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Riding every commuter railroad operator in the Northeast Corridor

posted 2023-12-22

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About a week ago, I realized I hadn't booked tickets to visit my family (in northern Virginia) for the holidays. I live in Boston, so the most normal way is a train trip down Amtrak's Northeast Corridor — the Northeast Regional service (a little over 8 hours) or the Acela (~6.5 hours) would get me there.

But Amtrak doesn't operate fixed-fare services — their prices are demand-based, and since it's the holiday season, that means unreasonably expensive tickets. Trips that had me arriving at a reasonable time were priced at more than $200, even booking a bit in advance. Instead of doing what a normal person would dolike booking a flight, or maybe taking an overnight Northeast Regional, I decided to finally fulfill a lifelong dream: riding with every commuter rail operator in the Northeast Corridor.

To make things more challenging (and because I don't want to spend more than 24 hours traveling), I limited myself to a single service day.

What is happening?!?

A few definitions:

In my view, under these definitions, these services are included:

Notably, these services are not included:

So, in order to finish the challenge, I have to ride at least one stop on each of the six operators listed above, all in the same service day.

The plan

In my view, the lowest-cost way to practically do this is to ride each service end-to-end (or nearly so) and use Amtrak regional trains to fill in the gaps. After lots of staring at schedules, here's what I came up with:

  1. Back Bay to Providence: MBTA Providence Line 801, $12.25 fare, 4:25am to 5:30am (1h5m trip)
  2. Providence to New London: Amtrak Northeast Regional 95, $25 fare, 6:50am to 7:44am (1h20m layover, 54m trip)
  3. New London to New Haven State Street: CTrail Shore Line East 1659, $10.75 fare, 9:58am to 10:57am (2h14m layover, 59m trip)
  4. New Haven State Street to New York Grand Central: Metro-North New Haven Line 1557, $18.25 fare, 11:17am to 1:25pm (20m layover, 2h8m trip)
  5. New York Grand Central to New York Penn: Figure it out on the fly, there are plenty of subway options, and I could just walk in the worst case.
  6. New York Penn to Trenton: New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor Line 3849, $16.75 fare, 2:07pm to 3:43pm (42m layover, 1h36m trip)
  7. Trenton to Philadelphia: SEPTA Trenton Line 720, $10 fare, 4:05pm to 4:53pm (22m layover, 48m trip)I couldn't pay the Key fare because I didn't have a Key card at the beginning of the trip. I could've used an Extended Trip fare here if I didn't want to leave the faregates at 30th Street, but ultimately decided against it because I was hungry!
  8. Philadelphia to Newark, DE: SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line 9225, $6.50 fare, 5:46pm to 6:59pm (53m layover, 1h13m trip)
  9. Newark, DE to Baltimore: Amtrak Northeast Regional 193, $5 fare, 7:20pm to 8:04pm (21m layover, 44m trip)
  10. Baltimore to New Carrollton: MARC Penn Line 453, $8 fare, 9:35pm to 10:18pm (1h31m layover, 43m trip)

Totals: $112.50 fareless than half as expensive as a direct Amtrak!, 10h10m on trains, and 8h10m of waiting.

After that, I'd pick up the WMATA Orange line at New Carrollton to visit family via their home Metro station (Vienna).

How it went

Pretty well overall! There were a few rough edges, but I didn't miss any connections, which is really all I can ask for.

The Boston-Providence segment (MBTA)

There were a few problems here.

The first one is that I'd usually get to Back Bay by taking the Green or Orange lines. Service on those doesn't start until 5am, and there were no viable bus alternatives, so taking transit to get to the train was out. Rideshare/taxi services felt like they weren't really in the spirit of the challenge, and I wasn't really up for walking, so I used bikeshare to get to the station.

Cycling to Back Bay usually takes about 35 minutes (I timed it in advance), which meant I'd have to wake up at around 2:15am to have time to shower, eat breakfast, and get to the station with a reasonable amount of time to spare. Not ideal, but doable.

The second problem is that the bike I checked out first was not working properly.The brake cables weren't set correctly, so I had to exert much more effort than usual. Also, the gearshaft didn't feel quite right. I ended up returning the bike a few minutes into the ride, and accidentally did so at a station that happened to have one of the new ebikes, though! These work great, and it was smooth sailing from there, at least to the destination dock.

The third problem is Back Bay was closed when I got there, at around 4am. That was fine, but when the station was still closed at 4:20am I started to get very worried about missing my train and began considering what it would take to rework my schedule around a later Amtrak train (171 instead of 95).

The station finally opened at 4:23am; at that point I could hear the train, so I ran to the platform, got there with literally no time to spare, and bought a ticket on mTicket while I was stepping aboard the train (I wanted to get a paper ticket but didn't have time). The train about left a minute early.I don't know how you're supposed to use this train, and I've contacted the MBTA to make them aware of the situation (there's private security involved, so they might really not know there's an issue).

The New London-New Haven segment (CTrail Shore Line East)

I had a 2-hour layover at New London, and took some of that time to eat another breakfast at Jake's Diner (on State Street). It's not an authentic diner structure, but the food was unquestionably diner food, and I spent about an hour just talking to some interesting folks. No complaints there, really.

As I was waiting to board the Shore Line East train, about 8 minutes before departure, Amtrak 171 pulled in — so I could've slept in a few more hours and still have made all the connections I needed to.I didn't originally schedule things around 171 because historically (based on data from ASMAD) it had arrived in New London too late a bit too often, so I think I made the right call, given that SLE service couldn't be described as "frequent" under any definition of the word.

Aside from that, it was a normal train trip! We arrived on time to New Haven-State Street with no notable issues.

The New Haven-New York segment (Metro-North New Haven line)

The train pulled up on the wrong track at State Street, so there was a little confusion about whether the train was actually going to Grand Central, but that resolved itself pretty quickly.

This, too, was a pretty uneventful trip. The most notable thing about it was that we arrived at Grand Central ten minutes early, which meant I could make an otherwise impossible transfer to an earlier New Jersey Transit train.

The Grand Central-Penn transfer

I took the shuttle train to Times Square, then a 3 train (I think) to 34th St/Penn, which meant I never actually stepped outside while in New York. Pretty weird, but the whole transfer took less than 10 minutes, so I can't complain.

The New York-Trenton segment (New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line)

I managed to catch NJT train 3847, which departed a half-hour earlier than 3849. It arrived about 10 minutes late,Most NJT services were delayed at the time, due to a drawbridge opening earlier that day. so I'm very glad I was able to catch an earlier train, since Trenton had one of the tighter connections I'd have to make otherwise.

The Trenton-Philly segment (SEPTA Trenton line)

This trip was fine, except I couldn't figure out how to pay the fare! There were no SEPTA ticket vending machines at Trenton and the conductor wasn't checking tickets at all. I eventually just asked the conductor to sell me one as they were passing by and that worked.I didn't know there were exitfare machines at 30th Street at the time. I should've guessed! But I was very, very tired by this point.

An otherwise uneventful trip.

The Philly-Newark segment (SEPTA Wilmington/Newark line)

I got a Key card at 30th Street and had lunch (if a 5pm meal can be called lunch) before boarding this one, so it was very, very uneventful.

The Baltimore-New Carrollton segment (MARC Penn line)

Not much to say about this one. DC area commuter rail is less frequent than I'd like it to be, but it was easy to buy a ticket, we stayed on schedule.

Takeaways

I honestly thought I was going to regret doing this, but this was actually a ton of fun to route and do. Trying to learn new systems on the flythese were my first Metro-North, SEPTA Regional Rail, New Jersey Transit, and MARC trips, and the only Shore Line East train I took before was part of a proper Amtrak reservation — New Haven State Street to New Haven Union, of course is always stressful in the moment but very rewarding.

Although the challenge I set for myself was riding with every operator in the corridor, I think I actually rode every service operating in the corridor, which is even better. I'm not confident enough in my knowledge to say that for sure, though.

Would I do this exact route with these constraints again? Absolutely not, unless something were to change (maybe the MARC extension to Delaware).

Will I continue to travel using completely unhinged routes because it's funny? Obviously, yes.

If you have done this challenge or anything similar, or have more bizarre route suggestions, please reach out! I love hearing from other folks about this stuff.