"An Amtrak train only one hour and twenty-two minutes late is an Amtrak train worth taking," L. A. Norma said, as she crushed her cigarette and climbed aboard the Sunset Limited bound for New Orleans.
Amtrak is said by those living along the line to be "on time" if no more than three hours late. More accurately, locals call this "early late." Sometimes the Sunset Limited is as much as twenty hours late. This they call "late late." For colorful reasons it remains a train popular with bar car speculators, timetable gamblers, and NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC readers.
The Sunset Limited runs three times a week, in each direction, between Los Angeles and New Orleans. It is an interesting train dipping deeply south along what Cajuns call "the bottom road" to New Orleans. Its whistle was once the siren to dreamy dreams. On board most days you still find foreign tourists bewildered by the unpredictable schedule, armchair explorers bewitched by the Atchafalya Basin, and L. A. Norma and me chatting them up in the bar car.
"Sometimes out of New Orleans the train is on time as far as the Mississippi River," Norma said, laughing with a big Irishman, who ordered glasses of ice he carried back to his roomette. He returned with the ice covered by spirits from his homeland. We both accepted one. "Sometimes it is not," he said. We all laughed.
To my knowledge, in the two years since Hurricane Katrina, this train has never been on time.
The security guard at Lafayette’s depot (one hundred and forty-five train-miles to the west of New Orleans) said he had seen it on time. However, "on time," as noted, does not mean exactly the same thing to him as it likely means to you.
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"Normally we take the Greyhound Bus into New Orleans, for reliability, and Amtrak back to the land of boudin, for the conversation," Norma told our dining car waiter.
We ordered pink-plastic looking ham on stale mayonnaise slathered Bunny Bread.
"This sandwich could stop an angry alligator, if not a food critic," Norma said.
"Maybe a terrorist, too," the waiter offered. "Amtrak trains are one hundred percent terrorist free. Who is going to hijack us? We can barely get where we're going on the best of days. And by the time we reach a given destination any bomber waiting for us would have long since blown himself to Kingdom Come."
Outside the dining car’s windows, ancient cypress trees danced across the Atchafalya Swamp. They kicked up knees and waved their Spanish moss at snakes, pelicans, turtles, and America’s lame iron horse.
"Few Americans ride Amtrak," Norma said with a sigh.
"And that be small wonder, darlin'," the Irishman answered, "your government working, as it is, so very hard to make it un-rideable."