Anyone who doubts that the New York Metro area is in decline need only take a NJ Transit train from Manhattan's Penn Station to Newark Airport. Penn Station is itself, of course, a poster child for urban planning gone amok, its claustrophobic spaces designed by a sadist. Walking through that hellish concourse I thought to myself, once there was a time when Americans built things for the collective good, meant to last, and thus laid the foundation for a dynamic and civilized society. No more. Now we have a fat and fat-headed governor in Trenton who vetoed a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River because it was gonna cost too much. But he will use public money to get the bankrupt Xanadu shopping mall opened. Yippee.
The NJ Transit train I boarded was old and uncomfortable, especially for someone carrying luggage. The overhead racks were small and situated a little too high to reach without back strain. The seats were greasy and the upholstery was cracked in spots. At least the maintenance crews hadn't tried to mend them with duct tape. The car smelled rancid. The conductor was civil but just. I pitied him, working on that train every day.
Upon leaving Penn Station at a crawl, the moldy car lurching from track to track, I sensed that this train had probably never made the trip to the airport in the twenty-two minutes shown on the NJ Transit website. Clearly it wasn't going to this time. It took ten minutes to get to Secaucus Junction, that big box transfer station out in the middle of the swamp, not seven miles as the crow flies from Manhattan. The doors opened, one passenger detrained, the crew talked excitedly among themselves for a couple of minutes, the doors closed, and we were off again.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the airport station. It was raining out, rather heavily. In their barbarous wisdom, the assholes who planned and built the station made it an open-air platform. I got soaked. There were two escalators, one up, one down. The line for the up escalator was long and wet. Meanwhile the down escalator was empty. But I was happy -- hell, it was a miracle that the up escalator was working at all.
Then came the stupidest part of the journey -- the sheer imbecility of it causes me to smile now, but it didn't then. Though the conductors on the train checked everyone's tickets and punched them and made a big display of issuing corresponding seat-checks -- meaning everyone had to have a paid ticket to get to this point -- here at the top of the escalator, in the walkway leading to the monorail which goes to the terminals, we were required to insert our already punched tickets (magnetic stripe up and to the right) into exit turnstiles before we could leave the station. No one was prepared for this and so a huge bottleneck ensued. All around me were profound looks of consternation on those who had crumpled up their tickets, put them in their bags, or -- god forbid -- thrown them into the trash. Foreign tourists eager to go home stared at each other in mutual bewilderment -- what was this? A crazy American scheme to delay the trip? A sure sign that NJ Transit has no faith in its conductors?
I thought to myself, what gives? If I fucking paid, and already proved I paid, why do I need to yield my ticket to an exiting turnstile? Somebody please tell me. Maybe the fat man in Trenton has an answer.
I thought of the airports in Frankfurt and Geneva -- how easy it was to get on a train and go anywhere in Europe. I thought of Sea-Tac and its light rail, SF International and BART, Hartsfield and MARTA, even O'Hare and Logan. New York is shite in comparison, all three airports: Newark, Kennedy, LaGuardia. You can't be a first-class city with airport transport as bad as ours. Just like you can't be a first-class city if only rich people can afford to live here.
Three hours later I landed in Minneapolis. $2.25 one way on the Hiawatha light rail to downtown.