My Ride Arrives, Early

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, August 16, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic wiped out many things that might have been enjoyable since early 2020, a number of them being trips; either actually planned, or that would have developed over the intervening course of time.  In my case, in addition to travel by auto and airline, which is typical, there were a couple of rail trips that would have been fun, and hopefully, will be able to be rescheduled at some point again in the future.

In recent years, most of my train-riding has been relatively short-haul in nature, with the geography focused on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and other nearby locations.  It certainly isn’t the “glamor of olden times”, by any stretch of the imagination, and while the Budd Amfleet equipment generally utilized is sturdy and typically reliable, luxurious doesn’t enter into the equation.  However, a train ride is still a train ride, complete with the ability to stand up and move around as the scenery passes, and, at least in the Corridor, speeds that would get your driver’s license revoked are common.

When I showed up at Lynchburg’s Kemper Street Station to await Amtrak train 20, the northbound Crescent, on August 13, I didn’t have expectations of anything out of the ordinary, and having seen several recent iterations of this train, knew that it would be less than impressive, from a visual standpoint: three Amfleet 2 cars (two coaches and a cafe) and three Viewliners (two sleepers and one of the new baggage-dorms).  The 8400 horsepower provided by the pair of P42 Genesis units up front wasn’t going to be taxed by this consist, although a portion of the route between Lynchburg and the Washington, DC area does have numerous grades and curves. 

However, and auguring well for the trip, 20 arrived Lynchburg about eight minutes early.  Following the discharge of those passengers destined to the “Hill City” from points south, boarding commenced immediately, and we left on time, albeit slowly for the first few miles.  One of the scenic highlights of this portion of the Crescent’s journey is the high single-track trestle over the James River; we were able to contemplate it in a leisurely manner following our transit of the 1300-foot Rivermont tunnel just to the south of the James.

Departing Lynchburg, the forward coach was less than half full, and although there was a relatively large extended family complete with small children, the car remained quiet, aided by the friendly crew’s enforcement of the need to use headphones when listening to electronic devices.

Amtrak advertises the ability to “See America” on its long-distance trains, but this portion of the trip might better be described as an opportunity to see nature up-close, and lots of it.  Between Lynchburg and Charlottesville, we spent considerable time in Nelson County, which it would be difficult to describe as anything other than “rural”; I believe that there is but a sole traffic light to be encountered on its’ roads, including the four-lane U.S. 29, which proceeds in parallel with the railroad, although at varying distances.

Two other notable trestles are in the vicinity: the famous Tye River bridge, which Hurricane Camille in 1969 took out, leaving only the four strands of welded rail intact above the waterway, and the crossing of the Rockfish River, north of Elma, the site of a well-known wreck of the Southern Crescent in the 1970s. 

Camille, by the way, dumped 32-46 inches of rain on Nelson County, causing flooding, mudslides and horrendous damage, but virtually any evidence of this is essentially invisible from the train due to the new growth that has occurred in the interim.  This territory includes numerous grades, some in excess of one percent, and many curves; the one at Elma, for example, requires slowing to 45 mph for passenger trains, even though the overall line speed is 79.

Charlottesville arrived about four minutes early; judging by the fact that forward motion only ceased for about 30 seconds in Culpeper, I suspect that a single passenger either got on or off.   Manassas likely would have been on-time or early also, had we not needed to wait for the westbound Cardinal, which was about ten minutes late, at Calverton, thirteen miles south of Manassas.

All in all, a fine ride, with excellent train handling, as well as the opportunity to hear the sweet-sounding K5LA horn blown over and over again for the numerous backwoods private crossings.  I’ve driven this route a number of times, and this ride was relaxing and enjoyable; the drive is not. 

(Photo: George W. Hamlin)

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