My final Metro-North commute

My Final Metro-North Commute

For the past six years and eleven months I have been a regular commuter on Metro-North’s Harlem Line. I’ve taken the train regularly from a multitude of stations – Brewster, Goldens Bridge, Southeast, Pawling, Wingdale, and even Wassaic. I’ve also done the reverse commute from Harlem to White Plains for almost a full year now. It is, however, time to move on. Very soon I will be making my final regular ride as a Metro-North Harlem Line commuter.

It didn’t take me a full year of commuting to observe a lot of amusement and craziness on the rails, and on April 10, 2009 I started a site simply entitled “The Train Blog” to convey some of these stories. The diary-type entries revolved mostly around the common topics of strange passengers I observed, occasional train delays and mishaps, and pigeons. It wasn’t until September of 2009 that posts started turning serious – with encouragement of Roxanne Robertson, formerly of the New York Transit Museum – I put together a few photo posts of the “The Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El” exhibit, and the museum’s annual Bus Festival.

I slowly became engrossed in the subject of trains and their history, and by March 2010 was regularly posting interesting archival materials I had dug up every Friday. By May, I had launched the Panorama Project, which over the course of three years took me to every Metro-North station, and cemented the transition of this site from a comical diary to a more serious photographic and historical exploration of the rails.

It has been, for the most part, a wonderful journey. Over time I became almost like a public figure – people would recognize me on trains, and I even had someone ask me to autograph a timetable for them once. I’ve met many wonderful people on my journeys, and some are like family to me. But on the flip side, I’ve also met my share of not so wonderful people. I’ve had railroad employees yell at me, “Don’t you have some dollies to play with?” I’ve also had people show up at my home, and at my place of work uninvited. I’ve even had a particular self-described “alpha male” who couldn’t take no for an answer try to get my husband fired from his job (among other attempts to make my life a living hell) because I had rejected him. I’ve largely been ignoring that situation, nonetheless I figured it necessary to put that out in the open – mostly because I am expecting him to attempt the same to me with the announcement I am about to make (and yes, I’ll bet 95% of my readership knows who this guy is).

The reason my Metro-North commute is coming to an end is because another opportunity has opened up for me. I’m going to work for Amtrak. What exactly does that mean for this site? Probably not too much. For quite a while I’ve been exploring far outside of Metro-North’s territory, and I will continue to do the same. You’ll probably find a few more Amtrak-related posts than before. I’ll still be riding the Harlem Line – although not regularly – and intend to shortly bring you a new tour of the Harlem Line. Not only has my photography greatly improved since the first Harlem Line tour, various things have also changed over the years at many stations. So expect that tour in the next few months, as well as a whole lot of new railroading adventures.

For the next few weeks, however, this site will be on a temporary hiatus while things settle down. I promise we’ll be back shortly, with a photo tour of a particular foreign transit system that I’ve been dying to shoot for several years.

If you’re not already, be sure to follow the Amtrak Careers blog, as well as their accounts on Twitter and Instagram, where you’ll probably be seeing me in the future.

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Public Art on the Green Line – Nancy Blum

It has never been a secret that I am a lover of transit-based art. One of the reasons I enjoy the light rail in Minneapolis so much is due to the abundance of art. The system’s newest line, the Green Line, has two very cool stations that were designed by artist Nancy Blum (she actually did three, but the two I’ll feature today are arguably the nicest on the line). You may be familiar with Blum, as she’s been mentioned on this blog before. One of her previous public art installations can be found through the Arts for Transit program on our very own Hudson Line. The mosaics at Dobbs Ferry station are her creation.

For her work in Minnesota, Blum designed work for the East Bank and West Bank stations, located on either side of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. At West Bank you’ll find the work Immigration/Migration, which features birds fabricated out of stainless-steel, and wire mesh etched with patterns. The etched mesh is certainly my favorite, as it is extremely subtle. The patterns are just barely visible under normal light, but when direct sun rays hit the mesh, the pattern is extremely bright and really shines.

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Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.

  
 
  
   
  

The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.

 
  
 
  
 
  

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1867’s Double Track Railroad

I’ve been a little bit under the weather recently and rather busy, so I haven’t had the time to put a proper post together for this week, however I did want to share a somewhat recent acquisition of mine. This 1867 New York Central timetable is the second oldest in my collection (my oldest is from 1864), and is a little bit of a curiosity as it includes descriptions of some of the cities found along the rail line. For example, it describes Rochester as, “having risen from a wilderness in less than half a century,” and explains that, “the first white child born in Rochester is still living near by, in the prime of manhood.”

At this time the New York Central was a mere double track railroad, but it boasts that it is, “regarded in both this country and in Europe, as one of the most important, best managed, and safest lines of iron roads now in existence,” where “so few casualties occur.” Well, that’s one way to market your railroad…

Enjoy this little bit of history, nearly 150 years old.

1867 New York Central timetable

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Northern Lights over the Midwest's High Bridge

Northern Lights over the Midwest’s High Bridge

Several years ago you folks may remember I headed up to Alaska in February with the goal of catching the Northern Lights. While I did in fact see them, the effect was not quite as brilliant as I’d hoped. Fast forward to this week, when a powerful geomagnetic storm erupted on the sun, sending charged particles toward our atmosphere and lighting up the sky. I happened to be in Minnesota at the time with my husband, and along with our guide, Midwest railfan photographer extraordinaire Nick Benson, we headed over to the Arcola High Bridge to catch the lights.

According to popular lore, the bridge itself is haunted, and locals have been known to see a “mysterious” blue light. The lights that we saw, however, were quite real, and quite amazing. Pillars of greens, yellows, and purples raged behind the old Soo Line historic bridge, which extends over the St. Croix River and connects Stillwater, Minnesota to Somerset, Wisconsin. The bridge is a single track span that is still active, although with very minimal traffic (about a train per day in either direction). Alas nothing crossed it that night, but with the light show, nobody was really complaining.

Enjoy a few photos from the Midwest’s High Bridge, and stay tuned for a forthcoming post on New York City’s famous High Bridge.

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Trains & Modern Photography: Stitching and Panoramas

If you’re a frequent viewer of this site, then the subject of today’s Trains & Modern Photography post is something you’re probably familiar with – panoramas. The most generic definition of a panorama is an wide view of an area, in which you can see in all directions. For my Metro-North Panorama Project, I used the definition loosely, featuring at least one photo per station that used the technique of stitching, thus giving the viewer a photo that provided a far wider view than one could capture in a single photo’s frame. Using modern technology like Photoshop, one can take multiple photos around a central axis point – either on a tripod, or by standing in the same spot and rotating your body, while holding the camera at the same angle for each shot – and combine them. This technique is called stitching, and is one of the most common methods of getting high quality and high resolution panoramas.

If this is a technique you’ve always been interested in trying out, or you’re just curious to see how exactly one makes a panorama (especially one featuring a train) – from camera to computer – read on.
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A Journey Underground – East Side Access

Over the one hundred plus years of its existence, Grand Central Terminal has reinvented itself many times to keep pace with the needs of its customers. When long range passenger trains were the norm, passengers could sit and watch a movie at Grand Central’s theater while waiting for their train to depart, or sit in the Terminal’s grand waiting room in Vanderbilt Hall. Today, all of the long distance trains have disappeared, replaced with Metro-North’s commuter service where trains are frequent enough that one rarely has to wait long. While today’s dashing commuter would have little use for a theater, they certainly make use of Grand Central’s new market, where they can quickly grab the ingredients for the dinner they’ll make after the train whisks them home. Even the less-used waiting room (which in high-society days had segregated fancy areas for both men and women) has moved out of the large Vanderbilt Hall into the smaller Stationmaster’s Office, converted into event space to capture the wandering person’s interest. Yet even part of that event space is slated for a conversion into more on-the-go eateries for the dashing commuter, an alternate option to picking up the ingredients in the market.

All of this reinvention has kept Grand Central relevant – it has retained its character as a landmark, yet constantly refreshed itself to keep with the times, all while remaining dedicated to its primary purpose of being a train station. As we speak, Grand Central is in fact reinventing itself yet again, although you may not be able to see the changes quite yet – they are far below your feet and deep underground. As cars clog our highways and roads, public transportation on the east and west sides of Manhattan are almost islands unto themselves. The MTA’s two railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, operate from separate stations with little linkage between them. Metro-North’s riders filter into the east side of Manhattan, while Long Island’s into the west. But what if we could change all that – give Long Island riders the option to arrive in the east side, and give Metro-North riders the ability to board trains to Long Island inside Grand Central, all while opening up a far easier public transit connection to JFK airport from the east side? All of these are goals of the ongoing East Side Access project, which is expected to continue for at least the next eight years. The project will create a link between the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, adding a new terminal below Grand Central with eight new tracks, as well as the addition of 22,000 square feet of new retail space.

 
Diagrams of East Side Access, how the new terminal is situated under current buildings (left), and how trains from Long Island will be routed into Grand Central (right).
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Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: Devon Transfer

Giving Devon Transfer its own Tuesday Tour post may be a little bit of a joke, considering it is only a temporary station, nonetheless it is certainly worth a few minutes to check out. Intended to be in place for only six months, the transfer station facilitates passengers getting from the main New Haven Line over to the Waterbury Branch while Track 3 is currently out of service on the Devon Bridge for work. The v-shaped platform at Devon Transfer skirts the far end of the wye, allowing riders to essentially walk from the New Haven main line right over to the start of the Waterbury Branch and board their next train.

In some ways, Devon Transfer is not a true station – it is inaccessible to passengers in any form other than exiting a select main line train, or Waterbury Branch train. One cannot wait at Devon Transfer for any extended period of time – conductors, along with train masters and/or MTAPD are usually present to herd passengers from one side of the platform to the other and get on the connecting train, nor can one purchase tickets there. It does, however, have the typical trash bins one finds at Metro-North stations, lights for after hours, a public address system if ever necessary, as well as station name signs (I wonder who gets to keep these once work is done) on the platform. Utilizing the same wooden-style temporary platforms we’ve seen at other New Haven Line stations during track work, Devon Transfer is a decent substitute for keeping the Waterbury Branch running during the bridgework. In fact, it is arguably nicer than some of the permanent stations on the Branch (Ansonia‘s low-level platform comes to mind).

The Devon Bridge
The Devon Bridge, currently undergoing work, with a six month expected outage on Track 3 (the one closest to the photographer in this picture). Aerial photographs of the Devon Bridge via the Historic American Engineering Record, Jack E. Boucher, photographer, taken April 1977.

For most passengers, the transfer at Devon is relatively convenient, with the exception of anyone coming from/going in the direction of New Haven, who would have to make an additional transfer at Bridgeport for their journeys. Additionally, all New Haven Line trains stopping at Devon will have an increased running time of about a minute, due to the extra stop. However, all of the work here is necessary to address one of the banes of the New Haven Line – its ancient movable bridges. Crossing the Housatonic River, the Devon Bridge (also known as the Housatonic River Railroad Bridge) is a 110 year old, 1,067-foot long rolling lift bascule bridge. It was prefabricated by the American Bridge Company in Trenton, New Jersey, and installed in 1905. Although less problematic as the notorious swing bridges on the New Haven Line (namely WALK), it is well in need of some attention. Suffering from the same lack of standardization found on many of the line’s movable bridges – each one being unique, with its own exclusive mechanical components – it requires custom created parts to fix.

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Dashing Diesels – The Workhorses of Metro-North

While the good majority of service on Metro-North is operated by Electric Multiple Unit cars, the railroad’s dashing diesels handle the rest of the load – largely in the unelectrified territories of the Upper Hudson Line, Upper Harlem Line, and the Danbury and Waterbury Branches. West of Hudson service, operated by New Jersey Transit, is also dieselized, carrying passengers through New Jersey and into New York’s Orange and Rockland counties. Arguably, it is this diesel territory that is likely considered Metro-North’s most beautiful. Spots like Port Jervis’s Moodna Viaduct, views of the Hudson Line from the Bear Mountain Bridge, and the Harlem Line’s Ice Pond all fall into this category.

Here’s a photo gallery of some of Metro-North’s dynamic and dashing diesels, most of which were captured within the past few weeks (although a few are favorites from last year) on the Harlem, Hudson, and Port Jervis Lines of Metro-North. Enjoy!

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