Photo: Pontchartrain Club and Dome cars, Pullman Rail Journeys
Update (Sept 2021): Sadly, Pullman Rail Journeys’ site is down and it appears service has been suspended. Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, however, still runs daily with sleeper accommodations.
Imagine coasting your way down from the Great Lakes to the Gulf coast on a day-long train voyage in your own private cabin with four-star service. Seventy years ago this hotel-like choice of conveyance was commonplace, though it was soon to be replaced by air travel. Luckily, this more leisurely paced and gravity-bound first-class experience has been resurrected.
Pullman Rail Journeys hooks its period sleeper cars up to Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, named after the folk song of the same name, for the North-South trip from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River Delta. The trip lasts 19 hours and includes three full meals and cocktails.
Experience private rail travel without the millionaire’s hassle of owning, storing, and servicing a private railcar. How is this possible? Pullman’s unique service takes advantage of a little-known provision which allows private rail cars to book passage paired to scheduled Amtrak service. While having a friend with an expensive hobby – or booking a private charter – is an option, you wouldn’t benefit from the whole package offered by Pullman at an affordable price.
Alternately, you may travel via Amtrak without the air of historic luxury.
The train offers four-star service, including three meals per day and cocktails. Keep in mind, however, that this is a historic trainset with the bumps, occasional inconveniences, and non-standard sizing of yesteryear.
The City of New Orleans travels south through Illinois, crosses briefly through Kentucky, then crosses Tennessee north-to-south, passing through Memphis. It then moves into Mississippi, stopping in Jackson, and continues south, crossing the state line into Louisiana, ending its journey in the city of its name.
The City of New Orleans departs from Chicago Union Station with service terminating at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. Total travel time is 19 hours. If you’re looking for an end-to-end rail journey, the newly expanded historic Loyola-UPT streetcar will bring you to downtown New Orleans and the Mississippi River.
See this super helpful scan I’ve made of the Amtrak travel brochure for more information about the route: City of New Orleans.
Schedule / Cost / How to Book
It has been difficult to get up-to-date information on this itinerary, though it originally ran at least once a week in each direction, with simple non-bedroom accommodations starting around $700 one-way. Booking is available at the Pullman Rail Journeys site, though as of April 2016 the only trip they’re currently showing on their site is the Chicago-to-Kentucky special charter for the Kentucky Derby. Call 1-888-978-5563 to check availability.
Interestingly enough, Pullman is the name of a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago created by George Pullman to house workers for his train car factory. Famously, the Pullman Strike of 1894 began there and spread throughout the Western United States.