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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 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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Spring Thaw on the Saratoga & North Creek

This past winter was long and cold for all of us, and thankfully everything is finally beginning to look bright. Upstate in the Adirondacks the Saratoga & North Creek Railway was hard-hit. Normally operating several snow trains a few weekends during the winter, much of February’s service was entirely cancelled due to the extremely cold weather. Prior to the cancellations, one train that did run broke down heading southbound, necessitating a school bus to carry all the passengers back to Saratoga.

I had been planning to photograph the railway in the snow, but the lack of trains cancelled those plans. Instead I visited in April, catching the Spring thaw along the line, with just a few bits of snow remaining along the banks of the Hudson. Although minimal freight operates on the line, I didn’t see any, only capturing the two passenger trains that operate each day.

Tourist trains have operated on this line since 1999, but the Saratoga and North Creek has only been running since 2011, operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings. They’ve only been carrying freight since 2013, a business they’d like to expand, as they’re losing money on their tourist trains (no doubt the harsh winter and cancelled trains did not help). Historically, the Delaware and Hudson Railway acquired this line in 1871, and ran on it until 1989 (an abandoned portion of the line, including a bridge, can be seen in a few of my photos).

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Boston’s Record Snowfall, and the MBTA’s West Concord Station

When the first snow of the season falls, everyone seems relatively enamored with the glistening white flakes clinging to the trees, painting a beautiful snowy scene. By now, a few months into winter, everyone is pretty much fed up, and wishing for spring. New York has certainly received its share of the white stuff, having at least one shutdown of major transit. Boston, however, has been particularly hard-hit, with record breaking snowfalls. The snowdrifts are apparently so high that some crazy folks have been jumping out of their windows into them – “nonsense” that is not amusing the city’s mayor.

The MBTA is suffering through the onslaught of snow – but just barely. With several full shutdowns, and running on reduced schedules, the transit agency is paying just about anybody 30 dollars an hour to help shovel snow, in addition to the fifty prison inmates they’ve recruited to do the same. Provided the city is not hit with yet another storm, they estimate an entire month before things get back to normal.

I happened to be in Boston last Saturday right as the city’s most recent blizzard was just beginning, and only hours before the system’s full Sunday shutdown. Capturing the snowy scene at West Concord, I checked out the snow-covered trains, and the restored depot on the MBTA’s Fitchburg Line. Though there are two tracks running through here (greatly reduced from when this town was once called Concord Junction and featured three railroads running through), although one is currently out of service and piled with snow as high as the station’s high-level platform.

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Valladolid, Mexico’s Abandoned Station, and the High-Speed Trans-Peninsular Rail Project

As an escape from New York’s winter cold, I recently spent a week in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Considering that I like to visit diverse places such as Alaska in the winter, and Chernobyl, a beach locale like Mexico sounds relatively normal trip. The area doesn’t have much in the way of trains, either, which sounds really normal. However, a few hour trek toward the ruins at Chichén Itzá on the libre (free road), as opposed to the cuota (toll road), will yield you an encounter with a lone grade crossing just west of the city of Valladolid. This rail line extends from Valladolid to Yucatán’s capital of Mérida, and although freight runs are semi frequent, regular passenger service is long gone. Many of the former train stations are abandoned and in disrepair, such as the one in Valladolid, which I found after a bit of poking around.

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Bridges of Metro-North: The Norwalk River Bridge, Part 1

Continuing into the new year with our visits to some of Metro-North’s movable bridges, today’s feature is the Norwalk River Bridge. This bridge, owned by the state of Connecticut, is commonly known as WALK, and is the bane of the New Haven Line. Built in 1896, the bridge is one of many pieces of practically ancient infrastructure you’ll find along the line. Prone to getting stuck open and preventing trains from crossing – which happened several times last year – the historical bridge is badly in need of a replacement or serious upgrade. For the interim, attempts have been made to open the bridge less frequently, and to have crews standing by when the bridge does open to hopefully prevent any issues. While I had been under the impression that the bridge would be staying shut while repairs were under way starting in June, I was lucky enough to capture an opening of the bridge on November 8th, much to my surprise.

Constructed for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, the Norwalk River Bridge is a 562-foot long rim bearing swing bridge. Sitting about 16 feet above the water, the bridge’s 202 foot long center deck rotates along a center point to allow marine traffic to pass. When opening, rail locks are released, the rail ends are lifted, catenary wire is separated, wedge locks are withdrawn, and bridge locks are released. Only then can the machinery located at the center pier under the tracks can do its work to swing the bridge open. All of these delicate maneuvers need to happen in concert, which is difficult considering the age of the machinery involved. Also complicating matters for repairs is the fact that the old movable bridges on the Northeast Corridor are all unique – there was no standard for construction, and each bridge has unique mechanical components.

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Bridges of Metro-North: The Harlem River Lift Bridge

Throughout the entire Metro-North system there are an array of movable bridges – bridges which as of recently seem to be a thorn in the rail system’s side. Much of the infrastructure on these bridges are old and prone to issues. Thankfully, updates are going on to get these bridges in better working order, and we’ll be taking visits to some of the more prominent bridges in the system in the next few weeks.

Today we feature the busiest bridge on the entire system, the Harlem River Lift Bridge. At sixty years old the bridge is not nearly as old as the issue-plagued WALK bridge, but it by far sees the most action, carrying nearly 700 trains per day for all three East of Hudson Metro-North lines. Over the past few months work has been moving along on the bridge – installing new cables that lift the tracks over the river for passing boats, and putting in new wiring, power supplies, and electrical control systems. Below the bridge a circuit breaker room that flooded during Hurricane Sandy and is experienced corrosion will be replaced. Gone will be an old crank control, updated to today’s standards with modern computers. In total, the overhaul has a $47.2 million price tag.

Previous railroad bridge over the Harlem River
The 1867 bridge over the Harlem River, note the construction of a temporary bridge to allow a new 1891 span to be constructed on the main line. Image from the December 1892 Scientific American.

Historically, several previous movable bridges stood at this very spot, carrying the New York Central over the Harlem River. The first bridge over the river was completed in 1841, and stood a mere eight feet over the water at high tide. Made of wood, that bridge was later updated with iron spans in 1867. Later, a four track swing bridge was built in 1891. This bridge connected with the new Park Avenue viaduct, raising the tracks above Harlem and allowing a higher crossing over the river.

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Meet TIM – Metro-North’s new credit card enabled Ticket Issuing Machine

As most of you have likely heard by now, Metro-North has begun a pilot program testing new Ticket Issuing Machines (TIMs) on the Upper Harlem Line (or as Metro-North would call it, the Wassaic “Branch”) and the Danbury Branch. The big news about these machines is that they accept credit cards – something conductors selling tickets have long been unable to do.

I got a chance to check out one of these new machines, and must admit they are quite cool. Slim and light compared to the previous TIMs, these new machines are essentially tricked-out iPhones running special software. Wrapped in a blue Metro-North case, the TIM contains an LED barcode scanner (used for scanning the barcode on IDs of delinquents that have neither tickets nor money) and a swipe for credit cards. The special software installed on the phone not only allows conductors to sell tickets, but it also “locks down” the iPhone, preventing it from downloading apps, reading email, and all the other things you wouldn’t want a conductor to do while on duty.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new Metro-North TIM and printer

Similar to the previous TIM, the new TIM connects wirelessly to a printer that can be hung from the belt. This printer provides the customer with a receipt for the ticket they bought. It also provides the conductor at the end of the day a receipt that lists how much they’ve sold, and further breaks that down into cash tickets sold (which needs to be turned in to Metro-North), and how much was sold by credit.

While the majority of Metro-North riders are conditioned to purchase their tickets before boarding, there remains several stations on the Danbury and Waterbury Branches that do not have platform ticket vending machines or ticket sellers. It is there that the new TIM will likely be most welcome. But for those people that race to catch a train and aren’t able to purchase a ticket before boarding, being able to use a credit card is a great convenience.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM features an LED barcode scanner, and a swipe for credit cards

Though much of the fanfare regarding the new TIM focuses on the ability to accept credit cards, it is worth mentioning that the new technology can help out quite a bit when it comes to customer service. One of the main complaints I hear are that customers on trains stuck in delays are not provided with enough information as to what is going on. What most don’t realize, however, is that conductors are often not given information about what is happening. In fact, Metro-North’s text alert system often provides customers with information that crews don’t even know. Because the new TIM is essentially a cell phone, the potential is there to use it to notify conductors about issues – information that can then be relayed to the customers over the train’s PA. Whether the technology will be used in this fashion remains to be seen, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Of course, one must remember that this is only a pilot program. However, I imagine that once the system’s inevitable bugs are worked out, credit card enabled TIMs will soon be popping up on more lines and trains.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM’s blue protective case, bearing the Metro-North logo

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The ticket software is conveniently accessed through this icon of an M7

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
Three screens of the new TIM – A message sent to the conductor, the screen selling tickets, and a screen showing the phone’s “lockdown” – preventing the iPhone from doing the things most people do with iPhones

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