ABOARD THE CRESCENT--At 110 mph, Amtrak's Crescent slides through the northern New Jersey town of Metuchen in a wonderland of industrial parks and toxic waste dumps. The vista, unfortunately, is wasted on the majority of passengers.
Once most riders climb on the New York trains at Union Station, the scenery is not an issue. The ride is not so much a journey as a wait, a few hours between a Dupont Circle lunch and a Broadway curtain, between quitting time in an Alexandria office and check-in time at a Manhattan hotel.
The train, meanwhile, glides over a trail set prior to the Civil War, when a train ride was an American adventure. The panorama, though altered, remains.
Whizzing by the train's windows during the 3- to 3 1/2-hour trip from Washington to Manhattan, are the chemical plants of Wilmington (best viewed at night, stacks atwinkle with tungsten bulbs in perpetual Christmas dress), the refineries of Marcus Hook, the hulking, vacant manufacturing plants of Philadelphia, the ghettos fore and aft of each city.
But the landscape also has its sweet aspects. The route bridges 12 rivers, capped by a grand crossing of the Susquehanna as it spreads its banks into the Chesapeake Bay. Tiny brick way stations named for towns that were gobbled up by sprawling neighbors still sit, rather forlornly, by the track. Farms crowd the right-of-way in Maryland and again in Delaware. Along with the hind quarters or the cities, the train view also encompasses glimpses of stately neighborhoods and landmarks such as Philadelphia's Museum of Art, made famous recently in the movie "Rocky" but magnificent long before with its tall orange columns.
Despite the electrified engines pulling the cars and the microwave ovens cooking the fast food, real railroad men still pilot the behemoth locomotives. If you look hard enough, there is still a grainy, cinematic cast to it all as you walk, ticket in hand, sniffing the trainyard perfume of creosote and grease, up the concrete platform where the big train stands wrapped in vapor.
At 9 o'clock on a misty morning the Crescent, which began its trip in New Orleans, was dropping freight and adding cars at Union Station in preparation for its 9:30 departure. I trotted up track L-25 to the head end to meet the engineer. The Walt Whitman in me still conjured up a Casey Jones figure in Oshkosh bib overalls and a puffy blue and white striped duckbilled hat and heavy black boots, white hair and pink puffy cheeks.
I hoisted myself up three metal rungs to the cab of Engine No. 935 and met a slight man, 138 pounds and about 5-foot-6, wearing a three-piece beige plaid suit, a tan chamois shirt with a brown wool tie held in place by a tie tack shaped like a turtle. He wore glasses and leather chukka boots.
"Pleased to meet you," said Engineer Harry Simpson. Harry's been riding the rails for 42 years, and he has a special love for his current stretch of track between the Capital and the Big Apple. But, of course, he's a native of Baltimore.
I jumped down and hustled back to the coaches for a tour of the Crescent. After dropping one sleeper, the train was 14 cars long: two baggage cars, two long distance coaches, one sleeper, three more coaches (off limits to passengers boarding in Washington), a dining car, a lounge car and four Amfleet coaches in the rear. The ticket on this regular train costs $37 one way, unless you get the $56 round-trip excursion fare. I reached the back of the train and made a bet with the trainman that we wouldn't make it to Penn Station on time. The Crescent jerked to a start at 9:30 sharp. He grinned and checked his pocketwatch.
During the 40-minute leg to Baltimore, the train ran a gauntlet between graveyards. Americans like to bury their dead next to the tracks--people and cars. A few minutes out of Union Station, rusting junks rot in piles a dozen sedans high on the right; graveyards line fields to the left. A 1930 Pennsylvania Railroad timetable lists stops at junctions named Tuxedo, Helethorpe and Arbutus, but the Crescent ignored them. Just before the train ducked into the Baltimore River tunnel, the Calvery Whiskey distilleries rose on the left.
The tunnel, built in 1873, is 3,403-feet long and just wide enough to fit one train. Its black moist walls, dimly lit by an occasional single light bulb in an alcove where only a gnome could live, press against the train's windows. The momentary flash of daylight before the train slipped into Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station was a relief.
During the three-minute stop in Baltimore, I joined Harry Simpson in the cab for the ride to Philadelphia. It was 10:09. He lit up a Panatella as he put the Crescent in gear and eased on the throttle with his left hand.
At first glance, the cab seemed as exciting as the inside of an elevator, hardly festooned with the expected dials and switches and gauges. In this diesel electric train with computerized sensors that read every bump and brake, the engine room was quiet and calm. A fault board above the right windshield with 49 warning boxes could instantly display problems from a failed brake to a loss of pressure in a coupling. Its orange, red and green boxes were dark now.
Harry picked up speed gradually after we emerged from a short tunnel. The Crescent climbed a slight incline that afforded a lookout over Baltimore's sea of rowhouses with roofs like geometric whitecaps. At 65 mph we glided down through trainyards with a view of the backyards of some poor neighborhoods until we hit a straight away. "And now we have 110 miles per hour," said Harry, "and it gets a little rougher."
From the coach windows, the landscape simply whizzes past. You might catch the blur of the Stemmers Run sign on a diminutive station or see an old sign for Harewood Park or Magnolia. From the cab, the view through the windshield is a study in perspective. When the railbed straightens out for a few miles, the filigree of wires above the supporting poles to the side recede to a distant point where they merge with the track at a point the train can never reach. I wondered if the illusion could be hypnotic after too many miles.
Harry did seem edgy. His hands never stopped moving, even though he had to worry about only two or three controls. "I'm not nervous," he explained. "It's just this dead man's feature." It used to be that the fireman sat beside the engineer, and there were always two people in the head end. If the engineer nodded out, the fireman could give him an elbow." Instead of a friendly nudge, the only thing guarding against a runaway train is the dead man's feature.
"I sit on an electric grid that sends little pulses of electricity through my body," said Harry. "The grid is linked to an alarm." If the engineer fails to touch something metal connected to the train every 20 seconds, the alarm cycle begins. Six seconds later a warning light flashes. If the "dead" driver still doesn't touch metal, the brake takes over automatically.
"I'd rather have a fireman," said Harry. "They're better company."
We crossed the first of many rivers 20 minutes north of Baltimore. It was the Gunpowder, a flat, brown, shallow river that empties into the Chesapeake Bay just a few miles to the east. There were two tracks on the bridge, and I winced as another speeding Amtrak train screamed at us midway across. Harry didn't flinch. He just dimmed his lights. Soon we would reach the Susquehanna River, a high point of the journey about 75 miles north of Washington.
The town of Havre de Grace, French for "harbor of mercy," sits astride the track on the western bank. Harry tooted the horn and eased off the throttle as the Crescent rose over the quaint town's ballfields to the right and church spires to the left. Suddenly, the locomotive leaned out over the river on a narrow bridge. From the front end it seemed as if we were flying.
We glided over the 3,269-foot steel bridge at about 50 mph. Upstream to the left more bridges cross the river over islands and marinas. To the east the water yawns into the top of the Bay. Before the bridges were built in 1866, trainmen ferried cars across the Susquehanna in steamboats, except in 1852 when the river froze over and they pulled cars across the ice.
The train doesn't stop in Perryville on the eastern bank, but the old brick depot on the right hints at the sense of history and pastoral scenery between the Susquehanna and Wilmington. The Crescent tugged up a rise Harry called Beacon Hill, then Iron Hill, a community of colonial homes where the train once stopped, and gradually the farms surrendered to yards stacked with blue 55-gallon drums on the right and black railroad tanker cars for hauling chemicals on the left. We were approaching Wilmington, the "chemical capital of the world."
At 10:53, almost an hour-and-a-half from Union Station, Harry started to brake the train. It takes a mile-and-a-half to come to a comfortable halt. He eased the Crescent to a squeaking stop, and we picked up a clutch of passengers at the Wilmington station before heading north through the chemical parks. Just out of the station, the Purina plant juts its checkered hulk up to the left.
North of the city, the Christina River, with drawbridges every mile or so, joins the track on the right on its way to the Delaware River. Wilmington relies on the railroad and the Delaware for its commerce, and about 10 miles north of the city at the Pennsylvania state line, the two converge.
The broad Delaware floats huge barges and container ships as it guides the train to Philly. A maze of factories fire their byproducts from its banks. They trade salvos all the way upstream: From du Pont's giant erector set of tanks, towers and pipes, gray clouds billow up; in the center of a distant gray Oz, an eternal orange flame burns off industrial gases from its topmost stack, casting an eerie pastel glow on the factories at night. Fire recedes to mist at Sunoco's Marcus Hook refinery where a dense white cloud obscured the track for 50 yards. Harry shrugged it off as normal, the way an old-time engineer might have yawned at a buffalo herd.
A collage of urban verite precedes the City of Brotherly Love, barely a half-hour later. Old tires and refrigerators spill over the right embankment to the rail bed. At the edge of one old iron bridge over the tracks, a lava flow of brown bags holding dead wine bottles sweeps down on the train.
Just before the Crescent pulled into the 30th Street Station, the vista opened up to a view that begins to show off Philadelphia as a pleasant old town. The University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field is on the left and the Schuylkill River is on the right. In the dark station, I said goodbye to Harry Simpson.
By this time, the four coaches that had started out empty in Washington were almost filled. Prepping for a stay in New York, most of the riders were plunged into the New York Times, the New Yorker or New York Magazine. They missed the Cresent's lazy traverse of the Schuylkill with perhaps a glance at scullers rowing by the Vespers boat club. After a quick view of the skyline with William Penn atop City Hall, the train curves around for a foreground look at the Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest in the nation.
I settled down in the empty lounge, the better to see the scenery on the way through New Jersey.
Lush farms compete with the industrial parks for a short stretch. A half hour out of town the Crescent grinds on once again to encounter the Delaware River and a pleasant inlet dotted with small moored boats. By the time the train makes Trenton, the Holsteins lose out to long, low windowless plants with names like Johnson & Johnson, Revlon, Delco, American Standard, Purolator, Merck. You'll know when you reach the capital because the bridge over the Delaware says: "Trenton Makes--the World Takes." The sturdy manufacturing towns of New Brunswick, Rahway and Elizabeth, with their somber brick homes, glide by the windows.
At this point in the trip, the landscape might benefit from a slight shroud. Mercifully, the Crescent reached its peak speed of 120 mph. It may take a lover of German Expressionism to appreciate the approach to Newark, New Jersey's largest city, where the train makes its last stop before Manhattan.
Slowly, on elevated track, the Crescent passed over the Passaic River, squeezed on both banks by factories and looking like crankcase oil. A 200-foot-high petroleum storage tank squatted on the Newark side of the bridge. Massive concrete pillars holding up the New Jersey turnpike rose out of a mist on the left. Out the right windows, stubborn cattails waved in acres of oil marsh.
For a moment after the train crossed the Hackensack River and ducked into the Holland Tunnel, New York's skyline with silhouettes of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center appeared far off to the right.
The train pulled into Penn Station at 12:45, right on time. I lost my bet to the trainman. But gradually acclimated by the Crescent's voyage, I was ready for the streets of New York.