It's 7:15 a.m. on Monday, April 26, 1999, and I've just arrived at Penn Station in Newark, where I will be taking Amtrak's Train #657, a Keystone service train, to Philadelphia. An open meeting of the Amtrak Reform Board is being held today in a hotel in Philadelphia, and when I received an announcement of the meeting from NARP, I decided that it would be interesting to attend this meeting. So I left my home about 6:45 a.m., drove to Newark, parked in a garage, and walked over to Penn Station.
I went into the majestic main waiting room and purchased my ticket from an agent. Even with my AAA discount, an unreserved one-way ticket to Philadelphia costs $34.50 for this 81-mile ride, or over 40 cents a mile! One could take the same ride on NJ Transit/SEPTA for about one-third the price, but that trip takes at least 45 minutes longer, requires a change of trains in Trenton, and involves riding in 3-and-2 seating commuter coaches for the entire two-hour ride. At least with Amtrak you can ride in 84-seat coaches with reclining seats and folding tables.
Next, I walked upstairs to the platform, where the board announced that our train would be arriving on Track 3. But first, at 7:27 a.m., another Amtrak train came through on Track 3. This train was pulled by an electric engine and consisted solely of MHC and baggage cars, and one Heritage coach. I believe that this is Train #13, an all mail-and-express train which does not carry passengers. The one coach on the train is an old unreconditioned car which is used solely as a rider coach for the train crew.
My Train #657 pulled in at 7:32 a.m. It, like all Keystone trains, is a real "no-frills" train, consisting of an AEM-7 engine and three Amfleet I coaches. There is not even a cafe car on the train! Although this train goes all the way to Harrisburg, few passengers travel the entire distance from New York to Harrisburg. Moreover, the train reverses direction at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and spends about half an hour there, thus affording ample time for through riders to get off and purchase snacks if they so desire. Since the train proceeds from Philadelphia to Harrisburg facing the opposite direction, half of the seats in each car are facing backwards.
I walked through all three cars, but there were no empty pairs of seats. So I took a seat in the second car of the train, coach #21179, next to a young woman who was also headed to Philadelphia. She expressed concern that she would sleep through the stop, so I reassured her that I would wake her up when we arrived at Philadelphia. This car -- as well as the first coach on the train -- has been recently reconditioned. Although it still has 84 seats and has not been retrofitted for handicapped use, all of the seats have been recovered in a pleasant blue material with a curvy pattern, and new electronic signs have been installed. The seats themselves have not changed much, but the atmosphere in the car is far more cheerful and pleasant.
Train #657 is a "local" train that stops at Metropark, New Brunswick, Princeton Jct., Trenton, North Philadelphia and Philadelphia. No one got off at Metropark or New Brunswick (although a number of passengers boarded at these stops), but some passengers did detrain at Princeton Jct. and Trenton. We ran slightly behind schedule, and did not leave Trenton until 8:16 a.m., four minutes late. As we passed through the coach yard outside of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I observed the first new Acela engine (to be used in non-high-speed service) which had just last week been delivered to Amtrak and was now being tested. We pulled into the 30th Street Station at 8:47 a.m., only two minutes late.
Since an Amtrak ticket is valid for free passage on SEPTA trains to Center City Philadelphia, I went up to the "regional rail" upper level of the station, where the SEPTA commuter trains stop. All of the trains go to Center City, but the various trains leave from different platforms, so an electronic board indicates the track on which the next train to Center City leaves from. The board indicated that the next train would be leaving from Track 5, but the information provided turned out to be incorrect, as a result of which I missed two trains. I did finally catch a train at about 9:05 a.m. which took me in about ten minutes to the Market East station. From there it was a ten- minute walk to Fourth and Arch Streets, the location of the Holiday Inn at which the Amtrak Reform Council would be meeting.
The meeting was quite interesting, with the various members of the Council expressing rather different views on many issues. It did seem clear, though, that most the members of the Council were genuinely interesting in helping Amtrak succeed rather than trying to kill it. Most of the day was spent hearing presentations from various commuter rail agencies and freight railroads which operate in the Northeast Corridor. The presentations of the agencies which operate on Amtrak trackages (such as MARC, SEPTA, NJ Transit and LIRR) was quite different from those of the agencies that own the trackage on which Amtrak operates (Metro-North and Connecticut DOT), with the former emphasizing the importance of preserving Amtrak and ensuring that the agencies will be able to continue operating their trains over Amtrak at reasonable rates. By contrast, the latter group pointed to the vast sums that these agencies had spent improving the right-of-way used by Amtrak trains, and expressed concerns that needed rehabilitation of these lines will delay Amtrak trains and make it impossible for them to travel from New York to Boston in three hours. Of course, the freight railroads commented that Amtrak has imposed undue restrictions on their operation, charges excessive fees, and otherwise makes it difficult for them to provide competitive freight service.
At the conclusion of the meeting, there was a period for public comment. Three people took the opportunity to comment, including Ross Capon of NARP and myself. I stressed the importance of maintaining a national system and of ensuring that the freight railroads get positive publicity from their timely and efficient operation of Amtrak trains. The latter comment seemed to be very well received by the members of the Council. In fact, when the meeting adjourned soon afterwards, Jolene Molotoris, the Federal Railroad Administrator (who attended the meeting as the designate of the Secretary of Transportation) came over to me, complimented me for my comment, and stated that she intended to raise the issue at a meeting that she would be attending next week between George Warrington, President of Amtrak, and the President of the Association of American Railroads. Also, at the conclusion of the meeting, I was approached by Lynn Bowersox, Amtrak's Senior Director of Communications for the Northeast Corridor, who told me that she was a close friend of Karen, to whom my cousin Barry was recently engaged. Karen had told her of my interest in Amtrak, and she recognized my name when I got up to speak!
The meeting concluded at about 4:30 p.m. I had intended to make the 5:16 p.m. train back to New York, but I checked the timetable and discovered that there was also a 4:46 p.m. train. It seemed somewhat unlikely that I would make this train, but I decided to try. Instead of walking to the Market East station, I walked to the nearby subway station at Fifth and Filbert, where a westbound train promptly pulled in. Even though we made four intermediate stops, the ride was very swift, and we arrived at the 30th Street Station at 4:44 p.m., giving me two minutes to catch the train. I ran up the stairs, across the wide 30th Street and into the station. The clock indicated that it was already 4:46 p.m., but my train was still shown as departing from Platform 1 -- all the way at the other end of the station! I ran down there, and succeeded in boarding the train just as the conductor was about to close the doors.
I found that tonight's Train #176, nominally known as the Merchants Limited, was quite full. The train was pulled by an AEM-7 engine and included six coaches, a cafe car with tables on one side, a custom class car and a combination custom class/club service car. One of the coaches (#21127) had been reconditioned. I walked through the cafe car and all six coaches and found no unoccupied pairs of seats in any car. However, when I returned to the cafe car, I found that one table had been vacated, so I decided to sit down there. I purchased a jar of cranberry juice and a bag of potato chips and sat down to write these memoirs.
At 5:04 p.m., we came to a stop just south of the Holmes tower. The conductor announced that we were being held by a red signal and that we would have to wait for a Metroliner to pass us. Sure enough, a Metroliner passed us to the left, and we started moving a few minutes later. The Metroliner must have been #118, scheduled to depart Philadelphia at 4:43 p.m. -- ahead of us. Presumably, the Metroliner was late and departed Philadelphia after us, and that is why we had to wait for it to pass. As a result, we did not leave Trenton until 5:27 p.m., ten minutes late. We also left Metropark ten minutes late at 5:51 p.m., and arrived in Newark at 6:08 p.m., eleven minutes late. I walked down the platform to record the numbers of some of the cars, retrieved my car, and drove home.
My train ride to and from Philadelphia was relatively uneventful, but the meeting of the Amtrak Reform Council was particularly interesting. I was very glad that I took the trouble to attend this meeting.