Photographer Jeff Rease chronicles his adventures aboard the Amtrak Crescent train.
Written and Photographed by Jeff Rease
As travel has become more and more common for many Americans—whether it is for business or pleasure, visiting family or commuting to a job—it grows evermore expensive, time-consuming, and crowded on the highways and in the air. However, there is an alternative right in our city: Amtrak.
A few friends in Louisiana recently traveled by train to Birmingham for a visit and spoke highly of their experience. Frankly, I had never really considered it, perhaps because we have always been such an auto-friendly society. Then I had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans for a quick visit and tried Amtrak’s Crescent train, which travels daily from New York City to New Orleans, making a stop in Birmingham. I decided to document my experience along the way—what fun to capture something that I now believe is an overlooked and easy method of travel for many people!
I have met many people from New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, especially since Hurricane Katrina displaced many and they came to Birmingham. My lovely wife, Lesa, is also from Louisiana, and we travel there a few times each year.
I can tell you now that taking the Amtrak Crescent train from downtown Birmingham to New Orleans or points in between is easy and relaxing, and it takes about the same amount of time as driving. My round trip ticket was just $88 for coach seating. Coach didn’t mean I was stuck in a tight seat like on an airliner. It offers plenty of head and leg room; easy access to carry-on bags; electrical plugs for a phone and laptop; and the ability to walk around to restrooms or other cars, such as the lounge car and dining car for snacks or meals. I found that while many passengers liked sleeping in their seats, it was too new and exciting for me—it was an enjoyable break to go to the lounge car and sit at a booth table, spread out a book or laptop, or play cards with friends while having a snack.
On my trip from Birmingham to New Orleans there were stops in Tuscaloosa, Meridian, Laurel, Hattiesburg, Picayune, and Slidell. The stops were brief, as the majority of travelers I saw boarded with me in Birmingham at about noon. My ticket was scanned as I boarded, and I found my seat quickly, put my bag in the overhead storage, settled in, and waited for the train to get underway. As we left the station, we passed Regions Field and Railroad Park to the left and some industrial sites and small homes, then a lot of trees on both sides of the tracks. Much of the trip, aside from the smaller cities it travels through, has views of trees, pasture land, small bridges over streams, rural railroad crossings at roadways, and the occasional family waving as the train goes by their home.
Turning my attention from outside to inside the train, I met other passengers, many who were also traveling by train for the first time. And there were veteran travelers eager to share their experiences of train travel. Among the first people I met was a group of six young guys from north Alabama excited to go celebrate the bachelor party weekend with one of their group. Two of the group are singers and brought a guitar on board. Hearing them sing and play guitar made the ride even more enjoyable. I think we had the liveliest section in the whole train.
My across-the-aisle neighbors were two college girls from the Nashville area, one of whom was celebrating her 21st birthday, accompanied by her parents and friends. I chatted with these folks in our coach car and also in the lounge car. We can easily walk between cars by pushing a button to open the doors at each end.
I visited the dining car for lunch. I was surprised that it was much like going into a restaurant, where a server showed me to a white tablecloth-covered booth and handed me a menu. I ordered the angus steak burger, which was as good as I’ve had at many traditional restaurants. Other passengers also brought food/snacks onto the train. I shared my lunch table with a couple from Virginia going to spend the weekend in New Orleans. Since they were traveling a greater distance, they recommended the sleeper car for more comfort and privacy. I also met three travelers from Germany on their way to New Orleans for the first time. One couple traveling from Birmingham simply walked from their downtown home a couple blocks to the train station. They were going to an 80th birthday celebration for a friend in New Orleans. A large group of cheerful women from north Alabama—mostly from one church—were traveling to New Orleans, this year’s destination for their annual ladies trip that began years before when four sisters celebrated their birthdays together. It has grown to 41 people making this trip.
After a trip of about seven hours, the Crescent slowly backed into its station in New Orleans near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. There are several hotels that are just a quick walk from the station. I was able to get a taxi or Uber ride to my hotel, which was a short walk to the French Quarter.
I have never spent much time in New Orleans, so having a day to walk around and see it was a treat to my senses. I enjoyed the best seafood gumbo and jambalaya I’ve ever had, heard some wonderful street musicians, saw beautiful artwork around Jackson Square and Bourbon Street, and met the nicest people! They are very friendly and easygoing—I guess that’s why New Orleans is called “the big easy.” From museums to the aquarium, carriage ride tours to trolleys, architectural details to shops, and restaurants serving great food to amazing music, there is something for everyone. I wish I had more days to take it all in.
Among the highlights of the day was walking in the French Quarter and stumbling upon the New Orleans Creole Cookery restaurant and its owner, A.J. Tusa, who was eager to show me around his establishment and tell the unique history of its location (which dates back to about 1732).
The return trip to Birmingham began early. The Crescent leaves at 7 a.m., travels over Lake Ponchartrain, and stops within an hour at the tiny but quaint station in Slidell, Louisiana. I walked a few cars forward to the dining car to have a breakfast of delicious French toast, bacon, and orange juice. Seated at the table with me was 78-year-old Alvin Stell from Amite, Louisiana. He enjoys train travel and often travels by himself, as he was this day, bound for Trenton, New Jersey. He would arrive there the next day, have a two-hour layover, and then catch the train back to Louisiana. He just wanted to see the fall colors along the way. Also enjoying breakfast and some casual travel together were the Bakers and the Abercrombies, two couples from Huntsville who have traveled together for 30 years—this was their first train trip.
The train pulled into Birmingham around 2 p.m. I thoroughly enjoyed the leisurely travel without having to concentrate on driving or sitting for long stretches of time. Meeting new people and being able to relax was refreshing and helped me to enjoy the whole trip and not just the destination. New Orleans is a fun place to visit and I look forward to making the trip again and spending more time there.