When the trains stopped: The Odyssey from New Haven to New York City
Tens of thousands of Connecticut commuters breathed collective sighs of relief late Thursday when Gov. Dannel Malloy announced they could take the train all the way from New Haven to New York and back again last night.
For those who had to get to work earlier in the week, though, the announcement marked the close of a few days of adventure — usually not a positive word associated with commuting.
We joined other commuters for their maiden (sort of) voyage. Here’s how the trip went:
7:15 a.m. — We leave New Haven, bleary-eyed and in need of coffee. We head down I-95 South — to find a 14-mile delay starting at exit 26. Should’ve taken the Merritt.
9:20 a.m. — A good hour later than expected, we reach Stamford. Wary of the parking situation, given that there’s a two-year wait for a monthly parking permit at the train station, we tentatively enter the garage. Is it closed? We asked the attendant. “Not yet!” she tells us triumphantly. (It closes 5 minutes later).
9:25 a.m. — After navigating through the giant, five-story garage, we run into Brian Keane, a commuter from Trumbull. Keane works in Westport for most of the week; he takes the train from Westport to New York City a couple of days a week to see clients. Since trains weren’t running from Westport Thursday, he drove from Trumbull. (He was smart; he took the Merritt).
Keane, like us, barely got a spot in the parking garage. But he was prepared. “I actually have my bike in my car,” he told us, “because I figured if there wasn’t any parking, I’d park on Bedford Street and bike down.”
9:45 a.m. — We hop the local train from Stamford to Manhattan, which is pretty full. It’s liberating not to have to buy a ticket (the MTA waived fares for the trains Thursday and Friday). Sitting next to us, with his iPad and laptop in tow, is Dennis Tracey, of Weston. He’s grateful to be on the train — and in a place with lights and outlets and all those good things about modern civilization.
“I don’t have power. 80 percent of Weston doesn’t have power,” he says with a tired smile. He and his family have been spending their days at the local high school “comfort station,” and staying with friends at night who have a generator. For those who have to work from home during the blackout, Tracey tells us, “they’re working on their Blackberries, and then they go out to their car, plug the Blackberry into the car, and sit in the car while it recharges.”
Tracey has heard, informally, that it might be 10 days before his lights come back on.
We run into other commuters from Greenwich, Rye and Port Chester, N.Y., who share their own adventures. Two colleagues who install home-theater systems across the tri-state area considered driving into the city this morning — if they could find a third rider, since cars with fewer than three people were banned from entering Manhattan. But the rumors were that driving would take three hours, sometimes more, when it should have taken only one.
10:50 a.m. — We arrive at Grand Central Station. It is eerily quiet. Even the subway station — which is partially open — is nearly deserted. Fares have been waived on the subways, as well, so commuters just walk in through the service gates. There’s no way to take the subway downtown, so we walk down about 30 blocks to Union Square, where power has yet to be restored.
Lower Manhattan seems like a ghost town. Blackened traffic lights sway in the wind as police officers stand in intersections and direct what little traffic there is. Two or three stores have decided to open, using candlelight or battery-operated lights.
“People want to have wine…liquid encouragement, I guess,” says Beau Rapier, as he lit candles inside Flatiron Wines and Spirits. The store was open for a few hours on Thursday and on Wednesday, and customers made 40 to 50 transactions. “It’s not normal business, obviously, but it’s better than nothing.”
In Union Square Park, dozens of Manhattanites stand in line to pick up huge packs of dry ice from ConEdison workers to keep their fridges cold. The driver of the cab we were able to hail tells us he had to drive to Stamford to get gas.
The scene feels a little like a filmmaker’s modern take on supply shortages in Communist Russia.
Back near Grand Central, a line of hundreds of people stretch down the block as they wait for buses that have replaced the “A” and “F” subway trains that usually run downtown, but are out of service.
5:08 p.m. — We catch an express train back from Grand Central to Stamford. On the train with us is Joan Poulton, who’s been so anxious to return to work, she actually went to Stamford’s train station late Wednesday night to ask when the trains would be running again.
They gave her a number to call. “I called at 4:30 this morning and heard the trains were back,” she said. Poulton took a 7:30 a.m. train in, “expecting it to be absolutely crazy, but it was really quiet.”
The ride back wasn’t as quiet — it seemed almost like a normal rush hour, with standing-room-only in some cars. But the real rush was getting out of the Stamford train station’s garage, where so many more commuters who usually park at other train stations had to park.
After that, 95 North was surprisingly clear. We made it to New Haven in about an hour.
So how did the day go? Metro-North had some slow starts Thursday morning because of what’s called “slippery rail,” when leaves mix with water and mud on the tracks and force the rail cars to go slower so they don’t slide. But other than that, things went smoothly. Most commuters were amazed the trains had started running again so quickly.
“This morning I turned on the radio, and I said, ‘I’m just going to go to the station,’ and the train shows up!” said Maria Shuck, who commutes from Rye, N.Y. “This is great. This is great…everything seems like it’s going back to normal.”
Shuck still doesn’t have power, and has been using a headlamp around the house at night. Her house is in a neighborhood full of trees, so she’s used to blackouts. But she may get a generator, she said. “It seems like we have one of these [storms] every year.”
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