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First train trip

 

I travelled with three of my friends from college and our trip was quite a memorable experience. As I started typing it up, I kept recalling more and more about our journey. Since I was trying to remember things that happened just over seven years ago (statute of limitations is in effect), I was a little fuzzy on the sequence of some of the events. Fortunately, one of my fellow hoppers is now on the internet at the University of Colorado, and in communicating with him via e-mail, we were able to collectively get the story straight.

Since there was four of us, I included a lot of dialogue. Granted, I certainly can't remember verbatim ALL of our conversations (some exact quotes, though), but I can certainly recall the context of our verbal exchanges.

We did a lot of stupid stuff in college; the train ride was just one of many daring and foolish events. Although I'd still like to hop another freight train one of these days (I'm not THAT old), I'd go about it much differently. We probably took too many risks, but we lucked out. No one got injured.

Some parts of my story may contain some "questionable" references. I do not wish to offend anyone on this list, but I felt compelled to tell my story to the best of my recollection as it actually was. To do otherwise would have been cheating myself. Just remember that we were four crazy college kids with little common sense.

I attended college at Drexel University in Philadelphia from 1984 to 1989 and became a member of Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. Drexel has 5 year work-study programs in almost all majors, and unlike most universities, it is on the "quarter system" - four semesters per year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. It was the first week of September 1987 after final exams for what was our summer semester. Some of my fraternity brothers, a couple of friends, and myself were hanging out at the house (the "frat") on a Tuesday evening. Specifically, we were wondering what we could do during the two-week break between summer and fall terms. Going down to the Jersey shore would have been typical for us, but this was out of the question because everyone was short on cash. Eventually, I mentioned that I had always wanted to hop on a freight train and just go. Who cares where - just to get the hell outta Philly. Steve's eyes lit up. "Yeah... a freight train! There's an idea. And it wouldn't cost us much, either." Steve was one of the wilder members of the fraternity, and one of my best friends. After kicking the idea around, Steve, Tom (another brother), Matt (friend of ours), and myself committed ourselves to doing it, so we started making plans. The group concensus was that a nighttime train ride would be ideal. Since I was the only one who was really into trains, it was up to me to pick our boarding location. I already knew WHERE I wanted to hop. The question was WHEN. Drexel's campus is located just southwest of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. Many years ago, the Pennsylvania Railroad built a massive two-mile long double track bridge, known as the "high line", to provide freight traffic with a bypass of the busy passenger terminal. The high line crosses Market Street right at 31st Street, and for two years I had been watching trains roll by. Most would stop right on the bridge, waiting, I guess, for a signal to clear uptrack. Beneath the structure right along 31st Street was a set of stairs leading up to the elevated track. No locks, no chains, no fence, easy access. (This has since changed.) I had decided, quite foolishly in retrospect, that it was the high line or bust! In preparation, we packed backpacks with the bare necessities - a change of clothes, toothbrush, money, credit card, etc., along with a minimal amount of food. We weren't sure when we'd be able to hop, but we were ready. The following night (Wednesday), I went down to campus to watch for a train. I told the others that I'd call them from campus if one stopped. I sat down on a bench right outside Commonwealth Hall, which provided a nice panoramic view of the bridge. I hung out, watched the traffic on Market Street, enjoyed a smoke, stared at the city skyline, and after a couple of hours, gave up. I went back to the fraternity house and regretfully reported that there was no action on the bridge. The next night, Steve went with me. We were waiting for about an hour when we finally heard the distant hum of diesel engines. Seconds later, a southbound Conrail freight was in view... and I couldn't believe my eyes. What seemed like an endless string of Tropicana refrigerated boxcars was rolling by. The chance of a lifetime! I looked at Steve and said, "You don't have to know much about trains to know that orange juice ain't shipped south. Those babies have to be empty and are probably Florida-bound." "Maybe we should call the house and have Matt and Tom bring all the stuff," Steve suggested. "Let's see if it stops..." After another minute or two, the final car in the consist came into view. Sadly, Steve and I watched as the last Tropicana car rolled right past... with that damn little rear-end device flashing 'bye-bye'. Rats! Cynically, Steve remarked, "I thought you said they ALL stop." "Well, THAT one didn't," I retorted. Then Steve suggested, "Let's go up there anyway and check it out." It seemed like a reasonable idea. After all, I had never even been on the bridge before. We left the bench, walked over to the stairway, climbed the two flights of stairs, and just looked around for a while. After taking in a fine view of the city, Steve and I walked about 40 yards north along the tracks. We were investigating the feasibility of one day adding a little graffiti art to the span over Market Street. Suddenly, Steve spun around. "Yo, dude! Look!" I turned around to see what was up. "HOLY SHIT!" Two glaring headlights were approaching on the northbound track. We hauled ass back towards the top of the stairway, running down the middle of the other track (not easy) towards the approaching train. If worse came to worse, we could've stood in the southbound track while the train passed us on the northbound track. Fortunately, we reached the top of the stairway in time to cross over. We went down just one flight of stairs and stood on the landing so that we'd have a close-up view of the passing train. As it turned out, it wasn't much of a train - two Conrail units running light. They passed by just over our heads and continued up the track. "You'd think it'd be easier to hear those things comin'," said Steve. Between the Tropicana train that didn't stop and this last little run-for-your-life episode, I felt that I had had enough excitement for one night. Steve agreed, so we started back towards the fraternity. "Maybe tomorrow..."

The following afternoon, I was down on campus trying to add classes to a blank schedule or something. I was a comp-sci, and the office for Drexel's math and computer science department was located inside Commonwealth Hall. Even though it was term break, many of the university's offices were open. I forget exactly what business I had on campus that Friday afternoon, but, boy, do I remember leaving Commonwealth. As I exited the building's main entrance (which faced the high line), I looked up, and there it was... just sitting there... a Conrail mixed freight, and on the southbound track, too! It was about five in the afternoon, and the rush-hour traffic on Market Street was heavy, as usual. I didn't care. I had been waiting all week for this train, or so it seemed. I walked over to the stairway under the bridge, looked around... no cops... so I went up the stairs to the elevated mainline. I looked up and down the tracks. There was nothing on the northbound track, and I couldn't see either end of the train on the southbound track. From the top of the stairway, the closest rideable car in my opinion was a Southern Pacific waffle-sided boxcar. It was directly over Market Street. In full view of the traffic below, I walked along the train to get to the boxcar. I tried to pull the door open, but it was locked shut by this little metal strap. I thought then that the car might be loaded. Not seeing another boxcar nearby, I decided to check the other side. I had hoped that I wouldn't have to cross over to the other side of the train, especially since there was only a narrow walkway (with a railing) between the train and a fifty foot drop. I walked to the end of the boxcar, hopped over the coupler, and checked the other door. Looking up, I could see that there was no little metal strap on this side, so I pulled on the door and it opened just enough to peek inside... BINGO! Empty! This was our car. Quickly, I crossed back to the other side of the train, ran down the tracks, down the stairs, and back into Commonwealth Hall. I pumped a quarter into the first pay phone I saw and called Steve's room. Steve answered the phone. "Hello?" "Yo dude, it's Lance. I'm calling from Commonwealth. Our train is waiting." "No way." "Oh yeah. Call Matt and tell him to get over here. I'll see you in ten minutes." (Matt lived over in New Jersey; Steve, Tom, and I lived at the fraternity house.) I hung up the phone and made my way back to the house. When I got there, Steve and Tom had already gotten all of our backpacks together. We made final preparations while waiting for Matt to arrive. Around six o'clock, Matt pulled up in his Jeep. The rest of us were waiting out front. Since we didn't know how much time we had, or even if the train was still there, we recruited someone to take us down to the bridge in the Jeep. We loaded up our bags and all FIVE of us, a driver and four train hoppers, piled in. As soon as we turned off of 34th street onto Market, I could see that the train had not moved. "There it is. See that boxcar right over the street? That's ours." As we approached the bridge, Tom remarked, "I can't believe we're gonna do this." "Believe it, dude," replied Steve. "No turning back now." We turned the corner onto 31st street and parked right next to the stairway. Everyone got out and grabbed their backpack. Our driver wished us luck, said he wished he could go with us, then went and parked the Jeep where he could watch us board. We cautiously made our way to the top of the stairs and started walking along the track to the waffle-sided SP boxcar. "This is wierd, man, REALLY wierd," said Steve. Matt added, "Check out the view from up here." And Tom: "I can't believe we're really gonna do this." Before hopping the coupler to get the open door, I warned that we should be quick about it. "You never know when a train's gonna start moving, and when it does, you don't want to be between cars." We got to the door and opened it a little more. Steve helped me up, and I pulled myself in. Once inside, I helped Steve into the car, and two of us pulled Tom and Matt in... "All aboard"... We made it! We waved down to the guy who drove us to the train. He waved back, started the Jeep, and took it back to the house. Since we were directly over Market Street, we closed the door a little and agreed to stay back from the opening until we were moving. We didn't want to get busted after getting this far.

The first thing I noticed about the interior of our car was that there was a little metal bar spanning each one of the indentations that produce the "waffle" effect on the outside. The rear of our car had some chains hanging from the bars, one end hooked to each side of the car. I pointed this out and mentioned that waffles/bars/chains probably provide some way to secure cargoes from shifting around inside the car while the train is in motion. Group response: "Yeah... so?" (I was the only "FRN", "foamer", etc.) The second thing I noticed about the car's interior was how dirty it was. So we're all relaxing on the wooden floor of our grimy boxcar when, in reference to a "questionable" cigarette, Steve asked, "Whaddya think, is it cool to spark one up?" "Let's wait 'til we're moving." (me) "Who knows when that'll be?" (Tom) "Yeah, we might be here all night." (Matt) "Good point..." (me) While we're sharing a smoke, Tom mentioned how lucky we were to have gotten this far. "You know, Lance, when you were climbing into the car, it looked like your butt was hangin' way out over Market Steet. If you would've slipped and fell, you would've met your death." "Thanks, Tom. Nice sentiment." The conversation then returned to how fun it was waiting. "So how long do we wait?" (Tom) "You mean before we bail out?" (me) "Yeah." "We'll see. Hopefully it won't come to that." About two minutes later, we all heard this faint "clacking" noise coming from the north end of the train. As the clacking got louder, we all looked at one another, wide-eyed with anticipation. "What the..." Finally, with one last, loud BANG - our boxcar was jerked forward. "Whoa... we're moving!" (Steve) "Did you hear that?" (Matt) "Yeah, that was awesome!" (Tom) "They're supposed to start these trains one car at a time, and I guess that's what it sounds like." (me) Unfortunately, we were moving north. Since the train was parked on the southbound track, I had assumed that we would go south. It didn't matter, though. It was such a thrill to be moving! We all stood near the door, peering out at the cityscape beneath us, as the train crept along the elevated railway. We had been in the car only about fifteen minutes before we were somewhere-bound. Soon we were high above the Amtrak yard that serves 30th Street Station. The creaking bridge girders and squealing wheels only added to the railroad atmosphere. We all looked down, staring awestruck at the scene below. We were familiar with the vast expanse of trackage eminating from 30th Street, but we had certainly never seen it from this perspective. As we proceeded north, the train gradually descended to meet the ascending right-of-way from below. We passed the old interlocking tower at the wye on the west side of the Philadelphia Zoo. (The western leg of the wye is Amtrak's Harrisburg line; the eastern leg is the North East Corridor.) Our train continued to descend as we parallelled the eastern leg of the wye, passed under the NEC, and went north along the Schuylkill Expressway. We could hear traffic zooming by on the other side of our boxcar. "We're right next to the Schuylkill. That means we'll be heading through Flat Rock Tunnel," I said. Shortly thereafter, our car entered the tunnel. Since Flat Rock is a very short tunnel, and since we were somewhere in the middle of a very long train, diesel fumes were not a problem. On the other side of the tunnel, the track cuts under the Expressway and runs along the Schuylkill River. We couldn't see the river because of the sealed door on that side of our car. We could, however, see the remains of an old freight yard. The yard tracks had been ripped up, and weeds had overgrown much of the property. All that remained was a wide area of meticulously leveled flatland lying there next to the river and maybe three or four surviving tracks. Dusk was upon us as we left Philadelphia. The train began to pick up speed, and the view we enjoyed from our boxcar soon became little more than a repetition of embankments, trees, and weeds.

Every time the train changed speeds, our car would get jerked around and the chains hanging in the rear would bang against the end of the car. Finally, Matt went back, unhooked the chains from the car sides, and dropped them on the floor. "That'll put an end to that," he said, rubbing the rust from his hands. As the train entered a clearing, we passed the Pottstown Fire Company. This was the first thing we saw that provided a clue as to where the hell we were. "Hey... Pottstown!" exclaimed Tom. "Does that call for a smoke, or what?" "How 'bout a round of shots, too?" asked Steve. He pulled out a small leather wine sack that he had previously filled, held it up and declared, "Peach schnapps." "You brought peach schnapps?" asked Matt. "Yeah. I packed it at the last minute," said Steve. "I know bourbon from a hip flask would be more appropriate, but this'll have to do." So, we all sat down and shared a smoke and a round of shots. Our train seemed to pick up speed on the other side of Pottstown and for a while we were doing about 30 - 35 mph. Eventually, the train began to slow down, and the buildings and lights that we could see from our boxcar began to increase in frequency. Matt was poking his head out the door and looking uptrack when he said, "Hey, it looks like were pullin' into some little town." Everyone got up and stood by the door. We pulled it open a bit more so that we'd all be able to see. The track was on an embankment along a hillside above the town, as we were looking down at the streetlights and out across the rooftops of the buildings. From a sign on top of a factory, we could tell that we were in Reading. This, of course, called for another round of peach schnapps. The train slowed down to about 10 miles an hour. In the distance, we could see that we were approaching a set of illuminated light towers. As we got closer, we saw a baseball diamond beneath the lights, and we noticed that the track wrapped around the outfield fence high on the embankment. There was a softball game in progress with about a hundred and fifty people in the stands. "Hey, look," said Steve. "A ballgame..." As soon as our car was in dead centerfield, Steve let loose: "STRIKE THE BUM OUT! HE CAN'T HIT! THESE GUYS SUCK!" Then we all chimed in, heckling both teams, the umpire, and everyone in the stands at the top of our lungs. All at once, the players turned around and the fans looked up to see what all the commotion was. Their heads followed our boxcar as we proceeded towards left field, and we slowly disappeared around a curve. "Did you see that? We stopped the game!" exclaimed Steve, proud of this accomplishment. Our laughter quickly turned to paranoia as our train slowed down further and eventually came to a halt. "Yo, man, do you think they heard us?" asked Steve. "I think the whole town heard us. Whaddya mean do I think they heard us?" I replied. "I mean the guys runnin' the train." "Nah, I doubt it." This was the first time our train came to a complete stop since leaving Philadelphia. Just to be safe, we closed our door so that it was only open about three or four inches. If we didn't get busted here, we agreed to keep a low profile for the rest of our journey. The thought of spending a night in the Reading jail was none too appealing. Every so often one of us would get up, go over to the door, pull it open a little, and peek out along the length of the train. Still concerned that we might get busted, we thought we might see a brakeman inspecting the consist or something. Finally, after about 45 minutes, we heard the ol' clacking noise approaching from the front of the train. From experience, we knew what that meant. "Here we go," said Matt. With a loud BANG, our car was jerked forward. This time, since it was only open a few inches, inertial forces caused the boxcar door to be slammed shut. After groping around in the dark for a while, we were able to open it again. At this point, Steve remembered that he had packed some sterno. He lit two cans and set one at each end of the boxcar. The flickering blue flames provided very little light, but they were better than nothing. The train proceeded into an industrial section of Reading and took a diverging track to the right just outside of a small freight yard. As we passed, we could see several strings of cars waiting on the yard tracks. Thinking out loud, I pondered, "I wonder where they're destined..." "I wonder where WE'RE destined," answered Tom.

Part 2