It was a beautiful, sunny, but still chilly Saturday morning. The weather was trying to be spring but still had the chill of winter. I had planned to take an infrastructure excursion this day, but earlier in the week my dad called. He was to have a layover at Newark Airpot, would I want to come see him for an hour or two? Of course I would! One would think that my excursion plans would be cramped by this, but instead I brainstormed a destination in New Jersey to visit after dropping my dad back off at the airport.
I used to drive to Staten Island through New Jersey via I-95. I realize these are not the prettiest parts of Jersey, but there is lots of industry and infrastructure. One thing I remembered always wondering about was a large train depot that only one spur of 95 passes. Trains and highways, I was sold right away!
I looked up what that thing was, and it’s Secaucus Junction, a station created to allow transfer between different New Jersey Transit train lines.
I followed the GPS’s instructions from Newark Airport – I was pretty sure of where I was going, but didn’t want to get turned around when there were tolls involved. I got off at exit 15X (such a strange number, I could never forget!) and followed the long, horseshoe curve off of the highway. I saw the recognizable station building coming up on my left, but was sort of unsure of where to go. Past it I saw what appeared to be its parking lot. I turned into the expanse of a lot, resigned to paying for parking. It reminded me somewhat of JFK Airport’s long term parking area.
I pulled into a spot relatively close to the building, put on my jacket, and got out of the car. I semi-followed other commuters towards the station, though I was walking slower and more contemplatively than all of them. They had trains to catch, I had nothing of the sort.
I first came to an fence with vertical bars perpendicular to my walking path. As I approached, a loud diesel train pulled up close behind the bars. What an introduction to this location! I hoped the motorman didn’t think me too strange as I stared and took pictures between the bars. The train sat and sighed for several minutes, probably loading and unloading passengers, though I could only see the locomotive not any motion going on in the rest of the cars.
I moved on, walking towards what appeared to be the entrance to the terminal building. Partially due to the low rumble, I realized I was underneath I-95 in a sort of dark underpass.
The familiar form of the building emerged. I passed what appeared to be a taxi drop off/pickup area and proceeded towards the entrance.
Ascending the stairs into the building I noticed the view. The land was flat and marshy around. I spied a skyline in the distance – was that Newark? And I got a good view of that long, horseshoe-shaped ramp that had brought me here off of the interstate and over the train tracks.
As with many of my destinations, the terminal building was barer of people than I know it must be sometimes. I explored, hoping to not seem too out-of-place to the few souls in there.
Symmetrical escalators brought me to the upper level. A strange, modern-ish sculpture sat in the middle of a great atrium with skylights. I didn’t approach close to it, but glanced to see it was supposed to be some sort of representation of the connecting transit in the station. The rest of this level was a disappointment – each platform required you insert a ticket in order to pass its gates. I walked around to see if any of the four rows of gates had bypasses, but none seemed apparent and I am certainly not a turnstile jumper!
I rode a different set of escalators back down to see if I could find anything else of interest. The art in this landing appealed a bit more to me: big paintings of combinations of nature and transit. No one was around so I stood on a big bench to look out even bigger windows. Cars and trucks rushed by on I-95, seemingly just feet from the window, though only their tops were visible above the concrete sides of the highway overpass.
I descended down a covered escalator to the lower level platform I had seen when first approaching the station. I spent lots of time down here. First, I listened to the intense, hollow rumble of vehicles on I-95 above my head and thought what a different experience it is up there than down here.
Then, I walked the platform from end to end. Maybe twice. The ends are always my favorite parts; you can see the track vanish off into the horizon and these spots are usually even more devoid of people.
At the more northern end I had a view of a red bridge carrying traffic over the tracks. Perhaps I would see if I could visit the bridge, too, later. A suicide prevention sign seemed both cheesily outdated and dismal. I hoped there was never a need for such signs.
I took a slow walk to the southern end of the platform, passing under the I-95 overpass yet again, as well as the upper level tracks. Periodically along the length of the platform I saw boxes labeled “Bridge Plate“. I didn’t know what sort of infrastructural thing that was, but later looked it up. I’m not sure how it’s practical to store extending ramps for train accessibility in locked metal boxes in the centers of platforms, but perhaps I’m missing something.
When I reached the souther other end of the long platform, I found it to be much more expansive and beautiful than the other. Tracks reached off into the distance; electric poles reached high into the partly cloudy sky. I sat on the concrete in the sun here for some time, actually quite comfortably. I studied the tracks below and the terminal and sky above me. An unseen bird crowed somewhere in the marsh to my left. No trains came and there was hardly a pedestrian riding up or down the covered escalators. All was peaceful.
I lingered one last moment there, then began a walk back to the other end. Now a young woman took my former spot, using the seclusion to have an intense phone conversation as she paced back and forth. I was on a mission this time, to check the train schedule. Despite knowing nothing about NJ Transit, I was able to determine where and when a train would arrive. And I was in luck, it would be quite shortly. I readied both my cameras.
A dot of light appeared out under the red bridge. Gradually, the dot transformed into a big train being pushed into the station by its loud, diesel locomotive.
I gaped and listened as the train sat there, again feeling the strangeness of one who stands on platforms waiting for trains but never boards.
When the train pulled out I began to reverse my path – up the sheltered escalators, through the terminal building, and out. Again frustrated about the lack of access to the upper level platforms without a ticket, I snapped a picture of a train arriving on an upper track, the best I could do for now.
I set my sights on that red bridge I’d seen from the platform and walked to it on a path between the fences protecting pedestrians from the tracks and the parking lot that held my car.
A big staircase led up to the red bridge. I was delighted to find it was open and accessible and began the ascent. Near the top, I came almost eye-to-eye with metal scaffolding that supported signals for the trains.
I spent some time up on this red bridge investigating. It became clear when up there that it was built to connect a housing development (condominiums) with the surrounding area on the other side of the tracks. Signs boasted units for sale. I suppose it would be a sweet commute to the city.
The bridge itself drew me in as much as the view from it. A sidewalk ran on just one side and occasional cars sped over it. In places, the garish red panels of chain link fencing were missing or broken. It was strange, since this whole area seemed quite modern and in good shape otherwise.
Of course the bridge boasted a wonderful view of the signal structure, train tracks, I-95 overpass, and terminal building (from closest to furthest in my view). I looked out again, hoping for another train to come and trying to remember the schedule I had skimmed in the station.
I got lucky and before long a train pulled in again! I took video of its departure underneath the bridge I stood on.
Confident that I’d explored this little location to the fullest, I headed back down the bridge’s stairs and towards the car. The wind blew cold in the shade now. I noticed now what I had not when walking up – a very tall, green, electric pole with bolts bigger than my hand holding it into its anchor at ground level.
One more glance at I-95 on high ground coming into the station overpass and I was headed to pay up and return to my car.
I set my sights for home, back around the horseshoe ramp and north on I-95. On my way I passed a few other infrastructural sights I’ve pondered like factories and the Pulaski Skyway. On many highways, but especially on 95’s elevated curves I wish I could pull over and photograph so many of the views. I never have, but I often wonder how capturing these might be possible one day.
[Map coming soon, but it won’t be very interesting!]