Checking out the old South Ferry station before it closes forever

Mosaic station identification sign, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)

First, the backstory.

On 16 March 2009, a new South Ferry subway station, the southernmost subway station in Manhattan, opened. The old South Ferry station, which originally opened over a century earlier in 1905, had served millions of commuters well, but it had always had its limitations. When the New York City Subway was originally built, local trains had only five cars, and so stations where only local trains stopped were built just long enough for five cars. This later proved insufficient, so local trains were extended, as were local stations — where possible. That’s the reason the beautiful original City Hall subway station was shuttered at the end of 1945, and it’s why the architecture and signage of some older subway stations abruptly changes partway along the platform.

City Hall subway station
The City Hall subway station, which was closed at the end of 1945. (Photo by Paul Lowry via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The old South Ferry station, built as a loop where terminating downtown trains could turn around and return uptown — like the City Hall station — couldn’t be extended. But, unlike City Hall, it was too vital to close: there wasn’t an alternative station nearby, and it gave commuters a needed connection to the Staten Island Ferry. So it remained open, though only the first five cars of a ten-car train could platform.

Gap filler, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan
A platform extender fills the gap between the curved platform and the open doors of a waiting 1 train.

But, as I mentioned, it was also a loop, and you know what happens when you align a ruler-straight subway car with a curved platform? It leaves large gaps between the platform and the train — gaps that really are big enough for someone to fall into. Mind the gap, indeed! So the old South Ferry station had mechanical platform extenders that filled the gap in front of each train car. But that also made service at the station slower, since arriving trains had to wait for the gap fillers to extend and departing trains had wait for them to retract.

(There was also an inner platform within the loop, but the curve was so tight that trains could open only their center doors. It proved so problematic that the inner platform was closed in 1977, though the tracks are still used, particularly by downtown 5 trains which terminate at Bowling Green on weekends and use this loop to turn around and return to the uptown track.)

So in 2009 a new, modern South Ferry station opened. It was a true terminus, with the tracks ending on either side of an island platform. In addition to making the station fully accessible, it also allowed more frequent service on the 1 train: MTA New York City Transit could decrease rush-hour headways from four minutes to as frequently as 2½ minutes — 24 trains per hour.

But then, a mere three and a half years later, the unthinkable happened. On 29 October 2012, hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey and hit Lower Manhattan with a nearly two-meter (six-foot) storm surge which flooded streets, buildings, and tunnels, including subway tunnels and stations. Millions of liters of salt water filled and virtually destroyed the new South Ferry station and its sensitive, state-of-the-art electronics and other equipment.

Decorative tiles, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)
Vintage 1905 ceramic tiles depict a sailboat. Fifteen of these tiles decorate the original South Ferry station.

Five months later, on 4 April 2013, the old South Ferry station was reopened to restore the 1 train’s vital connection to the Staten Island Ferry. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York state agency that operates the subway, had to figure out what to do about the old station, with repairs estimated at $600 million or more.

Now, four years later, the MTA’s Fix & Fortify repairs on the new South Ferry station are almost complete. Since the idea behind the repairs is to leave the transit system more resilient and able to weather future storms with less damage, once the old South Ferry station closes it may never open to the public again. So last Saturday, 18 March 2017, I took some time to visit the station and take in its early-20th-century details and design. Here are some photos and videos from my visit.

This video shows a train entering the station and gap fillers extending before the doors open.

In this video, the same train leaves the station. Notice the train pause while the driver waits for the gap filler signal to clear. Also notice how loudly the wheels scrape against the rails, despite the lubricant which is sprayed on the tracks to reduce friction.

The MTA plans to reopen the new South Ferry station in June 2017, after repairs that cost $344 million.

Metro-North: Mission accomplished

This past Saturday, 6 June, my daughter and I had our latest train adventure. Our destination: Waterbury, Connecticut, the northern terminus of Metro-North’s Waterbury Branch, the longest and easternmost of three branches off the New Haven Line.

We boarded the New Haven Line train that leaves Grand Central at 10.02. After a brief stop at Harlem-125 St, this train runs express to Stamford, Connecticut, after which it runs local to New Haven. Normally the connection between New Haven mainline trains and the shuttle to Waterbury is at Bridgeport. However, “[t]o accommodate the final phase of a $5.8 million priority-repair project on Devon Bridge,” the MTA explains, “a new, temporary transfer point—Devon Transfer—has been built where the Waterbury Branch and New Haven Line meet.” This is what it looks like:

Two wooden platforms have been built: a straight one along the New Haven mainline tracks, which connects to a curved platform where customers can transfer to/from Waterbury Branch trains. Each is about four car lengths long, and passengers can use the station only for transferring between lines.

We finally arrived in Waterbury over two and a half hours after our departure from Grand Central Terminal (or GCT), at 12.41. It’s a long ways out there. In fact, according to Wikipedia, at 87.5 miles (140.8 kilometers) from Grand Central, it’s the most-distant Metro-North station from GCT east of the Hudson River (rail-wise, at least: apparently Wassaic, the northern terminus of Metro-North’s Harlem Line, is slightly farther in straight-line distance).

A sign at Waterbury Station in Waterbury, Connecticut, the northern terminus of the MTA Metro-North Railroad's Waterbury Branch, one of three branches off the New Haven Line.
A sign at Waterbury Station in Waterbury, Connecticut, the northern terminus of the MTA Metro-North Railroad’s Waterbury Branch, one of three branches off the New Haven Line.

The existing Waterbury Station is a simple, raised, covered platform alongside a single track—a rather sad remnant of the much larger station that still stands directly adjacent, though the old station is now occupied by the local newspaper, the Republican-American (speaking of dying industries…). In its heyday, Waterbury Union Station was served by 66 trains a day. Today, eight trains serve the city every weekday; there are seven daily trains on weekends. But the old station’s clock tower, modeled on the Torre del Mangia in Siena, Italy, still dominates the city.

As Fiona and I set off to explore Waterbury, we noticed that the city’s fire hydrants are painted very bright colors:

Our main destination was the town’s green—I love the concept of the New England town green in the heart of the city—and the Mattatuck Museum (which we could enter for free thanks to Bank of America’s Museums on Us program). Along the way, as we walked down Grand Street through downtown, I was struck by the grandeur of the city’s architecture. We passed by city hall and, directly across the street, the Municipal Building, which was formerly the headquarters of the Chase Brass and Copper Company. Both buildings were designed by Cass Gilbert, one of the country’s most prominent architects in the early 20th century. On the next block is a large, striking art deco post office, still in use.

The green itself is a lovely, well-maintained spot, with large trees, expanses of grass, and statues befitting an ambitious city. Perhaps because it was the anniversary of D-Day, this art moderne eagle on a war memorial toward the western end of the green caught my attention:

An American eagle. Waterbury Green, Waterbury, Connecticut #DDay

A post shared by Dustin Tyler Joyce (@dtjoyce) on

Overlooking the green is more impressive architecture. One of the first things that caught my eye was the Elton Residential Care Home. I later learned that this building was formerly the Hotel Elton, once considered one of the finest hotels in New England. Next to that is the Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, and down at the western end of the green is the Episcopal St. John’s Church.

Nestled in between is the Mattatuck Museum. Midday on a Saturday, we had the museum virtually to ourselves, except for a dance recital taking place on the third floor. We spent most of our time in a gallery on the second level learning about the history of Waterbury and the surrounding region, including the rise and fall of its manufacturing economy. Historical photos throughout the exhibit connected us to the past of some of the streets we had just been walking along. Waterbury is clearly a tough, resilient place that has seen some rough times. Fiona in particular really liked these “telephones” where visitors could listen to stories and voices from the past describing what life was like in Waterbury and its neighborhoods:

Fiona listens to stories about life in Waterbury, Connecticut, at the Mattatuck Museum.
Fiona listens to stories about life in Waterbury, Connecticut, at the Mattatuck Museum.

We also had to check out the Button Museum on the third floor. Buttons, it turns out, were one of the major items manufactured in Waterbury’s industrial past—though, with 20,000 buttons in this museum, we’re not sure any ever made it out of Waterbury:

With trains back to New York running only every three hours, we knew we had to be on the 16.10 train. So we left the museum, took a quick walk through the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, and walked a few blocks to Zachary’s Pizza House on East Main Street, the highest-rated pizzeria in downtown Waterbury according to Google Maps. Stepping into this place was like stepping back in time four or five decades, with a Formica lunch counter forming a large U in the center of the restaurant. It was lined with what looked to be original stools: burgundy leather cushions topping chrome bases. Along the left-hand wall were booths, trimmed in the same burgundy leather, and at the back was a somewhat open kitchen. Finishing touches included mid-20th century wood paneling, sky-blue paint, and old menu displays over the cash register, with large Snapple ads in the middle. The prices were certainly not from the 1960s or ’70s—but then, neither were they New York City prices. We ordered a medium pizza, half with pepperoni, half with sausage, all with onions and green peppers. I will say, Connecticut pizza can be a little strange, with its super thin and limp crust (I prefer my pizza’s thin crust to be crispy). But it was tasty nonetheless, and filled us up for the journey home.

Once we put the leftovers in a box, we were off to the train station. Another stroll across the green, another walk past the grand architecture, toward the clock tower that beckoned us. We made our train with a few minutes to spare. Along the way, I enjoyed the views of the Naugatuck River and the surrounding trees and hills. It’s remarkable how much the landscape changes in so short a distance along the Waterbury Branch’s length, from the gently rolling and sizable hills of the Waterbury area to the virtually flat landscape along Long Island Sound. (Fiona, unfortunately, was a little more enthralled by videos on the PBS Kids phone app. Not my preference—but neither is listening to a preschooler complaining on and on about being bored.) Just after Stamford I started reading a book to her (Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary—Fiona’s a big fan of Ramona). I glanced down once to see if her eyes were open and to ask if she could hear over the din of the train. She nodded and I continued reading. But a couple of pages later I looked down and this is what I found:

Fiona sleeps on a Metro-North New Haven Line train to Grand Central, curled up under her dot blanket and a neck pillow.
Fiona sleeps on a Metro-North New Haven Line train to Grand Central, curled up under her dot blanket and a neck pillow.

We rolled into Grand Central just before 19.00.

The big accomplishment of the day was that I finally finished riding the entire Metro-North network: all 340.4 miles (547.8 kilometers) across five lines—three east of the Hudson, two west, and three branches. I’m now 93% of the way toward achieving my goal of riding all miles of rail currently in passenger service in the New York City region. Just 103.1 miles (165.9 kilometers) out of 1,379.8 miles (2,220.7 kilometers) to go, mostly on the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk and Ronkonkoma branches, with a couple of short segments on NJ Transit’s rail system left.

But the bigger accomplishment of the day was a fun adventure with Fiona. There is perhaps nothing that feels better than having your daughter curled up asleep next to you on the train after a day of adventure and learning and pizza.

An animated history of the New York City Subway (in GIF form)

NYC Subway animated history

This very cool animated map of the history of the New York City Subway by Appealing Industries has been making the rounds on the internet the past few days (WNYC, Transportationist, Untapped Cities, Gothamist, and elsewhere), so of course I had to jump on the bandwagon.

But in doing so, I want to point out that there is at least one thing missing from the map: the eastern end of the IRT New Lots Line—specifically, the Van Siclen Av and New Lots Av stations, served at most times by the 3 train. These stations opened on 16 October 1922, which would put them right after the opening of the New Lots Line from Pennsylvania Av west and just before the opening of the BMT Canarsie Line, today known as the L train.

Do you notice anything else missing from the map?

If the MTA’s debt were a GDP …

One of the eye-popping financial figures being much talked about in the New York City media over the past few days is the Straphangers Campaign‘s report (PDF) that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s debt, currently $34.1 billion, is greater than the national debt of 30 countries.

A sobering figure indeed.

But that got me to thinking: how many countries have GDPs smaller than the MTA’s debt? And I have an answer:

102

That’s right: 102 sovereign nations have an economic output smaller than the MTA’s current debt.

If we follow the Straphangers Campaign’s lead and exclude nations with a GDP smaller than U.S. $10 billion, that still leaves us with a lengthy list of 45 countries:

Country 2013 GDP
Billions of U.S. $
Jordan 33.7
Bahrain 32.8
Tanzania 32.7
Latvia 31.0
North Korea 30.7
Bolivia 30.2
Paraguay 29.0
Cameroon 28.0
Trinidad & Tobago 27.8
Côte d’Ivoire 27.2
Estonia 24.5
El Salvador 24.3
Uganda 23.5
Zambia 23.4
Cyprus 21.9
Democratic Republic of the Congo 21.3
Afghanistan 20.7
Bosnia and Herzegovina 19.4
Honduras 18.6
Nepal 18.2
Brunei Darussalam 17.0
Georgia 16.1
Equatorial Guinea 16.1
Senegal 15.6
Cambodia 15.5
Mozambique 15.3
Botswana 15.3
Papua New Guinea 14.8
Iceland 14.6
Jamaica 14.3
Albania 12.6
Namibia 12.4
Mauritius 12.0
Burkina Faso 11.9
Mongolia 11.5
Nicaragua 11.3
Chad 11.2
Gabon 11.1
Armenia 11.0
Palestinian Authority 11.0
Zimbabwe 10.9
Laos 10.9
Mali 10.8
Madagascar 10.6
Macedonia 10.2

Looking at the full list of 102, the MTA’s debt is greater than the combined GDP of the bottom 28 nations ($34.1 billion versus $32.1 billion).

The full spreadsheet with all the nations and GDP data can be found here.

These figures were reported in the June 2014 Metro Economies Report (PDF) issued by The United States Conference of Mayors. The report was prepared by IHS Global Insight. The original report included a few “nations” I have excluded here, including American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which I consider to be a part of the United States, and the French overseas departments of French Guiana, Martinique, and Réunion, which are a part of France.

Photo: Fulton Center, the stunning new subway station that opened in November 2014 in Lower Manhattan, cost $1.4 billion to construct—more than the GDP of 18 countries.

Grand plans for D.C.’s grand station

A rendering of what Union Station's train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.
A rendering of what Union Station’s train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.

In an extensive online piece with several interactive features, The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein examines ambitious plans to remake and expand Washington Union Station and the surrounding neighborhood. The master plan calls for a new passenger experience on expanded tracks and platforms within a massive development project that stitches back together an urban fabric split by Union Station’s rail yard for more than a century—at a cost of $10 billion or more over 25 years or longer. There will undoubtedly be, as Mr. Pearlstein explains, significant financial and political hurdles to overcome.

Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.

While most of the piece is solid, I find Mr. Pearlstein’s repeated references to Grand Central Terminal here in New York to be a bit of a stretch. Can Union Station be to D.C. what Grand Central is to NYC? Better yet, would we want it to be? Clearly there are many similarities: a grand Beaux Arts station in the heart of one of America’s great cities, used not only by commuters but a tourist and shopping destination in its own right, saved from neglect and outright destruction in the 1970s.

But if Washingtonians are expecting to recreate Grand Central in their city, there are significant differences that shouldn’t be overlooked. First is the sheer number of travelers who pass through Grand Central each year: 82 million. It has even more passengers today than it had during the “golden age” of train travel, when travel through the terminal peaked at 65 million in 1947. Compare that to Union Station’s 14 million annual passengers currently, or even 30 years from now when ridership is expected to triple to 42 million (and Grand Central’s ridership has increased to 115 million or more with the coming of the Long Island Rail Road).

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment.

Second is the state of the development around each station. Grand Central’s predecessors, as Mr. Pearlstein notes, were built on the edge of what was then New York City, mostly open farmland and fields that were ripe for development. By the time the current iteration of Grand Central was completed in 1913, New York was on the cusp of a massive building boom of skyscrapers; one which was the tallest in the world for a short time, the Chrysler Building, was even constructed directly across Lexington Avenue from the terminal and connected to it by an underground passage. Today, New York City is working on a massive “upzoning” around the terminal, which will increase the amount of office space—and building heights—within walking distance of the station, to take advantage of the coming East Side Access and rising property values. The area surrounding Union Station, on the other hand, while ready for redevelopment, isn’t on the city’s edge: it’s a mere four blocks from the Capitol at the very heart of the city. And not only is it hemmed in on the sides, but thanks to the Height of Buildings Act it’s also hemmed in on the top, limiting the area’s potential.

While Mr. Pearlstein would have you believe that travelers at Grand Central have a superior passenger experience, I wouldn’t be so sure. While there are many shops and amenities for travelers, perhaps the key difference lies in the platforms themselves: all of Grand Central’s 44 platforms lie underground, sweltering and stuffy in the summer and unsightly all year round. Trains enter and leave the terminal through the Park Avenue tunnel that stretches nearly 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) all the way to 97th Street. Though I have taken the train to and from Grand Central on a number of occasions, I can’t imagine beginning and ending my commute this way on a daily basis. While Union Station’s current platforms are even worse—whoever came up with the idea of putting a low roof over tracks served by diesel locomotives clearly wasn’t thinking straight (probably the result of breathing in diesel exhaust)—the proposed atrium-like train shed, filled with natural light, will be an entirely different—and far superior—experience for those traveling through Union Station.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.

Metro, the D.C. area’s subway system, has its own grand plans for Union Station. A “superstation” has been proposed at Union Station, connected to a larger “inner loop” of stations and tracks encircling central Washington and providing the Metro system with much-needed capacity at its core. Combined with Amtrak, Maryland’s MARC trains, Virginia’s VRE commuter rail, and the intercity bus depot that was recently relocated and consolidated at Union Station, D.C.’s grand station could provide multimodal access to the city, the region, and beyond that Grand Central just can’t accommodate. While the arrival of the much-delayed and over-budget East Side Access, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central, will be a boon to the station and travelers in the region, there is little that can be done to expand subway service under the terminal, and those wishing to take the subway from Grand Central will find cramped underground stations for decades to come. (The planned Second Avenue subway, which should relieve the overcrowded 4/5/6 line that passes under Grand Central, will pass three blocks to the east. If it ever makes it to 42nd Street.)

But the real obstacles to any visionary plan for Union Station are financial and political. Mr. Pearlstein writes:

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment. It’s hard to imagine a project more likely to raise the tea party’s hackles than having federal and state taxpayers borrow billions of dollars to increase subsidized train service in and out of Washington.

In closing, Mr. Pearlstein admonishes: “Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.”

I’m reminded of the timeless advice of Daniel Burnham, one of America’s greatest city planners: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

America’s capital needs grand plans and the visionary leadership needed to make them happen. And we shouldn’t let money and ideology stand in the way.

Read more
Reimagining Union Station
by Steven Pearlstein
The Washington Post, 12 September 2014


I will note one small error Mr. Pearlstein made in his piece. He writes, “The majestic main concourse was 275 feet long and 120 feet wide, flanked on both ends by grand marble staircases, underneath a massive concave ceiling on which was painted the constellations of the stars.” The main concourse originally had only one marble staircase; the East Staircase, though part of the original plans, was completed in 1998.

I will also note my personal affection for and connection to Union Station: it was where my now wife and I went on our first date in 2007.