A Journey Underground – East Side Access

Over the one hundred plus years of its existence, Grand Central Terminal has reinvented itself many times to keep pace with the needs of its customers. When long range passenger trains were the norm, passengers could sit and watch a movie at Grand Central’s theater while waiting for their train to depart, or sit in the Terminal’s grand waiting room in Vanderbilt Hall. Today, all of the long distance trains have disappeared, replaced with Metro-North’s commuter service where trains are frequent enough that one rarely has to wait long. While today’s dashing commuter would have little use for a theater, they certainly make use of Grand Central’s new market, where they can quickly grab the ingredients for the dinner they’ll make after the train whisks them home. Even the less-used waiting room (which in high-society days had segregated fancy areas for both men and women) has moved out of the large Vanderbilt Hall into the smaller Stationmaster’s Office, converted into event space to capture the wandering person’s interest. Yet even part of that event space is slated for a conversion into more on-the-go eateries for the dashing commuter, an alternate option to picking up the ingredients in the market.

All of this reinvention has kept Grand Central relevant – it has retained its character as a landmark, yet constantly refreshed itself to keep with the times, all while remaining dedicated to its primary purpose of being a train station. As we speak, Grand Central is in fact reinventing itself yet again, although you may not be able to see the changes quite yet – they are far below your feet and deep underground. As cars clog our highways and roads, public transportation on the east and west sides of Manhattan are almost islands unto themselves. The MTA’s two railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, operate from separate stations with little linkage between them. Metro-North’s riders filter into the east side of Manhattan, while Long Island’s into the west. But what if we could change all that – give Long Island riders the option to arrive in the east side, and give Metro-North riders the ability to board trains to Long Island inside Grand Central, all while opening up a far easier public transit connection to JFK airport from the east side? All of these are goals of the ongoing East Side Access project, which is expected to continue for at least the next eight years. The project will create a link between the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, adding a new terminal below Grand Central with eight new tracks, as well as the addition of 22,000 square feet of new retail space.

 
Diagrams of East Side Access, how the new terminal is situated under current buildings (left), and how trains from Long Island will be routed into Grand Central (right).
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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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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Scarborough

Welcome to Scarborough, located 29.5 miles north of Grand Central, and the first stop we’ll be making on our tour of the Hudson Line. I felt Scarborough would be a good place to start, as it seems to reflect what the line is all about. Throughout much of its journey – from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie – the Hudson Line closely follows its namesake, the Hudson River. Some stations may be further from the river than others, but in the case of Scarborough, the station is right on the water. Because of this, the station is often subjected to cool breezes carried by the river – although nice in the summer, it is likely brutal in the winter. The river does provide a lovely backdrop, though, and on a clear day you can see the Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.


Old station building at Scarborough. You can see the older station facilities that were recently rebuilt by Metro-North in the background. [image credit]

In the past few years, Metro-North has been doing significant upgrades on the Hudson Line, and Scarborough is no exception. The old overpass (visible in the photo above) was completely demolished. When rebuilt, elevators were added to make the station handicap accessible. The rebuilt facility, besides being much more attractive, provides more space for commuters to sit – both outside, and in the overpass, protected from the elements.


During construction on the new overpass, stained glass was installed as part of the Arts for Transit program. [image credit]

As part of the Arts for Transit program, some stained glass panels were created for Scarborough station, and installed in the new overpass. The piece, called “Untitled with Sky,” was a collaboration between artists Liliana Porter and Ana Tiscornia. The six glass panels were fabricated by Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, a company that has worked extensively with the MTA and the Arts for Transit program.


Rendering of how the glass was to look when installed in the windows of the overpass. [image credit]

Although originally intended for the overpass (and for a short time installed there), the glass panels were, at some point within the past year or so, moved to the platform. They now provide a screen from the wind for commuters at the station. Also part of the Arts for Transit installation are a few concrete shapes covered in mosaic tiles, which can be used for sitting. Both share the same attractive palette of purples and blues, and are a lovely addition to the station.

That is about it for the informational tour of Scarborough, now onto the visual tour:

 
 

 
  
 
  
  
 
  
 
 
 
 
 

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SmartCat, your guide to the Harlem Line

Several years ago when I really started getting interested in the history of the Harlem Line, and began collecting old timetables and artifacts, I had the grand idea that I would create a “digital museum” for the line. Although I attempted it with the “Harlem Line Historical Archives,” the archives were poorly organized, extremely clunky to find anything, and extremely time consuming to update. In an effort to create something better, I began work on SmartCat last summer. I had been hoping to launch it in the fall, but it never happened. Six months later, and long overdue, I am pleased to finally launch SmartCat.

In SmartCat you will find scans of over 300 artifacts related to the Harlem Line, ranging from 1857 to today. All items are tagged for easier browsing, and the system has a built-in search engine – an important upgrade from the old archives. The overwhelming majority of the artifacts currently available in SmartCat are timetables and postcards. Right now, only the covers of the timetables are scanned. Although it will be a massive undertaking, I hope to scan the insides of some of these timetables and make them available as well.

I’m going to quit talking about SmartCat – because you really need to be checking it out for yourself. You can use the below “guide” to the system, or click here to view everything.

SmartCat Search

Looking for something specific?

View all archived items

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The first week…

If you haven’t realized by now, I tend to shy away from discussing the various political issues surrounding the MTA. I like to stick around in the history zone, and talk more about art and photography-related things. If you want politics and opinions, and can stomach about ten advertisement banners per page (my personal faves are the animated fat loss banners of the sketch-woman clenching a fatty gut in her hands), Second Avenue Sagas is probably the place for you.

However, we’ve almost completed the first week with our new MTA big boss Joe Lhota (albeit unofficially, until confirmed by the senate in January), and I had to say something. The media is scrutinizing his first moves in the big chair (fare hikes in 2013!), but I had to say, I liked this one article that I found: New MTA chief Joe Lhota calls on prosecutors to throw book at riders who attack transit workers. I think that is a good a place as any to start. What you probably do know from reading my blog, is that I do have a tremendous amount of respect for train conductors (I’m not going to say employees, as you all know there others that I do not hold in such high esteem). They are on the front lines, the public face of the company, and they deal with idiots for a good portion of their days. Many get significant compensation for this work, but it is a tradeoff for having few days off and transporting your drunk ass home on holidays like New Years.

In the summer when there was the New Haven Line incident of the stuck train near Greens Farms (which I never really said much about, either), passengers were furious. And one of the reasons was because during the incident the conductors hid in their cabs, or reportedly removed their uniforms. I always found myself giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they weren’t being shitty employees – they were just afraid of what a train full of irate passengers could do. I want to know what the statistics are for conductors that have been assaulted by passengers. And the sad thing is, that I would guess it is probably in the 90% range, if not higher. There have been broken noses, broken fingers, employees that have been hit with umbrellas, spit on, or had a glass bottle broken over their face when sticking their head out the cab window. And these are just stories that I know. I certainly support stiffer penalties for that sort of thing – I don’t care what job you’re in. You shouldn’t be doing that stuff to fellow human beings (or even animals for that matter!) I’d also be okay with a new MTA slogan of “ride the goddamn train/bus/subway and don’t be an asshole” but somehow I don’t think that would go over too well.

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Metro-North and the Aftermath of Irene, Damage Photos

Edit: Metro-North has resumed most service. For the most current information, check the MTA website.

Mayor Bloomberg’s press conference addressing the damage after Irene has just completed. Of course, Chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Jay Walder was present to address the state of New York City’s transit system. The unfortunate news for Metro-North riders is that it was our railroad that suffered the most damage out of all of the MTA. Walder said there was severe damage to all three lines, including significant flooding and track erosion. Damage assessments are still going on, and there will be no decision on when service will be restored until these assessments have been completed.

What I must say, however, is that MTA has been keeping us in the loop via their Flickr account, which is much appreciated. From the photos we can see that there is severe flooding at Tuckahoe and Valhalla, on the Harlem Line. Valhalla also has power lines down, in the vicinity of Kensico Cemetery. There was a mudslide at Spuyten Duyvil and Scarborough on the Hudson Line. Beacon, also on the Hudson line, has massive flooding and is probably the worst station I’ve seen so far, with the parking lot and pedestrian underpass completely filled with water. Harriman, on the Port Jervis Branch also has a flooded parking lot. Thus far there has been no photos posted of the New Haven Line, but Governor Dannel Malloy has said that there was extensive damage to the catenary system, and on the New Canaan branch. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves… (all photos credited to the MTA)





  
 
  
 
  
 
   
  
 

Also interesting are a few photos from yesterday in Grand Central. Seeing the station this empty is a bit creepy. Although people say that this happens quite frequently at night, it is obvious that it is not night in these photos. You can see Grand Central Terminal empty – with the sunlight still streaming through the windows. That light makes these images even more amazing to me. I’m a bit jealous I wasn’t there myself to take photos of the empty station!


 

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Journey the Harlem Line in 6 minutes: Grand Central to Southeast Time Lapse

Have you ever seen these awesome time lapse videos the MTA has done on the LIRR? When I first saw them, I decided I wanted to try the same thing at some point on the Harlem Line. Yesterday I finally got a chance to try it, unfortunately not in HD (didn’t have a big enough memory card to do the whole ride in HD). The ride first starts out in Grand Central, and heads all the way to Southeast. We make all local stops north of White Plains, with the exception of Mount Pleasant. The hour and twenty minute ride has been condensed into a little over six minutes.

Because I know a few of you more astute observers will find some issues with the video (signals? track?), I will say that this video was taken not from the cab, but from the rear of the train. The footage was reversed to make it appear like it was from the front of the train. This is my first attempt at a time lapse, and I think I’d like to try it again at some point. Perhaps in HD, and possibly from the front of the train, so everything doesn’t look wrong. But as a first attempt, I think this is a pretty cool way to see the Harlem Line.

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Photos: A snowy morning commute

Ah, yes – another bit of snow. Except this time I was actually able to go out and take a few photos of trains in the snow. Hopefully this snow will not be nearly as bad as the previous blizzard, but it is always good to look at Metro-North’s Guide to Winter Weather just in case. And yes, this time that link as serious – as opposed to my completely fake Preparedness Posters I posted the other day.

  
 
  
  
 
   

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Looking back at 2010… a countdown of the most popular

Ah, 2010. You were the first full year that I actually operated this blog. Lots of fun and shenanigans were to be had. I decided to take a look back at what was popular on the site this year, as a wrap-up for 2010…

1. BPGlobal Billboards

The first entry here is not train-related in any way… however it was such a major news story at the time I couldn’t not have some fun with it – though fun is actually a terrible way to describe it, as the Gulf Oil Spill was quite tragic. To me the two standouts in coverage on this was a fake twitter account, BPGlobalPR, and Boston Globe’s The Big Picture. I merged the two into fake billboards, which apparently caught on and made their rounds on the web – and brought around thirty thousand viewers to the site in a single day.

2. Harlem Line Timetables

It is true, I have turned into an eBay whore… collecting just about anything regarding the Harlem Line. Many of the timetables I have can be found on the second most popular part of the site, the Harlem Line Timetables archive. It is desperately needing updating, as I own or have scanned many more timetables than are currently pictured. My goal was always to have a timetable for every year, and for the most part I do have that, from 1930 on up. Look for a major overhaul of this section in 2011!

3. Stupid Warning Signs

Ah, stupid warning signs. One of the most amusing things I’ve made for the site. These popular signs round out the top three most popular things on the site this year. Folks have requested that I turn these into stickers, but if you people start sticking these on trains the MTA PD might actually have a real reason to arrest my ass.

4. The Cutest Train Car in the World

One of the posts I made after returning from Japan featured the Tama Densha railcar of the Wakayama Electric Railway. The railroad is known in offbeat circles around the world due to the fact that they employ a feline Stationmaster (I believe she’s actually been promoted to Vice-President now). Tama the cat was so popular, designer Eiji Mitooka created a train car in her honor. The front of the train has whiskers, the seats inside have cat print. My favorite part of the train? The library full of books for the kids.

5. Centalia, PA – Burning Ghost Town

I’ve always been fascinated with Centralia, ever since I first read about it on the internet many years ago. Since then I’ve visited several times. The story begins in the 1960’s, when a coal seam under the town caught fire. It continues to burn to this day. The land has fissures that belch smoke, and it permanently smells of sulfur. It is a tragic story, as the once bustling small town has been whittled down to less than ten citizens.

The coal under the town that is burning is anthracite – which was popularized in little rhymes about Phoebe Snow in advertisements for the Lackawanna Railroad.

6. The Loneliest Station on the Harlem Line

Although I hadn’t come up with the concept yet, the Harlem Line Panorama project began with Mount Pleasant – which I labeled as the loneliest station on the line. The tiny station in between Hawthorne and Valhalla services the cemeteries in the area, and has very limited service.


The first panorama posted on the site

7. The Harlem Line Panorama Project

If you’re interested in seeing all the panoramas to date, located on a map – this is the place to go. This Google map is the seventh most popular portion of the site, although technically it lies off site and on Google’s servers. However, each placemark contains my favorite panorama from that stop, and a link back to the post on this site.

8. Sadie the Subway Cat

The Transit Museum in Brooklyn has employed a cat or two, mostly in the hopes that they would chase away any subway rats. In this eighth most popular post I recollect my first visit to the Transit Museum and my encounter with Sadie… and my crazy idea to get her a miniature-sized train conductor’s hat. Of course none of that really panned out – and as far as I am aware, Sadie has been quietly retired from the public.

9. The #1 Reason to Ride Metro-North

Back in June I posted these spoof ads for Metro-North and beer. If you are a regular commuter you will notice that in the afternoon, and most especially on Fridays, there are quite a few people drinking beer. The exception to that if you are those people that work at Target in Mount Kisco, you’re drinking it in the morning. But since you can’t drink and drive, and you can certainly drink and ride, Metro-North could always have an amusing new ad campaign.

10. M8 Cars Will Not Debut on the New Haven Line

Ah, April Fools Day… I couldn’t resist making a fake post about the new M8’s. Shattering the dreams of many New Haven Line riders, I posted that the red trains would be repainted blue and running instead on the Harlem Line by the end of the year. I even made up some fake quotes and attributed them to Dan Brucker – which probably doesn’t place me very high on his list of awesome bloggers.

So that is it! The ten most popular things on the blog in 2010. Happy New Year everyone!

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