Total Page Views for "Talking Transportation"

December 22, 2005

Going First Class

For a guy who writes so much about transportation, trust me, I’m something of a homebody. I don’t like to travel anymore. Not that I don’t enjoy visiting different cities (and do so almost weekly for business), it’s just that the journey from here to there is not much fun anymore. Whoever said “getting there is half the fun” hasn’t flown lately.

Getting to and from the airport is a major hassle and expense. Airports (and planes) are jammed. Getting through security is like visit a proctologist. Flights are inevitably delayed. Meals enroute are but a memory. Frequent flyer programs have whored themselves, passing out “elite” status to so many passengers that it’s impossible to get an upgrade, let alone a free ticket.

But there is an alternative: first class… or at least business class on transcon flights. Sure, it costs more… either in higher fares or in redeeming those once precious frequent flyer miles… but it’s worth it.

You get to check in faster. The seats are bigger. The flight attendants are actually friendly. And they give you real food. Plus, there’s that slightly smug feeling as you ease into your seat and watch the coach customers walk in, heading for steerage, that you’re, well, “special”.

Even on Amtrak, first class is a better experience. On Acela to Boston or Washington there’s a comfier seat and a decent meal. (I don’t drink, so the free booze in flight or on the train matters little to me). And, unlike the airlines with their pricey airport “clubs”, first class passengers can use Amtrak’s “Metropolitan Lounge” (now dubbed “Club Acela”), complete with wi-fi and free beverages.

What may surprise you is that going first class doesn’t always mean taking out a home equity loan. In fact, compared to full fare coach, first is often only a few bucks more.

There’s a great Norwalk-headquartered travel meta-search engine, www.kayak.com that allows you to price all your alternatives, coach / business / first, at one site, so you’ll see the hidden bargains. (Full disclosure: Kayak is a consulting client of mine… but trust me, I wouldn’t recommend them if I didn’t think they were great). I always trust a neutral website even more than a commission-incentivized travel agent.

Does this mean I’ve abandoned Jet Blue or Song? No way, especially when I’m traveling with my family. But my New Year’s resolution for business travel is “treat myself right.” Life is too short to be trapped in coach.

I am reminded of a bumper sticker I saw once at a TWA ticket office. It read: “Fly First Class… Your Heirs Will”.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

December 12, 2005

Metro-North's Report Card: D+

Riders on Metro-North have just given the railroad its annual report card:

For performance D+

For effort a B+

For personality an A.

The annual Customer Satisfaction Survey taken by the railroad (in cooperation with the Commuter Council) was conducted last September, before the wires-down problems occurred and well in advance of the winter snows. (By the way… the railroad used to conduct quarterly surveys but now stakes its reputation on annual audits of its customers. They even chose to skip the survey one year because of a fare hike and expected bad grades. Wouldn’t we all wish we could be evaluated like this?)

Grades from riders on the Hudson and Harlem lines continued to soar as they enjoy riding in their new M7 cars. Meanwhile, their rich country cousins in Connecticut struggle on with cars older than many riders… 30+ years.

These grades from New Haven line riders don’t paint a pretty picture:

Overall satisfaction with conditions on the train: 76%, down 2% from 2004… and pathetic compared to 95% on Hudson and Harlem trains.
Availability of seats: 62% satisfied, down 5 %.

Cleanliness of floors: 66% satisfied.

Cleanliness of restrooms: 44% satisfied.

To be fair, the railroad did make better than passing grades in other categories:

On time performance: 89% satisfied.

Grand Central Terminal: 97% satisfied.

Courtesy and responsiveness of employees, 97% satisfied.

What can be done to improve these ratings? Plenty… but they’ll all take time. It won’t be until 2009 that we’ll start taking delivery of our new M8 cars to ease crowding and increase reliability.

For years now, my mantra has been “things are going to get a lot worse on Metro-North before they get any better”… which is not to say that things aren’t being done today to help.

Almost a hundred of our oldest cars, the M2’s, have gone through the CSR, or “Critical Systems Replacement”, program. They’ve had their engineering guts ripped out and replaced, and their reliability has soared. But from the passengers’ perspective, those cars look pretty much the same inside, so few appreciate the investment… especially when they pull into Grand Central and across the platform is a shiny set of high-tech M7 cars.

Sure, we’ll probably have a few more tough winters of delays and over-crowding, but that’s neither Mother Nature’s nor Metro-North’s fault. We can only blame ourselves and our lawmakers for letting the railroad slide so far downhill before attacking the problem.
The real question is… have we learned our lesson? Will we continue to invest in mass transit, and in doing so, our economy… or will we wait for another crisis?
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

A Holiday Bonus From Metro-North

Just in time for the holidays, commuters are getting a transportation bonus.

After years of singing the deficit blues, the MTA has found itself with an embarrassing $1 billion surplus at the end of the year. Rather than plowing that money into badly needed new rail cars, service and security improvements, the MTA Board has endorsed a “Let them eat (Christmas) cake” policy by returning $60 million of that money to riders in the form of lower fares.

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, riders of Metro-North, Shore Line East and the MTA’s subways and buses will get significant discounts.

If you buy a monthly commutation ticket on Metro-North in December, you’ll get one free ten-trip, off-peak ticket good anywhere on the system. Buy a weekly or ten-trip ticket anytime from November 24th through December 27th and you’ll get one round-trip off-peak ticket.
On weekends from Thanksgiving through January 2nd, subway and bus fares in New York City will be half-fare, a dollar per ride. There’s even a 40-day unlimited ride MetroCard available for use November 23rd through January 2nd for $76 (cash only at ticket booths, while supplies last).

To accommodate the expected surge in ridership, Metro-North is adding a number of weekend “Shoppers Specials” trains, shown in red in your timetables. Full details of all these special fare bonuses can be found at www.mta.info . Even still, I’m predicting uncomfortable crowding on most trains in the coming weeks.

I hate to sound like Scrooge, but appeasing unhappy commuters with one-off holiday treats may not be the best use of our money. While flush with cash today, MTA is facing serious budget problems in the years ahead including a $2.2 billion shortfall in pension investments.
As Andrew Albert of the NY Transit Rider’s Council put it…”I'm not convinced that a two-week feel-good holiday give-back is perhaps the best gift for riders. Many have expressed to us that if you pay down more pension debt you create less of a drag on fares." Keep that in mind when MTA and CDOT seek their next fare increase.

Finally, a correction to last week’s column “Connecticut Commuters Lose Again”. While I was accurate in reporting that Connecticut gets only a half-million dollars out of the $37.5 million allocated by Homeland Security for rail safety in the tri-state region, I was wrong in assessing blame for that allocation. It was not Congressman Chris Shays who dropped the ball, but CDOT. Turns out that, after the money was allocated by Congress, it was up to the rail agencies… MTA, NJ Transit and CDOT, not Shays… to divide the pie. I apologize for getting the facts wrong.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

November 12, 2005

CT Commuters Lose Again

As we slide from fall into winter, rail commuters start getting that nagging worry… will the trains keep running, or will we have another winter like 2003 when the system froze solid?

While engineering work is underway to try to keep our dilapidated 30+ year old cars running, I’ve been telling you for months that CDOT has cars available that it has not yet put into service.

Over a year after CDOT took delivery of 26 used commuter rail cars from Virginia, only half of them are now being used. Last fall, after Governor Rell inspected those VRE cars, she said “put them to work”. But they’re still not running.

Over the summer CDOT leased eight used Amtrak locomotives to haul those VRE cars, but are they all being used? No. While we all know about the standing-room-only conditions on most trains, more than a dozen badly needed rail cars, and locomotives to pull them, sit in a rail yard somewhere gathering dust.

It seems that when CDOT first asked for bids on re-wiring work to make the cars compatible with our system, none of the bids were acceptable. But seven months later they still have not issued a new RFP asking for new bids. Nor has CDOT asked Metro-North to do the work. Why?

Somehow, this debacle has finally come to the attention of Governor Rell, who wrote CDOT Commissioner Korta and demanded action… and weekly status reports. Good for her… but where has she been on this issue for the past year?

Then there’s the bombshell from the Stamford Advocate’s sleuthing on where our Homeland Security Agency dollars are going. Last Sunday the paper reported that, while NYC area transit agencies are being given $37.5 million to beef up rail security, Connecticut is getting just $510,000 of those Federal funds for security.

How could the Feds offer such a huge pile of cash to spend on such a crucial infrastructure issue and we in Connecticut get so little? Where were our representatives when decisions were being made on how to spend that dough?

Congressman Chris Shays argues that Connecticut riders will benefit because much of the HSA money will be spent in New York City, our riders’ top destination and terrorists’ likely target. That sounds more like an excuse than an explanation.

Aren’t terrorists likely to target the weakest part of the rail network? And wouldn’t that be us, here in Connecticut?

On Connecticut tracks alone there are six vulnerable targets which, if attacked, would bring down the entire Northeast rail corridor. Will state taxpayers be forced to pay for their hardening while federal funds cover similar work in NYC?

Congressman Shays is Chairman of the National Security Subcommittee and he can’t deliver more than $510,000 for his constituents? For shame!

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

October 23, 2005

"Breaking Up Amtrak"

When American forces burned villages in Vietnam, their excuse for those acts was “we had to destroy it to save it.” It seems the Bush administration is using the same tactic in rescuing Amtrak.

Weeks after their September meeting, it leaked out that the Bush-appointees to the Amtrak Board of Directors had secretly voted to spin-off the Northeast corridor, the railroad’s most heavily ridden and least subsidized (but still unprofitable) rail operation. The plan is that the line between Washington DC and Boston would be run by a consortium of eight states and Federal government.

If approved by the states, that would leave the rest of Amtrak’s national operation to wither and die, cut off from a subsidy of federal dollars and the revenue of the NE Corridor (NEC).

Here’s why their plan makes no sense.

1) Amtrak is a national railroad. To survive, all of its routes must continue as they feed passengers into each other, serving the entire nation. Transportation is a vital utility. We don’t allow a power company to only wire densely populated, profitable areas, so why cut off 42 other states from rail service?

2) We in Connecticut can’t afford to subsidize the Northeast Corridor. We can barely afford to run Metro-North let alone be burdened with the longest section of tracks between Washington and Boston.

3) Ours is the worst section of the NEC. We have the oldest overhead power wires, the worst bridges and some of the most congested tracks. Even in good condition, high speed tracks in the NEC cost $300,000+ per mile to maintain each year. If the Fed’s dump this infrastructure burden on us, how will we pay for it?

4) What will the Amtrak Board do if we don’t agree? Will they just run their trains through our state without stopping, make us the equivalent of “fly-over country”? What will that mean to the economies of Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Old Saybrook, New London and Hartford… the cities now served by Amtrak? How will they be affected if Connecticut loses Amtrak service?

5) If the plan is improved, who’ll be in charge? How will the competing interests of states like Connecticut and New Jersey, both seeking access to scarce track-space in New York City, be decided?

6) For a clue to the risks of such a break-up scheme, look to Great Britain. A decade ago when they broke up their railroads into separate infrastructure (tracks, bridges and signals) and operating companies (trains), it was a disaster! Service got worse and safety deteriorated.

It’s been long known that the Republicans have little love for Amtrak and would prefer to see it dead. But with annual ridership now up to 25 million passengers and on-time performance of 89%, the railroad is turning the corner. Acela is back and so are the passengers.

Our Federal government is spending $5+ billion a month in Iraq, but they can’t seem to justify the $1.18 billion annual subsidy for our national railroad. Why?
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see http://www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/

October 19, 2005

Try Transit... Again

Metro-North has become a victim of its own success.

On top of a four percent annual growth in ridership year to date, recent spikes in gas prices have attracted even more riders. In spite of last year’s fare hikes, the lack of parking at stations or even the lack of seats on the train, more and more people are heeding the call to “try transit”.

The problem is, they often don’t like the experience and head back to their cars. So how can we convince car-commuters to make a more permanent commitment to mass transit? Here are a few ideas:

1) DECLARE A TRANSPORTATION CRISIS: Governor Rell should declare the gas crisis a state of emergency and embrace President Bush’s call for reduced driving. Make single-occupancy driving socially unacceptable and cast transit-users as true patriots.

2) LOWER RAIL FARES: Make transit attractive by keeping it affordable to all. The increased ridership will more than offset a fare reduction as the MTA found with subways in New York City in recent years. To encourage greater intra-state ridership (getting commuters off of I-95 and the Merritt), why not offer free fares on “Try Transit Tuesdays”?

3) OFFER MORE PARKING AT STATIONS: Would-be train riders can’t commute if they can’t get to the station. Governor Rell should remind towns that rail stations are owned by the state and order them to suspend no-parking ordinance near stations. Use brown fields and open spaces for parking. Start station-to-business shuttles and fund them with the state’s recent embarrassing $30-million dollar windfall in gas tax revenues.

4) PUT ALL AVAILABLE RAIL CARS IN SERVICE: More than a year after their delivery, not all of the 26 used Virginia Railway Express passenger cars and used Amtrak locomotives are in service. Why is CDOT dragging its feet and why isn’t the Governor pushing them faster?

5) FIND MORE RAILCARS TO INCREASE SERVICE: It won’t be until 2009 that the new railcars we’ll soon order will start delivery… if we’re lucky. We can’t wait that long. CDOT should be directed to scour the country looking for available used rail equipment and get it into service yesterday.

6) OFFER INCENTIVES FOR RIDE-SHARING: Give car-poolers a discount on gas, free parking at stations (and work) and a tax incentive for being good citizens.

7) GIVE DIS-INCENTIVES FOR SINGLE-DRIVERS: If people really want to commute in SOV’s (single occupancy vehicles), make them pay for the privilege. Charge them for parking at work and use that money to subsidize ride-sharing.

We can no longer consider it “business as usual” when it comes to transportation in Connecticut, let alone the nation. Our lawmakers should seize this opportunity to encourage a change in commuting patterns. Let’s give people a reason to “Try Transit”… again.
--------------------------------------------------------------------
JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

October 02, 2005

Travel Now... Talk Later

Oh happy day! On Saturday October 1st the new state law takes effect making it illegal to yabber on a cell phone while driving. Connecticut thus joins New York and New Jersey in leading the nation in this important safety measure.

Sure, cellphone addicts will be allowed to drive and talk if they use a “hands-free” device, but even this begs the question of where their attention should be, i.e. on the road.

I honestly wonder what soccer moms with an SUV full of kids are thinking when they drive down busy streets juggling a latte in one hand and a cellphone in the other. Don’t they love their kids?

Once, when stuck in crawling traffic on I-95, I actually saw a guy reading a book. I’ve seen other drivers shaving or putting on make-up. Give me a break!

In the words of the NPR “Car Talk” guys’ bumper sticker: “Drive Now, Talk Later”. But I’d carry that message to other travel environments as well, especially on the train.

For several years now the Commuter Council has been trying to persuade Metro-North to establish “Quiet Cars” on commuter trains… cellphone free environments where riders seeking peace don’t need to hear some self-centered hedge-fund dealer yelling at his trading desk in a voice that carries through the entire car.

Amtrak pioneered the “Quiet Car” concept to rider acclaim, but Metro-North refuses even to experiment with the idea, instead pushing its “be considerate of other riders” public service campaign, with only modest success.

If we used to have smoking and non-smoking cars, why can’t we have “Quiet Cars” as well?
What I enjoy most is watching cellphone users with the new Bluetooth wireless ear clips, chattering away to nobody in particular… “It’s me.” Who cares? “I’m on the train”. Yeah, I can tell. “Just thought I’d check in.” I wish I could check out.

But wait, fellow travelers… it gets worse. Recently the FAA was considering allowing cellphone use in-flight. Could you imagine a 6 hour trans-con, crammed into a center seat, between two people determined to talk the entire way… and who’ve brought extra back-up batteries just to be sure? Fortunately, saner minds prevailed and that idea was shot down.

OK…I’ll admit that I do use my cellphone on the train, but I always make the call short, and cup my hand around the mouthpiece. If a longer call is necessary I’ll get out of my seat and use the vestibule. And to make sure that incoming calls don’t bother anyone, I leave my phone on vibrate.

A ticket on the train buys you transportation, not the right to annoy your fellow passengers with a recitation of your woes. And when you’re driving, will you please hang up?

###

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

September 09, 2005

"The Lessons of Hurricane Katrina"

We’ve all been awe-struck in recent days watching the coverage of the rescue efforts in the South following hurricane Katrina. But I think there are some important lessons to learn -- and questions we must answer -- all be them at the expense of those tragic victims.

1) Transportation Means Survival: The difference between those who lived and died in New Orleans was based on access to transportation. When told to evacuate, those with cars did. Those without were stranded. The lack of public transportation along the Gulf Coast left the “disadvantaged” as just that… dis-advantaged, and maybe dead.

I wonder why every available rail car, bus, plane and helicopter wasn’t called into service to remove people from Katrina’s path. Worse yet, I wonder how those living along the Connecticut coast would evacuate if a category four storm were threatening us. Join the crawl on I-95? Take Metro-North? Or hunker down at a local mall.

2) Our Classless Society Isn’t: The victims of Katrina aren’t characterized as much by race as by economic class. Access to housing away from the flood plain and access to private transportation both cost money. You don’t have to be Black to be poor. But a week after rescue efforts began, with hundreds of mostly black bodies still floating, uncollected let alone unburied, one wonders if it’s not also a matter of race.

During an NBC fund-raising telethon for hurricane victims, black rap artist Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (only to have those comments censored by the network for its West-Coast feed). The President’s mother, Barbara, on touring the refugee camps in Houston commented that, given the squalor of their former New Orleans homes, these victims of Katrina were actually better off than before. She added “it’s kind of scary that they might all want to stay in Texas”.

Where would Connecticut’s refugees flee after an evacuation? Gold coasters perhaps would drive their SUV’s up to familiar ski country in New England. But where would the Hispanic, Haitian and Black populations of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport flee… and would they also be made to feel like so many dust bowl Oakies?

3) Our Government Is Incompetent: Four years after 9/11 we’ve seen once again that our government can’t do a damn thing to protect its citizens. One might excuse a surprise terrorist attack, but a long anticipated, well-scenarioed hurricane? Not a chance.

As Katrina hit, George Bush was enjoying week five (!!!) of his summer vacation at his ranch, while his political appointee cronies at FEMA fiddled as New Orleans burned and flooded.

Seventy-five percent of FEMA’s budget is spent on terrorism, even though acts of nature present the real danger to most Americans. Gobbled up into the Homeland Security Agency, FEMA has lost all clout, competence and most of its budget.

We have already spent almost $200 billion fighting in Iraq. For what? And what will the final cost be for reconstruction of the South? And will those billions be spent on no-bid contracts for Halliburton?

I’m not ashamed to “play the blame game”. But my comments are not about partisan politics. There’s plenty of blame, and responsibility, to go around for all the pol’s at all levels of government. Because, if we don’t address these horrendous mistakes and answer these tough questions, aren’t we likely to also fall victim to a Katrina-style disaster?

###

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can read a full archive of his columns at http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/ .

September 03, 2005

Truck Safety, Gas Prices and Terrorism

“Follow-Ups: Trucks, Gas & Security”

Many thanks to those of you who’ve written or replied to my recent columns. It’s time to catch up on some outstanding issues:

TRUCKS: Many of you took exception to my tongue-in-cheek “Let’s Blame The Trucks” (http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/2005/02/lets-blame-trucks.html) column of a few weeks back, where I noted that our traffic woes aren’t due to trucks, but to “SOV’s”… single occupancy vehicles. That said, the recent fiery dump-truck crash in Avon CT, which killed four and left 20 vehicles ruined, speaks to the fact that truck safety needs more attention.

Why then are the truck inspection stations in Greenwich and Danbury closed more often than they’re opened? Why aren’t they open 24 / 7 and using the readily available EZ-Pass style technology that would let already-inspected trucks to sail past, leaving more time and staff to scrutinize the others?

The answer is legislative opposition, much of it led by Greenwich pol’s who don’t want trucks befouling their pristine air, idling at the inspection site so near their homes. This is absurd. Their NIMBYism denies the rest of us on I-95 and I-84 the knowledge that our drives will be safer because dangerous rigs will be off the road.

GAS PRICES: My column “Gasoline Is Too Cheap” (http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/2005/04/gasoline-is-too-cheap.html) was also met with jeers… and a few cheers. Since its writing, prices have soared even higher.

But have you ever wondered why gas prices in Darien and New Canaan are always so much higher than in Norwalk and Bridgeport? Why, when you drive up the Merritt Parkway do prices at service areas vary 5 to 10 cents per gallon from station to station, just miles apart? Blame it on “zone pricing”, a practice condoned by the FTC that lets oil companies charge higher prices to dealers in rich neighborhoods.

Connecticut has 52 different price zones, with the rich “paying through the hose” for the same fuel less-affluent drivers can get for much less. This leaves price conscious motorists roaming the roads in tough neighborhoods looking for affordable fuel for their SUV’s, and wasting a lot of time and money in the process with unnecessary driving.

Consumer watchdogs and Attorney General Blumenthal have been seeking reforms of zone pricing for years, so far to no avail. What can you do? Complain to your elected officials. Look at their voting records and hold them accountable for their inaction on this issue.

WHAT SECURITY? It’s been weeks since the terror attacks on London and we’ve all gone back to our complacent commuting patterns. The national terror alert has been lowered, and we assume all’s well. (See http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/2005/07/terror-on-tracks.html)

After the subway bombings, while New York City officials instituted random bag checks on subways and commuter trains, Governor Rell did not. Instead, she kept State Police riding the trains to give commuters the “feeling” of safety where none exists. As I wrote in July in “Terror On The Tracks”, uniformed cops on Metro-North trains offer no deterrence to would-be terrorists… but random bag checks would.

There will be more terrorist acts, again possibly targeted to mass transit. But when will we learn that they might be prevented with some real security, not just lip-service and window-dressing by PR-sensitive politicians?
###


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can read a full archive of his columns at http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/ .

August 15, 2005

Here's the latest on traffic tech

When you’re hitting the highway, a little information can save you a lot of headaches. Knowing where the traffic jams are before you’re caught in them can help you find a detour and avoid lost time.

While some roads are always a mess… I-95 and the Merritt between Greenwich and Norwalk… it’s the unexpected jackknifed tractor trailer and 10 mile back-up that can ruin your day. But how do you get “good intel” on such disasters? Let me share a few tried and true tips from fellow road warriors.

RADIO: I’m a big fan of WCBS 88O AM for its “traffic and weather on the 8’s” reports, which almost always include mention of Connecticut. In AM and PM drive-time, their reports on tri-state traffic can run to five minutes and are almost always accurate. They also encourage “cell-mates” to call in their eyewitness reports, which I do frequently (call 1-212-975-8888). Now, if they’d only live up their “all news” moniker and drop the Yankees games so I could truly get reliable traffic “all the time”.

HIGHWAY RADIO: You might not realize it, but there’s a network of local, low-power radio stations doing nothing but traffic reports. Known as “Highway Advisory Radio”, they’re found at 530 and 1620 on the AM dial, depending on location. Their looping reports last a minute or two and are generally accurate, originating as they do from State Police offices in Bridgeport where they have access to a network of cameras watching our highways. Traffic info on the large illuminated highway signs (and those helpful reminders to buckle-up and put down the cell-phones) originate from the same place. But like WCBS, they can use your help in finding accidents, so hit 911 on your cell if you see trouble unfolding that affects personal safety and share that info with CT State Police.

TRAFFIC CAMERAS: The same traffic cameras the troopers use are also available online in real time (but as still pictures, not full-motion video) at http://www.ct.gov/dot/cwp/view.asp?a=1993&Q=290242&PM=1&dotNav=&dotNav= Scroll down the list, pick the cameras along your intended route and see for yourself how things look.

CABLE TV: Our friends at Cablevision have their own answer to “traffic and weather together”… Metro-Traffic, found on channel 61. It’s not exactly must-see TV, though they also use the video feed from the traffic cam’s together with an area map showing color coded traffic flow. Even the Weather Channel is getting in on the act, adding a traffic report to their “Local on the 8’s” forecast showing the average speed on major arteries, again with color coding. (Yes, the speed on the Cross-Bronx was 14 mph the other day. That’s ‘free flowing’ by NYC standards.)

E-MAIL: Thanks to the efforts of State Senator Andrew McDonald of Stamford, the CT DOT was recently persuaded to share its traffic updates in a user-friendly format. Just register your e-mail at http://www.ct.gov/dot/cwp/view.asp?a=2003&Q=290292&dotNav= and CDOT will send you free e-mail alerts of major traffic snafus along with guesstimates of how long it will take to clean them up (usually an average of 2 – 3 hours). They’ll also send you a follow-up when things get back to what passes for normal. In its first five months of operation, five thousand e-mails have been registered. By the way… Metro-North offers a similar e-mail alert for train problems. There’s a link from the CDOT website.

TELEPHONE: In many parts of the country you can dial 511 and ask for the latest traffic. Using voice recognition technology and a speech synthesizer, the system will give you an update. There’s no such system in the NYC metro area, though I have heard of pay-per-call systems which probably rely on the same traffic resources listed above. Save your money and just turn on your radio.

None of these technologies will prevent traffic jams, but they may lessen their severity if the cognoscenti know where they are and can avoiding adding to the delays.
For a complete list of web links to the sites mentioned above, visit my blog at http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com



JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

July 10, 2005

Terror On The Tracks

The news of the recent terror attacks in London should not really come as a surprise. After the Madrid bombings in March of 2004, it was really only a matter of time before terrorism struck again at such a vulnerable target as mass transit.

Our government has proven itself unable to protect the homeland, so seeing State Troopers and police riding Metro-North trains seems like an act of PR, propping up public opinion, rather than acting as any deterrence.

According to the House Transportation Committee, since 9/11 we’ve spent $11 billion improving aviation security, or $9.16 per passenger. In the same time we’ve only spent $115 million on mass transit, or $0.006 per passenger.

Homeland Security has tried some experiments in improving rail safety… scanning checked baggage in Washington DC and creating a security perimeter around the Hagerstown MD rail station. But their craziest experiment of all happened right here in Connecticut.

In July of 2004, a Shore Line East train was outfitted with an extra car carrying bombing sniffing and metal detecting equipment (on loan from manufacturer GE which is obviously eyeing lucrative contracts). Passengers boarding the train at all stations first had to enter the “security car” and as the train moved along, were screened for explosives. That’s right… they got on the train and then were screened. But isn’t the idea to keep the bombs off of the trains, not find them in transit?

What can realistically be done to improve safety on our trains and subways? In my view… not much. There are hundreds of miles of track, scores of stations and thousands of passengers to control. Consider some of the possibilities:

  • ID checks before boarding? For what purpose… and of what deterrence value?

  • Airport style secure zones and screenings? Can you imagine thousands of riders arriving 60 – 90 minutes before departure to cue for screenings twice each day? They’d abandon the trains and be back in their cars in a flash.

  • A cop on every train? Be honest: do you really think a determined suicide bomber would stop at his grizzly task if he saw a cop on the train? And with a ten-car Metro-North train carrying more passengers than a 747, what good is a cop at the front of the train if something happens a quarter-mile behind him in the rear car?

  • Bomb-sniffing dogs on every train? Maybe. But we don’t have anywhere near enough trained canines to handle the hundreds of trains each day on Metro-North.


So what’s a commuter to do? In my view… rely on your own instincts. Be watchful of your surroundings, unattended bags and suspicious behavior. If you see something that doesn’t look right… report it.


Last year, after the Madrid bombings, I was on a Metro-North train headed into the city when a passenger came into my car, spoke softly with the conductor, and sat down. Two other passengers followed him, now speaking in more excited tones. They said there was a dark skinned man in the other car sweating profusely, looking at his watch, reading an Arabic newspaper and playing with something in his briefcase. The conductor radioed ahead and our train was stopped in the Bronx. MTA Police in body armor boarded and took the man off the train.

To my eye he looked like any other commuter. Sweating, perhaps because he’d run for the train. Looking at his watch, because he was late for an appointment. Fumbling with something in his briefcase, maybe to find his Blackberry. Reading a foreign newspaper, to catch up on the news in his native tongue. The gentleman looked Indian, not Arabic, but he offered no resistance when he climbed off the train.

Paranoia? Xenophobia? Or have our enemies really won and left us terrorized?
I’m still riding the train and taking the subways. But I’m not expecting the authorities to prevent the inevitable… further terrorist attacks right here in the US.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

New Trains On Track

There’s finally good news for Metro-North commuters. New trains are on the way!
In special session, the Connecticut Legislature has approved Governor Rell’s bold initiative to spend over $1 billion on almost 350 new rail cars. But don‘t expect to ride these new cars until 2008 or, more likely, 2009.

Consultants are already drawing up the engineering specs for the proposed M8 twin-car sets, one car powered under the wire (in Connecticut) with its sister-car relying on third rail power (in Westchester and into GCT). Each car will power the other in its respective territory. Mind you, this is just the concept and has yet to be proven on paper or on the tracks.

After the engineering RFP goes out in September, a car-builder will hopefully be approved by fall of 2006, and construction will begin. Mind you, this is a small car order by railroad standards, and a rather sophisticated engineering task, so bids may not be plentiful, or cheap.

While closely following the design of the Bombardier-built M7 cars now running on the Hudson and Harlem branches of Metro-North, the new M8s could be built by French, Japanese or even Korean manufacturers. (There hasn’t been an American rail-car builder since the Budd Company closed decades ago.) By avoiding use of Federal money, and bonding this purchase ourselves, we avoid onerous “buy American” requirements.

According to Metro-North President Peter Cannito, car delivery, in lots of 100, would begin in late 2008. Then there will be necessary testing and break-in before the new cars can enter service.

While this long overdue replenishment of the aging Connecticut fleet is good news, there may still be a bumpy ride ahead until the new cars arrive, especially in the next four winters when the fleet is most challenged by the elements.

New shops are being built in New Haven and the refurbishment of the oldest M2 cars continues (at about four cars a month). That will mean better servicing for our 30+ year old fleet and better reliability from the rehabbed cars.

But the problems of overcrowding will continue. On an average day, 15% of our fleet of 343 cars is shopped for repairs or inspections. And only 75% of all trains have enough cars for a full consist. Despite fare increases, ridership is up 4%. That means standees.

After the disastrous winter of 2003-2004, the legislature came up with a token investment in more equipment. CDOT was able to negotiate a great deal on some used railcars from Virginia Railway Express.., a commuter railroad smart enough to upgrade its fleet before it was ridden into the ground. But the 26 VRE cars we acquired were of little help because we didn’t have enough locomotives to pull them.

Finally, a year later, CDOT has now signed a lease with Amtrak for eight used diesels which it hopes will be put into service by the end of this year.

The Amtrak diesels and VRE passenger cars (still in their original livery, or colors) will run on Shore Line East and the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines. The locomotive-pulled Bombardier cars now running on those lines will be brought down to the mainline to round out the fleet. Don’t expect more trains… just more cars on existing, chronically-short trains.

So, kudos to our elected officials for finally getting our mass transit system back on track. Now, let’s hope for commuters’ patience… and mild winters, until the new cars show up in three or four years.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

June 06, 2005

“Value Pricing Our Highways”

Tired of sitting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic on I-95 and the Merritt? Well, esteemed economist Milton Friedman has the answer.

Almost a decade ago, Freidman realized that traffic congestion was just a matter of supply and demand: too much demand and not enough supply. While some have suggested expanding the supply of roadways by double-decking I-95 or widening the Merritt Parkway, a simpler (and less costly) solution seems to be in managing the demand using “value pricing”.

Today, when we drive on highways at rush hour it costs us no more than if we drive off-peak. That is wrong. The value derived from being able to cruise (or crawl) on I-95 in morning rush hour is much higher, and should be priced accordingly.

Consider the other services we consume that offer off-peak pricing. Go to a movie on a Saturday night and you’ll pay more than on a weekday afternoon. Take a flight on a busy holiday weekend, when everyone else wants to fly, and you’ll pay more. Even Metro-North offers peak and off-peak (reduced) fares. So too should our highways.

Using electronic tolls (think EZPass), motorists who want or must drive at rush hour would pay a small price for the privilege. Those who don’t need to be on the roads at the busiest hours would wait, and pay less (or maybe nothing). That would mean fewer cars at rush hour and less congestion. Those paying the tolls at rush hour would get faster trip times… real value for the price. And the money raised could pay for long overdue highway construction or, better yet, subsidies for mass transit to keep fares low and attract even more cars off the highways.

San Diego introduced value pricing on one of its interstates in 1996. And in Minnesota an even bigger experiment is underway with what will be known as HOT (“high occupancy toll”) lanes once reserved just for car poolers. Even single-occupancy drivers could enter those lanes if they were willing to pay. And depending on traffic, those tolls would be recalculated and displayed every three minutes, fluctuating with demand.

Is it worth, say, $4 to drive eleven miles at rush hour? You bet, if it means you pick up your kid at daycare on time and avoid a $1 per minute penalty for late pick-up… or if you can actually make that important 8:30 am meeting that wins you an important piece of business.
Value pricing is already underway on the George Washington Bridge. In rush hour, big-rigs pay $36 to cross. But off-peak it’s only $30 and overnight the toll drops to $21. Since its introduction, value pricing has evened out the traffic load, saving everybody time and money.

Why haven’t we put such technology to use in Connecticut? Two reasons: 1) people think tolls actually slow down traffic and 2) there is a myth that if we reinstate tolls on our highways we’ll have to repay the Federal government billions of dollars. Both are false.

Drive the Garden State or Jersey Turnpike using EZPass and you can sail thru the barrier at top speed. And even the Federal DOT acknowledges that it will make exceptions for highway tolls used as a traffic mitigation tool.

So, as you motor across the countryside this summer, take a look around. Make note of the many state and private toll roads using new technology to collect tolls that pay for the roads you’re enjoying and ask yourself this: why aren’t we as progressive here in Connecticut?

###
JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

May 23, 2005

Do You Believe In Ferries?

If you believe in ferries, then clap your hands. Sage advice from Peter Pan, but as your applause subsides, let me debunk the popular myth that the solutions to our transportation woes can be found on Long Island Sound. Ferry boats face several challenges:

SPEED: In open water, fast ferries on the Sound could make 30 knots ( 35 mph). But if they must sail up inlets to the downtown areas of Bridgeport, Norwalk or Stamford that speed is cut to 5 knots, losing precious travel time.

PORTS: To keep to competitive speeds, docks would have to be located close to the Sound. That’s expensive real estate. And what about parking at those docks… and travel time on local roads to reach them? Again, more lost travel time.

FREQUENCY: Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour. No ferry service anywhere in the country can compete with that frequency of service. Will travelers really be willing to wait an hour or two for the next boat?

COMFORT: In nice weather, a boat ride to work sounds idyllic. But what about in a blizzard? The bumpiest ride on the train pales by comparison.

FARES: The most optimistic of would-be ferry operators estimate their fares will be at least double those charged on the train. And people say Metro-North is too expensive?

OPERATING COSTS: One of the reasons fares would be so high is that fast ferries are gas guzzlers, the aquatic answer to the Concorde. When the Pequot Indians built high speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino in Connecticut, the service lost so much money that the Pequot’s dry-docked the ship in Bridgeport.

COMPETITION: When a private operator tried to run ferry service from Glen Cove Long Island to midtown, paralleling a route well served by the LIRR, they shut down after just a few months because they couldn’t compete with the trains. Coastal Connecticut is already well-served by fast, efficient rail service, so why duplicate what already works?

What might work would be a ferry to LaGuardia Airport. But when Pan Am’s Water Shuttle couldn’t make a go of it ferrying fat cats to Wall Street, I’m not even sure an airport service would make sense. There are too many faster, cheaper ways of getting there already.

The final reason I don’t think ferries make economic sense is that nobody else does. Ferry operators (like the near-bankrupt NY Waterways) aren’t stupid. They’ve looked at possible service from coastal Connecticut, crunched the numbers and backed off. In a free market economy, if there was a buck to be made running ferries, they’d be operating by now. They aren’t, and there are lots of reasons, many of which I’ve listed.

The only place ferries are running successfully is where they’re heavily subsidized (everywhere), have a monopoly (for example, getting to downtown Seattle from an island suburb), don’t duplicate existing transportation routes (like from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson), or offer advantages of speed because they operate on extremely short runs (from Hoboken to midtown). Our situation here in Connecticut matches none of those tests.

You already know I’m a train nut. (The bumper sticker on my car reads “I’d Rather Be On The Train.”). And I do love an occasional recreational sail on the Sound. But I just think it’s unrealistic to think that commutation by ferries is really in our future.

Sorry Tinkerbelle. I’m not clapping.


JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

April 04, 2005

“Gasoline Is Too Cheap”

Gasoline is too cheap. That’s right… too cheap.

I’m tired of watching news stories about drivers moaning about the price of fuel as they fill their SUV’s. Enough already with the media hysteria over some conspiracy by the Arabs to strangle the US economy. These problems are of our own making, not caused by some foreign despot.

Let’s put gas pricing in the proper perspective. A gallon of gas costs less than a latte grande at Starbucks, yet nobody complains about the caffeine cartel. It costs you less to go 20 or 25 miles in your car than you pay for a gallon of milk. Yet nobody’s moaning about rising price of moo-juice.

Think gas is pricey here? Travel abroad and see what the rest of the world pays for fuel. In Canada it’s US$ 3 per gallon, in Europe it’s US$ 6 per gallon. Unless you live in Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, you’ll pay through the nose. Admittedly, much of those prices is additional taxes (used to subsidize cheaper mass transit), but the result is greater fuel efficiency and less traffic.

According to the EPA, Fairfield County’s air is as dirty as LA’s, thanks in part to car and truck exhausts. Moms obsess about protecting their kids’ health by buying expensive organic milk, but drive to the supermarket in pollution machines.

Face it. Americans have been spoiled for years with cheap gas prices. Adjusted for inflation, gas is cheaper today than it’s been in decades. So why are prices increasing now. Greed? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a matter of (limited) supply and (insatiable) demand.

Depending on whom you believe, we have maybe 50 years of oil left in the planet. And yet, nobody’s really doing anything to plan for our post-gasoline transportation needs. Even the available high-mileage hybrid cars still rely on gas.

Where’s the equivalent “put a man on the moon” R&D effort to produce a hydrogen-powered car, let alone an all-electric vehicle? Nowhere. Even motorists who’d buy such a car can’t find one.

Instead, we are victims of an auto industry with a death wish. Detroit (and Japan) are co-conspirators with the oil industry to keep us good and hooked to fossil fuels. Like trained monkeys, we do the little “annual trade-in, trade-up” dance as the organ grinder plays on. Did you know that Ford makes more money financing car loans than it does by making cars?

We drive prestige autos worth more than a college tuition payment… and pay annual town taxes on those status symbols that are greater than the annual income of workers in the third world. And yet we kvetch about gas prices going up a few pennies at the pump?

Do we really believe we’ve sacrificed thousands of American lives in Kuwait and Iraq in the cause of democracy? In your heart of hearts, you know these wars are over oil; and our despot allies in Saudi Arabia know it, too.

As oil becomes scarcer, and drilling more precarious (as in Alaska’s ANWR) the only solution is to send gas prices higher to encourage conservation. That means smaller cars, better use of fuel-efficient mass transit and, yes, less driving. That will cut down on highway congestion and get all of us to our destinations quicker.

I’m neither a tree-hugger nor a Communist. I’m just trying to be practical. Sure, I buy gas in New Jersey when I can because it’s a few pennies cheaper. But I know that in the long run my grandchildren will curse me if the legacy I leave them is a gasoline-based transportation system we should have weaned ourselves off of years ago.

Let’s raise the price of gas and get on with the technological challenge of building a better car… now.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

March 21, 2005

“The Airport Shuffle”

They used to say that “getting there is half the fun”. Whoever “they” were, they haven’t endured the challenges and indignities of air travel post-9/11.

Even getting to the airport can sap your strength, if not your wallet. Consider the alternatives.
A car service is certainly convenient. But at $120 one way to LaGuardia and $140 to JFK, getting to the airport can cost more than your air fare. Couldn’t solo travelers share a car with others? Is one passenger in a Lincoln Town Car an efficient use of limited space on I-95?

How about Connecticut Limousine? Now there’s a misnomer! Since when is a bus or cramped van a limo? And try explaining that receipt on your expense account to an out-of-town client.
On a few occasions I’ve actually rented a car at the airport, driven home and then dropped the car the next day in Stamford. A day’s car rental is about half the cost of a car service. OK… so call me cheap.

Some regular flyers hire neighborhood teens to drive their own car to the airport, drop them off and drive home, repeating the process on their return. That’s cheaper than a car service, but puts a lot of miles on your car.

My preferred airport transfer is in my own car. Airport parking is $24 a day ($10 - $12 a day in more distant long-term parking.) Not cheap, but certainly convenient. And nobody complains about my pre-flight cigar enroute to the airport.

Another alternative, believe it or not, is Metro-North. Get off at 125th Street and catch a cab and you’re at LaGuardia in about 15 minutes. Future plans call for some Metro-North trains to travel over the Hells Gate bridge, through Queens and into Penn Station. That could be a great chance to add a LaGuardia station with shuttle bus service to the terminals. But it’s a rail link our kids might see in their lifetimes, not ours.

And if you’re heading to Newark, definitely consider Amtrak. Most Northeast corridor trains stop at Newark Airport where a convenient connection to the airport monorail has you at the terminals in just minutes.

The proponents of ferry service on Long Island sound keep tempting us with talk about direct service to LaGuardia, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The old Pan Am Water Shuttle couldn’t make a go of it carrying business flyers from the Marine Air Terminal to midtown, so I’m skeptical that operators could fill ferry boats to Stamford and Norwalk. And do you really want a sea cruise in the winter?

Mind you, New York’s three airports aren’t the only choices. Westchester County airport offers non-stop jet service to many hub cities. Bridgeport’s Sikorsky airport used to get you to such cities as Philadelphia and Newark, but expansion of both of these airports is challenged by local residents. Hartford’s Bradley Airport offers another alternative, including low fare carriers like Southwest… if you don’t mind a two-hour drive.

Clearly, the trip to and from the airport can start and end a trip on a very sour, and expensive, note.




JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

March 07, 2005

“Saving Amtrak”

The wind is howling, the snow’s blowing. As we endure another late-winter blizzard, I-95 is its usual mess. The airports are as good as closed, but I’m on my way to Boston with nary a worry. I’m riding the fastest train on the continent… Amtrak’s Acela. I can use my laptop and stay productive as we shoosh along at 125 mph. Or I can nap in the cellphone-free Quiet Car… something I’ve been lobbying Metro-North to adopt for years. I’ll arrive in Boston rested, probably too-well fed, and most likely on-time. Is there any better way to travel?

We along Connecticut’s “Gold Coast” are truly blessed, especially thanks to our ancestors’ foresight in building what is still a great railroad infrastructure. As challenged as Metro-North may be, Amtrak has got it right. But our inter-state travels are again being threatened by Washington’s threats to end Amtrak subsidies.

The Amtrak board of directors, dominated by Bush appointees, wants to force the railroad into bankruptcy, they say, “for its own good”. Their hope is that they can force Amtrak President David Gunn to finally spin-off the few money-making services in the heavily traveled Northeast and California to private ventures, and then shut down the money-losing long distance trains in the West. But, as in past funding crises, Gunn is holding his ground, arguing that the entire system should be expanded, not Balkanized. And he’s right.

Gunn is a crusty old railroad guy. I met him first when I was a reporter at NBC News and Gunn had just arrived in New York City to save the subways. And did he ever! His career included similar successes in Boston with the MBTA and DC’s Metro. During his tenure in NYC he and I lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn and rode the same subways to work. We’d often ride together and discuss his job. He was honest to a fault and earned the respect of both riders and politicians.

In fact, he was lured out of retirement in Canada to take on the Amtrak challenge, a thankless task. He has nothing to lose in keeping his hard-line stance against the White House. But we all have much to gain.

Amtrak subsidies are sizable. But no railroad can run at a profit these days, which is why Amtrak was created. If private enterprise could run a railroad, they’d be doing so. The question isn’t the subsidy but the public benefit it buys us all.

Imagine travel without Amtrak. You think I-95 is crowded now? Amtrak’s Northeast corridor carries more passengers than the shuttles. It runs in all weather. And with Acela, it’s luring business travelers back from the airports. Lose Amtrak and our airports will be jammed and the highways impassable.

The economies of Connecticut cities like Stamford, New Haven and even Hartford depend on Amtrak feeding passengers into its businesses, hotels and restaurants. Without Amtrak, would a SwissBank really want to be headquartered in Stamford or a Pfizer in New London?

OK… I’ll admit it. I’m a rail fan. A certifiable “foamer” (so named by the railroads because we rail fans foam at the mouth at the sight of a train). And I hate flying, though I do so often because of my work.

But I can think of no other means of transportation as reliable, affordable and convenient as rail. Visit any civilized country in the world and you’ll see rail as a vital component of public transit. Why not the US? Amtrak must be saved and, in fact, expanded. Even if you never ride Acela you benefit from its being there. So call your Congressman and Senators. Write the President and tell him we need the trains.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 28, 2005

“Yet Another Fare Hike ?”

The cost of riding Metro-North has gone up again. And while these higher costs, effective March 1st, are described as “fare policy changes” rather than fare hikes, the effect is the same… higher costs for riders.

But didn’t we just have a fare increase a few months ago? You’re right. Fares went up 5.5% on January 1, following a 15% fare hike in July of 2003. And there are probably more fare hikes to come before our new cars arrive in 2008 or so.

What’s most interesting about these latest hikes is the way they were approved. But first, the details on who is affected.

If you have friends or co-workers living in New York City who “reverse commute” out to Connecticut each weekday morning, they’ll now be facing “peak” fares for one-way or ten-trip tickets. Those fare hikes are as much as 57%.

For everybody: if you don’t buy your ticket before you get on the train, you’ll now be hit with a surcharge of up to $5.50, instead of $3. Even if there’s no ticket machine on your platform (heading eastbound from most stations, for example), you must cross to the other side and get a ticket… or pay up. Seniors and the handicapped are exempted.

The idea behind this “surcharge” is to encourage greater use of the expensive new ticket vending machines which are replacing human ticket sellers. Metro-North says on-board conductors shouldn’t be playing banker, but should be running the trains. So having folks get their tickets before boarding will save them time in fare collection.

Maybe so… but a $5.50 penalty, even on a local fare of as low as $2.50? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging people to ride the trains, not penalizing them?

I’ve reviewed internal CDOT reports on this surcharge and they and Metro-North admit that only 10% of the daily on-board ticket buyers will likely be persuaded to change their lazy (evil?) ways. That means the railroad stands to gain $660,000 a year in added revenue from this new “fare policy change”, and that’s why I call this the hidden fare hike.

I love the new ticket machines (hint: tickets are even cheaper bought online). But I hardly see conductors as being over-worked. Most of the ride they’re sitting in their cubicle reading the newspaper.

How often have you been on a train and seen conductors fail to collect all tickets? On over-crowded trains with many standees, this means thousands of dollars in lost revenue per train. According to an MTA audit, $9 million a year is lost in revenue due to uncollected fares. It is especially a problem with out-bound trains where passengers board at Stamford, Norwalk or Bridgeport. Conductors walk the cars asking for “Stamford tickets” and an honest few offer them up. The rest enjoy a “free ride”… on the rest of us.

Metro-North regulations say that conductors should issue seat-checks when fares are collected. That way they know who’s paid and who hasn’t. If you don’t see that being done, or if you see people riding for free, challenge your conductor.

What’s most galling about these new fare hikes is that they were proposed by the MTA and were rubber-stamped by CDOT. Despite two public hearings where 56 people spoke out in unanimous opposition to the MTA / CDOT plan, CDOT Commissioner Korta approved them, with little fanfare, the same week that Governor Rell was announcing that Connecticut needs a seat and a vote on the MTA Board so we can protect the interest of our commuters.


JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 14, 2005

“Governor Rell’s Promise to Commuters”

There was so much good news for commuters, both rail and road, in Governor Rell’s budget address: new rail cars, promises of more station parking and even improvements to our highways.

But there was also some bad news: a proposed six cents per gallon increase in the gas tax (which we discussed in last week’s column), and a planned $1 per ride surcharge for Metro-North. However, the Governor promised that “(commuters) should not be asked to pay for improvements until they actually see them, sit in them or park in them.”

Her plan is to implement this “surcharge” in 2008 when she said the first fifty of 340 or more new rail cars will be delivered. I’m not really sure that commuters would mind paying a buck more a ride… if they could actually enjoy new cars. But the truth is, there’s no way new cars can be delivered that fast.

Last spring the Legislature scraped together enough money to buy us some time. They told CDOT to add 2000 seats in capacity to the New Haven line by the end of 2004. Today, ten months later, they haven’t even been able to do that after scrounging up hand-me-down rail cars from Virginia and used locomotives from Amtrak. And now the Governor thinks we can add new cars in less than three years?

Here’s what’s involved, and here’s why we’ll never be able to do it in just three years.
First, these proposed new M8 cars must be designed. There isn’t even engineering work underway yet on them. They’re just a concept. The M8’s must be powered using overhead AC power, yet they’re designed after the third-rail powered M7 cars in use in Westchester. As a result, these two car models are apples and oranges.

Next, the new cars would have to be put out to bids. And while the State of Connecticut is mandated to get three independents bids for even paper clips these days, the M8 cars can actually be built by only one company… Bombardier, builder of the M7’s on which the M8’s will be designed. A one-bid contract for a billion dollars?

Then the cars have to be built, hopefully first with a prototype to be thoroughly tested. After full production finally starts, the first new cars will be delivered and enter an extensive assessment and break-in period. Only then can they enter service.

When the MTA ordered the M7 cars now used in Westchester, it took five and a half years from design to delivery. Even CDOT, in its report to Governor Rowland last year, suggested a five or six year delivery cycle for the M8’s. That means, even with Legislative approval tomorrow (and don’t hold your breath for that !), we won’t be seeing new cars until 2010.

C’mon, Governor! You’re the one who preached for honesty and candor with Connecticut’s citizens… “straight talk” as you put it. I’m all for that! But an unrealistic promise of new cars by 2008 doesn’t meet that test.

I want these new cars more than anyone. I’ve been fighting for them on the Commuter Council for almost a decade. But please don’t make us commuters even more cynical by making pledges you can’t keep.

Still, Governor, you did make one promise you can keep: no ticket surcharge on trains until we can “see them or sit in them”, and I’ll hold you to your word. If the cars aren’t here by 2008, there will be no surcharge. Right?


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 09, 2005

“Gas Taxes & Tolls Make Sense”

You’ve got to give her credit. Governor Rell’s first budget didn’t pander to citizens with popular spending initiatives. Instead, it was a much-needed, reality-check slap in the face as she called on lawmakers to raise the gasoline tax to support investment in transportation.

Nobody likes to pay higher taxes… unless we understand where the money’s being spent. That’s why Governor Rowland scored big points in 1997 when he persuaded the Legislature to cut gas taxes by fourteen cents. Everyone hated the gas tax, thinking it just flowed into some black-hole in Hartford. What Rowland didn’t tell us was that cut meant we lost revenue that was to have been spent on highways, bridges and trains. So the tax was cut… but did gasoline prices drop 14 cents? No way.

Many lawmakers, including former Speaker Moira Lyons and now-Lt. Governor Kevin Sullivan now admit that gas tax cut was a big mistake. I’ll give them points for 20/20 hindsight but wish they’d been smarter seven years ago.

Why do we need higher gas taxes? Ask anyone who rides Metro-North. The trains are falling apart, they break down in cold weather and many stations are in dismal shape. Why not ask commuters to pay for those repairs? We did… and hit them with 20% fare hikes over the past two years. Commuters in Connecticut now have the highest fares of any railroad in North America. We cannot ask them to pay more or we risk losing them to their cars. To work, mass transit has to be affordable.

Every resident in this state, even if they never ride commuter rail, will benefit from this proposed gas tax hike. The money those taxes raise will fix up the trains and keep fares down, encouraging (and, with more seats, allowing) greater use of mass transit. That will mean fewer cars on the road.

Ask anyone who’s traveled abroad and they’ll tell you: Gas is too cheap in this country. A few extra pennies in taxes will mean nothing to the average motorist, but they’ll mean plenty to our state’s future.

But, while courageous, the Governor’s budget is not enough. We don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars in bonding-power, we need billions.

How about tolls on I-95 and the Merritt? With an EZ-Pass system you won’t even need to stop. And with time-of-day pricing, just like the trains, we can offer discounts to those who drive outside of rush hour, giving an incentive for those who must drive, to avoid rush hour.

Forget about that myth that the Federal government won’t allow tolls without reimbursement for years of highway spending. It’s not true. And former CDOT Commissioner Emil Frankel, now working for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, has confirmed that.
Tolls were eliminated from I-95 and the Merritt Parkway for the wrong reason… a fiery truck crash at the Greenwich toll barrier. Like the gas tax, they weren’t popular. But they were necessary to the upkeep of the transportation infrastructure.

Now, with a funding source on the horizon, the Legislature can get on with the real task at hand… ordering new rail cars that we needed years ago. Once ordered, we’ll still have to wait five or six years for their delivery. Hang in there fellow-commuters. We’ve got a long way to go.


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 08, 2005

“The Myth of the Third Rail”

Metro-North’s mangled and much-maligned service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate. Ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that operates on three modes of power… AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries. Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third rail power for the rest of the trip into New York. Even diesel trains must convert to third-rail as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels.

And there’s the rub: Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors. That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car. While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, the proposed dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut could cost $3.5 million each.

So, some folks are asking… “Why not just use one power source? Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.” Simple, yes. Smart, no. And here’s why.

Ø There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way. All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened. Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired. Cost? Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.

Ø Even with third-rail the CDOT would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak. That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost. We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the eighty-year old catenary, so why then replace it?

Ø Third-rail AC power requires substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate. The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.

Ø DC driven third rail is less efficient. Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world… the TGV, Shinkansen, etc. On third-rail speeds, are limited to 75 miles an hour vs. 90 mph under the wire. That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.

Ø Third rail ices-up in bad weather and can get buried in snow causing short circuits. Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.

Ø Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.

The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980’s by consultants to CDOT. They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail. This time, the engineers at CDOT got it right.

Not satisfied, some of the third-rail fans are now pushing bills through the Legislature to study the replacement scheme yet again. More studies would mean years of delay in ordering already overdue car replacements.

I trust the Legislature will dispense with these nuisance proposals quickly and get on with the task at hand… ordering new cars now. Even if the needed funds are appropriated today and the order placed immediately, new cars won’t be delivered for five or six years. Further studies of third-rail vs. overhead catenary only make us wait longer.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 01, 2005

“Let’s Blame The Trucks !!”

What’s the biggest cause of congestion and delays on I-95? Just ask anyone who drives that route, day or night, and they’ll say… TRUCKS! Unfortunately, those opinions, while popular, are not support by the facts.

Those of you who know me should recognize that I’m no apologist for the trucking industry. I’d love to get trucks off of the highways and onto freight cars on rails. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely in the foreseeable future (the topic for a whole other column). Neither is the token effort of barging a few hundred trucks a day from New York docks to Bridgeport going to make much difference, though I still support that idea as well. Rather than looking for a scapegoat, let’s consider the facts before we blame truckers for the mess we have created.

As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It is all of us, in single occupancy vehicles (s.o.v.’s), that cause the congestion, not trucks. Here are the facts:

Ø Trucks are high occupancy vehicles. They don’t drive up and down the interstates empty. They’re delivering goods that we want to buy. How do you think the big boxes get to “the big box stores”? Every piece of clothing, item of food… yes, even the newsprint you are holding, was delivered by truck. Our insatiable consumption created this demand.

Ø Trucks are only permitted on the interstate highways, while s.o.v’s can use local streets or the parkway. Did you know that the average journey on I-95 is less than ten miles? We local residents use our interstates like cross-town shortcuts and wonder why they’re congested.

Ø Trucks deliver their goods when the merchants tell them. Why are trucks on I-95 at rush hour? Because selfish store owners won’t accept deliveries outside of the 9 am to 5 pm store hours they find convenient. In parts of Manhattan, by law, all truck deliveries must be made at night… and the daytime street traffic flows freely.

Ø Trucks are responsible for most of the accidents. Wrong. Sure, trucks do occasionally jackknife, dump their contents and cause delays… but often those accidents are caused by s.o.v. drivers. CDOT statistics prove that most accidents on I-95 involve cars, not trucks. In general, I think truck drivers are better than automobile drivers. It’s what they do for a living. Unlike s.o.v. drivers, they don’t juggle a cell-phone, toddler and a latte while operating their vehicle.

Ø How about the truck inspection stations? Why aren’t they open more hours? Good question… and best answered by the NIMBY politicians from Greenwich, whose clout has kept those safety stations closed so their tony neighbors won’t complain. Even the trucking industry supports greater safety vigilance, so let’s open those inspection stations 24 x 7… and hit ‘em all with a toll while they’re there, especially those trucks that are just “passing thru” the state, treating Connecticut like “drive over country”.

And while we’re at it, let’s force the industry to design a cleaner diesel engine to save whatever is left of our LA-quality air. Let’s open more parking areas so road-weary truckers don’t have to sleep on the shoulder at night. And sure, let’s pass a law stopping truckers from using “jake brakes” to noisily downshift. I’m all in favor of safer, cleaner and quieter trucks.

But let’s not kid ourselves when it comes to explaining the true cause of our traffic mess. Next time you’re crawling up I-95, look around you. Count the number of s.o.v’s and the number of trucks. Then tell me… who’s really causing the delays? It may be easy to blame it on the trucks… but it’s not true.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

January 25, 2005

“Governor Rell Seeks A Scapegoat”

Last week’s big Transportation Rally in Hartford was a huge success. There were over 200 concerned citizens from across the state who bussed and car-pooled up to the Capitol to tell lawmakers they must make transportation a top priority in the coming session.

In addition, there were dozens of State Representatives and Senators… drawn like moths to the flame of the assembled TV cameras, there to pledge their allegiance to getting Metro-North long overdue new equipment.

But it was Governor Jody Rell, who was not there, who stole the show with a statement read by one of her staffers. She teased the crowd with promises of big surprises to come in her forthcoming budget… “a substantial new commitment to alleviating congestion on our highways (and) improving rail and bus operations.”

Good for her. But the devil’s always in the details and her budget doesn’t come out until February 9th.

Another Rell initiative that got a lot attention was her call for a vote for Connecticut on the MTA Board and her directive to have top CDOT officials present at all Metro-North meetings. As she put it… “Over the years rail service has suffered because Connecticut does not have an equal voice before the MTA.”

Well… yes, and no.

CDOT has had a seat, but not a vote, on the MTA for years. Rail officials from CDOT spend a lot of their time, perhaps too much, attending meetings at Metro-North in New York City. (At least that gets them riding the trains so they can see firsthand how bad the conditions are). And it is true that Connecticut is Metro-North’s biggest customer, deriving 65% of its income from running the trains in our state for CDOT. Governor Rell is right. Connecticut does deserve a seat and a vote on the MTA board.

But it is patently false for her to say that our current plight on Metro-North is due to the lack of a vote on the MTA Board. Our biggest problems today are of our own making, not MTA’s. To blame them for our woes is just wrong.

It was CDOT that raised the fares 20% in the last two years, not the MTA.

It was CDOT (and especially Governor Rowland’s) neglect of infrastructure that has us scrambling for used rail cars while our Westchester friends enjoy new equipment. That neglect had nothing to do with MTA.

It was poor planning and the NIMBY attitude of Connecticut towns that leaves us with five year waiting lists for inadequate parking at the train stations, not MTA.

Governor Rell has done a number of good things since she took office, many of them in transportation. But she must be honest with commuters, or their cynicism with grow. Commuters aren’t stupid. They know that last winter we had days when 140 of our 343 cars were out of service, so when she says “help in on the way” in the form of 26 used rail cars from Virginia… only eight of which are now in service… what are we to think?

Blaming the MTA for our current crisis is a contention not supported by the facts. We, meaning all of us in Connecticut, created this mess. And we’re going to have to fix it. If she’s got any guts, the Governor’s budget will propose higher gas taxes, tolls on I-95 and the Merritt and other user fees. There’s one way out of this crisis… money. Enough rhetoric… it’s time for action.


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct