01/31/2008 Riding the Rails
I decided to go out and ride some trains. I decided on doing this a while ago. Today was the first day I did it.

Paoli to 30th St R5
30th to Market St East on an R7
8th and Market to Lindenwald on Patco
Lindenwald to Camden on Patco
Camden to Trenton on NJ Transit River Line
Trenton to 30th St on Trenton R7
30th St to Paoli on R5

Here is my story....hope it all fits...
A day on the rails

I have been saying for a while now I wanted to take one of my days off and go screw around on public transportation. Do a little subway, train and trolley action. I have been trying to find the energy to get up and go. Every morning I would sit at home and make excuses.

I started off at the Paoli Station on SEPTA's R5 line. I grew up two houses off of this line in Berwyn. So it is near and dear to me. I tried to make it to Paoli to catch train number 9546 at 9:30am. I actually pulled into my Mom's driveway as the train pulled into the station. I have been looking to get schedules so I don't have to keep checking the internet, so I figured I would walk down and get my ticket and go from there. Its been quite a while since I had been in the Paoli station. Nothing too exciting, no trains of either the SEPTA or Amtrak variety expected for a half hour. I wandered over to the news agency to get a soda and a magazine. It was chilly this morning, in the 30's yet very sunny.

As I waited outside I got talking about cameras with another passenger waiting to go into the city. Come to find out the guy used to be a cop in Chester County. So I am sure either my brother or I have spoken to him in the past. He said he was an IT guy now and used to shoot a lot. I think I he is seriously considering buying a digital camera.

The misfortune of missing the 9546 train gave me a chance to shoot two Amtrak trains that stopped at Paoli. First was the westbound 609 Keystone train which goes to Harrisburg and then the eastbound 644 Keystone. Nothing too exciting in the way of locomotion, just nice to see the R5/Keystone Main lines somewhat busy. There was also SEPTA's 515 westbound which had some interestingly bright red pantograph.

My train, the 9550 appeared pretty much on time. Four cars and so early in the train ride I figured I would have my choice of seats. Not the case for this ride, I ended up riding backwards. I hate riding backwards. Not because it makes me sick, I like to see what is coming toward me. I have never ridden from Paoli before so in itself was a unique experience. I have never seen Paoli or Daylesford from a train on the tracks. I used to play along the tracks all the time as a kid. (For those kids reading out there – playing along the tracks isn't a good thing)

Actually pulling into Berwyn was different. Seeing the old roller rink, the train station, and oh yes, my old house. Very weird to see the place and have no sense of attachment anymore. It was neat to see Mack Oil and some of the Berwyn village area again though. For those who don't do it, riding in the train is so much better than driving because you can look out and see and not worry about running into anyone. The clickity clack of the wheels on the rail is so relaxing, almost a sound that could put you to sleep. For so many it does...or maybe they are just tired.

At the Wayne station I was fortunate enough to stop directly of Wayne Avenue so I got a straight shot down toward Lancaster Avenue. I remember a night I spent with friends “downtown” in Wayne last year. Good time! I enjoyed seeing all of those neat Main Line locales along the way as best you can from a local commuter. As you will see if you go through all the slides I tried to capture interesting buildings along the way. I am not complaining but it is tough to shoot out the side window of a moving train when you have the catenary supports zipping by every fifty to one hundred feet. I deleted a bunch of those.

After passing Overbrook I always look forward to coming into Philadelphia. 30th Street Station always seems larger than life. With is grand columns and rails moving in every which direction, even as an adult I find it to be a unique place. Add in today's clear blue sky and the city skyline as a backdrop, I can say I picked a picture perfect day to make my trek. After playing with my camera to get a photo of the sign board clock on the platform to note the arrival time of 11:14am.(One minute ahead of schedule)

My next move was to get to the NJ Transit Atlantic City line. I wandered through 30th Street Station taking in the sights. Just like an airport, this is a great place to watch people. It is also probably one of the safest places in the city to wander aimlessly and enjoy yourself. Did I mention the architecture inside of the station is amazing? Going through the north waiting room which is a huge open hall I reminisced when I took my oldest two children to see the Stanley Cup and NHL trophies back in 1997. Once I found the NJ Transit ticket machine and schedule I realized I had just missed the train and would have to wait almost an hour and a half for the next one. I was beginning to get hungry, so I grabbed some McD's french fries.

Odd side note on the frech fries. Typical McDonalds setup, you can pretty much see where all your food is made and plated. (Why I am I calling it plating?) So I order a large order of fries, I am still carrying the soda I bought in Paoli. I am not in a hurry so I don't think much of it when the fries aren't ready as soon as I order them. The person working the register hollers back to the person tending to the fryer. (Do they have a title?) The fryer person takes three other small fry containers and pours them into a large container. I wasn't going to bitch unless they really tasted bad, I just thought it was weird.

What's a guy with nowhere to be any time soon? I thought maybe I could catch the PATCO train and get to Lindewold in time to finish the ride to A.C. Forgetting that the PATCO line doesn't come to 30th Street I had to make my way further into the city. A widely known secret of the SEPTA system is you can ride between the Center City stations at Market Street East, Suburban Station and 30th Street Station for free. So I hopped the next SEPTA commuter train to Market Street East. It gave me a chance to dine on those fine french fries. Whoever says Philadelphia is not a green city hasn't been to Market Street East. I wanted to dispose of my trash but found four newspaper recycle bins before I found any trash receptacles and that one was in the Gallery Mall.

The Gallery and Market East concept is a pretty decent one to say the least. You can pick up the El, all the regional rail lines, a spur of the Broad Street Subway and all of the regional rail lines. My only botch would be that it seems very narrow and crowded. Guess it is a city thing which I will never become used to or comfortable with.

Now its time to try PATCO. I am not quite sure where to find the PATCO station at but it is allegedly at 8th and Market. I see signs inside the Gallery pointing to a PATCO station but will it ever appear? Eventually I find the ticket/token purchase point for the Broad Street Spur. Its a window occupied by three SEPTA employees. Luckily one of those employees gave me directions to the PATCO ticket machine. Its amazing a system like PATCO can run with minimal ticket agents, one person operating a train still be clean and have more trains available than the mighty Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. (More on that later) After having some minor issues with a bad dollar bill in a ticket machine, I got my one way ticket for Lindenwold. Still hoping to make the connection for the train to A.C. As I am fumbling with my ticket and getting all ready to head down to the train I hear the guy behind me trying to figure out the ticket machine like he has never used one before. The voice sounds familiar so I turn around to look and here I find the Eagles Quarterback Donovan McNabb. Looks like him, sounds like him...but it can't be him. It wasn't him. The real Donovan was in Phoenix at the Super Bowl festivities.

The PATCO train resembles a subway car and operates on a third rail power system. Which means no poles or wires to get in the way for photos. The PATCO line goes over the Ben Franklin Bridge into Camden. (That is the blue one in Center City for those not familiar) I always like seeing those go across the bridge, something about them looks cool. Going across the bridge in the train is a lot different in the fact that you are outside of the suspension cables. You can see so much it is almost like flying. I definitely enjoyed the ride. Although there was this woman who got on at one of the Camden stations and had perfume on that smelled terrible. About halfway through the trip I heard the rumble of a diesel locomotive. Looking to my right I was surprised to see the Atlantic City train, and we were passing it. I thought, yes I will make it in time. We rounded a curve (which is probably how we passed him) and next thing I know the other train passed us. Sadly I would not see it again.

Once in Lindenwold I didn't see anything that pass the time waiting for the next train to A.C. So I purchased a return ticket by decided I would give the River Line a try. The River Line is run by NJ Transit and goes from Camden to Trenton. The PATCO station and the NJ Transit station are actually in one building, the Walter Rand Transportation Center on Broadway. I managed to get some photos of a Delaware River Port Authority SUV for the collection.

The River Line was certainly the best surprise of the day. I was a little confused about the way to go about buying my ticket for the ride. Once at the ticket machine, I was looking for a confusing zone map or other algorithm to see how much a 34 mile ride would cost. Much to my delight, the required fare came up as $1.35. Yes, that's right one dollar and thirty five cents. Befuddled, I looked at the girl who was at the machine beside me and asked her if I did something wrong. She explained that the first time she rode the line she was surprised too. I then made my way to the platform.

This was the first time of the day I would be “hassled” about my picture taking. Some sheriff from the Camden County Sheriff's office came over to ask me what I was doing. He didn't seem real interested in hassling me, I told him I was into trains and that is as far as it went. It really wasn't too much of a hassle, I just thought to myself there is real crime going on and we have people bitching about photographers. Rail fans are more likely to notice something out of place than your average cop anyway. Maybe the rail companies need to recognize this and get some of the rail fans on their team. Look at my photos of the damaged rail tie I found during my trip. Would an average rider take the time to document where it is and let the appropriate agency know about it? Probably not due to a lack of caring, just not realizing the tie wasn't right.

Back to my ride. The River Line uses a unique style of train which is a diesel electric powered unit which is as quiet at an electric train. The type of units used are made by Stadler Rail in Switzerland and only run on two locations in North America. They are popular in Europe. Neat looking in the fact that there are two cars with a propulsion type unit in the middle. You can walk through the middle part but it says that you can not ride in the middle. Smooth ride, not too fast so you can take in the sights. Lots of street level crossings so you constantly hear the ringing of the crossing bells along your trip. I am surprised this type of unit couldn't be used along a line from lets say Reading to Norristown or Philadelphia. This line parallels US 130 passing through towns like Palmyra, Riverside and Burlington. Many stops are within walking distance of local shopping districts. I was amazed at how nice all of these places appeared. The trains have bike racks on board which I thought was cool. Once again something the archaic dinosaurs at SEPTA lack. Are we sensing a theme how I think SEPTA lacks in a lot of ways?

The River Line ends in Trenton across the street from the Trenton train station. A simple walk across the street connects you directly with Amtrak, NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor and the SEPTA R7 line. I was really hoping to see an Acela train while in the station, but it didn't happen. At least while I stood in the station.

My SEPTA R7 ticket cost $8.00. Yes, the trip in an antiquated Silverliner on the Pennsylvania side of the river cost 4 times as much as the ride did on the New Jersey side to head north. Some will say the ride will be quicker. Is it worth paying 4 times the price? It was neat to ride down through Bucks County on the train merely for the fact I saw some new stations. This was a trip of exploring. This is also when I got to see an Acela up close and personal. While the train was stopped at a station, before I had a chance to react, I heard a horn saw a flash, heard the woosh and felt the rocking of the train. By the time I realized what had happened I saw the tail engine fly by. Pretty cool. Shame it can't run 150mph for the whole ride, would make the extra fare worthwhile. (I highly recommend searching YouTube for Acela 135mph – the videos rock).

Once back at 30th Street I found out I needed to get home a little earlier than planned. Disappointing because I had an opportunity to ride an express train back to Paoli. Living in Berwyn, my options growing up were only local trains that stopped at all 14 stops before mine.

I was enlightened to a few things during my trek. Three different rail companies operate different equipment in three different ways.

Its amazing how PATCO and NJ Transit run one man crews on their trains. SEPTA's regional rail trains run with 3 man crews. I realize you aren't comparing apples to apples here, but I do believe there is an over abundance of personnel on some regional trains. I don't ride SEPTA too often, but it is bad when you have the same conductor three years apart and you remember the guy because he was a jerk both times you rode with him. I sent a complaint letter back then – obviously customer service is a priority to a broken system. Harrisburg keeps sending a free check to SEPTA why should they worry about retaining riders? A conductor needs to be as much a customer service agent as much as they are a guardian of passenger safety. If you can't learn to balance that, its time to find another job!

The easiest way to buy a ticket for NJ Transit and PATCO is by way of a machine. Not the most personal of experiences, but from a business perspective a machine doesn't need a salary or health insurance and won't call off sick. SEPTA's ticket machine shells remain in places like 30th Street Station and Trenton Station with stickers indicating they won't be available after January of 2007.

Some may argue that a machine can't give me directions or tell me when the next train is. (They already have automated the arriving train messages) I witnessed three people just shooting the breeze in a token booth at the Gallery. I stood and waited on them to finish their conversation. I realize this may have been some sort of shift change, but hey, there are three of you, I pay to ride your train and help pay your salary, please don't make me wait. I might miss my train.

On top of that I think SEPTA does a horrible job promoting their product. Maybe if they did a better job of that more people would ride. (Hint to SEPTA – come up with an unlimited day pass, people like myself would use it and maybe write great things or give suggestions for improvements) This would surely cut down on non licensed and un-insured drivers on our streets and highways and better yet reduce pollution. No I am not going green, just bringing up a benefit of riding the rails.

If you read this far, thanks for sticking with me. I had a great time on my venture around the area. I am looking to do another trip soon. Possibly including trolleys and the El. I am not a big fan of the subway as the scenery underground can be kind of boring.
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