Departing on Track 9 for Newark, Elizabeth, Rahway, Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Matawan. North Jersey Coast Train…Alllllll Aboard! You’d take the escalator down even further below ground to track level, and as you descended the sounds of electric motors idling and the hissing of air brakes would get louder. There was a smell as well, a combination of ozone and steam from car heaters and head end power plants.
Train crew would direct you to the right cars “Red Bank last coach, all other stations forward, smoker at the front”. The train was a Pennsylvania Railroad consist, served with a mixture of heavy weight coaches and anything serviceable from the coach yard. This was the waning days of privately run passenger service in the US and they did the best they could as they hemorrhaged cash. In 3 years the government would take over all passenger service.
At the head of this motley assemblage was a GG1, the iconic high speed electric capable of pulling the more important corridor trains at 125mph, the standard express speed in these parts. But this was no express, and we would be lucky to hit 60. But the beautiful Raymond Loewy designed GG1 would keep us on time and serve until we hit diesel territory where it would be swapped out.
Exiting the labyrinth of tracks and switches under Penn Station and Madison Square Garden we entered the tunnel under the Hudson. The GG1 got to stretch its legs here because there were only two tracks to the west out of this huge city and even lowly locals were expected to step lively, making way for their betters…fast Metroliners and what remained of the posh name trains like “The Congressional” or “The Broadway Limited”.
From there it was on to another Penn Station, this one in Newark where we’d wait for any late connecting trains to show up. Newark was a mysterious place and it wasn’t until I was nearly 60 that I got a good look at it…even though by then I lived far away. Crime ridden, it was nonetheless fascinating because it hosted a myriad of rail lines both commuter and long distance. The long distance lines are gone other than the Amtrak North East corridor lines and the through trains that go as far as Chicago and New Orleans. But the commuter trains are still ubiquitous, labyrinthine lines crisscrossing everywhere across the region.
Eventually the GG1 would screech into South Amboy where the catenary ended and diesels were required. The GG1 would uncouple and a diesel would slam into the first car, hookup it’s air lines and hotel power and off we’d go. It would take all of five minutes and we’d be off to the South along the shore route.
Going South, for whatever reason, it was always at night. I made this trip 6 or 7 times a year in the 3 years I was at DeVitte Military Academy and I was always by myself. I went from 12 to 14 in that time period and there were a few misadventures…mostly due to major delays but I always got where I needed to. It took a bus, a subway train the Coast train out of Penn and then a cab when we reached Matawan NJ.
But then there was Capt. Boosie. He was one of the teachers, he handled 5th grade and since I started in 6th I didn’t have him. Tall and stereotypically Dutch, he’d roar at miscreants “You bloody rotter”…or worse. He had a big stick in his room and though I don’t recall him ever using it, it was a major deterrent. Boosie had the perfect teacher creds to deal with young boys; be tall and carry a big stick. Today’s more squeamish parents may think the threat of a stick is a bit abusive, but I can assure you, we were all demons of the first order and would have shredded a weaker soul. And given tens of thousands of years of human existence, boys haven’t changed much in the last forty.
As intimidating as Boosie was, he was protective. Once I had to travel home to NY by myself to go to a wedding. I was in 6th grade and still a little young for a trip like that by myself, so I was to get on the train in Matawan and my Uncle would meet me at Penn Station in NY. But the train never got to NY, there was a bridge out so it terminated in Newark potentially leaving me stranded and alone. Boosie came over and got me and we both took the 3 trains it took to get home from there. It would have been rough without him.
That train was so long ago…it seems like so many lifetimes past.
© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved
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