Sunday, March 02, 2003

A litte break from war talk and corruption. Here's a brief description of the shortest railroad in New York, a very short line (1.5 miles of track) which snakes around the Brooklyn waterfront on city streets, loading train cars onto barges for Jersey City (avoiding a detour which would otherwise take them near Albany), and trying to explain to passersby that they haven't somehow wandered onto First Avenue by mistake:

Sitting on 47th Street, on top of the tracks, was the crew's most persistent annoyance: a double-parked car, in this case a blue Ford Spirit. The train groaned to a stop.

"Hey, you know you've got a train in the middle of the street?'' one driver yelled. "Yeah, man, we know,'' [brakeman José] Torres replied with a sigh.

The railroad is down to three crew total, counting Mr. Torres, who is studying computers at the Katharine Gibbs school and hoping to find a new job somewhere indoors, but not counting Vice President Howard Samelson, who occasionally takes a little time out from his executive duties for a little impromptu track work:

On another cold morning, this one misty and drenched in rain, the locomotive set off from Bush Terminal down First Avenue like a ghostly apparition to collect 14 New York & Atlantic cars. [Conductor Jimmy] Lada and Mr. Torres were soaked. After a few blocks, Mr. Lada radioed [engineer Charlie] McClellend to stop. Down in the street, a switch point - the moving section of rail in a switch - had been dislodged, probably by the trucks pounding in and out of the Army Terminal during the night.

Mr. Lada called the railroad's vice president, Howard Samelson, and Mr. Samelson started driving from the office in Jersey City. A railroad man with 30 years' experience, he joined Cross Harbor eight months ago. His wife calls it that "silly little railroad.''

Mr. Samelson has a beard and wears a hat like Indiana Jones. He may be the only person living in Manhattan who actually needs a Land Rover: It bounced and sloshed across the moonscape of the Bush Terminal yard, which was so flooded that many tracks were underwater. When he pulled up to the idling locomotive, he crouched down before assuring Mr. Lada that the train would not derail; the other track, the one that was still there, would hold it in place.

As the crew continued on to 65th Street, Mr. Samelson found the missing piece of track by the side of First Avenue and got a forklift operator to drop it into the flooded opening in the roadbed with an iron-on-iron bang. The railroad vice president was showered with dirty street water.

The railroad's office is a trailer in Jersey City. The five locomotives which the railroad owns are antiques. The one it uses, which it rents, is a more recent antique. They're stored in a yard which shows signs of better days, in a crew room with a lockers for a couple of dozen crew. The track shuffles in and out of warehouses, cutting through a few, where the track is a lot less likely to be blocked by parked cars.

The line's future is uncertain. One city bureau is trying to expand rail use in the city to get trucks off the streets. Another is suing it trying to recover costs from a toxic waste cleanup, and apparently holding a brand spanking new dock facility hostage until it settles up. Says the line's President, Wayne Eastman, "We're not the little railroad that could. We're the little railroad that wants to."


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