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.

Rush hour in The Netherlands

Back when I was a student in The Netherlands, some of my Dutch classmates took me to a soccer game one evening, a match between Nijmegen’s hometown N.E.C. and NAC Breda. We got to the match on pretty much the only mode college students in Holland would use for such an event: our bikes. Night had already fallen by the time we arrived at the stadium, and some police officers directed us to where we could park our bikes. I struck up a brief conversation with them, hitting on the fact that I was an American student studying at Nijmegen’s Radboud University. They asked me what I liked most about their country. I gave them an answer that was perhaps not at the top of my list—that would probably be the Dutch people’s greatest gift to mankind, vla—but certainly on up there. And it was fitting for the situation: that I could ride my bike everywhere.

Now I live in New York. I have a bike. And I don’t ride it nearly as often as I would like. Part of it is that I’m usually a stay-at-home dad, and it’s tough to take kids on bikes everywhere I need or want to go. But even when I’m by myself, biking in NYC is intimidating. Despite the tremendous strides this and other U.S. cities have made in building bike infrastructure, it pales in comparison to that of our Dutch counterparts. And it shows, too, in the number of people who actually ride bikes. We can talk about the numbers and modal share. But I always tell people that they should see rush hour in The Netherlands. And, thanks to the miracle of the internet and, especially, that miracle of miracles called YouTube, you can see it for yourself. Here’s video of rush hour in Utrecht, a city in the heart of The Netherlands. (Rush hour in Nijmegen and most other Dutch cities looks much the same.)

In case you’re wondering, Nijmegen won after two rounds of overtime and a shootout.

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.

Morgantown PRT time lapse

In 2012, I took a daytrip to Morgantown, West Virginia. Why Morgantown, you ask? Because it is home to one of the most unique rapid-transit systems in the world: Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit. It opened in 1975, making it the first and oldest personal rapid-transit, or PRT, system in the world. In fact, it was the only PRT system on earth until 2010, when it was joined by systems in the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. But Morgantown’s system is still the largest and busiest, and it still operates largely on the 1970s technology that made it possible.

So, what’s it like to ride PRT? In Morgantown, at least, there are turnstiles, much like, say, the New York City Subway. But after you deposit your fare (currently 50¢) or swipe your West Virginia University ID card (the system is free for WVU students, staff, and faculty), four buttons on the turnstile light up, each labeled with the name of one of the other stations in the system. Push the button next to the name of the station you want to go to and wait no more than a few minutes before a small, rubber-wheeled car that fits eight or so passengers pulls up. An electronic sign over the car’s door lights up with the name of your destination. Step in, and you’re on your way, skipping intermediate stations using bypass tracks.

And what does the ride look like? Check out this time lapse I created of a trip from one end of the system, the Walnut Street station in downtown Morgantown, to the other end, Medical Center.


Read more about my trip that day—it was quite the adventure—on my other blog at Dialann.org.

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.