By L. Jarod Pearson, TARP President & RPA National Council Member
I always choose Amtrak when I make my annual trip to Washington, DC for RPA's Day on the Hill.
Taking the train makes sense to me on several levels. For starters, I feel somewhat obligated to take the train because I'm going to DC to meet with elected representatives about our national rail passenger system. At an entirely different level, I enjoy train travel. It's a way for me to unwind, untangle my thoughts, and decompress a little.
For Tennesseans in my part of the state (near Chattanooga), Atlanta should be the logical place to pick up the
Crescent and make the overnight journey to Washington. However, my experience catching the train in Atlanta in 2017 was more adventure than I had bargained for!
Anytime I go to Atlanta I allow an extra two hours of driving time because of Atlanta's notorious traffic problems. The extra two hours for this particular trip in 2017 was hardly enough. I have never in my entire life of driving seen such horrible traffic conditions!
A bridge was out of service in the Atlanta area, and I-75 turned into a 90-mile parking lot. I used my phone app to find an alternate route only to find that the alternate routes were jammed with just as many drivers trying to get around the mess.
For the first time in my years of train travel, I was grateful to find that the northbound
Crescent was over two hours late that day. I barely made it to the station before the late train pulled in. Fortunately on Amtrak, and unlike the airlines, you don't have to check in or clear security. If Amtrak had airline-style boarding procedures, I would have been completely out of luck that night.
For all the convenience and relative ease of train travel, the Atlanta station is a real problem. The facility is too small for the load it carries! When the train pulls into the station the staff spring into serious crowd control mode.
The staff must speak loudly above the noise level to get all outbound passengers to stand back and make a pathway for the inbound passengers to get from the platform to the street. Passengers needing to claim checked luggage add more trouble complication to the mix.
As the inbound crowd exits the facility to the small parking lot and narrow street access, the outbound crowd has a new challenge to negotiate. Passengers have to either descend a steep and narrow stairway with their luggage in hand or ride a painfully slow elevator. Both lead to a narrow platform below that then requires a steep climb up to an Amfleet coach or Viewliner sleeper.
To add insult to injury on this trip in 2017, the dining car was closed by the time everybody got on board in Atlanta. Knowing that this could happen, I would have appreciated the opportunity to stop at a restaurant along the way and grab a quick meal, but my worries about the traffic made me avoid stopping. Likewise it would have been nice to purchase a quick meal at or near the station; however, there's no restaurant in or near the Atlanta station.
As stressful as things got in and around Atlanta, everything was fine once I boarded the
Crescent. The previous five-and-a-half hours of traffic, chaos and confusion was replaced with a comfortable seat and a quiet space on board the train. Although the dining car was closed, the lounge car was still open. I was able to purchase a sandwich and a "spirited beverage" and then take start to unwind. When I arrived in DC the next morning I was refreshed and feeling much better.
My experience in Atlanta prompted me to try something else on my next trip to DC. When the 2018 Day on the Hill came around, I decided to try out the new Birmingham Gateway station instead. I made the three-hour drive to the "Magic City" with no traffic problem at all. I parked my car in the just-completed and free long-term parking lot at the station. I was able to roll my luggage two blocks over to the new Amtrak/Greyhound facility without hassle, and I walked into a waiting room that's large, bright, and relatively quiet compared to Atlanta.
Boarding the train there requires going up a set of stairs, and the pre-historic elevator at Birmingham is just as slow as mid-1990's elevator in Atlanta. However, the boarding experience was still much easier at Birmingham.
Another benefit of taking the train out of the Magic City is getting an early seat in the dining car before the Atlanta crowd gets on board. This is especially helpful if the northbound train is running late!
This year, in 2019, I decided to give my trip to DC a little more variety. I definitely wanted to leave from Birmingham, but this year I decided to try the Greyhound bus connection out of Huntsville (that just recently became an Amtrak Thruway Bus connection). Huntsville, Alabama is only 59 miles from my home. Returning home I decided to get off the train Atlanta, transfer over to the Atlanta airport, and ride the Groome shuttle to Chattanooga, which is 60 miles from my home.
The trip to DC was one of the best ever. The bus ride from Birmingham was simple and pleasant. Getting from Greyhound to Amtrak was as easy as walking from one side of the Gateway lobby to the other. The Crescent arrived only a few minutes late. I had time for a quick nap before my 5:30 p.m. dinner reservation. Dinner in the Viewliner dining car was awesome, as expected. I arrived at DC very refreshed.
The return trip was a little more adventurous because I decided to get off the train in Atlanta. I chose this itinerary was because I could be back home in Cowan about 5 hours earlier than if I returned to Birmingham on the train and then taken the bus back to Huntsville.
The Atlanta station was crowded, but friendly nevertheless. Unfortunately, when I got out to the Peachtree Street I learned that
the MARTA bus route no longer stops in front of the Amtrak station. I joined a small group of frustrated fellow rail passengers who had to walk about 4 blocks over to the nearest stop. I don't know who is to blame for this change, but there's no excuse for it whatsoever! I boarded the bus, transferred to the MARTA electric train, rode to airport, transferred to Groome, and made my way back home.
At the end of my 2019 trip on the
Crescent I can say the following: the
Crescent provides a very useful service for trip to Washington. The new bus connections at the new Birmingham station make the service even better. The dining car is a huge plus, and so is the daytime scenery. However, the
Crescent needs a better station in Atlanta, and Atlanta needs better access to their relatively popular train service.
Crescent is a train we can be proud of. A new station in Birmingham has made it even better and more accessible to some Tennesseans. However, what we really want and need are rail routes that serve Tennessee directly!