Bikes, Trains, Sailboats
After months of deliberation and procrastination, we've finally done it: Traveled by train with our bikes. For a while now we have wanted to cycle around Cape Ann, which is a beautiful area about 40 miles North of Boston - accessible by the MBTA Commuter Rail via the Rockport line. A number of people we know have taken this trip with their bikes, so it seemed doable. Also, I was delighted to spot the following notice on the MBTA website: "Commuter Rail re-introduces The Bike Coach on the Rockport line for the summer season." Bike coach! No other information was provided, so I did some research. Turns out they have commuter trains with special cars dedicated entirely to bikes - with bike racks as far as the eye can see, like this. But I could not find any information regarding its schedule, and it seemed that only some weekend trains were Bike Coach trains. A call to the MBTA was fruitless, so we decided to just show up and hope for the best.
The commuter train to Cape Ann leaves from North Station, a 3.25 mile bike ride from our house through some of the busiest parts of Boston. I don't like cycling through the city on a roadbike, but on a Saturday morning the traffic wasn't bad. We arrived early, which was good as there was a line at the ticket machines. There were plenty of other people with bicycles. When our train arrived, the conductor came out and announced that all those with bikes must proceed to the first car of the train. Only those with bikes were allowed in that car. Only those without bikes were allowed in the other cars. The segregation gave us hope that this was the fabled Bike Coach, and we happily headed for the front car along with the procession of other cyclists.
What happened next was rather stunning. The car we were ushered into had no accommodations for bikes what so ever - just a small corner of space at one end where a couple of handicapped seats had been removed. This was definitely not the Bike Coach. Nonetheless, everybody proceeded to drag their bikes on the train - more and more of them, until not only this corner, but the entire aisle was filled with bikes. When even that space ran out, new passengers began to pile their bikes on top of other bikes. Loud clunking noises filled the train as tubes smashed against derailleurs.
Not wanting our bikes damaged in the velo moshpit that ensued, we found a seat near the exit and sort of held our bikes on our laps the entire time. As you might imagine, it was uncomfortable to sit that way for an hour. But the alternative was to accept that a dozen 50lb mountain bikes would be thrown on top of our bicycles - which was not a viable option. So we tried to have a sense of humour about the whole thing and looked forward to reaching our destination while seriously discussing the possibility of Bromptons in the future.
But no sooner had we reached Rockport than the train trauma was forgotten, as we were greeted with perfect weather and glorious coastal views.
The Cape Ann peninsula consists of Rockport, Annisquam Village and Gloucester - each of them with beautiful scenery. Severed from the mainland by the winding Annisquam River, water views are everywhere. This was our first time in the area and we decided to do an exploratory loop along the coastline instead of a long-distance trip. The Cape Ann loop is about 20 miles, with mild but constant rolling hills, alternating between open water views and tree lined country roads. Especially considering the 4th of July weekend, the area was not crowded. Drivers were courteous everywhere except for the traffic circle in Gloucester, but even that was not too bad. Roads were good on the eastern side of the cape, but terrible on the western side. Navigation was intuitive - just follow the coastline!
My Rivendell is in the midst of a small (but exciting) make-over, so I took the loaner Seven on this trip. Overall it was pretty good, though a burlier bike might have been a better choice on the pothole-ridden roads. We also ventured off road a bit, which was "interesting" on 23mm racing tires!
Cape Ann is even quieter and less commercially developed than we expected, a pleasant surprise. Lots of parks, meadows and nature reserves. Not too many parking lots. And "motel sprawl" is virtually non-existant - at least compared to places like Cape Cod, the NH Seacoast, and much of coastal Maine.
Also, there are apparently sailboat races happening in Rockport - wonderful!
All in all, we loved the area and are now considering staying there for longer, instead of venturing further from home on vacation later this summer. After all - just load up our bikes on the commuter rail, it's so easy! Of course we'd forgotten about our train experience earlier that day. Or at least, we thought, there would surely not be as many bikes on the return trip. Or maybe we would finally get the mythical Bike Coach?
Nope, no such luck. On the return trip, passengers were once again segregated into those with bikes and those without, and this time the "bike car" had a car rack attached in the handicapped seating area. It accommodated 4-5 bikes, tightly squeezed, and was filled as soon as the train began to board.
Minutes later, that pathetic little bike rack was surrounded by dozens of other bikes, stacked and thrown against one another haphazardly.
Exits were blocked, aisles were blocked - no one seemed to care. When passengers with bikes needed to get on or off, they would simply throw the other bikes out of the way and the whole thing was like one huge pile of scrap metal. So we held our bikes on our laps again - hugging them ever closer to our bodies as other passengers kept trying to pile their bikes on top of ours (yes, even while we were holding our bikes on our laps!). It was a madhouse and probably violated all sorts of safety regulations. The MBTA clearly needs to have these alleged Bike Coach cars run with more frequency and on a predictable schedule. As we now understand it, the schedule is random and there is no way to time your trip to ensure that you will get a Bike Coach. Sounds improbable, but that's how it is!
Late in the evening, we rode home from the station along mostly empty city streets, recuperating from the train but also satiated from a day of exploring such a beautiful new place by bicycle. We only cycled 30 miles over all, and the point of the trip was mainly to hang out and get to know the area. Next time we will plan for a longer route. The North Shore is a great starting point for long distance touring: While there is no pleasant bicycle route North out of Boston, from Cape Ann we could just continue to cycle along the coast to Maine. Definitely something to consider, despite the less than ideal commuter rail experience.
What is it like to travel on a train with a bike where you live, and do you do it often?