Amtrak’s City of New Orleans: What you need to know

by Kev
Amtrak's City of New Orleans

The train, The City of New Orleans, is a relaxing mode of transportation between Chicago, IL, and New Orleans, LA. The train provides both coach and sleeping car accommodations and foodservice. This train, in total, serves twenty-three communities by rail, including Memphis, TN, and Jackson, MS. To expand this train’s reach, Amtrak offers connecting bus service for more destinations. This article will give you the information you need to know so you can plan your next trip aboard Amtrak’s City of New Orleans.

Taking Amtrak is convenient for passengers in several ways. Many station stops are in the downtown areas of communities, unlike airports. The City of New Orleans serves many communities without access to airports or other forms of mass transportation. Another advantage of train travel is less jetlag if any, and the schedule of this train gives you plenty of opportunities to start the fun as soon as you get off this train.

Although Steve Goodman wrote The City of New Orleans, the song was made popular by Arlo Guthrie, others.

A brief history: From Illinois Central to Amtrak

In 1911 Illinois Central created a Chicago to New Orleans route, The Panama Limited, an overnight train. Besides leaving Chicago and New Orleans., an extension of this train connected St Louis, MO, to New Orleans. In Carbondale, IL, the two trains would come together or split depending on the direction.

Eventually, Illinois Central changed the St Louis route to a bus connection. Here is a sample timetable from 1962 reflecting that change.

Later on, Illinois Central added a day train, The City of New Orleans. The train was later made famous by Steve Goodman’s song The City of New Orleans.

Illinois Central operated trains out of Chicago at Central Station), now known as the Millenium Station.

Amtrak took over most passenger rail service in 1971 and eventually moved the City of New Orleans and Panama Limited operations to Chicago Union Station. In 1987, Metra took over Illinois Central commuter rail after they bought the line from the IC.

After a few years of running both trains, Amtrak eliminated the City of New Orleans, keeping the Panama Limited schedule. In the 80s, Amtrak brought back the name the City of New Orleans by renaming the Panama Limited. A rebranding move, partially due to the song and it being the more recognizable name.

Over the years, Illinois Central and Amtrak made changes to the route like schedule tweaks, the cities served, and changing the section from St Louis, MO, to Carbondale, IL, from train to bus.

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans

Chicago, IL – Memphis, TN – Jackson, MS – New Orleans, LA (and more)

What you need to know about Amtrak’s City of New Orleans

Frequency and equipment use

Amtrak's City of New Orleans
The City of New Orleans is waiting at its name’s sake for passengers to board and head for Chicago.

The City of New Orleans runs daily (starting May 21st, 2021), between Chicago, IL, and New Orleans, with twenty-one intermediate stops. The train uses one GE Genisis series locomotive, but there are two or more on occasion and uses Amtrak’s signature Superliner Coach and Sleeper Cars.

The Train Route Numbers

All Amtrak trains are named and numbered. The names are often for passengers to quickly reference what train they need.

The route number identifies the direction and schedule for that particular train.

In this case, the Northbound is 58, and the Southbound is 59.

Getting your ticket to ride

You can book your next adventure with the Amtrak app, website, over the phone (1-800-USA-Rail), or at staffed stations. Amtrak offers access to more communities with Amtrak’s connecting buses, and along with your train ticket, you can purchase the bus tickets. 3rd party carriers run Amtrak’s connecting busses.

You may need to call Amtrak or visit a staffed station if you need an accessible room, would like roomettes across from each other, or other special requests.

To board the train, you need a ticket, and Amtrak accepts physical paper tickets, or conductors can scan your electronic devices.

When you purchase your tickets over the phone or internet, Amtrak sends out an email containing your ticket and receipt. You can print off the pdf or show conductors the email from your smart device.

The Amtrak app does store you tickets or you could use “wallet apps” like Apple’s Wallet.

Downloadable schedule and route guide

Years ago, Amtrak published route guides that they put on the train, but they stopped printing them, and slowly they disappeared.

The route guides are a fun way to learn about the communities you roll through on your way to your destination. Luckily someone saved them and made them available. If you wish, you can print them, or you can keep them on a tablet.

Below the guide is a downloadable and printable Amtrak schedule, the times are current, but the days of operation are not; this is a daily train. The site may be down, but it is worth trying.

The City of New Orleans Schedule

A brief look at the major stops for the train:

Northbound 58
(Read from bottom up)
CitiesSouthbound 59
(Read from top Down)
9:15 am next day Chicago. IL8:05 pm departure
10:40 pm same day Memphis, TN6:40 am next day
5:40 pm same day Jackson. MS11:20 am next day
1:45 pm departure New Orleans, LA3:47 pm next day
The times are departure times and can change at any time.

Accommodations and equipment type for The City of New Orleans

This train uses Amtrak’s Superliner (bi-level) equipment, and they offer coach seating, roomettes, bedrooms, family bedroom, and accessible rooms.

Run times and miles of travel

The City of New Orleans’s entire route is 934 miles with a scheduled run time of 19 hours and 42 minutes. The fastest the train can operate is 79 mph. The average speed for the route is 47.4 mph, but that is due to station stops, crew changes, fueling, etc.

Who owns the tracks that The City of New Orleans uses?

CN and Illinois Central locomotives
Illinois Central and CN freight locomotives together on former Wisconsin Central tracks.

Amtrak does not own most of the tracks they operate on, so they use rails owned by other railroads. The owners of these rails are called the host railroads.

Amtrak owns the rails outside of both the New Orleans and Chicago stations, but the host railroad for the bulk of the journey is CN (Canadian National)/Illinois Central (on paper).

What is the City of New Orleans on-time reliability?

The City of New Orleans, on average, arrives at its stations stops 72.5% on-time or early, based on a one-year average. CN causes most of the delays with freight train interference and slow orders. (Based on the January 2021 Amtrak Host Railroad Report.)

When a host railroad prioritizes their freight trains over Amtrak’s, it is called freight train interference. Slow orders are when trains receive orders from the dispatchers to run at speeds less than the maximum authorized speed due to track work, extreme temperatures, or other safety reasons.

Amtrak’s 2019 Host Railroad Report Card showed CN receiving a “D” letter grade because of the delays they caused to Amtrak trains. Besides The City of New Orleans, there are a few regional trains. For more information about why Amtrak trains get delayed, check out this article.

The pro-tip, remember delays happen, and as you learned, often they are not Amtrak’s fault. Try to take the setback in stride, plan a little extra time in your schedule, and avoid planning anything time-sensitive activities for when they get off the train.

Trains can make up some of the lost time, do not let this deter you from booking a trip, often the delays are minutes and not hours.

Can I see if Amtrak’s City of New Orleans is on time?

Resources for check the status of the train

Amtrak’s Site and App

Yes! With a computer or a smart device, you can check the status of The City of New Orleans or any of Amtrak’s trains. The Amtrak app and website have buttons to push to enter the needed info to view the train’s status.

With Amtrak, there are two ways to gather this info.

Kankakee station
The former Illinois Central Stations in Kankakee, IL, is now used by Amtrak passengers.

Option one is by Train Number, for this, you need the train’s number and a station. For example, if you are getting on the train in Kankakee, IL, and heading to New Orleans and are curious how the train is doing as it heads South from Chicago, enter 59 for the train number and KKI or Kankakee. If you do not know your train’s number, look at your ticket, it is on there.

If you want to get info by Station, enter the city where the train started and where you are getting on the train. Suppose we use the last example, type in CHI or Chicago for the departure station and KKI for the arrival.

Either way works, but I found knowing the train’s number to work best for me. I often will how the train did with the stop before mine, for this will give me an idea if I have time to spare or if I need to hurry. Remember that trains can make up some time if they are running late.

If you use the Amtrak app on your day of travel, there is a button in the ticket area that says trip tools; after you hit that, a drop-down menu will give you the option to check your train status, not only for your stop but for your destination.

By Phone

Or you can also call 1-800-USA-Rail to get train status.

Third-party sites

This site offers several ways to find out the status of your train.

A few third-party sites offer information about how Amtrak trains are doing, and below is the site I often use. With this site, I can pull up a map showing all running Amtrak trains, train status for a specific station, or see a timetable with schedule and actual times.

Other sites are available, but this one works best for me and others because it is easy to read. I go back and forth between the site and Amtrak’s app because sometimes one is more convent than the other. I use these tools while waiting for the train and while aboard to see how we are progressing.

Third-party sites obtained their data from Amtrak. The data is not in “real-time” because it is updated every few minutes but close enough for a guide.

Receive text or emails

When purchasing tickets, Amtrak offers the opportunity to receive text messages or emails about the train’s status. If you miss the prompt, you can sign-up afterward using the link below. When signing up for emails, make sure the account you use is an account you can access from your phone.

If someone is picking you up, they can have sign up for this as well.

Baggage on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans

NOL Tracks
The train track for New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.

Amtrak’s generous carry-on policy allows for two twenty-eight-inch suitcases and two personal items, and all bags must weigh fifty pounds or less.

Coach cars offer storage above your seat. There is some room in your sleeping accommodation for you thing but not a lot, especially roomettes. Most coach cars and all sleeper cars have a place on the lower level to store your items. No one watches luggage stowed on the lower level.

Check bag service is not available for all stops. To prevent a day of travel surprises, verify both stations you are using offer checked bag service before you leave. Further down in this article is a list of all station stops and the services offered. If one or both stations do not offer checked bag service, you cannot check bags on this train.

If you connect to or from this train, your checked bags will follow you as your travel, except possibly for bus transfers. When in doubt, ask onboard or station staff.

If you check your bags, you will not have access to them until you reach your final destination. You must check your bags at least forty-five minutes before the departure of the train; the major exception is Hammond, LA.

For example, my fictitious adventure is from Omaha, NE, to New Orleans, LA. Since both stations offer checked bags service, I can drop them off in Omaha and grab them in New Orleans. While I am enjoying dinner and a brew during my Chicago layover, Amtrak is taking my bags off the California Zephyr and putting them on the City of New Orleans.

Food and alcohol on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans

Amtrak Flex Meal
I enjoyed Amtrak’s Asian Noodle flex dining meal with roll, salad, dessert, and beer in my roomette.

Bringing food on The City of New Orleans

With train travel, you have food options. You can bring food onboard or purchase items from the cafe. Sleeping car passengers do receive meals are part of the ticket price.

Remember, there are others around, so be considerate when bringing food onboard; egg salad or other foods with pungent odors are never a good idea.

Due to FDA regulations, you cannot bring food or drink into any Amtrak food cars that you did not purchase on the train; food for small children is the exception. Amtrak staff cannot store or warm any food for you.

Bringing alcohol on the train

If you are in coach class, you may transport adult beverages, but you cannot partake from your stash as you travel. If you get out of hand from drinking too much or caught breaking this rule, you may get kicked off the train and possibly fined.

Sleeping car passengers can bring and consume adult beverages in their rooms, but like coach passengers, can get thrown off the train for belligerent behavior.

Amtrak café

Lunch
Amtrak café attendants use cardboard trays to make transporting your food easier.

Coach and sleeper car passengers can use the cafe to purchase meals, snacks, and beverages, including adult beverages, along their journey.

For this train, the cafe is often part of the dining car. If it is not there, check the lower level of the Sightseer Lounge car.

Sleeper lounge

Sleeper car passengers can use the Sleeper Lounge to relax, eat, or grab their complimentary meals and beverages. This lounge is in the dining car, and the lounge is the section closest to the sleeping cars.

The City of New Orleans uses Amtrak’s flex dining. If you do not want to eat in the lounge, your meals can be brought to your accommodations by your car attendant, or you can grab them. Amtrak offers one complimentary adult beverage per eligible sleeper car passenger and unlimited soft drinks.

Scheduled Meals

Southbound sleeping car passengers receive dinner (only for those leaving from Chicago), breakfast, and lunch. Dinner service is often started before the train leaves Chicago. Northbound travelers receive dinner and breakfast. The article on sleeper car dining shares sample menus and discusses when you may not qualify for meals.

Station types

The City of New Orleans serves various stop types, including staffed stations, unstaffed stations, flag stops, and platform stations or stops.

The 23 stops of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans and service levels

Below are all of The City of New Orleans stop, station codes, and service abbreviations.

When booking, verify the cities you want; for example, if you’re going to travel from Chicago, IL, to Jackson, MS, and you didn’t pay attention, you may find that you hit Jackson, MI (JXN). While a quaint city in southern Michigan, it is not wanted. There are a few cities along this route with similar names to one of your possible destinations.

F – flag stop, B – baggage service, S – staffed Station, U- Unstaffed station. SL – station lounge, CB – connecting bus services, SB – Smoke or fresh air break (you can step off the train at these stops), and TB- trackside baggage service.

StopsAmenities Stops Amenities
Chicago, IL (CHI)B, S, SLHomewood, IL (HMW)U
Kankakee, IL (KKI)U, FGilman, IL (GML)U
Rantoul, IL (RAT)UChampaign-Urbana, IL (CHM)S, B, CB
Mattoon, IL (Charleston, IL) (MAT)U, FEffingham, IL (EFG)U, F
Centralia, IL (CEN)U, FDu Quoin, IL (DQN)U, F
Carbondale, IL (CDL)S, B, SB, CBFulton, KY (FTN)U, F
Newbern-Dyersburg, TN (NBN)U, FMemphis. TN (MEM)SB, B, S
Marks, MS (MKS)U, FGreenwood, MS (GWD)U
Yazoo City, MS (YAZ)U, FJackson, MS (JAN)S, SB, B, CB
Hazlehurst, MS (HAZ)U, FBrookhaven, MS (BRH)U, F
McComb, MS (MCB)U, FHammond, LA (HMD)TB, U
New Orleans. LA (NOL)S, B, CB, SL
These options can change at any time and are just guides.

The Amtrak site does offer more specific information for each stations such as addresses. parking info, and more.

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans tickets and line-up

Car numbers

Sleeper car Number
Amtrak’s four-digit code indicating this car is on train 30, The Capitol Limited, and number 01.

Most of this section is for the sleeping car passengers, but the last paragraph is for coach passengers.

All of Amtrak’s cars display two sets of numbers. One is a blue five-digit number located near the end of the car. That is the car’s identification number, and you can ignore that number.

The other number is the one you need; it is a four-digit number found near the door. This number gives you the route and the car’s position in the train’s lineup.

When traveling North, the number should start with 58XX or South 59XX. Occasionally these numbers are not updated, so that a Northbound sleeping car might say 5900 instead of 5800; if you get confused, car attendants and conductors are happy to help you out. If you have a sleeper, the attendants are looking for you.

After you purchase your sleeping car accommodations, you will receive an email with your eticket pretty quickly, and your ticket will give you the car and room numbers. Coach passengers receive their coach car and possibly seat assignments by the conductors before they board the train.

Connecting to other trains

The City of New Orleans allows for easy connections with all long-distance trains in or out of Chicago, plus many regional trains. Any transfers out of New Orleans require an overnight stay, the Crescent runs up to New York, and the tri-weekly Sunset Limited runs to LA through Texas.

The City of New Orleans order of cars

Northbound Car NumbersEquipment TypeSouthbound Car Numbers
GE Locomotive
5809Transdorm5909
5800Sleeper 5900
XXXXDiner LoungeXXXX
XXXXSightseer LoungeXXXX
5832Coach5932
5831Coach5931
5830Coach Baggage5930
This information could change at any time.

Rooms 17-22 of the transdorm car are used for passengers the rest of the car is used for staff rest.

Car layouts

The below layouts are older guides, and as Amtrak rehabs these cars, they may change from these floor plans. These diagrams can help you find your room in your sleeping car. I currently do not have one for the sleeper car/dining car lounge car.

Transdorm car numbers 5809/5909

Trans Dorm
Transdorm sleepers are just roomettes and are mainly used for onboard staff. The upper level diagram is on the top.

Sleeping car numbers 5800/5900

Superliner Sleeper
The layout of the Amtrak Superliner Sleeper Car.

Coach Cars 5830-5832/5930-5932

Amtrak Superliner Coach Car Diagram
Superliner coach car diagram, Some cars do not have lower seating but instated a space for baggage.

Sightseer/Café Car

Amtrak Superliner Sightseer Lounge layout
Amtrak’s Superliner Sightseer Cars have various seating options available to all passengers, and the lower level is the café. These retail spaces can vary, and the cafe attendants announce the hours of operation.
The City of New Orleans backing out of Chicago Union Station heading to New Orleans, LA.

Why is the train backing up?

When the train leaves or comes into New Orleans or Chicago, The City of New Orleans may need to back in to or out of these stations. This move is standard for this route.

The train left from a different location in the Illinois Central days, but now its home is Chicago Union Station, and that means the train needs to back up so it can go over a bridge that will connect it to the CN mainline.

Occasionally the train will pull out of the station and backs under the bridge it needs to go over. as seen in the video.

The train may pull in or back into the New Orleans Station.

A resource for planning for your time in New Orleans

When it comes to traveling, resources are essential, and I have an excellent one for you. The Beyond Bourbon Street Podcast is the best resource I know for planning your next adventure to “The Crescent City.”

Mark, the podcast host and a New Orleans native is passionate about sharing his knowledge and love of this city with his listeners. The podcast aims to inform travelers New Orleans is more than Marti Gras and Bourbon St, but it has diverse neighborhoods, rich history, and offers something for all ages and interests.

Average cost of Riding The City of New Orleans

Superliner Roomette
An Amtrak Superliner roomette set up for sleeping.

These prices are based on one person traveling from end to end and are a reference.

Amtrak uses step or bucket prices, which means they set aside seats or rooms at one cost, and after selling those, the price goes up to the next bucket or steps.

The cost can go down if people cancel their trip and accommodation become available, and that is why you can see prices fluctuate as you research.

There are two prices wrapped up in one for sleeping accommodations; the first is the room rate, and the second is the “rail fair.” When you book a room with someone, you pay one room rate and two rail fairs. For example, one person in a roomette is $319, but for two, the total is $494.

Discounts like senior, military, or others come off the rail price and not the room price. For information on how to save money on Amtrak and more info on how discounts work, click the button below.

AccommodationsApproximate Price Range
Coach Seats$110 – $265
Roomettes$319 – $527
Bedrooms$611 – $688
Family Room $432- $632
Acceible RoomCall 1-800-USA-Rail
for more info
Prices can change at any point and based on one passenger, use a guide only.

Notable views of the City of New Orleans

Amtrak observation car
Inside one of Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge (Observation Car). On the lower level of the car is the café, and on the other side of this car is booth seating.

While the bulk of the trip is at night, there are a few notable—fun parts of the route. For me, the most remarkable and fun part of the route is going over Lake Pontchartrain. If you look straight out from the upper level, it seems like the train is floating in the middle of the lake.

Between Memphis and New Orleans, you will see many communities and agricultural areas.

You will see a few of Chicago’s southern suburbs and Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play; you have a better chance to see this on Northbound train, but the outside stadium lights are on at night.

Fresh air stops

Fresh air breaks allow you to stretch your legs, get fresh air, and for me, they break up the trip. The fresh air or smoking breaks often happen during crew changes, fuel stops, or if the train comes into the station early.

If you decide to get off the train at a fresh air stop, follow the conductor’s directions, and don’t wander too far from the train. Keep in mind that the train can and will leave without you if you did not get back on in time. Often you will hear a few blasts from the train’s horn, indicating it is time to reboard the train.

Walking around the train

First-time train riders should be aware of a few tidbits about walking around the train. It is not hard, but often not what people are used to doing when they travel.

To go from car to car, you need to be on the upper level of the train, but if you want to use the bathroom or exit the train, you need to use the lower level.

Trains are linear, meaning one car in front of another, so you may have to walk through a few cars to get to the one you desire.

While trains are moving, and they sway as you go down the track. Use the seatbacks or luggage racks for support. When going between cars, avoid stepping on the crack where the two plates come together and use the candy cane striped handles for support.

The isles of trains are narrow and do not allow people walking in opposite directions to pass at the same time. At times, if you have two seats to yourself, people may step into “your space” for a second to let another pass. Be courteous of others as you walk through the train.

Other things you should know

Smoking and Marijuana

Along with all other Amtrak trains, The City of New Orleans prohibits smoking or vaping. If caught smoking onboard, you can be removed from the train and fined. While marijuana is legal in many states, it is still illegal to transport or consume it on Amtrak because it is considered federal property.

Bathrooms and showers

You can find bathrooms on the lower level of every car, but for the dining car. There is one upstairs bathroom in the sleeping car and several below. Each bedroom has one, but roomettes and other accommodations do not.

Each sleeping car has a shower on the lower level, and each bedroom has its own; it is in the small bathroom. There are no shower facilities for coach passengers.

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans wrap up

An overview of the route.

The City of New Orleans is a safe, relaxing, and fun way to travel to your next adventure. Chicago Union Station and New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal are located in the heart of their cities, making it easy to walk to your stop, to take public transportation, taxi, or rideshare to or from your lodging.

Food overview

Coach riders should budget some funds for if they want to purchase food from the café car. They can always bring food or snacks with them, but Amtrak cannot store, chill, or heat the food you brought aboard the train.

If you need to keep medication chilled, bring a cooler, Amtrak may be able to provide ice for keeping your medications cool.

Sleeper passengers’ meals are part of the sleeping car experience, and the meals are part of the reservation. Amtrak is currently offering their sleeping passengers their flex dining; if you want a treat or need a libation, the cafe car is there for you.

Other reminders

Sleeping car passengers can use the station lounges in Chicago and New Orleans, and these lounges offer priority boarding, complimentary beverages, and possibly more.

WIFI and streaming

This train does not have WIFI. If you have a tablet or smartphone, check with your streaming services to see if they allow you to download videos ahead of time and watch them later without using data.

Because you may use your phone more than you usually do, keep an eye on your data. Watching videos on social media or other streaming can use up data quicker than you realize.

Bring headphones for your electronic devices

Headphones are a must, especially in coach class; remember, you are not the only one on the train. I know you listen to the best music, and your video games are fantastic, but not everyone agrees, especially if they are trying to sleep.

Sleeper passengers, providing you keep the volume down, can go without headphones. I often have my iPad just loud enough to cover the noise of the train. When in doubt, use headphones or check to see if you can hear your device in the hallway with the door closed. Remember, the walls are thin, and sound can bleed through. The moral of the story is, be considerate.

Entertainment

Bring some entertainment with you. Something simple like a book, magazine, or a deck of cards can go far. Electronically, apps that do not need wifi can help you pass the time; ebooks and podcast help as well.

Most of all, bring your patience.

I hope this helps you plan and enjoy your next trip aboard Amtrak’s City of New Orleans!

Safe Travels!

Kev

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