Indigestion Express: Dining on the Southern Crescent to Alexandria

It was late March, 1978. The month had been a rough one for me. I had moved to the Washington, DC area several years before, taking a job with the federal government after college. I had finally gotten a date or two with the latest girl of my dreams. However, it was soon quite obvious that another dream wasn't going to come true. So, it was time to get my mind off of what was happening (or not happening) in the romance department.

Railfans in metro DC had a nice little custom in the late 1970s. They would meet at the suburban Alexandria, VA station and board an Amtrak run to Union Station, then get on the southbound Southern Crescent for dinner (the Crescent was still being run at that point by the Southern Railway). The train was scheduled out at 7:20 PM, but the dining car opened at 7. Arrival in Alexandria was at 7:37, just enough time for a nice meal done up in the old pre-microwave fashion.

I called "Uncle Mark" Caplan, a Conrail towerman and well-respected member of the DC railfan scene, and arranged a dinner appointment. On a nice, sunny early spring evening, Mark and I met at Alexandria to board Amtrak train 90, the northbound Palmetto. The ride to Washington was quick and uneventful. A GE P30CH led 5 Amcoaches into the station. The train was nice but nothing special; too new, too much plastic. I was momentarily impressed with the speed and smoothness of the RF&P by-pass around Potomac Yard. But soon the Palmetto slowed down for the Potomac River bridge and then bumped along the Conrail trackage leading to the tunnel beneath Capitol Hill, where the Washington Terminal Company into Union Station began.

The sky was still light but turning pale as Mark and I wandered about the station platforms looking for the Southern Crescent. I was feeling better at that moment. It was spring, the days were getting longer, and we would soon be aboard a real railroad diner ordering up fried chicken. Yes, this was the way to forget about a lost romance.

We soon found our train, about 7 steel fluted cars of 1950's vintage. We made our way to the diner and announced our presence. There was a problem, however. The dining car crew was told that the connecting train from New York was one hour late, and therefore they were in no hurry to open for business. We were told to wait a half hour or so in the car's lounge area. As we chatted, a Washington Terminal RS-1 coupled up and switched us over to an adjacent track. That was a nice little diversion, a short ride behind an old Alco. Still, we wanted to get on with dinner.

I suspected that something was amiss when a black GG-1 pulled by from the north with a few Southern passenger cars. Amtrak scheduled the New York connection to the Crescent as part of a regular NY-Washington train, but would occasionally run the through coaches and sleeping car as a separate section when necessary to avoid delaying the Southern. This is what happened on the night in question. Anyway, there was momentary confusion among the diner crew ("that's our train?") before they realized that the Crescent would leave on time after all.

It was less than 10 minutes before scheduled departure when we were finally seated in the dining area. Mark asked the waiter whether we could still get dinner, given that we were getting off in Alexandria. The waiter was a man of the 1970's, seemingly removed from the old railroad tradition. Sorry, he said, we can't do it. We can give you some sandwiches to go, if you like. Oh well, I thought, the old "dinner in the diner" idea was becoming just another disappointment.

But hold on. Our waiter suddenly had a flash of inspiration. You want fried chicken dinners? OK, let's do it. He rushed off toward the kitchen. Mark and I looked at each other with some apprehension. Departure time was in 5 minutes. We hoped that there would be a late start. But our train was complete, with the New York section was already switched in.

At exactly 7:20, I could hear the sound of E8's clearing their throats. With the slightest jolt, we were under way. Hardly a second later, our waiter was placing plates of mashed potatoes, rolls, salad, vegetables, and fried chicken with cream sauce on our table. Mark took care of the tab and we set our jaws to work. Rolls and a few nibbles on the salad in the dark tunnel beneath the Capitol. Then, out into the open, past Virginia Avenue tower, past the lights of the Southwest Freeway and the federal office buildings crowding the north side of the tracks. We quickly got down to some greasy-fingered chicken eating. I looked up at the headlight of a passing freight as I gulped down some potatoes. Looked like an ex-Erie Lackawanna unit was in the consist. But back to the chicken. Mmm, that cream sauce must have been good; too bad there wasn't the time to savor it. We rounded the curve at 14th Street, passed the Lincoln Memorial, and headed out onto the Potomac River Bridge. Time to swallow some string beans. Ah yes, done up southern style, with a slab of pork. At the north end of Potomac Yard, I was into the third piece of chicken, with one more to go. Passing the engine service area, we were almost done. A swig of iced tea, and it was all down.

We nodded to the two gentlemen seated across the table from us (there obviously wasn't much time for conversation) and got up. As a joke, Mark asked the waiter "what's for dessert?" But as we walked toward the door, he stopped us and handed over two wedges of apple pie wrapped in foil. Obviously, dining car tradition was not dead yet.

Southern train number 1 then passed the south end of Potomac Yard and heeled into the curve leading to Alexandria station. I found an open dutch door and watched the four graceful E-units leading the way. Eight miles, 17 minutes and one chicken dinner from Washington, we arrived in Alexandria, on time.

After detraining, Mark and I strolled toward the station. We stopped on the platform next to the dining car, where we could see passengers enjoying a more leisurely repast. Mark struck up a conversation with some other railfans; I stepped back to take in the scene. The silvery Crescent soon slipped off into the night, red markers disappearing under the King Street bridge.

Mark and I paused a little while longer, eating apple pie al fresco while a southbound RF&P freight (number 111) rolled by. My stomach would need the rest of the evening to catch up. Still, it was a fun trip. Despite the "fast food" sitting heavy in my stomach, my heart was indeed a little lighter that night.