Altoona Railfest 2001
Altoona, PA — October 6, 2001
by Bob LeBras
It was a dreary, cold and drizzly day in Altoona for early Fall. The rain had ended in Pittsburgh, but, heading eastward, I drove right back into the tail end of it. Fortunately, the heaviest precipitation was felt on the road with scattered light to moderate morning sprinkles lingering as the Canadian cold front pushed relentlessly through the Allegheny Mountains. However, it takes more than a little rain to dampen the spirits of a railfan.
Arriving in Altoona at around 10:30 a.m., I parked in the mall lot next door to the museum versus the suggested parking area. I’m not one to follow the rules and like to have the UAV (Urban Assault Vehicle) nearby. This is handy for dumping off any acquired treasures and expedient getaways. As I knew, at some point, I would be chasing the featured excursion train to Horseshoe Curve, my selected lot space was the perfect location.
First, I immediately went to the Railroaders Memorial Museum to purchase my entry ticket which was good for admission to the museum and Horseshoe Curve. Although the museum states that this is their biggest fundraiser for the year, I was very surprised by the lack of vendors in the large museum yard. I had expected a turnout similar to the many airshows I’ve attended with sellers hawking everything from lemonade to lawnchairs. In fact, there were only a couple of tents set up on the grounds and only one food vendor; no funnelcakes, corndogs, or shrimp skewers this trip.
As I had visited the museum and its outside rail equipment displays just a few months prior, I declined to spend time in these areas. I snapped a couple of photos of nicely restored vintage vehicles parked in the yard, went inside to the museum store, purchased a very nice Railfest 2001 T-shirt, then raced back outside to see the arrival of the excursion train towed by a pair of restored EMD E8 locomotives. Naturally, Norfolk Southern, in the true spirit of its ill-advised corporate moves and bad timing, provided railfans with a long eastbound freight on Track 2 just as the excursion train arrived at the platform on Track 1 blocking the best views from the dozens of photographers lining the south side of the tracks.
Once the freight had passed, I snapped a few shots of the train with its beautifully restored matching pair of E8s from various vantage points, noting that, aside from two vintage tuscan Pennsy marked cars on either end, the passenger coaches were all stainless MARC commuter cars from Maryland. As a first generation diesel afficianado and PRR fan, it was a spectacular sight to see these historic leviathans resurrected and operating in their original livery and renumbered to their Pennsylvania Railroad identifcations of Nos. 5809 and 5711. The constant, yet courteous, juxtapositioning of dozens of photographers (myself included), on the ground and along both pedestrian footbridges, seeking to capture this unique train from every conceivable angle confirmed that my enthusiasm was a widely shared experience.
Back at the museum, a gentleman told me that I could purchase an excursion ticket at the Amtrak station for the trip from Altoona to Gallitzin Loop and back. I walked across the footbridge spanning the NS mainline and entered the station. Now, Altoona is not New York City and its Amtrak station, although relatively new, is not Grand Central Terminal having been designed to handle a few dozen train and bus passengers awaiting departure. What confronted me as I entered the station was, quite literally, a sea of humanity filling virtually every horizontal void in the facility. The waiting area was jam-packed and the line extended, I assume, to the outside. Quickly, I determined that this was not the ideal moment to purchase my ticket and decided to leave, planning to return at a later, quieter time.
I decided to stop at the UAV, lose the T-shirt, and proceed to the toy train meet at the mall. I had never been inside Station Mall before, and immediately liked the intimate atmosphere of this small urban commercial setting. Also, I have always enjoyed special vendor events set up in mall public areas because it enhances the shopping experience. Certainly, it was fitting and appropriate to have a train meet in this mall nextdoor to a railroad museum, located at the center of the Pennsylvania Railroad empire, and along the most famous and busiest stretch of track in the world.
I saw lots of nifty stuff, both old and new, ranging from N scale to G, but mostly O gauge. There was no pressure to buy and it just seemed, overall, a more relaxed and enjoyable form of “window shopping.” Also, there were several very nice modular layouts by the Alto Model Train Museum Association, Inc., one each in O, S and HO gauges, set up in an alcove area. Some of the scenes including a snow village, circus, and Halloween haunted house were really neat and I hope lots of kids got to see them.
As I was about to leave the mall, I heard the distinctive sound of the E8s Model 567 prime movers throttle up as the first excursion run departed Altoona. I walked out the back door to see yet more dozens of photographers clicking away. Instead of joining them, I simply watched in awe and respect listening to the wonderful throb of 48 cylinders reminiscing of days long past; the gentle chime of the bell and the melodic song of the air horn combine with the intoxicating diesel exhaust fumes spreading more than a few goosebumps amongst the gathered throng.
Snapping myself out of The Zone, I realize that the train has left Altoona for the big climb and, yet another series of fantastic shots awaits at historic Horseshoe Curve. The Curve, combined with these vintage classics, is a sure-bet recipe for unforgettable railfanning. Although I have driven from Horseshoe Curve to Altoona several times, I had never done the reverse so I really didn’t know where I was going. I followed the mainline on some back streets for awhile, took a wrong turn, used my pretty good sense of direction, got back on the right track, and found my way to the big bend. I arrived knowing that I had missed the outboud trip, but in plenty of time for the eastbound return. In the meantime, I took some shots of Amtrak trains battling the grandest ascent/descent struggle in mainline railroading.
Finally, we heard the unmistakable horn of the E8 led train as it wound its way down the mountain towards The Curve. Everyone jumped to their feet and faced the tracks preparing to shoot this one-of-a-kind train from a hundred different angles with every conceivable piece of photographic/video equipment. On this day, I had my new digital camera (a Sony Mavica FD73, for those interested) affording me superb photographic flexibility. I took full advantage of it and was ecstatic to witness a scene right out of class 1950s passenger railroading.
Zipping back to Altoona (knowing my way this time) and parking in the Amtran lot next to the Amtrak station, I arrived in time to watch the switch back operations in progress with the locomotive pair changing positions from one end of the train to the other in preparation for the next run. I already knew this train was sold-out, so I did not bother to go back to the station. I decided to board the free shuttle to visit the NS Juniata Locomotive Shop hoping for an interesting tour.
The shop tour was abit disappointing because of its limited scope. Only the first floor of the Administration Building was accessible with three locomotives parked on one side and two cars on the other. However, it is always fun to get to climb inside the cab of a locomotive and that fun was tripled in this instance. Inside the building was an impressive HO scale model of the shops constructed during the Conrail years and quite detailed. On the opposite side of the building was the NS Exhibit Car with interactive displays and videos espousing the greatness of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Included here was an interesting scaled-down locomotive cab simulator, but the line was too mean looking to tarry. I proceeded to the next car which was a glorious NS executive observation piece with a gorgeous wood interior and immaculate guestroom facilities. Truly, this was rail travel in the grand old tradition.
I left the Juniata Shops and boarded one of Altoona’s classic and well-maintained GMC short fishbowl buses for the ride back to town. This simple shuttle trip was very nostalgic for me reminding of many similar rides on Port Authority Transit full-size fishbowls in the mid 1970s. We debarked at the Amtrak station prior to the departure of the scheduled 1:35 p.m. excursion train. I, immediately, went inside the station and purchased a ticket for the last trip at 3:50 p.m. I was told to be back at the station 1/2 hour prior to departure time.
So, I set about milling around the museum yard looking at the few displays and purchasing a very mediocre hotdog for lunch. I went back inside the museum store and bought some more stuff figuring it was a good way to thank those who organized Railfest and support a community facing a very troubled financial future with the imminent closing of both the Hollidaysburg Car Shop and the Juniata Locomotive Shops. The days and years ahead for Altoona are quite bleak thanks to the Thoroughbred of Railroading. Any remnants of respect I may have had for Norfolk Southern went out the window during this trip.
I shot some more photos of the return of the Pennsy E8s. One can never have too many photos. Fortunately, film is very cheap for my camera in the form of 3 1/2 inch floppy diskettes. I decided to mosey on back to the Amtrak station about an hour before the next scheduled departure, my trip, and see what was going on at the station. To my amazement, the station was already half-filled and I promptly decided now was the time to get in line to board. As I stood their for the next hour, I watched this mass of humanity grow. Not being the most social person on the planet, I turned my back on a chatty railfan who could not keep his mouth shut consuming a disgusting sauer kraut lathered hotdog right next to me; I hate sauer kraut. I saw a man inject himself in the stomach with Insulin right in the waiting area thinking, “Did you know there is a restroom here?”
Time dragged on and on, and I became intimately familiar with all the non-descript details of the station. Because I had been around Horseshoe Curve four times previously on the train, I did consider leaving. However, I had never been on the trackage of the Gallitzin Loop and, certainly, never ridden in a train pulled by E8s. I refused to budge, standing my ground.
Finally, after a time and procedure befitting the worst any airline could offer, we were allowed to board and given all the necessary search warnings required after the World Trade Center attack. It was Festival Seating on the coaches and I had to settle for a backwards facing arrangement on a MARC commuter car. I carefully selected my trio of bench-type seats on the left side of the train occupying them in school bus fashion knowing this would be the side with the best view of The Curve on the ascent.
Prior to our departure, a man seated on the opposite side of the coach tapped me on the shoulder (I hate to be touched by strangers) and asked if I was saving my seats for anyone. I replied that I was not, and he proceeded to ask if we could switch seats because he wanted to sit with his wife and children together. He and his wife grinned at me like a pair of West Virginia backwoodspeople. I simply said, “No.”
We departed Altoona and I took some shots as we rounded The Curve. A kindly and knowledgeable gentleman offered, “You’ll hear announcements over the speakers, but whatever they don’t tell you, I will. Just ask.”
He walked up and down the coach pointing out places of interest enroute and I was grateful to gain insight into the experience. I noticed an Amtrak employee onboard that I had seen from my last year’s trip to Harrisburg. In addition, a gentleman from MARC explained to a complaining couple the reason that half of the seats faced backwards was because these coaches were not turned and commuters did not care which way they faced. In fact, in Europe, this is a very common seating arrangement.
A very unique aspect of this trip was the crossover at Gallitzin after passing though Allegheny Tunnel. This looping track was virgin territory for me as was the passage through New Portage Tunnel on our way back down the mountain towards The Curve and, finally, Altoona. We were well-advised of this sharp left turn and I took the opportunity to try out my camera’s Sepia feature getting a most classic shot as we approached the, now closed, AR Tower.
Once I detrained, I, along with dozens of other photographers, booked east to the locomotives desiring that up close and personal experience only a true railfan can appreciate; being one with the mothers. Again, I could not get enough of the smell, sounds, and sights unique to this E8 A unit duo. Like many others, I shot them in detail knowing that I was preserving them for posterity. I even walked onto center track to get my favorite head-on photo. I wondered how many others had bothered to get truck, builder’s decal and porthole shots.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the dedicated volunteers and staff of the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona, Pennsylvania, it is my sincerest wish that Railfest 2001 provides the financial support to complete their restoration of the K4s steam locomotive to operating status, and assists in their ambitious project to construct a roundhouse on the property. I’ve done my part this year, and I encourage Pennsy fans everywhere to assist, in anyway possible, in preserving this greatest of fallen flags.