Things are getting SPOOKY at PRA this October with the Travel HORROR Story series! If you’ve traveled, you’ve encountered hiccups — lost luggage, canceled flights, crummy food, the list is endless. Since PRA staff are some of the most well-traveled folks around, we have gathered a collection of truly terrifying travel stories for your reading pleasure. A new post in the series will be posted each week during the month of October! Read Part 1 here.
Our second installment follows Matt through the labyrinthine New York City transit system!
This haunting travel tale occurred a little before I became employed at PRA but was too good to skip. This story occurred in 2008, the year before I started working at PRA. I was a youngish policy specialist at a grassroots statewide organization and I did a lot of in-state travel.
Being from upstate New York, I was not very familiar of the public transportation systems, so usually opted (against everyone’s advice) to simply drive rather than venture into the unknown.
My boss and I drove down to New York City on the morning of this fateful event. We had just spent a day in meetings, and the plan was that he was going to drop me off at the Croton-Harmon Metro-North train station where I was going to take the Empire Service train to Albany where I had left my car. He was going to be spending the weekend at his mother’s house on Long Island.
After a quick bite to eat we shook hands and he took off for Long Island, and I stood on the platform waiting for my train.
Now, I have divided this story up based on “pivotal points” where the story could have gotten better but did not. This is the first of such points. I am going to provide a piece of very basic information that is going to be very obvious to most people. As you will learn, this information was not obvious to me.
When you are standing on a train platform, many times trains will be coming and going from both sides of the track (see the picture). Again, for obvious reasons, one side is reserved for the trains going one way and the other for trains going the other way. In this case, one side was for trains going north, the others side going south. This very simple and easy to understand fact was lost on me that day and the result of this ignorance was disastrous. All I know is, a train pulled up and when the doors opened, I got in. I mean, why would this be the wrong train?
Upon entering the train, I was very happy to notice that I was the only person on the train. Here is pivotal point number two: a rush-hour train in the New York-metro area will not be empty. I was not at all surprised for some reason, and was actually happy to have the car to myself so that I could stretch out and have some quiet time after a long day of meetings.
So there I sat, looking out the windows, happy to finally be on my way home. The first indication that something was amiss was when the train passed a couple stations. But hey, I must be on an express I figured. After passing a few more, I decided to look and see if there were people on the other cars, so I got up and went towards the door of the car in front of me. To my surprise, it was empty as well! I was pretty sure there was some logical explanation so I looked at the car opposite the one I already looked at and sure enough, it was empty as well. Now I did start to get a little scared!
My stomach sank as I opened my phone and looked up the list of stations and much to my horror, I was going south instead of north!
So, I got on the wrong train, but that did not explain why I was the only person on the train, and this prompted me to look up the number for the railroad to call and see what had possibly gone wrong. After being put on hold for about 15 minutes, I learned from customer service that I was not on a normal train, I was on an “out of service train” that was on its way back to the train station “garage” where they service the trains, floors underneath the Harlem 125th Street Station!
As the gentleman on the phone was in the middle of telling me that they could not turn around (see pivotal point number one), my phone lost service because we were pulling into the underground train “garage.”
When the train finally came to a stop, I can best describe the scene as post-apocalyptic. It was very dark, and I remember the smell of diesel fuel and burnt matches. I got off the train but there was no platform, I used these little stairs and walked beside the train. The weirdest part was that there were workers there wearing hard hats and orange florescent vests and they were carrying tools and welding pieces of metal. I remember the sound of metal clanking and the hiss of the welding tools as they spilled sparks everywhere. I thought it was weird that I was wearing a full dress suit and was towing a roller bag and none of these men stopped to ask if I was lost or anything!
I walked and walked towards the light and finally came to this ladder, and I climbed it to a platform and went up these stairs opened a door and voilà, my eyes adjusted to the light of New York’s 125th Street station!
Now I thought I was home free, right? All I had to do was to get a return ticket and get the next train home, right? Wrong!
I learned from the ticket counter that I had missed the last train, but that I could get another train from the Grand Central Station back to Albany. To my dismay, Google maps quickly told me that I was about 4.5 miles away. The problem was, I had a very tight timeline and the train leaving Grand Central was my last chance to get home that night.
I sat in the street almost in tears as I figured out my best option. Cab? Walk? Subway? I quickly ruled out subway, after all it was trains that got me in this mess in the first place! I tried hailing a cab but there were few around and all of them already had passengers.
I did what any normal person would do at this point, I counted the cash in my pocket, bought a hot dog and a bottled water and jumped in a rickshaw whose driver earned the extra $20 I promised for getting me to my train in time for me to buy the ticket and a magazine to read on my way home!