Traveling by Train in the North East

Premlata Venkataraman

As I walked into Union Station in Washington DC I was filled with the excitement usual at the start of the train travel. Long train journeys are embedded into the psyche of people from India of a certain age. I have travelled from Bombay when I was a child on steam-engine-powered trains to visit my grandmother in Kerala, an adventurous 2-day trip in those days. And at the end of it was the loving embrace of a grandmother. And since you never slept in the train in the excitement of travel, at least for a couple of days the movement of the train stays with you long after you had gotten off.

But this train trip was a short one slightly under four hours. We were going to meet friends in New Jersey/New York, people I haven’t seen in decades. Getting on the Northeast Regional was a drama in itself.  Standing in a long line with the pre-Christmas hordes eager to reach families was frantic enough to bring to mind the VT station during the evening commute.

But once we got into the train cars — remember we used to call them bogies in India — we settled into comfortable seats with plenty of legroom. Hoping for amenities like the European transcontinental hi-speed trains, I was disappointed at the old-world atmospherics inside. The Northeast Regional did not have the large picturesque windows and the décor inside was utilitarian. Though it did have free Wi-Fi, the train we were in did not have the scrolling displays on the on-coming stations or arrival times, or maps for passengers to verify their itinerary. This makes for a nervous traveler constantly checking the schedule.

But the train did keep good speed as it sped through the cities of Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia. Though I have travelled by automobile to all these cities, the train journey as it ploughed through the burrows of the cities portrayed a totally different view of the cities.

If you pay attention along the way, you will recognize that along the tracks on either side you will see the remnants of old manufacturing facilities, many of them dilapidated and some of them still buzzing with activity, that were there in the first place because of easy access for transporting of their raw materials and finished goods before the Interstates became the preferred way to move goods.

Soon we arrived at our Metropark station, a small and compact station in New Jersey, past Trenton. All the trains that traverse this route stop here for the NJ suburbanites. 

From New Jersey, during our 4-day stay there, we made several trips to New York on the New Jersey rail transit (NJIT).  We were armed with plentiful information from our friends, who were so worried about letting loose a couple from the Burgh onto the maze of rail system in their region where four independent rail systems — Amrak, NJIT, Long Island Rail Road, and the New York Subway — intersect.  We became quite adept at changing over from NJIT, Amtrak, LIRR and the New York subways so that we never had to take a cab to go anywhere.

It was a lot of fun, and the experience made me wish that Pittsburgh had a half-decent railroad system interconnecting some of our neighborhoods. It would be easy to have one with the downtown as the “hub,” with four or five “spokes,” say up to Cranberry in the north, South Park on the South, Greensburg to the east, and airport to the west.  There is a charm and style to taking mass transit traveling with people from diverse backgrounds. It helps us see our immediate world with a better clarity than through the flashing roads seen through your car windshield while listening to your own echo chamber of radio talk-shows. But given the state of the finance of our city, regional and state governments, sadly, it is not going to happen anytime soon.

Note: Not used to traveling in trains, we lost our pocketsize digital camera. So, be aware of having to take care of your personal belongings when you frequently get in or get out of trains.            –  April 2013

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