December 23, 2001
The purpose of this trip was to ride AMTRAK's new DOWNEASTER train between Boston and Portland. Because I had another trip planned for later in the week, this trip was condensed into a single day, with no hotel stay required. The journey was taken as part of my annual year-end vacation, which I take alone because my son Michael is in Florida with his grandparents. This gives me the opportunity to travel during hours not conducive to travel with a child.
The TWILIGHT SHORELINER: Metropark to Boston-South Station
My first fly-by-night, or rather train-by-night departure had me leave the house Saturday night at 11:39 PM, barely enough time to catch the TWILIGHT SHORELINER, which departs Metropark at 12:26 AM. Admittedly, I was watching Mad TV and got hooked on some hilarious skit, then realized I should have been walking out the door. I got to the station at 12:13 AM. After a brief fight with the parking payment machine, I walked over the footbridge and got to the northbound platform in time to hear an announcement that AMTRAK Train 66 (mine) was running 25 minutes late. It was a bit cold, and I toyed with the idea of going back to my car. But trains can, and do, make up time, so I decided to stay put. There are some heaters over the benches on both Metropark platforms.
Now, who says there is no train action after midnight? At 12:22 AM, AMTRAK Acela Regional Train 179 came into the station, on its way to Philadelphia from Boston. It was running 8 minutes late. Then, a northbound NJ TRANSIT MU came in on my side headed for New York. As he left, a Trenton-bound NJT train arrived on the other side.
My train arrived at Metropark at 12:48 AM, picked up a few lonely, cold people, and headed off at 12:50 AM, 24 minutes late. I knew that because of the large dwell times built into the timetable, I could very well arrive in Boston on time, or early. Since I would have well over three hours in Boston before catching the DOWNEASTER, I did not care if I'd arrive a little late.
The train was pretty crowded, but most passengers had seat checks for New York. I was lucky in that the one seat available in the car I entered at Metropark happened to be Seat 3, one of those at the bulkhead. No footrests, but more importantly I could stretch out. To top it off, this car was a Concept 200 Metroliner coach. Its variable message sign did not say anything about where the cafe car or rest rooms were, but simply 02.
After a rather long 6-minute stop at Newark Penn Station, the next stop was New York Penn Station. We arrived there on Track 8 at 1:24 AM. The lights went out, as it is customary here for the train to add a
New York-Boston Material Handling Car (MHC). The engine disconnects and collects it from somewhere, and then backs the new car onto the front of the train. It was here that I walked the train to get its consist:
The 1500-series MHC was added behind the engine in New York, but I had already claimed my seat in New York and my memory failed me in Boston.929 AEM-7 locomotive 1709 Baggage/Express 1857 Twilight Shoreliner Baggage 21955 Amfleet I Metroliner coach 82000 Acela Regional Coachclass 82036 Acela Regional Coachclass 20138 Amfleet I club, as cafe and Business Class 62049 Viewliner sleeper
The counterpart of my train, the southbound TWILIGHT SHORELINER (Train 67), arrived from Boston on Track 12 at 1:35 AM. Vision of it was soon blocked by the arrival on an NJ TRANSIT train on Track 9 next to mine.
Once power was restored, the New York-originating passengers were quickly loaded, and we were on our way at 2:04 AM, 34 minutes down. The message board still read 02.
I noticed that the TWILIGHT SHORELINER is not the train it was when it began several years ago, as an upgraded and extended version of the old NIGHT OWL. It no longer has a separate Business Class car, as those passengers are now using half of the train's only cafe car. Gone too is the Twilight Lounge, which was a second cafe car open only to Business Class and First Class sleeper passengers. Now the Business Class passengers get foot traffic all night with passengers from First Class and Coach Class using the same cafe car. There is no longer any decorative logo; the Viewliners and the windows of former Twilight Lounge had once been painted with a purple design with a moon.
Once the train was moving, I decided it was time to get some sleep. As usual, I slept with my scanner headphones on, just in case there might be something newsworthy happening.The next thing I knew, it was 3:33 AM, and we were arriving in New Haven. A few minutes behind us, a Metro North MU consist across the same platform. What surprised me here is that there was no engine change. The last I had heard, all trains except the TWILIGHT SHORELINER had been converted to electric power between New Haven and Boston. I expected a P-40 diesel to be substituted for our AEM-7. But the 929 remained at the point and continued to Boston.
I wondered how cold it was outside. Luckily, AMTRAK's defect detectors give the temperature, which moved steadily downward as we proceeded north. At 3:43 AM, just after departing from New Haven, it was 28 degrees. At Soundview, just beyond Old Saybrook, it had dropped to 23 degrees.
4:28 AM, we encountered a stop signal. Our engineer contacted the Shore Line dispatcher. There should not have been any other traffic at this hour that would have caused a stop signal. The engineer asked for, and received, a Rule 241 giving him permission to bypass the signal. That only amounted to another three-minute delay.
At New London, I noticed that there are still low platforms. High platforms are supposed to be installed to accommodate a stop for the Acela Express. There are mini-high platforms that make the Shore Line East commuter trains handicapped accessible.
Midway interlocking, between New London and Mystic, the temperature had dropped another degree to 22. I slept through the station stops at Mystic, Westerly, and Kingston. Our crew notified the station personnel at Providence that we had 40 pieces of mail to be taken off at that station.
Our stop at Providence was about 11 minutes, not much more dwell than the timetable calls for. At 5:42 AM, still sitting in the Providence station, the conductor turned on the lights inside the coach, and took all of the seat checks, as well as the tickets for the handful of passengers who boarded at Providence for Boston. He announced that we would be stopping at Route 128, Back Bay, and South Station in 20, 30, and 35 minutes respectively. How often does the crew announce the next three station stops? Might novice travelers be confused by this? This practice showed me a morale problem, a very obvious desire by the crew to complete their duties and get off that train. I know many passengers, including myself, could have used the extra 35 minutes of shut-eye.
Well we had gained some time en route, as our 5:43 AM departure from Providence was just 13 minutes late. Seven minutes later, we were in Massachusetts, whizzing by the MBTA commuter stations in the Attleboro's. At "Dock", the defect detector said that the temperature was still 22 degrees. And the message board in my coach read 02. I decided to look back and see if the message board on the opposite end of the coach said anything different, and it did. It said 03.
6:09 AM: At Route 128/University Park station, the train had made up more time; we were now just 4 minutes off the advertised. It was still pitch dark outside as this was one of the shortest days of the year. At 6:14, the conductor announced, "Rise and shine, people, the last two stops are coming up." This crew wanted badly to be off that train, and if they had to be awake, I guess the passengers had to as well.
Train 66 made Back Bay at 6:25 AM, and South Station at 6:30 AM. Overall, the train was 5 minutes late. Nice recovery from its deficit in New Jersey. Phase One of my trip to Maine was complete.
Killing time in Boston
I had 3-1/4 hours in Boston before my DOWNEASTER train would be departing. I figured on a leisurely breakfast, followed by a little subway riding, and then finally going to North Station to await the train to Maine. Well, at 6:30 the McDonald's was not even open yet. I was told to come back at 7. In the meantime I walked around the station, and also relaxed.
South Station is a very cold place in the winter. It may be indoors, heated, and totally enclosed, but when those sliding doors by the tracks open up, the cold hits you right away. Perhaps this is done to make the place unattractive to vagrants. But it also makes it unattractive to those who are legitimately waiting for a train, or eating food from the station's food court.
After having my breakfast, it was now 7:15 AM, still 2-1/2 hours before my next train. I quickly decided to hit the subway, and ride it to check out potential travel times for the upcoming Boston "T" Party railfest next summer. I might not be back in Boston before then.
I went down into the Red Line station, which, like the Big Dig, is forever under construction because of that project as well as the building of a Silver Line station in the same location. The latter will be a bus rapid transit line. I took out some bills with the intention of purchasing a few subway tokens. But all of the token vending machines had "out of order" signs on them. I went to the token booth, and the guy said that he had no tokens. He waved me through an open gate, giving me free access to the system. I don't know if this is a regular practice, whether it was being done as a holiday gift, or whether he could have gotten into trouble for giving away free admission, but I was not going to argue.
I was very lucky this early Sunday morning, as trains came pretty quickly minimizing my waits. I took the first westbound Red Line train headed for Alewife, heading for Porter Square. This trip is all underground under Boston and Cambridge, except it goes over a bridge between the two cities. At Porter Square, I examined the transfer between the Red Line and the Fitchburg commuter line.
I then returned inbound on another train (which also arrived within 2 minutes) to Downtown Crossing. There, I switched to an Orange Line train going northbound towards Oak Grove. I travelled past North Station, and went all the way out to Malden Center, the second-to-last station on the line. Here, there one can transfer between the Orange Line and the Haverhill commuter line.
I had about a 10-minute wait here for the return Orange Line train, which was the same one I had used northbound, having been turned at Oak Grove. I alighted at North Station, on what is now the platform for the Superstation. The Superstation platform is essentially done. The southbound Green Line track is right across the platform, but it is not yet in use. The northbound Green Line will run on a mezzanine level one flight above the Superstation platform.
I got to use the new entry/exit for the transit station, which is considerably closer to North Station than the Orange Line entrance had been for a few years. The new location is approximately where the ground level Green Line access had been when some trolleys originated and terminated here.
The DOWNEASTER: Boston-North Station to Portland, ME
When I got inside North Station at 8:38 AM, there already was a long line at the one open ticket window. There used to be several windows that sold MBTA tickets, but this morning there was just one selling both MBTA tickets and tickets for AMTRAK's DOWNEASTER. Next to the window is a Quick Trak machine, however nobody wanted to use it, and those who tried could not figure it out. A few minutes early, AMTRAK Train 680, the day's first southbound DOWNEASTER, arrived on Track 8. This same consist would turn as my train, 681.
Meanwhile, the line got longer. There were some passengers who just wanted to buy a one-way ticket for a commuter train. A few gave up and decided to try telling their conductors that the ticket line was too long for them to purchase a ticket and still make their train.
Boarding for Train 681 began at 9:30 AM. The cabbage car at the rear has the words AMTRAK's DOWNEASTER on its nose. The seats are arranged with half facing each end of the coach. As I noticed when I rode the Acela Express early in its life as a revenue train, the crew was extra friendly, and they went the extra mile to make everyone comfortable and happy. We departed promptly at 9:45 AM. This was followed by an announcement about this being a no-smoking train, the location of the cafe car, and the rest rooms. And the cafe car was open on departure; yes, it can be done.
The consist of this train was:
806 P-40 locomotive 44969 Amfleet I Metroliner coach (I sat here northbound) 44968 Amfleet I Metroliner coach 44707 Amfleet I Metroliner coach 48985 Amfleet I Metroliner club (as Business Class & cafe) 90213 "Cabbage" non-powered control unit
At 9:55 AM we were now moving up the New Hampshire Main, also known as MBTA's Lowell commuter line, seemingly headed for Lowell. The conductor took my ticket, and called me by name, another nice personal touch. But behind me was a man talking loudly into his cellular phone, typical nowadays on most trains. He was trying to explain to his wife that he did not answer it right away because it was in his coat pocked up on the luggage rack. Then he was explaining to her everything we were passing as we moved north.
At 10:02 AM we passed the old Mishawum Station, now used by only a handful of rush hour commuter trains. One minute up the line we passed the new Anderson station, which has a larger parking area and is closer to I-95. At 10:06 we had come to Wilmington, MA, where we went off to the right onto the Wildcat Branch.
The Wildcat Branch is slow, no more than 35 mph. It runs pretty close to residential property. It is normally only used for a few peak-hour Haverhill commuter trains to bypass the single-track areas around Malden and Reading. The trip over the Wildcat Branch took seven minutes, and soon we were entering the Haverhill Line.
The ride here is pretty scenic, as the tracks run along the Merrimack River. We passed under I-495 at 10:24, and then at 10:27 we passed an inbound MBTA commuter train. When we pulled into the Haverhill station, we were actually 7 minutes early. We had to sit and await our scheduled departure time of 10:38 AM. We also had to await Train 682, the other DOWNEASTER consist, so we could pull onto the single track beyond MBTA territory. The last time I was in Haverhill was during the summer of 1999. At that time, the station was being fixed up for the expected AMTRAK service; in fact new asphalt had just been applied. Now, the same platforms were a whitish color, from melting salt.
Soon we entered the territory of Guilford Rail System (GRS), our very ungracious host railroad. At the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border, there was some ice on the edges of waterways, the first I have seen this season.
At 11:08 AM we entered the city of Exeter, NH. We had to slow down here, as GRS crews were fixing the tracks and there was a 5 mph restriction. Near the Exeter station was a bank that displayed a banner welcoming the DOWNEASTER. Departure from Exeter was 11:13 AM, making us ten minutes late.
We stopped at the Durham/UNH station at 11:27. This station will only be serviced on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the days that most students travel. About 7 minutes later, we came to Dover. Here, Grand Opening flags from the inaugural celebrations were still attached to the station. There were small piles of snow evident on the ground.
11:46 AM I heard a Guilford defect detector announce our 24 axles and the temperature of 30 degrees.
At 11:53 AM the train stopped at its first Maine station, Wells. This was the first station on the west (left) side of the tracks. There is a good-sized parking lot there, and it is not too far from the Maine Turnpike (I-95). This would be the closest station for those going to Kennebunkport and its trolley museum. I did see a taxi cab waiting at the station.
News from the next detector was that the temperature had reached the freezing mark. There was a trace of snow on the ground here from a previous storm. At 12:12 PM, we passed through the city of Saco, ME, which is supposedly building its station to be ready in the next few months. I could not find it. This station will also serve Saco's neighbor, Biddeford.
At 12:16 we passed through Old Orchard Beach. This is a seaside resort, not unlike Coney Island or some at the Jersey Shore. Obviously everything one could see was closed, including typical tourist attractions and amusement parks. The tracks through Old Orchard Beach run approximately four blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. There will be a station here, open only during the summer months.
It was 12:27 PM when we began to enter the Portland area. We passed under U.S. 1, and then slowed down. We curved to the left off the GRS main, passed under I-295, and came to a stop at the train's terminal station exactly on time at 12:30 PM.
The facility is shared with Concord Trailways, and for now is very cramped as it continues to serve bus passengers as well as the train passengers. The train sits at this station and awaits its next southbound journey. All passengers must walk through a covered walkway to the station, which is under construction a little too late to be able to handle its new dual purpose.
The intermodal station is not in downtown Portland. There are taxis available. On weekdays and Saturdays, the Portland Metrobus provides service on it's 5 route to downtown points. This being a Sunday, I did not have that luxury.
I killed the time by walking around, exploring the immediate area. There is a Doubletree Hotel across the station's parking lot, but only accessible from Congress Street. I walked down Sewall Street to Congress Street, then east on Congress. Just beyond the I-295 overpass is a Denny's restaurant. I decided I did not have enough time for a sit-down meal, so I headed back west along Congress where I got munchies from a convenience store for the trip back. If you are into pizza and other Italian fare, there is also the supposedly renowned Anania's across Congress Street.
The DOWNEASTER: Portland, ME to Boston-North Station
My mission in riding the DOWNEASTER and exploring the immediate area of the station completed, it was time to begin the return trip. The southbound trip to Boston would be Train 684. The station was still crowded; in fact a Concord Trailways bus going to Boston was announced just before the train, and there was confusion over where to go, where to stand, etc. I just went outside and stood near the rail platform. We were allowed to board the train at about 1:50 PM.
The consist was the same I had on 681, but the crew was new. I learned that each crew makes just one round trip, since they would outlaw if they made more than one approximately 7-hour round trip. This time I sat in the 44968 car.
Once again, departure was on time at 2:00 PM. Some time was lost at MP 209, between Old Orchard Beach and Saco, where there was a 5 mph restriction due to a signal outage. Also complicating matters was a scheduled meet here with Train 683.
Beyond Saco, the defect detector said it was 33 degrees. At Wells, we departed that station at 2:52 PM, now 17 minutes late. Now, since we were moving south, the temperature got warmer. At 3 PM, one hour into the trip, it was 36 degrees. We made our three New Hampshire stops at Dover, Durham/UNH, and Exeter.
Now, I must say that the lateness of this train was a concern to me, as it had not been on the northbound trip. The reason is that I had a choice of taking Acela Regional 167 at 5:10 PM, or 179 at 7:20 PM. Two hours 10 minutes is a long headway between trains. If I took the later train, I would be able to have dinner at South Station. But I really wanted to make the earlier one, so I could be home before midnight. I only had one night of sleeping in my own bed before I was to take the second trip of the week. So, with a scheduled arrival time of 4:45 PM at North Station, I would have only 25 minutes to get across town, make two subway trains, and get onto 167. I hoped we would make up some of the time, and we in fact did so.
At 3:58 PM the train passed an MBTA train laying over just north of the Haverhill station. 684's stop there was at 4:00 PM, making us just 8 minutes off the advertised. Things were looking better, especially with what I hoped was padding at North Station. We again traversed the Haverhill Line, the Wildcat Branch, and the New Hampshire Main, and got into North Station at exactly 4:45 PM!
Boston, in 25 minutes
I was ready to run, but the crew did not open all of the doors, so everyone had to walk through another coach to detrain. I ran across the street, and was lucky enough to catch an Orange Line train almost instantly. Now came decision time. I really wanted to catch AMTRAK from South Station rather than Back Bay Station, because I expected heavier than normal ridership on account of the holiday season. I could remain on this train for an almost sure shot for 167 at Back Bay, or I could take the risk of changing to the Red Line at Downtown Crossing and maybe make the earlier train.
This was probably the worst decision I had made today. I hoofed it through the connecting tunnel at Downtown Crossing, and my legs were hurting me. That was partially from lack of exercise, fatigue from the day of riding trains, and being 41 rather than in my 20's. When I got to the Red Line station, a lot of people were waiting. The wait was almost 10 minutes. I now became doubtful I would make 167. I only had one stop to go, but I needed the subway train in order to do it.
At the last possible minute, a Red Line train bound for Braintree came in. I did not bother looking for a seat, as I had to run once at South Station. When the train got there, I had less than 5 minutes before 167 was to depart. I ran through the maze of passageways under construction, and found my way into the train station. Train 167 had already been announced and was boarding. I was running, but my brain and legs were not on the same page. I literally had no strength left.
Acela Regional 167: Boston-South Station to Metropark
Once on the platform near the train, I backed down from my slow trot to a quick walk. I figured it was unlikely the crew would close the doors and leave if they saw me headed for their train. Lucky for me, I was not the last passenger to board. The train departed at 5:12 PM, two minutes late. Most importantly, I was aboard! I knew I had over five hours to rest my legs. I'd only need them to walk to the cafe car for dinner.
The consist of this train:
655 HHP-8 locomotive 82064 Acela Regional Coachclass 82032 Acela Regional Coachclass 44691 Amfleet I coach 21641 Amfleet I coach 82068 Acela Regional Coachclass 44279 Amfleet I coach (I sat here) 85001 Acela Regional Cafe 44953 Amfleet I Metroliner coach, as Business Class
We passed Train 164 at Back Bay Station; he was running about a half hour late. We stopped at Route 128 on what is normally the northbound track, and did the same at Providence, where the train departed at 6:00 PM, 10 minutes down.
The train lost some more time in Rhode Island, thanks to a "penalty application" which caused us to slow to 15 mph. When we departed Westerly at 6:41 PM, we were 17 minutes late.
Through much of Connecticut I took a well-deserved nap. When I woke up as the train was departing Stamford, it was now 9 PM and we had fallen to 33 minutes down.
Arrival at New York Penn Station's Track 14 was at 9:50 PM. The dwell time was cut considerably, and they were able to detrain passengers and board new ones within 10 minutes. 167 departed from New York at 10 PM, now just 20 minutes late. We maintained this deficit for the rest of my journey. At 10:10 PM, just north of Newark, we passed Train 80, the northbound CAROLINIAN.
I was off the train at Metropark at 10:20 PM, 19 minutes late. At least the sleep on the train had me refreshed enough for my 40-minute drive home. Shortly after 11 PM, I was home, having left there a little more than 23 hours before and having successfully traveled through seven states. The first mission of the week was accomplished!