A Legendary Train Trip: The Pennsylvannian

On Saturday, I flew to Pittsburgh to see a show. The flight was uneventful: a 737 from Seattle to Atlanta, and then a 757 from Atlanta to Pittsburgh1. On Sunday, rather than flying, I took the train to New York City.

Now, taking the train in the US is nothing compared to taking the train in the UK (which is also nothing compared to taking a train in Europe or Japan). I found even when I was booking the ticket, I had to lower my standards. In particular, between Pittsburgh and New York, there are exactly two trains a day: one leaves at 05:30 with one change, and another leaves at 07:30, with no changes2. I took the 7:30, because I could sleep in late, and I wouldn’t have to change trains. I also spent an extra $30 for Business Class.

I call The Pennsylvannian a legendary train, but it’s not that old; service began in 1980. However, it was the successor to other well-known, named trains: the National Limited and the Spirit of St. Louis. It is a pity that specific routes and times are now just called “DL80,” rather than being officially the “Royal Scot.” (England seems to do this still, but only with trains. I want airlines to give flights names. The Friday evening Alaska flight to Palm Springs can be called the “Vitamin D Weekender.”)

Overall, the train had a slightly dated feel to it; although all of the passenger spaces had been renovated in the past decade, there were places where it seemed much older. Checking in with Wikipedia reveals that the train is run with Amfleet cars, built about forty years ago. This makes sense; I was getting an Intercity 125 vibe from the whole experience. But the seat was comfortable, it had plenty of leg room, and the cafe car was right behind the coach, with free drinks.

I had plans to do work on the ride, but instead, I found myself distracted: first, by the chance to nap a bit (I had to wake up at 6:00am to be sure of getting there on time), a chance to read about model trains, and last, but not least, look out the window. Fall had not yet fully come to the Alleghenies, but there were splashes of color. The route also went through so may small towns and cities; some clearly better off than others. The names were often familiar: Johnstown, Altoona, Harrisburg, Trenton, and Newark.

The two highlights were going through the old Pennsylvania Rail Road Altoona works. I knew it was where some famous trains were built, particularly a personal favorite, the GG1. It is clear it is not what it used to be, with modern diesels needing much less work compared to steam. Nevertheless, it was still amazing to ride by.

The second highlight was right before the Altoona works, the famous Horseshoe Curve. I knew that the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia was an early train route, and there were engineering challenges, but had not looked into route before. Luckily, the conductor made an announcement before we got there. Most of the people in the coach moved over the right side; I was the only one who tried the vestibule. In early fall, the views were mostly blocked out by leaves2, but the sightlines were still good enough to see both the shape of the curve, and the remarkable grade.

  1. Fun fact: Section 41 (nose & cockpit) are the same design on both of these airplanes. It’s also the same Section 41 as on the

    1. Apparently, for the NGs, engineers spent a lot of time with both CFD and wind tunnel simulations, and couldn’t improve on the design.

  2. Pittsburgh to New York is about 375 miles, or slightly shorter than London to Edinburgh (400 miles). PIT/NYC has two trains per day. KGX/EDI is probably 3-4 trains per hour. Let us not talk about the time difference; Amtrak is 9.5 hours, and LNER is 4.5 hours.  2