NICK EICHER: Today is Tuesday, March 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Train travel.
As with the entire transportation industry, the rail system has suffered over the past year. In October, Amtrak had to cut many long-distance routes down to just a few times a week.
Still, people love to travel America’s heartland.
WORLD Senior Correspondent Kim Henderson brings us this story from one of the affected lines, the City of New Orleans.
KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: The Godbold Transportation Center in Brookhaven, Mississippi, is swathed in yellows. Sunlight pours through tall walls of windows onto concrete floors stained the color of honey. Wooden benches with a history are re-finished in a light amber. Painters have turned cinder block walls into gold. It’s a pleasant place to begin a journey.
AUDIO: [conversation in train station]
This is an unmanned facility, which means there’s no station agent on site to sell tickets or arrange baggage assistance. Basically, you get on and off by yourself. But Pap Henderson has served as caretaker here since 2011.
CARETAKER: I open it up for them to come out of the weather, to use the bathrooms. And I give them information that they need.
Information like “the train is running late.” That’s news to Wilbert Cameron, a middle-aged rider who is traveling to a funeral.
CAMERON: No, it said when I googled it said it would be about, what, 12:16?
The caretaker says Amtrak’s cut in service hasn’t really affected ticket holders who ride for the pleasure of it. He still sees plenty of them.
CARETAKER: Families like to ride the train and see the scenery for their kids and things, especially going south to the New Orleans area.
That would include Jay Perkins and his son. They just stepped off the train after a spring break trip to see the World War II Museum.
PERKINS: We live here, and it goes right to New Orleans, just a matter of blocks from where we were staying. So that makes it very convenient. You don’t have to take a car, don’t have to pay for parking the car.
Nearby, a retired couple spoke of quarterly trips, all starting at this platform under the gabled canopy. They call riding the rails “something different, an adventure.”
Adventure is a good word for a trip on what may well be America’s most legendary passenger train.
Thanks to Arlo Guthrie, the City of New Orleans became the fodder of folk songs in 1972, bringing forever fame to its Illinois-Louisiana line. One hundred twenty-nine miles of that track cover the distance between this hub and the Big Easy. It’s a three-and-a-half hour ride.
Pre-COVID, the steamliner’s five cars would often leave for New Orleans fully loaded, standing room only. Each car can hold 78 passengers.
Although Amtrak is a private for-profit corporation, the federal government controls the company’s operations and subsidizes it. In 2019, the national passenger railroad came close to posting a profit for the first time in its history. Then came the coronavirus and changes for lines like this one, which starts in Chicago. Still, passengers agree with vintage commercials. They say there’s no better way to go.
VIDEO: [vintage commercial]
The coach seats are roomy, and there’s a dining car and a cafe. But 14-year-old John Kelly favored another spot.
SON: On a moving train can be a little bit difficult to go from one place to another. We stayed in a sleeper car, and that was pretty fun.
The City of New Orleans’ main draw, however, isn’t an asset under Amtrak’s control. It’s the cast of characters who put their bags overhead that give this form of travel a flavor like no other.
AUDIO: [interior train sounds]
I discovered this several years ago during my own City of New Orleans train trip. On board that day riders were reading, sleeping, eating, and pushing their points about how to barbeque ribs. But those who were in it for the experience all headed to what the industry calls the sightseer lounge, or observation car. It’s where the windows are wide and seats are mounted toward the view.
That’s important because there were things to see, like the dirt crossing at Fernwood and a cotton gin at Magnolia. People waving from the Salad Station. Houses – a hundred years old – built to face the cross ties. And during the brief stop at Hammond, it was nearly impossible to turn away from a good-bye scene between a mom and her son. She looked anxious. He looked ready, a pair of new boots in his hand.
During that trip, I didn’t think about recording anything for a podcast. But the sound track went something like this. Three men near the snack bar pulled out guitars and started to strum.
A rumor began to circulate that the dark-haired player, Richard Leigh, was a Grammy-Award winning songwriter from Nashville. Even the train attendants stopped what they were doing and took photographs of him on their phones.
The crowd hushed – the engine’s whistle, too, it seemed – when Leigh treated the car to his biggest hit, Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
He finished, but the couple dancing in the aisle didn’t.
Before long, we passed Middendorf’s seafood restaurant in Manchac, as well as bayous full of fishing boats and eagle nests. A row away from me a 4-year-old from Miami learned his “choo choo ride” would soon be over.
AUDIO: [train stopping]
Players put their cards away. A mom stopped to clear a booth of an empty bag of Zapp’s. Different degrees of friendship had developed among travelers during the trip, but most ended where the track does, at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Brookhaven, Mississippi.