayor John Robert Smith, who chaired Amtrak’s Board of Directors and now chairs advocacy group Transportation for America.

Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and is employed as a proposal writer for Keolis Transit America, part of an international transit operations & maintenance contracting firm. Prior to joining Keolis in October 2021, his consulting clients included Herzog Transit Services, Inc., the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators, DB Engineering & Consulting USA, ELERTS Corp. and the Eno Center for Transportation. He is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his current or former employers, clients or associations.

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