Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The events of Monday evening, January 12

5:21 p.m.
We've stopped. This isn't particularly unusual for my commute to work. As our train heads east across the Meadowlands, we sometimes have to wait just before crossing a bridge over the Hackensack River because the span only contains one set of tracks. Yet this time, there's an announcement: We're being held at a stop signal. I'm literally stuck somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, on a New Jersey Transit train held near the western spur of the Turnpike because of frozen switches up ahead near Secaucus. Turns out it was the failure of backup batteries.

5:23 p.m.
The first text message: "Due to Switch Problems, trains on the Main/Bergen, Pascack Valley, and Port Jervis Lines are operating 10 to 15 minutes late." We haven't even been delayed five minutes, so there's really nothing to be alarmed about.

5:25 p.m.
The same text message hits my cell phone. OK, so whoever is in charge of the mobile alerts tonight didn't send it out to all subscribers at first.

5:36 p.m.
Another text alert, only this time the delays are 20 to 30 minutes. I log onto e-mail from my phone to let my co-workers know I'm running late.

5:37 p.m.
The 20-to-30-minute delay text alert, repeated.

6 p.m.
I should be at work right now. It's been 40 minutes, with no indication of when we'll move. Outside the windows is nothing but darkness pierced only by the headlights of the cars on the elevated spur just ahead of us. In a way, it's as if they're hover cars from the future, scooting overhead like in The Jetsons.

6:02 p.m.
An update, via short messaging service: trains "are operating 30 to 45 minutes late." The engineer has come out of the cab and is chatting with passengers and conductors in the car. She mentions the train ahead of us, the problem with the switches and that the trains on lines heading to and from Penn Station New York are running smoothly, with no delays.

6:05 p.m.
I decide that once we reach Secaucus, I'll transfer there. I figure this delay has backed up trains into and out of Hoboken, and once we get over the bridge and into Secaucus, there's no guarantee we'll arrive in Hoboken 10 minutes later, as we normally would. From Secaucus, I'll get to Penn Station and take the subway to work and walk a block between avenues, rather than taking PATH from Hoboken and walking four blocks between avenues. I've also been hungry since about 5:22, with nothing to munch on in my bag, so I'd like to grab something to take up to the office right away.

6:07 p.m.
Well, so much for Plan B. A new alert from NJ Transit: "Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Line service temporarily suspended at Linden due to trespasser fatality." Fabulous.

6:14 p.m.
The one hits close to home. "Main-Bergen County Line train #1116 the 3:58pm from Suffern up to 80 min. delay near Secaucus Junction due to Signal problem." At first, I think that's my train, but I later realize it's the one that stopped in Clifton at 4:34 p.m and should have arrived in Hoboken at 5:07. I'm on the 5:04 out of Clifton, which should've reached the terminal at 5:37.

6:15 p.m.
Westbound service at Linden has been restored, but that doesn't help me, since I will be going eastbound from Secaucus -- if I ever get there.

6:17 p.m.
Just to rub it in, NJ Transit issues another alert saying that service remains suspended at Linden.

6:35 p.m.
Eastbound service has been restored at Linden, with 20-to-30-minute delays. I decide to switch at Secaucus.

6:40 p.m.
The latest alert says that service on the Main, Bergen, Pascack Valley and Port Jervis lines is subject to 30-minute delays in both directions because of earlier switch problems. That's cool, but our delay is now up to 80 minutes.

Amazingly, the time flies as I read The New Yorker and listen to my iPod. I called the office to check in at 6:15, and immediately after hanging up, a train passed us going the other way. Clearly, the problem had been fixed. Yet four more have come by in the opposite direction, and we've yet to move. We were one of the first eastbound trains stuck by this delay. I'm in the first car, and ahead of us, across the bridge (which has just one set of tracks, hence the bottleneck -- trains have to wait for any moving in the opposite direction to pass before they can cross the river), we could see a westbound train also waiting out the repairs.

6:44 p.m.
Finally, we move. Once we cross the bridge, we pause again for several minutes as they sort out the shuffling of the trains into Secaucus.

6:56 p.m.
Secaucus, finally. I step off the train onto the platform and feel liberated. There was nothing that could be done during our hiatus in the swamp. Had we been just inside our outside of Secaucus, there's always the thought that they may find a way to let us off and walk to the station, where we can take alternate routes. But out among the reeds, with the single-track bridge still in front of us, not a chance. I had a bottle of water with me (which I never felt compelled to use) and was in the passenger car with the restroom, but that proved an unnecessary luxury for me as well, so I was never in any dire straits.

7:01 p.m.
I walk along the platform of Track 2, heading down to the spot I like to stand while waiting for the train. Once there, I watch two other NJ Transit trains speed through the station without stopping. I realize that these are trains that aren't scheduled to stop and they can't make any concessions, lest the schedules get disrupted even more, but I still flip off the first silver blur that whooshes by.

7:22 p.m.
At last, a train stops in Secaucus.

7:32 p.m.
Arrival at Penn Station. I choose to take the A one stop to 14th Street rather than the C or E two stops. While waiting, I miss an E. Wrong choice. Oh well. At this point, what does it matter?

7:45 p.m.
Finally, my long commuting nightmare is over. I emerge from the subway on 15th Street, grab some food, and head up to the office. Thankfully, I was No. 2 in the hierarchy tonight, not No. 1, and it turned out to be a relatively quiet night. I missed most of the first half of the Notre Dame-Louisville game, though.

Stupid train tracks.

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