What is the Train Aficionado Podcast
The Train Aficionado audio podcast will be where we talk about everything that rides on rails from trains and trolleys to transit. Host and railroad enthusiast Jonathan Higgins will bring his blog to life with in depth interviews and discussions with railfans, model railroaders, transportation experts, and museum/excursion directors. If you love trains and railroading this is the podcast for you. Podcast will be posted right here so stay tuned!
We are looking for you!
Looking to promote your scenic railroad excursion, railroad club, or railroad museum? We would love to talk about your railfan destination or group. Our readers are always looking for new places to go and see. – Contact Us
Wednesday night, I attended a two hour meeting about the upcoming schedule and fare changes to the Providence/Stoughton Commuter Rail Line. After I got back, my daughter asked “why do people care so much about trains?” I didn’t give her my full answer, but this blog post will. Prior to attending this meeting, I started to do research on the fare increases, and how much it will cost to the daily rider for the monthly pass holder. I also looked at the 114 page “Ridership and Service Statistics 14th Edition 2014 Report” put together by the MBTA, and started to take in all the numbers involving this commuter rail line.
Top 10 commuter rail inbound boarding stations (April 2013)
1 Providence 2325
2 Salem 2122
3 Beverly 2058
4 Lowell 1770
5 Mansfield 1707
6 Attleboro 1665
7 Anderson 1502
8 Worcester 1475
9 South Attleboro 1462
10 Framingham 1299
The public MBTA hearing on the upcoming schedule and fare changes started a little after 6PM. At this point, I’ve been to a handful of these public hearings. Normally there is someone who makes opening remarks and then someone presents the topic at hand with a powerpoint presentation.
MassDOT and MBTA Presentation
Michael Berry, a Legislative Director at MassDOT, said the opening statements and Corey Lynch Deputy Director of the Railroad Operations at MBTA did the presentation. Lynch presented a handful of generic slides about the upcoming changes and how they will overall benefit the commuter rail user. Yes, I said generic; the slides weren’t geared directly to the Providence/Stoughton line. It would be my guess that they are using this same slide show at each public hearings across the state. Lynch said the goal is to improve service on the line, but it will come with a cost: in this case that cost is eliminating station stops and changing train times.
Corey Lynch Deputy Director of the Railroad Operations
Michael Berry Legislative Director at MassDOT
Lynch also stated that there would be a reduction on interlined trains. A train set may start its day on the Providence/Stoughton line then during the mid-day the train set may be used on a different line operating out of South Station before returning the Providence/Stoughton line for the PM peak service, but not anymore. The MBTA has found that running interlined trains has made issues affecting multiple lines. Let’s say “train set A” is working on the Worcester line and they are having signal problems. “Train set A” is 20 minutes late inbound to Boston. Once “train set A” returns back to South Station, it becomes the outbound Providence train. Now this 20 minute delay has carried over to the Providence line. It’s almost like dominos, once a delay happens, everything keeps getting pushed back more and more.
The MBTA is standardizing the “Peak Box” throughout the hold system. AM peak service would be between 6AM – 10AM and PM peak service would run between 3:30PM – 7PM.
Rail Traffic Controller (RTC)
When putting together new schedules, the MBTA uses Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) software. This software simulates everything from signals to station stops. This helps the MBTA see if the new schedules will work.
Feedback from the Commuters
Both Berry and Lynch stated that this public hearing would be used to get feedback from the riders. This feedback is then used to finalize the changes on the line affected. The presentation lasted about 20 minutes give or take. About a handful of local officials started off the feedback process. They all pretty much stated the same thing: fare spikes for lousy service, problems with the rescheduled train times, and a huge outpouring of negativity for the plan to eliminate stops at Ruggles station inbound and outbound on both the AM and PM commutes. One of the politicians stated he got over 100 calls already about the Ruggles station.
Once the presentation and the politicians had their little speeches, it was the commuters’ turns to address their concerns and issues. I’m going to summarize the 50 plus commuters’ concerns and issues below:
- Overcrowding – Most peak trains are standing room only. Conductors are not able to punch tickets or view passes/mobilepass. One commuter rider stated she has a 10 ride pass, and she was able to use that same pass for 10 months. A 10 ride pass is good for 5 round trip rides. The MBTA states this has been an ongoing issue and they have hired 30 more conductors across their 12 commuter rail lines. That means that one or two extra conductors would be on the Providence/Stoughton line trains.
- More coaches/double decker coaches – Currently, the MBTA is running 6 to 8 coaches on most trains. Some of the trains sets are running single level coaches.
- Higher fares for slow service – The Providence/Stoughton line is plagued with delays almost daily. During this two hours meeting, people were getting alerts about 20-40 minute delays on the line. One commuter said that the MBTA operates on its own time, not real world time.
The Biggest Concern – Ruggles Station
The biggest concern by more than 75% of the people that spoke was about Ruggles station. Here is some background about Ruggles.
This intermodal station is location in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. This station services MBTA’s Orange Line Subway system and the following commuter rail lines: Franklin, Needham, Providence, and Stoughton trains. With only 3 platforms, it is hard to service 4 commuter rail lines. There are plans in the works for adding a fourth platform. A $20 million grant was awarded to the project back in 2014. Lynch states the project should be complete within 2 ½ years, and the MBTA says the reduction of trains stopping at Ruggles is a temporary inconvenience until the fourth platform is added.
Eliminating this stop affects a lot of people working in the medical field. Ruggles Station is the closest to the Longwood medical area. There were nearly a dozen medical professions that spoke up at this meeting, and they are also concerned about their patients who will be affected by this as well. People that need to get to this area of Boston would need to be dependent on 2nd mode MBTA transportation such as the bus or subway, extending their already long commute.
Keeping passengers informed?
According to commuters that use Ruggles station, nothing was posted by the MBTA about this public hearing. Some commuters took it upon themselves to post signs promoting the meeting. Two women that use the commuter rail daily to get to their jobs in Attleboro and Providence started a petition to stop the schedule change. In one day, they had over 130 passengers’ signatures, most of them were hearing about the major changes to the schedule for the first time. I was hearing the same thing over and over again about how the MBTA is doing a poor job informing passengers about the major changes coming in May.
This wasn’t the main topic of discussion at the public meeting, but here is what it would look like for a customer using the Mansfield Station (Zone 6).
Why do people care so much about trains?
Getting back to my daughter’s question… Over 1 million people depend on the MBTA to get them from point a to point b. Most are commuting daily to work so they won’t need to drive into the city, or they don’t have a car so this is their primary mode of transportation. Commuters work their schedules around the MBTA’s services, and in most cases it’s convenient, as long as it operates at 100%. Huge changes to service or scheduled times create huge problems for the system user.
I heard from a single mother of 3 kids who uses the service to get to and from work. Bypassing the Ruggles stop would make her commute longer and her kids would need to be at daycare later. The Ruggles stop seems like a minor change to a train schedule but it comes with huge consequences for its riders. This single mother’s daycare cost for her kids will go up and she will have less family time each night because of the elimination of the Ruggles stop. I’ve heard many similar statements from others that spoke that evening; this one change affects thousands of commuters like her.
- I think the MBTA needs to review the schedule changes and offer a few more trains stopping in Ruggles.
- Since this line is overcrowded, they should be using train sets with 8 double deckers coaches, rather than single decker trains and train with few then 8 coaches. I just saw article today about a surplus of locomotives and cars going to a commuter rail project in Springfield. Shouldn’t we take care of the current lines before expanding service elsewhere?– Read the article
- The MBTA should be posting information at every single station about these public meeting so people know about them.
- This public meeting was a one-sided discussion. The MBTA states that they are recording all the concerns and issues address by the riders for later review. I’ve been to a few of these meetings and this is the first time I’ve been to one where it wasn’t a two-way conversation. I think people would feel better if someone answered their questions.
- If they are going to reduce service to the Ruggle Station, they should make it a fair balance between 4 of the commuter rail trains stopping there.
- I understand the MBTA needs to balance their books, and not collecting the fare isn’t helping their problem. This wasn’t the first time I have heard about this ongoing issue. If they were collecting the fares, they wouldn’t need to raise them.
- What is there to pay more for? The service isn’t improving the Providence/Stoughton Line, instead it’s plagued with delays almost daily. The day after the meeting, I heard a call over the scanner from the inbound Wickford Jct saying that Train #808 was stopped at Attleboro Station due to a mechanical problem.
I was able to drive over the station to take photos and a video. See photos and a video below showing Train #808 smoking at Attleboro Station.
Train #808 was experiencing a head end power (HEP) failure. The train was able to pull out of Attleboro Station with the HEP system shut down. This system provides electrical power to the coaches, including the lights, heating, and air conditioning. Once the train pulled out of Attleboro Station, the MBTA Mechanical Department recommended removing the filters to restore electrical power back to the coaches. This would be the temporary fix to the problem.
I will keep a watchful eye on this. The new schedules take effect on May 23. You can still voice your opinions about the changes on the Providence/Attleboro Line by e-mailing the MBTA.
Amherst Railroad Hobby Show
For nearly 35 years, the Amherst Railway Society has been hosting the largest train show in New England. People come from all over the country to visit the Eastern State Exposition Center in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Train modelers and rail-fans can spend the day looking at over 8 acres of train things in four of the largest buildings on the property.
If you love trains, the Amherst show has something for everyone with over 500 exhibitors and dozens of operating layouts. Exhibitors range from hobby shops, museums, clubs, model train manufacturers, scenic railroads and so much more. During the two days, over 25,000 railfans take in the show.
I haven’t been to the train show in a few years. I use to go almost every year when I was a teenager, and I remember going to the train show after a major snow storm. Thankfully there was no snow this year and the weather was perfect.
On Saturday, my friend and fellow railfan Will Grueb made our way out to West Springfield, MA. We had a two hour ride ahead of us so we got on the road at 6AM before the sun was even up. We stopped at Denny’s for a big breakfast before arriving at the train show. We got in right when the doors open at 9AM, and we spent most of the day exploring the four buildings.
Steaming Tender Restaurant
Weeks prior to going to the train show, I made reservations at one of my favorite railfanning spots and restaurants, the Steaming Tender Restaurant in Palmer, Massachusetts. It is a common practice for visitors of the show to get dinner on the way home at the Steaming Tender. The Steaming Tender Restaurant is located inside the old Palmer Railroad Station, at the junction of two active railroad lines. During your visit, you can see CSX and New England Central Railroad freight activity. – See full schedule
Will and I arrived a little before 3PM to a packed parking lot. There were nearly 2 dozen railfans with cameras and camcorders moving about the property, hoping to snap a photo or recording of the next CSX or NECR train moving past the station. Will and I made our way into the restaurant and were greeted by the owner, Robin Lamothe. The beautiful station was built in 1884, and the large windows and hardwoods are amazing. Will order the Pot Roast Dinner and I had the New England Turkey Dinner. Both meals were hearty and delicious. Save room for dessert, because their famous Whiskey Bread Pudding is amazing.
After dinner, we took a walk over to Palmer Hobbies located on Main Street. This downtown hobby shop specializes in HO and N scale model trains. I found a book I was looking for called One Town & Seven Railroads – The Railroads of Palmer, Massachusetts Past, Present & Never Were. The shop was open for longer hours due to the train show.
Tips for the Train Show
Here are some tips if you plan on attending the 2017 train show:
- Save time and order the tickets online. When ordering you can do a one day wristband or two day. Once ordered, they will ship you the wristband prior to the show so you can avoid the lines.
- Have a good breakfast before starting the big day at the show.
- Get there early and try to go on Saturday to get the best selection.
- Try to bring some cash because sometimes vendors will give you a better deal if you’re paying with cash.
- If you see something you’ve been looking for, don’t put it down because it may be gone when you decide to buy it later.
- Looking for common products that most vendors stock such as a DCC system? Shop around, often vendors may have a special show price.
- Research, research, research. You may want to research the products you’re looking to purchase. You can even preview the list of vendors on the Amherst Railroad Show website. Almost everyone has websites nowadays.
- Bring a friend, it’s helpful to have an extra set of eyes and ears while you’re shopping.
- Bring a reusable shopping bag, this will save you on carrying multiple little bags.
- Leave the big winter coat in the car, often the building are quite warm with all the people.
- Having lunch at the show? Avoid the noontime hour and try to eat before or after to avoid the long lines.
- Planning on having dinner at the Steaming Tender Restaurant? Make reservations prior to the train show weekend.
You wouldn’t know it today, but both Millis and Dover, Massachusetts were once busy railroad communities. The Millis Branch cuts right through the centers of Dover and Millis, and the tracks are still in place throughout the whole right-of-way, which looks abandoned from west of Needham Junction to Medfield Junction; a total of nearly 8 miles. It’s been nearly 50 years since these rails saw passenger service south of Needham. As for freight service, I’m not sure when the last freight trains traveled down the branch. The railroad tracks are still visible where they cross streets and signage is still posted that at most locations as well. Today, most of the right-of-way is overgrown with high grass and brush.
A special town hall meeting was held on Thursday, January 14, 2016 looking for input from the public concerning a proposed “Rails-to-Trails” recreational path along this MBTA owned right-of-way. In 2011, Dover Rail Trail Committee (DRTC) was the first group to do a study on doing a Rails-to-Trails project in Dover.
The meeting started few minutes after 7pm in a packed room of Dover residences. Robert Weidknecht from Beals + Thomas, a Southborough MA consulting firm, gave a 30 minute presentation about his Feasibility Study – Dover Recreational Path. Weidknecht gave a detailed overview of the 86 page study. – See full study
This rails-to-trails project has a lot of similarities when comparing it to the recently completed project in Holliston, MA. The trail would run on the current roadbed of the Millis Branch, running 3.5 miles from the Medfield Town line to the Center Street overpass. There aren’t any plans to cross the Charles River Railroad Bridge. This trail would be independent and would not connect to the Needham trail. Like the Holliston Project, the right-of-way would be a 10’ stone dust path, and some areas of the path would be narrower due to terrain
In order to move forward with the project, the rails and railroad ties would need to be removed from the right-of-way. This would be something done along with the MBTA since the town would be leasing the property from them. Once removed, the roadbed would be capped with a minimum of 6 inches of a compacted gravel base, and 2 feet of compacted stone dust would be placed on top of that. The right-of-way crosses five major roads through Dover. Safety devices, signage, and pedestrian visibility will be factored in to make each of the 5 major intersections safe for trail users and road traffic. The study estimates a total of 155 parking spots will be available in different locations along the trail on the weekends. Along the trail there will be guard railing put up for elevated locations and screens (plants/fencing) for abutters’ privacy.
Cost of the Project
In the report, you can see three different options: the basic estimated cost is $941,000, the high is $1,374,000. and the recommended plan would be $1,075,000. – see report
After Robert Weidknecht’s 30 minute presentation, residents of Dover could ask questions regarding the study. Typical questions were brought up about having a proposed rail trail, and ranged from crossing safety, trash removal, more parking options, property values, environmental concerns, crime/policing, paying for the project, and grants.
As I have mentioned in past blog entries about Rail-to-Trails, I’m a huge advocate for these projects if the right-of-way is inactive/abandoned. After looking at the report and looking at the right of way from Google Earth, I think it will be a nice 3.5 mile route offering scenic views. Most of the people that attended the meeting were positive about the project. There was a handful of property abutters not happy about a trail behind their backyards, but the way I see it, when purchasing a home it’s no secret the right-of-way is there. In this case the tracks are still visible, and three things could happen:
1. The right-of-way just gets overgrown and it is left alone.
2. The railroad that own the property decides to re-activate the rail line.
3. The right-of-way turns into a Rail-to-Trails recreational path.
I plan on keep an eye on this project to see if it gets any traction.
One of the early branch lines to be built in New England can be found crossing the following communities of Norton, Mansfield, and Taunton, Massachusetts. The Taunton Branch Railroad opened this line back in 1836. The branch would later become part of a direct route for trains traveling between New Bedford and Framingham. Today, only 1.5 miles of track are still in use on this little over 9 mile branch.
The above map shows the active portion on the line (Yellow) before it makes its turn into Myles Standish Industrial Park in Taunton, MA.
The above map shows the abandoned rail line running through Taunton, Norton, and Mansfield.
Taunton Branch Railroad | Taunton to East Norton Depot
The 1.5 miles of track provide service to Myles Standish Industrial Park located in Taunton, MA. Looking at the map below, you can see that the line takes a hard right turn. The 8.5 miles between Taunton and Mansfield were abandoned back in 1965. The track was removed and you can see a clear path in most locations.
The above map shows the spur line going into the Myles Standish Industrial Park – Taunton, MA
The above photo shows the spur line going into the Myles Standish Industrial Park. If you look at the center of the photo, you can see the path where the Taunton Branch Railroad continued north.
The above photo shows the narrow path heading north to Crane Ave South in Taunton, MA
The Branch continued to run straight, crossing Crane Ave along Robert W Boyden Road for a little bit. Once in Norton, the line crosses Crane Street, Plain Street, and East Main Street (Route 123).
East Norton Railroad Depot
Located right at East Main Street, you would find the East Norton Railroad Depot. The current structure replaced the original structure in 1853. The depot is currently owned by the Old Station Landscape Supply Company. The depot remained pretty active until the early 1950s and had a few famous visitors including Congressman and future president Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Taunton Branch Railroad | East Norton Depot to Mansfield
Once past the depot, the line crosses North Washington Street a few times before crossing Cobb Street in Taunton. You can see a small gap in the treeline where it crossed I-495. I believe this section of highway was constructed after the branch was abandoned, therefore there is no overpass or underpass for the right-of-way.
The above photo shows the right-of-way near North Washington Street in Norton.
The above photo shows the other direction at North Washington Street in Norton, MA.
The above photo was taken near Cobb Street in Taunton. The blue car is on I-495 heading northbound.
Once on the other side of I-495, the right-of-way continues running along the east side of Mansfield Municipal Airport. Once the right-of-way crosses Fruit Street in Mansfield, it is paved and becomes the WWII Veterans Memorial Trail running a mile and half into downtown Mansfield. Once in the downtown area, I believe the right-of-way path is now Old Colony Road.
The Norton stretch of the right-of-way was elevated in most areas and appears to be wide enough for two tracks. Looking at the overall branch, it seems to run in a straight line and is pretty flat; perfect for a bike trail. I was able to walk some of the right-of-way, and I got to see some track ballast and a few railroad ties off to the sides. The remaining 1.5 miles of the right-of-way is used to give access to a few spur lines into the Myles Standish Industrial Park.
A committee has been formed to extend the WWII Veterans Memorial Trail into Norton MA. This would extend the trail over 4 more miles. The committee has been working on getting this done since the 1990s. – Read more
The above map in blue shows the current bike trail.
The above photo shows the trailhead near Fruit Street in Norton, MA.
The above photo shows the right-of-way after crossing Fruit Street in Norton, MA (Heading towards I-495).
We are fast approaching the end of 2015, and boy did this year go by fast. I was able to visit some new places and revisit some favorites over the course of the year, and I thought it would be cool to make a railfan bucket list for 2016. Here is my list of the top 16 things and places I want to do and visit.
1. Amherst Railway Society Railroad Hobby Show – West Springfield, MA
I haven’t been to this train show in years. It’s the largest in New England; so large that it is hosted at the Eastern States Exposition center in West Springfield, MA. It’s nearly 8 acres of train things in four of the largest buildings on the property.
One of my friends who is also a railfan, Will Grueb, is looking to start a model train layout. Will told me he has never been to this train show, so I said that we have to go this upcoming year.
2. Ride the Worcester MBTA Line
My friend and co-contributor of trainaficionado.com, Jonah Soolman, told me this is one of his favorite lines to ride within the MBTA Commuter Rail network. I’m looking forward to my first trip on this commuter rail line, maybe Jonah will take the round trip with me.
3. Photograph Hell Gate Bridge – Astoria, NY
This spring I hope to take a road trip to NYC to see Hell Gate Bridge. This is a 1,017 foot bridge that crosses the East River and was built in the early 1900s.
4. Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum – Shelburne Falls, MA
This is one place I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time. The museum is located in Western Massachusetts, not far from the Hoosac Train Tunnel. Maybe I can visit both and catch a train coming out of the East Portal of the tunnel.
5. Tour of South Station – Boston, MA
This is something I keep meaning to do!
6. 2016 New England Rail Forum & Expo Engineering & Transit – Worcester, MA (March 22, 2016)
At this event, you get to see the Providence and Worcester Railroad equipment up close at their Worcester headquarters, plus see the latest technology coming to railroading at the expo.
7. Overnight Railfanning – Palmer, MA
I’ve been wanting to do this for years! I’ve always taken a few moments to hang out there when visiting the Steaming Tender Restaurant. I always hear activity on the online scanner feed, even at night, and I would love to able to spend the day there.
8. CapeFlyer Revisit – Cape Cod, MA
I haven’t been on the CapeFlyer since the “trial run”; it’s been two years and I think it’s time to see how this service has taken shape.
9. Seashore Trolley Museum – Kennebunkport, ME
One of my favorite places in New England! I’m sad to say I didn’t pay one visit to it in 2015, and I need to make up for that in 2016.
10. Conway Scenic Railroad [Notch Train] – North Conway, NH
I’ve been on the stretch of track that runs south to Conway Station, it’s time to go to the north to Crawford Station. From all the photos I’ve seen, this looks like a really cool trip.
11. The Eagle Lake & West Branch Railroad
This 13-mile railroad branch was abandoned back in 1933, but the interesting twist to this is that they left two steam locomotives on the rail line and that’s where they have been ever since then. The only way you can get there is by hiking to this site.
12. Hoosac Valley Service Train Ride – Adams, MA
Scenic train rides are back in the Berkshires! I was never able to do this ride before, so I want to make a point of doing so in 2016.
13. Cape Cod Central Railroad – Woods Hole Branch
I know CCCR has hosted a special train ride down the remaining Woods Hole Branch in the past, and If they do it again this year, count me in!
14. Downeast Scenic Railroad – Ellsworth, ME
It’s been nearly 4 years since I visited Downeast Scenic Railroad in Ellsworth, ME. I really enjoyed this 10 mile scenic trip through the woods of Maine, plus it’s near one of my favorite spots, Bar Harbor.
15. Photograph and Write About More Forgotten Railroads
Jonah and I will keep exploring New England looking for forgotten railroads in 2016.
16. Night Shoot
It was back in March of 2014 when I was able to try my photography skills at a group railfanning night shoot. I was able to shoot the Maine Narrow Gauge Engine No. 4 before its federal boiler certificate expired. I would like to do another one of these this year.
Many years ago the Boston MBTA abandoned its UHF analog conventional system for a new EDACS ProVoice Digital Trunking communication system. After that point the MBTA subway and bus operations went silent for scanner listeners in the metro Boston area. Scanner manufacturer Uniden Bearcat just announced a huge breakthrough for its customers: the Uniden Bearcat BCD436HP and BCD536HP scanners can now monitor the Digital ProVoice format with a paid upgrade.
Many years ago I worked as a contractor at the MBTA as a media liaison. I would update the MBTA website about delays, cancellations, and problems throughout the system. If there were major delays or problems, I would need to contact the Boston media outlets. The coolest part of the job was working in the MBTA Operation Control Center (OCC). The OCC is the home of the MBTA Subway operations. This room has a huge half circle video wall with long semicircle desks. At the desks you would find dispatchers for each line. The MBTA Green and Red lines would have two dispatchers. The Blue and Orange lines would have one. On the huge video wall, dispatchers could track all the subway trains, signals and so on. They could also control everything from signals to switches from this central location. My desk was right next to the Blue Line dispatcher. There was old Radio Shack realistic scanner, I was able to program all the UHF frequencies for the bus, subway, commuter rails, and MBTA police (now known as the Transit Police). That got me hooked and I was listening to everything from then on. I got to know some amazing people in the OCC and I even learned how to read the video wall. Becoming a dispatcher in the OCC wasn’t something you just did overnight. The women and men of the OCC spent many years working in the field, working as anything from motormen to track walkers before they could become OCC dispatchers. I’m so happy I had that opportunity to work in the OCC.
When I found about about the update, I was quite excited. It’s really great to hear the familiar communications of the MBTA subway and bus operations once again.
By Jonah Soolman
This blog entry, hopefully, is not a work of historical fiction. Everything I write here is true to the best of my understanding, and if I am off base then I hope that someone will set the record straight.
Growing up in Needham, I had absolutely no idea that an abandoned right of way splintered off the main line through town at Charles River Village and extended northwest to the long-since-gone Baker Estate until I read about it in Ronald Dale Karr’s Lost Railroads of New England this summer. Of the route, labeled 10B in his book, Karr writes, “Built to serve a resort hotel at this obscure branch was operated summers-only from 1879 until about 1885 and was abandoned in 1889.” The rails themselves have long since been ripped up, and much of the two-mile corridor has been landscaped beyond recognition. I wonder how many of the homeowners along that stretch know that a railroad literally used to run through their backyards.
Once I learned of this railroad, I set out to find any trace of it that I could. Over the summer, I found what I believe to be the ruins of the Ridge Hill Farms train station. Locating the right of way, however, proved much more difficult due to the aforementioned construction, my respect for private property that kept me from trespassing, a vague sense of where the rails used to lay, and thick vegetation.
In October, a volunteer at the Needham Historical Society told me that the right of way was still accessible via one of the town’s trails, but he could not remember which one. Upon hearing that, I used the same maps that helped me locate the ruins and a town trails maps to explore the public lands near the Charles River where I believed the right of way existed.
My first couple of trips yielded nothing but uncertainties, but as the tall grass and vegetation receded for the coming winter, I was able to find what I believe is the right of way on my third visit. Following this paragraph, I am sharing a collection of photographs on which I have superimposed yellow lines to show where I believe the tracks were. Nearly 130 years after rails were ripped up, it is amazing that their mark on the land remains.
“If I can’t ride it, I’m not interested,” is how a fellow rider on Amtrak’s 2015 Autumn Express explained the scope of his interest in trains yesterday. He was differentiating himself from other train enthusiasts who took particular interest in the tanker cars parked in the rail yard through which we were riding.
Us train aficionados may all like trains, but the facets of railroad that appeal to each of us widely vary. Unlike many of my fellow riders, I know virtually nothing about engines, railroad politics, or who owns which tracks, and my knowledge of rail history is extremely limited. I enjoy riding trains and like thinking about the places that can be explored through rail travel. That’s all. This preamble is important, as other riders could tell you many more details and stories from yesterday’s Autumn Express, while the following is solely what I experienced through my layman eyes.
Back in 2010, I participated in a bicycle race that began in Westfield, Massachusetts, headed north to Jacksonville, Vermont, and then finished back in Westfield. My favorite part of the event was traveling the stretch of Route 2 from Charlemont to Shelburne Falls. The Deerfield River, a wide, shallow, and rocky swath of water, parallels the road the entire stretch. On the south side of the river, I spotted train tracks. Those rails stuck in my mind, and over the years I occasionally remembered them and imagined what it would be like to ride them. When Amtrak revealed that their 2015 Autumn Express would give me the chance to do it for real, I jumped at the opportunity.
The Express’s point of origin was the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station in New York. The departure time was set for 8:00 AM so I arrived at 6:45 AM thinking that I would be at the front of line and have my pick of seats. Nope. Diehards were already there and had been for quite some time. Despite the excitement, everybody was calm and followed the staff’s directives to be safe and proceed slowly down the rain-slicked steps to the train once the gate opened.
Once we were through the tunnel, we rode along the Deerfield River and I looked across the water at the road where I raced my bike and imagined my five-years-younger self glancing back at the spot I now occupied and hoping that someday I would get a chance to be here. This section of the route carried a personal meaning that was probably unique to me.
After having experienced the high life, how could I possibly return to my seat in the sauna car? I told her I understood and would leave as soon as her husband returned, but for the time being I stayed there because I did not know where else to go. Shortly thereafter, he did return so I got up to leave. No, he said, stay. Confused and feeling guilty, I could not take this man’s seat, but he insisted. Turned out that he liked standing most of the trip anyway, as it allowed him to peer out the windows on both sides of the train as well as the rear. It was a win-win situation, and over the next four hours I thanked him numerous times for his generosity.
What I will say though is that he was very welcoming and seemed to genuinely appreciate everybody who had come out for the ride and wanted to make sure that we were all having a good time. The train’s rear door window was a particularly popular vantage point for photographers, and this man made sure that everybody who wanted to look out that window or take a picture got a chance. He asked me where I was from, and hours later still remembered the name of my obscure Massachusetts hometown. Not only that, but this DC-based employee who works on a national level was able to have an in-depth discussion about the tracks running through my town as if he was my neighbor.
At the train’s turnaround point in the East Deerfield yard, the crew got outside and fixed the electrical issues that caused the air conditioning problems. One employee explained the temperature woes to me. While the two engines up front were more modern, the passenger cabins themselves were built in the 1970s and use outdated technology. Once the heat comes on, it can only be shut off from the outside, he said. The air conditioning works in a similar way; once it is triggered, it cannot be shut off. Everybody thinks café cars are cold because they do not want passengers to linger, he said, but that is not actually true. The truth is that the café equipment generates heat, which turns out the air conditioner, which remains on for the entire trip.