Posts Tagged Metro North

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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Revenge of the Air Line

Amtrak Acela 2009

An Amtrak Acela cruises through Old Syabrook, Ct. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This isn’t a story about boarding passes and mediocre food. It’s about connecting two of America’s busiest cities with a ribbon of steel, and how there is nothing new under the Sun.

Federal officials have a new proposal for a high-speed rail line across Connecticut connecting New York and Boston. Amtrak’s intercity Acela trains currently use the former New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad “Shore Line,” (a.k.a. Metro North New Haven Line) which shadows Long Island Sound.

However, that is not the fastest way from one end of Connecticut to the other.

Most people who need to get from New York to Boston via car take Interstate 84, which cuts diagonally across the Nutmeg State like a hypotenuse. That is what federal officials are proposing: a new line that eschews the Shore Line for a route through the state capital, Hartford.

What Amtrak may not realize is that this idea has been tried before. In 1868, construction began on a railroad that would connect Boston and New York. The line would diverge from the modern day Shore Line at New Haven, then head northeast via Middletown and Willimantic. It became known as the Boston-New York Air Line Railroad.

In an era that predated human powered flight by about 30 years, “Air Line” referred to any railroad that chose a shorter route over an easier one.

The builders of the Air Line had the right idea, they justdidn’t take it far enough. High-speed trains in Europe and Asia run on dedicated, arrow-straight rights of way, but engineers also made sure those lines lacked significant grades. That’s why trains like the TGV and Eurostar spend most of their time in trenches (“cuts” in railroad speak) or tunnels.

Amtrak’s Acela is a very fast train, but it’s speed is limited by the fact that it runs on a route designed for much slower trains. Consequently, the Acela can only reach its top speed of 150 mph briefly.

So a high-speed rail line needs to be relatively curve free, like the Air Line, but also free of other obstructions, including slower trains. To run wide open, modern trains will need a route that traces the Air Line.

The only problem is that the Air Line was a commercial failure. Connecticut has many rivers that run north-south, which means it has many steep hills and valleys to impede a railroad running east-west. Consequently, the Air Line was very expensive to build, and its owners never had the cash to take it all the way to Boston.

That’s why, today, the Air Line is almost completely gone. A section between Middletown and Portland is still operated by the Providence & Worcester Railroad, the rest is abandoned or part of the Air Line State Park trails.

In fact, the Shore Line is the only successful railroad ever built across Connecticut, due to its flat, southerly route. Amtrak wants to take its high-speed line through Danbury, which would parallel the route of the Air Line’s successor, the New York and New England. The New Haven Railroad bought that company began abandoning the tracks in 1937; by 1948 all of the trackage west of Waterbury was gone.

Other casualties included the Central New England, which ran from Hartford to Poughkeepsie, New York and the Meriden, Waterbury & Connecticut River, which connected Waterbury with Cromwell.Connecticut high-speed rail map

Any new high-speed line will face the same problem as its forebears: a difficult route and competition for a limited amount of traffic with another line.

However, we have a few advantages in the 21st century that didn’t exist in the 19th. Amtrak is a government operation, so if the political will to build this line exists, a steady flow of cash will see it through to its completion.

Modern railroaders also have the technology to take full advantage of a direct route. Trains like the Acela are faster and can sustain those high speeds much longer than any 1800s steam engine. Advances in signal and communications technology also mean that more trains can run on a given route.

Maybe the Air Line’s time has finally come.

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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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