All the silly things people apparently want to know about Metro-North service delays…

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!

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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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Sketching life along the rails, Part 2

As promised last week, here is another set of train-themed sketches. We’re again featuring more of the late 1940’s, early 1950’s New York Central sketches by artists Joseph Hirsch and Carol Johnson, as well as some current images by James Napoleon.

First are the older sketches. As we saw last week, the artists have captured a day in the life of a railroader. Although a few engineers and conductors can be seen, they mostly feature the hardest workers: those that lay the ties, that place the rails, and those that secure the two together. This is one of the most integral jobs with the railroad – for without tracks there would be no places for the trains to go.

 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  

Our more current sketches are by artist and Harlem Line rider James Napoleon. I first met James quite a few months ago, when I caught him sketching me on the train. He tries to do at least one sketch per day, and has several sketchbooks filled with various people seen on the train, at the park, or in other places. I find it amusing that a lot of the train people found in his sketchbook are sleeping, because it is an apt depiction of the people on his morning train (see the post: Those Wassaic People). For more of Mr. Napoleon’s work you can check out his website, which shows many of his lovely paintings.







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