My final Metro-North commute

My Final Metro-North Commute

For the past six years and eleven months I have been a regular commuter on Metro-North’s Harlem Line. I’ve taken the train regularly from a multitude of stations – Brewster, Goldens Bridge, Southeast, Pawling, Wingdale, and even Wassaic. I’ve also done the reverse commute from Harlem to White Plains for almost a full year now. It is, however, time to move on. Very soon I will be making my final regular ride as a Metro-North Harlem Line commuter.

It didn’t take me a full year of commuting to observe a lot of amusement and craziness on the rails, and on April 10, 2009 I started a site simply entitled “The Train Blog” to convey some of these stories. The diary-type entries revolved mostly around the common topics of strange passengers I observed, occasional train delays and mishaps, and pigeons. It wasn’t until September of 2009 that posts started turning serious – with encouragement of Roxanne Robertson, formerly of the New York Transit Museum – I put together a few photo posts of the “The Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El” exhibit, and the museum’s annual Bus Festival.

I slowly became engrossed in the subject of trains and their history, and by March 2010 was regularly posting interesting archival materials I had dug up every Friday. By May, I had launched the Panorama Project, which over the course of three years took me to every Metro-North station, and cemented the transition of this site from a comical diary to a more serious photographic and historical exploration of the rails.

It has been, for the most part, a wonderful journey. Over time I became almost like a public figure – people would recognize me on trains, and I even had someone ask me to autograph a timetable for them once. I’ve met many wonderful people on my journeys, and some are like family to me. But on the flip side, I’ve also met my share of not so wonderful people. I’ve had railroad employees yell at me, “Don’t you have some dollies to play with?” I’ve also had people show up at my home, and at my place of work uninvited. I’ve even had a particular self-described “alpha male” who couldn’t take no for an answer try to get my husband fired from his job (among other attempts to make my life a living hell) because I had rejected him. I’ve largely been ignoring that situation, nonetheless I figured it necessary to put that out in the open – mostly because I am expecting him to attempt the same to me with the announcement I am about to make (and yes, I’ll bet 95% of my readership knows who this guy is).

The reason my Metro-North commute is coming to an end is because another opportunity has opened up for me. I’m going to work for Amtrak. What exactly does that mean for this site? Probably not too much. For quite a while I’ve been exploring far outside of Metro-North’s territory, and I will continue to do the same. You’ll probably find a few more Amtrak-related posts than before. I’ll still be riding the Harlem Line – although not regularly – and intend to shortly bring you a new tour of the Harlem Line. Not only has my photography greatly improved since the first Harlem Line tour, various things have also changed over the years at many stations. So expect that tour in the next few months, as well as a whole lot of new railroading adventures.

For the next few weeks, however, this site will be on a temporary hiatus while things settle down. I promise we’ll be back shortly, with a photo tour of a particular foreign transit system that I’ve been dying to shoot for several years.

If you’re not already, be sure to follow the Amtrak Careers blog, as well as their accounts on Twitter and Instagram, where you’ll probably be seeing me in the future.

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.


The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.


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A Wedding in Grand Central

Over the one-hundred-plus years Grand Central has stood on this Earth, it has played host and been a witness to so many important things. Whether it be a an introduction to the space age, the place from where men march off to war, the place where thousands of eyes watch history unfold, or the spot where we protest injustice, Grand Central has stood at the center of Manhattan in importance and influence. And while the event that took place here last month isn’t much in terms of history, it was most important to me. Grand Central, the venerable cathedral to transportation, was a cathedral of another sort on January 9th, as it hosted my wedding.

Although it could be argued that this site is just as much about me as it is about trains, I do try and avoid discussing too much about my personal life. And rightly so, lest you try to show up to my house unannounced (yep, it happened), or try and convince me that despite you being double my age we should totally be together because you have a big you-know-what (yeah, that happened too. This may also be why the demographic of female railfans is so tiny). Nonetheless, it was too difficult to not share some of the wonderful photos from a wedding in the Terminal. Grand Central is gorgeous, and certainly one hell of a great place to get married. Brilliant photo ops are everywhere, and I finally got to get the shot I had planned for years of someone looking out from the hidden window in the Tiffany glass clock (though I happened to be on the opposite side of the camera lens).

To view the entire gallery, click “read more” below. All of the photos were taken by Johnathon Henninger, with the exception of the final two by Carey Wagner, who was looking up at the clock tower from Park Avenue.


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Bridges of Metro-North: The Norwalk River Bridge, Part 1

Continuing into the new year with our visits to some of Metro-North’s movable bridges, today’s feature is the Norwalk River Bridge. This bridge, owned by the state of Connecticut, is commonly known as WALK, and is the bane of the New Haven Line. Built in 1896, the bridge is one of many pieces of practically ancient infrastructure you’ll find along the line. Prone to getting stuck open and preventing trains from crossing – which happened several times last year – the historical bridge is badly in need of a replacement or serious upgrade. For the interim, attempts have been made to open the bridge less frequently, and to have crews standing by when the bridge does open to hopefully prevent any issues. While I had been under the impression that the bridge would be staying shut while repairs were under way starting in June, I was lucky enough to capture an opening of the bridge on November 8th, much to my surprise.

Constructed for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, the Norwalk River Bridge is a 562-foot long rim bearing swing bridge. Sitting about 16 feet above the water, the bridge’s 202 foot long center deck rotates along a center point to allow marine traffic to pass. When opening, rail locks are released, the rail ends are lifted, catenary wire is separated, wedge locks are withdrawn, and bridge locks are released. Only then can the machinery located at the center pier under the tracks can do its work to swing the bridge open. All of these delicate maneuvers need to happen in concert, which is difficult considering the age of the machinery involved. Also complicating matters for repairs is the fact that the old movable bridges on the Northeast Corridor are all unique – there was no standard for construction, and each bridge has unique mechanical components.


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Meet TIM – Metro-North’s new credit card enabled Ticket Issuing Machine

As most of you have likely heard by now, Metro-North has begun a pilot program testing new Ticket Issuing Machines (TIMs) on the Upper Harlem Line (or as Metro-North would call it, the Wassaic “Branch”) and the Danbury Branch. The big news about these machines is that they accept credit cards – something conductors selling tickets have long been unable to do.

I got a chance to check out one of these new machines, and must admit they are quite cool. Slim and light compared to the previous TIMs, these new machines are essentially tricked-out iPhones running special software. Wrapped in a blue Metro-North case, the TIM contains an LED barcode scanner (used for scanning the barcode on IDs of delinquents that have neither tickets nor money) and a swipe for credit cards. The special software installed on the phone not only allows conductors to sell tickets, but it also “locks down” the iPhone, preventing it from downloading apps, reading email, and all the other things you wouldn’t want a conductor to do while on duty.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new Metro-North TIM and printer

Similar to the previous TIM, the new TIM connects wirelessly to a printer that can be hung from the belt. This printer provides the customer with a receipt for the ticket they bought. It also provides the conductor at the end of the day a receipt that lists how much they’ve sold, and further breaks that down into cash tickets sold (which needs to be turned in to Metro-North), and how much was sold by credit.

While the majority of Metro-North riders are conditioned to purchase their tickets before boarding, there remains several stations on the Danbury and Waterbury Branches that do not have platform ticket vending machines or ticket sellers. It is there that the new TIM will likely be most welcome. But for those people that race to catch a train and aren’t able to purchase a ticket before boarding, being able to use a credit card is a great convenience.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM features an LED barcode scanner, and a swipe for credit cards

Though much of the fanfare regarding the new TIM focuses on the ability to accept credit cards, it is worth mentioning that the new technology can help out quite a bit when it comes to customer service. One of the main complaints I hear are that customers on trains stuck in delays are not provided with enough information as to what is going on. What most don’t realize, however, is that conductors are often not given information about what is happening. In fact, Metro-North’s text alert system often provides customers with information that crews don’t even know. Because the new TIM is essentially a cell phone, the potential is there to use it to notify conductors about issues – information that can then be relayed to the customers over the train’s PA. Whether the technology will be used in this fashion remains to be seen, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Of course, one must remember that this is only a pilot program. However, I imagine that once the system’s inevitable bugs are worked out, credit card enabled TIMs will soon be popping up on more lines and trains.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM’s blue protective case, bearing the Metro-North logo

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The ticket software is conveniently accessed through this icon of an M7

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
Three screens of the new TIM – A message sent to the conductor, the screen selling tickets, and a screen showing the phone’s “lockdown” – preventing the iPhone from doing the things most people do with iPhones

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A Farewell to White Plains station staple – Waxman’s News

Any regular commuter through White Plains is likely familiar with Gary Waxman, proprietor of the station’s newsstand. And if you were a real regular, chances are Waxman even knew you by name. Last night, however, marked the end of an era – it was Waxman’s final day of work in the station.

Years before Metro-North was even established, Gary Waxman’s father purchased the retail space for the newsstand in the long-gone Warren & Wetmore-designed White Plains station. The younger Waxman spent weekends working the newsstand, and ultimately opted to work there full time instead of heading off to college. The elder Waxman bowed out of newsstand operations in 1986 due to illness, and Gary has run the business ever since. Much has changed since then, most notably the old station being torn down and a new one constructed in 1987. Waxman’s News was, of course, reestablished in the new White Plains station.


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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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Metro North President Joe Giulietti meets riders at White Plains

Provided you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard that Metro-North has been hosting customer forums where riders can meet president Joe Giulietti, and pretty much ask him anything. Yesterday’s forum was at White Plains, so I left work a few minutes early to head to the station and meet Metro-North’s new president.

Mr. Giulietti is a rather affable fellow that didn’t seem to mind getting asked “why are trains under 5 minutes and 59 seconds late not considered late?” for the five millionth time by discouraged riders. Along with Mr. Giulietti were other representatives of Metro-North, including John Kesich, senior vice president of operations, Randall Fleischer, Director of Business Development, Mark Mannix, Director of Corporate & Public Affairs, and Marjorie Anders, spokesperson for Metro-North.

My brief chat with the president revolved around the more light-hearted subjects of “how many additional gray hairs have you gotten since you’ve been here,” and “are you absolutely crazy for moving back to the northeast from Florida during the winter?” And while the for-public-consumption story may be that both he and his wife still have family in the northeast, I think the unspoken answer was that he really thinks that he can help Metro-North, a railroad that after last year had pretty much hit rock bottom. To speak such words aloud, however, would be pure hubris. There is no easy or simple fix for Metro-North. Changes will take months, even years. But it seems that the new captain at the helm has the skills to do the job, priorities in the right spot, and isn’t afraid or uncomfortable to rub elbows with the customers that ride his trains. (For the record, I did not ask Mr. Giulietti if he liked April Fools’ jokes).


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