I was outnumbered by the ticket machines a few months back. If they had come to life and began taking out their years of pain on me, from people cursing them when fares went up or hitting them when they failed to push out the correct pass, I’d be dead. I was alone at NJ Transit’s Long Branch Station. I stepped up to concrete platform where sitting quietly were five or six silver passenger rail cars with the doors shut. Gone were the throngs of commuters, clutching their cups or coffee or IPhones, ready to either dive deep into their Kindle or fall fast asleep for the journey north. Missing were the people who rode the train sporadically, heading to New York for a night out, for a night of excitement in the big city. They were home now. I was alone and it was midnight. The only sounds were the slight crackle of the electric engine and the buzzing of the street lights. It was the last north-bound train of the night, waiting patiently for the drunks, a few late night workers heading in, and me. Thankfully, those ticket machines stayed bolted to the concrete. I was not too worried. We were already best friends.
I am not a fan of driving. I’d rather sit on a train or a plane or even a bus to get where I am going. My plan was to go from Beacon, NY to Long Branch, NJ and then back to Hoboken where I would spend the night, all via trains. Beacon is situated on Metro-North’s Hudson Line. While the town is extremely popular with hipsters, artists, and anyone else that used to live in Brooklyn, the Metro-North train station is also a hit with the regular Joe Commuter from both sides of the river because of its frequent super-express trains to Grand Central and central location, serving the heavily populated Southern Dutchess and Eastern Orange areas. At the time, though, Beacon was not my normal station. To save a few bucks, I had moved my morning train ride to Metro-North’s West-of-the-Hudson service, the less convenient but cheaper Port Jervis Line to Penn Station via a transfer in Secaucus. My office had moved to within a 15-20 minute walk of Penn so I could avoid the daily subway ride, too. But, much more importantly, I could use the Port Jervis Line monthly (or weekly) on the Hudson Line too. Pay the upcharge (if required) and away you go. While this idea – the ability to use a Metro-North pass from one line on a different Metro-North line – does not sound so amazing, the Port Jervis Line monthly pass has something else going for it. The pass has a double agent quality. It is cloaked in a gold foil top and big, black block lettering; it looks nothing like a Metro-North ticket.
The reason for the odd-looking ticket is actually quite logical. Metro-North contracts with New Jersey Transit to operate the Port Jervis Line. The PJL trains roll on to NJT owned-railroad starting at Suffern, NY and its trains shoot you down NJT’s Main or Bergen Lines through fun to say towns like Mahwah, Ho-Ho-Kus, and Secaucus, ending in Hoboken. NJT crews operate the trains into NY and, more importantly for me, NJT also handles all of the ticketing. That means, my good friend the NJ Transit ticket machine, those blue and orange wonders with a logo straight out of the good old days of 1983, are stationed at every platform and at every station on the Port Jervis Line in New York State. And, ALL of them spit out passes that are genuine NJ Transit passes that work on a Metro-North rail line! This agreement is a pretty rare instance of two quasi-governmental transit organizations working together to create a seamless experience across geographic and political boundaries. The benefit to me was just beginning as I rolled into Grand Central and headed for the subway. Later, I would see how well this combo NJT/MNR pass worked on a different line within the NJT family, the North Jersey Coast Line.
After work I grabbed the PATH to Hoboken Terminal. A few NJCL trains run out of Frank Sinatra’s birthplace each day. While less entertaining it much less hectic to take the train from there than it is from Penn for the obvious reasons: fewer trains, higher ceilings, no overall feeling of despair and sadness when you walk around the station. As I walked towards the low-level platform, I played it safe. One of my train’s conductors was chatting with a different conductor near the gate. I asked him to give it a look. He eyed it for a second, wondered out-loud where Salisbury Mills was (I mumbled something about like, “ever hear of Newburgh?”), and said it would. He also mentioned there might be an extra charge but he’d deal with later. With my dollar bag of chips and an ice cold Budweiser in the dance club, aluminum bottle-shaped can, I was up the steel stairs and into a burgundy, vinyl three-seater in the back car. As we pulled out, on schedule, the conductor, in his NJ Transit blue shirt and dark blue jacket, checked my ticket before as we pulled into Secaucus, smiled and said thank you. No charge! An hour and twenty later, with my beer a sudsy memory by Matawan and only crumbs left of the chips, I was at the Jersey Shore. Six bucks plus tip for a cab ride in a beat-up Ford Taurus, I arrived at my final destination. So far, so good; the final test would come in a few hours when it would be time to head home.
I was alone for just a heartbeat on the Long Branch Station platform before a hat-less conductor popped his head out of the one, lousy car that was open for my ride home. One car! It was the final train of the night and he seemed somewhat surprised to see me. I showed him my pass. He squinted and gave it a quizzical look. I can’t imagine the conductors on the Coast Line see the abbreviation for Salisbury Mills (SLS MLS) on many tickets. The conversation was quick with just one question, “How much is the one-way ticket?” I had to think for a minute because I had not purchased a one-way ticket in a while. I blurted out, “Sixteen.” Looking up, just barely, he said, “That will work.” With a smile, I walked on-board and grabbed my seat. Even though we ran very local all the way to Penn, as I drifted off into dreamland, I am sure the smile remained plastered across my face.
My theory, that this one ticket had the power to get across systems and state lines at minimal or no cost, had worked. Still, this idea of connectivity was not based on a master plan across the region but an exception to a rule. That’s a shame. It should not be this complicated to travel regionally by train, especially with technology creating disruptions among other traditional transportation thinking. Look at what Uber and Lyft are doing to taxi service or what Bolt Bus and Megabus have done to intercity travel. Or, even what EZ-Pass has done with toll roads in the northeast.