New jersey

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.

 

My train has been Dikembe Mutombo’d

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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.

 

New Jersey Transit has its Howard Beale moment

The big wigs over at NJ Transit apparently were watching Network yesterday as their morning rush melted down because of Amtrak’s wire problems inside the Hudson River tunnels.  For all of you who are not familar with Peter Finch’s Academy Award winning performance as the news anchor who “ran out of bullshit,” here’s a refresher.

Now, a recap of what happened yesterday:

Yikes!  And then it got a little better, sort of.

Single tracking means at most six trains can come in and out of Penn Station per hour.  You know what would help, how about new tunnels between NY and NJ?  Man, I wonder when someone will pitch that?  I mean, when will anyone come up with the idea to build new tunnels?

And then nearly 3 hours later at least they weren’t single tracking.

Anyway, as you can imagine, NJT riders were mad as hell.

And, some pointed the finger at squarely at Governor Christie and other elected officials.

While a couple of tunnels might have come in handy, it is scarier that Amtrak’s infrastructure is so fragile that it cannot keep the wires up that provide power to the trains.  This even though NJT slides Amtrak $100 million a year because NJT uses the tunnels a lot more than Amtrak.

The situation is a mess.  Amtrak is broke and its budgets are at the whims of Congress.  The Christie administration isn’t exactly transit’s friend.  The Cuomo administration does not have to care much seeing people that use the tunnels mostly vote in New Jersey

Sadly, I do not think anything will change until something really bad happens.   When that day comes, it should make you mad as hell.

Pataki’s PATH to President 

At first glance, you may not think former New York Governor George  Pataki has any chance at winning the GOP nomination for Vice President/Bigger Speaking Fees President.  The former three-term leader of New York, and moderate Republican, will have to find his conservative side to attract primary voters.  But, do not count him out because this is a man skilled at the art of politics. I mean, this is the little-known State Senator from the Hudson Valley that took down Mario Cuomo.

His political acumen can be seen below in relation to the building of the World Trade Center PATH station.

From the Times:  

George E. Pataki, a Republican who was then the governor of New York, was considering a run for president and knew his reputation would be burnished by a train terminal he said would claim a “rightful place among New York City’s most inspiring architectural icons.” He likened the transportation hub to Grand Central and promised — unrealistically — that it would be operating in 2009.

But the governor fully supported the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s desire to keep the newly rebuilt No. 1 subway line running through the trade center site, instead of allowing the Port Authority to temporarily close part of the line and shave months and hundreds of millions of dollars off the hub’s construction. That, however, would have cut an important transit link and angered commuters from Staten Island, a Republican stronghold, who use the No. 1 line after getting off the ferry.

The authority was forced to build under, around and over the subway line, at a cost of at least $355 million.

Yes, the price tag for the World Trade Center PATH station has ballooned to $4 billion, and blowing off the chance to save nearly $400 million might seem damning.  But, that’s the art.  It is a drop in the bucket if you are looking for votes over multiple election cycles because New York politicians care about New York voters.  Pataki’s constituency was never New Jersey, where all of the PATH train riders come from.  It was the Staten Island residents that ride the #1 subway line after getting off of the Staten Island ferry.  Sure, any elected would say and want to play a pivotal role in the building of a beautiful public works project.  It is a monument to their time in office.

But, monuments don’t vote.  

I wish Tex Williams was on the radio

In the summer of 1947, Tex Williams hit it big with a little ditty called “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).” In his silky- smooth talking blues style, he complained for three minutes about how the need to light up was delaying a poker win as well as his “pettin’ party” with some “dame”.

You dog, Tex, with your cigarettes, gambling and “pettin’ party”.

The song spent six weeks at #1 on the billboard charts in ’47.  Oh, the good old days.

The news of Metro-North’s 4% fare hike – that will likely push my monthly north of $400 – made me long for the good old days when Tex ruled the airwaves.

My Reasons:

The New York Central’s West Shore passenger service (scroll all the way to the bottom) was still around and the monthly from nearby Newburgh to New York was all of $19.10.  That’s a little more than $200 in 2014 money.  $200!

 

 

Now there were only a handful of rush hour trains, the trip took close to 2 hours because of the required transfer to a Manhattan-bound ferry, but hey, $19.10 is $19.10.  And the train stopped in your town.  Yay!

But, the end was near.   Trains to Newburgh ended in 1958.   Years following, politicians and civic leaders yelled and screamed about how passenger service should be restored on the West Shore.  It never happened.  Eastern Orange County commuter service ended up in, of all places, Salisbury Mills and Campbell Hall, along a former Erie Railroad freight bypass.  Makes sense seeing why would we run the trains where people live?

I think I need a cigarette.

I drove to work the other day

"HenryHudson". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“HenryHudson”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Henry Hudson’s last voyage to the new world ended when his crew mutinied and left him to die at sea.  After driving on the parkway named for the great explorer, I may understand how his crew felt.

The Henry Hudson Parkway proved my undoing as I attempted the unthinkable.  It was something that will get a parkway, a river and a cute Columbia County village named after you.  Something crazy.  For Sir Henrik, that something was spending months at sea looking for a western passage to the Orient.

For me, cue Tower of Power, it was driving to work.  Boom.

It is about 60 miles from my house to the office in New York.  Google tells me it should take (without traffic – oh, Google) one hour and thirteen minutes and 1:22 with traffic.  Google is a liar.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.22.57 PM

The first part – down the Palisades – was a breeze; as was getting over the GWB amazingly.  But, my luck ran out as I wound down to the Henry Hudson. Traffic came to stop. Pot hole repair crews were on the scene and we slowly crept down the west side of Manhattan.  An hour after I paid my $12 to cross the bridge the journey to Chelsea was complete.

I got to do it all over again going home.  I mean, after the old $46 dollar shot to the family jewels at the parking garage.

Grand total (cue the horns):    Two stressful, traffic-filled hours each way.  No beer on the train or reading a magazine or blogging.  It was just unhappy people stuck in traffic on poorly designed parkways.  I mean, the Saw Mill still has traffic lights in Yonkers.  Come on.

Plus, $75 worth tolls, gas and parking.

I won’t do it again, unless I have to.  Unlike Henry Hudson, what I discovered was nothing new.  I don’t like to drive.

The Bar Car: Brooklyn East India Pale Ale

20141008_163753_resized_1The beer selection at the Grand Central Rite-Aid is like a high school reunion; a lot of familiar faces but very few people you’d really want to hang out with for any extended period of time. But, sitting in the ballroom corner of this romp down memory lane is that girl who moved from the city to your town the middle of junior year. You never talked to her until well after college. You were too busy chasing the ones who seemed exciting because they rode clydesdales or came from the Rockies. A few years after college, you would occasionally bump into her at a bar and when you were finished chatting with Sam (because that’s what adults drink) you might get brave and actually say hello.

Ok, there was no exotic city girl.  There were never any girls. Right, Olaf?

It was Brooklyn’s East India Pale Ale.

Now, years later, IPA’s are everywhere. Everywhere. Even the cooler at the Rite Aid is home to an IPA. Is Brooklyn’s perfect? No, but that is the beauty of it. It does not have to be. It is an honest to goodness IPA dropped off in a strange flourcently lit land. A land with a plethora of slightly-beer-flavored beverages with names that may remind you of ladies you may encounter at a bachelor party, like Ultra, High Life, Blue Ribbon or Light Lime. You eye them; their price point is tempting at less than two bucks for a tall boy. But you know better. Olaf knows the answer.

But, you should say yes to the Brooklyn East India Pale Ale. It is solid, but not outstanding. It is not as hoppy as I prefer but better than the rest in the Rite-Aid fridge. I mean, if you think you can get the high life from a can of $2 beer, listen to Olaf again.

Stats:

Type: IPA

Where I got it: The Rite Aid inside Grand Central near the main entrance ramp

What I paid: Less than $3

Grade: Four happy beer guys

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Airheads

The year was 1978.  New York City wanted to make it easier to get people from Manhattan to JFK.  So, they shined up some subway cars, recorded a catchy jingle and the JFK Express was born.  Millions each year flew in and out of the airport.  Surely, some would use the service.  And, that was the problem.  Only some did.  At its peak, “4,000 to 5,000” riders used the service, with the number dipping to “3,200” when NYC Transit decided to discontinue the line.  Plus, “47 percent of riders” were commuters from its terminus in Queens.  So, that’s like 1,600 riders per day specific to the airport.

Now, the latest train to the plane is the proposed new PATH line to Newark Airport. Reports say it could move – trumpets please – about “6,000” airport goers each day! 6,000 per day is the same amount of people that ride NJT daily from Princeton Junction.  And, all of this excitement for just $1.5 Billion with construction to commence in 2018.  Governor Christie is a fan.  And, we all thought Chris hated trains. I mean he screwed hundreds of thousands of commuters each day when he pulled NJ out of the ARC tunnel project. But, apparently his love of trains is because he likes airplanes more, especially if they fly out of Atlantic City.  He’s so complex.

After listening to the old JFK Express advertisement, I may have found another reason why Governor Christie is a fan of the PATH extension.  This could be an opportunity to revive that jingle.  The Governor is fan of catchy jingles.

Ass Transit: The Metro-North “Shoreliner”

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Hudson Line “Shoreliner” at Grand Central Terminal. Early Shoreliners with no middle doors were given names.

The name Shoreliner brings to mind the idea of shooting down the river in ultimate comfort and luxury while surrounded by the beautiful vistas of the Hudson Valley.

Well, at least the last part is true.

Metro-North’s Shoreliner passenger coaches will take you away.  Right back to the 1970’s.

Where I rode it:  Metro-North’s Hudson Line heading north of Croton-Harmon (they are also on other Metro-North lines)

Where I sat:  In the window seat of the three seater, which on some Shoreliners includes a lower back on the aisle seat.  I guess this is make sure there is no doubt about the rider getting whiplash if we crash or stop short.  This seat back was phased out in later versions.

The Good:  The views of the Hudson River, the NJ Palisades, and Hudson Highlands are all amazing.

The Bad:  If the MTA advertised travel on the Shoreliner, it would go something like this:

Come travel back in time with Metro-North.  The luxury of dulling beiges and jewel toned vinyl, faux wood wall panels, and fluorescent lighting. Comfortable seating for at least an hour until your butt loses all feeling. Memories of your weird uncle’s den will fill your mind as you ride:  The Shoreliner.  Plus, the AC and heat works!

Even when they were brand new, “replacing coaches that dated to the 1940’s”, the reaction to the new Shoreliner cars was mixed.  Some saying the seats “weren’t very comfortable” but the new cars were better “compared to the subway.”

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Seats in a first generation Shoreliner

The Reality:  The Shoreliner is based on a design from the 1960’s that was first delivered to the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad in the early 1970’s for its New Jersey commuter service.  The Comet coaches were state-of-the-art at the time and became the design for the first generation of Metro-North Shoreliners rolled out in the early 1980’s. These then-new coaches were a needed and welcomed improvement over what was an aging and unreliable fleet past its prime.

Thirty years later, the Shoreliner will never be known for its luxury or comfort.  But, as you drift to sleep, resting your head on your rolled up coat propped up against the window, remember you are truly riding a time machine.  You are being taken back to a starting point associated with the rebuilding and rebirth of commuter railroads. Because, if you shut your eyes a little tighter and actually were to end up in the late 1960’s, 1970’s or early 1980’s, it was a heck of a lot worse, as seen here, here, and here.