CHAMBERS COUNTY – “Good morning, America. How are ya? I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans,” as Willie almost sang. Actually, this is the train they call the Sunset Limited, but it’s going to New Orleans, and that’s close enough. We’re headed to the slot machines and roulette tables, but let me explain: Most of the customers at the Lake Charles-area casinos come from near-by Texas, specifically, the Houston region, which is why the casinos were put there in the first place. But I-10 East between Houston and Lake Charles is a death trap, with huge 18-wheelers, loaded with pipe for offshore rigs and containers from the Port of Houston, careening down the road at Mach 2.
To avoid being a bug on a Peterbilt’s windshield, you can fly to Lake Charles on Good Luck Airlines or rent a shrimp boat or take the train. Yes, the train. Amtrak’s aforementioned Sunset Limited goes from Los Angeles to New Orleans and the other way every other day. So you board at the station on the edge of downtown Houston, stop briefly at Beaumont and get off at Lake Charles, time 3 hours and 15 minutes, about 15 minutes longer than driving. A waiting cab spirits you to the casino and, fresh from a relaxing trip, you are yelling for seven to come eleven.
For details, as usual, I have done the heavy lifting, so clip this column and stick it on your refrigerator door next to those last 67 losing Lotto tickets. First, get some cash, then go on line to email@example.com. There, negotiate through a maze, drawn up by a drunken mountain man, to buy a ticket from here to there and back, and put it on your credit card. Cost for a round trip ticket: $44. Go coach unless you are on your honeymoon and need a private room. Trains depart Houston eastward every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at 12:10 p.m. To get to the station you can be dropped off, take a cab, my wife and I took Uber, or just leave your car there. It’s free parking. The station is basic government issue: clean, slightly worn, 1950ish, but – and I like this – long wooden pews from the distant past.
Hooray, here comes the train, silver and shiny. It stops, passengers get off but no one is allowed to board because the crew has to back track the forward coupler to the thru-bolt carrier, or something like that. Since you are traveling light, you don’t check your bag, although coming home you may need an extra sack for all that money. We board, no metal detector, go to our reserved seats which, compared to the airliners, are spacious, the chairs lean back and a foot rest pops up. Two electric outlets on the wall. We automatically try to fasten our seat belts and realize there aren’t any. Precisely at 12:40, the 12:10 moves out. Don’t take this train to look at the scenery. It’s not the Canadian Rockies Route. Trains always go through the ugliest parts of any city, so you get a great view of shotgun shacks, piles of broken concrete and lots of oil field pipe via I-10. Once into the outback, it’s a long, green tunnel, at least before winter. On each side are jungles, until Chambers and Jefferson counties, which also have swamps that are actually kind of pretty. The entire train is double-decked, with some seats downstairs along with the toilets and baggage racks. Upstairs is better. The train is half empty. We stop at Beaumont long enough to toss out a few passengers and board a few more. We’re running late, the ride is very smooth, but no clickety-clack.
Now about the food. We had taken the Amtrak from Montreal to NYC. It was an 11-hour trip. There was no dining car and the snack bar had the worst food I have ever tasted – microwaved pizza and hot dogs for a captive audience. On this trip, to be safe we brought along some sandwiches and such, planning to buy drinks on board. There is a café downstairs selling drinks and snacks, but: “It doesn’t open till later. Just before Houston, she said she was going to take a break.” That was two hours ago. We go to the neat observation car (the bar there is closed, too), and spend the rest of the trip munching sandwiches and sipping water from little paper cups. Later I take a look at the dining car and it seems pretty neat with white table clothes. The menu is short but certainly adequate – breakfast, lunch and dinner. The PA system announces that dinner reservations will be taken, seating every half hour from 5:30 to 7:30, with sleeping car passengers getting first shot. I suppose if they fill up the diner, coach class passengers go hungry. Promptly at 4:30 we arrive at Lake Charles, only one hour late. Before you leave Houston, reserve a ride -– cab or rental. Along the route we called ahead to say we were late, and the car and driver were waiting for us.
After dropping enough money in Louisiana to pave most of its roads and give every school teacher a raise ($2.50) – Texas is SO behind the curve on casinos – we call 1-800 USA RAIL to check on the westbound train coming from New Orleans to see if it is on time. To the minute. We wait in the small but adequate train station for the train, which arrives 20 minutes late. Two get off and eight get on. Amtrak needs to advertise more. The home-bound train is less than half full, and the trip is uneventful except for an extremely rude conductor. We arrive on schedule. So the next time you want to head east to the casinos or even unto Bourbon Street, think trains – no cancelled flights, no trucks, bring food. But I still miss that clickety-clack.
Ashby rides the rails at asnby2@comcast/net