Eastern PA tour–RDC’s to Jim Thorpe and the Gorge Train

By July 10, 2019Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

There were several reasons for wanting to visit eastern Pennsylvania and prominent among them was riding the Reading & Northern’s second year of weekend RDC trips from Reading to Jim Thorp. It’s the most ambitious tourist railroad startup in years (we’re talking 120-mile round trips twice a week), yet the railfan media hasn’t picked up on it.

The railroad opened a park and ride lot on the western edge of Reading and dubbed it Reading Outer Station. Its name recalls an historic Reading station out on the freight bypass next to the railroad’s shops. There was another downtown. The new station features a replica Victorian interlocking tower that houses restrooms.

On display in the lot is an ex-Canadian Pacific 4-6-0, a boxcar that serves as a billboard and an ex-Reading MU car.

The train is a pair of RDCs. One is an RDC2 with the baggage compartment converted to a snack bar. Together they probably hold about 150 passengers. A third RDC has been acquired. To get more capacity, during fall colors R&N runs a conventional diesel hauled train, and also steam a few times.

This is a railroad with a sense of fun. Witness the RDC’s ceiling and the restored warning sign.

We rode on Fathers Day Sunday and the train was full. We left promptly at 9AM. I should point out that the fare is a bargain, only $35.00. In this magazine’s recently published survey of 182 tourist railroad fares, it is the second cheapest on a per hour and per mile basis. It was heavily staffed, with an engineer, conductor, two trainmen and a snack bar attendant.

There’s a lot to like about the trip, which is carded for 2 hours 20 minutes each way, with a 4 hour layover in Jim Thorpe. First is the speed. From Reading to Port Clinton, where more passengers boarded, we ran 49 mph on smooth welded rail. After Port Clinton it was a steady 40, and that’s about the best you can do on a very curvy riverside railroad with plenty of 30-35 mph restrictions. It always felt like maximum track speed, a refreshing departure from the achingly slow pace of so many tourist lines.

Boarding more passengers at Port Clinton, R&N’s headquarters. The depot is new construction.

After Tamaqua we climbed the 1.5 percent twisting grade into the mountains and passed through a tunnel. At the forest junction of Haucks we shifted over to the ex-Jersey Central branch that heads east to Jim Thorpe. The speed dropped to 30-35 on bouncy jointed rail. This line is now part of R&N’s north-south main and is in the process of being upgraded. Newly dumped ballast was evident. A crew member told me it used to be 15 mph.

We crossed the very long and high Hometown trestle, definitely the scenic highlight of the trip. It was also the only time the crew did any narration. Apart from announcing stations, they were silent the rest of the trip, which made it feel like a real train ride, but a little info more would have been welcome.

At some point the RDCs received sliding openable windows and that really adds to the experience. Another welcome touch–you’re free to move around, including hanging out in the rear vestibule with the dutch door windows down.

Hanging out the dutch door while cruising at 40, always a plus on a tourist railroad.

Once in Jim Thorpe, historically a tourist destination, you can spend the 4-hour layover exploring the town, or you can ride the R&N’s Lehigh Gorge Train, which leaves and returns from the same historic depot during the layover.

The Gorge Train at Jim Thorpe.

The Gorge Train is pretty generic, a diesel and several ex-Reading commuter coaches. Two have been converted to open air cars. The closed coaches are actually former electric MU cars.

This view of the Gorge Train was taken from the RDCs at Nesquehoning Junction, a couple miles north of Jim Thorpe. A new connection is being built so R&N freights don’t have to pull down to Jim Thorpe and swap ends to continue on to Wilkes-Barre.

The Gorge train runs 8 miles up the scenic Lehigh River to a runaround track and return. Speed is leisurely, about 15 mph. unlike the RDC train, there is continuous narration. From a railfan’s perspective, it’s interesting to see how the old Jersey Central right of way, now a bike trail, was squeezed up against the earlier Lehigh Valley alignment, often requiring retaining walls.

On the Gorge Train. The R&N owns this former Lehigh valley track. The other track is Norfolk Southern. The former Jersey Central at right is a bike trail.

We arrived back at Reading almost a half-hour early, having encountered no freight traffic in either direction.

Reading & Northern is definitely bullish on passengers. The Reading-Jim Thorpe trains carried 120,000 in 2017 and Gorge trains carried 143,000 in 2018.