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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Thoughts on winter, and a commuter bill of rights

Shortly after the article in the New York Times featuring this site and my panorama project, I was offered a spot on the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council. Due to time issues, and the fact that me making it to any of their meetings would be extremely difficult, I never took the position. Somehow I think that is a good idea. I have a feeling the Commuter Council wouldn’t like me all that much. Most likely my thoughts regarding the current dilemma of winter service, and the idea of a commuter “Bill of Rights” are a bit different than theirs. The Commuter Councils (New York and Connecticut), and even Senator Schumer are pushing the railroad for a Bill of Rights. The two main incidents cited were the train that got stuck near Green’s Farms on one of the hottest days of the summer, and a train that was “stuck” at Southeast during the October snowstorm. There are a couple of places where my opinion differs from the things that have already been put on the table, thus I feel the need to present them here. If you’d rather not hear a little rant, skip this and come back later in the day – I’ll be posting something pretty for you to look at.

When it comes to these rails I think I have somewhat of a unique perspective: I’m familiar with the history of our rail system and the crap that used to go on. I am close to several people that work for the railroad, and I understand their thoughts on various issues. But most importantly, I am a commuter, and thus am familiar with the daily plight of many transit riders.


If you’re a reader of my site, most likely you are familiar with the stories of the Upper Harlem Line. Remember this date: March 20th, 1972. It was the last day that there was passenger service from Dover Plains to Chatham. The Penn Central didn’t really care much about their passengers. Take a guess when they shut down the line? In the middle of the day. So that means if you commuted from Chatham you managed to get to the city in the morning. But there was no way for you to get home. They’d take you up to Dover Plains that evening, but it was on you to figure out how to travel the last 50 miles to your home. How’s that for service?

As a historical aside, after World War Two the railroads weren’t doing so hot. Even the president of the New York Central committed suicide. In order to stay afloat, the New York Central (of which the Hudson and Harlem lines belonged) and the Pennsylvania Railroad merged to become the Penn Central. Not long after, the government forced the bankrupt New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (our New Haven Line) into the merger. After only a few years the Penn Central itself went bankrupt – at that time it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. This is the crumbling foundation on which Metro-North was eventually built. Clearly, not a simple task. If you find any of this interesting, I do suggest you read a book titled “The Wreck of the Penn Central.”

Working on the railroad

If Metro-North pulled the stunt I mentioned above, imagine how irate we commuters would be! The railroad is hardly a perfect entity, however, it is a whole lot better than it was. We now live in an era where technology is developing rapidly, and the railroad has finally begun to embrace it along with other current trends (twitter, facebook). Only two years ago the MTA would send their lawyers after you for using the round subway bullets online. The MTA’s lawyers also deemed Metro-North’s train schedules as their own intellectual property – which meant cease and desist orders were sent to anybody that made a useful transit app. Now Metro-North gladly offers this information to developers, and they even feature third-party transit apps on their site.

In the grand scheme of things, Metro-North has come a long way. They’ve even beaten out the Long Island Rail Road as the busiest commuter system in the country. Sure, there are a lot of things they could do to improve service, but it is getting better. For one thing, communication is improving. We get text alerts for train issues now. And when I say we, I mean commuters. If you’re a conductor, not so much. Here’s a game to play – the next time you’re on the train and you get a text alert saying there are delays, ask your conductor about it. There is a high likelihood that you know more than they do. And people complain that conductors don’t make announcements. Communication is certainly better, but it has a long way it needs to go. If you get anything out of this long rant it is that the railroad needs to work a whole lot on improving communication. Not only with commuters, but with their own staff!

A Commuter’s Life

On the hottest day of the summer, a train got stuck not far from Green’s Farms. I’m not going to go into much detail, as it has been explained by various news media, but the important part is that people were stuck for a while. Supposedly the railroad told the Westport fire department that the train was empty. It was not. And suffice it to say, people were not thrilled to be boiling on a hot day in a tin can. Was Metro-North at fault in this instance? Hell yes. The highlight of the story is poor communication. The infrastructure on the New Haven Line is not spectacular – the train cars are old, and so are the catenaries. The incident would have happened either way, but with better communication it would have been handled far better, and passengers wouldn’t be nearly as bitter.

Here is where my thoughts differ from Schumer and his impetus for a bill of rights. In October we were hit with a freak snow storm, dumping huge amounts of snow on the area. A train to Grand Central (including passengers that had made a connection from Wassaic) got stuck at Southeast station and was there for eleven or more hours. While folks are citing this incident along with the aformentioned Green’s Farms incident, grouping them together is like apples and oranges. The train was stuck at the station. Meaning people could get off the train if they wanted to. And some did – they made snowmen on the platform, and the braver ones attempted to make the one mile uphill climb to the stores in Southeast. If they wanted to, they could have called their loved ones to come pick them up.

Oh wait, remember that part about the snow falling from the sky? Roads were impassable. Cars were stuck on the Taconic and 684 for twelve or more hours – longer than anybody “stuck” on that train. There is this little thing called personal accountability. Days before the storm hit, weather predictions said we could get nearly two feet of snow. The smart people stayed home. The slightly crazier ones stocked up on anything the grocery store had and turned their home into a miniature survival bunker. The even crazier ones disregarded the reports and went out – and got themselves stuck.

What do you want from Metro-North anyway?

Commuters, if you want something, you need to be realistic. What do you want Metro-North to do? I’ve heard utterly insane suggestions that ought to become part of this “Bill of Rights.” Trains should have blankets and water on board in case they get stuck. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should put refrigerators on all the trains to keep that water cold. Supposedly folks involved in the Green’s Farms incident complained that when they were finally given water, it was warm – though I do admit, the veracity of that ever occurring is suspect. Nonetheless, I don’t think any of those demands sound realistic.

Here is an exercise in thinking realistically: Say you are the president of Metro-North for the day. How would you have dealt with the situation in Southeast? Really. Think about it. When the rails no longer became safe to operate on, Metro-North pulled the plug. Nobody could be picked up because the roads were even worse. What is the answer to this problem? What could the railroad have possibly done in a situation like that? Should the MTA keep a secret phalanx of ATVs and snowmobiles? Maybe they should teach the MTAPD’s K-9’s to pull a dog sled? Or maybe Metro-North should have pulled the plug before, knowing that a storm was coming.

A fun idea. Though not realistic.

Oh wait, they said they were going to do that this upcoming winter. And the media complained and mocked them and said that you’d be better off riding in a sleigh (thankfully, I must say Jim Cameron of Connecticut’s commuter council is realistic and understands this point). Suspending service before any trains got stuck seems like the only logical way one could have dealt with the problem in Southeast.

No matter what the railroad decides to do, the fact of the matter is they will never be able to please everyone. And I’m not exactly saying that the Bill of Rights is a bad idea. But if we commuters wish to have a Bill of Rights that addresses some of these issues, our requests need to be well thought out and realistic – not the result of over emotion (though if you were involved in either of those incidents, I understand the reason why you would feel that way). The Commuter Councils’ requests more realistic than Schumer’s, but he’s a politician that probably doesn’t ride the train much, and is busy fighting the good fight against true menaces to our society, like Four Loko.

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Nobody likes a late train… and other such twitter nonsense

One of the things I hate more than being dull and serious is a late train. To amuse myself while waiting for late trains, I began using twitter to invent odd reasons for the lateness. Derailed circus trains, planking customers, and rabid pigeons have all been presented as reasons for lateness, despite their relative insanity. Although it started as a joke, I now feel the obligation to come up with something crazy every time I hear there is a late train.

Below you will find some of my favorite nonsensical tweets about late trains, several of which have been designed to annoy @MetroNorthTweet. Over the years, Metro North’s twitter account has been operated by several individuals – the most recent of which has decided twitter is absolutely pointless and is not a platform in which customers can be helped. Their current modus operandi is to copy and paste to everyone “call 511, idiots, twitter sucks.” The new tweeter also made it a point to unfollow me, though to my immense amusement they are still best pals with @fuckedcommuter. A fine endorsement for the railroad, I see. If you want to read more about my thoughts on Metro-North’s attempts at social media, you can find it here. But now, onto the insanity:

Note: Gregory, occasional blog reader, railfan, and photographer was that week arrested for train photography at the Virginia Road crossing in North White Plains. He claimed that while this was all ensuing, police asked him if he knew “the cat girl.”

Based upon a factual incident, where 3 young females attempted to fit into an M3 bathroom. Clearly they should have waited for a train using M7 equipment.

By all means, if you have a suggestion for a future reason for a “train delay” – please comment. And if you’re not following me on twitter, you totally should.

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