transportation

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.

 

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.

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.

Lawmakers could boil the frog

By James Lee FormerIP at en.wikipedia [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsYou have heard the metaphor about a frog placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the trouble it is in and is boiled alive.

That metaphor can be used about Albany’s dealing with the MTA Capital Budget.  Newly reappointed MTA boss Tom Prendergast has been sounding the alarm about the $14 billion budget hole.  But, of course, the New York State legislature just hasn’t gotten around to it; seeing how busy they’ve been with the important stuff that just needed to get done before session ended.

The reality is Albany rarely boils the frog.   It is only $14 billion over five years.  The New York State budget is $142 billion this year alone.  Plus, the MTA still has money left over from its last capital budget.  State lawmakers historically tackle big problems just as the water in the pot begins to bubble and our scaly friends realize it is time to take action.  Of course, I am talking about the frogs, not the lawmakers.

The Curry Palace Express is leaving the station

7:20 p.m.  Hudson Line.  The old trains with the wood-grain panels.

I’m on the inside of a two-seater.  My left foot firmly planted against the silver metal case that surrounds the floor heater. My right leg pressed against the seat in front of us, marking the edge of my personal space.

Green Henley and brown corduroy pants sits down. He removes his jacket and, with his satchel, places it on the luggage rack above our heads.  His leg is moving closer to mine.  I look over.  A yellow plastic bag remains on his lap.  His knee touches mine.  I know what is about to happen.

It is pretty normal this time of night for people riding home to eat on the train. It is not the simplest maneuver seeing a Metro-North Shoreliner coach was never meant for that purpose.  But, seeing cafe/bar cars have not been seen on the Hudson Line since the 1980’s – if you want to eat something you will be doing it right there with the rest of us.  No matter what you have decided to shovel into your gullet, we will be there for your feast.  And, because your fellow commuters are along for the ride, your choice for dinner will determine if you are that guy.  As I took a deep breath,  I knew.  Green Henley with brown cords was that guy.

The white plastic container with the clear top slid out from the plastic bag.  The steam from the hot food condensing on the lid.  I looked over.  Pop.  I waited.  It hit me as Green Henley pushed his plastic spoon in stew-like consistency.  My eyes watered.

Indian food, with a lot of curry.

My reaction:

Ron

Thanks, guy.

The great crumbling

image

Croton-Harmon Station

Two days and two breakdowns on the Hudson Line: Monday’s 8:28a from Cold Spring was canceled because the train broke down at New Hamburg. Tuesday’s 6:48a from Cold Spring broke down in Peekskill. It seemed fitting that yesterday the APTA posted this 60 Minutes report from November outlining our country’s failing infrastructure.

Bar Car: Ommegang Rare Vos

20141218_180544Beer:  Brewery Ommegang Rare Vos

Where I bought it: The Taste NY store near the Biltmore Room inside Grand Central

Type: Amber Ale

How much: $5.99 for a 12 oz bottle

Notes: I have a love-hate relationship with the TasteNY store in GCT. Its beer selection is great but its prices are geared toward tourists apparently who may not know any better. Why would I pay $6.00 for a quality New York State beer when I can pay $3.75 at GCT’s beer carts for something similar.  But, I was lacking cash and not interested in a Bud Light Lime tall boy from Rite Aid, so I decided to give the store another shot. In its singles beer cooler, I found an Ommegang Rare Vos I decided to bite the bullet and pay up to taste New York (Ommegang is brewed in Cooperstown). Thankfully, Rare Vos tastes pretty darn good.

The back of the bottle explains that Rare Vos means “sly fox” in Flemish.  Flemish or ‘Belgian Dutch‘ is a language spoken in “Flanders, the northern part of Belgium.”  This is not to be confused with with Netherlands Dutch or Dutch, uh, Dutch.

So, I say Rare Vos, ik hou van je!  TasteNY store, het is mij te duur.

No kidding, the oldest continuously operating graveyard?

“Out the right hand side window, you’ll see the oldest, continuously operating graveyard in America.”

Just one of the fun facts our conductor shared with us on the nearly three hour jaunt from New York to DC.  And, in case you were wondering, the graveyard is in Wilmington across the street from the newly-named Joe Biden Transportation Center.

Other trivia:

–  Where the designer of the Pennsylvania Railroad WWII monument in 30th Street Station built a house for his wife.

–  Why it is called Boat House Row in Philly.

–  Why the Susquehanna River is the shortest commercially navigated river in the nation

–  And the reasoning behind naming Biden Station, Biden Station.  Apparently, the VEEP is from Wilimington.