Wednesday, December 29, 2010

NJ - SFO travel epic

After a heavy but hardly extraordinary snowstorm the day after a Christmas spent in northern New Jersey with family, it was time to return home to San Francisco. It had been over a day since the snow had subsided, plenty of time for things to get back up to speed, and although with air travel on the rise this year passengers whose flights had been canceled were desperate to find a way back home, since I had a reserved spot I wasn't too worried. Nevertheless, I left my parents' house with substantial margin to get to the airport in plenty of time.

My plan was to leave the station in suburban New Jersey on the 11:06 southbound to Secaucus, connect on one of a series of LIRR trains to Jamaica, then get to the airport 2 hours ahead of my departure. No problem.

But things didn't quite go according to plan.

First, my sister and I were waiting at the platform, at which we'd arrived with 5 minutes to spare, first 5 minutes, then 10, then 15 minutes after the 11:06 scheduled departure time. Finally we heard the whistle, followed soon after by the announcement that the 11:23 to Hoboken (stopping at Secaucus) was arriving.

I was puzzled by this until I realized the train must have been on a weekend schedule. I'd seen nothing about this on the New Jersey Transit website when I'd set up my schedule the previous night. It could have been far worse than the 17 minute delay -- weekend trains run only every hour. So 25 minutes would have been normal, with a worst-case wait of 55 minutes past the normal 11:06 departure. I got lucky.

The train got to Secaucus without incident. I then assertively moved to Platform 2, where trains bound for New York stop, and got there within 30 seconds of the doors closing on a waiting train. Lucky again, although the following train was only 5 minutes later.

Next was New York Penn Station. Another problem: I'd just missed that group of trains for Jamaica, the last leaving at 12:35, with the next train at 13:10. Actually if the 12:35 had been at all delayed and I committed no missteps I might have had a chance had I sprinted, but instead of rushing like a crazy guy I decided instead to buy some of the spectacular bagels sold there, listen to a guitarist after tossing a dollar into his case, and generally sucking up the atmosphere of the exceptional station. When the train finally arrived, at 13:00, I was able to board it without rush, and pulled out Bangkok Haunts, the book I was reading. I had 2:20 until my departure time -- no longer as good as I'd wanted, but still it should be no problem.

After a slow approach the train reached Jamaica, and I again assertively moved to avoid getting caught in congestion for the Air Train. Except when I reached the Air Train ticket kiosks, they were taped over. This didn't look good.

"There's a free bus to JFK -- go downstairs for a free bus to JFK" a heavyset guy in a uniform was announcing. I moved quickly down the escalator to the ground floor.

Here the scene was surreal. A group of us was speed-walking to reach the back of the line waiting for the bus. It extended a solid hundred meters before I reached the end. I'd made good time, however, and even in a few short seconds there was a substantial and growing line behind me.

I saw some guys who had the lackadasical air of employees on duty. "Do you have any idea how long this will take?" I asked neither of them in particular.

"Maybe two hours. There's only one bus making round trips."

This was beyond absurd. How many of these people had two hours to spare? I pondered finding a taxi, afraid to search because I'd lose my space in line, and it was possible they were incorrect, and there were more buses. But then I saw a taxi pull to the nearby curb, and I instantly left my spot in line to run over.

It took four of us, charging $15 each, all highly illegal but I was hardly in a position to argue, and was only grateful he was there. And so we left. Traffic around the airport was appalling. He said the Airtrain was running intraterminal, just not to and from the train station. I paid and tipped the driver and ran into the airport. But I still had time; when I glanced at my watch it was around 14:15.

Next I took an elevator to the ticket level. There was a guy there wearing a fur coat, which I thought fairly unusual. When I commented on the travel situation, he said he'd taken the bus from Jamaica Station. He seemed surprise at my description of the huge lines: he said it had only been 45 minutes from the station to the gate. So he was probably with the earlier wave of trains, and perhaps the bus was able to stay on top of the passenger flow somehow. In any case, it seems just missing the 12:35 train from Penn Station may have almost been more costly than I'd imagined. Another example of the non-linear cascade of travel delays.

Lines at the ticket counters of the terminal were appalling. However, I found a group of eight self-serve kiosks with only one person ahead of me. Unfortunately the kiosks were clogged with international travelers who were required to find assistance to verify their documents. I waited approximately 7 minutes before a women was able to take care of two of the passengers, liberating a kiosk for me. At this point I was able to check in within 60 seconds.

From the kiosk to security it was like a refugee camp. Military cots were laid out along the walkways, each occupied by someone with a look of futility and defeat. I tried to avoid eye contact and passed to security.

Security went fairly quickly, actually, although I'm convinced my "Priority" line was actually slower. Then a long walk to Terminal 35 and here I was at the gate with an hour in hand. Things looked good as I sat on the ground next to an electrical power stand until I realized it was 15:05 and no boarding announcement yet. With the huge crowd that wasn't good.

Five minutes later a voice announced the plane is ready to go except for the first officer, who just arrived in LaGuardia. Result: 40 minute delay. The Air Travel system is such a fragile, delicate house of cards. It promises to get people to their destination quickly if not comfortably and so often fails on both grounds. On the other hand, all of the rail links of my trip are almost a non-issue; I'm perfectly happy to sit on the train reading, reviewing the papers I've been assigned, play around with computer code, or whatever. Although given the fiasco at the Jamaica station, I'm was sure at least a few people will be extremely grateful to Mr. First Officer.

I boarded in the first group, being first class, where a few attempted intruders were deterred. Maybe if there were a "death penalty" -- ticket cancellation, call up the next stand-by, for this sort of flagrant selfeshness it would be less common. There was a short delay (multiplied by a LOT of passengers) while these folks were weeded from the line and then I was on.

Boarding took awhile, then there was a long taxi delay (delayed off the gate and you pay with heavy interest as you lose your reservation on the runway). We finally took off in darkness at 17:20.

The flight was slow. We descended into unfavorable air to reduce turbulance in the middle of the flight, then had to overshoot San Francisco and land from the west due to the winds. Still, other than wanting to get home, it wasn't so bad. It's actually fairly pleasant in first class, even not adjusting for the fact I was in a plane. Plenty of room, all the water you can drink, well-prepared food, frequent attention. Really nice. I managed to even avoid being suffocated with any noxious odor of self-importance from fellow passengers. People behaved civilly to the stewardesses, and were generally courteous to each other. I decided it was a good flight to have invested those miles.

My neighbor, in fact, had reason to be grateful -- to the late first officer. He'd flown from Puerto Rico with time to spare only to sit on the runway for two full hours waiting for a gate to open. He boarded well after others, in fact I wonder if the plane had been held just a bit specifically for him. I've been in the same position except that the plane didn't wait and I missed a connection to Europe.

It was raining heavily in San Francisco when we landed, but I called Cara and got BART with an "expectation value" 10 minute delay (trains run every 20 minutes). BART went smoothly except the squeaky voice over the intercom announcing stops was barely audible and I only just got out of the train in time at my stop, 24th Street in Mission, thinking I was still at the preceding Glen Park station. But I did escape in time, and Cara was waiting to pick me up (the air seemed obscenely warm after New Jersey's sub-freezing temperatures), avoiding a two mile run through heavy rain or an indeterminant wait for a bus.

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