Posts Tagged Grand Central Terminal

A little blue caboose in Grand Central

Metro North cabooseI love finding old things, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this caboose sitting on Track 14 at Grand Central Terminal as I was catching a rush hour commuter train out of New York.

It’s easy to recognize a caboose from children’s books and model train displays, but they’re actually quite rare. They were mobile offices and living quarters for freight train crews, but these days most trains run with two-person crews that can easily be accommodated in a locomotive cab.

Hauling around an extra car that doesn’t produce any money for the company may be romantic, but it doesn’t make business sense.

That makes this caboose a survivor. Perhaps it was forgotten in this dimly-lit corner of Grand Central, or left because it was too difficult to move it through the terminal’s web of tracks to a scrapyard. Maybe it’s been sitting for years, like a time capsule.

Actually, there’s just no point in throwing away something that you still have a use for. Metro North, the commuter rail agency that serves points north and east of New York City, keeps this caboose for physical plant maintenance.

The letters MNCW on the side of the car are the “reporting marks,” basically official initials, used for Metro North’s maintenance equipment. That explains why this caboose isn’t in a museum, and why this freight car is sitting on the platform of one of America’s most famous passenger rail terminals.

It was coupled to some flatcars with garbage dumpsters on them. Apparently, it’s part of a train that hauls trash out of Grand Central.

This old caboose won’t become a subject for moody urban explorer photos just yet, and that’s fine with me. There’s nothing wrong with admiring historic objects for their oldness, but they were designed to serve a purpose, not to be gawked at.

Countless buildings, railroad cars, and other artifacts have outlived their usefulness, but this caboose hasn’t.

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Next Time, I’ll Take the Train

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, how to get from one place to another is not a problem. The problem is figuring which mode of transportation to use. We have plenty to choose from: planes, automobiles, buses, bicycles, boats, hovercraft… In my opinion, one of the most underrated forms of mechanized transportation is also the oldest: trains.

I’m a huge petrolhead, but sometimes cars aren’t the perfect solution. I recently took a trip into Manhattan, a place where cars do not belong; parking spaces are just like any other Manhattan real estate: highly sought, and very expensive.

Instead, I took the train. The Metro North Railroad’s Harlem Line is a short drive from my town, and in a little less than driving time (even with one train change), I was on Fifth Avenue and 42nd.

I don’t want to romanticize rail travel too much; looking out the window, I wasn’t sure if I was in Westchester County or the Ninth Circle of Hell, and people can be somewhat rude. However, it’s still a pleasant experience. I wasn’t sitting in traffic or being herded onto a tube-shaped bus or plane.

That is not surprising, because even today’s utilitarian commuter trains have an impressive pedigree. Rail travel used to emphasize class as much as convenience. Transcontinental lines like the Union Pacific tamed the West, and “name trains” like the Twentieth Century Limited and Empire Builder offered their passengers luxury as well as speed.

While today’s commuter and Amtrak trains have lost some of that luster, they still have a bit of class. You get on when you want, get off when you want, and actually get to see what you would normally miss through large windows, from (relatively) spacious seats.

With current concerns over emissions and the price of oil, America’s original mass transportation system may be a good alternative. The national rail system still covers most of the country, and if railroads brought back dining cars it would be hard to explain why eating microwaved food at 37,000 feet is so much better. The next time I take a big trip, I’ll probably be riding the rails.

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