Monday, August 22, 2016

Bounding down the Northeast Corridor to visit a buddy in Baltimore

                How do you write about a trip over a rail line used by thousands each day and make it interesting? That is the challenge of writing about the Northeast Corridor, the busiest – and fastest – passenger rail line in North America, but one with little to recommend for sightseeing. Last Tuesday I used the Corridor to travel to Baltimore and meet up with a friend for a day of train watching.
                Catching the 6:47 am train from Oceanside to Penn Station gave me time to have a somewhat relaxed breakfast inside Penn Station before boarding the 8:10 Regional train for Washington. The words “relaxed” and “Penn Station” rarely are used in the same sentence because the latter is a place people want to get through as quickly as possible. Its quarters are cramped and most visitors are either heading to or from work or traveling on business. I’ll spare you the story of the magnificent train palace that once stood on this spot. I don’t have the time and others tell it better than me.
                After “dining” on an egg and cheese sandwich in the tiny seating area of Zaro’s Bakery, I walk to the main concourse and get there just as my train is being announced. I take a window seat on the right side of the next to last car. We depart on time. While the train threads the switches on the west side of the station, my mom calls from Florida. A passenger taps me on the shoulder and explains that this is a “quiet car,” i.e. no cell phone calls. Since I am settled in and there is no guarantee of a window seat in the other cars, I opt to remain where I am.
                After a few minutes spent passing through the Hudson River tunnel, the train emerges in New Jersey, rounds a curve to enter the Meadowlands and heads toward its first stop, Newark. On the way, it crosses the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers on large, movable bridges. Stops at Newark Airport and Metropark follow a few minutes later.
             Amtrak’s New York – Washington line has always been a racetrack. It was built to high standards by the Pennsylvania Railroad, with a four-track mainline to accommodate the high volume of passenger and freight traffic that ran over it in its heyday, hauled by powerful GG-1 electric locomotives. Although it was plagued by slow orders in the 1970s, some trains could run at 100 mph in a few  locations.
In 1976, Amtrak acquired the line as part of a government-sponsored reorganization of the then-bankrupt Northeast railroads. Since then, it has poured billions into upgrading line. The Acela Express, Amtrak’s premium train, reaches top speeds of 150 mph. Standard trains like the one I was riding run at 125 mph and are pulled by snazzy new locomotives called Sprinters, although the Amfleet coaches they haul are around 40 years old.
            The nearly straight and level track between Metropark and Trenton enables my train to speed across the Garden State, covering the 34-mile distance in just 23 minutes, just under 89 mph. You can’t do that on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The train crosses the Raritan River on a viaduct and rushes past the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University. With New Jersey’s suburban sprawl stretching from the banks of the Hudson to the banks of the Delaware, there are few unspoiled locations along the route, but I am able to pick out a wetlands area or two.

A rare undeveloped spot along the line in New Jersey.

The Industrial Revolution and railroads had a symbiotic relationship that lasted more than a century. Factories sprung up in cities along the Pennsylvania Railroad including Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Chester, Wilmington and Baltimore. The freight traffic they generated provided capital to improve the railroad infrastructure and pay dividends to shareholders. When the factories began to close, the fortunes of the railroad and the cities it served declined.
This becomes apparent as the train slows for its arrival in Trenton. At one time, the Pennsylvania Railroad had a large freight yard just north of the station. All its tracks and the overhead wires that provided power to the locomotives have been removed. Leaving Trenton, there is a highway bridge across the Delaware River with a sign that proclaims “Trenton Makes. The World Takes.” Sadly, this is no longer the case.
Support towers for overhead wires are all that remains on the once-busy freight yard at Trenton.

Bridge over the Delaware River was a symbol of pride for Trenton, NJ.

The train accelerates after crossing into Pennsylvania. It follows the Delaware River and Interstate 95 south, passing through suburbs of Philadelphia and entering the city limits. The surrounding area is becoming more industrial and more urban. A few minutes later, the train slows for the curve at Frankford Junction. This is the location where a northbound Amtrak train went off the tracks a year ago, resulting in eight fatalities.

Rounding the curve at Frankford Junction.

Infrastructure is both the strength and Achilles heel of the Northeast Corridor. The line is generally fast, well-constructed and has tremendous capacity. However, its many speed restrictions, like the sharp curves at Frankford and Zoo Junctions, prevent trains from running at speeds comparable to high-speed trains in Europe and Asia, where 186 mph (300 km) is the standard.  Further, much of the infrastructure is in need of replacement. Case in point the tunnels under the Hudson River, which were heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Between Frankford Junction and the bridge over the Schuylkill River, the route passes a slew of abandoned factories in vary states of decay. Most have been heavily tagged with graffiti. At one location, somebody painted a grove of trees pink. Whimsy can be found across the river, where a mural of animals has been painted on the side of a parking garage for the Philadelphia Zoo, however.

Abandoned factories in North Philadelphia

"Pink" forest

Philadelphia Zoo garage

The train slows for its approach to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, rounding the curve at Zoo Junction, where the Pennsylvania’s Main Line to Harrisburg and points west splits from the New York – Washington line. South of the station it runs alongside University City, a section of Philadelphia where the campuses of Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia abut one another. It is symbolic of the economies of many American cities today, driven by healthcare and higher education.
University City, Philadelphia
The rail line between Philadelphia and Wilmington is similar in character to that between Trenton and Philadelphia, part aging suburbs, part industrial. While some are doing well, communities such as Chester, where factories have closed, have been hard-hit, particularly in downtown areas. 
At Wilmington, the train stops at a named for Amtrak’s most famous passenger, Vice President Joe Biden. As a senator from Delaware, Biden commuted to Washington on Amtrak so he could be home each night for his family, and was a big advocate for the railroad in its annual budget battles on Capitol Hill.
The segment between Wilmington and Baltimore is the longest stretch without stops, 69 miles, which my train covers in 45 minutes, average speed 92 mph. In northern Maryland, it runs through forested areas that provide a respite from the development found elsewhere along the line. After crossing the Susquehanna River just north of where it flows into Chesapeake Bay, the train passes over the historic village of Havre de Grace and runs alongside Route 40 through Aberdeen. At Edgewood, two lengthy viaducts carry the train over two lesser Chesapeake Bay tributaries, Bush River and Gunpowder Falls.
Crossing the Susquehanna River.

The approach to Baltimore is much like entering Philadelphia: Old factories and row houses than have seen better times. They are part of the story of a city where segregation, discrimination and income disparities have been ingrained for decades. With gentrification reviving some neighborhoods, older residents sometimes find themselves pushed out.
Street in North Baltimore

My train arrives at 10:53 a.m., seven minutes. I find my friend, Claude Dixon Jr. in the waiting room and we head to his car, which is parked a few blocks away. Claude is a retired trainmaster and road foreman of engines, who during his railroad career worked for Penn Central, Conrail and Norfolk Southern.
After visiting a couple of railroad-related sites within the city limits, Claude drives to St. Denis, a popular train-watching spot south of Baltimore. Sure enough, a half dozen or so railfans have gathered to watch the action. Two eastbound CSX freight trains are stopped just west of the station to wait the passing of a westbound. It arrives about 20 minutes later, I get my shot and we move on; first to get some lunch and then to drive to Perryville, about 40 minutes north.

CSX intermodal freight runs west at St. Denis, MD.
This is part of Claude’s old stomping ground. In the Penn Central era he ran freight trains that ran between here and Harrisburg on a route following the Susquehanna River known as the Port Road. Nowadays the freights run almost exclusively at night. We watch a few Amtrak trains speed by on the Northeast Corridor and move on again to Havre de Grace, where I shoot three more trains on the bridge over the Susquehanna I crossed four hours earlier.

Claude M. Dixon Jr. at the Perryville, MD station.
Amtrak Acela Express on the Susquehanna River bridge.
            Claude drives back to Baltimore via Route 40. Along the way, I spot two CSX freight trains including one that was waiting at St. Denis earlier. He drops me off at the station with enough time to have a beer and grab a sandwich for the ride home. The trip back to New York is uneventful, save for crossing the Susquehanna during a thunder storm, and the train arrives nine minutes early, which enables me get home sooner than planned.
Despite its aging and imperiled infrastructure, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line is a fast, convenient, reliable and comfortable way to travel to the cities between Washington, New York and Boston. Fares are high, especially for the premium Acela Express, which runs faster, has luxurious leather seats and really big windows. However, if one wants to avoid the congestion on Interstate 95 or the hassles of getting to and from airports and going through security, train is the way to go.