Monday, August 23, 2010

One switch to rule them all

Some of you may not even be home yet to read this because, as you unfortunately know, the LIRR had a fire at a control tower east of Jamaica. Apparently, the fire knocked out a switch that serviced 10 of the 11 branches of the LIRR. Obviously, this must have been an inferno that engulfed the very core of the LIRR’s nervous system, overwhelming all back-up systems, laying waste to all contingency plans, and keeping an army of heroic staff at bay. Alas, this was not the case, and so it is therefore the focus of a much belated rant.

As the story goes, a power line that supplies the third rail shorted out and caused a fire at a nearby control tower which in turn destroyed a switch that controls 90% of the system for our nation’s largest commuter railroad! What is wrong with that statement? I’m not sure where to begin. Were you surprised to hear that equipment based on pulleys and levers controls such a crucial junction of the LIRR’s system? Could it be that the control tower had no fire alarm, or no nearby staff to fight a fire? Perhaps it was even that, in this day and age, a single point of failure of this magnitude even exists?

If LIRR service announcements are correct, it appears that the fate of the entire LIRR system is held by a single switch. You would think that this control tower would be a virtual Fort Knox of the LIRR and that this switch was one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology in the system. Not the case, and I can understand that – but pulleys and levers? What year are we in that we have vintage equipment as the backbone of our railroad? Was Conjunction Junction in charge of that control tower as well? I’m sure that tower looked like a museum, complete with the latest in smoke signaling technology.

I read in the WSJ online edition that the power line short was likely caused by heavy rains? That’s another major ‘WTF?!’ New York is one of those places that, at times, can experience the harshest weather of every season, including that funny stuff that drips out of the clouds every now and then. What’s that called again? Oh, right, that’s called rain. I guess we never thought that these things should be weather proof. So my vision of this power cable is that of a frayed power cord on your ancient vacuum cleaner. You know, the one with years’ worth of electrical tape wrapped around it. Only this one controls a commuter line carrying over 100,000 people a day. If they only had that tape…

Another line from that article also struck me as odd: “More than 50 extra switch and signal workers were called in to Jamaica…” Let’s break this part down a little. More than 50 – extra – switch and signal workers. So not only are there switch and signal workers that focus on a very specific thing, but there are 50 EXTRA of them. That’s an army of people that work on switches and signals! Let's please have one of them at this control tower, and we can still send out the 49 for coffee and donuts.

What takes the cake in all of this is the comment from LIRR President Helena Williams that, even though the LIRR is replacing 1920’s era equipment, the piece of equipment that actually caught fire was less than 10 years old! Does that mean it’s OK that it happened? Perhaps it’s the equipment’s fault? This is baffling to me, and should be extremely embarrassing to the LIRR. The fact that new equipment was susceptible to such a condition, and that the likely 50-100 year old equipment would still have been working, is ridiculous. Sometimes even new equipment can fail, I get that, but how it fails and how it is backed up sounds like the real failure in all of this. Also, the 100 year old control tower that runs on hamster wheels could have had better monitoring. Perhaps one of the 50 extra switch workers can stop by every now and then to indiscriminately spray WD-40 on everything. That ought to do it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Track 17 - Lemmings on the edge

I recall a particular game commonly found at almost every amusement park; its the one where the coins are perched precipitously on a continuously moving ledge and the goal is to add another coin in the hope that it will knock several others over the ledge for you to collect. How many of you knew that the game was inspired by Track 17? Well, maybe not, but the wacko that designed that track probably also designed obstacle courses.

Track 17 is my least favorite track, not to imply that I enjoy any other track in particular, but arriving at Penn on that track is really a crappy way to start the day. If you get off toward the middle of the train, the platform has a somewhat normal width, but as you walk forward, there's one tiny stairway that is always overflowing with people, because its as wide as a rope ladder. Passengers naturally pass it up and continue moving to the front of the platform, where, slowly but surely, the track quickly begins to narrow to the size of Indian foot path. What makes things worse is the fact that there are large columns in the middle of the platform that force people to the outer ledge, except for the skinny passengers that can turn sideways and squeeze through. So how do you know if you're fat? Dont ask your spouse because you'll never get a straight answer. Try making it past those two columns -- they'll never lie.

Another odd thing about Track 17 is its entrance next to McDonalds. Its like crawling out of a manhole. The other tracks have grand entrances, brass handrails, wide stairways, etc. Track 17's entrance is truly the "servant's entrance" of all the tracks. Even the conductor hates it when the train arrives there, and then they make us feel badly -- "Arriving on Track 17, I hate my life, and I'm ashamed of my passengers." Really, I heard that, and then I ran right into TRACKS to grab a 8AM.

I remember when I first started taking the railroad and thought how odd it was that everyone on my train rushed into McDonalds when their train was called. Couldn't they wait until they got home for dinner? I thought that I really was on the loser train until I realized the terrible truth, and I descended into that BO steambath. All the passengers were tightly packed on the platform, putting their lives at risk in order to make sure they're one of the first to get on. Don't get me wrong, I'm one of those types too. After all, who doesn't think they "win" when they're first on the train.

Track 17 is like the 7 1/2 floor from "Being John Malkovich." Its only a matter of time before we're all spit out of a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. But be warned, that's a step-up fare.