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Posts Tagged ‘japan’

Vacationing on the Railroad, yesterday and today Train History

Friday, May 17th, 2013

It is starting to be that time of the season where everyone is thinking about summer, and about taking vacations. The railroad has always been a great method of getting around, and there are plenty of places you can see by train. If you’re looking for something more local, Metro-North will be having their Staycation Showcase in Grand Central next week. Amtrak also has a wide variety of places to vacation, all accessible by rail.

Despite all of these offerings, rail travel really isn’t the primary method that most people go on vacation these days. After getting patted down by your friendly neighborhood TSA, airlines can whisk you away to the other side of the country in a matter of hours, not days. And America’s love affair, the automobile, offers a more individualized and customizable trip across our nation’s Interstate system. However, neither of these options were available to folks living in the early 1900s. Rail was the way to go, and the best way to take a vacation.

New York Central vacation brochures
Vacation brochures printed by the New York Central in 1908 and 1903.

Vacation packages, including rail tickets, were offered by the New York Central, and they printed many varieties of brochures advertising all the places one could visit. Summer resorts included in-state locations, like Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks, and some faraway places like Canada, Michigan, and even Yellowstone National Park – an 82 and a half hour trip from Grand Central Terminal, at a round trip fare of $97.80.

The winter resorts booklet might prove to be the most interesting – it offered long distance vacations to warm locales around the world – places that one would reach after long journeys via train and steamship. Setting out for “one of ‘Uncle Sam’s’ new possessions” – “Porto Rico” – would be a 20 day affair in total. The most fascinating part printed is certainly the map of the Pacific Ocean found at the back of the brochure, labeled as places “reached by the New York Central Lines and their connections.” If you had the time, and the money, you could certainly reach the Empire of Japan, and beyond. Straying not too far from home, a traveler could reach Honolulu by steamship from San Francisco in a total of seven days.

Map of the Pacific
Map of the Pacific Ocean, printed by the New York Central in their 1903 America’s Winter Resorts brochure.

Interested in staying closer to home, or taking a shorter vacation? The New York Central also had a brochure of journeys taking two to fifteen days. Two days could get you to the Adirondacks or Lake George, four a nice trip to Montreal, eight a meandering journey to and from Quebec, and fifteen a wonderful itinerary stopping at several different resorts in many of the aforementioned spots.

Two to fifteen day journeys
Brochure of two to fifteen day journeys from 1912, and the Harlem Division map within.

If you’re really looking to stay in your own backyard, there were plenty of vacationing spots along the Harlem Division. The Harlem’s long-gone Lake Mahopac branch was established especially for that purpose. But as you can see from the map above, one could get more places via the Harlem than you can today – transfers were available in Chatham for the Boston and Albany Railroad to Massachusetts, and to the Rutland Railroad for Vermont.

Resorts on the Harlem
Close to home – summer resorts along the Harlem.

Anybody out there planning on taking a vacation (or a “staycation,” even) by train this summer? Drop a note in the comments about where you’re planning on going!

Bye bye Joe Lhota, hello Sadie the cat? Humor Photos

Friday, December 21st, 2012

In case you missed it, two big things in MTA land went down this week – (or should I say up?) fare increases are totally happening in March, and Chairman and CEO of the MTA, Joe Lhota, will be resigning. We’ve certainly had a seemingly endless revolving door in terms of MTA chiefs. Lhota has been at the helm of the MTA for just about a year, so I guess he didn’t really set any records for longest time served.

People have been debating who should get the nomination to replace Lhota, and if you ask me, it should totally go to Sadie the subway cat! A few weeks ago I updated you on Sadie, who formerly worked at the New York Transit Museum, but has since retired. I had a chance to talk to the wonderful museum employee who has adopted Sadie, and it seems that she is certainly enjoying retired life…

 
  
 
The subway kitty is now an apartment kitty, and with a nice view!

I bet we could convince Miss Sadie to take the post as chief of the MTA, though. Think about it, we’d just have to pay for her cat food, litter and vet care, and that can’t be more than $1,000 a year, right? That is a bargain compared to the $350,000 that Jay Walder got paid in 2010 as MTA chief. And it wouldn’t be the first time a feline was in an executive position at a transportation company – just ask Japanese cat Tama, who worked herself up from the position of Stationmaster, to Super Stationmaster, and now Chief Operating Officer at the Wakayama Electric Railway. Apparently putting animals in executive positions at railroad companies seems to be a perfectly acceptable business practice in Japan. So why not hire a cat and get ridership up?

In other news, when it comes to the cuteness factor, Sadie beats Joe Lhota hands down. Jay Walder, too.
sadielhota
Sorry, Joe Lhota.

In all seriousness, it will be interesting to see who will be replacing Lhota. And a little bit of a shame, as I thought he seemed pretty competent. (And yes, I admit, I always thought he was pretty cool for actually starting and maintaining a twitter account.) The likelihood of a cat getting the position is probably less than the world ending tonight, so we certainly wish Sadie the best, and to keep enjoying her retirement. But on the off chance that she does get the job, I know who Sadie can hire as her deputy!

grumpycat
The trains aren’t running? GOOD!

Chatting with Howard Permut, President of Metro-North Railroad Train Encounters / Observations

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

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.

Weekly News Roundup, 1/28 Train Videos

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

It has been brought to my attention that I’ve neglected to post news roundups for the past few weeks. Not too many spectacular things have occurred over the past few weeks, but here are a few of the noteworthy stories:

Metro-North Passenger Pledge

On our 12/31 news roundup, I mentioned the Metro-North passenger pledge, and how it was accepted by the Connecticut Commuter Council. Since that time, it has been officially “unveiled” by Metro-North. It has been quite the topic of conversation by numerous news outlets in both Connecticut and New York. Commentary has ranged from utterly pointless comments about “great American flag clip art” to what exactly this pledge really means to riders. The majority of everything in the pledge have been the goals of Metro-North for quite a while, though they are now just made available in writing.


Hey Gothamist, have you even been on a train recently? That “American flag clipart” sure looks familiar…

It seems that quite a few New Haven Line riders are unhappy with a particular line in the pledge:

Metro-North will use best efforts to schedule service to meet anticipated demand so as to provide a seat for every customer

They notice the “provide a seat for every customer” part, yet conveniently ignore the previously mentioned phrase of “best efforts.” On that particular point, Jim Cameron may have said one of the most logical things I’ve heard from him in a while:

“You only get a ride. They can’t promise a seat. That was a little too much to ask… [but] this is the bitter fruit of the neglect of that railroad by the Connecticut legislature in investment, going back decades.”

Cameron and the Connecticut Commuter Council pushed for the pledge to be put on trains, and Metro-North obliged. Trains last Thursday evening had a copy of the pledge left on every seat… and rather expectedly, were found crumpled on the floor of the train by the end of the evening, likely unread.

   
  
Thanks for the pledge… though it seems that most commuters don’t really care at all.

Planes, Trains And Automobiles Struggle With Fat Americans

Jim Cameron again lends his expert opinion on the subject of trains and fat Americans, in a story found on Gothamist a week or so ago. I find the following statement found in the article rather amusing:

Metro-North is attempting to trick fat passengers by making the middle seats look larger with a center seam instead of arm barriers, though they’re not actually making the seats bigger.

Of all the things one could blame Metro-North of doing to passengers, I doubt that tricking fat passengers about the size of seats is high on that list. Perhaps to anyone other than a conspiracy theorist, a more logical assumption might be where our new trains (as they were apparently referencing the M8′s of the New Haven Line) have been designed. Our first M8′s were delivered from the Kawasaki company in Japan – a country that has a significantly lower percentage of obese citizens than we do. Perhaps in future railcars this will be addressed, as it is a subject that has been influencing industries throughout our country – even tourism.

A harmonica-playing conductor…

The New Haven Line certainly has its share of interesting conductors… The following video has been making the rounds this week, and I couldn’t help but share. Certainly a conductor playing the harmonica is amusing, but it is the two guys dancing in the background that really makes the video.

Mother suing the MTA for son’s death by subway train

In the future, when people look back on us Americans, I have a feeling that they might find that the country’s pastime is not baseball, but filing lawsuits. And some are quite doozies – a drunk and high idiot convicted of manslaughter for killing three with his pickup truck has the audacity to sue the victim’s families for pain and suffering. And although there is no doubt that a Brooklyn mother is suffering and in pain after the death of her son, suing the MTA for it is just asinine.

A likely drunk Briant Rowe willingly climbed down onto the subway tracks and wandered through a tunnel, and was not surprisingly struck by a subway train. Though clearly his fault, Rowe’s mother is suing the MTA for fifty million dollars, claiming that it is the MTA’s fault for not suspending all service to search for the man, who was sighted on the tracks… though a slow-moving train did search for him for over a half an hour. Really, where is personal accountability in this whole story? Perhaps we should nominate this young man for a Darwin Award.


If we get our legs ripped off by a train, can we sue the MTA too?

Japan’s Beautiful Shinkansen Train Photos Videos

Friday, May 27th, 2011

I have a bit of a problem when it comes to focusing on things. My mind is always in a million places at once. I am notorious for starting things and never finishing them… in addition to having a whole bunch of awesome ideas that I never end up acting on. Over a year ago I rode my first high-speed “bullet train” in Japan… and I never posted anything about it. As I started posting things from my most recent trip, I figured it was probably about time to go through some of my even older photos, and actually get them posted.

Japan’s shinkansen is beautiful, at least in my opinion. The front is is long, sleek, and aerodynamic… at least on the N700 Series, which is the one I took. The Nozomi (“super high speed”) service took 2 hours and 20 minutes to go from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Tokaido Line, a distance of nearly 300 miles. The train’s top speed is 186 miles per hour. Part of the beauty of the high speed system in Japan is that the shinkansen has dedicated tracks, and no grade crossings. The ride is rather scenic, but because the train never intersects with roads there occasionally periods where the train will run in tunnels completely underground. I was amused, because it felt like every time I started recording the view on my video camera, we went through tunnels.

At the beginning of the video is a little jingle… this is another awesome thing about the trains in Japan. Sometimes there are so many different train lines that converge at one point, and it is hard to know which train is which. All you really have to do is listen though. Trains of different lines have different jingles, which allows you to audibly distinguish between the trains. Though I do wonder sometimes how anyone who actually works on those trains and hears the jingles all day long doesn’t go postal. I certainly heard those jingles in my dreams!