Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fragile Train Travel in NYC and Commuter Chaos vs. a Glorious Train Ride Through the Adirondacks

While my family and I were enjoying the beauty and serenity of the Adirondacks while spending several days in Lake Placid, there were several major transportation disruptions in the NYC area that affected train travel (the LIRR, New Jersey Transit, and even Amtrak) over two days.

Fascinatingly, as The New York Times article, "Amtrak Adds to Commuter Chaos in Region," reports:

The electrical travel chaos on the Long Island Rail Road on Monday offered a frustrating reminder of the fragility of a rail network still dependent on antiquated equipment.

Embedded along the railroad tracks by Jamaica Station, and soaked by rain from the night before, two or more cables shorted out around 11 a.m., the authorities said, sending a pulse of electricity into a nearby train control tower and setting fire to the century-old equipment inside.

It seems improbable that a piece of ancient machinery, a contraption of levers and pulleys designed in 1913, would be critical to the successful operation of one of the nation’s largest commuter railroads.

But the machinery, which remained on fire for about an hour, controls the 155 track switches at a crucial choke point: Jamaica Station, which 10 of the railroad’s 11 branches must travel through to get in and out of New York City.

With no way to direct trains onto their proper routes, railroad workers scrambled onto the tracks, spikes and mallets in hand, to lock the switches into place manually so that trains could travel by, a practice known in railroad parlance as “block and spike.”

For several hours, nearly the entire railroad ground to a halt.

The fragility of networks, from transportation to the Internet, and even supply chains and financial networks, was explored in our book, Fragile Networks: Identifying Vulnerabilities and Synergies in an Uncertain World.

Above I feature photos taken at the spectacular station in Lake Saranac in upstate New York, where, in contrast, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad was working beautifully and ferrying tourists between Lake Place and Lake Saranac. The station is simply gorgeous and we felt as though we were transported to another era (which we were). My husband is a huge train buff but we all enjoyed the experience a lot from seeing the station outside and inside to viewing the turning around of the engine to reading the historic boards inside the station and even talking to the pleasant gift shop operator.

As for train travel from NYC, we were told that, in the late 1800s, one would leave NYC at midnight and then arrive in Lake Saranac at 4PM the next day. This Adirondack area was known for its restorative benefits for those with lung ailments and for "cures" for tuberculosis. There were even trains that ferried sick passengers. A notable resident of the area, who lived there for 7 months (and whose residence we also toured), was Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among other works. He was born in Scotland and was very sickly (and a chain smoker). His wife credited the 7 months that they stayed at Lake Saranac as giving him 7 more years of life.