Metro-North, already the nation's busiest commuter rail, is on pace to break its own ridership records in 2012. And its success has little to do with the traditional commuter heading into Grand Central Station every day.
The formula to the 30-year-old rail line's record growth is a focus on riders making the reverse commute to the Hudson Valley for jobs, passengers who need to hop on for just a station or two and weekend travelers headed to New York City.
"The railroad we inherited resembled something out of 'Mad Men,' " said Robert MacLagger, vice president of planning for Metro-North. "The classic image of the Metro-North commuter is the man in the gray flannel suit, living in Westchester or Fairfield County and coming to work on Madison Avenue."
Today, as those in the suit-and-tie set makes their way into Manhattan, health care workers, students and stock traders are headed the opposite direction, into the Hudson Valley and beyond.
"You have people going up to jobs as nannies and housekeepers and other ... professions," he said.
Take Normalyn Trouth, a nurse's aide from White Plains. On a recent morning, Trouth missed an earlier train and was waiting at the White Plains station for the 11:19 Harlem Line train to take her 10 stops to Goldens Bridge and her job at a health care facility in Somers.
She wished that her train ran on a half-hour schedule during the off-peak hours that she travels but is happy she has a way to get to work.
"I like it," she said. "It's been very good."
To assure that customers like Trouth hop aboard, Metro-North has been trying to lure riders who might not think of the railroad as a cost-effective or convenient way to travel.
There are discounts for riders taking trips that don't start or end in New York City. And Metro-North has worked with towns, villages and private employers to provide bus or van service from stations in the northern suburbs. The railroad even runs its own 30-passenger buses to pick up passengers coming off trains in stations like Spuyten Duyvil.
The result may not be around-the-clock subway system service but something closer to a European-style metro, with a goal of regular service even during off-peak hours. Gone will be the days of leaving dinner in Manhattan early for a sprint to catch a train at Grand Central.
"If there's a train every 30 minutes, you don't even look at a schedule," Lagger said. "You don't have to memorize a schedule."
Metro-North's efforts seem to be paying off. Through the first 10 months of 2012, its ridership was up some 1.5 million compared with the same period in 2011, despite a nearly four-day shutdown of the system caused by Hurricane Sandy.
In striking distance is the record of 83.6 million riders, set in 2008 before the recession hit. At of the end of October, Metro-North had tallied nearly 70 million riders.
The bulk of the ridership is on the routes that run east of the Hudson River: the Harlem, Hudson and New Haven lines. As of October, the east lines tallied 68.2 million riders and the west brought in 1.4 million.
Although the morning commuter to Grand Central Terminal has remained a steady, reliable customer base through Metro-North's history, the so-called "a.m. peak rider" is now in the minority. Metro-North recognized the trend as early as 1994 when it decided to take "commuter" out of its name.
In 1983, the suburbanite traveling to Manhattan made up two-thirds of the railroad's business. Today, it is less than half.
"In the last 20 years, reverse commutation has grown 150 percent, from 5,000 to 13,000, as compared to 10 percent for the a.m. peak into Grand Central," MacLagger said.
The trend is evident in the most recent service expansion -- the largest in Metro-North history. Nearly all of the 230 trains expected to be up and running by the spring of 2013 will be for off-peak and weekend rides, with a goal of trains every half hour.
"We have the largest reverse commute market in the country," MacLagger said.
"White Plains has gotten to the point where the offs in the morning are catching up to the ons," MacLagger said.
In the a.m. peak, 3,650 people get on New York-bound trains in White Plains. During the same period, 3,400 people arrive at White Plains from the north and the south.
RIDERS LIKE THE SERVICE, WELCOME IMPROVEMENTS
It's hard to put a face on the average Metro-North riders these days. Passengers include the health care worker heading north for his job, the college student riding the rails during the off-peak hours or the pharmaceutical company employee traveling from one Westchester County station to another.
Regardless of where they're heading, most passengers seem to appreciate the service they're getting. In a customer satisfaction survey released in September, 93 percent of riders said they were satisfied with the railroad, up from 89 percent in 2011.
The regular commute for Christina Robinson doesn't take her anywhere near Manhattan.
On Thursday, Robinson drove from her home in Carmel and parked at the Brewster station. From there, she hopped on the Harlem Line train for a 50-minute ride to White Plains, where she'll pick up a bus that will take her to SUNY Purchase. Robinson is pursuing a master's degree in fine arts for theatrical design at the college.
The round-trip, off-peak ride costs $13, not including bus fare, and the whole commute takes about two hours. Like Trouth, she wouldn't mind trimming down the length of her daily commute with half-hour service.
"I have to plan my work hours at school around the train schedule," she said. "What's annoying is when ... I miss the train."