It’s no wonder that Amtrak rules the well-traveled path between the District and New York. It’s fast, the stations are conveniently located, and it’s comfortable. The first time I took the quiet car, by the time I got to New York I was so relaxed and engrossed in my book that I didn’t want to get off.
But that comfort comes at a price—$97 for the regular train and $188 for the high-speed Acela.
So I, and many other Washingtonians, suffer the bus.
The Greyhound and Chinatown buses each have their partisans. I have been a Greyhound man, mainly because it’s the lesser of two evils—it’s flexible, doesn’t require reservations, and offers a more pleasant ride than Chinatown, which subjects travelers to C-grade movies at earsplitting volumes, not to mention some well-documented safety problems.
(I have not yet tried the new Bolt Bus, a Greyhound offshoot with comfier seats and onboard WiFi. Its main draw is its complex, gimmicky pricing scheme with some fares only $1. But whenever I’ve looked, it’s been the same price as Greyhound, with the same inconvenient schedules as Chinatown.)
The $38 round-tip Greyhound ticket comes with its share of get-what-you-pay-for indignities. Like the traffic on I-95, which can add several hours to the trip. And Greyhound’s first-come-first-serve policy on getting a bus can mean you wait a couple of hours on busy days.
On a recent Greyhound trip back from New York, I showed up at Port Authority on Sunday afternoon, and at the gate for D.C. buses encountered a line so long I couldn’t see where it ended.
But I happened to remember seeing, when I bought my tickets online, a notice for Greyhound’s new “Priority Seating” program. According to the Greyhound Web site, “you can reserve your own seat and pre-board without waiting in line first. Relax in the terminal while knowing in advance where you will sit on the bus, and board ahead of other non-priority passengers.” And it costs just $5. Aside from the absurd notion of “relaxing” at Port Authority, it seemed like a good idea. But for whatever reason you can’t do this online; you have to do it at the station. And since it’s not well advertised there, I don’t think many people know about it.
Fortunately I did, so I went to the ticket office, paid my extra $5 and got another ticket stapled on top of the original. I asked what to do with this. “Just walk to the front of the line,” the ticket agent told me.
The people in line, naturally, were livid. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting in this line?” one kindly old woman asked me. Meekly, I tried to explain the Priority Seating program and that I had paid $5 for the right to cut in line and recommended that she try it next time. She was incredulous, as I would have been. Had this happened in any other country, I would have laughed it off as some banana republic petty corruption scheme.
But it worked—I got on the next bus and was on the road in less than 10 minutes. Still, I was shaken by the opprobrium of my fellow passengers, and even more by the close call. Imagine having had to actually wait in that line! Something snapped in me, the scales fell away from my eyes, and all the rationalizations I’d made throughout the years seemed like self-delusion; all the annoyances I’d explained away as exceptions —the hours-long traffic delays, the endless lines to get on a bus, the hassle of getting to the Washington bus station—now revealed themselves as the rule.
Was there any other option, I wondered? Something cheaper than Amtrak and less of a hassle than the bus? When I got home, exhausted from the trip, I fired up the laptop and did a little research.
A couple of weeks later, on a gray, rainy Monday morning, I was on a train pulling out of Union Station. Just to the left, below the tracks, was the Greyhound station, with its rows of buses and the sorry lot of travelers about to board them and brave the traffic of I-95. Not me. I had found my other option.
A voice came over the intercom. “This is MARC train number 506 to Perryville, stopping in New Carrollton, Odenton, BWI airport, Baltimore Penn Station and every stop north of Baltimore.”
Many of my fellow passengers had luggage, heading to flights at BWI. Most of the others were dressed for work, on their way to jobs in Baltimore. I doubted that any of them, like me, had a final destination of New York. But MARC, along with a couple of other regional commuter trains, was going to get me to the big city at a fraction of the price of Amtrak, albeit at a somewhat more leisurely pace.
Only one MARC train per morning, the 7:12, goes all the way to Perryville, in far northern Maryland near the Delaware border. There were only 15 people in my car leaving Union Station, and I was able to stretch out—something that’s pretty much impossible on Greyhound. It was as quiet as the quiet car on Amtrak, and for just $11 to Perryville, a bargain.
After Baltimore, the scenery quickly became rural, with pickup trucks parked in front of split-level ranches. This is not an obvious market for mass transit; almost everyone got off at BWI or Baltimore and by this point there were only three other people in my car. Shortly before Edgewood, the train eased to a stop, in the middle of a pleasant neighborhood of pastel-painted houses and honest-to-god white picket fences. After a minute in this bucolic scene, an Amtrak train passed us with such velocity that I couldn’t even tell if it was an Acela or regular train, and its force rocked our train from side to side. We slowly started up again.
At 8:53 we pulled into Perryville, the end of the line for MARC, and this is where things got tricky. There is no commuter train service between Perryville and Wilmington, Del., 30 miles away.
Into this public transportation void has stepped the Cecil County Department of Senior Services and Community Transit. It operates a bus service called “The Bus,” which conveniently stops at the MARC station.
Less conveniently, the next bus wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 10:15, so I had an hour and 20 minutes to kill in Perryville. I sat for a while in the train station, which was open but apparently completely unstaffed after the train headed back to Baltimore. The train station also houses the one-room Perryville Railroad Museum, but it was also closed, so I peered through the glass at the model train and ’70s-era Amtrak uniforms on exhibit. I walked a couple of blocks to the post office and bought a copy of the local newspaper, the Cecil Whig, and read the front page story about the homecoming of a company of local soldiers who had just returned from Iraq.
Apparently, Cecil County tried to coordinate the bus with the MARC schedule, but there wasn’t enough transfer traffic to make it worth it, says Leslie Gorak, Cecil County’s transportation supervisor. “The intention is for people to go to the doctor or the grocery store, it was never really intended for commuters,” she says.
Finally the bus came. Despite its apparent origins as a service for seniors—evidenced by scheduled stops at senior centers and dialysis clinics—the passengers were of all ages. The story of one woman who sat behind me, a 24-year-old single mother of two and cancer survivor, could have been written by Denis Johnson. Opening up to the woman next to her, hers was the kind of saga that included lines like “We moved to Elkton because my mother had a heart attack and a triple bypass so she lost her house, and I was living with her because of the cancer, so we had to move here.” She was riding the bus because she had recently been carjacked at knife-point.
The itinerary of “The Bus” is clearly designed for those for whom time is not money. We drove into the Villas at Whitehall (“A Senior Rental Community”), stopped at Union Hospital and at Foxridge Manor Apartments. We did a loop through one neighborhood where all the houses were identical aluminum-sided duplexes and the streets had names like “Road 1” and “Road 12”—and then came out exactly where we had entered 15 minutes earlier. I had to change buses; the transfer station was at the Acme grocery store in the Big Elk Shopping Center in Elkton. We also made a 10-minute stop at the Cecil County administration building, where we all had to get out of the bus and into another one with a new driver to continue the journey.
At 11:50, we pulled into People’s Plaza in Glasgow, Del., 17 miles from Perryville.
This is where I caught the DART bus into Wilmington. The DART bus, I learned to my disappointment, was no quicker than “The Bus,” and it took another hour to make it into Wilmington, stopping to let passengers on and off every two blocks.
For a brief, glorious moment, we got on I-95 and made some real progress, and we passed an apartment complex I always notice on the Greyhound, with its sign: cavalier apartments—if you lived here you’d be home by now. Seen from I-95, the sign is kind of a joke; “here” seems like nowhere. But now I know it’s next to the Christiana Mall.
Although this part of the trip was excruciatingly slow and largely through a landscape of used car lots and boarded-up motels, I did get glimpses of a little local color. There were handsome churches, like St. Mary Anne’s Episcopal (established 1706) in North East, Md., and Christiana Presbyterian (1732) amid graceful stone houses in Christiana, Del. There were quaint renovated downtowns in North East and Elkton. And in Wilmington, where I had to walk a few blocks from the end of the bus line to the train station, I picked up a cheesesteak and drink at time-warped Gus’s Sub Shop, with bright orange and yellow Formica booths and elderly Greek proprietors (who gave me back $1.50 from my $10 on an $8.25 bill).
From Wilmington, there is a Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) train to Philadelphia, and from here on it’s no more buses, just trains all the way to New York. But when I arrived at the station I got the dispiriting news that I had just missed a train to Philadelphia and would have to wait an hour and a half—until 2:45—for the next one. That makes a total of six hours after arriving in Perryville that I left Wilmington.
I got in the first car on the train to Philadelphia, where a dreadlocked man in a SEPTA uniform sat in the front seat, head back, eyes closed. At 2:45 p.m. he got up slowly, walked into the cab, and 30 seconds later we were moving through Wilmington’s Baltimore-esque row-house squalor and then northern Delaware’s rusting seaside oil terminals and junkyards. The effects of the early alarm, the long trip thus far and the cheesesteak combined to put me to sleep, and I woke up underground in Philadelphia, one stop past where I should have gotten off.
But here, the trains were more frequent, and I only lost about 20 minutes. The next SEPTA train, to Trenton, was the only one of my entire trip that was remotely full—by now it was a little after 4 p.m., the beginning of rush hour, and it was standing-room only with chatty commuters going home to Philadelphia’s northern suburbs.
The conductors knew many of the passengers, and one—a short, shaven-headed guy with a Rocky Balboa accent and a Hillary pin (the next day was the Pennsylvania primary)—told some of his regulars in the seat in front of me a story that happened on this route a few days before:
An elderly woman got on the train with a cat in a handbag. SEPTA rules apparently require pets to be in hard cases, and when this conductor came up to check her ticket and saw she had a cat, he told her he would refund her money if she got off at the next stop and took her cat home.
“Everyone was all in a commotion, there was a blind lady here with her dog, saying ‘My dog doesn’t like cats.…’ So you know what she did? The train stopped, and she just threw the cat right off the train and stayed on.”
He continued: “I’ve seen everything on this train, ladies, everything.” He told another story that involved a woman traveling without a ticket or money, who reached an arrangement with a fellow male passenger to fellate him for the price of a ticket. “She just put her jacket over her head and went to town, I swear to God.”
That’s the sort of local color you don’t get on Amtrak.
Two sorts of landscape play a game of tag on this trip north: urban/industrial blight and semi-rural strip malls. Strip-mall areas—everything between Baltimore and Wilmington, for example—corresponded with depopulated backwaters and low ridership. And in urban areas—the stretch from Wilmington through Philadelphia, for example—the trains had been pretty well patronized. But as we got farther north out of Philadelphia, the windows again showcased strip malls, and at Cornwells Heights the train emptied out and the conductor, with no one to talk to, sat quietly reading his Philadelphia Metro newspaper. A sign out the window read: thrift store—up to 50 percent new clothes.
At 5:24, we got to Trenton, and I had just enough time to get off, buy a ticket from the kiosk, and jump on the New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station. The NJ Transit train was as genteel as the SEPTA was earthy; the conductor wore a jacket and tie and billed formal cap (on SEPTA they wore windbreakers and baseball caps), there were relatively few ads on the train walls, and the notice to passengers seemed written with an uncommon amount of grace for public transportation:
“NJ Transit wants your trip to be safe and enjoyable. To that end NJ Transit holds the conductor of this train responsible for collecting the appropriate fare and enforcing the rules governing passenger conduct. When passengers do not cooperate with the conductor regarding payment of fares or conduct on the train, the police will be summoned and the passenger will be removed from the train at the next station stop.”
The sign looked at least 40 years old, and the font looked like it came from a first edition of The Catcher in the Rye; I felt like Holden Caulfield going home from Pencey Prep.
We passed from the thick woods around Princeton Junction to the exurban and then suburban New Brunswick, Edison, Elizabeth, and Newark, and finally pulled into Penn Station at 6:59, 11 hours and 47 minutes after I left Union Station.
It was, however, a bargain compared to Amtrak: I paid $11 for the MARC train, a total of $4.50 for two “The Bus” buses, $1.15 on the Delaware DART bus, $9 on SEPTA, and $12.50 on NJ Transit, for a total of $38.15.
And if it weren’t for that 30-mile gap in Maryland and Delaware, it would come close to a reasonable option. Say, for example, the MARC train went all the way to Wilmington. I could have also caught the 9:15 a.m. SEPTA to Philadelphia, and the connections would have gotten me to New York by 1:36 p.m., for a 6-hour-24-minute trip.
Yes, that’s more than double the length of an Acela trip and a couple of hours longer than Greyhound should be, but I’ve been on several Greyhound trips that lasted much longer than that.
And only for a short time—just north of Philadelphia—were any of the trains more than 10 percent full, which made it a far more comfortable experience than the bus. There are no current plans to expand MARC service to Delaware, says Jawauna Green, a MARC spokeswoman. But the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure plans, which will shift about 4,400 net new jobs to the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds near Perryville, may change the outlook. “That may be a topic of conversation as we look at the BRAC realignment, we may have people who live in Delaware and commute down into Maryland to work at Aberdeen,” Green says. “So I can’t say it’s out of the realm of possibility.” Another possibility, says Gorak of Cecil County, is that MARC and SEPTA would each expand to Elkton; that’s something that state Delegate David Rudolph is trying to broker.
Of course, when it was time to go back to D.C., I went Greyhound. This time there was no wait at Port Authority, a friendly seatmate, and no traffic. We cruised into Washington in just over four hours, and—at least for a while—I’m a Greyhound man again.
Josh Kucera reports at joshuakucera.net.