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Sunday, June 10, 2007

NYC Subway Saga....

This is the second week of my summer teaching adventure -- a "gig" at Baruch College that involves five weekly commutes to and from New York. Last week (the first) went so well that I was quickly lulled into the belief that things are really quite different (improved, that is) in public transport services in Boston, New York City and in between.

That judgment was challenged yesterday by the folks of the New York City subway system.

This was going to be (and still is) a special commute not only because it began on Saturday (I would normally head in on Mondays), but also because spouse Randi joined me so we can have an anniversary day dinner in Manhattan last night (39 years!) and then attend a family gathering in New Jersey today (an aunt is celebrating her 90th birthday at a restaurant operated by one of her grandkids... should be nice).

Traveling on weekends in the Northeast Corridor is not as convenient schedule-wise as during the week, especially for folks like us who begin our treks in the suburbs along the MBTACommuter Rail line. The Amtrak Regional we took left Back Bay Station at 150PM, and to play it safe that meant taking Commuter Rail train at 1030 into Boston. In hindsight we could have done that better, but as it was we more than a couple of hours to kill in Boston which we used to good effect by wandering around the malls in the Back Bay area (bags and all). The Amtrak ride was fine -- no real hangups and we were into Penn Station at 545PM.

And that is where it became a problem and this saga begins.

To get to the place we were staying on the upper west side we would usually have two or three choices. Randi wanted to take Broadway-7th Avenue line 1-2-3 trains, but I insisted on the 8th Avenue local C train that would put us several blocks closer to our destination.

By a little after 6PM, each of us with bags on our back as well as moderate size carry-ons in our arms, climbs the steps to where the Uptown C train is supposed to stop -- and there are signs on every post saying that for that day the C will run on the A-train (express) tracks, which means now schlepping ourselves and bags up and down some more steps. OK -- not too much of an inconvenience.

Standing on that express train platform, we kept watching as several E trains (they go to Queens) pulled in and out of the local platform. Nothing was happening on the express tracks -- nothing, not a C or an A. No announcements were made (even though you can hardly figure out what they are saying when they do make one -- the acoustics are terrible in those old stations). No one was around to give information or direct people one way or the other. By 630PM we did what others were starting doing -- moving back over to the local line where at least there was some train to catch heading in the right direction. Along the way I saw a transit employee slouching comfortably against the token booth outside the gates and asked about announcements, and she essentially shrugged but made no effort to be helpful or informative -- she hardly moved. (Ah, just like the old days of "I don't give a damn about customers" service..." -- not a good omen for Mr. Bloomberg's legacy).

As we approach the steps to the local line platform there is rumbling and dozens of folks who had been standing patiently on the express platform made a mad rush (literally) over to the local line. With bags on back we just walked, and still made it up there in time to see that it was indeed an A train that had stopped unannounced on the local track; and now it became evident that if we had any hope of catching a C train it was on this platform.

I situated us by the middle car stop location so I could at least speak with the so-called conductor (on NY subway trains it is a person who sits in a cubicle and opens and closes the doors). The first says all he knows is that there are many trains following him, so wait it out. Another A train follows, and another, and when a third comes in quick succession I ask if there are any Cs running and she says no -- but that her A train is supposedly to make all local stops (which would do the trick for us since that would put us at 86th Street and Central Park West).

We stay on through three or four stops and at 59th Street (Columbus Circle) we hear that same conductor announce that this was to be an express train that would have its next stop at 125th Street. We jump off the train and there stands (finally!) a transit employee giving directions. He tells us to either go to 125th and then take a local C back downtown to 86th (if we wanted to assume that the locals are running from 125th in that direction; but how could there be locals at that end if none are making them uptown?). Otherwise, he says, take the M10 bus uptown using the free transfer allowed on the Metrocard (NY allows for free transfers for two hours -- it was 7PM so we were still good for another 45 minutes....) Where is the M10 stop? Somewhere in the street, he tells me. (I don't think he was trying to be a smartass on purpose -- he just didn't know the answer...)

Up the steps we go and then I make the mistake of asking the person in the token booth about bus stops. "Where do you want to go?" (the standard response; they never answer a direct questions like "where is the M10 bus stop?"). "86th Street," I respond. "Take the 1-2-3 trains right over there" -- and she points to another train platform within seeing distance and lets us back in the platform area through a service gate. We go there and it is obvious that trains have not been running regularly here as well -- lots of people with that impatient "Where the hell is that train" air about them....

We decide to escape and take our chances above ground, and as soon as we emerge we are standing at the M10 bus stop. Sweaty, tired, a bit pissed, we wait as several non-M10 buses pass by -- and then finally the M10.

Now, a brief description of NYC street layouts. As you head north-south in Manhattan all streets (well, there are exceptions here and there, mainly along Broadway) are .5 miles in length -- 20 blocks to the mile. Which means that standing at 59th, we were only 1.5 miles from our destination. Should be a quick trip, right? Not really.

When M10 came, we boarded, and along the way we made stops to pick up and drop off people requiring special access (that is, the driver had to get out and operate the access equipment in the rear of the bus); in addition, we made most station stops as well as at about three-fourths of the traffic lights (which are also, I should note, located at each intersection -- each .5 miles -- along the route). In other words, it was not a quick mile and a half.

By the time we got off at 88th Street we were exhausted but at least more relaxed as we walked to our destination. A fast hello to our hosts (who were on their way out the door) and we headed off to a nice anniversary meal at a nice Turkish restaurant at 85th and Columbus -- and soon forgot about the previous three hours of transit torture in NYC.

Ah, New York!

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