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Dan Chazin's Trip on Amtrak NortheastDirect (The Senator)
Boston-New York

It's 4:15 p.m on Thursday, September 24, 1998, and I've just arrived at South Station in Boston, where I am about to board Train #177, the Senator, on my way back to New York, after spending two productive days working with a professor at Harvard Law School and visiting my cousin, with whom I spent the night. My ride on the "T" train from Harvard Square took only 15 minutes, and I have about 20 minutes before the scheduled 4:35 p.m. departure of my train. I went to the ticket office to purchase my ticket. This time, I took advantage of my AAA discount, and the one-way ticket to New York cost me only $40.00, representing a 10% discount off the full fare of $44.00. (Coming up from New York on the Twilight Shoreliner, the regular coach fare would have been $50.00 because a $6.00 charge is added for travel on a reserved train. Train #177 is an unreserved train.) It is interesting to note that the ticket office in South Station is located in a portion of the station which has the original, ornate ceiling intact. The ceiling in the main waiting room is composed of steel and concrete and clearly is not the original one; indeed, the appearance of that room must be radically different from the way it looked when it was originally built.

I went out to Track 9 and boarded the train, then walked down the platform to record the consist. Today's Train #177 consists of two F-40 engines (#411 and #228), three 84-seat (non- handicapped-modified) Amfleet I coaches, and a food service car with tables on one side and coach seats on the other (this car had been handicapped-modified, although no handicapped passengers were on board). The first coach and the cafe car are closed off, so everyone must find seats in the two middle cars. I found a seat on the left side of the first open coach right in front of an electric outlet. Repeated announcements were made that this is an Amtrak train and only Amtrak tickets will be honored. I discovered that the reason for these announcements was that an MBTA commuter train to Providence is also scheduled to depart South Station at 4:35 p.m., arriving in Providence at 5:43 p.m. (20 minutes after our train is scheduled to arrive in Providence). Some people might be tempted to take the Amtrak train instead, so the conductor must warn them that their MBTA tickets will not be honored on this train.

We departed South Station at 4:34 p.m., about 30 seconds early. A number of passengers boarded at Back Bay and Route 128, although most of the people standing on the platform at these stations were commuters waiting to board MBTA trains. I counted over 80 passengers on board when we left South Station. After we departed from Route 128, I walked through the two open coaches and found that there were 71 passengers in the rear coach and 56 passengers in the front coach in which I was sitting. Obviously, the train was quite full. I watched as we crossed the historic Canton Viaduct, which still has only one track operational, due to construction. This time, I noticed that a small concrete wall, resembling a "Jersey barrier," has been constructed on the top of the east side of the viaduct. I wonder how this will affect the appearance of the viaduct from below.

A few minutes later, south of Attleboro, the conductor made an announcement that we would soon be coming to a stop, since only one track is presently operational north of Providence, and we have to wait for a northbound train to pass. He explained that, as a result, we would be arriving Providence about eight minutes late, but we should make up the time prior to our arrival at Kingston, the next station. Sure enough, at 5:17 p.m., we came to a stop. A northbound MBTA train passed us at 5:23 p.m., and we started moving again one minute later. (The MBTA train was #820, scheduled to depart South Attleboro at 5:18 p.m.)

We arrived at Providence at 5:34 p.m. and departed three minutes later. A number of passengers boarded the train here, and almost all seats were now taken (although I did succeed in keeping two seats for myself). Repeated announcements were made that passengers must be "friendly" and remove their belongings from adjacent seats so that others might sit there. I had previously inquired of the conductor why the front car could not be opened; she told me that that was the responsibility of the New Haven crew. Given the very crowded condition of the train, this made no sense to me, but at least no one was standing, and since I was able to keep two seats for myself, I was hardly the one to complain.

Now I walked to the back of the train, where I noticed that both tracks had concrete ties, and much of the catenary had already been installed. I clocked the train as covering a mile in 40 seconds, which translates into 90 miles an hour. Then I purchased a cup of tea and a bag of potato chips, and sat down at an unoccupied table. Instead of using the hot water to make tea, I took out a packet of split pea soup and used the water to make the soup. (Later, I asked for a refill, which is now offered free of charge, but was given a cup of coffee rather than hot water for tea. I drank it anyway.) I went back to my seat and retrieved my computer, since I expected to be spending most of the remainder of the trip in the lounge car, with its attractive tables (which featured electric plugs at each seat).

We pulled into Kingston at 5:59 p.m. and left one minute later. (As the conductor had indicated, there appears to be a large schedule pad between Providence and Kingston for this train, and we have succeeded in making up virtually all of our lost time.) The old wooden station, located on the south side of the tracks, has been beautifully restored, and appears to have been raised to accommodate a high-level platform (although, at present, the platform at the station is a low-level one). There is only one platform at the station, so passengers must cross the northbound track to board our train.

Our next station was Westerly, where we made a brief stop at 6:15 p.m. Here, the large brick-and-stucco station on the south side of the tracks was being restored, as was a similar, smaller facility on the north side. Ten minutes later, we stopped at Mystic, where the relatively small wooden station on the north side of the tracks has already been restored. Beginning at Westerly, there were many scenic views of Long Island Sound on the left side of the train.

By now, my computer's batteries were nearly exhausted, and I plugged the computer into the outlet located next to my table. But, to my surprise, the outlet was dead. Luckily, though, the outlet on the opposite table, which was also unoccupied, did work, so I plugged my computer in at that outlet and moved my belongings over to that table.

We arrived in New London at 6:40 p.m. As we crossed the Connecticut River and entered the city, I noticed how the Central Vermont line crosses under us and then joins us from the left. I have traveled on this line a number of times on the Montrealer, but this is the first time that I can recall observing the exact track layout in daylight. The southbound platform next to the station was closed due to track work, so our train arrived on the northbound platform, which can be accessed only by crossing the southbound track at grade. Our train blocked the crossing, so detraining passengers had to wait until we departed before they could get over to the station. We stopped here for three minutes, so I had a chance to step off the train briefly. (The conductor even let one person get off the train here to smoke a cigarette!)

After New London, it got dark pretty quickly, so I started doing some work on my computer. I must say, though, that the ride up to this point has been very quiet, scenic, relaxing and enjoyable. This part of the Boston-New York route is far more scenic than any portion of the ride from New York to Washington. And the presence of the lounge car with tables on this train significantly enhances the enjoyment of the ride.

At 7:06 p.m., we stopped at Old Saybrook. Here, again, the station and the single low-level platform is located on the south side of the tracks, and passengers must cross the northbound track to board the train. I doubt whether this arrangement will be continued once the high-speed "American Flyer" trains are put into service.

We arrived on Track 10 in New Haven at 7:43 p.m. I detrained and noticed -- somewhat to my surprise -- that two coaches were sitting without an engine on the adjacent Track 8 (on the opposite side of the same platform). I immediately recognized these cars as the Springfield section of our train, which would be combining with us here (and this was confirmed by a passenger aboard the rear car). There were about 30 passengers in the rear car, and the front car was closed off (as was the case the last time I took this very same train from Springfield to New Haven). What surprised me was that the Springfield train was supposed to have arrived at 7:30 p.m., thus allowing ample time for its diesel engine to be removed and an electric engine added before our train from Boston arrives. We were scheduled to depart in only a few minutes, and no electric engine was in sight.

Finally, at 7:50 p.m., AEM-7 engine #937 arrived and coupled onto these two cars. (Interestingly, this was one of the two engines that pulled Tuesday night's Twilight Shoreliner from Penn Station to New Haven!) I decided to hop aboard the Springfield section for the forward ride and back-up move to couple onto the Boston section of the train. We coupled onto the Boston section at 7:57 p.m., and departed at 8:01 p.m., eleven minutes late. I wonder how the Springfield connection will be handled once the New York-Boston line is electrified. Presumably, the Springfield cars will no longer be coupled to the Boston trains in New Haven; rather, I would guess that most trains to Springfield will be short diesel shuttles, with passengers being required to transfer at New Haven for points south.

I returned to my cafe car table, passing through what was formerly the first car of the Boston section. Since this car now served as the connection between the two sections of the train, it had to be opened to passengers, but only a handful of people were sitting in it. Very quickly, a long line of about 15 people formed for food and beverage service in the cafe car. Presumably, many of these customers were on the Springfield section of the train, which has no food service, so this would be their first opportunity to obtain refreshments. This long line lasted for nearly half an hour. Finally, when the line eased up, I went over to the counter, got another refill of hot water for a cup of tea, and purchased a bag of pretzels.

At 8:53 p.m., as we approached the Stamford station, we came to a halt. The conductor announced that we had to wait for a Metro-North local (!), and immediately, a Metro-North train passed us to the right. We started moving again (albeit very slowly) in another three minutes. This marked the second time on this trip that we had been delayed by a local commuter train. The New Haven-New Rochelle portion of Amtrak's Boston-New York route is dispatched by Metro-North, and they often give their own trains precedence over Amtrak trains (especially since we are late tonight -- our scheduled departure from Stamford is at 8:38 p.m.!) Finally, at 9:00 p.m., we pulled into the Stamford station, and left a minute later. We were now 23 minutes late, and although there is a schedule pad built into the arrival time at Penn Station, New York, I doubt that we will arrive on time. Indeed, the conductor soon announces that we will be arriving at Penn Station in about 45 minutes, which would mean that we will be about 15 minutes late.

We passed the New Rochelle station (where we do not stop) at 9:18 p.m., and crossed over the Hell Gate Bridge, with its view of the New York skyline, at 9:34 p.m. I put away my computer and returned to my seat, where I packed up my belongings and prepared to detrain. At 9:48 p.m. -- 18 minutes late -- we arrived on Track 15 at Penn Station. I walked to the front of the platform for this track (which is used primarily by the Long Island Rail Road), and ended up exiting onto the new western concourse created by the LIRR for patrons who wish to proceed directly to Eighth Avenue. This exit leads directly to the street, completely bypassing the Amtrak concourse in Penn Station. I walked up Eighth Avenue to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I caught the 10:30 p.m. bus to Teaneck.

Again, I found the train trip between Boston and New York to be a very pleasant and enjoyable way to travel.

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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