Celebration on wheels

We’re back in winter now – towards the end of 2007 and more specifically the last 2 weekends leading up to Christmas and my departure for India. The Big Apple is a joy to wander through at this time of the year and 5th Ave typifies the festive spirit best. From the giant snowflake suspended high over 57th street, to the window displays of Saks to the massive Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre, celebration is in the air.

But what better way to celebrate the holidays than with trains? And the city did just that. No doubt, with a much broader audience in mind, it dished out 2 huge treats on successive weekends and gave me a fitting send off on my trip home!

Holiday Train Show

The New York Botanical Gardens are the pride of the Bronx and a splendid setting for any kind of event. Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, they host the Holiday Train Show.

A National Historic Landmark spanning 250 acres, it has more than enough to offer. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting NYC and even residents of NYC who usually refrain from venturing north of 125th St. And guilty of that, I am to! Prior to this visit, my own encounter with the Park can best be described as brief! I could go on and on selling the place to you, but we’ll get back to trains for now!

Fondly referred to as New York’s ‘other big holiday tradition’, the train show enters its 16th year in ’08 and usually runs from the end of November to the middle of January. The weekends bring in the crowds (read Manhattanites!) and at 20 bucks a pop, it isn’t cheap but well worth the trek.

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, where the exhibits are on display, is the largest Victorian Glasshouse in the United States. If you’ve had your fill marveling at the late 19th century structure, you can focus on why your there in the first place – to see some model trains in an unusual setting!

16 train sets, trolleys and street cars (featuring Union Pacific, New York Central and Great Northern) continuously ply 1000 feet of track winding through, around and over 140 replicas of New York City landmarks – each unbelievably beautiful and made out of nothing more than twigs, pods, seeds, leaves and roots. Go figure!

Paul Busse, the creator of the show and his team from Applied Imagination comprising landscape designers, botanical architects and creative artists are based out of far away Alexandria, Kentucky and it takes them and a crew of 10 others one full week working almost round the clock, on site, to put up the show each year.

No doubt, this is a very unique and in my mind, amazing achievement and the awe struck look on visitor’s faces only confirms that fact. It’s not just the draw of trains that brings people here, its the sheer grandeur and spectacle of the entire show.

And the true scale of it can only be appreciated by glancing skywards – at any of 4 bridges which straddle the visitor walkway. While 3 of 4 are famous road bridges – Brooklyn, Manhattan and George Washington – the last of them is none other than the rail bearing Hell’s Gate!

(V)ery Special

Q. How often on the NYC Subway does one get to see this kind of sign?

A. For a few weekends in December and January ONLY!

I was lucky enough to ride the V line’s vintage ‘holiday special’ train on its first weekend of operation this holiday season and that happened to coincide with my last weekend in NYC in ’07. Easily the most exhilarating subway ride in memory!

Decked up in her winter finery, this 6 car heritage train pulled into Queens Plaza – the start of it’s journey – to the look of surprise on some faces, a lot of cheering and many camera flashes! The oft criticized MTAs Holiday gift to New Yorkers.

It took most commuters by surprise – except, of course, ardent rail fans, who had missed several trains to board this one! But smiles and curious onlookers were everywhere and even the otherwise high-handed NYPD couldn’t do much but watch as camera after camera scrambled to capture the moment!

The 6 carriages that made up the train were different in design with build dates ranging from 1940 to about 1950. Examples of each are available for public viewing at the Brooklyn Transit Museum but its a totally different experience when you get to ride them. The open ventilation, the smell of the train’s brakes and the sounds of whirring traction motors accelerating and decelerating were an absolute joy. Ornate fans and incandescent lamps, comfy cushioned seats, grab handles (the term ‘straphanger‘ comes from there), and old adverts adorning the wall panels – a treat for anyone with a sense of nostalgia.

The V train is a weekdays only service and operates between Forest Hills in Queens and the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Although its route was slightly curtailed, the MTA had thoughtfully scheduled it in on the V’s weekday slots, albeit on a weekend, so it came as an added boon to Holiday shoppers! And the very friendly train conductor happily answered queries while standing perched, precariously between cars, operating the doors – the way they did it in the good ‘ol days!

The trigger happy photographer that I am, no less than 80 photos were clicked that day but only a handful captured that feeling of riding a 40s era subway car. I sign off here with my favourite.

Stand clear of the closing doors please…

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