June 02, 2011

To DC by Rail

Pulpjunkie, a friend of nearly 20 years has been 'downsized'.  Fortunately he was able to get 're-purposed' by his company, however his new purpose is not in Northern Virginia, but the impenetrable jungles of deepest, darkest Pennsylvania. Shorter version, I won't be able to see him for a vary long while after this week.

I've been trying to get up there for weeks but family obligations, school or work have stymied me. As I was finally free, I decided to brave the horror that is I-95 on Memorial Day Weekend. Naturally, the Cressida chose that moment to have a coolant casualty and I pulled into the repair shop with the radiator boiling over,  The repair was minor, but the parts could not be delivered until after the holiday.  Dreading the un-air-conditioned and rickety Pickup of Peril, I decided to check how much an Amtrack ticket was.

$41 dollars each way is not bad and about what I'd spend to fuel the car (but about twice what I'd spend in the truck). I haven't been on a US passenger train in 30 years so  I figured  this would at least be interesting. After confirming that the Alexandria Station is close to a Metro station and coordinating with Pulpjunkie to pick me up, I purchased the tickets online and was at the Newport News station bright and early Saturday morning. The station has very limited long term parking but if fortuitously close to Worlds Best Comics (about a block).

I was interested in how Amtrack compared to Japanese rail, and was pleasantly surprised in all areas....except speed and punctuality.  The line from Newport News to Richmond is not high speed rated and while the tracks from Richmond to DC are,  heavy freight traffic and a lack of parallel rails frequently preclude really high speeds. The US train is thus theoretically comparable to Japanese non-Shinkasnsen long haul trains.  In contrast  to those, ( and even the bullet trains) the internal appointments compare favorably. Every seat, (even in coach!) has electrical sockets unlike the Japanese models, and in one other area the comparison is decidedly in the US trains favor.


The snack car is not a vending machine in the vestibule but a small kitchen staffed that serves a variety of fast food. There are dining cars on either side.

For a good distance east of Richmond the rail line runs next to its predecessor, one of the canals designed, surveyed and built by George Washington ( who was an accomplished civil engineer).

Before government regulation and competition with autos devastated the US passenger rail industry, small towns were built around the rail lines. Today many of these farming communities still have stations for freight and in Virginia the 'main street' is often parallel or perpendicular to the rail line. The train runs right up through several towns.

Ashland, now a suburb of Richmond, is one of the few that still has passenger rail service. Between Ashland and Fredricksburg there is mostly farmland, recent development has followed the interstates and most of the train stations like this one are no longer in service.

There are a few freight stations though.

 This is a very bad picture of one.

Rail freight is still a hugely lucrative and highly developed business in the USA, a fact that seems lost on many. Only marine transport is more efficient at transporting large quantities of goods. It also means that all these rail lines are filled with slow freight cars, which stymie most attempts to re-introduce passenger rail.  Danny Taggart ought to go into freight.

Because most actual real estate development gravitates to the roads, the areas around the rail line are often picturesque.

A beaver lodge!

We proceeded on time until just short of Alexandria when the train stopped for 20 minutes because a CSX train was blocking the way.  Amtrack in Virginia  is using CSX rail lines but not actually paying to build parallel lines, so.....

20 minutes late, I arrived in Alexandria Station I helped an old lady maneuver her bags onto the train and met Pulpjunkie across from  the Washington Monument.

Wait. What!?

I shortly thereafter discovered my wallet was missing. [expletive] [/expletive]. A good bit of drama ensued as I called the station got in touch with the next station and confirmed that the conductor had found it. It turns out the lady I helped turned it in, it had fallen out when I helped her load her bags. The wallet arrived on the next train and, astonished at my good fortune, we began our bumble through DC.

Oh yeah...the Washington Monument....It looks different up close doesn't it?
Actually that is the MASONIC Washington Memorial which is the Masons own monument to George Washington. Each level has a little museum dedicated to the various branches of Masonry, the Jewish or Christian orders that support each and what charities each are involved in with a bit of Masonic history as well as a limited talk on their arcane ceremonies...but no pictures are allowed...'cause the Masons are supr sekrit...except for their brochures and websites and stuff.

The Alexandria Amtrack Station is across the street from the King Street Metro Station. This allowed quick and easy access to La'Enfant Plaza, which was being used by Native American Navy veterans who were commemorating Memorial Day with a dance and concert. 

La'Enfant Plaza..Note the curious lack of Super Mutants.

After taking that in we visited the Naval History Museum, where we learned that the first US Navy Ship was named after Alfred The Great.

This is a reminder that the revolution did not actually start as a secession, but as someone once said, English subjects fighting for the rights of Englishmen...against a German king.  Flash photography was not allowed but I did get a pic of this flight jacket with unit art.

None of the other pics really took.
We headed out and towards the Mall but were temporarily distracted by an infestation of modern art which has taken root off Constitution avenue.

We wandered down the Mall museum hopping.  Little has changed since the last time I was there. I note that the National Triceratops was removed some years ago depriving kids of the experience of climbing all over it...feh.

At the graveyard of tomorrows the only new exhibit was Spaceship 1 which was in a glare that defied photography. Most of the new exhibits are at a huge new facility out in Virginia.

 Of course we stocked up on provisions...(well I did: Pulpjunkie broke morale over the dehydrated ice cream).


The newest Museum is the Museum of the American Indian and it is an architectural marvel and very nicely appointed. Pulpjunkie informs me that it has the best museum restaurant in the Smithsonian but we arrived too late to partake.

I had wanted to hit Chinatown again but Pulpjunkie suggested dinner in Annandale. As he is leaving it was his last opportunity to hit  his favorite Chinese Restaurant...


Like many of the best restaurants in the South, Duck Changs advertising is handled by Quisling food animals selling out their compatriots. I ordered the Mongolian Beef which was superb. Pulpjunkie had something else...but out of respect to my readers I shan't mention it.

Sunday was spent helping load furniture, measure the condo, which is to be rented out, and doing various other things. That evening we watched various shows on crunchy roll and talked until after midnight. Pulpjunkie the suggested Korean Barbeque. It seems that Annandale has several 24 hour Korean Barbecue joints.

Late night meat FTW!

This brings us to another thing about Annandale...
This is a fairly typical strip mall.

Will NOT be trying the Il Mee restaurant.

..as is this

A German Restaurant run by Koreans

I'm not sure why Annandale became such a huge immigrant community but it has done wonders for the areas food options. To Wit:

Lunch Monday where I ate ENTIRELY too much chicken.

We arrived in Alexandria early Monday as we feared delays die to the holiday. There were none so we had a couple of hours to kill in Olde Town.

As a child I had thought that Alexandria was in Egypt, and that Alexander the Great had never even gotten to northern Virginia. Well, you live and learn.

Actually it is named for a plantation owner who donated land to the then port. 

People no doubt pay a premium in rent for authentic crappy road surfaces.

Of course there is the inevitable urban blight.

The old Torpedo Factory is now an art gallery and the waterfront is quite lively.

We arrived at the station with ample time to spare and said our goodbyes. The station is quite old and has been restored nicely.

This is the tunnel connecting to the other side of the station:I gather that its rarely used.

I was surprised to learn that the commuter lines now extend as far as Fredricksburg and Broad Run. Assuming there is parking, this could make trips to DC much less obnoxious.

The return trip was uneventful till just East of Richmond when the train stopped....and then proceeded along at 15mph. It seems that the computer systems for Amtrack, CSX and Norfolk Southern all went down, and no one knew precisely where the trains were. 15 mph was considered slow enough that the train could stop if an oncoming train was seen. This put the train over 2 hours late. I'm a little suspicious of all 3 systems going down at once. It certainly bears scrutiny. In any event Amtrack blew it on the scheduling this trip. However, the customer service was beyond excellent.

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