By far the busiest — and the most profitable — of Amtrak’s national trains are the ones that ply the Northeast Corridor: the New England to Mid-Atlantic stretch that goes from Boston to Washington, D.C. and sometimes slightly beyond. With reasonable prices and upgrade options, plus relative speed and reliability and the unmatched convenience of traveling directly from one city center to another, hundreds of thousands of people use the corridor every day for work or personal travel — three times as many as fly throughout the region.
Aside from the convenience for business and commuting (and the views), the Northeast Regional system (and its high-speed sister, Acela) is perfect for taking easy, car-free vacations for a weekend, overnight, or even just a day. The Northeast Regional’s destinations include some of the best-appointed and most conveniently-located train stations in the United States.
At the top of the line is Boston’s South Station, which consists of a large single-room triangular waiting hall with one wall opening onto the tracks and platforms. The main building has a couple of bars, newsstands, and some fast-food stalls for passengers, but nothing fancier than a Pret-a-Manger. The station has bus and local rail connections and connects to the Red Line of the MBTA, offering easy transport around the city to the colleges, the museums, and Fenway Park. What’s more, the station is a relatively short walk (and even shorter taxi ride) to Boston Common, where you can sign up for a historical walking or bus tour.
The Providence station is a small two-track concrete brutalist affair designed in a circular form with a skylight in the center like the Pantheon in Rome. While the station might not be much to boast about, it is conveniently located near the historic center of town, and just a short trip from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
New York City
The demolition of New York’s majestic old Penn Station and the erection of the grubby structure that stands in its place is widely acknowledged as one of the great architectural crimes of the modernist era. One glance at the difference between Grand Central and Penn should be enough to show you what’s been lost. However, Penn is efficiently-run and reasonably well-stocked with bars, fast-food restaurants, and places to buy beer or wine for cheaper than Amtrak’s onboard Cafe Car sells it.
Madison Square Garden is directly upstairs if you’re in town for a game or a show, but the neighborhood — essentially the Southeast corner of the garment district — isn’t New York’s most exciting. For shopping, Macy’s is nearby, but for food, your best bet is to head east a few blocks to Koreatown. The Empire State building is nearby (along with J.J., the famous hat shop) and the Morgan Library and Museum isn’t a far walk.
Like many things in Newark, the train station (also named Penn, like several others, because they used to be owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad) is a testament to the city’s tonier days. The big beaux-arts building has gone slightly to seed but like so much else in Newark, it’s beginning to see signs of revitalization. Newark’s best feature is, perhaps, the ease with which you can connect to the PATH train to visit the increasingly-popular Hoboken and Jersey City, as well as the New Jersey Transit, which you can take all over the beautiful Garden State, including to famous Jersey Shore hotspots like Asbury Park.
Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is a majestic building with a Neoclassical exterior featuring a corinthian-colonnaded portico which hides the secret of its grand art-deco interior waiting hall. Even better, one approach to the city via Amtrak affords a traveler (on the correct side of the train) with a beautiful view of the Art Museum of Philadelphia sitting like the Acropolis on its hill. Apart from the museums, most of the delights of downtown Philadelphia are a short trip across the Schuylkill River from the station.
I don’t have much to say about Wilmington, Delaware’s Amtrak station other than that it’s named after native son, former vice president, and rail-travel enthusiast Joseph “Amtrak Joe” Robinette Biden, Jr.
Baltimore boasts the third Penn Station on the route. While it is a pretty station, with a bar/cafe, a shoe shine stand, and connections to Maryland’s regional MARC commuter rail, it isn’t in the middle of the city’s tourist-y hotspot by the inner harbor (and its forecourt is marred by a hideous glowing monstrosity of “public art.”)
However, the surrounding neighborhood, which takes its name, Station North, from the station, is one of the most vibrant and exciting parts of Baltimore, close as it is to the MICA art school. There are three art-house cinemas within walking distance of the station, as well as several fantastic restaurants, a slew of live music venues (including Metro Gallery, The Wind-Up Space, Joe Squared, and The Crown,) and John Waters’ favorite kitschy dive bar, the iconic Club Charles.
D.C.’s colossal Union Station is the grand dame of Eastern train stations, comparing favorably — along with fellow stations named after the Union railroad in Chicago and Los Angeles — with some of the grand old rail stations of Europe and New York’s Grand Central. Union Station boasts not only a gorgeous exterior, but a reasonably well-organized split-level interior that makes excellent use of its space for shopping, bars, restaurants,and a large subterranean food court,along with access to the D.C. Metro, hop-on-hop-off tour buses departing from the station’s entrance, and amenities like passenger lounges and left luggage services that one expects from a civilized travel station. The lamentably-underrated postal museum across the street is the nearest tourist attraction, but the Library of Congress, Capitol Hill, the White House, and many national monuments are a short hike away.
The great secret of the Northeast Regional train is Roanoke, Virginia. Thanks to subsidies from the State of Virginia, last year, certain runs of the train were extended to terminate at Roanoke for the first time in more than 15 years. A weekend trip to Roanoke from any one of the Northeast Regional’s destinations is a perfect, easy, careless getaway. Roanoke, nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains, is a jewel of a small city, historically built around the railroad, which brought coal from West Virginia to the Eastern Seaboard. Proof of this grandeur is seen at the majestic Hotel Roanoke, which is a short walk from the station itself, as is the city’s easily walkable downtown, replete with fine dining and drinking options. The town also boasts a world-class art museum and some of the best hiking trails in the Northeast, including the highest point of the Appalachian Trail. Roanoke is the hidden pot of gold at the end of the Amtrak rainbow.
The Acela Express
One question a traveler on the Northeast Regional will inevitably face is whether to take the regular train or the Acela Express. The Acela is America’s only high-speed rail, although when compared to other high-speed trains the world over it isn’t all that fast and will usually only shave an hour at most off your total trip. So if you’re looking for a big speed upgrade, the Acela might not be worth the sometimes significant price hike compared to the typical Northeast Regional train.
The Acela is undoubtedly fancier, with cleaner, newer cars, and a feeling of the kind of civilized rail travel people in Europe are accustomed to. However, if there is an emphasis on luxury it is of the all-too-American productivity-worshipping variety — not only will you get to your destination (presumed to be an office) faster, but all the advertising is telling you how much work you can get done before you get there: room for your laptops, Wi-Fi, outlets, even little private cubicles for phone calls and video chats. Sadly, the leisurely luxury of unhurried rail travel is lost on the Acela. In fact, the train itself is unnervingly designed to look and feel more and more like an airplane, which can defeat the very reason some people prefer to take a train. The luggage is stored in locking overhead bins like on an airplane, the cabin (rather than car or carriage) is lit like an airplane, and the Cafe Car (where you’ll notice they serve basically the same food and drink for an additional dollar markup than the regular Northeast Regional,) has eschewed chairs and tables for uncomfy high stools and bar counters as if to say, “Don’t get too comfortable! You have work to do!”
On the other hand, the Acela is quite possibly where Amtrak is at its most luxurious: in the First Class car. This mood-lit, lounge-like area can cost you a couple of hundred bucks each way for a capacious seat and a delicious hot meal (better than airplane food, guaranteed) served to you along with complimentary booze. It may be the closest Amtrak can bring you to the golden age of rail travel. Its only a pity the experience didn’t last a bit longer.
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