Welcome to the second instalment of this edition of Brian’s Travel Spot, covering my latest Grand Adventure. In the first instalment, we saw how that no sooner had I returned from my previous trip to Florida/Phoenix than I was off again, flying out to Boston. My dilemma, if you can call it that, was that I had to be in Phoenix (again!) three weeks later. Rather than fly home (again), then fly back to the US (again), I decided to stay in the US, slowly making my way from northeast to southwest, taking in some sights as I went.
Given my dislike of flying in the USA, and my past record of taking ludicrously long train journeys, it should come as no surprise that I decided to do the whole trip by train. Or, at least, as much of it as I could, a route that took me from Providence, Rhode Island, down the eastern seaboard to Washington DC, with stops in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. From there, I took two overnight trains, one to New Orleans and the other from New Orleans to Tucson, Arizona, where I hired a car to drive to Phoenix, my final destination, from where I flew home.
This instalment covers my travels along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington DC.
- Saturday, 24th February: Providence to New York
- Sunday, 25th February: Two Days in New York
- Friday, 2nd March: New Jersey to Philadelphia
- Saturday, 3rd March: A Weekend in Philadelphia
- Monday, 5th March: Last Day in Philadelphia
- Monday, 5th March: Philadelphia to Manassas
The plan, for this Grand Adventure, was to get from Boston to Phoenix by train, although I should confess now that the both the start and the end of the journey were undertaken by car. Friends gave me a lift from Boston Airport to Providence, while Phoenix doesn’t have an Amtrak station. Instead, I went to Tucson and, since I wanted to explore the area around Tucson before going on to Phoenix, I spent a couple of days there before hiring a car and driving to Phoenix.
For anyone who really, really wants to do the whole trip by public transport, it is possible. You can easily get the train from Boston’s South Station (which I’ve done a few times before) to Providence/New York. Meanwhile, at the other end, Maricopa is the closest station to Phoenix (next stop after Tucson), where there is a connecting bus service.
I’ve been travelling Amtrak’s northeast corridor, which connects Washington DC with Boston, on-and-off for 20 years now. My very first visit to the US involved an almost-reverse of the first part of this trip, travelling from Washington DC to Boston via New York, although that time I picked up the train at Baltimore, a friend having driven me up there from DC.
Of all of Amtrak’s services, the northeast corridor is the closest to what most of us in Europe would recognise as a regular train service. There are multiple trains per day (compared with, say, one train a day or every other day on some lines) and the trains have relatively fast journey times. This is because it’s the only line where Amtrak owns the infrastructure and therefore it’s the only line where there are dedicated tracks for the passenger trains. This is in contrast to the rest of the country, where the tracks are owned by the rail freight companies (I say “tracks”, quite often it’s a single-track line) and far too often, the Amtrak trains are held to wait for a freight train. And when I say a freight train, keep in mind that these are often many miles long and very slow moving, so it can be a long wait. Hence delays are frequent, but we’ll get to that in a later instalments.
Getting back to the northeast corridor, some of the rolling stock can be a bit old, especially on the non-express services (one of the trains I caught on this trip leaked during a rainstorm). However, compared with your average British train, they are a delight, with wide comfortable seats, ridiculous amounts of legroom, at-seat power and free Wi-Fi. The fares can be very reasonable if you book far enough in advance, the loyalty scheme knocks the socks off anything any British operator offers (except for the sadly-missed state-owned East Coast scheme which was excellent) and while the walk-up fares can be a bit steep, they don’t approach Britain’s eye-watering fares.
It’s not without its problems though, some of them self-inflicted. The service is still nowhere near as reliable as it should be and Amtrak’s instance on making the process of getting on a train as close to that of an airline is ridiculous and annoys me every single time.
The first leg of my journey was from Providence to New York’s Penn Station late one Saturday evening. Although I’ve caught a few trains from Providence in the last couple of years, I’ve only ever been going north to Boston, and while I’ve travelled through Providence station often enough going south, this is the first time I’ve caught a train going south from Providence. I know they are small firsts, but they are firsts nonetheless.
The train took just under four hours to cover the 155 miles, so you can see it’s not exactly high-speed and there are frequent stops along the way. The trip cost me $68, although I could have got that down to $51 had I booked a week in advance. Also, in Amtrak’s defence, this was a particularly slow, late-night, weekend service. The typical journey time is around 3½ hours, with the Acela Express doing it in three hours, although that will cost you roughly twice as much.
Of the journey itself, there’s not a lot to say. I got on, I marvelled, as I always do, at the space and the legroom afforded to me by the regular seating. And then I fell asleep. And even when I was awake, it was dark outside, so there really wasn’t anything much to see. The route itself, though, is worth doing in the daytime, although sit on the right (heading north) or left (heading south) for the best views of the Connecticut coastline.
It had been a couple of years since my last visit to New York. I stayed, once again, in my usual hotel, Hotel 91 in Chinatown (which makes things sound far grander than they actually are). This was a low-key visit, which I spent mostly catching up with old friends. On Sunday, I started my day at Café Grumpy on the Lower East Side, a couple of blocks from my hotel. I then popped over to Brooklyn to call into Parlor Coffee, which I first came across when it ran a coffee shop in the back of a barbershop in Brooklyn. I then caught up with old friends, Brooklyn Roasting Company, on Jay Street, the first time I had been there since the roasting operation had been moved to a new facility in the Navy Yards, where there is also a fancy new café.
Amusingly, I had pizza with a couple of Instagram friends from Leeds, Simon and Gemma, who I’d managed to miss the last couple of times I was in the city, but managed to meet (for the first time in person) on the other side of the Atlantic. Life is strange at times. Finally, I ended the day as I’d started it, in Café Grumpy, this time in its new (to me) branch in Nolita (thanks to Simon and Gemma for the heads up).
Monday was a similarly low-key day. I started off at the Egg Shop for breakfast, then headed to Café Integral for coffee. Like Parlor Coffee the day before, Café Integral was somewhere I’d discovered on my previous trip. Rather than being in a barbershop, Café Integral had been in the American Two Shot clothing store. Sadly, the coffee bar has since closed, but now Café Integral has its own café on Elizabeth Street, next door to the Egg Shop. From there, I wandered across Manhattan, walked up the Hudson River Greenway and onto the High Line, ending my day at Underline Coffee, which I’d visited on my previous trip, but hadn’t ever written up.
From there, it was off to the Port Authority bus station to catch the coach out to my friends in Wayne, New Jersey, where I spent the next three days. If anyone thinks my life is one long holiday, just travelling and visiting coffee shops, then please note that I occasionally have to work. On this occasion, I spent all three days of my visit editing documents for the day job. I know, it’s a hard life…
Come Friday morning, I was off again, this time heading down to Philadelphia for the weekend. You can see how I got on after the gallery.
I’ve very much cast this trip as a journey from Boston to Phoenix by train, notwithstanding the fact that the first and last legs have been by car. And now it turns out that I skipped the bit from New York to Newark too, although in my defence, I did do it by public transport, just not by the conventional route.
This would have seen me catch the train from New York’s Penn Station to Philadelphia. Instead, I got the coach from New York to Wayne’s Route 23 Transit Center on Monday evening, stayed for three days with my friends in Wayne, then set off again on Friday morning, finding myself back at the Transit Center. From there, I caught the New Jersey Transit Commuter Rail service to Newark’s Broad Street Station, from where the Newark Light Rail took me the short hop to Newark’s Penn Station, where I picked up an Amtrak train to Philadelphia.
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that this is exactly the same journey that I took two years ago. It turns out that when it comes to connecting services between the commuter rail and Amtrak, there’s not a lot of scope for variation, so I even ended up on the same train to Philadelphia, the Keystone Service, which runs from New York to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, via Philadelphia, departing Newark at 9.46, covering the 80 miles to Philadelphia in a respectable hour at a cost of $58, the most expensive (per mile travelled) part of the trip.
Of the journey itself, there’s not much to tell. The weather was pretty poor, with the first of a series of storms to hit the area arriving that morning. The commuter train passes some fairly pretty scenery on its way through Little Falls and Montclair, before reaching the urban sprawl of Newark. Unlike two years ago, I knew what I was doing this time, so jumped straight on the Light Rail, a journey of maybe 10 minutes through the centre of Newark, which is prettier than I had expected.
As a result, I found myself with almost an hour to kill at Newark Penn Station, which, as stations go, isn’t that bad. The train down to Philadelphia was on time and the journey uneventful, despite the deteriorating weather. It’s not the prettiest route, but once you get out of Newark itself, there’s some decent countryside, so it’s worth looking out of the windows from time-to-time. I arrived in Philadelphia shortly before the storm, which was fairly good timing on my behalf since it played havoc with the trains later in the day.
I was staying out near the airport, just a 15-minute ride from 30th Street Station on Philadelphia’s regional rail service (a cross between a metro and a train). My original plan had been to get the regional rail out to the hotel, drop my bags, then head back into the city for the afternoon. As it was, I got to the hotel at 11.30 to be told that no, I couldn’t check in early (not without a $30 fee), no, there was nowhere I could leave my bags and no, check-in wasn’t until three o’clock. I could, however, sit in the breakfast room if I liked…
So I sat in the breakfast room and got on with some work, quietly fuming to myself. By the time three o’clock rolled around and I finally got into my room, the storm had well and truly arrived, with the snow blowing horizontally past the windows. At this point, I decided that perhaps I’d best stay in the hotel for the rest of the day. Maybe the hotel’s intransigence had done me a favour after all…
I’ve not had much luck recently when it comes to hotels in Philadelphia. The first two times I visited, I stayed at the awesome Penn’s View Hotel down by Penn’s Landing, where my friend Greg was able to get me a good rate. Since then, I’ve paid the price for staying in cheap(er) hotels. On my previous visit, when it was -7⁰C outside, I managed to book a hotel with no heating and this time it wasn’t much better…
I stayed in the Microtel out by the airport, which was the only place I could find anything vaguely affordable. Part of the problem is that I always seem to visit Philadelphia during the Flower Show, which apparently is huge, making reasonably-priced hotel rooms hard to come by, especially when you don’t book more than a few days in advance.
At first, it seemed that I’d done okay with the Microtel. Despite the unfriendly and unhelpful welcome, the room was large, had a decent desk and was everything I needed. Even the Wifi worked, which you can’t always take for granted! I spent the rest of the day cooped up in the hotel, waiting out the storm, and getting on with my work (I still had the document to finish editing for the day job).
The following morning, the storm had cleared and the snow had all but melted, so I headed off into the city, the idea being that I would finish off my work that evening. The only slight problem was the storm had damaged either the signalling or overhead power lines on the airport line, so there were no trains. Instead, I changed my plans, hoped in a cab, and headed for south Philadelphia. I ended up walking along Passyunk Avenue, heading north towards the centre, effectively taking the route I took two years ago in reverse. Along the way I called into the latest branch of an old favourite, Rival Bros, revisited the original Plenty Café, popped into old friends, Ox Coffee, now roasting its own coffee, and, at Max’s recommendation, called into Rally, which had opened not long after my previous visit. I ended my day at the new Plenty Café on South 5th St, where I had dinner before catching a cab back to the hotel.
This is where it all started to go wrong. At some point during the day, the hotel had lost (almost) all its power. My room had no light and no heat, although at least it had power to the wall sockets. Now, I understand that bad things happen and that the hotel is at the mercy of the power company. However, it can control how it responds to problems and its response, from start to finish, was terrible. That Saturday night, there was no sign of management, just one harassed member of staff on the front desk, dealing with a long queue of unhappy customers. I saw no point in adding to her grief, so went back to my room and got on with some work until it was too cold to type any more.
The following morning, the trains were running again, so I headed back into Philadelphia for brunch with my friend Chad. We ate at Green Eggs Café on South 13th St, and my brunch was so huge, it kept me going for the rest of the day. We then called into old favourites, Double Knot and Greenstreet Coffee Co, to continue catching up over coffee. It was actually a really nice day, despite the storm two days before, so after that, I walked over to Kensington in North Philadelphia to revisit the ReAnimator Coffee Roastery, then made my way back to the hotel by a combination of metro and train.
Sadly things hadn’t gotten any better. The power was still down, there was still no sign of management and there was still one poor soul manning the check-in desk. This time I did complain and was offered a derisory $20 compensation, or, I was told, I could find somewhere else to stay and my room that night would be cancelled at no charge. Since I was leaving in the morning, I declined this generous offer of trying to find a free hotel room at a reasonable price at short notice in a crowded Philadelphia, then packing up my things in a dark room, hoping not to miss anything, then paying for a taxi to get over to wherever the new place was, and instead went back to my room to work until it was too cold to continue.
When I left on Monday morning, the power was still out, although the manager, who was finally there, did offer me $45 as compensation, which I accepted. Sadly, the matter didn’t end there. The manager put a charge on my card of twice the agreed amount, resulting in it going overdrawn, which in turn meant that I couldn’t use the card until the charge had lapsed at the end of that week. When I called to ask why, the manager was rude and dismissive, undoing any goodwill (and then some) that the $45 compensation had earned him. In short, I won’t be staying at the Microtel at Philadelphia Airport again, not even if it has the only hotel rooms left in town.
I caught the train into central Philadelphia, laden down with my bags. My final destination that day was Manassas, south of Washington DC, and I had two options. The first was to repeat the journey that I’d taken two years previously, catching the train direct from Philadelphia to Manassas. This didn’t leave until four o’clock, so would leave me plenty of time to visit a few more Philly coffee shops. The second option was to catch a morning train to Washington DC’s Union station, leaving me a few hours to explore the capital’s coffee shops before catching either another Amtrak train (or a commuter train) down to Manassas or jumping on the metro.
Given that I had all my luggage with me, I quickly ruled out the metro option and, in the end, decided against the extra faff of trying to change trains, going with the option of the direct train in the afternoon. As an added bonus, the regional rail line in from the airport, as well as calling at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, then goes on to run right through the centre of the city, effectively turning itself into a metro. This dropped me right into the heart of a cluster of coffee shops I wanted to visit, which pretty much made my mind up.
My first stop was Bluestone Lane near Rittenhouse Square, a short walk south of the centre. It’s one the places I visited back in 2016, but never got around to writing up. An Aussie-inspired chain, it had started life in New York, where I came across it, but now has branches around the country. I called in for a lunch and a quick espresso. From there, I had planned just to make my way to Peddler Coffee, but along the way, I passed the new branch of an old favourite, Ultimo Coffee, and it looked so good from the street that I had to call in and say hello. And have some coffee, of course.
From there, I then did make my way over to Peddler Coffee, another from my 2016 visit that I never managed to write up, a situation I have since rectified. After another quick espresso and (English) muffin, it was time to haul myself and my bags back to the station for the train to Manassas.
Most of this Travel Spot has been in praise of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service. However, it’s not perfect and there still remains quite a few perversities, the most annoying of which is making passengers queue up, just as you would at an airport, to “board” the train at a “gate”. This was perfectly illustrated, along with its perverse pointlessness, at Philadelphia, where a long line of passengers snaked around the concourse, patiently waiting to board the train.
I could just about understand the practice if it allowed the train to arrive and discharge its passengers before the new passengers filed down to the platform and boarded the train. However, that’s not what happens in my experience. Instead, we queue up at the gate, then file down to an empty platform and wait there for the train, rendering the whole queuing on the concourse utterly pointless.
Coming from the UK, where we just go down to the platform of our own accord and wait for the train, it’s an utterly bizarre practice. I can only assume that it’s done because that’s how it’s done in airports, and that’s what the vast majority of Americans are used to, but even so, it seems like a self-inflicted wound that makes train travel more hassle than it needs be. On the other hand, it’s still far more preferable when compared to the hassle of flying.
When it comes to getting to Manassas, it’s not particularly well-served by Amtrak trains, although in its defence, it is on the VRE (Virginia Railway Express) commuter line which slightly increases your options. The VRE, however, really is a commuter line, with six trains before eight o’clock in the morning going into Washington DC, and just one coming out. This pattern is reversed in the evening, with six trains coming back from DC and just one going in. Oh, and there’s a solitary train each way in the afternoon. And that’s it.
Amtrak, meanwhile, has even fewer trains. There’s a solitary daily Northeast Regional Service to/from Roanoke and the three-times-a-week Cardinal to/from Chicago. And finally, there’s the Crescent, which runs daily from New York City to New Orleans, calling at Manassas along the way. And it just so happens that this is the train that I caught, leaving Philadelphia at a very convenient 15:55 and arriving at Manassas at 19:22.
This, by the way, is pretty much my experience of travelling with Amtrak outside of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington DC. One or two trains a day (if you’re lucky) and, sometimes (if you’re really lucky) at very convenient times.
On this particular day, the train, having been scheduled to leave New York at 14:15, somehow conspired to be 20 minutes late arriving in Philadelphia. From there, though, it covered the 130 miles to Washington’s Union Station in pretty good time, arriving on schedule at 18:00, where there is a 30-minute layover to change from an electric locomotive to a pair of diesels which take the train on to New Orleans. It wasn’t the smoothest ride, particularly compared with the trains I’d taken earlier in the trip. There were multiple bumps and jerks, which made working on the laptop a pain at times. Whether this was the track or the rolling stock, I’m not sure, although I’m inclined to blame for former.
I’ll write more about the train itself in the next instalment of the Travel Spot, since it’s the same train that I took all the way to New Orleans later that week. Compared to the countryside from Newark to Philadelphia, the stretch south to Washington DC is very pretty, passing through plenty of open countryside, with much less of the urban/industrial landscape, although there’s still plenty of that. The best stretch, in my opinion, is north of Baltimore, where the line crosses the wide estuaries of several of the region’s rivers as they drain into Chesapeake Bay.
This section of the journey was undertaken in glorious late evening sunshine, topped off by a glorious sunset as we pulled into Union Station. Compared to the last time I took the journey, where we waited for over an hour in Union Station (I suspect someone had lost the keys to the diesel locomotives down the back of the sofa on that occasion), things weren’t too bad. Scheduled to leave at 18:30, we departed at 18:38, pretty much maintaining that delay all the way to Manassas where I arrived at 19:30. What the line is like south of DC, I can’t really say, since the entire journey was done in the dark.
That’s it for this instalment of the Travel Spot. You see how I got on when I caught the train down to New Orleans in the next instalment.
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