Facebook Page
Crescent to Newark, New Jersey, by Daniel Chazin

Crescent - Newark, New Jersey   May 30, 2007

By Daniel Chazin,

    It’s about 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, May 30, 2007, and I’ve just arrived at the Amtrak station in Atlanta, Georgia, where I will be boarding Train #20, the Crescent, which I will be taking back to Newark, New Jersey.

    The purpose of my trip to Atlanta was to attend a committee meeting of the Boy Scouts of America, which was held this morning from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.  Ordinarily, when I have a meeting relatively early in the morning, I like to arrive the night before.  However, in this case, I had a meeting of the Trail Conference Board of Directors in Mahwah, New Jersey on Tuesday night.  Since I’m the Secretary, it was important that I attend that meeting, and since the meeting does not end until 9:00 p.m., it was impossible for me to fly down to Atlanta the night before.  So my only alternative was to take a 6:00 a.m. flight on Wednesday morning.  About a month ago, I checked on the Internet and booked a flight on AirTran Airlines, departing Newark Airport at 6:00 a.m. and arriving in Atlanta about 8:15 a.m.  Of course, I had more time on the way back, so I booked my return trip on Amtrak’s Crescent.

    My Trail Conference meeting was not over until 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday night, and I remained in the office until about midnight to pack up a large $5,000 order from a major customer.  When I got home, I spent some time cleaning out my backpack and getting ready for the trip, and I barely got any sleep the whole night.

    About 3:45 a.m., I decided to leave for Newark.  I would be departing from Newark Airport and coming back to Newark Penn Station, and I decided that it made the most sense for me to leave my car in downtown Newark and take the train from there to the airport.  That way, when I returned tomorrow, my car would be right there.

    Given the light traffic at this very early hour of the morning, it took me only 20 minutes to get to Newark.  The first southbound NJ Transit train to Newark Airport, which I hoped to make, does not leave until 4:40 a.m., so I had some extra time on my hands.  I thought about parking on the street instead of in a parking lot, and I drove around to assess the options.  East of Penn Station, the area looked fairly respectable, and there were a few unoccupied spots.  The problem was that there were alternate-side-of-the-street parking restrictions in effect on Wednesdays and Thursdays, which meant that I could not leave my car there.  I checked the area west of the station, and there was ample parking available to the south, where the alternate-side-of-the-street parking restrictions were in effect on Mondays and Tuesdays.  But that area looked rather shabby, and I didn’t think that I should park my car there overnight.

    So I finally decided to park in the 24-hour lot just east of Penn Station.  I got there about 4:25 a.m., drove into the lot, informed the attendant that I would be there overnight, and walked across the street into Penn Station, where the departures monitor indicated that my train would leave from Track 4.  I walked upstairs to the platform and purchased a ticket to Newark Airport for $7.50 (representing a $2.00 NJ Transit ticket and a $5.50 fee for using the AirTrain monorail to connect to the airport from the Newark Airport rail station).

    My Train #3809 arrived three minutes early and departed on time at 4:40 a.m.  It consisted of eight Arrow III MU cars, but only two cars (the third and fourth cars) were open.  Most seats were occupied by one passenger, but I had no problem finding an unoccupied seat group.  As might be expected at this early hour, most passengers were sleeping.

    The conductor never bothered coming through to collect tickets before we arrived at the Newark Airport station at 4:45 a.m., on time.  Along with about a dozen other passengers, I detrained and walked upstairs to the fare gates, where I inserted my ticket.  I was a little surprised to see that my ticket was captured by the machine; the only other NJ Transit ticket machines that I know of (the ones at Secaucus Junction) don’t work this way.  They always give you back the ticket, even if you would no longer need it for another train ride (as in the case of a ticket reading NYP to SEC).

    I continued over to the monorail boarding area, where a train arrived at 4:52 a.m., after a wait of about five minutes.  The train makes three intermediate stops on the way to Terminal A, from where my AirTrain flight would depart, and the ride took 11 minutes.  There was a slight delay going through security, but I arrived at the gate from which my flight would depart at 5:20 a.m., in plenty of time for my 6:00 a.m. flight.

    Boarding began about 5:30 a.m., and I boarded the plane at 5:40 a.m.  I was seated in an aisle seat of a three-seat group, with the middle seat vacant – perhaps the most comfortable configuration possible on a plane.  We pulled out of the gate at 5:57 a.m., three minutes early, took off at 6:09 a.m., landed at 7:51 a.m., and arrived at the gate in Atlanta at 7:56 a.m., 20 minutes early.  I walked to the middle of the terminal and went down to the lower level, where an airport monorail took us over to the main terminal. 

    My meeting would be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, and last night, I called up the hotel to find out how I could get there from the airport.  I was informed that there were three ways to go – a taxi would cost $33 and a shuttle was available for $16, but the third option was to take the local heavy rail transit system, MARTA, at a cost of $1.75.  I was told that MARTA goes to the Peachtree Center station, which is connected by a direct underground passage to the hotel.  Well, I imagine that you can guess which method of transportation I chose!

    Signs pointed the way to the MARTA station, and when I got there, I found that you had to purchase a ticket from a machine.  I found the directions a little confusing, so an attendant came over to assist me.  MARTA recently implemented a new fare collection system, called “Breeze,” which requires you only to touch a sensor with your farecard for the turnstiles to open.  There is a 50-cent surcharge for the purchase of a farecard (which is refillable), so the trip actually cost me $2.25, but that was still far less than any alternative means of transportation.

    My train departed at 8:20 a.m. and arrived at the Peachtree Center station at 8:40 a.m.  The maze of underground passages and retail outlets in the mall surrounding the station was rather confusing, and the maps provided did not indicate where you were, but I finally found the entrance to the hotel, and by 8:50 a.m. I was at our meeting room.  The flight had worked out perfectly, and I was at the meeting 40 minutes early.

    (Parenthetically, another committee member who also took a 6:00 a.m. flight from Newark Airport this morning did not fare as well.  He opted to fly on Delta, rather than AirTran, and his flight was delayed by mechanical difficulties.  As a result, he did not arrive at the meeting until 11:15 a.m., having missed most of the meeting!)

    I had wanted to send an e-mail message but discovered that the hotel did not have an open access wireless Internet network.  So when the meeting was over, about 11:30 a.m., I went out to the adjacent underground food court, where I was able to connect to the network of the Atlanta Bread Company, one of the food outlets in the mall.

    In the afternoon, I attended a meeting of another committee.  Then, about 5:30 p.m., I left the hotel and reboarded MARTA.  This time, I was able to refill my card for only $1.75.  Since my Amtrak train was not scheduled to arrive until close to 8:00 p.m., I decided to ride to the Doraville station at the end of the line, where we arrived at 6:00 p.m.  I noticed that, for much of the way, the MARTA line parallels an active freight railroad.

    While waiting at the Doraville station for my return train, I decided to take a few pictures.  No sooner had I boarded the train than a policeman came over to me and asked if I had a permit.  When I replied that I did not, he informed me that photography on MARTA is not permitted without a permit and asked to see my camera.  I explained that I had a digital camera and offered to delete the six pictures that I had taken (they were of rather poor quality, and I probably would have ended up deleting some of them anyway).  The policeman carefully watched as I deleted all six pictures from my camera, then warned me that if I tried to take any more pictures, I would be issued a summons and might have to serve some time in jail.  While I believe MARTA’s prohibition on photography to be absurd and silly, the incident didn’t really disturb me – especially since most of MARTA’s stations are rather undistinguished in appearance and not very photogenic, anyway.

    I arrived at the Arts Center station, the closest MARTA station to the Amtrak station, about 6:30 p.m.  From the MARTA train, I had called Amtrak on my cell phone and found out that my Amtrak train, scheduled to arrive at Atlanta at 7:53 p.m., was running 38 minutes late.  Nevertheless, I decided to proceed directly to the Amtrak station and wait there.  I was informed by a MARTA representative that I should take the #23 bus to the Amtrak station, and I walked up to the bus platform adjacent to the station.  I handed the driver my “Breeze” ticket (which had been validated as I departed the station), and he retained it.  (I didn’t question this, as I had no further use for the ticket, but since a 50-cent charge is imposed whenever one obtains a new ticket, I wondered why he didn’t offer to return it to me).  The ride to the Amtrak station was rather short, and within ten minutes we had reached the bus stop across the street from the station.

    The Amtrak station in Atlanta was built as the Peachtree Street Station of the Southern Railway (in fact, the name of the station and the railroad are inscribed in the facade of this attractive brick building).  It was intended to be a suburban station, with the main Atlanta station located in the downtown area, and it was quite suited for this purpose.  But the main downtown station was demolished over 30 years ago, and ever since then, this small station has been used as the main (and only) Amtrak station in the major city of Atlanta.

    I walked across the street and into the station, which was largely empty at this hour, as our train is not scheduled to arrive for another hour.  I asked the agent what time the train would actually be arriving, and he replied that the train was running a little late and would not arrive until 8:30 p.m.

    There were plenty of unoccupied benches in the station, but none were adjacent to an electric outlet, and my computer’s batteries needed to be recharged.  I realized that a better alternative was available.  Across the street was a Borders Bookstore and Café, and that would provide a more comfortable place to wait for the train.  So I walked across the street and went up to the café, located on the second floor, with a view of the Amtrak station and the train platforms.  I purchased a cup of tea and a small bag of potato chips and sat down in a comfortable armchair.  I was unable to connect to the Internet via the one unsecured wireless network that was available, but I did spend the next hour or so finishing up work on the minutes of the meeting that I had attended that morning.

    I noticed that a 24-hour Krogers store was located directly adjacent to the Borders Bookstore, so about 7:55 p.m. I walked over to the Krogers store, where I purchased some food items for the trip home.  I then walked back across the street to the station.

    It was now about 8:15 p.m., and the station was jammed.  There were probably close to 200 people (including friends and relatives of travelers) waiting for the train – a number far beyond what the station was designed to accommodate.  At 8:25 p.m., an announcement was made that, due to the limited space available, passengers arriving on the Crescent would first be given the opportunity to “deboard,” following which there would be a five-to-10-minute delay, and only after that would passengers be permitted to board the train.  I noticed that there was a small grassy area to the left of the stairway leading down to the tracks, with a view of the tracks, so I decided to wait there.  This provided an additional advantage – I was right by the top of the stairway leading down to the tracks, so I could go down to board the train as soon as boarding was permitted.

    At 8:32 p.m., the bright headlight of the train became visible, and an announcement was made that Train #20 is now approaching the station.  Two minutes later, our train pulled into the station at 8:34 p.m.  Tonight’s Crescent is pulled by engines 82 and 168 and includes a baggage car, two Viewliner sleepers, a dining car, a lounge car and four Amfleet II coaches.

    Ordinarily, when I travel on Amtrak by myself, I prefer to travel by sleeper.  But when I booked the trip on Amtrak’s web site, I found that the added charge for a sleeper was $378 – an amount that I would consider rather outrageously high.  Especially since this is a simple overnight trip, I decided instead to travel by coach – for only $107 (with the AAA discount), an amount comparable to what I paid for the flight down to Atlanta on Airtran.  (The $107 fare represents the lowest bucket available; when I checked the price about a week before the trip, it had increased to $232.)
    When boarding began at 8:45 p.m., I walked down the long stairway to the tracks and was instructed to board the last car of the train and take Seat #27.  The car that I was assigned to, #25000, had been reconditioned with blue seats and an electric outlet at each pair of seats.  (Two of the other coaches on the train had been similarly reconditioned, but the first coach had the old red seats and no electric outlets, except for the two that were installed when the car was built.)  I was particularly glad to find the electric outlet, as my computer’s battery now lasts for only about one hour, and it would have been very annoying to have to go elsewhere each hour to charge my computer.  A very friendly young woman was assigned to sit next to me.  She was traveling from Atlanta with two children, a boy of 15 and a girl who was about 12, and was going to Washington, D.C. to attend her nephew’s graduation from high school.  The two children were assigned to sit on the other side of the aisle, diagonally opposite us.  She remarked that her son loves trains and has already decided that he wants to be a locomotive engineer when he grows up!

    As soon as I got settled, I turned on my computer and discovered – somewhat to my surprise – that I could get online using some wireless network in the vicinity.  This gave me about 10 minutes to check some e-mail messages, although, of course, the connection was lost as soon as we pulled out of the station.

    We departed Atlanta at 9:04 p.m., 43 minutes late, with our stop having lasted for half an hour (two minutes longer than scheduled).  After the conductor came by to collect tickets, I walked down to the lounge car.  I found that all four coaches were nearly full, with two people sitting in almost every pair of seats.  Only the second coach, which was used for local passengers, had several pairs of empty seats.  (The first, third and fourth coaches were reserved for passengers traveling at least as far as Washington).

    It was returned to my coach seat and took out a packet of salmon, a bag of potato chips and a can of iced tea that I had purchased at Kroger’s.  The hour was rather late, so I was not in the mood for a large meal, and the food that I had brought along was perfectly adequate for dinner.

    I did a little more work on my computer, but soon after we departed Gainesville at 10:00 p.m., I began to get quite tired and decided to get some sleep.  Amfleet II coach seats are quite roomy and permit one to recline in a semi-horizontal position.  But although the lights in the car were dimmed after 10:00 p.m., there was a rather annoying overhead light right near my seat. 

    Nevertheless, I was quite exhausted by now, having gotten virtually no sleep last night, and I did succeed in sleeping for most of the next six hours.  I would often wake up, but I was always able to fall asleep again rather quickly.  I awoke during our station stops at Toccoa, Clemson, Greenville and Spartanburg, but slept through the next three stops (Gastonia, Charlotte and Salisbury).

    I woke up at 4:08 a.m. while we were stopped at an attractive looking station.  I didn’t know where we were, but remained awake 17 minutes later when we made our next station stop.  This latter station was identified by a sign as Greensboro, so I now knew that the previous station was High Point. 

    When traveling on Amtrak, I often try to step off the train at several stations en route.  I had not yet done so on this trip, and, glancing at the timetable, I noticed that we are scheduled to spend five minutes in Greensboro, so I decided to try to step off the train here.  I put on my shoes and walked forward to the second car, where a door had been opened.  By this time, all passengers getting on or off in Greensboro had already done so.  One passenger had stepped off the train to smoke a cigarette, but the conductor (who had also lit up a cigarette) and the coach attendant were the only other people standing on the platform.

    On my last previous trip on the Crescent five years ago, I noted in my travelogue that Greensboro had a ”modern, unattractive station.”  But since then, the original station – located at the junction of the Crescent route, leading north to Danville, with the   route, leading east to Raleigh – has been restored.  Since the station is located just east of the junction of the two lines, there are separate platforms for each line.  The station building is reached via an underpass and, of course, I did not attempt to go inside.  For some reason, our station stop in Greensboro lasted for eight minutes, and when we departed at 4:34 a.m., we were 36 minutes late.

    Now that I was awake, I decided to go to the lounge car so that I could start writing these memoirs.  There were a few other passengers in the lounge car, but several tables were unoccupied.  It was still dark out, but for the next hour or so, I remained in the lounge car and succeeded in writing three pages of these memoirs. 

    Our next stop was Danville, Virginia, where we arrived at 5:39 a.m.  Danville has an attractive yellow brick station that was recently renovated, with a rather ugly black-clad chain-link fence separating the station from the active tracks.  A security guard was stationed at the gate, which remained closed until after the train had come to a stop.  About 10 passengers boarded the train here, and when we departed at 5:42 a.m., we were 45 minutes late (between Greensboro and Danville, we had stopped for five minutes to await a clear signal).

    I now began to get a little tired again, and my computer’s batteries would soon need to be recharged (this Amfleet II lounge car had not been retrofitted with electric outlets at each table).  So I decided to return to my coach seat.  But on the way, I noticed many pairs of unoccupied seats in the second coach, so I decided instead to sit down there.  I pushed the seat back and succeeded in falling asleep for about 45 minutes.  When I awoke at 6:30 a.m., the sun had already risen and it was light out.  I could now see the pleasant rural scenery that we were passing through.

    We pulled into our next stop, the Kemper Street station in Lynchburg, at 6:46 a.m.  This is a very attractive three-story brick station, which appears to be well maintained.  About 20 passengers were waiting to board here, and I realized that my seat in the second coach might be needed by passengers boarding here.  Now that my computer had been recharged (I had plugged it in while I slept), I decided to move back to the lounge car.  Our stop in Lynchburg lasted for five minutes, and when we departed at 6:51 a.m. we were 44 minutes late.  As we departed Lynchburg, I watched as we passed through the short Rivermont Tunnel and then crossed over the two branches of the scenic James River.

    As we approached Charlottesville, where we arrived at 7:58 a.m., my computer’s batteries died, so I moved back to my assigned coach seat.  A large crowd was waiting to board the train here.  The former railroad station has been converted to the Wild Wing Café, with Amtrak now relegated to a smaller building that was formerly used by the Railway Express Agency.  Although our stop here lasted for nine minutes, I did not step off the train here. 

    About 8:30 a.m., I decided to go to the dining car for breakfast.  On the way, I noticed that virtually every seat in all four coaches was now occupied.  When I checked on the web on Tuesday, I found that the train was sold out north of Charlottesville, so I was not surprised to find that there were hardly any unoccupied seats.

    When I arrived at the dining car, I was seated at a table with two men, both who had boarded the train in Charlottesville.  One was headed for Alexandria; the other for Penn Station, New York.  The man destined for Alexandria related that his wife had purchased a round-trip Washington-Charlottesville ticket for him a few weeks ago, but she ended up driving him down to Charlottesville.  When he arrived at the station this morning, he discovered that his reservation on today’s train had been cancelled, as he never picked up his ticket for the southbound train from Washington to Charlottesville.  And he was informed by the agent that the train was sold out!  Fortunately, the agent, realizing that he had in good faith assumed that he had a valid reservation for the train, agreed to issue him a ticket!

    The other man lived in Netcong, New Jersey and was returning from a business trip to Charlottesville.  He mentioned that he works in Madison and commutes daily from Netcong to Madison on NJ Transit.

    The discussion at breakfast revolved entirely around trains and Amtrak.  The man who lived in Alexandria recalled how he grew up in Cleveland at a time when that city had excellent, first-class train service, and he lamented the relatively poor quality of train service today.  We also talked about the yield management pricing used today by Amtrak, high-speed trains in other countries, and the delays experienced by Amtrak due to the low priority given their trains by the freight railroads.  I had brought my Steam Powered Videos railroad atlas to breakfast with me, which the others found quite interesting.  As usual, I had the Continental breakfast, with Rice Krispies.  During the meal, we passed through the town of Orange, where the route of the Cardinal joins our route, and we made a brief stop at Culpeper at 9:00 a.m.  At the end of the meal, we complimented the attendant for her service, paid our bills and returned to our coach seats.  I was really glad that I decided to eat breakfast in the diner, and – due to the interesting company – it was one of the most interesting meals I’ve ever experienced on Amtrak.
   I returned to my coach, but rather than sitting down at my coach seat, I decided to spend some time looking out of the back of the train.  I actually had the opportunity to look out the back for the entire ride, but this was the first time that I had availed myself of this opportunity.  I then returned to my seat, where I remained until we arrived in Washington.    As we crossed the Potomac River into Washington, I remarked to my seatmate how fortunate we were in traveling by train, as the highway bridge adjacent to us was clogged with traffic.  She commented that she had considered driving to Washington from Atlanta, but was very glad that she had decided to take the train instead, and would never want to drive that long distance again!

    We pulled into Track 26 at Washington Union Station at 10:26 a.m.  Ample make-up time is provided approaching Washington, so we were only 16 minutes late.  I detrained and walked to the front of the train, where I took a few pictures and observed, on an adjacent track, electric engine #942 which, I assumed, would soon be added to our train.  I then returned to my coach, which now was more than half empty, as many passengers had detrained in Washington. 

    After we departed Washington at 10:46 a.m., following a 20-minute stop, the conductor came through the cars to check everyone’s ticket stub.  I don’t recall this having been done on my previous trips on this train, and I remarked to the conductor that I assumed that he wanted to be sure that no unauthorized person boarded the train in Washington.  He replied that this was not the main reason; rather, he wanted to be sure that all tickets were collected, noting that sometimes the previous conductor might have failed to collect a ticket from a sleeping passenger.

    Now that my seatmate had detrained, I had a little more space to myself.  I took a look at the Steam Powered Videos Northeast Rail Atlas to follow our progress into Baltimore.  We arrived at Baltimore at 11:18 a.m., now only six minutes late, and departed five minutes later. 

    As we rounded the curve that leads into the Wilmington station, I noticed that we had two electric engines pulling our train!  Apparently, my assumption that the single engine #942 would be attached to our train proved to be incorrect.  I didn’t want to walk all the way down to the front of the train at an intermediate stop to find out the numbers of our two electric engines, but I figured that I would have time when I detrained in Newark to do so.  As we proceeded through the Wilmington station, where we also stopped for five minutes, I noticed that a temporary wooden high-level platform had been constructed on the northbound local platform, which was formerly a low-level platform. 

    We arrived at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia at 12:35 p.m. and departed eight minutes later.  As we pulled out of the station, I noticed the northbound Pennsylvanian, Train #43, paralleling us, heading north (of course, at Zoo Tower, Train #43 headed west, towards Pittsburgh, now its final destination).

    When we arrived in Trenton, where we stopped for only two minutes, I briefly stepped out onto the platform.  A man standing on the platform inquired whether he could take this train to New York, and both the attendant and I responded that the train does not pick up passengers at Trenton.  The man commented that he could not understand why that should be the case.  (Actually, he may well have had an NJ Transit ticket which would not be valid for transportation on Amtrak in any event!)

    We arrived on Track 2 in Penn Station in Newark at 1:54 p.m., 11 minutes late.  I detrained and walked down to the front of the train, where I recorded the numbers of our two electric engines.  On the way, I observed the unloading of baggage from the baggage car, with the baggage cart onto which the baggage for Newark was unloaded filled to the top.  As the train departed, at 1:59 p.m., after a five-minute stop, I walked downstairs.  I stopped in the waiting room to purchase some NJ Transit tickets for future trips (fares are being increased tomorrow about 10%), then walked across the street to the parking lot where I had left my car.  I retrieved my car and drove back home.

    My trip to Atlanta worked out just as planned.  Flying was the only practical way to get there for my meeting, but I’m glad that I decided to take the train back.  Having a friendly person as my seatmate made the trip more enjoyable, and it was nice to see a full Amtrak train, used by many people for long-distance transportation, and arriving at its final destination practically on time.

[ Top of the | Various Rail Travelogues ]