Thursday, March 13, 2014

War Stories - Episode 15: "100 mph commute!"

A quiz.  Did you study?  It's multiple choice.

When you work in a train station, the best possible way to get to work is by:

a) train
b) train
c) train
d) all of the above

I chose "train".  In Philadelphia, that meant I had lots of choices of where to live as there were commuter rail lines radiating out from Philadelphia in all directions.  I ultimately chose to live in northern Delaware.  Delaware is just barely big enough to have a "northern" part, but it did - and I lived there.  In fact, the place I lived was within sight of the Pennsylvania border.  It was fairly close to the SEPTA Marcus Hook PA station a bit more than halfway from Philadelphia to Wilmington.

PRR-side trains all originated out of Suburban Station

RDG-side trains all originated out of Reading Terminal

To New Jersey, the choice was the PATCO Hi-Speed Line
...which connected to ex-PRSL Budd cars for Atlantic City, Ocean City and Cape May

Here, then, are some tales of the commute.

I had a fairly easy, cheap and fast commute.  I drove a few miles to Marcus Hook where I caught a SEPTA train scheduled for roughly 7:40 AM.  It was one of the few that started its route in Newark, DE and was often a few minutes late because of it.  It took me the 17 miles from "the Hook" right to the upper level at 30th St. Station just in time to get a Dunkin Donut and a Coke (Breakfast of Champions!) and be in the office at 8:30.

Most days, the train would be four Silverliners.  The train stuck to the historic schedules for the line and stopped nearly everywhere on the way in.   Lamokin St., Highland Ave, Chester, etc, etc.   It even stopped at the Baldwin Locomotives Works stop, which had been shut down for over 20 years!  Surprisingly, on the average, one and half people boarded there.

Silverliners at old Claymont DE station.  Next stop, Marcus Hook
One morning, the train was particularly late.  So late that SEPTA decided to turn the next arriving Marcus Hook local back immediately from the other platform instead of having it cross over and wait for it's regular schedule.  The station agent popped out of the old silver trailer that was the Marcus Hook station and told everyone to cross to the other platform to catch the inbound local, which was arriving soon, and would be the next train to Philadelphia.

There was an overhead bridge complete with stairs to the platform and a sidewalk, but nobody ever used it.  Most folk just walked across the four track, high speed mainline.  It was the shortest way back to the parking lot.  It wasn't the safest way, but it wasn't particularly hazardous if you took a bit of care.  Most people waited until the train departed before crossing the tracks, but there were always a few impatient people who crossed IN FRONT OF our train every day.  This was quite a bit more dangerous.

You'd think that, with all this practice, we'd be "pros" at crossing the tracks.  Not really.  Behavior was more like lemmings.  When one went, all followed blindly.  Maybe "creatures of habit" is the right term.  Yeah.  That's it. We were "Creatures".

Most evenings, the Silver Meteor would beat us out of Philadelphia and we'd have a clean ride all the way to Marcus Hook.  However, if it was a bit late, we would get passed by the Silver Meteor at Hook interlocking just before we arrive at Marcus Hook station.  He crossed over in front of us and then we follow him. However, on rare occasions, he would pass us on the other track while we're in the station.  Those days often had the "front crossers" scrambling for safety.  "Creatures" IS the right term.  Definitely.

Well, this particular morning, the creatures started swarming across the track as the agent told them that's where the next train would depart.  I looked up at the home signal for Hook Tower that was just to the north.  They'd just put up the signal for our delayed commuter train.  Hmmmm.  I also saw a headlight approaching from the north.  Double hmmmm. But, it didn't look like a Silverliner.  It looked suspiciously like the Metroliner that was out of Philly about 7:40 and through here about 7:55.  Triple hmmmm.  Perhaps the one we passed every day on the way in?  So, I stayed put...and watched things unfold.  This wasn't shaping up well!

Turns out, it WAS the Metroliner, closing fast!  Next thing I know, the hoard of creatures, 50-100 strong, were scurrying like rats.  The Metroliner's engineer was blowing his horn steadily, emitting that shriek that only Metroliners do.  I winced as he blew through the station at roughly 110 mph.  I don't see how, but everyone managed to scramble to safety.  A minor miracle.

Now, everyone is standing on the west platform.  I'm alone on the east platform.  The late, regular train rolls into the station and stops.  Nobody on the other platform budges an inch.  I get on the train.  The train departs. They're all still standing stock-still on the other platform.  It was hard to tell if they were more dazed or confused at this point, but NOBODY was crossing those tracks again this morning!

Metroliner at speed
The trip home was the best part of my daily commute.  It was fast and I liked fast.  I rode the express that departed the upper level of 30th Street Station at 5:03 everyday.  This four car train rolled out onto the center tracks at Arsenal and then did it's very best Metroliner imitation, quickly eclipsing 90 mph and sometimes just nicking 100 mph mark on the slight downgrade through Ridley Park, blowing by a local train en route.  How did I know the speeds?  I rode on vestibule every day.  The speed indicator on all the cab cars worked whether they were in the lead or not and the conductor didn't car much if we rode out there as the train was generally full leaving 30th St.  We usually had four Silverliner IVs but occasionally would draw the older IIIs or IIs.  The older Silverliners were a hair faster and would often get into the low 100s.

The train ran the first 13 miles to Chester in about 11 minutes and then started making local stops after that, quite often covering the 17 miles to Marcus Hook in 17 minutes.  That's a pretty fast commute!

One day, after fast run to Chester and knocking out the next two stops in short order, we come to a stop signal at Hook.  They were holding us for the Meteor. It would be by in just a few minutes and we'd be on time, still.   After just a few seconds, one cranky lady said out loud to no one in particular.  Why is this train ALWAYS late!?! I guess 100 mph just isn't fast enough for some people.

Another day as significant snow had the lineup of trains at Suburban Station in disarray.  The train behind ours was an all-stops local that usually ran with a six car set of ancient MP-54s.  At full boil, the MP-54s could just get over 60 mph.  In the place of our usual equipment, this set of MP-54 oozed up to the platform.  Everyone piled on and away we went.  We got the "high iron" at Arsenal as always and then bounced and swayed our way down to Chester at far less than our normal speed.  We got to Marcus Hook about 10 minutes late that day, but nobody was complaining this day.  They were just happy to get there in the snow.

The last tale comes under the heading of "Wayne's Law." (info here and here).  Ninety-nine percent of the time, the trains arrived and departed the upper level at 30th Street like clockwork and "creatures" like me depended on that.  One day, at 5:03, a train rolled in.  I didn't listen to the announcement or look at the sign by the vestibule door.  I just hopped on - like every other day.  "Hmmmm.  Six cars today.  That's unusual", I thought, priding myself on being so sharp as to notice.  Then as the train departed, I thought some more.  The Media Line trains have six cars. They share "our" platform.

Uh. Oh.

Yes, this was a Media Line train running slightly late.  So, I went to Media! I could have found my way back to 30th Street one of a couple ways and then tried another train for Marcus Hook, but that would have taken quite a while.  Instead, I found a payphone and had a buddy come pick me up.  The penalty for "stupid" was rather minor, this day.

I made the Marcus Hook to 30th Street commute until the summer of 1980 when I decided to move to an apartment in New Jersey.  Somewhere during 1981, Amtrak kicked us out of 30th Street.  They were going to renovate and move their offices from a rental on Market Street in Center City.  So, we moved to an older office building at 15th and Walnut, and a few years later into Six Penn Center, the last home of the PRR in Philadelphia.  Ten years after that, it was on to Two Commerce Square, down the block.

I used the PATCO Hi-Speed line, NJT express buses, and SEPTA heavy and light rail lines in various combinations over the years, but none ever came close to that 100 mph commute!

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