A handful of years ago, I wrote about my riding Amtrak from Charlottesville, Virginia to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where I met a friend. It was actually a very pleasant experience, though a bit adventuresome for me. I could not anticipate the tragedy that would occur in 2015 in that very city of “brotherly love.” I resubmit my original article, below… What would go through your mind if this had happened to you?
Are you a “senior” in your 60s, 70s, 80s or even older? Ever wondered what riding Amtrak is like? Take a virtual ride with me now, from Charlottesville, VA, through Washington, DC, to Philadelphia, PA.
A good friend had a happy and important occasion he desired to share with me, so I decided at the age of 62, to leave Virginia’s Charlottesville Amtrak station at just past 8:00 a.m. to ride to the Philadelphia 30th Street Station, arriving at something after 2:00 p.m. The train was number 176. What was the trip like for a Senior who hadn’t ridden the rails in more than four decades? How did Amtrak perform, and what were the personnel like?
Arrival at the Charlottesville Station
Although I can’t speak for every senior, the author is a “homebody” who likes to drive to destinations, and doesn’t like to depend upon others, though he likes to share his experiences with one or more passengers. Although the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” isn’t a fair summation of the elderly, the statement contains a measure of truth in that some of us aren’t anxious to do so. Since my wife had to work at the time of this venture and the car has a slight functional issue, I agreed to travel via “iron horse.”
Not having a fondness for Mr. Bell’s telephone, my wife and I “visited” Amtrak.com . Although the site wasn’t perfect, it really wasn’t too bad, and we chose two times and stations and paid for two tickets, being careful to apply the Senior Citizen Discount. All told, the round trip tickets amounted to just over $184 total. We had picked up a very inexpensive suitcase (the kind with the handle and wheels) at our local Goodwill Store.
Leaving for Charlottesville
Packing the minimum of stuff, we left for the station-arriving a good portion of an hour ahead of time. We had paid special heed to size and weight restrictions on packages, and my wife obtained address labels for the suit bag and suitcase.
When we arrived, an older gentleman in charge of the parking lot inquired if it was a drop-off, or long-term parking would be needed. We told him it was a drop-off, and that my wife would be leaving after I went on board the train. He smiled and wished us a good day. This employee was very courteous and gentlemanly.
In the Station
Two women ran the inside of the station, and were friendly and professional in doing so. They quickly informed us that our train was “on time.” They advised that people would begin to gather at the door to our right a few minutes before the train’s arrival, and would exit forward, going out through the gate to the track, turning right, and standing at Location Number 2. It occurred as stated, and my wife kissed me good-bye.
The train was laid out with standard coach cars toward the rear. I boarded one, and saw an abundance of empty seats. Putting my two packages above the seat I chose, I then sat down next to a window on the right side of the car and toward its rear. Ahead I noticed a sign that indicated a restroom. Calmly, I awaited departure.
Two conductors appeared within about ten minutes of each other. Both looked to be men in their late twenties to early thirties, and both were very pleasant as well as helpful. I felt I could ask one or the other for help if I needed it and would be treated in a dignified manner. I was happy; but what lay ahead? I thought my wife told me there would be a change of train at Washington, D.C., and I was concerned. Would I make a mistake and miss the second train?
We pulled away, arriving in a while at Culpeper, VA. After this, there were a number of locations announced, including a place I’d never heard of-Burks Centre. Along the way, I had to take advantage of the “facilities” and I found them cleaner and simpler to use than I had expected. Eventually, we pulled in to Washington, D.C.
Riding Amtrak: A Minor Complaint
So far, everything was going as well as I could have anticipated. I was moderately relaxed, and so far I had no companion next me. Now I heard that there was to be a change of engine. Unfortunately, some of the speech throughout the trip was difficult to hear, to my concern. Others, many of them regular riders, were not concerned. Then the power went out! The lights and everything else went off.
It was a cold day, and the trains quickly became chilly-especially since one of the doors was open completely. What was happening? I was surprised we were not to change trains, but I learned that, actually, an electric engine was being installed in place of the diesel engine. Power was restored after about twenty minutes. People began to fill up the cars, and as we left the station, I couldn’t believe I still did not have a companion next to me. We pulled away.
A Bit Scared or At Least Surprised
To my surprise, the train was moving along at a much more rapid clip. In fact, the speed was sufficient to worry me. What would happen if the train hit a stationary object? At the former speed, I felt I could survive… The conductor was now a woman about the same age as the men, and she was somewhat more formal, though not impolite. She read a list of instructions at every stop. She indicated we should not use cell phones. This worried me, as I had promised my friend to let him know if we were on time or not, so he could arrange the pickup. Picking up individuals at the 30th Street Station is not so simple as one might guess.
The Rest of the Trip to Philadelphia
From Washington, we traveled to Baltimore, and from there to Wilmington, Delaware. At Wilmington, a Spanish-speaking woman occupied the seat next to me. Wilmington, the business area, had a number of very large, clean, modern buildings, which gave a surreal appearance to the flat, dingy landscape, making me feel very small and insignificant.
Between there and Philadelphia, we passed areas of Delaware and Pennsylvania that looked — to be frank — unfit for human habitation. I felt very sorry for the persons who lived there. The homes were row homes, and some of them appeared to have been burned out, have broken windows, or collapsed roofs. I was glad when we arrived at the 30th Street destination. I quickly gathered my things together and exited, having a fear that I might somehow fail to get off before the train resumed travel.
Riding Amtrak: Meeting My Pickup
After riding the escalator, I saw an immense number of people and felt a tinge of panic. I pulled out my cell phone and attempted to call my friend. He didn’t respond! The tinge gave place to a greater level of panic. Then in a couple of minutes, my friend dialed my number to my great relief. I’m here, outside, he announced. We broke the communication.
Then I realized there were two exits-one on 29th Street and one on 30th. I asked an Amtrak employee I spotted which exit was one at which a person would normally be picked up? He indicated 30th Street. I quickly headed out there. Guess what? No Pete. Minutes pass. No Pete. Now I was experiencing nearly full-blown panic. Then, a few minutes later, “Hey, Vince! Here I am!” He had been waiting for me at 29th Street.
Riding Amtrak: In Conclusion
The second half of the trip-the return-was of greater concern for me, as I wasn’t certain how to get on to the train for the return, but my friend has traveled the rails many times, and he assisted in that. Overall, the trip up was uneventful, and the employees were courteous. I would like to see the announcing system improved, and it would be nice if previously made recordings could be used to assure uniformity. However, I must say I was well-pleased with the performance of Amtrak, and will not hesitate to use the system when I wish to travel to moderately distant places.
Note: The stops, in order, were: Culpeper, Manassas and Alexandria, VA; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, MD; Wilmington, DE; and Philadelphia, PA.