Manhattan Project

The destination was a New York restaurant. Ground zero: Baltimore. Four intrepid reporters set out by plane, bus, car and rail. Who would get there first, and for least

TRAINS ... Total one-way time and round-trip cost: 3 hours / $120

April 17, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

There were about 25 of us who scurried to find open aluminum doors on the Vermonter, the Amtrak train that popped out of a Bolton Hill tunnel and, bell clanging, arrived to get us alongside a time-battered Penn Station platform at 8: 23 a.m., just as the timetable promised.

By the time we were passing under Greenmount Avenue on this three-hour trip to Manhattan, I'd found an unoccupied set of seats on a comfortably crowded, but not packed, basically clean train (the bathrooms could have used some work) of eight coaches and baggage cars pulled by an electric locomotive.

I couldn't help snooping on my fellow travelers. What a studious set these Saturday-morning train riders are. While a number of them snoozed, many pecked away at portable computers, giving all appearance of doing real work, with bar graphs and pie charts. Men and women had purple highlighters at the ready as they scrutinized accounting ledgers. Even the children -- and there were quite a few -- were working puzzle books with pencils.

I caught sight of Agatha Christie and Julia Alvarez readers. New Yorker magazines were everywhere. One person, stretched out at a table adjacent to the cafe car, was underlining passages in a novel.

Some passengers broke out decks of cards and played games of solitaire.

By the time we'd passed Wilmington, my thoughts turned to food. Someone had walked past me with a cup of coffee that smelled too good to resist. Train food is bland and not cheap. A breakfast of coffee, an apple (not bad) with a small piece of plastic-covered Vermont cheese (just enough for a mouse) and a rolled ham-and-cheese breakfast sandwich was $6. I'd have done better to just get coffee on the train and brown-bag goodies from the station's carryout restaurant back in Baltimore, where the food is tastier.

This brings up the subject of price and rules. Amtrak tickets are no bargain. The basic no-frills fare is $60 one way, on certain trains. The train I rode, the Vermonter, was reserved, meaning you are assured a seat and must pay an additional $5. The Baltimore ticket agent warned me that if I left New York after 11 a.m. Sunday, the fare would go up to $69. In short, if you travel at a busy time, you'll be charged more. And Amtrak rules require that you purchase your ticket specifically for a train at a stated hour.

The schedule lists a 15-minute Vermonter stop in Philadelphia (not all trains stop this long), a layover I clocked at 17 tedious minutes. Don't ask me why we sat in the station's gloomy platform underbelly for so long.

The wait preceded the day's best piece of scenery -- the Boathouse Row along the curving Schuykill River, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art up the hill. (I know that most people like the high-up Susquehanna bridge crossing at Havre de Grace, but on this Saturday, vote for the Philadelphia river with the rowers in racing sculls, the gently choppy water and the stone arches of the Girard Avenue Bridge.

It was a breezy spring morning, with perfect lighting on the budding trees and electric yellow forsythia that seemed to line long stretches of this country's busiest rail corridor.

The scenery is delightfully personal. All along the way you look into bungalow and ranch-house kitchens and family rooms. The train seems to fly past what seems like 100 church steeples and countless rusty Erector-set steel bases for railway signals and power lines. This aged rail infrastructure possesses a geometric beauty.

Here and there you observe slum and mansion, 1940s neighborhoods and built-yesterday housing tracts along with inevitable stretches of dreary industrial corridors.

There was one unscheduled stop -- which accounted for our five-minute delay -- at Edison, N.J. After a few minutes, the conductor got on the public address system and said, "No particular problem other than weekend traffic." As it was now a little after 11 a.m., I wondered how the railroad would cope with Monday-Friday traffic.

In a few more minutes we passed through Elizabeth, N.J., and a hill dotted with tombstones came into view, with the shimmering New York skyline looming above the stone angels and crosses.

By 11: 20, we were traveling underneath Manhattan's skyscrapers and at the destination, New York's Pennsylvania Station.

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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