Tag Archives: Amtrak


Last Wednesday evening I stepped off Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian onto the platform of Pittsburgh’s spartan Amtrak station. On the next track twin burgundy locomotives idled, coupled to three Pennsylvania Railroad cars. It was not hard to imagine myself tracking along on this gleaming private train.

The lead engine’s number was easy to remember. Did the 5711 belong to Heinz corporation??

When I was a kid family vacations included train museums, train excursions, counting train cars, and model railroad exhibits. Standing next to a working private train last week gave me a thrill, and may have pushed me from casual railfan to ferroequinologist, a term for “one who studies iron horses,” or—a train geek.

Photograph by Dan Davidson from the Akron Railroad Club Blog. "The Pennsy E units pass by MP 211 in Amherst, Ohio, on May 8, 2011, at 3:48 p.m."

I tugged on my railroad research cap. The 5711 locomotive, its twin, number 5809, and the three cars it pulls, are owned by a Philadelphia-area businessman. After overnighting in Pittsburgh, 5711 and company would continued choo-chooing to Chicago to celebrate National Train Day, Saturday, May 7. Officially, numbers 5711 and 5809 are Pennsylvania Railroad E8s traveling on this trip as an “Amtrak Special.” They would be featured in Chicago’s Union Station Train Day rail equipment display.

Manufactured for PRR in 1951 by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division, the locomotives were restored at the Juniata Locomotive Shops in Altoona, PA. One blogger wrote that they were “beautifully restored to full PRR livery, right down to their trainphone antennae.”

The PRR E8 5711 on this book cover!

A catalog search and a walk up the Library stairs to the Pennsylvania Department’s railroad section revealed a long train’s worth of history. Books that caught my eye include The Pennsylvania Railroad: A Pictorial History by Edwin P. Alexander, Pennsylvania Railroad by Mike Schafer and Brian Solomon, and Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited by Joe Welsh.

A quick dip into the world of trainspotting (ferroequinology!) offers ample documentation of the PRR E8 5711/5809 recent Chicago journey. According to one spotter, this train last made a journey west in 2004. Last week it traveled in bright spring sunshine. Still photos and videos posted on various train-related web sites are glorious. They can’t compare, though, with standing next to it. Riding would be even better.



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Of our five senses, two possess the power to hold us captive against our will. We can close our eyes to a scary film scene, spit out a bad clam, or drop a hot pan. But if we can’t walk away, a terrible smell or grating sound claims us as prisoner.

Last week I boarded a train, looking forward to two days of reading and watching the northern Midwest roll by. The sleeping car attendant outfitted each restroom and the corridor with electric scent diffusers, in several flavors, including coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon. After a few hours aboard, my head floated in a cloud of chemical odor.

I’m guessing that the scent solution had spilled on a bathroom counter during refilling, because that evening, while I was getting ready for bed, my toiletries and clothes absorbed the oily substance.

The next morning I smelled like a candle shop nightmare. At my destination, I laundered and aired everything I’d carried aboard. No amount of fresh water or frigid air could save my favorite carry-on bag with the image of a large polka-dot clad rodent. Forgive me, Minnie. I will miss you. When I finally decided I had to toss that bag, it stunk up the trash. My travel alarm still hints at imitation cinnamon.

It’s a relief to be back home. Here at the Library I was greeted by the mingled fragrance of aging books and the fresh odor of new volumes, a comforting smell. And our books not only please my sense of smell, many also inform it.

From Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume by Mandy Aftel,

Our olfactory sensibility has been marginalized and deadened by the chemicalization of our food and our environment, and the overwhelming proliferation of unnatural smells. The world of natural odors has been co-opted by products; many people cannot smell a lemon without thinking of furniture cleaner. Oversaturation with chemical smells has compromised our ability to appreciate complex and subtle natural odors.

Books for further reading.

A Garden of Fragrance by Suzy Bales



Heavenly Fragrance: Cooking with Aromatic Asian Herbs, Fruits, Spices and Seasonings by Carol Selva Rajah


The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell by Luca Turin


Trees and Shrubs for Fragrance by Glyn Church




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From the train you find the town

Last Saturday my husband and I rode the train from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. We dropped off a relative’s car in DC. Flying or driving back would have been faster, but a one-way plane ticket or car rental were more than twice the price of a train ticket. Even though only one train travels directly from DC to Pgh each day, and the trip takes at least eight hours compared to a 4 ½ hour car trip, I prefer the train, and not just for the price.

On the train are you are free to walk around. Coach seats include lots of leg room. Trains travel a route that feels almost invisible. On a train you sneak up on a town. You come in through the back door. A town that a highway passes by, a train glides through. On this trip, I carried books in my pack just for reading on the train. Looking out the windows held my attention for hours. I never did open a book.

Each town, farm, and river set me to wondering about life in that spot. From the train I saw alternative lives, possibilities not related to actual, probable choices, but exercises in imagination. Richard Hugo, in his book The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, recommended using strange towns as triggering subjects. Hugo wrote, “You found the town, now you must write the poem.” For me, the train provides ideal access to the town.

If an eight hour train trip is good, a cross country, 45 hour trip is better. My favorite route is Chicago to Seattle. The Empire Builder runs up the Mississippi, across the North Dakota and Montana plains, through Glacier National Park, into the orchards of Eastern Washington, and over the Cascade Mountains. It’s true that the train often runs late, but why worry about a few extra hours added to a two day trip? My husband and I joke that a late train makes the trip an even better value – you get to spend more time on board, and they don’t charge extra.



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