New York

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

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.

 

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.

Sorry about the delay. Everything is wrong.

Below is what I remember from the message the Metro-North conductor gave us last Wednesday.   We were stopped south of Croton-Harmon.  It seems like a good time to reminisce as the Hudson Line trains are running late again tonight.

“Sorry about the delay everyone.  We’ve got a delayed train in front of us, signal problems, and speed restrictions.  Again, sorry about the delay.”

It summed it up; single tracking, track work, delayed trains ahead, and speed restrictions.  Here are some of my personal observations:

Monday:  The 5:32p arrived in Cold Spring after 7p.  Schedule arrival 6:46p.

Wednesday:  The 5:53p arrived in Cold Spring 12 minutes late.

Thursday:  645p train arrived late in Cold Spring.  I can’t remember but it was late.

Friday:  The 10:16a from Cold Spring arrived at Grand Central 10 minutes late.

According to June’s numbers, Metro-North had more than 1100 trains late or cancelled across the system.  In May, it was worse, with more than 1400 trains delayed or cancelled.  For late trains, Metro-North only counts trains that are more than 5:59 late, as umm, late.

And you can add the 6:15p Hudson Line train to Poughkeepsie to the late list.  We are now 20 minutes late.