Everything that is the matter with America’s transportation and energy policies can be understood by attempting to travel with a family from New York City to Bangor, Maine.
I use Bangor for my example — although places like Louisville, Columbus, Lynchburg, and Wheeling would work just as well because — for better and for worse — I, (a New Yorker) married into a Maine family in the early 1980s. For the last twenty-five years I have devoted countless waking hours to plotting connections to family reunions, as I have once again done for this Thanksgiving.
For a brief period in the 1980s, People Express flew from Newark to Portland, and for less than $50 my wife and I could fly there in an hour, and then cajole a relative to drive us the rest of the way. You paid for the ticket on board by handing the stewardess a wad of small bills.
Since that happy interlude, Bangor has remained as inaccessible as parts of Albania, a place of stark beauty, served only by the automobile, a few buses, and expensive planes. From New York, the journey involves a nine-hour drive (without stops), a bus odyssey, or a bank-busting flight. With children in tow (and we have four), Bangor is best understood as a luxury destination, at least as far as the cost of admission is concerned.
Herewith are the unhappy options to take a family of six from New York City to Bangor for five days during the Thanksgiving holiday:
It’s Better On The Train (sort of): Not since Amtrak was conjured from bankrupt railways in 1971 has there been direct rail service from New York to Maine, a popular tourist destination. (It still has that super-sized statue of Paul Bunyon holding a huge axe, even though Bunyon was from Bear Lake, Michigan. I guess he couldn’t get home.)
For most of Amtrak’s history, there were no trains at all in Maine. In 2001, thanks to state subsidies in Massachusetts and Maine, service was started between Boston’s North Station and what is called the Portland Transportation Center (read: “huge parking lot that is a long way from downtown”).
To get from New York to Portland, however, means first a train to South Station in Boston, and then a cross-town taxi to North Station for the connection to Portland, which is, alas, 166 miles from Bangor. The one-way fare on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, for a family of six, is $775. The trip starts at 8:30 AM and ends in Portland at 4:10 PM.
The fare is the same for the return journey on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and then the cost of renting a car, for five days in Maine, is about $80 a day. But here’s another catch: There are no car rental companies that I can find that have locations at the Transportation Center. So throw in a cab ride to Portland’s Jetport, add about an hour to the trip, and figure you will get to Bangor at 7:30 PM in time to miss dinner (which in Maine is earlier than in New York City).
Total cost of the journey, without the tolls: $1,940. One reason Amtrak’s fares are so high is that the company fears being swamped with travelers if it encourages rail travel with family-friendly pricing. Its expensive fares are actually calculated to discourage travelers, as many routes lack sufficient rolling stock for more passengers.
Go Greyhound, Or At Least Try To Take A Bus: For reasons my father attributes to the failure of Trailways some years ago and monopolistic bus practices (at 90 he worries about these things), there is no direct bus service between New York City and the state of Maine. All the bus trips involve a change at South Station in Boston.
To get to Maine for Thanksgiving, it would be possible to load the family onto a Bolt Bus, the new low-cost carrier (owned by Greyhound) that connects West 34th Street in New York with Boston. The one-way fare is $22 per person or $132 for all, and Bolt has wifi. It’s a real bus and not the spiritual heir of the Gray Rabbit.
From Boston, we would switch to Concord Coach Lines (one-way fare for six, $246) and take a 2:15 PM bus that gets to Bangor at 6:30 PM. Total bus fare for the round-trip adventure is $756, and each trip (safe, dependable, reliable, and very cramped) can be done in about ten hours.
I am not even sure Clark Griswald would take his family to Maine on the bus, although I have done it many times, at least from Boston. Advantages? Concord has movies. Disadvantages? Most star Adam Sandler.
Fly Me (remember the ad campaign of the racy Braniff Airlines?): There is direct air service from New York City to Bangor on U.S. Airways (well, okay, a turboprop operated by Piedmont Airlines), and it lumbers up the coast in two hours. But for a family of six, the roundtrip airfare is $1,998, although I am sure with advance booking, and changes in Cincinnati, that amount could be shaved to $1,700. Jet Blue ($1,488) does go to Portland, but then you need a $500 car. In winter months, if changing planes in Boston (to save money), expect delays and cancellations, and think about traveling with a sleeping bag.
Try Less Hard And Rent A Car: Here we get to the essence of America’s mass transportation failures. By far the cheapest way to take a family from New York to Maine is to rent a car. Listings at Enterprise and Budget start around $270 a week for a full-size car. To be sure, there is insurance, those hidden travel taxes, tolls, and gas, so figure the cost of driving to Maine at about $500. Mapquest estimates the journey at 7 hours 33 minutes, as it never gets stuck on Interstate 495 going around Boston or stops at Denny’s.
So the car is faster, door-to-door, than the train, the bus, and probably a plane (when airport strip searches are factored into the pleasures of traveling). But not calculated into the drive is the odd war in the Middle East, melting ice caps, road accidents, and the effects of listening to AM radio. And who wants to spend two Thanksgiving days “merging left” to “avoid congestion ahead?”
How Do I Want To Get To Maine? In my mind, the journey should take place on a State of Maine Express (fine, call it the Paul Bunyon), which would miss Boston and track northeast through Hartford, Worcester, Portland, Brunswick, and get to Bangor in about six hours. (Average speed of 72 m.p.h.)
For the trip, I would reserve, at a reasonable price, places in the restaurant observation car, and we would read and drink good coffee before sitting down for lunch. We would also talk, look out the window, play cards, and dally on our computers.
Ideally the train would leave Grand Central at 9:40 AM, serve lunch after Worcester (where the fresh fish would be taken on board), and arrive in Bangor at 3:40 PM. Alternatively, we would watch a Broadway show, and then board a sleeper train that would leave Penn Station at 11:30 PM and arrive after the crew had served waffles, eggs, bacon, and coffee for breakfast.
A Romantic Daydream? Perhaps, at least given America’s atrocious record with mass transportation in the last fifty years. It has killed off most passenger trains, subsidized air travel and then made it miserable, forced travelers into cars for all sorts of journeys, strip-mauled the suburbs, destroyed city neighborhoods with interstate highways, and even eviscerated bus service to many smaller towns. Other than that, it’s the greatest system in the world.
But here is a list of countries where the journey that I am proposing — to a smaller regional city in an elegant dining car — would not be more complicated than buying tickets down at the station: England, France, Switzerland, Romania, Spain, China, Russia, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Scotland, and Malaysia. Is not the United States at least as enlightened or wealthy as some of these nations? I know about these possibilities because in recent years I have taken excellent trains — and have eaten well en route — in each and every one of these countries.
This does not mean that I only agree with Paul Theroux, author of The Great Railway Bazaar, who wrote that “it is better to go first class than to arrive.” But why have a public transportation system that costs a fortune...and goes nowhere?
Matthew Stevenson was born in New York, but has lived in Switzerland since 1991. He is the author of, among other books, Letters of Transit: Essays on Travel, History, Politics, and Family Life Abroad. His most recent book is An April Across America. In addition to their availability on Amazon, they can be ordered at Odysseus Books, or located toll-free at 1-800-345-6665. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org