John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Car ‘incident’ stalls ride home on City of N.O.

The good news is that Amtrak’s observation car is back.

I found out Saturday when I abandoned Interstate 55 for the first time in months to board  the City of New Orleans at Greenwood for a trip home, my other home.

Boarding with me at Greenwood was Brian Smith of Sumner with kith and kin including five grandchildren who appeared to be age seven and under. They were bound for Jackson. Beautiful kids.

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Brian told me that he last rode a passenger train when he could go to Oakland to catch the City southbound for New Orleans. It was his grandkids’ first train ride, he said.

Brian’s near neighbor in Sumner is Smith Murphey III, father of Smith Murphey IV of Batesville, I soon learned. They are also friends of Jack and Vicki Cobb. Happens every time on the train. You always run into somebody who knows somebody you know.

Not far south of Greenwood, I discovered to my surprise that the next car forward was the observation/lounge car that I thought had been discontinued. The whole upper level is arranged for observation seating and eating snacks. There is additional seating on the lower level where snacks, sandwiches and beverages are sold.

The next car forward was the same Cross Country Cafe that I griped about when Amtrak first introduced it in late 2007 to replace both the dining car and the observation/lounge car. The Cross Country Cafe offers seated dining, and the food has improved since its introduction. That’s the comment of two frequent rail travelers with whom I shared the table for the noon meal.

“I had the best steak last night that I’ve had anywhere,” said one of my companions in the community-seating dining arrangement. And he is from Omaha.

They told me that the observation car has been back in service for about three months. The return is Amtrak’s response to riders’ complaints about its absence, the guy from Omaha said.

Brian and his Tallahatchie County crew quickly discovered the observation car and demonstrated its best use. The kids moved from seat to seat, bounced in the aisles and enjoyed themselves the way kids do. That’s the observation car at its best — a place where kids can be kids.

That goes for all ages. A few seats away John and Steve enjoyed pre-noon libations. Steve was traveling with his daughter from Chicago to New Orleans to investigate Tulane University, he told me. Fifty-four thousand dollars a year, he said, and she wants to go into pre-med. The university is offering over $20,000 in scholarships. John said he was coming to seek more. Said he’ll go to the Salvation Army store for clothing purchases en route to the Tulane financial aid office if it will bolster his chances.

Bad news was that we hit a car near Kentwood, just south of the state line. I felt the train braking but didn’t realize it was the emergency braking system. Frequent traveler Steve said he knew we had hit something because he smelled the brakes.

The conductor announced on the public address system that we had “an incident with a car.”

Minutes dragged by as we sat stopped still. The smokers started getting restless. The conductor wouldn’t let them off the stopped train to smoke. During this time I received calls from my brother, son and sister-in-law asking about my location. They’d heard about the tornado striking Yazoo City and knew it was on Amtrak’s route. However, the train had passed through the town about two hours ahead of the devastating tornado.

After about 50 minutes’ delay while the local police and Amtrak police made their reports, the conductor announced that “the pedestrian is just fine minus his vehicle,” which was oddly curious. When I asked him about it he said that he was trying to inject a little humor into the announcement. The man is “now a pedestrian,” he said.

The surface of Lake Pontchartrain roiled as we rolled past. The winds that were feeding warm, moist air into the cool front, triggering the violent atmosphere in central Mississippi, were kicking up occasional whitecaps on the lake’s surface.

We rolled into New Orleans on time — the 50 minute delay occurred when the train was ahead of schedule, not uncommon on Saturdays when the passenger train shares the rail with less freight traffic than during the week.

(See photos posted online with this column at