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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  


January 28, 2014

The Commuter Manifesto

Today we start a new venture on behalf of my fellow Metro-North commuters:  The Commuter Action Group

To capture the mood of the moment and explain our expectations as riders of Metro-North, I have written this Commuter Manifesto:

We, the riders of commuter railroads in Connecticut, are tired of deteriorating service, rising fares and indifference and ineptitude from Metro-North.  As customers and taxpayers we deserve better and expect change.  Our expectations are few, and simple:

SAFETY FIRST
              We expect a clean, safe, on-time, seated ride on trains with heat / AC and lights.  Don’t treat us like cattle making us ride on railcars you wouldn’t ride on yourself.

We want to know that you make our safety your top priority.  Make every employee understand that responsibility.  If they do anything that jeopardizes safety, discipline them or fire them.  There is no excuse for stupid mistakes.

FAST, ACCURATE AND HONEST COMMUNICATIONS
              When things go wrong, immediately tell us what’s happened, why and when it will be fixed.  When you make a mistake, admit it.  Stop making apologies; get things fixed and don’t repeat the same errors over and over again

RESPONSIVE CUSTOMER SERVICE
              When we see a problem, give us an easy way to report it to you.  Then get it fixed and follow up with us to tell us it’s been resolved. Our complaints shouldn’t fall into a black hole.

              Train your employees to be courteous and efficient, treating us like valued customers.  When they don’t meet those standards, train them again.  There should be zero tolerance for rude behavior by employees … or commuters.

OPEN & TRANSPARENT OPERATIONS
              Let us know how you make decisions that affect us by opening all of your meetings to the public and media.  Share your goals and self-evaluations and ask our opinions as well.  The way you run the railroad affects our lives and we should have input.

LEADERSHIP THAT LISTENS
              Meet with commuters on a regular basis at times and locations convenient to us.  Hear our complaints and suggestions and answer our questions.  We will listen to you if you will listen to us:  we’re in this together.



January 20, 2014

The George Washington Bridge

We’ve read a lot about the George Washington Bridge in recent weeks.  And the scandal over who ordered closure of approach lanes from Ft. Lee NJ only underscores how crucial this bridge is to the entire region.  All of which got me thinking about the GWB and its history.

The Bridge that never was...
Surprisingly, the George Washington Bridge was not the first bridge design to cross the Hudson River. As early as 1885 there were discussions of building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at about 23rd St.  A later design in the 1920’s foresaw a double deck, 16-lane-wide roadway (with 12 tracks for railroad trains on the lower level) at 57th Street.
But it was in 1927 that work began on the George Washington Bridge much farther uptown at 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge carrying six lanes of traffic opened in 1931 and was widened by two lanes in 1946.
Originally the bridge was going to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise (really!), but it was a campaign by school kids that ended up honoring our first President.
The original designers had planned for the future and in 1961 the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” bridge opened to traffic, increasing total capacity by 75%.
Because we usually approach the bridge from the east or west, it’s hard to appreciate its enormity until you’re right on the structure.  But from any angle it’s a beautiful bridge, showing its bare criss-cross girders and bracing which was originally to have been clad in concrete and granite. 
The GWB is recognized by civil engineers and architects alike as one of the most beautiful in the world.
In its first year of operation the bridge carried five million vehicles.  Last year it carried 102 million.  On opening day the toll was 50 cents each way.  Today the one-way toll for autos (only collected eastbound) ranges from $9 (EZ Pass off-peak) to $13 (cash).  But pedestrians can still walk across for free (when the sidewalk is open).
Those walkways, while affording a wonderful view of the city, also have a dark side as the GWB was scene of a record 18 suicides (and 43 attempts) in 2012.

GWB Bus Terminal
On an average weekday 17,000 bus passengers rely on the GWB’s own bus terminal built atop the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx!) on the Manhattan side.  There they can catch the A train or the Seventh Avenue IRT.  The bus station is undergoing a $180 million renovation.
The bridge itself is a living thing.  It creaks and groans, moves and sways and it needs constant maintenance.  In 2011 the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace the bridge’s 529 vertical suspender wire ropes.  In addition, lanes on the upper level are being closed (at night) to replace steel plates on the road surface.
All of which means more jobs and, eventually, higher tolls.


January 06, 2014

The Top Ten Things About Metro-North

Despite what you may think, I don’t hate Metro-North.  Sure, I am outspoken about its many failings, but always with a goal of making it better.  So, to prove I’m really a fan of the railroad, I’m kicking off the year with my “Top Ten Things about Metro-North”:
West Haven Station
10)  New Stations:   Reflecting expanded demand for rail commutation, CDOT added new stations (and parking) at West Haven and Fairfield Metro in recent years.        
9)  Lost & Found:    Metro-North runs one of the biggest and best Lost & Found operations in the country handling, over 50,000 items a year.
8)  Package Tours:  You might not realize it, but the railroad offers all sorts of package deals for big-city events, combining train tickets, admission and even hotel stays.
7)  The Bar Cars:     Metro-North is the only commuter railroad in the US that still offers patrons a bar car.  There are only a handful of bar cars left, soon to be retired and possibly not replaced, so enjoy ‘em while you still can.
6)  Online Tickets:   You still can’t buy a ticket on the train using a credit card, but you can buy them online (and receive them by mail)… and they’re even cheaper (by 2%) than purchasing them at a ticket machine or Grand Central. 
5)  The TrainTime App:      Forget about those old paper timetables and get yourself the new TrainTime App (for iPhone, iPad and Android).  Not only does it show train times, but track numbers, any delays, fares and station information.  And it’s free!
4)  Expanded Schedule:    The trains may be running slower, but there are more of them than ever before.  Service on weekends has been expanded as ridership has grown and more cars were added to the fleet.
3)  Grand Central Terminal:         There is no more beautiful rail station in the world. And for the next 269 years it will be managed by the MTA, parent of Metro-North.  Their renovation of the station completed in 2007 has turned a station into a destination.  The shops, restaurants and open spaces are the envy of commuters everywhere… especially the poor “Dashing Dans” on the LIRR who arrive in the squalor of Penn Station.
2)  The new M8 Cars:        Years late in their design and delivery, the newest cars in the Metro-North fleet are clean, comfortable and much appreciated.  With power outlets at every seat (and someday even WiFi), the first 300 of the M8 cars on order are proving themselves dependable even in winter weather.  
1)  On Time Performance:           No matter how great the destination, how comfortable the train or how expensive the fare, nothing matters more to commuters than getting to their destination on time.  Until recently, Metro-North had an enviable on-time performance in the upper 90%’s, a number I’m confident they can achieve again.

For each of the items mentioned above Metro-North deserves credit.  Can each be improved?  Sure.  But let’s see the glass as more than half-full and give the folks at the railroad their due. 

I still love Metro-North.  I just want to be able to love it even more.