Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Traveling to a Train Show in Middletown, NY

Last Sunday, I took to the rails again, this time to go to a train show in Middletown, N.Y., a small city in Orange County, about 90 miles northwest of where I live. Even though the train takes about an hour longer than driving, I seized the opportunity to use some of my transit funds and cover a route I had ridden on only twice before.

The station for Middletown is on Metro North Railroad’s Port Jervis line. Service on this route is somewhat limited for a commuter line; around 12 round trips on weekdays, seven on weekends. Trains run out of the old Lackawanna Terminal on the New Jersey waterfront in Hoboken. In past years, a traveler had to take the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) line, AKA the Tubes – from Herald Square to Hoboken to make the connection. But since 2003, passengers can start or end their trips at New York’s Penn Station thanks to a transfer station built in the Meadowlands.

I started out on the Long Island Rail Road from Rockville Centre rather than Oceanside because it had a more convenient inbound schedule. Bells from St. Agnes Cathedral, a block away, were clanging loudly as I waited for my train, calling the faithful to 8 am mass. When I got to Penn Station, I purchased my ticket at the NJ Transit ticket window, got a bagel and coffee and boarded my train. I should point out that Metro North’s trains west of the Hudson River are operated by NJ Transit.

The train from Penn Station arrives late at the transfer station located in Secaucus. The other passengers who are making the connection and I rush through the station, going up one escalator, passing through an electronically controlled gate, and going down two more escalators to reach the platform where the train to Port Jervis awaits us. It seems to take forever because of the bottleneck at the gate. I can only imagine what this station is like during rush hour instead of a relatively quiet Sunday morning.

On the lower level platform the train for Port Jervis awaits us. I take a window seat on the left-land (sun-lit) side and am underway again a few moments later. We roll into the Meadowlands, cross the Hackensack River on a lift bridge and reach territory that is part industrial and part suburban.

Crossing the Hackensack River

We are on a route known as the Main Line. The train speeds through Lyndhurst, Passaic and Clifton on a double track line with welded rail and concrete ties, then slows just before Patterson to navigate an S-curve as it passes under Interstate 80. This is a connector from the old Lackawanna Railroad Boonton Line to the former Erie Railroad mainline that was built in the mid-1960s after the two companies merged to form the Erie Lackawanna. A section of the Boonton Line west of Patterson was removed, and Interstate 80 was built on its right-of-way.

The train picks up speed after Patterson as it heads toward its first stop, Ridgewood. An upscale suburb, this is one of the busiest stations on the line, with four tracks and three high-level platforms. North of Ridgewood, the line goes down to three tracks and two after Waldwick, where a beautifully restored Erie switch tower sits next to the railroad.
Old factory near Patterson

Restored switch tower at Waldwick
Suffern, our second stop, is where the route enters the original Erie mainline, which it will follow for much of the way to Port Jervis. When it opened in 1851, the Erie ran between Piermont, NY, on the Hudson River, and Dunkirk, NY, on Lake Erie. It was the first railroad from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. Most of the line between Piermont and Suffern has been removed, however.

The train ducks under the New York Thruway; passes through a yard and crosses the first of several bridges over the Ramapo River. This seemingly innocuous stream is not to be trifled with. It flooded after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and washed away several miles of roadbed, forcing Metro North to suspend service for months while it rebuilt the line.

The Red Apple Rest was a popular meal stop for travelers going to and from the southern Catskills. It closed in 2006.
Crossing Moodna Viaduct
After passing under the Thruway a second time, the train comes alongside Route 17. This is the road that killed the passenger business to the southern Catskills, and it runs parallel to the Port Jervis line as far as Middletown. At Sloatsburg, the next stop, the line goes to single track. From here, it takes on a more rural character with longer stretches through forested areas between stations. The scenic highlight is the crossing of Moodna Viaduct, a 3,200 feet long, 200 feet high bridge that was the setting for the climactic scene in the film “Michael Clayton.”

A train on Moodna Viaduct
The station at Middletown consists of a single platform, canopy and parking lot. It tucked in among a cluster of shopping malls, out of sight from most highway traffic and several miles from downtown Middletown. Getting into town requires a taxi ride since there are no buses and sidewalks end a few blocks before the station. 

I share a cab with a woman who is going to a new housing development on the outskirts of the city. After she is dropped off, the driver tells me that most of the owners in the development work in New York; the houses are too expensive for most people who work locally. A native a Pakistan, the driver moved to Middletown from Queens in 2003 to open a photography studio and lab in one of the malls. The shift from film to digital photography killed his business.

The event I am going to – called Middletown Railroad Days – is being held at a senior center near the center of the city. It is run by an organization called the Ontario & Western Railway Historical Society, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of a railroad that stopped running nearly 60 years ago. It is a small event with about a dozen vendors and model railroad displays. One of the exhibitors, Malcolm Houck, an attorney from Massachusetts, shows off his collection of scale model replicas of O&W steam locomotives he has built in brass over the past 50+ years.
Some of the scale model replicas of O&W steam locomotive built by Malcolm Houck.

Upstairs, a member of the group is delivering a presentation on the O&W Railroad, as it was known, in Orange County. It includes some great photos, and I learn much about operations at the yard at Maybrook where six railroads, including the Erie and O&W, once interchanged freight and the location in Middletown where the O&W, Erie and Middletown & New Jersey once ran alongside one another.

Nowadays, the only remaining track through the city is a spur over the old O&W mainline from the Port Jervis line to what remains of the original Middletown & New Jersey. The original Erie mainline through Middletown, which ran via Goshen, Chester and Monroe; was removed in 1984. The passenger service to Port Jervis was rerouted onto the more northerly freight route via Moodna Viaduct and Campbell Hall. The old Erie Middletown station is now a library. 

Before catching a taxi back to the new station, I walk around downtown Middletown. The streets are lined with commercial buildings and churches dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the city has not traded on their charm to attract tourism. Most of the area’s commerce now takes place at the malls along Route 211 and the interchange of Interstate 84 and Route 17, rather than in the sleepy and somewhat shabby downtown.
Downtown Middletown

The train back to New York has more cars and more riders. Many are millennials returning to New York City and Hoboken from weekend visits to their home towns. This time, the train runs local, making all but a handful of stops. South of Ridgewood, it uses the Bergen County Line to reach Secaucus, affording me different, but similar, scenery. The connection to Penn Station goes smoothly this time and I am back in New York in plenty of time to catch the train to Rockville Centre.

While the Port Jervis line has some scenic appeal, there is little to do or see in the cities and villages it serves. Commuting, day trips to New York and visiting relatives are its raison d’etre. It does, however, serve the malls near Middletown and the Woodbury Commons outlet center, reachable via a shuttle bus from the Harriman station. So, if you don’t want to drive or take a bus you have another way to go.

The transfer station at Secaucus, named for Frank Lautenberg, the senator from New Jersey who put your tax dollars to work building the joint, works well. Not only does it open a new way to get from New York City to northern New Jersey and Orange and Rockland Counties in upstate New York, but it creates more options for rail travel within New Jersey. Now if they'd only get rid of those darn gates.


1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed it. I relived your travels as I remember it well.