Riding the Rails

Our son, R, is four, and he is obsessed with the entire MBTA transit system. It started with the Red Line, which we take quite frequently because it is our local train. Some time ago, R memorized all of the stations from Alewife to JFK, and they came up frequently in his train play at home: “Last stop, Alewife. Thank you for riding the T. Please remember to take your baloneys.” At some point, I realized that he had never been south of Andrew, and I innocently suggested that we might go to one of the southern ends of the train. We ended up planning together a trip to Mattapan, which you can get to via a loop of “high speed rail” that goes between the end of the red line at Ashmont and Mattapan.

Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannyman/2699949371/

The high speed rail. Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannyman/2699949371/

The trip was exciting. The line between Ashmont and Mattapan offers a bumpy and fun ride, through some pretty wooded areas, including a cemetery. Although he’d been talking about visiting “Mattapam” for at least a week, he wasn’t really interested in the station, and wanted to board for our return trip quickly. I managed to talk him off the train again at Butler, where we walked on the bike path for a little while. But I quickly learned that what R loves best about taking the train is, simply, taking the train. In fact, he wanted to get home quickly to play with his toy trains after we stopped to have some lunch with his grandmother in South Station.

Young boy standing next to MBTA sign at Quincy Center

R at Quincy Center station

But his imagination was hooked. Next we had to go to Braintree, and R decided that he wanted to visit Quincy. He started to work on memorizing all of the stops on both ends of the Red Line fork, and he can now recognize most of the station names on the Red Line and can walk into any Red Line station and tell you when the next Ashmont, Braintree, and Alewife trains are coming by “reading” the signs.

Boy lying on floor, looking at MBTA system map

R studying the MBTA system map, planning a trip

It was after our second trip that he started to use the MBTA system map to get creative. He planned a trip that took us from Davis Square on the Red Line to Park Street, on the underground path to Downtown Crossing, and on the orange line to Forest Hills. R had planned for us to take the 31 to Mattapan (and then to catch the high speed rail back to the Red Line), but we ended up deciding to take the 51 instead. We took it all the way to Cleveland Circle, took the C line back to North Station, boarded another Green Line train to Lechmere, and finally hopped on the 88 bus back to Davis Square. It’s like the world’s best outing, where the only real point is riding buses and trains, the only real stop we made was at a coffee shop to use the restroom. Near the end of the trip he was anxious to get home and play trains with his elaborately set-up wood train tracks.

Since then, we have spent hours riding a variety of subway lines and buses, in routes planned by R, with the primary point of the route to be long and to involve the maximum number of connections possible. He has been delighted to ride all of the subway lines in one day, and he has taken trips with friends and with his grandma. He spends hours planning train and bus trips, and can now read the part of the system map that tells him how often the buses come during rush hour and outside of rush hour. He has worn out two different system maps (we just covered a third system map in contact paper in hopes that it will survive his love) and he is excited about the possibility of taking a train trip to New York City to ride their subway system.

If you are a carfree family, in a city that is well-served by transit, consider the entertainment value of the transit itself. R really doesn’t want to use subways and buses to get to someplace, for him the fun is in riding them. He loves to announce upcoming stops, to see who is getting on and off, to choose which car he wants to ride (usually the last, sometimes the first), to count down the minutes as a train approaches, to see new parts of the city from the windows of a bus without the bother of having to stop and do something, and to plan his next trip as soon as he has gotten home. He gets positively giddy when he sees two trains pass going opposite directions, or when two trains arrive in the station at the same time. He also loves things like going to South Station where you can watch trains come in, speculate about future trips, see the model trains in December, and eat the best pizza in the world (which, according to R, is Regina’s Pizza in South Station).

We were also all very excited when recently heard that Adham Fisher, a British “transit racer” and Cambridge teen Miles Taylor who blogs at Miles on the MBTA, set a new record for the shortest time through every MBTA station. It is inspiring and exciting to see that there are older kids and adults who continue to enjoy and challenge themselves through transit. We have gotten excited about people like Joe Eskenazi who rode from Los Angeles to San Francisco on local transit. We’ve been trying to figure out ways to do that on the east coast (say from Boston to DC — though at first pass, it looks like there’s big gap in transit along the East coast between Providence, RI and New Haven, CT, so we might have to bend the rules). Next week, R and I start on a series of “alphabetical” trips, where we visit different MBTA stops in alphabetical order — our first route should hit A-F using the red line, green line, one bus, and the orange line. Stay tuned!

About Angela

Angela is an associate professor of mathematics and enjoys writing, reading, and talking to people about her bike. She's the proud mother of two cute kids, H and R.
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4 Responses to Riding the Rails

  1. Microzen says:

    Having wondered about the transit gaps between Baltimore & Newark, DE and Providence & New Haven, I thought I’d look it up. There apparently is a Megabus between Newark & Baltimore. And instead of going between Providence & New Haven, if you can get to New London from Waverly, RI (The end of a RIPTA bus line), you can take the ferry to LI and take the LIRR! I don’t know why that never occurred to me before.

    Of course, at some point taking the Amtrak becomes more cost effective. But the transit lines between Delaware & New Haven are much cheaper than Amtrak as I found in my 2 years of riding that route.

  2. Steve says:

    The simplest way to bridge the gap would be to take Amtrak from Providence to New London where you can catch Shore Line East to New Haven and then Metro North into Grand Central. If you can time it right this wouldn’t be a terrible itinerary. It’s four trains (instead of just taking the one Amtrak train) but it follows the exact same route.

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