There’s an old joke that nobody ever travels by train in America. And outside the commuting zones of the big cities it’s largely true. Yet as I arrive at Memphis’ Central Station at just after 0530 on a Sunday morning, there a handful of people are already lining up to board the service South to New Orleans.
The City of New Oreans runs daily from Chicago, and the total journey takes eighteen hours, a distance of over 900 miles. That certainly doesn’t make it the fastest method of travel, but it’s one of the most under-rated. And even before sunrise, the Observation Car looks comfortable and inviting.
The rest of the train is divided into two classes – coach and sleeping cars. But even coach has about four times the legroom of standard class on a UK train and seats which recline low enough to allow a decent night’s rest. And on the whole, passengers respect the need for politeness while it’s still dark; the one exception being a woman shouting into her phone.
Mississppi and Missouri roll by. There’s not loads to see on this route, but you do get a good sense of small town America. Occasionally the tracks run alongside lines of traditional wooden houses with porches. Miles from anywhere, it’s often difficult to imagine how far people must travel just to get to work. The stations stand as remote outposts connecting with the rest of the world.
The Observation Car is dominated by passengers from the UK, including two couples from Liverpool. Like me, they’re on a musical journey across the States – but have embraced the laid back form of travel much more. They love Amtrak, even though there are only about six long distance routes in the whole country.
I also overhear a convesration between a college graduate who’s travelling to New Orleans for an artists residency with the church. The older woman from Jackson almost interviews her like a talk show host. How do she get into art and, most importantly, which church does she go to. She talks about the small towns and neigbourhoods with immense knowledge, detailing which parishes are the good and bad ones.
Then, we approach The Big Easy around the shores of Lake Ponchatrain. Its road bridge was one of the sights seen from the air a decade ago as people attempted to flee New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina struck.
As we snake through the suburbs we pass some of the leves which today still protect New Orleans from the worst of the Hurricane season. Below the elevated roadways, small crowds gather around car boots; hawkers selling snacks and merchandise for the big ball game.
At the Union Passenger Terminal, there’s a longe queue for cabs. But I strike it lucky, when a driver calls “anyone going to the French Quarter?”. A shared taxi ride works out at just $6 each. The game is just ending, and the Saints lose by just one point. But somehow I can’t see that stopping New Orleans having a party tonight.