As news about Sunday’s tragic Metro-North derailment spread throughout the day, I couldn’t help but think how worse it could have been. That’s small consolation to the families of Donna L. Smith, James G. Lovell, James M. Ferrari, and Ahn Kisook. They were the first four passenger fatalities in Metro-North history. For them, December 1 will be a day that long haunts them.
But for everyone else who could have been on an early morning train heading down the Hudson Line to Grand Central, the derailment was a hair’s breadth away from being much, much worse. Because it was early on a Sunday morning, only around 120 people were on board, a much smaller crowd than during a Monday. Furthermore, when the train jumped the tracks, the lead car stopped just short of the Harlem River. A few more feet would have sent that car plunging into the frigid, rough waters of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
Otherwise, for those people whose lives were taken earlier today, nothing about Sunday was lucky. For many, the accident will create the perception of a safety problem with rail travel, and for those on board, the event will be a life-defining day. Two New York Times reporters spoke with survivors, and the tales they tell are horrific. Trees tore through windows as the cars came to rest in marshy bogs near a rivera. Riders were trapped as rescue workers had to stabilize train cars and prevent further injuries. It was a nightmare.
Furthermore, a statement released by the Metro-North Railroad Commuters Council drives home the perception problems. Noting the three earlier incidents, the rider advocates called for a full accounting of Sunday’s accident. “The riders whom we represent must be assured they are safe when they travel on a Metro-North train, but their confidence in the Railroad has been shaken. Metro-North management must act decisively to ensure that incidents like those that the failures that have occurred this year do not occur again,” MNRCC Chair Randolph Glucksman said.
So what happened? Right now, National Transportation Safety Board inspectors have the train’s black box and are studying records, but from reports from the crash, a problem with the brakes seems the most likely explanation. A train that could have been going as high as 70 on a straight-away hit a steep curve prior to the Spuyten Duyvil station, and the brakes failed. Earlier in the day on Sunday, various reports suggested that the brakes failed, but evening stories hedged. The Times explains:
It was not clear how fast the Metro-North train was going. But an official from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the train operator had reported that the train was going into the turn too fast and that he had performed an emergency braking maneuver. The operator told the first rescuers to reach the scene that he had “dumped” the brakes, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Railroad experts said that dumping the brakes is a last-resort move that has the effect of slamming on the emergency brakes on all the cars of a train at once. It is usually done to avert a collision with another train or a car at a grade-level crossing.
Officials opened an investigation but cautioned that it would take time to piece together the evidence and pinpoint a possible cause. The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the site with instructions to inspect the overturned cars and interpret information from the train’s “event recorders,” devices that are somewhat similar to the flight recorders on airplanes. The Federal Railroad Administration also dispatched a team of investigators.
Earl F. Weener of the transportation safety board said at a news conference with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that investigators had yet to interview the operator of the train, who was among those injured. A spokeswoman for Metro-North said the engineer, identified as William Rockefeller, had about 14 years’ experience with the line. There were also three conductors on the train. “Our mission is to not just understand what happened but why it happened, with the intent of preventing it from happening again,” Mr. Weener said.
For Metro-North, this is another in a line of bad incidents this year. A derailment and a collision in Connecticut led to days of delays, and early draft of The Times report pointed a finger at brain drain. “The recent episodes have occurred at a particularly trying time for the railroad,” a draft of the story, since revised, said. “The agency, brought under the auspices of the transportation authority in 1983, has endured a spate of departures that have left several positions either vacant or filled by less experienced employees. Retirements of high-level employees have been common, officials said, because retirees can receive maximum pension payments after 30 years of service.”
We’ll know more in the coming days and weeks, but for now, the immediate concerns are logistics. Monday marks the first full day of work since prior to Thanksgiving, and the Hudson Line is out of commission for a few days. The MTA has received the go-ahead from the NTSB to clean up and repair, but service for Monday morning will be severely impacted.
Starting at 5 a.m. on Monday, the MTA will provide train service to Yonkers and a shuttle bus to the 242nd St. 1 train station. Transit will operate two additional peak-hour 1 trains, but those locals will be slow and crowded into Manhattan. Hudson Line tickets will be cross-honored on the subway, on Harlem Line trains and a the Port Jervis station. For 26,000 people, the ride into New York will be tough. For four people, that ride will never happen again, and the answers will soon be forthcoming.
Four passengers have died and over 60 others are injured this morning after a Grand Central-bound Hudson Line Metro-North train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. The train had left Poughkeepsie at 5:54 and was not scheduled to stop at Spuyten Duyvil. Yet, approximately 100 yards north of the station, five of the seven cars jumped the tracks. The lead car stopped just short of the Harlem River, and other cars were on their sides.
The MTA does not know what caused the derailment, and the agency will conduct “a detailed investigation,” according to a spokesman. According to NBC New York, the curve north of the Spuyten Duyvil station is a “slow-speed area,” but one eyewitness who rides that route regularly told NBC’s Michael Gargiulo that the train was moving fast. MTA officials said they will consult the train’s black box for speed records as part of the investigation.
For now, all Metro-North service on the Hudson Line is suspended between Tarrytown and Grand Central, and Amtrak’s Empire Line Service between New York City and Albany has been suspended as well. Metro-North will be providing shuttle bus service between White Plains and Tarrytown beginning at 11 a.m., and the Harlem Line will cross-honor Hudson Line tickets. There is no current timetable for service restoration.
I’ll have more as this story develops. It has not been a good year for Metro-North as this is the second passenger train derailment in six months. The previous incident was not a fatal one.
As the holiday season is in full swing in New York City, this weekend marks the debut of the 2013 Nostalgia Train. Running each Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. along the M line, the train of many cars will make local stops from 2nd Ave. to Queens Plaza. The train leaves from 2nd Ave. at 10:05 a.m., 11:33 a.m., 1:03 p.m., 2:33 p.m., and 4:03 p.m. and from Queens Plaza at 10:44 a.m., 12:14 p.m., 1:44 p.m., 3:14 p.m. and 4:44 p.m. It’s a fun December tradition in the city, and you’ll always spot some very confused straphangers who have no idea what the old cars are doing there.
In other old subway news, check out Matt Flegenheimer’s latest on abandoned subway stops. The Times scribe checks out the lower level at Bergen St. and the old City Hall stop for a contrast in stations long since out of service. There’s even a cameo quote by yours truly. If you’re finding your way here from The Times, check me out on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Meanwhile, the light slate of service advisories follows:
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 29 to 4 a.m. Monday, December 2, Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 trains run express from Parkchester to Pelham Bay Park due to platform demolition and thru span work at Castle Hill Avenue and Middletown Road.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 2, Inwood-207th Street-bound A trains are rerouted via the F line from Jay Street-MetroTech to West 4th Street, then run local to 59th Street-Columbus Circle due to tunnel survey for Sandy-related work.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 2, Brooklyn-bound A trains run express from 168th Street to 125th Street due to track tie renewal south of 168th Street.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, November 30 and Sunday, December 1, 168th Street-bound C trains are rerouted via the F line from Jay Street-MetroTech to West 4th Street due to tunnel survey for Sandy-related work.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday, November 30 and Sunday, December 1, Euclid Avenue-bound C trains run express from 168th Street to 125th Street due to track tie renewal south of 168th Street.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 2, there are no E trains between Jamaica Center and Van Wyck Blvd due to track maintenance between Jamaica-Van Wyck and Sutphin Blvd-Archer Avenue. E service operates between World Trade Center and Van Wyck Blvd and via the F line to and from 179th Street F station. Free shuttle buses operate between Jamaica Center and Union Turnpike, stopping at Sutphin Blvd-Archer Avenue, Jamaica-Van Wyck and Van Wyck Blvd.
As Mayor Bloomberg’s last month in office dawns upon us this weekend, the plans to send the 7 train to New Jersey will likely exit the political arena along with hizzoner. Despite some feasibility studies, the proposal hasn’t generated much support from others on our side of the Hudson River, and the MTA has bigger, New York-centric fish to fry. With some Staten Island politicians threatening to torpedo any funding initiatives that may come through the City Council, we’re unlikely to see much action on the plan now or in the foreseeable future.
That fate, though, isn’t stopping New Jersey from trying. The New Jersey State Assembly recently passed a resolution expressing support for the project. That is, unfortunately, all this resolution — available here as a PDF — accomplishes. Taking a jab at Governor Chris Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel, the measure that it is “in the best interest of this State to extend the 7 Train to New Jersey.” Thus, “this House” — the NJ Assembly — “supports the extension of the New York City IRT Flushing Line into the State of New Jersey.”
Beyond a token gesture of support, the bill isn’t worth much more than the paper it’s printed on. There is no talk of a funding scheme or any attempt at contributing to the project’s forward progress. In fact, reports out of New Jersey indicate that even the politicians who supported the resolution are not so keen on the 7 line extension as currently proposed. NJBiz’s Andrew George has more:
Though the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee voted to release the resolution for further consideration, legislators said there were still too many concerns surrounding it…Committee chair and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) said that the extension is worth further consideration if only to continue looking for an alternative to the $8.7 billion Access to the Region’s Core project, a trans-Hudson rail tunnel that Gov. Chris Christie nixed in 2010.
Wisniewski said that while everything had been in place to move forward with the ARC project, Christie “chose to pull the rug out from underneath that.” But Daniel O’Connell, a state legislative director for the United Transportation Union, testified before the committee that rather than diverting resources to extending the 7 Line, the state should instead look to support efforts “that get the biggest bang for the buck,” such as the Gateway Project and viable alternatives to the ARC project.
He said a priority should also be given over the project to exploring a one-seat ride route for NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley Line, which currently requires passengers to change trains in Newark before continuing on to Manhattan. That’s something Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Scotch Plains) said she could get behind, given that the Raritan Valley Line cuts through her district. Stender said legislators “have to keep the pressure on” about exploring that option.
In a world where transit funds are limited, the best use of New Jersey’s resources likely involve pushing forward on Gateway rather than the 7 line extension or a one-seat option for Raritan Valley riders. Still, even though this resolution has no teeth and even though this project’s biggest supporter is leaving office in a mouth, it has at least gotten people talking. If talk becomes action of one form or another, after the fallout and ill will from ARC, the zany 7 line extension may just serve a purpose yet.
Happy Thanksgiving! Trains are operating on a Sunday schedule today, and so it this site. I’ll be back on Friday with more content. Just as an update: There will be no podcast this week. Eric was sick last week, and we decided that the short week wouldn’t be an ideal one. We’ll be back with “The Next Stop Is…” next Wednesday. As an added note, Second Ave. Sagas recently passed its seventh anniversary, and I just wanted to say thanks for reading throughout the years. The site wouldn’t be the same without all of you.
As Sam Schwartz’s Move NY traffic pricing plan once again makes the rounds, the usual suspects are lining up in support (and against) the proposal. A new mayoral administration could give supporters a chance to make waves, but this plan may live or die in the hands of Albany. Unsurprisingly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is not racing to throw his weight behind it.
To reporters yesterday, Cuomo made a brief remark on the plan, showing his skeptical hand. “The East River bridge tools were brought up may times before, he said. “It’s a proposal that’s been brought up almost every year for the past several years. It hasn’t passed in the past and I don’t believe it will pass now.” Cuomo, of course, has the power to turn his words into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he’s not even giving the plan a fair shakedown. I’m not surprised.
But should we be disappointed? Cuomo isn’t rushing out to support a traffic pricing plan for reasons I may not support, but a few good minds have cast some doubt on Schwartz’s current proposal. To get a sense of what, I’d direct you to a series of posts Cap’n Transit posted in 2012. He noted that the plan isn’t fair or equitable and went about discussing how it has incentives for future drivers and uninspired proposals and empty promises for bus service while overvaluing community boards and generally misses the point. I’m glad to see a traffic pricing plan back in the news, but it’s clear we have a long way to go before we reach a solution acceptable to everyone.
The slow lumbering ball that is the PATH train extension to Newark airport took another turn forward this week amidst some wheeling and dealing concerning Atlantic City. The stories and rationale are vague, and the extension’s future remains murky. But no matter the outcome, various reported cost estimates that have risen precipitously over the past 14 months should have even the project’s proponents eying it with some skepticism.
The story as we know so far involves trade-offs. According to a September report, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been dangling the PATH extension in front of United in exchange for the airline providing service to the struggling Atlantic City airport. On the record, Christie officials and United executives have not confirmed the report, but the denials haven’t been particularly rigorous.
Last week, United seemingly caved. As Ted Mann reported in The Journal, United will run flights from Houston and Chicago to Atlantic City. And how does that relate to PATH? Mann offered up a bit more:
An authority official said Thursday that Mr. Christie’s representatives within the authority have been “absolutely insistent” that hundreds of millions of dollars be included in the next capital plan to begin work on the PATH project. The full project could cost from $2 billion to $4 billion, the official said, and some within the authority question the use of the funds on a connection to the Newark airport. The capital plan isn’t expected to be released before the end of the year.
A United spokesman said the airline received no incentives to provide the Atlantic City service, though he didn’t rule out applying for any existing incentive programs provided by the airport. “Any discussions about the PATH train are irrelevant to the Atlantic City service,” spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said…
Some aviation experts are skeptical that United would risk a potential money-losing service expansion without assurances elsewhere, such as the potential for a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to Newark that a PATH extension would bring. “It’s hard to know whether it’s a virtual carrot or a real carrot,” Robert Mann, an aviation consultant, said of the New Jersey push to fund the PATH extension. “It would be of very great interest to United.”
It’s going to be some time before the future of the PATH extension comes into view, and there’s certainly a case to be made for a more direct connection between Lower Manhattan and any of the area’s airports. But let’s look at costs. When word first leaked of Port Authority’s intentions to study the extension, the bi-state agency estimated $600 million in design and construction costs. A year later, Crain’s New York spoke of the PATH hub as a $1 billion project. For an at-grade extension over existing right-of-way, the costs seem palatable for a New York rail project.
Now, though, Mann’s report estimates costs of $2-$4 billion, and the price tag raises questions and eyebrows. Under no circumstance should a PATH extension from Newark Penn Station to Newark Liberty International Airport cost anything close to billions. Even if PATH offered a one-seat ride to the terminals — effectively swallowing the Newark AirTrain — costs shouldn’t run this high. At some point, we’ll find out more, but as details emerge, this is shaping up to be another Port Authority project with a questionable origin and runaway costs. That’s some pattern emerging.
Once of Mayor Bloomberg’s defining moments in the middle of his second term was to be a traffic pricing plan. Designed to raise revenues for the MTA whiling reducing congestion across the city’s East River Bridges, Bloomberg proposed a daily fee for automobiles entering Manhattan south of 59th St. with revenues set to bolster rail and bus service. The congestion pricing plan was controversial but had garnered the support of a majority of New Yorkers so long as the money went to transit. What happened next was Albany at its finest.
Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan passed the City Council, and the measure went to Albany for a home rule request. Usually, Albany is generous in granting these measures, but this time, Sheldon Silver had other plans. The powerful Assembly speaker and Lower Manhattan rep let the bill die in committee. It never even came up for a vote, and at that point, Bloomberg’s 2030 plan lost a major source of revenue. Albany, coincidentally, lost a major ally too as New York’s mayor, never one to embrace the upstate capital, seemed largely at odds with New York’s state leadership after the vote.
For years, a congestion pricing plan has hovered around the edges of New York City politics. The idea itself hasn’t completely died, but support for a pricing scheme hasn’t rematerialized. Over the years, Sam Schwartz has continued to refine the idea into a fair tolling scheme, and he and I spoke on it at my Problem Solvers event last October. Now, with a new mayor — albeit one who hasn’t embraced a congestion pricing or East River bridge toll plan — and the MTA’s five-year needs coming into view, time may be right for another attempt.
That, at least, is what Matt Flegenheimer argues in The Times today. Here’s his story:
First, the name had to go. There could be no more talk, transit advocates reasoned, of “congestion pricing,” a phrase Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg often used before his sweeping plan to overhaul New York City’s bridge tolling system was vanquished in 2008, and treated as political arsenic ever since. Then, with a clean slate, supporters could move on to the hard part: sculpting a proposal that might succeed where the mayor failed.
And so, more than five years after Mr. Bloomberg’s plan died in Albany, a cadre of the city’s transit minds has primed a successor, fine-tuning a pricing model that might be more palatable to residents outside Manhattan, meeting quietly with former opponents and preparing to take its case early next year to a public that has grown accustomed to free, if traffic-choked, rides over the East River.
Political obstacles abound, including securing the support of the State Legislature. But in what the plan’s supporters have billed as the most significant change of heart so far, Councilman Mark Weprin, an outspoken critic of the old proposal, said in an interview last week that he was receptive to this reimagined version. “I’d like to have a chance to talk to them again,” he said of his constituents, “and say this makes a lot more sense.” (Mr. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, is running for City Council speaker.)
The latest version of Schwartz’s plan is available in a presentation on his website (pdf), and it essentially involves a series of trade-offs. The Verrazano Bridge toll would be lowered while the free East River crossings would come with a charge. Direct routes through and into Manhattan would all carry the same charge so that traffic would find the most efficient route and not the cheapest while transit would enjoy added revenue.
It’s a much more rigorous plan than that put forth by Mayor Bloomberg, but absent some serious political pressure it won’t happen. The first obstacle is the MTA. The agency won’t advocate for this plan on its own, and any proposal that involves reducing Verrazano tolls means that the MTA’s own revenue streams would be reduced. Unless the city bridges are all turned over to the MTA, lowering MTA tolls is risky, and I’ve received indications that MTA doesn’t particularly want control over all the bridges and all the attendant headaches that came along with it.
Next up is the idea that change emerges out of a crisis. Right now, reports indicated that the MTA’s finances are stronger than expected and that the agency is enjoying unexpected surpluses. We know how fragile the budget is, and we know that the MTA needs to fund a $28 billion five-year capital plan. But the average voter may not recognize as much. Levying more fees on people who think New York is already too pricey won’t go over well in bad economic times; it certainly won’t be smiled upon in good times.
Finally, there are the Usual Suspects. Take, for instances, Richard Brodsky. The one-time Westchester rep is still leading the charge against congestion pricing, and he still doesn’t understand who drives into Manhattan on a daily basis. “It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” he said to The Times, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.” Brodsky has yet to realize, five years later, that the guy with that ’97 can’t afford to drive into Manhattan anyway.
I want Schwartz’s plan to succeed. I want to see an equitable pricing scheme that reduces traffic into Manhattan and along the arteries that serve the island at the center of the city. I want Lee Sander’s comments to The Times — “If people oppose this, there is an obligation for them to come up with their alternative for how we fund the region’s subways, commuter rail and bus system” — to come true. But I’m not sure the political will is there quite yet. Someone high up will have to be a champion.
As the Friends of the QueensWay continue their taxpayer-supported push to develop a greenway on the fallow Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way, Phil Goldfeder, Assembly representative from New York’s 23rd district, announced a competing study to be undertaken by Queens College urban studies students that will ascertain the best uses for the right-of-way. Goldfeder, a supporter of rail, has called this effort a “comprehensive and objective” one that will “assess the community impact of the proposed options for the abandoned tracks,” as compared with the park-only assessment underway by the Trust for Public Land.
In announcing the study, Goldfeder noted the disparity in focus. On Twitter, he said that the QueensWay team is wasting “tax money on expensive consultants” while the Queens College will “utilize local experts” and “undertake real objective study.” This new examination of the right of way is expected to take nine months, and it will include a full needs assessment as well as a cost analysis of the various options. Additionally, Congressmen Gregory Meeks (NY-5) and Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8) continue to work with Goldfeder as well to ascertain if Sandy recovery money can be used for reactivated rail service.
In a subsequent press release, the Assembly rep added, “The Queens College Department of Urban Studies’ Office of Community Studies is renowned for its community-based research. It is the perfect partner to help determine what is in the best interest of Queens and city residents. Now that the MTA has signaled an interest in reactivating the Rockaway Beach Rail Line as an efficient and cost-effective way to significantly increase public transit for Queens residents, it’s important we do appropriate studies to determine the next steps. While other groups are using tax dollars to hire expensive consultants and do one-sided studies, we’re utilizing local expert resources and educating our students while supporting an objective study that will enormously benefit all our hardworking Queens families.”
The details are still coming out, but for those of us very hesitant to embrace a QueensWay solution that would essentially cut off the rail option forever, this is a best-case scenario. A third party will assess the various proposed uses and develop cost estimates for each case. We’ll find out what rail reactivation would take, what usage a park would get, and what doing nothing would mean for Queens. Clawing back part of this process from the Trust for Public Land is a very good step indeed.
Every now and then, I like to check in on how some of the other global subway systems are faring. Today, we have some interesting news out of the United Kingdom where Boris Johnson and Transport for London have ushered in a move long necessary.
As far as mad rushes go, it’s quite a sight to stand in Trafalgar Square a little before 12:30 a.m. on a Friday night as Londoners and tourists alike stream through the fare gates in an effort to catch the last Tube train home. TfL makes its operating hours very well known, and as that last train time inches closer, walks become jogs, jogs become sprints. That is one train no one wants to miss.
Because the Tubes don’t run for five hours every night, London is a relatively early town. The night owl bus service is far superior to most cities’ bustitution plans — Boston, I’m looking at you — but restaurants and bars close up shop far earlier there than here. It’s always been a sore subject for Londoners, but change is a-comin’.
Last week, London mayor Boris Johnson announced that, starting in 2015, some Tube trains will operate overnight during the weekends. It is a major sea change for London. Katrin Bennhold has a report for The Times:
The London Underground is facing one of the most drastic overhauls in its 150-year history. Starting in 2015, its trains will start running throughout the night, and most of its ticket offices will be replaced by upgraded machines or turnstiles that accept contactless bank cards as part of a plan meant to bring the world’s oldest subway system “into the 21st century.”
The announcement on Thursday brought mixed reactions. In a capital that prides itself on its theater scene and night life, the prospect of 24-hour train service has been one of the most popular campaign pledges of Mayor Boris Johnson. But at a time of sluggish economic growth, declining real wages and austerity policies, the planned closing of ticket offices, which will cost about 750 Underground workers their jobs, has angered transport unions. Some warned that it could prompt the first major strikes in four years…
The 24-hour service will start in 2015 on five lines during Friday and Saturday nights and is expected to eventually be extended to other lines and nights of the week. Among the pilot lines are the Piccadilly, the Victoria, the Central, the Jubilee and important sections of the Northern. Ticketing and the current system of payment cards, known as Oyster cards, will start to be phased out next year, when the Underground will encourage passengers to move to a system of direct payments by using bank debit cards. Already, ticket offices sell less than 3 percent of the tickets used for the system, down from 10 percent 10 years ago, Transport for London said.
This is a small story, but there’s a lot going on here. Besides the welcome news that Tube service will run throughout the weekend on some of the busier lines, that London is phasing out the Oyster card before New York even adopts a contactless payment system is intriguing. London is looking to a bank card-based system just as New York is. Hopefully, the two transit systems are keeping each other appraised of their moves and the payment standards.
So London gets its 24-hour subway, finally, in 2015, and the Oyster Card will go the way of the token. Our MetroCards will be around through the end of this decade, but at least we’ve had overnight train service since the beginning.