Looking to escape Manhattan this weekend for a fun family excursion that won't break the bank? Consider the train. Specifically, the commuter train, which seems inglorious in its commonality, but can -- in a certain light and within a cavernous shop -- be glorious. For those looking to save cash in these uncertain economic times, the event's as splendidly free as air itself. For the past two decades, the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Metro-North Railroad has once a year opened the doors to its 275,000-square-foot Harmon repair shop in Croton, N.Y. This year it's Saturday, Oct. 11 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The open-house event is expected to attract as many as 6,000 -- including kids and intense train hobbyists dressed in Choo-Choo Charlie get-ups. A peak into the Harmon repair shop allows those interested a glimpse at the mechanics behind the big machines that transport commuters back and forth between New York City and the suburban ring that surrounds it. What better way to forget the plunging Dow than to get behind the controls of a fire-breathing diesel locomotive? Or operate a track switch. Learn what a pantograph is (the stem that moves electricity from overhead wires to the train). Looking to repress the fact that you thought financials had bottomed out a year ago and bet your fund on it? Get lost in any number of items on display or disassembled -- from a wheel assembly to a 3,200-horse-power V12 locomotive engine. "The truth of commuter trains is that they are an everyday conveyance," says Dan Brucker, a spokesman for Metro-North Railroad, "but here, you can see the romance back." The average Wall Streeter who humps to work every day on the train doesn't even need the romance back -- but a few fleeting hours away from the misery of the everyday grind can do the mind some good. After all, the repair shop's 275,000 feet (grab a map, they are available) does not even factor in the yard -- or the surrounding tracks and other activities. (Brucker added that the annual lost umbrella auction won't be held this year because the umbrellas have already made their way to a charitable organization.)
From the Croton Station, Metro-North is running a 50-minute diesel engine tour through the Hudson Highlands, specifically designed to allow riders a peep at autumnal leaves at the peak of the season. To get to the MTA's Harmon shop, you can either drive to Croton, which is along the eastern shore of the Hudson about an hour north of New York City, or take the train, which would mean the Hudson line from Grand Central Station to Croton-Harmon. There will be quick shuttle bus rides provided from there. The event allows commuters who use the train every day to see the experience in a new light. And for those beaten-down by Wall Street's woes, it'll remind you that there is more to life than drinking your miseries away in the bar car at the end of a terrible week. A spokesman usually can't be given free rein to define the event he represents, but Brucker is probably right in saying that the only folks who don't light up like Metro-North's operation control center at the sight of so many trains are siderodromophobics, or those with fears of trains.