TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) I didn’t know I had a Great Aunt Judy. But one summer my mother announced we were going to visit her. She lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We would go there by train.
For a 10 year old boy who loved trains, this was a big deal. Connecticut to Virginia would be the longest train trip of my life. For years I’d watch the Amtrak trains rush through Fairfield station bound for Washington. They’d come around the big bend almost silently, then the engineer would lay on the horn to move passengers back from the platform edge. Those trains slammed through, kicking up a gust of wind that would rattle people’s newspapers and cause men to hold onto their hats. Now I'd be on one of them.
My mother, sister, and I set out on a hot summer day from Bridgeport on Train 175, The Minute Man. We climbed the steps to Bridgeport station and waited. From the elevated platform you could see the train approach from the bridge over Bridgeport Harbor and slowly ease to a stop.
Our train switched to the express tracks at the interlocking just beyond the Bridgeport station, and quickly accelerated. I knew this part of the line, and soon we were speeding past the stations that the Grand Central locals would stop at. At New Rochelle junction, Amtrak trains for Penn Station and Washington split from the main line. Now our train was on unfamiliar track, climbing towards the Hells Gate Bridge and a sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline. Then the rooftops of the residential neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, as the train began slinking into the tunnels under the East River.
My young eyes soaked in the scene over the next few hours. My first long-distance train trip wasn’t at all what I expected. Amfleet coaches were intentionally designed to look like the inside of an airplane. You sat in large airline coach seats with head rests and fold-down tray trays. The baggage racks above looked just like the luggage bins on a jet. You could eat in a snack car with indescribably bad food that came out of a microwave. The windows were too small.
The Minute Man rushed through New Jersey at top speeds of 125-miles-per-hour. It was a fast, modern, sleek train. But there was no romance… and that’s what train travel was supposed to be about. In Trenton… Philaldephia… Wilmington… Baltimore, we looked out the window at the backs of abandoned factories and industrial infrastructure. This was a stark difference to the train photographs and Amtrak’s television commercials we'd seen. Trains were supposed to be climbing through the Rockies with breathtaking scenery that you couldn’t see from 35,000 feet.
But Amtrak managed to turn a train into a plane. Our train was comfortable, fast... and it was mostly empty. People who needed to get somewhere quickly already were flying. And people who wanted to take the train didn’t have picture windows, deep-plush seats, good scenery, a diner, or an observation car.
We pulled into Union Station-Washington at dusk. Almost all of the passengers onboard got off. Very few were going beyond to Virginia. The overhead wires ended in Washington, and our electric engine was cut off. We would be in Washington for about a half-hour as a diesel was put on the head-end and a new crew of conductors came onboard. Daylight was fading. I contemplated how my trip expectations didn’t match reality.
Suddenly the lights came back on in our coach. The portly conductor with a southern accent called out a hearty “all aboard”, and our train jerked forward. On the other side of Union Station, the train crossed a viaduct over the Potomac River. You could see the rotunda dome of the U.S. Capital. The Jefferson Memorial, bathed in floodlights, left in silhouette on the water below. The train accelerated against the darkening sky. Soon we were in the Virginia countryside. Marshes. Small, picturesque downtowns. Storefronts and schools. Cars waiting for us to pass at railroad crossings. It would be dark soon and I wouldn’t be able to see anything.
“Fredericksburg, in five minutes.” Our conductor chanted as he walked up the isle. His voice was a booming baritone. No need for the train’s intercom. “This door out,” he almost sang. “Fredericksburg, five minutes.”
We climbed out of the train at a small depot. The town square and courthouse were across the street. The scene couldn’t have been much different for a Civil War era traveler who’d just arrived on a steam engine. The last part of our journey was perfect. As the train’s red marker-lights faded into the darkness, I thought that real railroading was somewhere beyond the subways and the cities that I knew.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau