A bus ride in my imagination

640px-lincoln_tunnelThe idea of driving is a conservative one. You can go whenever you want, wherever you want. There are no schedules to stop you. And, the idea of the interstate highway – with no big government obstacles like traffic lights, crosswalks, or stop signs – is the true home to this idea. Sure, that highway was built and is maintained by the government (minor details). On paper, it is a simple concept. Drive fast or get over. Ah, freedom!

The commuter bus on the other hand is fits nicely as a liberal idea. Most, if not all, commuter buses are run by or contracted for operation by the government. Big government schedules your arrival and departure. It too shares the highway with those freedom loving drivers.

These two ideas are put to the test each day in the daily “debate” known as rush hour. Will the commuter alone in his or her car make it home on time? Will the commuter bus make it to its destinations on time? Both are jockeying for position as the highway fills. There are moments of compromise but a lot of brake lights. It is what I call decider overload. The idea that with so many people making decisions (I should cross three lanes of traffic to exit) or expressing their opinions (it is my opinion driving in the left lane at 45 mph is ok), it creates the environment for system break down. And, with that, you get traffic.

I knew I was in for quite a bit of decider overload as I rolled into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 3:35p The next bus was at 4:15p, with my arrival in Frenchtown, New Jersey scheduled for 5:55p.

5:55p. I chuckled. Not only was it rush hour, it had started to rain.

I headed into the bowels of the Port Authority to Gate 10. With its chrome numbers and fire engine red bricks, I found the line for a Trans-Bridge interstate bus that would shoot down Interstate 78 and Interstate 287 before exiting on to US 202. This highway would lead us to Branchburg and Flemington before we connected to the two lane NJ 12 for the final leg to Frenchtown.

The overload started at the Lincoln Tunnel and was off and mostly on all the way to Flemington. None of this was surprising. Driving is the primary way to commute from this part of NJ. Just two commuter bus lines and one train– the maddeningly slow Raritan Valley Line – move people to NYC.

So, as the bus began its slog down US 202 – an arterial highway with traffic lights – I came to find out that the setup of this bus route was probably under the guise of, “you should be happy there is bus service at all” thinking.

Branchburg in Somerset County was the first stop. It has a park-and-ride on the eastbound side of US 202. The bus has to go past the park-and-ride to the next light, make a U-Turn, come back to the park-and-ride, drop people off, and then get onto US 202 North and proceed to the next traffic light to make another U-Turn to get onto US 202 South.

Efficient. With the rain, traffic and odd route, we were 35 minutes late to Frenchtown.

A similar situation happened in Flemington the next morning when leaving its park-and-ride to head to New York. The parking lot exit only allows for right turns out of the lot. This requires the bus to go west on NJ 12 and turn around via a traffic circle. Huh?

We were 15 minutes late arriving at Port Authority.

It is all a little sad.

You hear about the big plans and over budget projects like the criminally expensive PATH station at the World Trade Center.  Imagine all the little upgrades or the less glamorous projects that could have been paid for with just half the money that station ended up costing.

Imagine the park-and-rides in Branchburg or Flemington were in more strategic places. And, because they were, it would save the weary commuter 10 minutes.

Imagine the bus had its own lane that zipped past the traffic, like a train. Imagine there was a train that went to Flemington or even Frenchtown.

Imagine there was not a debate in this country about whether or not we should be fixing and upgrading our infrastructure.  

Imagine that. I will, as I sit in traffic.

 

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My train has been Dikembe Mutombo’d

357px-mutombo

No one wants to be rejected.  The feeling of having your ideas panned or your heart broken is not a pleasant one.  Rejection can make you do all kinds things. You might withdraw. You might contemplate your place in the universe.  You might creatively use the name of a retired NBA player known mostly for blocking shots and sounding a bit like a Sesame Street character to show your displeasure for your streetcar system not getting built.

Our request for streetcar project was Dikembe Mutombo’d. So recapping, 0 for SI and $2.5 billion for other places pic.twitter.com/c0X8p9JxJL

— Jimmy Oddo (@HeyNowJO) February 4, 2016

Dikembe Mutombo’d = RE-JECTED!

Well played, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. Well played.

Oddo’s feeling of rejection was in response to news that Mayor DiBlasio wants to build a streetcar line connecting Queens and Brooklyn near the East River.  We know BDB does not want his QBX plan Manute Bol’d rejected.  But, where to go for some advice?  Cue the New York Times, with a rather glowing article about a successful light rail line to use for inspiration.

Was it in Europe or Asia?  Nope.  Minneapolis or Charlotte have newer systems, how about them?  Nope.

How about that transit juggernaut just across the Hudson.  Huh.  Huh.  I am talking about New Jersey and New Jersey Transit’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.

The two billion dollar, 17-mile system runs parallel to the Hudson River through some of the most population-dense cities in the country.  Its ridership is growing and has helped spur growth along the route.  Look at Hoboken’s westside and Weehawken.  But, the HBLR, for all its “sleek cars” that “glide” on rails and that it is getting “increasingly popular”, it has its issues that the Mayor can learn from.  Here’s my top four:

#1:  Its fare box recovery is terrible

At 33%, if it were not not for the Newark Light Rail and the Trenton-Camden RiverLINE (what the then director of NJT called “the poster child for how not to plan and make decisions about a transit investment.”), HBLR would be the worst in NJ.  Part of the reason is #2.

#2:  It uses the honor system for its fares

Unlike the New York City subway system or the PATH trains, the HBLR does not have fare gates.  And, unlike commuter rail, there are no conductors punching or checking every ticket.  Like a lot of Light Rail systems, it uses a proof-of-purchase system.  You buy a ticket and then punch it in a ticket validator that stamps the time on your ticket.  Ticket checkers will hang out at the station or on a train and check you ticket from time to time.

#3:  Weekends to Hoboken: Nope

If it is Saturday or Sunday and you live north of Hoboken Terminal, there are no HBLR trains to Hoboken Terminal.  You can go to Newport.  You can go to 2nd Street in Hoboken. But, you cannot take the HBLR to the busiest train station in New Jersey without transferring.

#4:  And speaking of missed connections

The HBLR is an NJT property.  Its biggest connections for rush hour commuters into NYC are the PATH and NJ Waterways Ferry.  While you can buy a combo ticket with NY Waterways, NJT has no combo or ticket reciprocity with PATH.  Wouldn’t one ticket be nice?

The rescue train is on its way…again.

A P32AC-DM locomotive heading south to Cold Spring station on the Hudson Line/Tim1337 via Wikipedia

“Train is dead folks. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Those are words I never heard a conductor say before.

“We are getting pushed back to the platform.”

The locomotive leading a 7:21 pm Hudson Line express north to Poughkeepsie broke down moments after it left Grand Central Terminal.  The engine is one of Metro-North’s GE P32AC-DM locomotives; the regular power for Hudson Line trains heading north of the end of the electrification at Croton-Harmon Station.  It is something that happens more than Metro-North would like.

The railroad’s latest operations report shows the P32’s 2015 goal for something called Mean Distance Between Failures (MDBF) is 35,000 miles.  The engine averaged 16,250 MDBF in July; a number that accounted for 12 engines breaking down while hauling passengers.  In June, it averaged 21,124 with 9 breakdowns.  Since the start of 2015, its average was 22,186 MDBF, with its 12 month rolling average 22,316 MDBF.

This compares to June 2014 when its MDBF was 26,516 with 7 breakdowns.  In July 2014, the P32 averaged 19,361 MDBF and had 10 breakdowns.

Given their recent performance, Metro-North’s MDBF goals seem a bit ambitious for the P32.  One could hope it is just overconfidence by the goal setters or an anomaly in the average (one locomotive breaking down repeatedly).

If they are failing because of age that is  more troubling seeing the oldest of bunch ordered by both Metro-North are just turning 20 and no new ones are on the way.  There is no mention of P32 replacements in the MTA’s capital budget for 2015-2019.  Amtrak also owns P32s and it is not planning on buying any new diesel locomotives until 2024.  That is not surprising, though, as these engines should have a lot of life left in them.

Ultimately, we did not get moved back to the platform.  Problems with the rescue train prevented it from taking us back to Grand Central.  Instead, we were drug north to 125th Street by a different train an hour and half after we first broke down.

“Train will be across the platform. We apologize for the inconvenience. We are doing the best we can.”

As I was writing this, my wife’s train broke down in the tunnel.  It was also being hauled by a P32.

 

Apparently, I’m awesome

It was jammed packed on my rush hour train so I stood. Next to me was a drunk guy chatting up some poor riders.  I thought, what a jerk to get on a rush hour train drunk. He started talking to them about Ferguson.  Asked them if they were on facebook. He told one of them, “she was f’ing awesome.”

And, then I leaned down to move my bag. And, I dumped my beer on the floor.  Perfect.
And, as I wiped up my beer with some papers, I thought to myself, I guess I’m the one that’s f’ing awesome.

But, not to be out done, the drunk stumbled off the train in Croton.  He was headed to Poughkeepsie.  I guess he’s the awesome one.

Here, take my pickle. Come on, take it. 

The Metro-North trains are usually jammed packed at rush hour with working stiffs like me. So, if you are not normally riding with us, perhaps in town from a different country, here are a few tips to help our time together be more pleasent. 

1.  If you are going to eat, choose a dish with a mild smell.  Curries, Chinese food or fish are bad choices.  

2.  Offering food to your travel mates across other people is frowned upon especially if it is a food that drips like a wet pickle or a falafel.  

3. Don’t make phone calls on your cell you then pass around.  It’s bad enough you’re on your cell. Now, three people are on your cell. 

4.  Buy the right ticket.  You’ve ridden a train before right?  You wouldn’t get on a Ferris wheel without paying the correct amount, why is this ride any different. The MTA is happy to take your money on board but come on, there are only like 20 machines are half-a-dozen windows at Grand Central. 

5.  Know where your going. You can’t get to White Plains, New Haven, Philly, DC, etc. on my train.  Or, Tarrytown and Ossining.  You somehow by the grace of God made it to New York, you can probably develop a plan to move from the Grand Central Hyatt into the wilderness that is the Hudson Valley. 

6.  Leave your selfie stick at home. This is New York, someone may beat you with it if you use it. 

7.  Don’t sit in the middle of the three seater and try to have a conversation with your friend three seats in front of you.  Remember that selfie stick, it may get used again 

8.  Do not discuss loudly or really at any volume hot button issues with friends. If we cared what you thought you wouldn’t be heading north with every worldly possession you own in a backpack destined for the Appalachian Trail to “find yourself” among nature’s wonder.  My only wonder is why you are still talking. 

9.  Please use your headphones. No one wants to hear your favorite Nelly song or the audio of your mom’s Yorkie reciting the Periodic Table of Elements. Your dog is just barking. He did not just say Boron. 

Safe travels!

Seriously, unhappy train people…

No one likes when couples fight especially on our beloved Hudson Line; especially hipster couples. The pair in front of me are having troubles.   And, it is all over the following:

Woman was not happy she had to walk up five cars to find her man. 

She did not think his seat selection – the no window three in the corner front of a cab car being used as a coach – was a very good one. 

Just coughed on her. 

Also, and I am speculating, the woman wanted to be on the super-duper 6:12 express to Beacon but her dude got on the wrong train. 

It is tense.  Not looking at each other. Hope they can stay together.