"Amtrak Autumn Express" - by R.L. Eastwood


New York and Newark to Harrisburg
And Return on Amtrak's Autumn Express 

On Saturday and Sunday, October 29 and 30, some 1,300 passengers took part in two sold-out 2016 Amtrak Autumn Express trains originating in New York Penn Station, with stop at Newark Penn Station, and operating through New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, PA and return.

Powered alternately by Amtrak "America's Veterans" ACS64 #642 and Amtrak Heritage P42 diesels #145 and #42, the train's operation was virtually flawless, and two really beautiful Autumn days. For those who keep track of such things, the consist of the Special, in addition to the motive power, was Conference Control Car #9800 (for the Amtrak staff), Sales Car #85999, Coaches #82798, 82660, 82654, 82599, Amcafe #43372, Coaches  #82787, 82701, Amcafe #43383 and Coaches #82744, 82745, 82647, 82562. All cars in the train's consist were Amfleet I. Metroliner cab control #9800 (ex-Metro liner Cafe #863, built by Budd in 1967) was the oldest car in the consist.

For this writer, riding the Express meant getting up at 4:30 PM, driving to NJ Transit's Hamilton station, and boarding NJT Train #7808 to Newark, arriving there at 7:10 am for the 8:30 departure of the special train. Newark Penn Station (an NJ Transit facility) has undergone a beautiful restoration job. The only drawback to this facility is that at 7 AM on a Sunday morning, it is overrun with homeless individuals, and the men's restroom was nothing other than repulsive, although two NJT maintenance people were trying to get it cleaned up.

Amtrak had set aside three Amfleet coaches for those boarding at Newark, and two of the car hosts who would be manning those cars were on hand to direct passengers to a waiting area in one-half of the main station, which was held for Amtrak Autumn Express passengers only. Fortunately, the Dunkin' Donuts facility was open to get some breakfast. About 8:10, we were led as a group to the boarding platform for the train.

Joining us at Newark Penn Station were four Norfolk Southern engine personnel, who would operate the train from "Hunter" to Harrisburg, where a second Amtrak crew would take over the return the train to Philadelphia and New York. These professionals were only too willing to chat with the waiting passengers at Newark, and were obviously looking forward to giving us a good ride on former Lehigh Valley and Reading trackage, which they did. The NS guys had also operated the Saturday trip. At Newark, the pantograph on the ACS64 was dropped and the two P42's fired up to lead us on.

Meanwhile, on board the train, the car hosts made sure everyone was comfortable and enjoying themselves. The really decent fall scenery made for a very pleasant experience. Don Pepi in New York provided a tasty bag lunch, in a beautiful souvenir insulated bag produced by Amtrak. Amtrak Vice President-Operations Chris Jagodzinski personally distributed a beautiful souvenir pin with highly colorful autumn leaves beside lead P42 #145. Chris, as one might have expected, paid attention to every little detail to insure a pleasant experience for those on board. As usual on the Autumn Expresses I've ridden, a really nice heavy cardstock itinerary was prepared which can be kept as a lasting souvenir.

As we crossed New Jersey, we passed Port Reading Junction, where traces of the former Reading route to Bound Brook were observed, went through 4,893-foot Musconetcong Tunnel, noting traces of the abandoned former Jersey Central mainline before we descended downgrade into Phillipsburg and across the Delaware River on the former CNJ bridge to Easton, PA.

Weaving our way west, we passed the former Bethlehem Steel Plant on the south bank of the Lehigh River, before traversing the former connection to the Reading at East Penn Junction. Rolling along the ex-RDG East Penn Branch, we soon reached Blandon traveling around the City of Reading on the Belt Line to Wyomissing Junction, accessing the ex-RDG Lebanon Valley Branch for the run to Harrisburg. We passed a half dozen NS freights, including auto carriers, general merchandise and a crude oil train.

After a couple of short waits for NS freights, we passed through Lebanon and Hershey, and around the north side of Rutherford yard before descending the grade to the Amtrak station at Harrisburg. We ran west, weaving through some container trains and pulled out onto Rockville Bridge to make a reverse move to the Buffalo Line to permit our return to Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

We stopped at Harrisburg long enough to permit the Amtrak crew to take over (including that notable Amtrak conductor, Chapter Member Rich Bernhardt). We had arrived at Harrisburg rather early, but laid in the station awaiting the departure of Keystone Train #670 at 2:05 PM and followed him east. At "Roy", we paused to permit Train #43-Pennsylvanian to pass, and we crept along the line until we were just west of Lancaster, where we held to permit Keystone Train #615 to pass, as well as Train #42-Pennsylvanian. We then pulled into Lancaster and executed an "arriving" photo stop. At that point, the two P42 diesels were shut down and the pantograph on the 642 raised for a speedy return through the western Philadelphia suburbs.

Departing Overbrook, we slowly rolled through the New York-Pittsburgh subway, and it was then a very speedy return to Newark on the Northeast Corridor in spite of some horrendous thunderstorms going across Jersey. Conductor Bernhardt was smiling like a Cheshire cat in announcing an on-time arrival at Newark at 6:00 PM. Because of the on-time arrival, this writer was able to make a 12-minute connection to NJ Transit Train #7863 back to Hamilton station, ending an excellent day.

To Chris Jagodzinski and everyone involved in Amtrak's 2016 Autumn Express, thanks so much for providing an absolutely outstanding day of railroading, all 360-plus miles of it.

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by R. L. Eastwood