Spending three days in New York — the city where I was born, where I have family and visit often — has reminded me just how amazing it is that the island metropolis, some of the world’s most densely populated real estate, manages to function in spite of the crowding and traffic. That it does so is thanks mostly to its robust (at least by North American standards) transit network, obviating the need to drive one’s own car. Nevertheless, traffic in Manhattan has gotten noticeably worse in the past five years, and the subway system has seen a steady uptick in ridership. Many are blaming this phenomenon on the presence of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services adding more new cars to Manhattan’s roads than there are taxis, whose numbers are limited by regulation. A lot of upgrading is needed on New York’s subway and regional rail network, and riders have faced more frequent slowdowns and breakdowns, but by and large the transit system is serving its purpose capably.
This visit renewed my appreciation for Manhattan’s many and varied great public spaces — from small, tucked-away pockets like the courtyard of Washington Square Village to the sublime expanses of Battery Park City’s Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, with wide views of New York Harbor. My mother and I attended a free public dance performance on an outdoor stage in this park, with the distant Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and lots of maritime action in between, as the backdrop. We also paused to appreciate Bryant Park and the plazas installed along Broadway on space reclaimed for the pedestrian from the automobile, all of which were teeming with New Yorkers and visitors enjoying a mild, sunny day.
What I’m thinking about & writing
Appropriately enough given this week’s destination, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro’s thorough biography of the man who shaped much of the New York region’s built environment and pioneered the idea of the parkway and the urban expressway: Robert Moses. Generally well-regarded in his time as someone who fought the elites to build parks and public works for the masses, Moses is now largely infamous for pushing a highway-only mentality and disregarding transit — along with his not-so-subtle racism. Blame for the fact that Gotham’s subway and rail network is a few decades behind where it should be in its capacity and condition can be laid at Moses’ feet. In the early chapters, I found myself sympathetic with Moses as an idealistic reformer pushing for government jobs to be awarded based on merit rather than patronage. But my respect for him steadily wanes the more he undermines his own stated principles in order to acquire power so as to realize his dreams — which, while tinged with noble intentions, were conceived and executed narrow-mindedly with little thought for their long-term impacts.
In addition to continuing work on longer-term projects like the Trains Magazine feature story on the private railcar business that I mentioned two weeks ago, I wrote a post for Travelers United this week with advice for those trying to compare different options for where to get work done while traveling.
I’m also pleased to announce that I have accepted an offer to become VIA Rail Editor for Canadian Railway Observations, a monthly online publication that covers all aspects of railroading in Canada, primarily from an enthusiast perspective. I will use my practice in researching and writing about passenger rail and my familiarity with VIA Rail Canada, having traveled most of its route network and all of its equipment types, to deliver an engaging monthly report on Canada’s national rail passenger carrier for CRO subscribers (a subscription is just $20 Canadian, which is $15.91 US, per year).
What I’m reading
Reports are surfacing that Norfolk Southern is seeking to exit the excursion passenger train business and is auctioning off its Roanoke-based fleet of passenger coaches — all putting the future of main-line steam trips behind Class J. no. 611 in jeopardy. A spokesman for the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which organizes these trips in cooperation with NS, says he is hopeful that 611 runs will continue under Amtrak’s auspices.
- A special train that Amtrak will run this Monday to take passengers to view the total solar eclipse in Carbondale, Illinois, sold out within 22 hours of going on sale. This serves once again to illustrate the large untapped potential for trains to get people to and from large events without worrying about traffic and parking. Amtrak is also adding capacity to regularly scheduled trains that serve locales within the path of totality.
- While attending global rail industry expo InnoTrans last September in Berlin, I was excited to board a sample car for open-access passenger train operator Locomore, which dubbed itself “the world’s first crowd-funded railway” and whose innovative concepts included themed cabins (one for board games, one for business networking, one for reading, etc.). The company started operating five-day-a-week service between Berlin and Stuttgart in December, but sadly filed for insolvency in May. A spokesperson told Railway Gazette that the number of passengers and revenue per passenger had been growing continuously, ‘but not fast enough to be fully cost-effective.’ The British publishers of European Rail Timetable reported today that Locomore service, under the same name, will resume Aug. 24 under the ownership of a joint venture between Czech operator Leo Express and German bus operator Flixbus. I hope the concept, if not the enterprise, has some staying power. Here are my photos of the Locomore prototype coach that was on display at InnoTrans.
Where I’m Going Next
I fly out of DC on Sunday afternoon to join the #NerdTrain gang — an informal group of train and transit enthusiasts, mostly fellow Millennials, founded six years ago by my friend Matt Johnson — in Kansas City. We will head to St. Joseph, MO on Monday to view the solar eclipse in its totality, and tour around KC on Tuesday before departing that evening on the westbound Southwest Chief. Then, it’s three days in greater L.A., which will include a visit to Catalina Island and a ride on the Fillmore and Western Railway’s excursion train in Ventura County. Then I visit a friend in Morro Bay, CA for two nights, then take the Coast Starlight north to Tacoma, from whence I’ll join two friends for a Labor Day weeklong road trip through the Canadian Rockies. I return to DC on Sept. 7, only to head south to Greensboro, NC on Amtrak’s Carolinian the next day to take in the National Folk Festival that weekend. Back to DC on the Crescent on Sept. 12.
A Musical Sendoff
Here’s an uplifting, gospel-tinged New Orleans soul tune from Chuck Carbo that fits the mood of excitement for a train trip.
Take care and best wishes,