New Year’s Train Ride

Today’s excursion takes us to picturesque Jim Thorpe, PA. Sometimes called the Switzerland of America, the town is named after Native American sports legend Jim Thorpe. Unfortunately, it is raining, so rather than exploring the town’s main charming street, we embark on a 70-minute trip on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway.

Jim Thorpe was once a major railroad hub for coal and passengers. Three railroad lines used to run through the narrow Lehigh Gorge. Today, two remain. A Norfolk Southern freight line and a Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad (RBMN) freight line that offers scenic rides between Jim Thorpe and Penn Haven Junction to the north. The third line, formerly belonging to the Central Railroad of New Jersey, is now the Lehigh Gorge biking and hiking trail.

Buying Tickets

The train offers three classes of service: standard coach, premium crown class seating with reclining seats, and a first-class dome car. Tickets can be reserved online, but today does not seem busy. We take our chances by buying the tickets the old-fashioned way at the ticket counter. We choose standard coach, which is the most affordable but offers the most seats and operating windows. This allows us to social distance, open the windows for fresh air, and get better pictures.

All Aboard

The train’s conductor greets us at the train and directs us to our class of service. The dome car is the first car on the train, and the crown-class seating is at the end. Coach passengers can choose any of the regular coach cars. The interior appears all original, except for the bathrooms, which have been retrofitted with self-contained toilets.

The train departs as scheduled at 3pm and slowly makes its way north towards the Lehigh Gorge. The cars move slowly over the aging rails. The Reading Blue Mountain track features old-school rail joints that make the classic clickety-clack sound as the wheels move over them.

Navigating the Lehigh Gorge

The train starts on the left bank of the Lehigh River and crosses it twice. Overall, the right side of the train provides better views, but you are free to move around. Soon after leaving Jim Thorpe, the train passes the first junction. We turn to the right to cross the river for the first time. To the left, you can see a modern railroad bridge RBMN had recently built to provide a shortcut for freight traffic heading north.

After crossing the river, the RBMN line joins Norfolk Southern’s line, giving the illusion of a double-track railway. However, these are two separate lines running at-grade next to each other until Penn Haven Junction. If you look closely, you’ll notice the NS track is built differently, with continuous welded rails. We remain on RBMN’s old-school track, clickety-clack.

Soon, we pass the river a second time. If you look to the right, you can see an abandoned tunnel and the remnants of a bridge. The tracks used to belong to the CNJ line until 1956, when it closed the aging tunnel. From there on, the train closely follows the river, giving riders scenic views of the various rapids and animals that call the Gorge home.

End of the Line

The train should take sightseers just south of Penn Haven Junction. Unfortunately, our train comes to a sudden halt. After a period of silence, the conductor comes on the intercom and informs us about the problem: a tree had fallen on the tracks. We cannot continue and have to go back to Jim Thorpe. Even though our trip was cut short, it was nevertheless worth it. The Lehigh Gorge is worth a visit during any weather.