If you are among the 24 weekly readers (and growing!) that follow my adventures, you would have noticed that I did not post anything last week. To be honest, I’ve been extremely lazy. I’ve spent the past 4 weekends out of town. On Oct 25th, I was in Indiana. Halloween weekend was spent partying at Ferris State. The November 6-8 was spent Pheasant hunting with my father. Last weekend, Ferrin and I headed back to Pennsylvania.
For those who are not aware, I own a myriad of vehicles. My driveway currently looks like a junkyard while two derelict vehicles (Neon and Buick) await their new owners. With that being said, I was in the market for a new winter beater. I was fortunate enough to drive the Vette up until January 3 of this year until salt molested our roads. I wasn’t about to take the same chance this year. In fact, I do not have valid plates on anything except for the Vette at this point.
After months scouring Craigslist and eBay, my uncle in Pittsburgh gave me a call. Being a GM retiree, he picked up a sweetheart of a deal on a new Cadillac SRX and was therefore selling his Blazer. I’m not going to bore you with details. It’s a 99 Blazer, 4-door, 4wd. Best of all, it has only 110k miles. It’s a perfect companion vehicle to the Vette, and better than the dozens of rusted Jeeps I had checked out.
I decided that this was a perfect opportunity for another stupid trip. I enlisted Ferrin to accompany me on the journey. Flying was completely out of the question. For starters, my uncle technically lives in Altoona, which is 2 hours from Pittsburgh Airport. That wasn’t happening. My father suggested we look into Amtrak. There is an Amtrak station right in downtown Altoona. It helps that the rail industry is huge in that area of PA.
To my surprise, tickets were only $50 per person. The train would pick us up in Toledo at Midnight and drop us in Pittsburgh at 5:00. We had a 2.5 hour layover in downtown Pittsburgh, and a 3 hour ride to Altoona. Tickets were book, money wired for the truck, and I had valid insurance coverage. We were all set to go.
We arrived 30 minutes early, as the directions stated. The time was spent “conversing” with the others that will be making the journey west. There were families, college students, and those who looked as though they lived at the station. One middle-aged man struck up a conversation with us. He began to talk to us about his travels and motivational speaking. While his name escapes me at present, the man explained that he was on the last leg of traversing the entire country on his bicycle. He was heading home to complete the last chapter of his memoirs. We exchanged blogs. As it turns out, his specialty is Christian Men’s Conferences. I don’t think he will enjoy my writing very much.
The Toledo train station is in an absolutely horrible part of town, situated in an industrial area beneath the freeway. The station itself was marginal at best. Architecture looked more along the lines of a Soviet jobs program, rather than a local transportation “hub.” Considering that Amtrak was essentially created by the government in the 1970s, I wasn’t exactly expecting to see the idealized 1930s rail system that only existed in the mind of my late grandmother. There was one television turned to the local news.
I can honestly say that I am spoiled by air travel. At the very least, there is a comfortable place to sit, Wifi, and a place to plug in your phone. Hell, most terminals feature at least a bar and restaurant. Luckily for us, Toledo’s Amtrak offers none of these amenities. The vending machines were broken, so the only thing on sale was a man hawking bibles for $5.
When we finally boarded the train, it was announced that the Café car was “closing in 5 minutes.” Apparently, we were lucky that they stayed open “late” for those getting on in Toledo. Food consisted of hot dogs and pizza that were microwaved. Luckily, we were able to purchase beer. A can of Bud Light ran $5. We ordered 6 and sat down to begin our journey.
Luckily, Amtrak allows you to bring your food/drink (including alcohol). However, they do now allow consumption of alcohol outside of the Café/Dining cars. Anything consumed in those areas must be purchased on the train. One can consume their own food/drink in their seat, but alcohol only in a private sleeper. Not being one to follow rules, we pre-mixed whiskey and coke into 20oz bottles to consume in their seats. We also showed up a few drinks in, there was no way we were making the trip sober.
The coach-class seats themselves weren’t bad. They are wide and recline much in the way of a business class seat on Delta would. Even better, nobody rides Amtrak. Ferrin and I each had a row to ourselves. Considering that we are both big guys, there was no way in hell we could be comfortable sitting next to one another. Each row featured an 110v outlet to plug in your phone, but no Wifi. We downed some whiskey and beef jerky and decided to sleep. I’ve honestly slept worse, but the train didn’t make it easy. Think of it as a flight that is in perpetual turbulence.
We arrived to Pittsburgh right on time, 5:00. The conductor was gracious to give me a nudge and yell, “End of the line.” As we entered the station, I expected something along the lines of Union Station in DC. That was pretty damn close to an airline terminal, but with the charm of yesteryear. We were greeted with a larger version of Toledo’s station. Ohh, and this station also did not have Wifi.
Luckily, the original Primanti’s location was a few blocks away. For those not in the know, their “thing” is the sandwiches. There are about a dozen choices, all topped with cole slaw and fries. The original location, in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, is open 24 hours. We dodged the sketchy cab drivers and hailed an Uber to the restaurant. The meal was nothing short of amazing. Ferrin was completely blown away. I’ve been there no less than a dozen times, but Primanti’s never fails to disappoint. I cannot wait until they open their location next year here in Detroit.
Another Uber delivered us back to the station, and we waited another hour for our train. This leg was a bit more crowded. As I noted previously, trains are a big part of Pennsylvania culture. The largest diesel repair shops in the world are located in the area, and the area features some of the most scenic views this side of the Mississippi.
(Un)fortunately for us, there was no observation car on this train. Considering the Pennsylvanian runs from Pittsburgh to NYC, this genuinely surprised me. Nevertheless, we opted to both sit on the right side, allowing for views of the famed “Horseshoe” curve as we headed into Altoona. If one is situated toward the front of the train, you can actually see the tail end begin to take the curve. After this, I can completely understand why rail travel is considered a vacation unto itself.
The train, however, was mostly empty. Business class had all of 4 people into it. I assume that the occupancy was higher the closer you get to NYC. I inquired about upgrading our seats at the station, but I was told that this was not a possibility. Despite how crowded coach was, we were still able to have a row to ourselves.
The trip wasn’t without hiccups, however. While this train featured Wifi, its coverage seemed to fluctuate based upon barometric pressure. In all seriousness, it was less reliable than 1990s cell phone coverage. This is not surprising, considering that Amtrak’s internet is based upon cellular service. If Delta can provide enough bandwidth to stream Netflix as I fly across the Midwest, I see no reason as to why Amtrak cannot do the same.
The cloudy day was a perfect backdrop for the scenic views. We had a few morning drinks and my Spotify “Sleep/Hangover” playlist provided the perfect soundtrack for an uneventful morning. I can honestly say that I enjoyed our trip on the Pennsylvanian, poor Wifi be damned. It suited our needs perfectly.
It may seem as though I am complaining about our trip, but I am not. The real problem is with many of the other routes along Amtrak’s service. Layovers in excess of 5 hours is the norm when headed west, requiring an extended stay in Chicago. As the distances increase, so does the price. Once you get outside of a 6 hour drive, the price is not much different than airfare. For people like me whose time is actually worth something, spending 24 hours on a train when you could drive somewhere in 10 is completely out of the question. I don’t see a point in taking Amtrak for anything other than sightseeing once you cross that threshold. Even flying + car rental works out better as far as economics are concerned.
I understand that Amtrak requires government subsidies to exist and that they operate on a pretty thin budget. As it stands, there is little point to traveling via rail unless major upgrades are made. Obviously, this is paradoxical at best. Nobody will ride Amtrak if fares were higher, but nothing can be improved without added income.
Fortunately for us, Altoona was the end of our Amtrak adventure. The station was actually a touch nicer than Toledo or Pittsburgh, but featured similar “amenities” to the others. On Sunday afternoon, we loaded up the Blazer and headed west for Detroit. The familiar chirps of my Valentine 1 followed us home as Spotify belted out our favorite classic rock tracks. Somewhere on the Ohio Turnpike, a few miles west of Cleveland, we stopped at the Service Plaza and gassed up. Ferrin and I treated ourselves to Starbucks and hopped back into the truck. At that moment, we both agreed that nothing is better than traveling in your own vehicle. Nothing captures the romanticism of the open road.