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?
December 11, 2013
It could have been you or me that died in that derailment in the Bronx December 1st. Instead, it was Jim Lovell, Donna Smith, James Ferrari and Kisook Ahn who lost their lives riding that train.
It will be months before the NTSB finishes its investigation of what happened and why, but it is clear that it could have been prevented. But why wasn’t it?
None of us yet has the answers, but there are plenty of questions:
· Why did engineer William Rockefeller first claim that the train’s brakes had failed only later to claim he had “zoned out”? Which of those explanations was a lie and which an excuse?
· Why did the engineer’s union go to the press to plead his case, only to be kicked out of the NTSB’s investigation for breaking the rules? Is this a PR case study or a forensic investigation?
· Why did his train’s controls lack an alerter system that would have warned him that he was going 80 mph approaching a 30 mph curve?
· Why was Metro-North President Howard Permut noticeably absent at the crash scene and subsequent NTSB press conferences for five days after the deadly crash? Isn’t he responsible for this railroad? [Correcton: see Comment #3 below this posting]
· Why didn’t Mr. Permut and MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast attend the wakes and funerals of those who died on their railroad? How do they keep their jobs when employee morale is as low as passenger confidence?
· Why does Metro-North have such a dismal record of disciplining engineers who violate its rules, suspending only 49 and firing one in a four year period while the LIRR suspended 884 and fired 12 over the same period?
· Why did Metro-North drag its feet for five years after a federal order to install Positive Train Control while other commuter railroads met the mandate?
· Why did the FRA wait until there had been three derailments, a track foreman’s death and the Con Ed meltdown to admonish Metro-North in writing for its dismal safety record?
Since that Sunday morning high-speed derailment, I have been on an emotional rollercoaster from depression and grief to anger and disbelief. Nobody seems to be accepting responsibility for what happened and yet everybody is to blame.
Engineer Rockefeller, with an otherwise spotless record, made a deadly mistake that will haunt him the rest of his life. His union argues it was a medical condition, so he’s not criminally negligent so he may never stand trial.
Metro-North management argues that speed alerters are not required on older trains, though they certainly seem necessary and will probably be retrofitted.
With PR chutzpah, Metro-North says the last five months of disasters don’t blemish 30+ years of safe operations… that they are anomalies. Really? The voyage of the Titanic was so smooth until they hit that iceberg.
Does anyone really believe all these calamities are just bad timing? Am I the only one who sees a pattern that worsens with each passing month?
After the July 2011 stranding of a train near Westport (on the hottest day of the year) when passengers felt so abandoned by Metro-North they called 911 to be rescued by fire fighters, I asked a simple question: Is it time to fire Metro-North?
Until now, two years later, nobody has taken that question seriously. Why?
As I wrote in my last column explaining my recent resignation from the CT Commuter Rail Council, “Metro-North and the Connecticut DOT are in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation”.
Who’s to blame for the death of those four commuters?
Everybody who has failed to change that situation.
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 “Commuter 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.