31 Years of Metro-North – Looking Back & Looking Forward

Remembering the Past

As the final day of the month of January, today marks the last day of Howard Permut’s tenure as president of Metro-North Railroad. While 2013 was set to be a celebrated year – with Metro-North’s 30th anniversary, and the centennial of Grand Central Terminal – instead the year was tainted with mishaps and tragedies. You can say what you wish about Mr. Permut’s years as president, but it remains fact that he was a member of the team that formed the railroad 31 years ago. His insider’s perspective on Metro-North, and how it evolved over the years, made an interesting interview.

In a time where countless commuters wish to revolt, some going as far as to say Metro-North is the “worst railroad” ever or like a “horror movie,” I come with an idea many will outright refuse to accept. It is, however, the truth. Metro-North has in fact evolved over the past 31 years. I hardly believe it is deserving of the “worst railroad ever” superlative that some are attributing to it, but such a description may be apt for one of Metro-North’s predecessors.

I’m a firm believer in the adage that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. History is incredibly important, and it has been painfully obvious recently that many are deficient in that area – especially when it comes to trains. It is undeniable that Metro-North has had some major issues within the past twelve months, and there are many lessons the railroad must learn. But we must know the past to adequately move into the future – thus if one wishes to truly understand Metro-North, a little visit to the past is required.

Millerton, 1966
Although frolicking in a grassy meadow may be fun, for the Upper Harlem it displays neglect. Less than a decade from when this photo was taken in 1966, Millerton and the rest of the Upper Harlem was abandoned for passenger service.

We rewind the clock back to 1968 – the year of the ill-fated merger between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central (the New York, New Haven and Hartford was added to the merger in 1969). Within a scant two years the Penn Central was bankrupt – the railroad was the country’s sixth largest corporation, and at the time its bankruptcy was the largest this nation had ever seen. If you want to think of a horrible American railroad, this is where you should start – besides incompatible computer systems and clashing employees, deteriorating infrastructure led to slow and late trains, and entire freight trains went missing – crops destined for the market rotted, and with 25% on-time performance for some deliveries, companies left to find other methods to ship goods.

One of the reasons this site even exists is because of my interest in Penn Central’s abandonment of the Upper Harlem Division. On a cold March morning in 1972 the 6:55 train from Chatham to Grand Central operated as normal. However, by midday the Penn Central legally won the right to terminate the line, and fifty miles of the Upper Harlem Division were abandoned for passenger service. Anyone that came down on that morning train had no ride home – they had to find their own way. Imagine how angry people would be if Metro-North tried to pull the same stunt today! Sorry, New Haven commuters, our last stop today, and forevermore is Port Chester, and we don’t care how you get home.

The Evolution

Penn Central operated after bankruptcy for a few more years, until its operations were taken over by other companies. Conrail became the steward of Grand Central’s commuter lines until Metro-North was formed and took over operations in 1983. Metro-North Day One was hardly anything to rave about. This is what you’d find at Putnam Junction, aka Brewster Yard:
January 1, 1983 - Putnam Junction

Mind you, this is what it looks like today:
Putnam Junction today

In the earliest days, it was obvious that Metro-North was cobbled together from the remains of the New York Central, New York, New Haven and Hartford, Penn Central, and Conrail. Here’s a shot from 1984 in Poughkeepsie:
1984 in Poughkeepsie
Equipment you'll see today on Metro-North
Equipment you'll see today on Metro-North

Besides the obvious update of rolling stock (and you Connecticut folks can go pin your miseries in that department on disgraced former Governor John Rowland – perhaps if he cared for commuters as much as he did his weekend home you’d be a bit less miserable), Metro-North has significantly upgraded its shops to accommodate repairs and maintenance of the new equipment. The old New York Central shops at Croton-Harmon dated back to 1909, and were restored in Metro-North’s earliest years. In 2010 they were reconstructed, and the new Croton-Harmon Locomotive and Coach Shop is now a modern, state-of-the-art facility. A new shop at Brewster opened in 1987, and at North White Plains in 1993.

SPV2000 on the Upper Hudson Line in 1985
SPV2000 on the Upper Hudson Line in 1985. These days both the Upper Hudson Line and Upper Harlem Line get enough traffic that there are 7-car through trains a few times per day. In 1983 only eight southbound trains operated on the Upper Harlem, today thirteen trains depart Wassaic every day, bound for New York City.

Most of Metro-North’s stations look quite different than in the past, as almost every station now has high-level platforms. New York Central engineers working on the design of Grand Central Terminal in the early 1900s clocked patrons boarding trains and calculated that riders board 50% faster on high level platforms. They also make it easier to accommodate those with baby carriages, and patrons in wheelchairs. Despite the pros of high level platforms, they were not implemented system-wide until after Metro-North took over. On average, the duration of a trip from Grand Central to Dover Plains in 1972 was about two hours and 20 minutes – today the trip takes about two hours, and note that the route is six miles longer and terminates at Wassaic. Faster boarding allows for quicker train times.

Chappaqua in 1982 Chappaqua today
High level platforms, overpasses and elevators are just some of the changes seen here at Chappaqua. Compare 1982 to today.

High Level Platforms
Before Metro-North took over, you may have seen a sign like this…

One of the most influential changes made by Metro-North was the electrification of the Harlem Line north of White Plains. Service up to Brewster became incredibly more reliable, and led to an increase in ridership. When constructed early on, Brewster North (now Southeast) was often empty – now you’ll see an immense filled parking lot with riders from both New York and Connecticut. Despite out-of-touch politicians arguing that people are packing up and leaving the area because of poor train service, or at minimum opting to drive, ridership – even on the beleaguered New Haven Line – actually increased.

Work at Ossining and Larchmont
Restoration of Ossining station, on the Hudson Line, and platform upgrades at Larchmont on the New Haven Line. Photos from the collection of Metro-North Railroad.

As a lover of history, the fact that many historic train depots have been restored during Metro-North’s tenure is an important point. Grand Central, Harlem 125th Street, New Haven Union Station, Port Chester, Chappaqua, Hartsdale, Yonkers, Ossining… the list could go on. It is also worth mentioning that restoration work was also performed on the Park Avenue Tunnel. I appreciate the efforts of the railroad, of the communities, and of the state to preserve our history.

Metro-North has also opened several stations over the years, on all three lines. The Harlem Line was lengthened to Wassaic, the Yankees E 153rd Street stop makes it easier for people to get to the baseball game, and two different Veterans Hospitals are accessible from Cortlandt and West Haven stations. Even the famed Appalachian Trail now has a train station along the Harlem Line.

Looking to the Future

No railroad wants to have late trains, but unfortunately it has become a fact of life for Metro-North. After the derailment at Spuyten Duyvil speed restrictions can be found on all Metro-North lines (especially the New Haven Line). Perhaps in the past there were safe spots that engineers could “make up time,” but they are no more. However, it is incredibly irresponsible to pretend that all methods of transit are at a hundred percent, all the time. Everyone always has the option to drive, and maybe you’ll even get there on time – provided that I-95 isn’t shut down because of an overturned truck, that the Saw Mill isn’t closed because of flooding every time we get a good rainstorm, or the Taconic is closed for construction. Plus we all know that nobody ever sleeps in airports because flights are delayed for days, and that multi-car pileups are pure fiction.

No commuter wants to ride a late train, but make some friends, try to enjoy your ride home. There are very few times that the train has gotten me to work seriously late, but I can count plenty of times that driving coworkers have been late due to traffic, construction, or other accidents. Take it from 50 year Harlem Line commuter John F.:

In 1964, I started riding the New York Central train from Bronxville to Fordham University in the Bronx every day. I have enjoyed commuting via the Harlem Line most years ever since. Perhaps the best part has been and continues to be the friends I have made on the train over the years with conductors and fellow passengers. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some fascinating people who have enriched my life. My goal is to continue commuting and making friends until 2026.

Fifty years ago, commuting was an opportunity to relax, play cards and chat with friends you saw everyday. When we all get bored with our laptops and cell phones, I hope that the opportunity to engage in good conversation with conductors and fellow commuters is still there.

In closing, Metro-North has much potential for greatness, and we wholeheartedly welcome the very well respected railroader Mr. Joseph Giulietti in his position as president of this railroad (effective February 10th). Similar to Mr. Permut, Mr. Giulietti was around for the fledgling Metro-North Commuter Railroad’s earliest days. He understands the past, and undoubtedly has aspirations for a bright future. I will be happy to see this railroad further evolve, and hey, Mr. G? Want to do an interview? Come talk to me!

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The opening of the Dutchess Rail Trail, and the Hopewell Junction Depot

Last Saturday marked the official opening of the Dutchess Rail Trail, and festivities were held in Hopewell Junction to celebrate this newly completed “linear park.” Though the event focused on the dedication of the rail trail to former County Executive William R. Steinhaus, it is impossible to miss the newly-restored depot just steps away. After many years of lying vacant, and even being burned by arsonists, the depot was eventually restored to greatness. The depot lies at the east end of the trail, and will serve as a welcome center for visitors.

Hopewell has a long history of railroading – the first railroad to arrive was the Dutchess and Columbia in 1871. It was followed by the New York & New England’s line in 1881. The first railroad crossing over the Hudson River south of Albany opened in Poughkeepsie in 1888, leading to additional traffic through Hopewell. That link formed the “Maybrook Line,” which is now the Dutchess Rail Trail.

 
  
 
  

Historical views of Hopewell Junction depot. All photos via the Hopewell Junction Restoration Corp.

Saturday’s festivities also marked an unofficial event for the Depot – the first opening of what I call the “museum room.” Over the past few months, I worked with other volunteers to design four interpretive panels highlighting the history of local railroading through Hopewell, and its impact on the community. All four panels were completed, printed, and hung for the rail trail event.

Hopewell Junction interpretive panels
Hopewell Junction interpretive panels
These are the interpretive panels now on display at Hopewell Junction

 
  
  
 
  
The restored Hopewell Junction Depot and the new interpretive panels on display.

In all, the Dutchess Rail Trail opening was a lovely event, and heavily attended. Hopewell Junction is now connected by trail to the Walkway Over the Hudson, which is an attractive journey.

   
   
  
   
   
  

Photos from the opening of the Dutchess Rail Trail

While some of the most die-hard railfans are sometimes against the conversion of rail lines into rail trails, I am generally in support of rail trails due to the fact that they preserve the history of abandoned rail lines. The original concept behind rail trails was railbanking – essentially preserving the railroad’s right of way in case there would be reactivation in the future. In practice, however, railbanking by converting to trails is at best a scam, and at worst an acceptable to way to grab land, or a method to support the trucking industry by ensuring that competition by rail freight will never be restored. Once the right of way is converted to a trail, turning it back into a rail line is almost impossible, or as Metro-North President Howard Permut said regarding reactivating the Harlem Line up to Millerton, “how do you de-map a rail trail?” Although the Rails to Trails Conservancy admits its origins in the concept of railbanking, they have little regard for railroads. In fact their 2011 annual report celebrates a victory in preventing a rail line from reactivating service – and we’re talking about a rail line that still had tracks on the ground, and had not been turned into a trail.

Alas, this is the reality of the United States, where the car reigns supreme, and few realize the true benefits of railroads. Many railfans tend to believe in the fairy tale that all former rail lines could be reborn, but that will never happen. In instances where a revival of train service will probably never happen, I support turning these lines into trails to preserve their history. Considering that the actual rails where the Dutchess Rail Trail now sits were gone even before I was born, an entire generation grew up with almost no clue that a railroad had been there. The line remained abandoned and forgotten for decades before being developed into a trail. At least the rail trail preserves its memory. The Dutchess Rail Trail and the recently restored Hopewell Junction depot, serving as the east trailhead for it, are like a match made in heaven. In tandem, the depot (and its new museum room, with historical interpretive panels) and the trail will ensure that generations to come remember the history of this once proud rail line, and its service as a gateway to New England. It is the perfect embodiment of the pure rails to trails concept: “protecting and converting America’s unused rail corridors for multi-use trails.”

Unfortunately, the once-laudable concept of preservation by saving abandoned rail corridors has been perverted. Instead of saving abandoned corridors, trail proponents have set their sights on driving out existing railroads and claim the right of way for themselves (the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s how-to Acquiring Rail Corridors guides would-be vultures to circle existing railroads until they die). Two New York Rail lines – the Catskill Mountain Railroad, and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad – are both under fire from politicians and an extremely vocal group of trail proponents that want them gone by any means (including committing felonies and vandalism). The most serious case is the Catskill Mountain Railroad – a successful all-volunteer operation that attracts visitors from around the state and beyond to ride its scenic trains. While I credit former Dutchess County Executive Steinhaus for his role in preserving history on both the Dutchess and Harlem Rail Trails, it seems that Ulster County Executive Mike Hein is green with jealousy, and foaming at the mouth to get his own rail trail, even if it means taking down an active railroad in the process. Mr. Hein, I think you miss the point, we’re supposed to be preserving history, not demolishing it.

Adirondack Scenic Railway
Advocates for rail trails seek to shut down the Catskill Mountain Railroad and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad (pictured above) and turn them into trails.

Hein has promoted tourism to Ulster County (conveniently, the agency engaged in this promotion is a financial donor to Mr. Hein), yet seeks to take down a railroad that does in fact attract tourists, all of which is run by volunteers with no cost to the county. Rail trails are certainly in vogue these days and popping up everywhere – so why would any tourists travel to Ulster just for a trail, when they could visit one closer to home? An economic impact analysis of the rail trail plan, with grossly inflated numbers, compares the proposed trail with the Walkway over the Hudson. No offense, Mr. Hein, but that is apples to oranges – the Walkway is a unique creation, and undoubtedly draws tourists for that exhilarating experience of walking across the mighty Hudson. A trail in the Catskills wouldn’t attract anywhere close to the visitors that the Walkway receives.

If any of you out there like the Dutchess or other rail trails, and you support the actual preservation of history, go lend a hand to the Catskill Mountain Railroad, which desperately needs financial support. They support rails WITH trails – a no brainer solution.

Why demolish an active rail line when the county could easily create a trail alongside it? Because a rail with trail “decreases the usefulness” of a trail, will lead to safety issues for the railroad, and will increase costs? That is grasping at straws. Why should anyone trust anything the county has to say in their report, especially when cited public estimations of fixing a bridge on the line were more than $850,000 dollars, yet the railroad repaired it with volunteers for under $30,000? As for safety, the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s 2000 study, as cited by the US Department of Transportation, found that Rails with Trails “are compatible with active railroads” and “are just as safe as other trails.” So really, why does Hein refuse to consider a rail and trail? Is it an ego thing, or has another company or PAC that donates money to Mr. Hein yet again greased the wheels?

Volunteers repair the C9 Bridge
Hein & Friends like to depict the Catskill Mountain Railroad as a failure by showing photos of Hurricane Irene damage. Even established railroads like Metro-North were heavily damaged by this storm. In reality, volunteers repaired the storm damage and more without the FEMA funding earmarked for it, as Mike Hein refuses to disburse it.

Support rails with trails, and preservation of our history. That would make a real world-class tourist attraction.

Save the Rails

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Metro-North’s newest Arts for Transit – a revisit to the Hudson Line

I think it is fairly well established that I love the Arts for Transit program, and pretty much any transit-related art in general. My three-year-long jaunt to every single Metro-North station was not only a great way to become familiar with our rail system, but to also become familiar with the art found within many of the stations. The Hudson Line has some of the newest and most attractive pieces out of the Arts for Transit program, including two stations that never made it into my Tuesday Tours. Both Croton-Harmon and Peekskill got some art in the latter half of 2012, after both stations had been featured on the site. Both are rather attractive designs, and I figured it would be worth visiting the Hudson yet again to check them out.

Some of Arts for Transit’s most successful installations are those that almost transcend the barrier between art and function, and those that interact with the space in which they are placed. While bronze sculptures hanging on the wall are certainly a lovely (though easily missed) addition to any station, the bronze chairs you’ll find at Pleasantville station become even more than that. They are attractive, but also functional, they interact with the people that use the station, and they begin a dialogue. People that spy them from the train might say, “what are those nice looking chairs, and why are they there?” And as the artists intended, they evoke the comforts and feelings of home, and the thought that to many regular commuters this station is their second home. When comparing Arts for Transit pieces, Pleasantville always seems to be the bar to which I compare, and is (at least in my opinion) one of the best embodiments of the program’s concept of enhancing the experience of travel.

In a similar vein to the Pleasantville piece, both of the newest Arts for Transit works on the Hudson Line seem to interact with the stations in which they’ve been placed, and thus the people that frequent them. Croton-Harmon’s artwork, a series of laminated glass panels by Brooklyn-based artist Corinne Ulmann, not only depict the changing of seasons, but seem to change on their own based upon the light that filters into the overpass. Several Hudson Line stations feature both faceted and laminated glass works in the overpasses, and I’ve always felt they’ve been successful as they’re never the same at all times. As sunlight passes through, colors are reflected onto the platforms and walkways and move as the sun crosses the sky. Thus the art is hardly static, it subtly changes due to season, time, and weather.

Metro North President Howard Permut at Peekskill station
Metro North President Howard Permut speaks at Peekskill, with the station’s newest Arts for Transit piece in the background. [image credit]

Peekskill’s art, an installation of various painted steel pieces by Joy Taylor, also interacts with the station, and the sunlight. The large pieces cast shadows on the platform, but also highlight a play between new and old at the station. During Peekskill’s recent renovations, the station’s historical canopy was restored. This canopy runs parallel to the more modern one found on the station’s other platform, but both evoke a different feeling. The historical canopy is rounded, where the new is more angular, with squared edges. But with the artistic flourishes added to the modern canopy (the historical canopy was appropriately left without embellishments), the new canopy visually parallels the old. Not only does it create an interesting play between new and old, but it emphasizes the historical nature of the one canopy. That side of the platform is not bare, however. The fencing behind the old canopy carries the same flowery motif, but without compromising the part that is historical.

If you happen to get over to the Hudson Line, both pieces are certainly worth checking out, and make commuting on the Hudson Line a little bit more attractive than before.

 
 
   
  
   
 
   
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
   
  
 
  

And before I forget, Metro-North’s newest Arts for Transit will be at Fordham station on the Harlem Line. If you happen to be an artist, you still have a few days to reply to the Call for Artists. Submissions need to be postmarked by the 28th.

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A Recap of Events: Grand Central’s Centennial

Last Friday the MTA held a celebration for Grand Central’s Centennial, which expectedly turned out to be a widely attended day-long event. One of the main events was a rededication ceremony for the Terminal, held that morning. There were a wide array of speakers at the ceremony, including Mayor Bloomberg, Cynthia Nixon and Caroline Kennedy. Peter Stangl, the first president of Metro-North also spoke, as did Howard Permut, current president of Metro-North.

  
  

The West Point Brass and Percussion Band also performed, which seemed quite appropriate. According to historical accounts of Grand Central’s opening, the first song to ever be played in the Terminal was the Star Spangled Banner, which was not yet our national anthem at that time, on the east balcony. The band’s placement right below the east balcony as they played the song seemed rather appropriate, and probably the closest we’d get to reenacting what happened on February 2nd, 1913, at 12:01 AM. Also a fitting mirror was a presentation of a key to Mr. Permut by members of the Vanderbilt family – similar to the presentation of keys to Terminal Manager Miles Bronson one hundred years ago.

The only unfortunate thing to note is that much of the celebration was focused on the VIPs, as opposed to the lowly commuters that actually use Grand Central. (And for the record, no, running this blog did not qualify me as a VIP – I asked and was rejected. An “actual” member of the “press” granted me a pass in their stead. Thanks Steve!) VIP guests to the event got a special program and booklet, which are visible here:

Rededication ceremony program
Program for the Grand Central rededication.

Long poem in one booklet, short poem on this "Poetry in Motion" poster.
Two poems were written about Grand Central by poet Billy Collins. The long poem was illustrated in one booklet, and the short poem appears on this "Poetry in Motion" poster. The posters were not handed out at the event, but have been sighted on trains.

Booklet spread 1
Booklet spread 2
Booklet spread 3
Booklet spread 4
Booklet spread 5
Booklet spread 6
Booklet spread 7
Booklet spread 8
Booklet spread 9

The text on the inside of the booklet was the longer poem that was read by Billy Collins during the ceremony. The shorter poem, which he also read, appears in the program, and on trains thanks to Poetry in Motion and Arts for Transit.


Billy Collins speaks at the Rededication Ceremony

If you’re not familiar with Collins, he is a New York native that was both New York State Poet Laureate, and Poet Laureate of the United States… which in the poetry world is kind of a big deal. While I’m sure plenty of poems have been written about Grand Central, Collins’ poems may be the most high profile written about our lovely Terminal.


Well, Cornelius Vanderbilt is supposed to be here…

As of right now, I have little to say about the Transit Museum’s show “Grand by Design.” Unfortunately, a hundred years wasn’t quite enough to finish up the exhibition, and it seemed that things were missing. The fact that Cornelius Vanderbilt was not mentioned or pictured seemed like a mistake of monumental proportion. Apparently it turned out that Mr. Vanderbilt was supposed to be on that nice blank spot we’re all pointing to in the photo above. I was also disappointed that there was no mention of William Kissam Vanderbilt either – he was really the only Vanderbilt that had a direct influence on the construction of Grand Central. (If the Vanderbilts are still confusing you, it means you haven’t yet read this.) But in all honesty, I may have just been depressed that Anderson Cooper did not attend the event – he is a Vanderbilt, after all.

USPS Grand Central stamp

Another event that happened on Friday regarded the new United States Postal Service stamp, picturing Grand Central, illustrated by Dan Cosgrove. If you were one of the hundreds of people that failed to get the Grand Central centennial cover and stamp on Friday, you can purchase them directly online. Word was that within fifteen minutes they ran out of envelopes for the stamps. The whole purpose of the event was to get the stamp on the special envelope and get it postmarked… so I feel bad for all the people that waited in that line to get just the stamp, which could be purchased at any post office. If you’re looking to grab the covers with the February 1 date stamp online, the USPS site offers two versions for purchase, one with a color postmark for $21.10, or a regular first day stamp for $20.39.

Back on topic, the entire event was a big birthday bash for Grand Central. And no birthday celebration would be complete without a little music…
 
Sarah Charness played the electric violin, and later Melissa Manchester sang. Manchester also shouted “I love you, gorgeous!” at the sky ceiling, which might be cute, had I not been thinking about this.

…and a little bit of cake…

I hope you all like this photo, I dropped my piece of cake on the floor while taking it. And yes, only the VIPs got delicious cake.

The gorgeous cake was made by Eric Bedoucha of Financier Patisserie – a delicious confection modeled after the Information Booth’s clock. It was supposedly saved for the VIP dinner to be hosted at the Oyster Bar that night… which in itself is another mirror to actual events, as the first VIP dinner happened February 1st 1913 at 8 PM.

That about sums it up for the Centennial. With the ceremony past, I figured I’d leave off with a quick recap of all fifteen articles I wrote about Grand Central over the past hundred days.

Happy Birthday, Grand Central!

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Best of 2012, a year-end review

2012 has been an interesting year here at I Ride the Harlem Line… we finished up touring the stations on the New Haven, Port Jervis, Pascack Valley, and Hudson lines, as well as visited some places far outside Metro-North’s territory. As if that wasn’t enough, we also began our Grand Central 100 for 100 Project, posting one image every day for 100 days, all to celebrate Grand Central Terminal’s centennial.

As is customary around the end of the year, let’s take a look back at what was most popular on the site this year, based on the number of reads… presenting the top 15 posts of 2012:

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Starting off our countdown at number 15 is a photographic look at the old Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis. Completed in 1899, the old station was renovated and turned into a hotel. An old train shed now offers an ice skating rink. This is one of a few posts on the blog about Minneapolis this year, from my visit there in April. Some of the other stuff from Minneapolis included the Stone Arch Bridge, a former railroad bridge converted to pedestrian use, riding around on the Hiawatha Line, the old and new Minnehaha Station, and the classical music playing Lake Street – Midtown station.

14

14th most viewed for the year is our Hudson Line tour to Yonkers. The nicely restored brick station at Yonkers, built by the New York Central, is definitely one of the gems of the Hudson Line.

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There are plenty of hoaxes and tall tales related to Grand Central Terminal, but only one of them made our top fifteen list this year. Coming in at number 13 is the 1929 hoax in the Information Booth. As the story goes, a tricky scammer convinced a fruit seller that the railroad was planning on selling space in the information booth, and that prime space could be turned into a fruit stand. Of course, it was a complete lie, and the scammer skipped town with a nice wad of cash. Amusingly, you can buy apple in the Terminal today – either in Grand Central Market, or in the figurative sense, the Apple store in the main concourse.

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Another Grand Central themed post comes in at number 12 on our countdown – featuring the sky ceiling that nobody really knows about. This painting can be found inside Grande Harvest Wines – it is the last surviving remnant of the 242-seat newsreel theater that was once in Grand Central Terminal.

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Our tour of New Haven Line station Mamaroneck makes the list at number 11. Mamaroneck has a lovely old station that was undergoing a transformation into a restaurant called the Club Car – we managed to get a sneak preview of the place, and shared it along with the station tour.

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The Hudson Line tour of Tarrytown station also makes the list, likely for our coverage of the new and most wonderful Arts for Transit piece by Holly Sears. The 1898 Richardsonian Romanesque-style station at Tarrytown was built by architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, who are most known for their stations on the Boston and Albany railroad.

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Ninth most popular for the year was my first foray into 3D modeling, and 3D printing. I decided I would try to model the Harlem Line’s Brewster station from historical photos – basically how it looked when it was first built. The interesting journey  was featured in various places around the internet, including the TinkerCad Blog, Shapeways Blog, Adafruit and Wired.

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One of the more memorable things I got to do this year was to have a brief chat with Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut. Having been with Metro-North since its inception, the man has a pretty interesting viewpoint regarding the history of the Harlem Line. We talked about Metro-North’s formation from ConRail, Millerton, and other admirable rail systems, among other things.

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Before touring the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines, I wrote a brief introduction to the West of Hudson lines, which was the seventh most viewed post on the site this year. The intro included a few maps, time tables, and a look back on the damage Hurricane Irene wrought on the Port Jervis line.

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Sixth on our top 15 countdown is a trip to Metro-North’s Operations Control Center. This is the workplace for the railroad’s Rail Traffic Controllers – one of the most stressful and possibly thankless jobs at Metro-North. The current OCC is certainly high tech, but we also got a glimpse of the old OCC, and an ad for one of the New York Central’s historical towers in Grand Central – which looked quite archaic in comparison!

5

One of the most memorable shots of Hurricane Sandy was this capture of a boat resting on the Hudson Line’s tracks in Ossining, which I couldn’t help but turn into an image macro. In other news, whoever happens to own that boat is probably a big asshole, as it seems to be named after a Nazi warship. I guess the owner never realized his boat would end up on the front page of several newspapers – or top 5 in our countdown.

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Fourth most popular for the year was our April Fool’s prank about Harlem Line service getting restored up to Millerton, complete with two fake timetables and a fake ticket. Rumor has it, some folks in Metro-North’s customer service department hate me even more than they did before after this trick!

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Coming in at third most popular is the Grand Central 100 for 100 project, featuring 100 historical photos of the Terminal in the hundred days leading up to its centennial. By now we’re more than halfway through, so if you aren’t following the project on Facebook, you totally should be!

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It appears that everybody loves Dobbs Ferry station, as our tour was the number two most read post on the site for 2012. Featuring another Richardsonian Romanesque station by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, Dobbs Ferry also has a nice location right on the Hudson River’s waterfront.

1

Everybody seems to say that the cat is the internet’s unofficial mascot, and it certainly seems that is true! By far, the number one most read post on the site was about Sadie the Subway Cat, of the New York Transit Museum. In addition to our March photo session with the popular feline, we updated you on Sadie’s subsequent retirement, and a humorous update on her new life outside the museum.

That just about wraps up 2012 – I’m definitely looking forward to bringing you new things in 2013… everybody have a Happy New Year!

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Cortlandt


Crugers and Montrose stations. Both stations were closed in 1996 and replaced with the new Cortlandt station.

Today’s tour of the Hudson Line takes us to one of Metro-North’s newer stations – the second newest on the line after Yankees-E 153rd Street, Cortlandt. Located a little over 38 miles from Grand Central, Cortlandt is in the upper, unelectrified portion of Metro-North’s Hudson Line, and situated between Croton-Harmon and Peekskill. Historically, there were two stations in this area – Crugers and Montrose – both of which were closed in favor of the new Cortlandt station. Space is always a critical issue at many Metro-North stations, especially when it comes to parking. Many stations have almost endless waiting lists for a parking permit. Cortlandt was one of the few places on the upper Hudson Line where there was room for expansion, and more room for parking. Especially built to replace Montrose and Crugers, the new station was opened in June of 1996.


Local timetables to Montrose and Crugers, and Hudson Line timetables from 1996. Note that Montrose and Crugers were there at the beginning of the year, but by midyear were replaced with Cortlandt. Thanks to Doug Dray, Otto Vondrak, and Bob Mortell for these timetables.

Although the parking situation was much improved at Cortlandt, Metro-North looked to expand even more, and in 2009 began a massive improvement project to the station. A new 720 car parking lot was built on the west side of the tracks, almost doubling parking capacity. Other improvements included a heated waiting room including a concession area, new canopies, and a new elevator. The New York State Department of Transportation improved the intersection between the station and Route 9A, which was also considered part of the project. The new road had lighted sidewalks built especially for those using the train to get to the nearby Veterans Hospital.


Pre-construction rendering of the improvements at Cortlandt

 
Cortlandt before and during construction. Before photo by Tom Panettiere, construction photo by George Kimmerling.

 
Aerial views of Cortlandt station, before and after the expansion. Note the new, larger station building, and the massive new parking lot on the west side of the tracks.

The MTA had a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony after the renovations to Cortlandt station were complete back in February, attended by both Metro-North president Howard Permut and MTA Chairman Joe Lhota. In his statements at the ceremony, Permut said “[Cortlandt] will address current and future needs of the railroad and the communities it serves,” which is actually quite true – especially the future part. Though most don’t attribute foresight as a quality generously abound in the MTA, whoever came up with the upgrades for Cortlandt was certainly thinking about future expansion. A blocked off stairwell to nowhere, gated off with a sign that says “Authorized Personnel Only” looks like a perfect spot for a third platform to be constructed – at some point in the future if ever needed (if electrification further north ever happens?).


Ribbon cutting ceremony at Cortlandt station.

Included in the original construction of the station was an Arts for Transit piece titled Three Statues (A Short History of the Lower Hudson Valley), by Robert Taplin. Three seven-foot tall statues stand beside the station, each representative of a historical group of people that were common in this area. On the left, a wealthy Dutch landowner. In the middle, a laborer from the early nineteenth century. And on the right, a Native American figure. The figures look out over the long shape of the Hudson River, rendered in stone.

That’s about it for today’s tour – next week we’ll head back south on the Hudson Line to another station in the Bronx. There are only four more stations left to be featured on the Hudson Line, after which my camera may go hibernate for the winter (except for the part where I go ride Alaska Railroad’s winter train)!

 
  
 
  
   
  
   
  
 
 
  
   
   
  
   
 

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Howard Permut

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 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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