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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Class Warfare on New Jersey’s Rails

I meet many more foreign visitors to the US and have more foreign friends than the vast majority of Americans. And one thing that is always mentioned when we discuss the US, or especially when I try to convince someone to visit me here is how “big” the US is. Size wise the US is obviously bigger than the vast majority of countries; it’s the third largest after all. But the States would seem bigger than all of Europe and Japan stuck together because of its “effective distance” (a term coined by a friend), i.e. the amount of time it takes to get around the country is significantly greater than in Western Europe or Japan. This is of course the result of America’s antiquated rail lines and lack of high speed trains, coupled with expensive airfare. While the US invested billions into creating the most sophisticated highways in the world, Europe and Japan spent decades laying the groundwork for rail systems which transport people more quickly, efficiently and cleanly than anything airplanes or cars could ever muster.

I knew all of this before I left for Spain but I never gave the matter much thought while I was there. I noticed that the AVE* trains went significantly faster than their American counterparts and were so quiet and smooth that I felt like I wasn’t really on a train but rather on some sort of hovercraft. I quickly learned that a trip from Valencia to Madrid would take about 3 hours and a trip from Barcelona to Madrid would take about 4.5. Nonetheless I didn’t put much thought into the distances involved nor did I compare them to more familiar US geography because after all I thought, America is big and Spain is small. I really didn’t have a sense of the magnitude of the differences and their impact on daily life until the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an excellent four part special on the topic around the same time that a serious illness in the family turned my life upside down.

After getting back from Spain in late June I began a night-class at Rutgers main campus (New Brunswick, NJ). I don’t drive. New Brunswick is only 53 miles from Philadelphia but to get there I had to take two very slow trains (the Pennsylvania based SEPTA’s R7 to Trenton NJ, then the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor Line to New Brunswick). On a good day this is a 2.5 hour trip one way. On a bad day it’s a four hour trip. On a really bad day (say when someone decides to kill him/herself on the tracks, something that happens some 20 times a year in NJ), the commute can take six hours. So in short I had to leave home at 3:30 for a 6:30 class and hope for the best. When a relative took ill in NYC and the situation required lots of attention from my family including overnight stays, I found myself effectively living in three cities at the same time. Within a span of a month I ended up spending more time on trains than I normally do in a whole year. The obscene amount of time spent bounding back and forth over NJ in slow trains gave me plenty of opportunities to ponder the differences between the Spanish and American train networks.

There are two different train companies that provide service between Philadelphia and New York. Between the two firms there are a meager five routes available, which run on one set of tracks (so they’re not really “routes” in the traditional sense but rather trains that make different combinations of stops). Both companies are owned and operated by government agencies. SEPTA is the public transportation agency for Southeastern Pennsylvania (most importantly covering the Philly metro area) and NJ Transit provides buses and trains within NJ and to some bordering areas of PA and NY (conveniently including routes ending in NYC). To get to NY by train from Philly the cheapest route is to take the same combination of trains I take to Rutgers but to continue on the NJ transit train until Manhattan. The NJ transit train from New Brunswick to NYC usually takes 90 minutes (occasionally there are express trains that take 45), so added on to the original time it takes to get to New Brunswick the full trip from Philly to NYC, a mere 86 miles, ends up being 3.5 to 4 hours. The price all together is $27 to $33 dollars. The other option is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, which depending on the train selected makes only 1 to 3 stops and takes about 1.5 hours. These trains, run by a federal government agency, usually cost between $70 and $140 dollars. If the same routes were served on the Spanish AVE train, the trip would only take 37 minutes and would cost about 20 Euros, roughly 35 dollars. Since I cannot afford to take the AMTRAK, the difference would amount to me being able to get to NYC in 1/5 of the time. This would enable me to live in Philadelphia and work in Manhattan, or even to occasionally attend Yiddish events in the city without a four hour commute both ways (something I occasionally do as is). On the Spanish system my friends who live in Pittsburgh would be able to commute home in some 2.5 hours, rather than the current 9 to 10. The impact that this would have on daily life, as well as on towns lucky enough to get a stop along the high-speed route would be astounding. Considering the fact that many Philadelphians commute daily into Manhattan using Amtrak (1.5 hours, 70-140$ both ways), it’s not unrealistic to imagine that on a truly high speed network it would be possible for someone from DC to commute to NYC (or vice-versa) every day. But high-speed rail in the US remains a dream and a far off one at that. The current rail system is here to stay, along with its barely hidden class conflicts (un)neatly tucked away in the corner.

SEPTA/NJ Transit vs. Amtrak.

Officially, America has no social classes. Everyone from the janitor to the billionaire is addressed as “sir.” Working class people, especially blacks, often dress more elegantly for church on Sunday than their upper class counterparts. There are few institutions that reject members based on their ethnic or religious origins or how much money their family had five generations ago. American English does not have class based accents like British English (with the exception of one acquired upper class accent which is rare these days), and in theory all a person needs to enter what Americans would consider the “upper class” is money. So in the general American conception of class, money itself is class, not a family’s historical prominence nor what pastimes they’d chose to spend their money on (say, investing in racehorses/polo vs. season tickets for NASCAR) . Some of these class barriers that ostensibly don’t exist re-appear, however, when one compares Septa/NJ Transit with Amtrak.

Septa service itself is socially stratified. All routes either originate going downtown or leaving downtown. Every train passes through the same three downtown stations, no matter its final destination, making some of the routes considerably longer than they would be if they were designed to get people from point A to point B as quickly as possible. This feature was built into the lines to transport middle and upper-class Philadelphians with white-collar office jobs from the suburbs or outlying city neighborhoods to Center City (downtown) and West Philly (where the universities are congregated). Neighborhood to neighborhood transportation is mostly provided by Septa bus service, whose passengers are solidly working class. Some of the trains do attract a more working class clientele, especially the R7 to Trenton which is my first train to New Brunswick/NYC. This is because most of the businesspeople traveling to/through Trenton are going to NYC and hence using Amtrak. NJ transit trains have more business people but still have a predominantly working class ridership, especially during off-peak hours.

Septa trains are noisy, usually filthy, and have absolutely no amenities, not even bathrooms. Seats are not individual but rather double or triple. Eating is technically not permitted but people bring their lunches and dinners aboard all the time. Copies of the Daily News or the Metro are left behind on seats. NJ transit trains, by comparison, are much nicer. Passengers are generally quieter; the trains are cleaned more regularly. All of the trains have bathrooms. There are individual seats and even electric outlets to plug in computers or charge cell phones. Eating is strictly prohibited but drinking is permitted. Riders can often read left behind copies of the Metro, NY Post and Daily News as well as the more highbrow Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times. Unlike Septa passengers NJ transit riders are provided with designated waiting areas at the major train stations. But even with these extra comforts neither company comes anywhere near matching Amtrak, which compared to its competition is like a limousine being rated against a donkey cart. The guts of Amtrak trains are basically modeled after passenger planes. There are individual seats that recline, space for every passenger to plug in electronics, lots of clean bathrooms, and even a dining car! Most of the passengers are businesspeople whose trips are being written off as business expenses or are being paid for directly as part of their fee. There are few children and few people not in suits. Instead of CD players (remember those?) or I-Pods most of the riders have touch-screen computers on which they are editing work related documents. If they don’t have computers they are most likely reading a business related document or reading the Wall Street Journal. (Other than the aforementioned activities most people are sleeping which of course has nothing to do with social class). Upon arrival at the station(s) Amtrak passengers are segregated from NJ transit or Septa passengers. They get their own waiting areas which are separated from the rest of the station by walls and curtains. The “rich man’s waiting lounge” can only be entered after the appropriate ticket is checked by what basically amounts to a bouncer.

Class Warfare

As for the routes themselves, the Northeast Corridor lines only have two tracks dedicated to each direction. The faster traveling Amtrak usually takes the inner track seeing as it only stops two to five times. The slower Septa/NJ transit trains take the outer track which meets the platform at every station. Amtrak (and hence the federal government) actually own the track, which NJ Transit (and hence the state government) leases. When Amtrak trains take the outer track they always go ahead of the NJ transit trains so as to avoid the Amtrak train catching up with the NJ Transit train (which would delay the Amtrak train or cause a collision). This in effect delays the NJ transit train should it become necessary for an Amtrak train to travel on the outer tracks.

This parasitic relationship with the working class trains being subservient to their wealthier counterparts usually works well enough assuming nothing goes wrong. However, between the aforementioned frequent suicides and a summer full of terrible weather, much has been going wrong as of late. And the results amount to open class warfare that is blatant, obvious and at times Kafkaesque.

I got caught in the middle of one of these “battles” a few weeks back after a storm knocked down a tree, taking some of the track-signals with it. The signal problems stopped all traffic for a good hour and twenty minutes. I had just taken an exam the night before and as such had schlepped my ten pound dictionary and my laptop along with me. I planned to catch an early express train to NYC that would have gotten me there in roughly 45 minutes to visit my relative in the ICU. After that I would high-tail it back to Philly on a Megabus. I arrived at the New Brunswick train station around 10:30 to find about a hundred people waiting for the train. I was informed that not a single train had come or gone for an hour but no announcement was made and the two workers at the train station knew nothing. Among the people waiting for the various trains which had never come were conductors who were supposed to begin work on these very trains. Even they had not been informed of the signal problems.

At this point it was nearing 90 degrees but despite the heat people were in good spirits and finding humor in the situation. A half hour later an announcement over the crackly loud speaker informed us that no trains were running (duh!) and that train service for NJ transit would resume on the outer tracks in 20 minutes. As the first station is about 30 minutes from New Brunswick I decided to flee to the air-conditioning for the next fifty minutes. The station itself soon became hot, however, after another hundred or so people arrived and I decided to go back onto the platform, where about 150 people were now crowded. Babies cried, adults whined and everyone pushed and shoved in hopes of clearing a little personal space. I found a railing to lean my 20 pound backpack on. Three elegantly dressed white women, all wearing pearls, ended up next to me. One was in her late 20s and the other two were middle aged. The younger woman, clutching a purse which even empty was probably more valuable than my computer, looked at me nervously and said “we’ve never taken NJ Transit before, is it usually this crowded?” I could barely contain my laughter and explained the unfortunate predicament to them. “How long do you think it will be until the trains start running again?” chimed in her mother, pronouncing every syllable of every word in a way that revealed a boarding school upbringing (think Catcher and the Rye). I told them that I didn’t know but that we probably wouldn’t get on a train for another hour at least and it wouldn’t be an express like they had counted on. “But we have theater tickets!” they protested. “We didn’t drive only because we saw an advert(!) that said we could take this train specifically to get to the Broadway matinees.” I politely told them that there wasn’t a snowballs chance in hell that they’d get to NYC on time and that they should take up the issue with their State Senators. I went into my usual spiel about how the federal government paves highways, makes airports but does not support trains. They looked at me dumbfounded and asked if I knew where “management” was. Management. MANAGEMENT! This time I couldn’t control my laughter. I stopped laughing for a moment, choked out an apology and began laughing again. First off, I explained, the people who manage the trains aren’t in a station. And even if they were they certainly wouldn’t be in New Brunswick. Secondly, the sizable New Brunswick train station only has two employees at any given time because 80% of them were replaced with vending machines a few years ago that sell the tickets in their stead. The remaining two employees are there to sell ticket packages and to absorb the various complaints about the trains that should reach “the management” which runs the trains from some hidden place.

Still, despite my explanations and protestations, the women decided to complain at the ticket counter and dragged me along. The oldest of the three, twirling a bead of her pearl necklace and staring at the employee responded to his answers by saying “but couldn’t you do something, this is absolutely dreadful.” The ticket-man, a black kid my age with a rural southern accent said “I reckon t’at ‘bout describes it Mam.” I went back on the platform, right in time for the first of the Amtrak trains to whiz by.

Amtrak trains in New Brunswick can be downright scary. They go by on the inner tracks at about 130 mph and can be heard a mile away. The fast wind, dust, and wall of sound are disorienting no matter how many times you have experienced them. It can be downright terrifying to stand 20 feet away from anything going by at that speed but when you throw in its weight and mass a feeling of utter helplessness often sets in. The experience is made worse for me, however, because a friend of mine threw himself in front of one of these very trains my freshman year and every whizzing tornado of steel is a reminder of his senseless action.

“Trains are runnin’ again” someone said stating the obvious. More people crowded onto the platform and I occupied the time trying to estimate their number. I decided upon 350 persons. Then something downright terrifying happened. Without any warning an Amtrak train raced by us on the tracks closest to us at about 100 MPH, passing less than a foot from the people on the edge of the overcrowded platform. Lots of us screamed. People grabbed their children or their wives or held onto any available surface for dear life. Still, three or four dozen people were knocked over by the wind and a panic started. The train was gone nearly as soon as it had arrived, leaving behind a cloud of profanities and leaving the people closest to the edge to look over the gap to see if anyone had been struck by the train. To the surprise of many in the crowd, myself included, nobody had. If there had been but on person leaning an arm over the platform, or a skirt that extended an inch too far the person would have been torn to shreds without even noticing that something had happened.

The situation repeated itself another eight times over the next two hours that I was stuck there. (Obviously we all stayed far away from the edge of the platform.) While some New Jersey Transit passengers waited five hours to board a train (I waited four), the Amtrak trains were run with minimal interruption. A person arriving in Trenton or Philadelphia at 11 am for an Amtrak train wouldn’t have even noticed the delay because their train ran on schedule. But because of the extra trains sent to pick up the stranded Amtrak passengers, and the fact that Amtrak trains are never halted for NJ transit trains, Amtrak used all four tracks for its own trains for a full two hours. This left the poorer NJT riders stuck outside in 90 degree heat while Amtrak riders waited for their trains in air-conditioned private waiting rooms that only they were permitted to use. And as the (mostly) working class people baking in the sun looked at the trains whizzing by carrying the rich in a luxury we could not afford, I began to wonder what exactly was going through everyone’s minds. They knew, of course, that we were being delayed an additional two hours so that Amtrak passengers wouldn’t be inconvenienced. “Why don’t they split it up,” a kid asked his father in Spanish. “Why don’t they let one stop for us and then one fast train go by?” I looked at the two of them and said in Spanish “cariño (dear/little one), that would be taking turns. The rich don’t do that.”

A few minutes later the three rich ladies thanked me for talking to them (I have no idea why), and told me that they were going home. “Next time we’ll drive to Trenton and take the Amtrak train. Or maybe we’ll just bite the bullet and park in New York” one of them said. Then the one with the Holden Caulfield accent looked at me and said “I’d recommend you try Amtrak next time. Unfortunately most of the people here probably couldn’t afford it.” I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or punch her in the nose. Instead, I told her that I couldn’t afford it either and wished them well. I wondered if they had learned anything from temporarily finding themselves on the losing side in open class warfare.

1. AVE is an acronym for “High Speed Spanish.” It is also a pun because AVE in Spanish means “bird” (think “avian” in English.)
2. The word “advert” is archaic. The woman’s whole diction would have sounded educated forty years ago but now sounds quite unnatural. This was the stereotypical upper class WASP accent of a bygone era.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jordan,

    I really enjoy your thoughtful blog entries. I thought I'd comment here because I took some NJ Transit and Amtrak while I was on the east coast for vacation a couple of months ago. I was really surprised that Amtrak is so expensive (and did you know that there's a New York<-->DC line called the "Acela" that's even faster? I have a feeling that's only for super elite businesspeople). I don't have a car either and am a big believer in the benefits of public trans for the environment and that sort of thing and I am always dismayed at how a)darned long it takes to get places and b) how long distance transit is not available at prices suitable for everyday commuters. Especially here in Los Angeles, people are expected to drive everywhere. Thanks for sharing your experiences and I hope someday we get some better long distance tranist on the east coast and some transit at all in California.