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Rail Trip

I’m off to the APTI Northeast Chapter meeting in Salem, Massachusetts. Based on a fast look at a map, the downtown is full of witch-themed businesses, but I want to instead discuss my trip there. I’m going to take the NYC subway (probably the 1 line, maybe the E line) from lower Manhattan to Penn Station; Amtrak from Penn Station to South Station, Boston; walk (or take the T if the weather’s bad) from South Station to North Station; and then take the Newburyport/Rockport MBTA line to Salem. I live a short walk from the subway stations at the beginning of the trip and my hotel is a shot walk from the Salem station.

That may sound complicated – particularly to people who drive a lot – but it’s really not. Local transit line to hub, trunk railroad from hub to hub, and local transit line from hub to destination. It’s the equivalent of driving on local streets, getting on a main highway, and then driving on local streets.

The 1 train was completed more or less in its current form in 1918. Penn Station opened in 1910, but the Hell Gate bridge didn’t open until 1917, allowing trains from the New Haven Railroad into the station. South Station opened in 1899 (the picture above, showing its yard and rear, was taken in 1904 or so). The line to Salem opened in 1838 (!) but didn’t run all the way to downtown Boston until 1854. In other words, someone could have taken a trip very similar to mine in 1918; the subway would have been less pleasant, and the main line slower (electrification of the line from Penn Station to New Haven was complete in 1914, but electrification from New Haven to Boston wasn’t complete until 2008.), but the route would almost identical.

Without checking any census data or sociological studies, I’m pretty comfortable saying that conditions in 2023 – population patterns and travel patterns, for example – are not the same as they were in 1918. Transit systems need to grow and change over time to keep up with needs of travelers. No one thinks it’s strange to open a new highway, or add lanes to an existing highway, to address changes in use, but for some reason people think that once a rail line is built, it’s done forever.

The gap between South Station and North Station in Boston, like the gap between Grand Central and Penn Station in New York, is the result of how the systems were first built. Many big cities have (or had) multiple rail terminals, and it’s only in recent decades that some cities, like London, are building main-line links between the stations. Most rely on subway systems, the way the New York and Boston do.