Grade Crossing Safety: Metro-North’s New Pilot Program

This morning Metro-North announced a new plan to get people’s eyes focused on grade crossings – literally. In a new pilot program, the railroad will be hiring people to wear costumes and protect grade crossings, reminding drivers not to stop on the tracks, or attempt to go around lowered or lowering crossing gates.

Grade crossing incidents have been at the forefront of railroad safety recently, after three high-profile incidents caused major derailments, many injuries, and seven deaths. The three incidents occurred in New York, California, and North Carolina, proving that this is not merely a local problem, but a national problem.

Describing the new pilot program, Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti explained:

Although our program comes up with a solution that is light-hearted, the goal is not to trivialize the problem, or the incidents that have happened at grade crossings. People’s eyes are drawn to things like this – which is the same reason why a fast food place might have a guy dancing around in a hot-dog costume, or a tax prep place might have a lady liberty standing around outside. Sadly, we need to get people’s attention. It seems in our world full of the distractions of loud music, cell phones and other electronic devices, ringing bells, flashing lights, moving gates, pavement markings, and plenty of signage simply does not get anyone’s attention. Even several high-profile grade crossing incidents, and increased police presence at crossings has not stopped drivers from waiting on the tracks, or driving around lowered gates to beat the train.

I find myself agreeing the concept of distracted driving – some have mentioned that Ellen Brody, the woman who caused the Valhalla crash that killed six people, may not have been familiar with the crossing and intersection because of a crash on the Taconic and a detour that evening. Meanwhile, Deborah Molodofsky, who has mentioned she was familiar with the grade crossing in Chappaqua where she had a “close call,” still waited on the railroad tracks and was surprised when the gates came down around her car. Even afterward, she was quoted as saying “I did everything right and I still got caught” – completely oblivious to the fact that she did nothing right – one should never stop on railroad tracks – apparently Ms. Molodofsky never noticed the signs that say as much on the many times she passed that crossing.

Adding to Mr. Giulietti’s comments, Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders said:

On our New Haven main Line, where there are no grade crossings, there are still many incidents with overheight vehicles striking the bridges that carry the tracks. On the Hudson Line, one of our 100+ year-old historical stations had a gorgeous pedestrian walkway into the station – it was completely destroyed by a dump truck striking it. This is clearly a complex problem that will not just have one solution. But if we only look at the grade crossings themselves, we’re missing an important part of the equation – driver distraction.

Anders’ point is a good one – even the NTSB has spent a good amount of time talking about driver distraction in transportation recently, holding a round-table discussion called “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” which was live-tweeted by the NTSB’s twitter account.

Note: The Hudson Line station Ms. Anders mentioned where the pedestrian crossing was destroyed was Ardsley-on-Hudson.

President Giulietti made sure to add one more note on the subject:

If for some reason you do happen to get stuck on the railroad tracks, each crossing has a sign with a telephone number and a description of the location. If you call that number and report a vehicle stuck, we can halt trains on the line and prevent a dangerous incident from occurring.

We were lucky enough to capture a video of one of the new hirees working on the Harlem Line, at the Cleveland Street crossing in Valhalla. The town of Mount Pleasant has recently revealed that they would like to close this crossing, to the detriment of the people that live in the neighborhood just over the tracks.

Hopefully such measures will capture the attention of the many drivers that make poor decisions around railroad tracks every day.

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The Electrification of Grand Central, and Metro-North’s Third Rail

Over the past few years this site has significantly delved into the history of Grand Central Terminal and how it came to be. We’ve talked about the Park Avenue Tunnel wreck that led to the banning of steam locomotives in Manhattan – considered one of the catalysts for building the new all-electric Terminal. We’ve also talked about the power plants established to provide the electricity to power the trains operating to Grand Central. But somehow along the way, we’ve neglected to discuss the integral bit of tech that delivered the electricity to the trains in Grand Central, and is still used today – the third rail.

After the recent, tragic crash on the Harlem Line, the topic of third rail has become a talking point in the media. For those not exceptionally familiar with railroading (who have been frequenting the site as of late), electric trains can be powered by various methods, and most railroad systems picked one method of power for their road. Since Metro-North is made up of two historical railroad systems – the New York Central, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford – you will not find just one method of powering electric trains here. One common type of power, which is seen on the New Haven Line, is the overhead catenary system. Wires above the train carry electricity, and trains have special “arms” called pantographs that reach up and connect with these wires.

Drawing of the bottom contact third rail, from the patent documentation.
Drawing of the bottom contact third rail invented by William Wilgus and Frank Sprague, from the patent documentation.

The other common method of train power, the third rail, comes in a few different “flavors,” but the concept on each is similar – an extra rail that conducts electricity is placed on the ground, and special shoes on the train connect with it and draw power. The New York City subway and Long Island Railroad, for example, use an over running third rail, where power is collected from the top of the third rail. This is the oldest type of third rail power. Metro-North, however, uses a method of under running third rail, which is also known as bottom contact third rail (or the Wilgus-Sprague system, for its inventors). As one would gather from the name, the power is collected from the bottom of the third rail. This method was especially invented for use in Grand Central Terminal, and was an improvement on the original by inventors William Wilgus (Chief Engineer of the New York Central) and Frank Sprague for safety. It is still used on the Harlem and Hudson Lines today, and is what was involved the recent crash.

Before I continue on, let’s break down some facts about the third rail in Valhalla, and about under running third rail:

  • The railroad tracks running through the area in question have been in service since 1846.
  • Under running third rail has been in service in the New York Metropolitan area since 1906.
  • Third rail in the area in question was installed in 1983 when the Harlem Line was electrified to Southeast (then Brewster North).
  • Over running third rail (like the LIRR uses) is the oldest type of third rail. Under-running third rail was developed later as a safer methodology, as it was less likely to electrocute a worker or trespasser, and better covered from rain, snow, and ice.
  • The original NYC subway (IRT) used the older version of third rail because the under running variety had not been invented yet. The Long Island Rail Road followed suit when electrifying due to connections / planned connections with the subway.
  • The same year that under running third rail was patented, the legislature of the State of Connecticut banned unprotected third rail technology after several people / animals were electrocuted. The whole concept of under running third rail was that the rail was protected, and thus considered far more safe.
  • In modern usage, under running third rail seems appears overwhelmingly safer in comparison to over running. The subway and LIRR have had far more deaths in this manner – from numerous trackworkers, to people walking across the tracks, falling on the tracks, graffiti artists getting zapped, people trying to rescue dropped items, and even peeing on the third rail. Over the five year period from 2002 to 2006, one person was electrocuted by Metro-North’s third rail, while six were electrocuted by the Long Island Rail Road’s.
  • The over running third rail used by the LIRR and subway are far more effected by rain, snow, and ice. Even a dropped umbrella onto the tracks managed to shut down the 7 line recently.
  • Metro-North is not the only transit system to use under-running third rail. One line in Philadelphia uses it. Historically, a tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario used it, but that line was de-electrified. Transit systems in Vienna, Warsaw, Sao Paulo (and more) use under-running third rails.
  • Few systems using under-running third rail means nothing about the soundness of the technology. It is only a legacy holdover to a country once comprised of many different railroad companies, each of which picked the technology best suited for them. The lines that comprise Metro-North were not even a unified system until 1969, which is why different modes of electrification are used across the system.
  • While Chuck “Photo op” Schumer and Richard “Stolen Valor” Blumenthal would prefer to blame a third-rail design that has worked successfully for well over a hundred years, and is safer than the one used by our neighbors, the fact of the matter is that this accident would have 100% been prevented by better driver vigilance and abiding the sign “Do not stop on tracks.”


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Black and White Photographs: Commuter Life

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know a lot of things have been going on for Metro-North this week. Though people have asked me whether I am going to cover the story myself for this blog, it is my decision to defer to others that have intelligently discussed it elsewhere. Unfortunately, such discussion is but a drop in the ocean of sensational and uninformed thoughts and opinions of everyone and their mother. Clearly, this is why idioms like back-seat driver and armchair quarterback have entered our lexicon. While the 24 hour media can tick seconds away debating whether trains should have seatbelts (no), whether “deadly” curves should be banned (remember that time when the tracks used to be more curvy, and we moved a river?), or whether trains are even safe (yes, and more so than cars), I’m content to allow the NTSB to conduct their investigation, and come up with their suggestions on how to make things safer. You know, the people whose jobs are to investigate accidents, that have Ph.D.s, and whose ranks include “one of the world’s foremost human fatigue experts.” I guess that’s why I like to go to a doctor when I have medical issues, as opposed to consulting some random guy walking down the street.

I will, however, not ignore the events that have transpired. How does a photographer go out and take Metro North photos, or continue blogging, and pretend like everything is awesome? It doesn’t feel right. You don’t want to focus on it, you don’t want to let it define you, but you don’t want to ignore it either. On Instagram I began a series of black and white photographs, which I titled Commuter Life, to try and capture the mood I was feeling. Black and white seemed appropriate – a little somber, a little mourning – the way I felt stepping out on Monday and boarding a train on my way to work. I tried to focus on the people that ride the trains, as opposed to the trains themselves. Four people lost their lives on Sunday, and they could have been any one of us. That person on the platform that we see every day as we both commute. It’s a way of life we share.

Included with every photograph was a short musing on my part. It was more of a stream of consciousness thing – none of the photographs were staged, nor were the comments planned in advance. I carried my camera, and captured the things that caught my eye – from people waiting for the train, to Hudson Line “refugees” playing cards on a packed train to pass the time. In most of the instances, the subjects were unaware I was even photographing them.

You will find the twelve photographs of the series, and their accompanying captions, below – presented with no further commentary.

Commuter Life
A relatively somber mood on the platform as we all head to work.

Commuter Life
We wait for the train, but others are in our thoughts.

Commuter Life
The trains, they are like a second home.

Commuter Life
The commute may be long, but we make it our own.

Commuter Life
And when the seats empty, we head home, only to repeat again tomorrow.

Commuter Life
And today, we ride the train again.

Commuter Life
Some of us ride south, but others go north.

Commuter Life
Sometimes we wait…

Commuter Life
And sometimes we run…

Commuter Life
Though the technology advances, some traditions hold through.

Commuter Life
Sometimes we invent creative ways to pass the time.

Commuter Life
The railroad is not faceless, and sometimes it becomes our friend.

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A summer of derailments, and a revisit to Yonkers station

This summer has hardly been the best for railroads all around the world. Several high-profile, and unfortunately deadly, derailments and accidents have occurred in an array of cities. In June a commuter train hit another stopped train in Argentina, claiming three lives and injuring over three hundred. July brought an exceptionally destructive derailment, where a runaway freight train carrying crude oil exploded in the small town of Lac Megantic, Quebec. More than thirty of the town’s buildings were destroyed, and forty-two were killed, with five others missing and presumed dead. Not long after that, six people lost their lives when a train in France derailed and crashed into a station platform. Most recently, a serious derailment in Spain – which appears to be due to the engineer speeding – took the lives of at least seventy-eight.

The serious train derailment in Spain, where at least 78 people died.

At the start of it all in May was Metro-North’s most serious accident in many years, when an M8 derailed and collided with another M8 on the opposite track in May. Proving the mettle of the newest of Metro-North’s rolling stock, no lives were lost in the derailment. Though not an oft mentioned thought related to the crash, had the train been comprised of the New Haven’s ancient M2s, it is fairly likely that there would have been casualties.

Most recently, a CSX derailment fouled up the Hudson Line south of Spuyten Duyvil. There were no serious injuries, and since it was a freight had no passengers aboard, but it did cause damage to the tracks and block the regular commute for Hudson Line riders two Fridays ago. Metro-North raced to get at least one track working for the Monday commute, and succeeded, but opted for alternate service this weekend in order to complete the work. Train service between Yonkers and Grand Central was suspended, and passengers were required to transfer to the subway to get into the city. A fleet of buses shuttled southbound passengers from Yonkers to the Woodlawn subway station, and northbound passengers from the subway to Yonkers station. I checked out the busing at Yonkers yesterday and snapped a few photos of the operation. Though I doubt none of the passengers were thrilled to have to transfer to buses and then the subway, Metro-North has really done a good job of bounding back quickly from incidents like these.


While we’re at Yonkers, it is worth checking out the station itself, and the lovely detailing found within. When we did our station tours, we visited Yonkers, but really didn’t get into some of the littler things you’d find at the station. Designed in the Beaux Arts style by two of Grand Central’s architects, Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore, the station has the classic hidden symbol found throughout. Just as you can play the “acorn game” in Grand Central, you can do so at Yonkers. The acorn and oak leaf, the adopted family crest of the Vanderbilts, can be found in many of the buildings designed for the family, including some of their railroad stations. Besides the acorns hidden in the outside and inside detailing, you’ll notice the stylized “NYC” for their railroad, the New York Central.


Yonkers, of course, fits into my recent goal of looking at some other buildings designed by Grand Central’s architects. A few weeks ago we looked at Hartsdale station, as well as the former White Plains station, which Warren and Wetmore also designed. Between them and Reed and Stem, there’s a nice list of local places I’d like to talk about in the near future, including Scarsdale, Chappaqua, Poughkeepsie, the Glenwood power station, and the Helmsley building. I’m also planning a nice feature on one of their more distant stations – Michigan Central Station in Detroit – which is arguably an often forgotten fraternal twin sister of Grand Central Terminal.

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History of my Hometown: The Railroad in Southbury

Despite the fact that I’ve been a Harlem Line rider for most of my life, I didn’t actually live in New York until two years ago (sorry regular readers, I’ve probably said that a million times). I grew up in a small farm town in Connecticut called Southbury. The place would be miserably boring, except for the fact that Interstate 84 bisects the town, making it easier to get to the more populated areas of Waterbury and Danbury. Southbury is just about equally distant from those two, with Danbury to the west and Waterbury to the east. But Danbury and Waterbury branch trains were hardly as frequent and reliable as those on the Harlem Line, so we always took a ride to either Brewster or Southeast and boarded the train from there.

Southbury isn’t much of a farmtown anymore, however. Many of the farms have been sold for commercial purposes. The place where I used to pick pumpkins as a child is now a strip mall, complete with grocery and office supply stores. A once-grassy hill is now home to a chain pharmacy. After the place had been constructed, a few finishing details were added to the outside of the building: one of which was the address. 14 Depot Hill. Apparently the construction workers were hardly typographers, and didn’t place the ‘p’ on the proper baseline, making it look like ‘DePot.’ It prompted an editorial in the local newspaper, reminding the town of why exactly the road was called Depot Hill – it was once the location of a long-gone railroad depot.

I had known there was a railroad past in the town. In school it was briefly discussed – including the head-on collision between two trains that supposedly was the end of the railroad. After reading much on the subject of rail history, I seriously doubted this. Railroading wasn’t the safest occupation, and accidents happened frequently. I hardly believed an accident would cause the line to be shut down. But on December 10, 1892 two trains did collide – and the engineer and conductor on one were thrown in jail for apparently forgetting they were scheduled to wait on a siding for an oncoming train to pass. It didn’t mark the end of the rail line, though.


Southbury’s station was part of the New York and New England Railroad, which operated from 1849 to 1898. In 1898 the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad leased the line. Service to Southbury continued until 1948. Today there is hardly any evidence that a railroad ran through the town, except for Depot Hill, and a few remaining portions of the railroad trestle bridge that spanned Lake Zoar. Some of the former rail bed has been converted into the Larkin State Bridle Trail. Below are some photos of the railroad around my old town that I found in a few books and such. Most of them aren’t the best quality.


I am not 100% sure that the railroad bridge shown in the last historical picture corresponds with the remaining trestles that are there today (two bottom photos). The geography doesn’t quite match… though it is possible that the photo was taken before the Stevenson Dam was erected, which presumably altered that area, creating Lake Zoar. If anybody knows more about this, or actually has a photo that is definitely of that railroad bridge, leave me a comment!

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“Who cares about the facts, as long as I report it first” & Thursday’s Subway Fatality

There is this sentiment in the news today, with the internet and all “competing” with the “real” news. That sentiment is “who cares about the facts, as long as I report it first”. And this sentiment sickens me. Seriously.

I have been having issues with my laptop charger, so I haven’t been on my computer quite as much this week. So I totally missed the other day’s story about the person getting killed by the 6 train at 77th Street. Maybe it was good I missed it. Maybe because the story was complete and utter bullshit. Check out the story on The New York Times‘ website, and read the comments. You will see something drastically different than what the story reports. Why? Because the story was changed as the “real” information came in.

Apparently the original story reported that a young girl was struck by the train. Not only that, witnesses report that the girl was possibly pushed off the platform, as students were horsing around. That is pretty fucked up. A person getting pushed? That is murder on the subway! But hey, guess what, that story was completely false. It is now reported that the person that was struck was not a child, but a forty-eight-year-old woman named Rose M. Mankos. And not only was she NOT pushed, the story now reports that she dropped her bag on the tracks, and JUMPED DOWN TO RETRIEVE IT. That on the other hand is NOT murder. That is complete and utter stupidity. I am so sorry, but that woman got what she deserved. You may call me heartless, but if you jump down on the tracks, you are an idiot.

People, never, never, NEVER go down on those damn tracks. Just don’t do it. Losing something on the tracks does happen. New York City Transit estimates that it happens perhaps twelve to fifteen times per day. If you do lose an item, you need to report it to a police officer or employee. There is an Emergency Response and Track Lubrication Division, and they respond to these events. Once the call is made, a track specialist responds and will retrieve the item. It may not happen instantaneously, and you may have to return later to pick up the item, but at least you will be safe. Life is worth more than whatever stupid possessions you may have dropped. You can buy a new iPod. But your poor family members (whom I am truly sorry for… having to identify that mangled mess of your daughter / sister in the morgue) can’t buy another you.

Note: This post has been edited, because I am a moron and wrote that this happened Friday, when in reality it occurred on Thursday. Talk about criticizing the “media,” hah! It has also been updated to reflect the response I got from NYCTSubwayScoop on Twitter regarding the procedure for retrieving a lost item.

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Friday’s From the Historical Archive: John M. Wisker

Last week I posted about the Park Avenue Tunnel Wreck in 1902. The engineer of the train involved in that wreck was named John M. Wisker.

I was curious to know the fate of this man after the events of the wreck. He was put on trial for manslaughter for the deaths in the wreck, but was ultimately acquitted. I can only imagine the emotional toll this all took on him. From the start of the whole ordeal, he was blamed for the wreck. Newspapers questioned his experience as an engineer. He was even held in jail for a short time.

This was a gruesome crash. Newspapers described some victims as boiling to death from the steam of the engine. Telescoping is a term that you don’t ever want to hear in a sentence alongside anything having to do with rails. Imagine a collapsible telescope, and how the tubes slide into one another to become smaller. Now imagine the same thing in a rail collision: the force causes the cars to collapse into one another, one car sliding inside the others, resulting in heavy casualties.

In 1903 Wisker’s trial began, and later on that week he himself testified about the unsafe conditions of his locomotive. On April 25th, Wisker was acquitted. The emotional toll on the man was clearly evident as the jury read the verdict. He was described as “on the verge of nervous collapse” and “he trembled so violently that he had to be helped to his feet by [his lawyer]”. “He is but a shadow of the big sturdy fellow who was arrested the day of the fatal collision in the Park avenue tunnel.”

It would be nice to know that this man lived a long and productive life after this ordeal. However, in 1909, a work-related accident claimed John M. Wisker’s life. He was age 40. At least he lived long enough to see the beginnings of electric service, and the start of construction on the new Grand Central, both results of the crash in 1902.

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