On Monday, June 19th I took a train ride to Lowell, then took a bike ride along a number of rail trails and greenways. The trip included a number of positives, as well as a couple pain points that I want others to be aware of and possibly avoid. I got to experience one of the best rail trails I’ve experienced, which made the trip really worth it (even with a couple bad spots).
I started at my home in Somerville. Since my goal was to get to Lowell, I had two options; I could have taken the train in from Porter to North Station, then gone back out to Lowell; or I could bike up to West Medford station (about 15 minutes) and pick the train up there. The latter felt like a natural approach, though it would mean starting my trip with a fair amount of travel on kinda crappy roads for biking.
I took advantage of the Weekend Commuter Rail Pass for $10; from Zone West Medford to Lowell is normally $10.80, so I saved 80 whole cents. (I will say that the fact that the “Juneteenth Weekend Pass” was sorted to the bottom of the ticket list options — below the not-currently-available Weekend Pass — is kinda dumb.)
I have never brought my bike on the Commuter Rail before, so I missed a pretty important consideration in deciding to go to West Medford Station: West Medford is one of the only 30 platforms in the MBTA system that does not have high-level platforms. Which means that boarding at the station with a bike involved lifting my 48 pound e-bike up to shoulder height and shoving it up a set of short stairs in order to board the train. I do not recommend this choice if you can avoid it!
Once on the train, I was reminded, as I always am, of the things I love about trains: I love the sense of acceleration, I love watching the countryside roll by, I love going faster than I would typically go in a car. In the first 20 minutes of the train trip, everything went smoothly, on a train travelling at speeds up to 75mph, whisking me through the countryside.
And then we stopped.
Just 1 mile short of our final destination, our train slowed to a crawl, and then stopped completely. Over then next 27 minutes, we slowly moved forward, including being fully stopped at one point for 14 minutes.
Eventually the MBTA updated their alerts system to indicate that there were delays due to a signal issue, and we eventually finished the last mile trip into the train station. (As someone over on social media pointed out, “It’s always a last-mile problem with transit…”)
As we arrived at the station, I wandered towards the one, small elevator available, and found myself facing a traffic jam: a single, Extremely Slow elevator; one rider with a large e-bike (effectively taking up most of the elevator), plus 6 rollerboard wielders, a stroller, and two other folks who couldn’t take the stairs. Rather than wait 2 or 3 elevator trips, I gave up and wandered back to the stairs, where I hefted my bike, and slowly made my way up the stairs out of the station. (I made it up the stairs before even the first elevator trip finished.) I then made my way to the parking garage and wended my way down the ramps to exit the garage.
In Lowell, I also faced travel over roads without much in the way of bike accommodations. While it seems that eventually the Bruce Freeman Trail may connect to Lowell Station via the Lowell Connector Trail Project (and a more experienced traveller might have been able to make the connection off-street), I navigated down Chelmsford St., a high-traffic road with little space for cyclists. (To Lowell’s Credit, they have done a decent job at adding off-street multi-use paths immediately adjacent to the train station, which was nice, but is seemingly disconnected from much of a surrounding network.) Eventually, I found my way to the Cross Point Towers parking lot, and from there, to the beginning of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, which begins at the Lowell/Chemlsford city line.
Bruce Freeman Rail Trail
Once I made my way to the actual rail trail, the quality of my trip improved immensely.
In a region with some pretty excellent rail trails, the Bruce Freeman is genuinely a standout offering. Wide, landscaped trail, with rails along both sides of a relatively wide right of way, the path offers ample space for its users. Its street crossings are largely high-visibility; almost every intersection along its length has HAWK-style strobes which activate automatically and immediately on approaching cyclists or walkers. While each intersection has a stop sign for the path, in almost all cases, slowing is sufficient to ensure appropriate visibility, activate the strobes, and cross safely. (Chemslford does choose to include a “dismount your bike and walk” sign at each intersection; like other trail riders, I rolled my eyes and ignored these.)
The trail navigates a series of settings, both urban backyards and more natural settings. Most of the trail is heavily wooded, and it’s easy to feel lost in the wilderness even when you’re just a short distance from roads and other activity.
The trail is flat, even for a regional rail trail. (The Minuteman’s relatively constant climb throughout both Arlington and Bedford definitely feels like a pretty steep hill compared to the Freeman.) The trail is well-maintained. It has many long, straight segments with no street intersections. It is simply a joy to ride.
The trip includes two major bridges: one over Great Rd. in Acton, and the other, opened just last month, over Route 2 in Concord.
Route 2 Bridge, Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, Concord
The recently opened bridge over Route 2 along the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail in Concord, MA.
I’ve enjoyed the rail trails around the region, but the Bruce Freeman is near the top of the charts as far as overall trail quality.
Coming to the end of the Bruce Freeman is a bit abrupt. The path dead ends at a fence under a bridge, with a very explcit sign: “End Bruce Freeman Rail Trail”. Through the fence is an expansion to the path which is under active construction. South of Powder Mill Road, the trail immediately transitions to a dirt path, and shortly thereafter, to a rail bed that is still largely made up of existing, rough rail ties.
From this point, the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail is largely appropriate for walking, but not particularly friendly to bikers. While there are two narrow ruts alongside the railroad ties, the section is clearly not ready for prime time. From here, one can walk (or take a bumpy bike ride) south along the western edge of Frost Farm to North Road. Beyond that, the path would continue alongside the western edge of Davis Farm Conservation Land; after the bumpy path to this point, I elected not to continue along this path. (The Davis Farm Conservation Land is explicitly marked as a walking trail, as far as I could tell; but it is described as ending in land currently used for active farming, so I elected not to follow the path and instead switch to road.)
The next step in this journey is a set of somewhat dubious connections. First, I took a paved sidewalk along North Rd. west to Pantry Rd. Along Pantry Rd., I unfortuantely had to take a particularly uncomfortable stretch: the road is a 40mph highway with fast moving traffic, and enough of it to make the route feel relatively unsafe, with no bike affordances at all.
To my surprise, after Pantry Rd. turns into Concord Rd., at Thompson Drive, I came across a paved path weaving back and forth along the frontages of various yards along Concord Rd. Despite an initial plan to turn east at Lincoln Rd., I instead elected to follow the off-street path, which acted as what might otherwise be a sidewalk in more urban settings.
The path is relatively narrow, but it is separated from the road, and makes a nice alternative to traveling on the high speed road. I was able to follow this path all the way south to Old Sudbury Rd./Route 27.
Sadly, this route is yet more high-stress riding: 45mph speed limit, limited shoulder/space, close passes from traffic, etc. After 2 more miles of stressful riding, I was able to connect to the Mass Central Rail Trail.
Mass Central Rail Trail
The Mass Central Rail Trail is an ambitious project, seeking to reclaim and convert 104 miles of former rail line into a single connection from Boston to Framingham. Within the inner suburbs of Boston, the MCRT is composed of the Somerville Community Path, connecting through to the Alewife Linear Park to the Fitchburg Cutoff Path; eventually this will connect all the way out to the western bits that I rode on, though that’s a ways off.
Part of the goal of this trip was to ride the MCRT as far as it was possible to ride it — experiencing the current state. (This included going through areas which are off limits, and some areas that are genuinely not safe for travel for everyone, including unmaintained un-upgraded rail bridges. Do not treat this travel diary as a recommendation.)
I connected to the MCRT at Boston Post Road in Wayland. This is the gem of the MCRT in the region: following a power transmission line, this trail is a straight shot for miles, with open skies in a narrow canyon of trees, kept trimmed back by Eversource as part of the maintenance of the transmission line.
The path is largely between rows of homes, so you’ll routinely find it used as an area for small children to play, safe from busy streets.
The MCRT through Wayland and Weston has few intersections, usually navigating major road passes via underpasses; the few road connections there are are often very low traffic. On both sides it is often surrounded by conservation land with a series of trails, etc. connecting off of it.
At a point on the trail, you’re informed that the trail is a dead-end further ahead, and you should consider the remainder of the paved trail an out-and-back trip. This is good advice for those who are not bold adventurers: the end of the trail further up is a railroad trestle which is not designed for pedestrian or bike access. But I’ve always had more adventure than sense.
The end of the railroad bridge is intended to be fenced off, but the fences have been removed by intrepid explorers before me.
From the photos, you can see that the railroad bridge has had planks laid across it to allow bikes; but the bridge itself has large gaps between ties, and no safety fencing of any kind. (The photo of the bike on the planked section required carefully setting myself on a spot, ensuring my feet didn’t slip through the large gap between ties.)
Once you’ve made your way across the trestle, the path continues as a narrow single track dirt path, largely through meadowland, continuing to trace the power transmission lines. The trail is loosely maintained here, largely by usage rather than by intent, so some spots can be muddy or overgrown, but the path is still obvious and visible throughout.
The next interesting section is the railroad crossing over 128. This route involves usage of a gravel road alongside an Eversource facility, and then a railroad bridge. Thankfully, this one is fully enclosed, and has none of the sense of safety risk that exists on the previous trestle.
From here, we simply need to cross through downtown Waltham to continue onto an established paved path for the cycling route. (Despite the appearance of right of way, it appears a parking lot has been largely built over the existing ROW; I hope that as the MCRT continues, they’ll establish a direct cut through in the parking lot. I simply looped around on the streets here.)
Throughout Waltham, the MCRT is under active construction. Like many projects, what this means is there are a lot of parts that are 90% finished, with just minor connections to be made, but at every street intersection, you will find fences, signage, and warnings telling people to keep out, even in areas that are almost certain to see no immediate construction activity. (Why do we do this to ourselves? I have no idea.)
It is possible to take the MCRT route, given some navigation around fences and barriers, another 1.4 miles, up to the crossing of Beaver Brook. At Beaver Brook, the existing bridge has been removed, and there is active construction to rebuild it. This is the end of the line for the MCRT eastbound for the moment.
(Technically, there are a few more sections of accessible MCRT further along, but they’re similarly disconnected. The Fitchburg Cutoff Path is really the next “complete” section of the trail.)
Charles River Greenway
Following the end of my MCRT adventure, I navigated my way south to the Charles River Greenway, following a relatively low set of street intersections to meet up with it by Newton Street.
The Charles River Greenway is a lovely collection of paths if you’re interested in a leisurely ride. However, it is not a straight shot; it is instead a mixed collection of riverwalks across both sides of the Charles River. The Upper Charles River section includes 5 River crossings in just 4 miles as it switches back and forth across the River.
Largely paved, but in some cases with relatively smooth dirt paths, the Greenway is largely deeply forested area travelling immediately alongside the river. It is often closely held in by adjacent properties, travelling immediately behind housing, retail, and industrial spaces. At times, it can feel a bit cramped, especially around blind turns, and can be slow to navigate. It is quite safe feeling throughout, however.
In Watertown Square, after 38 miles of riding, I swapped my e-bike battery for a second battery. This was always planned, but had it not been, I probably could have squeezed out the last few miles; along the MCRT, I was feeling pretty worn out and used throttle-only for a few miles. A lower assist level would likely have let me finish my route with a single battery.
At Watertown Square, the Charles River Greenway connects to the Paul Dudley White Bike Path, familiar to those who travel along Memorial Drive. While this trail is not always straightforwardly marked, there is a pretty committed amount of space for bikes along this stretch.
Behind Arsenal Yards (specifically, the Home Depot parking lot), I found a new connection had been made: There is now a pedestrian crossing, and a nicely landscaped well-done bike connection up to Arsenal Street, as well as connecting to Arsenal Park. This appears to have been the result of a new office development on the hill there, and the path is really nicely done, including both stairs but also a more attractive path through the park that offers accessibility.
From there I connected back to Paul Dudley White Path at Greenough Blvd., and connected under Soldiers Field Rd. through Cambridge’s marshland construction project. I navigated the densely packed Paul Dudley White Path along Memorial Drive, and then on-street biking up JFK through Harvard Square along Mass Ave., back to home.
In total, this trip was a combined 46.5 miles. My elapsed time, not including the train ride, was 3hr40m; this included a number of scenic stops (e.g. exploring cemeteries, stopping to read trail-side signs, exploring some dead end connections, etc.) I likely used around 700Wh of total battery power across the two batteries (fully using one, and partially using the second after the swap in Watertown). I travelled on 27.5 miles of road and path that I had never ridden on before.
High-stress road sections were:
* 2.8 miles from home to West Medford
* 2.6 miles from Lowell to the BFRT
* 1.9 miles from Frost Farm to Old Thompson Rd
* 3.0 miles on Old Sudbury Rd.
* 2.3 miles from Charles River to Porter Square.
These 12.6 miles comprised about 27% of my 46 mile trip; about 5 miles of that was highway riding on higher speed roads. (Everything else was at roads with speed limits of 30mph or less.)
I got to experience a connected 7.8 mile stretch of the MCRT; the full length of the connected BFRT (I think), and a really lovely afternoon.
For detailed route/etc. check my Strava activity for the trip.