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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!

Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Marble Hill Train History Photos

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

 
 
The old station at Marble Hill, pictured in 1927, and in 1946.

As we’ve toured the Hudson Line, we’ve encountered several stations with fairly confusing backgrounds. There are stations that nobody seems to be able to spell correctly, like “Spitendivel” and “Pokipse.” And there’s also Ardsley-on-Hudson, which isn’t in Ardsley, and shouldn’t be confused with the former Putnam Division station of Ardsley (despite the fact that the New York Central printed Ardsley-on-Hudson timetables as just Ardsley). Today’s tour takes us back to the Bronx, to another station also surrounded in a bit of confusion – Marble Hill.

 

Views of the tracks near Marble Hill in 1935.


Special timetable with new daytime trains for the West Bronx stations, including Marble Hill… where that Bronx name is subject to debate.

If you were to look at any of the local timetables printed by the railroad, or even at a map, you’d likely get the idea that Marble Hill is part of the Bronx. On the other hand, I probably have at least one person that wants to hit me for calling Marble Hill part of the Bronx in the paragraph above. As New York City grew, we humans have significantly changed the landscape of Manhattan island and beyond – and I’m not just talking about massive buildings and skyscrapers. At one point in history, Marble Hill – named for the marble quarries once located here – was part of Manhattan island. When a canal was built to link the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, Marble Hill was separated from Manhattan and became its own island. And when, in 1914, the original course of the Harlem River was filled in, Marble Hill became connected geographically with the Bronx.

Marble Hill, then and now
Map of the Marble Hill area from 1895 (when the canal was completed), and an aerial view of what the area looks like now. Note the “island” of Marble Hill on the 1895 map.

Politically, residents of Marble Hill vote for the Manhattan Borough President, Senator, City Councilman and Assemblyman. But due to the geographic nature of the area, Marble Hill is serviced by the police, emergency and fire department from the Bronx. Because of the general confusion, residents of Marble Hill end up in the archaic directory known as the “phone book” for both the Bronx and Manhattan, and letters written to either borough will be delivered by the US Postal Service. Nonetheless, Metro-North considers it part of the Bronx, and you’ll find Marble Hill listed in the local timetable for the West Bronx.

 
Around Marble Hill in the ’60′s. Photos by Herbert Maruska.

The current Metro-North station at Marble Hill is located a bit more north than the historical station operated by the New York Central. The old station had four tracks running by it (visible in the photos above), where the current station only has three. Both locations, however, are easily within walking distance of the 225th Street subway station, which has a significant effect on the ridership at the station.

In 2008, Metro-North reported that over 900 people were using Marble Hill station, but only 100 were using it to get to Grand Central. At least 300 people were getting off southbound Hudson Line trains and transferring to the subway. Another 300 were using Marble Hill for the reverse commute, possibly making the connection with the subway. Although it would likely lengthen the commute time, many people may be doing this as a cost saving measure. For example, a Tarrytown to Grand Central monthly would cost $266, but a Tarrytown to Marble Hill monthly only costs $88. Purchasing that along with an unlimited-ride Metro-Card would yield a savings of $74. For others, the subway may just provide easier access to their places of work.

  

Some non-Metro-North action in Marble Hill. Seeing Amtrak trains at Marble Hill is a rarity, as they generally branch off from the Hudson Line before Spuyten Duyvil, unless for some reason they need to be detoured. Photos by Mike Foley.

Besides the geographic anomaly and the unique ridership of Marble Hill, the station really is typical of Metro-North. You can find the same station signs, wire benches, blue trash bins, and ticket vending machines as almost every other station. The station itself consists of a short island platform, connected to street level with an overpass, which contains the aforementioned ticket machines. The station is located right alongside the river, and visible from the station is the Broadway Bridge, which connects both cars and subway trains to Manhattan.

That about wraps things up for Marble Hill – next week we’ll feature our final Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line, Poughkeepsie.

 
  
 
  
 
  
 
   
 
  
 
  

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.

The life of a subway cat… Transit Museum

Friday, March 16th, 2012

If you’re a regular New York City subway rider, it is highly likely that at least at some point during your journeys you’ve seen a subway rat. Rats are such a plague on the system that someone even started a site called Rate My Rat (thankfully, Metro-North doesn’t have to worry about this problem quite so much – though there are always exceptions). Since the New York Transit Museum is housed in a retired subway station, they too have visiting rats. And who better to take care of those rats than a cat?

 

Enter Sadie the subway cat, an adorable feline that has already been featured here once before. Though she may have been adopted to keep the rats in check, I’m told that she doesn’t too much in terms of catching rats. In fact, one of the security guards at the museum told me she got scared and ran away from a rat once, without even hissing or making a noise at it.

Sadie is, however, one of my favorite parts of the museum. It had been nearly two years since I saw her last – as every time I visited the museum she was somewhere hiding. But on my most recent visit, she was in a strange mood and starving for attention. She interrupted several tour groups of children, and wandered around the museum’s various restored cars while I snapped her photo. She’s gotten quite chubby since the last time I saw her, but she’s still adorable. Not like the Transit Museum will listen to anything I suggest, but I most definitely think they ought to get her a cat cam. It would be interesting to see the museum from a cat’s point of view!

  
   
  
   

Ahhh, the life of a cat. Getting to lounge around in some old subway cars all day doesn’t sound that bad, actually.

Melrose Station, in the late 1800′s Train History

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to talk to some really interesting railroad people recently, one of whom is Joe Schiavone, better known in the area as the “Old Put Guy.” He’s just completed his third book on the New York Central’s Putnam Division, but has been a railfan ever since he was very young. When I met him for the first time several weeks ago, he told me that as a young boy taking photographs, getting an invite into the engine happened somewhat frequently. I told him that Metro-North does the same thing for me – except the invite is from the police, and the ride is in a cop car and not a locomotive engine. For me, posting about Melrose is almost like returning to the “scene of the crime.” That is, if photography were a crime. Which it isn’t. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. I will admit that I have bit of a phobia of police, so every time I go out and photograph, this event is on my mind. That, and the fact that some of my conductor friends will never let me live it down.


Plan of the Melrose station, built in the late 1880′s, or early 1890

Today, Melrose isn’t the most spectacular-looking station on the Harlem Line. But at one time, it did have a nice station, built in the late 1880′s, or early 1890. It had all the amenities a station of that era needed: a baggage room, ticket office, telegraph office, a waiting room, and of course access to the low-level platforms and trains. The area was four-tracked even at this early date, though the two middle tracks were separated from the outer tracks by a fence, visible in the station sketch below. The Chief Engineer of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad at the time was Walter Katte, and he oversaw the work on the Harlem Division, north of the Harlem River Bridge. The line was four-tracked, and the tracks were lowered into the “Harlem Depression,” extending from Melrose to William’s Bridge. He also oversaw the construction of the Park Avenue viaduct, and a drawbridge over the Harlem River.


Sketch of the Melrose station

The only available land owned by the railroad was occupied by the tracks, and thus the logical solution for building the Melrose station was over the tracks. The plans for Melrose were duplicated for several other stations located in the depression, including Morrisania, Tremont, and Fordham. Chief Engineer Katte oversaw the construction of these stations. Built 17 feet above the tracks, the Melrose station was 73 feet wide, and 26 feet long. The waiting room was 18 x 32 feet, and the baggage room was 11 x 12 feet. The station framework was made of iron, and the interior of oak. The exterior was covered with iron panels, and was topped by an ornamental shingled roof. The cost of the station was $22,000, and the platforms cost $1,500.


Photograph of Tremont after construction, circa 1890. The fence dividing the center two express tracks has yet to be built.


The former Morrisania station was one of the other similarly designed stations, photo taken circa 1960.

Chief Engineer Walter Katte is actually an interesting figure in New York railroad history, though not often remembered. Not only did he work on the Harlem Division, but he also oversaw work on the New York Elevated Railroad Company. Between 1877 to 1880 they built the first parts of the Third and Ninth Avenue Els. Katte was born November 4, 1830 in London. He studied at the Kings College School, before serving as a civil engineering apprentice for three years. In 1849 he migrated to the United States and began work as an engineer for various railroads, including the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the Civil War broke out, Katte served as a Colonel of Engineers in the Union Army, and oversaw the construction of several bridges. After the war, he worked for the New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad, and the West Shore Railroad, before becoming the Chief Engineer for the New York Central in 1886. He served in that position until his resignation and retirement in 1898 (William Wilgus ascended to the Chief Engineer’s position in 1899). Katte died in his New York City home on March 4, 1917.


Walter Katte