By Amtrak and LIRR to the US Open
June 14, 2002
With the golf's US Open at Bethpage Black, near Farmingdale, Long Island, NY, and my wife and I located not so far away (at least in global terms) in charming Cherry Hill, NJ, the thought occurred about a week before the tournament that going up for a day could be fun. A little poking around on eBay got me a pair of Grounds Passes for the Friday round at just over face value (not a bad deal). Now it was time to set up the transportation to Long Island.
One thing was obvious, rail was the only way to go. Farmingdale Station on the Long Island Railroad (about 30 miles east of New York) was the rail arrival location for spectators, with shuttle bus service from the station to the course located about 5 minutes away. By contrast, arrivals by car were being directed to parking at Jones Beach, which is about a 30-minute shuttle bus ride from the course. This was a not-too-subtle way of the tournament organizers to say "take the train, dummy".
So the LIRR from Penn Station to the Open was a sure bet, but how to get to Penn Station from Cherry Hill (in southern NJ). Two choices. New Jersey Transit from Hamilton (a park-and-ride stop outside Trenton), or Amtrak from Philadelphia. This was not an easy decision. NJT is dirt cheap ($40.20 round trip for two + $3 parking ), but the ride lacks both speed and any semblance of comfort. Particularly post 9-11, NJT Rail has been packed in and out of NYC, and the whole scene at Penn with the crowding and pushing and general chaos for both arrivals and departures is just not much fun. Amtrak from Philadelphia, on the other hand, if far more peaceful and much more comfortable, but at a staggering price ($172.80 AAA discount round trip for two + $20 parking + $2.70 tolls). To make a L O N G story short, I considered how we would feel after a full day trudging around a very large golf course, and decided (the night before) to splurge for the Amtrak option. And then, in a moment of pure delirium, I decided my wife might actually like Acela Express (she, in fact, does not like trains hardly at all). So before common sense had a chance to take over, I booked regular Amtrak NEC (Acela Regional #170 at 6:55a) from Philadelphia to NY, and Acela Express #2175 (9:00p) for the return. The price? Well, suffice it to say I've taken decent length air trips for less. But, what the heck, lets be comfortable.
Friday morning, 6:10am, and in a light but steady rain (surely it will stop), we back out the driveway, head for the Walt Whitman Bridge, and are off to 30th Street station in Philadelphia. We parked in the underground garage at 30th Street, which is located where several west-side tracks were previously removed. Access from the "garage" to the station concourse is by way of the old platform stairs for long-gone tracks 11-12. We went from home to the station concourse 20 minutes flat (light early morning traffic). Breakfast was in the form of Dunkin Donuts and coffee (yum). The train board confirmed that trusty old 170 was on time. The train was called at about 6:50 and exactly at 6:55 the standard NEC Amfleet consist rolled in.
Being a late spring (almost summer) Friday, long weekends off are common. With lots of business riders and commuters off for the day, the load on #170 was maybe 60%. Of that 60%, maybe 10% were obvious golf folks. We left on-time, proceeded around the Zoo, and up through "scenic" North Philadelphia. Our car was non-Capstone Amfleet coach, but no complaints. The ride was good, the seats were OK, and the car was quiet. The ride up the corridor was uneventful, with the highlight being the high-speed, non-stop passage of all the NJT stops. I'm not at all above a little smugness, especially after the money has already been spent. But, on the down side was the rain. It was still raining. Golf tournaments tend to be damp in the rain. Surely it will stop.
Newark, the only stop en route to New York, was reached about 7 minutes early. Since #170 was through run to Boston, we had to wait until scheduled departure, and then with the general traffic congestion on the two-track line to New York, our arrival at Penn Station was about 5 minutes late at 8:15a. What a pleasure it was to exit the train and have a civilized walk up to the concourse level with, perhaps, 200 others. A typical rush hour NJT run would have over 1000 passengers cramming the same area and steps. Color me smug once again. How did my wife like the ride? It was "OK". Compared to her opinion of NJT (unprintable), that is not too bad. We made the short walk to the north-side LIRR concourse and were now ready for the next leg of the trip. Was it still raining? Cannot tell in here. But I was sure it must have stopped by now.
The LIRR was running an enhanced schedule to Farmingdale for the Open. The next train out was at 8:44a and was one of the golf specials. We stood waiting with a growing group that sported hat and shirts that indicated "golf fan". At about 8:30 the station public address made a rather cryptic announcement something like "2140 on 20" (obviously meant for employees). This seemingly innocent statement began a wholesale movement by all the golf folks down the stairs to track 20. Figuring that these guys must know something, my wife and I followed and, sure enough, the special train to Farmingdale appeared on track 20. The train, about 75% full, left at 8:44 on the dot, passed through the East River tunnel (trivia; the East River is actually not a river, but an "estuary"), and soon we were heading out Long Island. Oh,oh. It is still raining. Will it stop in the next 45 minutes? Perhaps not.
The LIRR seems like an especially well run operation. Despite congested traffic, the train moved smoothly and without delay. The MU cars are typical east-coast commuter rail, but are clean and reasonably comfortable. I saw several trainsets of the new double-decker cars, which must be designed to shoehorn through the 11kV catenary-equipped East River tunnels. Long Island offers the typical urban, suburban vistas with old industrial areas mixed with today's Home Depot's and the like. Stops at Jamaica and Hicksville resulted in our train nearly filling as connections from other LIRR lines joined the golf special. Finally, at about 9:35 we arrived at Farmingdale. A very wet, rainy Farmingdale.
Crowd control by LIRR MTA at Farmingdale was superb. Exiting passengers were immediately directed to a queue where your punched train ticket was lifted (required for the bus) and your tournament ticket was checked. You also passed through a security tent here prior to boarding the shuttle bus. Everyone was subject to bag checks and a pat-down. Cameras and cell phones were strictly prohibited. At least a dozen busses were lined-up, more were arriving by the minute, and two were boarding at any one time. A very well-planned and efficient operation. By 10:00a we were at the Bethpage Black and officially getting wet.
I won't bore you with golf details except to say that play was not suspended despite the rain (lasted all day, sometimes light, sometimes a downpour). We saw virtually the entire field at least once (including some guy with the unusual name of Tiger). We stayed all day, and despite the rain, and had a GREAT time. We are now the proud owners of two brand new USGA golf umbrellas.
At about 6:30p, after over 8 hours, we called it a wet but memorable day. Another efficient shuttle-bus ride back to Farmingdale. A New York bound special train was waiting when we arrived. The numerous MTA folks at Farmingdale lifted the LIRR tickets prior to entering the station, and assured the anxious and very damp queue that the train "ain't going nowhere until you're on". It didn't. We left Farmingdale a little after seven, and got to Penn Station just about 8:00p, an hour early for our Acela to Philadelphia.
A quick look at the Amtrak departures board showed the 8:00p Washington-bound Acela (2173) was running 25 minutes late, so I figured "lets exchange our tickets and get home early". Good idea, bad result. The 25-minute late train became a 35-minute late train. Then the 35-minute late train became the dreaded "delayed" train. OK, lets exchange back to the 9:00 which was still listed on-time. No problem, except that at 8:50 the on-time 9:00 became "delayed". Bottom line? The 8:00 arrived about 8:55 and left at just about 9:00. The 9:00 (2175) arrived at about 9:05 and left at about 9:10. Considering the possibilities, that was not too bad.
We boarded #2175 with about 20 others (including a few other damp golf fans) and had almost the entire train to ourselves. The load was 20% maximum. The ride was smooth and comfortable, with exception of the lighting. Why does Amtrak insist on having those lights on full blast at night? You can't see a thing out the window, it is not all restful. With reading lights at each seat, having the car lights on full blast is not necessary. Amtrak, PLEASE turn down those Acela Express interior lights at night!
The NJT stops flashed by in the night. My smugness hit a new high. This Acela actually made more stops than #170 made coming up. Besides Newark we also stopped at Metropark and Trenton. About 70 minutes after leaving New York we arrived at 30th Street Station. As we were exiting at 30th Street, we saw a fellow passenger with visibly muddy shoes and just smiled. About 25 minutes later we were home. The rain had now stopped (just about 10 hours too late). Our day at the open was over.
This was a fun, but very wet day. Two nice NEC rides, two very well run LIRR operations, and a chance to see the world's best golfers getting very wet. So, how did my wife enjoy Acela Express? She loved it. Her quote: "It is like you are not actually on a train." A train that is not like a train? That is high praise indeed.