Philadelphia to Boston and Return by Acela and US Airways
March 13, 2004
The last time I took a totally nonsense joyride was in October, 2001. I am overdue. Way, way overdue. So, joyride it is and March 13 is the day. Since a 12 hour trip for no good reason has limited appeal to the rest of the family, this is a solo venture.
The plan is a rail and air one day extravaganza from Philadelphia to Boston and back. Drive to Philadelphia International Airport; take SEPTA R1 to Amtrak 30th Street Station; Acela #2250 to Boston South Station; the T Blue Line to Logan, US Airways #1027 back to Philly, and drive home. The clincher for this plan: a dirt-cheap return airfare. AirTran invaded the PHL-BOS air market and drove prices, even one-way prices, way down. The air return (as cheap as $45, my ticket was $65) makes the whole trip manageable both time and cost-wise. So, that's it: one day, train ride, plane ride, a quick look at downtown Boston, and maybe even some food enroute. Let's go!
Saturday, March 13, 2004
Weather is perfect. Nice cool morning, bright sunshine, a little windy. It's a good day for travel.
9:02am - On my way.
Leave home (Cherry Hill, NJ) and head down I-295 destined for Philadelphia International Airport. I take my usual route across the Walt Whitman Bridge and onto I-95 south. Passing by the Philadelphia stadium complex it occurs to me that, in just eight days that view will be altered permanently when Veteran's Stadium is imploded on Sunday, March 21. Kind of sad to see the old dump leveled. It was a dump (at least in later years), but it was our dump and had some charm in a dumpy sort of way. Meanwhile, the new Phillies stadium, Citizen's Bank Park, is racing against time to be ready for opening day. It will be a close race. It will probably be ready for play but not nearly finished.
9:24am - Arrive Philadelphia International Airport, Garage D, Level 3
Garage D is my favorite at PHL with good availability almost all the time (connects to the new E garage) and good access to not so crowded Terminal D security. Being a Saturday, parking is wide open. I place the car more-or-less in my usual spot and walk down to the terminal level and out toward the terminal D. The security lines at Terminal D are non-existent this morning, but today my friends with the TSA will have to wait a few hours to work me over. This morning I'm using Philly International as a glorified SEPTA stop. I take a quick walk across the connector bridge to the E concourse to check out the airfield and the soon to be PHL home of Southwest. Terminal E is the end-of-the-line stop for the SEPTA R1 airport line. The next train for center city is ready and waiting.
SEPTA R1 #1118
9:40am [scheduled 9:39am] - Leave Philadelphia International Airport
The three-car SEPTA MU pulls out of the Terminal E station and runs non-stop at least 300 yards to the Terminal C-D station. Another 300 yards or so and we are at Terminal B. Then A. A quick trip under the Federal Inspection area of the new International Terminal A-West (a great facility, by the way), and we head out over I-95 (on the longest bridge on the SEPTA regional rail system) and up to center city. The train is lightly patronized this morning. Tickets are collected and I receive a heart-felt compliment from the SEPTA conductor. I was the only passenger on board with a pre-purchased ticket (bought days earlier at Malvern). Everyone else paid cash.
The trip downtown passes several areas of great scenic interest: PECO 230kV line 220-46, PECO Island Road Substation, PECO Line 69kV 6623, and PECO Elmwood Substation (the one on the left at the Amtrak NEC). The substation on the right is Amtrak Brill 132kV step-down). Who says there is nothing to see on that ride! (I am an overhead transmission engineer for PECO, if you didn't guess).
After a little left-hand operation on the NEC, we head onto the SEPTA approach trackage for 30th Street. The PRR really knew how to design track. For this complex maze, there is virtually no traffic crossing movements. It is like an interstate highway interchange for a railroad. Flyovers, tunnels, the old High Line, and even a long-abandoned tunnel connector: a very impressive track plan. Several passengers get off at University City, we duck underground, swing right, and soon the first of today's three rail trips is over.
10:05am [10:00am] - Arrive 30th Street Station, Upper Level SEPTA
I take a quick walk through the hole-in-the-wall area that makes up the SEPTA station, head down the pedestrian ramp, and into the Amtrak area of 30th Street. The main concourse at 30th Street is a room with only a handful of equals in the country. Thirtieth Street Station is simply a great building. Recent upgrades in the PA system make announcements actually decipherable. Other than the two huge Microsoft ad banners obliterating two of the large windows on each side of the main concourse, the station looks great.
Thirtieth Street is a nice place to just hang out for while and watch the comings and goings. Not a great place to watch trains (hidden away in the basement with access limited), but super for people watching. I had cushioned my schedule a bit to account for SEPTA uncertainties, so I have about 30 minutes to kill. And I kill it by doing absolutely nothing. I just stand there, stroll around, and take in the varied sights of a Saturday morning at 30th Street. This is the reason I generally do not use the elite lounges at either airports or Amtrak. I really like the sights and sounds of people at transportation hubs and the lounges insulate you from all the fun. Of course, for most normal people, that is exactly the reason to use a lounge.
At about 10:28, Acela 2250 for Boston is announced for Stairway 3, Track 3, and a substantial group of us head down to await the arrival. Standing on a platform awaiting the arrival of a train is a feeling of excitement and anticipation that has not changed over the years. For plane travel the plane is either at the gate or it isn't. But a train makes a grand entrance. First a light, then a growing presence, and finally the sound. A train arrival is an event. I stare down the track looking for that first glimpse. Right on time that glimpse appeared, pulls around the turn and into the station and up Track 3 to the waiting masses. Acela 2250 has arrived.
10:38am - Acela 2250 arrives Philadelphia 30th Street Station (PHL)
Acela Trainset 12, Powercar 2006 leading east.
Acela 2250 pulls in and a quick look in the windows shows it is pretty crowded. I jump on-board and let a family of four take one of the facing table sets. What a nice arrangement for parents with small kids. Seats are scarce, but I manage to grab a left-side window next to an occupied aisle in the second Business Class car (3516, seat 11F). I settle in, and with little delay, off we go.
10:40am [10:38am] - Leave PHL
If there is anything that rivals the scenic splendor of the SEPTA trip in from the airport downtown, it's the trip up through North Philadelphia and eastern Bucks County on the NEC. One actual highlight is passing over the Schuylkill River. Today, the West River Drive is closed to vehicle traffic and is hosting a foot race (the Leprechaun 5 Mile Run). The number clad warriors are charging back to the finish line located near the Art Museum. I've been there and done that. That last mile back, and particularly that seeming little upgrade to the museum, can be pure AGONY! Nice day for a run today, though. My hat's off to them.
Soon we pass the current incarnation of North Philadelphia Station. Back in the PRR days, North Philly was THE major Philadelphia stop. Almost all trains heading west bypassed 30th Street with North Philly being the only stop in Philadelphia. Trains heading north, south and east all stopped at North Philly. With just two outdoor platforms, North Philly was a young railfan's dream train watching spot. Today it is primarily a SEPTA stop with virtually all Amtrak trains just speeding past. The station itself had deteriorated to the point of embarrassment. The crumbling platforms were rebuilt a few years ago, but only shortened versions. Just east of the bridge over Broad Street are the last remnants of the old, much longer platforms that once received the Broadway Limited, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Penn Texas. The narrow, far eastern end of the westbound platform, now sagging and broken, is where I would drag my dad to watch the GG1's come flying in at speed pulling those magnificent tuscan red PRR trains. I cannot look at that beat-up wreck of a platform without thinking of those days standing on that narrow point end of the platform while those massive electric locomotives barreled in just feet away from us. I would like to think my dad enjoyed it too. I'm sure he would be pleased that all these years later it is still such a fresh and fond memory.
Acela itself seems to be wearing well now in its fourth year of operation. The interior is in nice shape and clean. The seats are still comfortable, and it is as pleasant an environment as you get on any transportation. Some little annoyances on today's trip: The variable message board seems convinced on the fact that the next stop is Stamford, and continues to flash that all the way up to Boston. It also identifies the quiet car as being in the rear while the conductor says it is the first car. But the train is well patronized and is head and shoulders better than Amfleet. Considering the premium paid to ride Acela, the patronage of largely non-business passengers is certainly an endorsement of the service.
We speed along I-95 and pass Holmesburg and Bristol. At Morrisville we pass the old flyover for the PRR Trenton Cut-off freight line. It has been rehabbed and new catenary installed. New Jersey Transit has constructed a storage yard just off the NEC on the old Cut Off. The flyover design permits NJT moves without multi-track crossings over the corridor. Once again, the PRR's engineering pays dividends all these years later with NJT Trenton storage and turn-back moves now greatly simplified.
Back to Acela. We are now on the NEC speedway: the straightaway in the Princeton Junction area. This is the location used by both the Penn Central and Amtrak for high speed train trials. It is here that one not so little annoyance appears. Between Hamilton and Princeton Junction we hit a speed resonance that causes the train to rock back and forth quite forcefully. It is a bit unsettling and the first instance of what I perceive to be a degrading in the ride quality of Acela since my last trip (June, 2002). Although still very quiet, Acela really does not ride very well at speed. It may be track related, but I also think the trainsets may be at fault to a degree. The rocking seems to be more due to suspension problems than bad track.
11:22am - Arrive Metropark (MET)
11:24am [11:21am] - Leave MET
After Metropark we encounter some slow running. We endure the usual curve restrictions at Elizabeth, and hit some additional delays in the Newark Airport area and coming into Newark station.
11:40am - Arrive Newark (NWK)
11:43am [11:35am] - Leave NWK
Some real slow travel across the meadows as we queue for left-hand operation through the North River (Hudson River) tunnels. The eastbound tunnel is down for maintenance, so it is single-lane traffic into New York. Considering the logistics of pulling off that trick, we do not fair too badly. We pass through the Taj Mahal (Secaucus Junction), make our cross-over move to the westbound track, and glide through the tunnel into Manhattan and the Madison Square Garden basement station.
12:02pm [11:50am] - Arrive New York Penn Station (NYP)
About 80% of the nearly full passenger load leave here, and another similar bunch board. In the few second of peace and quiet between the departure of one crowd and the arrival of the next, I shift seats to the right side (12A) for the better view of the coastline in Connecticut and Rhode Island. The calm on the eye of the New York passenger hurricane ends and the storm of New England bound passengers arrives. Despite everyone's best effort to get us in and out quickly, it is just too many people coming and going in too small an area. We lose more time at NYP, and we are now late. This train, scheduled just after noon, is the first Acela of the day from New York to Boston. I think an earlier trip is warranted.
12:19pm [12:03pm] - Leave NYP
Acela heads east under the East River and up through Queens to the Hell Gate. The nice clear day affords a great view out to Long Island Sound from the bridge. The zig-zags through the Bronx finally get us to New Rochelle and Metro North territory. Now, it's the generally slow, really serpentine, and kind of boring trip though the urban-suburban vistas of southwest Connecticut. In those few occasions where I-95 is parallel, the traffic is easily overtaking us. But at least we are not making all those Metro North stops. I've taken that ride (Grand Central to New Haven) and it is no fun. Now, the obligatory screaming kid kicks into operation. This kid puts on a combination whine, cry, screaming act until Providence and he is way too old for this nonsense. I have the almost irresistible urge to go up and smack him. Since I have no desire to join Martha Stewart in the slammer, I manage to control myself.
12:58pm - Arrive Stamford (STN)
Not many off but more than a few on. We are really crowded now. I have no idea where all these people will sit.
1:00pm [12:46pm] - Leave STN
Well, some will not. As the conductor later concedes, we are overbooked (and you thought only the airlines pulled that trick, didn't you). The train crew looks for all available seats, every car is checked, and there are not nearly enough. He calls for the standees to come to the café car. Those poor folks get to stand on Acela Express. Some of those standees are still standing at Providence.
To add insult to injury, we are really running slowly now. Obviously, our late arrival to Metro North territory caused us to miss our traffic slot and we are stuck behind a New Haven local. We plod along until about Bridgeport where we cross to the middle eastbound track and, sure enough, we pass the MN train moments later. But speed? No. We are still just sashaying along at grandma going to church pace. Now, the ultimate Acela insult: we are cooling our heels on the middle track doing maybe 30 mph: really slow. Low and behold, the Metro North local comes up and passes us on the right. You have got to be kidding. That's like a Porsche being passed by a beat-up Dodge Dart. Our hot-shot Acela smoked by a lowly commuter train. A few miles late, we return the favor, but the damage to out psyche is already done. Acela passed by a Metro North Local. Oh, the shame.
1:45pm - Arrive New Haven (NHV)
A few passengers off at NHV, but even more get on. We are still overbooked and standing room only.
1:48pm [1:29pm] - Leave NHV
From an outside the window perspective, this next portion of the trip is the best and not at all what one pictures with the Northeast Corridor. The trip along the shoreline of eastern Connecticut is drop-dead gorgeous. It is New England through and through. When I last took this ride in October, 2001, it was fall and the colors were spectacular. Now, it is late winter, and the color of spring has not yet arrived. The shoreline is in shades of tan with the sound and ocean a deep blue and green. Small beaches, little harbors, and countless inlets and meadows pass by. The idle marinas are dotted with scores of boats all shrink-wrapped and protected from the winter, but only for a couple of weeks more. The sun is getting high and all signs point to the imminent arrival spring and summer. In just a month or less this same strip of shoreline will look much different. But today, it is still sleeping, catching a few more winks before it awakes for another season of sun. It was great to look at. I was, as usual, glued to the window. This portion is worth the price of admission and I, for one (and maybe the only one), am glad the speed here is so slow.
This portion of the ride accentuates one of the design aspects of Acela that was really done right. Scenic locations are more common along the NEC that many think and it is hard to beat those Acela windows for sight seeing. They are huge and real glass with perfect optical quality. Maybe among the best features of Acela is something as simple as windows. No scratched slabs of Lexan on this train.
We all-too-soon leave the shoreline and begin our sprint for Providence and Boston. Turning my attention to the on-board activities, I had previously elected to pass on the cafe for this trip. Nothing special there anyway and I have my sights set on something later. So no on-board food report even though I overhear one man praise a turkey sub he bought. And the ride quality is still an issue. There are certain speeds where a resonance is reached and the train will shimmy and shake. And, as we reach one of the two 150 mph areas, a less violent version of the rocking action that struck back at Hamilton returns. Passengers walking about hold on from seat to seat. In my opinion, ride quality is a big issue with at least this Acela trainset.
Our immanent arrival in Providence is announced by the somewhat wacky conductor as "We are now landing in Providence". I was amused: no one else noticed. We are still late.
3:15pm - Arrive Providence (PVD)
There is a substantial exodus here. The little screamer has to be nearly dragged off by his exasperated mother. Finally, the standees get seats.
3:18pm [2:54pm] - Leave PVD
This is new mileage for me. I have never been east (north by the map) of Providence by rail. But, there is not much to say about this portion of the trip. It looks all the same to me. One more 150 mph segment, and through the magic of weekend schedule padding, we are now almost back on schedule. It's an Amtrak miracle.
3:40pm [3:32pm] - Arrive Route 128 (RTE)
Yawn! After five hours the train is beginning to become tiresome. Nice ride, but now I need a change of pace. The end of the trip is now welcome.
3:51pm [3:42pm] - Arrive Boston Back Bay (BBY)
And, finally, we arrive at South Station.
3:56pm [3:47pm] - Arrive Boston South Station (BOS)
Time PHL to BOS, 5 hours, 16 minutes.
Put one more Acela in the on-time column for March.
All things considered: a very nice ride. It was relaxing and comfortable. But, for pure transportation, it was a little too long for PHL to BOS. For a business trip, I would probably fly. By the way, Amtrak (Arrow) showed arrival at 3:53pm. Minor error, but I'll forgive them. They must not have set their watch that day.
This is my first time ever at South Station. It is a real nice facility. I linger a little to people-watch and just scout out the place, and then set off for the State stop of the T Blue line. This was my first foray in downtown Boston in 35 years.
Boston's street layout is, in a word, bazaar. It reminds me of London with no rhyme or reason for the street arrangement. There must have been some serious drinking involved during the planning of this city. But, armed with a map from MapPoint, I make my way through the maze and find the Blue Line stop about a half mile from South Station. It was a crisp, windy, and sometimes downright cold day. Not bad for walking, but all the same, I was glad to get out of the cold and into the subway.
I find the entrance to the T at Washington and School. Head down, get my $1.25 token, give it right back to them at the gate, and meander my way through the catacombs to the Blue Line platform. A Wonderland-bound train arrives in a few minutes (Wonderland? Sounds like a portion of Disneyland.). I hop on and take the three-stop trip to the aptly-named Airport station. The Blue Line is a subway like most others. Nothing remarkable. The train is well patronized but not packed. The ride is quick and uneventful. The Airport station comes quickly. The last of my three rail trips is over.
MassPort Bus 22 to Logan Terminal B
Following the excellent directional signs I headed for MassPort bus route 22 stop. This is the free shuttle for Logan Terminal B. The Route 22 bus arrives in only a minute or two. I hop on unencumbered by luggage (that is a VERY nice change of pace from my usual airport trips). The bus is well laid out for airport use with a nice-sized luggage area. We leave very quickly and take the short trip to Logan. I am soon at Terminal B.
4:41pm Arrive Boston Logan International AirportTerminal B
The trip from Acela arrival to Logan takes just 45 minutes including lingering at South Station for a while and no rushing. I had booked my return flight at 7:30pm, the last Boston to Philadelphia trip of the day. I could have booked a 5:30pm flight, but I felt there was too much uncertainty with Acela and the transfer to Logan. Even on-time, the scheduled 3:47pm Acela arrival was cutting it pretty close. A late arrival would have been way too close. Booking the 7:30 flight gave me a cushion to guard against train troubles, transfer snafus, or other foul-ups. My air fare is restricted, advance purchase, no refund, so I did not want to risk having to pay full freight to get home due to missing the early flight.
But here I am, it is still well before 5 o'clock and I technically have time to spare for the 5:30. I consider trying to bump-up (and definitely could have) but decide to stay with the 7:30. I have a great reserved seat on the later flight, can linger at the airport, have something to eat, and fly home relaxed. Besides, I like airports as much as train stations. Hanging around for a while is no chore for me.
Having made that momentous decision (and it took a few minutes of serious pondering), I go to the US Airways check-in kiosk. I pull up my trip record and, being a preferred US Airways mileage member, find I can upgrade to first class for free. Now first class for a short flight is no big deal, but for free, why not? So I bump to seat 1F (right side window front bulkhead) and out pops the Boarding Pass. I love technology!
Next is TSA security. No line at all. None. So here we go. Jacket off, shoes off (I don't even try shoes on anymore), cell phone, sunglasses, and keys in the tray and all through the x-ray. I head through the detector: no beeping (that's good!), no issues with the x-ray scans of what little I put in the tray, and with a nod and smile to the inspectors, I grab my stuff, squeeze my shoes back on, and off I go. Having a one-way ticket can sometimes tag your boarding pass for the dreaded "secondary inspection", but not this time. I am through security and at the gate 10 minutes after hopping off the bus, and that includes agonizing over which flight to take. Quick and clean.
I watch the 5:30 flight board and leave for PHL, and then I head over to the airport outlet of Legal Sea Foods and have a cup of chowder, some scallops, fries, slaw, and two cold draughts of Sam Adams. This was my meal plan and it lives up to expectations. Good food, cold beer, some NCAA B-ball on the tube, and the airfield action out the window. It is a delightful way to kill an hour or so. I also reminisce about a prior visit to Logan.
The last time I had been at Logan was the fall of 1969, but the memory is still fresh. Back then, my girlfriend and I took advantage of some very cheap student fares and flew Northeast Airlines (the "Yellowbirds") from Philadelphia to Boston for a one-day, whirlwind trip to see the Villanova Wildcats play the Boston College Eagles in football. Up in the morning, game, back in the evening. It was her first flight ever, and one of my early flights. It was a pretty big deal for both of us. We had a great time. Villanova upset the favored Eagles that day. After the game, we ran into the team at the Logan coffee shop and chatted for a while. I remember talking with the senior quarterback, Drew Gordon. We made small talk about the game, school, and just college kid stuff.
Over thirty four years have passed since that last Logan visit. Fall a year ago, Brett Gordon, Drew's son, ended four years as Villanova's quarterback (the third generation of Gordon football players at VU). And this May, my girl friend from that trip and I will celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary. Although not along for this ride, she still has the gumption for an occasional nonsense junket, as another one-day silly-trip I have planned in May will prove. She will accompany me on that one and it has the potential to be one of those trips that our friends hear about and just shake their heads in disbelief. More on that at a later time.
Terminal B is really quiet tonight. Saturday evening is a slack period for travel. My 7:30 to Philly is it for the day for this building, so things are winding down. The vacuums are already at work at the other gate areas. Just after 7:00 my flight is called at Gate B6 and, with the early boarding for First Class, I am first down the jetway. I settle into seat 1F and call my wife to say I am running on-time. The light Saturday night load is at most 25% of the 126 seats. I am offered a pre-takeoff beverage (Coke) and wait for departure.
US Airways Flight 1027 Boston (BOS) to Philadelphia (PHL), continuing to Chicago O'hare
Boeing 737-3B7, N384US, Manufactured 1992
7:25pm [7:30pm] - Leave Boston Logan International (BOS), Gate B6
A very nice flight; in fact a terrific flight. For those of you who share aviation hobby interests, head over to airliners.net for my air trip report and see how many words I can muster-up for a 77 minute trip.
8:39pm - Landing at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), Runway 27R
Time in flight from Boston 56 minutes.
8:42pm [9:00pm] - Arrive PHL Gate B8
Time gate to gate from Boston 1 hour, 17 minutes.
I am back where my first train trip started about 11 hours earlier.
A stroll through the B concourse, past the B-C Marketplace, and up to D and the parking garage get me to my car. After I pay my debt to the Parking Authority, I retrace my morning drive and arrive home none the worse for 600 miles of wear.
9:22pm - Arrive home!
Total trip time 12 hours, 20 minutes.
It was a really nice day. A good ride on Acela, a nice meal at Logan, and a surprisingly entertaining flight back. What more could a travel junkie want?