Traveling by Rail

WARNING: This article has nothing to do with sailing. However…

…traveling by rail and sail have some things in common. Like sailing, rolling along on rails happens at a pace that allows us to move through our surroundings instead of over them. There’s time to see the foliage change from north to south. Both modes include comforts of home - a dining area, a bathroom, and space to walk around. Creaks and groans and mechanical noises form a background din that’s somehow soothing.

Dobbs and I are avid railroad fans - steam, diesel, electric; passenger or freight; scale and full-size - we like it all. So when Dobbs’ Dad showed up with a newspaper ad touting excursions between Reading and Jim Thorpe, PA on the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad, we didn’t need any encouraging to make a date.

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We arrived at Reading Outer Station promptly at 8:15am to be able to board and sit together. Once aboard, Dobbs and I took turns walking between the two cars and checking out the details. Each car has its own diesel engine, mounted on the roof. The engines make electricity to drive the wheels. There’s a cab for the engineer at one end.

One car (not the one we were riding in) had a snack bar. Passengers are also allowed to pack their own food and drinks.

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Both cars had restrooms. The toilet flushing pump handle was branded “Guzzler” - the same as manual bilge pumps for boats! Seating was reasonably comfortable for about 90 people, though I felt for Dad who’s 6’3” and could have used more leg room. He knew to expect it though - he rides plenty of trains.

At 9am sharp, the train departed the station, beginning our journey north. We traveled through the countryside, following the Schuylkill River and then the Little Schuylkill, making our way to the Port Clinton Station to pick up additional passengers. From there, the diesel engines began the real work of driving us up into the mountains - New Ringgold, Tamaqua; then a dog leg to the west, to East Mahanoy Junction, and back to Hometown; then onward north and east to Jim Thorpe.

Here’s a map of our route - we traveled the red line.

Here’s a map of our route - we traveled the red line.

A highlight of the journey is the Hometown High Bridge - a 185’ long bridge soaring 157’ over the Little Schuylkill River.

We pulled into the Jim Thorpe Station at 11:20am.

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Prior to our trip, I’d reviewed online restaurants and things to do in Jim Thorpe. For lunch, I selected the Stone Row Pub & Eatery. The building is part of the historic Stone Row - 16 three-story row houses built by Asa Packer for engineers and foremen of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The houses were individualized by variations in dormer, bay window, and door and window trim.

Our lunch was outstanding - farm-to-table fresh and made from scratch, including the Bloody Marys Dobbs and I sipped. The three of us shared a plate of red beet eggs and then tucked into bowls of mushroom soup, followed by salads topped with grilled chicken (Dobbs and Dad) and salmon (me).

After lunch, we returned to the station to hop on a different train - the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway. This line runs along the Lehigh River and into Lehigh Gorge State Park. A bicycle path parallels the railroad. As we rolled along, Dobbs and I reminisced about the kayaking trip we made with friends about 10 years ago.

The Lehigh Gorge train returned to the station with just enough time for us to do a little more sight-seeing and grab a pastry from a street vendor.

At 3:15pm, we boarded the train to Reading and fifteen minutes later we were on our way back down out of the mountains. We passed the lakes of Hauto and Greenwood with residents enjoying time boating and swimming, and we rolled through Tamaqua - a scenic old town clearly centered historically around coal and the railroad used to transport it.

After some passengers disembarked at the Port Clinton Station, we settled in to the last leg of our journey, nappish after a long day of enriching experiences and tasty food. AND THEN…

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We hit a tree!

I was facing forward (Dad and Dobbs were facing aft, opposite me), and I watched a guide come hurriedly back through the door from the cab, close it firmly behind him, and say, “Hold on.” Then the rail car started to rumble and buck and we held our breaths hoping it wouldn’t de-rail. We didn’t know at that point what had happened. The train came to a stop. Peering out the windows, we could see the large limb of a tree across the rails; what we missed spotting was the even larger section of the tree that was behind us. The conductor and crew were very professional in how they handled an intense situation. First, they had to clear away the tree. Then they had to inspect the two rail cars for damage. While they worked, they provided the passengers with drinking water and updates on the situation. The guide explained to us that it’s challenging for the engineer to see a tree across the tracks because as he looks ahead, the background of the rails is ALL woods. It’s hard for him to pick out from the general background a limb that is actually over the track, and by the time he does, it can be too late to stop the train in time. It turned out that overrunning the tree broke apart the transmission at the universal joint and ruptured a diesel fuel line (which, thankfully, has a shut-off). The conductor and crew were able to lash the damaged parts up to the underside of the car, clear of the tracks. We had to go the remaining miles under the power of the rear car alone, with our broken drive shaft thumping unevenly beneath the floor.

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Remarkably, we made it back to the Reading Station only about a half-hour later than the scheduled arrival time of 6pm. After we disembarked, we spent a couple minutes looking over the damage. Sturdy #9168 didn’t look too bad - some dents and tears to the fairing and an extinguished right head lamp; a mechanic somewhere would be busy that evening making repairs to the drive train. We learned later that the car was back in service the next day. Well done RBM&N!

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Day’s End

The passengers have all gone home and the platform is quiet. I reflect on our trip - a medley of experiences that originated from choosing a social mode of transportation. I’m already looking forward to the next ride.