Up East With the Downeaster

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, June 21, 2011 No Comment(s)

In the great past we have written several times about a train called the Downeaster, which runs from Portland, Maine to Boston, where they play hockey. We had the advantage, limited to journalists, of writing about the subject without having actually taken this train. This claim can no longer be made.

Last week, with a purpose to be in Boston relating to the book we are writing on the history of city/regional magazines, we rode the Downeaster from Wells, Maine to Boston, where they play hockey. The ride is a bit more than 80 miles, about the distance from Jensen Beach to Fort Lauderdale, and we only bring that up because a train like this should exist in Florida. The Downeaster has been around since 2001, and in recent years it has been one of the fastest-growing Amtrak trains. It is a cooperative effort between Amtrak and the states of Massachusetts and Maine; it is run by Amtrak, with the familiar patriotic colors we all see, but the tab goes to the states.

The train is so popular that all seats are reserved. We did it by phone and picked up our tickets at the station, a 20-minute drive from where we were staying in Ogunquit. It is the same system used by airlines and is pretty easy, as long as your credit card is good. The train was on time at Wells, and got to Boston about seven minutes late, not bad for a trip that takes an hour and 20 minutes. The train moves along, often hitting Amtrak’s maximum speed of 79 miles an hour. There are a fair number of grade crossings, but many of the crossings are bridged. The track it uses goes back to the old Boston & Maine Railroad, which began operations in the 1840s, before they played hockey in Boston.

This is important because the Boston & Maine was built about 50 years before the first railroads reached South Florida. And yet, like most northeast railroads, grade crossings over the years have been eliminated by either building bridges over the tracks, or putting the trains in ditches (impractical in most of Florida), greatly reducing the hazard of speeding trains crashing into foolish drivers who chance a crossing when the lights are flashing.

We have said before, but it bears repeating, that Florida does not need bullet trains. It needs to rebuild its archaic rail system, eliminating thousands of grade crossings, and making possible the kinds of speeds Amtrak reaches all over the country. We also need to move Tri-Rail, or at least portions of it, from the CSX tracks to the more useful FEC, the track that goes through all the downtowns on Florida’s east coast. It is, in fact, the track that is responsible for those downtowns being where they are.

Back to Boston. The train ends at Boston’s North Station, and the new Boston Garden is built above it. Celtics and Bruins fans make up a fair number of the record ridership. Essentially though, the Downeaster is a commuter train. The attendant at the Wells station said there are about 35 people who every morning board the early train, headed to jobs in Boston. Keep in mind, that’s an 80-mile trip. The entire route from end to end is 116 miles. On our return trip, which left Boston at the rush hour peak of 5 p.m., we chatted with a young fellow, a software marketer, who commuted every day from Woburn, near Boston, to Dover, the last stop before the train leaves Massachusetts.

The train was a half-hour late, a delay caused by an effort at the North Station to repair an electrical failure which deprived the train of air conditioning. The fellow said that kind of thing was unusual; the train usually ran on time. We also had communication with a senior lady who had come up from Miami Shores, making the leg to Boston on the high-speed Acela. She was headed to Maine to visit family, and said she planned to stay as long as possible. She found the lack of air conditioning disconcerting. She kept using the Amtrak magazine to fan us both. Actually it wasn’t that bad. Not for a Floridian. The conductors had the doors open and some breeze came through. She wondered why all our trains were not like the Acela, which had obviously spoiled her. We patiently told her Florida was lucky to have any commuter trains at all, and gave her our usual lecture on how Tri-Rail had the potential to be another Downeaster.

Indeed, Amtrak has been setting up inter-city trains all over the country, and there has been talk of Amtrak coming down the FEC tracks with a train such as the Downeaster, which would make a commute from the Treasure Coast to Fort Lauderdale and Miami practical for some people. But that could not be possible with the present speed restrictions caused by all the grade crossings. Rebuilding that railroad to modern standards is the kind of job where stimulus funds could be wisely used, much more so than high-speed rail that isn’t really needed. Not long ago we asked a man deeply involved in transit planning why such an obvious need, which is now supported by the FEC, was not being served. He smiled and answered in one word: “Government.”

But things change, and in about an hour we will see it. Since leaving New England, this has been a sentimental journey, crossing New York state to the little town along the Chemung River where our family lived from 1939 to 1942. I wanted to prove to the bride that I could still find the two houses where we lived. And now, in Pennsylvania, we are going over to Pottsville, better known to readers as Gibbsville, the town John O’Hara made famous in novels and dozens of short stories. Pottsville does not have a pro hockey team, but it actually had a team called the Pottsville Maroons that played football in what became the NFL. Legend has it that Notre Dame would play in Philadelphia on Saturday, and the next day some of its players suited up for the Maroons. That story probably isn’t true, but it should be.

A lot of people forgtet O’Hara, dead since 1970, but he remains one of the masters of short fiction, and much of it set in Pottsville. There is hardly a house or bar or brothel that O’Hara mentioned that does not have a real model in this place. We wrote about this for Philadelphia Magazine in 1969. At the time many people here hated O’Hara for his depiction of the town. At the time we wrote that Pottsville should thank O’Hara for making such an ordinary and somewhat depressed town sound pretty exciting. We even suggested they make him a tourist attraction, with a statue and all.

Forty years ago that idea seemed absurd, and we meant it so. Attitudes change. Today there are John O’Hara tours of the city. And, yes, there is a statue. Like the Downeaster, we will see it live.

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