Lawmakers could boil the frog

By James Lee FormerIP at en.wikipedia [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsYou have heard the metaphor about a frog placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the trouble it is in and is boiled alive.

That metaphor can be used about Albany’s dealing with the MTA Capital Budget.  Newly reappointed MTA boss Tom Prendergast has been sounding the alarm about the $14 billion budget hole.  But, of course, the New York State legislature just hasn’t gotten around to it; seeing how busy they’ve been with the important stuff that just needed to get done before session ended.

The reality is Albany rarely boils the frog.   It is only $14 billion over five years.  The New York State budget is $142 billion this year alone.  Plus, the MTA still has money left over from its last capital budget.  State lawmakers historically tackle big problems just as the water in the pot begins to bubble and our scaly friends realize it is time to take action.  Of course, I am talking about the frogs, not the lawmakers.


Listen, and remember

Metro-North at Cold SpringThe sound is a simple one; low but powerful.  It is a noise that is part of the region’s soundtrack.  The deep steady sound of the train’s horn – commuter or freight – lets you know a train is coming.

And that is its job; to alert people of the massive machine before it reaches platforms, tunnels, or grade crossings.  I can imagine it is a sound that many heard seconds before the Harlem Line crash in Valhalla Tuesday night.  The sound was quickly replaced by the violence of a crash that killed six people and injured more than a dozen; the noise of an express train hitting a SUV stopped on the tracks, stopped in a spot – by mistake or on purpose – where it should not have been.

While some politicians tactfully began riding in on their white horses just hours after the crash, the number of accidents Metro-North has had at grade crossings is comparably low to other commuter transit agencies.  Between, 2012-2014 Metro-North had five accidents at crossings.  NJ Transit had 30.  Long Island Rail Road had 27.  MBTA in Boston had 17.  Across all railroads – freight and passenger – deadly accidents at crossings peaked in 1989 with 801.  In 2013, that number had fallen to 251.    It is true that Metro-North’s safety record has been troubled recently and there should be a thorough investigation into the crash but this one likely wasn’t its fault.  The reality is the only way to truly stop accidents at crossings is to not have trains at-grade.  Ask Al Smith why there are no grade-level trains in New York City anymore.

There are two crossings like this on the Hudson Line between Cold Spring and Croton-Harmon.  One is by the tiny, isolated station at Manitou.  The other is north of the Peekskill Station where you can cross for access to a park along the river.  This morning, we pushed through these crossings as icy flakes fell from the sky.  The train horn sounded, the red lights flashed and the gates went down.  A steady tone alerted anyone down the line a train was on its way.  Until this week, it was just another noise along the way to Grand Central.  But, as the horn sounded this time before we pass through the crossings, it provided me a small but audible connection to this terrible accident.  It acted as a personal reminder of the people who died or were injured at a spot very similar.  They are people I never met but they were doing the same thing I do every day.  Ride the train.  Go to work.  Head home.

This time, sadly, some of them never made it home.

When you hear a train’s horn – tonight or tomorrow or whenever – think about the people who died or who were injured.  Use it as a chance to reflect on how quickly lives can be changed and keep their families in your thoughts.

And, also use that sound – or the flashing red lights or the gates being down  – as a reminder of something equally important. There is a train coming.

Pillars and Peds close book on Posman

sign photoThe final chapter has been written on the Grand Central location of Posman Books.   A sign in the window prior to New Year’s sited “ongoing construction projects” and Grand Central’s “need for its space” for “improved pedestrian circulation.”

When I returned to GCT after the holidays it was closed.

Reports late last year sited the LIRR East Access project, along with SL Green’s 1 Vanderbilt building as those construction projects.  SL’s project includes $200 million in transit infrastructure improvements, and it also needs Posman’s space “to build pillars, columns or whatever it may need for 1 Vanderbilt, but it will turn most of the area into a pedestrian thoroughfare.”  This according to the Times via an MTA spokesman.

Posman was located near the 42nd street and Vanderbilt Avenue entrance ramp and its other locations are at Rockefeller Center and Chelsea Market. But, as the sign says, “not much consolation” to its loyal GCT customers.

Four trains, the greek and the middle of nowhere

“You ever heard of Preston Hollow?”


“Not a surprise. It is the middle of nowhere.”

And so began a rather friendly 30 minute conversation with a gray haired Brooklyn man with the greek accent aboard an Amtrak Empire Service train.

His story: He was heading to Hudson, NY and then by car to visit his niece in the metropolis of Preston Hollow, population 366. Which I believe according the Census Department qualifies for the “Middle of Nowhere” designation. His wife was already there and texted him relentlessly. She wanted to make sure he had not forgotten the gifts.  He hadn’t.  On his side of the table was a small fortress of Macy’s bags.

My story:  I was heading to Croton, NY to catch a connecting Metro-North train that would take me the rest of the way home.  It was the third leg on my journey from Kennedy Airport.  And, to throw a little excitement into the evening, I planned to do it by using trains exclusively.   Apparently my definition of excitement is slightly different than most.

The Van Wyck

The reasons were simple. It was Friday night in New York and I did not want to spin the taxi roulette wheel.  My luck, I’d land on – “stuck in traffic in a taxi on the Van Wyck for two hours.  Or, gather round folks, I’m getting hot, I got “stuck in a taxi on Van Wyck with a driver ripe from a day’s driving with just the right mix of BO and cigarettes”. So, I decided to make take the JFK to Cold Spring challenge. Four trains, four transfers and time to grab dinner and drink; all for less than $60.

My JetBlue flight landed at JFK’s Terminal 5 a little after 5p.  I gathered my bag from the carousel and a after long walk, I was aboard the AirTrain heading to Jamaica Station.  AirTrain is like no other train in New York. Automated, clean and elevated; you have a feeling that you are flying. Unfortunately, your AirTrain flight ends about as fast as it starts a short time later at the crossroads of New York City, Jamaica, Queens.

JFK AIrTrain/Ad Meskens via wikimedia commons

Now, AirTrain is free inside the airport but to depart at Jamaica it run you you $5 via MetroCard. The MTA or the Port Authority (I don’t remember which one) has an army of people positioned at Jamaica to explain this to people as I can only imagine this payment system might be slightly confusing to someone the first time they use it or who perhaps does not speak English. Note to self: Prepare treatment for reality show based on tourists buying MetroCards at Jamaica. Working Titles: JaMetroCard, Jamaican Me Crazy or As the Turnstyle Turns.

Once through the turnstyles, you have the choice at of either taking LIRR or the E Subway to Penn Station.  The E is cheaper but bringing a suitcase onto the subway will make you as popular as Justin Beiber, well, wherever Justin Beiber goes these days. I opted for the LIRR, paid the $7 and away we went.

LIRR to Penn Station from Jamaica Station in Queens

LIRR to Penn Station from Jamaica Station in Queens

This train was virtually empty; me, four guys going to Woodside to transfer for the Citi Field train and an airline pilot likely heading to a hotel. We left little before 6p and we were not unloading at Penn until closer to 6:30p.  It was always a little confusing to me that it takes 30 minutes to go 13 miles but it likely it has a lot to do with waiting for a slot to go through the already-in-rough-shape tunnels under the East River.  But, the ride was faster, the seats were much more comfortable than the subway, and I did not become the Beebs.


New York Penn Station’s Amtrak/NJ Transit Departures Board

I had about 30 minutes to kill at Penn. After scarfing down a sandwich and a polishing off a beer, I made my way over to Hudson News. While perusing the magazines, I noticed that Hudson News is home not only quite a selection of regular periodicals but also a robust pornography section. Makes me wonder, who is buying porn mags at Penn Station? And, if they are, where are they reading them. I mean do people arrive on Amtrak or NJ Transit or LIRR, run upstairs, and say, “Do you have the new Hustler?” “I need the new Hustler!” “Ahh, thank goodness, now I have something to read on my trip to Harrisburg.” I’ve ridden quite a few trains and have yet to see anyone pop-open the porno on the train.  Although, Penn Station is not exactly a country club either.

About 7:05p, a female voice came over the loud speaker.

“Attention: Amtrak Train 241, The 7:15p Empire Service to Albany making the following stops: Yonkers, Croton-Harmon, Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck, Hudson and Albany-Rensselaer…now boarding at 6 East”.

After making my way downstairs and onto the train, I skipped the actual coach seat and headed for the cafe car where I could sit down at a table and plug in my dying phone and laptop. The ticket for the 42 minute ride up to Croton cost $38.  But, it is totally worth it compared to Metro-North. A coach seat is like a plane seat with first class legroom. The café car tables give you ample room to spread out and work. Plus, you get to meet interesting people, like the greek.

“Can you imagine, I am going to a house with 13 people under one roof. And they are all greek!”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Sounds loud!”

Hope they don’t wake up the neighbors in Preston Hollow. Oh wait, that won’t be a problem.

Two world’s fairs, two views on trains worlds apart

Pennsylvania Railroad PRR S1 steam locomotive at the New York World’s Fair, July 15, 1939

The New York City Transit Museum Annex at Grand Central Terminal opened an exhibit this summer commemorating the anniversary of New York’s two World’s Fairs.  The opening of the two fairs – the first in 1939 and second in 1964 – were separated by 25 years.  And, in that short period of time, railroads had gone from “being the backbone of the country” to a mode of transportation with a severe case of osteoporosis.  This is illustrated with railroads at the 1939 Fair put on “parade“.  While in 1964, this picture of happy LIRR execs symbolizes the smaller transportation role rail roads were now playing.


LIRR executives sit on a miniature train for a photo at the 1964 New York World’s Fair