Around midnight on a recent evening, a young woman on the verge of tears caught up to one of the last passengers on the commuter rail platform. She asked if she could please borrow a cellphone to call someone who was supposed to pick her up.
It turned out her friend was already waiting for her at one of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority station’s three parking lots.
No one would want to get stranded at Newburyport Station, which is surrounded by nothing but swamps and warehouses. You can’t see any homes or businesses, and the downtown is a 30-minute walk away, along roads that have no sidewalks.
“This is one of the worst stations,” said Gualtiero Ciallo, 62, while waiting for his train. “One time, I took the last train from Boston. I got here at 12 o’clock, something like that. My wife was supposed to pick me up, but she fell asleep, so I was stranded until 6 in the morning. I called her but she never answered. She slept through the ringing.”
His experience is not unique. In fact, late-night commuters to Newburyport occasionally find themselves giving rides to strangers or being chased down the platform by panicked passengers. Recently, a woman who didn’t get picked up by her boyfriend was seen accepting a ride from someone she didn’t know. A group of Russian women with summer jobs at Hampton Beach begged to borrow a cellphone to call a cab.“It’s happened to a couple of people I know. They had to end up walking,” said Stephen Hines, 47, who uses the train to commute to his job at General Electric in Lynn. Hines was waiting for his wife to pick him up near the Newburyport stop on a recent Friday evening. “They tried to find a pay phone, but they’re all broken.”
The beautiful station building — new when it opened in 2002 — stands vacant. If you press your nose to the glass, you can see the restrooms and the water fountains inside, but the doors are bolted shut. There are two pay phones outside, but neither has a dial tone. Red and black wires stick out of a broken receiver.
Things weren’t always like this.
In the 1960s, the train station was much closer to downtown, recalled Newburyport’s city clerk, Richard Jones. By 1976, the passenger trains had stopped running because of low ridership and high operating costs.
When the MBTA restored train service to Newburyport in 1998, the station was moved about a mile away to an area that had space for about 800 cars in three large parking lots. There was supposed to be a shuttle bus linking the station to downtown, a building where people could wait for rides, and pay phones.
But the station building has been shut down for years because no business could survive inside, even though an average of 812 people board the inbound trains in Newburyport each weekday, according to Keolis Commuter Services LLC, the company that took over the MBTA system last month. The shuttle service was discontinued 10 years ago because of low ridership, and none of the pay phones work anymore.
“I think pay phones have become a thing of the past because everyone has a cellphone here,” said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. “If a weak cellphone battery is an issue, customers may charge their cellphones onboard the trains.”
That’s if they didn’t leave their chargers at home on the kitchen counter.
Verizon spokesman Philip Santoro said the company shed its pay phone business 10 years ago. Verizon sold the public phones to smaller companies that also got out of the business as cellphone use became widespread, he said.
Despite the isolation at Newburyport Station, police said the area is safe.
Newburyport Police Lieutenant Rick Siemasko said the only incidents he has heard of are drunk people getting off the train, and occasional car break-ins.
“There is very little crime at that station,” he said.
Pesaturo, who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the Newburyport commuter rail station opened in October 1998, said the MBTA wanted to have the station downtown, but the city preferred to place it on the outskirts.
Residents didn’t want to have the trains pass too close to their houses, said Newburyport City Councilor Robert Cronin. “I’m sure that there’d be an outcry that the train would be running in somebody’s backyard,” he said.
While there is no dedicated shuttle, intercity buses still service the station. However, their arrival and departure times do not coincide with the train schedule.
The last bus leaves the station at 6:30 p.m., while the trains continue arriving at 6:46, 7:49, 8:41, and 10:30 p.m., and midnight on weekdays. Approximately 35 people take the last train from Beverly to Newburyport, although it is not known how many get off at intervening stops, according to Mac Daniel, the spokesman for Keolis.
“I think an effort should be made to link all methods of transportation. They should all try to synch the schedules together — that just makes sense,” Cronin said.
The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority runs bus service in the area. Joseph Costanzo, the state agency’s chief executive, said the bus that runs between Newburyport, Salisbury, Amesbury, and Haverhill cannot be linked to the rail schedule because the train doesn’t run at regular intervals.
“We don’t have direct radio communication with the train. If the train is running late, we have to keep on schedule,” he said.
Some improvements are on the horizon, Newburyport officials said.
The city is planning a weekend shuttle service linking the train station to downtown and to the beach on Plum Island starting next summer.
Bicycle rental stations and better signs to let people know how to walk to downtown are also planned, said Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday.
Finally, the station is about to get a bit less spooky at night: The station building will be used as a sales office for a condo development to be built nearby next year.
For now though, taxis swing by the station in case anyone gets stuck. Sometimes, they come to the rescue of passengers who weren’t supposed to end up here at all.
“I’ve picked up people here that fell asleep on the train,” said taxi driver Tony Martino. “It was an expensive nap.”