Amtrak: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Train
by Bob LeBras 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.
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”.