nyc to philadelphia: tips on traversing new jersey and the state of rail in the u.s.


If you are ever in NYC and want to take a quick trip to see another city, Philadelphia is your best bet.  If you plan early, you can get there relatively quickly and [reasonably] cheaply.  But be forewarned, from NYC you will need to traverse the wilds of New Jersey, so you had better get to know the ins and outs of getting there, lest you get lost in the land of Bon Jovi without the benefit of a velour track suit and big hair to properly guide you.  This weekend I found myself on a train to Philadelphia to see my 6 year old niece in a production of “Beauty and the Beast Junior.” She rocked.

The passenger rail system in the US is certainly not up to par with countries like Japan, France or Germany.  High speed rail in the Northeast Corridor in particular [that is the Washington, DC to Boston corridor] has been called slower than a speeding bullet.  The Acela’s speed south of New York is 135 mph (217 km/h) but travels only 80 mph (129 km/h) in many areas between Washington and New York due to the tracks.  In comparison, the French TGV average speed is 174 mph (279.4 km/h).  The Acela high speed train, for example, will get you from NYC to Philadelphia in 65 minutes while the normal Amtrak regional trains get you there in 82 minutes.  It’s clearly not worth the extra money.

Here are some tips to navigating the NYC to PHL journey.

Book early.  If you purchase your Amtrak tickets more than two weeks in advance you can get a round trip [return] ticket for as little as $60.  If you wait until you are within two weeks of travelling, the same tickets could easily be over $120 and the public embarrassment of knowing you paid way too much.

Learn your Penns.  I’m not sure who the genius was who named the train stations, but it is important to know that there is a Penn Station New York and a Penn Station Newark.  If you are listening to an announcement by someone with an accent from the Boogie Down Bronx Yo or New Joisey, you may miss the distinction.  And it is a big distinction: one lets you off at Madison Square Garden to enjoy the stink of midtown, and the other can get you knifed [or apparently a Zuckerberg-funded education].

Get ready for some fascinating scenery.  New Jersey gets a bad reputation for being an industrialized wasteland due to one thing – North Jersey.  The “Garden State” is so named due to the prevalence of agriculture in the south, which once permeated the entire state.  Unfortunately you won’t see much of that on your train journey.  The miles of peach and apple orchards, soybean fields, blueberry farms, etc. in the south are matched in the north by smokestacks, oil refineries, electrical plants, strip malls and the like.  Oh, and an IKEA.  And nestled amongst them are some Sinatra and Jersey Shore fans.

Trenton Makes the World Takes.  Passing through the New Jersey state capital, and the birthplace of two current supreme court justices, you are greeted by a bridge lit up with the motto ”Trenton Makes the World Takes.”  I’m not sure what it’s making, but I think I’ll pass on the taking at this time.

I’m a freight not.  On your journey you will undoubtedly see many freight trains.  The US has the most extensive and efficient rail freight system in the world, and this fact is one major reason that high speed rail has not yet flourished.  U.S. Federal Rail Administration regulations do not permit any speeds above 150 mph (241 km/h) on tracks that are shared with freight and slower passenger trains regardless of circumstances.  This means that new track would have to be built to fully realize high speed rail.  Since freight rail deregulation was passed through the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 by the Carter Administration, the U.S. freight rail system has flourished and is considered the best in the world.  In contrast, with the exception of Germany and Switzerland, Europe’s freight rail system is generally inefficient, fragmented, and loss-driven.  Europe’s high-speed passenger trains such as the Thalys and Eurostar are first rate, but rely on millions of dollars in subsidies to stay afloat.  In my opinion, this is money well-spent, and if any part of Obama’s rail stimulus funding comes to fruition I will be on board.

New Jersey Transit?  There is another option to getting to Philadelphia and that is taking the more local/commuter NJ Transit trains.  They are considerably cheaper, but the ride is cattle class with no bathrooms and almost doubles your travel time.  Without bathrooms, there is no chance of joining the rail equivalent of the mile high club.  I’ll pass, thank you. [In all fairness they do have some nice new double-decker trains…but I still like the imagery of my first description].

Keep a camera handy.  If you have ever wanted to visit the abandoned town near Chernobyl, look no further.  The abandoned factories and buildings of North Philadelphia along the train route look much the same, except with less radiation [we think].

Behold the Philadelphia skyline.  Until 1987, no building would be approved to be built taller than 547 feet (167 m).  Why?  This is the height of the statue of William Penn on city hall.  Consequently, Philadelphia had a wide and flat city skyline.  Since then, many skyscrapers have been built, and Philadelphia has entered city-dom.  However, until the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, the alleged and resulting “curse of Billy Penn” apparently kept all Philadelphia sports teams from winning a championship.

You have arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.


  1. Very interesting! I was actually thinking of traversing to Philly when it gets a bit warmer! What about a place to stay and major cultural centers, like museums? What’s your take on the BoltBus? (I just let out my research points, but would love your advice!)

  2. I love how you used a screen shot from microsoft train simulator.

    the NJtranist/SEPTA option does have bathrooms!

    and its called the 48 inches club! (fact check it)

  3. @Harlan: not sure about the Bolt bus. Busses are another post altogether, and of course would include comments about eating buckets of chicken while on the road. Of course, one word of advice is to make sure the driver has a valid license and doesn’t tip the bus over.

    As for Philly, stay in center city, and be sure to check out South Street, the Art Museum, Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, and if you go in April, the first-ever Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) — over 25 days featuring 135 events and over 1,500 artists (April 7 – May 1). The description: “Gaining inspiration from the creative atmosphere in Paris over a century ago, Philadelphia is transforming into a 21st Century City of Light with incredible art, music, dance, performance, food, fashion and more. The celebration reaches a fever pitch with PIFA’s marquis event, a massive Street Fair on the Avenue of the Arts. Broad Street from Chestnut to Lombard will be taken over by a Parisian-inspired street festival, complete with a giant Ferris Wheel, on Saturday, April 30. So, I’d say you may have found the weekend you should go. : )

    • @Theriot: I was going to use a pic of Thomas the Tank Engine, but it seemed a little too happy for the trip through New Jersey. Thusly, an avatar of a train seemed more appropriate. As for the bathrooms, I still prefer the image of thousands of cross-legged commuters cursing the day they decided to move to New Jersey. As far as the 48 inches club, I’m on it!