A three-day conference May 1-3 in Pittsburgh underscored the need for additional passenger train service between Harrisburg and the Steel City. Amtrak’s only train, the Pennsylvanian, is slow (about 45 MPH) and its schedule is inconvenient. The train’s mid-day departure time and early evening arrival in Pittsburgh was of no value. A second train rolling along at 55 MPH would cut travel time by about 30 minutes. Air travel is faster, but expensive including the need to hire a taxi or limousine for travel from airport to downtown.
In 2008, Henry Posner, Chairman of Pittsburgh-based Railroad Development Corp, a company that operates freight railroad service in various countries overseas as well as Iowa Interstate Railroad, and George DeBolt , also of Pittsburgh, operator of DeBolt Bus Lines, inaugurated an upscale bus service from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. Marketed to business people, the service, using Daimler 50-passenger coaches, had an attendant on board and featured free Wi-Fi and laptop desks. Unfortunately, the noble experiment ended in less than a year. A Harrisburg company with offices in both cities initially agreed to use the service to shuttle executives to save on travel costs. The company reneged on the agreement, and without an anchor client, Posner had no choice but to end service.
In 2017, Greyhound offers reasonable frequency and a four-hour travel time to Pittsburgh. I consulted a ticket agent in Harrisburg, and she advised that I buy tickets on line otherwise she would have to charge me $100. When I did go on line, the round trip fare was $40 plus a service charge of $5. I could have gone Megabus for less, but to do that required boarding at a shopping center out of town.
First bus out was at 7:55 AM. During the line up to board, I heard some woman ranting in a loud voice: “I’ve been here six AM, and these people are getting on the bus before me!” One of the baggage crew calmed her down by explaining that those passengers had taken a rest/smoke break having gotted on the coach at earlier points, namely New York and Philadelphia.
Though my ticket had a bar code, there was no scanning. Tiffany—our driver—took my print-out and matched it against a manifest. The restroom and Wi-Fi equipped bus was a modern coach that was 85% full. I put my suitcase in the overhead rack and settled into an aisle seat.
Tiffany did a great job adhering to schedule despite some construction on the Pennsylvania’ Turnpike (six miles of lane widening to three lanes each direction and concurrent bridge modifications) as well as congestion in Pittsburgh. The coach, however, was shop worn. Its transmission clunked and jerked at gear changes, and shocks did not provide a smooth ride. The restroom commode was just a seat over a large hole in which waste sloshed. With no venting, the cramped space must be foul in hot weather.
I took a taxi to my downtown hotel as PATransit subway is not convenient to the bus station, and I didn’t want to schlep my luggage several blocks to nearest station. There were no cabs waiting, so I inquired about where to get one from Travellers’ Aid. “Cross the street to the Westin. There are usually cabs there,” was the response. Sure enough.
The next day, I rode light rail from Gateway Plaza to the North Side and then over to Carson Street on the south side.
The subway is free downtown, but it is slow. Light rail creeps along a twisty route with a number of red signals. The aspects quickly change from red to red over yellow, which puts the Siemens single articulated LRVs in constant stop and go mode. Outside the free zone on Carson Street, I flashed my senior citizen pass—valid on any transit line in Pennsylvania, except commuter rail— at a station agent and then walked over to the Monongahela Incline.
The funicular took me to the fashionable Mount Washington neighborhood. I flashed my pass again when I reached the summit and then headed south on Grandview Avenue.
The sky had many clouds and there was a light wind, but I got a good view of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle, the area where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. After a nice walk, I ate a light lunch at Harris Grill on Shiloh St. I rode back down the incline and boarded light rail back to Gateway Plaza.
For my return home, I learned the nuances of boarding a Greyhound in Pittsburgh from another passenger, as there were no signs or announcements informing people where to queue or how to display your ticket. Each ticket has a number on it, which designates whether one stands in line 1-15 or line 16-32. My number was 1 which allowed me to be in the first queue with those in the 16-32 line following.
For the 4:00 PM trip east, a gate agent lifted my print-out and checked my driver’s license. The bus was at 50% load with—what I learned later—some folks traveling to New York City from St. Louis. A guy behind me was on a two-day jaunt to Portland, ME—changing buses in New York and Boston. A woman with a service dog sat in the rear even though she had priority to sit behind the driver.
Our driver was a very personable R. C. Brown. “That’s my name,” he said over the PA system. “Don’t call me Mr. Bus Driver and I won’t call you Mr. Passenger.” As he skillfully guided the coach through Pittsburgh’s rush hour traffic in order to get to I-376 access road to the turnpike, R. C., in a jocular manner, laid down the rules of bus riding.
“No smoking on the bus or in the lavatory. If you are taking illegal drugs or smoking weed, I will stop and put you off; no questions asked. If your cell phone or other electronic device beeps, pings, zings, dings, or makes any other noise, please silence it for the benefit of the passengers. When you talk, keep your voice down so nobody else has to hear what you say. Don’t take your shoes off, because I don’t want to smell your feet. We expect to be in Harrisburg at 8:05 PM subject to traffic and weather. There will be a half hour rest and meal stop in about two and half hours.”
Light passenger load enabled me to have two seats to myself. The bus ran smoother too though there was still some pitch, roll, and yaw which made reading difficult. At Sideling Hill service area on the turnpike, R. C. made this announcement:
“We will be here for one half hour. This is your meal break. This is bus number 6452. If you are not back on this bus in one half hour, I will assume that you like this rest area so much you have decided to stay. The next bus will be here tomorrow.”
Everyone made it back on board, and R. C. had us in Harrisburg ten minutes off the card. Hurry up, Amtrak, get another train running to Pittsburgh.