New Jersey to Washington, DC

I break my journey at Metropark, New Jersey, mile 255 on the Boston-Washington mainline. Very convenient, only two miles from my parents' house in Edison. All of Central Jersey uses this stop; the high-speed Acela Express skips the state capital of Trenton and stops here.

The van company comes, packs everything up, and I'm down to a suitcase of clothes and important documents for a weekend.

Monday morning, June 14, I find myself waiting on the westbound platform for the first time. Previously, I'd always boarded eastbound and gotten off westbound. When going south, I'd always gone by highway or air. There are people waiting for three different trains on the platform, and a confused-looking businessman is asking fellow passengers for help. He's holding an ARC (Airline Reporting Corporation) Amtrak ticket, and evidently is not familiar with rail travel.

The southbound Regional number 125 gets to Metropark only ten minutes late. It picks up speed through rail territory heretofore unfamiliar to me, exceeding a hundred miles per hour through the old Pennsylvania Railroad mainline in New Jersey. Trenton, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Wilmington, Baltimore. Many bodies of water, rivers and bays. Lots of people getting off and on, and Philadelphia newspapers are left in the seat back pockets.

We reach New Carrolton, Maryland, the last stop before Washington, DC. And we stay there. "We need a first aid-kit and some towels," comes the conductor over the intercom. Passengers fidget and start talking to each other — the usual conversation starter of "Where are you headed?" An elderly woman across the aisle with a mild Russian accent is headed to Newport News, Virginia. She's taken the train to Florida many times. "Twenty-eight hours," she says, "This is nothing." People get bored of sitting down and go outside in the warm humid Maryland air to take a look. A woman traveling with her twentysomething daughter had stepped into the gap between the train and the platform, and fallen underneath the train.

We wait for an ambulance as an MARC commuter train passes us across the platform. The conductor comes on again with instructions for getting to Washington on the Metro. Finally, half an hour after we stopped, an ambulance arrives. They strap the woman onto a stretcher, but have difficulty figuring out how to get her out from the tight spaces underneath the train. Some of the passengers whip out their cellphone cameras; the conductors have seen it all before and are nonchalant, but the medics get upset and tell people to put their cameras away.

Finally, a conductor suggests passing her underneath the train to the other side, then bringing her through the train to the platform. It works. Now 45 minutes have passed. The conductor walks the train, then we're off. We arrive in Washington. Strangely, we arrive at a low-level platform at Union Station, and the conductors are careful to tell everyone to watch their step as they get off. Either they're being paranoid about high-level platforms, or we've missed the alloted timeslot for the usual track. It's not quite as convenient carrying baggage down the steps, but it does make for an unusual perspective on the Amfleet cars from ground level. It's not unlike boarding a plane from stairs rather than a jetway — less antiseptic, closer to the machinery.

Train number 29, the Capitol Limited to Chicago, is scheduled for a 5:20p departure, but has a two-hour delay posted due to the anticipated late arrival of number 30, the eastbound Capitol Limited. This is the only bilevel Amtrak train at Washington; other eastern trains are single-level to clear bridges and tunnels. There are spare cars, but not enough to make up a whole train.

Finding myself with some time, I go outside for a walk.