9:00 AM Departing from New Orleans
After three jazzy days (and nights) in New Orleans, it was time to leave. The driver/guide who took us to plantations the day before had said “no matter what you ask, New Orleans will say ‘the answer is love.'” I was sure that I would miss the colorful, vibrant, and smiling city of New Orleans. I downloaded some songs by Louis Armstrong as memories and headed to the Amtrak station.
My next destination was a totally different city, the city of (wow!) World Series Champions, Houston! (New Orleans doesn’t have a Major League baseball team.) Appropriately, the train number of Amtrak train (Sunset Limited) from New Orleans to Houston was ‘1’, yes, ONE. I have no idea how Amtrak numbers its trains, but the route of ‘one’ train definitely is the longest one I have ever seen, 48 hours! The train (only leaves on Mon, Wed, and Saturdays) runs from New Orleans all the way to Los Angeles passing Houston and Tucson etc. I was heading west and planning to go to LA as well, but surely wasn’t brave enough to take the 48 hours train ride. So I decided to get off at Houston: only 9.5 hours ride.
New Orleans was the starting point of this looooooong train. Like the trains before, Amtrak staff gave out the seat numbers as people were getting on the train. We got the second to last seat from the back of a coach car. The last seats were for crew members. For the next nine hours, I could not help but listen to the conversations between two Amtrak employees, mostly about the heavy workloads that they have to endure. They argued about how hard oneself worked, and how another didn’t.
The train started the long journey as the the rivers, wetlands, and swamps of Louisiana were folding. The water was green, abundant with water plants. I could hear people shouting “look, alligator!” here and there, but I could not spot one. One woman said “wherever there is a water, there is an alligator.” (!)
This train too had an observation car where you can look out the windows. The views of Southern states were fascinating so I spent about two hours in the car. Not like the train from Chicago to New Orleans, where the observation car was very loud like a party car, the train from New Orleans was very quite with people observing the sceneries of Mississippi River and Lake Charles. The train kept running westward as the weather changed from sunny to rainy to sunny to cloudy to sunny again.
There were a couple of more things I learned on this trip, about the long distance Amtrak train.
1. Dining car and lunch box option
Passengers on a reserved coach could have meals at dining car too. Food at dining car for sleeping car passengers are all free, and coach passengers need to pay for the meal if you want to dine in the dining room.
To use the dining car, you need to make a reservation first. The crew will announce that coach passengers should come to the dining car to make a reservation after they take reservations from the sleeping car passengers. (So it might not be possible to get the best time slot for your choice, if you are coach passenger.)
In case of Sunset Limited I took, the dining staff announced if anybody would go for an ‘early bird’ takeout option around 1~2 hours before the regular meal time (10:00 AM for lunch for example.) You can get a lunch box with something similar to angus beef burger, chocolate chip cookies, water etc. at around $15.00 which seemed like a good deal (I packed a simple lunch before I got into the train so didn’t have chance to try one though.)
In the dining car, you have to share a table (the Amtrak crew described it in such a friendly way as “you will make new friends.”) If you are not comfortable with eating with strangers, lunch box seemed like a good idea. (Below is Amtrak dining car menu, in case you are interested. Click to enlarge.)
2. ‘No Wifi’ is common
There was a free wifi on a train from Boston to Chicago. Most of the train I took on the east coast area offered free wifi. I figured that the train tickets are so expensive, it is obvious that Amtrak offers a free wifi. I was so wrong! Apparently, free wifi is only a thing of an east coast train.
The train from Chicago to New Orleans didn’t seem to have wifi but I didn’t bother to ask because it was a night train and I slept for the most of the time. On the train to Houston I asked the crew if they have a wifi and he answered back “only on business and sleeping cars.”
However, three days from this train, I took a sleeping car and there was no wifi either. I needed to use a wifi and my mobile phone data plan was running out, so I had to upgrade my plan for more data to use hotspots.
(another) However, trains often run through remote lands so ‘no service’ or ‘4G’ on cell phones are very common. Then you are doomed to read a book. 😛
8:00 PM Arriving at Houston
We arrived at Houston around 8:00 PM. It was about 1.5 hours late because the train had to go around the city as we got closer to Houston due to some construction or something. I was excited see the skyscrapers of Houston as the train slowly approached this big city. Being delayed wasn’t something unexpected, the thing that surprised me was the size Houston Amtrak station. It was so small! It was smaller than any ordinary subway station in NY. I thought “oh, it must be a temporary one.” I was wrong!
I called Lyft to go to the hotel (Club Quarters Houston) and the first thing the driver said was “Gosh, I didn’t know there was a train station here.” I asked him where the ‘real’ train station (not the temporary one) was, and he said “no, no, this must be the real one.” He added, “nobody rides a train in Houston. Nobody uses public transportation in Houston. There are very fancy metro, and you will find there are so little people there. And nobody walks in Houston. It is car, car, and car.” Really?
It was only about 5~10 minutes drive from the train station to the hotel. After dropping the luggages, I went out for a late dinner to one of the casual restaurant nearby and grabbed a beef brisket taco with a glass of local beer. The hotel was near the ‘central’ metro station, and interestingly enough the street was quite empty. ‘It is only around 9:00 PM, where is everybody,’ I thought, or is 9:00 PM too late for Houstonians? As I walked back to the hotel, I witnessed a gentleman with a very formal suits running into a building with a brown bag meal. Is everybody just working? I shall find out!