Metro New York RailFest 2003: Preview trips
August 30, 2003 and September 21, 2003
Chapter 0: Introduction
Michael and I took two trips in advance of the Metro New York RailFest 2003 event in order to find places to eat, and to determine the best itinerary for the main event based on where we would be stopping to eat lunch. The first one was on Saturday, August 30th, and the second one was Sunday, September 21st.
Chapter 1: Trip 1; Saturday, August 30, 2003
For this trip, we rode out as far as Bridgeport, CT, all via commuter rail and of course NYC subways. At this time, the intent for a Fest was to ride all three of the Metro North branches to New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury. So the idea was to check those places where we would be switching trains, to optimize our time off the rails. That would mean Stamford, South Norwalk, and Bridgeport respectively. On this trip I figured we had time for Bridgeport and Stamford, and we'd do South Norwalk on a future trip.
We could have taken AMTRAK Train 160, but this time around I figured we'd save on fares. On weekends, I pay nothing for Michael on NJT, and only 75 cents per ride on Metro North.
We began in Metropark, NJ, and took an 8:15 AM NJT express train to New York's Penn Station (skips Rahway, Linden, Elizabeth, and North Elizabeth). The scheduled arrival time of NJT into Penn Station is 8:53 AM, and I assumed that it was unrealistic that we would make a 9:07 AM Metro North express train out of Grand Central. I had figured on making the 10:07, giving us an hour to take the two-seat subway ride across town.
I was wrong - we did extremely well and got the 9:07 train. We took a 2 train with the new equipment for one stop, and then an S shuttle train was waiting at Times Square to take us to Grand Central. We got to GCT, and had time to buy our tickets to Bridgeport.
I must say here that we took three different rides on Metro North trains on that day, and all three rides were worse than the Arrow tin cans on NJ TRANSIT we had in both directions, as well as the subways we rode in between.
Since we boarded late, almost every seat was taken. We found a pair of seats right up front in one car. I noticed that we had no legroom at all, as bad as on an airplane. It was long after departure before I realized that this was a conductor's position, as I looked up and saw the door control and buzzer apparatus. Luckily the crew member who took our tickets did not say anything and let us stay there.
Approaching Bridgeport, the crew said to go to one of two cars for detraining because there were two bridge plates (yes Bridgeport Bridge Plates, and yes, only two for a long train). Everyone getting off filed up to the designated car. Just as we got to the station, they said, "never mind, all doors will open". Thanks a lot. We stationed on Track 3, which is the normal southbound track. AMTRAK 160 running 17 minutes late and right behind us, did the same thing.
We walked around Bridgeport for about 20 minutes and got snacks in a convenience store. I made note of places to eat in advance of a possible Fest stop there.
Back at the station, we got there in time for a "tweener" (a train that runs half an hour in between two hourly trains), so we boarded it and rode to Stamford. Since we were one hour earlier than planned out of New York, taking this train now put us one and a half hours ahead of my schedule.
Well on this particular train that we ran for, the only available seats in the car we boarded turned out to be right across from the "lavatory". As the train picked up speed, we caught the whiff of, well, a rest room in terrible need of cleaning. I had just told Michael that the purpose of the smell in the body of the coach was to give people a preview of what it smells like in some subway stations when they get to New York. Then I had to eat my words, as some guy entered the room and made the stink much worse.
Boy were we happy we were only going to Stamford on that train! It was hot outside, but the fresh air as we got off the train there was quite rewarding.
In Stamford, I did the same thing as in Bridgeport. We looked around briefly in the station area, and deduced that in the brief amount of time that railfans would be in town, there is noplace within a comfortable walking distance (other than a Dunkin Donuts and a coffee shop within the station) for a meal during a one-hour layover. So based on our research that day, Bridgeport definitely got the nod for a lunch stop over Stamford, and I changed my itinerary accordingly. Of course it was by far not the last time I would have to alter our plans!
We walked by the UBS building, which boasts the world's largest stock trading floor. I work for the same company, but have never been in that building. There is a steak house in the complex, but it was closed -- so it would also be closed on a Saturday in the near future.
So instead of eating in Stamford (which we could have done had we walked further north towards the retail area), we opted for getting on the next express train and going back to New York City. We caught the 11:53 PM train, which runs nonstop to 125th Street and then Grand Central. Since Stamford is the last stop before New York, it was packed. We ended up standing on this train in the doorway all the way to Grand Central. And just as we were coming up to the platform near the final stop there was a loud noise and a visible spark that scared everyone, including a female crew member who was standing next to us by the door. She said that the event even scared her, and that somebody was going to have to go out there and fix it.Of our three Metro North rides, the cramped conductor's seat, the one that might as well have been inside the bathroom, and the one where we stood the whole way, Michael voted for the cramped conductors seat as his most pleasant. At least we could sit and had fresh air from a slightly open window.
Once back in New York a little past the scheduled 12:40 PM arrival time (and now a full two hours earlier than I had planned!), Michael and I were both starving. We walked over to Lexington Avenue. First he had McDonald's while I sat idle, and then we went into Sbarro where he watched me eat. Compromise.
After lunch we saw an electronics store at Lex & 44th that was about to go out of business. They were selling stuff for real cheap. I picked up a set of headphones for my scanner (my old set had broken during our Windy City RailFest trip in July).
After we returned to Grand Central, we took the S shuttle train back to Times Square, and then it was a short wait for the first southbound train on the 7th Avenue line, a 1 train. We rode one stop to Penn Station. During the short subway trip a Hispanic girl lost her balance and almost sat down on me, but thankfully caught herself just in time. She apologized (I think) in Spanish.
Once at Penn Station we were walking through the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) area, and came to the first AMTRAK/NJT monitor. We found out that the 1:55 PM NJT express to Trenton was boarding on Track 15. This is in the station's LIRR territory, so we never got as far as the NJ TRANSIT concourse. Downstairs, we sat in the train's last car, which had an abundance of seats despite the fact that people were standing in the aisles towards the middle of the train.
We were very lucky to have gotten there when we did. This train operated on time, making and skipping the same stops as our morning NJT train. Our day on the rails was over at 2:29 PM when we arrived in Metropark.
Chapter 2: Trip 2; Sunday, September 21, 2003
By September 21, we knew more about the circumstances we would be facing. Metro North had announced by then that the Waterbury Branch would be closed for a 38-day period for trackwork and bridge repairs. This meant that we would not require a stopover at Bridgeport to change trains or have lunch. Left with two branches instead of three, we were able to plan to leave New York an hour earlier. It also meant that it was more important that I get back to Connecticut to check out the area around the South Norwalk station area. As a backup to eating in Norwalk, I would also venture further into Stamford, this time expanding my search beyond the general area around the rail station.
Since this was a Sunday, time was more critical for us. Therefore I decided we would take AMTRAK this time in both directions between Metropark and Stamford. We would use Metro North only between Stamford and South Norwalk.
The consist of Train 162(21) was:
953 AEM-7 locomotive 82022 Amfleet I Regional CoachClass 82083 Amfleet I Regional CoachClass <- * 21169 Amfleet I coach 21149 Amfleet I coach 82044 Amfleet I Regional CoachClass 82502 Amfleet I Regional CoachClass 20035 Amfleet I Cafe 81506 Amfleet I Regional BusinessClass * Michael & I were here
The trip on 162 departed from Metropark on time, arrived and departed from New York Penn Station's Track 14 on time, and arrived in Stamford at 10:44 AM, four minutes early.
The early arrival gave us a little more time to purchase the round trip tickets to South Norwalk. The Metro North train from Grand Central to New Haven arrived right on time at 10:51, and we were on our way east once more. This train was a bit crowded, and just our luck we once again ended up next to the rest room. That area of our coach smelled no better than the last one we had encountered three weeks ago.
We got to South Norwalk on time at 11:03 AM. We had a choice of 11 minutes or 39 minutes to explore before catching a train in the other direction back towards Stamford. The first one was one of those "tweeners", but to be fair to Norwalk I decided to shoot for the later one.
We walked two blocks towards Main Street, turned left, and then walked several blocks until we came to where the railroad passes over Main Street. We then crossed under the tracks on Washington Street and walked on the other side for a while. In searching for places to eat, I came up empty, save for a couple of places whose names I could not pronounce. Eventually we worked our way back to the inbound platform. We did find a small place within the waiting area of the station, but their selection was very limited.
Our 36 minutes in Norwalk was highly successful, even though we found nowhere to eat. At least I knew not to lead a group of starving railfans there!! So it was back to Stamford, with plans to walk several blocks when we got there.
Our westbound train was five minutes late. We got to Stamford at 11:58 AM, which is one minute after the New Canaan branch train leaves. The New Canaan train, which is on Track 5 directly across the platform from the westbound mainline trains, does not hold for a late connection from this direction. That was another valuable piece of information I had learned; I would not schedule a connection for our Fest that might be missed.
We walked from the Stamford station towards the downtown district, and soon found the Stamford Town Center, a regional multi-story shopping mall.
We entered it from the side, passing through some other shopping area and then the Stamford Town Center's parking garage. Having never been to the mall before, we had essentially taken the longest route to get to the mall. In the time we had in town, one task was to find the shortest route between the train station and the mall, because it was looking more and more like this was going to be our Fest's lunch stop location.
After we had entered the mall, we made our way up to the 7th floor, where most of the restaurants are located. There is no central food court, but there is a variety of fast food eateries. We settled on a place called My Kitchen, which features salads (we don't eat salad) but also has lots of different types of delicacies, including a hard-to-resist Korean BBQ Chicken. They even offer free soup with your meal.
After we ate, we explored the mall some more, and also went into Filene's department store to find the entrance and exit from the complex closest to the train station. When we were done with the mall, and it was time to head back to the station, we utilized that side exit from Filene's.
Back at the station, we had a little while to wait for our southbound train, AMTRAK 163. An announcement told us it was running a little late.
We finally departed from Stamford at 3:04 PM, eight minutes late. The consist of Train 163(21) was:
916 AEM-7 locomotive 82010 Amfleet I Regional CoachClass 81501 Amfleet I Regional BusinessClass <- ** 20047 Amfleet I Cafe <- ** 82043 Amfleet I Regional CoachClass <- * 21686 Amfleet I Coach 44691 Amfleet I Coach 28303 Amfleet I Cafe 81502 Amfleet I Regional BusinessClass * Michael & I were here ** Used as coach seating
This train looked like it was thrown together at the last minute, as it had both an extra cafe and an extra Business Class car being used for regular coach seating.
This train was quite crowded, as it operates during the Sunday peak period. Still, we were able to find two seats together in a coach near the center of the train.
Despite the train's late departure from Stamford, it arrived exactly on time into New York Penn Station (Track 13) at 3:50 PM. The usual change of passengers and crews took place, and we were on our way by 4:05 PM, right on time. But you did not expect things to be picture perfect for the rest of this trip, did you?
Just before NJ TRANSIT's Secaucus Junction station, which by this time was in its third weekend of service, we came to a slowed and then came to a stop. The crew said that we had a stop signal ahead of us, and that there had been a "problem on the tracks" earlier. They did not elaborate what that problem may have been. We moved very slowly through the Secaucus Junction station, and at one point stopped and then quickly restarted, with people on the platforms staring at our train. Once past the station interlockings, we returned to our normal track speed.
The delay in Secaucus caused us to be 17 minutes late by the time we departed from Newark Penn Station. After another one-minute non-station stop beyond the Newark Airport station, we were almost 20 minutes late, a deficit we carried into Metropark, where Michael and I alighted.
Chapter 3: Conclusion
So with that, the stage was set for our Metro New York RailFest 2003 to take place two weeks later. Our two fact finding missions proved to be very worthwhile!