Riding the train across the USA: Part 2 — Museums, trains and friends

Washington, DC, Union Station main hall with restaurant and vaulted ceiling

The Washington, DC, Union Station is one of the busiest in the US, being both a rail station and a shopping destination. Hard to think that this building was at one point boarded up because of plaster falling from the ceiling and mold growing. That was in the early 1980s after decades of neglected maintenance. Fortunately, Congress found funds and the station was restored. The “new” Union Station opened on 9/29/1988.

It was perhaps indicative of the times that much of the station was turned over for use as a shopping area, rather than returned to use as a place for travelers. Instead, the real travel concourse is at the back of the station building, closest to the tracks and by now woefully overcrowded. Amtrak however has plans for a new concourse to alleviate the situation.

I’d read about the restoration project with great interest both because I like trains and because I like to see old buildings preserved and put back to use. A year or two after the renovation I was in Washington, DC, and was able to get over to Union Station for dinner and to explore its new grandeur. I was duly impressed.

Now I’m back in DC, having come all the way from Little Rock, Arkansas, by train. While in DC I stay at a guest house (B&B) in the Kalorama Triangle. My meeting is in early afternoon. So that leaves the morning free.

First thing, I drop my backpack off at the luggage storage at Union Station. It’s kind of hidden away near Gate A on the train concourse, but a life saver since I now won’t have to lug the backpack around all day.

For a long time I’ve wanted to visit the National Air and Space Museum, especially since they have the Apollo 11 and a Lunar Lander there. Delightful way to spend a morning, exploring air travel’s infancy.

Poster map showing combined train - plane route across the US in 1929Did you know that airlines and railroads worked together at one point to offer a combination of train and plane for crossing the US? In 1929, you could start in New York in a sleeping car on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Next morning at Port Columbus, Ohio, climb aboard a noisy, bone-rattling passenger airplane of the Transcontinental Air Transport (later TWA). Several stops later you got to Waynoka, Oklahoma, where you boarded a Santa Fe sleeper for an overnight trip to Clovis, New Mexico. From there another plane ride to the coast (Los Angeles or San Francisco).

After the museum, a Metro ride to Georgetown where my meeting is. Afterward, the Metro back to the Mall. I have time for a visit to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Mall. Every time I’m in Washington, DC, I try to catch some other part of many possible sights and activities along the National Mall.

Finally, it’s time to go catch the train. Tonight I’m heading to New Brunswick, New Jersey, and friends from back in college.

The Northeast Corridor is the rail line Washington, DC – New York – Boston. It carries Amtrak’s fast premium Acela trains that stop in the main cities, the Amtrak Northeast Regionals that make more stops and many regional trains shuttling passengers to and from work and city. The line is electric and has 2, 3 or 4 tracks for all the traffic. Even so it’s at capacity and there are plans for a true high speed line Washington, DC – New York – Boston that really is needed yesterday.

I’ve timed things so that I am on one of the few Amtrak trains of the day that actually stop in New Brunswick. The alternative would have been to change trains at Trenton and take New Jersey Transit for the last leg. But you can’t beat a one-seat ride from Washington, DC, to New Brunswick.

The Amtrak Concourse at Washington Union Station
The Amtrak Concourse at Union Station at an only moderately busy time of the day

The Amtrak Concourse at Union Station is packed late in the afternoon. Throngs of people getting on the MARC Commuter trains to head home after a day’s work. Then there are various Amtrak trains heading north and south as well. I head toward Gate K, the announced Gate for my train. There’s a long line in the open area outside the Gate areas. I wonder what they’re in line for. When I get closer to Gate K, the quarter drops: Still plenty of time before the train leaves, but that long line… Yeah, it’s for my train. So much for being able to get on right away. I backtrack to the end of the line. Somebody needs to seriously increase the waiting area by each Gate.

After a while, the line finally starts moving. I eventually get on the train and even though it seemed like at least 2 million people were ahead of me, I find a window seat. The backpack goes on the overhead luggage rack. I had wondered about the regional Amfleet cars that are built more for business and local travelers than for people with serious luggage. No problem. Plenty of space.

The seats are closer together than on the Superliner cars I rode coming here. Still very comfortable and so much more space than on any airplane.

Soon the train glides out of the station and zooms along towards Baltimore and Philadelphia. I mix enjoying the view of passing cities, suburbs and countryside with writing on my computer. Everybody on this train seems to be busy with their computers, mobile devices, reports or reading a book.

In just a few hours, the train closes in on New Brunswick. Grab the backpack, head for the vestibule and I’m ready at the door, as the train slows down and stops.

As the train pulls out of the station to continue on to New York, I’m head down the stairs to street level. There’s a corner across the road where it’s easy for my friend William to pick me up, turn right into a small street and get back out towards where he lives without going through a major intersection. I dodge cars on the busy street to get over there.

As I look for William in one direction, I hear my name called. I look back across the street. There he is, at the curb, just where I came down from the platform. He was trying to save me a few steps. I was trying to save him circling through the town.

A few minutes later, we’re at his house and I catch up with him, his wife Gisela and a couple of their kids. Okay, it’s been 6 years. Those little kids are definitely not little any more.

And this is a big reason I’m doing this trip this way: To be able to stop in and reconnect with friends I haven’t seen for a long time. We enjoy a leisurely dinner and it seems hard to believe that just a few hours earlier I was in the middle of the nation’s capital. So serene on a deck in suburban New Jersey.

William and Gisela in their gardenOne thing I really appreciate about William is that he’s a deep thinker. So hanging out with him, you never know where the conversation will go. Awesome.

The next evening he offers to take me kayaking. It’s been years since I went canoeing last and he’s told me about kayaking around Manhattan on the Hudson and East River, so I’m a little apprehensive about where we may be headed. But sure, I’m up for the challenge.

We end up at a long lake in the area. Put in and paddle down along shores with magnificent houses on them. Very still evening. Birds coming through, Everything is peaceful. I like this. A quite refreshing way to spend some time together.

Next morning I’m packed again and ready to go. After breakfast, we say our goodbyes. William heads off for work and Gisela takes me to the train station. A New Jersey Transit train will get me to Manhattan. Get a ticket at a ticket machine and then up to the platform. Soon an train sweeps in, 10 or so double decker passenger cars with an electric engine pushing. I find a window seat upstairs in one of them and the journey is on again.

New Brunswick, incoming train with another train in the back
Train station in New Brunswick, NJ, with an incoming New Jersey Transit train headed for New York and on the far track an outbound train for Trenton.

I’ve been here many times before. Still enjoy watching the urban areas fly by outside the window. Then come the Meadowlands, low lying areas close to the Hudson with the ruins of forgotten industry dotting them. Finally, the train ducks into the tunnel under the river and we’re in New York City. There’s a short glimpse of daylight, concrete retaining walls and tall buildings before the train again is under ground entering Penn Station.

Penn Station was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 1900s and provided a magnificent entry into Gotham. That all ended in 1963, when the great railway station was torn down to be replaced by office towers and Madison Square Garden. Essentially, everything street level and above was razed and replaced. The labyrinths below street level and the tracks even further down are still here as before. So rail travelers today scurry down stairs to get into the station from the streets around it.

Vincent Scully Jr. compared the old Penn Station with the current Penn Station like this: “We used to enter the city like gods, now we scurry in like rats.”

It seems no matter how many times I come here, I still get confused once I’m at concourse level. Often I just head for an exit as it’s easier to get oriented once out on the sidewalk. I just arrived in Manhattan, but I’m not staying. The friend I’m visiting lives in Queens, so I head for the right subway line.

After a few tries, I find my E Subway and am off on another ride under the city. Stations zip by and I get off at Jackson Heights/Roosevelt. When I come up to street level, I’m at a very busy intersection in Queens. People are everywhere. Small stores in every possible and impossible space. The subway below and overhead an elevated line.

This place is hectic any time of the day I’ve ever been there. The bus stops are right by the subway station and I get on the Q49. Ride it to the last stop. By that time it’s passed blocks of tall apartment buildings, more blocks of tightly packed single family houses and duplexes, turned about 180 corners, The stop is a stone’s throw from Flushing Bay and not much further from LaGuardia. I walk down a tree lined street with old homes along it.

I catch up with my friend Rachel for a while. It’s nice to have arrived, even if this trip wasn’t very long at all.

That evening, as Rachel is at work, I head back into Manhattan. The goal is Grand Central Terminal. There are 2 major passenger rail stations in Manhattan. Penn Station which is a ghost of its former self and Grand Central, which might have suffered the same fate, except for everyone waking up to preservation after the destruction of Penn Station.

Grand Central Terminal main hall
The Main Concourse at Grand Central Terminal – a vital space full of people and activity that once came within inches of suffering the same fate as the Penn Station

One of the people instrumental in preserving Grand Central was Jackie O. So we now have a wonderfully restored and very much in use Grand Central Terminal (with an Apple store overlooking the main hall, just in case you need a computer while passing through).

My first train journey in the US, in 1978, was on Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited, leaving from Grand Central Terminal for Chicago. Tomorrow I’ll repeat that trip, but now Amtrak leaves from Penn Station and Grand Central is all regional trains on Hudson Valley and Connecticut service. More busy than ever.

Grand Central Terminal was the station from where the 20th Century Limited left each evening at 6pm (track 34) for Chicago. Passengers were greeted with a red carpet. This was New York Central’s premier train and it made the trip, non-stop, in 16 hours. Today Amtrak makes a number of stops on the way and is scheduled to take 19.5 hours.

I haven’t been at Grand Central Terminal since the major renovations so I enjoy just taking in the building, including the zodiac painted on the ceiling in the Main Concourse.

Brunch in Astoria with Rachel
Brunch in Astoria with Rachel and Rebecca

The next morning Rachel takes me to brunch at a small café in Queens. Old building, raw brick on the walls, doors open, so half indoor, half outdoor feel. I thoroughly enjoy the time visiting.

It’s time with friends like Rachel and William that make this trip special and so worthwhile. When else would I get to drop into their lives for a day or two like this?

My plan is to take the subway back to Penn Station. Rachel insists on driving me over to the subway. 7 is right here, but E would take me straight to Penn Station. So off we go. Then there’s a missed turn, a car in the other lane and before we know it, we’re on the Queensboro Bridge and next in Manhattan.

In the end, Rachel drives all the way to Penn Station. It’s been a very quick visit. Already I’m back at Penn. The next leg of the journey is about to start.

When you visit a city, do you prepare a list of things you want to see and do there?
When you visit far-away friends, what’s the most important for you in your time with them?

Other parts in this series:
Find all the posts in this series here