April 14, 2014
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
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
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
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
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”.
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
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:
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:
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
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...|
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|
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
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.
December 22, 2013
Connecticut has a very strange relationship with Metro-North. Some see it as one of mutual interest. Others describe it as an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, where a kidnap victim fights to defend its captor.
After the bankruptcies of the Penn-Central Railroad and Conrail, Connecticut’s Dept of Transportation was anxious to find anyone to run commuter rail service to NYC. The operating agreement creating Metro-North combined Connecticut-owned tracks and rail-cars with NY State operated lines in a bi-state shotgun wedding.
Connecticut subsidizes 66% of the railroad’s operating deficit in our state and Metro-North subsidizes 34%. But Connecticut also subsidizes 34% of the operating shortfall for riders in NY while Metro-North picks up 66% of that cost. That’s symbiosis.
Today, 30 years later, the state of Connecticut is Metro-North’s biggest customer, representing more revenue and passengers than New York’s Hudson or Harlem lines. But make no mistake: Metro-North is just a vendor to the state.
The contract with Metro-North has self-renewed for the past 30 years, and CDOT has never considered alternatives. The last time the contract went to arbitration, Connecticut was so out-gunned by NY lawyers it came out of the deal with less money, not more. We got smacked down and have never had the guts to stand back up.
The operating agreement, now as thick as a Manhattan phone book (remember those?), is seriously lacking:
- It gives Connecticut no seat on the Metro-North or MTA board of directors.
- It includes no performance standards or penalties for non-compliance.
- It is so cumbersome and arcane that it’s virtually impossible to get out of.
- All of which leaves Connecticut with zero leverage.
As one lawmaker described it, Metro-North is like the old Lilly Tomlin character, Ernestine, the phone operator. When customers would complain, she would say…’ too bad, we don’t care… we don’t have to, we’re the phone company!”
Clearly, that’s how Metro-North has treated its customers, including CDOT, over the years. They just don’t care, because they don’t have to.
And they also don’t care about how badly they have mis-managed our railroad:
- A recent report showed that eight Metro-North foremen falsified time sheets from April thru August this year, claiming to be repairing bridges when they were actually goofing off driving to Pennsylvania to buy fireworks and cheap cigarettes.
- Metro-North dissolved its undercover inspection team in 2012 after an audit found similar malfeasance. Neither the unions nor management could stop the fraud.
- In a four year period, Metro-North suspended 129 and fired 4 employees for serious safety violations. During the same period, the Long Island Railroad (sister railroad to Metro-North) suspended 884 and fired 12 for similar infractions.
As the NY Post reported recently: “The approach to discipline at Metro-North revolves around a lengthy adjudication process — first, there’s a hearing; then a review of the hearing transcript; a ruling from a hearing officer follows; then the accused can appeal to the railroad’s vice president of labor relations. If that doesn’t work, an appeal can be filed with the state Labor Department.”
When you start paying higher fares in January, ask yourself: How can this go on? Who is running this railroad? And why is CDOT not outraged enough to even consider alternative operators?