North Station

Tonight, the Bruins will take to the ice for a (full) season of hockey which hopefully unlike the last one will lead to another Stanley Cup and a banner raising. Of the over 17,000 going to a game, I would venture to guess that two-thirds will walk outside of TD Garden concourse to make their way to North Station. The majority of those will continue outside to the “Superstation” underneath for access to the Green and Orange lines as opposed to the northside commuter rail terminus they passed. This is a story of two stations….or four….or five. Cue the Zombie Nation!

Right off the Garden concourse is the mainline North Station, commuter rail hub for points north (and thanks to the listing nature of the Fitchburg Line, some which are actually WSW such as Belmont and Waltham) and terminal for Amtrak’s Downeaster to Maine. The relatively recent remodel has made the station look pretty modern while actually giving enough space for commuters and event goers to peacefully exist on certain nights. This is quite the improvement over the cramped concourse from the mid-1980s rebuild of North Station, one built without ever thinking it would be attached to an arena with 3500 more seats than its predecessor.

Under North Station and right down the street is the subway station of the same name. The current incarnation of North Station [Under] is one of the crown jewels of the MBTA system with its modern decor and its ingenious cross platform transfer setup between the inbound Green (C and E branches) and Orange Lines and not much effort to get between the two lines going outbound. Given the double duty that it has to do its namesake rail terminal right above and the Garden right behind that – often with both colliding – it does its job well and is probably the most well thought out transfer station on The T, granted it has decades over its competition. In terms of transit/arena access, it isn’t to the level of Madison Square Garden/Penn Station or Forum Centre Bell/Lucien L’Allier ingeniousness, but compared to others it might be seen as enviable. However, it always hasn’t been the case.

Growing up in eastern New York, I was blessed enough to see and use both “original” North Stations, the Causeway Street El station and the old surface station (I also was lucky enough to tour the Original Garden). Seeing the skyline and both Gardens – and for a couple years, seeing both was possible – was a sight that sadly future generations won’t be able to see from that vantage point. However, the cost of the charm and the views and that area being defined by the El had its prices: there was a single staircase for entry and exit, a single token machine, and if you wanted to transfer between lines you had a frustrating barricaded maze which made Haymarket look good. As much as it was functionally obsolete and had to be replaced due to neglect, the last time I rode through on the El several months before it was closed I felt that with it’s demise a bit of Boston would die with it. This isn’t all from the past. The surface station, after a while became a frustrating relic when you just knew that having four terminals was a bit too redundant and my one experience with it was visiting the aforementioned Garden hearing my Mom and Aunt act confused about why there’d be two distinctly different North Stations.

Flash forward to the present. I’ve used the current North Station several times but am impressed about how there was a lot of foresight in expanding it to the size that it is. In contrast to the “Kenmore Krush” after Red Sox games, using North Station after a Bruins or Celtics game is a pleasure as there’s more than enough room to for people to wait for their trains comfortably and safely. The joint platform has semi-intended benefits for the Green Line as it can have two 2-car trains on the platform with plenty of room to spare. Even those headed outbound have a good amount of platform space to sprawl out on. Having dealt with the transfer choke point in DC with the Gallery Place/Verizon Center combo and having done the walk of shame from Core States First Union Wachovia Wells Fargo Center to Pattison AT&T in Philly in a monsoon, North Station looks pretty great in contrast and deserves all the appreciation it can get. Let’s go Bruins!

Station: North Station
Rating (1-10): 8 – a solid 8 for both commuter rail and under.

Pros: The building of the Superstation and the enlarging/semi-segregation of the commuter rail terminal has made what once was a debacle a manageable experience. The Blackhawks won the Cup, but their transit situations (long walks to stations and special buses) are primitive in contrast to Boston and fans I know are envy in what Bostonians have. Also, during the week the station is the terminus of the 4 to downtown and the Waterfront and the Charles River TMA bus to CambridgeSide and Kendall Square.

Cons: Outside of some minor wear and tear (chipped tiles), putting 145′ of Green Line train on a 400′ platform during middays and nights makes sometimes getting on or off a challenge. On the outbound platform, the first car stop is far from the staircases/escalators while inbound there sometimes is a mad dash for a car. And yet it isn’t as bad as the Shady Grove-bound platform at Gallery Place in DC…

Nearby and Noteworthy: There are many, many places to either watch a game if you can’t get tickets or to go before/after a game if you do have tickets. My recommendation is The Fours, sponsor of trivia on Bruins games on NESN among others.

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Back Bay

Growing up and visiting Boston once or twice a year, I’d almost always drive into town via the MassPike and we’d pass by the assorted sites of Boston. Under and around BU, right by Fenway, under the Pru, then right past Back Bay[/South End] with its mixture of commuter rail tracks with the Orange Line wedged between. Passing Back Bay meant that I had made it to Boston and at this point the last challenge myself and whomever I was traveling with had was finding parking or a place to get off our tour bus. Heading home, it was one last taste of seeing MBTA action, B at BU West or a Framingham/Worcester Line train after a successful trip.

That said, lately I’ve ended up at Back Bay quite a bit for engagements in the area, being a quick commuter rail ride from South Station is part of why, so now is the time to review one of the more key T stations out there. The current incarnation of Back Bay is the northernmost/easternmost station on the Southwest Corridor alignment carrying the Orange Line alongside Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and serves as a major transfer point of sorts connecting the Orange Line to the Framingham/Worcester, Providence/Stoughton, Franklin/Forge Park, and Needham commuter rail lines, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, Acela Express, and Lake Shore Limited lines, plus the 10 and 39 buses as well as connections between each other. Also, the Orange Line makes this the simplest connection between the Northeast Corridor lines and the Downeaster at North Station. In theory, Back Bay should be an important station but in actuality it’s quite a bit worse for the wear.

Walk into Back Bay and save for LED signs and vending machines you’ll feel like you were transported back into the 80s given the decor. Though there has been some upkeep, there are parts that look like they’ve barely seen changes in the 26 years since the current incarnation’s opening. Entering the station, it forks into three different forks, which going from south to north are as follows.

1: Tracks 1-3 have two high level platforms and serve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains and southbound commuter rail service. These platforms are visible from the MassPike and are partially exposed to the outdoors with the ends closest to the station enclosed. Your biggest risk here is running into hoards of commuters especially as the exits are at the far south/west end of the platform.

2: The two tracks of the Orange Line which are located one story underneath the main concourse in a shallow tunnel. Typical Southwest Corridor setup, not much to see here, exit at the north/east end of the platform.

3: Tracks 5 and 7 which carry the Framingham/Worcester Line and the Lake Shore Limited. Unlike the two others, these tracks have mostly low-level platforms with a mini-high at the way end at which point the platform extends into a tunnel and has a very odd feeling. In fact, it may be the most unusual if not creepy part of the MBTA/MBCR system and I’ll let regular reader and fan @BostonUrbEx explain.

“[The westbound platform is]  the strangest place on the T that I’ve ever been, I think. Not only that but some homeless man chased me away when I was looking westward into the dark tunnel, and I had a little flashlight on me in my bag so I was using that, then he came out from behind some concrete walls and just stood there grumbling, I was freaked out and tried to casually make my way off and then he followed me, stopping every time I looked back.” 

All Aboard for Framingham, Worcester, Springfield...Albany-Rensselaer...Chicago!

All Aboard for Framingham, Worcester, Springfield…Albany-Rensselaer…Chicago!

Toss all of this in with a ton of diesel smoke, enough for some to call Back Bay a “lung cancer chamber” and for public health officials to ask those with lung conditions to avoid it, and you have Boston’s third major rail station. The smoke is at its worst on the westbound platform as it’s mainly enclosed and the mini-high is at the way end. I’d hate to see someone needing to use it with lung or pulmonary problems to have to go through torture just to ride a train.

The concourse itself can use some improvement as it has a couple small stores and and two Dunkin’ Donuts and not much else outside its ticket windows. Its two exits show a good contrast of how life is on the other side of the tracks/Pike, exit onto Dartmouth Street and you have the heart of the Back Bay plus the 10 to City Point in South Boston.  Exit onto Columbus Ave and you have the up and coming South End, the terminus of the 39, and the two rush hour round trips on the 170 to Dudley and Waltham. There’s more to do on the Dartmouth Street side but the Columbus Ave side has phantom exits, track views, and a sign salvaged from the prior Back Bay. There also is a convoluted tunnel which connects Back Bay to the Prudential Center (and Prudential station) which comes in handy when rain or navigating pedestrian-hostile intersections are in the way. Choose your adventure.

Station: Back Bay[/South End]
Rating (1-10): 4 (5 for the outside architecture and Orange Line, 4 for the NEC platforms, 0 for the westbound platform)

Ridership: A good mix of commuters and residents with the former heading more onto Dartmouth Street and the latter more onto Columbus Ave. The collection of nearby offices makes this a key stop on the Commuter Rail and often at rush hour the platforms are packed. Amtrak gets a decent amount of ridership and being in the neighborhood one day when the Lake Shore Limited comes in I saw 30 people board for points west.

Pros: It’s the main rail connection to the South End and is a very good bypass for when the mainline of the Green Line is snarled. The outdoor architecture is a bit akin to a urban version of Alewife. It also is a good connection to suburban and inter-city transport.

Cons: This station should come with a Surgeon’s General warning and westbound passengers should be given respirators if not oxygen masks. Besides that, improve some of the lighting on the Orange Line/southbound platforms and a LOT of lighting on the westbound platform and put in a better ventilation system and that rating would go fast. As with the rest of the Southwest Corridor, Back Bay answers a question that wasn’t asked a clearly as the answer warranted.

Salem (Depot)

Let’s go find a time machine and set the clock to Summer 1996, sometime right after the Atlanta games ended. I know everyone wants to go ride plug-doored Boeing LRV’s and 01800’s with their original red sets, but this story begins at the Days Inn in Danvers. My mom and I were visiting Boston but wanted to not deal with finding a parking space and we researched Salem (Depot) on the Commuter Rail’s then-Ipswich/Rockport (pre-Newburyport!) line. We drive down Route 114 in her base model ’95 Geo Metro with no AC and turn into the parking lot, the huge carcass of the former Parker Brothers factory looking over it, thinking about all the board games made there through the years.

Mom took one look at the old fashioned coin/bill slot board, was bewildered by the concept, openly wondered why they couldn’t have someone manning the lot, turned back on 114, and decided that 128 and 93 in rush hour, the old Central Artery and the Big Dig mess was simpler than wadding $2 or eight quarters in a slot.

Back to the present. I finally got to use Salem for its intended purpose. Since 1996, Salem has gained a mini-high platform at its north/east end which has been the main modification to the current 1980s vintage station. Walking down the ramp which runs behind the mini-high, there is a busway with routes connecting to Lynn, Beverly, the Peabody/Danvers mall corridor, Wonderland, and during the week Haymarket and Downtown Crossing while to the left is the low-level majority of the platform. The platform and busway area eventually merge before they ascend a staircase with a very 80s headhouse to Bridge Street with the historic downtown core of Salem not far away. Looking over the station in place of the former Parker Brothers factory are

After taking care of some business in Salem, I walked back and felt the main downside of the station: The North River runs adjacent to the parking lot and when I visited the winds were fierce and felt a lot colder than the mid-40s which the thermometer claimed it was. luckily, a train came quickly however in the future putting up some heat lamps might be a good investment especially as the station is going to be renovated.

The real pluses of Salem as a station are the historical knick-knacks around the station, especially its system map which not only is unchanged from its 1987 opening but is anachronistic (Gardner and Ruggles together!?). The tunnel south of the station has the former Salem station at its other end with platforms still intact a quarter century after its demise. Given its spot in a highly walled open cut, the move was for the best.

Station: Salem (Depot)
Rating (1-10): 8

Ridership: For a weekday midday, people heading up from Boston who value time (30 minutes versus an express bus to Boston or a local bus to Wonderland) over money ($3/$5 depending on the point of origin). There also are a decent amount of people whom got on at Lynn, the 20 minute savings for $1.50 makes this a popular alternative to the 450, 455, and 459 buses. Otherwise commuters, tourists, and during the second half of October scads of fun seekers who fill bilevels the south side has lessened their vice grip on.

Pros: This station is steps away from one of New England’s most historic downtowns and the history oozing from Salem alone is worth the trip. The $13 round-trip price tag from North Station may be a bit steep so I recommend busing it one-way if money is a concern.

Cons: This place is not pleasant when it’s windy and it could use a little TLC though the renovation will take care of this. Also, the 80s architecture clashes with the downtown brick of Salem.

Nearby and Noteworthy: I don’t need to explain why you should go there, but a trip to the Salem Witch Museum is a must especially to put the event which put Salem on the map for all the wrong reasons.  From personal experience having done this as a tourist, don’t do it during tourist season if you can.
If you’re in town earlier in the day and need a bite to eat, the breakfast/lunch-only Lynde Street Cafe has good food and generous portions for cheap. Just order when you get in even if they say not to, if not you might have a long wait. I recommend the meat omelette or the Buffalo wings.

Winchester Center

At the time of this writing, I live within sight of Winchester Center. If I open my front door, I can see the southern end of the station and if you’re on the west side of a train you might see my apartment in the distance. Therefore, I’m a bit too familiar with it as even a couple of weeks in I can tell when trains are coming inbound or outbound and can tell a Downeaster apart from a Commuter Rail train by vibrations alone.

Winchester Center in general is a bit of an anomaly in the Commuter Rail system, sitting on an elevated structure going through the center of town, looking more at home on Metro-North’s New Haven Line or the LIRR than for any Boston-area line. Even for the atypical former Boston & Lowell, Winchester’s central location is a bit of an outlier because it doesn’t bypass the center of town. These elements help create what could be one of the most charming and interesting Commuter Rail stations but it currently suffers for a few reasons.

Getting off a train at Winchester Center, you are emptied onto a platform which has seen better days with a lot of cracking paint. Your means of exit is a pair of long and winding ramps to the street which also have seen better days and are a miniature version of an old stadium concourse. The northern half of ramps exit right into the town center, the southern half exit into town parking lots (one on each side of the station). The reverse is true when boarding and to be honest for a cute and charming town such as Winchester the station which sets up the entire center of town can be a bit better.

For what it’s worth, Winchester Center is a good station for spotting the Downeaster (or any trains) and if the $5.50 of a Zone 1 fare is a bit scary the 134 runs once an hour to/from Wellington or North Woburn. If it was gussied up and looked like its surroundings I would be compelled to give a much nicer rating.

Station: Winchester Center
Rating (1-10): 5 for the station (but 9 for the surroundings)

Ridership: Lots of locals living within walking distance of the station with some people driving from elsewhere in Winchester and nearby towns (Stoneham and eastern Lexington mainly).

Pros: Regardless of condition, it adds to Winchester’s charm in a manner similar to, say, Wakefield and there is a ton by the station to visit. Bonus points for the Winchester Chamber of Commerce using their offices as a waiting room during rush hour in the colder months.

Cons: The station needs a renovation. Badly. The fact that the smaller Wedgemere right down the road got a renovation but not Winchester’s larger station is a bit odd. There also should be some ticket machines on the platform (as with all stations) and possibly modify some ramps to stairs and add an elevator. A mini-high should be a must but with Wedgemere just having gotten a mini-high and ADA letting Winchester Center off the hook this may be a harder sell.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Too many great things to count. Seriously. But to pare this down to a few:
Book Ends: Because independent bookstores in this day and age sadly are becoming a rare breed and this little shop is a thriving part of the community.
Black Horse Tavern: Top 5 of meals I’ve ever had. By far. Worth the trip and every penny (and I recommend the Cheggy Burger and the wings).
Winchester Wine & Spirits: I urge you to drink responsibly but my is this page huge and classy and right now they have an entire shelf of pumpkin beer which might have a post-Halloween run on it soon. No ice cider though.

Wyoming Hill

If this review is rough, it’s because I’m doing it on the fly. I’m in Melrose today scouting out potential future neighbourhoods and I had the luck of catching the 9:38 to Reading this morning at Wyoming Hill. The southern of Melrose’s three stations, it serves a largely-residential area just south of the main commercial strip. This review has pictures below the jump.

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Waverley

My last two reviews (the 73 and the 554) have been about the two routes which
terminate at Waverley Square in Belmont. Also located there, buried in a trench right next to the trackless trolley loop, is a commuter rail station on the Fitchburg
Line (simply Waverley, sometimes with the second “e” dropped). While I’m on a roll, I’d might as well complete the trifecta!

Sitting in the northeast corner of Belmont, Waverley station sits in a trench on the north edge of the square near the intersection of Trapelo Road and Lexington Street. A product of grade crossing eliminations in the early 70s, Waverley sits in a trench which is coated in a shade of pink which looks like all the salmon at the Shaw’s down the street. Save for Trapelo Road and nearby Route 60, most of the area around it is residental with the same feeling of any tranquil suburb while the retail of nearby Waverley Square is anchored by a large Dunkin’ Donuts, a Shaw’s across the street, some small shops…and a car wash. To the north at the intersection at Route 60 probably is the biggest generator of local traffic, McLean Hospital. Belmont, one stop to the east, has the more interesting surroundings even though the ridership is less and the connecting opportunities far lower.

A lot of Waverley’s commuter rail traffic comes from people heading to an elsewhere.Students and faculty of Bentley University coming from points west can make an easy transfer to their shuttle here and for those going to Harvard Square from points west the trip on the 73 is quicker and cheaper than staying on until Porter and dealing with that long transfer or playing roulette with the 77. There even may be some people riding one stop to Belmont, a little over a mile away but without a direct bus connection. The number of people getting on to ride to Boston is probably quite low, especially with an alternative that is a third of the cost, but Waverley has its own invaluable role in the Commuter Rail system.

Station: Waverley
Rating (1-10): 6

Pros: It gives Belmont residents a one-seat ride to the North End, the West End, the Garden, and with a little walk the City Hall area. It also serves as a good inter- suburban transfer point for the reasons explained above.

Cons: Two big ones: The lack of wheelchair accessibility or even mini-high platforms is one. The pink colored retaining walls the other. More of a pet peeve is a bus linking Waverley Square to Belmont Center to the point that walking is about as fast as transit. An idea could be to either run a mini-bus via Route 60 to connect the two and possibly other points, or to…

Random idea: String wire along the portion of the 75 which doesn’t run with the 72, along Route 60, and the one-block portion of Trapelo Road between Waverley and Route 60. The possibilities of either extending the 73 to Belmont Center or a fully-merged 72/75 to Waverley would both work very well especially for vehicle utilization. Of course, Belmont doesn’t appreciate what it has and would cut the wire if it could (which seriously is bad for them).

Nearby and Noteworthy: As I explained in my post on the 73, the Waverley Square area has tons of little shops. And the aforementioned Dunkin’ Donuts (with Baskin Robbins!). And the Shaw’s down the street is one of the better locations. Heck, the 73 alone is noteworthy!

Photo Post!

I’m doing some late Spring cleaning which means two things here at (T)he Adventure

1: Some side improvements coming sooner than later (and branching out from reviews!)

2: I purged an old memory card, which means a bonus photo post for all of you!

Enjoy!

Commuter Rail platform at Malden Center.

Dudley Square, forlornly waiting for a train that’ll never come.

Bus 0440 lays over at Saugus Center on the 430.

1975 vintage sign on the unused side of Sullivan Square’s outbound platform.

One day I took the 99…

The 76 waits at Alewife to start its run out to Hanscom. Oddly this is on the list of routes I’d love to ride.