Washington to Boston in the quiet car.

Aboard Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Service, train no. 86, Thursday 6 December 2012.

08:40 An on-time departure from Union Station is signaled as we slowly begin to roll, gradually picking up speed as mass is mobilized, momentum created. The railyard passes slowly, then the city speeds into view as tracks and rolling stock give way to warehouses, then buildings, parking lots, houses, trees. We cross the Anacostia, perhaps, or maybe it is just a stream. Power lines and storage tanks and the metro and bare trees and a highway beside us.

08:48 New Carrollton, MD. A platform, across from metrorail, with a hulking parking garage and what looks like an office park across from the bus bays. The sun is shining so brightly through the window of the carriage that I squint. The clouds are thin and high.

08:57 The sun in the trees gives a flicker effect as we move through woodlands, making my newspaper appear as a newsreel before my eyes. Houses, two-lane roads, streams, a water tower, a trailer park.

09:07 BWI. Bundled passengers with luggage standing on the platform in the morning chill. All one can see of the airport is a parking garage surrounded by woodland. The existence of the airport is taken on faith. I gain a seatmate.

09:13 We blow the horn as we pass by neighborhoods, where a new platform is under construction. Modest houses’ yards abut the tracks, delineated by chain-link fences. Warehouses on one side of the tracks, houses on the other.

09:25 Baltimore. A sign on a lovely old building reads “loft apartments available.” The tracks are below street level. We pass through a tunnel, and emerge after a minute to rowhouses and a view of Johns Hopkins. A beautiful church with a copper tower stands tall above the brick neighborhoods and a construction site. You can see cranes and factories and the machinery of the port in the seaward distance.

09:45 We cross a large bay.

09:52 Another wide bay, tidal, which we cross on a high bridge. Aberdeen, I think, is the town. A huge modern warehouse, unmarked.

10:03 A strobelike effect of the light as we pass a train moving in the opposite direction, and the sun is let through only in the gaps between the cars. It’s so strobelike I stop being able to read the paper for a moment.

10:15 Wilmington. My seatmate, who, I gather, is an Amtrak employee, leaves, presumably headed to the HQ here, and I gain a new seatmate, who sits down with great force, straining against the seat as she settles herself in. Several newcomers need to be alerted to the fact that they are in the quiet car. Wilmington feels like it is in a tidal plain. The buildings, bridges, and tracks, the smokestacks and factories, and distant steam are the central features of the landscape. Then, another tidal bay, with muddy edges, rocks, and grasses. Shorebirds are sitting in the outwash plain, white spots against streaky sand and mud and pebbles. The vegetation looks windblown. We are moving slowly. Steam from a distant plant rises slowly into the bluing sky. The sun’s arc is so low it is still hitting my neck and shoulder, as though moving more south than west. Then there is a chemical plant, with a curious fountain in a pond, and the facility stretches over acres and acres. A refinery, it looks like: storage tanks amid the piping. And then dilapidated rowhouses, another factory, more plumes. And a great bridge.

10:50 Leaving Philadelphia, I have a new seatmate, a businessman. The boathouses along what I think is the Schuylkill are beautiful, turn-of-the-century Tudor masterpieces painted colorfully. The buildings along the rail line here are of similar vintage, 19th-century stone. A beautiful old sycamore near what looks like a zoo. We cross the Delaware. An old warehouse: an electric sypply co., L.B. Smith, Inc. A butterfly mural. Clear sky.

11:07 The Grundy Industrial & Office Complex, with Italianate tower, just shy of a huge bridge across a bay or river mouth.

11:09 The bayside cabins and cottages of the working class, like allotments, across the water from the slopes of a landfill.

11:15 Leaving Trenton, a school that resembles a prison, and mile after mile of warehouse and factory, junk along the tracks, piles of scree, and a sculpture of an angel on a white horse, a kind of outsider art. Aberdeen Sportswear, Inc. A lumberyard. A sculpture park. Hamilton is the town. Scrubby woodland, marsh, and field.

11:35 In the Metro Park station, an ad for trigeminal neuralgia treatment. This station reminds me of BWI, as it is dominated by a parking garage.

11:39 Approaching Newark (like the descending plane visible in the sky), the smoke from a distant factory rises straight up.

11:43 In Elizabeth, there is a building that makes me understand the phrase “alabaster cities.”

11:47 Coming into Newark, the train parallels New Jersey Railroad Avenue, which is alternately designated on signs as “NJ Railroad Ave.” and “New Jersey RR Ave.” The station is old and full of riveted steel. Spanish-language ads for Johnnie Walker Black Label feature Latino icons like Jorge Posada.

11:53 In Harrison, huge, rusty factory buildings hulk beside the Red Bull Arena.

11:56 We blow the whistle as we pass through a landscape of railroads, electricity, and marsh, where towers perch on piers in water, and piles of dirt are interspersed with swamp grasses. I love the lonely yellow brick factory in the plain, no more than two stories, perhaps an office HQ, abandoned, with curious windows. Beyond, the Manhattan skyline looms.

12:00 And then we are underground, here to remain for a while.

12:05 A brief moment of light before… the station.

12:35 Light!

12:44 Hell Gate Bridge.

12:55 The Knickerbocker Press in slate on a roof.

13:18 Stamford. Graffiti on Metro North cars.

14:00 New Haven. Listening to podcasts and crocheting. The sun is behind us now.

14:28 We skirt the shoreline, with salt marshes and tidal meadows, the sound and the sea glowing in the afternoon light, glints in ponds and pools, white clapboard houses and the bare, brown woods. The shore houses are silhouettes against the sea and the sun.

14:47 Long Island appears across a wide bay, a ghostly outline fading in and out on the horizon. Houses cluster along the tidal streams and inlets. New London cannot be far. The trees and woods are lit yellow and orange in the angling afternoon light. A power plant or factory looms, and great ships are visible out on the water, far off shore. Shorebirds coast as we cross a causeway and a barge and crane are maintaining bridge piers. The sun flickers through the trees. Is that a crane, heron, or egret I saw? Oak leaves litter the rocky ground, and the bays and inlets are so calm they reflect their shores with perfect inversion.

14:56 In New London, an obelisk monument sits atop a ridge, overlooking the bright flue estuary of the Thames. The I-95 bridge is high and flat. Ships and ferryboats move. A man plays hackey-sack on the shore trail. There is a huge hangarlike building belonging to General Dynamics. The ferry sounds its horn, and I think of Maine and the island. Our stop here is brief, and we are moving again.

15:06 Swans!

15:36 As we depart Kingston, there is a flat field bordered by trees, and the university is up on the hill above town. We pick up speed quickly; the conductor informs us Providence will be in 20 minutes. There is just an hour left to my journey, end-to-end on the Northeast Regional.

15:47 There is traffic on the highway heading out of Providence as we approach the city and all its brick through interlaced overpasses and ramps and a tunnel.

16:12 The Route 128 stop is very short indeed, as the train and crew are really speeding for Boston. You can sense that everyone is ready to get to their destination.

16:20 Boston is now in view, though we are down below the street. I will wrap up this log and gather my belongings. Back Bay in a minute, South Station in 5!

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2 thoughts on “Washington to Boston in the quiet car.

  1. SWMBO told me — or was it “tolled me” — that you had written this entertaining post, and I affirmed it without having read it…until now: I am at home and slept like a hibernating bear through the night until 4:20 a.m. (Falling asleep, we were talking and I realized I was drifting from my subject and said so, to which she said “You think?” Good question, I suppose. ;-D

    There is one item of classic rhetoric and grammar that I think all of us would benefit by following when we write (although casual speech accepts breaking the rule quite well): that nothing inanimate be giving possession. It improves the written sentences in which one is tempted to break the rule, while in speech the face-to-face cues suffice): e.g., not “…the building’s wall” but “…the wall of the building.”

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