Wednesday, November 9, 2011

First rail trip, ever (May 28, 2008)

On May 22, I left Pittsburgh on an Amtrak train, beginning a several-day vacation in the Washington, D.C., area. This is my account of the trip, recorded as I traveled along. Now that I'm back, I'm posting it for all to read and enjoy.

As I peck away, I am seated on an Amtrak train, headed for Philadelphia, the first leg of a trip to the D.C. area to help a friend move. I've never ridden a train before, excepting little excursions behind a steam engine a few years ago.

I know the rail corridor very well out to Greensburg, since I used to commute from New Stanton to Monroeville. Beyond that, I recognize a few grade crossings and towns, but the farther we go, the more it's just unknown trees, farms, hillsides and itty bitty towns.

The first minutes we are right along the East Busway, and for a while are right alongside 45-foot bus 1921, going just about the same speed. That must feel weird to both pilots. Those buses are massive, but puny in comparison to locomotives, let alone the train.

One westbound train we saw while still waiting in Pittsburgh, carried dozens of cars of crushed stone. Herzog, said each car. Must've been 40 cars, exclusively and fully loaded with stone. I can hardly imagine the amount of mass in that train. The other trains whose cargo I could discern were mixed freight. No other passenger trains, in motion, at least.

It was weird, even disheartening, passing through East Pittsburgh and Turtle Creek, PA, seeing how little is left of the old Westinghouse Electric campus. Once was a time when this was the manufacturing capital of the U.S. A direct hit by an atom bomb on the nearby Westinghouse Bridge, it was once said, would have wiped out a large chunk of the American economy. Looks like if you did that today, it might go unnoticed, except for the Wabtech facility a mile or two away. What old Westinghouse buildings still exist – which aren't many – stand in disuse, windows out, roofs porous, wires and other infrastructure having little apparent value beyond salvage. Where'd it all go, all that wealth and power? Sad to say, it was gone long before China started eating us alive. We spent the corporate coffers dry by the late 1970s, the country itself by the late 1980s. Just like this train, with great speed you can coast a long time, but the fuel is gone, and it ain't coming back.

Right now, we're somewhere between Latrobe and Johnstown. I'm trying to figure out where the westbound track went. I'm on the left side of the train, and ever since Pittsburgh there has been a second track. Since there's been a westbound train every 10 minutes or so, I find it hard to believe it's single tracked through here, especially since this is one of the busiest rail corridors in the northeast. Maybe it's just on the other side of the train, but I haven't seen anything go by on that side, either.

I'm surprised how short the stops are. In Greensburg and Latrobe, I doubt we stood still more than 90, even 60, seconds. At least I timed my coffee break well. I first stood up when we got past Irwin, got my coffee just as we pulled into the Greensburg station, and was able to get back to my seat before the train started moving again. Walking between cars is easy: Just push a button on the door and it slides open. Not too difficult to walk along, but then again, I have a lot of bus riding experience. The coffee comes in a standard cup which they put in a small, thin cardboard tray, which makes it very stable to carry and also to remain steady on the pull-down seat-back tray.

Now we're crawling along; I doubt we're going more than about 20. Not sure why. Maybe the track bed is bad along here. I timed a couple of miles earlier, one at about 67 mph (55-second mile), one at a full 75 (48-second mile). We're back up to a nice cruising speed now (54-second mile).

Little things go by; I hardly have a chance to look at them. A little stone oven with a ten-foot chimney. Oh, there's another rail track. Is that our westbound line? A dead-looking factory, no signs of life.

Not yet in Johnstown. A bunch of grade crossings. People on the train are asleep. It's raining outside, and really there's little to see, just the Conemaugh Power Plant, with a huge bowl that seeps steam from its side. Coal is everywhere underground here. Coal made this country great, and still might, if it weren't so dirty. Miles later, still coal tipples, all manner of mining operations, or operations which use that which is mined. Pipes on racks. Piles of stuff. And finally, again, plain old forest, or at least green weeds, on both sides of the track. A blue plastic tarpaulin stretched over some branches. Are there still hobos? A bridge over PA 56 by PA 711; yep, not far from Johnstown.

It's easy to get used to this rumblety-bumblety yet smooth ride. I could learn to like this. It feels like I could get rocked to sleep quite easily. I'm not the only one. Someone is snoring loudly.

Johnstown, finally, and the first westbound train I've seen in a while, and yes, it's on the other side of the train. More dying industry, more overgrown sidings. Might've been a rail yard there. Back at Pitcairn, it was hard to tell there ever was a rail yard there, which is amazing because it was once among the largest rail yards anywhere. Nothing but 25-year-old trees and sumac bushes. There might actually have been a few sidings there when I came to Pittsburgh in 1982, but it was dying fast. There might still be something there, but only a vestige of its prior greatness.

More wonders. I see what clearly was a prior trackbed next to us. Sometimes I see encased wires, or maybe they are pipes of some sort, alongside the rails. Once there was a long, low, flat area, width of the tracks, in line with the old unused rail line, but I have no idea what it was. Wow, four tracks now, just east of Johnstown; I can see them on a curve. I wonder if I can see the South Fork Dam site along here.  We've gotta be near it. Yeah, that might have been it right there, those huge mounds of earth, but I have no way of knowing, and 119 years can certainly change the landscape, even without human assistance. This is the anniversary weekend coming up, too. Or maybe that was it off to the left, but it was hard to tell with a train going by. I guess I'll just have to look it up on Google Earth. Better yet, it'd be cool to make a day trip out here sometime. The only time I was at the Flood Memorial was the 1989 weekend just before the 100th anniversary.

Back to two tracks. I don't know the towns, but it's where Cambria Vault Company is; can't be two of those. We were down to a low speed for a long while, but now we're back to a good clip, a 51-second mile. 

Summerhill, the sign said. Now a 49. A 46. Flat and straight. The suburban backyards come right up to the tracks, sometimes without so much as a small fence. Other places the train is the across-the-street neighbor. House, yard, sidewalk, street, tracks. Imagine the trains sailing past your backyard swingset at 75 mph.
Milepost 254, a picnic area wedged between a cemetery and the tracks.

Silence on the train. No talking, no snoring, the loudest thing being the occasional sniffle, the movement of air, and the tapping of my keystrokes. Can't even hear the rails, it's so smooth. Yet we're moving at upwards of 50 mph. Wow.

Atheist Station, dot com? OK, gonnahafta check that one out. Huge letters on the side of a building.

Darkness! A tunnel! The Gallitzin Tunnel! Horseshoe Curve is a few minutes ahead, the first time they've come on the public abuse system to tell us about anything except stations. Yep, there's new US 22 off to the right. Minutes pass. My ears are popping. We descend silently. Now we're in the curve. Tight. The wheels made noise, or maybe it's the brakes. Haven't seen a train climbing, but if one does, I'm sure I'll hear it. This is steep, too.

Yay, the sun's out for the first time all day. On a curve I can finally see the shadow of the single locomotive, ahead of the one car ahead of the one I'm traveling in. If I recall correctly there are three behind this one.
I'm surprised how little trash I see along the tracks. Maybe it's because the population density is so scant, there isn't much draw to the tracks? Lots of other places to go? Right in Altoona there's more, here and there a tire, but really not like alongside any suburban highway I've walked along.

A delay. We're not yet at the Altoona station, but they've announced some freight congestion ahead, so we'll creep along here for a while. Two locomotives pass on the right, going our way. We're waiting on a westbound freight to clear before we can enter, we are told. I take a potty break. Plumbing problems, both toilets in this car. Usable if you're careful, but they gotta take care of that, pronto.

Quite a crowd waiting in Altoona, easily a dozen waiting to board. It's 10:15, so this is probably a popular connection to make. Nice station, too. I'm told the Greensburg station was nicely rebuilt a few years ago. Latrobe's hasn't changed in decades, by the looks.

An Amtran (Altoona city) bus went by, a 40-footer. No bike rack. Darn.

Hunger. Breakfast was 5 a.m., and at $5 for a small sandwich I'm wishing I'd packed a lunch, or at least a snack. Harrisburg has a 15-minute break, but I doubt I'll find anything off-car, so I don't want to risk trying to find anything off-car. Philly is fully four hours away,

Cool, a locomotive scrapyard, or at least a major maintenance yard. Nothing but trains everywhere. Many locos still say Conrail. Many Norfolk Southern rolling stock predate the jumping horse logo. At least I didn't see anything saying Penn Central, one of Conrail's 1970s predecessors. Conrail was split up in 1998.

Short short, long. I should know what that is. We've reached the end of the rail yard and are finally getting up a figurative head of steam. From here on east, it's more or less level and a lot of it is straight, so we should be zipping along. In and west of the Alleghenies, hills and curves predominate. Fostoria, we are now passing by. A 56-second mile (64 mph). A stop in Tyrone. Seeing a lot of track work. Five tracks to my left at one point a bit ago, but now back to just the double track.

The trip ceased to be fascinating a while ago, and is now only occasionally interesting. I'm going to go back to reading my book for a while.

OK, I'm back. We're in Harrisburg after a half-hour delay, stopped because of one-way operation. I stretched a five-dollar bill into a three-piece lunch, and because we were stopped, got to eat it without worry of it being jiggled onto my lap. My seatmate has begun to chat with me for the first time in the trip, too. She is a young accounting graduate of Goshen College in Indiana. There's another Goshen student on board, too, judging by her sweatshirt.

Underway now, and I think we're trying to make up some time, as we're flying along, a 49-second mile, and still accelerating. A 41. A 40. Another. That's 90 mph. WhooEEE! Smooth, though. The road alongside has a 45 mph limit, and I doubt anyone riding in a car even at that speed would be given as smooth a ride as we're getting here. Just a bit of side-to-side jostle. 78 mph, last check, though slowing now, for Elizabethtown. We're only 23 minutes behind now. Stopped, I admire a tiny but closed building which might have been the old Elizabethtown train station. Its only use nowadays appears to be to hold up a cell tower. Toot toot, and we're back on the road.

Now in Philly. I wave goodbye to my seatmate, who is meeting people here. I have an hour-plus layover, even with the train 20 minutes late. To kill time, I walk around the very large station, mosey around the SEPTA Rail gates, pick up some rail and bus timetables, and wander over to an elevated sidewalk connecting to Cira Center. From there I can see quite a bit of Philadelphia skyline, including a comparatively tiny building with a dome in the middle of immense skyscrapers. It's not Independence Hall, but I'll confess I don't know my historic buildings all that well.

I head outside, if only to get a breath of fresh air, and to say I actually walked on a Philadelphia city street once. I do not stray far. Almost immediately a panhandler approaches, but I dissuade him with a faraway look. He doesn't pursue. Boy, that didn't take long. I circumnavigate about half the building, but have had enough and come inside to continue my novel, and then this blog. Even after three chapters of book and two paragraphs of this, I still have several minutes before boarding. That said, though, I'll pack this in until safely ensconced on the 85 train.

The escalator was out of service, so we all carried our luggage down the steps. I was glad I packed lightly. One woman was, I think, going to be angry but turned instead to incredulity and then acceptance, as she picked up her one large bag, and her one huge bag. She was young, and there wasn't much to her, but she was up to the task. Downstairs, we found no train to board! We had the right track, but it wasn't there yet, and wouldn't be for almost 10 minutes. We weren't even sure what direction it would be coming from. Looking around, I surmised correctly that it would arrive from the left.

Boarding, we found a busy train, easily already half full. At least this one has two 120-volt outlets per seat pair, not singles like on the Pittsburgh train. This laptop barely holds a charge a single hour, so I need that plug. Fact is, I'll plug it in now, since I'm down to 38%.

Since I don't know the lay of the land, and don't have the window seat, it's hard to say anything interesting about what's going by outside. Just a blur of trees, breaking every once in a while to show a small town, an electric substation, maybe a used car lot along a commercial street. Since I cannot see mileposts, I can only guess at our speed: 60+ mph. Few stops, no delays. On my left, I can see water, big water, which we're barely above, and only a scrap of land separating it from us as we rush headlong. To my right is a road, and we're clearly going half again faster than the light traffic on it. Maybe even double.

My seatmate on this trip exited in Baltimore MD, allowing me to shift to the window seat so I can see the mileposts. We're flying. I expected to see that milepost in about 45, maybe 40 seconds, but must have missed it. Nope, there's one, right at the one-minute mark, but there's no possible way we're going 60 mph. That must mean we covered two miles in one minute – 120 mph!

Of course, it didn't last. Because of track work, we've again slowed to a little over a running pace, probably 20 to 25 mph. Too bad I wasn't taking note of the actual milepost values. Between the 20 and the 120, we might have averaged 45 or so over that 10-mile stretch. Impossible to say now.

Anyway, we're on our final approach to D.C., so I will pack up my gear and prepare to exit. I will be returning by car and have no idea when I will next use Amtrak, but am glad I kept track of this trip. The novelty of riding has already worn off, ten hours into the trip, but all in all, it made for a memorable occasion.


bus15237 said...

Ever traveled by train? I hadn't, so when I got the chance, I wrote this account of my trip. Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, then Philly to D.C.

bus15237 said...

Comments from the original 2008 post:

Pittsburgh Storm
Fabulous blog. My youngest loves trains so I am trying to get her on Amtrak sometime this summer.

I rode the train when I was little with my parents down to Florida but I can't remember it.