Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Overnight on the Train

South Bend, Indiana
I wake up and realize the guy in the seat beside me is gathering his stuff.  Looking out the window, I see we're running alongside a river.  It must be the Ohio.  I pull out my iPhone to check the time.  It's 4:45 AM, we're approaching Pittsburgh.  

"Getting off in Pittsburgh?" I ask.

"Yeah," he answered.  He was asleep last night when I boarded the train in South Bend.  I was pretty tired myself.  I vaguely remember train stopping at Elkhart, and totally missed Waterloo, along with longer stops in Toledo and Cleveland and a number of quick stops in smaller towns.  We pass the Emsworth Lock and Dam.  I'm surprised to see the barges are still running on the first of February, but then it's been a warm winter.

“Live in the 'burg?" I ask.

"No,  Philly."

"But you're getting off here?"

"Yeah, I gotta catch another train. I have a two hour layover.  You from here?"

"Nah, but I lived here for three years when I was in school.  It's a great city."

We talk for a few minutes.  The train slows down and then pulls away from the river.  I learn he's a long haul truck driver.  They found a beer in his truck when it was being serviced.  He said it was left over from New Years, but it's a violation and they terminated him.  But it's okay, he says, as he's already has another job with another trucking company lined up.  

As he talks the train swings to the right and soon we're running over the bridge across the Allegheny River.

"Those are the Three Sisters," I say, pointing out the identical bridges below us crossing the river.  The train slows, stopping at the Pittsburgh Station underneath the massive building that used to house offices for the Pennsylvania Railroad.  The conductors and engineer change crews here, providing a fifteen minute break.  After all the passengers are off, I get off and walk for a few minutes along the tracks enjoying the fresh air.  Most passengers are  still asleep, but there are a few on the platform enjoying one of the infrequent smoking breaks.  It's odd to be outdoors in the predawn hours on the first of February without wearing a coat.  When the conductor shouts, "All Aboard," I step back up and take my seat and am soon asleep.  
Boarding in South Bend

I'd boarded the train the evening before in South Bend, Indiana. There, I'd had a long wait as I turned in my rental car at 6 PM, in time to get a shuttle back to the station, but the train didn't arrive until a little after nine.  I had brought a sandwich for dinner and ate it in the station.  It wasn't a very fancy meal.  I spent the rest of my time sitting along the back wall reading Robert Harris' Pompeii while looking up every few minutes when the crossing gates just outside the station would begin to ring in announcement of another train.  The ringing was followed by the horn of a train coming closer until it whisked by, followed by the waning sound of the horn and the clacking of the wheels.  This was the main line serving trains heading from Chicago east to New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  The station was never very busy and only a half dozen of us who board in South Bend when Amtrak arrives.

I wake up a little after seven and in the dark can make out a river that parallels the tracks.  According to the time table, we must have already stopped in Connellsville and are beginning the long slow climb over the Alleghenies.  The river appears deep and slow, with just a few rocks, but I know that'll change as we gain altitude.  There is a dusting of snow on the ground and the trees are barren.  Occasionally I'll spot a pine or cedar, frosted with snow, but it's mostly hardwoods of some variety.  In the dark, it's hard to tell the specie.  I take my book and notebook up to the snack car for breakfast, ordering a breakfast burrito and coffee.  Sitting at a table, I eat, while watching the scenery change.  There are more cedars and the river is running faster with rocks.  The ground is now covered with snow with more falling.   

The train slowly winds its way up the tracks, its wheels at time squeaking against the rails.  We reach the village of Confluence.  The morning is gray, foggy, and wet.  Only a few cars are on the roads.  As we gain more elevation, the river becomes smaller and swifter.  We run through the first tunnel.  On the top of the hills are a large number of electrical windmills.  Mountain laurel is seen along the hillside.  We enter another tunnel, a longer one, and when we come out I notice that the river has changed directions.  We're heading downhill, but the engineer holds the train back, going as slowly downhill as we did uphill.  The sun is now attempting to burn off the fog and it's golden reflections can can seen in the ripples of the creek below.  As we lose altitude, there is less and less snow on the ground and the train picks up speed.  By the time we reach Cumberland, the snow is gone.  We're a bit early, so I step off the train and enjoy the fresh air.  It feels more like spring than deep winter.   

After Cumberland, I head back to my seat.  The train runs quickly along the Potomac River.  I continue reading Pompeii, picking up where I left off last night.  A little over an hour later, we make a short stop in Martinsville, West Virginia, a neat looking old town.  On the north side of the tracks is an old abandoned roundhouse.  The business district is on the south side.  Our next stop is in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.   I look for the old hotel where I stayed and other familiar scenes from when I was here while hiking the Appalachian Trail.  The strop is short and soon we're crossing the river and heading into a tunnel.  
Harpers Ferry

C&O Towpath (south of Harpers Ferry)

Below Harper's Ferry, the train parallels the C&O canal, it's stagnant water covered in a green slime.  The train makes its last stop in Rockville, before pulling into Union Station fifteen minutes early.  I have a quick lunch in the food court and then head out to the National Gallery.  Tonight, I'll have better accommodations as I've booked a sleeper for the trip back to Savannah.

Back in Savannah


  1. I've only traveled once by train but I loved it. It just hasn't been in the cards with kids and time constraints to do more of it but one of these days, I would like to do a long trip across the country by Amtrak with some exploring along the way.

  2. Your writings about your trips always brings me a sense of comfort. I appreciate that.

  3. Doesn't sleeping on a train rather defeat the reasoning for taking the train in the first place. Just sayin :-)

    1. Night on the train can be quite fun. Maybe I should write some about the trip from DC to Savannah--a good meal in the dining car and a wee dram of Scotch afterwards, to one sleep

  4. The only place I've ever traveled extensively by train is in the UK. I've always thought it would be fun to take one from Little Rock to Chicago. Maybe someday.

  5. I've only taken a few train rides but I found the experience quite enjoyable, and would love to do so again.

  6. I enjoyed reading about your trip. I've never been on the Amtrak, but my husband used to take it from Bryan, Ohio to Chicago for business conferences. It seems like it would be an interesting way to travel and see the countryside.

  7. This makes me yearn for a train trip. I like how you go off on adventures like this.

  8. Lovely post. I feel that train travel in the US has largely lost its sense of romance but you do a nice job of capturing it here. My daughter likes to travel by train and so we usually consider it but, more often than not, decide against. We are planning an eventual Europe trip, though, and I fully intend to make good use of the trains when we go. In my experience, European and Japanese train travel is far more satisfying - comes of frequent use.

  9. It is so nice to see our great country when someone else is driving.

  10. I've always wanted to take a train ride. There's something about it that sounds exciting, magical, you can have an insightful experience. I'd never say that about a plane ride. lol

  11. I love how you've written this, it really brings it alive ... thank you.
    Good to see your pictures too.

    All the best Jan

  12. Thanks for bringing us along on this train ride. I like that there's a city named Confluence. Interesting. Happy travels.

  13. I've never been on a train but loved the stories and pictures.

  14. I have only taken the train from CT to NYC and back. I've always thought traveling across the US by train seemed very romantic. I enjoyed this post and the pictures!

  15. I love trains ! years ago we travel a lot in trains .Always enjoyed ♡

  16. I enjoyed reading about your overnight trip by train, Sage. You make the journey come alive! I see you are reading Robert Harris' "Pompeii," a book I've read at least three times including last year when I was in Pompeii.

  17. Now this was fun, almost like being right there on the train too. I'm a fan of riding Amtrak and it's about time I went east (beyond Chicago) I've been as far as Portland twice, and went to White Fish once so I've been lucky. How is Savannah? I've only been there once, but I enjoyed everything about that lovely town, and will see it again sometime! We actually stayed on Tybee Island that trip (our hotel and a few meals) but Savannah was the real catch! Enjoy your week.

  18. I've never traveled by train like this, but is sounds cool. Traveling through the Canadian Rockies by train would be on my bucket list.

  19. Yep, I felt like I was right there on that train with you. Great story.

  20. Train travel is so amazing. You have the luxury of seeing things along the way and time to read. I have to take another train trip. Thanks for taking me on your journey to places I've never seen from a train.

  21. Now I want to take a train trip somewhere. Also liked your review of Pompeii. Maybe my library has it...

  22. Love love love this! I felt like I was right there on that train. Rolling not only through the night, but through history. This could very well be an article in a magazine, or in a book. Really well written...
    The photos were perfect for your running narrative.

  23. One of my brothers is a truck driver. I was surprised at how easily he shuffles from different trucking companies when his current employer becomes problematic. I even think he has worked for a particular company at least three times.

  24. What a wonderful post. Loved it from beginning to end. Your conversation with the stranger was out of a movie. Beautiful. Thanks.

    Greetings from London.