Friday, August 5, 2016

Going "Up the Hudson River Line" to see the races as Saratoga

When I worked in New York City, I had a special credit card to pay for my monthly commuter pass. A few weeks ago, my employer notified me that the account will be discontinued soon. I made an inquiry and discovered there was a surprisingly large amount still available to me. Not wanting to lose it, I am hitting the rails and writing about my journeys. This is the first installment.
Every summer, Saratoga Springs, NY, becomes the place to see and be seen for six weeks while the New York Racing Association holds its summer meet at the historic track there. Amtrak’s Adirondack, which runs daily between New York and Montreal, makes it possible to get to the track, watch a few races and get back to the Big Apple the same day.

The train originates at Penn Station, a 40-minute trip via the Long Island Rail Road from my hometown of Oceanside. This day, the Adirondack is sold out and the to line board stretches from the gate to the rotunda beneath Madison Square Garden. I luck out, however, and find a window seat on the left-hand side next to young Englishman who is traveling to Montreal with some friends. My coach is clean and comfortable, but a bit long in the tooth, having entered service nearly 40 years ago.
At 8:17 a.m. the train departs, two minutes behind schedule thanks to the heavy boarding. It banks to the right, enters a tunnel, and then runs through a cut on Manhattan’s West Side into another tunnel before finally emerging into daylight just south of W. 125th Street. Here, the line begins its run alongside the majestic Hudson River, which it will follow as far as Albany-Rensselaer, 142 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.
As its glides north, the train passes under the George Washington Bridge and crosses a drawbridge over Spuyten Duyvil Creek to reach the mainland and continues to its first stop, Yonkers, arriving four minutes early. Once heavily industrial, the area around the station now is residential with several mid-rise apartment buildings, many of whose residents take advantage of the short commute to Grand Central Terminal via Metro North Railroad.

Station at Yonkers

The Palisades
New Tappan Zee Bridge and the old
Eastern wall of Ossining Correction Facility, aka Sing Sing
Tall cliffs known as the Palisades line the opposite side of the river as far north as Piermont, NY, just north of the New Jersey state line. They are the first of many scenic attractions along the route. Leaving Yonkers, the train rolls through several bedroom communities; ducks under the Tappan Zee Bridge and its under-construction replacement, and passes Sing Sing, the 19th Century prison that inspired the phrase “up the river.”
Just north of Sing Sing, an outcrop of land known as Croton Point juts into. Once the site of a landfill, it is now a park. Croton, more properly Croton-Harmon, is the Adirondack’s second stop. Once the place where trains of the New York Central Railroad changed from electric to steam or diesel power, it is the site of Metro North’s maintenance complex and local commuter trains to Grand Central originate here.
A few miles north of Croton-Harmon, the train rounds a sharp bend to the left at Peekskill and enters a section known as the Hudson Highlands. The river narrows here, and is flanked by mountains on both sides that are connected by the Bear Mountain Bridge. In a few minutes the U.S. Military Academy at West Point overlooking the Hudson’s west shore comes into view, followed by Storm King Mountain. After ducking into the short tunnel at Breakneck Ridge, just north of Cold Spring, the Adirondack passes Pollepel Island, home of Bannerman’s Castle, once a military surplus warehouse.

Bear Mountain Bridge
U.S. Military Academy at West Point
High peaks of the northern Catskills
The Hudson is a habitat for bald eagles.
I used this opportunity to visit the café car and purchase a soda and pretzel. I am not a fan of Amtrak café cars, and believe a train like the Adirondack, which takes 11 hours to get to Montreal, warrants a full dining car. Nevertheless, it will suffice, and my visit was well timed because soon after the conductor announced the café would close at Hudson and not reopen until past Albany-Rensselaer.

Just south of Hudson, the train comes to a complete stop. It sits for several minutes until a southbound passes. One of the two tracks at this location is out of service for repairs, creating a bottleneck. We leave Hudson 20 minutes late and will remain so for the rest of my trip.

At Albany-Rensselaer, the train changes locomotives. The dwell time allows passengers to get off to stretch their legs and grab a smoke. The city of Albany, which sits across the river from the station, comes into view as the train climbs onto a bridge to cross the river it had been following for these many miles.
Heading west now, the train slowly climbs the steep grade of Albany Hill. At one time, heavy trains taking this route needed pusher locomotives to give them a boost. Single-tracked many years ago to cut costs, this line is getting a second track to Schenectady that to reduce delay. After Schenectady, the train heads north toward Saratoga Springs, where I get off to go the races.
The station is on the west side of the city, a little less than three miles from the race track. Unfortunately, no local buses serve it so I call a taxi. The cab comes and the driver takes as many passengers as he can carry – five. After making a couple of stops in downtown, he deposits us at the entrance.
I am not a big racing fan, but Saratoga is a different experience: a day in the country. Many folks bringing folding tables and picnic baskets a just hang out, getting up to place an occasional bet as the follow the action on the TV monitors. Young women dressed in short dresses and high heels stroll the grounds in packs, hoping to attract an eligible guy’s attention.

Race fans relaxing at the picnic grounds
Sprinting toward the finish line
I prefer to hang out at the rail so I can photograph those beautiful horses in action running their hearts out. My plan was to leave after four races, but I get a text message from Amtrak that my train is running nearly a half hour late. This allows time to stay for a fifth race, which proved very lucrative. My $5 bet paid $21.
I hike back to the station, cutting across Congress Park and Broadway, Saratoga Springs’ main thoroughfare, on the way. The journey takes just over 45 minutes, leaving ample time to catch the southbound Adirondack, which leaves Saratoga Springs 26 minutes late. Since the schedule between Schenectady and Albany-Rensselaer has some padding, the train makes up some of the time.
The train is now just 10 minutes late and I anticipate it will make up the remaining time between Albany-Rensselaer and New York. Alas, that is not to be. North of Hudson it makes the first of four unscheduled stops to allow other trains to go by. It’s a classic example of Murphy’s Law: Late trains get later. By the time the Adirondack reaches Croton-Harmon, it is 49 minutes behind schedule.
The delays agitate my seatmate, who has to catch a train to Baltimore at 10:05. I reassure her that she will have ample time to make her connection. The Adirondack arrives in New York tonight at 9:31, 41 minutes late. She heads off to make her connection and I go to catch mine, arriving back in Oceanside just after 10:30.
Saratoga Springs is a great destination for a quick getaway from New York. Besides the race track, it offers the famed spa with mineral baths, a beautiful historic downtown, great restaurants, excellent golf courses and live entertainment at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The Adirondack and a second train, the Ethan Allen Express, which runs to Rutland, VT, offer a comfortable, convenient hassle-free way to get there. And you get to enjoy the scenic splendor of the Hudson Valley along the way.


1 comment:

  1. Sounds like I was on the same train as you--rode up from Yonkers on that train Thursday and returned yesterday on the Empire and we got stuck south of Hudson as you describe. Beautiful scenery, and it must be especially spectacular in autumn!