Over 1.5 million people take the train between New York and Washington every year. Some do it so often it almost doesn’t seem like traveling. They get on and zone out; three hours later—actually two hours and 45 minutes on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express inaugurated in 2000—they're in D.C.
But 225 miles of scenery lie between the Big Apple and our nation’s capital along tracks once operated by the venerable old Pennsylvania Railroad that run roughly parallel to Interstate 95.
Next time you take the train keep your eyes open. There are plenty of sights to see:
1. All aboard at Penn Station, New York, the slap-dash modern terminal below Madison Square Garden, a far cry from beautiful Beaux Arts Grand Central (celebrating 100 years of service next year).
At Penn you have to close your eyes to imagine what it was like when it was built of pink granite in 1910 with a waiting room modeled on the Baths of Caracalla. Its demolition in 1963 was lamented by architects, including Yale’s Vincent Scully, who wrote, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
2. The New York Jets and Giants play football at the Meadowlands near the mouths of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Passing by on the train you wouldn’t know that the 20,000-acre wetland is infamously polluted, the perfect place for Tony Soprano to dump dead bodies. Instead, you see high reeds and water channels visited by snowy egrets and Peregrine falcons—indications that the natural wonders of the region may get a second chance, thanks to an ambitious plan mounted by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
3. The Acela train doesn’t stop in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital. But you’ll know you’re there when you see the big neon sign on the steel-framed Delaware River Bridge. With 9-foot high capitals and 7-foot high lower-case letters, it says, "Trenton Makes—The World Takes." How‘s that for grandiosity? But back in 1935 when the present sign was erected (replacing an earlier version affixed in 1911) there was truth in the claim. Trenton was a major industrial center, producing steel, rubber and linoleum.
In 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware River nearby for a surprise attack on English-employed Hessian soldiers garrisoned in Trenton. As the train goes over the river about 10 miles southeast of McConkey’s Ferry Inn (now the Washington Crossing Historic Park), it’s worth remembering how he and his ragtag Continental Army turned the tide of the revolution that snow-stormy Christmas Day at Trenton.
4. You get a fine view of the skyline as the train approaches 30th Street Station, Philadelphia. If the windows opened you might even hear monkeys chatter and elephants trumpet because the track goes right by the gate of the Philadelphia Zoo, American‘s first, opened in 1874.
On your way out of town watch for Victorian Boathouse Row, a National Historic Landmark on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, still a major rowing center that holds a big regatta on the Fourth of July.
5. When you reach Wilmington the train passes close to Old Swedes Church, built in 1698 by Scandinavian immigrants who came to the Delaware River delta before English Quakers settled Philadelphia. With a mossy, old cemetery said to be haunted, the church still celebrates Swedish St. Lucia’s Day in early December.
6. There’s fine open duck-hunting country south of Wilmington and you get your first real look at the Chesapeake Bay as the train crosses the mouth of the Susquehanna River at little Havre de Grace.
7. Then it‘s on to Baltimore where mostly all you see are the thick granite walls of the 7,000-foot long Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, built in 1873.
8. Little foretells the train’s arrival in Washington, D.C., a city with almost no skyline, its uncontested high point the 555-foot top of the Washington Monument.
Collect your belongings as you pass through the grimy train shed at the back of Union Station, then disembark into Neo-Classical glory, thanks to an Act of Congress that mandated restoration of the terminal in 1988. The front door is better than the back, opening directly onto the U.S. Capitol.