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February 21, 2017

"Getting There": What Metro-North Can Learn from Amtrak

Enjoying a speedy (148 mph) ride to Boston last week on Acela, I started thinking about the differences between Amtrak and Metro-North.  Both are railroads, but each has a different mission.  Still, there are a few things Metro-North could learn from its national counterpart.

QUIET CARS:         Amtrak invented the concept in 2000 and it’s been a big success.  The cars are well marked and the “library-like atmosphere” rules are explained and enforced, both by conductors and passengers.  But on Metro-North, the QuietCalmute concept didn’t happen until 2011.  The cars are not marked and the rules are seldom enforced.

WI-FI:           Here again, Amtrak was an early adopter offering free Wi-Fi in 2010.  The response was so great that the “tubes” were quickly clogged, forcing a major tech upgrade.  Today on any Northeast Corridor train (not just Acela) the Wi-Fi is fast and dependable, allowing passengers to be productive all through their journey.  Metro-North says it has no plans for Wi-Fi.

FIRST CLASS:        For those that want it, first class seating is available on Amtrak complete with at-seat dining options.  The upgrade from coach isn’t cheap, but highly popular and the cars are usually full.  When the New Haven RR ran our trains, there were private parlor cars on some commuter runs.  Given the demographics on MNRR, I’m pretty sure a premium seating option would be quite popular. But none is planned.

DYNAMIC PRICING:         Book an advance seat on Amtrak and you’ll find three different ticket prices, the cheapest akin to airlines’ no-show / no-refund pricing, and others with higher fares giving you more flexibility.  Because Metro-North doesn’t book seats, they only offer peak and off-peak fares.  You can walk up and grab a ride anytime on Metro-North.  But on Amtrak you usually must have a reservation and be pre-ticketed.

REFUNDS:      Once I was on an over-booked Acela with literally no empty seats.  After arrival I contacted Amtrak and was given a full refund for being a standee for 3+ hours.  On Metro-North your ticket only gets you a ride, not a guarantee of seating.

REWARDS:     Amtrak has a great Amtrak Guest Rewards program where your loyalty gets you points toward upgrades and free tickets.  Last year I went from Chicago to LA (in a private bedroom, meals included) for free, just using points I’d earned riding Acela.  There’s also a co-branded credit card where everyday purchases earn you these perks.  On Metro-North, no points, perks or rewards.

NEW CARS:    To its credit, Amtrak has already ordered the next generation of its popular “high speed” Acela trains long before the current rolling stock has worn out.  On Metro-North the railroad and CDOT waited until 2005 to order the new M8 cars to replace older cars that were 25+ years into their 20-year life expectancy and were being held together with gaffers tape.

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE:        If your train is running late on Amtrak, they’ll text or e-mail you, just like the airlines.  On Metro-North, they only Tweet or e-mail if several trains are affected.  On Metro-North trains are considered “on time” if they’re up to six minutes late, so the railroad’s 90+% on time record is dubious.  Still, it’s better than Amtrak where even Acela, the pride of their fleet, is on-time only 74% of the time (even including a 10 minute leeway).

Apples and oranges?  Sure.  These two railroads are quite different.  But Metro-North has a monopoly while Amtrak must compete with everything from discount buses to the airlines.  Maybe that’s why Amtrak is better?

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

February 17, 2017

"Getting There" - Testifying in Hartford

Don’t look now, but our legislature is back in action considering dozens of bills affecting transportation.  Everything from tolls to train fares, from airports to Uber could be up for grabs in this session.

But how is a citizen supposed to voice their views, let alone follow these machinations from afar?  Aside from my journo-hero Ken Dixon (Hearst’s excellent reporter in Hartford), and websites like CT Newsjunkie, CT Mirror and The Capitol Report, there’s not much left of the “fifth estate” to keep us informed.  Of course, you can watch CT-N, the state’s answer to C-Span, for the blow-by-blow… assuming you have the time.

Some bills, like State Rep Gail Lavielle’s (R - Wilton) HB773 deserve our support.  That bill would require a vote of the legislature to approve any proposed fare increase on Metro-North. But offering your support (or disapproval) of any of these bills isn’t easy.

Sure, you can submit testimony by e-mail.  There are 36 members of the Transportation Committee, each juggling hundreds of bills coming before this and the many other committees on which they serve.  Will your e-mailed comments make a difference or just be seen as spam?

Forget about lawmakers coming to you for a public hearing.  You must go to them.  I can't remember the last time our elected officials held a hearing downstate, can you?

For decades I traveled to Hartford to testify on various bills in my capacity as a member of the Metro-North Commuter Rail Council, as a commuter and just as a taxpayer.  But not anymore.  It’s a waste of time.

You have to give up an entire day to go to Hartford, arriving early in the morning to sign up on the testimony list (or enter a lottery for a slot). 

Knowing where you are on the testimony list, you then settle into the hearing room waiting your three minutes of time.  With almost 50 bills up for consideration at a single hearing and scores of people who wish to testify, you’d better be patient.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring 50 copies of your written testimony to give to the Clerk.
The first hour of the hearing is usually given over to the Commissioner of the CDOT who explains why his agency opposes most of the bills up for consideration.  Then, elected officials get to speak… their time being far more precious than any citizen who’s given up a day to watch this sausage-making.

Even with three dozen members of the Committee, you’ll be lucky to see more than a handful in attendance as they must flit from hearing room to hearing room, trying to juggle their calendar conflicts. 

What you will see are the lobbyists, designated by a special colored badge.  They’re well known to lawmakers and you’ll see them making sure their clients’ views are known on pending bills.   Media come and go as well, occasionally grabbing folks for a sound-bite after they’ve spoken.

Your turn to speak may come early or late in the evening.  You’ll read your remarks and hope there are follow-up questions before the egg-timer goes “ding” and you’re sent home.
It’s all political theater and you (like me) may come away quite cynical about the process.  The real power lies with the Committee Chairs and your favorite bill may never make it out of that body for consideration, let alone a full vote.

As demonstrators love to chant, “This is what democracy looks like”.  And this part of it ain’t pretty.

Reposted with permission of CT Hearst Media

February 06, 2017

"Getting There": Solving the Rail Station Parking Mess

If we want to get cars off of the highways, we need to turn drivers into rail commuters.  But even the most motivated would-be rail rider faces an immediate problem:  the lack of rail station parking.

Many stations have wait lists for annual permits of more than five or six years.  And the permits themselves can cost as much as $1100 a year!  Even day-parking is expensive and hard to find.

Keep in mind that most station parking is owned by the CDOT but leased to the towns and cities to administer.  It’s those municipalities that set the rates and handle the wait lists.  But there’s the rub:  every town’s rules are different.

In Darien (where I’m lucky enough to live),  just to keep your name on the wait list costs $10 a year. But the prize is a $400 a year permit.   Most towns “grandfather” existing permit holders, meaning that once you have a permit you can renew it.

Because many permit holders hoard their permits, using them only rarely, towns sell twice as many permits as there are parking spaces.  That makes the permits really just a “license to hunt”, i.e. if you find a space you can park there, but there’s no guarantee there will be room.  That makes sense.

A beach permit doesn’t promise you 15 sq feet of sand, just access to the beach.  As with parking it’s first come, first served.

What it comes down to is a classic case of supply and demand.  The demand for parking spaces is high but the supply limited.  Because CDOT isn’t adding more parking capacity at stations, towns are left to manage the demand.

And I have a great new suggestion on how to do that:  a Dutch auction.

Parking spaces would start selling online on a certain date and time with the first permit going to the highest bidder.  The second space would go to the second highest bidder, and so on.  There would be no preference given to existing permit holders nor by town of residency (all state-owned lots are open to anyone).

Using an auction where all bidding is transparent would be like selling an antique on EBay.  The permit should go to the person who wants it most and is willing to pay.

Is it fair that somebody can keep a permit they don’t use just because they’ve had it for years?  Shouldn’t that parking space go to the person who needs it the most, the daily commuter?  The days of “hoarding” would be over if we let the marketplace decide the value of the space, not bureaucrats.

If an annual parking permit is $400, I’m sure there’s somebody who’d pay $600 or $700 to be sure they got one. After the greatest demand is met, the average prices would be much less, maybe even less than $400. 

And, by the way, towns shouldn’t be profiting from parking permits.  That money is supposed to be spent on security, snow-plowing and station improvements.

Of course, the best solution to the parking mess is to have supply meet demand.  We need to build more parking lots at all of our train stations.  That will get folks out of their cars and onto the trains, benefiting everyone.

"Getting There": The End of Jumbo Jets

Hard to believe, but it was 45 years ago that the first 747 carried passengers when KLM debuted its commercial service.  Since then, the iconic jumbo jet has carried millions in relative comfort and safety.  But now, its days are numbered.

Last summer Boeing said it was possible that it would end production of the 747 (with the possible exception of a pair of replacements for Air Force One, if the Trump White House doesn’t kill the plan). Even the much larger A-380, a double-deck Airbus, may have seen its sales peak.

Airbus spent $25 billion to develop the world’s largest passenger plane, but only 319 have been ordered (compared to more than 1500 747’s).  And of that number, 125 have yet to be delivered, 60 of those destined for Emirates Airline.  In 2015, the A-380 (which can carry over 850 passengers) saw just three new orders.

Why are the jumbo jets losing favor?  It’s a matter of simple economics:  they’re too expensive to operate compared with newer planes like the smaller 787 and A-350. 

It takes a very busy travel corridor to fill an 800-seat airplane.  And flying one jumbo instead of two smaller planes means fewer departure time options for passengers.  The A-380 makes sense for hub-and-spoke airlines like Emirates which routes all its flights through Dubai for connections.  But rival airlines can fly direct, city to city, up to 8000 miles non-stop using the smaller jets.

Sure, the 787 doesn’t offer the First Class suites ($21,000 one way) that you’ll find on an A-380 (each with its own min-bar, gourmet meals, lie-flat bed and a shower spa).  But those amenities are out of reach to all but the plutocrats.  And even Arab oil sheiks are pinching pennies these days.
But even as the major airlines are shrinking their planes to save on fuel, one airline is doing the opposite. Virgin Atlantic is thinking of bringing back the supersonic transport, or SST.

Tentatively named “Boom”, the new craft would carry 45-50 passengers at mach 2.2, faster than the old Concorde which was retired in 2003.  And the smaller craft would be capable of longer distances:  5000 miles vs. the Concorde’s 4500).  That means that New York to London (3441 miles) would take just 3.5 hours compared to 7 hours on a jumbo jet.

But the extended range of Boom would also make it possible to fly Seattle to Tokyo (4763 miles), something Concorde could never achieve without stopping for fuel.  And given a new design, Boom would operate cost efficiently at sub-sonic speeds over land to avoid the sonic boom.  The Concorde burned about a ton of fuel per passenger crossing the Atlantic.  Just taxiing from the terminal at Heathrow for take-off, the old Concorde burned more fuel than an A-320 flying from London to Paris.

They’re still crunching the numbers on the Boom, but with roundtrip first class fares JFK to London now standing at $8000, the Branson team at Virgin think they could offer the same trip for $5000!  A small prototype of the Boom is being built to test the concept.

So enjoy the jumbo jets while you can.  Their days may be numbered and your aviation future may be smaller… but much faster.  If you’re like 99% of all fliers who sit in “the back of the bus”, you may not miss the jumbos a whole lot.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 27, 2017

"Getting There": Who Should Pay for Sound Barriers?

Building and maintaining our highways is expensive.  But here’s a quiz question:  on interstates 95 and 84, what costs a half-million dollars a mile to construct?  The answer:  sound barriers.

Why are we spending that kind of money to enshroud our interstates simply to protect the peace and quiet of its neighbors?  Didn’t they know that living that close to a highway came with the twin costs of increased noise and air pollution along with the benefits of proximity to the highways?

Do you have sympathy for people who live near airports and then complain about the jets?  Neither do I.   But the solution to highway noise is not to create a walled canyon paid for by others.

Sound barriers, in my view, are a waste of precious resources.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or do anything about congestion.  And they’re a magnet for graffiti artists.  Three miles of sound barriers on both sides of an interstate would buy another M8 railcar for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers out of their cars.

Worse yet, sound barriers really just reflect the sound, not absorb it, sending the noise further afield.  But there are alternatives:

1)     Why not sound-proof the homes?  That has worked well for neighbors of big airports and would be a lot cheaper than miles of sound barriers.  Plus, insulation against sound also insulates against energy loss, saving money.

2)    Rubberized asphalt.  Let’s reduce the highway noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using the latest in rubberized asphalt some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise.  And rubberized asphalt, as its name implies, is made from old tires… about 12 million a year that would otherwise be junked.

3)    Pay for it yourself.  Create special taxing zones in noisy neighborhoods and let those home owners pay for their sound barriers.  They’re the ones who are benefiting, so shouldn’t they be the ones who pay?  And that investment will easily be recouped in increased property values.

4)    Penalize the noise makers.  Let’s crack down on truckers who “Jake brake”, downshifting noisily to slow their speed instead of using their real brakes.  And motorcyclists or those cars with busted mufflers, they too should be penalized.

5)    Go electric.  Electric cars are virtually silent.  And there are electronic ways of using noise cancellation technology that, on a large scale, can induce quiet at a lower price than building wooden barricades.

6)    Go absorbent.  Where there is room, erect earthen berms alongside the highway which will absorb the sound.  Or if you are constructing sound barriers, fill them with sound absorbing material, treating the noise like a sponge, not bouncing it off a hard, flat reflective surface.

Our interstates, especially I-95, are carrying far more traffic than they were ever planned to handle.  And there is no sign of it decreasing.  In Fairfield County the rush hour starts about 6 am and runs continuously until 8 pm without a break.

If our state’s economy depends on these highways we will have to live with the karmic cost of a little noise.  But if it’s too much to take, why ask others to pay for its remediation when they are the only ones benefiting from that spending?

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 13, 2017

"Getting There": CDOT's Doomsday Scenario

As the legislature reconvenes this week in Hartford, all are buzzing about filling the predicted $41 million deficit in the state’s budget.  While the Governor is again pledging no tax increases (we’ve heard that before!), the alternatives are looking pretty ugly.
For the state’s Department of Transportation it may mean drastic cuts in services and staffing with long term implications… what I’m calling the “Doomsday Scenario”.

A few months ago, the state’s Office of Policy and Management asked each department to come up with a plan for an additional 10% budget cut on top of last year’s reduction of the same amount.  Commuters will remember how that last cut was partially funded:  with fare increases.  But this time, CDOT planners say that’s not an option because it would take too long.

According to the CDOT’s own plan, here’s what another 10% budget cut would mean to that agency and everyone in the state:

HIGHWAYS:    Patching potholes and repairing cracks on our highways would be curtailed.  Tree removal, fence and drainage repairs would be reduced or eliminated.  Highway Rest Areas (not Service Areas) would be closed, replaced by porta-potties.

IMPACT:   Worsening road conditions causing more damage to cars and costly repairs.  Predictions of vandalism at closed Rest Areas.

WINTER:   Elimination of 220 contract snow plow operators would mean cycle times for plowing would go from 2 hours to 3+ hours on secondary roads (but not Rt 1, I-95 or the Parkways).

IMPACT:  Less plowing means some secondary roads will be impassible during heavy storms.

RAIL SERVICE:   Postpone the planned opening of the new Hartford Line (commuter rail from New Haven) to 2018.  Reduced weekend and weekday off-peak service on Waterbury and Danbury Lines and 50% cut in service on Shore Line East.

IMPACT:   Delay in opening Hartford Line could make the Feds request refund of $200 million in construction funding.  Cuts in rail service would affect state’s economy and “attractiveness” to people looking for a new home.  Highways could gridlock as more commuters are forced to drive.

BUS SERVICE:   Cut subsidies to municipal transit districts by 50%.  CT Transit bus service would be cut 15 – 20%.  Funding for new bus purchases would be cut.

IMPACT:   Greatest impact on minority, economically stressed populations with no transportation alternatives.  Less bus service, more car traffic, more delays.  Funding cut would mean new bus purchases would have to be bonded instead of bought with 80% Federal funding.

CDOT STAFF:   Layoffs of 6% of existing workforce, 213 positions.  Curtailed planning for widening I-84 in Danbury, West Rock Tunnel on Wilbur Cross, design of I-91 / 691 / Rt 15 interchange and planning and design for widening I-95.   Staff cuts in Finance and Administration would delay contract awards, contractor and municipal payments, highway safety campaigns and environmental permits.

IMPACT:   Though one of the largest state agencies as measured by number of employees, these layoffs on top of last year’s staff cuts would leave CDOT 15% below predicted staffing needs projected for 2019.  Planning for new projects would be in gridlock, possibly imperiling Federal funding grant applications.

If any of these cuts happen it will hasten a vicious cycle of less service and more delays encouraging even more people to leave the state, further reducing tax collections.  Now would be the time to tell your lawmakers in Hartford that we must avoid “Doomsday”.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There": Transportation Predictions for 2017

Everybody writes “year in review” stories, but not me.  Instead, I’m going to predict the future and tell you what’s going to happen in transportation next year!

METRO-NORTH:   The new M8 cars will perform well in the winter, but the aging tracks, switches and catenary (overhead power lines) will continue to suffer breakdowns, causing delays.  Ridership will continue to climb, causing further rush-hour crowding until new railcars start arriving in 2019.

GASOLINE PRICES:    The party’s over, folks.  Gasoline prices will continue to rise as OPEC gets its act together to limit oil production.  These rising prices will nudge American drillers and producers back in the game, but it may be months until resumed domestic consumption matches reduced imports.

STAMFORD GARAGE:   As I predicted last year, CDOT finally pulled the plug on its 3+ year unsigned deal with private developer JHM Group to demolish the old station garage and build a mixed use office / condo / hotel building.  But CDOT vows to revisit the P3 (public private partnership) concept, only this time I predict they will have learned their lesson and will find ways to engage and inform the public in their planning.

STATE TAKE-OVER:   They’ve been quietly working toward this for years, but I predict that the CDOT will finally announce they plan to takeover all rail station parking on the New Haven line, standardizing rates and permit wait lists.  Expect a huge fight from the towns, but the state will win. Doesn’t it always?

FLYING:    It’s the beginning of the end for the 747, especially with fuel prices increasing.  Fewer of the jumbos will be flying, replaced by much more fuel efficient mid-sized craft like the 787.  Even the mega-jumbo A380 double-deckers may have seen their day.  Ironically, in 2017 there will be renewed interest in a commercial supersonic jetliner to save time for the ultra-rich who are willing to pay.

INTERSTATE 95:   Traffic will only get worse on I-95 as the legislature hems and haws over Gov. Malloy’s call for its widening.  Despite a 2004 study that said that using break-down lanes for rush-hour traffic was unsafe and would yield little traffic improvement, the CDOT’s new $2 million consultant study will, (surprise!),  support the scheme.  But budget cuts may kill the plan, for now.

LET’S GO CT:   Governor Malloy’s $100 billion transportation scheme will remain stuck, just like his political career.  (Hillary didn’t get elected and he didn’t get plucked from his budget-balancing woes in Hartford to serve in her administration.)  Still, the Governor will continue to criss-cross the state, ballyhooing the need for transportation spending. But without a legislative “lock box” on transportation dollars, none of his funding mechanisms (tolls, vehicle-miles and sales taxes) will be embraced by lawmakers.

TRUMP MONEY:    This is the real wild card which, like the President-elect himself, is hard to predict.  “Donald the Builder” has spoken about spending $1 trillion to rebuild America’s roads, rails, airports and ports.  But he has to get a reluctant Congress to find and then agree to spend that money.  If he does, expect even the bluest of states like Connecticut to be clamoring for their share.  And maybe, just maybe, Connecticut will get some, meaning the Malloy transportation “plan” (being “shovel ready”) will find new life.

No guts, no glory.  Those are my predictions for the year ahead!

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 26, 2016

"Getting There" - Why Metro-North's Quiet Cars Aren't Quiet

What happens when a good idea goes bad?  Consider Metro-North’s “Quiet Car” initiative.
Sixteen years ago a group of regular commuters on Amtrak’s early morning train to DC had an idea:  why not designate one car on the train as a “Quiet Car”, free from cell phone chatter and loud conversations.  The railroad agreed and the experiment proved a great success.  Now all Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor have a Quiet Car.  They are a major selling point for taking the train… the chance to nap or read in a quiet environment.
But as early as 2006 when I suggested the same idea to Metro-North it was rejected outright.  Then serving on the CT Rail Commuter Council, I persisted and finally, in 2011 the railroad agreed to a trial with one car on each rush hour train dedicated to what it called a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Almost immediately the plan ran into trouble.  Not because it wasn’t wanted but because it wasn’t enforced.
There were no signs designating which were the “quiet” cars and only occasional PA announcements before departure reminding folks who sat there of the quiet, library-like environment that was expected.  Most of all, many conductors refused to enforce the new rules.  But why?
Conductors seem to have no trouble reminding passengers to keep their feet off the seats, put luggage in the overhead racks or refrain from smoking.  But all that the railroad gave conductors to enforce the Quiet Car rules were bilingual “Shhh cards” to give to gabby violators.
It seemed left to passengers to remind fellow riders what a Quiet Car was for and confrontations resulted.
This spring the railroad surprised even me by announcing an expansion of the program:  every weekday train, peak and off-peak, would now have two Quiet Cars!  Two Quiet Cars on a ten car train gives everyone a choice.  That sounds great, but still without signage, education or enforcement, the battles continued.

A commuter recently emailed me about an evening train from Grand Central with a group of rowdy drunks in the Quiet Car.  When commuters asked the offending passengers to chill out or move their seat the tipsy  group told the complainer, “screw you”.  The quiet-seeking commuters then asked the conductor for help but he simply declared the train was too crowded and the Quiet Car was being eliminated on that run. “Have fun” he told the drunks. Really?
On Amtrak trains those violating Quiet Car rules have been thrown off the train and arrested.  Even NJ Governor Chris Christie had to move his seat on an Acela once for yabbering with his staff in the wrong car.
Nobody wants these kinds of altercations on Metro-North.  So why initiate and then expand such a passenger amenity as Quiet CALMmute without proper education and enforcement?  A few signs and friendly reminders from conductors should make passengers aware that “train time may be your own time” (as the railroad’s old marketing slogan used to say), but it’s also shared time. 
Commuters want Quiet Cars.  The railroad gave them to us, but until they can get their staff to enforce the rules, consistently, they might as well not exist.

If you’re in a Quiet Car and the rules are not enforced, report it to Metro-North on their website complaint form.  If we all raise our voices, we can get some peace a quiet.
Reprinted with permission from Hearst CT Media

December 18, 2016

"Getting There" - Winter Prep for Transportation

With the arrival of winter, now is the time to be sure you’re ready to stay mobile, whatever Mother Nature may throw at us.  Here are a few tips…

1)     Get your car’s battery checked.  If it is weak or the terminals are corroded you won’t be able to start your car, especially in cold conditions.  New batteries are worth the investment, if only for the peace of mind.

2)    Check your tires.  Colder weather means the pressure in your tires will go down so check your car’s manual and re-inflate if necessary.

3)    Got antifreeze?  It should be replaced every two years to a 50-50 mixture with water.

4)    Oil change:  as with your tires, lower temperatures will affect your engine’s “blood”, thickening it as it gets colder.  Your mechanic or oil-change shop will know what’s right for your car.  And forget that old myth of oil changes every 3000 miles:  5000 to 7500 miles between changes is now OK according to experts.

5)    Windshield wipers should be replaced annually, an easy do-it-yourself project at any auto store.  And don’t forget to fill the wiper fluid reservoir with something freeze resistant.

6)    Be a Boy Scout and check your trunk for an inflated spare tire and all the emergency gear you might need:  flares, jumper cables, first aid kit, thermal blanket, etc.

Except in the worst blizzard conditions, the train will usually keep running (though sometimes at a reduced frequency). Though dependable, riding Metro-North and Amtrak in the winter is not without its challenges

1)    Never assume it’s “business as usual” and that trains will be running on time in bad weather.  Listen to the radio and consult apps like the MTA’s “TrainTime” and my favorite, “Clever Commute” for updates on service.

2)    Give yourself extra time to get to the station and watch those icy platforms! 

3)    Dress for the bad weather.  If your station’s waiting room isn’t open, call town hall or the police dept.  In sub-zero weather that’s not just an inconvenience, it could be a safety hazard.

4)    If you find a railcar that’s lacking heat, ask the conductor to write it up.  Or use the website to file a report yourself.

5)    Most of all, give yourself extra travel time.  Don’t stress about delays.  At least you’re not driving on an icy parkway!

1)    When booking your flight consider your options.  If you can’t find a non-stop, avoid connections in weather-plagued hubs like Chicago or Denver.  Charlotte or Dallas have less chance of being snowed in.

2)    Watch the weather and anticipate delays.  If the airlines know a storm is coming they often waive re-booking fees if you want to fly before the weather hits or have to delay until after the airport re-opens and schedules get back to normal.

3)    If the highways are a mess, try taking the train to the airport.  LaGuardia and Newark are accessible by Metro-North and Amtrak, respectively, but Kennedy airport is a challenge.
Whatever your mode of travel, a little prep time now will help you get through winter unscathed.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - More Railcars, More Passengers

Riders on Metro-North just got an early holiday gift from the railroad and CDOT:  a bright, shiny new train set… not toy, but real!   We’ve been promised 94 more M8 rail cars!  And just in time…(though they won’t start arriving until 2019).

We’ve been enjoying the new M8 cars since their introduction in 2011 and they have proven highly reliable.  Unlike the old M2 cars, many of which were older than the passengers who rode in them and were prone to breakdowns each winter, the new M8 cars are champions.  They go over 460,000 miles between mechanical breakdowns which is 53% better than the railroad’s own goals for the Kawasaki designed and built cars.

Work on the M8’s started in 2006 with an initial order of 300 cars.  Another 80 cars were optioned in 2011 and 25 more single, unpowered cars were then added to the fleet, bringing us to the 405 cars we have today. (When the newest cars start arriving in three years the last of the old M2 cars will finally be scrapped).

Because of their unique design, operating on three different power systems, the M8 cars were not cheap. The first cars cost $2.326 million but Kawasaki is now commanding $3.83 million for the 60 now on order and $3.71 million for another 34 cars on option.  Part of the price hike is attributed to improved design and addition of the long-awaited PTC (Positive Train Control) and CCTV (closed circuit TV) safety equipment.

The costs will be born 65% / 35% by Connecticut and MTA, respectively.  Our share will probably be paid for through bonding. Ten planned “CafĂ© Cars”, to be fabricated from older, original M8 cars, will be 100% paid for by Connecticut.

Why is the railroad going to all of this expense?  Because they became victims of their own success:  ridership has been soaring in recent years.

When the first M8 cars were ordered, Metro-North thought they’d have enough cars to handle ridership until 2020. But we blew through those numbers years early.  That meant more passengers than seats and crowded, often times SRO (standing room only) conditions at rush hour.

Why the surge in ridership?  A stronger economy, which means more jobs in NYC.  Worsening traffic on I95, which means the train is an attractive alternative.  Reliability, even in the winter.  And yes, people really like the new cars with their power plugs at every row, redundant HVAC and pleasing design.

All of those attractions have seemed stronger than the negatives to train-taking:  lower gas prices, higher rail fares and insufficient station parking.   
So the question now is, are we ordering enough new cars to keep up with demand?  Given the three year lag-time between ordering and delivery, will a 499-car fleet be enough if ridership keeps growing as fast, if not faster?

As new cars start arriving in 2019 they’ll first be used to add capacity to existing trains to deal with rush-hour crowding.  As more cars arrive, 24 of our M8’s will be shifted over to Shore Line East service between New London and New Haven.  And maybe, if we’re lucky, by 2020 we’ll have enough cars to actually increase service, adding more trains to the timetable.

If we don’t want to waste billions of dollars on Governor Malloy’s idea to “widen I-95”, let’s instead invest in our railroad and order more cars now.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Slow Down In Town

You’ve seen the signs in many neighborhoods… “Drive like your kids lived here” or “Slow down in town”.  They’re probably as effective as bumper stickers that say “Drive now, Text later”, i.e., not very.

In our own neighborhoods we want everyone to chill behind the wheel.  But when we are driving in someone else’s area, it’s pedal to the metal, the kids be damned.  When the major roads are jammed, quicker short-cuts through the back roads seem attractive, often at higher speeds than may be safe.

First of all, why is it that kids are playing in the streets anyway when they have perfectly good lawns and nearby parks?  Do they think they’re living on the Lower East Side, playing stickball?  C’mon parents!  Get your kids off of the streets!

Recognizing that persuasion doesn’t seem to help, traffic engineers are finding newer ways to get folks to stay safe using what’s called “traffic calming”, forcing them to drive slower.  And believe it or not, one of the first US cities to develop a master plan for traffic calming was Hartford.  Stamford isn’t far behind.

You’ve probably seen these calming devices, but cursed their presence that physically forces you to slow down or risk damage to your car’s suspension.

SPEED BUMPS:     You can’t drive around them, so you better slow down driving over them.

SPEED TABLES:    Like speed bumps on steroids, these have a six foot long ramp up onto a ten foot flat table and down another six foot ramp.

ROUNDABOUTS:   The guys at Mythbusters have proven that these traffic circles can move more cars through an intersection than a four-way stop, but they’re confusing enough that you’re going to slow down and keep wondering “Who has the right of way?  (Answer:  the car in the traffic circle).  If it’s me, does that other guy know it?  Will he slow down and let me in?” 

CHICANES:            Usually seen only on private streets in ritzy neighborhoods, these stubby looking sections of gates placed alternately on the right and left hand sides of the street make drivers slow down to zigzag down the street.  Really annoying, but effective.

BULB-OUTS or NECK-DOWNS:  These are when the sidewalk extends into car parking areas at corner crossings.  That way folks who want to cross a street are more visible and already closer to the other side.

CROSSWALKS:      Nothing empowers a pedestrian like stepping up to a crosswalk and stopping all oncoming traffic as they saunter across the road.  This assumes, of course, that the drivers know they must yield and that there is sufficient signage to tell them so.  Otherwise, it’s a messy scene.

But believe it or not, one of the most effective safety devices is also the most common…

SIDEWALKS:          Still, it’s amazing how many suburban towns don’t offer sidewalks, leaving nervous pedestrians walking on the same roadways as cars.  You’d think that would encourage motorists to slow down, but it doesn’t.  Getting the walkers (and joggers) off the road and onto the sidewalks may not stop speeding but it does save lives.

None of these physical solutions to traffic safety is cheap, but they have proven effective in saving us from our own worst instincts to rush to our destination.  So, slow down in town, and in the ‘burbs.  What’s your hurry?

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

November 30, 2016

"Getting There" - All Tickets Please !

Imagine you’re in a store and you see somebody shoplifting.  You’re embarrassed to say anything or to make a scene, but inside you’re pissed-off.  You pay for your merchandise, so why should that guy get it for free?  And if he’s ripping off the store, doesn’t the merchant actually make you pay more to make up for that loss?

It’s morally wrong and it’s just not fair.

Yet this is what happens every single day on Metro-North when conductors don’t collect all riders’ tickets.

Here’s a typical scene:  your train leaves Grand Central and the conductor makes his way through the train collecting tickets.  Sometimes he leaves a colored seat check, punched to show your destination, but not always. Why?

Your train makes some intermediate stop (New Rochelle, Greenwich or Stamford) to discharge some passengers and take on new ones.  You know who the new riders are, but does the conductor?

So when the conductor comes through again saying “All Stamford tickets, please” and you see that new rider not responding, you know the railroad got ripped off and that cheater just got a free ride.

Now, if the conductor had issued a seat check he’d know who got off, who got on and who owes him a new ticket.  Simple enough, but not for Metro-North which for years has not enforced their use.  Conductors who are too busy or too lazy, don’t use seat checks and we all end up paying more.

Metro-North acknowledges this problem and admits it loses millions of dollars a year to uncollected tickets.  But they’ve crunched the numbers and say that staffing trains with more conductors to be sure all tickets are collected would cost even more.

Hey!  Here’s a concept:  make the existing conductors do their jobs instead of hiding out in their little compartments.  From Grand Central to Stamford you’ve got 45 minutes without stops to collect everyone’s ticket, give ‘em a seat check, say “thank you” and still have time for a cat-nap.  And there’s still time to ask people to keep their feet off the seats and to stop yapping in the designated Quiet Cars.

Back in the good ol’ days before the TVM’s (Ticket Vending Machines) came along, conductors collected cash fares to the tune of $50 million a year.  They had a money room at Grand Central that looked like a casino.  Now most fares are bought from the machines or on your smart-phone.  That means conductors should have a lot more time to make sure all tickets are collected.

Conductors on Metro-North make good money.  And they do a very important job keeping passengers safe, operating the doors, answering questions.  They’re the face of the railroad and most passengers give them high marks.

So what can you do if you see someone getting a free ride due to uncollected tickets?  Try this, which always work for me:

When I see a conductor miss a passenger’s ticket, I’ll wait until the conductor comes back and say something like “Excuse me conductor.  I think you missed collecting that gentleman’s ticket”, and then smile innocently at the conductor and the chagrined would-be thief.

If I see the same conductor always missing ticket collections, day after day, I report it on the Metro-North website complaints page, detailing the incident by name, date, train number, etc.  That allows the railroad to “re-train” the offending staffer.

So if you’re tired of all these fare increases, let’s stop the shoplifters.  Make sure everybody pays for their ride by having conductors collect all tickets. Please!

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.