U.S., Amtrak and Others: Will Brightline work in places such as New England, and is Boston really the Hub of the Universe?

A former Penn Central, now Amtrak, heritage locomotive leads new Amtrak power and nearly-new Amfleet passenger cars through Providence, Rhode Island in 1978. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By William Lindley, Guest Commentator; December 2, 2023

Brightline in Florida has refuted the naysayers of profitable intercity trains. As we await its ongoing results from the winter tourist season and the next year of full operation, one might well pose the question: Is Florida unique? Or might the conventional wisdom be wrong elsewhere as well, and do opportunities now present themselves in almost every state of the Union?

A contemporary photo of a Brightline train in Miami’s Design District, not far from Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in 1883, father of famous United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Having looked ahead and south, then, let us look northward and dispel a few myths about New England, formerly thought by some to be the only place where intercity passenger trains would work. Consider:

  • Boston is thirty-five miles further east of New York (about 150 miles) than it is north (about 115 miles).
  • There are (and have been) ways to get a train from New York to Maine without running into one of Boston’s stub-end terminals.
  • Despite poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s 1858 assertion, geographers have failed to reach a consensus that Boston is the Hub of the Universe.

ABOVE and BELOW: Is Boston the Hub of the Universe? Boston’s skyline in 1987 and Boston’s nighttime skyline from Boston’s Back Bay in 2021. 1987 photo by William Lindley; 2021 Wikimedia Commons photo.

The railroad industry prior to Amtrak’s formation did not view New England as having a single main line at all. What we today think of as the Northeast Corridor was assembled more by accident than design. Today’s NEC is a combined result of the fall of the Penn Central Railroad, the belated addition of the New Haven Railroad to P.C., and the ultimate transformation of the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail).

Boston’s South Station in 2011. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Contemporary view of the interior of Boston’s South Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A 2017 night view of Boston’s vibrant South Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Boston’s South Station, built in the 1890s, is now the northernmost terminus of the electrified district which extends to Washington (D.C.) Union Station. The station was built as, and remains, a stub-end terminal: a not uncommon situation is many cities at the time.

This posed little operational difficulty, as each of the various railroads ran their own passenger trains, and as in New York City, having two terminals a few miles apart within a city was viewed as a competitive feature of one road over another. In Boston, the Boston & Maine Railroad operated North Station, with its trains serving west-central Massachusetts and states to the north, while South Station served the other lines: New York Central-controlled Boston & Albany Railroad, and the New Haven road.

A New Haven Budd Rail Diesel Car and a traditional locomotive sit side by side in 1965 at Boston’s South Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The new Boston North Station as depicted in a 1928 postcard. North Station hosted Boston & Maine Railroad passenger trains and others. Part of the station complex was the Boston Garden arena and venue, which would host the NBA’s Boston Celtics and NHL’s Boston Bruins among others. The Garden was closed in 1995 and demolished in 1998. The new TD Garden was built nearly up against the old Garden and opened in 1995. John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Boston Garden in November 1960. Wikimedia Commons image.
A view of the north side of Boston North Station and TD Garden. Today, North Station hosts multiple Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter trains as well as Amtrak’s Downeaster service to Northern New England. Wikimedia Commons photo.
BUDD RDC’s were popular in New England. Here is a pair of Boston & Maine Railroad RDCs operating in and out of North Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Boston & Maine Railroad and the New Haven Railroad jointly operated sections of the Ambassador, a trans-border day train with New York City and Boston North Station sections to Montreal, Quebec. Above is the southbound Boston section north of Bellows Falls, Vermont in 1965. Wikimedia Commons photo.

A brief aside on downtown passenger terminals: The April 1959 Trains Magazine featured a now-renowned article by Editor David Morgan, “Who Shot the Passenger Train.” Regrettably, Morgan’s assessment of train stations includes:

“The old 1900-era structure… handled more than 100 trains a day as late as 1929… today traffic is down to 40 trains a day and most of them are through schedules. Both building and track layout are vastly overbuilt. Being pre-automobile in origin, the station is inconveniently planted in downtown traffic congestion, therefore lacks adequate parking space.”

An undated, post-World War II photo of David P. Morgan observing a Santa Fe streamliner pass at Joliet, Illinois. Class Trains Magazine photo.

The unfortunate proposed solution was to move the station out of the downtown area, as a small pre-fabricated structure behind a vast parking lot. This was one of Morgan’s few blunders in his many years of writing about the railroad industry. In this he understood the railroad implications, but failed to consider the ramifications of an emphasis on automobiles, not persons.

Cities and towns that promote walking and bicycling are accessible, human-scale, and amenable to strolling: all of which corresponds to a vitality both social and economic. “Sustainable” is the contemporary buzzword that represents this simple old-fashioned truth.

ABOVE and BELOW: Jacksonville, Florida union Terminal in 2020, now the city’s convention center. The suburban Jacksonville station in this 2022 view, on the city’s northwest side in a warehouse district was recently remodeled and updated. It was opened in 1974, just three years after Amtrak’s beginning. The Jacksonville station was the Amtrak prototype for new, smaller stations, including the Staples Mill Road Amtrak station in Richmond, Virginia and other locations. Both photos, Wikimedia Commons.

If you wish to experience the results in action, compare Florida’s edge-of-downtown Jacksonville Terminal (and its adjacent, if curious, monorail station) with Amtrak’s “modern” little structure out in the suburbs. Arriving at Amtrak’s station today leaves you in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking; although not quite as far from civilization as Maricopa, Arizona, a wide in the road thirty miles of desert south of Phoenix. Indeed, the removal from Phoenix Union Station to Maricopa represents the most egregious example to date of taking Morgan’s somewhat ill-advised advice to its logical extreme.

1924 promotion postcard of Phoenix Union Station. The building is still there, but is currently being used as an antenna and satellite dish farm for a telecommunications company. Wikimedia Commons image.
Amtrak’s Maricopa station, about 30 miles south across the desert from downtown Phoenix. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The remainder of Morgan’s assessment of the problems confronting the passenger, mail, and express business reflect his generally sage understandings and are well worth reading; fortunately Trains.com has reprints available for a few dollars. The subject was also revisited in the July 2023 TRAINS issue, possibly still available at a newsstand near you.

Timetables of three of the principal railroads serving New England in the 1940s and 50s. William Lindley photo.

Look back to Morgan’s time and see what can be learned about New England that applies today. The Pennsylvania Railroad, having been effectively shut out of New England by the New York, New Haven & Hartford (NYNH&H) Railroad, did regard that road as a connecting, or feeder, railroad for services beyond New York City.

This 1950 PRR system map (New England portion shown) gives clues as to how the Pennsylvania road viewed the world. Collection of the LaGrange (Kentucky) Railroad Museum.

PRR’s solution to the Boston dilemma is worth revisiting.

Summer, 1956 in the Official Guide to the Railroads: PRR operates the Bar Harbor Express through from Washington, D.C. to New Hampshire and Maine, bypassing Boston. File image.

The Bar Harbor Express ran three times weekly, via Putnam, Connecticut to Worcester, Ayer (Fort Devens), and Lowell, Massachusetts, then splitting (Saturdays only) for a branch to Manchester, Concord, and Plymouth, New Hampshire; with the rest of the train continuing to Portland, Maine where it divided again into branches: to Bath and Rockland, Maine; and to Waterville, Bangor, and Ellsworth (with a bus connection to Bar Harbor).

Boston’s two stub-end passenger train stations, North and South, still reflect the area’s railroad heritage. (Blue, B&M; green, NYC; red, Amtrak NEC; orange, former New Haven). William Lindley map.

Much has changed in Boston since the 1950s, but unchanged is the fact that Boston still has two stub-end passenger terminals, separated by the downtown area. Even the “Big Dig” relocation of Interstate 93 failed in the original grand plan to connect the railway spokes on either side of the “Hub.” The only direct rail link is a back-alley, street-running freight connection through Cambridge (diagram: shown in dark green).

Growth of passenger rail in New England will depend not just on improving what is now thought of as the Northeast Corridor to South Station, but on looking back to how the Pennsy and the New Haven ran their train-to-Maine, and beginning to think of all New England as truly part of the national system — not just a appendage of North Station.

Amtrak Downeaster train consist at the Portland, Maine station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Given this, the single biggest impediment to a New England passenger rail system is the inability to traverse New Hampshire east-to-west. This forecloses direct service between Boston and Montréal. Deactivation of all rail lines north and west of Concord, NH was a mistake and ought to be reconsidered, before costs and development make future connections even more prohibitive.

Author William Lindley at Bellows Falls, 1985. A Green Mountain RS-1 heads the excursion train to Chester, Vermont; the line continues to Rutland, the capitol city of Burlington, and Montreal. Photo provided by William Lindley.

From Bellows Falls, a B&M branch once ran through Keene, New Hampshire to Winchendon and Gardner, Massachusetts, where today one can ride the MBTA into Boston. See the PRR map above. Today, that line, as all others traversing the Granite State, has been removed.

Greater Boston, showing MBTA regional routes (purple), subway and streetcar service (in colors), and Amtrak connections. Source: MBTA.

Even without rebuilding the missing connections or creating new rights-of-way, however, we can look to MBTA to provide connecting trains for the new Maine through services: to Boston at Lowell, Ayer, and Worcester. Metro-North, Connecticut’s CT Rail, and MBTA’s “purple line” regional trains then become feeders and distributors for the through trains, not unlike how PRR viewed the New Haven lines. The network connections would work like this:

Potential Train-to-Maine with Amtrak and regional rail connections, showing possible MBTA and Amtrak extensions. William Lindley map.

Shown is a service, either originating at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station or at points south and west, through New Haven, New London, Worcester, Mass., Lowell, Dover, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine. In Maine, there has been consideration over the years of extending Amtrak’s Downeaster to Bangor, and trains from North Station through Lowell to Nashua, Manchester, and Concord, New Hampshire. These are shown on the Train-to-Maine map here. The postulated service, however, is shown as serving Bath, famous for its historic and current shipyard, and Rockland, a popular tourist destination and growing cruise ship port.

Interior of a New Haven Railroad coach in 1930. Wikimedia Commons photo.

This approach illustrated with New England can be replicated anywhere regional rail services exist, connecting new intercity routes to existing transit systems like city buses, streetcars, and subways.

File illustration.

Former Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration Gil Carmichael, who founded the Transportation Institute at the University of Denver in 1996, was an early proponent of this “Intermodal” approach. When your railroad station is an easy taxi ride from home, and when your hotel is likewise easily accessible from your destination station, it becomes possible to vacation without an automobile: a truly relaxing time. You can travel for business or to visit family without the hassle and expense of driving. Conversely, when rail systems are built only to appeal to motorists — such as we see with Minnesota’s Northstar Line, or with Los Angeles Green Line stations placed in the unappealing median of a loud, noisy, polluted superhighway — the appeal is vastly reduced. If you are already driving, you might as well stay in the car.

A next step would be a unified pool of equipment, operators, and staff among the various rail operators in a region. Pullman, who ran almost all the nation’s sleeping cars, was expert in providing a wide enough variety of railcars and onboard amenities to satisfy Americans’ far-flung tastes and needs, while maintaining a relatively small number of standards to keep training and operating costs low.

Today, especially with the advent of Positive Train Control (PTC) and other simplifying technological advances, there is little reason the MBTA, CTRail, Metro-North, Amtrak, and any other operator in the Northeast should not share at least some of their equipment and personnel, not to mention stations and tracks.

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