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The Metro North Railroad connects to many cities and towns in Upstate New York, in southeastern Connecticut and in northern New Jersey. Lou is, however, most Known by railfans as the author of The Coming of the New York & Harlem Railroad, an immense and unprecedented compilation of Harlem Railroad history, published in 1989.
I, however, will remember Lou as a kind man who invited me into his home with his wife, and shared his vast collection of Harlem Line material with me. As I have mentioned a few times, very shortly we will be revisiting all of the current Harlem Line stations – a redo of our Tuesday Tour series. For the past six years and eleven months I have been a regular commuter on Metro-North’s Harlem Line. I slowly became engrossed in the subject of trains and their history, and by March 2010 was regularly posting interesting archival materials I had dug up every Friday. The reason my Metro-North commute is coming to an end is because another opportunity has opened up for me.
For the next few weeks, however, this site will be on a temporary hiatus while things settle down. Considering that today is Friday, it is worth mentioning that this is the end of new Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti’s first work week. Over the past few years, Metro-North has greatly improved its communications with riders with both email and text alerts.
If you’re a rider of the Harlem Line, most likely you were aware of some service delays on the line this morning. Okay you environment-hater, even if Metro-North was going to consider something this silly, not every tree is on Metro-North property. You see, the difference between cars and trains is that trains have to run on these things called rails.
On Friday I had the pleasure of speaking with Howard Permut, President of Metro-North Railroad.
One memory I always have is on the Harlem Line, taking a trip up in the old coaches – and they came from any place in the world that ConRail could find them. Do you recall any of the planning that went into the decision to “rebrand” the railroad as Metro-North and not Metro North Commuter Railroad, and in what ways would you hope to attract more non-commuters in the future? You asked about discretionary riders – one of the most important things, and one of the things I always emphasize, is we have customers, not riders, something Peter Stangl our president changed the vernacular for.
When the Harlem Line extension was being planned, was Millerton ever on the table, or was the main focus always Wassaic? The question became to us, we think if you want to get this done, we think we can make it to Wassaic and get that implemented.
First of all I admire what New York City subways does day in and day out, carrying that number, millions of people. JR (Japan Railways) East shinkansen, or as it is more commonly known in the US, bullet train.
I would say that I would hope that people continue to recognize the value of Metro-North, that they continue to ride Metro-North, they continue to encourage their friends and family to ride Metro-North, and that if they see things that they think we should make improvements on that they should let us know. As it is obvious to anyone that has been to this site, I love to capture the world around me in photographs. Over the next two weeks, I thought it would be cool to highlight a few folks that spend the time on the train sketching, from the past and today. Sketches by the two artists show the New York Central from the eyes of a railroader, and include train yards and track workers.
All New York City neighborhoods offer something, be it creative energy, good Italian food, or street crime. A guy leaning on his baby stroller to get a better look back at a short-shorted girl heading into the same high school. A father calling to his young daughter, “Guinness,” presumably named after the manner in which she was conceived or in deference to her status as a future world-record holder (least likely to avoid alcoholism?). Most guys have been meaning to do something to a model for years; I’ve been meaning to build one. I spent a few hours today in The Red Caboose, a basement store in midtown, perusing overstuffed shelves of nascent tanks, battleships, and planes.
It also feels appropriate as I prepare to ghostwrite one middle-grade novel and do revisions on another. My first celebrity sighting occurred when I was around 5 and was pretty sure I saw Santa’s sleigh flying off through the falling snow. The fact that the gravity that made the whole episode possible was first defined by Sir Isaac Newton, my elementary school classmate. And speaking of apples, when I was a kid, the only thing that apples made were apple juice, applesauce, and more apples.
I emerged from that a slow, deliberate reader, and though I definitely sped up some over the years, I still read letter to letter, word to word, instead of in the big, greedy blocks that most people take in as they read.
I have been asked to read a number of books and write little promotional blurbs for them (you know, if I actually like them), and I am trying to read them all.
It is frustrating in a way that reading hasn’t been since the days when I was trying to figure out where Spot was running to or why Jane was chasing, uh, why Dick was chasing Jane. So I was thinking about Gamera, as I sometimes do, and I thought: Hey, I wonder if there’s any cool Gamera stuff on YouTube? Most of these trains depart from Grand Central Station except for the northern New Jersey trains that terminate at the Hoboken Terminal across the Hudson River. I will fondly remember eating turkey and cheese sandwiches and drinking ginger ale with him while talking about the Harlem Line. I have already re-photographed all of the stations along the line, with the exception of five. The diary-type entries revolved mostly around the common topics of strange passengers I observed, occasional train delays and mishaps, and pigeons. Over time I became almost like a public figure – people would recognize me on trains, and I even had someone ask me to autograph a timetable for them once. We’ve had an immense amount of snow dumped on us the past few months, leading to a lot of cancellations and early closings at my work. I suppose the weather decided to throw an appropriate welcoming party for a man that spent the last fifteen years working in Florida. Although they still haven’t figured out that messages have character limits, and that it is super annoying to receive the same exact message 10 times in one day, we get a lot of info about service changes and info. The train was a combination of several trains, and was advertised on Grand Central’s big board as an all-local to Wassaic. Many people like to debate over catenary versus third rail methods of powering electric trains – each has its merits, but yesterday demonstrated one of the downsides to third rail.

Social media never ceases to amaze me, as messages fly through text, twitter, facebook from others riding the rails. Although Metro-North tries its hardest to prepare for this eventuality with extra crews on hand, if train crews can’t get to their trains, there will be delays. Trees do get trimmed, but do remember that trees are kinda tall, and we can’t really dictate how they will fall over.
They’re likely on the radio talking to the Rail Traffic Controller, in the control center in Grand Central. Metro-North has gotten pretty good about informing passengers about delays via text message – updates your conductor might not be aware of.
Though there are many things one could ask the president of the railroad, admittedly I was interested in his unique perspective regarding the history of Metro-North. While I debated using the conversation to write an article, I felt that the words would be most interesting in the interview format they were spoken. Do you have any strong memories from those early days, and is there any particular accomplishment since then you are most proud of? When we took over we were the worst railroad in North America, we’ve now moved to be the best railroad in North America.
Literally the whole trip to Pleasantville, in a cold car in October, I was holding up the side of the wainscoting, the side of the train, because I thought it was going to fall on me. We were carrying a lot of discretionary riders, a lot of people who are going halfway up and down the line, and that it was important that we were known as Metro-North Railroad than Metro-North Commuter Railroad – so it was a very specific decision.
Everybody has a choice to ride or not ride Metro-North, and it’s our goal to give everybody and provide significant value that people want to take Metro-North.
That will be an enormous improvement for our riders, they can now know that they can come into the city, for example, and not have to worry about missing their train. We focused, and our goal was to get as far north as we could while implementing the project. If we try to go further north, which would have been in an ideal world nice, we believe we would have had nothing. I think that there are other properties within the United States who do certain things very well. We take very seriously all the letters we get, I personally read every single letter that is sent to me, and if they have really good ideas we will follow up on them. Throughout my time commuting, I have come in contact with a few people that capture the world in other ways, like drawing. The sketches featured below were drawn by artists Joseph Hirsch and Carol Johnson, not long after World War Two. I don’t remember much about the process from childhood—models were much more my brother’s thing—but I do know there are only three kinds of models: military, trains, and pointless frivolities. Model airplanes are little puzzles designed for and—for decades, until shinier things came along—loved by boys of precisely that age.
There were a few radar blips after that: Meryl Streep lives in my hometown and Rip Torn was a bona fide regular at the Lakeville Wine Shop, where I used to work.
I was diagnosed early, so the first major kick in the pants it gave me was also the last: I had to repeat second grade.
I know either the author or the editor, plus it is flattering and, though I haven’t used blurbs on either of my books so far, I would want people to do the same for me. And The lines are ; Harlem (Wassaic - Harelem), Hudson (Poughkeepsie - Harlem) , Port Jervis (Port Jervis - Suffern) , Pascack Valley (Spring Valley - Pearl Revier), New Haven (Woodlawn - New Heaven). Laid to rest yesterday morning (along with a copy of his beloved book) in his long-time home of Pawling, New York, Grogan was 88 years old.
Many historical photos on this website come from Lou’s collection, which he and his wife graciously shared with me. I’ve also done the reverse commute from Harlem to White Plains for almost a full year now.
Pretty much every time I made sure to have my camera on me to document Metro-North through the storms (you can see the first part here).
As far as the crew knew, the train was either going directly to Wassaic, or there would be a connection waiting for us at Southeast. Excessive amounts of snow up to and covering the third rail makes it difficult, if not impossible, to operate electric trains.
Even if the service disruption is not near to you, it can still cause delays if your train can’t get there. I can think of one instance earlier this year when there was a very minor snow storm, not bad enough to delay service on its own. The RTCs assess the situation, weigh all the options, and give the train crew instructions.
Usually conductors announce what they know, but sometimes they do wait until something concrete is known before sharing. And thus, here is a complete transcript of the conversation I had with the president of Metro-North on Friday! In fact, last year we won the award, called the Brunel Award, which is for the best design of any railroad in the world – and Metro-North won that, beating out competitors from Japan and Europe.
We wanted to go far north for two reasons, we needed a location for a railyard, we didn’t have sufficient room in Southeast, and we wanted as far north so we could attract as many customers as possible. Metro-North is particularly focused on partnership with JR East in Japan, and I certainly admire many things that they do. We’ve gotten over the years many good ideas from people, many issues have been raised, and we respond to them. Although a few engineers and conductors can be seen, they mostly feature the hardest workers: those that lay the ties, that place the rails, and those that secure the two together. He tries to do at least one sketch per day, and has several sketchbooks filled with various people seen on the train, at the park, or in other places. I did go through art school, had to take quite a few drawing classes, and at some points in my life have carried around a sketchbook. Other boxes were written in English, German, and French (the French directions no doubt instructing them how to surrender to these tiny war machines).
Like reading, this seems like a good way to unplug and depressurize, and the idea of even rudimentary craftsmanship, of building this little physical object with my hands, is appealing to me.
I spent my second year in second (second squared) in a small Special Ed class reading and rereading the same few Dick and Jane books in what I like to call the “Read, Damn You!” approach.
Even in college, when I read a book once in the time my fellow English majors sometimes read it two or three times—and where Joyce’s Ulysses darn near killed me—it was still a good thing. It reminds me of the fantastic David Lynch movie The Straight Story, in which an old guy with bad vision drives a riding mower hundreds of miles to visit his sick brother.

And then there’s a book a month for the lively, fun book club I belong to and a small stack of books to read as research for a ghostwriting job I just accepted. Lou’s interest in railroads began at an early age, as many of his family members found employ in that industry. To this day, the book remains the best compilation of history regarding the Harlem Railroad, detailing every station that is and was along the line, and the ultimate demise of the Upper Harlem. Today’s winter-centric post features the Hudson Line, and a collection of photos all taken within the last week. Conductor Bobby touched on this in his open letter to his passengers, which if you haven’t yet read, you most definitely should. However, en route, passengers began receiving alerts saying that Wassaic service was suspended.
But if 100 car pileups could attest, the roads weren’t that great yesterday and today either. In today’s case, I did beat Metro-North to reporting over twitter that the Harlem Line north of Croton Falls was shut down, as I just happened to be on the train that was stuck. Remember that train service is a carefully orchestrated system, and there are probably a lot more trains on the rails than you think. All of this, of course, takes time, and quite often there is a dialog going on while the options are considered. Permut has been with Metro-North since its inception in 1983, and prior to his position as president, served as as the Senior Vice President of Planning.
A lot of that has been driven not by commuters at all, but by discretionary riders – weekend riders, by off-peak, by evening, by intermediate riders. So you’ve lost nothing, and it frees up people from worrying about that and I think that will greatly increase our weekend and off-peak ridership. And once we got through all the environmental reviews we were able to build the line, and I guess it has been running for ten, almost fifteen years now. Again, it would be use the train, and if you have any ideas or suggestions, let us know, and we’ll take a look at them and see if it makes sense, and if we can do them we will. This is one of the most integral jobs with the railroad – for without tracks there would be no places for the trains to go. I find it amusing that a lot of the train people found in his sketchbook are sleeping, because it is an apt depiction of the people on his morning train (see the post: Those Wassaic People). But I’ve never thought I was really spectacular at drawing, and certainly not good enough to represent the world I see on a page.
I bought the heck out of that one, along with a Testors’ Aircraft Finishing Kit that includes a stunningly drab assortment of gray, green, and black paints, and some Model Master liquid cement. I that any 10-year-old could be proud of, and just maybe learn (or remember) something in the process.
That was, uh, some time ago, so I have had a while to rack up a deeply random list of the more-or-less famous. The fact that my mind now wanders even within the confines of a brief list, that’s a bad omen.
When you read a book letter by letter, not only do remember it extremely well, but you are also acutely aware of word choice, sounds, patterns, and, of course, typos.
Throw in a few books that I actually, you know, want to read for myself and manuscripts I have to reread during the editing process, and, well, you get the idea. I will get through this busy phase the same way I got through Ulysses: with sugar, caffeine, and no lasting damage. His love affair with the Harlem comes partially due to his longtime residence along its tracks, but also due to fond childhood memories of using the smooth wood floors of the long-gone Philmont station as an impromptu skating rink. There are plenty of things that Metro-North can improve, but if you ask me, number one ought to be communication.
Some rather irate passengers from Tenmile River began shouting at the conductor, “I thought this train was going to Wassaic! Issues on each line are not exclusively these things, as obviously a tree could fall anywhere.
There are spots where trains can cross over to other tracks, but they aren’t everywhere. In this morning’s case, the RTC wanted to know how many people were aboard the disabled train, in case an evacuation was necessary.
Though most commuters today are likely unaware of it, Metro-North has improved in leaps and bounds over the years, starting out from the shambles left by Penn Central that were grudgingly operated by ConRail.
We continue to focus on that, and we’ve done numerous different things over the years to increase the ridership. If I remember correctly, the rail trail was already in existence to Millerton, so we would have had a huge obstacle. My bag does contain a small moleskin notebook, but more often than not I’m coming up with stories and writing thoughts, and not drawing. Meanwhile, there I am driving my little reading riding mower in the breakdown lane, trying to get to the next chapter before the sun goes down. And it is a fantastic reminder of just how lucky I am and how much I owe to a few amazing teachers at Salisbury Central School and 26 versatile (and patient) little letters.
Although he himself served a brief stint as a railroad worker, he also served in the Army during World War II on the eastern front, and was a longtime employee of IBM in Poughkeepsie. If anybody out there saw complaints on twitter about a stupid girl eating tacos on that train, I swear, it wasn’t me!
They, in particular, are a group that we’ve probably met with four or five times and exchanged ideas, and continue to do so. Napoleon’s work you can check out his website, which shows many of his lovely paintings. Not only has my photography greatly improved since the first Harlem Line tour, various things have also changed over the years at many stations. What the hell am I going to do?” The kicker is, the crew had no idea the train was not going to Wassaic. So expect that tour in the next few months, as well as a whole lot of new railroading adventures.

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