Penn Station

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.

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 want to sleep at Penn Station

I do.  I really do.  And, it is not because I want to end up on the peopleofpennstation Instagram account.

There was a time when you could walk into Penn Station, check in to your room, and the next morning, wake up in Washington DC.  Yes, on purpose.  From the railfan.net Penn Central page, a Penn Central timetable from 1969 notes that at 10:30p sleeping cars for Train 177 “open for occupancy.” The sleeping car would then be added to a train from Boston heading south.

Schedule - Penn Central 1969

And, for $16.25 you get your own private bedroom.  That’s a bit more than $100 in 2014.

Sleeping Car Fares

This type of service lasted into the 1990’s (h/t to my friends @Metroland for the info)

Nowadays, there are no sleepers at Penn Station.  But, there should be.

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.

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.

Four trains, the greek and the middle of nowhere

“You ever heard of Preston Hollow?”

“No.”

“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.

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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.

Ass Transit: The Seat Chronicles

A seat on the train.

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It is where we yearn to be each morning and each night. We must be first on the train so we can find one. And, when we do, we pounce like a hungry fisher in a farmer’s hen house. We will walk an entire train, searching like a lost child looking for mom in a department store, for that elusive last open spot. We all want a seat by ourselves, and we are annoyed when we have to share. But, no matter the circumstances leading to our acquisition of said seat, the deepest and most interconnected relationship we have each commute is with the seat itself. And, like a lot of relationships, this one can be quite the pain in the ass.

There are some insane intrepid souls that ride the train from far reaches of the metro area like Speonk on Long Island or Port Jervis in Orange County or Bay Head down the shore that spend around two hours each way on the train. Most of it in a seat you will likely never see utilized as a seat anywhere else. Raymore and Flanagan does not make furniture based on some of these torture device seat designs. But, how do they compare? This is the first installment of what I am calling Ass Transit: The Seat Chronicles.

NJ Transit/Metro-North Port Jervis Line Comet V Coach

Metro-North Seat - Port Jervis Train

Isolated stations and limited train selection are just facts of life on the Port Jervis Line when compared to its more popular and ultra-trendy half-brother, the nearby Hudson Line. Towns like Otisville, Campbell Hall and Salisbury Mills aren’t exactly turning into trendy meccas.

What the line lacks in style makes up for it in substance. Its seats are pretty comfortable for a commuter train. The cars, known as Comet V’s to real train folks or the ones with the maroon seats to rest of us, were rolled out in 2002. The seats themselves are covered in what is best described as a thin trampoline-like synthetic material. Lively springs in the seats continue the trampoline-like feel and each seat has its own head rest, for I’d assume, resting your head. Oh, the luxury.

But, it is one simple attribute – the high arm rest – that put this train seat among the finest. Each seat has two arm rests, one on the inside and one on the outside. Who knew something as simple of an arm rest could make such a difference.

The train cars also include bigger windows than previous cars for a great view from the Moodna Viaduct, the I-87 underpass and boarded up factories in Paterson.  Since the last version of the Comet, the door button was moved to the right of the door from on the door. This apparently was part of a larger study by the MTA and NJ Transit to confirm that Pavlov’s theory was correct as the shift caused quite a bit of confusion on how to open a door. So much so, the button had to be labeled after the fact with the words PUSH TO OPEN.

FINAL ANALYSIS: Springy seat that do not stick you. Head rests. Arm rests.
On the The Commuter Daily seat scale I give the Comet V Coach seat 4/5 rear ends.