If you’re a rider of the Harlem Line, most likely you were aware of some service delays on the line this morning. Social media never ceases to amaze me, as messages fly through text, twitter, facebook from others riding the rails. If there’s a delay or an issue, someone out there is talking about it online… and is probably even going to beat Metro-North to reporting it to the world. In today’s case, I did beat Metro-North to reporting over twitter that the Harlem Line north of Croton Falls was shut down, as I just happened to be on the train that was stuck. And then, of course, the questions began.

Now, I don’t mind answering questions (though the managers of Metro-North’s customer service department do – as I have received angry messages from them to “refrain from responding to customers” in the past), but I thought that perhaps I should answer them publicly for all to see. Since I’m sure Metro-North managers will be annoyed I’m doing this, I must reiterate that these are not official answers to anything. I do not work for Metro-North, nor do I represent them. These are, however, questions that I’ve heard, or have been asked on social media. I don’t want to say that this post is directed towards the other half of my readership – the non-railfan commuters – but it sort of is. These are, apparently, the things that you want to know:

Great. The trees are planking again. Now what? (and, yes, this was the tree that tied up the Harlem Line this morning)

Why is something like a little rainstorm delaying my train?
Each of Metro-North’s three main lines have a little “achilles heel,” so to speak. For the Harlem, it is trees. On the Hudson, it is water – flooding and mudslides. On the New Haven, it is the old caternary system. Issues on each line are not exclusively these things, as obviously a tree could fall anywhere. But in the case of the Harlem Line, that “little rainstorm” probably knocked down a tree somewhere. That “little rainstorm” likely had “a little bit of wind,” which can cause a lot more damage than you think.

If a tree is down in Southeast, why are trains delayed in Valhalla? – asked by @Crissteen.
Your train doesn’t magically appear in Valhalla. Most likely, your train originated at the trainyard in Brewster. Even if the service disruption is not near to you, it can still cause delays if your train can’t get there. Remember that train service is a carefully orchestrated system, and there are probably a lot more trains on the rails than you think.

The weather at the station isn’t even that bad! Why are there delays?
Believe it or not, storms not directly effecting the rails can still cause delays. Although Metro-North tries its hardest to prepare for this eventuality with extra crews on hand, if train crews can’t get to their trains, there will be delays. I can think of one instance earlier this year when there was a very minor snow storm, not bad enough to delay service on its own. However, a truck going too fast overturned on 84, blocking all lanes. With 84 effectively shut down, crews had difficulty getting to work. Obviously, the trains can’t go if there is nobody to operate them. This is a very rare instance, but is not outside the realm of possibility.

If there is a tree down, why does it take so long for someone to come and remove it?
Firstly, someone needs to be dispatched to the area. They need to drive there, then find a way to get over to where the issue is. All of that takes time, but really, the main consideration is the electric. Remember those third rails that power the trains? The power needs to be turned off so people can work without getting zapped. Then when the work is done, the power needs to be turned back on.

If trees are such a big problem, why don’t they cut all of them down?
Okay you environment-hater, even if Metro-North was going to consider something this silly, not every tree is on Metro-North property. Trees do get trimmed, but do remember that trees are kinda tall, and we can’t really dictate how they will fall over.

Why can’t you just go around the problem? Why is my train going in the wrong direction? – Wondered about by TrainJotting
You see, the difference between cars and trains is that trains have to run on these things called rails. You may have seen them before, actually. They’re the two long, shiny things underneath the train. Unlike a car, a train can’t easily just “change lanes” (FYI, they also can’t be hijacked and driven into the White House). There are spots where trains can cross over to other tracks, but they aren’t everywhere. Thus “going around the problem” might be easier said than done. In some instances the closest place to switch over to another track may be behind you – which means your train might have to move in the “wrong direction.”

Why doesn’t my conductor just do <insert some action here>?
Because in an instance like this, your conductor isn’t totally running the show. They’re likely on the radio talking to the Rail Traffic Controller, in the control center in Grand Central. The RTCs assess the situation, weigh all the options, and give the train crew instructions. All of this, of course, takes time, and quite often there is a dialog going on while the options are considered. In this morning’s case, the RTC wanted to know how many people were aboard the disabled train, in case an evacuation was necessary. Instead, the tree was cleared and an evacuation was not necessary.

Why didn’t the conductor tell me what was happening?
In the case of small delays, you might know more than your conductor! Metro-North has gotten pretty good about informing passengers about delays via text message – updates your conductor might not be aware of. Usually conductors announce what they know, but sometimes they do wait until something concrete is known before sharing. Above I mentioned how the RTC considers all the options – it would be silly for the conductor to inform everyone that the train might need to be evacuated – because in the end this is not what happened. Once they have all the facts, they’ll try to let you know!

7 Responses

  1. Keith says:

    Look I think MN East and West of the Hudson do a fantastic job dealing with 100+ year old infrastructure. Any form of transportation gets affected by weather, remember the sagging wires on the New Haven during the heat wave last year? Even sunny warm weather affects rail travel.

    People have to collectively chill when on a train that is confronting an issue (weather related, etc) and know through the fault of NO ONE they are stuck, deal with it. I have been delayed into NYC due to weather related issues. No reasonable person has EVER faulted me for calling/emailing then stating what is happening and letting them know I’ll get there when I get there. 99.9% of the time the issue with the train is NOT the fault of the train crew – they’re in the same situation you are. Let them do their job so you can get to yours.

    And if your boss/supervisor is one of those “You should have caught an earlier train” types, let them know your crystal ball was in the shop that morning……

    • Emily says:

      You’re totally right. If I were to tally up all the times I was late for work taking the train, and compare that to the amount of times my coworkers have been late due to traffic on the roads, the trains would win out. No method is completely foolproof… except for maybe transporters… as long as the crew keeps a good signal lock on you… ;)

      • Keith says:

        As long as the re-sequencing combination buffers have had a level 3 diagnostic performed on them in the last few days there should be no errors whatsoever in using the transporters to go to and from work….. Until then yes MN, NJTRANSIT, and LIRR still beat the alternative of driving in both cost and convenience.

        And if the responses from MN or twitter get you down while you’re stuck in a train do what I do, take off your shoes, put your feet up on the opposite seat, talk loudly on your cell phone and then curse and yell at train crew personnel while telling them how educated you are LOL!

  2. On hot days, the trains will sometimes be delayed in order that the tracks, which are subject to expansion and sun kinks, will not be excessively stressed by the forces of the train. On your New Haven line, the overhead wires are subject to expansion and sagging, which is also reason to take it slower.

    Sometimes, even the things the railroad does to improve things slows you down. In Chicago, mid-day trains sometimes run on a track that doesn’t have station platforms, requiring all passengers to unload or load through one door spotted over a road crossing. Then despite all precaution, sometimes a crane tips over and drops a signal bridge across the tracks, just before rush hour.

    • Emily says:

      Ah, you’re right. I failed to mention anything about heat-related delays. I can’t recall off the top of my head, but things get slowed down when the temperature reaches a certain level. Higher on the Hudson/Harlem and a bit lower on the New Haven because of those saggy wires.

  3. David says:

    My father (no longer alive) used to commute from Crestwod to Grand Central. He always used to refer to the voice coming out of the speaker at the station (“Attention at Crestwood”) as the Voice of Doom. He probably was right about that.

  4. Otto Vondrak says:

    The railroad used to keep the trees clear from their right of way, which usually extends anywhere from 20 to 50 feet from the center of the tracks… For whatever reason, Metro-North has allowed trees to grow in the last 30 years and only cut them down once they fall. They could probably save a lot of grief by being aggressive with cutting now, rather than waiting for something to go wrong.

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