Chatting with Howard Permut, President of Metro-North Railroad

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.

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The life of a subway cat…

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!

(more…)

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Melrose Station, in the late 1800’s

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

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Train Station Levitation

There are some wonderful photographs that have been circulating around the internet lately that I loved so much I just had to share. A young Japanese woman, Natsumi Hayashi, has done a series of “levitation” photos, some of which are at various Tokyo train stations. The effect is created using her camera on a timer, and the camera captures her in the middle of motion, frozen in mid-jump. It is a technique that she very obviously excels at, as her photos are so natural she really does appear to be floating. On the technique she says:

I am actually jumping, but if all goes well, I will appear to be levitating the moment the shutter goes off. But if my facial expression appears to look forced then it will only appear as though I’m jumping. That is why the moment I take off I try to appear as calm as I possibly can.

I exert force just at the start of the jump, then I drain all strength from my body. But this method is quite dangerous. As I come back to the ground I have lost my balance and fallen. But that is fine by me. That’s because the photographs only reflect the moments I’m suspended in the air.

I do have a feeling like I need to copycat this, as it looks like it would be incredibly fun to do. Perhaps the new goal for the Tour of the New Haven Line should be to not only get a panorama at each station, but also a levitation photo at each station. On second thought, maybe it isn’t such a great idea – I’ve had the cops called on me for just taking normal pictures… imagine me taking pictures and jumping around like an idiot. But this too is a sentiment that Hayashi is familiar with:

I get very nervous when I shoot in public places. When I am shooting on a subway platform or famous signt-seeing place and jump over 200 times in a row, nearby people start to whisper. No one speaks directly to me, but in a small voice they will say things like, “Is that girl mentally ill?” or “Should we call the police?”

Anyways, enjoy some of Natsumi Hayashi’s levitation photographs, some of my favorites which are posted below. You can find many more on her blog here. You’ll find photography, trains, and cats… hey, that sorta sounds like me!

 
  
 
  
 
  
 
 
  

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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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The Transit Museum’s Bus Festival is this Sunday

 
   
 
Photos from last year’s Bus Festival

Although the Transit Museum in Brooklyn is known for its collection of subway cars, it also has quite a collection of historical buses as well. Every year the museum has a Bus Festival to show off that collection, in conjunction with the Atlantic Antic, Brooklyn’s largest street fair. Admission to the event is completely free to see the buses and the museum. The festival runs from 10 AM until 6 PM this Sunday. I won’t be attending this year, but last year’s festival was really great and I highly recommend it!

For more information, check out the Museum’s Calendar page.

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Coney Island Nostalgia Ride

After spending a day riding trains on Saturday, I have unfortunately come to the conclusion that my mother never wants to ride the subway again. My mom was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens, but when she was in high school her family moved to Connecticut. Despite all that, she never had been on the subway until later on in life. I’m sure most subway riders dislike the crazy folk that occasionally share the ride with them, but by now are used to it. My mother, on the other hand, is not used to it. The ride began normally… until a beggar boarded the train. At the start I was unsure as to whether the beggar was male or female… but I did notice a rather odd shaped stomach. After a few moments I realized that it was a woman, and that she was wearing no bra. Her breasts sagged to waist level, and under a rather baggy shirt it gave her the appearance of a really messed up stomach. As she began to sing religious songs and praise god, the subway rider reflex kicked in: everyone in the vicinity pretended to be asleep. Except for one man, who shouted, “Nobody give her money! She’s going to use it to buy drugs!” And then the fights began…

A white trashy looking lady gets on the train, and instead of walking in, just stands in front of the door, blocking it. Aman behind her keeps saying “excuse me” to try and get her to move, so he can also board the train. She does not, and he drops the f-bomb. Between the two, words begin to fly, as she shouts “You messed with the wrong girl, punk!” I was totally on the side of the man, until he started going batshit, screaming about the “white devil” and how the lady should go “lick a pussy.” As the woman’s stop neared she attempted to convince the man to exit the train with her, so she could fight him on the platform, which he did not do. But what he did do was to team up with the aforementioned braless beggar, singing religious songs, and harassing the man who said she was going to use any money given to her to buy drugs. “You don’t know me! Go back to Africa!” she shouted, as she exited the train.

Soon after that my mother and I arrive at the Transit Museum, and wait to board our Nostalgia Train heading for Coney Island. It was a great trip (though it did feel as though a particular person was missing, if you’re still out there…), and had significantly less crazy people, though there were a few. Railfans are an… interesting bunch. The old man who on the previous nostalgia ride grabbed another man by the neck and told him he’d kill him was back, this time announcing the stations we passed and repeating “pretty, pretty, pretty” over and over again. But other than that, it was another grand adventure riding the old trains, and taking photos. Everyone had the option to either stay on the train for photo opportunities, or to go off and explore Coney Island. Many people chose the explore part, several of which I saw waiting in line for the Wonder Wheel (and one apparently vomited his guts out while on the Wonder Wheel).

Anyways, that is enough overly-verbose babble from me, what you really wanted to see I am sure are the photos…
















I’m not sure when the next Nostalgia Ride with the Transit Museum will be, but they are always very enjoyable, and I highly recommend going on one if you get the chance.

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Show your support for NY’s Subway Singer on TV tonight!

Tonight, one of New York’s own needs your support! Alice Tan Ridley, one of Arts for Transit’s Music Under New York musicians has made it to the semifinals of America’s Got Talent and will be on air live tonight. Ridley, along with eleven other semifinal acts will be performing tonight. Only four acts from that twelve will go on to the next round, voting is very important! You can vote by text message, phone, and online, ten times per each method.

I’ve unfortunately never seen Alice live, but I’ve definitely seen the videos on YouTube and she is phenomenal. Back in June Sheryl (aka Bitchcakes) from Musings of an Irate Commuter posted a video of her singing I Will Survive, and I must say it brightened up a crappy morning. Alice has been singing in the subway for twenty years and I’m sure she has brightened many of our mornings, afternoons or evenings. She is talked about in the media for being Precious actress Gabourey Sidibe’s mother, but long before that, she was our subway singer. So New Yorkers, tonight is the night to show her your support.

America’s Got Talent will be airing tonight at 9 PM on NBC. Voting will be open from 11 PM (when the show is over) until 1 AM. You can vote 10 times per method!
Call 1.866.602.4802
Text vote to 4802
Vote online here

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Tuesday Tour of the Harlem Line: Wakefield

This week Wakefield has the honor of being the first Harlem Line station south of White Plains I’ve featured. Before starting the Harlem Line Panorama Project, I had never ventured to any of these stations. After this weekend though, I’ve been to most of them. On the current schedule of a station a week, the tour will finally be over at the end of January. And once that is over I think I’ll do a full tour guide for whoever might be interested in seeing the Harlem Line as well… I’m planning to include info about good food, history, art (including Arts For Transit works) and nature along the way, and which stations aren’t to be missed. Anyways, back to the tour…

Traveling south, Wakefield is the first Metro-North station in the Bronx, and is the northernmost neighborhood of the city. It borders Westchester county, specifically the city of Mount Vernon. The two are both linked to the first president of the United States: George Washington. Wakefield was the name of the place where he was born, and Mount Vernon the name of the place he died. The two stations of Wakefield and Mount Vernon West are in fact very close – so close that you can see the station from the platform of the other.

At Wakefield you can make a connection to the subway, Wakefield – 241st Street is located six blocks from the station. The platform is rather small, and can only accommodate four cars. Just south of the station the New Haven Line diverges, and from the station you can see the M2s going by on the other side of the tree line. Historically Wakefield had been a place where passengers changed trains. Electric trains served south into the city, and riders going north transferred to steam trains.







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Canadian Adventures: Toronto’s Union Station & Skywalk

While I was in Toronto I had the chance to visit the busiest train station in Canada, Union Station. It is a great example of the Beaux-arts style (like Grand Central) in Canada. Via Rail, Amtrak, Ontario Northland, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) all operate trains out of the station (and in the case of the TTC, Streetcars as well). Construction on Union Station was completed in 1920. It was designed by Ross and Macdonald, HG Jones and JM Lyle, and opened in 1927.

The central area of the station is called the Great Hall, and is quite beautiful. I must admit, though, I am biased… it pales in comparison to Grand Central. I would have loved to take more photos of the station, but with the G20 Summit approaching security was being heightened, and I was asked to not photograph any more. The first photo is the one that I got in trouble for. Though I think it turned out pretty nicely, so it was worth it. In hindsight, I was rather dense to start taking photos right in front of the security office.






Stretching above the streets from Union Station is a Skywalk, which extends to the convention center, and close to the CN Tower and Toronto Railway Heritage Center (which I’ll be posting pictures of soon). Other than being a pretty cool looking walk way, the Skywalk also extends over the railroad tracks, so it is a nice vantage point for photography. All in all I really enjoyed Toronto, and I’d highly recommend visiting Union Station and the Railway Heritage Center for anyone in the area. And once the Summit is over, I’m sure the cops will not be quite as strict regarding photography.

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