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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?
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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.
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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?

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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