NY

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.

 

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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.

 

Urban planning advice from the college girls who got on in Westchester

Listen up planners.

From the college girls on my train who got on in Westchester (who strangely had southern accents),

“You know in our town you need a f*cking car to like get anywhere, you can’t like f*cking walk, sucks.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Well, I probably could have.

The beauty of the ramp

Fulton Center via MTA Flickr

Fulton Center via MTA Flckr

The new Fulton Center subway station is having some people moving problems that have nothing to do with trains.  The lead from a story in the NY Daily News from last Friday,

Apparently $1.4 billion doesn’t buy working elevators and escalators.

Oh, a few outages in a brand new station is to be expected, even if it did cost them a billion and a half dollars.  This is New York.  We pay $10 to ride in a yellow car for 15 minutes.  It could be worse. WMATA, (which looks fun to say if emphasize the Wh- sound) is the agency that operates the DC Metro.  It has spent decades breaking in its elevators and escalators that are now mostly just plain broken. Last year, Metro bosses said the organization would fix 79 escalators and elevators by the end of its fiscal year and were excited  when it got 3/4 of them done.  Jesus.

Which is why it always struck me as a bit of a gamble that the MTA’s East Side Access project – that will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central – includes an extensive escalator network.  47 in all will bring people up and down from the LIRR tracks 15 stories below the street.  That’s waaaaayyyyy below the current lower level, where you find all the restaurants and homeless people.  But, escalators moving people from train platforms is in sharp contrast to the rest of Grand Central.  The terminal is mostly free of elevators and stairs (escalators were not prevalent in the early 1900’s). Instead, ramps are the main way people get around in GCT and that is by design.  From an NPR interview with Sam Roberts, the author of “Grand Central:  How a Train Station Transformed America,”

Another Grand Central innovation was the ramp. “The place has virtually no staircases… long-distance travelers were coming in with suitcases, lots of luggage, and the ramps were built to accommodate them.

The shear number of escalators will hopefully give commuters enough working options to get to the surface when break downs or maintenance occurs.  But, why not ramps, or at least a mix of ramps? Stadiums use extensive ramp systems that seem to get people at least down.  And, of course,ramps do not require much of a breaking-in period, because, well, they are ramps.

Just a happy accident…

Bob Ross of Joy of Painting fame once said, “We don’t make mistakes, just have happy accidents.” So, I bet this smiling little guy is one of those “happy accidents.”

image

He rode with me this morning.  The artist was long gone but I give him credit seeing it was done with a ball point pen on a moving train.  With that kind of talent I bet you could get a show on PBS.