Larger than life, Bennett Levin enjoys sharing the railroad experience

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, October 3, 2011

Bennett Levin enjoys time on board the Susquehannock passenger excursion on Oct. 1, 2011.

Bennett Levin enjoys time on board the Susquehannock passenger excursion on Oct. 1, 2011.

A pair of NS light helpers pace the rear of the excursion train descending into Altoona, Pa. from Horseshoe Curve on Oct. 1. 

A pair of NS light helpers pace the rear of the excursion train descending into Altoona, Pa. from Horseshoe Curve on Oct. 1.


Descending Pennsylvania's famous Horseshoe Curve on board an excursion train last Saturday, it is easy to ladle out praise like K4s once devoured coal here. There's admiration for the original builders of this, one of the mightiest railroad engineering feats of all time. Affinity pours out for the mighty PRR that quadruple-tracked this amazing engineering feat of man vs. mountain. Love flows for Conrail and successor Norfolk Southern for running freight across this main line despite the insistence of gravity and physics that an easy mountain crossing of the Alleghenies here should be agonizing. And, upon seeing a pair of NS six-axle helpers shadowing the rear car of Saturday's "Susquehannock" excursion train on an adjacent track, comes praise for the man who deserves it more than anyone on this day: Bennett Levin.

"I bet that Bennett arranged for that," proclaims Philadelphia railfan Mike Hopson, watching the helpers pace our train about six cars back on the downhill trip from Gallitzin to Altoona, Pa. "I just know he did." Sitting across from Mike at the back of the lounge, all I can do is smile at the moment and his adulation.

The exuberant words that Hopson and the others assembled in the No. 120's lounge assign to the 72-year-old Levin are well placed, though even Bennett isn't that amazingly good to arrange a rolling runby between the past and present. "The NS sent the helpers up there in case we got stuck on the loop track," Levin says, citing a 2005 Lexington Group trip where his PRR E8s got down to a slip and slide, inch-by-inch fight for traction on the Gallitzin loop, which was green with vegetation. "They were going to push us on around if we got stuck."

Levin is as amazing as ever this day, despite a melanoma scare a couple of years back that resulted in four surgeries and sidelined his train for a year; he's completely well now. Working off little sleep (the special moved in the middle of the night from Philly), he is at once cordial, jovial, sarcastic, opinionated, and non-stop in the exchange with his lieutenants, passengers, and friends. He is reveling in the moment of yet another amazing excursion with the E8s that he and son Eric acquired when NS and CSX broke up Conrail in 1999. The classic EMD cab units are resplendent in their original PRR Tuscan red, original numbers, and recently, sporting engines with new injectors that have them humming along for hundreds of miles this day. His diner-lounge, Warrior Ridge, is a gracious living room from which he can entertain guests (including, for a brief time at speed, at Warrior Ridge, Pa., a spot on the main line between Harrisburg and Altoona). His 120 office car retains a dual mystique, both as a polished railroad artifact and, frankly, as a man cave. "Come on back to my office, and let's talk," he says, inviting a guest back to the car's rear lounge from which he rolls off fact after fact about this stretch of the PRR, now NS, main line. There's the fishing hole where Levin's professor at Penn State dipped his line into the trout waters of the Juniata River. There's the oldest depot on the line, at Lewistown, which now holds the PRR Historical Society archives. The spot in the Altoona Yard, where a unit coal train is parked this morning, and where the special will tie up later that night. The mileposts are committed to memory, perfectly, time after time, sometimes without even looking.

This man loves railroading, but more than that, he loves sharing it. For the trip across Horseshoe Curve, Levin escorted Hopson to take the chair Levin had been presiding in. A few weeks back, Levin says, he ran an excursion that prompted a reporter to ask him, "Why do you do this?" Levin told her the truth: For a few days before and a few days after and definitely during the trip, the people who ride, watch, or photograph experience, the simple joy of a passing train, in this case, a most beautiful one. They forget about the unemployment rate, their sagging 401K, and other cares of the world. The train is a gift like no other in a day and age when everything is monetized, downsized, politicized, supersized, outsourced, and displaced.  
Levin takes due credit with a smile, but he is the first to praise his son for all that he does to keep the locomotives and the cars in excellent condition. "If it weren't for Eric, I couldn't do it," he says. "One car, yes. A whole train, no way."

Late in the day, caught at a signal behind a freight with a pulled drawbar just 26 miles short of a station stop at Rockville bridge to discharge 118 passengers for Harrisburg, Levin is jovial and upbeat with the passengers. He fetches a bag of souvenir hat pins with the two E8s' road numbers on them and distributes them to everyone. He jokes about a "protect pizza" that's in the freezer in case the train is very late. "I have it just in case," he says. "We won't starve."

The man does think about everything. I guess I shouldn't doubt him. Maybe he did arrange those helpers to pace us after all? 

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