If you solely take the ease of traveling as a criteria, I definitely took the wrong choice in regards of my favorite ice hockey team. Traveling from Germany to Pittsburgh to see my Pittsburgh Penguins is typically creating some hassle. Even some West Coast tours like the one I did in 2020 feel to create less trouble. Direct British Airways flights are reinstated – but unfortunately, they leave rather late and thus always lead to an extra night. Thus, in October 2023, I tried out one of the potential alternatives and took the Pennsylvanian, the direct train connection from New York to Steel City. The small print: even in Business Class, it is rather cheap (if you book early). However, it comes with the downside of a nine hour train ride. Here is the sum-up of my experience.
Pennsylvanian – Route & Tariff
I took the full trip on 27th October 2023, which luckily has been a sunny day in fall. I took the full trip, which is roughly nine hours scheduled trip time. The distance is 444 miles, roughly 715 kilometers. Until Philadelphia, the route is not overwhelmingly spectacular. You have some nice views of Manhattan and Jersey City once you leave the tunnel West of the Hudson River. The first interesting thing is happening, when the electric engine is removed and a diesel one is put to the other side of the train (which is changing direction). This does not only cause an almost half an hour stop, but also disconnects the train from electricity. Suddently after the train stopped at William H Gray III 30th St Station, it gets dark immediately. No power supply any more as well. Funnily, WiFi was still working.
|arr||dep||Station (27th October 2023 schedule)|
|10:52||New York City – Penn Station (Moynihan Train Hall)|
|11:07||11:09||Newark NJ – Penn Station|
|12:15||12:42||Philadelphia – William H Gray III 30th St Station|
|20:05||Pittsburgh PA – Union Station|
There is also a shorter, ten minute, “smoking break” at Harrisburg, where the train crew was exchanged. From Harrisburg onward, the trip really became beautiful, when the route followed the Susqehanna River and the Juniata River and you had amazing views of the Indian summer. This section also comes with some interesting stories. For example, Tyrone Station is that small that only one door of the entire train is opening. Just a month before my trip, there has been an agreement with the corresponding freight company that there will be two trains in each directions – from 2026 onward.
Apart from New York City, where you can board several cervices (from the Empire Service to Niagara Falls to the faster Acela Express and the Silver Star to Miami), the key transfer point is Philadelphia, which is also offering transfers to various services. Pittsburgh Union Station offers connections to the Capitol Limited, which takes you to Chicago.
Pennsylvanian – Rolling Stock
I read that the connection typically uses 2-1 seating in Business Class. However, the train which serviced my travel came with a 2-2 configuration, i.e. two seats on each side. There is no armrest between the seats. There also no armrest on the aisle side of the seat – sometimes, I wished for a better comfort. there. Below the rather small windows, there are two power outlets, i.e. one per seat. The seat has a certain recline and a comparably small table in the backrest in front of you. The seat pitch is amazing and lead to a very comfortable travel. The train was packed in Standard Class, but in the single Business Coach, it was really nice. Most people had a free seat all over their travel. The branding of the cars was for the Northeast Regional service, which is typically connecting Boston with Washington, but also features scattered extensions.
At one end of the Business Class car, there were two toilets (a “standard” and an accessible one). Each end of the car has a display. Unfortunately, it is only used to give directions to the (emergency) exit. There is no display showing the next stops or potential delays. Thus, some stops felt a bit “sudden” and “surprising” to me (the announcements were rather late as well…). A nice feature were the rather large overhead bins. As far as I could find out, the majority of cars is rather old, some are even from the 1970’s or 1980’s. Their suspension is rather old and the train ride is much more bumpy than similar routes in Europe.
Pennsylvanian – At The Train Station
The Moynihan Train Hall in New York City offers a vast variety of passenger services, shops and restaurants. It is absolutely comparable to typical European train stations. However, only a few other stations do have that many options. There are not too few stations where there just two trains per day, the one to New York City and the one to Pittsburgh. You may check in luggage like at a plane in the station. If you do so, you get it back at a luggage belt or similar facility at your destination (in case this location offers the service, minor destinations excluded). This may be especially handy for physically reduced passengers. It is, however, not mandatory to do so when you ride this train.
Boarding is working similar to British train stations. The platform is announced rather short before departure. There are waiting queues at the escalators in Manhattan, which take you down to the platform. However, this lining up typically just takes very short before the platform is opened for travelers. Apart from this fact (your train may in fact pop up on most of the platforms…), the processes in New York were really handy.
Pennsylvanian – The Ride
Apart from the “dark times” at Philadelphia station when the engine has changed, the ride did not have any special events. I felt that the ride was smooth and relaxed. Despite being slightly delayed in most stations on the second half of trip, the train arrived too early in Pittsburgh. As you see in the pictures, the scenery during Indian Summer times was amazing. The Business Class ticket (which I booked relatively well in advance) was 108 USD.
Pennsylvanian – Service
The staff, at the station and in the car, was really nice. There is a Cafe car on The Pennsylvanian Train. You may even buy basic burgers and snacks there. Even though the prices in the train did not match the prices given on the Amtrak website, the food offered was really nice and included cheeseburgers, sandwiches and similar dishes. Some of the bites had to be heated in the microwave oven. Business Class passengers have free non-alcoholic drinks.
The train also featured WiFi. I was rather amazed about the quality. It was not as fast as in an ICE train, but fast enough for basic work and quite constant. Interestingly the worst reception was in train stations like Harrisburg. The deeper you get into the Appalachians, of course, the weaker the connection gets.
Pennsylvanian – Alternatives
The most “US-American” alternative is the plane. A one day economy ticket is, when it is booked well in advance, some 200 USD. The flight time from New York (regardless whether using Newark EWK, JFK or La Guardia LGA) some 1:30 hrs. As flight tickets to the New York Airports are significantly cheaper from Europe, I had some drive from New York to Pittsburgh. As you do not need to pass Philadelphia, the distance is shorter (some 370 miles to EWK, 400 miles to JFK). Travel time is typically some 6:30 hours, plus any addition New York City congestion (esp. if you connect to JFK).
There are also direct connections between New York and Pittsburgh by coach. The travel times is roughly in line with the train, A Greyhound ticket between the two stations is about 60 USD if booked in advance.
Pennsylvanian – My View
The ride with the Pennsylvanian has been a wonderful experience. Especially during the Indian Summer times, I absolutely recommend to do it. The rolling stock is okay, but you cannot deny that it is also a bit of outdated. Finally, the traveling time is too long. Even with the geographic detour via Pennsylvania, proper tracks (and not being fixed to freight train tracks) could turn this trip into a much better deal.
“Rides on Rail” Postings
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Flyctory.com in Philadelphia
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