Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

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Meet TIM – Metro-North’s new credit card enabled Ticket Issuing Machine

As most of you have likely heard by now, Metro-North has begun a pilot program testing new Ticket Issuing Machines (TIMs) on the Upper Harlem Line (or as Metro-North would call it, the Wassaic “Branch”) and the Danbury Branch. The big news about these machines is that they accept credit cards – something conductors selling tickets have long been unable to do.

I got a chance to check out one of these new machines, and must admit they are quite cool. Slim and light compared to the previous TIMs, these new machines are essentially tricked-out iPhones running special software. Wrapped in a blue Metro-North case, the TIM contains an LED barcode scanner (used for scanning the barcode on IDs of delinquents that have neither tickets nor money) and a swipe for credit cards. The special software installed on the phone not only allows conductors to sell tickets, but it also “locks down” the iPhone, preventing it from downloading apps, reading email, and all the other things you wouldn’t want a conductor to do while on duty.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new Metro-North TIM and printer

Similar to the previous TIM, the new TIM connects wirelessly to a printer that can be hung from the belt. This printer provides the customer with a receipt for the ticket they bought. It also provides the conductor at the end of the day a receipt that lists how much they’ve sold, and further breaks that down into cash tickets sold (which needs to be turned in to Metro-North), and how much was sold by credit.

While the majority of Metro-North riders are conditioned to purchase their tickets before boarding, there remains several stations on the Danbury and Waterbury Branches that do not have platform ticket vending machines or ticket sellers. It is there that the new TIM will likely be most welcome. But for those people that race to catch a train and aren’t able to purchase a ticket before boarding, being able to use a credit card is a great convenience.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM features an LED barcode scanner, and a swipe for credit cards

Though much of the fanfare regarding the new TIM focuses on the ability to accept credit cards, it is worth mentioning that the new technology can help out quite a bit when it comes to customer service. One of the main complaints I hear are that customers on trains stuck in delays are not provided with enough information as to what is going on. What most don’t realize, however, is that conductors are often not given information about what is happening. In fact, Metro-North’s text alert system often provides customers with information that crews don’t even know. Because the new TIM is essentially a cell phone, the potential is there to use it to notify conductors about issues – information that can then be relayed to the customers over the train’s PA. Whether the technology will be used in this fashion remains to be seen, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Of course, one must remember that this is only a pilot program. However, I imagine that once the system’s inevitable bugs are worked out, credit card enabled TIMs will soon be popping up on more lines and trains.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM’s blue protective case, bearing the Metro-North logo

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The ticket software is conveniently accessed through this icon of an M7

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
Three screens of the new TIM – A message sent to the conductor, the screen selling tickets, and a screen showing the phone’s “lockdown” – preventing the iPhone from doing the things most people do with iPhones

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The Keys to Grand Central Terminal – 3D Printing a railroad key fit for the centennial

Just five days before the opening of Grand Central Terminal, Miles Bronson was appointed the General Manager of the New York Central’s greatest station. Born in India to missionary parents, Bronson returned to the United States for education and got his first railroad job at the tender age of fifteen. Appointed to the job of Grand Central’s General Manager at the 37, Bronson had worked for the New York Central for thirteen years, and he served as Grand Central’s general manager for 21 more years before retiring due to illness (he passed away a short time after).

As festivities kicked off celebrating the opening of the new Terminal, meals were served, music was played, and Mr. Bronson was presented with the keys to the Terminal in a ceremony next to the information booth. While we’ll probably never know exactly what those keys looked like, I’d like to think that they were embellished with the logo of Grand Central Terminal. Maybe something a little like this…

Key in polished brass

In my most recent endeavor with 3D printing (if you’ve been around a while, you may recall that my first 3D model ever was of Brewster station), I set about the task of making a Grand Central key as a gift for a friend who is a Metro-North conductor. 3D printing keys isn’t a unique concept – in fact Shapeways and KeyMe have joined up to print house keys. But what if you’re looking for a key for something different… like say, a train? Maybe a Metro-North train?

From sketchbook to reality
From sketchbook to reality…

The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad
The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad, and then 3D printed using Shapeways.

Metro-North’s trains usually have two different keys – one for operations, and the other for opening panels and doors, which all conductors have. I sketched and measured a panel key, and built it in 3D using Tinkercad. Instead of the standard key end, this key is customized with the Grand Central logo – a stylized version of the letters GCT. For testing purposes I made a few versions of the key in plastic (or as Shapeways would call it, Strong and Flexible – a laser sintered nylon)…

Key in Black Strong and Flexible

And then made a gift version in polished brass…

Key in polished brass

These days railroad keys aren’t made in brass, but historically they were made in that material, and I figured it would be perfect to create this key. Polished brass is still a trial material at Shapeways, but considering how awesome this key looks, you’d probably never know. With a red velvet ribbon and pouch, the key is ready for gifting. Though the key does work on trains, most likely it will only be used for decorative purposes so it doesn’t get lost.

Three keys - WSF, Polished Brass, Black SF

Because of the somewhat sensitive nature of this key, I’m not making this item available for sale (yes, I know, plenty of people that don’t work for Metro-North have these keys, but I’m not going to make it easy. An exception could potentially be made if you’re a railroad employee, or if you’d like a key that doesn’t actually work for decorative purposes only). However, a few of my other Grand Central themed 3D prints are available if you’re interested…

Grand Central Constellation Pegasus:
Constellation Pegasus
3D Printed in Colored Sandstone, this little item can be used as a pendant, keychain, or decoration. I’ve used it in the past as a fancy tag for a gift. It features the constellation Pegasus from Grand Central’s sky ceiling.
See it in 3D.

Grand Central Snowflake:
Grand Central snowflake
This snowflake ornament is modeled after the acorn motif found throughout Grand Central Terminal. Acorns are found throughout the Terminal as they were the adopted “crest” of the Vanderbilt family. This specific design can be found embellishing the ticket windows.
See it in 3D.

While 3D printing is already changing model railroading – Shapeways has a category devoted to it, and companies like Flexiscale are producing kits using parts fabricated on 3D printers – it is always fun to create something railroad related for the “real world.” Though 3D printing has immense promise in allowing the masses to fabricate things they could previously only imagine, and creating things that were previously impossible, it is also interesting to take an already functional object and make it more attractive. Suffice it to say, nobody was thinking about how pretty a railroad key would be when they were first designed. Now we can have both – a working key fit for Grand Central Terminal’s centennial.

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