Amtrak up and down and up and down

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, May 1, 2014

One of the benefits of not punching a clock but instead being a gentlemanly freelance writer is the ability to just get away for a day. I’ve wanted to do a circle trip from  Washington to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back to Washington. You go up and over the Alleghenies going west via Sand Patch and up and over again in the other direction via Horse Shoe Curve. It's a visit to three busy railroads that barrel you along at 70 mph to 100 mph on the first legs and 135 mph on another. So when my friend Ira Silverman said let's do it, I had no answer but yes. The tender part is arriving in Pittsburgh (if you’re lucky) at midnight and getting up at dawn to head back east. Tonight I’m back, minus my cell phone (which went on from Philly to New York without me), to report on what we saw, plus a whole lot of old memories.

We pick the worst day of the year for CSX to begin, from DC to Cumberland, Md., and on to Pittsburgh aboard the Capitol Limited. A few hours before train time, a CSX crude oil train en route from North Dakota (on BNSF Railway) to Yorktown, Va., derails in Lynchburg, Va., belching flames across downtown and spilling oil into the James River. This doesn’t affect us, but surely adds to the confusion at CSX. Meanwhile, it has been raining ceaselessly for three days, and a mud slide in Baltimore has sent earth, concrete, and automobiles tumbling down a steep embankment onto approaches to Howard Street Tunnel, which leads from Cumberland to the Baltimore yards and on to Philly. There is a weather-related issue on the tracks that route freight trains between the Cumberland-Baltimore line and Richmond, Va., too.

The result, from Washington 100 miles west, is the biggest collection of standing freight trains I’ve ever seen on CSX. There must be a dozen waiting to make their way east to Baltimore or south to Richmond. The miracle is that the Capitol Limited scarcely gets caught in their web. We arrive in Pittsburgh almost on time. I should interrupt to say that in my quest to reach Select Executive status with Amtrak Guest Rewards, I booked a deluxe bedroom to Pittsburgh. It gives Ira and I a generous amount of privacy during the Martini Hour before dinner, and me a place to nap before we get to Pittsburgh. Those who suspect I need to nap because of the Martini Hour are probably very intuitive.

A word about the Capitol Limited, then and now. The pre-Amtrak Capitol on Baltimore & Ohio I rode three of four times. A great train, as short toward the end as two coaches, a diner-lounge and a sleeper. It demonstrated that size doesn't matter. This was a fun train to take (although a bit rough riding) Service and food in the dining car were the best, and you left the Capitol wanting more. Today's Capitol Limited compares well to its antecedent. The menu in the diner suffers by comparison, but the track is better, there are more freights to break my monotony, and the Potomac River that follows us most of the way to Cumberland is, of course, ageless, now as well as then.

I’m barely awake this morning as the Pennsylvanian leaves Pittsburgh for New York, at 7:30. What a fascinating place the Pittsburgh-Johnstown corridor is today. A thoroughly modern railroad (although still with Pennsy’s signature position-light signals) passes through a dreary post-industrial landscape. What I mean is that Norfolk Southern’s excellent infrastructure intersects towns whose ability to provide union-wage jobs has vanished. There’s no there there, in other words. As our train leaves Johnstown, we pass a six-track NS yard empty but for two covered hopper cars and a shut-down NS switcher. (PS: A story I heard in journalism school goes like this: After the Johnstown flood of 1889 that killed 2,200 people, a New York newspaper sends a correspondent to report on the disaster. He telegraphs back his story, which begins: “God sat on a hillside overlooking Johnstown today and looked at the destruction He had wrought.” Cables his editor in Gotham: “Forget flood stop. Interview God stop.”)

Ira and I both regret we failed to copy and bring with us what we both believe to be David Morgan’s greatest work of reporting and writing, “World’s Busiest Mountain Railroad,” in the April 1957 Trains, a profile of Pennsy’s Pittsburgh Division. David’s introduction still gives me goose bumps. An excerpt: “Here, high on the slope of the Allegheny Mountains and laid on the consequential grade of 1.85 per cent, there runs a railroad with tracks numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4.Not spurs or sidings or passing tracks but 100 per cent high iron—busy track, seldom quiet, never asleep. Track gripping uncountable flanges, holding up vast tonnages. Look now—here comes another westbound mail and express, 22 cars long, two road units on the point, a pair of Geeps behind the rider coach. Watch the red cars roll, canting to Horse Shoe, 7000 horsepower lifting them up more than 90 feet to the mile. Sight of sights, sound of sounds.”

Today I remember going back to Altoona, Pa., in 1984 to report for Trains a story it called "Mountain Railroad Revisited.” By then, the Pennsylvania Railroad had become Penn Central and then Conrail. The fourth main track had been ripped up as unnecessary, but what a railroad remained. Bill Flight, an Erie Lackawanna alumnus, was Conrail’s superintendent in Altoona. Bill and Jay Kibovitz, a road foreman of engines, were my mothers for the five days I reported that story.

Most memorable: The three of us get into the super’s hi-rail car in Altoona one snowy morning and take the middle track to the west side of Horse Shoe, on windy Kittanning Point . I want to duplicate Philip Hasting’s spectacular 1957 photo, taken from the rocks above the tracks, that shows both ends of that 22-car mail train referenced by Morgan in his introduction rounding the curve. Bill says to hurry up; his hi-rail is tying up a critical track. Jay and I scramble up the rocks. Soon a westbound train appears, creeping up the grade at (I later wrote) “the pace of a two-pack-a-day jogger,” of which I knew well at that time of my life. Flight is on the radio: C’mon! I can’t wait forever! The train finally goes by us and I get my Phil Hastings photo, which becomes my only cover photo to ever be published by Trains (January 1985). I have a lot of other memories connected to that visit, including reuniting with Bill Flight by email decades later. I was grateful he had not forgotten me, as I had not forgotten him.

Passing Horse Shoe today, the sun is out and it is a gorgeous sight from the Pennsylvanian. Ira brings up a name dear to both our hearts: Danny Boehr. Danny was one of Amtrak’s earliest employees, and worked the rest of his life on the transportation side. He was also one of the earliest internet bloggers, using the pen name Al Tuner. Ira mentions the day Danny was the park at Horse Shoe, monitoring train movements, when a park employee tapped his shoulder and said it's time to go, the park is closing. “What? Close the park, close Horse Shoe?” Danny exclaimed. “Do the Rocky Mountains close? Does the Pacific Ocean close?” Vintage Danny Boehr, got bless his huge heart. He left us way too soon, of cancer.

Later, nearing Harrisburg, Pa., the attendant says the cafe car will soon close until the train leaves Harrisburg. And about 30 minutes out, he not only closes the counter but kicks everyone out (with the assistant conductor as enforcer) and locks the doors at both ends! I’ve encountered such behavior often, and every time I query headquarters in Washington I’m told it’s contrary to policy; passengers can stay in the cafe car even if it is not selling food because of rest periods or employee turnover.

This gets me to thinking. Based on a jillion trips between Washington, New York, and Boston, I rate the conductors, assistant conductors, and cafe attendants on the NEC as Amtrak’s best on-board employees. I just love these men and women. They are consummate professionals—businesslike, polite, courteous, respectful of passengers, and informative when delays occur. However, the further you get from Washington, away from the Corridor, headed toward Chicago, the more undisciplined the on-board operation becomes. There’s no adult supervision off the NEC to set or enforce the standards. So employees do as they please. Nobody violates those standards more than the cafe car attendants. Case in point: I was kicked out of the Cardinal cafe car for an hour last year during the attendant’s break (although sleeping car passengers were allowed to remain). The reason given was that we would steal food while she relaxed on her break. Presumably, the sleeping car passengers don’t steal food from the snack bar. The Lake Shore Limited two trips last year closed its cafe car (the only lounge car on the train) 90 minutes shy of Chicago so the attendant could pack her food and be ready to jump off the train the instant it stopped at Union Station. Amtrak’s touted reorganization hasn’t changed anything, in that regard. The other bad habit I observe on many routes is that at stops, conductors scan tickets before passengers board trains, making their job easier while lengthening the boarding process considerably. You never see that on the NEC.

I have a 13-minute connection at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station between the Pennsylvanian and a Washington-bound Acela. Five days out of six lately the connection is good as gold, and this is one of those days. I even have time to go to the Dunkin’ Donuts counter and get refueled.

Then, disaster. South of Wilmington, Del., I reach for my iPhone and fail to find it. The “Find My iPhone” app on my iPad informs me it is passing Bristol, Pa., en route to Penn Station on the Pennsylvanian! I remember Ira asking as we were leaving the train in Philadelphia whether I had everything. I looked at a pile of paper no longer needed and said yes, I have everything. Had I lifted that pile of paper I’d have seen my iPhone. I tap out a message on the app that transmits to the iPhone and upon my return home this evening have three voicemails, from the conductor of train Pennsylvanian, from the assistant conductor, and from Amtrak Customer Service in Penn Station. God willing, my phone will head my way on tomorrow morning’s Silver Star. Didn’t I say the Northeast Corridor people are tops?—Fred W. Frailey

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