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Trip Report

The Northeast by Commuter Rail
Section 1 of 4

December 22-31, 2002



How it began

This was my traditional end-of-year personal trip. Having conquered every inch of passenger rail in the Northeast, including the DOWNEASTER route, the Inland Route in New England, the Empire Corridor, the Keystone Corridor, and service in Virginia, I really was at a loss for what to do. Then came a sort-of challenge from another railfan, asking what it might be like to cover the Northeast Corridor by commuter rail. Well, I've done all that too, but never in one short period of time. But the flanged wheels in my mind began to turn.


I made my own set of rules:

  1. I had to cover each commuter line that shares right-of-way or tracks with AMTRAK, in at least one direction. I could do it in both directions, and in some cases I had to do it that way.
  2. AMTRAK could be used to cover gaps between commuter routes, such as between Perryville, MD and Newark, DE and between New London, CT and Providence, RI.
  3. AMTRAK could be used in the one direction, as long as I rode commuter rail in one direction, getting to the end of the line.

In addition, I went much more than one better than the challenge. Besides the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor, I would include as far south as Fredericksburg, VA and Manassas, VA on Virginia Railway Express, part of the Inland, LAKE SHORE LIMITED and DOWNEASTER routes on the MBTA, the Empire Corridor on Metro North, and the Keystone Corridor on SEPTA. The only route I would have to miss in the Northeast would be the MARC line to Martinsburg, WV, because that would involve yet another overnight, requiring time I just did not have.

I spent weeks and weeks during the fall of 2002 trying to devise an appropriate trip, given many constraints. As is usual, Michael goes to Florida for the duration of the school vacation. While I miss him as a travel counterpart, this annual period of time gives me the opportunity to do things I could not do with him along, such as catching trains at odd hours of the night or morning. However, this year I had to take him to the Atlantic City International Airport instead of Newark Liberty International Airport, meaning I would not be along the Northeast Corridor after I dropped him off. Plus, his flight was scheduled for Sunday, whereas it had been Saturdays in the past. So I could not start my trip until Sunday afternoon.

Another constraint I had was the holidays falling on Wednesdays. While some commuter rail operators still run, they do so on Sunday schedules, which means one or more of the following: fewer trains running or no trains at all on particular lines, and in some cases, trains not running to the extreme final destinations that they normally serve on regular weekdays.

So I deduced that taking this trip and covering everything I wanted to cover would not be possible. To cover all of the commuter lines would involve traveling on four consecutive regular weekdays. Instead, I had to break this up into two three-day trips, with two overnight stays in hotels on each trip. One trip would include everything north of Philadelphia, and the other would be everything south of Philadelphia. The three SEPTA routes would be split into parts of each trip. In between, I would have a day off to recover, and then do my normal three-day work week before hitting the rails once again.

So that those who wished to join me in their hometown areas could travel along with me, I published itineraries, one for Trip 1 and one for Trip 2.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Before the trip

Things started out well on Sunday morning. Besides getting Michael ready to leave for his flight, I had to pack myself up for a 3-day, 2-night vacation. And yes, I forgot a few important things that had to be purchased later. And the sleeping pills I forgot to bring, I would live without.

Michael's flight left its gate 10 minutes early, putting ahead of the game. After seeing him off and waiting 20 minutes after departure as requested, I headed west for Cherry Hill. I got there early enough to catch an earlier NJ TRANSIT train to Philadelphia.

Part 1: NJ TRANSIT Atlantic City Line Train #4616, Cherry Hill, NJ to Philadelphia-30th Street Station, PA

So instead of catching a train at 4:37 PM, I was on the one before it at 3:44 PM. Although this is a commuter line (and it once was shared with AMTRAK trains) it did not qualify as one of my commuter rail trips over AMTRAK trackage -- this was just a means of transportation. The train was early into Philadelphia, typical of Atlantic City Line trains, which carry a lot of padding at the endpoints.

That put me in Philadelphia 48 minutes sooner than expected, which allowed me to take an earlier train to Boston. Looking at the timetables, the only train before my intended Acela Regional 178 was an Acela Express, 2256. It would put me into Boston roughly two hours earlier than 178 would have. The splurge would be worth it to me. How much of a splurge it ended up being might have discouraged me; but tonight it was Boston or bust.

Part 2: AMTRAK Acela Express Train #2256, Philadelphia-30th Street Station, PA to Boston-Back Bay Station, MA

There's a very good reason why I usually make my own AMTRAK reservations over the internet, and then pick them up from machines. This woman should be the poster child for ineptitude. I figured on trading in my 178 ticket to Boston for an Acela Express Business Class ticket on 2256, and paying the difference. It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it?

After waiting about 2 minutes on line, which is an eternity when you have a train to catch in a few minutes, I went up to the next available window. I told the agent I wanted to trade in this ticket to Boston for the next Acela, and inquired if there was room on this train tonight, indicating I did not yet have a reservation. She told me there was indeed room, and told me there would be a step-up charge of $7.70. I thought this to be a little low, but with the strange weekend fare structure on Acela Express, coupled with the Sunday blackout on Acela Regional tickets, anything was possible. She issued me a ticket showing the $7.70 step-up charge. Then she produced a ticket for $95, which she presented to me to sign. I did that, but honestly did not read the destination on the ticket at the time. $95 seemed reasonable for a weekend, with an AAA discount, for a trip to Boston. I've paid that little before (although admittedly it was not from Philadelphia). I took my new ticket and went to Stairway 3, where my train was already being announced for boarding.

Once aboard the train and settled with my luggage stowed above, I looked at my ticket. And kicked myself for not reading it sooner. It was for Philadelphia to New York, not Boston. And the doors were just closing, so here I was, headed to the Big Apple, not Beantown, for 95 bucks.

All was not lost, because I would have to get a ticket from New York to Boston to continue on this train. Luckily, there is a 13-minute layover scheduled for weekend Acela Express trains in New York. It was important that this train remain on time, or those precious 13 minutes would be even less.

I pulled out my cell phone and called Julie the AMTRAK robot. I had never made a reservation in this manner before, but it had to be done. What was strange is that I was aboard the very train on which I was making a reservation for a later part of its trip.

Everything went well, as I was able to secure an AAA-discounted reservation for $91.80, New York to Boston, actually less than the Philadelphia-New York trip I was currently taking. It turned out that the AMTRAK agent did not even carry over my AAA discount to the new ticket. At one point, Julie the robot transferred me to a live agent so I could complete payment for the ticket. I figured all I would have to do was to collect the pre-paid ticket from a Quick Trak machine in Penn Station and reboard the train.

We got into New York on time, and although I was tempted to leave my bag and suitcase on board while I negotiated this transaction upstairs, I brought it along just in case things did not work out, or I was delayed. Better safe than sorry. I found an escalator directly up to the departures level, and made note that I had been on Track 10. I went to an open machine, and got my ticket with no problems.

By this time the station attendants had reversed the escalator for boarding, so after showing my new ticket, I went down the same escalator and boarded the same train. I ended up sitting in a seat that was one row ahead of where I had been on the trip from Philadelphia. Now I could relax up to Boston, even though the trip had cost me over $186 for a seat in Business Class.

I could also have my dinner now. I was afraid to do so on the quick trip between Philadelphia and New York, but now I knew I had 3-1/2 hours to play with.

After my ticket fiasco it was an otherwise quiet, uneventful trip to Boston. Of significance was this train's conductor, who did a perfect rendition of a steam train whistle. Hmmm 150 mph behind steam, what a concept! Incidentally, I did feel when we got up to 150 mph, but they did not announce this. It was probably my first time doing so in the dark anyhow, so there was not the sensation of seeing objects outside being passed by.

2256 got to Boston's Back Bay Station at 9:40 PM, six minutes ahead of time. To me, it was still over two hours earlier than I would have been getting there, so I was doubly ahead of the game. I went upstairs to catch the Orange Line train to Malden.

Part 3: MBTA Orange Line, Boston-Back Bay Station to Malden, MA

At this late hour, the headways are 13-14 minutes apart. I was lucky to wait no more than five minutes for my northbound train.

After the 20-minute ride to Malden, I found a taxi, and completed my day's journey having to talk to a friendly, English-speaking cab driver.

At the Econo Lodge, my room was waiting for me, and it was not long before I had retired for the night, no sleeping pills required.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Part 4: MBTA Bus Route 108

Now Monday morning, it was time to begin what would be a full day of MBTA riding. My own "T for One Party", if you will. The sun would rise and set before I was done with the "T". I checked out and left the hotel just before 6 AM, just in time to catch a 108 bus back to the Orange Line station in Malden Center. It was a quick two miles back to the station, but a lot cheaper than the cab ride of the night before.

Part 5: MBTA Orange Line, Malden, MA to Boston-North Station

Again, not too long of a wait. Welcome to Rush Hour in Boston. By 6:30 AM I was seated in the McDonald's across the street from North Station having breakfast. I then went into the station and found no lines at all at the ticket windows, so I bought my two tickets for Zone 7, representing my round trip to and from Haverhill. No AMTRAK service was possible at this time without a long wait.

Part 6: MBTA Haverhill Line Commuter Rail Train #205, Boston-North Station to Haverhill, MA

After all that happened so far, it was finally time to start my commuter rail riding over tracks shared with AMTRAK. For this first trip, I would be riding the exact routing of the DOWNEASTER, including its route via the Lowell Line and the Wildcat Branch. Had this commuter run not been available, I would have had to ride both the Haverhill and Lowell Lines, the latter as far as Wilmington, in order to cover as much of the DOWNEASTER route as possible. My Train 205 was chosen because it was luckily one of those rare Wildcat runs. The only event of significance is that we were delayed a little where the Wildcat Branch meets the Haverhill Line in North Wilmington because southbound Train 212 on the mainline had priority. We made up the time and got to Haverhill right at 8:18 AM.

Part 7: MBTA Haverhill Line Commuter Rail Train #214, Haverhill, MA to Boston-North Station

My first required coverage of commuter rail complete, I filled the 25-minute layover by walking (suitcase in tow) to a nearby White Hen Pantry for an orange juice and snacks. I was mindful of the incident in our Boston "T" Party earlier in the year when one person was left behind, and I did not wish to become a casualty as well. I did make the inbound train, but once again it appeared to leave about one minute before the advertised.

Outbound Train 205 turned as 214, and this time we travelled over the conventional routing via Reading and Malden. Arrival into Boston's North Station was 9:47 PM, just two minutes late.

Part 8: MBTA Silver Line, Downtown Crossing to Dudley

My next scheduled commuter rail trip was 12:05 PM, so I had a little over two hours to kill. I made a last-minute decision to try the Silver Line. It had opened the same weekend as our Boston "T" Party event in July, but in running a Rail Fest I did not think it was pertinent to our interests at that time. And from the negative reviews it has gotten from people associated and not associated with our group, I did not expect much.

Contrary to my published plans (I never rode the Green Line on this trip, possibly a first!), I took the Orange Line to Downtown Crossing in order to hook up with the Silver Line. Since the "T" considers this new line to be part of the rapid transit system, they offer free transfers between it and the older subway lines. There is a sign at the southern end of the northbound Orange Line platform saying "Take a free transfer for the Silver Line"; however the one dispenser was not working -- most likely it was empty. So I had to leave the system and walk upstairs to Temple Place. The signs direct you up to the street, and then the bus stop for the Silver Line is across Temple Place. So they encourage you to jaywalk. Already, a broken transfer dispenser and the need to jaywalk...two flaws. A bus came very quickly, and an MBTA attendant monitored those boarding through the rear door, making sure that they had transfers or passes. I told him I had come off the Orange Line and that the dispenser was broken, and he told me to go ahead and board. As lenient with fares as I have observed the MBTA's employees, that line might have worked had it not been true.

Anyhow, my so-called bus rapid transit (BRT) trip was now in effect. What a joke! It runs through the city streets, stopping at traffic lights, making a few turns, before it even enters Washington Street. The only modern things about it are the low-floor (ADA friendly) and the automated voice and LED sign "next stop" announcements, which also tell what transfers can be made at each stop.

Once on Washington Street, over which this line was conceived as a "replacement" for the old Orange Line alignment (rerouted only 15 years ago!), there were some diamond lanes reserved for buses, but they did not run the entire length of the route. At many places, double-parked cars blocked the lane, while construction did the same in other places. Traffic lights were not set to favor the Silver Line either; we had to wait at quite a few of them. The only good thing was that this was a limited-stop service, meaning we would not have to stop at every corner, only designated ones.

At Dudley, mercifully the end of the line, the announcements only said that this is a "major transfer point". And it was. Not only do many bus routes converge here, but one of the bus shelters still has the framework of the old Orange Line elevated Dudley Square station.

Part 9: MBTA Silver Line, Dudley to Downtown Crossing

I rode back on the same vehicle as I had come in on. Same slow going, same blocked lanes. At least with a bus, it can leave the lane to go around obstructions, whereas a light rail vehicle, or a trolley on tracks, cannot. Other than that, an earlier report calling this the "Silver Lie" was highly accurate. The line's second phase, which is scheduled to open around the end of 2003, will run in a tunnel. So I think that although it will also use buses, it will more resemble bus rapid transit, at least along its underground portion. For now, the only just thing to do would be to call this Bus Route 49 as it had been before this past July.

I rode to the same place where I had boarded, along Temple Place, and this time with a transfer in hand from the bus driver, I walked around the corner to Downtown Crossing, and went down into the subway for my last rapid transit of the day.

Part 10: MBTA Red Line, Downtown Crossing to South Station

Very short one-stop journey on the Red Line. Not much of a wait for my free trip (thanks to the transfer from the previous conveyance).

Part 11: At South Station

I was happy to be at South Station, my first time here since arriving late last night. This would be where I could have a quick lunch, purchase my remaining commuter rail tickets, and just relax for a while. I had about 40 minutes left in which to accomplish this, thanks to my unplanned Dudley side trip. I had my obligatory Sbarro's ziti & meatballs platter and a soda. I ate it under the usually horrible conditions that allow cold air and wind to enter the waiting room/seating area whenever a door opens. When a train is just boarding or has just arrived, those blasts of cold air are for longer periods of time. It cools the food right down, and requires the person eating said food to keep his coat on.

I then had to wait in the ticket office line (which makes no distinction between AMTRAK or MBTA passengers). I bought what I would be needing for the remainder of my day: Three Zone 9 tickets - 2 for the Worcester round trip and the last one for a one-way trip to Providence.

My Worcester train was called for boarding at about 11:55 AM, ten minutes before its scheduled departure. This train had a mix of bilevels and single-level coaches. I chose a single-level, because the bilevels have overhead racks large enough to stow about two floppy disks, and definitely not a suitcase of any size!

Part 12: MBTA Worcester Line Commuter Rail Train #513, Boston-South Station to Worcester, MA

Finally we come to my second qualifying commuter route, this being the MBTA's Framingham-Worcester Line. This line covers AMTRAK service provided by the LAKE SHORE LIMITED's Boston section, as well as one northbound Inland Acela Regional trip per day, and one southbound Inland Acela Regional trip on weekends only. When I first went out to Worcester serveral years ago just after its extension beyond Framingham, some things were quite different. First, there was a half-hour, nonstop ride between Framingham and Worcester, with no intermediate stops along the way. Those have now been filled in, with stops that all have opened within the past year at Ashland, Southborough, Westborough, and Grafton. And Worcester itself is not the same. The "T" along with AMTRAK shared a small Am-Shack as their station, which became highly inadequate for the frequent commuter service. So last year, with Worcester Union Station collecting dust, the edifice was returned to the use for which it has been created, as an operating rail station. They did a beautiful job with the rehabilitation. The building has two stories which passengers will see, a sprial staircase and an elevator connecting them. There is also a basement level (probably only for building services). There are several galleries within the building, reminiscent of the much larger Washington Union Station.

Unlike Washington, Worcester Union Station has no retail stores, although there certainly is room for them should the developers want to go that way. Transit-oriented businesses, such as day care, shoe shine, cleaners, flower shops, fast food, donuts, etc. would all do well here. The building is served by local and intercity buses, although for now one has to walk around a block to find them. It is a much shorter distance than one had to walk from the old Am-Shack, which you can still see sitting underneath I-290.

One can also walk across one street and get to the Worcester Common Outlets Mall, not the place to go if you only have a 40-minute layover between trains. And NOT a place to go given the time of year.

But back to the trip itself. Quite uneventful. We made our stops at the various new stops that had been recently added -- not much more than large park & ride facilities. We rode left-handed to some of these stations even though they have platforms on both sides of the right-of-way, which I thought was strange. We came into Worcester right at 1:26 PM.

Continued in next section

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