Q: Engine Bob, a couple of years ago I got into an argument with a New Haven Line conductor over something stupid. I had missed my morning southbound Harlem Line train at Fordham Road. A New Haven train pulled in a few minutes later. It stopped, and I got on. As we were pulling away, the conductor recognized a new passenger (me) and started yelling that his train was for discharging passengers only. He didn’t care that I had a monthly commutation pass for Fordham, either. I don’t get this. If I’ve paid Metro North to travel a certain distance, what the hell difference does it make if I get on a red train or a blue one?
A: Ah, a fine fix—and a vintage one, too. You stumbled on the vestiges of a legal agreement that’s been in place since 1848. Yes, that’s right: 159 years. (Hey, updating the rule books takes time, dude.) Here’s why that New Haven conductor was pissed at you and why—had the doors still been open to the Fordham platform when you were caught—he would have booted you from the train.
History lesson time again. Sorry, I gotta. Okay, back in the mid 19th century, the little New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad was pining for a way to get its trains into Manhattan. But, lucky for them, it turned out that the New Haven’s tracks at New Rochelle were conveniently close to the Harlem Division mainline of the New York Central RR that had just been spiked that far north only six years earlier.
Since the New Haven could never have afforded to build a terminal in Manhattan—much less obtain a right-of-way onto the island—it brokered a deal that allowed New Haven trains to use the Central’s 16 miles of track into Grand Central Terminal. Operating costs would be split between the two railroads based on a percentage calculated from the number of train cars that the New Haven brought into Manhattan.
With this arrangement in place, the New Haven laid an 11-mile spur from its mainline to hook up to the Central’s. Today, the junction point is easy to spot—it’s just north of the Woodlawn Station where there’s a “flyover” that loops the New Haven tracks down into the Harlem Division’s iron over some square-arched tunnels. (It’ll make sense when you see it, trust me.)
Okay, so, the Central was happy because the New Haven would now be subsidizing its operating costs by paying rent for track usage. Emphasis on usage. The Central might let New Haven trains roll on its tracks, but it would be damned if it was going to let the New Haven generate actual revenue from New York Central customers who’d be boarding trains at the handful of stations between Woodlawn and Grand Central.
And so the New Haven, while free to discharge its own passengers at stations such as Williams Bridge and Fordham, was prohibited from boarding passengers there. If you were a passenger traveling between two points in New York Central territory, your money was going to stay with the New York Central. (Listen, the robber barons did not get rich by accident.)
To this day, that rule—or a surviving incarnation of it—is still observed, only now the players are the New Haven Division and the Harlem Division, both of Metro North. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? The rule made sense back when you had two competing private railroads—but the New Haven and the New York Central railroads have been gone for about 36 years now and Metro North runs everything.
So why is this dumb rule still in place?
I won’t pretend to know the deepest bureaucratic vagaries that must apply, here, but the essence of it is that, even though the red (New Haven) and blue (Harlem and Hudson) trains are all operated by Metro North, one train is not necessarily interchangeable with another. New Haven trains are partially funded by tax revenues from the State of Connecticut, just like Harlem and Hudson trains operate with help from New York State money. And so the accounting books must still be kept separately to some degree. Just like in the old days, Connecticut trains ain’t allowed to make money with New York State passengers.
If you’re bound for Stamford and boarding at Fordham, well, that’s fine—because your destination is in Connecticut. But if you’re going from, say, Botanical Garden to 125th Street, you have to board a Harlem Line train.
I’m confident that I’m ignorant of a good 80% of the hairsplitting technicalities that purport to make this rule sensible in the eyes of MTA management—and the gods be praised for that—but what I’ve told you is the way it was long ago explained to me by an old-timer. This guy, incidentally, used to love to argue with New Haven conductors about the boarding prohibition, and would grandly denounce the 1848 law (which the gape-mouthed ticket-takers had probably never heard of once in their entire stinking lives) Perry Mason style.
I’m quite sure his ass still got kicked off the New Haven train, all the same.