New York’s Penn Station reminds me of Euston in London; frankly it’s a bit of a 1960’s bunker. All is changing for the better though, as a new station building is under construction next door. The original Pennsylvania Avenue Station was actually a really grand marble and granite building, dating back to 1910, but this was sadly demolished in the 1960’s and Madison Square Garden now sits on top of it. So today I descend into the concrete bowels of a station on its last legs, and find a seat in the Amtrak waiting room.
The subterranean world of “Penn” is busy place, but not by Chinese standards. Wikipedia says that this is the busiest station in the Western Hemisphere, serving around 600 000 passengers a day. I think I have missed the rush hour though – there are no serious crowds and everything looks well ordered. I still wish I was setting out on my adventure from Grand Central Station, but that serves lines going in other directions, so “Penn” will have to do today.
The atmosphere is understandably sombre, as it is the morning of the 16th anniversary of 9/11. Small groups of soldiers dressed in disruptive camouflage uniforms observe the crowd, whilst the police hold a short parade in the concourse next to the lounge complete with pipers and drums. Around them a few people stop to watch and take pictures whilst others hurry on to catch their waiting trains.
I’m amused to listen to the two competing announcers on the public address system – it’s just like the opening scene of the classic disaster genre comedy film “Airplane”, with conflicting advice about where to wait and what is happening on various platforms underneath us. I’m not sure if I’m in the blue zone or the white zone.. My most challenging moment of the morning comes from my visit to the toilets just a few minutes before boarding. There in the middle of the room sits a man on a toilet doing his business without a care in the world, or any screening around him. He looks at me with a strange glint in his eye as I do my best to ignore him and find a safer place. Quite why I cannot work out, but I’m rather wishing I could un-see that.
My train today is a regional service, and I can see from the departures board that there is actually a faster train on the same route (the Acela Express), but I’m in no hurry. Being new to train travel in this country, I also realise that Amtrak is actually just one of several train companies operating on this line. In 1970, the Rail Passenger Service Act effectively amalgamated most of the separate operating companies into one, but a few remained independent. Today Amtrak is struggling to make money, and the current president has said that he wants to reduce long distance routes from 43 to just 23 states. That’s very sad news, and I hope it never happens.
New York City (depart) 09.35
Philadelphia (depart) 11.11
Baltimore (depart) 12.18
Washington DC (arrive) 13.05
Boarding of the North East Regional 141 service is civilised, as passengers descend via an escalator onto the platform once the train is ready on the platform. After ten minutes we set off (almost on time) with much bell ringing and tooting, perhaps more reminiscent of the Wild West. After a few minutes in the tunnel under the Hudson river, the train emerges into a bright New Jersey morning as we trundle through the outer suburbs.
My first impressions of the coach class carriage that I am sat in are that it is both clean and pretty comfortable. It is the equivalent of second class, but the seats are more roomy, the climate is good and the toilets are possibly the cleanest I have ever seen on a train. There are no reserved seats, but the system works as only so many tickets are sold in each carriage. Passengers are guaranteed a seat. The conductor folds ticket stubs and inserts them in different ways on the rail above the seats, but I can’t decode what this means. There is a new and slightly strange train dialect. Baggage can apparently be in the plural, things will happen “presently” and the conductor will “communicate to let the passengers know”.
Behind the carriage I am in is a “cafe car” selling drinks and snacks, but I don’t use it as I have had a big breakfast in my local Upper West side diner before setting out. Instead I relax and listen to the remastered version of “Animals” by Pink Floyd.
The journey gets a lot more scenic as we get further south, but as is always the way with trains, you also get see the worst and most run down parts of cities from the rails; Philly and Baltimore are not seen at their tourism best from my window. We arrive in “DC” nearly on time and emerge into a station concourse that I know Michael Portillo speaks highly of. It is grand and imposing, reflective of the city I’m staying in for the next couple of days before getting onto my first big train, the Capitol Limited.
Outside I jostle with a weird mixture of men wearing dark suits with secret service issue sunglasses and homeless people carrying all their possessions on trolleys or in bin bags. A beggar pursues me on his mobility scooter, so I have take evasive action, only to bump into a well dressed lady at the road crossing who wants to tell me all about her religion. Later, in the nearby Irish bar I drink a couple of pints with the locals, whilst watching both a football and a baseball match simultaneously on two screens. They are very friendly, and the social norm seems to be to say hello and introduce yourself on arrival at the bar. The only problem I’m having so far is getting any writing done, as it’s nearly impossible to get them to stop talking without appearing rude.
More news of my adventure when I reach Chicago in a couple of days.