Location: [Home] [Train Travels] From Burlington to Boston
My family and I arrived by car in Burlington, Vermont, on Wednesday, August 18 for my wife's family reunion to be held over the coming weekend. We had been camping the week before, so it was not until her parents arrived in the evening that we learned my grandmother was very ill, and that I should visit her as soon as possible. After talking with my father on the phone, I decided to make the trip to Boston to see her the next day. Since my wife and children would need the car, I turned, of course, to the train.
A call to 1-800-USA-RAIL got me reservations on the next day's southbound Vermonter and eastbound Lake Shore Limited. With short notice, I was grateful that there was space, and that there was a connection at all! I did not make return reservations, as I wasn't sure about connections or how long I would need to stay in the Boston area.
This was the third year in a row that my wife and I got in the car early in the morning to deliver me to the Essex Junction train station. I took my backpack into the little station, and had my tickets issued by the Amtrak agent.
His comment, interestingly, was, "Hmmm... to Boston the hard way."
"What's the easy way?" I asked.
"By bus," he replied. "We don't really pretend to have a Boston connection." Which probably explains why there has been some effort to route the Vermonter through Boston. Still, he issued my tickets, and stapled a printout of my itinerary into the ticket folder he handed me. It was the first time an Amtrak agent has done that in my experience, but it wouldn't be the last.
I also asked for an Amtrak Northeast Timetable, and took it to my seat to wait. I needed to plan my trip back to Burlington. It soon became clear that it would be more difficult than the trip to Boston. The northbound Vermonter leaves Springfield at 3:05 pm, or New Haven at 1:25 pm -- the two places I could reach easily from a Boston train. Only one train from Boston would get me to Springfield on time -- leaving at 7:55 am, and arriving in Springfield at 10:35! New Haven was no better -- in fact, the latest I could leave Boston was at 7:55 am, on the very same train.
So I resolved to rent a car in Boston, stay overnight, drive to Springfield the next day, drop the car, and catch the northbound Vermonter. That meant I should be able to see my grandmother after arriving this evening, and again the next morning.
Essex Junction is the Vermonter's second stop of the day, so I was not surprised to see it pull to a stop at 8:30 am on the dot. I was surprised that the baggage car did not wear the usual Vermonter logo. The train had F-40s at each end, rather than one engine and a cab car.
I boarded and found a seat in the second coach. This early in the route, the train was not crowded, though a number of people boarded at Essex Junction.
When I have ridden this train before, the coaches have had Metroliner or Custom Class seating--more space between the seats, and a footrest (but not a legrest). Not this time: the seats were the red color of Amtrak's standard coach, and there were no footrests. I was surprised at this and walked the train some to be certain, and so it was. I don't know why the change: I can guess it may be related to increased ridership or possibly Amtrak's program of renovating the Custom Class cars.
In any case, I settled in for the ride. I got a breakfast sandwich in the cafe car, whose attendant was one of the most polite and friendly I've seen on a train. It was a wonderful day for a train trip, with lots of sun and blue skies. I regretted leaving my camera in Burlington. Usually I've taken this train on grey days with my camera.
I spent most of the time reading (and, frankly, fretting about my reason for the trip), and I don't have much to tell about the scenery. For one thing, I didn't bring along paper on which to take notes, and the only ones I took were on the Amtrak ticket folder. I sat, as I always have, on the east side of the train and enjoyed the scenery, particularly such favorite spots at the Windsor/Claremont bridge (the longest covered bridge in the world), the station in White River Junction, and the river crossing and station in Bellows Falls. As usually seems the case, there was a long New England Central train "in the hole" in Claremont, New Hampshire.
I got lunch near noon, and enjoyed the special Vermonter box lunch, which I think is one of the best cafe meals I've seen on an Amtrak train.
The direction change in Palmer, Massachusetts, seemed to take longer than usual, though I don't know why. After a while, however, we were rolling west to Springfield, with the engine that had trailed the train now in the lead.
We arrived in Springfield about ten minutes late, I think (call it 2:20 pm), which meant I had plenty of time before the Lake Shore Limited's 3:34 pm arrival. As the train stood at the platform I walked down to get the consist.
(Order as it arrived in Essex Junction; reversed in Palmer)
The first thing I did after taking down the consist was to go to the ticket window at the station and ask about the Lake Shore Limited. It turned out I had plenty of time; the computer reported it one hour late. That would put me into Boston around 7:00 pm, which made it unlikely, I thought, that I could see my grandmother tonight. So I decided to act on my plan to rent a car in Boston and drop it in Springfield tomorrow.
I headed for the pay phones and dug out my Amtrak Northeast Timetable, which has convenient traveller information pages for certain northeastern cities, including Boston. I started with Thrifty Rent-a-car, which listed an agency one block from South Station. Unfortunately, when I called, they told me that office closes at 5:00 pm -- two hours before I expected to arrive. I tried the next one listed, which was Budget -- and their office closed at 4:30 pm. Sigh. Rather than go on to the two listed one mile away (Avis and Hertz) I made my reservation for Budget's Logan Airport location rather than downtown. I knew perfectly well that Boston's MBTA subway system could easily carry me there.
What I didn't know was that Amtrak and Hertz have a special relationship, and later heard that Hertz cars can be picked up at the station. I really wish I'd known that. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Northeast Timetable or on the ticket holders. Someone -- most likely Hertz -- is missing an opportunity for business here. They'd have had mine!
After reserving the car, I bought my return ticket on the next day's northbound Vermonter. I figured that if I did need to stay longer, I could exchange the ticket at South Station.
Then I settled in to wait. And after a while, realized that the Springfield station is a marvellous place to watch trains. The platforms are open, with some canopies, and there are some shaded benches next to the station itself. Those were all taken when I came outside, but I had a good time watching long mixed freights hauled by big CSX -- many still in Conrail blue -- diesel locomotives. I think four or five went by during my wait.
I had considered looking about downtown Springfield during the layover, but fortunately decided against it, because the one hour delay turned into only thirty minutes! The Lake Shore had made up some time coming through the Berkshires. The station agents directed us to the farthest platform, which is reached by paved paths across the tracks. Clearly this station had passenger tunnels at one point (the current station is clearly a smaller modern replacement for a much larger building), but they are no longer in use. A group of us gathered near the now-useless stairwell to wait.
As we did, the westbound Lake Shore Limited arrived and stopped on a track closer to the station. It had a number of express cars trailing in addition to its Viewliner sleeper, cafe car, baggage car, and coaches. Two locomotives pulled it, a Genesis unit leading an F-40.
Soon after we saw the flashing ditch lights of the lead Genesis unit coming gleaming through the ironwork of the bridge over the Connecticut River to the west.
We were, of course, in the wrong place, and took a long walk farther down the platform to the coach spot. We were in a very good place to be a piece of luggage, as the baggage car stopped there (I still wonder why the station agent who was handling the bags didn't tell us to move down). It didn't matter; passengers were still leaving the train when we arrived to form our queue.
I didn't get the consist as I went down other than the locomotives; the one that follows this section is highly approximate.
I ended up in the lead coach of the train along with the other boarding passengers. The coach was fairly full, and though I found a completely empty seat I was soon joined by another traveller -- someone from Europe, though I'm not certain of the country (Germany?). I read and watched the scenery go by, and tried to figure out where we were. Sometimes I do well at that, and at other times pretty badly -- I really ought to travel with a map in hand!
I did spend some time helping a fellow passenger figure out how to use the MBTA to get somewhere downtown. To be honest, I think his destination was probably easier to walk to than use the T, but not if it was going to get him lost!
We spent some time talking about rail service improvements in the Boston area, and the spectacle of the Big Dig outside South Station seemed to impress him. He was hoping that the new Acela Express high-speed trains would be a concept that could translate elsewhere. At this point, I'm mostly hoping that the technical problems can be resolved!
As the train pulled into Boston, the rail part of this travelogue takes a breather, but I will go into some detail because this is where the Great Rental Car Quest begins. I really wish I'd known about Hertz...
We were, in fact, about half an hour late into Boston. I don't know the exact time because I was hurrying. There was a time attached to the reservation, and I wanted to get there on time, so I moved pretty quickly. Rather than take the board the T on the Red Line and change trains at least once for the airport, I left the station and walked along Atlantic Avenue to the wharf which boasts the New England Aquarium -- and a Blue Line stop. The Blue Line is the one which runs to Logan Airport. The walk was a little longer than it might have been, of course, as the Big Dig had made holes everywhere. Sidewalks twisted about, seeking solid ground beneath them. I don't even want to think about driving through there right now.
I successfully navigated the maze, making one short detour (which probably lost me no actual distance) to consider taking a boat from Rowes Wharf to the airport. The fares, however, looked high, and I suspected that it might take longer than the T. So I continued on to the Blue Line stop.
You can always count on a Blue Line subway to be crowded, and it was. I stood with my backpack on and tried not to breathe too deeply, as the chest expansion might just be enough to break the car (just kidding). One stop before the Airport station, this line switches from third rail to overhead catenary power -- though I think it is still DC -- which I've always found interesting. At Airport, the line emerges from the depths and runs above ground through East Boston and beyond.
I knew the system well enough from the days I'd lived in Boston and done some flying from Logan: from the station platform I ascended to a bus stop on the airport road loop, where Massport runs a set of shuttle buses between the terminals. Which, I wondered, would get me to a Budget desk? Any, I decided, and hopped on the first one. The loop traffic was unbelievable, and it took us a while to get to a terminal stop. I hopped off into the arrivals area, looked to the left, and there were the rental car desks, including Budget. It was about 7:00 pm. I'd made it.
Then I had to wait. There were two parties ahead of me for the clerk, and for some reason, the check-in took forever. I really can't tell you why, but I waited quite some time for those two to select their cars, provide their license and credit card info, and get their contracts. I may be mistaken, but I think I was much quicker. In any case, I didn't have a rental contract for at least half an hour.
Then I waited for the Budget bus which would take me to the lot, and I remembered to my horror that this meant returning to the stop-and-go traffic of the airport loop. I spent about forty minutes on that bus, just me and the driver, struggling to get all the way around (we passed the Airport T stop) and out to the lot. Part of the problem was, would you believe it, more construction. I don't know how much is related to the Big Dig, and how much to programs specific to the airport. I distinctly remember seeing a pedestrian bridge that simply ended in mid-air, blocked by a sign which said (from the outside) "Long drop."
On reaching the rental lot at last the driver left me right at the car (which was nice; he was a pleasant man), and I hopped out with the sneaking suspicion that I'd have to do go through that all over again.
The car was a Ford Contour, and I found the keys in it. I dropped my backpack in the trunk and took some time to figure out the controls. There was no manual, and no area map. Ah, well. The controls were easy enough, although it used the new (Japanese? European?) convention that a pull inward on the turn signal lever flashes the high beams, and a push outward on it turns them on. I prefer a pull inward for both.
Though still feeling a little anxious about the unfamiliar vehicle (I drive a Plymouth Voyager) I headed for the exit. Only I didn't know where it was, and picked the wrong gate the first time. A helpful employee directed me to the other one, where a security guard double-checked my contract and let me go.
Where did I go? I'd hoped there would be another exit from the lot area which did not send me through the airport loop. There wasn't. Back through I went again, but it was quicker. I didn't have to cruise through the terminal areas looking for customers. To my annoyance, the direct ramp from the airport to the downtown tunnels was closed, so I had to go north (the opposite direction I wanted to go) and use a turnaround placed for the purpose.
I pass on the nightmare of getting through the tunnel to Boston. Let's just say it was slow but steady. Emphasize slow.
I really wish I'd been able to get the car downtown.
Finally out of the tunnel and heading north on I-93 (where I did want to go) I had to answer the question, will I try to visit my grandmother tonight? It was, after all, 8:30 pm by the time I freed myself from the stifling embrace of Boston's heavy traffic. I left the question unanswered, deciding to go find the nursing home and decide then, based on what time it was when I arrived.
At 8:45 pm, then, I pulled into the convalescent home where my grandmother was and decided I'd try it. She was still awake, and so we had a short visit before I left her to get some sleep.
I spent the night in the Susse Chalet in Woburn, not far from the nursing home in Stoneham. I don't recommend it. We had stayed there during a family vacation a few years before and enjoyed it, but maintenance has gone deferred too long. My room was next to a mechanical room, which was pretty noisy all night.
The next day I returned to visit my grandmother, after buying a map at a drugstore. I wanted to be sure I'd leave plenty of time to get to Springfield, find the car return, and get to the train station. I decided to leave at 11:30 am to make sure I'd catch the Vermonter's 3:05 pm departure.
I had a nice visit with my grandmother and my uncle, who arrived a little later. Leaving at 11:30, I got my lunch to eat in the car at McDonald's and turned the car west toward the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The Turnpike actually runs slightly north of the city of Springfield, and I used a connector to go south on I-91 to downtown. To my dismay, I missed the State Street exit, and had to go around and come again, though I was confident I had plenty of time. I quickly found my way back to it on surface roads, and set out happily up State Street looking for the Budget lot at number 1500.
Number 1500, it turned out, was a long way up! I saw parts of the city I'd never seen before (which isn't that hard, actually), but had no real difficulty finding the lot. I turned in the car, and asked the attendant about the bus service back downtown, as I'd seen buses (and for that matter, a bus stop right out front) running down the street as I'd come up. She told me they ran pretty frequently, so I decided against calling a taxi and stood out by the sign.
And waited. It was about 1:50 pm when I stepped outside into the sun, and about 2:20 when the bus arrived. I was getting nervous, but was relieved to find the bus did run down to where I hoped it would. I got off at least a stop or two early, as I didn't know where downtown it was going -- and wasn't able to ask the driver when I thought of it because I found myself moving steadily farther back in the very full bus as new passengers got on. Still, I had no trouble walking to the station and arriving about 2:45.
The train was fairly close to on time, I recall; I found time during boarding to do a quick check of the consist. Then I boarded, and chose a rear-facing seat, so that I'd be facing front after the Palmer turn in half an hour. Once again the coaches were Amtrak's standard red short-haul seat pitch, not the Metroliner seats I'd seen in prior years.
When we got to Palmer, I discovered that I had chosen the opposite side of the train to my usual spot, so that I got a much better view of the old Palmer station than I ever have. It is quite a structure, though in poorer repair than one could want, and now used for an antique store. I really wish someone ran a local train from Boston out to Springfield or beyond on an hourly schedule, and that this grand station could be put to its proper use.
So I found myself seeing more on the west side of the train than I have before, and got very interested in the different scenery. I got a great view looking up the Connecticut River in Bellows Falls, for example, where a Green Mountain Railroad freight train waited for us to pass through. I also got a much better look at the Windsor station, which is another very lovely example of Vermont's wooden stations.
The conductor on this run gave some of the most interesting station announcements I've ever heard. He knew something interesting about every single stop along the route. One I remember was the fact that we passed along the oldest canal in the US in Bellows Falls. I really enjoyed his announcements.
I went to get my dinner from the cafe, and got another surprise: they did not have the Vermonter packaged meals that I've always had on the southbound run. I guess to obtain Vermont-produced food, they have to start in Vermont -- though I'm sure there's a way to run those items to Washington for the northbound train.
It started to get dark before we arrived at Montpelier Junction, and the corn fields and pastures between there and Essex Junction don't have many lights to watch, so I did more reading as we rolled along.
We stopped in Essex Junction about exactly on the scheduled 8:35 pm arrival time. Quite a number of people exited the train there, and the conductors had their hands full assisting them down from the train with their luggage. I had it easy with my backpack, of course, and soon found my wife waiting for me amidst the small crowd. We hopped into the van, and returned to the family reunion, where the hotel staff had very kindly saved some dinner for me.
(Order as it arrived in Springfield, reversed in Palmer)