My young friend Clement took his first train ride a couple weeks ago.
Clement is disabled and has to work hard to communicate and get around. But because he is so resolutely cheerful—and cheerfully resolute—this Amtrak trip turned out to be even more enjoyable than either of us hoped.
It all started last winter, when my teen pal mentioned that he’d never ridden a train. I suspect Clement knew he was baiting the hook for a raging railfan, and sure enough, my mind started racing right away.
Since my fellow-traveler was nearly 18, I instinctively steered away from the nearby tourist lines in Jim Thorpe and Strasburg. Both are terrific, but it seemed more fitting to try bona fide public transit—and in this part of the state, that means Amtrak.
Aiming only for a short round trip, I chose Trains 42 and 43, “The Pennsylvanian”— a pair that runs daily between Pittsburgh and New York City: We would board 42 in Lewistown, PA, at 11:24 a.m. and head east for Harrisburg; arriving at 12:50, we’d lay over and catch the westbound at 2:36 p.m., returning to our origin around 4 p.m. Since Lewistown has only this one daily train in each direction, Clement’s mom drove us down; that way, she’d be available in case we somehow missed our connection in the capital.
From our home in Williamsport, we could’ve started in Harrisburg and taken any number of daily trains heading east and back. But passenger-wise, the 9-hour Pennsylvanian has a much more diverse demographic; it’s the state’s only Amtrak west of Harrisburg—and the only Keystone Service option with the roomier business-class seats that I felt Clement might prefer.
I also didn’t want to drive into Harrisburg—especially since Lewistown’s gorgeous 1849 station sits quietly on the edge of town along a track that carries 50 freights a day; it remains the oldest standing structure built by the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad.
The journey begins
Local volunteers man the station’s tiny but cordial waiting room, offering impressively low-cost snacks and gifts. Cracker-packs were a quarter; I bought an Amtrak decal for 50 cents; and Clement picked up railroad playing cards for under three bucks. During that time, two massive Norfolk-Southern freight trains thundered past, along with a one-car local on the Juniata Valley line, its venerable switching-engine painted in nostalgic PRR maroon-and-yellow.
No. 42 arrived roughly 20 minutes late, and Clement, despite his limited mobility, hauled himself aboard with virtually no help from me or the attentive conductor. We didn’t stay in our seats very long, heading straight for the lounge car, where the pricier business-class tickets ensured unlimited free soft drinks. Clement made sure we got our money’s worth on soda and water, while I nursed a cup of Amtrak’s tasty Starbucks coffee.
Meanwhile, I discovered just how wisely—if unwittingly—I had chosen our itinerary. I’ve done plenty of train travel east of Harrisburg, and in 2002 I rode west of Lewistown with my family; but I’d never been over the trackage between. This, it turns out, is perfectly gorgeous, running 40 miles along the Juniata River and then turning north for another 15 beside the Susquehanna, which it thereafter crosses on the Rockville Bridge. I’ve frequently admired this majestic span, which is clearly visible from Route 322 on the way into Harrisburg. Four thousand feet long, the eye-catching structure is, according to Wikipedia, “the longest stone-masonry arch railroad viaduct ever built.”
(Another fun fact: The Pennsylvanian’s total run of 444 miles between Pittsburgh and Manhattan is exactly the same length as the Susquehanna River.)
Since running water is my happy place, these lovely waterways took the sting out of getting my butt kicked playing War at our comfy lounge table with Clement’s new cards. With effusive body language and a few careful syllables, my traveling companion also taught me a new version of Uno, which I likewise lost—while our conductor pointed out the best way to get a look at the famed 25-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty, sitting at Dauphin Narrows in the middle of Susquehanna.
After a leisurely ride through the sprawling Norfolk-Southern rail-yards north of Harrisburg, we arrived at the capital still 20 minutes behind schedule. Here, the platform is at car level (rather than stepping up from the ground as in Lewistown); our conductor offered to place a special “bridge plate” across the six-inch gap between coach and platform, but Clement charged right over with no assistance.
Since he can’t walk far without support, my young friend typically uses a handsome but gigantic scooter—sort of a cross between a tricycle and wheelchair; that was too large to bring along, so we settled on a normal hand-held walker. Harrisburg’s waiting room is one floor above train-level, and neither I nor Clement’s mom was sure how he might manage a lengthy walker-trek along the platform to the elevator; but again, that proved no obstacle for this intrepid new railfan.
Settling into the spacious Harrisburg waiting room, we broke out sandwiches for lunch, after which I moseyed down to the station’s small but ample convenience store. Among other things, this little shop has perhaps the most wide-ranging book selection I’ve ever seen in a transportation hub; alongside the usual bestsellers stand dozens of classics, including Dickens, Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, W.E.B. Dubois, Frederick Douglass and three different titles by Albert Camus.
But what I came back with was … ice cream, which Clement devoured in about 45 seconds, I’m not kidding. I thought he was gonna eat the spoon as well; this kid sure has a healthy appetite.
The last leg
No. 43 was also late, and—since the Pennsylvanian carries a separate baggage car—we were preceded down to the platform by a towering cart of checked luggage, topped off with a bicycle still in the box! This is one option that gives Amtrak a huge leg-up over bus or plane.
As Clement and I staked out our spot in the lounge, 43 began crawling along at around 10 mph. This was due to track-work by Norfolk Southern, which actually owns the rails we rode on. In fact, except for the Harrisburg-Philly line and the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington—where Amtrak itself owns the line—Amtrak trains all run on borrowed tracks; they are thus subject to delays dictated by freight dispatchers. At least one rider in the lounge didn’t know this, however—and she grouchily asked the conductor why we were moving so slow.
“Probably wildebeests on the track up ahead,” he told her with a perfectly straight face. “Sometimes we let them cross, and sometimes we have to run them down.”
The questioner was digesting this unlikely explanation as we neared Rockville, where the trainman further noted that the Susquehanna is one of only two rivers in the U.S. able to support “freshwater porpoises”—and thus, we riders should be on the lookout for these rarely sighted mammals.
Meanwhile, I had spotted the all-white Liberty replica about a mile upstream. Since an excited mother and son were snapping photos left and right out the lounge-car windows, I asked her if she knew about the Statue of Liberty. She affirmed this with a hesitant sidelong glance and I thought, “Uh-oh, she thinks I’m talking about New York City”—making this one of the dumber questions I have asked in my life.
“No, there’s a Statue of Liberty in the Susquehanna!” I insisted, realizing at once that this helpful information would quickly align itself with other comedy doled out by our wise-guy conductor. She must have been thinking, “Everybody in this car has gone stark-staring mad.”
Nonetheless, we did manage to identify the landmark for this shutter-happy pair. (No indication whether they got photos of the porpoises and wildebeests.)
And then—though rain was in the forecast—a golden summer sun burst out, lighting up our last 40 miles along the rocky river and its calm, glowing tributary.
We were 50 minutes late at Lewistown, and Clement debarked happily into the arms of Mom, asking shortly thereafter just when we might do this again.
Next day, I posted pictures from the trip on Facebook—at my own feed, and on the wonderful Amtrak Fans page; here, a brief synopsis of our trip netted nearly 1000 likes.
Clement is now so Facebook-famous that I might have to ask for his autograph.
But at the moment, I’ll settle for memories.