A Commuter's Nightmare; A Railfan's Dream
February 12, 2003
Off To Jamaica
I set out to combine two of my favorite things: snow (since it was snowing here in NYC) and riding trains. Thereís nothing quite like watching the snow fly as a train whips by. Since I didn'tít have too much time, I decided to ride the Long Island Railroad from Woodside, Queens to Patchogue, Long Island. For those who may not be familiar with the LIRR, you can see a map of their lines here.
Normally trains to and from Patchogue use the Babylon branch to reach the Montauk branch. I decided however, to ride one of three weekday only trains that use the mainline or Ronkonkoma branch to reach Babylon and from there the Montauk branch. There is a short single-track connecting line that runs between the mainline and Babylon.
My journey started out uneventfully enough by catching a local train (#126, which runs to Babylon from Penn Station) at 2:48 PM in Woodside, Queens. It was still snowing very lightly, even though the bulk of the storm had passed. It was my hope that as I rode east, I would catch up with the storm that was pulling off to the northeast. Sadly, I was never to realize that hope.
I rode the Babylon local to Jamaica where I would transfer to train #2772 to Patchogue. We arrived one minute early at Jamaica pulling in at 2:56 PM. Since we arrived on track 6, I crossed over to track 8, where the Patchogue train would be boarding. The train pulled in about two minutes later at about 2:59 PM and the stampede for seats began. Since this train is an express to Babylon, coupled with people getting out early due to the snow, there was a decent crowd.
On To Patchogue
All trains on the Montauk branch must use diesel engines, as third rail power ends just after Babylon. Additionally there is no third rail on the connector from the LIRR mainline to Babylon, so we needed the diesel for that stretch too. For this reason all trains to points beyond Babylon use the new double decker cars, along with the new diesel engines. I sat in the first car behind the engine on the left side in an upper level seat, the best place to hear the horn and see most of the tracks.
Our scheduled departure time was 3:03 PM, and the crew closed the doors right on time. Two minutes later we were still sitting in the station. My first thought was that we were simply waiting for a signal to clear. Then I heard the station dispatcher, on my scanner, calling the crew to find out why we hadn't left yet. The conductor replied that he had been having problems with one of the door indicator lights and had to cut it out. When we finally left we were running about three minutes late.
Just after we passed the Hollis station, I could hear the Queens tower calling us on the radio several times. Strangely enough the crew didnít seem to hear the tower calling, as they werenít replying. Just past the cutoff to Belmont Park we came to a stop with my car just past the Cross Island Parkway, a major highway at the border of Queens and Long Island.
I could hear even more chatter on the radio now, as the Queens tower was working with several trains in the area. This included a freight train sitting on track #4, while we were stopped on mainline track #2. The tower called us once again and this time the crew did respond, telling him that we had stopped because the door indicator light had gone on once again. They said that they were working on it and hoped to be underway in a minute or two.
The tower responded by telling us that we werenít going anywhere once they did fix the door problem. The tower informed the crew that there was a train on the mainline just east of Merillon Avenue that had no third rail power. While the Queens tower either didnít know or just wasnít telling the crews, it would turn out that the problem at Merillon Avenue was far more serious than no power. There was in fact a fire in the undercarriage of that train, which is why the train had no power, as both third rails in the area had been turned off for the fire crewís safety.
While we were sitting there waiting for the crew to fix the errant door, the tower called to the freight train next to us and informed him that he would most likely be going back towards Jamaica. Therefore he should get a qualified crewman on the rear of the train for the reverse move. As I was sitting right next to the freightís engine, I was able to see that crewman leave his nice warm cab, climb down, and start his long walk to the rear of the train.
A few minutes after this and about 5 minutes after we first stopped, our crew fixed the door problem and we started moving forward very slowly. Most people in the car either clapped or at least breathed a sigh of relief. Since the crew had not been making any announcements, the rest of the passengers didnít know what I knew thanks to my scanner. I knew we werenít going anywhere and sure enough we probably only moved about 400 feet or so, before stopping again at a signal.
I knew from radio reports that there was at least one if not two other trains ahead of us; not including the train with the fire. We were due into Mineola at 3:15, yet it was already past that and we were still close to 13 miles away from that station. We sat at the signal until just about 3:30, when the tower called our crew again to tell them that he was going to give us the railroad for a short distance. They wanted us to pull up and clear the interlock just east of the tower and just west of the Bellrose Station.
It was originally decided that we were going to pull up to the Floral Park station where we could hit a platform. I think that there was a two-fold reason for this. One, it would make it easier for the engineer to change ends, as they were going to send us back west. The second reason was so they could take off those passengers who were headed to Mineola, since we were never going to reach that station.
Our engineer told the tower that he had one of the new dual-mode engines that can pull power from the third rail. Not all of the new diesels are so equipped, but ours was. The engineer was worried that since we had shoes for the third rail, it could cause problems if we hit the area where the power was out on the third rail. The tower didnít know the answer to that question, and suggested that the engineer call it in to "204". For those who may be unfamiliar with the LIRR, "204" is or at one time was the telephone extension for the LIRR's movement department in charge of operations.
While I didnít hear the answer, I can only guess that it was decided that it would not be prudent to put the engine into Floral Park where the rail was dead. We were finally told to pull up and clear the fourth bridge, which essentially put us opposite the Bellrose station. Once there, the engineer was to change ends and run us back to Jamaica. Since we were not going to hit the Floral Park station where we could stop at a platform, we would now need to return to Jamaica to discharge the Mineola passengers.
Had we made it to Floral Park, it would not have been necessary to return to Jamaica, as we could have backed down the mainline to the St. Albans connector for the Babylon line. Now let me clear up a few points for those who may not familiar with the LIRR and the tracks on the mainline. After the St. Albans cutoff, the LIRR has a four-track mainline down to the Floral Park station. Tracks 2 and 4, the express and local tracks respectively are the eastbound tracks on the southern side of the main. Tracks 1 and 3 are on the north side of the main, with 1 being the local and 3 being the express track.
However just past the Belmont Racetrack cutoff and the Queens tower, there is a series of switches. These switches are used to divide the four-track mainline into two separate lines. By the time you have arrived at the Bellrose station, the two southern tracks (formerly 2 and 4) are now the line to Hempstead. Tracks 1 and 3 have become the mainline to Hicksville. The Bellrose station only has platforms on the Hempstead line. Trains headed for Mineola and Hicksville cannot stop here, as there are no platforms on the mainline. Floral Park on the other hand has platforms for both lines.
With a westbound train already sitting in the Bellrose station headed to Jamaica, we couldnít pull into that station to reverse. Not to mention that it would not have helped any Mineola customers, as they would be stranded there. The westbound train could not leave the station either and get out of our way, as we were blocking the switches he needed to get over to track 1. With the freight train still sitting on track 4, the two of us were blocking the Hempstead branch cutting off service there too.
So making us pull up to change ends allowed us to cross over to what had been track 3, which is what we would have done anyhow had things been normal, accomplished two things. One, it allowed us to reverse direction, since we could still reach our ultimate destination via another route. Two, it cleared the switches so they could at least resume service on the Hempstead branch, even with the mainline to Hicksville still being down.
Shortly after we made our move, maybe another 1,000 feet or so, we stopped again. Again the passengers were delighted that we were moving forward. I really wanted to stand up and tell them all that we werenít going forward for very far, and that we were actually going to go back to Jamaica. Instead I kept my mouth shut for now.
Back to Jamaica
I could hear the tower give the highball to train #757, the Hempstead local that had been sitting at Bellrose station. A few minutes later I was able to see our engineer walk down the left side of the train. Shortly after that I could hear him doing the brake test. The tower called while he was doing the test to check on his progress. He told them it would be a few more minutes until he finished everything.
About four more minutes went by before he called the tower to tell them he was ready and gave them his certification of the brake test and the train. The tower gave us the highball and we started back to Jamaica. Still our car was devoid of all announcements, so there were quite a few groans when the rest of the passengers realized that while we were once again moving, we were now headed in the wrong direction.
Since we were not expected back at Jamaica, plus it was now close to 3:50 and the start of rush hour (rush hour had actually started early thanks to the snow), and the LIRR had added extra "earlybird" trains because of the snow, it took them a few minutes to figure out where to put us. We finally ended up on track 1, which is typically a Manhattan-bound track.
We reached the station and came to a stop at about 3:55 PM. Still no announcements from the crew. I can tell you that most people were quite upset at the lack of info from the crew. The crew opened the doors after sitting in the station for about a minute. Now most passengers were quite confused and in fact many started detraining. Others were wondering what they could do since the conductor had already lifted their tickets.
I finally opened my mouth to those who were closest to me, and told them that there were problems outside of Merillon Avenue. I also told them, that as long as they were not headed to the Mineola station that they should just remain on board as we would be leaving as soon as the engineer changed ends once again. We would make all stops, except for Mineola. I know that there were people who got off this train not realizing that it would go back out of the station headed to Patchogue very shortly. I also suspect that there may have been one or two people who ended up in Babylon, even though they wanted Mineola.
Now a quick word about the announcements. I did find out later that the crew had indeed been making announcements. The PA was apparently only working in the rear two cars. While there was probably no way that the crew could have known that the PA was out, I still fault them for not keeping people informed. During such an unusual situation with only three cars, a conductor, and an assistant conductor; there is no excuse for their not walking the train. They should have gone from car to car, both to make sure that everyone had heard the announcements, and to answer any questions that the passengers might have had. Additionally I saw at least a few passengers walk back to the rear cars looking for a conductor, so the crew must have known that there was a problem with announcements.
Instead they failed to do their jobs properly, and left many passengers angry and confused. It should not have befallen me, a simple railfan, to help out my fellow passengers like I did. This is simply inexcusable behavior from a crew charged with the safety and comfort of the passengers on their train.
Off To Patchogue, Again!
Finally, after another brake test, we were ready to leave Jamaica for a second time that day at about 4:05 PM. We were supposed to be in Babylon at 3:40, yet here we were still 27 miles away from there and over 44 miles from our ultimate destination, Patchogue, where we were supposed to arrive in just 6 minutes from now. Needless to say, we werenít going to make it to Patchogue on time.
This was the first time I had ever pulled out of Jamaica station twice while onboard the same train. It was also the first time I had ever gone west on the LIRR, just so I could go east. We pulled out and gradually made our way across the inbound tracks to the outbound tracks from Jamaica. We stopped twice briefly to let westbound trains approaching Jamaica get out of our way. Then we finally started rolling down the mainline again to the St. Albans cutoff.
We moved at close to track speed until we got to Massapequa Park, where apparently we caught up with a Babylon local train since we were running express. So we rolled along at a far more sedate pace for the final three stations before Babylon. We finally hit Babylon station at 4:49, just over one hour late.
It was at this point that I had to start plotting my return back home too. My original plan had called for me to catch train #2709 the 2:50 PM from Montauk, which was scheduled to arrive in Patchogue at 4:36 PM. Based upon the schedule, that would have left me a layover of just 25 minutes in Patchogue. Well thanks to the delays that plan was out the window, as I was still 17 miles and at least 30 minutes away from Patchogue. Not to mention that if #2709 was running on time, it had already left Patchogue and was already almost halfway to Babylon.
So after looking at the schedule I decided to hope that I could catch Train #2775, the 5:29 PM from Patchogue. This train only runs as far as Babylon, where the passengers transfer to a 6:06 MU express-train #135 on the Babylon branch. Even then, I wasnít really sure if I would actually make it all the way to Patchogue. The next train back from Patchogue, after #2775 was an hour later so I knew that I didnít want to wait for that. I decided therefore that if I didnít reach Sayville by 5:20, that I would need to detrain there in order to ensure that I caught #2775 back home.
Sure enough it was 5:21 PM before we reached Sayville, so I decided not to gamble and got off here. I had considered trying to find a crewmember to see if the same equipment would be turned at Patchogue and become #2775. However considering the crew's earlier performance I decided not to trust them, if they even knew.
The train pulled out as I walked down the platform to the overpass, so I could cross over to the inbound platform. Even as I was walking down the platform, they were already making general announcements that all trains to and from Jamaica could be experiencing delays of up to 30 minutes. That wasnít a good sign, as that would leave me standing here at Sayville for over an hour. With the station closed and the temperature falling, it would be a long wait if this were true.
Thankfully while train #2775 was late, it was only about 12 minutes late. So instead of boarding at 5:37, he pulled in at 5:49 PM. The train was also not using the same equipment that I had used to reach Sayville. Of course thanks to the delay, had I gambled and stayed on the first train to Patchogue, I would have still had time to transfer to #2775 there. Oh well!
I was hoping that we might still make up a little time, so that I might still be able to catch train #135 the 6:06 PM express from Babylon. That hope was quickly dashed when then engineer completely missed the next stop at Oakdale. We finally came to a stop well past the station; even the engine, which was in push mode, was well past the platform. Therefore we needed to back up so that we could pick up the passengers waiting on the platform.
Thanks to the missed station fiasco, we were now running about 18 minutes down. Even with a five-minute gap between trains at Babylon, there was no chance that I would catch the 6:06. We finally made it to Babylon at 6:18 PM. While they had allowed train #135 (the express) to leave, thankfully they had held the 6:09 local train (#137) for us. Had they not done that, the next westbound train was not until 6:39 PM.
I quickly crossed over the platform to the local and made my way to the head car. My first stop was a quick visit to the facilities. Less than a minute later the conductor was closing the doors, and as I stepped out of the bathroom, we started moving. I walked to the front of the head car, where I discovered the railfan's dream. A railfan window in the door, with no railfan already standing there. I quickly claimed that window for myself.
Perhaps all the delays and detours had finally paid off. I donít think that there are many things better than standing at the front door of a MU, and watching a train headed in the opposite direction kicking up snow in our headlights as it passes. Not to mention the dozens of little blue fires (from the switch heaters) spread out across the dozens of switches at Jamaica. Itís a really pretty sight, even for a non-railfan. Had I not met with the delays and detour, I would have missed this as I would have been back in Jamaica before night fell.
Our engineer on #137 really pushed things trying to make up some time. We were definitely running at max speed, with him waiting until the last second to brake for each station. While he wasnít braking abruptly, it was harder than normal. In fact while we were running with eight cars, there were a few stations where he didnít complete the stop until we were up to or past the 10-car marker.
Thanks to all that hard running, we had made up five minutes by the time we reached Rockville Center. Thatís rather impressive for a train making 12 stops over a distance of only 17 miles. He picked up another minute on the run to Jamaica from Rockville. So we arrived at Jamaica only five minutes down, at 7:04. I detrained here since #137 would run express to Penn. I then caught the 7:05 local, which was also running about three minutes late, to reach my home stop of Woodside, Queens.
A quick one-stop ride on the 7 subway and a very interesting day of riding the rails had come to a close.