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.

Measuring Americans’ transit use

Last week the United States Census Bureau released this colorful infographic on Americans’ use of transit, walking, and biking, using data from the 2013 American Community Survey.

Transportation Alternatives by Census Region, 30 April 2015

The findings aren’t necessarily all that surprising: the Northeast leads the nation in transit use and spending. The West, however, leads in bikeability and walkability. Unsurprisingly, the South lags behind the rest of the country on most measures, even though it has by far the greatest number of households, with a few interesting exceptions:

  • A higher percentage of Southern households use local public buses than their “Yankee” compatriots: 69% in the South versus 67% in the Northeast.
  • 32% of of Southern households use local rail transit—heavy rail, light rail, and streetcars, but not commuter/intercity rail—which is behind the Northeast and the West but ahead of the Midwest, where only 25% of households do.
  • And the South leads the nation in the number of households who use commuter or shuttle vans: 8%, more than the 7% of households who do so in the Northeast or the 6% who do in both the Midwest and the West.

It shouldn’t have to snow for NYC transit agencies to cross-honor fares

It’s snowing in the New York City region, which means we’re seeing tweets like this:

Even on days without “significant weather events”, it’s common to see tweets like this:

Those of you outside the New York City area may be wondering, what is “cross-honoring”? Cross-honoring means that because of a significant service disruption on one transit system another transit system providing approximately parallel service will honor passengers’ tickets for the interrupted service. So, earlier today, when the New York City Subway’s 7 train was interrupted, passengers going from, say, Flushing, Queens—where the Flushing-Main St subway station is about a block away from the Long Island Rail Road’s Flushing-Main St station—to Manhattan could use their MetroCards to ride the LIRR instead.

That’s considerate of the agencies, right? I suppose that’s one way to look at it.

All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)
All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)

But here’s the thing: the New York City Subway and the LIRR are part of the same agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Over in New Jersey, mentioned in the tweet above, the rail, light-rail, and bus systems that are cross-honoring each other’s fares are all part of the same, statewide transit agency, New Jersey Transit.

So, my question is, why don’t they cross-honor each other fares to begin with? As in, all the time, regardless of the weather or service disruptions?

I know, I know: the various systems—the regional railroads, the subway, the light-rail lines, and buses—tend to serve different groups of users in different geographic locations, often with different socio-economic backgrounds and levels of income. It is arguable that a commuter from a wealthier community on Long Island should have to pay more for a trip through Queens than a lower-income New York City resident.

I know, too, that the systems were, at one time, completely separate companies, and that the political and financial deals that brought them together preserved various and separate streams of revenue for them.

What I’m saying is that maybe now is the time to have a conversation on whether that should end.

After all, the New York City Subway was once three separate companies, one owned by the City of New York, the other two in private hands. It gets even more complex when you consider that various sections of what is now the subway, particularly in Brooklyn, were once owned by separate, private railroads and only later absorbed into the IRT, BMT, or IND and then merged into the subway. And even after consolidation of the city’s rapid-transit systems, at one time riders to and from the Rockaways had to pay an additional, premium fare. But that was all eventually swept away and a single, unified fare structure adopted for the New York City Subway and local buses (which are still technically operated by three separate MTA entities: New York City Transit, the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority or MaBSTOA, and the MTA Bus Company).

More importantly, it’s increasingly how New York’s peer cities—and economic competitors—do things. Case in point: Paris. On my recent trip there I paid a visit to Versailles. To get to Versailles from my hotel near the Eiffel Tower, I took the RER’s line C (French) to one of its termini at Versailles Rive Gauche. My walk through the estate and back into town took me past Versailles Rive Droite, a terminus for the Transilien‘s line L (French). At La Défense, I transferred to RER line A. Eventually, I took the métro using the same ticket. It didn’t matter that RER C or Transilien L are operated by the national railway company, the SNCF, and that RER A and the métro are operated by the Paris region’s transit authority, the RATP. It also didn’t matter that the métro is a different mode from the RER or the Transilien; I could have taken a bus or a trolley using the same ticket.

This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region's transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien's website.)
This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region’s transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien’s website.)

See, the Paris region, called the Île-de-France, is divided into zones. Daily, weekly, and monthly passes are issued for a certain combination of zones; with some exceptions, such as airport and river services, a rider can use any public transit within the zones indicated on the pass. The operator or the mode doesn’t matter. As the website for Hourtoule, an operator of local buses in the city of Versailles, explains, “Comme tous les réseaux de transport publics d’Ile de France, Cars HOURTOULE appliquent la gamme tarifaire définie par le STIF.” In other words, “As all public transit networks in the Paris region, Hourtoule buses use the fare structure defined by the STIF.” (STIF stands for Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France. It coordinates transportation throughout the Paris region as well as a unified fare structure. A brochure, available in PDF in French, explains how the fare structure works. A webpage in English explains the many ticket types available.)

Here in New York, I can’t even get from Brooklyn to Jersey City with a single fare (though I can use a pay-per-ride MetroCard the entire way) or from my corner of Long Island to the rest of Long Island using a single ticket.

The Paris region has figured out how to make riding transit across the Île-de-France virtually seamless. No matter the mode, no matter the operator, a single ticket will get you from Rambouillet in the southwest to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the northeast, or from Cergy in the northwest to Montereau in the southeast, and for a relatively low fare.

It’s time to make that happen in the New York City region as well.

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?