By Train to the Three Rivers
June 6-9, 2005
Welcome aboard the Pennsylvanian! Today is June 6, 2005, and I'm heading to Pittsburgh for a few days. With the discontinuance of the Three Rivers, this is the only train on the former PRR line west of Harrisburg. Whereas the Three Rivers, which I had used last year for a round trip to Altoona, was a full service train, the Pennsylvanian is coach and business class only with a snack bar and no baggage car. From the looks of the crowd boarding at New York with tons of luggage, it could use checked baggage service.
My trip started on Metro-North Train #842, a Poughkeepsie-NY express, which I boarded at my home station of Croton-Harmon. Its consist was 8 Bomb coaches pushed by a Genesis unit and was quite full. The train reached GCT 3 minutes late and since I was in the 5th car, it took me a while to reach the subway. At Times Square I boarded a #3 on the express track, thinking it would enable me to access the elevator at Penn Station but we soon crossed over to the local track with an announcement of a blockage on the express track at 14th St. Nevertheless, I reached the Amtrak part of NYP at 9:31.
My first stop was the Information Booth to pick up a new System timetable since I was unable to locate the copy I had at home. To my surprise, the agent told me they were thrown out "as they contained the wrong information," presumably the Acela schedules. She gave me a fistful of paper timetables to take care of my immediate travel needs. After a brief rest in the waiting area I headed for the concourse where Train 43 soon was opened for boarding on Track 9. There appeared to about 75 or so heading for the gate, many with more than ample luggage.
Upon entering the platform I noted the rear car was Amfleet I but that the remainder of the train was the long distance Amfleet II equipment. Although the windows could have been cleaner, the interior of the train was clean and nice and cool on this 85+ day.
Departure came on time at 9:56 and I settled in for the trip by reading some reports; there would be plenty of time for scenery viewing after Harrisburg. Since the train changes ends at PHL, I selected a seat on the right side. Although that is initially the sunny side, it would be the shady side for most of the trip.
We ran down the Corridor at good speed and reached PHL on time, There I used the 25-minute stop for leg stretching and to record the consist. HHP Engine 654 had pulled us to PHL. Soon Engine 90 (P42) was added to the rear which now became the front. Leaving PHL we had Engine 90 pulling 5 cars: one Amfleet I Capstone overhauled coach for the "locals", 3 Amfleet II coaches for the long distance riders and an Amfleet I café-lounge car with business class seating at the rear. The business class area had comfortable-looking leather seats in a 2-1 arrangement and was sold out. When I reentered the train I noted that some new riders had boarded while we were "in the dark." Soon we pulled down a short distance; the power came back on and quite a few more passengers boarded. The crew is used seat checks preprinted with all stations served by the train and just punched the destination of each passenger. Thus it's a little harder to tell where everyone is going as on must trains the crews write the destination's alpha code in large letters. Departure from PHL came at 11:49 (11:45). While in the station there, the southbound Silver Star pulled in on an adjacent track on its NY-Miami trip. After departure we headed west along the 4-track ex PRR "Broad-Way." The ride became noticeably rougher but west of Paoli Amtrak's rebuilding efforts became apparent with the Track Laying System working on the "westbound" track while we bounced along on the eastbound. Around MP 60 our ride changed to a smooth one so I assume the "eastbound" track now has been rebuilt in this area. The new welded rail makes a big difference.
After Paoli I heard the two conductors discussing a problem-the air conditioning had failed in the car behind mine. They were trying to figure whether to move the people at Lancaster or whether the problem might be fixed at Harrisburg. They were especially concerned, as a group of 42 will be boarding at Altoona. As I went back to the snack car I passed a number of persons moving forward with their luggage in search of cooler cars. For lunch I had the bratwurst which was tasty, along with a bag of chips and a diet Pepsi. Total cost: $7.00. The cash register didn't seem to be working but had a long string of "receipts" coming out of it. The attendant made change out of a cardboard box, just as has been done many times in the past. When I requested a receipt, he simply tore a blank one off a pad and handed it to me.
East of Lancaster we crossed back to the westbound track which was rough jointed rail at this location. An adjacent track held carloads of welded rail, awaiting installation. There was quite a turnover at Lancaster with about the same number boarding and detraining. About 10 Amish people joined us here. At Harrisburg two Keystone Service trains were in the station; each was 3 Amfleet I cars pulled by a P42. Once the rehabilitation of the line has been completed, Amtrak has stated its intention to use the electrification once again.
Although the sun had been shining at Harrisburg, we got into a rather severe storm just a few miles west of there. Indeed, large lightening bolts were visible from the Rockville Bridge. The conductor announced the historic significance of the structure and that we would be following the Susquehanna River for a few miles after crossing it and, later, the Juanita River for about 100 miles. The NS tracks were smooth but we encountered many freight trains along the way. There was a 14-minute delay at CP Cannon (MP119), waiting for a track work crew to clear up. Nearly all the freights had NS power but we did pass one with BNSF power and another powered by UP locomotives.
After Altoona I walked back one car to get a seat on the left side for better viewing of Horseshoe Curve. This had been the "hot" car but now was nice and cool with most of the seats taken. The line becomes 3 tracks just west of the Altoona station and actually has 4 tracks in a few places. The view around the curve was spectacular as always and I noted only 3 autos parked at the visitor's center. In this area we passed quite a few trains, many with helpers on the rear. It was nice to see the Station Inn at Cresson with its "Welcome Railfans" banner on the front porch.
There was much evidence of rain and soon the dispatcher called our train to advise of a 20mph "flash flood warning" speed restriction between Johnstown and a point near Pittsburgh. The crew soon announced this, giving a PGH ETA of 9pm unless the restriction is lifted. About half the passengers reached for their cell phones to announce "we're late." The couple behind me commented, "Well, that makes sense as they have floods in Johnstown." Naturally safety is the prime consideration so I'm sure NS forces are out patrolling the tracks and will lift the order if possible. At this speed it looks as though I'll be "dining" on the train this evening rather than in Pittsburgh. I note a river alongside us but the water is far below the track level. The NS Dispatcher calls us "Train 017" so that must be our number in their system. During the slow running three riders seated ahead of me were observing that "the government wants to cut the funding for Amtrak but keeps bailing out the airlines." They have written to their Senators. One mentioned that Southwest Airlines had advertised a $30 one way from PHL to PGH but when she called a week ago, they wanted $159 for the trip. She commented that they probably have only a very few seats available at that price; the SW agent had refused to tell her how many.
I had walked through the train after Altoona to find it about 75% full. The conductor said there were 101 passengers en route to Pittsburgh. In view of he lateness I opted to have dinner on board. But first another walk through the train was in order. In addition to losing the baggage car, this train also has lost its car attendants. So west of Johnstown several cars had no toilet paper, and others had no paper towels. One restroom didn't even have a soap dispenser. For dinner the flame broiled cheeseburger was OK with plenty of catsup and relish. The snack bar attendant was somewhat grouchy both at lunch and at dinner. Shortly after I obtained my food he started turning people away and later he chased everyone out of the car. One can only speculate as to the need for this as business class passengers in their comfortable leather seats occupied the other end of the car.
The slow order was lifted at 6:45. We took off with a great burst of speed, only to soon catch up with an NS freight that caused us to poke along once again. Our arrival at Penn Station in Pittsburgh was at 8:27(7:05). The conductor mentioned that the slow order had cost us 68 minutes so were it not for that we would have been only about 15 minutes late.
No cabs were on hand but two other passengers and I soon found one nearby. This guy was one of the nicest cab drivers I've ever seen. He helped us with the luggage and charged each a reasonable fare. I reached the Hilton Hotel in Gateway Center about 8:45. The driver said the cabs generally don't meet the trains because "you never know when they will show up."
My return was on Thursday, June 9. For several reasons, I had to fly back. Upon checking the fares on USAirways and on Continental, the best I could do for a one way PIT-NY was about $450 which seemed high, even though I wouldn't be paying for it. Then a friend mentioned that Southwest just started flying PIT-PHL and that triggered a thought. Upon checking, SW had a flight to PHL at 4:50. US Air's 4 and 6pm flights to PHL were about $415 but the 5pm flight which was what I wanted anyway, was a mere $39.80!
The aircraft came in a little late but we pushed back only 7 minutes late only to be held on the ground because of thunderstorms in the Philadelphia area. We finally were given the green light to take off and started moving at 6:42. The flight got a little rough near Philadelphia but was not bad. No food or drinks were served except for cups of ice water delivered by the attendants while we were on the ground. The Philadelphia arrival was 1 hour, 45 minutes late at 7:51pm. Luckily the baggage claim area is just across from the SEPTA rail line and my bag was on the carousel when I reached it. So I headed up to the bridge and down to the SEPTA platform, about 3 minutes before the 8:11 train pulled in with 4 EMU's, of which the head two were open. The fare with my Medicare card was $1.00 for which the conductor issued a commuter rail Senior Citizen cash fare receipt torn from a pad. We reached 30th St. Station at 8:28 (8:30). I rode in Car #118.
Earlier I had called Amtrak and learned that Train 138, on which I had a reservation to NYP, had left on time. The ticket office changed me to Train 188 at 9:05 but the agent warned me that its 10:26 arrival at NYP would be too close to connect with Empire Service #222 at 10:45, for which I had a ticket to Croton Harmon. I assured her that it would be no problem if it arrives anywhere close to on time. "OK, I guess you know you're way around; I've never been to Penn Station in NY." As an extra bonus, on the counter was a pile of the System timetables that the info people in NYP say were thrown away, so I took a few to prevent any further waste of paper.
After a snack at McDonalds I headed out to the concourse. A Keystone train to Harrisburg was loading about 45 minutes late, train 175 to Washington was loading and there was a line of about 50 people awaiting my #188. The 6 car train absorbed us all OK. Departure was at 9:10 (9:05) and we reached NYP at 10:32 (10:26). Luckily my car door stopped right by the escalator to the Upper Level and Empire Service Train 273 was being announced as I reached the top. So I went over to Track 7, down the escalator and boarded a nice cool second car of the 5-car train (3 open). Departure came on time at 10:46 and the Croton-Harmon station was reached a minute early at 11:25. I very much enjoyed the trip and also consider myself lucky that my return arrival was only 45 minutes later than planned, despite the hour and 45 minute late flight.