December 11, 2013
November 25, 2013
After 19 years, I have resigned from the CT Commuter Rail Council. But I can promise you I am not quitting my advocacy for my fellow commuters or the writing of this column. And I have an even better idea of how commuters can be heard.
The old Commuter Council accomplished many things since its founding in 1985, including the ordering of the new M8 cars. The Council also fought for Quiet Cars, the Passenger Bill of Rights, expanded parking at rail stations, changes in the expiration date on tickets and ticket refunds when service was cancelled.
On an annual basis I would testify in Hartford for better rail service at affordable fares, and while lawmakers would nod in agreement, little changed. The tensions between upstate legislators and those from downstate, where rail service is a crucial utility, have always stymied investment in our rails.
And on visiting the capitol I was always struck by the fact that the corridors there are filled with paid lobbyists, arm-twisting on behalf of truckers, for building more highways or opposing tolls. Yet there was nobody there speaking on behalf of commuters, except me.
The thousands of daily riders of Metro-North in Connecticut are hardly a “special interest group” nor can they afford a full-time lobbyist. But they are taxpayers and voters who can move out of state when conditions make commuting unreliable or unsafe.
Metro-North is facing big problems. Despite new cars, service is slower than it has been in years and we haven’t even faced winter with its usual cancellations and service outages. Trains run late, are still over-crowded, and communications with riders is inconsistent and unreliable.
So why did I resign from the Commuter Council now? Because the railroad and CDOT, which hires Metro-North to run our trains, aren’t listening - let alone communicating with customers.
Review the old minutes and annual reports from Commuter Council over the past decade and you’ll see that nothing has changed. The complaints are the same, but the lip-service from Metro-North and CDOT is always a consistent “we’ll get back to you”, though they never do. Commuter complaints fall into some black hole at MTA headquarters.
If Metro-North were a private, for-profit business there would have been massive changes in management after the debacles of deferred maintenance leading to last May’s derailment / collision and the Con Ed meltdown. But Metro-North is a monopoly in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation with the CDOT. The little that is communicated to riders lacks candor and transparency.
What we need to do is give greater voice to commuters’ anger. We need a “Commuters Action Group” that can directly connect commuters with lawmakers, the railroad and the CDOT, showing them the true level of frustration of daily riders. That’s what I hope to build and if you’re interested in helping, please e-mail me (Jim@MediaTrainer.TV) and add your Comments below.
We deserve a world-class railroad and together we can still make it happen.
November 08, 2013
No, it’s not your imagination. Service is getting even worse on Metro-North. And there’s no sign of short-term improvements.
This has been a terrible year for Metro-North and its 120,000 daily riders in Connecticut: the May derailment / collision, the death of a track worker and the September “meltdown” because of a failed Con Ed feeder. But the repercussions of these problems still affect us, months later.
Trains are late on a daily basis, even after the railroad adjusted the timetable in August to reflect longer running times. What used to be a 48 minute ride from Stamford to GCT is now scheduled for 55 to 60 minutes. But in reality, with delays, it takes more than an hour most days.
Why? Because of “slow orders”.
After the May derailments, Metro-North brought in some high-tech rail scanning equipment and checked out every inch of track in the system. Of immediate concern were the below-grade tracks in the Bronx, long subject to flooding.
Concrete ties installed between 1990 and ’96 needed to be replaced due to deterioration. Ties and fencing were also replaced in a job so large that, at times, three of the four tracks were taken out of service.
Admittedly, it’s hard to run the busiest commuter railroad in the US with 75% of your tracks out of service, but the work was necessary and commuters were asked to be patient. At last report, the Bronx work was 80% completed.
So that means train schedules will soon return to “normal”? Sorry, but no.
It turns out that the Bronx is just one of the causes of the current delays, something Metro-North didn’t tell us.
With new timetables coming out on November 17th, some train runs may be improved by a minute (yes, 60 seconds), at best. It seems that all those high-tech track inspections since May turned up many spots where work is needed. And until that work can be completed, the trains running over those tracks are operating under system-wide “slow orders”, in effect cutting their speeds from 85 or 90 mph to an average of 60 mph. Don’t believe me? Fire up your smart phone’s GPS next ride and see for yourself.
The railroad still blames daily delays on the work in the Bronx and wet leaves, but the truth is far worse. At recent NTSB hearings on the May derailment, Metro-North admitted they are far behind on track maintenance, inspections and repairs in Connecticut but couldn’t explain why. Until the tracks are fixed, trains won’t be allowed to run at full speed.
One thing they did acknowledge to investigators is that they don’t have the experienced staff to do the needed welding and repair work, having lost so many veteran workers in recent months to retirement.
The slow orders make sense. Safety should always come first. But why can’t railroad executives be honest with us about why we are suffering with these delays, how long they will last and what they are doing to minimize the disruption to our daily commutes? Remember: winter is coming, adding another layer of misery and delays to our commutes.
Sadly, my mantra from five years ago has proven correct: Things are going to get a lot worse on Metro-North before they get better.
October 12, 2013
During the recent Metro-North meltdown, at least one coastal community (Darien) thought about using ferry boats to get commuters to NYC. Interesting idea in a crisis, but let me debunk the popular myth that the solution to our transportation woes can be found on Long Island Sound.
Ferry boats face several challenges:
SPEED: In open water, fast ferries on the Sound could make 30 knots (35 mph). But if they must sail up inlets to the downtown areas of Bridgeport, Norwalk or Stamford, that speed is cut to 5 knots, adding to travel time.
DOCKING: To keep to their competitive speeds, docks would have to be located close to the Sound. That’s expensive real estate. And what about parking at those docks… and travel time on local roads to reach them? Again, more travel time.
FREQUENCY: Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour carrying 800 – 1000 passengers per train. No ferry service anywhere in the country can compete with that frequency of service. Will travelers really be willing to wait an hour or two for the next boat?
COMFORT: In nice weather, a boat ride to work sounds idyllic. But what about in a Nor’easter? The bumpiest ride on the train pales by comparison.
FARES: The most optimistic of would-be ferry operators estimate their fares will be at least double those charged on the train. And people say Metro-North is too expensive?
OPERATING COSTS: One of the reasons fares would be so high is that fast ferries are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde. When the Pequot Indians built high speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino in Connecticut to lose money, the service proved so expensive that the Pequot’s dry-docked the ferries in New London.
COMPETITION: When private operators ran ferry service from Glen Cove Long Island and from Yonkers to midtown NY, paralleling routes well served by the LIRR and Metro-North, they shut down after just a few months because they couldn’t compete with the trains. Coastal Connecticut already has (usually) fast, efficient rail service, so why duplicate what already works?
ECONOMICS: The final reason I don’t think ferries make economic sense is that nobody else does. Ferry operators (like the near-bankrupt NY Waterways) aren’t stupid. They’ve looked at possible service from coastal Connecticut, crunched the numbers and backed off. In a free market economy, if a buck could be made running ferries, they’d be operating by now. They aren’t operating, and there are lots of reasons why, many of which I’ve listed.
The only place ferries are running successfully is where they’re heavily subsidized (everywhere), have a monopoly (for example, getting to downtown Seattle from an island suburb), don’t duplicate existing transportation routes (like from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson), or offer advantages of speed because they operate on extremely short runs (from Hoboken to midtown). Our situation here in Connecticut matches none of those tests.
You already know I’m a train nut. (The bumper sticker on my car reads “I’d Rather Be on the Train.”). And I do love an occasional recreational sail on the Sound. But I just think it’s unrealistic to think that commutation by ferries is in our future.
September 30, 2013
First of all, despite what some commuters may recently be thinking, the folks who manage and operate Metro-North are not stupid. Inconsiderate and uncommunicative sometimes, but not stupid.
Metro-North managers and employees are railroad professionals, justifiably proud of the 96+% on-time performance they achieve on one of the busiest commuter line in the US. They want to run a world class railroad. But they can only achieve as much as the states of NY and Connecticut fund them to do.
In recent years our legislature gave MNRR $1+ billion to buy badly needed new railcars, a very visible manifestation to commuters that the state was investing in the railroad. But sufficient funding for inspection and repair of the tracks, the catenary and our 100- year-old bridges is still lacking.
New cars are sexy. Giving them safe tracks to run on and wires to power them, not so sexy.
What happened when Con Ed’s back-up feeder cable failed at 5:30 am on Wednesday Sept 25th was not an act of God, but human error. The two agencies knew the main power cable was going to be out of service and calculated, very wrongly, that the single back-up cable would be sufficient.
This raises a number of questions: Did Con Ed monitor that back-up cable for signs it might fail? Was it wise to save $1 million by not constructing a back-up for the back-up? Does Homeland Security know or care that the entire Metro-North and Amtrak Northeast Corridor were depending on this calculation? How many other power sub-stations are in similar danger?
The effects of this outage are many: the inconvenience to 125,000 daily riders, the economic impact on those commuters’businesses, and longer-term, the economic recovery of our state and nation.
Governor Malloy quickly called this outage just the latest black eye for our state in his efforts to attract businesses to set up shop in the Nutmeg State. Even if they can tolerate our high taxes, do relocating CEO’s really want to rely on Metro-North to get their employees to and from work or fight the perpetual rush-hour crawl on I-95?
I fear some individual commuters may be reaching the tipping point. There are plenty of other New York suburbs with good schools and more reliable transportation. If fed-up Connecticut commuters decide to vote with their feet and move to Westchester or Long Island, they will take their taxes with them. Remember that Fairfield County pays 40% of all state taxes in Connecticut, so anything that makes our neighborhoods less attractive, hurts the entire state.
And it hurts our house values too. People live in the towns served by Metro-North because they need to rely on those trains to get to high-paying jobs in NYC. When that trust is broken, those towns and their houses become less attractive.
If housing values sag, town taxes will have to go up. The schools will suffer making our towns even less desirable for those leaving the city for the good life in the ‘burbs.
Reliable train service at an affordable price is what makes Fairfield County thrive. When you begin to doubt the ability of the railroad to keep operating, let alone be on time, it may be time to rethink where you live.
September 19, 2013
I believe passionately in open, transparent government. The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing and comment on it before it’s done, usually by way of mandated public hearings.
So I was thrilled to see that the Government Accounting Office has issued a 56 page report sharply critical of the Port Authority of NY-NJ for raising tolls without public input.
In 2011, the Authority jacked up tolls by 50% on bridges and tunnels three days after a single public hearing, held on a weekday during rush hour. And even at that one hearing, comments were taken without an explanation of the proposal.
It’s as if the Authority went out of its way to avoid criticism, constructive or otherwise. And for that the GAO rightly criticized them.
We’ve seen this same thing happen many times in Connecticut:
· The CDOT plans a rail fare increase, baked into its legislative budget, then holds public hearings. Nothing said at the hearings can affect the decision to boost fares (except possibly to cut train service).
· The state’s Transportation Strategy Board holds a public hearing on a million dollar study of over a dozen different possible scenarios for tolling on I-95, asking for comments but without ever explaining what the study said.
· The state chooses to develop land under the Stamford garage in a secret negotiation with developers without ever seeking input from commuters on what’s planned.
The formula is simple, but backwards. Lawmakers decide what they want to do and then hold a pro forma public hearing to get comments from those who will be affected. Too often the decision has been made and, for political theater, they just go through the motions of asking for comment.
Here’s a novel idea: why not hold a public hearing first, asking constituents, commuters and customers what they think? Explain to them the necessity of a fare hike or development plan and then ask for their reaction.
Decisions by government-run monopolies should be made with input from all the stakeholders, not a handful of bureaucrats. That’s how you build a consensus in a democracy.
But there is good news. Recently in my town of Darien the pattern was broken.
A planned parking rate increase at the town’s two train stations, Darien and Noroton Heights, came up for a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen. A final vote on the plan was on the agenda for the same evening.
But a handful of dismayed commuters who knew no details of the plan (boosting day-parking rates by 66%), turned up at the hearing and protested. They said they had not been warned about the proposal, that commuters had not been told of the public hearing and they had a slew of complaints and concerns about other aspects of the parking lots and stations.
I guess I was the one responsible for that turnout, as I’m the one who posted signs at the station and leafleted cars in the parking lot, something I told the town fathers they could and should have done.
To their credit, and my surprise, the public hearing was continued for another week and the rate-hike pushed back until more commuters could be heard. Signs were posted at the stations informing commuters of the proposals and the chance to be heard.
The Board of Selectmen was not required to do that, but they did. And they deserve credit and our thanks for listening first and voting second.