I had expected to spend most of my month-long trip to the USA at the end of last year in Maine with Amanda. However, the death of a close friend necessitated a weekend there-and-back trip to Washington DC for the funeral. The obvious choice was to fly, but a combination of factors, including my dislike of flying internally in the US, plus a lack of (reasonably priced) direct flights, led to me taking the train, by far my preferred option anyway.
Initially, I looked at travelling down on Saturday (the funeral was on Sunday morning) but that would have involved spending all day on the train (from Boston, the quickest service, the Acela, takes seven hours, while the regular Northeast Regional takes eight hours). While exploring my options, I noticed the Northeast Regional 65, a train which leaves Boston at 21:30 on Saturday night, arriving in Washington DC’s Union Station at 06:30 on Sunday morning. That would give me plenty of time to get to the funeral, as well as avoiding an overnight stay in the DC area. And, as a final bonus, it meant I could spend Saturday with Amanda. So, the Amtrak Northeast Regional 65 it was.
Since this is quite a long post, I’ve split it into the following sections:
- Northeast Regional No. 65 (+ 66 & 67)
- Boston South Station
- Boarding & a Tour of the Train
- Viewliner Sleeper Compartment
- Overnight to Washington DC
- Washington Union Station
I’ll say at the outset that the Northeast Regional 65 is a sleeper service, otherwise I’d have ruled it out. Travelling overnight in a regular train seat (even in Amtrak’s business class) is not my idea of fun. However, I was surprised to find it. Before researching the trip, I had no idea that Amtrak ran any sleepers along the full length of the Northeast Regional corridor, having only been aware of the services that started in New York’s Penn Station (such as the Crescent, which I’d previously taken, both to Atlanta and to its final destination, New Orleans). Meanwhile the only sleeper that I’d previously been aware of that ran to/from Boston is the Lake Shore Limited, which I’d taken all the way to Chicago in 2015.
In my defence, I learned from Simply Railway that I’m not as out of the loop as I thought. Amtrak used to run a train called the Night Owl between Boston and Washington DC. This was the sole Northeast Regional sleeper before it was discontinued in 2003, although just to confuse matters, for the last six years it was the Twilight Shoreliner, running between Boston and Newport News in Virginia.
It is this route, between Boston and Newport News, that was reintroduced on 5th April 2021, although Amtrak no longer names its Northeast Regional services, so it goes by the less romantic Northeast Regional 65 (66 for the Newport News to Boston service). Just to confuse matters further, Northeast Regional 65 only runs on Friday/Saturday night. The rest of the week, it’s Northeast Regional 67, with a slightly tweaked timetable (the main difference is an additional half-hour layover in New York, which ripples through the rest of the timetable). Meanwhile, Northeast Regional 66 runs to the same schedule seven days a week.
The final confusion is that the sleeper service is only available for stations between Boston and Washington DC. If you’re continuing to (or starting from) Newport News, you can book a through ticket in coach or business class, but a sleeper compartment must be booked that separately (and, presumably, you must switch between coach/sleeper carriages at Washington DC).
With that out of the way, all I had to do was get down to Boston. Although I’ve written about the bus from Portland to Boston, my preferred method of transport is when Amanda can drive me, which is what we did on this occasion. Since we had pretty much all day, we reprised our route from August 2019, this time taking US 1 rather than sticking to the coast (which is much slower).
US 1 was the main route between Boston and Portland before the Maine Turnpike (now part of I-95) opened in the late 1940s and, unlike the freeway, it runs through multiple town centres. It’s not exactly fast, but we had time to kill, and it’s a lot prettier than the interstate. We called in at Ogunquit Beach (where we’d stopped for coffee and cheesecake in 2019), from there driving along the coast road in the twilight to Cape Neddick, where we picked up US 1A. This took us across the York River at York Harbour, from where we followed SR 103 into Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
We stopped for coffee at Kaffee Vonsolin, somewhere I’d like to check out in more detail, then carried on, taking US 1 all the way to Boston before dropping onto I-93 for the final stretch under the city centre in a tunnelled section that I know as the Big Dig. Ironically, this runs between Boston’s North Station (terminus of Amtrak’s Downeaster Service from Portland) and South Station (terminus of the Northeast Regional services). If only someone had thought to budget for a rail connection in the estimated $22 billion cost…
We arrived at South Station at 20:25, the off-ramp from the tunnel bringing us out right in front of the station, which occupies a triangular plot on the corner of Summer Street and Atlantic Avenue. Arriving by foot, the main entrance is right on the corner, where a long, broad corridor leads between the two wings of the building to the triangular-shaped concourse. This is also where you emerge, via a flight of stairs in the middle of the corridor, if you come on the T, Boston’s metro system.
If you’re driving, there’s a drop-off point down the left-hand side of the station along Summer Street, which is where Amanda and I parted company. There’s a separate pedestrian entrance here, a shallow ramp leading up along the side of the building and into the back, left-hand corner of the concourse, although it all looks a bit makeshift at the moment thanks to major building works (a long-delayed overhaul of the station, which includes the construction of a 51-storey tower).
The concourse is home to several fast-food outlets, with more in a food court in the right-hand wing of the station building. The left-hand wing, meanwhile, houses the ticket offices. If I’m honest, it’s not a great place to wait for trains (this is based on previous experiences of hanging around on the concourse) and, with the Northeast Regional 65 departing at 21:30, I had an hour to spare.
Normally, I wouldn’t have arrived that early, but sleeper tickets include access to the Metropolitan Lounge, which is a major bonus. Located above the ticket office, the entrance is just to the left (as you face the ticket office) or, if you’ve come in the front entrance, behind you to the left. You need to ring the doorbell to gain access, then pull on the door, before heading up the magnificent staircase to the desk at the top, where someone will check your ticket.
I’ve used Amtrak’s lounges at New York (the old Penn Station), Chicago and Portland, but this is my favourite by far, being both the most spacious and the prettiest. From the front desk, the lounge stretches away to your right, the bulk of it in a raised area up a flight of five steps, although there is a small kitchen area behind the desk where you can get coffee, water and snacks during the day.
The main, raised part of the lounge is rectangular, around three times as long as it is deep, running the width of the ticket office below. It has a wide range of seating, including armchairs and large, corner sofas, with something for (almost) everyone, from pairs of seats for two up to large groups.
At the far end, five steps descend back to level of the front desk, where you’ll find a large, open area with access to the toilets. There’s more seating down here, including computer desks and more sofas and armchairs. This additional seating continues along the back of the raised area, running between it and the windows overlooking Summer Street. Following it all the way along brings you back to the front desk.
I pretty much had the place to myself, sharing it with just one other passenger, so I settled down at one of the computer desks to write some of this post. However, I wasn’t there too long since the train was due to board at 21:00. The call for boarding duly came right on nine o’clock, so I packed my things away and headed down to the concourse, where access to the platforms is at the back on the right-hand side (there’s also a separate entrance from Atlantic Avenue here, plus a connecting walkway to the bus station).
One area where Amtrak really lets itself down is boarding trains, where it seems determined to make the process as close to boarding a flight as possible. However, as a regular flier, I can tell you that the boarding flights really sucks, so attempting to replicate it is a really bad idea.
My train was called for boarding at 21:00, so I slowly gathered things together and made my way down to Track 8, where I arrived at 21:10. There I found my train, but no staff, just a barrier at the end of the platform and a handful of passengers queuing in the cold. I joined the queue and, fortunately, only had five minutes to wait before the train staff arrived to remove the barrier.
Normally there’s a ticket check at this point to further delay things, but fortunately this was dispensed with and we were allowed to walk down the platform to find the appropriate carriage. In my case, this was all the way at the front, past four coach class carriages and a combined business class/café car. Although Northeast Regional 65 is a sleeper service, there’s just a single Viewliner sleeper car, then a baggage car and, right at the front, the locomotive.
As is my tradition, I wandered down to say hello to my locomotive, where I got a surprise. The line is electrified between Boston and Washington DC, but I found a solitary diesel locomotive at the front of the train (No. 111, a Genesis P42DC for those that care). I had been expecting an electric locomotive, but I found out (much later on) that overhead power is turned off each night between New York and New Haven for maintenance, so Amtrak has to run a diesel locomotive for that stretch.
I wandered back to the sleeper car, where the attendant checked my name off the list and showed me to my compartment (a roomette in Amtrak-speak). If you’re not familiar with the Viewliner, it’s a single-level sleeper car (whereas the Superliner is a double-decker) which runs on the east coast routes (any sleeper services starting from/passing through New York City will be Viewliners due to the low clearance of the tunnels under the city).
Form the door, a narrow corridor leads down the side of the carriage past three bedrooms (larger versions of the roomettes) before switching to a narrow, central corridor, giving access to roomettes in the rest of the carriage. There are 10 in all, five on either side, while at the far end is a shower.
My compartment, No. 3, was the second on the left. The sleeper car attendant explained the service, which was a little different from what I’m used to, having largely taken Amtrak’s longer, multi-day services out west. Although it was going to be nine hours to Washington DC’s Union Station, this was actually Amtrak’s shortest sleeper service!
My compartment was in the seating configuration, so I asked the attendant to return at 22:00 to make up the bed. I also asked for a wakeup call at 06:00 (the train was due into Union Station at 06:30). There’s no dining car on this service, but sleeper car passengers are entitled to one free alcoholic drink (and unlimited soft drinks) from the café car, plus you can also order hot food if you want. Finally, there was a breakfast box in my compartment for the morning.
Annoyingly, the Wifi wasn’t working in the sleeper car, so I went down to the café car, in part to use the Wifi and also to give the attendant a chance to make up the room. I did a little work and had a gin and tonic, partly in the hope that it would help me sleep. The conductors also came through to do a ticket check while I was there. We left on time, calling at Back Bay at 21:35, and Route 128 at 21:50, before reaching Providence at 22:20.
I’ve written about Amtrak’s Viewliner rolling stock before, particularly regarding my two trips on the Crescent, once on my own in 2018 on the way to New Orleans and again in 2020, when Amanda and I went down to Atlanta. My compartment was pretty much as I remember it, with a pair of seats by the window, one facing forwards, the other backwards, a fold-out table between them. When it comes to sleeping, the seats push together to form the bottom bed, while the top bed is lowered down from the ceiling on a rack and pinion system.
The seats are comfortable and, by UK standards, very wide, although one is narrower than the other. The wider of the two doesn’t quite stretch the full width of the compartment, ending just short on the corridor side, leaving enough space for a wide shelf, with a trash can underneath. You can use the shelf for storage, while there are hangers above where you can hang coats during the day and clothes during the night. Not that I needed it this time, but as an added bonus, if you’re travelling alone, you can use the top bed for extra storage. Meanwhile there’s another space for luggage opposite the top bed, which extends over the top of the corridor and can easily take a large rucksack.
The narrower seat, meanwhile, makes room for one of the Viewliner’s more interesting features: a small toilet, which also has a fold-down sink above it and a mirror above that. I know it divides opinion, but when travelling alone, it’s useful, particularly since I’m now at that age when I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be up at least once during the night to use it.
Of the two, I preferred the smaller seat, partly because it was the one facing forwards, which I prefer. It’s also handy for the twin power outlets which are inconveniently by the sink/over the toilet, so I didn’t have wires trailing all the way across the cabin, not that I spend much time in my compartment on this trip. I also didn’t use the fold out table, although on previous occasions I’ve not been a big fan of its design.
Each compartment has its own airflow control, so in theory you can control the heat. There are also plenty of lights, including a light above each seat (which is rather blinding for the person sitting opposite), a cabin light and individual reading lights, one for each seat and one for the top bed. Finally, there’s free WiFi, although this wasn’t working on this trip (this was just a problem in the sleeper car: it worked fine elsewhere in the train).
By the way, if you’re interested in what a Viewliner bedroom is like in comparison, check out this video by Simply Railway who took the Northeast Regional 66 from Washington DC to Boston, travelling in a bedroom.
When I got back to my compartment at 22:30, I found the bed made up, so I got myself settled in, eventually going to bed at around 22:45. The conventional way of doing things is to sleep with your head at the wide end (away from the toilet) but I wanted my phone both to hand and plugged in through the night, so I ended up sleeping the other way around.
The bed was very comfortable, but it took me maybe an hour to drift off, and I can’t say that I slept very well. It was more like a series of interconnected naps than a solid night’s sleep, although I’ve had a lot worse. There are no announcements after Providence (where we stopped at 22:30) so as not to disturb people who are sleeping, although in coach class the conductors do come through the train to warn you before your stop, which is a nice touch.
Despite this, it was far from quiet, particularly early on, when the train horn seemed to be sounding all the time. Since there was just the baggage car between me and the locomotive, I heard them all very clearly. Sometimes the ride was very smooth, but at other times there were plenty of bumps and jolts and, with each jolt, the upper bunk clunked loudly and annoyingly, which didn’t help.
I slept fitfully, but was definitely awake at four o’clock, before managing to drift off again, waking just before my alarm, which was set for six o’clock. However, at that point an announcement came over the tannoy that we were approaching Wilmington (scheduled departure time 04:50, which that meant we had to be at least an hour late.
I was delighted by this news, since it meant we still had at least an hour to go before I had to get up, so I promptly reset my alarm to 07:00 and treated myself to an extra hour in bed. As it was, I got up a few mnutes before my alarm went off, just as we were pulling into our next stop, Baltimore (scheduled departure time 05:40).
After getting dressed, I wandered down to the café car, letting the sleeper car attendant know so that he could convert my compartment back to seating. I had thought that I might buy something hot for breakfast, but the café car had just closed (it was scheduled to close after Baltimore, so I wasn’t surprised). However, the café car attendant offered me a second breakfast box to go with the one in my compartment, so I took it.
Each breakfast box had a blueberry muffin, small bag of nuts, cereal bar, small biscuit and a bottle of water. As breakfasts go, it was okay, but not a patch on the wonderful breakfasts I’ve had in the Amtrak dining car on previous trips. I stayed in the café car to use the Wifi, which still wasn’t working in my compartment, until we reached New Carrollton at 07:25. At this point, according to the timetable, we were 15 minutes from Washington DC’s Union Station, so I went back to the sleeper car to pack my things away, ready to leave the train.
My original plan, on arriving in Union Station, had been to visit the Amtrak Lounge before making my way to Peregrine Espresso, a DC coffee shop that I wanted to visit. However, that was based on the train arriving at 06:30 and Peregrine not opening until 08:00 at the weekends. With the train running over an hour late, it was 07:40 when we reached Union Station, where I had another surprise waiting for me, so I decided to go straight to Peregrine Espresso.
However, there was one thing I wanted to do before I left the platform. Heading past the baggage car to the front of the train, I went to say goodbye to the locomotive, only to discover that we had three locomotives not one! Two of these were diesel P42DCs and the third, an electric Sprinter ACS-64. Even more confusing is that neither of the two diesels were the original No. 111 we had left Boston with! I have no idea how or when we picked them all up, or indeed when we lost No. 111, although maybe that was the cause of our hour’s delay we suffered at some point during the night.
However, I had no time to investigate, since it was a 30-minute walk to Peregrine and I wanted to get there as close to opening as l could. My train, which was continuing south to Newport News, had arrived on one of the lower level through platforms (where the lines continue under Washington DC by tunnel), so I went up to the Amtrak waiting and ticketing concourse, then out through the magnificent architecture of Union Station, which is now a large food court.
From there, it was out into the grand hall, with its soaring arches, surely one of the finest halls in one of the world’s finest stations. Here I got another surprise, discovering that Blue Bottle had a coffee shop at the edge of the hall, a neat kiosk built into one of the arches, with a large, open seating area in the hall itself. However, there were no free tables, so I decided to continue with my original plan, walking across a near-deserted Washington DC (and past the US Capitol) on a glorious Sunday morning, to take my morning coffee at Peregrine Espresso, which is where I’ll leave you.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this account of my journey from Boston to Washington DC by Amtrak’s Northeast Regional 65. While Amtrak’s other long-distance sleeper services have more romance about them (and are much longer, sometimes spread over two or three nights), this is a much more practical experence. While I can’t guarantee a decent night’s sleep (an experience shared by Simply Railway), I still think it’s an excellent way to travel between the two cities, particularly if you don’t want to spend the whole day travelling and it’s a lot less stressful than flying.
To find out how I got on during my return from Washington DC, when I took Amtrak’s Acela service for the first time, before taking the coach from Boston to Portland, keep an eye on the Travel Spot page.
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