To Phoenixville, Pennsylvania by Train

A dear old friend of mine (the friendship is old, not the friend) invited me to her birthday party so I thought I’d make the trip to just outside of Philadelphia to reconnect and help her celebrate. I had traveled to a town nearby via train several years ago to visit this same friend and thought that would be a nice, stress-free way to travel. Plus, with my newfound love for all things infrastructure, I’d have a whole new appreciation for the trip.

I set out on a Saturday afternoon with just a backpack for the overnight stay. I rode the 1, then 2 train down from my house to Penn Station. I almost never use the 34th St./Penn Station subway stop (and I’m almost never in Penn Station at all), so I looked up for signs pointing me towards New Jersey Transit trains as I got off the subway and walked through the corridor.

I was thrilled to see an old sign painted on the tiles there in the corridor, partly obscured by a modern florescent light. I actually initially power-walked right by it, but just had to backtrack to study and photograph it. This sign drew my attention particularly because I had recently read this long but amazing article on about the Helvetica font and the NYC subway system. It is, more accurately, a history of signage in the NYC subway system in general, but with an emphasis on typeface. I am also always very moved by learning about old Penn Station, for example in the NY Transit Museum’s annex exhibit. I cling to these relics of the old building as if my love for them could make it still exist.

Old “Penn RR Trains” sign in Penn Station corridor

I entered the New Jersey Transit area, bought my ticket from a vending machine, rechecked the schedule, and discovered I’d left myself plenty of time before the train’s boarding track would be announced. So I took a walk up and out of Penn Station for a bit. On my way back I photographed another relic of old Penn Station – one of the 22 stone eagles used in its original architecture now guards one side of the 7th Avenue entrance. Another is on the other side of the entrance, and the remaining survivors are scattered around the city and beyond.

One of the eagles from original Penn Station

On my return underground I sat in the waiting room watching travelers come and go and writing a birthday card to friend. When I gauged it nearly time for the track to be announced I got up and got closer to one of the screens. People rushed towards the track the second the announcement came. I was a bit overwhelmed but followed the herd.

I was thrilled to see our train was a double decker! I’d never been on a train like that before. I giggled at going up stairs inside a train car and settled into a comfy window seat on the upper level.

As we pulled out of the station I tried to see everything I could out my window. The beginning of our journey reminded me a bit of my short ride on Amtrak to Yonkers – passing through the tunnel and speeding by sights almost too fast to take them in and certainly too fast to photograph without motion blur.

The first sights I recognized when aboveground were similar to what one passes when driving on I-95. I’ve driven the stretch of 95 between the George Washington Bridge and Staten Island so many times, and one of the things that always captivated me were these towers (possibly radio towers) standing tall out in the meadows and marshes. I always wanted to pull over on the interstate at night, hop out, and take some long exposure photos as the stoic towers softly flash red in the dark. Something about that scene and seeing it from the elevated highway has always been appealing. This day from the train, the towers seemed further away and acted as just faint reminders of this familiar night scene.

Radio(?) towers in New Jersey

I conjectured ahead of time that we’d be going through Secaucus Junction, the location of a recent excursion. And sure enough, sights from my day there came into view. Passing through here was yet another instance of experiencing a location I am familiar with from a literal different point of view – something I’m always taken by and am developing as one of the themes of this blog/project/excursion series. As we passed through I almost wished I could get off and again experience the parts of the place – platform, building, approach road – that I’d spent this length of time at just a few weeks before.

Train tracks approaching Secaucus Junction

Passing through Secaucus Junction

Platform at Secaucus Junction 

Pulling out of Secaucus Junction

The next beautiful scene we encountered was a stretch, I believe of I-95, elevated over the Hackensack river. Visible further away and closer to the river’s surface, a train swing bridge stood in the open position.

Highway and swing bridges

Highway with swing bridge underneath

Highway bridge

Before I knew it these sights had flown by and we were pulling into Trenton Transit Center. Though I had purchased my ticket from NJ Transit all the way through to Philadelphia, it was required that I transfer here to a SEPTA train. I marveled (as I had the first time I took this trip) how the different regional rail providers make it so easy to get from here to there.

I had about fifteen or twenty minutes to change tracks and wait for my SEPTA train, so I tried to absorb as much infrastructure information as possible.

Double decker NJ Transit train in Trenton

Platform at Trenton Transit Center

Amtrak warning signs

This station is a major hub – SEPTA, NJ Transit, and even Amtrak use these tracks. I watched an Acela train (a luxury I didn’t choose for this trip) speed by as I stood on the platform.

It was soon time to board the SEPTA train. Arriving in my seat, I looked all around at my new surroundings. This leg also went by quickly – I think the whole trip seems shorter because it’s broken into segments on different trains. The sights from this train were also pretty; this time more suburban and lush, less industrial.

Body of water (sorry, don’t know what) from SEPTA train

Body of water (sorry, don’t know what) from SEPTA train

And then we arrived in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. I remembered the big, main lobby a little from my previous trip, but again I was happy to have some time to explore more and to eat lunch!

The expansive feeling of the main room reminded me somewhat of Grand Central Terminal. The antique-looking benches brought to mind typical old movie scenes of train waiting rooms, always with dramatic moments occurring in them.

Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station

Statue in 30th Street Station

Bench in 30th Street Station

As I walked around in somewhat of a tired traveler daze looking at the architecture and trying to decide what to eat, I noticed a couple of groups of men packing up tables and supplies. There had clearly been some sort of event here that was just wrapping up, but I couldn’t quite make out what. After some more wandering I saw a rolled up poster on a ledge. Had this not been a somewhat of an infrastructure excursion I probably would not have picked it up, but one of my personal rules for my excursions are that I must follow my instincts and do what my impulse is at the moment. If I don’t, I may regret it! So I plucked up the poster and unrolled it. “National Train Day,” it read. And into my backpack it went!

National Train Day poster

Apparently, as I read later, this is a holiday that Amtrak invented to celebrate itself. So it’s a bit self-serving and silly, but I like it anyway. If I had taken an earlier combination of trains I would have seen model trains set up and other festivities in 30th Street Station.

I grabbed some food and headed up to the platform to wait for my final train to Paoli, a town nearish to where friend lives. I ate there on the platform to make sure I wouldn’t miss boarding time. Children still excited from National Train Day festivities milled about with their parents. Trains came and went on the many tracks.

30th Street Station: skylights over platform

30th Street Station platform

Before I was finished eating my train pulled up. I again grabbed a window seat and we departed just a few minutes later. Between last bites of salad I took in my new surroundings as we pulled out of the station and away from Philadelphia.

Tracks, pulling out of 30th Street Station

Skyline and pipes

One structure in particular caught my eye – elevated tracks (not sure if they’re still in use) running parallel to our route as we left the station. They were supported by so many smallish arches. I wondered what ran on the tracks this supported and when this structure was built.

Cool arches

Cool arches

On this leg of the journey we passed through many towns and suburbs. Since it was a weekend, these probably usually bustling commuter lots and train platforms looked as if they could have been abandoned for years. The hut-like station buildings themselves were in a variety of architectural styles and states of disrepair. Some looked like quaint cottages, some very typical-New-England-train-station, and some more utilitarian. There was one where had the train windows opened, I could have reached out and touched the station’s roof. I spotted signs on several of the stations’ windows about them no longer being staffed. Train ticket vending machines have taken over everywhere.

During the trip I watched for infrastructural features too of course. Many stations had a road passing underneath the tracks with steps down to it for pedestrians. But some had overpasses for pedestrians and/or cars instead.

Going under a bridge

Out from under the bridge

When I deboarded at the Paoli station, text messages revealed I had a few minutes before friend’s boyfriend arrived to pick me up for the party. I stood by the smaller of the two parking lots, up on a ridge leading to the bridge over the train tracks, and watched other trains roll by.

Paoli SEPTA station

Train signals and tracks at Paoli station

Soon, my gracious co-host for the evening arrived and drove us the 15 minutes or so back to their house in Phoenixville. Friend and I had a happy reunion and the party ensued. I slept well on their couch and then we headed to brunch the next morning.

Before reversing my train-filled journey, friend treated me to a tour of little downtown Phoenixville. We walked down the main drag and past stores, restaurants, and bars she frequents. Then we turned down one street to see the Phoenixville Foundry – a former iron foundry turned glamorous event facility. Friend declared, “this is where I want to get married!!” And indeed it was beautiful – vestiges of the factory remain as sculptures on the grounds and intentionally exposed on the inside of the building. At the same time, most of the interior was glossed and glammed up to make it suitable for brides and other revelers.

Phoenixville Foundry building

We explored a bit more, cutting over to a section of the Schuylkill River Trail. The trail’s namesake river runs alongside it, and I enjoyed looking up and over at the different pedestrian and car bridges that span the water.

Pedestrian bridge on Schuylkill River Trail

Gay Street Bridge

Gay Street Bridge

All too soon it was time to depart – I didn’t want to catch too late of a train back to New York. With hugs, I was deposited back at the Paoli station and on a train back to 30th Street Station. Again I had a little wait time here. I stood near the end of one of the platforms, bathed in afternoon sun from the glass ceiling, and took in the sights.

30th Street Station

Looking out a window on 30th Street Station platform

The ride home was for the most part symmetrical to my ride there. Perhaps I was on the other side of the train or just didn’t notice before, but this time I could see the Pulaski Skyway from the train. I know it’s a giant beast but from far away it appeared almost lacy and delicate.

Pulaski Skyway from the train

Of course I took note when we passed back through Secaucus Junction. It was good to see this now familiar place, and the sight of it signaled that I’d soon be home.

Back through Secaucus Junction

Roads at Secaucus Junction

At this close of my journey I reflected: While I didn’t bring my “real” camera (only my phone camera) and didn’t set out for Phoenixville expressly for the purpose of an infrastructure excursion, this trip still rested firmly in the scope of this blog and project. And this entry is sort of a proof of concept of something I talked about in my earlier news post – expanding the blog/project to include infrastructure in everyday life.

In the future I hope to figure out for myself some answers to related questions: Where are the transitions between “everyday life” and infrastructure excursion, if they exist at all? What is the ritual of the infrastructure excursion and how “sacred” is it, i.e., are there rules for excursions, can they be broken, and what happens when they are? How much of this blog is a chronicle of my ephemeral experiences in places, how much is informative/historical/factual, and how much is it a photoblog? I don’t yet know these answers but it is a continuing process for me to try to get closer to them!

[Map coming soon]

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