Remembering Lou Grogan, “The Coming of the New York & Harlem Railroad” Author

It is with great sadness that I must report that Louis V. Grogan has passed on. Laid to rest yesterday morning (along with a copy of his beloved book) in his long-time home of Pawling, New York, Grogan was 88 years old. Lou’s interest in railroads began at an early age, as many of his family members found employ in that industry. His love affair with the Harlem comes partially due to his longtime residence along its tracks, but also due to fond childhood memories of using the smooth wood floors of the long-gone Philmont station as an impromptu skating rink. Although he himself served a brief stint as a railroad worker, he also served in the Army during World War II on the eastern front, and was a longtime employee of IBM in Poughkeepsie.

Before selfies were cool
Before selfies were cool – Lou Grogan snaps a reflection at the then-new White Plains station.
Title photo of Pawling also by Lou Grogan.

Lou is, however, most Known by railfans as the author of The Coming of the New York & Harlem Railroad, an immense and unprecedented compilation of Harlem Railroad history, published in 1989. The book was a labor of love in more ways than one. A ten year endeavor of research and writing, the book may never have come to fruition without the support of Lou’s wife Elizabeth, who lovingly laid out many of the book’s pages, and remained supportive through many long hours of work. To this day, the book remains the best compilation of history regarding the Harlem Railroad, detailing every station that is and was along the line, and the ultimate demise of the Upper Harlem. This website, and the research found within, owes much to the groundwork compiled by Lou.

I, however, will remember Lou as a kind man who invited me into his home with his wife, and shared his vast collection of Harlem Line material with me. I will fondly remember eating turkey and cheese sandwiches and drinking ginger ale with him while talking about the Harlem Line. Many historical photos on this website come from Lou’s collection, which he and his wife graciously shared with me.

1936 Signal Dept Gang- Sid Phillips, Tom Wright, Lou Frost, and "Mac" McLeod
Signal Department Gang at Pawling station, 1936. L-R: Sid Phillips, Tom Wright, Lou Frost, and “Mac” McLeod. From the collection of Lou Grogan.

Steaming through Pawling, 1947.
Steaming through Pawling, 1947. From the collection of Lou Grogan.

As I have mentioned a few times, very shortly we will be revisiting all of the current Harlem Line stations – a redo of our Tuesday Tour series. I have already re-photographed all of the stations along the line, with the exception of five. Our new tour of the Harlem Line will be dedicated to Lou, who worked so hard to ensure that the long history of the Harlem – New York City’s oldest railroad – was always remembered. Thanks for everything, and as another friend of yours has already said online, “may you enjoy the great train ride in Heaven.”

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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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Winter on the Hudson Line

If you weren’t yet sick of winter, yesterday’s storm probably pushed you over the edge. We’ve had an immense amount of snow dumped on us the past few months, leading to a lot of cancellations and early closings at my work. Pretty much every time I made sure to have my camera on me to document Metro-North through the storms (you can see the first part here). Today’s winter-centric post features the Hudson Line, and a collection of photos all taken within the last week. In yesterday’s storm I hung out at both Spuyten Duyvil and Croton Harmon, and then headed home on the fantabulous 1:55 Harlem Line “fun boat” to Wassaic, making all local stops, standing room only. If anybody out there saw complaints on twitter about a stupid girl eating tacos on that train, I swear, it wasn’t me!

Considering that today is Friday, it is worth mentioning that this is the end of new Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti’s first work week. I suppose the weather decided to throw an appropriate welcoming party for a man that spent the last fifteen years working in Florida. Nonetheless, rumors are abound that Mr. Giulietti has already begun “cleaning house,” which is likely a good thing. There are plenty of things that Metro-North can improve, but if you ask me, number one ought to be communication.

Over the past few years, Metro-North has greatly improved its communications with riders with both email and text alerts. Although they still haven’t figured out that messages have character limits, and that it is super annoying to receive the same exact message 10 times in one day, we get a lot of info about service changes and info. In fact, we get more info than Metro-North’s own employees! Conductor Bobby touched on this in his open letter to his passengers, which if you haven’t yet read, you most definitely should.

Yesterday’s 1:55 train highlights the issues in communication with Metro-North. The train was a combination of several trains, and was advertised on Grand Central’s big board as an all-local to Wassaic. As far as the crew knew, the train was either going directly to Wassaic, or there would be a connection waiting for us at Southeast. However, en route, passengers began receiving alerts saying that Wassaic service was suspended. Some rather irate passengers from Tenmile River began shouting at the conductor, “I thought this train was going to Wassaic! They TOLD ME Wassaic! Now service to Wassaic is suspended?! What the hell am I going to do?” The kicker is, the crew had no idea the train was not going to Wassaic. They learned this from a passenger. At this point the Rail Traffic Controller was contacted, “I’ve heard from some passengers that Wassaic service is currently suspended. What am I to tell the people that are on this train going to Wassaic?” The response was, “we have no info at this time.”

Another thing that I watched happen yesterday was at the very beginning of the storm – the early morning Upper Harlem train arrived late and a woman demanded to know on board, “so which one of you conductors woke up late to make my train late?” Despite the smut tabloid headlines that “transit expert” Jim Cameron likes to post (he claims he once worked for a reputable news agency, but his New York Post-esque headlines seem only fit as a rag for dogs to pee on), Metro-North conductors are not horrible people. They do not hit people with trains and run away. And it is ludicrous to even insinuate that it is a regular occurrence for Metro-North employees to perform disgusting acts on passengers because they are “stressed out.” In reality, handfuls of Metro-North employees slept on trains or in rail yards to make sure they were able to work through the storm. Others worked nearly 24 hours straight because their trains got stuck in the snow. Are there some Metro-North employees out there that are assholes? Probably. And I bet you have assholes where you work too. But by and large, the majority of employees work hard to get people where they need to go. Like in this snow storm.

As you’ll see from the photos below, running trains yesterday was not easy. Many people like to debate over catenary versus third rail methods of powering electric trains – each has its merits, but yesterday demonstrated one of the downsides to third rail. Excessive amounts of snow up to and covering the third rail makes it difficult, if not impossible, to operate electric trains. But if 100 car pileups could attest, the roads weren’t that great yesterday and today either.

Anyway, enough ranting. Here’s what winter looks like on the Hudson Line:



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All the silly things people apparently want to know about Metro-North service delays…

If you’re a rider of the Harlem Line, most likely you were aware of some service delays on the line this morning. Social media never ceases to amaze me, as messages fly through text, twitter, facebook from others riding the rails. If there’s a delay or an issue, someone out there is talking about it online… and is probably even going to beat Metro-North to reporting it to the world. In today’s case, I did beat Metro-North to reporting over twitter that the Harlem Line north of Croton Falls was shut down, as I just happened to be on the train that was stuck. And then, of course, the questions began.

Now, I don’t mind answering questions (though the managers of Metro-North’s customer service department do – as I have received angry messages from them to “refrain from responding to customers” in the past), but I thought that perhaps I should answer them publicly for all to see. Since I’m sure Metro-North managers will be annoyed I’m doing this, I must reiterate that these are not official answers to anything. I do not work for Metro-North, nor do I represent them. These are, however, questions that I’ve heard, or have been asked on social media. I don’t want to say that this post is directed towards the other half of my readership – the non-railfan commuters – but it sort of is. These are, apparently, the things that you want to know:

Great. The trees are planking again. Now what? (and, yes, this was the tree that tied up the Harlem Line this morning)

Why is something like a little rainstorm delaying my train?
Each of Metro-North’s three main lines have a little “achilles heel,” so to speak. For the Harlem, it is trees. On the Hudson, it is water – flooding and mudslides. On the New Haven, it is the old caternary system. Issues on each line are not exclusively these things, as obviously a tree could fall anywhere. But in the case of the Harlem Line, that “little rainstorm” probably knocked down a tree somewhere. That “little rainstorm” likely had “a little bit of wind,” which can cause a lot more damage than you think.

If a tree is down in Southeast, why are trains delayed in Valhalla? – asked by @Crissteen.
Your train doesn’t magically appear in Valhalla. Most likely, your train originated at the trainyard in Brewster. Even if the service disruption is not near to you, it can still cause delays if your train can’t get there. Remember that train service is a carefully orchestrated system, and there are probably a lot more trains on the rails than you think.

The weather at the station isn’t even that bad! Why are there delays?
Believe it or not, storms not directly effecting the rails can still cause delays. Although Metro-North tries its hardest to prepare for this eventuality with extra crews on hand, if train crews can’t get to their trains, there will be delays. I can think of one instance earlier this year when there was a very minor snow storm, not bad enough to delay service on its own. However, a truck going too fast overturned on 84, blocking all lanes. With 84 effectively shut down, crews had difficulty getting to work. Obviously, the trains can’t go if there is nobody to operate them. This is a very rare instance, but is not outside the realm of possibility.

If there is a tree down, why does it take so long for someone to come and remove it?
Firstly, someone needs to be dispatched to the area. They need to drive there, then find a way to get over to where the issue is. All of that takes time, but really, the main consideration is the electric. Remember those third rails that power the trains? The power needs to be turned off so people can work without getting zapped. Then when the work is done, the power needs to be turned back on.

If trees are such a big problem, why don’t they cut all of them down?
Okay you environment-hater, even if Metro-North was going to consider something this silly, not every tree is on Metro-North property. Trees do get trimmed, but do remember that trees are kinda tall, and we can’t really dictate how they will fall over.

Why can’t you just go around the problem? Why is my train going in the wrong direction? – Wondered about by TrainJotting
You see, the difference between cars and trains is that trains have to run on these things called rails. You may have seen them before, actually. They’re the two long, shiny things underneath the train. Unlike a car, a train can’t easily just “change lanes” (FYI, they also can’t be hijacked and driven into the White House). There are spots where trains can cross over to other tracks, but they aren’t everywhere. Thus “going around the problem” might be easier said than done. In some instances the closest place to switch over to another track may be behind you – which means your train might have to move in the “wrong direction.”

Why doesn’t my conductor just do <insert some action here>?
Because in an instance like this, your conductor isn’t totally running the show. They’re likely on the radio talking to the Rail Traffic Controller, in the control center in Grand Central. The RTCs assess the situation, weigh all the options, and give the train crew instructions. All of this, of course, takes time, and quite often there is a dialog going on while the options are considered. In this morning’s case, the RTC wanted to know how many people were aboard the disabled train, in case an evacuation was necessary. Instead, the tree was cleared and an evacuation was not necessary.

Why didn’t the conductor tell me what was happening?
In the case of small delays, you might know more than your conductor! Metro-North has gotten pretty good about informing passengers about delays via text message – updates your conductor might not be aware of. Usually conductors announce what they know, but sometimes they do wait until something concrete is known before sharing. Above I mentioned how the RTC considers all the options – it would be silly for the conductor to inform everyone that the train might need to be evacuated – because in the end this is not what happened. Once they have all the facts, they’ll try to let you know!

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Chatting with Howard Permut, President of Metro-North Railroad

On Friday I had the pleasure of speaking with Howard Permut, President of Metro-North Railroad. Though there are many things one could ask the president of the railroad, admittedly I was interested in his unique perspective regarding the history of Metro-North. Mr. Permut has been with Metro-North since its inception in 1983, and prior to his position as president, served as as the Senior Vice President of Planning. Though most commuters today are likely unaware of it, Metro-North has improved in leaps and bounds over the years, starting out from the shambles left by Penn Central that were grudgingly operated by ConRail. So he’s definitely seen this railroad at its worst – and as its best.

Photograph from this site. Unfortunately it totally slipped my mind to try and get a photo. Yes, I’m a dope. Second photograph below of Howard Permut is from the MTA.

Anyways, on to the good stuff. While I debated using the conversation to write an article, I felt that the words would be most interesting in the interview format they were spoken. And thus, here is a complete transcript of the conversation I had with the president of Metro-North on Friday!

Metro-North has come a long way since its formation from ConRail. Do you have any strong memories from those early days, and is there any particular accomplishment since then you are most proud of?

I’ve been at Metro-North since we started. When we took over we were the worst railroad in North America, we’ve now moved to be the best railroad in North America. In fact, last year we won the award, called the Brunel Award, which is for the best design of any railroad in the world – and Metro-North won that, beating out competitors from Japan and Europe. It is something we’re very proud of, because it reflects all the progress we’ve made.

My memories from the beginning were that nothing worked. If you go back to 1983 the trains were rarely ever on time, the heat was always working in the summer, and the air conditioning in the winter, Grand Central was a homeless shelter – we had 900 people living in Grand Central when we took over – there was nothing good about Metro-North.

One memory I always have is on the Harlem Line, taking a trip up in the old coaches – and they came from any place in the world that ConRail could find them. Literally the whole trip to Pleasantville, in a cold car in October, I was holding up the side of the wainscoting, the side of the train, because I thought it was going to fall on me.

As for what I’m most proud of, I’m incredibly proud of how the organization has changed itself from the worst to the best. We’ve made huge achievements – our on-time performance is the best in the country, we have a great safety record, we’ve become significantly more efficient, and we’ve doubled the ridership to become the biggest railroad in North America. Those are really amazing achievements.

“If you go back to 1983 the trains were rarely ever on time, the heat was always working in the summer, and the air conditioning in the winter, Grand Central was a homeless shelter… there was nothing good about Metro-North. I’m incredibly proud of how the organization has changed itself from the worst to the best.”

Do you recall any of the planning that went into the decision to “rebrand” the railroad as Metro-North and not Metro North Commuter Railroad, and in what ways would you hope to attract more non-commuters in the future?

I remember very well because I was integrally a part of that, and we made the decision, in the late 1980’s, if I recall correctly, that Metro-North – we were much more than just a commuter railroad. We were carrying a lot of discretionary riders, a lot of people who are going halfway up and down the line, and that it was important that we were known as Metro-North Railroad than Metro-North Commuter Railroad – so it was a very specific decision.

You asked about discretionary riders – one of the most important things, and one of the things I always emphasize, is we have customers, not riders, something Peter Stangl our president changed the vernacular for. Everybody has a choice to ride or not ride Metro-North, and it’s our goal to give everybody and provide significant value that people want to take Metro-North. Our ridership has doubled, which is a fantastic achievement over the past 30 years. A lot of that has been driven not by commuters at all, but by discretionary riders – weekend riders, by off-peak, by evening, by intermediate riders. We continue to focus on that, and we’ve done numerous different things over the years to increase the ridership.

Going forward I’m really excited that we’re going to be adding all this off-peak and weekend service, trains will be running every half hour. That will be an enormous improvement for our riders, they can now know that they can come into the city, for example, and not have to worry about missing their train. Because if you miss it there’s another train in a half hour, and you’re in Grand Central, which is the center of New York anyway. So you’ve lost nothing, and it frees up people from worrying about that and I think that will greatly increase our weekend and off-peak ridership.

When the Harlem Line extension was being planned, was Millerton ever on the table, or was the main focus always Wassaic?

Again, I was involved with that because I was head of planning then. We focused, and our goal was to get as far north as we could while implementing the project. We wanted to go far north for two reasons, we needed a location for a railyard, we didn’t have sufficient room in Southeast, and we wanted as far north so we could attract as many customers as possible. The best site to do that was Wassaic. If I remember correctly, the rail trail was already in existence to Millerton, so we would have had a huge obstacle. How do you de-map a rail trail? There would have been significant opposition. I believe there was opposition in Millerton itself for train service.

The question became to us, we think if you want to get this done, we think we can make it to Wassaic and get that implemented. If we try to go further north, which would have been in an ideal world nice, we believe we would have had nothing. And so this was a case of getting 80%, and getting it done. And once we got through all the environmental reviews we were able to build the line, and I guess it has been running for ten, almost fifteen years now.

Do you have a favorite Metro-North station?

Truthfully I do, and it’s Grand Central. Where else? It is the center of New York, it’s an amazing place.

Are there any other transit systems you admire?

First of all I admire what New York City subways does day in and day out, carrying that number, millions of people. I think that there are other properties within the United States who do certain things very well. Metro-North is particularly focused on partnership with JR East in Japan, and I certainly admire many things that they do. The volumes of people that they carry are phenomenal, their reliability is phenomenal. They make money – which is unlike any transit system in the United States – in part that is because they are allowed to own the real estate, unlike Metro-North where almost all the real estate has been given away by the predecessor railroads – so they are capturing the value created by the railroad. They, in particular, are a group that we’ve probably met with four or five times and exchanged ideas, and continue to do so.

JR (Japan Railways) East shinkansen, or as it is more commonly known in the US, bullet train.

If you could tell every Metro-North rider one thing, what would it be?

I would say that I would hope that people continue to recognize the value of Metro-North, that they continue to ride Metro-North, they continue to encourage their friends and family to ride Metro-North, and that if they see things that they think we should make improvements on that they should let us know. We take very seriously all the letters we get, I personally read every single letter that is sent to me, and if they have really good ideas we will follow up on them. We’ve gotten over the years many good ideas from people, many issues have been raised, and we respond to them. Again, it would be use the train, and if you have any ideas or suggestions, let us know, and we’ll take a look at them and see if it makes sense, and if we can do them we will.

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Sketching life along the rails, Part 2

As promised last week, here is another set of train-themed sketches. We’re again featuring more of the late 1940’s, early 1950’s New York Central sketches by artists Joseph Hirsch and Carol Johnson, as well as some current images by James Napoleon.

First are the older sketches. As we saw last week, the artists have captured a day in the life of a railroader. Although a few engineers and conductors can be seen, they mostly feature the hardest workers: those that lay the ties, that place the rails, and those that secure the two together. This is one of the most integral jobs with the railroad – for without tracks there would be no places for the trains to go.


Our more current sketches are by artist and Harlem Line rider James Napoleon. I first met James quite a few months ago, when I caught him sketching me on the train. He tries to do at least one sketch per day, and has several sketchbooks filled with various people seen on the train, at the park, or in other places. I find it amusing that a lot of the train people found in his sketchbook are sleeping, because it is an apt depiction of the people on his morning train (see the post: Those Wassaic People). For more of Mr. Napoleon’s work you can check out his website, which shows many of his lovely paintings.

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Sketching life along the rails, Part 1

As it is obvious to anyone that has been to this site, I love to capture the world around me in photographs. Throughout my time commuting, I have come in contact with a few people that capture the world in other ways, like drawing. I did go through art school, had to take quite a few drawing classes, and at some points in my life have carried around a sketchbook. But I’ve never thought I was really spectacular at drawing, and certainly not good enough to represent the world I see on a page. My bag does contain a small moleskin notebook, but more often than not I’m coming up with stories and writing thoughts, and not drawing.

Over the next two weeks, I thought it would be cool to highlight a few folks that spend the time on the train sketching, from the past and today. The sketches featured below were drawn by artists Joseph Hirsch and Carol Johnson, not long after World War Two. Both sketched during the war, and afterward went on to sketch along the rails.

Wartime drawing by Joseph Hirsch

Wartime drawing by Carol Johnson

Sketches by the two artists show the New York Central from the eyes of a railroader, and include train yards and track workers. They don’t have to be photographs to show a delightful “snapshot” of what it was like just after the war.


I also have some more current sketches, and from the point of view of the commuter. Harvey Weiss rides the Hudson Line, and captures other commuters in a bit of an amusing way – from behind seat backs. We see the backs and tops of his fellow riders’ heads. Interestingly, it looks like Weiss may have accidentally captured Metro-North’s president. Though it is hard to tell because the majority of his face is obscured, one of the sketches does bear a strong resemblance to Howard Permut.

Is that Howard Permut???

Weiss has compiled his sketches into a book titled Head Trip, which is available for purchase online and is worth checking out. Check back next week, as I’ll have more New York Central sketches by Hirsch and Johnson, along with some from Harlem Line rider James Napoleon. I first encountered James several months ago when I caught him sketching me on my morning train.

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Thoughts on winter, and a commuter bill of rights

Shortly after the article in the New York Times featuring this site and my panorama project, I was offered a spot on the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council. Due to time issues, and the fact that me making it to any of their meetings would be extremely difficult, I never took the position. Somehow I think that is a good idea. I have a feeling the Commuter Council wouldn’t like me all that much. Most likely my thoughts regarding the current dilemma of winter service, and the idea of a commuter “Bill of Rights” are a bit different than theirs. The Commuter Councils (New York and Connecticut), and even Senator Schumer are pushing the railroad for a Bill of Rights. The two main incidents cited were the train that got stuck near Green’s Farms on one of the hottest days of the summer, and a train that was “stuck” at Southeast during the October snowstorm. There are a couple of places where my opinion differs from the things that have already been put on the table, thus I feel the need to present them here. If you’d rather not hear a little rant, skip this and come back later in the day – I’ll be posting something pretty for you to look at.

When it comes to these rails I think I have somewhat of a unique perspective: I’m familiar with the history of our rail system and the crap that used to go on. I am close to several people that work for the railroad, and I understand their thoughts on various issues. But most importantly, I am a commuter, and thus am familiar with the daily plight of many transit riders.


If you’re a reader of my site, most likely you are familiar with the stories of the Upper Harlem Line. Remember this date: March 20th, 1972. It was the last day that there was passenger service from Dover Plains to Chatham. The Penn Central didn’t really care much about their passengers. Take a guess when they shut down the line? In the middle of the day. So that means if you commuted from Chatham you managed to get to the city in the morning. But there was no way for you to get home. They’d take you up to Dover Plains that evening, but it was on you to figure out how to travel the last 50 miles to your home. How’s that for service?

As a historical aside, after World War Two the railroads weren’t doing so hot. Even the president of the New York Central committed suicide. In order to stay afloat, the New York Central (of which the Hudson and Harlem lines belonged) and the Pennsylvania Railroad merged to become the Penn Central. Not long after, the government forced the bankrupt New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (our New Haven Line) into the merger. After only a few years the Penn Central itself went bankrupt – at that time it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. This is the crumbling foundation on which Metro-North was eventually built. Clearly, not a simple task. If you find any of this interesting, I do suggest you read a book titled “The Wreck of the Penn Central.”

Working on the railroad

If Metro-North pulled the stunt I mentioned above, imagine how irate we commuters would be! The railroad is hardly a perfect entity, however, it is a whole lot better than it was. We now live in an era where technology is developing rapidly, and the railroad has finally begun to embrace it along with other current trends (twitter, facebook). Only two years ago the MTA would send their lawyers after you for using the round subway bullets online. The MTA’s lawyers also deemed Metro-North’s train schedules as their own intellectual property – which meant cease and desist orders were sent to anybody that made a useful transit app. Now Metro-North gladly offers this information to developers, and they even feature third-party transit apps on their site.

In the grand scheme of things, Metro-North has come a long way. They’ve even beaten out the Long Island Rail Road as the busiest commuter system in the country. Sure, there are a lot of things they could do to improve service, but it is getting better. For one thing, communication is improving. We get text alerts for train issues now. And when I say we, I mean commuters. If you’re a conductor, not so much. Here’s a game to play – the next time you’re on the train and you get a text alert saying there are delays, ask your conductor about it. There is a high likelihood that you know more than they do. And people complain that conductors don’t make announcements. Communication is certainly better, but it has a long way it needs to go. If you get anything out of this long rant it is that the railroad needs to work a whole lot on improving communication. Not only with commuters, but with their own staff!

A Commuter’s Life

On the hottest day of the summer, a train got stuck not far from Green’s Farms. I’m not going to go into much detail, as it has been explained by various news media, but the important part is that people were stuck for a while. Supposedly the railroad told the Westport fire department that the train was empty. It was not. And suffice it to say, people were not thrilled to be boiling on a hot day in a tin can. Was Metro-North at fault in this instance? Hell yes. The highlight of the story is poor communication. The infrastructure on the New Haven Line is not spectacular – the train cars are old, and so are the catenaries. The incident would have happened either way, but with better communication it would have been handled far better, and passengers wouldn’t be nearly as bitter.

Here is where my thoughts differ from Schumer and his impetus for a bill of rights. In October we were hit with a freak snow storm, dumping huge amounts of snow on the area. A train to Grand Central (including passengers that had made a connection from Wassaic) got stuck at Southeast station and was there for eleven or more hours. While folks are citing this incident along with the aformentioned Green’s Farms incident, grouping them together is like apples and oranges. The train was stuck at the station. Meaning people could get off the train if they wanted to. And some did – they made snowmen on the platform, and the braver ones attempted to make the one mile uphill climb to the stores in Southeast. If they wanted to, they could have called their loved ones to come pick them up.

Oh wait, remember that part about the snow falling from the sky? Roads were impassable. Cars were stuck on the Taconic and 684 for twelve or more hours – longer than anybody “stuck” on that train. There is this little thing called personal accountability. Days before the storm hit, weather predictions said we could get nearly two feet of snow. The smart people stayed home. The slightly crazier ones stocked up on anything the grocery store had and turned their home into a miniature survival bunker. The even crazier ones disregarded the reports and went out – and got themselves stuck.

What do you want from Metro-North anyway?

Commuters, if you want something, you need to be realistic. What do you want Metro-North to do? I’ve heard utterly insane suggestions that ought to become part of this “Bill of Rights.” Trains should have blankets and water on board in case they get stuck. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should put refrigerators on all the trains to keep that water cold. Supposedly folks involved in the Green’s Farms incident complained that when they were finally given water, it was warm – though I do admit, the veracity of that ever occurring is suspect. Nonetheless, I don’t think any of those demands sound realistic.

Here is an exercise in thinking realistically: Say you are the president of Metro-North for the day. How would you have dealt with the situation in Southeast? Really. Think about it. When the rails no longer became safe to operate on, Metro-North pulled the plug. Nobody could be picked up because the roads were even worse. What is the answer to this problem? What could the railroad have possibly done in a situation like that? Should the MTA keep a secret phalanx of ATVs and snowmobiles? Maybe they should teach the MTAPD’s K-9’s to pull a dog sled? Or maybe Metro-North should have pulled the plug before, knowing that a storm was coming.

A fun idea. Though not realistic.

Oh wait, they said they were going to do that this upcoming winter. And the media complained and mocked them and said that you’d be better off riding in a sleigh (thankfully, I must say Jim Cameron of Connecticut’s commuter council is realistic and understands this point). Suspending service before any trains got stuck seems like the only logical way one could have dealt with the problem in Southeast.

No matter what the railroad decides to do, the fact of the matter is they will never be able to please everyone. And I’m not exactly saying that the Bill of Rights is a bad idea. But if we commuters wish to have a Bill of Rights that addresses some of these issues, our requests need to be well thought out and realistic – not the result of over emotion (though if you were involved in either of those incidents, I understand the reason why you would feel that way). The Commuter Councils’ requests more realistic than Schumer’s, but he’s a politician that probably doesn’t ride the train much, and is busy fighting the good fight against true menaces to our society, like Four Loko.

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Chatting with the “Conductor to the Stars”

Last week I had the pleasure of hanging out with one of Metro-North’s coolest conductors – Bobby McDonough, author of the blog Derailed. On the way to South Norwalk, and then back to Grand Central, we chatted about life, family, and of course trains. As he collected tickets, he almost thought he saw someone famous, but was mistaken. Bobby’s alter ego is the Conductor to the Stars, due to his many encounters with famous folks in his duty to the rails. In another era perhaps he would be a conductor on the 20th Century Limited, standing atop the red carpet as the rich and famous boarded the train. Alas, Bobby works the New Haven Line and his passengers range from Wall Street businessmen to sketchy characters and drug-dealers. Though he loves his job, it isn’t fun and games all the time – he’s even had his nose broken by a disgruntled passenger before.

I was pretty excited with the interview – as this is technically the first one I’ve done on the blog. I must thank Bobby for taking the time to answer my questions, and serve as my first interview “guinea pig.” Though the interview is a bit long, many of the stories Bobby tells are quite funny. And if you haven’t read his blog Derailed before, I definitely suggest it. Although Bobby has been busy and hasn’t updated it much, the archives go back several years and are filled with hilarious tales from the rails.

There are a lot of different types of conductors – some like trains, and others just see it as a job and a means to a paycheck. You mentioned growing up near the rails, and had family members that worked for the railroad – were you interested in the trains as a kid? Are you a little bit of a “train buff”?

No, I’m definitely not a train buff. In fact, when I was growing up, I was deathly afraid of the railroad tracks. I grew up six houses south of the tracks in West Haven, CT, and whenever a train went by, our house would shake. It was as if we lived on the San Andreas Fault. Guests would regularly hide in closets or stand under secure thresholds every time the Turbo Train went by.

My grandfather lived next door to me. He was a retired car inspector for The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. He always warned me not to go anywhere near the tracks, and he’d frequently tell horror stories of kids getting their feet stuck in track switches. Trapped like wild animals, they’d ultimately get run over by express trains whose engineers were going so fast they couldn’t stop in time. As if to prove him right, shortly after one Papa’s warnings, a middle-aged neighbor was killed while crossing the tracks coming home from a bar late one summer night. A few months later, on a cold winter’s morning, I watched the railroad police as they searched the body of a neighborhood friend as his body lay frozen along the tracks at the end of our street. He was always doing crazy things, and I later learned that he’d climbed the catenary pole and innocently touched a high voltage wire. I guess my grandfather knew what he was talking about.

Though it isn’t nearly as true as it was in the past, there have been many “railroad families” – sons following in the footsteps of fathers and grandfathers in the service of the railroad. Since you had railroading family members, was this a career path that was encouraged for you and/or your siblings?

I’m a fourth generation railroad worker, so in the back of my mind, I guess I always considered a railroad career an option.

I shared a bedroom with my brother Brian who is eight years older than me.. He started as an fireman with Penn Central in 1974, and a short time later became a locomotive engineer for Conrail which eventually became Metro North. I knew firsthand what a railroaders life was like..i.e. getting called for work in the middle of the night, long hours, working seven days a week. I wasn’t sure I wanted that kind of lifestyle. I graduated college in 1985, and still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Brian told me that Metro North was hiring, so I sent in a resume. A few months later I got hired as an asst conductor. At the time I thought a railroad career beneath me. After all… I was a college graduate. I told myself I’d only stay until a real job came along. That was 25 years ago….still here… and don’t regret it.

“…we carry some of the most fascinating people in the world. From the captains of industry, to Wall Street billionaires, Hollywood celebrities to street corner drug dealers. Our passengers come from all walks of life…”

You mention that you got a job with the railroad “until a real job came along.” Was there a particular reason that you decided to stay?

I know it’s cliche to say, but I truly am a “people person,” and when you think about it, we carry some of the most fascinating people in the world. From the captains of industry, to Wall Street billionaires, Hollywood celebrities to street corner drug dealers (okay, maybe drug dealers aren’t fascinating, but they are interesting). Our passengers come from all walks of life, and I love to chatting with all of them and learning their life stories. Also, it’s a steady job with good pay and great benefits. I love my job… not many people can say that.

My favorite question to ask train conductors is “what is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen someone bring on a train?” The Wassaic portion of the Harlem Line has almost an “urban legend” that people bring their goats on the train. Have you seen anything nutty over on the New Haven Line?

One afternoon a guy got on in Bridgeport and had something hidden under his leather jacket. I watched as he sat down and pulled a baby bottle out of his front pocket. I assumed he had a small child inside his coat and was keeping him warm against the cold winter winds…I was wrong. When I approached to collect his ticket, a giant brown snout poked through his jacket zipper. I jumped back a step. “What’s THAT?” I shouted. He chuckled, unzipped his jacket and produced a Wallaby!!!! (as in a mini Kangaroo). I half expected him to reach inside the joey’s pouch and produce his ticket. “Where did you get that?” I asked. “I picked her up at Kennedy Airport last week” he said, as if everyone owns a exotic animals. “Is it even legal to own a wallaby?” I asked. “Yeah” he answered unconvincingly. (BTW, I just Googled it. Apparently it is legal).

As the “conductor to the stars” you’ve encountered quite a few famous faces while working the rails (though admittedly, I may be too young to recognize all of the names). Do you have a favorite, or most memorable, encounter with anybody famous?

In the early 1990’s, comedienne and ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Victoria Jackson used to ride my train on a regular basis. She is as sweet and wacky as she appears on TV, and I always got a big kick out of talking with her. Our conversations weren’t always light and funny though. Sometimes she’d confide in me about the messy divorce she was going through, once telling me her husband was evil. Other times she’d complain about not getting enough airtime on SNL. I felt bad for her, and sometimes I’d pitch skit ideas to her (she never used them).
One afternoon, Victoria generously offered to get me and my wife tickets to her show. I told her that we’d love to go but my wife was 8 months pregnant and we’d have to make it very soon. About a week later, Victoria called my home and told my wife that she had two tickets with our names on them waiting at NBC Studios. It was the last show of the season. I called her back and asked what time the show ended, and if I would have enough time to catch the last train back to New Haven (01:30AM). She arranged that we’d drive to Westport, then take the train to New York from there. She’d have her limo drive us back to Westport at the end of the night.

We did as she instructed and drove to Westport, then took the train into NYC. Just as she said, there were two tickets waiting for us at 30 Rock. The guest host that evening was John Goodman and Garth Brooks was the musical guest. We loved the show, but couldn’t help but notice that Victoria was never on stage during the entire show…not once. After the finale, we reported to the security guard as instructed and gave him our names. He called upstairs to her dressing room, then nodding his head in agreement, pointed us to a bank of elevators. When we stepped off the elevator , we immediately heard muffled sobs coming from one of the dressing rooms. We knocked on the door and found Victoria slouched over a bottle of wine, with streams of black mascara running down her face. She was crying her eyes out. She sobbed loudly, saying that Lorne (the show producer) had cut her out all her skits and she was going to quit show business.

Victoria got the call that her limo was ready, so she led us, and the wardrobe women, the hair stylist and the make up artist downstairs, where we all piled in the back of her stretch limo for the ride home. We shuttled through Manhattan dropping off the SNL crew members on their respective street corners. Once we were on I-95, she got on her car phone and called her boyfriend in Miami (this was pretty amazing to me, cause this 1992 BC… before cell phones). She cried all the way back to Westport, and in famous baby doll voice, told her Miami cop boyfriend that she hated show business and was going to give it all up, move to Miami, and marry him. She said she wanted to be just like the sweet railroad conductor and his adorable pregnant wife who were sitting across the seat from her.

And that’s just what she did. She quit show biz, moved to Miami, married the cop and had more children. I guess we inspired her.

For every famous person you’ve encountered, you’ve met quite a few more “ordinary” people. What is your most memorable encounter with a regular “run of the mill” train rider?

My most memorable “ordinary” passenger was probably the extremely grouchy woman who often rode my evening rush hour train home. This curmudgeon complained every time she saw me, and for some reason, she always seemed to sit in my car. She’d complain that the train was either too hot or too cold. The PA was too loud or she couldn’t understand my announcements. She groused about the the train being dirty or that it smelled like a urinal.

One particular night, she rattled off a laundry list of complaints as I stood patiently by waiting for her to finish. She went on and on till the surrounding passengers began rolling their eyes. Some commuters shook their heads and took pity on me. When she finally finished, I took a deep breath and asked, “Did you have a tough day at work today?” She suddenly burst out laughing, and I could see the tension leave her body. “As a matter of fact I did… it was a horrible day” she said with a big smile on her face. She loved me from that day on, and I never heard her complain again… well, almost never.

“A female conductor friend of mine once said that in order to be a conductor on a late night train, you have to have come from a dysfunctional family.”

Metro-North nights (especially on the NH Line from your stories!!) sound like they can be pretty crazy… yet you seem to prefer the evening trains. I know a conductor’s schedule can be difficult with family – does the evening schedule help, or do you like the punishment from the crazy drunks?

A female conductor friend of mine once said that in order to be a conductor on a late night train, you have to have come from a dysfunctional family. Her theory is that we’re survivors and are the only ones who could put up with all the craziness we encounter. She may be onto something here.

As far as my schedule goes, I hate getting up early in the morning, and in the railroad world, in order to get home at a decent hour, you have to start work at in ungodly hour…like 4AM. No thanks. I’ve missed a lot of my daughters’ field hockey/lacrosse games, and parent/teacher conferences (fodder for their therapists sessions someday), but I do get a lot of yard work done during the day.

You’ve mentioned that you knew a conductor that had a complaint letter written about them because of chewing gum. I’ve heard some other complaint stories about a conductor that let a bug fly into the train, and that after collecting tickets would spend long periods of time in the bathroom (passenger didn’t realize it was the cab!!). Has anyone ever written a complaint about you, or have you heard any other crazy complaint letter stories?

In my 25 years as a conductor, I believe I’ve only have one complaint letter in my file…but it’s a doozy. I heard it was double spaced and eight pages long. It was sent to the the Railroad Superintendent, the President of Metro North, and the Director of the MTA. The prose was a group effort, written by a posse of obnoxious bar car patrons who thought Metro North rules didn’t pertain to them (i.e. smoking on the train). I heard they called me a “fascist”.

I recently heard that a woman on the upper Harlem wrote a letter of complaint, saying she counted 183 automated announcements on her very early morning M-7 train. I guess she shows up to work a little bleary-eyed. Not sure how the railroad responded.

Have you gotten the chance to ride any M8’s yet, and if so what do you think about them?

Yes, I’ve worked the M8’s, and I like them. They’re shiny, bright and new… what’s not to like? I just hope I still like them were they’re no longer shiny, bright and new.

Do people on the train ever recognize you based upon your blog? Are any of your passengers aware of it?

Once a passenger saw me walk by and he got very excited… almost star-struck. “Is that Bobbyderailed?” he asked my assistant conductor. I was flattered that he recognized me, so I walked to where he was sitting and thanked him for reading my blog. He showed me what he had just tweeted: “Wow! Bobby from ‘Derailed’ is the conductor on my train.” I think I stood a little taller that night.

On the flip side, I once overheard one of the female conductor sharing a funny story in the stationmaster’s office. It seems she had a male passenger on one of her morning trains and the gentleman had an explosive episode of diarrhea in one of the train bathrooms. He left the whole area a terrible mess, and at the last minute, he ran out of the lavatory with his pants still unbuckled and scurried off the train just as the doors closed. She said she didn’t know the guy’s name, but she was kind of surprised cause he was one of her regular passengers. “He sounds a little irregular to me,” I joked. I’m leaving out a lot of details, but her story was funny in a disgusting, over the top kind of way.

I took this story and embellished it a humorous blog post and did my best to portray the irregular passenger as weirdo…a real deviant of society. I must admit, my story was pretty funny and it was a favorite of my readers.
About a week later, the alleged deviant wrote a letter of apology to the female conductor. It turns out he’s one of my regular readers and he read, and recognized himself in my blog story. He’s also someone I happen to know and like (small world, huh?). To make matters worse, I learned he’s battling colon cancer and has problems controlling his bowels. As you can imagine, I felt horrible about how I portrayed him… still do.

Was there any particular reason you started blogging in the first place? Does your family ever read it/what do they think of it?

A few years back, my nephew’s journalist fiancee started writing a blog. They lived in North Carolina and I had never met her, but felt I did since I read about the daily minutiae of her life. I liked her blog so much that I started commenting on her posts on a regular basis. Her readers found many of my observations humorous and some petitioned me to start writing a blog of my own. I was working late night trains out of New Haven at the time, and I knew I had plenty of material to write about. That’s how “Derailed” was born.

My extended family loves my blog, since I often write about family lore. My nieces and nephews tell me they’ve learned a lot about our collective family history from my stories. They often tell me to cut back on railroad stories and write more about the family. I had to give my immediate family (particularly my daughters) veto power over of my stories, since I sometimes “over-share.”

Have you ever thought of joining twitter?

No thanks! Facebook consumes too much of my life already.

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The first week…

If you haven’t realized by now, I tend to shy away from discussing the various political issues surrounding the MTA. I like to stick around in the history zone, and talk more about art and photography-related things. If you want politics and opinions, and can stomach about ten advertisement banners per page (my personal faves are the animated fat loss banners of the sketch-woman clenching a fatty gut in her hands), Second Avenue Sagas is probably the place for you.

However, we’ve almost completed the first week with our new MTA big boss Joe Lhota (albeit unofficially, until confirmed by the senate in January), and I had to say something. The media is scrutinizing his first moves in the big chair (fare hikes in 2013!), but I had to say, I liked this one article that I found: New MTA chief Joe Lhota calls on prosecutors to throw book at riders who attack transit workers. I think that is a good a place as any to start. What you probably do know from reading my blog, is that I do have a tremendous amount of respect for train conductors (I’m not going to say employees, as you all know there others that I do not hold in such high esteem). They are on the front lines, the public face of the company, and they deal with idiots for a good portion of their days. Many get significant compensation for this work, but it is a tradeoff for having few days off and transporting your drunk ass home on holidays like New Years.

In the summer when there was the New Haven Line incident of the stuck train near Greens Farms (which I never really said much about, either), passengers were furious. And one of the reasons was because during the incident the conductors hid in their cabs, or reportedly removed their uniforms. I always found myself giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they weren’t being shitty employees – they were just afraid of what a train full of irate passengers could do. I want to know what the statistics are for conductors that have been assaulted by passengers. And the sad thing is, that I would guess it is probably in the 90% range, if not higher. There have been broken noses, broken fingers, employees that have been hit with umbrellas, spit on, or had a glass bottle broken over their face when sticking their head out the cab window. And these are just stories that I know. I certainly support stiffer penalties for that sort of thing – I don’t care what job you’re in. You shouldn’t be doing that stuff to fellow human beings (or even animals for that matter!) I’d also be okay with a new MTA slogan of “ride the goddamn train/bus/subway and don’t be an asshole” but somehow I don’t think that would go over too well.

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