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Amtrak: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And
Love The Train
The moment I learned to stop worrying and love the
train was just beyond Altoona, Pennsylvania. It was
during my first ever Amtrak trip on train #44, the
venerable Pennsylvanian, which I picked up in Pittsburgh
heading east to Harrisburg on Friday, October 15,
1999. I was on my way to what I anticipated to be
the greatest model train orgy in the world, the Train
Collector's Association (TCA) meet in York.
by Bob LeBras
Guaranteed reservations at a comfy Holiday Inn
Express awaited my arrival in Harrisburg. The next
morning, after a nice repast, I would meet face-to-face,
for the first time, with CoolTrains.com owner, Ted
Symonds. The plan was to see many electric trains,
eat good food and drink much beer. It was to be
a railfan's dream weekend.
My trip officially began at 3:00 p.m. on Friday
afternoon. It was a gorgeous, warm fall day in Pittsburgh.
The trees were beginning their annual ritual of
color bursts. Leaving work abit early before the
arrival of my Port Authority Transit (PAT) bus that
would transport me to the downtown Amtrak station
with its always impressive facade known as "The
Pennsylvanian," I enjoyed the smell and color of
the day confident that my arrival time at the station
would provide me ample time to take a few photos
prior to the departure of train #44.
I had called Amtrak (800/USA-RAIL) earlier in
the day to confirm the schedule and was advised
that #44 was running approximately 40 minutes behind
its scheduled 4:53 p.m. departure. As I had never
taken an Amtrak train before, I was uncertain as
to the procedures for boarding. I had purchased
my tickets in advance from Amtrak's website so that
was not an issue. I approached the counter at the
station and, while being advised that tickets were
taken on board, I noted that the departure time
of #44 had advanced to 6:00 p.m.
So here I was, loaded to the gills with suitcase
and camera bag, at the relatively recently remodeled
Amtrak station possessing all the grandeur that
Greyhound could provide, stuck for 2 hours and 15
minutes. Time passes ever so slowly when you are
waiting. After an hour of cigarette smoking and
testing my new digital camera, I went inside to
watch some "Rosie" and have a Pepsi. Seeing that
program made me realize that I was actually happy
to work during the day and also gratified that I
invested in Digital CATV.
As I sat there, I watched the ticket agent change
the arrival time to 6:20 p.m. My trip was off to
a roaring start. I would have gladly trotted across
the street to the Doubletree Hotel bar and tapped
a few cold ones. Unfortunately, the Amtrak station
did not have any lockers and I did not feel like
lugging luggage around with me. So no beer until
I hit the Café Car.
Finally, at about the appointed time, the train
pulled in from the west headed by two Genesis locos.
I was glad to be directed to board a Single Level
Coach instead of a Metroliner as I have not heard
many good things about the car that supposedly "saved
Amtrak." The downside was that we sat at the platform
for approximately 30 minutes while crews effected
repairs to some unknown parts.
We pulled out of the station smoothly accelerating
to about 60 miles per hour. Traveling never seemed
so comfortable or enjoyable. We were each handed
a blue sheet of paper, jointly signed by Amtrak
and Norfolk Southern, that explained the congestion
problems between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. As a
National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP)
member and an avid reader of Trains Magazine, I
was well aware of the issues stated in the open
letter but was appreciative of the fact that this
letter had been distributed. Unfortunately, it seemed,
I was the only one in my car who actually read and
understood the document.
Our troubles soon began as we slowed to an eventual
complete stop. We started; we stopped. We traveled
slow with more stopping. Our train was at the mercy
of Norfolk Southern moving freight. We waited alot
on freight trains that night. Thank goodness the
Café Car was open for business and a very friendly
gentleman from Pittsburgh named Joe was willing
to take my greenbacks in exchange for cold Heinekens.
I ate and drank and, once the goofball who complained
the whole way about the delays but said, "I like
to ride trains. I don't know why," got off in Altoona,
I was happy.
Shortly after we left the Altoona station, we
began the usual stop/start motion which had become
customary for this demi-state hop turned voyage
to the New World. A woman towards the front of the
car began passing around a piece of paper to other
passengers. When she approached me asking if I would
care to sign this notebook paper on which she had
handwritten a letter, I naturally asked what it
was? She stated, "Oh, It's just a little letter
to Amtrak complaining about the delays on this trip."
Being a strongly opinionated and vocal individual,
I launched into a calm yet forceful explanation
that the delays were not caused by Amtrak, that
Amtrak did not own the rails but was merely a tenant,
that writing a letter to Amtrak was misguided and
that, if she had read the letter on the blue paper
given to us in Pittsburgh, she would know Norfolk
Southern was the root of the problem and she should
call or write to the Chief Operating Officer (COO)
of NS listed at the bottom of the letter. The woman
quietly folded the letter, placed it in her pocket
and melted back into her seat.
This was the point at which I learned to stop
worrying and love the train. Apparently my diatribe
impressed two college students, Janique and Fess,
across the aisle from me and they both acknowledged
my skill at handling the situation. We spent the
rest of the journey to Harrisburg talking and enjoying
good company finally arriving at 2:30 a.m. more
than slightly askew of our scheduled 10:12 p.m.
arrival time. As I detrained, I tipped my Penguins
hat to the conductor and said, "Sir, I am not going
to complain because I don't care." He smiled and
said, "Thank you."
All said and done, this was a great first trip.
The food was fine, the announcements were regular
and timely, the staff was cool, the seats were comfortable,
the ride was stable and the beer was Heineken. I
concluded, in the end, if you have to be somewhere
between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg on a schedule,
drive or fly. If you are going to complain about
the service, and everyone has a right to complain,
just make sure you are informed and use your words
where they will have maximum effect.
Now, in Harrisburg, a city with a marvelous classic
train station including a beautiful fine wood finished
waiting area and a tracked PRR GG-1 and caboose,
I was ready to begin my adventure meeting my train
guru and going to train mecca. But that is another
story as is the return trip which I will detail
in my next installment titled "Amtrak: Rise and
Fall of the Allegheny Empire".
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At The Pennsylvanian
Dome of Penn Station
Rounds The Bend
Can You Say Lease?
Show The Colors
Freight Headed For Conway Yard
East Busway From The Inside
Arch Over the Susie-Q