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Trains & Modern Photography: Stitching and Panoramas

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

If this is a technique you’ve always been interested in trying out, or you’re just curious to see how exactly one makes a panorama (especially one featuring a train) – from camera to computer – read on.
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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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Mott Haven in the 1960s

Keeping the trains clean – A look back at Mott Haven Yard

Early last month some alarms were raised about an Amtrak traveler that rode from Penn Station to Albany that was infected with measles. Any poor sap riding that train who failed the common-sense milestone of getting vaccinated could potentially have been exposed. Occurrences such as these in the modern day are far less common, but in the early 1900’s health became a subject in the forefront of train riders’ minds – especially when trains often carried the (generally perceived) “dirty” immigrants out west. Today Mott Haven is only a small yard facility operated by Metro-North, located where the Hudson Line diverges from the Harlem and New Haven Lines. Historically, however, the yard was far larger and played more of an important role for trains entering and exiting New York City – and for many years it was the major point where train cars were kept clean and disease-free. A 1905 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured an article about how railroads prevented the spread of disease on their train equipment, and featured the cleaning crews of Mott Haven, which provides an intriguing look back at the Mott Haven facilities of yesteryear.

The Mott Haven wye in 1908
The Mott Haven wye area in 1908, note the turntable and large yard area for storing trains.

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2014 in Photos – Your favorites from last year

As is customary around this time of year, it is always fun to look back on the previous year and what was popular. For the past few years I’ve counted down your favorite articles and social media posts, and today I bring you 2014 in Instagram. Instagram has quickly become the most popular social network that this site is on. While I’m often out photographing, the good majority of the photos I take never make it onto this site. The good ones, however, show up on Instagram. Here’s the top 10 favorites from 2014:


Two Metro-North diesels meet near the Pleasant Ridge Road crossing in Wingdale, New York.

 
Left: An Alaska Railroad train bound for Fairbanks rounds the bend north of Nenana at sunset. Right: A Genesis pushes southbound on the Danbury Branch, kicking up leaves after departing Cannondale.


The only non-railroad photo to make the top 10, New York’s skyline as seen from the opposite side of the river in New Jersey.

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An afternoon out at Spuyten Duyvil

Although it is quite obvious that I am a lover of the Harlem Line, it is undeniable that there are beautiful spots located all along Metro-North’s right of way. Even though the Moodna Viaduct may be one of my favorites, there are plenty of other spots I enjoy on the Hudson Line, like Bear Mountain, Dobbs Ferry, and Breakneck Ridge. The area around Spuyten Duyvil is also especially nice, and I spent an afternoon there a few weekends ago photographing and recording both Metro-North and Amtrak trains.

 
And #217 said, “I don’t think I can…”

If you’re interested in checking out the area, across the river Inwood Hill Park offers great views of Metro-North’s Marble Hill and Spuyten Duyvil stations, as well as Amtrak’s swing bridge. Not necessarily railroad related, but of noteworthy mention is the large painted “C” that is kind of hard to miss. The C stands for Columbia – and was first painted on the rock in the early 1950s, with the approval of the New York Central Railroad. Coxswain of the heavyweight crew team, Robert Prendergast, came up with the idea and approached the railroad for permission. After it was granted, the C was painted about 60 feet by 60 feet square, and has been maintained ever since.

One of my personal favorite spots is the swing bridge used by Amtrak, after it splits from Metro-North’s Hudson Line. As most of you are already aware, for many years Amtrak trains ran from Grand Central Terminal. After some significant work in the late ’80s, including fixing up this old swing bridge, Amtrak was able to finally consolidate its New York City operations in Penn Station and vacate Grand Central. I can’t say that I know first hand, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about raucous parties that happened on this bridge while it was out of service. Originally constructed in 1900, the bridge was damaged and taken out of service in 1982, and was reopened in 1991.
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Spring Flowers and Harlem Line Track Work

After a very long and cold winter, it is finally starting to feel like spring. Hopefully you all had an enjoyable weekend, perhaps even watching or riding some trains. Alas down by the railroad tracks of the Hudson Line, the greenery has yet to bloom – so I decided to take spring to the trains.

 
Springtime on Metro North 
  
   
 

Meanwhile, Metro-North crews were hard at work this weekend in numerous places around the system. On the upper Harlem Line, busing was in effect as crews worked at the Pleasant Ridge Road and Chippawalla Road crossings in Wingdale. The Pleasant Ridge crossing has been a difficulty for well over a month now, requiring trains to stop and warn before entering the crossing, and proceeding at reduced speed through it. Hopefully after this work, everything will be getting back to normal. Crews started work on the crossing Friday evening, and worked almost nonstop through the weekend to get it back in order for regular service at about 4 AM this morning.
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Winter on the Hudson Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  
 
  
 
  
   
  
   
  

   
  
 
   
  
 
   
  

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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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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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