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New York Commuters Race the Sun to Beat the Clock

Earlier trains speed to Grand Central, filled with Wall Streeters and construction workers.

April 16, 2006|Walter Hamilton | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A popular 1970s song posited that if the 8:15 a.m. train is on time "you can get to work by nine."

Doug Garrity is living the 2006 version: If his 4:15 a.m. train is on schedule, he's in by 6.

"The first time I took this train I was shocked at how many people were on it," Garrity, 47, a partner at a financial-services firm, said as he arrived bleary-eyed at Grand Central Terminal.

New York is the city that never sleeps. Judging from the number of pre-dawn commuters, suburbanites aren't sleeping much either.

The Metro-North Railroad, which links the northern suburbs to Manhattan, beefed up its early-morning service this month after surveys showed riders clamoring to get in earlier.

The first trains now roll into Grand Central at 5:40 a.m., up to 25 minutes sooner than before. Ridership between 5:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. has surged 23% in the last five years.

"More and more people are arriving ever earlier," said Dan Brucker, a Metro-North spokesman.

The railroad also added more evening trains to accommodate people working late.

Riders say they never imagined they'd be waking up at 4 a.m. or earlier to go to work. But there are benefits.

"It's valuable time before the phone starts ringing and the meetings start," said Mike Forte, an engineer from Thornwood, N.Y. "You can actually get some work done."

The worst part? "When I get in the Dunkin' Donuts isn't open yet," Forte said.

Early trains are typically populated with two distinct groups: construction workers and Wall Streeters. "That's the mix," said Jim Kilman, an investment banker.

Across the nation, experts say, a combination of factors are impelling Americans into the office ever earlier.

Some workers have little choice as companies boost their workloads rather than hire more people. And the search for affordable homes is taking some employees far from Manhattan.

But the news isn't all bad. Commuters, aided by laptop computers, cellphones and Blackberry devices, are "time-shifting" to, say, leave the office earlier to pick up children from school.

"This isn't necessarily a sob story about how life is so hard," said Alec Levenson, a labor economist at USC's Marshall School of Business. "No one is forcing them to get on the train at 6 a.m."

Early-morning commuters have their own rituals. Snagging a window seat is crucial -- not for the view; it's too dark out -- but as prop for sleep. Some use blindfolds or inflatable pillows.

In that sense, early-rising New Yorkers have an advantage over their L.A. counterparts.

"You can sleep on the train," Levenson said. "You can't sleep on the 405."

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