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31 Years of Metro-North – Looking Back & Looking Forward History

Friday, January 31st, 2014

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!

A Commuter’s Rainbow Photos

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Not too long ago, I showed you all some of the various commuter monthly ticket designs from the past one hundred years. One of the most common types of monthly ticket is the colored style. Bright, varying colors are obvious to the conductor taking tickets, and each month features a new color for identification purposes. For the longtime commuters that just happen to save all of their monthly tickets, they can quickly collect an entire rainbow…

Metro-North Commuter Tickets

Metro-North’s tickets are pretty awesome for creating rainbows… there have been quite an array of colors, and the ticket features a large block of that color. Although the color might not fill the entire canvas, you can still get a similar effect with both New York Central and Penn Central tickets. So while the first ticket rainbow may be “you know you’ve been a commuter too long when…” the second and third are certainly “you know you’ve collected too much railroad stuff when…”

Penn Central Commuter Tickets

New York Central Commuter Tickets

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of color, this week (starting Wednesday) marks the introduction of the new Metro-North conductor’s uniforms. Gone are the light blue striped shirts – the new look features a sheer white dress shirt. Ever wanted to know if your conductor has a shoulder tattoo? You’ll certainly know now! Let’s just hope the new white doesn’t fade too fast! :)

Local Timetables on the Harlem – 1890 to today Advertisements History

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Every time I go to grab a snack at home, I find myself staring at an advertisement. And I’m not talking about the packaging of the food itself – my roommate has hung a calendar from our local pharmacy on the inside of the cabinet. You probably have one of these somewhere in your home – whether it be from the local Chinese restaurant, hardware store, bank, or doctor’s office. Businesses ingratiating themselves among their customers by providing them with a useful item (with a little advertisement for themselves, of course) is hardly a new concept – in fact it has been in practice for well over a hundred years. While today fridge magnets and calendars are commonplace, historically it wasn’t unheard of for a business to print useful cards with train schedules. What better way to remain at the forefront of your customers’ mind than to have your ad on a card they carry around everywhere?

Unofficial timecards are fairly easy to pick out – they bear no official railroad logo or marking – and generally have a whole lot of ads. They also use the railroad’s original name – the New York and Harlem – which was a name everybody knew, as opposed to calling it the Harlem Division, as the railroad did by this time.

Train timecard from Pawling Train timecard from Pawling
Train timecard from Pawling, 1892. A bifold card, the outside features advertisements for numerous businesses. In featuring only weekday trains, the card is tailored to the businessman that would likely patronize the featured establishments. For those looking for Sunday trains, the card advises to consult an official timetable “of the road.”

Another Harlem timecard
Timecard from 1890, featuring selected stops along the Harlem, all the way up to Chatham. Also a bifold, this card is likely more successful than the unwieldy one above, as it would easily fit into your pocket.

Although I wouldn’t classify it as an advertisement like above, the Woodlawn Cemetery also printed their own small time cards. You’ll note a great comparison below – an official railroad-printed Woodlawn time card, along with one printed by the cemetery itself. Besides the address and phone numbers of the cemetery, the card also contains an edited list of train times – corresponding with the cemetery’s hours – of course!

Timecards from Woodlawn
Timecards from Woodlawn. The 1891 card at left is official and printed by the railroad. The 1892 card at right was printed by the Woodlawn Cemetery.

Eventually, local timetables did become standardized – printed by the railroad, but still containing advertisements. Below is a nice collection of some local timetables throughout the years. Make sure you note an important portion of the design – the top of every New York Central local timetable is labeled as “official.” By the time the Penn Central came into being, this disclaimer was dropped. Also in the mix is a more current version of Metro-North’s local timetable. The new design still contains advertisements, but they’ve been relegated to the inside.

The current local timetable style

The current local timetable style

Remembering the Upper Harlem Division – Part 1 History Photos

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Twenty-four years ago I boarded my very first train – a Harlem Line local from Brewster to Grand Central Terminal. I was four years old, and quite intrigued by the journey. While I’m sure many hold their first train experience in a special place in their hearts, I really didn’t fall in love with the Harlem Line until I became a regular commuter after graduating college in 2008. The second most frequent question I receive from railfans (after the inevitable “oh my god… are you really a girl?!”) is why the Harlem. For many the Harlem isn’t overwhelmingly interesting – it’s a dead-end ride to cow town. At least the New Haven’s tracks extend to Boston, and the Hudson’s to Albany and beyond… you can actually get somewhere. But part of the intrigue of the Harlem, at least for me, is its history. The Harlem was New York City’s first railroad – chartered in 1831 – which is certainly a cool fact. But perhaps the most intriguing bit of history is that of the Upper Harlem – nearly fifty miles of track, with thirteen different stations, all abandoned.


Map of the Harlem Division’s abandoned stations north of the Harlem Line’s current terminus in Wassaic.

On this day 41 years ago the very last passenger train on the Upper Harlem Division departed the line’s terminus, Chatham station, bound for Grand Central Terminal. The cancellation of service north of Dover Plains was abrupt and in the middle of the day – no one, from the riders to railroad employees – knew that this would be the final run. But also, it was hardly a surprise. The railroad had threatened to close the line for years, and only the courts prevented the Penn Central from doing so.

Another fact that was hardly a surprise was that ridership on the Upper Harlem had severely dwindled over the years. The New York Central operated five weekday southbound trains from Chatham to Grand Central throughout the early 1900′s, and during the busy World War II years increased that number to six. But after the war had ended, and train travel steadily began to lose favor, many of these Upper Harlem trains were eliminated. By 1950 only three southbounds departed Chatham every day, and by 1953 only a single train left the station every weekday. This single southbound was the norm until the Upper Harlem was finally closed.


The final timetable of the Upper Harlem Division from Chatham to Grand Central Terminal.

Throughout all these events, an organization called the Harlem Valley Transportation Association had been founded to not only improve service, but to ensure that the full route of the Harlem Division – all the way to Chatham – would stay in service. The HVTA’s fight against line operator Penn Central was like David versus Goliath, and they had no qualms about taking it to the courts. By the end of 1971 a service shutdown on the upper Harlem had been delayed by the courts no less than seven times. As part of their campaign, the HVTA distributed posters to local businesses to display, all in the efforts to encourage rail ridership and prevent a shutdown. Industrial designer Seymour Robins, also the HVTA’s treasurer, created these two-color silk-screened posters, with nine variations in all. Each variation referenced a specific point the HVTA wished to improve: Service, Ecology, Stations, Windows, Track, Cars, Schedules, Toilets, and Roadbed.


The above HVTA posters, in nine different variations, were mass printed in 1971. They were designed by Seymour Robins, the treasurer of the HVTA, and an industrial designer.

The HVTA brought together over a hundred riders from not only New York, but Connecticut and Massachusetts as well – all people that depended on the Upper Harlem. One of the most charismatic personalities involved in the fight was HVTA Vice-President (and later President) Lettie Gay Carson. Although the long intertwined history of the Upper Harlem and Columbia county was certainly in her mind, the shrewd Carson fought to save the line not for nostalgia purposes, but for both local economic and environmental reasons. She recognized that it wasn’t passenger service that paid the bills, and besides looking to attract new ridership, Carson also focused on attracting local businesses to use rail freight.

But to truly save the line and make it profitable, Carson even attempted to create an industry from scratch. This new industry, handling sewage sludge, would not only operate on the Upper Harlem’s rails, but also benefit the environment – two causes important to Carson and the HVTA. Instead of dumping sewage sludge in the ocean, which contaminated fisheries and beaches, Carson proposed that it could be carried by railcar up the Harlem where it would be composted and spread onto the many farms in Dutchess and Columbia counties. Although the concept may be off-putting, the sludge could greatly improve the fertility of farmland naturally, without the use of chemical fertilizers. Carson’s ideas were often deemed “years ahead of [her] time,” which is quite the truth. People today are slowly realizing (a bit too late) that replacing trains with cars and trucks only furthered our dependence on foreign oil – one of Carson’s many reasons for fighting to save the Upper Harlem.


Labor Day 1971 in Millerton: Lettie Carson of the HVTA holds a sign that reads “Trains will run indefinitely” in this photo by Heyward Cohen. The sign Carson holds in the photo – a true museum piece – has been preserved and still exists today.

Though the courts ordered the Penn Central to keep operating trains, mostly due to the HVTA’s efforts, they were by no means obligated to provide any customer service whatsoever. Because of Penn Central’s lapse, the Harlem Valley Transportation Association took over many of their duties to prevent losing passengers. When the Penn Central failed to distribute timetables, the HVTA mailed them out to riders instead. When the Penn Central failed to pay the phone bill for Millerton station, the HVTA set up their own answering service. And just two weeks before passenger service was eliminated, the HVTA was again in the news – for getting the station platforms cleared of snow, because the Penn Central refused. Ignoring the Harlem Division only began a vicious cycle – lack of maintenance led to late and slow trains, and this unreliable service only resulted in a loss of customers – but perhaps that was Penn Central’s goal all along.

The Harlem Valley Transportation Association’s valiant efforts increased the Upper Harlem’s lifespan by a few years, but the line met its inevitable end on March 20th, 1972 when passenger service from Dover Plains to Chatham was eliminated. Freight service on the Harlem from Chatham was also eliminated several years later. On this 41st anniversary of the end of passenger service, we’ll be taking a tour up the abandoned line to all thirteen former stations, and to see how these areas fare today. Our tour starts at Amenia, the first abandoned station north of Wassaic, the current terminus of the Harlem Line. Wassaic itself was abandoned in 1972, but service there was restored by Metro-North in 2000.

As we travel north beyond the Harlem Line’s terminus at Wassaic, the first abandoned station we come to is Amenia. Around 85 miles north of Grand Central, the area surrounding the station is attractive and rich in farmland. Besides the obvious farming and dairy production, Amenia also had a steelworks and several iron mines, all of which used the Harlem for freight.

Amenia Today

 

The obvious vestige of the railroad in Amenia is the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which runs from Wassaic station to the former station in Millerton. The old Amenia station building is long gone, and likely forgotten. But similar to many towns with abandoned stations, Amenia has a few street names reflect the once important railroad that traversed the town. Depot Hill Road, and Railroad Avenue cross near the rail trail, and are a small reminder of the Harlem.

Named for nearby Sharon, Connecticut, Sharon station on the Harlem Division predominantly served riders from that state. A station building was constructed in 1875, and consisted of two floors, with the ground floor being separated in two sections – one for freight, and one for passengers. The upper floor consisted of living quarters for the station agent or other railroad employees. Not far from the station was the Manhattan Mining Corporation, which had its own siding and used the Harlem for freight.

*Upper right photo of Sharon station by Art Deeks.

Sharon Today

 

As a station serving mostly Connecticut riders, there was never much of a community around Sharon station. The station building itself, however, is one of the few Upper Harlem stations to still exist today. After being damaged in a fire, the old station was restored and turned into a residence. Several years ago the building was placed on the market, and I just happened to get a tour of it. Recently sold for $525,000, the building remains a private residence, and is hidden from the nearby rail trail by strategically placed trees and a fence. The only other hint that a railroad ran through here is the aptly named Sharon Station Road.

One of the less prominent stations on the line, Coleman’s was named after a local landholder. A major industry in the community was a milk factory, which used the Harlem for freight. Coleman’s was one of the stations to be abandoned early on – along with Mount Riga and Martindale. All three were eliminated as passenger stations in 1949.

Coleman’s Today

 

Today, Coleman’s is a relatively quiet area, with a small “historic district” that contains a late-1700′s burial ground. The rail trail and Coleman Station Road are all remnants of the Harlem in this small community.

The next station along the line is Millerton – but that will have to wait for another day. We’ll continue our tour of the Upper Harlem in Part 2, coming soon!

New York City’s other great station – more photos from the Farm Security Administration History Photos

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

If you enjoyed our previous set of Farm Security Administration photos, no doubt you will enjoy the ones today, possibly even more so. Captured by Marjorie Collins, another one of the lesser-known FSA photographers, today’s set of photos features New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Taken about a year after the photos we saw last week (these date to August 1942), the war is in full swing, and the station is filled with soldiers. As was the FSA’s goal, these images artfully capture what life was like in the 1940′s.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of the Pennsy, and I don’t frequently post things about Penn Station, but I think this set of photos was too amazing to pass up. We may be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central Terminal, but I think it is also a perfect time to reflect about New York’s other great “temple of transportation,” and its greater significance in terms of historical preservation.

New York's Pennsylvania Station
New York’s Pennsylvania Station, built 1910, demolished 1963.

Grand Central Terminal was still in construction when the Pennsylvania Railroad opened their great station in 1910. Designed by the famous McKim, Mead, and White, the two stations shared a Beaux Arts aesthetic. Both were exquisite New York monuments, and they almost shared the same fate – the wrecking ball. With the decline in rail travel both the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads were strapped for cash and looking to make a buck anywhere they could. With the significant costs to maintain such large stations, the buildings were worth more to them as real estate. In 1963 the gorgeous Penn Station was demolished in order to build Madison Square Garden above.

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.

–Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the high-profile face of historic preservation in New York City.

I am firmly of the belief that New York could not have two great railroad stations – for it was the destruction of Pennsylvania Station that motivated people to protect the city’s historical landmarks. In 1965, two years after Penn Station’s destruction, New York’s Landmark Preservation Commission was established. Grand Central was declared a landmark, and the New York Central, and later the Penn Central, were not permitted to destroy it – a fight the railroad took all the way up to the Supreme Court. If not for the destruction of Penn Station, it is very possible that we would not be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central right now. So thanks, Penn Station, we shall not forget you.