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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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. 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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.