Based on the histogram of arrival delays, it looks like my experience is on the extreme side, and that it is more likely for the train to be on-time, or be within an hour of scheduled arrival.
The histogram below shows that despite delays arriving at the other stations along the route, the train is almost always able to make up for lost time and arrive in New Orleans on-time or earlier than scheduled.
The same thing can be said for the trip back from New Orleans to Chicago:
Comparing arrival times at the Chicago Union Station against the other stations, it looks like the train arrives within an hour of schedule most of the time.
Overall it seems like trains are more likely to arrive on-time than have delays, and if there are delays it would be just about 30 minutes or less.
There is clearly room for improvement, and definitely not comparable to the reliability and speed of the train systems in many other countries, but it is still a reasonable alternative to driving or flying.
Upon learning that I am going to AGU 2021 in New Orleans, I immediately started planning the trip. I considered several options on how I’m going to get there: 1) We stop over during our cross-country trip and I stay there until AGU starts then fly back after; 2) I fly to and from Chicago; 3) I take the train to and from Chicago. Option 1 was quickly tossed out the window because we were driving through New Orleans a full 3 weeks before AGU, and I didn’t want to be that early. Option 2 would have been the cheapest option, since I think I saw round-trip flights for about $160, if booked early. However, it seems counter-productive to fly to a geoscience conference where scientists talk about Climate Change, considering how much emissions a plane makes for each trip. Option 3, taking the Amtrak, seemed like the best option, while still fitting within my budget.
Another advantage of taking the train to New Orleans is that it arrives right in the heart of the city. If I take my bike, I could be in my hotel in just 5 mins, and commute to the conference center from the hotel also in 5 mins. If I took the plane, it would have been an expensive taxi ride to the hotel.
The Coach Experience
I booked a coach seat, which at the time of booking was $110 each way, $220 both ways. I chose coach because the rooms ($370++) are too expensive for me. I also added a bicycle to the reservation ($20 each way) because I wanted to bike around the city going to and from my accommodation to the conference center. I’ve been to large conferences before and I know how exhausted I usually am at the end of the day, and taking an Uber would be too tempting (and again counter-productive in terms of emissions). With a bike, I’d be forced to ride it back. I checked the weather for the week—nice and sunny, not too hot, not too cold—perfect!
Riding in coach was surprisingly more comfortable than I expected. The seats recline, not all the way back but enough to be relaxing. There is a leg-rest that can be lifted up, and a foot-rest tucked just below the tray table in front. The seats were also spacious, with a generous enough leg room that even when my leg-rest was fully extended, I was still able to fit my bag between the leg-rest and the seat in front of me.
The observation car / dining car was a nice treat. It has seats facing huge windows that extend up to the ceiling (left, below) and dinettes also next to the huge windows (right, below). Below the observation/dining area is a snack bar, but of course one is allowed to bring their own food too.
There were 5 restrooms in each car—one accessible, one dressing room with restroom, one female-only lounge with restroom, and 2 regular restrooms. I only used the lounge with restroom, because of the extra sinks outside. The restroom part is standard, like in a plane: toilet + sink + changing table in a small space. I like the sinks outside, because it gave plenty of room for other stuff, and there’s a seat in case you want to set down toiletry bags or coats.
The long ride
I guess the major downside of taking the train is the time it takes to get to the destination. Without delays, this trip from end to end should last about 19 hours. Driving from Chicago to New Orleans in the same route passing each stop would just be about 13 hours. The fastest speed I monitored on my phone was about 70mph, much slower than a car driving on the interstate. This trip started at 8pm, so the first half of my trip I know will be spent sleeping. I woke up around 6am, and I knew we are having delays.
That night a tornado tore through the midwest, causing several casualties and damages in its wake. The train stopped just north of where the tornado ripped through, so we had to wait for the tracks to be cleared before we can proceed. Driving through Kentucky, we saw several fallen trees and metal debris by the tracks. The train drove extra slow along this area, possibly in an abundance of caution in case there were some remaining debris on the tracks.
Eventually we arrived in New Orleans at 9:45pm, 6 hours later than the original schedule. It was a significant delay, and the lady in the snack bar told me that this one is unusual. The reason was understandable though, and I guess we’re even lucky that the tracks remained intact and the train was just delayed and not cancelled.
After a week of AGU was the second part of the train ride, headed back from NOLA to Chicago. The Union Passenger Terminal was easy to navigate, all the gates are in one place and the check-in terminal was just next to it. No mazes to get lost in. I checked my bike and the rest of my stuff (food bag, coat bag, and backpack) are carry-ons.
The train was similarly uncrowded, and I was able to sleep well again during the night. We did have some significant delays again, due to a combination of bad weather, some remaining track issues from last week’s tornado, and freight interference. Thankfully I had my mobile hotspot with me, so I was able to entertain myself during the trip. Instead of Chicago Union Station, I got off at Kankakee because it was closer to home. Originally the train was supposed to stop there at 7:11AM but we got there at 10:25AM, so that’s about a 3-hour delay.
9/10 would take again
Overall, I think taking the train was worth it. It’s something I would be happy to do again, if the option is available. I understand that Amtrak lines don’t have great coverage in the US, and that in some cases the connections could be excessively long, but I would encourage people to consider it as an option. The seats are spacious, you can bring your own food, and your trip contributed significantly less emissions.