Birmingham AL - Lancaster PA
April 16-21, 2007
On Monday April 16, 2007 myself, Ralph Honeycutt and Ross Stagner from the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum boarded Amtrak train 20, the Crescent, at Birmingham to visit the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania (RMP) at Strasburg near Lancaster. Our museum is planning to upgrade and expand our educational programs and we had arranged to talk with Pat Morrison, an RMP educator. We wished to see firsthand the RMP educational programs reputed to be among the best in the USA. The three of us were also eager to see the RMP library to get ideas for our own growing facility.
No. 20 left the Amtrak station on time at 2:50PM. Birmingham's unattractive but functional rail depot is next to what was the L & N station. Just west of the Amtrak station is a new "intermodal" bus station that "someday" will also be used by Amtrak.
We were quickly seated in our Viewliner single bedrooms in car 2010 "Harbor View" by a very friendly and efficient car attendant whose name escapes me. Our companion Viewliner was 1911 "Prairie View" next to the baggage car. Warned of non-stop night-time whistle-blowing in the Carolinas, we asked for the further car and for middle rooms away from the wheels.
The train consist was 2 Genesis locomotives, a baggage car, 2 Viewliners, a dining car, lounge car and 4 Amfleet II coaches. Our car attendant said the Viewliners would be full leaving Charlotte. Two of the coaches were about three-quarters full, the other two were locked and empty presumably for Atlanta passengers.
After watching the Norfolk Southern Irondale yard complex go by we headed for lounge car "Chicago Club" which still has a glassed in ex-smoking section used for extra seating. Chicago Club seemed tattered and uncared for but my gin bloody mary was great. The three of us continued our trip planning while stealing glances at the beautiful mountainous scenery between Birmingham and Anniston.
Because the Crescent often fills at Atlanta and newcomers rush to the dining car, we ate dinner around 6PM EST as the train hustled through the string of small West Georgia towns like Villarrica that metro Atlanta is gradually absorbing. The dining car, in attractive Acela colors, was already busy and understaffed with 2 waitresses, a cook and "gopher" who cleared tables, put meals on the serving counter and otherwise helped the cook. Their good humor and patience with hungry passengers helped ease delays in getting set up, ordering, and fed. I had a good fish and no-one complained about the quality of the food. In Atlanta, we were held up just shy of Peachtree station for almost an hour and thus left the big peach over an hour down.
Moving northeast out of town we paralleled a Marta heavy rail elevated line. I was amused to see the 8 car Marta trains full of homebound commuters pass us with ease.
Around 8PM we three rail-fans repaired to the Chicago Club for further museum-related discussions and libations. Much or our time was spent wondering if we were passing Toccoa, Clemson, or Spartanburg. At Greenville, SC. there was a lengthy stop and what appeared to be a crew change.
By 11 I was in my Viewliner berth. It was reasonably comfortable but I miss the old-time roomette beds-so wide and deep. At least one can access the facilities past the witching hour without lifting the bed. I slept off and on as usual watching Charlotte and many a small town pass in the night. We met for breakfast just before Charlottesville, VA. This timing is important because lots of Northeast corridor-bound passengers board there and fill the dining car. I ate something like an omelette with sausage mixed in and many cups of coffee as we moved smoothly through the beautiful Virginia countryside.
We left DC only 45 minutes down and reached Philadelphia a half hour late. Along the way we had the pleasure of seeing Acelas rip past along with Marc and Septa commuter trains.
At Philly we de-trained into restored 30th street station. After a quick station lunch we got on westbound Keystone train 645. Our 7 car Amfleet train ran on rehabilitated track and electric power lines for a one hour trip to Lancaster. After we left 650 at 2:45PM, it was scheduled to run another hour to Harrisburg.
The old-style Lancaster station looked as though it has been re-furbished and provided an easy exit to our rental car. Our motel was in a kitschy tourist area along the old Lincoln Highway east toward Strasburg and Amish/Mennonite villages. We spent the rest of the day sightseeing, eating a huge dinner at a family style restaurant and reviewing our notes and questions for the RMP visit.
On Wednesday, Pat Morrison graciously spent the entire day with us in a great busman's tour of the RMP museum, library and educational programs in Stewart Junction, an L-shaped room inside the museum full of model trains and exhibits for all ages. Attached to Stewart Junction is a small town depot with waiting room, ticket counter and telegraphy set-up. In front of the depot stands a 1910 era passenger train with a 4-6-0, baggage car, and three beautifully restored wooden coaches. Pat patiently answered the multitude of questions we came with and thought up on the spot. We also spent a productive hour interviewing the RMP's Executive Director, David Dunn, about administrative issues.
Pat invited us to follow him and the museum's other educator as they toured 2 school groups through the museum the following day. I followed Pat and a well-behaved, excited group of Mennonite elementary school kids on an hour-long tour of the museum's exhibits and Stewart Junction. Along the way the kids were taught to operate the depot telegraph, buy and sell coach seats to Pittsburgh, play conductor and ticket taker in a restored Pennsy P-70 heavyweight coach and see how a steam engine works via a live model in Stewart Junction.
At Noon we said good-by to Pat and continued our adventure across the road from the RMP with a lunch-time ride on a Strasburg railroad dining car courtesy of Hubert Leith, one of the tourist railroads' founders and a close friend of Ralph Honeycutt. Our train was pulled by a restored 2-10-0 decapod featured in the May issue of Trains magazine. Hubert also treated us to a ride in the railroad's bar-parlor car and toured us through the shop buildings where steam locomotives are maintained, repaired and restored. I highly recommend both the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the Strasburg Railroad. Both of these outstanding facilities can be done in one day but 2 is better.
On Friday, April 20 at 12:35PM, we boarded eastbound Keystone train 650 for Philadelphia. This involved another comfortable ride with an on-time arrival of 1:45. The restoration of electric catenary enables Keystone trains to achieve speeds of up to 110 MPH. Many of our fellow passengers were continuing on to New York aboard the same train and chattered about Broadway plays to be seen and other big city diversions.
As first class passengers we could rest in the VIP lounge on a second floor overlooking the busy main concourse of 30th street station. This we did in great comfort with coffee snacks, newspapers and internet access until No. 19 arrived from New York at 3:55PM. Thanks to the VIP room's attentive personnel our bags were waiting on us in our Viewliner vestibule when we boarded. Another friendly car attendant soon had the three of us comfortably established in single rooms on Atlantic View, car # 1910. Our train consist was identical to that of the previous trip. The attendant said the sleeping car space was mostly sold out while a tour of the 4 coaches showed 2 full cars and 2 empties.
Nineteen's journey to DC was interrupted by several delays so that we arrived 45 minutes down. While waiting for the transition from electric to Genesis diesels we toured the Union Station platforms and saw a regional corridor train with a business class car and café-bar arrive from New York. Nineteen departed an hour down and soon after we headed for the lounge car-this one un-named number 28009 attractively done up in Acela Moderne style. The jovial bar attendant mixed up an extra special bloody mary and soon we basked in the glow of sitting in the lounge car of one of the nations few non-corridor inter-city passenger trains and congratulating ourselves on a job well-done.
About 8PM we moved to a dining car staffed by three wait persons instead of two. I had a very good prime rib slice with red wine and once again there were no complaints. After a final visit to the lounge we bedded down. I had a better than usual night's sleep waking in North Georgia just in time to beat the Atlanta station stop where breakfast service ceases until departure. Good old Railroad French toast was spiced with lively conversation with a guy roaming the country by train and bus and apparently moving from one place to another on whims. At Atlanta he would take a bus to the northwest Florida Gulf coast to see what there was to see.
Because of late running we took our "free" lunch-included in the first class price. More good coffee and a respectable veggie burger. Arrival in Birmingham was at 12:30 only 45 minutes late. A great trip from start to finish. Often, I'll experience a good rail trip one way and a mediocre or bad trip the other. This time it was A-OK both ways.