Location: [Home] [Train Travels] A Day in New York
A Travelogue for commuter service? Well, why not? Using an automobile in New York City is an invitation to insanity (and to bankruptcy when you factor in parking cost); a lot of people use this service for shopping trips and vacation expeditions as well as the thousands who use it to get to work and home again. Besides, this trip began on the Waterbury branch, which uses some classic and unique locomotives, among the oldest (if not the oldest) in revenue service.
Trip segments: [Seymour to New York City] [In the City] [New York City to Seymour]
I currently serve as interim pastor of the Seymour Congregational Church, UCC, in Seymour, Connecticut. There are a lot of nice things about that, including a supportive congregation, a well-maintained facility, a reasonably short commute (for an interim position), and a lovely setting on the banks of the Naugatuck River. For a railroad enthusiast it has another attraction as well: a station on the old Naugatuck Railroad, now the Waterbury Branch of Metro-North Commuter Railroad.
My plan for the day was to park at the church, take about an hour to do some work, and then take the 12:37 pm train to New York. Unfortunately I forgot my church keys and ended up making phone calls from a public phone near the little brick kiosk which is all Seymour boasts for a station. The single-track main line does have an extra siding there, but it is a stub-end industrial track for a local wire company. I periodically watch a flatcar on this siding reel in enormous cables onto huge spools for eventual rail transport.
There are no grade crossings in Seymour, but Metro-North began a project this summer to raise the bridge over Connecticut State Route 67 just north of the station. Its 12'-6" height has trapped a number of tractor-trailers over the years. Trees block view of most of the work from the ground level platform itself, however.
The train arrived promptly on time at 12:37, and one other person and I boarded the first of the two coaches. A control cab coach led the train, with the engine at the rear. These coaches are owned by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, and the doors between coaches have windows in them, so I could see straight ahead down the tracks--a rare sight! The route threads the narrow Naugatuck valley, crossing to the river's west bank for the Derby station (12:46), which is a lovely white brick structure, and then back to the east bank for the run to the shoreline. There are no other stops between Derby and Bridgeport.
The coaches on this train from the outside are rectangular with rounded corners, in contrast to Amtrak's curved-side Amfleet coaches. This makes the interiors feel very open, even with 3-2 seating--though I did note that the aisles were pretty narrow. The seats are fairly wide and well padded, though they cannot recline. Walls and floors are white with blue and red seats.
Just below Derby station a track comes in from the west which runs to the Housatonic Line. The Housatonic River swallows the Naugatuck at this point as well, and the line runs down its east bank to the shoreline. I kept an eye out the train's left side for the remains of Derby Junction, where a line once ran to New Haven. I might have spotted it about six minutes south of Derby Station, but it was very hard to tell. The junction in New Haven is now marked with a landfill!
At 12:56 we passed a long string of hopper cars, which might have been loaded with gravel (there was a gravel pit just to the north) or with coal for an electric plant just to the south. I didn't spot industrial tracks for either, so I'm not sure what they were spotted there for.
At 12:58 we turned right onto the main line, which is four tracks from New Haven to New York. I saw a railroad girder bridge above us as we turned, which could be service for the electrical plant there--again, I'm not certain. We were now running on diesel "under the wire," the 11,000 volt AC catenary between New Haven and Mount Vernon, NY. The FL-9A pushing us was built for precisely this: long Metro-North, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad built sixty dual-mode diesel-electrics. New Haven officials of the 1950s had lost their faith in electrics, and bought the FL-9s to run on diesel to the 600 volt DC third rail territory of Grand Central Terminal (New York City law required electrics in the Park Avenue tunnel).
We crossed the long through truss bridge over the Housatonic and passed through Stratford station without stopping. At 1:03 we stopped on the main opposite Metro-North's Bridgeport Maintenance of Way facility--and changed the train crew! This seemed rather an odd place for it to me, but I guess it works.
We arrived in Bridgeport at 1:10, where we all left the train--the FL-9 might run on DC power, but they don't get that far from the Waterbury branch. This particular locomotive was wearing the silver and blue Metro-North colors; some of these engines, owned by CDOT, wear the red, white and black of the New Haven Railroad's "McGinnis" scheme. When the train was empty, it moved west, using the crossovers to move into position for its return trip at 1:29, after the New York to New Haven train had passed through the station.
After a few minutes wait, a string of red and silver Multiple Unit cars approached from the east. These electrically-powered cars run from the catenary overhead, with one pantograph for every two cars (they're switched in sets of two). When it stopped I headed for the nearest subway style door, which to my surprise did not open--it was a bar car and apparently uncrewed, so I walked down the platform to the next car forward. I soon found a seat and settled in. The train left at 1:21, passing the Waterbury train just outside the station and the New Haven-bound train three minutes later.
I'd paid my fare on board the train in Seymour, and the conductor gave me a receipt which showed I'd paid the fare to Grand Central; the conductor on this train accepted the receipt as my ticket. Another fellow sitting ahead of me didn't have that receipt but claimed he'd paid for the full trip; the conductor told him he'd need to pay the Bridgeport to New York fare but he could take it up with the company. I couldn't remember whether he'd been on the train from Seymour or not, and he may have paid for only the trip to Bridgeport if he was.
The shoreline route west of New Haven runs through a set of small cities: Bridgeport, Norwalk, Stamford, with both wooded and populated areas between, so there was quite a variety of scenery. Stations all use long concrete platforms, but some retain the old passenger or freight houses. Some lovely ones are Fairfield's red brick station, Southport's red brick, and South Norwalk's white painted brick station, which is still in use. The line crosses several rivers, typically over through truss bridges with a draw. There are no grade crossings, but Interstate 95 swoops over the line several times along the way.
We passed an Amtrak train in East Norwalk at 1:37, which was probably number 84, due in New Haven at 2:05.
The train made ten stops in Connecticut, the last in the city of Stamford; from there it ran without making stops to New York City. The line crosses the Mianus River at Cos Cob, where the enormous abandoned hulk of the New Haven Railroad's electrical plant still stands on the west bank. A trestle which once carried the coal cars which fed its generators crumbles beside it.
In New Rochelle, NY, Amtrak's line turns south toward the Hell Gate Bridge route to Penn Station, while Metro-North continues west. Not far beyond, around the Pelham and Mount Vernon stations, the 11,000 volt AC catenary ends and is replaced by 600 volt DC third rail. The boundary manifests of the different needs of the New York Central and the New Haven railroads in the first decade of the 1900s. The Central wanted to bring its trains a short distance under electricity, and accepted motive power changes; the New Haven decided to electrify a much longer stretch of its main line, which demanded the use of high voltage AC power to prevent signal loss. The New Haven thus presented a real challenge to locomotive builders in designing engines that could use both systems, as the New Haven shared Grand Central Terminal.
Our passage from AC to DC territory was marked by a brief silence from the air conditioning units, but no change in speed. Shortly thereafter, we passed through another truss bridge (with a draw) over the East River onto Manhattan Island, and the Park Avenue Viaduct which carries the rails above the New York City streets. The massive Hell Gate Bridge, the eastern entry into Penn Station, was visible to the south. The Viaduct is also the source of considerable weight restrictions, which required the FL-9, for instance, to have a three-axle rear truck in replacement of the more common two-axle truck on most F units.
We made one stop, at the 125th Street platform, running right on time. Shortly thereafter the viaduct sank and the ground rose, and the train passed into the Park Avenue Tunnel. In earlier days the approach to and platforms of the Grand Central Terminal were above ground, but the Vanderbilts' huge expansion of the station included covering the cut, approach tracks, and platforms. The high-class Park Avenue was the result.
Right on time at 2:38 pm we pulled into Track 104, on Grand Central Terminal's lower level. GCT is undergoing a lot of reconstruction, so I left the gate into a bewildering mix of old-style ornament and blank holes of current work. I followed the ramps to the main concourse, whose restoration has been mostly completed: the ceiling's Zodiac painting glows in gold on blue-green, with electric lamps for the stars. Chandeliers glow, and the great brass clock atop the information kiosk ticks away the time to the next train. Although not as spectacular as Washington's Union Station, Grand Central deserves its name.
Locomotive: FL-9A #2013 in Metro-North colors (pushing)
Note: I don't know an M-2 from an M-1 from an M-4. I'm relying here on the Metro-North roster found at a site dedicated to New York City Mass Transit: http://www.nycsubway.org/.
I was meeting friends at 5:00 pm, which left me some time. I spent it walking up Park Avenue--the grand ornate Helmsley building closes its end, resting atop the platforms of Grand Central station on two levels below--and then to Rockefeller Center. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a special exhibit there of several Rodin bronze sculptures borrowed from a private collection. I found myself quite surprised at the sheer size of the pieces, and realized that I had never before seen a reproduction at full size. The Thinker, which was among the collection, is a very different piece when it is eight feet tall!
From there I walked over to 52nd Street to the Museum of Radio and Television, where I enjoyed their special exhibit on the Monty Python troupe. Returning to 42nd Street, where I was to meet my friends, I took another half hour to take a look at the exhibits at the New York Public Library. I'd been initially drawn by a centennial retrospective of the Spanish-American War, but found myself more interested in the collection of paintings which adorned the third-floor exhibition hall. Many were of benefactors, but others were remarkable pieces that had been owned by the benefactors' families, and I quite enjoyed them.
New York is unlike any other city I know. Its architecture is a hodge-podge from every American era. The Gothic Revival St. Patrick's Cathedral faces the streamline-influenced facade of Rockefeller Center. A great black tower rises behind the ornaments of Grand Central Terminal. And it goes on and on and on.
All of which makes it a fun city to walk about in. I have noticed, however, that New York is not immune from the homogenized American shopping mall culture: far more of the storefronts bear a franchise's name than I can remember even from 1993. I really hope that New York City does not end up looking just like the Mall of America.
After meeting Karen, we headed for an Italian restaurant she and her husband Ed knew well near Times Square. He joined us there, as did our friend Jane somewhat later. We had a good time, but we started later than we'd anticipated and talked the way old friends do, and realized that I was not going to be back at Grand Central by 9:07, which was the last train by which I could connect to the Waterbury branch!
I'd anticipated the possibility, fortunately, and it didn't worry me. One nice thing about commuter trains is that they keep running! I knew that once I got to New Haven I'd have a way home, even if that meant a taxi fare. So we enjoyed our dinner and company and started back to GCT for the 10:07 train to New Haven.
Returning to Park Avenue (I'd walked past the Waldorf Astoria earlier without knowing what it was, and wanted to see it), we passed through the diamond district on 49th--store after store of jewelry stores. After seeing the Waldorf, we walked down Park, underneath the Helmsley Building and another tower behind it, and into Grand Central Terminal. Ed showed me an old ceiling painting, now quite faded but hopefully restorable near track 11. But the clock called quickly, and I had to say goodbye and walk down track 23 to my train home.
I found a place in the fifth car back and settled in for the ride to New Haven. Leaving promptly at 10:07, it was dark. Which means sightseeing was difficult, though not impossible. Most of the bridge crossings pass over pleasure-boat marinas, and the city streets still had their lights. A night trip does demonstrate, however, the amount of land still unbuilt in Connecticut, even on the shoreline--may it continue to be so!
As with the trip inbound, the first stop after 125th Street was in Stamford, and then all the stations to New Haven. Metro-North also runs local service between Grand Central and Stamford.
Just beyond the Stamford station is CDOT's Stamford coach maintenance and storage facility. There were far more MUs parked for the night than had been there in the afternoon; several were parked between the main line and the buildings. Bridgeport's MOW yard had several trains parked as well.
To my earlier list of nice stations I added Stratford's wood frame and Milford's brick station. The former, I believe, is a helicopter museum in honor of Sikorsky Aircraft, and the latter serves as the Milford Center for the Arts.
This seems an opportune time to describe these Multiple Unit electric cars. Like the Waterbury branch coaches, the seating is 3-2 with a rather narrow aisle. Half the seats face one way, and half the other in quarter-car increments. The cars are also equipped with telephones, and feel very open. The luggage racks are fairly light; on one trip in 93 I was uncomfortable putting a heavy stroller up there. Fold-out coat hooks are spotted along the walls. The walls are white, except for some brown bulkheads, and the seats are red and blue.
This was a ten car train, and the conductor frequently advised passengers in the last two cars to move forward for some stations whose platforms weren't long enough.
As we came out of the cut just before the New Haven station, we passed Amtrak's yard. I saw two AEM-7s and at least one F-40, but they were too far away to see the numbers. Beyond that is CDOT's storage and maintenance area for its Shoreline East units, which ferry commuters between New London and New Haven. Although I saw several coaches, the New Haven painted diesels which power those trains were hidden.
At 11:52 we came to a stop on track 4. I walked up and down the platform to get numbers for the consist, but I couldn't get the last car as it was beyond the platform end and decided I wanted to go home more than I wanted to get the first three! So my apologies for a short consist list.
So how did I get to Seymour?
My brother lives three blocks from Union Station.
Even with that side trip, I was home by 1 am.