The 7:23 to Grand Central Terminal rolled up to the Tarrytown platform right on time Friday morning, just like Howard Permut planned it.
The Metro-North president hopped on and waved goodbye to a reporter tagging along for the ride. "Going to sit up with the engineer," he said.
There he remained for the 37-minute ride into New York City, watching, asking questions, trying to soak up all the information he could.
Permut, who oversees the railroad's annual budget of $1.4 billion, does this twice a day, riding the train from his home in Scarborough to his office in midtown Manhattan. Sometimes he sits with the passengers, sometimes with the workers.
"You have to," Permut said as he got off the Hudson Line train, which arrived right on time. "It's the best way to find out what's going on."
Making a habit of being out on the rails has served Permut, 61, well in his 30-year career at Metro-North. Under his watch, Metro-North has hit a record of more than 83 million riders and has become the largest commuter rail in the nation. Customer satisfaction has also been the highest its ever been, according to the railroad's annual surveys.
"Howard was always bright but he also had a focus," said Peter Stangl, the MTA chairman from 1991 to 1995 who hired Permut as a policy planner when he became head of Metro-North at its creation in 1983.
"He worked hard to get himself out there and see what was going on," Stangl said of Permut.
The bespectacled Permut, who has salt-and-pepper hair and is slightly built with the studious look of a government accountant, made it through Friday's morning commute without being recognized by any of his fellow passengers. But he did not go unnoticed by railroad workers who showered him with holiday greetings.
"Howard is low-key, extremely bright," said another one of Permut's former bosses, Elliot Sander, who served as MTA chief between 2007 and 2009.
Despite his success, Permut's name has yet to surface as a candidate for the top job at the MTA, Metro-North's parent agency, since its chairman and CEO, Joseph Lhota, resigned Wednesday to weigh a run for mayor of New York City.
Some who know Permut said he's known more for his skills as a planner and technician than a politician, which would hurt his chances of securing the job if he wanted it.
On Friday, Permut was mum on who might replace Lhota.
LARGEST EXPANSION COMING NEXT YEAR
Few things give the head of a perpetually cash-thin railroad more angst than an empty seat. In the business it's called "deadheading" -- sending out empty trains to pick up passengers for rides back into the city.
In the early 1990s, Permut noticed surging numbers of riders taking the train out of the Bronx and New York City for jobs in the Hudson Valley suburbs and beyond.
Why not make sure there were plenty of trains for them to get on? Then more of them would show up, the thinking went.
With that, Permut shepherded through plans to expand service. The impact was obvious. The number of reverse commuters has surged 150 percent over the past decade, from 5,000 to 13,000 per day. During that same time the morning commuter population has grown just 10 percent.
"Howard deserves the credit for that accomplishment," said Sander, who named Permut president of Metro-North in 2008.
Permut followed that up this year with plans for the largest service expansion in the railroad's history. When completed next spring, most of the 230 trains added to the Harlem, New Haven and Pascack Valley lines will go to serving off-peak and weekend commuters.
By the end of next year, Permut said, wait times during off-peak hours will be a half-hour or less so that riders won't have to be checking their schedule all the time.
"We'll achieve that in almost every station," he said.
At larger stations like Scarsdale, White Plains and Tarrytown, waits could be 20 minutes or less.
His ultimate goal? 100 million riders.
"I look forward to getting there," he said.
LIFELONG LOVE OF TRAINS
"The truth is that I always liked trains," he said. "Growing up I had my Lionel trains. I still have my Lionel trains. My mother saved them."
Permut graduated from Binghamton University with a geography degree.
But his love for the rails soon had him pursuing a master's in transportation science from Northwestern University. From there he got a job in Chicago as a planner for the Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority.
Four years later, on Jan. 1, 1983, he was among 10 people tapped to create Metro-North from the aging remains of Conrail.
Back then, ridership was around 40 million per year and trains arrived on time about 80 percent of the time. Today, it's closer to 98 percent.
"The infrastructure was falling apart," said Permut, who is married with two adult children. "The cars were falling apart. The ridership was going down dramatically."
It was so bad that the state had started bus service from railroad station lots on the Upper Harlem line so people could get to work in the city on time.
Conrail had not invested in infrastructure -- trains, signals, substations -- since World War II. They patched together a railroad by buying up ragtag cars from other railroads that in many cases were, literally, on their last run.
"On a Friday night we'd take the car up to Brewster and then it would be retired overnight," Permut said.
Some cars had cracks in the floor so large you could see through to the right of way.
And the roofs weren't much better. Water would sometimes spill down onto passengers, creating an effect that came to be known as "The Valhalla Shower."
"The train would go around the curve in Valhalla and water on the roof would all spill out through a hole," Permut recalled. "The commuters said it was sort of like a game to see who would sit in that seat because then they could tell they were new."
'GROWTH DRIVEN BY METRO-NORTH'
In the three decades that Permut has been with the agency, Metro-North has been completely rebuilt from the rails right up to the electrical lines that power them with the investment of ridership revenues into capital programs.
Service has been expanded into suburbs that previously had little access to commuter lines.
"We have brought all of southern Dutchess County into the Manhattan economy," Permut said. "It makes it a reasonable commute. There's no question in my mind that the economy of the Hudson Valley is significantly dependent on Metro-North and that the growth in the Hudson Valley has been driven in large part by Metro-North."
In addition, apartment complexes have sprouted up near train stations in Yonkers and Tarrytown, built by developers selling proximity to rail lines.
And then there's the Metro-North station added to East 153rd Street in the Bronx, which gives riders on the Hudson, Harlem and New Haven lines game-day access to Yankee Stadium.
Permut played a key role in that project even though it forced a test of his loyalties.
Permut has been a Boston Red Sox fan since childhood. Atop a bookcase in his Manhattan office is a "Go Sox" sign.
"I had a huge involvement in getting that station built, which people here always laugh about because they know who I root for," Permut said.
Sander said it's further evidence of another Permut strength.
"Howard has a great deal of integrity," Sander said. "And he's not necessarily swayed by the moment or the popular mood."