Fifty years after this passenger-train service debuted to connect New York and New Orleans, the arrival of the Crescent can still stoke a sense of excitement at its 31 stops, including Tuscaloosa.
But the show may be winding down.
This fall, Amtrak halved the Crescent’s daily service and that of its other long-distance routes to three trips a week, citing “the long-term impact of covid-19 on ridership.” While the railroad suggests it could resume daily service as soon as next summer, Amtrak leaders have been outspoken for more than a year about their desire to remove long-distance trains such as the Crescent from the schedule.
Ironically, despite Amtrak’s reasoning, I had chosen to ride the Crescent from Washington to Hattiesburg, Miss., in September because of the coronavirus. Train travel, after all, offered what a plane or a bus could not: the ability to separate myself from other passengers — to create an extreme form of social distancing — as we traveled south.
Amtrak offers coach seating and sleeper-car accommodations on its trains. I had traveled long distance on Amtrak by coach before, and I found the experience echoed all the worst qualities of air travel. In a roomette, by contrast, I hoped that little would distract me from reading, reflecting and writing, and that I would get a good night’s sleep. While the price was steep — at $802 round trip, it was double the cost of a coach seat — I felt that, during a pandemic, seclusion was worth it.
Booking the ticket was easy, but on the platform at Union Station, I discovered that I didn’t know where to get on the train. Amtrak had assigned me to a specific roomette when I booked the ticket, but the train markings didn’t connect with what I held in my hand.
Fortunately, the Amtrak employee I asked for help turned out to be the attendant for my car, Claude Mitchell. I climbed aboard, and he walked me to my roomette.
I dropped my bag and took a look around at my quarters for the coming day. It didn’t take long: The roomette is 3½ feet wide by 6½ feet long, and it is amazingly engineered to provide everything one needs: two facing, reclinable chairs that come together to form a bed roughly twin size; a second bed that drops from the ceiling at bedtime; a toilet, sink and mirror; one electrical outlet; a foldout writing or game table; air-conditioning vents; reading lights; and a cubby above the car hallway where luggage may be stashed.
Amtrak markets the roomette as just enough space for two people to stretch out and sleep. However, I came to believe that a companion would’ve made the space feel confining during covid times, when stepping into the hallway or walking the train is less inviting.
For roomier accommodations, one would need to step up to a bedroom with double the width (but the same length); each sleeping car has three of these, one a wheelchair-accessible room. The bedrooms, which cost $1,530 round trip, feature a shower, contained in a separate water closet, both of which the roomette lacks. (There is a shared shower for the roomette at the rear of the car.)
As I began to settle in and the train left Washington, my attention turned to the windows — the roomette has upper and lower panes that run the length of the room, letting in plenty of light and a view. I enjoyed watching Alexandria and Manassas slide by as we headed toward the Shenandoah Valley.
Soon, Mitchell stopped by to take my dinner order. One adjustment Amtrak has made during the pandemic is serving meals in sleeping-car passengers’ quarters, rather than having people come to a dining car at mealtime. Food and nonalcoholic drinks are included with the cost of the sleeper, a minor factor that also helped sway me into paying the surcharge.
I chose braised beef with polenta and green beans, green salad, a dinner roll, a chocolate brownie for dessert, and a soda. The food was quite tasty, with the entree arriving hot and the salad cool and crisp. Still, I did recognize that this was a premade meal heated up on the train, a step down from the dining-car experience available on my previous long-distance trips on Amtrak.
The sun set while I ate, and I realized that the prettiest part of the Crescent’s trip — going through the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Mountains — would take place in darkness. I was disappointed but not surprised: This is common on long-distance train trips, an unavoidable part of the deal, since Amtrak leases the tracks from others and therefore has to operate on their schedules, rather than one of its own that prioritizes passengers.
Mitchell came by one last time for the night, this time to make up the bed. Automatically he began to set up the lower bunk — flattening the chairs into a seamless “mattress” and then lowering the upper bunk slightly to grab bedding. I’d stepped into the hallway to give him the space he needed, but when I heard the sound of the upper bunk sliding back up, I realized I’d need to tell him that I had decided to spend this trip sleeping in the top bed.
He handled the change in direction smoothly, and a few minutes later, he was all done. My using the upper bunk meant that the chairs were still available for me to sit in before bedtime, although the headroom was now significantly limited. I read for about an hour, sipping on the complimentary nightcap beer, before lowering the room temperature and climbing into the upper bunk around 10 p.m.
I awoke around 1 a.m. to realize a couple of things: The room was now colder than Amtrak’s bedding — a sheet and a blanket — could compensate for, and the ride was pretty bumpy. I wondered if the top bunk felt more of the train’s sway than the lower bunk would have — if Mitchell was doing me a favor with how he originally set up the bed. (On the return trip, I slept in the lower bunk, and indeed, it was a smoother ride. Lesson learned.) I groggily did what I could to adjust the temp, and as I began to fall off again, I watched Salisbury, N.C., come and go.
When I woke up for good in the morning, I realized that climbing down in a sleepy state is not as easy as climbing up. I had to scoot toward the end of the bunk, reach for a handhold, and then take four steps down. The next-to-last is a big one, and thankfully the handhold helped me avoid a nasty tumble.
I masked up and stepped into the hallway, where Mitchell rounded a corner, spied me and offered a hearty good morning. “Ready for breakfast?” he asked, looking far more chipper than I felt before my morning coffee. Yes, breakfast would be lovely.
As with dinner the night before, there was no shortage of food: an egg sandwich, oatmeal, yogurt, orange juice and, oh my, yes, coffee. Soon after I finished breakfast, the train pulled into Atlanta for what would be the longest stop of the trip.
This provided a chance to get fresh air and walk the platform. I noted how Amtrak set up the Crescent: two engines, followed by three coach cars, the cafe car, two sleeping cars and a combination luggage car and crew quarters in the rear. As I strolled, I saw dozens of passengers step off the train and head for the station. My sleeping car had been about half full before Atlanta; afterward, I saw only one other passenger in my car who was still heading south.
In the competition to move people around the country, not many passengers, and certainly not enough, are choosing Amtrak. Of its 15 long-distance routes, the Crescent ranked 10th in ridership in the 2019 fiscal year, with 295,000 riders — or roughly 400 per trip per day — costing Amtrak $36 million more than it brought in. In fact, each of the long-distance routes, even the beloved Auto Train to Florida, lost money that year.
Clearly this is no way to run a railroad, and Amtrak has announced a plan that involves doing away with sleeping cars after already changing dining cars to cafe cars. Competing with airlines on price and offering shorter trips is how the carrier sees the future of train travel in the United States. Congress, which contributes a mighty portion of Amtrak’s revenue, holds a different view, so the debate continues.
With the stop in Atlanta over, we got underway again, and for the first time, I began to feel the confines of the room. The diversions I had brought — a book, surfing my phone, journaling — were less appealing, and I tried going to the cafe car for a change of perspective. During the pandemic, though, seating in the car was closed to coach passengers, and the sleeper-car side was effectively so, with train staff using the space as a break room.
I contented myself with collecting another coffee from the car’s canteen. There was no option but to return to my room, where the only available change in perspective was to swap seats and ride backward for a while.
The rest of the way, the Crescent slowed noticeably, and at several points, the train stopped on a siding so the track’s owner, Norfolk Southern, could send a freight train slowly past. This is one of the bigger annoyances of train travel: the delays that build up mile by mile through no fault of anyone on the train. The Crescent has been described as one of the tardiest trains in the Amtrak system, and it certainly appeared from my round trip that this southernmost leg, especially from Birmingham, Ala., to New Orleans, accounted for most of the delays.
I tried to content myself with sightseeing. We passed a historical landmark, Sloss Furnaces, just outside Birmingham, and lovely small towns such as the aforementioned Tuscaloosa and Laurel, Miss., which, I learned from the Internet, is the “Home Town” for an HGTV show.
The stop after Laurel was mine, and I started packing up. We pulled into Hattiesburg about 45 minutes behind schedule. Before saying goodbye to the Crescent, I tracked Mitchell down and thanked him for looking after me.
Later I would learn that, a decade ago, Amtrak honored Claude Mitchell for “sustained excellence.” His commendation read, in part, “Having greeted thousands of strangers boarding the train, Claude makes sure they all leave feeling like a part of the Amtrak family.”
Just so. The Crescent had offered more than a way to get from Point A to Point B. It also lived up to my need for an oasis from the world. Its coronavirus precautions kept me safe and healthy, while its crew completely satisfied me with their service.
I would gladly ride another long-distance route on Amtrak. If, that is, one remains available to ride.
Butterworth is a freelance writer based in Rockville, Md.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice web page.