Some final photos from Alaska

Just wanted to take a quick minute to share some of my final photos from Alaska (at least until I visit again in September!). My series on Alaska has been a whole lot more popular that I ever thought, and not just among my normal audience of railfans. Taking a trip to Alaska in the winter is sort of “off the beaten track,” and many want to know some of the details. Others find it interesting, but want to know how to convince their friend / family member / significant other to brave the cold and go with them. Hopefully this post will answer some of the many questions I’ve received, and perhaps convinces you to go ride the Alaska Railroad in winter – it was quite fun!

To make a long story short, I didn’t freeze to death, and although it was quite cold, it wasn’t absolutely unbearable. As I mentioned previously, the Alaska Railroad pretty much booked the entire trip for me (with the exception of the Chena Hot Springs, where you can usually get a cheaper price if you book on your own). As one would likely guess, you probably want to invest a little money in appropriate gear to keep yourself warm. I don’t get anything for plugging the following items, but I was just fine with an Under Armour Base 3.0 underlayer, a North Face Denali jacket, and a North Face Super Diez jacket. You can check the weather reports before you go – if you are from the city, they number will likely be an absurdly low temperature, of which you have no reference point. If you are well prepared, -20 doesn’t feel nearly as bad as it sounds.

  
   
 
Photos from the flight back from the Arctic Circle. The Piper Navajo which we were in seats 8.

While riding the Alaska Railroad, opening the top windows in the vestibules in between cars was permitted. Obviously, sticking your head and camera out of the window of a moving train in subzero temperatures is rather frigid, but a face mask and snow goggles are immensely helpful. The fact of the matter is, you’re not going to get spectacular photos from inside the windows. The good majority of my railroad photos all were taken out the window. You can bear a little cold to get some decent photos – just like you can bear a little cold at night so you can see the aurora! (It is worth it!)

Penguin swim...
The fact that penguins do not live in Alaska does not seem to be commonly-known. I took this photograph, for the many that asked for it, while at Chena Hot Springs – It is titled an “Alaskan penguin” in its “natural habitat.”

As for the question on how to convince someone to go with you to Alaska in the winter, the aurora, or northern lights, is a pretty good reason. Having never seen the aurora before, that was really the primary reason for my trip. Secondly, plan a trip to Chena Hot Springs. This seems like an extremely common venue during the winter – many of the folks that were on my train from Anchorage to Fairbanks I later sighted at the springs. The outdoor spring there was quite lovely – for the five seconds it takes you to walk outside to it in a bathing suit you think you are absolutely bonkers, but once you get in, it is quite relaxing. Besides the springs, there are a wide array of activities that you can do there – from dogsledding to snowmobiling (mind you, Alaskans call them “snow machines” – they also laugh at you when you get them stuck in waist-deep snow!).

 
  
   
  

The sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs. Even if you don’t go for a ride, you can tour the kennel and see these cuties.

If you’ve been following the blog for more than two years, you may remember my trip up to Quebec, where I stayed at the Hôtel de Glace and visited some train stations. Made entirely of snow and ice, the hotel is quite beautiful, though it is only around for about three months before it melts. Chena has a similar, albeit smaller, version in their ice museum. But unlike any other structure in the world made of ice and snow, Chena’s ice museum is year round. The hot springs are used as a power source to cool the entire structure. Alas, that means the outside is completely fake. The inside, however, is most beautiful.

  
 
  
   
  

I think that pretty much sums everything up. If you missed any of my previous Alaska posts, you can find them here:
Traveling Alaska’s Dalton Highway
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 1
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2
If you have any other further questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment!

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Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2

After last week’s journey along the Alaska Railroad to around Hurricane Gulch, we continue today with the remainder of the ride to Fairbanks. This includes passing through Denali National Park and Preserve, though no one was looking to disembark in the frigid weather (we did see some ice climbers from the window, however). Further north was the small town of Healy, which contains the Usibelli coal mine, Alaska’s only operating coal mine. The coal from the mine is shipped southward by the Alaska Railroad to Seward, where it is loaded on ships for export, or north to other interior locations in Alaska.

Usibelli's coal ships via the Alaska Railroad
Usibelli’s coal ships via the Alaska Railroad. The mine is connected to the railroad main line by a rail spur.[1]

Beyond Healy is the town of Nenana, once a large population center with several thousand residents. According to the 2011 census[2] there are only 383 residents today. Nenana depot, opened in 1922, still stands, and the Aurora train reached it around sunset. The Alaska Railroad itself was completed just north of the depot in 1923 with the Mears Memorial Bridge.[3] President Harding drove the ceremonial golden spike at the north end of the bridge, linking the two sections of rail. Beyond the bridge the passenger portion of the Alaska Railroad terminates in Fairbanks. The railroad itself extends at least to Eielson Air Force base, which is freight only. In fact, some of the aforementioned Usibelli coal is shipped to and used at the base.

Artifacts of the Alaska Railroad
Brochure and matchbook cover from the Alaska Railroad. [4]

While we traveled from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the only route open to passengers during the winter, the Alaska Railroad’s main line is more than a hundred miles longer. Extending southward to Seward, the line also branches off to the port of Whittier. Along these rails glaciers are visible from your train seat, and one of the routes is aptly named the Glacier Discovery.

When it comes to railroad history, Alaska’s rails are a bit young compared with some of the other lines we normally cover on the site. The New York Central can claim history back to 1826, and the Harlem to 1831 – Alaska’s first dates back to 1903.[5] The predecessor Alaska Central Railway went bankrupt by 1907, and was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway Company, operating an approximately 70 mile stretch of rail extending north from Seward. Construction on a real Alaskan railroad began in earnest in 1914, when Congress agreed to fund the construction and operation of a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks (Alaska had officially been incorporated as a US territory in 1912). Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city today, was formed as a railroad town during the construction. Populated by construction workers of the now-named Alaska Railroad, Anchorage officially became the headquarters of the railroad by 1915.

Today the Alaska Railroad is owned by the state of Alaska, and it operates both freight and passenger service. On the passenger side, as of 2012, the railroad owns a fleet of 44 railcars (excluding locomotives), which consists of 2 business cars, 6 diners, 11 passenger coaches, 6 vista dome coaches, 7 low-level dome coaches, 6 bi-level ultradomes, 1 bi-level diesel MU, and 5 baggage cars.[6] In 2011 the railroad carried 412,200 passengers, 265,335 of which were from cruise ships. Outside of cruise passengers, the Denali Star is the railroad’s most popular passenger train, followed by the Coastal Classic.

That is about it for today’s post on Alaska – there will be one more Alaska post forthcoming, and it will contain dogs and penguins… everybody likes dogs and penguins, right?

   
  
   
  
   
  
   
 
  
 
  
  
  

  1. Usibelli coal photograph via Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources []
  2. Census data from the US Census Bureau via Google []
  3. A history of the Mears Memorial Bridge. []
  4. Alaska Railroad brochure and matchbook covers from the author’s collection []
  5. Timeline history of the Alaska Railroad []
  6. Statistics from 2012 Alaska Railroad Passenger Services Business Report. []

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Grand Central Theatre, and the other sky ceiling


The famous sky ceiling…

Grand Central Terminal’s sky ceiling is world-famous. Even if you’ve never been to the Terminal, you may have at least seen pictures of the gorgeous main concourse. Far fewer people, however, are familiar with the other (albeit much smaller) cerulean and gold sky ceiling also found in Grand Central. Once part of the lobby of the Grand Central Theatre, this other sky painting can be found above the registers in the Grande Harvest Wines shop, next to track 17.

 

The lesser-known sky ceiling

The theatre itself is also not often mentioned, though it was a part of the Terminal from 1937, and lasted about three decades. The 242-seat theatre had an early version of what would now be called stadium-style seating, produced by the Irwin Seating Company (which is still making stadium seating to this day!), and standing room in the back.

Different from the movie theatres we are accustomed to today, the Grand Central Theatre was a newsreel theatre – it played various short bits of news, documentaries, and even cartoons. A theatre of this type was perfect for the Terminal in its day – people waiting for their long distance trains could spend the extra moments until their train in the theatre. All the shorts were played continuously, so you could duck in and out whenever your train schedule required. Above the screen an illuminated clock displayed the time for those people on a schedule.

Advertised as the “most intimate theatre in America” the theatre regularly played every day til midnight. Also included with the theatre was a lounge designed by Tony Sarg. Whether you know his name or not, most New Yorkers – or for that matter Americans – know Sarg for his creations. He designed the first balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, including Felix the Cat, which was introduced in 1927.

 

Grand Central Theatre postcards, from the collection of Steve Swirsky.

For me, the Grand Central Theatre epitomizes the changes that Grand Central has gone through over its 100 years. While the Terminal’s outside has remained for the most part the same, the inside has always morphed to keep pace with society, and what was needed at the time. When prim and proper ladies and gentlemen used Grand Central, there were private waiting rooms staffed by maids where one could change into their best before stepping out to high-society parties. As World Wars I and II were being fought, and soldiers were moving through the station every day, the Terminal hosted a Red Cross kiosk, and one of the balconies was converted into a Service Men’s lounge. And when fancy long-distance trains like the 20th Century Limited were all the rage, you could wait the time until your train departed by watching the newsreels in Grand Central Theatre.

Today, with its mass of commuters, Grand Central boasts the conveniences associated with that demographic. You can buy a book to read, some flowers for someone special, a cheesecake to go, or even a beer for the train ride home. I don’t think that Grand Central Theatre would really work today – and I don’t think that Grand Central Market would have worked in the past. While some of our monuments have fallen into disuse and are merely tourist attractions, Grand Central is not just a historical monument – it has remained a relevant part of our lives, partially because of these minor changes. But Grand Central Terminal’s fundamental purpose has not changed – it is still a wonderful example of a train terminal – and definitive proof that a historical building can still be functional and pertinent one hundred years later.

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Manitou

Welcome to Manitou, located 46 miles north of Grand Central, and the second and final limited service station stop to be featured on our tour of the Hudson Line. Unlike Breakneck Ridge, the other limited service station we’ve visited, Manitou does get trains during the week. In the morning, the 8:08 stops at Manitou, and in the evening the 6:16 from Grand Central stops there. Despite such a limited schedule, according to Metro-North’s ridership statistics a handful of people do in fact commute from Manitou. However, the majority of Manitou’s ridership is on the weekend, when it is used by people looking to hike or bike in the area.


Shelter at Manitou station in 1965.

Similar to the other Metro-North limited service stations (Appalachian Trail and Mount Pleasant are the two others, along with the aforementioned Breakneck Ridge) there isn’t too much at Manitou. There are no ticket machines, and only a low-level platform, if you could even call it that. On the southbound track there is a small shelter, although it wouldn’t protect you much from the elements. The inside wall of the shelter has been decorated with paint and some string art, likely not Metro-North’s doing, but left by some quirky passengers.



Shots from the vicinity of Manitou station. Photo on the bottom was taken in 1987 from the Bear Mountain Bridge. From the collection of Otto Vondrak.


The Hudson Line passes under the Bear Mountain Bridge just south of Manitou station. Photo by jag9889.



CSX at Manitou and vicinity. Photos by Michael Foley.

While Manitou station isn’t all that interesting in itself, the area surrounding the station is quite beautiful. You can just make out the Bear Mountain Bridge, which is south of the little Manitou platform. Bear Mountain State Park is accessible to the west of the station and across the river, and the Appalachian Trail to the east. I think that anyone who has the time to make a day trip to either Breakneck Ridge or the Bear Mountain area totally should. They each offer two different hikes in the attractive Hudson Highlands – and a train ride via Metro-North can get you to either in under and hour and a half. In fact, I hope to get over there again sometime for photos, perhaps on a less crappy day!

 
  
 
  
   
  
 
  

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Peekskill


Cropped postcard views of Peekskill station

For today’s Tuesday Tour, we venture back up to the un-electrified territory of the Hudson Line, 41 miles north of Grand Central, and make a stop at Peekskill. Many Hudson Line stations have been recently renovated, however, the process still continues at Peekskill, hopefully to be finished by this fall. As such, the station isn’t much of a looker right now. Construction vehicles surround the tracks, orange cones sit on the platforms, and a portion of the overpass is blocked off. Although a minor inconvenience for passengers right now, when the station is complete it will be well worth it. Besides the aesthetics of making the place look nice, there will be new canopies, lighting, heating, and an upgraded elevator.


Various timetables for Peekskill. Thanks to Doug Dray for the 1979 timetable, which also includes the stations of Crugers and Montrose, which have since closed.

Although in fairly poor shape today, Peekskill’s old depot, built in 1874, is still standing and in the process of being restored. The building had been occupied by a restaurant called PJ Kelleys since the early 90’s, but they finally closed their doors in December of 2009. It has been unoccupied since then, with Metro-North performing various renovations on the building. Before the true restoration could begin, asbestos and lead paint had to be removed from the old building. As of last year Metro-North was still looking for a tenant for the 7,395 square-foot building, who will likely be allowed to move in when the station is restored to its former grandeur.


Fleischmann Company factory in Peekskill, from the collection of Steve Swirsky

When Peekskill’s station was completed in the 1874, the area surrounding the depot was a bit different than it is today. Peekskill had quite a few factories, many of which made use of the nearby river and railroad. Believe it or not, Peekskill was once a major producer of yeast – or as the city boasts, “The Yeast-making Capital of the World.” The Fleischmann’s factory that produced this yeast was located along the railroad tracks, about one half mile south of Peekskill station. By 1915, the complex was comprised of over 125 buildings, and had over 2 miles of track interconnecting them. By 1977, however, the company had vacated Peekskill.


These steel sculptures by Joy Taylor is to be installed at Peekskill station later this year.

Before I wrap up Peekskill, I just wanted to offer a quick sneak-peek of one of the upcoming additions to the station. The last portion of Metro-North’s Peekskill project is to install some artwork, courtesy of the Arts for Transit program. The piece selected for the station, titled Jan Peeck’s Vine, is comprised of various steel sculptures and was designed by artist Joy Taylor. The name of the piece derives from Peekskill’s namesake, Jan Peeck. Taylor also created the mosaic piece that was installed at Larchmont station on the New Haven Line.

 
  
  
 
   
 
  
 
   
 
 
   
   
  

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Tuesday Tour of the Port Jervis Line: Otisville


Old Erie station at Otisville, photograph by James E. Bailey, dated 1909. This station was located closer to downtown Otisville, the current Otisville station is in a different location.

Though it feels like we’ve just begun our tour of the Port Jervis line, in reality, we’re almost complete. Of course, the Port Jervis line is not nearly as long as either the Harlem or Hudson lines which have already been featured here. The fact that the stations here are rather unremarkable, and a bit more forgettable, probably doesn’t help. Today’s station, Otisville, is another one of the line’s bland stops. We’re deep into the rural portion Orange County here – and about 82 miles from the start of the line in Hoboken. In terms of ridership, Otisville is the Port Jervis line’s least used station – something the infrastructure seems to reflect. Besides a small shelter on the low-level platform, and a few station name signs, there isn’t too much here.


Train exiting the Otisville Tunnel, 1948.

While the New York Central had its famed “Water-level Route,” following along rivers like the Hudson and providing a relatively flat journey – the Erie Railroad had to tackle more difficult terrain. The Shawangunk Ridge was one such obstacle, and although track had been built near Otisville going over the ridge, it was not the optimal solution for freight. The answer to the problem was the Otisville Tunnel, built in 1908, and likely more noteworthy than the station itself. From the station platform you can see the portal to the tunnel, and the extra track used as a siding for trains entering and exiting. The tunnel measures 5,314 feet long, is 30 feet wide, and extends 25 feet above the rails at the top of the arch. When the tunnel was first built it was used exclusively for freight – passenger trains still went over the ridge – but that was eventually abandoned and all traffic was sent through the tunnel.

  
 
 
  
 
   
 
  

Next week we’ll take a visit to the eponymous Port Jervis station, and the end of the line. After that we’ll move on to the short Pascack Valley line, followed by the one everyone has been waiting for – the Hudson Line.

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Tuesday Tour of the Port Jervis Line: Campbell Hall

 

Early 1900’s views of the Erie’s Campbell Hall station, which was on the Montgomery Branch. The current Campbell Hall station is now located on what was the Graham Line.

As we continue our tour of the Port Jervis line, the next stop we arrive at is Campbell Hall. While the Metro-North facilities here are rather dull, there is a little bit of interesting stuff that does go on at this station. What you’ll immediately notice are the multiple tracks – since the majority of the Port Jervis line is single-tracked. Stowed on a few of the tracks are various train cars, and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll see a locomotive. Though a few of them might belong to Metro-North or New Jersey Transit, the majority probably belongs to the Middletown and New Jersey Railroad, which operates through Campbell Hall.


Postcard view of freight on the Graham Line in Campbell Hall, 1971

Though the Erie did have a station at Campbell Hall, it was not located along this line. When Metro-North took over operations in the 80’s, a small facility was established here, as there were no stations on the Graham Line previously. Like many of the other Port Jervis line facilities we’ve seen, there is not too much here. The low-level platform is partially covered by a canopy, and there is a small shelter to protect riders from the elements. Located inside the shelter are two New Jersey Transit ticket vending machines. The station has a small high-level platform section to accommodate riders in wheelchairs, but is not considered a fully ADA accessible station. Dispersed along the platform are a few planter boxes containing trees… which would probably be a nice touch anywhere else, but we are pretty much located in the wilderness already.


Wilderness case-in-point. You can photograph both trains and wildlife at Campbell Hall. I’ve named this little fellow Paulo coelho.

 

Photos of the Metro-North station at Campbell Hall in the late 80’s. The station has been renovated since, and there is a far nicer shelter for riders. [photo credit]

Campbell Hall was certainly a lot more interesting in the past, with several railroads passing through the small hamlet – but today it is just serviced by Metro-North’s commuter trains, and some occasional freight. On the commuter side of things, a ride from Campbell Hall to Penn Station in the city will take you slightly less than two hours, and to Hoboken about an hour and a half.

Though my stormy-day photographs of Campbell Hall are hardly spectacular, thankfully they are not the worst photos ever taken here – I bestow that honor upon Metro-North itself. One of these days they are totally going to update their site, so it doesn’t say that Campbell Hall is “65.6 miles to Grand Central Terminal” – but that day probably isn’t today.

 
  
   
 
 
  
 
  
 
  
 

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Tuesday Tour of the Port Jervis Line: Salisbury Mills – Cornwall

Continuing our Port Jervis Line tour where we left off last week, we depart Harriman station, bound for the next station on the line, Salisbury Mills – Cornwall. We’re still moving along what was once known as the Graham Line (named after Chief Engineer Joseph M. Graham), which was created to better accomodate freight. Really, the most noteworthy part of the then-Graham Line, today’s Port Jervis Line, is the Moodna Viaduct. Many months ago I did post a bit about the viaduct, so I wont really rehash any of that here, but in order to finally arrive at Salisbury Mills – Cornwall station, you cross over the viaduct. Although I am sure the valley looks quite beautiful from the train, I don’t think the viaduct can fully be appreciated until you view it from afar.


Train crossing the Moodna Viaduct. The Salisbury Mills – Cornwall station is located right at the end of the viaduct.

The facility at Salisbury Mills – Cornwall is relatively underwhelming – at least in comparison to the lovely viaduct we just crossed. The first thing one notices upon arrival are how long the station name signs are – long enough to contain two rows of text. If Metro-North’s goal was to come up with some of the longest station names possible, they certainly succeeded on the Port Jervis Line. Sadly, Salisbury Mills – Cornwall just misses out to Middletown – Town of Walkill for the honor of Metro-North’s longest station name.

Back at Harriman, I mentioned that a few of the stations on the Port Jervis line feature a little historical sketch on the canopy. Unfortunately, the one at Salisbury Mills – Cornwall is left blank… which is really too bad, since it would give this relatively plain facility a (very small) bit of character.



Old views of the depot at Salisbury Mills. Upper image is a postcard view from the early 1900’s, lower image is from 1971. The original Salisbury Mills station was on the Erie’s Newburgh Branch.

Salisbury Mills – Cornwall is one of a few Port Jervis line stations that is ADA accessible, and the south end of the platform has a small high-level platform for passengers requiring wheelchairs. From this end of the platform you can also see the end portion of the viaduct, although it looks far shorter from this vantage point. Though the station has two shelters for patrons to use, the one here on the platform’s south side is a bit nicer than the one on the other end (this portion of the platform is also covered by a canopy). Next to the shelter are two lovely parking pay machines (doesn’t everyone love to pay for parking?!), and more towards the middle of the platform you can find two NJTransit ticket vending machines.


View of Storm King Art Center, showing works by Mark di Suvero. [Photo Credit]

As an art lover, I’d certainly be remiss if I did not mention that the Salisbury Mills – Cornwall station is not far from the wonderful Storm King Art Center. If you haven’t heard of it before, Storm King is a sculpture park situated on over 500 acres of land. Many noteworthy artists have works on display, such as Isamu Noguchi and one of my personal favorites, Alexander Calder. Back when I featured Greenwich, I mentioned artist Mark di Suvero, as a sculpture of his is located right next to the station. That sculpture’s companion piece is located here at Storm King. Unfortunately there is no public transportation that will carry you from the station to the art center, so you’d have to get a taxi to take you the place – though it is only three miles away from the station.

That is about it for Salisbury Mills – Cornwall. Next week we will continue with Campbell Hall station. Everything seems to be going by so fast… we’re already half-way through the Port Jervis Line!

  
   
 
  
 
   
 
  
   
 

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Fine dining, on the train

Last weekend when I was out and about, I couldn’t resist making the purchase of an old New York Central dining car menu. I don’t particularly need a dining car menu (just as a cat lady doesn’t really need 50 cats :P), but here I am with a new acquisition to my ever-growing collection. I think the thing that really captured my interest was the fact that the menu had a photo of Grand Central on the front. But I’m glad that I bought the thing – if only to marvel at the cheap (by today’s standards) prices food used to cost “back in the day.”

Railroad menu designs are certainly not as alluring as the ever-changing timetable, but menus are a nice little bit of rail history. Trains were once the primary mode of long-distance transportation in this country, and where people went food certainly needed to follow. The dining car was an integral part of these trains – a place where passengers could relax, watch the passing scenery, and have a wonderful chef-prepared meal.

The menu that I purchased is from around the 1940’s, and possibly from the 20th Century Limited (note the name of the salad – 20th Century Salad Bowl). The menu is for dinner service, and the offerings look quite tasty – including prime rib, lamb chops, and a chicken pie, among other things. Though the $1.60 for the full prime rib meal seems incredibly cheap, that meal would end up costing around $24.60 today, adjusting for inflation.

  
 

If you find the subject of dining cars interesting, there is a wonderful article that was published in Classic Trains Magazine that is a must-read. It even includes a recipe for Chicken à la Century, a meal that was served on the 20th Century Limited.


Various New York Central dining menus

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Being the most obnoxious train passenger…

Every month in Mileposts there is a lovely little section that mentions etiquette for people riding the trains. Keeping your feet off the seat and to refrain from conversations on cell phones are almost always mentioned. Although I don’t think Mileposts has made note of it, nail clipping on the train is generally frowned upon, and seems to be a pretty big pet peeve of commuters. But what if you could do all of those things at once? You would probably be the most obnoxious train passenger ever. Sort of like this:

I’ve always wanted to do this on a train for quite a while, but timing was always difficult. Every time I’ve done a photo like this in the past, I would put my camera on 10 second delay, hit the shutter and run to the spot I needed to be in… relatively time consuming. However, I recently bought a wireless remote for my camera, and realized it would make my scheme a whole lot easier.

As my evening train arrived at Southeast last night, I quickly set the camera up on a tripod and took various pictures of myself in the train car. It took me about four minutes to get all of the photos. If it wasn’t for people liking the photo on twitter, I probably would never have posted it here, as I’m not tremendously happy with how it turned out.

I definitely want to attempt this again when I have the ability to take my time, not rushing through because the train is about to go into the yard. Plus, I think it is hard to notice in some of the pictures I am clipping my nails, and combing my hair. But for the most part, these are the obnoxious things we commuters tend to see every day. And for a couple of moments in time, I was that most obnoxious passenger.

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