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Dan Chazin's Trip on Amtrak NortheastDirect
Newark-BWI Airport, Washington-Newark

It's about 10:20 a.m. on Friday, November 20, 1998, and I'm at Newark's Penn Station, where I will be boarding Amtrak's Northeast Direct Train #185, the Mount Vernon (if anyone really calls it by that name), on my way to the BWI Airport Rail Station. My plan is to rent a car there and then drive to Harpers Ferry, W. Va., where I will be attending a meeting of the Appalachian Trail Conference. (Ordinarily, I would have taken the train all the way to Harpers Ferry, but I have to come back tomorrow evening, and there is no way to get from Harpers Ferry back to Washington at that hour on a Saturday night. So the only alternative -- other than, of course, driving all the way down to Harpers Ferry -- was to rent a car for the last leg of the trip.)

I walked into the main waiting room and purchased my ticket from an agent, using my AAA 10% discount. (Initially, the agent had tried to give me a ticket with a peak-period return, but when I questioned the price, he changed it to a non-peak ticket both ways.) I have not been in Newark's Penn Station for awhile, and the waiting room seems to have been refurbished lately. The walls appear to have been freshly cleaned, and very attractive carved wording has been added above the NJ Transit ticket windows. Then I went upstairs to the track level, where I made several phone calls while waiting for the train, which an announcement stated would be five to 10 minutes late.

My train pulled in on Track 3 at 10:43 a.m. and left less than a minute later. Today's Train #185 is pulled by an AEM-7 engine and includes five Amfleet I coaches and a cafe car. Most pairs of seats were occupied, but I was able to find a pair of unoccupied seats. After putting down my belongings, I walked to the back of the train, where I found that the cafe car was in the 20200 series, with tables at one end of the car and coach seats at the other. So I brought my backpack to the cafe car and spent most of the ride there, occupying a table (which permits me to spread out all my papers and have plenty of room to work). I purchased a cup of coffee and took out a bagel and lox that I had brought along for a late breakfast.

We lost a few more minutes on our way to Metropark (I think due to slow orders on account of track work), but south of Metropark I observed us covering a mile in 33 seconds (this translates into about 110 miles an hour which, I think, is our maximum authorized speed). Interestingly, the ride on the welded rail was very smooth, and you had no sensation that we were traveling so fast. There were no MHC cars at the back of the train, and no custom class or club cars either, so I was able to look out of the back of the train whenever I wanted to. One of the tables in the car was occupied by the four conductors (yes, there were four conductors sitting there; why so many are needed on this train I do not understand).

At 11:21 a.m., a few minutes before we reached Trenton, I observed the new Hamilton station to our left. This is a new station being constructed by NJ Transit to fill the long gap between the Trenton and Princeton Junction stations in an area that is fast expanding with new development. The station is not yet in service, but it looks to be almost ready to open, with a large parking lot and an impressive station building.

After passing through the unattractive, blighted area of North Philadelphia, we arrived at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia at 11:52 a.m. Again, our stop here was very brief, but I did walk down the platform for one car-length. Right after we departed the station, we stopped while Train #20, the northbound Crescent, passed us to the right. This train included the Viewliner sleepers Autumn View and Summer View, and had a single MHC car at the rear end.

I remained in the dinette car and continued doing some work. This car had been retrofitted with plugs at each table, so when my batteries ran low, I was able to plug my computer in and continue using it. I walked to the back of the train to observe the train cross the double-track bridge over the Susquehanna River, with the old stone piers of the former single-track bridge visible to the left of the train.

When we arrived in Baltimore, at 1:04 p.m., I packed up my backpack and went back to my seat. I sat there for only a few minutes, for at 1:17 p.m. we arrived at the BWI station, my final destination. We were only five minutes late. I got off, and walked over to the front of the station, where a bus was waiting to take us the airport terminal building. Once there, I rented a pick-up truck (Ford Ranger) from Budget Rent-A-Car (I chose that particular vehicle because Budget had an advertised special rate of $22 a day, and I thought it would be fun to try it out). By 1:37 p.m., I was in the truck and ready to go, and I reached Harpers Ferry at about 2:50 p.m., which gave me about an hour to do some work with a person who leaves work at 4:00 p.m. That evening, I walked down to the railroad station, where I saw the 7:00 p.m. MARC train arrive from Washington (the train actually arrived at 6:53 p.m. -- seven minutes early).

The next morning, I took a walk down to Virginius Island, through which the B&O (now CSX) rail line to Winchester runs. Then, in the evening, I again walked down to the station and observed the westbound Capitol Limited, scheduled to leave Harpers Ferry at 5:13 p.m. The train actually arrived four minutes early, and even though it made two stops (the second, to accommodate a sleeping car passenger who was boarding in Harpers Ferry), it had to wait a few seconds in order not to depart before the scheduled time. My Publications Committee meeting began at 7:15 p.m. and was not over until after 10:00 p.m. I had originally thought that I might make the train which leaves Washington at 10:30 p.m. and BWI at 10:59 p.m., but it was apparent that I could not make that train. The next train leaves Washington at 3:00 a.m. So I stayed around for another hour to talk to a few people and check my e-mail, and then left about 11:00 p.m.

The 3:00 a.m. train does not stop at BWI Airport, so I decided to drive instead to Washington. Although Budget has a counter at Washington Union Station, it is closed at this hour of the evening, and cars may not be dropped off after hours. So instead, I headed for the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (apparently, recently renamed to honor our most illustrious past President). I had to stop to refill the truck with gas, and didn't arrive until about 12:20 a.m. The car return went very smoothly, but the Metro stops running at midnight, so I had to take a cab for the ten-minute trip over to Union Station, where I finally arrived at about 12:55 a.m.

At this hour, the station is quite deserted, of course. I went to the waiting area, where I found a seat next to an outlet and continued working on my computer. Several homeless or other derelict-looking people were sleeping on nearby seats, but there were also maintenance personnel in the area cleaning the station, and it did not seem unsafe to remain there. I fell asleep briefly a few times, but for the most part used the time to read accumulated e-mail that I had downloaded at the ATC office in Harpers Ferry.

At 2:45 a.m., I walked over to Gate H just as the gate was being opened for passengers to board the Fast Mail on Track 24. As I figured, only about 15 people were waiting to board the train. I put my belongings down in a seat adjacent to an outlet and then walked down the platform to record the consist.

Tonight's Fast Mail train is pulled by two AEM-7 engines and includes an MHC car directly behind the engine, five 84-seat Amfleet I coaches, a 20200-series car (a cafe car with table seating on half of the car), and three MHC cars in the rear. Apparently, only the rear two cars are open, but these cars are more than able to accommodate the 18 people I count aboard (including one man who arrived just before the train departed!). I sat in car #21603, which turned out to be the very same car our Philmont group occupied on the New York to Washington leg of our train trip out to Philmont in 1997. We left at 3:01 a.m., one minute late. As we pulled out of the station, the lights in the car went out briefly -- something that would happen at every station for the rest of the trip.

On Friday, I had purchased a round-trip ticket to the BWI Airport station. When I got to Union Station in Washington tonight, I checked the ticket machines and found that the price of a ticket from Washington appears to be $2.00 higher than that of a ticket from BWI. But since all ticket windows are closed at the late hour that I arrived, I had no way of exchanging the ticket in my possession for a Washington ticket. When the conductor came by to collect tickets, though, he accepted my ticket without question. I asked whether the cafe car was open, and was told that it will not open until Baltimore.

As might be imagined, I was a little tired, and I succeeded in sleeping for a good part of the trip as far as Philadelphia (although I woke up for both of the station stops -- Baltimore and Wilmington). We lost some time en route and arrived at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia at 5:02 a.m., thirteen minutes late. As usual, I got off the train and walked upstairs, where I found the walls rather inappropriately "decorated" with huge ads for the "Banana Republic." Then, when I went back down to the train, I discovered that four of the five coaches were now open, although only about 40 passengers were on board the train. (The first two coaches are destined for Springfield, while the remainder of the train goes to Boston, so this may explain why so many cars are kept open.) Mail (or some other kind of express) was being loaded via forklift into one of the MHC's at the rear of the train.

When we left Philadelphia at 5:15 a.m. (only one minute late), I went back to the dinette car, where I obtained a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin. I brought my computer with me to the lounge car and spent the rest of the time doing some work. Other than the conductors and a few deadhead employees, the dinette tables were virtually deserted. At about 6:10 a.m., when we passed through Elizabeth, I returned to my seat and got ready to detrain. We arrived at Newark Penn Station at 6:18 a.m., two minutes early. I went over to the parking garage, retrieved my car, and drove home.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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