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Slippery Rail Season

Every autumn in New Jersey the leaves fall from the trees, and the official way of dealing with them, in our town at least, is to push them into the street, usually using a deafening powered leaf blower. The leaves form enourmous piles in the gutter, where they either rot in messy clumps (if the weather is wet) or serve as tinder under the hot exhaust systems of parking cars (if the weather is dry). The town sends crews around to haul away the piles but these crews only show up once a month at best and gather whatever hasn't blown away from the gutters.

One of the places the leaves blow is the train tracks. Northern New Jersey is thick with commuter rails taking us to and from workplaces in various nearby cities. We take the train twice a day ourselves, and our line has recently been upgraded, after decades of talking and years of working, to provide direct train service into New York City. Prior to this upgrade we had only diesel locomotives on our line, and these were not allowed into New Jersey Transit's berths at New York's Penn Station. With the addition of overhead catenary wires and a branch connection to the nearest existing electric route we now have newer, quiter electric locomotives, and a direct commute which is ten minutes shorter than our old one.

Every year about this time we're used to having New Jersey Transit remind us that "fall is slippery rail season." Why? Because of the leaves. You might not think of leaves as especially slippery, but the friction and pressure of train wheels grind all of the oil out the leaves and spread it along the rails, causing slow starts and shuddering jerky stops as our train passes through each station. This is the normal state of affairs.

Two weeks ago, however, something new happened. Mind you, we've only had these new trains since late September. Our train was carrying us home along the new Montclair-Boonton Line, and we were just a few stops away from our destination, when we slowly drifted to a halt between stations. After a few false starts, the train began moving backwards along the tracks. We suspected mechanical problems, and expected to be dropped off at the last station that we'd passed, but we rode right past it, eventually stopping again in a flat stretch between stations.

A conductor got on the public address system and informed us, sheepishly, that the train's wheels were actually spinning on the tracks and could not seem to get us up the hill. They had backed up so as to build up speed before attempting the hill again and we're preparing to charge. Electric trains, as I've said, run much more quietly than diesels, with more track noise than engine noise, so there was no satisfying I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can as we drove forward once again. We made it anyway, fifteen minutes late but glad to be there.

This has not happened to me again yet, but winter should be interesting.

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