The Underground Brewery Stories about brewing beer and train traveling from Tom Coughlin

July 24, 2012

Pittsburgh– an Amtrak visit to a reluctant tourist mecca (September 2008)

Filed under: — Tom @ 11:49 am

Meg and I walked over to the Princeton Junction train station in the morning and caught an NJTransit train to Trenton in order to catch the Pennsylvanian, which doesn’t stop in Princeton Junction. Our Sunday train was on time and fairly crowded with college students mostly carrying big pieces of roll-on luggage. In Philadelpha, about 150 of them got off, and were quickly replaced with another 150. As this train had a cafe car and a pretty short menu of available food, Meg called a food order ahead to Delilah’s, a southern restaurant located in 30th street station, and ran upstairs during the engine change layover to pick up our lunches. Meg was back quickly, which was good as we were off again in less than 20 minutes under diesel power.

Nothing remarkable to note about this Amtrak train other than Amfleet 2 long distance coaches and people hauling really large bags. There seemed to be an unusually large number of people trackside taking pictures. We got into Pittsburgh before 8 pm, and walked down Penn St. to the Gateway Hilton clutching our bags. Today had been very windy day (weather bands coming off of Hurricane Ike), and dirt and grit were blowing into our eyes as we walked. Across the street from the hotel, we noticed that Stanwix street was closed–the extension project for the Pittsburgh Light Rail had just concluded digging a tunnel under the Allegheny River to the Northside, and the boring machine was being removed. This project is moving along slowly and is due to be completed in 2011.

Once settled into the room, we put on our walking shoes and went out for a late-night Sunday walk down Carson Street, through the Southside. We rode the T to the Station Square station and discovered that the windstorm had lead to a power failure in the vacinity of Station Square, and the Sheraton Hotel there was without power (we felt very fortunate that he had not elected to stay there). The motorman informed the passengers that a section of the Beechview line was shut down due to a fallen tree near Pennant Station, and that all riders should take the Overbrook line to Washington Junction and ride back on the  Beechview line to get to intermediate destinations.

Getting off at Station Square, Meg and I walked around the darkened hotel area for a few minutes, and then walked down Carson Street, through about 10 blocks of darkened streets and non-working traffic lights. After about 14th Street, the power seemed to be working. The Steelers were playing, and a few of the bars in Southside were packed with fans wearing yellow jerseys watching the game on big televisions.

Southside was formerly a working-class neighborhood surrounded by railroad tracks and a large steel plant, but after the steel plant closed in the 1980s, the neightborhood morphed into a place filled with funky bars and retail shops, and lofts for young urban hipsters. Along Carson Street, there is a mixture of old-time establishments along with vegetarian restaurants, coffee bars, and thrift stores. At the end of Carson Street (around 27th Street), the site of the old steel plant has been redeveloped into a few newly built retail blocks and a shopping mall.

After having a beer and a snack at Fatheads (on 18th St.), we walked back to Station Square and caught the T back to Gateway Center.

On Monday, Meg had a conference to attend, so I made it my day to ride the light rail system. To start out, I rode the T down to Wood St where I purchased a two-zone weekly pass for $24. PATransit doesn’t sell daily passes, and their complicated zone system and exact fare requirement would have required me to possess a large wad of one-dollar bills and a roll of change. At the ticket office on Smithfield Street, I quickly did the math– I’d be taking more than 10 trips over then next two days at an average cost of more than $2.40 each, so the $24 pass would  be economical,  convenient, and would save me from lots of conversations with bus and trolley operators regarding fares.

I surprised to learn that PATransit is currently not issuing a system map, however the timetables for each of the routes (busses, light rail, and even the inclines have printed timetables). feature a simplified map. I stood there for about twenty minutes looking at the rack of timetables before I pulled out a handful of the routes I was going to cover. For a small city and a relatively small system, they run a lot of light rail and bus lines. Most rail fans zoom in on the light rail system. Cobbled out of two interurban lines that were cut back to the county line in the 1950s, the light rail serves a few communities in the south of town, and despite a lot of rebuilding and new equipment, still retains much of the interurban character.

For the rest of the city, the trolleys were replaced in the 1960s and 70s with busses. While there are many interpretations floating around as to why the US city with the most light rail vehicles would in the span of ten years become a city with almost no LRVs at all, several key contributers are recognized: rapid economic collapse that the city was going through in the 1970s, the lack of replacements and repair parts for an aging fleet of PCC trolleys, the slow financial decline of Pittsburgh Railway, and system-crippling congestion downtown were trolleys shared the roads with autos. An aborted, expensive “SkyBus” project that saught to introduce people-mover technology (similar to projects in Miami and Detroit) may have also contributed adversely to the mix by fractionalizing pro-transit activists and consuming available funds and resources.

Interestingly, the big significant transit feature in Pittsburgh are the busways– two-lane restricted access roadways for the exclusive use of buses. The East Busway uses what were formerly two track widths of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s right of way east of Downtown was completed in the 1970s with extensions recently opened.  The recently-opened West Busway uses former Wabash ROW and reconstructed rail tunnel to connect the downtown to the airport.  The South Busway which provides a quick connection for 14 southern bus routes between the Mount Washington Tunnel and Overbrook, and permits the buses to bypass the frequently congested Liberty Bridge and Tunnel.

Armed with my pass, I walked back to the Wood St. station and began my system ride. I got on the first car that came by, which happened to be going to South Hills Village, and in about 45 minutes I had reached the end-of-the line, South Hiils Village which features is a recently constructed multi-tier parking garage and with a medical center nearby. Out of view beyond the station is a large yard where the LRVs are parked and maintained. Between  South Hills and Dorchester, the next previous station, there is a two-track turnout– up until 1999, LRVs used this turnout to get to Drake Loop, which is now abandoned, though there seems to be track in-place. Drake’s main significance was that it was at the point where the old interurban line crossed the Allegheny County line. Other than that, it’s not close to any downtown area, and there wasn’t space for a park and ride or a bus intermodal station. In the mid 1990s, I rode an empty trolley down to Drake Loop, and can remember thinking to myself that this seemed like a strange place to put the end of the line.

Walking over to the northbound platform, I caught the same LRV on it’s return trip, and rode it to Washington Junction. At Washington Junction, I changed for a Library car and rode to the end of the line. While the South Village line had more of a suburban character along the line (running on the sides of streets through small boroughs), the Library line was more rural in character and quickly ran through thickets of woods. At Library, there was a small park and ride lot, that seemed to have replaced the former loop (two tracks running into bumper posts and the need for the motorman to move to the opposite end of the car now marked the end of the line). I spent the half hour layover walking around the station perimeter. There was an abandoned laundromat, a bar with large signs advertising the Pennsylvania Lottery, and a few other disused buildings in the neighborhood. it didn’t look dangerous or creepy in anyway, just that people who used to live there had moved on.

Riding back, all cars from Library ride over the Overbrook line, so I was able to get in the second main artery of the trolley system. Wanting to visit a store that seemed very close to the Boggs station on my Pittsburgh map, I got off there, only to discover that the station was on the side of a hill and there was no way to descend the hill down to the store, which I could see through the treetops several hundred feet below. Disappointed, I caught the next car into town.

Next, I rode the route 52 Allentown line. It’s pretty difficult to get this one in during a short visit, as it has only nine daily round trips and runs only during during rush hour on weekdays. Starting at South Hills Junction, the line inches slowly up a steep hill and creeps along the main streets in Anderson using a right-of-way that must have been designed by a roller coaster enthusiast. There were three other passengers on the car, who go off before we headed down the ramp to the the Panhandle Bridge. After crossing the bridge, the route continues through the subway to Gateway Center, where it loops and returns through Allentown to the end of it’s trip at South Hills Junction.

Getting off at Gateway, I walked back to the Gateway Hilton, and met up with Meg for our evening busway trip to Shadyside and East Liberty. We rode the T between Gateway and Wood St. and then wandered over to a bus station to catch an East Busway bus. Crowded with people, the bus creeped up Liberty St. to Penn Station and then passed to the right of the station onto the busway. Once on the busway, the bus driver pushed the accelerator pedal down to the floor and we sped down the busway at a pretty good clip. No one signaled for a stop at Herron, so the bus zoomed by without stopping. The driver let us off at Negley, which straddles the neighborhoods of East Liberty and Shadyside. Walking north up Negley to come to Baum Blvd. we marveled at the feeling of desolation and disuse in the neighborhood—safe, an interesting walk, but not bustling. Due to a suburban flight and a string of unsuccessful urban renewal projects going back more than 30 years, this former bustling downtown area had been underused for more than a generation, however due to the successful regentrification of the Shadyside neighborhood a few blocks south, along with an agressive community development plan, retail establishments, loft conversions, and a new Whole Foods Market had recently appeared. As frequent visitors to Chicago over the last ten years, Meg and I slowly watched abandoned neighborhoods become redeveloped into happening hipster destinations, and could see that it was going to be happening here too. All you need are a couple of bars, a Whole Foods Market, and a loft conversion building or two and you’re 90 percent there.

We passed Motor Square Garden. a large market-like building that had been built by the Mellon family around 1910 as a city market. While it was never a successful city market (it failed as a retail venue in 1910 as well as the late 1980s), it is well-kept, and the AAA and the University of Pittsburgh occupy it.

Walking south on Highland, we zigged and zagged in a southeasterly direction for a few blocks until we reached Walnut street in Shadyside. Walnut Street’s retail district includes coffee shops, retail stores, restaurants and cafes. After a break for coffee, we walked west on Walnut and then north on Negley to return to the busway station we had arrived at. From Wood St. we rode the T back to Gateway Center.

The following day, Meg was giving an early morning presentation, but was free after 10 AM to go city exploring. Starting out walking, we went East down Boulevard of the Allies to Smithfield St. where we made a right turn and walked over the Smithfield St. bridge. We made a left on Carson St. and walked down to Southside in daylight and paid visits on a few thrift stores along the way. After lunch at a Lebanese restaurant, we caught a bus back to downtown, and then walked over to the Strip District. This neighborhood, which is directly northwest of the trackage leading into Penn Station is home to restaurants, wholesale butchers and greengrocers, antique stores, and dotted with botiques and discounters.

After walking up and down Penn Avenue., Meg and I walked across the 16th Street Bridge to the Northside, and paid a visit to Penn Brewing Co., a small brewer who specializes in inpecably crafted lagers and other beers in the German styles. After an enjoyable pint of Octoberfest, we walked South to Allegheny Center, which is home to the Buhl Planetarium building (the planetarium moved to the Carnegie Science Center in the early 1990s, but the historic building is now part of a children’s museum), the National Aviary, and the “other” Carnegie Hall. The Allegheny Center neighborhood features a large square, and was originally the site of a retail district that featured the most exclusive of Pittsburgh’s stores. After Boggs and Buhl Department store closed in 1958, the neighborhood declined, and in the 1970s, a part of the area was purchased by Alcoa, and redeveloped into office buildings, apartments and a shopping mall. In the 1990s the shopping mall closed and was converted into additional office space. Much like East Liberty, the area appeared overbuilt and underoccupied, but safe to walk through.

Heading East, we walked across the 6th Street Bridge over the Allegheny river, past PNC stadium, where a baseball game was starting, and back to the hotel to change for dinner (we had tickets for a beer dinner at Theater Square). After dinner, we stopped back at the hotel briefly, and then took off again, this time over the Fort Pitt Bridge, in the direction of the Duquesne Incline.

The Duquesne Incline is operated by a non-profit society and is well-restored and maintained in it’s 1870s appearance, complete with the original Brill-built cars. Even though they are an independent non-profit entity, they do honor PAT passes– the Port Authority reimburses them for people who ride using passes.

The ride up the mountain goes pretty quickly, but the the view from the top is certainly worth the cost of admission. Once on top of Mount Washington, Meg and I walked East on Grandview St., along the top of the Mountain, for about 20 minutes until we came to the Monongahela Incline, where we rode down. The Monongahela Incline is slightly older than the Duquesne Incline (1870 compared to 1877), and is operated by PATransit. The Station Square T station is very close to the foot of the Monongahela incline, but Meg and I still felt like we had a little energy, so we decided to walk to the hotel. We crossed the Smithfield Street Bridge on foot, and made a left turn on Fourth Street, a walk that took about 15 minutes.

That night we both slept pretty good, but we needed to set the alarm clock for 5:15 am. Unfortunately, the Amtrak Pennsylvanian leaves pretty early. We caught an express bus from the corner of Gateway Center four and Liberty St. which got us to the train station by 6:20, only to find that the Capital Limited was a few hours late, and that Amtrak was going to hold the Pennsylvania until 8:15 am so Capital passengers could make the connection. In the end, the train pulled out 55 minutes late, but easily made up the time en-route.

On the way back, we traveled business class, which put us in a reserved area that occupied the rear section of the cafe car. The three-across seating was comfortable, and I settled back and watched a couple of movies as a we traveled. I was too tired out from walking and trolley riding to do much else, and a strange distortion in the plastic of the window made looking a the scenery fatiguing. We were back to Trenton on schedule, where we caught an NJTransit train back to Princeton Junction pretty quickly.

Reflecting on this trip a little: Pittsburgh is sometimes a tough sell as a railfan destination, which is unfortunate, as it’s a fairly inexpensive three or four day trip for a private railroad car group. Many trolley fans were disappointed with the massive abandonments of the trolley system in the 1970s, and and the upgrading of the interurban lines into a rather bland European styled system in the 1980s. Heavy rail fans complain about the abandonment of the commuter rail system in the 1980s, and difficulties in getting to locations where freight train watching can be done, and these are legitimate complaints. There are a few positive factors here however. The city is for the most part, a safe environment, a relatively inexpensive place to visit, and if you can get here on a weekday and work from transit timetables, you can see a lot pretty quickly, and there is actually a lot to see.

If you visit, be sure to ride at least one of the busways. While it lacks in the charm, speed and interest of a light rail system, it offers access to some neighborhoods and sights that railfans might miss on a quick visit. One place I didn’t make it to was Oakland, the neighborhood that is home to Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pittsburgh. Fifth and Forbes Avenues run through the center of the neighborhood and features interesting sights and street life. I also didn’t rent a car–if I did, I would have visited the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum at Washington, PA, and would have driven down to Drake Loop to see the now abandoned end of the trolley line. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in the US to build busways, which are much cheaper to build than new rail systems, but lack the speed of heavy rail systems or the charisma of light rail. As a city that struggles with low transit ridership rates, high fixed costs for what they already have (thanks in part to lots of bridges, tunnels, and well-paid employees), and lots of road congestion on bridges and tunnels coming into the city, the busways come off as seeming sensible, even if few residents are fans of them.

A few key issues regarding a rail enthusiast visit to Pittsburgh: the light rail system can be toured completely in about 4-5 hours, however the headways are longer on the weekend, and the 52 Allentown operates only during weekday rush hours. The inclines are worth a look–especially the Duquesne Incline. The two  are close enough together to be seen one after another on a short walking trip (an evening trip on a clear night is ideal).

Purchasing a weekly two-zone pass at $24 seemed expensive at first, but in reviewing my two days of riding, it was more economic than paying fares each time I got on a trolley or bus. Despite the lack of a system map, I didn’t have too much trouble finding my way back to downtown after a long walk in an outer neighborhood–virtually all the inbound buses make a loop in the downtown area and stop within two blocks of the Wood Street T station. The buses all seem to run on short headways during the week. Passes and schedules can be picked up at the PATtransit service center on Smithfield Street.

If you’re coming by private railroad car: staying at Penn Station puts you at the northern corner of the downtown triangle, which  means that the Strip District is close by. The Strip District has an assortment of specialty food shops on Penn Avenue and some interesting restaurants. Transportation from the station includes a busway stop on the east side of the terminal building, and the Steel Plaza T station is a few blocks away.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress