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Trip Report

The Northeast by Commuter Rail
Section 3 of 4

December 22-31, 2002


Sunday, December 29, 2002

Part 28: NJ TRANSIT Atlantic City Line Train #4612, Cherry Hill, NJ to Philadelphia-30th Street Station, PA

And here we go again. After a normal 3-day work week, I was on the (rail)road once more, this time focusing on Philadelphia and points south. I would once more be originating in Cherry Hill for the short trip into Philadelphia.

I got to the station about 45 minutes before my train, and had a chance to run into the adjacent Shop Rite supermarket to pick up a few things.

Train 4612 was right on time, so it arrived into Philadelphia a little early, as is customary with the padding on these trains.

Now it was time for lunch, for which I possibly overindulged. I must have, because when it later came time for dinner, I could not even think of eating.

Part 29: AMTRAK Acela Express Train #2251, Philadelphia-30th Street Station, PA to Washington, DC

I could have taken an Acela Regional right down to Fredericksburg, my ultimate destination, as both 195 and 99 could have taken me there with one seat. But what fun would that be? To date with all the Acela Express rides I have taken, I have not been south of Wilmington, DE. This trip would rectify that.

2251 operated right on schedule, and worked like a charm. The 1-3/4 hour trip was the quickest I have ever experienced between Philly and Washington.

Part 30: In Washington, DC

My 2+ hours in Washington was uneventful. I was not hungry for a meal, neither at Sbarro's nor at the downstairs food court in Union Station, so I just went downstairs for a snack. As I've done so many times, all I need to do is to walk near the Chinese stands and I get offered samples of sweet & sour chicken. It hit the spot, and you can't beat the price.

Part 31: AMTRAK Acela Regional Train #99, Washington, DC to Fredericksburg, VA

Unlike the last time I was in Washington after dark in November, the lights were working over the escalators, so I did not have to ride down to the platform in darkness. A slight letdown after the Acela Express ride, this train was necessary to get me down to Fredericksburg so I could begin my second commuter train festival the following morning. It was just about another uneventful trip. We dwelled in Quantico a little longer than I thought we had to, so we were a few minutes later than the advertised 6:07 PM into Fredericksburg. Upon arrival, I purchased my VRE ticket from a vending machine on the platform, noting that I would just have to validate it before boarding in the morning.

Part 32: In Fredericksburg

I assumed incorrectly that there would be taxicabs waiting by the station at train time to take me to my hotel. I guess on a Sunday evening there is not much business. I walked around the entire station, a full block, and did not see any taxis waiting. One company across the street, which had a cab parked in its lot, was otherwise closed; there were no signs of life inside.

There were no signs posted outside the station listing the cab services, and of course I could not get inside the station at this lonely hour to see if they had any information inside. Thankfully, I had done my homework. I had printed out a list of cab companies, complete with telephone numbers, off the internet. I only kicked myself for not calling any of them from the train on the way down. My problem was that some of them were not answering. I finally found a live one, and was told that they would get to me in between 20 and 30 minutes. That would have to do, since I was not about to walk the three-mile distance to my hotel.

In the meantime, a bunch of teenaged boys came around on bicycles, and they were using the station's parking lot, curbs, sidewalks, and handicapped ramps to do bicycle tricks. Some of them even fell off their bikes, but undaunted they did these stupid things again. None of them wore helmets. My problem was that their antics left me little place to stand safely without worrying about getting hit.

Finally, a taxi showed up. The driver asked if I had called, and I said yes, not realizing that this was not the same company. Who cares? I told her where I was going, and got in. Of course as we were departing, the company that I had called was just arriving. Oh well...first come, first served. I was not going to stand there any longer than I had to.

After a pleasant ride, I arrived at my Best Western hotel. It is near the area's shopping district, so besides every hotel chain there are all kinds of major stores as well (although closed on a Sunday night), and more importantly, most fast food chains. Although I wasn't hungry back in Washington, I sure was by now, particularly after my 40-minute wait for a cab. I walked over to a nearby Burger King for a late dinner, and then retired early for the night.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Part 33: Still in Fredericksburg

I had asked for a 5:30 AM wakeup call, so that I would have plenty of advance time to call a taxi. After last night, I was nervous about how I would get back to the train station. I wanted to be on the 6:45 AM VRE train, and therefore wished to be picked up between 6 and 6:15, just to play it safe. I went through my list once more, and found a company that was available at that hour. The dispatcher told me that he could not guarantee I would be picked up by 6, but he would try. That was not good enough, so I asked the desk clerk upon checking out if she could call me a cab; perhaps she knew of somebody closer. She called one right away, and they said they would be there in ten minutes. I was therefore surprised when the first company showed up. I should have told the desk clerk to cancel her call, but I figured the cab company's exercise in futility would be a good way at getting back at them collectively for my 40-minute wait last night.

I arrived at the Fredericksburg station at 6:10 AM, and there was a train upstairs. The northbound trains originate here every half hour on the quarter hour, and I had intended to take the 6:45 AM trip to Alexandria. But I could make this one, the 6:15, which was a better prospect than spending another half hour around this station. When I got to the top of the ramp, to the platform, the crew was saying "All Aboard". I had enough time to quickly validate my ticket before I boarded this train.

Part 34: Virginia Railway Express Fredericksburg Line Train #304, Fredericksburg, VA to Alexandria, VA

Not only was I taking an earlier Virginia Railway Express (VRE) trip than intended, but this train just happened to be equipped with bilevels that were leased from SOUNDER, a commuter agency in the Seattle area. The squiggly lines on the livery that depict water and mountains seem so out of place in northern Virginia.

Rather than going upstairs or downstairs on the train, I found a sideways-facing seat that permitted me to put my luggage right next to me. Bilevels have very little space in which to stow one's belongings, a problem I had also encountered while in Boston a week earlier. Almost immediately, a crew member checked my ticket. Tickets are not collected; this is an honor system similar to that found on many light rail routes. Since the ticket has to be validated, it cannot be used on a subsequent trip again.

I was now riding commuter rail on CSX trackage, which is used by AMTRAK's Acela Regional, TWILIGHT SHORELINER, CAROLINIAN, Silver Service, and the AUTO TRAIN as far north as Lorton.

The train filled up nicely at stations along the way, but we remained on time. We arrived at Alexandria on time at 7:17 AM, just a little over an hour since departing Fredericksburg.

Part 35: In Alexandria

And now I was faced with a small dilemma. My original plan called for a 43-minute dwell here in between trains. I was 1/2 hour early. I could not catch an earlier outbound train to Manassas, so my dwell here would be 73 minutes. That would give me enough time to walk to a McDonald's and get breakfast. I recalled years ago I had walked from the Metro station (adjacent to the train station) east on King Street into Old Town Alexandria and found a McDonald's, but I did not recall how far that walk had been. I certainly did not have a suitcase and bag on that earlier trip.

I walked, and walked, and walked, and finally saw the familiar yellow arches. Since a number of buses had passed me on King Street, I decided I would ride back. After breakfast, I did not have long to wait before an Alexandria Transit (also known as DASH) bus came. After verifying this driver was going to King Street Metro, I boarded and paid my one-dollar fare, every cent worth not having to drag my suitcase back all those blocks.

Back at King Street Metro (a station for the Yellow and Blue Lines), I walked from the bus stop, around the Metro station, under the railroad overpasses, and back to the train station, still with plenty of time before my 8:30 AM outbound train. I used this time to purchase and validate my ticket to Manassas/Broad Run, and I also purchased my next ticket from Broad Run back to Washington Union Station from the same machine.

While there, inbound VRE trains from both lines came in and discharged their passengers. (One of the consists was one of the gallery-type bilevels from Chicago's METRA.) They did so on the platform closest to the station, essentially running left-handed. AMTRAK Train 84, an Acela Regional bound for New York, also stopped at this platform. I began to wonder if my train might be using the other track, Track 2. I asked some VRE employees if they knew where my train to Manassas would be stopping, and they said they thought it was on the other side. Not a very sure response, but I was glad I thought of it and at least asked. There is a wooden walkway across the tracks, but there's a sign saying not to cross there. Nevertheless, people do all the time, and I was not going to miss my train. I took the risk and crossed here, after being sure nothing was coming. I was also risking my train might be coming on Track 1, but figured there had already been too much traffic there. I watched closely as my train arrived shortly before 8:30, and decided I would have to play "chicken" (Don't do that at home, kids!) and rush to the other side if it did appear around the bend on Track 1. Luckily I had decided upon the correct platform, and boarded my train along with one other individual on Track 2.

Part 36: Virginia Railway Express Manassas Line Train #323, Alexandria, VA to Manassas/Broad Run, VA

Another SOUNDER consist! This train was very lightly patronized. It is a reverse-peak train, primarily an equipment positioning move in order to provide a late-morning inbound service using the same equipment that functioned earlier as a morning rush-hour inbound train. As such, it ran "express", skipping Backlick Road and Rolling Road. We only made the last 4 stops on the line, which are Burke Centre, Manassas Park, downtown Manassas, and Broad Run, located near the Manassas Airport. It appeared that we remained left-handed through our entire trip.

Besides meeting passing inbound VRE trains on the 2-track Norfolk Southern mainline, I also expected to see AMTRAK's CRESCENT, Train #20(29), and wondered if it too would be running on the left-side track because of our movement. But we never passed the CRESCENT. Norfolk Southern had recently slapped a speed restriction on any AMTRAK train carrying Material Handling Cars, so it was running late. I was surprised to see it waiting on the mainline, on our Track 2, as we got to Broad Run and left the main to enter VRE's station and yard facility just east of the tracks. The CRESCENT, behind P-42 engines 18 and 23, was running about one hour late. AMTRAK's CARDINAL also uses these tracks.

Arrival at Broad Run was at 9:30 AM, well ahead of the 9:45 advertised. Even this reverse-peak trip's schedule is padded. It only takes 6 or 7 minutes to go from downtown Manassas to the Broad Run station, but the timetable allows anywhere from 13 to 21 minutes. This particular trip gets the maximum 21 minutes, possibly because under normal circumstances, it meets the CRESCENT further up the line.

There is nothing much at the lonely Broad Run station. VRE's storage/maintenance yard for this line is just beyond the off-the-main platform. Our consist went a bit south of the station platform and the crew turned the train beyond revenue territory. East of the platform is a parking lot. (This station is really only accessible by car.) Just to the north of the parking lot lies one of the runways for Manassas Airport, so the area is pretty clear of buildings. I walked around the parking lot before returning to the station platform to validate my train ticket, the one I had purchased back in Alexandria.

Part 37: Virginia Railway Express Manassas Line Train #334, Manassas/Broad Run, VA to Washington, DC

A pretty good-sized crowd was now assembled at the Broad Run station. There were families and groups with kids, and other groups with just adults. With school out for the holidays, something must have been doing in Washington for families. The train came into the station at 10:14 AM, and quickly boarded us passengers and departed on time at 10:15.

Train 334 had the same equipment as my previous 323. That's three for three for the SOUNDER bilevels! I would have been happy just riding on one once. This train made every stop up the line, and it did a good business despite its off-peak nature.

We came into Alexandria right on time at 11:02 AM. A good-sized crowd was waiting on the platform for the southbound CAROLINIAN, which was due at the same time. This time, I stayed aboard for the final run into Washington Union Station, which includes intermediate stops at Crystal City and L'Enfant Plaza. (Had this been a Wednesday or a Friday, we would have passed the westbound CARDINAL somewhere between Alexandria and Washington, DC.) Once again, this train arrived at its final destination well before its published 11:30 AM time.

Part 38: In Washington, again

I had about 2-1/4 hours until my next train, the first MARC trip of the day. I went downstairs to the food court, and this time after trying a sample of Sweet & Sour chicken, I actually had a plate of it that I paid for. Their sample sold me this time!

Following lunch, I walked around the station. I got weary after a while, and sat in one of the waiting areas near Gate A, where I would be going to board my train. A police officer came through the waiting area, making sure that everyone in there had tickets to board a train. I had mine, another AMTRAK-issued ticket. Just like on Shore Line East, one-way MARC tickets are issued by AMTRAK at Washington Union Station, and in fact they are available from the Quick-Trak machines there.

Soon my train was announced and displayed for Track 8, far north end. During the day MARC puts several trainsets on each track. The downside is that one has to walk a long way past an entire trainset to get to the second train.

Part 39: Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) Brunswick Line Train #871, Washington, DC to Rockville, MD

Although I had walked past quite a few bilevel train cars, my train contained all of MARC's older single level coaches. Only the rear door of the rear car made the platform, so everyone had to enter here and walk through the train. At least on this single level train I had plenty of room overhead for my suitcase.

This trip, was a late addition to my journey, as it was not on my originally published itinerary. MARC's Brunswick Line (which is also served by AMTRAK's CAPITOL LIMITED) runs out to that namesake town, and several trains run beyond Brunswick into West Virginia, where three more stops are served. Those trains terminate in Martinsburg, WV. I would not be able to go to Brunswick or Martinsburg unless I slept in one of those places overnight and took a train back the next morning. With the limited time I had, that would be impossible.

What I could do was to ride this line as far as I could until alternate rail transportation would no longer be available. So I devised a trip to Rockville, MD, where the MARC station is next door to the Metro Red Line.

Train 871, which is the very first outbound departure on this line, departed Washington on time at 1:45 PM. The first stop in Silver Spring was made at the older station. By now a new station closer to the Silver Spring Metro station was supposed to have been opened. The opening was delayed a few months because the new station was not quite ready for business.

After Silver Spring, we made flag stops at Kensington and Garrett Park. These two stations are located on the part of the line that runs between the eastern and western legs of the U-shaped Metro Red Line, so they do get some business in the absence of other rail transit.

Rockville was next, my stop. Obviously most people take the Metro to go from Washington to Rockville. By commuter rail the trip takes 27 minutes; Metro is slower and has many more stops along the way. I think I was the only person alighting in Rockville. There were a few people getting on the train to go further outbound to stations as far as Brunswick.

I went downstairs and through the short tunnel to access the Metro faregates.

Part 40: Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority, Metro Red Line, Rockville, MD to Shady Grove, MD

I first took one of WMATA's Metro Red Line trains in the wrong direction. With time to kill, I figured I might as well ride next to more of CSX's right-of-way since I could not go further on the MARC train. That ride was over in a few minutes. At Shady Grove, I walked back to what would become the front car of the same train for the much longer ride back to Washington.

Part 41: Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority, Metro Red Line, Shady Grove, MD to Washington Union Station

I was able to get a side-facing seat in the front car, right behind the operator's booth. I could see out the train's front window. A true railfan's position! It was convenient, although when the train later became crowded, my suitcase was blocking the seat next to mine. Tough break, folks; Metro doesn't have overhead racks. If looks could kill, my report would end right here.

This ride was between approximately 2:20 PM and about 3 PM. Despite the time of day, the train got more and more packed. By the time we got downtown it was standing room only. After we passed Judiciary Square, I wisely stood up and made my way to a door so I would be able to detrain at Union Station. I had the time to go onward, but I'd had enough Metro riding.

Continued in next section

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