NJ Transit

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?

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.

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.

Am I in Penn Station?

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I could have sworn I was in Penn Station last Thursday night.

The crowds and crowds of people gazing longingly at the monitors. The rush for the platform once it was announced. Drunk Ranger fans wandering around the station, wondering how to get to the Garden.

But, I was not. I was in fact at Grand Central and Metro-North was having a rough night for the second night in a row. Apparently, a disabled train in Yonkers and emergency track work on the New Haven Line left over from the “minor” derailment the day before was making a mess of the evening rush.  What is interesting is the “message to riders” about the Wednesday derailment from Metro-North says the track work was “expected to be completed in time for this evening’s rush hour.”  Apparently, it wasn’t.  And, it had Grand Central looking very Penn Station-like.

And when GCT looks like Penn, social media blows up.  I’m guilty.  My Instagram pic made it on Channel 4.  Look at me. Finally the big time after all those years as a TV reporter in mid-sized markets!  I made it Mama!  I made it.

But, the reason I think most commuters lose their minds when the Metro-North trains fail is that this is Metro-North.  There was a time Metro-North had approval and on-time performance ratings above 95%.  Remember, they told us they were the best.

Now, every delay, every train that breaks down, and every “minor” derailment gets an closer look. The disasters of 2013 and 2014 have made it an easier target.
Politicians can score points but where does that leave the riders?

Tuesday morning was slow going into Grand Central because of the weather I’d imagine. The 7:36a from Cold Spring didn’t hit GCT until well after 9a. The creep into the Park Ave. Tunnel was eerily reminiscent of the turtle-like approach NJ Transit trains make into the Hudson River tubes before getting to Penn. And, those are memories I had hoped I left on the other side of town.

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.

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.

One ticket, two states, three trains

New Jersey Transit ticket machine via lensovet/Wikipedia Commons

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.

The Salisbury Mills to NY Penn Station Monthly Pass

The Salisbury Mills to NY Penn Station Monthly Pass

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.

Port Jervis Line train on its  way to Hoboken stopping at Salisbury Mills in April, 2014

Port Jervis Line train on its way to Hoboken stopping at Salisbury Mills in April, 2014

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.

Hoboken Terminal – January 2014

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.

 

Five more minutes means twice as many jobs

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The Regional Plan Association has a new interactive map that allows you to see how many jobs you have access to by how many minutes you are willing to commute.  An example:  From Cold Spring in Putnam County, a 75 minute commute via mass transit would give you access to potentially 75,000 jobs.  If you up that number five minutes, the total nearly doubles.

One thing I noticed is it appears the mapping system does not include some of the Hudson Valley county transit systems like Ulster’s UCAT or Orange’s Transit Orange system in the equations.

“Sources: U.S. Census LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics, OpenStreetMap, OpenTripPlanner, NJTPA Regional Transportation Model, NYMTC, GTFS Feeds: MTA, NJT, Port Authority, NYCDOT, NY Waterway, Westchester Beeline, Nassau Inter-County Express, Rockland County TZx, CT Transit”

Also, not clear is if the private bus companies that dominate the west side of the Hudson are included.  Their inclusion would lead to higher job numbers on the transit side.