Rail Life

My on-again, off-again relationship with the R5 began in seventh grade, when a move from Episcopal Academy’s satellite campus in Devon to its Merion headquarters left a kid growing up in Great Valley (then considered the sticks) no other option. My dad would drop me off in Paoli on his way to work, me blasting music (which he tolerated but couldn’t comprehend) all the way there.

During one of those rides, the news came over the radio that John Lennon had been shot. We were just pulling into the station. It’s something I’ll never forget.

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I’ll also never forget the walks from Merion station to EA in the rain and bitter cold—or the way 10 of us would take over the back half of a car on a Friday afternoons. By and large, the conductors would leave us alone, unless things got too rowdy; then our prompt removal at the next stop was in order. It occurred rarely—but it did happen. Not that it fazed us much; we’d just grab a Butterfinger and a Coke at a nearby drug store and wait for the next train to come along.

Paoli, Daylesford, Berwyn, Devon, Strafford, Wayne, St. Davids, Radnor, Villanova, Rosemont, Bryn Mawr … If you made it past Bryn Mawr on a busy weekday morning, you considered yourself lucky. Too many commuters on board, and it was “express to 30th Street” from there on out. So we’d pile off and wait for the next local. It was the only legitimate excuse for being late to school—and, anyhow, Bryn Mawr was cool. It had record stores and plenty of places to fuel up on sugary snacks.

Occasionally we’d miss the “express to 30th Street” announcement from the conductor and wind up in Center City. Not so cool. Anything past Overbrook was just a hair frightening to us country folk. From what I recall, the hole-punching ticket-takers could be scary in their own right. I remember one guy who’d bound down the aisles spouting “ticky, ticky!” like some sort of deranged carnival barker. The cars were generally filthy, the train stations Spartan and rundown—none of that has changed.

In fact, it’s funny how little has changed about the R5 over the last 30 years. In this month’s issue, Main Line Today contributor Jim Waltzer takes a selective run through the R5’s history and offers a glimpse of a promising future that, thanks to the creaky, under-funded gears of Amtrak and SEPTA, has been mighty slow in coming. Oh, and about that parking situation. Frustrating? Definitely.

And yet I still find myself hopping the train on weekends, headed toward Philadelphia for dinner, a concert or a night out with our city friends. I’ll recite all the stops to 30th Street as we pull out of Paoli, just to test my memory (and annoy my wife).

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Not that I could ever forget the towns along the R5. Even Daylesford.

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