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August 29, 2014

No Blue Ribbons for Metro-North

The long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.
Their 50 page report confirms much of what we already knew:  that the railroad placed too much emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety… that there were serious repair issues unattended to for months… and that there has been an enormous “brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement after 30 years.
All of those problems could have been prevented if MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast had been doing his job, which he wasn’t. That is surprising, given his almost 40 years in the industry.  Remember, he was selected as Chairman by Governor Cuomo (just a month before the Bridgeport crash) after successfully turning around the NYC subway system.  And he had also spent years at the LIRR.
But the Blue Ribbon Panel was especially critical of Prendergast for running his three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NY Subways) as silos, not communicating with each other on best practices.  If the NYC subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it.  The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.
But the Panel says the problems were far deeper than just that:
TENSION:    The Panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers who maintain the tracks and signals and their colleagues who run the trains over them.  The track workers aren’t given enough time to do their job.  To paraphrase Lincoln:  “A house (or railroad) divided cannot stand”.
TOOLS:        Compared to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology.  Track inspection reports are still done on paper.  We don’t have state-of-the-art track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems.  Much of the maintenance work is done manually instead of using machines.
TIDYNESS:   The panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the tracks to prevent tripping hazards.
TOP-DOWN:           Did they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)”?
TIME:           The Panel suggests MTA re-open union contracts to do track and signal maintenance work over-night when there’s lots of time and fewer trains.  (Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone 50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every night).
TRANSPARENCY:            After years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety.  The Panel also suggests increased “customer engagement” on this topic with town halls, media opp’s and direct customer communications.

So, kudos to the Panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard work.  Now it’s up to the MTA and Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains on-time and safe.

August 18, 2014

Why Another Fare Hike Is Inevitable

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are we will see another fare hike on Metro-North in the coming months.
Not that any elected official would endorse such a plan (at least not before the November elections), but once again Connecticut is not totally in control of its financial destiny when it comes to our trains.
True, fare increases in Connecticut must be initiated by the state regardless of what NY does to its riders, but the financial numbers speak for themselves.
We are tied to NY’s operations by an antiquated contract going back 30 years.  The cost of running “our” trains is born by both CT and NY, and those costs are soaring from $70 million a year to $110 million thanks to remedial track work and expected contract settlements (with four years of retroactive pay hikes).
How will Connecticut make up this $40 million deficit?  There are only three choices:  raise fares, cut service or find that money elsewhere.  The latter two choices are either undesirable or impossible, leaving the prospect (necessity?) of fare increases.
After a year of slower, unreliable and often-disrupted service, it’s hard to explain to commuters they should be paying more… especially in an election year.  So when the rumored necessity of a fare hike was floated last week, Governor Malloy expressed outrage and bewilderment.
But our governor and his Dept of Transportation knew darn well this was coming.  They’re the ones who pushed Metro-North for badly needed track work after derailments and deaths.  Who did they think would pay for that?  And one wonders… does CDOT ever audit Metro-North’s ever-increasing budgets and bills to our state?
Fares in Connecticut are already the highest in the US because our subsidy of those fares is the lowest.  Upstate lawmakers who dominate our legislature loathe the idea of subsidizing fat-cat investment bankers’ trips to their high-paying jobs in New York City.  But they have no trouble taxing their incomes, do they?
Fairfield County residents represent 26% of our state’s population but pay 40% of its taxes.  Legislators made us subsidize Adriaen’s Landing ($770 million) in Hartford and the UConn football stadium ($90+ million), neither of which we are ever likely to use. So why can’t they keep residing in Fairfield County affordable by keeping Metro-North safe, on-time and affordable.
Since 2012 we’ve already had 12% fare hikes, thanks in part to Governor Malloy using rail fares to balance his budget (a move I called that more of a tax on commuters than anything else.)
The good news is that a fare increase in Connecticut requires 90 days notice and public hearings.  And with the November elections just weeks away, no right minded politician will pull that trigger.

Mind you, it was now-GOP nominee Tom Foley who recently told reporters he thought we in Connecticut spend too much subsidizing mass transit, so who knows?  It should be an interesting campaign season and my hope is that Metro-North will be a much debated topic.

August 02, 2014

To Vermont By Train

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.
From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much better and about $150 each way. But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.
There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:
THE VERMONTER:          Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT, coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.
It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer MA will be eliminated this fall with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.
The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy. There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great… and there’s even free wifi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.
Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.
THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:            If you’re heading to Rutland VT, this is your train. Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.  
Best strategy here is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.
Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free wifi.
THE ADIRONDACK:         This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close… if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 am, you detrain at Port Kent NY on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:30 pm, walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.
The Ferry takes 1 hr to cross.
Same kind of seating, wifi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?  
In the Fall, The Adirondack often adds a dome car.
Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $55 one-way ($47 for seniors and kids are half-price).  

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak… the “green” way to travel.

July 20, 2014

We're Already Paying Tolls

Did it come to anyone’s surprise that Connecticut roads were recently named “worst” in the US in a White House study conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers?  They told us what we already know:  41% of Connecticut’s 21,000 miles of highways are in “poor” condition and 30% of our 4200 bridges are “structurally deficient”.
This comes as Congress could only come up with a short-term patch for the gaping pothole known as the Highway Trust Fund after Republicans rejected the President’s plan for a four-year $302 billion transportation plan financed by a gasoline tax and elimination of corporate tax breaks.
But kudos to our US Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) for having the political guts to call for a gas tax increase to make up for dwindling revenue as Americans drive more fuel efficient cars.  It’s nice to find a politician who will do the right thing, even if it’s politically risky.
On the other hand we have our Governor, Dannel Malloy, whose aspirations for re-election have him favoring political pandering instead of public policy.
Consider the recent visit to Hartford by US Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox in early July when Foxx was seeking support for the President’s transportation plan. At a press conference, the Governor joined the assembled Congressional delegation (all Democrats) and was quick to beat up on the Republicans for stalling progress.  But when a reporter asked about having Connecticut help pay its own way with highway tolls, the Governor reacted as if he’d found a turd in the punchbowl.
“We are a non-toll state,” he insisted. “They (tolls) are not actively in consideration.”  Oh, really?
Does the Governor not know that his own Dept of Transportation just held two major seminars as part of a study on managing traffic congestion by using tolls?  The panels in Bridgeport and Hartford brought in traffic experts from Miami, San Diego and Seattle to sing the praises of “value pricing” our highways.
Why another study on highway congestion problem that’ve been plaguing us for decades?  Because it’s always easier to “study” a problem than actually do something about the problem.
Make no mistake: our CDOT is starting a PR blitz to sell motorists on tolls while politicians won’t touch the issue.  Nobody running for state office this year has the guts to tell voters that tolls are necessary and will be implemented as gas tax revenues fail to pay for needed road repairs.
But aren’t we already paying tolls?  Not with EZ-Pass, but in car repairs. 
That’s why I loved the June cartoon by Connecticut’s own Matt Davies entitled “The Road More Traveled”.  It shows a jalopy bouncing along a pot-hole covered highway as the driver spies a sign reading “Connecticut Tolls in Effect:  Blown tire $200, Bent Rim $399, Damaged Suspension $200 to $2000.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no “free lunch” and there is no free ride.  Maintaining our highways is expensive and those costs should be borne by those who drive on them.

Can’t we find a politician honest enough to tell us that truth this election year?

July 07, 2014

Is It Safe To Ride Metro-North?

It has been seven months since a drowsy engineer drove a speeding Metro-North train off the tracks at Spuyten Duyvil, killing four and injuring 59.  Months earlier a derailment and collision near Bridgeport sent 70 to the hospital.
Ever since, the railroad has promised that improving safety is its top priority.  So does that mean the railroad is now “safe”?
Aside from taking the word of management, how are we to know?  Just because we haven’t had another accident doesn’t mean the railroad is safe.  Nobody suspected it was unsafe until those two accidents last year showed us just how dangerous our daily commute had become.
In April this year The Commuter Action Group surveyed 642 commuters and asked them “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” and 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they “weren’t sure”.
Neither am I, but I ride those trains regularly, hoping for the best.  And so far, so good.  I take the railroad at its word when it says safety is its top priority, but I have no way of telling it that’s true.  As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Waiting on a station platform, how can the average commuter look at the tracks, the overhead wires or signals and know that Metro-North is safe?  We can’t even see the engineers because they hide in their control booth behind jerry-rigged cardboard curtains ‘lest riders should watch them at work.
Here’s what we do know.  The trains are running slower (on-time performance was only 79% in May).  And last week we also learned that an entire class of conductor trainees had been dismissed because they were caught cheating on a safety exam.  Good for the MTA for catching and disciplining them.  But the worry is this kind of cheating has been going on for years.  Reassuring?
The only way to be sure that Metro-North is safe is better federal oversight by the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration.  That agency still hasn’t issued its final report on the May 2013 derailment… and only fined the railroad $5000 following a Metro-North trainee’s mistake, which killed one of their own track foremen.  As US Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, “The watchdogs were asleep.  The FRA has been lax and sluggish.”
That’s why commuters should be reassured that Senator Blumenthal will soon introduce a bill to give the FRA some real teeth:  increasing civil penalties for railroad mistakes, strengthening railroad oversight, mandating new safety gear, introduction of a fatigue management plan for personnel, requiring anonymous reporting systems for whistle-blowers, installation of cameras, alerters and redundant safety systems for track workers.   (Click here to see video of Blumenthal's announcement).
Further, the bill would also require stronger safety standards for crude oil rail-tankers, the “pipelines on wheels” carrying crude oil and petroleum products on US railroads.

The only thing missing?  Mandatory transparency.  I’d hope that the FRA would be required to explain its oversight and reassure all railroad riders of their safety in a simple, understandable manner.  That would make me feel safe.

June 22, 2014

A Railroad That Turns Heads and Makes a Profit

Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me… “Why doesn’t a private company take over Metro-North and run it properly?” 
The reason all US railroads got out of the passenger business is there was no profit to be made.  Even with the highest rail fares of any commuter railroad in the US, Metro-North’s tickets still cover less than 75% of their actual operating costs… and that’s not counting the billions in capital spending needed to keep the rails, bridges and signal system running.
But earlier this summer I rode a profitable, privately owned passenger train.  It only runs 45 miles but commands $85 - $175 per ticket (round-trip)(.  It’s been running for over 130 years and carries over 160,000 very happy passengers a year.
It’s Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, one of the most spectacular railroads in the world.          

“People will pay a fair price to see history,” says owner Al Harper who, along with his wife and three sons, is hands-on in running this National Historic Landmark every day.  His passengers come from around the world to the tiny town of Durango, just to take this ride.
The D&SNGR runs 3-4 steam power trains up the mountain to the tiny town of Silverton (with only one paved street) using restored passenger cars kept painstakingly in working order by dedicated craftsmen.
Unlike depressing historic rail lines in the east, which run a few cars two miles down a track then return, this is a fully working railroad with a paid, year round staff of 75 that, in the summers, swells to 200, many of them volunteers.  Damn, I would pay them to volunteer on this railroad!  And some folks do.
For $1000 (one-way), you can ride in the cab of their old steam locomotives wearing authentic overalls and cap and catch the bus or passenger coach back.  You can even help them shovel coal into the boiler.  

For $134 (round-trip) you can ride in the Deluxe Rio-Grande  open gondola car, or for a bit more, enjoy the 3 ½ hour ride sipping wine in a restored 1880 first class car.
While many who ride this line are railfans (“foamers”, as they are pejoratively called by most railroad folks, because they foam at the mouth when they see a train), history buffs or western fanatics, the D&SNGR’s owners know they have to grow their audience, so they offer discounts for kids and many other specialty excursions:  Brews and Blues, a Cowboy Poet excursion and many seasonal trips. But no, they have no plans for “Reefer and Rails” despite the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. (Durango has yet to authorize retail sales of pot.)
They are clever marketers, packaging the train ride with horseback riding, ATV’s, camping and other activities.  And, importantly, they have the support of their community which recognizes how much this little railroad means to the economy.  In 2001it was calculated that the railroad brought $100 million a year to Durango in business… hotels, meals, shopping… not to mention those employed by the railroad.
Imagine that:  a railroad that people will travel thousands of miles to ride, are willing to pay high fares because they get an amazing experience, owned by people making a good return but reinvesting for future generations of customers, while keeping the local economy thriving.

Yes, you can run a great railroad that people love and turn a profit!



June 08, 2014

The Billion Dollar Bridges

Twice in recent days, all Metro-North (and Amtrak) train service was disrupted for three hours in peak travel times because of one broken bridge: the 118-year-old Norwalk River Bridge in the city of the same name. 

Because this swing-bridge is so old and in such bad shape, it wouldn’t close, severing all train service and forcing replacement bus shuttles incapable of handling the crowds.  These are but the most recent problems on this bridge, and they won’t be the last.
Governor Malloy says this is “outrageous” and is calling for a sit-down with Metro-North. (Wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall at that bully-session?)
What the Governor doesn’t admit is that Connecticut is responsible for that bridge, not the railroad.  Any reasonable civil engineer (and CDOT has many) would have replaced that bridge decades ago.
Instead, in the last two years alone, Governor Malloy (like Rowland and Rell before him) diverted millions in Special Transportation Fund monies into balancing his budget instead of replacing or repairing old bridges.  It is disingenuous for the Governor to express outrage at and blame others for a problem he exacerbated, but hey… that’s politics.  Blame everyone but yourself.
Instead, the Governor is asking Uncle Sam to use Super Storm Sandy money to pay 75% of the expected $465 million in replacement cost of that bridge, a six-year construction project.
But the old bridge will still be in use until at least 2018 and, doubtless, will fail again.  Each time it won’t close, rail service will halt.
Why not keep the bridge closed?  Too logical.  The handful of boats that use that river have historic and legal right-of-way over the 120,000 daily rail riders.  And that includes heating-oil-carrying barges, not just pleasure craft.
But this is but one of five railroad bridges in need of replacement.  The highly respected Regional Plan Association’s recent report said it will cost $2.8 billion to replace those five crossings, four of them in Connecticut, built in 1904.
Who’s going to pay all that money?  You guessed it, Connecticut taxpayers!  Why, because we delayed this work for so many decades and, more importantly, because our state owns the tracks, the bridges, the power lines and signals.  Remember, Metro-North owns nothing in Connecticut.
Back in 1970 when New Haven RR parent Penn Central went bankrupt and Conrail then got out of the commuter rail business, the MTA and Metro-North were born.  Both NY and Connecticut agreed they would own the tracks in their respective states while Amtrak went on to own the rest of the Northeast Corridor. Ownership has its privileges and obligations (costs).

So here’s a modest proposal:  why doesn’t Connecticut sell the New Haven mainline to Amtrak / Uncle Sam / “The Feds” for $1 and let them be responsible for fixing those bridges?  Remember… Amtrak trains run on those tracks as well as Metro-North.  This railroad is a national resource worthy of federal spending.

May 12, 2014

America's Interstate Highways

The 47,000 miles of highways that comprise America’s interstate highway system are nothing short of an engineering marvel, surpassed only by what China has built in the last few years.

We take them for granted, but when they were designed almost sixty years ago these super-highways presented both great opportunity and vast challenges.  The US wasn’t the first with super-highways. Those bragging rights go to the Germans, whose Reichsautobahn saw cars zooming along at 100+ mph in the 1930’s.

Most credit President Eisenhower, whose troops rode the Autobahn in WWII, for seeing the military value of an American equivalent, though engineering such a complex across the US was far more difficult.

Of course by 1940 the US already had the Pennsylvania Turnpike and by 1954 the NY State Thruway, but private toll roads were just the beginning.

To build a road expected to last, in 1955 the federal government, AAA and automakers first built a $27 million seven mile test road near Ottawa, Illinois.  Half was concrete, the other half asphalt.  The 836 separate sections of highway had various sub-surfaces and 16 bridges.  For two years army trucks drove night and day, seeing which road designs would hold up.

Weather and traffic dictated different designs:  in desert areas the highways need be only a foot thick, while in Maine the tough winter and freeze-thaw cycles required that I-95 would be five feet thick.

Construction of the highways required moving 42 billion cubic feet of soil.  To expedite construction of I-40 in California, there was even a plan to use nuclear bombs to vaporize part of the Bristol Mountain range. 

As author Dan McNichol writes in his excellent book “The Roads that Built America”, “VIP seating was even planned for the event.  The (nuclear) bombing was to produce a cloud 12,000 feet high and a radioactive blast 133 times that of Hiroshima.”  Needless to say, the mountains were moved using more conventional explosives.

Outside of Greenbelt MD another site tested the design of road signs… white lettering on a black background, white on blue (already adopted by the NY Thruway) or, what proved to be the winning model, white on green.

Just 5200 of the original 41,000 miles of Interstates were to be built in urban areas, but those few miles accounted for almost half of the $425 billion total cost.  By 1992 the system was deemed “completed”.  Bragging rights for the longest of the interstates goes to I-90 running 3020 miles from Boston to Seattle and own beloved I-95, which runs 1920 miles from the Canadian border to Miami FL.


As anyone who drives on I-95 in Connecticut knows, the interstates have far surpassed their expected traffic load and are in need of billions of repairs.  Little did we know 60 years ago what our automotive future might bring.

April 28, 2014

Yes, Things Are Getting Better on Metro-North

I know it may be hard to believe, but I think things are getting better on Metro-North.

Last week I finally met Joseph Giulietti, the new President of Metro-North.  I found him to be very smart, quite candid and equipped with a reasonable plan to bring this railroad back to its once-deserved world-class status.

On May 11th a new timetable will become effective, aimed at achieving two goals:  safety and reliability. The timetable will mean running trains on-time but still allowing for track and catenary work to keep the railroad in a state of good repair.

At a Commuter Forum in Westport, Giulietti was the first to admit that the railroad was in bad shape, that trains are running slower and later, often with standees.  But unlike GM’s Chairman explaining delays in safety recalls and blaming it on “the old GM”, Giulietti is taking ownership of the problems. That’s refreshing.

Yes, trains are not on time (just 76% in February), but that’s because after the last May’s Bridgeport derailment the FRA issued speed restrictions on bridges and curves.  The current timetable is, as one commuter put it in our recent survey, “more of a suggestion” than anything else.

So for the past months the railroad has been analyzing the entire timetable, looking at the reasons for every late train and being open to revising everything.  The new timetable will rationalize the current running times, adding 2-4 minutes for trains between New Haven and Stamford, but cutting 2-4 minutes for runs from Stamford to GCT.

That means that your 7:35 am train to work, usually arriving this winter at 7:40 or 7:45, may be rescheduled to arrive at 7:40 and, probably, will.  This means you can plan your life with reliability and not be wasting time on the platform peering down the track.

The problem of standees on trains will hopefully lessen when people return to a routine commuting cycle and extra railcars will be provided on trains where ridership shows the demand for more seats.

The good news is that with increased reliability, we may also see greater frequency of service… 4 trains an hour in AM peak instead of 3, trains every half-hour off peak.  Yes, the run may take a bit longer but you’ll have more options, always knowing the scheduled departure and arrival times will be achieved.

But is the railroad safe?  Yes, insist both Giulietti and CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker.  But so too was airline safety / security after 9-11.  And our bridges became safer after the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge 30 years ago.  Even in the “land of steady habits” we hopefully learn from our mistakes.


We’re now about half-way through Mr. Giulietti’s 100 day plan to get Metro-North back on track.  I, for one, am hopeful he will achieve his goals.  But on day 100, June 11th, I’ll be checking the scorecard and seeing what he’s achieved versus what was promised.

April 14, 2014

A Report Card for Metro-North

If Metro-North was a student and commuters were its teacher, the railroad’s winter report card would be a D+ and the comment would be “needs to improve”.

As new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti finishes his second month on the job, he’s making the rounds to meet and listen to commuters.  But his 100-Day Plan for bringing the railroad back won’t conclude until mid-June, so I thought that now would be a great time to survey riders and get a baseline of their sentiments against which we can measure any gains in the months ahead.

Our unscientific online survey ran for seven days and got 642 responses.  Clearly, those who wanted to opine were probably those with gripes, so take the results with a grain of salt.

Asked to give Metro-North a letter grade based on the past months’ performance, the railroad got an average D+.

Asked if service was getting better, 22% said yes, 31% said it was getting worse and 47% said it was “about the same”.

When asked what their biggest complaints were (respondents could list multiple issues),  88% said it was late or delayed trains, 60% said poor communications when things went wrong, and 59% said it was lack of sufficient seating on trains. Another 30% complained about the train cars’ heating / cooling system (or lack thereof), while others (18%) said there was insufficient station parking and 15% said the stations had poor upkeep.

The survey also asked how commuters reported their gripes.  10% said they never had complaints, 46% said they didn’t complain “because it seemed useless” but 61% said they did complain to conductors or to Metro-North.  Of those who did complained almost half of respondents (45%) said their problem was never fixed.

We also asked who commuters thought was to blame for the railroad’s problems.  An overwhelming 90% blamed Metro-North management, 48% said they were due to the Dept of Transportation, 35% said it was their state legislature’s fault, 28% said it was because of Metro-North employees, 12% blamed the Federal government, and 9% blamed their fellow commuters.

Our last question was most telling:  “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they weren’t sure.

We designed the survey to be brief, taking maybe two minutes to answer.  But we also gave space for commuters to comment, and 267 of them did, some at great length.  Here’s a sampling of their opinions:

Sorry to be so harsh...It is 2014, pseudo-modern, wealthy society and the most laughable public transportation system in any advanced country and metropolitan area.

This service is really shameful for the amount we pay. I've not been on a train in the last six months that arrived on time.

When I moved here 10 years ago you could set your watch by Metro-North.  Now the timetable is just a suggestion.

The Danbury line is the orphaned stepchild of the system.

The lack of self control of "irate" commuters does not help the situation.  Makes us look bad.


The full results of the survey and all of the comments are available online via links from our website, www.CommuterActionGroup.org

April 01, 2014

Eight Things You Don't Know About Flying

We may never know what happened to that Malaysia Airlines 777, but there’s plenty more we should know about flying, even domestically.  Here are some little-known truths of aviation as shared by pilots and flight attendants:

Lavatory Doors Don’t Really Lock:      They can be opened from the outside by just sliding the “occupied” sign to one side.  This isn’t so attendants can catch “mile high club” wannabies, but so they can be sure the lavs are empty on take-off and landing.  And those ashtrays in the lavs?  Even though smoking has been banned for decades, the FAA still requires them. 

Oxygen Masks Can Save Your Life:     But only if you get them on fast!  In a rapid decompression at 35,000 feet, the oxygen is sucked from your lungs and you have 15 – 30 seconds to get that mask on or die.  And the on-board oxygen is only good for 15 minutes, so expect an express ride down to safer altitudes.

Airlines Are Suffering from a Pilot Shortage:          New regulations for increased rest time and more experience aviators are making it tough for airlines to keep their cockpits filled.  Boeing alone estimates that aviation growth worldwide will create demand for a half-million new pilots.  And just like Metro-North, airlines are now losing their most experienced crews to retirement.

Your Pilot May Be Asleep:         Actually, that’s a good thing during most of the flight, which can be pretty boring as the auto-pilot runs the plane.  And a good nap should make your pilot refreshed for landing.  But the FAA is also proposing to test ‘heavy’ pilots for potential sleep disorders so they don’t nod off at a crucial moment.

Keep Your Seatbelt On:             Otherwise, unexpected turbulence will see you bounce off the luggage racks like a ping-pong ball.  In an incident like that the hysterical screaming is bad enough, so stay belted.

Flight Attendants Aren’t In It for the Glamour:        They don’t get paid when they arrive at the airport or when they greet you boarding the plane.  For most, their pay starts ticking only at take-off.  They travel for a living and have to endure endless abuse for things that are not their fault.  For all that, median salary for flight attendants is about $37,000.  Food stamps they have to apply for separately.

Planes Are Germ Factories:       Most older jets recycle cabin air to conserve fuel, so if one passenger sneezes, everyone’s susceptible to a cold.  The air is also dry and the blankets and pillows (if you get them) haven’t been cleaned since the previous use.  The same is true of the headphones they pass out.  And your seatback tray table?  Just imagine whose baby diaper was seated there where you lay out your in-flight snack.  Moral to the story:  BYO sanitizer!

Don’t Drink the Water:     Unless it comes from a bottle, water on planes comes from onboard tanks that are rarely cleaned.  At least when they use it to make coffee it’s heated.  Again, BYO.

Overall, based on passenger miles, flying is the safest form of transportation in the world.  But it’s not without its risks, some of which you can help minimize using common sense.


March 17, 2014

The FRA's 'Deep Dive' into Metro-North

It was worse than we’d ever known.  Metro-North was almost an accident waiting to happen.

That summarizes the Federal Railway Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” report issued last week, following 60 days of probing into every aspect of the railroad’s operations.  All of this comes on the heels of collisions and derailments in the past year that have taken the lives of four commuters and two railroad workers.

The 28-page report confirms that what was wrong at Metro-North was not just old equipment but a failure of management with very misplaced priorities.  “On-time performance” was what mattered most, even at the expense of safety.

Among the report’s findings…

·       Half of the personnel who dispatch and monitor the trains have less than three years’ experience, are not properly trained and are so tired they make mistakes

·       The railroad’s “safety culture” was “poor”.  Safety meetings went unattended.

·       Fatigue by train engineers, track workers and dispatchers may have affected performance.

·       The trains themselves are in good shape, but the tracks are not.

I’ve been following Metro-North for more than 20 years, so much of this is not news to me but just a substantiation of my worst fears.  Still, the report makes for interesting reading because it cites many examples as proof-points for these findings:

Metro-North has known for a decade that they were facing a “retirement cliff” with 20% of its employees, those with the most experience, reaching their 30th anniversary of employment to retire on fat pensions.  But the railroad was clearly inadequate in hiring and training their replacements.

Fatigue becomes a factor because soon-to-retire veterans grab all the overtime they can in their final year to increase their income and their railroad pensions.  They are among the oldest employees and least resilient.

Metro-North’s management wasn’t even enforcing its own rules.  The report says employees were “confused” about cell phone use on the job.  Any teenager studying for his driver’s license knows not to use a cell phone while driving, but track workers at Metro-North got away with it.

Additional funding for staff and infrastructure are important and must be found. But turning around a culture of lax enforcement and lip-service to safety is going to take more than money.

Only a month on the job, espousing “safety is our top priority” at every turn, the new President of Metro-North, Joseph Giulietti, recently saw the first fatal accident on his watch:  a track worker, 8 years on the job, was struck by a train just outside the Park Avenue tunnel.  Why?


There are no quick fixes to this mess.  It took years of invisible neglect for Metro-North to slide into this abyss, and it will take years to rebuild the railroad and regain riders’ trust.

March 01, 2014

Metro-North Tarnishes the Gold Coast

Even if you never ride Metro-North, the railroad’s current problems are hitting your pocketbook.  This “winter of discontent” shows signs of becoming a chronic problem, bleeding our state’s resources, human and monetary.  Here’s why.
At the “Commuter Speakout” in mid-February in Southport, almost 200 angry riders turned out to confront CDOT and Metro-North officials, sharing their horror stories of longer rides, unheated railcars and stranded trains.  But they did more than complain… they threatened to move away.
Several real estate agents told the crowd they had lost closings when folks moving up from NYC got wind of the Metro-North problems.  Others already living in Connecticut said they were moving closer to their Manhattan jobs, to towns with dependable, cheaper mass transit. 
If people move out of CT, they take with them their taxes, both local (property) and state (sales and income).  Reduced demand for real estate lowers property values.  Your town’s grand list shrinks and taxes must rise to fill the gap, creating a vicious cycle.  The “gold coast” is losing its luster.
But surely this will all be fixed, right?  By the spring house hunters will be back, fueling the recovery.  Maybe not, because Metro-North’s new President isn’t making promises for a speedy turnaround.
Consider this:  many people chose where to live based on travel-time to work.  A one-hour commuting time from mid-town Manhattan used to include portions of Connecticut all the way from Greenwich, through Stamford, Darien and Norwalk.  Not anymore.
Trains are running slower since last spring’s derailment… much slower.  In the 1950’s the New Haven Railroad ran express from Stamford to GCT in 47 minutes. By 2000 Metro-North had increased speeds so the run could be done in 46 minutes, making Stamford a desirable bedroom community.  Today, in the cause of safety, Stamford to GCT takes 63 minutes.
Metro-North’s new President Joseph Giulietti told lawmakers in Hartford that running speeds will not increase in the coming years, and possibly never.  The Federal Railroad Administration has placed so many speed limits on the New Haven line, what used to be a one hour 47 min run from New Haven to GCT now takes two hours and four minutes, 17 minutes longer.  With a typical five working day roundtrip schedule, that’s almost three hours a week in extra commuting time on top of the 17+ hours already spent on the train!
Nobody wants to compromise safety for speed, but neither do commuters want to pay the highest fares in the country for unreliable, slower service.
Who’s to blame?  Governor Rowland who ignored investing in rail when there was still time to fix it, and Governors Rell and Malloy who treat the Special Transportation Fund like a petty cash drawer to pay for everything but rail.  Most of all, our legislature bears the blame for ignoring transportation funding for decades.

Doesn’t it seem hypocritical for Governor Malloy and our State Legislature to be so “angry”, confused and “appalled” with the state of Metro-North today when it was their spending, or lack thereof, that got us in this mess?

February 03, 2014

The Commuter Action Group is Born

Now is the winter of our discontent.  I’ve been riding Metro-North for almost 25 years and I’ve never seen the railroad in such bad shape.

Trains are consistently late without explanation. Some cars have no heat. A couple of trains were stranded for 2+ hours when wires were pulled down. And on one recent evening, the entire railroad ground to a halt because some tech pulled the plug on a vital computer at HQ.

Our crumbling rail infrastructure is compounded by inexcusable human errors by the people hired to run our trains.
And now we hear that some of our new M8 cars are also in the shop, ingesting snow that burns out their electronics, just like the older cars they replaced.  That means trains are short of cars and it’s standing room only on many rush hour trains.

What’s a commuter to do?  Why, turn on their smartphone and use the power of the web to complain!

That’s the idea behind The Commuter Action Group, launched in late January, the fruits of my advocacy labors for several months since leaving the Commuter Council.

Our website (www.CommuterActionGroup.org) allows commuters to immediately report problems to Metro-North, giving them needed details about where, when, what car number, etc.  They can even take a picture and send it.
Step two is to copy that complaint and send it to your State Representative, State Senator, Congressman and US Senators.  They represent you and need to know how bad things are on the railroad and how you will hold them accountable for getting things fixed.  We will “remember in November” who helped us and who didn’t.

Step three is to use our Twitter feed (@CTRailCommuters) and Facebook page to discuss what’s wrong, share ideas, ask questions and get answers. As one rider posted… “it’s like a virtual support group”.

The response from commuters has been amazing and I clearly think lawmakers, both in Connecticut and NY State) are getting the message that their constituents are angry.  But we need more than press conferences and lip service:   legislators need to pressure CDOT to hold Metro-North accountable.

As part of our launch of The Commuter Action Group, we also issued a “Commuter Manifesto”, listing a few simple expectations (not demands) that riders have as Metro-North customers paying the highest rail fares in the US…
Safety… Fast, Accurate and Honest Communications… Responsive Customer Service… Open and Transparent Operations… and Leadership that Listens.  The Commuter Manifesto now hangs in most station waiting rooms as we await a response.

A new President arrives next week at Metro-North, Joe Giulietti.  By all reports he’s smart, respected and a good communicator.  Whatever his skills, they’ll certainly be put to the test in the coming weeks.
We wish him success and pledge our cooperation.  As we wrote in our Commuter Manifesto, “We will listen to you if you will listen to us: we’re in this together”.



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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv