To escape the summer crowds in the Hamptons, I rode the S92 bus (fare $1.50) for almost three hours, as it cruised the south and north forks of Long Island, before leaving me at the ferry that connects Orient Point to New London, Connecticut.
I might end up late to some meetings, but this way I could monitor the progress of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, at least as it pertains to the more than $8 billion earmarked for high-speed trains, if not buses and ferries.
Not many Hampton People leave on a local bus, which in this case was filled with Latino day laborers, giving it the air of a John Steinbeck novel. I was headed to New England, and I wanted to see if I could make a circuit to Providence, Boston, Amherst, and Keene entirely on public transportation.
Conclusion: Mass transit works better as a White House sound bite than as a way to get around New England.
The S92 rolled through the Hamptons to Riverhead, the county seat, where the Latinos got off, leaving me with the driver (from Masuria in Poland) to pass by the North Fork vineyards, which are vast and sophisticated. When I was young, only winos drank Long Island vintages; now it can cost $40 a bottle.
The ferry to New London made the crossing in local fog banks, which obscured Plum Gut, but parted for the run into New London, the American Gibraltar. I saw a surfacing submarine and, at the ferry terminal, a sculpture of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, shown as a boy gazing out to sea (even though he spent most of his adult life looking at bad marriages rather than the waves).
The train to Providence ran along the snug harbors around Mystic and Stonington, although inexplicably it arrived forty-five minutes late. Brown University and some local technology companies are the reason that the Rhode Island capital does not feel like a failed mill town. My friend on the local newspaper whispered that the well reputed university is long on celebrity children, and short on academic excellence.
I switched to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) for the hour run into Boston’s Back Bay Station. It ran with the air conditioning on full blast, as if it were a rolling meat locker. The rail car had wifi, a commuter train novelty for me, and much appreciated.
The $15 billion Big Dig, to bury the city’s interstates, not to mention the U.S. Treasury, is largely completed. Even so, much of downtown feels like an exit ramp, usually named after one of the Kennedys. Boston is not one of the cities where I am at home, but I appreciate the glimpses of the Freedom Trail and thinking I might have to make way for ducklings.
After my Boston meetings, I headed for Amherst in central Massachusetts. Traveling by bus would have meant changing in Springfield, as would have Amtrak (estimated travel time, about four hours). Instead, I took a MBTA commuter train to North Leominster, a gritty mill town now given over to Jiffy Lube and donuts.
The Amherst area has thousand of students from eastern Massachusetts, but few plans to improve its bus or train connections. Nor is it possible to take public transportation from Amherst one hour north to Keene, New Hampshire. Had I wanted to do so, I would have had to first go south to Springfield, then back up to Bellows Falls, Vermont, spend the night, and connect the following morning to Keene on Greyhound (“safe, reliable, courteous, and slow”).
I surrendered and rented a car.
Before leaving Amherst, I visited the Emily Dickinson House, where I had the good luck to join Ms. Casey Clark’s tour. She made the reclusive Emily come to life: by quoting from her work (“Forever is composed of nows”), and pointing to the solitary window table where Dickinson wrote many of her 1,800 poems, the passionate Tweets of the nineteenth century.
I had not been to Amherst College since October 1963, when as a nine-year old boy I was taken to see President John F. Kennedy dedicate the new Robert Frost Library.
On this visit, I recalled seeing JFK’s helicopter land on the football field, and his motorcade along the main street. His bright red hair and toothy smile are etched in memory. He sat on the back of an open car; the President as prom queen. Even to a rapturous boy, he looked vulnerable. Less than a month later, he died in the same convertible.
For the benefit of my university-bound children, I joined a campus tour. After exhaustive inspections of laundry rooms, showers, dorms, lounges, and food courts — why are colleges marketed as subdivisions? — I gave up and drove to Brattleboro, Vermont, another mill town that is trying make a go of spinning cappuccino.
My New England ramble ended on Amtrak’s Vermonter, a train that goes from northern Vermont to Washington, probably in about the same amount of time that the Indians took to make the journey in canoes. The train poked across Massachusetts, idled in Springfield, and then picked up speed south of Hartford, where we crossed the Connecticut River.
The biggest problem with American public transportation is that it lacks a critical mass. The infrequent service is more of a problem than the slow speeds, which could be padded over with comfortable seats, wifi, and better coffee. Amtrak has only one train a day north of Springfield, which in turn has one train to Boston and spotty bus service. Little wonder everyone drives.
Why throw money at high-speed rail when Amtrak runs on such dilatory schedules? Spend the money, instead, on more traditional rail cars and engines, which are in short supply, or hire some Swiss conductors and engineers to keep to the schedules.
Amherst to Princeton, New Jersey, where I was headed, is a five–hour car ride. I made the trip by train in a leisurely eight hours, with the proximity of an AmCafé and a power outlet for my computer, to write this article.
I appreciated not having to drive on the interstate or sit on a cramped bus, although the station waits were maddening. The train crew changes were frequent, suggesting a company hostage to union rules and feather bedding. To my knowledge, Emily Dickinson never wrote a poem about Amtrak. If she had, it might read:
I cast my Fate upon the Rails –
As if a spirit on Indian trails –
We stopped, and shuddered, and watched our steps –
And sweated during A/C fails
Leaving out the $80 cost of the rental car, my travels cost less than $125. And although I loved being on trains and ferries, there is something shabby about public transportation, as though it’s headed for obscurity, rather than for the President’s brave, new high-speed world.
Back home, the question on my mind was: If you had $8 billion, would you let Amtrak manage it?
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, winner of Foreword’s bronze award for best travel essays at this year's BEA. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland.
Photo: Black-backed gull and Sea Jet high-speed ferry, New London, Ct.
By L'eau Bleue