The Harlem Line, and the color blue

Just the other day I was chatting with a coworker about riding the train – she lives in Mount Vernon and mentioned occasionally riding the “red line” into the city. I had to chuckle a little bit – it is usually the uninitiated newbies that refer to the Metro-North lines by their colors. The color of each line, however, is deeply ingrained in all of us. From the signage on the platforms to the printed timetables, we all pretty much know that the Hudson Line is green, the Harlem blue, and the New Haven red. But where did these colors come from, and how long have they represented each line?

Most obvious is the New Haven Line. The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, of which today’s New Haven Line was once a part, long used red for printing and locomotive paint schemes. Although not part of the core Metro-North lines on the east of the Hudson River, I’ve always thought that the selection of orange to represent the Port Jervis line was a little bit clever – much of the line runs through Orange County. I’m not sure how the Harlem became blue, and the Hudson became green (you’d think it is backwards – blue seems more appropriate for the line that runs along the Hudson River), the two colors have been established long before Metro-North ever came into being. Their first usage on timetables dates back to around 1965.


One of the very first (in not the first) New York Central timetables where the Harlem Division is colored blue.


The first uses of the blue and green color for the Harlem and Hudson Divisions was not in the ink – it was the paper. These two are from April 1967.


Some of the earliest timetables using blue ink. Although there were a few more printings of timetables on blue paper, the blue ink on white paper became the standard, which continues today.

Blue ink on white paper eventually became the standard for Harlem timetables, though there were a few times over the years where the rules were totally broken. One of the most odd was an early timetable printed by Metro-North in 1983 – in maroon ink. I have no idea why anyone would have thought to print a Harlem Line timetable in maroon – my only assumption is that it was to catch people’s attention as it highlighted the electrification project underway north of White Plains.

Most amusingly, you’ll note a little mark on the bottom right that reads “Form 112.” Form 112 was the number assigned to Upper Harlem timetables since the New York Central days, which at that time meant service from Pawling to Chatham (or in the early 1900’s, North Adams, Massachusetts). It is a little bit odd to see that form number used for service north of White Plains. Calling stations like Valhalla, or Mount Kisco the Upper Harlem seems like blasphemy to me.

Today you won’t find form numbers on any of Metro-North’s timetables. Their inclusion in the early timetables almost seems like an in-joke amongst the old railroaders working for this new company. You won’t see “Upper Harlem” timetables either – the entire line is usually printed in a single timetable, making this particular timetable rare.

Below is the rest of the timetable, which is a bit interesting to see… especially the listing of the fares when Metro-North took over from Conrail in 1983.

Read More

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.

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: New Hamburg


Postcard view of the original station at New Hamburg. [image credit]

Today our Tuesday Tour takes us to the northern portion of Metro-North’s Hudson Line, as we visit New Hamburg. The station is about 65 miles from Grand Central in the un-electrified territory north of Croton-Harmon, and sandwiched in between Beacon station and Metro-North’s terminus at Poughkeepsie. The railroad bisects the hamlet of New Hamburg, notable mostly for its marina on the Hudson.

Along the railroad, however, New Hamburg was likely notable for its tunnel. As I mentioned in my introduction to the Hudson Line, eight tunnels needed to be constructed to accommodate the tracks in the 1840’s, one of which was in New Hamburg. Although the tunnel is no longer used by the railroad, it still exists, though for the most part it is covered by brush. Railroad service both north and south had already been established before the tunnel was completed, so for a short time passengers heading through New Hamburg had to detour the unfinished tunnel by boat.

 
New Hamburg has seen its share of train crashes – one New York Times reporter, apparently fond of alliteration, described an 1871 crash as a “Human Holocaust on the Hudson”. The above image shows a crash in 1899.

Despite being around since the Hudson River Railroad days, the station at New Hamburg was closed sometime after 1962 (yes, the station had again made the newspaper that year for another crash – this time four children walking on the tracks were hit and killed by a New York Central Beeliner). Though most stations that are closed end up shuttered permanently, this one has a little bit happier of an ending. New Hamburg station reopened in 1981, and was serviced by new Seldom Self-Propelled Vehicles operated by Conrail. Thankfully, those cars are just a memory, and today Metro-North offers some more reliable service from New Hamburg.

  
 
  
  
 
  
 
   

Read More