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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”.
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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 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?
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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 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.
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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 www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com