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Edition #47, February 1, 2007

The Night Life at Penn Station

Photographer: John Ireland

                Photo © 2006 by John Ireland

The Night Life at Penn Station


I would be lying if I said one of the primary reasons I agreed to go to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh wasn’t for the trains. After living on the Northeast Corridor for my entire life I was ready for some big time freight operations. Pittsburgh did not disappoint. In fact, it is not unfair to say maybe my 3.0 GPA could have been a 3.5 if it wasn’t for the non-stop parade of CSX and Norfolk Southern.

It didn’t take me long to find Penn Station Pittsburgh, or at least what's left of it. The great old station and hotel have become luxury apartments, replaced by something slightly better than an Amtrak trailer. Part of the canopy has been torn open and three tracks removed to make room for a highway overpass. Still, a few classic PRR symbols still remain and the station has a great feel to it. Unfortunately I could never find a good angle to shoot the station. As hard as I tried I could never do better than a wedgie that could have been taken anywhere. Soon, Penn Station just became a quick stop over as I changed buses to get to the more popular locations around Pittsburgh.

Luckily that would change after a visit from a friend back east left me with a tripod. Well most of a tripod. The first owner had the great idea to cut the main shaft to make it lighter - and stand only about three feet tall. I was sitting in my room, thinking of some night shots to try out when the horn of a P42 hauling Amtrak 29, the Capital Limited past school rang out. I figured, why not, Penn Station doesn’t work during the day maybe it will at night.

The next night I borrowed my girlfriend's car and headed downtown. I quickly slipped past the crowd of people in the lobby; no reason to draw attention to myself. When I walked up the steps Amtrak 42, the eastbound Pennsylvania was in it’s normal spot awaiting it’s 7:20 departure to New York. I walked down to the eastern end of the platform, waving to the part time employees who come to service the Cap Limited on its brief layover in Pittsburgh.

I reached the end of the canopy and sent up shop. It was lightly raining out and very muggy for an early March evening. Although I was under the canopy it had been raining so long that some of the ground under the canopy was wet, including the part where I was on my knees bent over trying to look through the view finder of my midget tripod.

A couple minutes and a sore neck later I had the shot and started the waiting game. A quick call to Julie confirmed my fear that the Cap was running late. It hit me how quiet and barren the station was at night. Just the gentle drizzle of rain mixed with the rumbling of Amtrak 42’s power a couple-hundred yards away. Suddenly the scanner came to life. “Amtrak 29, approach medium clear Bloom. Amtrak 29 out.” As the train came closer the engineer called off the myriad of control points leading to Penn Station: “Clear Solomon, Clear Pitt.” Soon the train came streaming in, bringing the station to life with it’s arrival.

What had just moments before been a railroad wasteland became a hotbed of activity. The PA system came to life, calling off all the station stops between here and Chicago. Amtrak employees of all kinds sprung to life checking water levels, unloading luggage, changing crews. Boarding and disembarking passengers brushed shoulders while fighting to get their luggage into their waiting Superliner, smokers step off the train for a quick one. However, as soon as it all began, it ended. The last passenger boarded, the Penny's dwarf signal cracked to clear, the PA’s all aboard announcement was cut off by a blast of the horn and the clanging of bells. The fresh engineer announced “Amtrak 29, Clear CP West Pitt, Amtrak 29 out.” The P42 powered up and slipped away into the night towards Chicago leaving Penn Station in the same dead state I found it in. Within five minutes the only clue to what had just happen was Amtrak 29 calling off CP Penn and Bell on the Fort Wayne Line miles away. As I walked back down the quite platform I could only dream of how many times that scene had been performed before, except with K4s and E8s. Whoever said railroading has no soul anymore has never been to Penn Station, Pittsburgh.

John Ireland

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