Thursday, May 29, 2014

Traveling by Pullman in the 21st Century


Route of the Train
“You must be Chuck, our last passenger. We were getting worried.” Those were the words I heard as I walked into New Orleans Union Station at about 1:20pm on Sunday, May 25, 2014. At that moment I knew it was going to be a great trip to Chicago. But let me back up in my story a bit.

Dave Ingles, Rick Moser and I had made plans to ride the AAPRCO Spring convention train from New Orleans to Gulfport via Monroe, Louisiana, and Meridian, Mississippi in mid-May. The trip was to end the evening of Thursday, May 22, and we all had various plans for getting back to our respective homes. I had planned to fly home on the morning of May 23. Rick was going to stay with the AAPRCO special when it went back to New Orleans on May 25.  Dave was going to take the City of New Orleans back leaving on May 24.

About a month before the trip I wondered if it would be possible to economically ride the new premium service being offered by Pullman Rail Journeys between New Orleans and Chicago. Going to their website I discovered that not only was there a departure scheduled on May 25, but that a roomette could be had for that departure at the bargain price of $190. To put this into perspective, the best price I could find for a roomette on Amtrak any time in the next month was $272 with numbers close to $400 being more typical. Why the bargain? We got lucky because of a loading imbalance. For the date we were traveling, the passenger load southbound (two days before) was much higher than that northbound and Pullman had berths to fill. I told Dave about this and after a few days he decided to book it. Then he asked Rick and I if we’d like to join him. Rick declined, but I booked a reservation as well.
The Southbound City of New Orleans on May 24, 2014

Getting to the Station

Rick had dropped us off at the New Orleans Airport on Saturday afternoon so that we could rent a car to use for the not quite 24 hours until the train was to depart. We used it to get to our hotel, for some railfanning in New Orleans on Sunday morning, and to get to the station around noon. After dropping Dave off with our suitcases I drove to the downtown rental car facility and walked over to catch a trolley back to the station. I texted the information number on the trolley stop to find out when the next trolley was due and the reply said almost immediately. I waited through four trolleys on other lines before I decided that I needed to walk. During the walk I saw no trolleys on the Loyola line in either direction. My arrival at the station after the walk brings us to the opening paragraph of this missive.

“You must be Chuck, our last passenger. We were getting worried,” said the Pullman conductor who was standing by the door to the train as he handed me my Pullman name tag. He escorted me to my room in the Adirondack Club, the observation car at the end of the waiting City of New Orleans and introduced me to my Pullman porter, Gary. Immediately after I boarded they closed the vestibule door and as far as the Pullman company was concerned, the train was ready to depart.

I verified that my suitcase and briefcase were in my room and then went off in search of Dave who I found in the next car, dome Sky View seated at a table and chatting with a woman passenger who was treating herself to the trip for her birthday. By the time the train slowly eased from the station we were enjoying drinks and watching for the AAPRCO train that was due in just as we were leaving (we saw it waiting at a junction just after leaving the station.)

The Train

For those who care the the Pullman portion of the train consisted (from rear to front) the Adirondack Club a sleeper-observation lounge, the Sky View, a dome diner, the Silver Quail, a sleeper, the Chebanse, a sleeper, and the Pontchartrain Club, another sleeper-observation car which was being deadheaded back to Chicago. Beyond the Pontchartrain Club were the inaccessible regular City of New Orleans cars. Effectively there were two separate trains being pulled by a pair of locomotives.

Interiors - Top Row: Sky View, Adirondack Club. Bottom Row: Pontchartrain Club, Silver Quail

Shortly after departure lunch was served and we got to see all 11 of our fellow passengers, most of whom appeared to be somewhat younger than us. We dined at tables in the dome with white linen table clothes and napkins, real china, and exceptional service. I had a really good Caesar salad with grilled salmon and Dave had a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon. Other choices included a stuffed tomato, a meat loaf sandwich, and a few others. Dessert was berries over shortbread.


One of the advertised attractions of the Pullman service is the presence of onboard entertainment provided by the Old Town School of Folk Music. The two performers on our trip, Chris Farrell and Michael O’Toole were to perform after lunch and after dinner. Dave and I had both filed this under “things to be avoided” but decided to give it a try and so we went back to the Adirondack Club where they were set up and performing (wait for it) the Steve Goodman song “The City of New Orleans”. Chris and Michael interacted with the “crowd” and it turned out that they both had known Steve at the Earl of Old Town. Many years ago I had heard him perform live on the Northwestern University campus and Dave had talked to him on the phone once and we were both big fans. At my request the singers played “The Lincoln Park Pirates” (I could not get them to play “A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request”.) We thoroughly enjoyed the performance for at least an hour.

Along the Way

In the meantime the train had made several stops along the way for passengers on the Amtrak train that was attached to the front of ours. According to the Amtrak timetable, conspicuously missing in our train (because there are no official stops for Pullman passengers until Chicago), we were consistently running a bit late, but because of padding we were on time into Jackson.

The day was hot (near 90) and the air conditioning on the Adirondack Club (and the Chebanse) were not keeping up. This drove us from the Adirondack Club. After a brief visit to the Pontchartrain Club which was somewhat cool, we headed back to the dome which was very cool. I asked the porter, Gary, about the air conditioning and he said a mechanic was looking at it (a statement that I usually find is a brush off.) Later he told me that he was sure it would cool down by evening, but just in case he had arranged a new bedroom for me in the Silver Quail. He did the same thing for Dave…this without either of us specifically asking or even really complaining. That’s real service. (The Adirondack Club was cooling fine by dinner time so the mechanic really did work on it. I assume but can’t state from direct experience that the Chebanse was cooling as well.)

The Cocktail Hour and Dinner

We chatted a while in the dome and all of a sudden it was the cocktail hour. Dave ordered a Bloody Mary with 7 olives (well, he ordered it with olives and I said “lots of olives” and that is what he got.) I had a Goose Island Matilda a Belgian Pale Ale.  The one lapse in service I noticed was that the beer was not served the Pullman way[1]. But it still tasted mighty good. We finished our drinks, and before we knew it, it was time for dinner.

The materials that Pullman sent before the trip suggested that dressy business attire was appropriate with a jacket at dinner. Since we were just coming off another almost week long trip neither Dave or I bothered to pack a jacket. Had we, we would have felt out of place as no one else did either.

Dinner was a multi-course affair, starting with a relish tray (spiced watermelon cubes!), and a salad with a delicious Illinois Central dressing. Both Dave and I had the steak in a pepper sauce as our entrees. Mine was cooked a prefect medium rare and was quite tender. Dessert was a slice of lemon cake with blueberries. Other entrée choices included (among others) a vegetarian ravioli, and a filet of salmon (which I would have had if I hadn’t had salmon with my Caesar salad at lunch.)

The Rest of the Evening

We ended up dining with the folk singers and had a quite interesting conversation until it was time for them to get ready for their evening session in the Adirondack Club. At that point I retrieved my computer to which I had already uploaded all of the photos I had taken on our trip and Dave went through them to identify the ones he wanted. He had brought both digital and film cameras along on the trip but his digital failed the first day. Dave then adjourned to his (new) room and I went back to the Adirondack Club to listen to Chris and Michael until we got to Memphis about 10 minutes ahead of schedule at 9:50pm.

Since we were in Memphis for almost an hour, I took the opportunity to get off the train and take the long walk up to the twin Amtrak engines and then back (running into Dave who was doing the same thing) and then went to my room in the Silver Quail and got ready for bed. After reading for a short while the rolling of the train started to put me to sleep and the next thing I knew we were in Carbondale (nature called), and then Champaign. After leaving Champaign I lazed in bed and finally, at 7:15am I decided to get up and was getting dressed when the porter knocked on my door to tell me it was 7:30am and the train would be in Chicago within two hours.

Breakfast and Arriving in Chicago

So I went up to breakfast and joined Chris at a table, along with the woman who Dave had chatted with the previous afternoon. She finished her breakfast before Chris and I (and eventually Michael) were served and when Dave came he ended up sitting across the aisle from us. I had the corned beef hash and eggs, Dave had the railroad French toast. Again both were excellent. I then went back to the Adirondack Club to watch our arrival in Chicago.

Because of the track arrangement the train pulls into Chicago by crossing the station tracks, and then backing into the station. This has the advantage that the Pullman passengers end up close to the station…avoiding a long walk. We arrived at about 9:20am, only about twenty minutes late, the end of a very fine trip to Chicago which I would do again in a (Chicago or New Orleans) minute.

Leaving Homewood - photo by Paul Burgess, © May, 2014; all rights reserved.

I had called my sister as we left Homewood and I only had to stand at Canal St. entrance to Union Station for about five minutes before she picked me up. We drove out to Deerfield where I was picking up my Mom’s car to drive back to Pittsburgh and I was on the road by 10:30am, stopping for the evening in Toledo, and home by 12:30pm on Tuesday.

[1] The Pullman 12-step program:

  1. Ascertain what kind of beer the passenger desires.
  2. Arrange set up on bar tray in buffet – one cold bottle of beer, which has been wiped, standing upright; a Collins glass 2/3 full of finely chopped ice; another Collins glass; bottle opener and Pullman cocktail napkin. Pullman attendant should carry clean glass towel on his arm with fold pointing toward his hand while rendering service.
  3. Carry setup to passenger.
  4. Place bar tray with set up on table.
  5. Place cocktail napkin on table in front of passenger, with the Pullman logo facing passenger.
  6. Present bottle of beer to passenger displaying label and cap.
  7. Pour ice from chilled glass into empty glass.
  8. Open bottle of beer in presence of passenger, holding bottle at an angle, pointing neck of bottle away from passenger. Wipe top of opened bottle with clean glass towel.
  9. Pour beer into chilled glass by placing top of bottle into glass and sliding the beer down the side until beer reaches about 2 inches from top.
  10. Place glass with beer on cocktail napkin in front of passenger.
  11. Place bottle containing remainder of beer on table before passenger, with label facing passenger.
  12. Remove bar tray with equipment and return to buffet.

1 comment:

  1. Chuck, I enjoyed this, which I just finished reading in my office in the center of Kabul, Afghanistan! Back in the US on June 8...Keep up the blogging and the riding, it's great fun for me to ride along with you.