A few notes on my NYC commute

- by Frank Ostrander

Author's Note: I originally wrote this about a year ago. Some aspects of my commute have changed since then, however the story was true at the time.

I commute weekdays from Cornwall-On-Hudson to 23rd Street in New York City. The trip takes roughly two hours each way, door to door.

I leave my house at approximately 6:10 AM and drive to the Metro North station at Harriman. I chose this over the Cornwall / Salisbury Mills station mostly because of the difference in the ticket price, and because it does not significantly affect the time that I have to leave my house. Occasionally, if it's snowing I'll opt for Cornwall / Salisbury Mills. I arrive at Harriman with about ten minutes to spare before the 6:46 train bound for Hoboken arrives. Waiting on the platform I meet up with a couple of fellow commuters who, as it turns out shared a similar interest in the political exploits of a retired Vermont dairy farmer named Fred Tuttle. We loosely refer to ourselves as "Friends of Fred". I had met Fred some years ago as a close friend of mine who lives in Vermont had worked for him in the 1980s repairing fences on his farm.

The train usually arrives on time, though recently they've been doing track work and the trains have been about five minutes late. As the train pulls into the station, the passengers line up in anticipation of the position of the doors when the train finally stops. Whether you get your favorite seat on the train is loosely tied to how well you guess where the train will stop. There are enough seats to go around, here, though this is not the case further down the line. At Suffern, the last stop before Hoboken, all the seats will be filled, and some will stand. Various requests have been made to place an extra car on this train, to no avail. (In the fall of 1999 an extra car was added to this train. Interestingly enough, ridership has increased to the point where there are again people standing on the train!)

Once seated I have a few options. Sometimes, though not often, I might sit with an acquaintance and have a conversation. Occasionally, I will strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. More often, I will get out my laptop computer and work on something. I write software on the side and I have found the train to be a very good environment for doing this. Other options include sleeping - I do this one or two mornings a week. After a while one gets pretty good at sleeping in a sitting position, though this takes some practice. If I intend to sleep, I usually avoid cars with the newer seats, especially the shorter middle seats that do not have a headrest. Quite a few people on the train simply read a book. I have done this occasionally, though I spend more time on my computer.

The train ride is a little bumpy until we get to Suffern, as the track has not yet been upgraded to welded rail. From Suffern to Hoboken it is quite smooth. One really doesn't have much of a sense of how fast the train is moving as suburban New Jersey slips by. The train slows and sometimes stops to wait for other trains as we approach Hoboken. As the train pulls into the terminal, usually on time, people in a hurry to get off line up in the aisle.

Disembarking the train, I walk quickly to the Path Train terminal located beneath the Train Station, for the ten-minute journey under the Hudson River to Manhattan. Either on the platform, or aboard the Path Train I meet up with another group of acquaintances. The Path Trains are often quite crowded and I sometimes muse that we should import some of the white-gloved attendants, that are said to exist on the Tokyo subways, to pack us onto the train. Here, unlike on the Metro-North train, I have to stand - most do - as there is limited seating. We are all beginning to wake up and the conversation can be quite lively.

Arriving at 23rd Street, the fourth and second-to-last stop on the Path line, I de-train and navigate the numerous stairs to the street. I now walk about a block and a half to my office, stopping at the bagel shop on 23rd Street for a bagel. If all goes well, it's 8:10 when I settle in for another day's work at my office.

The Trip home is quite similar. I leave the office between 4:30 and 4:45 in anticipation of catching the 5:17 train out of Hoboken, bound for Port Jervis. I generally don't run into anyone that I know on the Path Train, and only occasionally talk to someone on the Metro North train. Usually, I again occupy myself with my computer, or sleep or read. The train arrives in Harriman, on time or a little early, and the people run to their cars, which are all parked facing out, in hopes of beating the impending traffic jam. Exiting the parking lot there is only one lane with a stop sign at the intersection with Route 17. It can take as long as ten minutes to get out. (It would be nice if an acceleration lane onto Northbound Route 17 could be added, as this would greatly reduce the delay.) In twenty-five minutes, after negotiating the back roads between Central Valley and Cornwall, ever keeping a watchful eye for deer, I arrive home. My three children are happy to see me. My dinner, which is by now cold, is waiting for me on the stove. It is 6:45. In twelve hours I will be boarding the train again!

Some people are astonished that I commute this far to my job. For me, all things being relative, it is not bad. During a six-year stint in Southern California, I spent the last year and a half commuting from Laguna Beach to Northridge, a three hour trip door-to-door. I had found my "dream job" working for a distinguished loudspeaker manufacturer, but my family did not want to leave the serenity and good schools of Laguna Beach. I couldn't blame them. Our return to New York, in search of a better quality of life (given our resources) and even better schools, was prefaced by my finding acceptable employment in my field (Electrical Engineering with an emphasis on audio). When I found a position in New York city, I took it.

A few notes on the quality of the train service. While commuting in Southern California I discovered one of their best kept secrets: Metrolink. Armed with a clean new fleet of double-decker commuter cars (similar to those used by Toronto's GO Transit) and run by Amtrak, Metrolink, in its effort to try and lure commuters out of their cars has done an admirable job. It wasn't until I came back to New York that I discovered just how good it was. I'm not complaining about the Metro North service. It gets me to work and back on time and the trains are relatively comfortable. Heat and air conditioning are adequate. Lighting, however, is for some reason uniquely intermittent on some trains. One thing that really made an impression in California was the clean bathrooms on the trains. Every car had a spacious, well lit, handicapped-accessible, clean bathroom, complete with amenities such as disposable-paper seat protectors. Metro North has a long way to go in this regard.

A note about the background: I took this picture from the dome of a Canadian Pacific observation car headed from Vancouver B.C. to Montreal in the spring of 1967!