Holbrook/Randolph

Why is my last ever Commuter Rail station review of Holbrook/Randolph, a station that’s less than 15 miles from Boston, gets served by every single Middleborough/Lakeville Line train, and has connections to two, count ’em, two local bus routes? The world may never know…

Mm…this is gonna be a riveting final Commuter Rail review, isn’t it?

Now, it should be noted that I visited Holbrook/Randolph a while ago…but I somehow lost the photos. Luckily this realization timed with Thanksgiving Break, so here we are! Also, shoutout to Adonis, who commented on the Foxboro post: “Can you do Holbrook/Randolph soon? Please! After all, it’s the freaking last station missing from MBTA commuter rail. ” Thank you for the strongly-worded request, Adonis – this one’s for you.

Is this not the same photo as the last one??

This platform is as Old Colony as Old Colony gets. It’s a single track station with one high-level platform, complete with several benches and wastebaskets underneath some classically drab 90s shelters. The station is long as heck, and alas, the train information isn’t all concentrated in one place: the southern shelter gets the system map, while the northern shelter gets the schedule. Also, it’s as good a time as any to mention that all the signs say “Randolph/Holbrook”, and that is the most infuriating thing in the world.

Some driver was having a lot of fun here at some point…

An Old Colony station with a big parking lot? Wow, what a shocker. You’ve got a total of 362 spaces here, contained in a large lot to the east of the station and a smaller one to the west. It’s the classic daily fee of $4, with a weekend cost of $2. Parking seems to generally be available; on Black Friday, there was barely anyone there, but that was to be expected.

Glad I was able to get at least one review with one of these weird solar-powered trash thingies!

The superior bike facilities are to the east of the station, with six covered racks. The western side does get four racks, but they’re out in the open. Also, this station is home to one of those solar-powered trash things that have been cropping up recently. I think eventually the solar power will serve to power lights for an ad that will occupy the glass space in the middle? I dunno – they’re strange.

The station’s level crossing.

Holbrook/Randolph’s western side is below platform level, so several sets of stairs and a ramp lead up to it. After a train leaves, a congregation of people always have to wait at the level crossing across the tracks for it to go completely. Unfortunately, they have to wait a little longer than they normally would – while the level crossing on Union Street doesn’t activate when a train is at the station, they have to come to a stop after leaving to let the gates come down. That’s so annoying!

Both of the station’s buses occupying the busway at once.

The westerly side of the station offers more parking, but also a busway for Holbrook/Randolph’s two weekday-only bus connections. The 238 runs to Quincy Center, while the 240 goes to Ashmont – neither route gets particularly high ridership from here, but it’s not nothing, either. A shelter offers a place to wait for both buses and pickups, and it includes schedules for the 238, the 240, and…the 230. Sure, why not?

This photo gets really dark if you imagine that the train is coming towards the station instead of leaving it.

Station: Holbrook/Randolph

Ridership: Huh, the MBTA has this funky new Blue Book-ish thing that’s way harder to search through than the actual Blue Book. Regardless, you can get some nice data from here if you can figure out how to find it, and thus, we find out that Holbrook/Randolph commands a respectable 437 inbound riders per day, the vast majority of which is concentrated in the AM peak. Also…36 daily outbound riders! Nice!

Pros: It’s an Old Colony station, so it excels in everything those stations excel at: it has a high-level platform and lots of parking. The station isn’t in the middle of nowhere, though, giving it an edge over other Old Colony stations – there are a few businesses right there, and it’s as close as a station could be to the downtowns of both Holbrook and Randolph.

Cons: Lots of little concerns: the platform has that drab aesthetic that these stations seem to have; buses here only operate on weekdays; trains have to stop at the level crossing before it comes down; and the darn signs all say “Randolph/Holbrook”!!!

Nearby and Noteworthy: There’s a bowling alley within half a mile of this station! It’s just a ten-minute walk down Union Street to the aptly-named Union Street Lanes, where you can get your candlepin bowling fix for super cheap prices. Incidentally, I thought candlepin bowling was just how everyone does it, until I came to Philly and tried regular bowling for the first time…candlepin is so much better!

Final Verdict: 6/10
Our final Commuter Rail station goes out with a bit of a “meh”. It has all your Old Colony hallmarks, but a number of problems bring it down to a 6. Gosh, it felt so amazing to finish off the entire MBTA subway system with the grandiose South Station…it’s a lot harder to get excited for this one!

Nonetheless, almost seven years after beginning the quest, I can finally say that I have finished reviewing the entire MBTA system on this blog. Sure, there’ll be some new stuff in the future (indeed, the very near future – can’t wait to analyze the Better Bus changes once their schedules come out!), but for now, I can say I’ve done everything. Thank you to everyone who’s followed along, from those who were there from the start (the “Miles on the MBTA” era) to people who have started reading recently. There’s lots more in store on this blog, from finishing every bus route in Massachusetts, to reviewing all of SEPTA in Philly, to making videos about weird Greyhound trips. Thanks again for sticking with me this far.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Sam and I were running for a 238 – I had him quickly take this celebratory shot of me and the final station!

BRTA: 21 (Lee/Great Barrington)

Despite reviewing the BRTA’s hub at Pittsfield first, my friend and I didn’t actually start our day there. Instead we parked at Fairgrounds Plaza, the first stop of the 21, which we took toward Pittsfield at the beginning of the day. If you’re looking for gorgeous Berkshires scenery, this is the route for you.

Really not digging the paint job here. Also…minibus. There’ll be a lot of ’em.

The local 21 travels between Great Barrington and Lee, where one can connect to the 2 for further travel to Pittsfield (I’ll bet you can guess what the next review is going to be). It takes a very twisty route, usually beginning with a Senior Center deviation; however, we were on the first trip of the day, which skips that and one other deviation. So instead, we headed straight up Route 7 before taking a left onto Silver Street alongside a cemetery.

Man, this part of Massachusetts is beautiful, even in the rain…

We turned onto Maple Ave for a super short time before making a left onto West Ave, passing sizable houses with big yards. This jog was to serve the small Fairview Hospital, after which we took Taconic Ave back to Route 7. It led us through downtown Great Barrington, which has about all you can ask for in a cute, rural New England town center.

Can’t you tell from this amazing picture????

Some beautiful municipal buildings led us to the outskirts of downtown, where businesses still kept showing up, although now with gaps between each building. We turned onto State Road, crossing the Housatonic River with a view of some rapids downstream. There were yet more (increasingly suburban) businesses along here, plus a cemetery and a fire station.

An attempt to capture the river.

The road curved north, and though it was pretty much lined with suburban businesses, the area was leafier than one would expect from suburban sprawl – the Berkshires! A strip mall, Barrington Plaza, would usually get a (frankly unnecessary – it’s very close to the main road) deviation, but this first trip of the day skips it. The businesses abruptly ended soon after, getting replaced by woods. We merged onto narrow Route 183, continuing through the forest.

A wide open field.

Some houses showed up along the road eventually, plus an adorable cafe. The road ran right up along the Housatonic River, going by a housing development with a little bus shelter outside. As we approached the formerly industrial village of Housatonic, we crossed the river and turned onto Front Street, going through its small downtown.

Another river crossing, another attempt at a photo.

We entered the town of Stockbridge as we left Housatonic, entering the woods again (with occasional appearances of houses). The road twisted and turned to follow the river, eventually entering the village of Glendale. It wasn’t much more than a few houses, an inn, and a tiny post office.

Look at this post office! It’s adorable!

It was back into the woods from there, with an eventual right turn onto Route 102. As this road twisted its way south, houses started to show up with increasing regularity. It hooked a left around a cemetery, making its way into small, beautiful Stockbridge Center. The gorgeous town hall building marked the end of downtown, but the houses continued for a bit before we went back into the forest.

Some of the buildings along the main street.

This section of middle-of-nowhereness was short, though – we quickly entered Lee and the village of South Lee, which had some houses, a factory, and a post office. Some general industry came after, following the road for a while until our third and final crossing of the Housatonic River. We went by a Big Y (which I think we’re supposed to deviate into, but our bus didn’t), then we had a brief section on the very wide Route 20. Finally, we turned onto Premium Outlet Boulevard, making our way up a hill to Lee Premium Outlets. The 2 to Pittsfield was waiting.

If all the blurry rain photos haven’t made you sick yet, congratulations: here’s an actually decent one.

BRTA Route: 21 (Lee/Great Barrington)

Ridership: I was able to get BRTA ridership data from an anonymous source! Yay! So, in August 2017, the 21 got 2,607 weekday riders (about 113 per day) and 372 Saturday riders (about 93 per day). These are low numbers, and the route only ranks sixth on the system, but it’s a winding rural line, so I get it.

Pros: The route is just beautiful! You’ve got Berkshires charm galore on this thing. And the BRTA actually runs it decently – hourly, six-days-a-week service for a pretty rural route? I’ll take it! For times when express service (which we’ll be reviewing later) doesn’t run, a timed transfer is offered with the 2 to Pittsfield at Lee Premium Outlets. It’s a long, two-hour journey, but at least there is a connection.

Cons: This definitely isn’t taking the most direct route, what with a few deviations and the entire section on Route 183. However, just following the main road skips out on some population centers – I don’t know how much ridership Housatonic and (especially) Glendale generate, but it’s definitely more than if the bus were to just stay on Route 7. I guess the question is if the speed increase would be worth the lost patronage, and if it would lead to more Great Barrington people riding…at least personally, I don’t mind the 21’s twisty routing too much, but that could change if I saw more specific ridership data.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Honestly, there’s so much stuff on this route that I don’t know if I’ll be able to list it all. First of all, you have two wonderful downtowns with Great Barrington and Stockbridge, each with their own plethora of businesses. And then you have: Chesterwood and Naumkeag, two historic estates-turned-museums! The Berkshire Botanical Garden! The NORMAN. ROCKWELL. MUSEUM. It is an overload of Berkshires charm.

Final Verdict: 7/10
It’s weird coming off of the FRTA and getting to a rural route that actually runs with a workable headway. Yes, the 21 is twisty, and its ridership is low, but those are side effects of running a rural bus line. Plus, there are amazing tourist attractions on this thing – I’ll bet the number of tourists who have actually used it is low, but the potential is there!

Also, speaking of transit in Great Barrington, check out the work of Tate Coleman, a teenager at Simon’s Rock who set up the Great Barrington Public Transportation Advisory Committee. The media last reported on this in May, but the project is still very much active, with a goal of redesigning bus service in southern Berkshire County to better service existing and new riders. The BRTA seems (expectedly) hesitant to incorporate the cost-neutral ideas, but hopefully the committee can win them over!

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Warminster

Man…Warminster is just a really sprawly town, huh? I guess it’s no surprise that its station has a giant parking lot, with just a bunch of blech around it. Yet it’s still one of the busiest stations on Regional Rail!

Speaking of parking lots…

We’ve got a ton of space for cars here, with 562 $1 a day daily spaces and 238 $25 a month permit spaces. There’s a bit of bike parking too: SEPTA claims nine racks, Wikipedia claims four, and my photos show four. Maybe there are five secret ones I couldn’t find, or SEPTA could be wrong – not like it’d be the first time. As for bus connections, the 22 to Olney stops on Jacksonville Road next to the station (just signs), while the rush hour Richboro-Warminster Rushbus operated by TMA Bucks pulls right into the station, using the drop-off area as a stop.

Alright, alright, I wasn’t planning on trespassing…

Despite being in a mostly suburban area, there is some transit-oriented development here in the form of a big apartment complex. Well…maybe transit-adjacent development – I see a lottttttt of parking spaces there. Also, the plebs who don’t live in the complex aren’t allowed in, according to the sign at the fancy accessible entrance. I do see a few bike racks at the bottom, though – could those be responsible for SEPTA’s inflated count? Also next to this entrance is a sketchy narrow pedestrian crossing across the tracks to get to the sidewalkless Park Ave.

Oh no, don’t look at the date! I’m so behind!

Warminster’s platform is fully high-level, so points for that. But alas, there’s not a lot on it. You’ve got a few wastebaskets, a departure screen, and…oh, I think that’s it. If you’re here during an off-peak time, the only place you can sit is at the two benches in the drop-off area, which are at least right next to the platform.

Looking inside the building.

Of course, if you’re boarding at rush hour, your situation is much better. Warminster has a beautiful airy building with plenty of seating, bathrooms, a water fountain, ticket sales, and even change for parking if you have to use the awful “honor box”. This is only open from 5:15 to 11:30 AM on weekdays, though.

Ready to return to Philly.

Station: Warminster

Ridership: 16th-busiest on Regional Rail! It’s the first station on the list to crack 1,000 daily riders, getting 1,058 per weekday. With 800 total parking spaces, that means the vast majority of riders are driving in (which makes sense, given the surrounding area), with the remaining ones likely either getting dropped off, walking from the apartment development, or reverse commuting via the Rushbus.

Pros: Hey, it’s unabashedly a suburban car-oriented station (which is the only kind of station you can really have in Warminster), and in that sense, it performs pretty well. It has a suitably giant parking lot with a bit of TOD so it can pretend it’s urban, as well as a great building and a high-level platform.

Cons: The crossing to Park Ave is narrow and inaccessible, although I would wager that the amount of people using it on a daily basis is pretty low. Other than that, probably the lack of seating on the platform, although there are the drop-off benches at least.

Nearby and Noteworthy: It is really hard to walk around here! If you do, you’ll find a Walmart, a Costco, and a few restaurants.

Final Verdict: 8/10
Your standard park-and-ride station. It does its job pretty well.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

10 (13th-Market to 63rd-Malvern)

Over a year of doing SEPTA reviews and it’s taken me this long to do a trolley? Shame on me. The 10 is the one I use the least, too, since it’s the only one that doesn’t go to Penn! Although it is the one I’ve taken to the end the most times – that 10-minute walk to Overbrook Station makes it real easy to ride the Paoli/Thorndale Line on a budget.

A deuce of 10s waiting at 63rd-Malvern.

I always enjoy the first part of the 10, when the trolleys run down the leafy, mostly single-family and duplex residential 63rd Street. It just feels like the trolleys are so out of place! Like always, though, it turned to more normal rowhouses and businesses (and a lot of abandoned storefronts) once we turned onto Landsdowne Ave.

Non-revenue tracks continue down 63rd to join up with the 15.

Soon after a church, we passed through the major intersection of Lancaster and 52nd: here, there were several gas stations and a few other businesses. We turned onto Lancaster here, which is the main thoroughfare used by the 10. It felt pretty industrial for a few blocks before we reached the awesome 150-foot section where the 10 crosses Girard and briefly shares trackage with the 15. Alas, I didn’t spot any PCC cars running on the latter this time.

I would imagine this lot has seen better days.

We passed a park after crossing Girard, then Lancaster Ave became lined with businesses, some open and some abandoned. It’s a diagonal street, so every intersection was at an angle; the triangular bit between the streets was sometimes vacant, although beautiful murals would show up on the sides of buildings next to the lots. Vacant lots and storefronts grew fewer as we continued southeast.

The Sunday night detour track running down 40th.

It was after crossing Haverford Ave that the street really started to get a hipstery college-kid vibe. Some of the businesses included a bike shop, an around-the-world gift shop, and an Edible Arrangements. A small building surrounded by super vibrantly-painted sidewalks occupied the triangle between Lancaster, Powelton, and 38th, while the huge office and apartment buildings along Market Street came into view.

Crossing 38th.

We turned onto 36th Street, crossing Market (very weird on a trolley) before taking a left into the 36th Street Portal. Heading underground, we merged with the other trolley lines and pulled into 33rd Street Station; from there, it was onto Market to 30th Street Station. We ran along the local tracks with the El in the middle, making stops at 22nd and 19th. Most of the trolley got off at 15th, but to complete the review, I had to make the screechy trip all the way to 13th.

A hastily-taken shot, as I had to run for a Warminster Line train.

Route: 10 (13th-Market to 63rd-Malvern)

Ridership: Aw, it’s SEPTA’s least-used subway-surface trolley. But that in no way means the 10 is slacking – it still gets 11,163 riders per weekday! I mean, I rode on a weekday when it’s every 10 minutes, and over the course of the 35-minute ride, 94 people boarded. That’s insane!

Pros: This is the only subway-surface trolley that runs north of Market, so it has a ton of territory covered all on its own. Although its ridership may be a little lower than the other trolleys (probably due to a few industrial areas and the suburban nature of the terminus), the 10 is still a powerhouse. Its schedule mostly reflects that, too, with service every 5 minutes at rush hour, every 10 minutes during the day, and every 15 minutes on Saturdays. The 10 even runs overnight, at every 35 minutes during the wee hours.

Cons: At least until (hopefully) trolley modernization, we’re stuck with stops every two feet apart. And of course, it’s time to do the same rant I’ll be doing in every trolley review: the night and Sunday schedules are awful. Every 20 minutes most of the time, and even worse for the rest. These are rail assets – they should not be running this infrequently! Also, as I discovered tonight and ranted on Twitter about, the trolleys are scheduled to bunch in the tunnel on Sundays. There is no reason this should be the case. All this is doing is hurting frequency in what should be a frequent corridor and turning away potential riders. They could fix this for zero cost.
EDIT: Oh, also, I forgot: the GTFS (data for Google Maps and other apps) for the 10 shows it as going all the way into Center City on Sunday nights, when it’s actually detoured to 40th. That’s…really bad.

Nearby and Noteworthy: This is kind of fascinating – a family has been making art in Powelton Village for 50 years, in a variety of different mediums. Their little rowhouse museum is only open by appointment, but it seems like a neat way to see some local art.

Final Verdict: 7/10
The bottom line is that SEPTA has a ton of routes that run far worse Sunday service than the 10. Yes, running a trolley every 20 minutes at any time that’s not overnight is awful, but it’s better than having a normally frequent bus go every 30. Although trolley service on Sundays frustrates me to no end (especially now that I know they’re scheduled to bunch), I concede that it’s pretty good on the other days of the week.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

Ari and Miles rate Boston Magazine’s “40 Ideas”

There’s no post tonight…on this blog. But check out the collab I did with Ari “Amateur Planner” Ofsevit over on his blog – we review Boston Magazine’s “40 ideas to save transportation in Boston”! Each one gets a score from 1-10, and an often snarky explanation why! Also, like, just check out the Amateur Planner in general if you haven’t already. There is so much cool transportation stuff discussed on that blog; it’s been a huge inspiration for me over the years. Thanks again to Ari for having me on there!

Pittsfield (Amtrak)

Well, now that we’ve finished the FRTA, there’s nowhere else to go but west. It’s time to tackle the BRTA, the westernmost RTA in the state, covering a big vertical rectangle of land spanning from Williamstown to Great Barrington. But before we can get to the system spanning lots of towns that neither you nor I have heard of, we have to review its hub, as well as the final Massachusetts Amtrak station to be reviewed on this blog!

Hmm…bad start.

We begin with an underwhelming part of the terminal: the outdoor bus area. It’s a barely-sheltered collection of some of the ugliest, most hostile benches you’ll ever see with numbered berths whose numbers don’t actually mean anything. And in the middle of it all is the road entrance to the station’s parking lot. Not a good start.

Ah, but we’re improving already!

Things take a sharp turn for the better once you take a look at the building. This thing is modern and beautiful – I love the giant BRTA logo plastered on the side. It’s fairly well-integrated with the street next to it, Columbus Ave, as well. There are entrances from there, and a few sets of bike racks give parking for our two-wheeled friends.

And things keep getting better!

The BRTA waiting area is awesome, too: it’s a spacious, airy room with lots of natural light. Interestingly, the seats all come with tables, which probably limits the capacity (who wants to sit at a table with a stranger?) but does give off a homely feel. A screen shows real-time information for BRTA arrivals and departures, while another one next to it displays schedule information for Peter Pan buses (although not Greyhound, boo-hoo). If you’re looking for a more futuristic experience, a computer with an awkward trackball mouse lets you explore a real-time BRTA map, take a survey, and even check the weather. Wowie.

Gotta include the bathroom photo!

And there’s lots more. Tickets for all buses that serve the station are sold at a booth, while BRTA gets an additional machine (one of the fancy RTA ones that prints out CharlieCards, too). I can’t get any information on if it’s still open, but when I was here, there was a cute café – if it is indeed closed, you can still get food from the vending machines. The BRTA customer service window was closed at the time, but luckily the bathrooms were open – the men’s room, at least, was great. Finally, there was a visitors center, but it was…closed. Darn.

We’re getting into the depths of the station now.

As if Pittsfield didn’t need more parking, the Intermodal Center gets an underground lot. I can’t get any detailed information about it online, neither from BRTA nor Amtrak, so I can’t tell you how many spaces there are or how much it costs to park there – at the very least, it offers overnight parking. You can get down here via a staircase or an elevator.

The Amtrak platform.

One more flight down the stairs or elevator and you end up at the Amtrak platform. It has as many amenities as trains per day: benches, and a wheelchair lift. One train in each direction. Not much else to say here – at least you can wait in the BRTA concourse.

No Amtrak trains, but here’s a freight train!

Station: Pittsfield (Amtrak)

Ridership: It’s dawning on me that BRTA is one of those systems that has no public ridership data. Wonderful. Well, this is their hub, so presumably it gets a lot. For Amtrak, the station got 8,270 riders in 2018, or 22 per day – honestly not bad for one train in each direction. Finally, Peter Pan and Greyhound probably add at least a little ridership here.

Pros: Pretty much every aspect of the BRTA building. It has a ton of amenities, and it’s a really pleasant place to wait.

Cons: Pretty much everything outside the BRTA building. The bus boarding area is ugly and functionally inadequate, while the Amtrak platform is super barebones.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Downtown Pittsfield: a place I didn’t get to explore at all. But you’ve got lots of restaurants, lots of businesses, and hey, a movie theater! This theater looks awesome, too.

Final Verdict: 7/10
The building counts for a lot. While both outdoor areas are pretty bad, you could always just wait in the building instead. Overall, this is a good hub for the BRTA, and it was a pleasure to keep coming back to it throughout the day.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Service Change: A Day in Virginia (Richmond and Hampton Roads)

So you can take Greyhound from Philly to the Hampton Roads area for a little over 30 bucks one-way? And you can do overnight buses each way so you don’t have to spend the night anywhere? And one itinerary involves a five-and-a-half hour layover in Richmond, allowing one to see Richmond, despite the fact that it’s $10 more expensive to take Greyhound just from Philly to Richmond, which is closer than Hampton Roads, for some reason? And I have a buy-one-get-one free ticket from Greyhound’s rewards program, so I can drag a friend along?

Well, what are we waiting for?

And here we are!

As a whole, Greyhound did a fantastic job for this trip, and I’m so happy I finally get to say that. We left Philly right on time and got to Richmond a little early! Which in this case meant a 3:30 AM arrival instead of 3:55 AM, which is…perhaps not ideal, but still, it’s better than being an hour late. It gave us more time to hang around before local bus service started.

The cavernous Richmond bus station.

Now, Greyhound stations tend to be located in backwater parts of whatever cities they serve, and Richmond is no exception: it’s located 3 miles from downtown, across from a giant baseball stadium with nothing but parking lots and industrial buildings around. Where it lacks in location, though, it makes up for in quality – this is the best Greyhound terminal I’ve ever been to. The waiting area is giant, although it could stand to have more seats, and the bathrooms are similarly huge.

In case you were wondering about the size of the bathroom…

And special attention needs to be given to the restaurant here. I’m so used to the classic “random counter at the station with a few food items” situation, but Richmond blows that out of the water! It’s a proper room off of the main waiting area, and while it’s still very much fast food, the menu is a lot more comprehensive than usual. The place even has some form of ambience – weird trinkets abound in the wood-panelled room.

The seating area; you get your food at the counter to the right.
This shelf ran around the whole restaurant and was absolutely covered in…stuff. Also, just look at the aesthetic difference between the restaurant and the main terminal!

Let’s talk a bit about the structure of Richmond’s local bus system, GRTC. Looking at the system map alone made me excited to ride it – the current system was redesigned in 2018 from a real mess with frequencies that were all over the place. The new system is centered around a BRT line, the Pulse (definitely on the list of things I wanted to ride here), and the branding is excellent: the Pulse shows up on the timetable of every route that intersects with it (which is almost all of them). It’s GRTC’s most frequent service, something that’s also advertised whenever it’s brought up, with buses every 10 minutes on weekdays and every 15 minutes on weekends and evenings.

A collection of GRTC schedules at the Greyhound station. The payphone worked!

The Pulse is supplemented by four other corridors that run every 15 minutes. The 5 is frequent along its whole length, while the 1, 2, and 3 have frequent trunks that branch off. It’s actually here that one of my few problems with GRTC arises: the schedules do a terrible job of showing which services are frequent! For example, there’s no combined schedule for the 1 – you only get schedules for the 1A, 1B, and 1C, making it look like two hourly routes and one half hourly route, instead of a single frequent unit that branches. Once you open the schedule up, it’s a little more obvious, with a note talking about how the trunk runs every 15 minutes, but a combined schedule for the trunks of these routes would be super helpful.

The Temporary Transfer Plaza in downtown Richmond.

The 1, 2, 3, and 5 are only frequent on weekdays and Saturdays, though; they’re every half hour during the evening and on Sundays. Surely that’s a mark against them, right? No, they thought this through as well! Again, it’s not conveyed very well in the schedules, but during those more infrequent times, the routes converge at the awkwardly-named Temporary Transfer Plaza and leave at the same time, allowing for easy transfers. See, from a design perspective, they really did a good job here!

This is fancy.

GRTC has several places you can buy fares, including on the bus, on your phone, and from their online store. I wanted to experiment with two mediums to see if the passes would be different: CVS, and Pulse ticket vending machines. Luckily, both of those are rather close to the Greyhound station. The CVS was open 24 hours, and I’m glad we went there, because when you buy from them, you get a cool decorative ticket that’s tappable at fareboxes.

Wow, these BRT stations are niceeeee…

Near the CVS was Scott’s Addition Station on the Pulse. It was in the median and it was beautiful, with a decorative map on the shelter, a few specialized real maps that were super useful, real-time information (although it wasn’t working now – we were well before the start of service), and plenty of seating. The ticket vending machine was intuitive too, but the ticket you get from there is way worse! At least you can visually show it to a fare inspector, and it still uses the same “tap ticket” technology, but if you’re looking for a card that actually looks good, CVS is the way to go.

Yeah, definitely not as attractive. I love that day passes are only $3.50, though!

The Pulse would come later; we were starting with the first southbound trip on the 20. A new route created by the redesign, the 20 is a crosstown that makes a “C” shape around the western end of Richmond. It runs from 5 AM to 9:30 PM, and it’s every half hour that entire time. Unfortunately, it may not be getting a ton of ridership, as it seems to entirely use these awful 30-foot Gillig buses with sideways seats…

The empty inside.

Ridership was really low, but granted, it was the first trip. One person got off where we boarded, perhaps to get the Pulse, while the other rider was a GRTC employee who disembarked at the bus garage we passed. As for the route itself, it was pretty direct. There were some twists and turns in the urban Fan District portion, with a particularly annoying deviation to serve the Stadium neighborhood, but once we crossed the James River into the more suburban South Side, it was pretty much a straight shot. Also, here’s something amazing: on GRTC, every stop is announced. More agencies need to have that! Especially on an unfamiliar system, it made it way easier to know when our stop was coming up.

The bus continuing its journey.

We got off at Southside Plaza, a dead shopping plaza that serves as a major transfer point because of its great location. Now we were waiting for any bus in the 1-series – this is where the 1A, 1B, and 1C split up, so it’s every fifteen minutes from here into downtown Richmond. The 1B came first with some people already on, and it was a nice 40-foot bus this time.

Blazing through the parking lot without a care in the world!

This bus perfectly demonstrated how good the frequency setup is. The 1B is only hourly, since its independent section is mostly single-family suburban homes – this was reflected in the relatively low ridership on board. But coming in from Southside Plaza, there are dense houses and businesses along the straight route down Hull Street. The bus ended up getting pretty busy for an early-morning run by the time we got downtown, with at least one person in every seat pair!

The bus coming into downtown.
Frequent service continues to the dense North Side.

We took a walk through downtown Richmond from here to see a few tourist attractions (at least, the ones that can be viewed from outside when they aren’t yet open). Along the way we passed Main Street Station, right at the time that one of the two Amtrak trains per day that serves it was leaving. It’s a shame we didn’t have time to go in – it looks beautiful.

It’ll be a long, all-day trip to Boston from here.

Near St. John’s Church, (Give me liberty or give me death!) we grabbed the 4B to take us to the first stop on the Pulse, Rocketts Landing. We had the bus to ourselves given that we were going against the peak. The ride was uneventful – the route duplicates the Pulse for the short distance it follows it, right down to making the same stops.

The 4s lined up ready to go.

The Rocketts Landing stop serves a planned mixed-use neighborhood, for which frequent BRT service to downtown must be a selling point. The stop is your standard Pulse stop, with the fancy shelter and the ticket machine. A ticket inspector was on the bus at the stop validating fares: she needed to use a transponder to make sure my friend’s ticket was valid, since that was the CVS one, while mine only needed a visual check, since it had the date printed on it.

The bus waiting at the station.

The first part of the route did not feel particularly BRT, though – we were in mixed traffic as we cruised along Main Street. Maybe it doesn’t get particularly trafficked? The East Riverfront Station doesn’t seem to serve much of anything, but a few people still got on here and the ticket inspector immediately checked their fares. It also revealed the bizarre thing the Pulse has to do at every station: the bus stops just before it, then inches up to board in the correct place. Seems unnecessary to me, and it makes the dwell times at each station that much longer.

The view of Richmond along the James River.

Shockoe Bottom was the next stop, and it was packed – we were in the middle of a dense neighborhood now. The ticket inspector actually left the bus here, maybe because it was getting too busy to efficiently check everyone. We cruised down vibrant Main Street from here (still with no bus lanes), and by the time we got to the next station, conveniently called Main Street (it was right outside the train station), we were at a full-seated load.

A mess of a highway interchange at Main Street Station.

The bus made its way up to Broad Street, where finally we got a bus lane. It was good timing too, because we were now in downtown Richmond. I thought this would be the point where most people got off, but the bus actually got more crowded here. Heading out of the central business district, it was standing room only!

I know it’s the morning rush, but heading out of the city? So cool!

As we crossed 1st Street, we entered the best part of the Pulse: the bit where the bus lanes move to the median of the road. This is the best way to do a street-running bus lane, and it gives the Pulse fancy median stations and special transit-only signals. The transit signal were weird, though…as far as I could tell, they seemed to give us the green at the same time as all the other cars. At one intersection, it even let left-turning cars go first! Maybe we were unlucky, but this seems like…not a good way to do transit signals?

The residential buildings in Richmond’s Fan District are gorgeous.

Once we crossed I-195, the area got a lot more suburban…yet the bus was still packed! Where was everyone going? As it turns out, most people were going to the last stop, Willow Lawn. This could be because many of the riders on board were retail workers (Willow Lawn is a mall), or it could be because this is a major transfer point where buses further into the suburbs feed into the Pulse (and as someone who’s ridden the MBTA all their life, I love that “feeder” design – although for single rides, there’s a 25 cent transfer, which is awful). I do wish the bus just stopped across the street from the mall like all the local buses do, though; instead, it has to spend two minutes looping around to get to the eastbound Pulse stop on Broad Street, which is way further from transferring buses than if it used the local stop. Why not just have a drop-off stop that’s more convenient?

In the midst of the loop.

Ultimately, the Pulse wasn’t really the revolutionary BRT route I had been envisioning. It’s still a great service when it comes to frequency, and I love the way that the whole local bus system is centered around it. And when there’s a lot of traffic, the median-running portion of the route must be really satisfying (minus the weird procedure at each stop and the questionable transit signals). If you think about the Pulse as a regular bus route with some BRT elements added on as bonuses, then it looks a lot better.

Thanks for the ride, Pulse!

After a quick breakfast, we hopped on a bus that would take us back to the Greyhound vicinity the long way: the 77. This route is hourly most of the day (half-hourly at rush hour), and like a lot of other GRTC routes, is basically a feeder between two Pulse stations. The total ridership of four definitely seemed to justify its infrequent service (yet unlike the 20, it did get a full-sized bus!). The route ran through mostly residential areas, ranging from proper mansions on the western end, to dense single-family homes in the middle, to cute rowhouses to the east. We got off in the Fan District to grab another 20 back to the Greyhound station (it serves it directly).

The bus boarding at the main Willow Lawn station.

I really liked GRTC overall. Their system seems to work really well, from the super well-executed design of the routes to the amenities on board the bus. (Every stop announced! Every stop!) At least for us, every bus was pretty much on time, even as we got later into the morning rush. People seem to be responding well to the redesign, too: ridership went up by an insane 17% last year! I can’t wait to see where the system goes from here.

Our final GRTC ride!

With our stint in Richmond completed, it was time to hop back on Greyhound for the ride to Hampton, VA. We again arrived there a little early, meaning that we could catch the previous express bus to Norfolk – a full hour earlier than planned! But first, we had to check out the Hampton Transfer Center.

A piece of the transfer center.

Hampton Roads Transit may have one of the most unique service areas in the country. I mean, they’re dealing with six sprawled-out cities – Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach – arranged in a cluster and often separated by bodies of water. As expected, this is a system with a lot of transfer centers and a lot of express routes linking up the different cities. Also, after a system as great as GRTC, there’s nowhere to go but down…

And the outside area.

The Hampton Transfer Center was pretty nice, for what it’s worth. The inside offered seating, vending machines, bathrooms, and places to buy tickets – we got ours from the machine. The normal day pass is $4.50, but in order to be able to ride the premium-fare express buses, we had to get the $7.50 “MAX” day pass. Also…absolutely no transfers for single rides. And I thought GRTC was bad! The outside area of the transfer center was good as well: HRT uses the same shelters everywhere, but they have a nice aesthetic. Bear in mind that these are exclusive shelters, though: “SHELTERS FOR HRT CUSTOMERS WAITING FOR BUS ALL OTHERS SUBJECT TO ARREST FOR TRESPASSING.” Okay, geez, bit intense!

Mm…MAX livery…

Because HRT’s “MAX” routes charge a premium fare, I was hoping for fancy coach buses to justify it. Well…I sorta got my wish. MAX routes use regular city buses with…coach seats. It actually ends up feeling really claustrophobic, but I guess it gives the buses something “premium” to justify the higher fare. The bus we were riding was the 961, which runs hourly seven days a week (with half-hourly service at rush hour) – it connects Newport News, Hampton, and Norfolk. There were two people who had gotten on at Newport News, and a few more got on here for the trip to Norfolk.

Literally just a city bus with coach seats.

The bus took the most direct route from Hampton to the highway, I-64. This took us onto one of the three bridge-tunnels in the Hampton Roads region, which is a super cool aspect of the area. Because this region sees so much shipping activity, they had to either build drawbridges, full tunnels, or…bridge-tunnels. It’s really interesting: you go onto a bridge, then an artificial island takes you into a tunnel, which then surfaces on another artificial island to become a bridge again! HRT uses two out of the three bridge-tunnels in the area, and we would ride over the second one later in the day.

On the bridge…
…and into the tunnel…
…and back on the bridge.

Once over the bridge-tunnel, the highway had an odd section where it ran on a bridge alongside a dense residential peninsula, but it eventually made its way inland. We left I-64 at Exit 276 to serve Wards Corner Transfer, a little bus terminal connecting two other routes. From there, we went limited-stops down local roads to Norfolk. Also, this is as good a time as any to talk about how awful the bus announcements are. They use these terrible robo-voices (the same ones used on MBTA Commuter Rail), which could conceivably be a good thing, since it would allow them to easily input stop names. But no…they barely announce any stops, and the ones they do announce are almost at random! They don’t even announce most of the major timepoints! Instead, they constantly pester you with courtesy announcements, from an advisory that the bus is being recorded “for your safety”, to a plea to like their Facebook page at facebook.com/hrtfan. Yes. I heard that so many times in a day that I remembered the URL from memory. I guess HRT’s propaganda worked.

The indoor section of Norfolk’s transit center.

There are misleading accounts of what the heck the Norfolk transit center is called. Norfolk’s GTFS (the data used in Google Maps and other software) gives it the unassuming name of “Wood & Church”, while bus headsigns say “DNTC” – presumably “Downtown Norfolk Transfer Center” or something. HRT needs to get this figured out!

The outdoor area.

It’s a good thing the Downtown Norfolk Wood & Church Transfer Hub Station has a nice indoor section (benches, ticketing facilities, vending machines, bathrooms), because the outdoor section is…strangely designed. It certainly looks good, but it doesn’t feel like a transit center should have a giant hole in the middle of its sheltered area! And there are benches right beneath that hole! This seems like bad design!

Train time!

Now it’s time for the, er, “centerpiece” of HRT, if you can call it that. America is obsessed with building useless streetcars right now, but HRT decided to try something different and build a useless light rail line! Okay, that might be a little harsh, but “the Tide” is the least-used light rail line in the country (source – note that everything below the Tide is a streetcar) with a measly 4,600 riders per day. The 7.4 mile line was originally supposed to run all the way to Virginia Beach, which would be useful, but Virginia Beach pulled out of the project; now it just twists around downtown Norfolk before running out into the low-density suburbs for a bit. At least it’s frequent, with service every 10 minutes at rush hour and every 15 at all other times – in fact, it’s the only frequent route HRT operates.

Most of the stations look exactly like this.

A station that perfectly exemplifies the “low-density suburbs” portion of the Tide is the easternmost stop, Newtown Road. The surrounding area features either little bungalows on sidewalkless roads, or industrial or commercial buildings surrounded by parking lots on ridiculously wide roads. One good thing about this stop, though: it’s one of the few Tide stops that actually has bus routes feeding into it. Most stops have some form of bus connection, but those routes are usually heading to downtown anyway. HRT should take a cue from GRTC and really go all-in with feeders to the Tide (plus free transfers). They have a potentially great high-capacity transit line that feels pretty isolated at this point.

I know we’re just at the first stop, but the train never got much busier than this.

Inside, you’ve got your typical light rail train design. The announcements here are actually good, clearly announcing every stop, complete with the ominous “You will be exiting left.” Alright, no need to be so forceful. Also, while there is a chime, they didn’t record a “doors closing” announcement, so the operator always gives a “stand clear” manual announcement before closing the doors. Also, the chime before manual announcements is the same one as on PATCO!

Where am I, rural Alabama?

The best thing about the outer portion of the Tide is that it runs along disused rail right-of-way, so aside from a few level crossings, it’s almost entirely separated from cars…and these trains move fast. But despite quickly getting between them, each station is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Military Highway at least has two feeder buses that run full-time (although one of them goes to Norfolk anyway), but it’s in an industrial area; Ingleside Road is on a residential peninsula so not-dense that I can only begin to surmise how low its ridership must be; and Ballentine Broad Creek is next to a highway interchange and a giant local road with a huge gated level crossing.

There are some nice water views, though.

The line runs past the yard next, where some late-night trains terminate and other midday trains stop for driver switches. NSU Station is right after that, serving Norfolk State University (hey, a real destination!) at a cool elevated stop. The section after that is a bit of a rollercoaster ride as the train curves its way down to Harbor Park Station, beginning the urban section of the line.

The sharp curve off of the elevated section.

From here, the line slows down quite a lot – the rest of it is street-running. It’s in dedicated lanes almost the whole time, but it’s still really slow because of all the stops and the fact that the line is soooooooo twisty. It has this super curvy route downtown, particularly between Monticello and York Street Stations where it turns onto a street for a block before turning again. Past York Street, it crosses a body of water next to the road and gets to go a bit faster, but the next stop, EVMC Fort Norfolk, is the last one. The way I see it, the Tide can only increase ridership if: transit-oriented development is built (there’s practically none right now); the bus system can be designed around the line with more feeders; and/or it gets extended to Virginia Beach. But for now…it’s really just there.

A train at Civic Plaza…
…and one at EVMC Fort Norfolk…from above.

We grabbed one of the two bus connections from EVMC Fort Norfolk, the 2 (I guess there are technically three bus connections if you want to count the one that terminates a block away but doesn’t actually stop at the station – makes perfect sense). At every half hour, this is one of the most frequent routes HRT operates (which is really sad). It begins at the Downtown Wood & Norfolk Hub Church Transit Transfer and, through a series of deviations in the Fort Norfolk Area, happens to serve the light rail station.

The bus stop…from above (there’s a footbridge over the road because it’s so dang wide).

Now, as a city, I wasn’t too impressed with Norfolk – most of it felt car-oriented and fake. The 2, however, travels through one of the city’s most authentic neighborhoods, Ghent…except HRT doesn’t run any buses down its vibrant main street! I mean, the neighborhood we went through was fine, but Ghent’s main street and surrounding residential areas look awesome. Once we went under some train tracks, it was back to the usual auto-oriented sprawl.

This is what the inside of an actual HRT city bus looks like.

The road grew wider as we passed through Old Dominion University. There was a residential area before we crossed the Lafayette River, and we got off the bus soon after coming off the bridge. This suburban commercial area with some very pedestrian-unfriendly streets marked the entrance to various ports and the Norfolk Naval Station, where the 2 terminates. Our connecting bus, the 21, ends there as well, but we caught it going the other way.

Oh, what a lovely place for a stop.

The 21 is a crosstown route between this military base and another military base (welcome to Norfolk). We weren’t on it for too long, running through a mostly residential suburban neighborhood until the Wards Corner Transfer. Here, we got off to wait for the 961 up to Newport News (and yes, we could’ve just headed back to the Wood & Church Norfolk Hub Transfer Transit Place to get it from there, but doing local buses up was more fun!).

For some reason, my only photo of Wards Corner was from our morning 961 trip. It’s just a few shelters in a dedicated bus area.

We got caught in major traffic over (and under?) the bridge-tunnel, but things smoothed out after Hampton. It was pretty generic highway running west of Hampton, but there was a neat view of some train yards as we got closer to Newport News. The Newport News Transfer Center luckily has a consistent name, and it had similar aesthetics and amenities to the other HRT transit centers.

Those shelters look familiar…
The indoor area.

We were getting the 967 from here, a rush hour only, peak direction only bus that uses the second bridge-tunnel, the only HRT route to do so! Given the odd route – Newport News to the Military Highway Tide station, via the ring highway around the outskirts of Portsmouth’s and Chesapeake’s built-up areas – I was expecting it to be pretty empty. Instead, the coach bus-city bus hybrid ended up being the busiest one we got all day.

Coming in amongst the autumn trees.

It’s a straight shot from the Transfer Center to the bridge-tunnel, which begins straight away with its tunnel segment. That just means that the bridge after is extra-long, and it was fantastic – I’m glad we tracked down this elusive rush hour route to get that experience. The rest of the ride consisted of deviating off the traffic-ridden highway to various park-and-ride lots, watching the ridership dwindle at each one. By the time we arrived at Military Highway, there was just one person left.

The bridge, seen from an earlier part of the bridge! Gorgeous.

We grabbed the Tide one stop to Newtown Road from here, and even at rush hour, it was near-empty (although we did see some busier trains later on). Newtown Road was where we were connecting to the 20, HRT’s busiest route and also quite possibly its most painful. First of all: of course their busiest route is only every half hour. Why wouldn’t it be? And secondly, this thing is over two hours long. It’s the local route from Norfolk to Virginia Beach with a ton of deviations in between, including one to Newtown Road Station. Why not run a more frequent Tide feeder only from Newtown Road to Virginia Beach? I dunno, maybe because that would make sense.

Time for a long ride.

The portion of the route from Newtown Road to Virginia Beach is about an hour and 20 minutes, so…slightly better than the full trip to Norfolk? But it is a brutal ride. Nearly the entire time is spent on Virginia Beach Boulevard, a giant road that spends its entire length interacting with other giant roads and running through an unzoned mess of industry, malls, and parking lots. Plus an office park deviation. Okay, it was a transfer point, but still – weird place to put one.

Sitting at the office park. Those buildings in the distance are part of a fake town center, which is certainly better than a mall! Looks dense, too.

Annoyingly, we kept running early for whatever reason, meaning that we would sometimes sit at stops for as long as seven minutes! As we got closer to downtown Virginia Beach, transitioning to a narrower road, the driver pretty much gave up on on-time performance. The result? We arrived at the last stop ten minutes early.

Hmm…not as pleasant as the other transit centers…

“Arctic & 19th”, the main transit center in Virginia Beach, is, er, nothing more than a few shelters. Alright, moving on. We walked to the cold, desolate beach before grabbing dinner in the surprisingly vibrant downtown. We had to hurry, though, because there was no way in heck we were taking the 20 all the way back to Norfolk. Instead, we were taking the last trip (7:35 PM) on the 960…

Had to include a shot of the beach.
The 960 waiting to leave.

The 960 is the express route between Virginia Beach and Norfolk. While the 20 takes over two hours, the 960 only takes forty minutes. It’s hourly all day, but it does run seven days a week. The route makes absolutely no stops aside from…the Newtown Road Tide station. Okay, how about a frequent express route between there and Virginia Beach? That would be nice!

Oooooh.

This was perhaps the best ride we had all day, though. We had the bus to ourselves leaving Virginia Beach, and the driver shut off the lights once we got onto the highway. One person got on at Newtown Road (oof, sorry, Tide) for the rest of the trip to downtown Norfolk.

Ugh, a full ad wrap.

Once we got back to the Church Transfer Norfolk Transit Wood Center &, we just had one final trip we had to do. In order to get to it, we hopped on the 45, the only connection between downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth (and another half-hourly route). Interestingly, it was using a Nova Bus, whereas every other HRT bus we had been on was a Gillig. I really like Nova Buses, but the full ad wrap blocking the view out the window was less desirable.

A decent number of people were on board.

Argh, it’s such an easy straight shot to the highway to Portsmouth, but this route doesn’t take it! It has to do a ridiculous number of twists and turns to get down to the waterfront, and why? For what purpose? At least it interacts with the Tide by doing that, but it’s such a long deviation! Things got much faster when we finally got on the highway, taking a bridge to Chesapeake and a tunnel to Portsmouth. After the relatively quick express section, the bus popped up in downtown Portsmouth, and we left early on at its transit center, County & Court.

Getting Virginia Beach vibes from this transit center design…

But why did we come to Portsmouth? Well…HRT operates one more mode that we had yet to cover. And we saved it for last, because it seemed like it was going to be the best one. And yeah…it did not disappoint.

FERRY!

HRT runs a ferry between Portsmouth and Norfolk! First of all, yes, it is every half hour, although they do run service every 15 minutes on summer afternoons. Also, it’s worth noting that there are no pedestrian connections between Norfolk and Portsmouth, two walkable downtowns half a mile apart – the only road between them is a highway. That has to increase ferry ridership, especially in the summer. It takes regular HRT fares, and they actually have three fare machines set up in the boat that you can scan your passes in – very cool. But even cooler…

GIMME THAT PADDLE WHEEL ACTION!!!!!!!

Talk about an awesome aesthetic – the ferry uses paddle steamers. I’m not sure how much effect they actually have on the boat’s movement, since there was clearly a motor running the thing as well, but I cannot complain about having a big beautiful wheel on the back of the ship. The boat itself was nice, with a warm lower deck and a freezing upper deck. Seating is in the form of surprisingly comfortable wooden benches. Also, the boat uses the same announcements as the buses, and you know what that means: more ads for facebook.com/hrtfan, except on a boat this time!

The lower deck. Some people are paying at the fare machines to the left.
And the upper deck.

It’s a short trip in harbor waters, so the boat moves pretty slowly. There was one more stop in Portsmouth, North Landing, before heading to Norfolk. This stop seems to exist entirely to serve an apartment tower next door, but hey, someone did get on here, making for a grand total of three riders. On a boat with a capacity of 150. Well, the ride was still really nice, offering a beautiful view of Norfolk as we cruised to its pier, where a whole ten people were waiting to go back to Portsmouth.

The view of the city from the bow of the ship.
Thanks for the ride!

You know, I’ve been pretty harsh on HRT. But I’ll give this to them: the experience of riding their ferry service is amazing. The rest of the system needs a lot of work, but the ferry? Yeah. I liked the ferry. But really, I think their biggest folly is not using their rail asset to the fullest extent (or really to any extent). Terminating routes at Tide stations will allow them to run more frequently, and heck, maybe they’ll be able to end up with a bus route that runs better than half-hourly! And HRT, if you need any help, look toward Richmond – they know what they’re doing, and they’ve managed to do it with only a measly semi-BRT line. As for you, reader, thanks for joining on this Virginia adventure! I enjoy this new format of service changes (longer overviews of the systems, rather than multi-part shorter posts in more detail), and hopefully you do too.

Oh, also, the Norfolk Greyhound station was sooooooooooooo bad:

The bus can’t come soon enough.

46 (58th-Baltimore to 63rd-Malvern)

I rode the 46 on a weekday and loved it. Hopefully the weekend frequency won’t drag it down in the end…

Coming into the stop at 58th-Baltimore.

The 46 is a really short, simple crosstown that runs pretty much straight up 60th Street in West Philadelphia. It does start on 58th, though, and we ran down that street for a block before taking a left onto Washington Ave. It was all rowhouses, and they continued even as we turned onto the wider 60th Street.

Pretty much every side street looked like this.

A few businesses started to show up along 60th eventually, mostly small markets, restaurants, and salons. Although a few abandoned lots and industrial buildings showed up around Locust Street, it was generally dense apartments with businesses on the first floor. We got some really cool multicolored buildings as we approached the 60th Street El station, where lots of people got off and lots more got on.

The scene underneath the El on Market Street.

Can you solve the mystery of what lay north of Market on 60th? I’m sure you can: more rowhouses! A few businesses and abandoned plots of land broke things up, but once again, it was pretty consistent. We ran within a block of SEPTA’s Callowhill Depot, and soon after that we crossed the 15 trolley at Girard Ave.

Crossing Girard.

The scenery was similar north of Girard. We crossed the 10 trolley at Landsdowne Ave, and north of there, it seemed like there were more patches of street trees. Taking a left onto leafy Columbia Ave and running down it for a block, the brick rowhouses suddenly turned to stone duplexes. We took this as far as 63rd, where we joined up with the 10 trolley along the street lined with more duplexes and even a few single-family homes. One final turn onto Malvern Ave led us to the 63rd-Malvern Loop.

A bear on the side of the road. It might be a memorial of some sort.

While we’re at it, let’s review the 63rd-Malvern Loop. I’ve always been a fan of this one: there’s a substantial shelter at one end, while two fare machines are located next to the employee-only bathrooms (not that any signs tell you they’re employee-only). Some beautifully outdated maps outline where the routes from here go: the 10 and the 46 use the loop itself, while the 65, 105, and G stop around it. The main problems here are a lack of signage to those three routes that don’t serve the loop itself, and also the annoyance of having to walk out into the loop to board the 10 – the tracks are far from the sidewalk. Other than that, though, it’s not bad. 7/10.

Inside the loop.

Route: 46 (58th-Baltimore to 63rd-Malvern)

Ridership: The route gets 4,945 riders on the average weekday, but since it’s so short, that’s honestly quite good! My ride got 29 riders, for example, but remember that the route only takes 20 minutes end-to-end – that’s almost 1.5 riders per minute. It’s for that reason that this is one of SEPTA’s most productive routes.

Pros: The 46 is just beautiful. It’s super short, but it gets a ton of riders because it feeds not only into the El in the middle, but also into trolley lines on both of its ends (the 10 at the northern terminus and the 34 at the southern) – there are ridership anchors on both sides of the route. It serves dense residential areas on a straight, two-way, and easy-to-follow route, with just two patterns: the main one, and a variant on the last few trips that ends at 60th and Landsdowne, perhaps to keep the frequency at half-hourly with just one bus.

The schedule is fantastic for the most part, too. On weekdays, it’s every fifteen minutes for most of the day, with service every six to eight minutes at rush hour. And that peak service is actually useful: peak productivity is slightly higher than midday productivity, a rarity for SEPTA! The Saturday schedule is pretty good as well, with buses running at a decent every 20 minutes from 7 AM to 7 PM. While the route isn’t an owl, it has a 5 AM to 2 AM service span, and I don’t think it really needs owl service anyway – most of the routes it intersects with run all night, so most of what the 46 serves has some form of owl service already.

Cons: I really want to unabashedly love this route, because it is so good. But every half hour during the evening and on Sundays? Aw man, how can you do this to me, SEPTA? That Sunday schedule, especially…if they were able to throw one more bus on that, it could be every 20 minutes and I could give this thing a 9. What would be keeping it from a 10? The stop spacing. Yeah, it’s SEPTA, they always have really close stops, but it’s still a problem regardless.

Nearby and Noteworthy: I should note that I am not a water ice person (many people have a fit when they find out about the extent of sweet things I don’t like), but Siddiq’s Water Ice seems to be a real gem for those who are!

Final Verdict: 6/10
That Sunday service…I don’t feel that I can comfortably give this a higher score because of it. This is pretty much in the same boat as the 79, which actually has slightly better frequencies on Saturdays, and higher ridership than this route. But both this and the 46 are great buses, and while they both have bad half-hourly Sunday service, they’re fantastic on the other days of the week. That’s one thing you need to have a good service, though: decent frequency seven days a week. Sorry, 46.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

FRTA: 22 (BlueLink Connector)

Why does the 22 have a colored name? Does that make it important? Because it only runs four trips a day. It doesn’t serve Greenfield. It almost entirely duplicates other routes. No, doesn’t seem important to me.

The bus approaching at Turners Falls.

We boarded this Turners Falls circulator thing at its westernmost stop, Avenue A and 11th. From there, we ran straight through downtown Turners Falls before turning onto 3rd Street, then heading uphill on L Street. It was a mostly residential area before we traversed a forested ridge, travelling up to another residential area (this one much less dense, but with a few schools).

A residential side street.

I think the route’s schedule must’ve been different in 2018 when I rode it, because it’s supposed to deviate to the Park Villa Apartments and we didn’t do that. The foibles of having a backlog so long…but anyway, we headed down Turnpike Road, passing more houses and the Turners Falls High School. We then turned onto Millers Falls Road and ran on that for a bit before taking a left onto Industrial Drive, serving the Franklin County Technical School and looping around an industrial area near the Turners Falls Airport.

The side of the airport. There’s a model plane club, apparently!

The route does take a different routing on the way back, but I seriously can’t tell what route we might’ve taken – my pictures are too innocuous! At any rate, today it would go back the way it came until Turners Falls High School, then run up the residential Turners Falls Road. It merges onto Unity Street outside of “Scotty’s Convenience Store”, and that becomes 3rd Street to enter downtown Turners Falls.

Our final FRTA ride: complete.

FRTA Route: 22 (BlueLink Connector)

Ridership: Well, it was very low on my trip. In fact, as low as it possibly could be: a big fat 0. I kinda doubt other trips get many more people, unless they’re coming from school, I guess (I rode in the summer).

Pros: The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is probably a school bus. So in that sense, I guess it’s fine?

Cons: Oh wait, it looks like both schools this thing serves have school bus systems. Yeah, alright, the 22 seems pointless.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Nothing besides the usual of Turners Falls.

Final Verdict: 1/10
While it may be useful for getting people to that industrial area near the airport, that’s the only thing the 22 actually serves on its own. Wouldn’t it be better if this bus was put on the 32 to bolster its peak service? As far as I can tell, there’s not much use for it on this route.

Gosh, this is a sad way to close out the FRTA…

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates
So, my video about spending $16 to take Greyhound from Manhattan to Brooklyn was featured on a website called Jalopnik, and now it’s sorta blowing up! Is this worth putting in the “In the Press” section? I’ve never heard of it, but it seems to be pretty popular. Anyway, thanks so much for the continuing support!

L (Erdenheim or Plymouth Meeting Mall to Olney Transportation Center)

SEPTA. Why do you have an El train and an L bus? This is very confusing! If it’s any consolation, they don’t go anywhere near each other, but the amount of times I’ve gotten double takes when talking about the L bus has gotten to insane levels!

Although it would be cool if the El train did go all the way out to Plymouth Meeting.

It’s going to take an entire paragraph (or more) in the “Cons” section to discuss the L’s various termini, so for now, just know that the Plymouth Meeting Mall variant is the longest one, so it’s the one I put myself on for the review. We made our way out of the mall onto Germantown Pike, a wide suburban road with, like all wide suburban roads, businesses with parking lots along it. It cut through a complicated interchange with I-276 and I-476, and there were a few office buildings on the other side.

I love this bucolic little road!

After those offices, though, the street became more residential, and actually historical – the group of buildings around the intersection of Germantown and Butler Pikes was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and nearby Abolition Hall was built to be a meeting place for abolitionists. The residential architecture was interesting and varied as we continued along, too. Well…crawled along. There was a lot of traffic.

Nighttime already? Darn…

We passed the Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, then a golf course and a well-named park. The traffic magically stopped after we crossed Joshua Road, where several small businesses were located inside little shopping plazas. Retail showed up pretty regularly on the road until it curved northeast, playing host to leafy houses.

A building I recognize! This is where the road made its curve.

A golf course showed up before the intersection with Northwestern Ave, which featured an apartment complex and Chestnut Hill College. This is also where we entered Philadelphia. How did I know that? Because the bus told us: “Entering City Fare Zone.” Ummmm…yeah, that’s definitely not a thing anymore. And I checked the Web Archive – the earliest PDF I can get, from early 2010, has no zoned fares to speak of. How outdated is that message??

Just to prove I didn’t make this up!

A woodsy section over Wissahickon Creek led us to the big, beautiful houses of Chestnut Hill. Germantown Ave became cobblestoned when we entered downtown Chestnut Hill, with its fancy businesses inside of old buildings. This is where the L’s other main branch connects up, so the route is a lot more frequent east of here. We went by Chestnut Hill West Station on the Chestnut Hill West Line, then we turned onto the residential Gravers Lane and passed Gravers Station on the Chestnut Hill East Line a block later.

Awww, cute snowman.

Once past the Chestnut Hill East Line, we turned onto Stenton Ave, which passed a few sets of apartment buildings. We crossed some telephone wires, and from there the houses shifted from the fancy, single-family affairs in Chestnut Hill to more standard Philly duplexes. A few businesses showed up at the intersection with Mount Airy Ave.

A parking lot somewhere.

It was pretty much all rowhouses, with a few churches, from there until more businesses around Washington Lane. After that, we passed MLK High School, and a few blocks past the school, we took a right onto Wister Street. This was mostly rowhouses too, with a bit of retail and a few empty plots of land. Just before hitting a shopping plaza, we turned onto the similar Nedro Ave, which led us to Broad Street – a quick jaunt on that, and we were at our destination of Olney Transportation Center.

It was actually a triple bunch – a third L came in after these two.

Route: L (Erdenheim or Plymouth Meeting Mall to Olney Transportation Center)

Ridership: My trip ended up fronting a triple bunch, so despite going inbound in the evening rush, we amassed 79 riders over the course of our 70-minute ride (20 minutes longer than it’s supposed to take, incidentally). The route actually ranks pretty low in ridership for a long frequent route, getting 7,796 riders per weekday, making it 31st on the system. Admittedly, the frequent section is only about half the route, so the numbers could reflect lower ridership beyond that thanks to fewer buses.

Pros: The frequencies on the core section of the L are actually fantastic: on weekdays, it’s every 15 minutes most of the day from 6 AM to 9 PM, with buses every 5-6 minutes at rush hour. Weekends are good, too, with 15-minute Saturday service from around 7:30 AM to 6:30 PM, and even Sundays have a decent 20-minute headway from 9:30 AM to 6 PM. Of course, the route splits in two, but for most of the day it’s done well: every other trip goes all the way out to Plymouth Meeting Mall, and the others end in Erdenheim, a few minutes up Bethlehem Pike from Chestnut Hill. This is a good way of balancing ridership and not having to run too many buses on the long suburban run to Plymouth Meeting.

Cons: Okay, there’s a lot to break down here. Let’s see…first of all, frequencies drop down really quickly at night, going to every 35 minutes after 9 PM on weekdays, and every 30 minutes after 8 PM on Saturdays and after 6 on Sundays. So things are pretty good if you travel during the midday, but once nighttime hits, the route becomes a lot harder to use. The load profile seems to suggest pretty high ridership on some nighttime trips, too. Speaking of nighttime, this is another SEPTA route that’s really close to having Owl service: the first trip leaves Olney a little before 4 AM, and the last trip arrives at Olney a little after 3 AM. It’s not a huge deal, but it sure would be satisfying if the route could close that gap.

But those are pretty minor things. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: variants. Specifically rush hour variants, because that’s where they’re confusing. First of all, a new terminus is added at Rodney Street and Mount Airy Ave, just off of Stenton Ave. This is marked as frequent on the route’s paper schedule map, despite the fact that it’s a rush hour only variant – it made me think that all trips deviate up there or something! It also makes the service to the main termini really all-over-the-place, and particularly going inbound in the evening rush from the Plymouth Meeting Mall, the schedule is off the wall. There are 20-minute gaps in service, then two buses six or eight minutes apart! No wonder my bus was the head of a bunch!

And I question Erdenheim as a main terminus. Is there really enough up there to justify a terminus? Wouldn’t it be more simple for the schedule to just end the bus at the Chestnut Hill Loop? I guess maybe there’s no room there, and the buses had enough time to go up Bethlehem Pike a little bit, so they figured why not. And maybe it does get ridership…it just seems like it adds confusion to me. But something that definitely adds confusion and definitely could be gotten rid of is the morning peak only, outbound only “express” service on four nonconsecutive trips to the Plymouth Meeting Mall. It operates a different way out of Olney with “limited stops” and saves…*drumroll*…three minutes maximum. We do not need this.

Oh, and one more bonus variant! Have you ever noticed the one trip that goes from Plymouth Meeting Mall to Olney, via Erdenheim (not that they specifically say via Erdenheim – I had to look up the streets on a map to find that out)? It leaves at the innocuous time of 9:56 PM and just sorta jogs up to Erdenheim on the way to Olney. And you know the best part? The schedule note describes the streets it takes in the wrong direction. Again…this is just so unnecessarily complicated. We do not need this.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Despite its cool name, I always associated Plymouth Meeting with its suburban side (e.g. the mall). That historical part of it is actually really cool, though! There are also some fancy historical restaurants further down Germantown Pike, if you’re into that (the last one is not fancy, but it is still historical, so therefore I consider it the option I’m most likely to check out).

Final Verdict: 5/10
The core of the L is really good. I love that it provides frequent service along Stenton Ave, a street that definitely needs it. And if you’re travelling at midday, you’ll generally have a bus coming soon seven days a week! But man, this route sure is a mess, huh? It mostly comes down to the insane rush hour scheduling that’s more complicated and probably more frequent than it has to be (productivity is lower at peak than midday, and the load profile shows that no bus gets higher than 40 riders at any one time, and midday ridership competes easily with peak), but even if it’s just during that time, the complexity could turn new users off from riding. NOT TO MENTION THAT IT’S CALLED THE L BUS WHEN THERE’S ALSO AN EL TRAIN! I haven’t forgotten that. I’ll never forget that.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

FRTA: 24 (Crosstown Connector)

The 24 is probably the FRTA’s best route, but our experience on it was one of the worst. It all started when a real clunker of a bus showed up at the JWO Transit Center about 25 minutes late…

This’ll be a fun ride! Hopefully.

So the 24 runs from Greenfield Community College in the west of the city to Turners Falls to the east, via the Transit Center (hence the name “Crosstown Connector”). My friend and I had the lame plan of taking it out to the Community College and then just staying on and coming back. The driver wasn’t having it, though: “CAN’T YOU READ THE SIGN? I’M NOT GOING TO TURNERS FALLS!!!!”

Uhhh…

But as it turned out, the driver was right. I have this idea of FRTA that it thinks it’s a more legit bus system than it actually is, and what they did with the 24 is just another step in that direction: because the big school bus was 25 minutes late, they dispatched a second bus to do the Turners Falls section. I have so many logistical questions here, but wow, I just can’t believe they had a spare bus and driver around to pull off something like this. On the downside, it meant that we would only get to cover the Turners Falls half of the route…

Houses.

Luckily, the 24 duplicates other routes for its entire Community College run, but it does have a tiny unique section on the eastern side! Most of it is shared with the (much less frequent) 23, though, including the starting portion along Main Street and High Street. We were out of downtown quickly, but houses were still dense, and we passed the Franklin Medical Center as the road got closer to a mountain.

Oh good, Stop & Shop.

The street started to get a little more industrial before we did a weird deviation into Stop & Shop that didn’t actually serve the front entrance. The only woodsy section we would see on the trip followed that before we turned onto Avenue A for a bridge over the Connecticut River. This took us on the brief unique section into beautiful downtown Turners Falls; the route ended a little bit past it, at Avenue A and 11th Street.

And we got off before that. Sheesh.

FRTA Route: 24 (Crosstown Connector)

Ridership: This route is too new to have figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s one of the highest ridership routes on the system. My ride got six people, and that was just on the eastern portion.

Pros: Hourly service from 9:15 AM to 6:15 PM, a decent service span for FRTA! A logical route that serves important destinations in the service area! And apparently a spare bus ready to jump in if the service is running late…!

Cons: A trip does run at 7:15 AM, but there’s no 8:15, which is a little annoying. And other than that, no weekend service, obviously.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Turners Falls all the way! I’ve definitely talked about this cool hipstery downtown before, but I’ll do it again: it’s a great place to be. It’s walkable, there are awesome businesses and restaurants. And…transit only serves it on weekdays. Shoot.

Final Verdict: 7/10
Like I said at the start: probably the FRTA’s best route. It’s still not great, mostly because it lacks any sort of weekend service, but the weekday service provided is mostly solid besides the gap in the morning.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Service Change: Scotland, Part 3 – The Highlands

Click here for Part 1, click here for Part 2.

Our final part of the Scotland series takes us to the northern tip of Great Britain…and beyond. But we first begin in Inverness, the largest city in the Highlands (with slightly under 47,000 residents) and one with a pretty decent bus system.

I never got to ride one of the city’s double-decker buses, but at least I got to get a picture of one!

Like all of the bus systems we’ll be covering today, Inverness’s local bus operation is run by Stagecoach. Their service is comprehensive, covering much of the city with at least half-hourly routes and a few fifteen-minute corridors. Of course, some of their services are maddeningly confusing, but we’ll get to that.

One of Inverness’s two downtown bus stations.

Inverness has a dense downtown with narrow streets, so Stagecoach is limited in where it can go. A proper bus terminal in the industrial area near the train station serves longer-distance routes, but local ones stop in the thick of downtown at two stops on two parallel one-way streets. They offer little more than some shelter and a departure board each, but there’s not a ton that can be done in such a confined area.

The cushy interior of the unfortunately single-decker bus.

Stagecoach is a private company (as is the custom in the UK), so their rural services are often priced really high to cover for the higher expense of running those routes. So it was great to do one of their urban services, where it was just £3.70 for a day pass! My dad and I had gotten up early to just do a short round trip to experience the bus system before our train departure later, but even then, the day pass is still cheaper than buying two single tickets.

It’s annoying that it comes in the form of this weird receipt, though. There were Burger King coupons on the back.

I had seen double-deckers on the route 4 previously, so that’s what we took. Alas, the bus was a single, but oh well – the 4 is still an interesting route that runs to a lot of important transfer points in the Inverness system. We had a jaunt through the town center before climbing up the hill to the south of it. It was still dense outside of downtown, but there was definitely a suburban feeling to the neighborhood.

Guess not many people are out at 7 AM.

We eventually deviated to the Raigmore Hospital, which is served by a bunch of other routes too. But there was a problem: we were supposed to leave at 7:18, but we arrived at 7:14. And it was just a little bus loop with no passing lanes. And we were stuck in a line of buses, but there was one behind us that actually had to leave. What ended up happening was a bizarre looparound where this parade of vehicles went out onto the main road and back into the stop to allow the bus behind us to leave on time. Unless it just happened to be a light day, they might want to change some schedules around…

All this makes me feel like how that guy’s feeling…

Right after the hospital, there was another longer deviation to serve the UHI (University of the Highlands and Islands) Inverness campus. It was across a highway and totally surrounded by fields. We returned to the main route after that, running along a shopping center before entering a prefab residential area. My dad and I left the bus at Wester Inshes to make the short walk to the then-terminus of the 1B (it’s since been extended).

The bus driving away.

The 1 is one of the most frequent, but also “maddeningly confusing” corridors on the system. It has service every 15 minutes for most of the day, but only on the trunk: the route then splits up into the 1, the 1A, the 1B, and the once-a-day 1U. There was even a 1C with limited service when we were here, but I guess it’s been eliminated (good!). At any rate, you can imagine that with so many branches, the frequencies aren’t great – the 1B is every hour.

Coming around the bend.

It also apparently uses electric buses, which was a real treat! But as for the route itself, it’s kind of a mess. All of the 1 branches are a bit meandering, but the 1B really takes it to the next level. We had to do a loopy residential deviation two blocks from where we would end up over ten minutes later after more winding around! Granted, it did get riders (most of whom knew each other), and the small bus had maybe fifteen commuters on it by the time we got into the city.

Train time!

And now, for a complete change of pace, it was time to take the train up to Thurso, the northernmost town in Great Britain. The service runs four times a day. The trunk portion to Dingwall was territory already covered on our train from Kyle in Part 2, so I’ll start from there.

That is an impressively long bridge.

We were still in an area with plenty of human influence north of Dingwall, as the line hugged Cromarty Firth running past farmland. The stops were all in proper towns with dense houses and high streets, particularly Invergordon. The one exception on this section was Fearn, which was surrounded by fields, but there would be far more of that later on!

The area around Fearn.

It started to get more rugged as we came along Dornoch Firth for a bit. The towns that got stations became smaller and smaller, first with Ardgay, then with Culrain and Invershin – those stations are on opposite sides of the Kyle of Sutherland, and it takes all of one minute to get between them. A fare between the two is just £1.60.

The beautiful Kyle of Sutherland!

Okay, now we were in the middle of nowhere. With a few exceptions in the form of farmland, the hilly land was mostly untouched. Lairg Station serves a town of the same name, but it’s so far from it that we had no idea there was anything nearby. Rogart was a really tiny village. Golspie was in a sizeable town, though, while the next stop, the seasonal Dunrobin Castle, serves a seaside castle of the same name.

Oh man, I love that singular house.

Now that we were running along the ocean, the land felt a lot more inhabited. The non-water side was all farmland, and the two stops along here were both in decently-sized towns. Right after Helmsdale, though, the line curved inland to follow the river named after the town. This section was woodsy for a while before breaking out into open fields.

A fantastic view along the ocean.
The river sailing through the fields.

The very northern tip of the line has a Kingston/Plymouth situation, except it’s one that makes a lot more sense and is done a lot better. Thurso and Wick are the two major towns up here in the Far North, but they’re almost 20 miles apart. So, trains reach a stop called Georgemas Junction, reverse to Thurso, reverse back and head down to Wick, and then do the process again for the return trip. While this sounds miserable, we’re dealing with zippy trains that can turn around in three minutes – it is annoying if you’re starting or ending in Wick, but this is probably the most efficient way to serve the two places, especially in such a remote area.

A mysterious fence.
Cows lazing in front of a long line of wind turbines.
Welcome to Thurso!

Thurso has a cute little shed of a station on the southern edge of town. There’s not much to it, but it has a sheltered part of the platform (with bathrooms!) and an indoor waiting room. An LED departure board is even there to announce arrivals for the very limited service here. And you know, for the northernmost station on National Rail, that’s a pretty good set of amenities.

It’s kinda cute!
Inside the waiting room.
The building outside.

The Far North Line may not have been a total slam dunk like the other two long-distance lines we had done, but it still had some awesome scenery. The seaside sections in particular were fantastic – I remember running past a beach full of seals lounging and swimming in the water. And of course, there were plenty of classic Scottish fields and farms, too!

A Scottish minibus? It’s a dream come true!

Alright, time for another trip on Stagecoach! This section of it covers the Caithness region of Scotland, which is essentially Thurso, Wick, and all the areas in between. Most of its routes do have the “school bus that happens to be open to the public” vibe that many Stagecoach rural services have, but there is the 82, an hourly route between Thurso and Wick that seems a little more legit.

Inside the minibus. No jiggly wheelchair lift!

But we weren’t using the 82 – we were going to the Dunnet Bay Distillery, which is primarily covered by the 80. And conveniently, the 80 happens to be one of the few Stagecoach Caithness routes covered by the Spirit of Scotland pass! It’s more supposed to be used to get to John O’ Groats and its ferry terminal, but hey, you can use the pass to go anywhere along the route.

Heyyyyy, what are you doing?

The 80 has a really weird schedule. It runs six trips between 12:35 and the last run at 5:35 PM, which would make you think it has an hourly service. But no…it’s three trips that each use two buses running alongside each other. For the 12:35 and 3:35 (the one we were on) trips, one of them short-turns at Dunnet, but it still makes no sense! What was even stranger was the difference in buses here: we were in a minibus, and the other bus doing a trip (and indeed, the one doing the short-turn) was a coach bus.

Ooh, nice view, though!

This route was less ultra-rural than the ones on the Isle of Skye had been. We left the urbanized part of Thurso quickly, but even as we entered open fields, there was a decent amount of settlement within them. We even ran through a small but urbanized settlement in the form of Castletown. The road ran along a huge but hidden beach before entering the small village of Dunnet.

Some dunes before the beach and a view of the Dunnet Head peninsula – the northernmost point in Great Britain.
The coach bus ended up behind us at some point.

As it turns out, you need to reserve in advance to get into the distillery. Which we hadn’t done. Soooooo, we had about 50 minutes in Dunnet before a bus coming back to Thurso would show up (and what do you know, there’s another one scheduled to show up fifteen minutes after it). We spent some time on the gorgeous beach and then returned to the road to flag down the approaching coach bus, which almost missed us because it was going so quickly.

A better view of the beach.
Off-topic, but here’s my dad facing off against some giant cows while we wait for the bus. I just love this photo.
Stop!
I think this bus might be a bit bigger than the ridership justifies. Also, the cows are still watching…

We were heading to Wick the next day, but we would be going via Orkney, an island north of the mainland. Our original plan was to do a guided tour that would start at John O’ Groats, but it was sold out, so we decided we would see as much as we could with public transit instead. There is a bus between Thurso and the closest ferry terminal, Scrabster, but it runs there at random times that don’t actually connect with the three ferry trips a day. Rather than do the 42-minute walk with our giant bags, we decided to take a cab.

Inside the lobby of the ferry terminal.

The Spirit of Scotland pass came in handy again here: it offers a 20% discount on Northlink Ferry tickets, which are already less than £20 for the 90-minute crossing. The terminal had a small lobby where you buy tickets, but then there’s an airport-like “Departure Lounge” once you have them. A long walkway leads down to the boat.

The departure lounge.

Okay…Northlink runs services to Orkney both on the short run from Scrabster and on an overnight cruise ship-like service from Aberdeen. Something I didn’t realize was that they use the same boats for both! So yeah…this may have been the best boat experience I’ve ever had.

Expensive jewelry, anyone?
Viklings Den! That’s so cute!
The restaurant and its huge menu.
An arcade room? Sign me up!
The luxurious main seating area…
…and the similarly-luxurious-but-with-some-snacks-that-are-apparently-worth-a-£7.50-entry-price-for-a-90-minute-trip Magnus’ Lounge.
The views were amazing too, despite being seen through a foggy window. Here’s the Old Man of Hoy.
Every time we saw birds, we wondered if they were puffins. I dunno…any ornithologists out there?
A lighthouse on the small isle of Graemsay.
Coming into the town of Stromness!
I couldn’t get any photos of the whole boat, it was so huge! This logo is awesome, though.
Definitely a more humble ferry terminal than on the mainland.

Orkney’s bus system is run by, surprise surprise, Stagecoach. Of the rural Stagecoach systems we’ve dealt with thus far, though, the Orkney one is surprisingly the best. Many of its routes run consistently all day, including two that run half-hourly: the 4 from the main town, Kirkwall, to its airport, and the X1, a super-route across the entire island.

The X1 even uses double-deckers!
The Stromness bus terminal is right outside of the ferry terminal. It’s cramped, but at least it has real-time information!

We were taking a very special bus, though: the T11 is a once-a-day route that runs only during the summer. It starts and ends in Kirkwall, running via Stromness and serving two out of the island’s three main tourist attractions, giving enough time at each one to experience them. The ticket to ride it is £15, which is really cheap compared to tours that see most of the same things, and the ticket works as a day pass on any other Orkney route.

It’s a double-decker as well!

As it turns out, though, that £15 ticket only applies if you’re starting and ending your trip at Kirkwall! We were going from Stromness to Kirkwall, meaning that you only have to pay the £3.45 single ticket. That is a fantastic exploit if I ever saw one!

This seems like a bad idea…

Bizarrely, the T11 uses an open-top bus. That seems ill-advised in rainy Scotland, and indeed, 75% of the upper deck was essentially inaccessible on this trip. We headed out from Stromness and the town ended really quickly, leaving us on a double-decker bus in the middle of open farmland – that was cool. We eventually ended up at Skara Brae, the most complete neolithic village in Europe. They give you an hour and 25 minutes here, and you’re allowed to keep your stuff on the bus. The village was amazing, too!

This is fantastic.
The bus sitting among the horses near Skara Brae.

From Skara Brae, it was a 15-minute jaunt through farmland to get to the Ring of Brodgar, a neolithic circle of giant stones. We got half an hour here, and as we headed down the road after, some passengers asked the driver if we could stop at the Standing Stones of Stenness, too. She obliged, and we got ten minutes at a really cool set of stones that are a lot more accessible and rugged than the ones at Brodgar. It was about 20 minutes to Kirkwall from there. The T11 is a fantastic service for tourists, and even if you spend the £15 pounds to do it from Kirkwall, it is totally worth it (but that Stromness exploit was totally unexpected and awesome).

The bus pulled over on the side of the road near the Standing Stones of Stenness.
A view of Kirkwall.
The bus at the Kirkwall Travel Centre.

Okay, it takes a bunch of context to explain just how amazing our trip back ended up being. Like I mentioned before, we were heading to Wick, which meant that the better ferry to take would be John O’ Groats Ferries from Burwick to John O’ Groats. It’s £21 for a crossing, but for £3 extra, you can take a shuttle from Kirkwall to Burwick. Also important is the fact that the T11 had let us see two out of three main tourist attractions, but not the Italian Chapel, a chapel constructed by Italian POWs using makeshift materials during World War II. Finally, it’s important to note that John O’ Groats Ferries happens to run the tour that we would’ve taken had it not been sold out.

Does that say “TOUR” on the front?

So as it turns out, the shuttle bus is the same bus used on the tour – and the thing was packed with people who were on it. This meant, for one, that we got to listen to the fantastic narration of the tour guide as we drove through the island’s open fields. And two, the guide made an announcement: “We’ve got one more stop before the ferry, and that’s the Italian Chapel.” WHAT!!

Inside the busy coach bus.
The bus in front of the chapel!

So we ended up getting to see the Italian Chapel after all, and it was absolutely beautiful. And once again, this ended up being an unintentional exploit that let us see something for way cheaper than it would’ve been otherwise. While the tour is £66, we were able to see essentially the same things for just £42. So if you ever want a cheap, self-guided tour of Orkney, this is the way to do it!

The ramp down to the boat.

Annoyingly, despite being more expensive (and a shorter trip) than Northlink Ferries, John O’ Groats Ferries uses a much smaller and simpler boat. Granted, we had been totally spoiled by the Northlink boat, but this thing was the same kind of ferry you would get in, say, Boston. It had a nice upper deck, though, and luckily the trip back was clear of rain!

The bottom deck…
…and the upper.
Nice view from the trip!
The walkway of questionable safety at John O’ Groats.
Look, the fence doesn’t start until way over here!

And now we’re back to Stagecoach Caithness territory for a trip on the 77 from John O’ Groats to Wick, which happened to be covered by our passes. One other person was waiting at our bus shelter, and a couple of people were already on board the bus, which had come from Gills Bay (another ferry to Orkney departs from there). Once again, this was a coach bus that felt way too overblown for the ridership.

Coming into the terminal parking lot.
It was brief, but there was a cool otherworldly section here.
I wonder what that little structure is.
Cows in front of a seaside estate.

The ride was half an hour of just speeding along the ocean, with lots of fields, cows, and mysterious structures to see. An airport marked the beginning of Wick’s boundary, and soon after that, we got to deviate into a Tesco supermarket. It was mostly residential from there to Saint Fergus Road, where the main bus stop and last stop of the 77 is located: it was just a shelter, but it actually had a real-time screen inside!

“Sorry Not In Service”
Okay, it’s tough to see because of the sun glare, but it exists!

The next day we were embarking on the two-seat, 8+ hour ride back to Edinburgh. Wick’s train station was near-identical to Thurso’s, except less charming (although we didn’t have time to see the waiting room – maybe it’s mind-blowing). The ride back to Inverness was the same as the way up, minus the bit where we had to deviate to Thurso thanks to the weird forked setup up here.

Love the big rusty dumpsters next to the station building.
The train at Inverness.
We had a very brief layover before boarding this train to Edinburgh.
A great view in the Inverness suburbs.

The service from Inverness to Edinburgh is more frequent than a lot of the other ones we’ve done, running every hour or two throughout the day. There was a tiny bit of suburban scenery after Inverness, but as usual, the middle of nowhere started quickly. This line has very few stops, though, so even some towns that seemed to deserve them we just flew through. Or flew over, in one case: Tomatin featured a gorgeous viaduct over the River Findhorn.

The corresponding road viaduct is a highway and not nearly as pretty.

We ran parallel to the A9 for a while, soon making our first stop at the very tourist-oriented village of Carrbridge. The next stop was also in a touristy town, Aviemore, and lush valley scenery led us to the following stop at Kingussie. The stop at Newtonmore came soon after.

Houses speckled across the landscape.
Low clouds in front of the background mountains.

Our train skipped the station at Dalwhinnie, a very small village, and we got some pure mountains up to our next stop at the village of Blair Atholl. South of there, it was mostly farmland, with fairly regular stops at sizeable towns. And eventually, we got one in a proper city: Perth, where lots of people got on at the huge station.

A small stream coming from some mountains.
A lush meadow.
The best shot I could get of Perth from inside the train.

A long 35-minute nonstop section through farmland (with lots of little villages in between) separated Perth and our next station, Markinch. By the time we got to the stop after, in the giant town of Kirkcaldy, the track began running along the Firth of Forth. This area was very populated, with a ton of towns dotting the shoreline (across which Edinburgh can be seen), but half-hourly local trains take care of most of the stops along here. We only called at Inverkeithing, where the other main line north of Edinburgh joins on.

These are some beautiful fields.
A dense neighborhood in Kirkcaldy.
We were right up along the shore!

Now, I knew what was coming after Inverkeithing, and I was excited. The Forth Bridge is one of the most incredible engineering accomplishments in history: the 1700-foot cantilever bridge was built in 1890, and it’s a marvel. Not only does it look distinctive and majestic, but it was the longest cantilever bridge when it was built, and still remains the second-longest. And the view from the train was magnificent.

The best view we got of the bridge itself from the train. There are much better photos online from up close.
A peninsula just at the start of the bridge…
…and an island in the middle of it.

It was about half an hour to Edinburgh after crossing the bridge, with the scenery consisting mostly of the city’s suburbs. We stopped at the three main stations: Edinburgh Gateway, near the airport; Edinburgh Haymarket, in the western part of town; and the main station, Edinburgh Waverley. And with that, this Scotland adventure is complete. Thanks for following along; I had a blast recounting it, and I hope you enjoyed as well!

150 (Parx Casino to Plymouth Meeting Mall)

Welcome to SEPTA’s least-used route. The 150 looks absolutely bizarre at first glance: it’s a nonstop suburban crosstown express from Parx Casino (in the northeast) to Plymouth Meeting Mall (in the northwest). I was all set to write this thing off as a 1/10 that makes absolutely no sense, but maybe there’s more than meets the eye here…

I have never noticed how garish these casino colors are.

We had to do SEPTA’s insane, seemingly never-ending loop to get out of the casino complex, but once we did, we headed up the suburban sprawlscape of Street Road. It led us to a giant mass of trafficked highway interchanges that took a really long time to get to. Eventually, we ran through a toll booth onto the significantly less busy Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-276).

Heading through the toll.

Perhaps because it’s a toll road so each interchange requires a ton of infrastructure, the Pennsylvania Turnpike has super far-apart exits. We sped past both residential and industrial areas, but usually only the latter could be seen; the houses were shaded off from the highway by trees or walls. There was a weird one-way exit into a series of office parks, and the highway ran through the woods after one more proper interchange. We got off at Exit 333, looping through another toll and a bunch of ramps to get onto Germantown Pike. A short jaunt on there led us to the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

Darn, it’s off duty now.

Route: 150 (Parx Casino to Plymouth Meeting Mall)

Ridership: Oh, it’s unquestionably low. My trip got 5 people, and on a daily basis the route gets 43. Everyone knew each other, including the driver. This thing is mostly used by seniors heading to the casino to gamble.

Cons: Yes, I’m actually starting with cons, because it seems like they’re all this thing has. Look at it: it’s a bizarre express route that gets very few people, the farebox recovery ratio is a miserable 7%, and the schedule is all over the place – it seems to run whenever it wants and however often it wants, with no consistency anywhere. The Saturday service is completely different from weekday, with trips way earlier in the morning for some reason. Gosh, this has to be a 1, right?

Pros: Except the buses on this route are actually non-revenue pullouts running in service. Suburban routes in Bucks County, which Parx Casino is in, run out of SEPTA’s Frontier Division near the Plymouth Meeting Mall! So some buses doing that trip just happen to run in service as the 150. The cost of running this thing is negligible – why not do it?

Nearby and Noteworthy: Gamblin’ and shoppin’. And highwayin’.

Final Verdict: 5/10
I mean…the ridership is still really low. And I don’t understand what the process is for choosing which runs operate as 150s. (e.g. why are there early morning ones on Saturdays but not on weekdays? The schedule doesn’t make a lot of sense.) But…it doesn’t really cost SEPTA anything to run these. Frankly, I see no reason to get rid of it – the bus would make the trip anyway. Why not keep it around?

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