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December 22, 2006

Metro-North Considers Prohibition

Don’t look now, but Metro-North’s parent agency, the MTA, is about to play Grinch. They’re considering a plan to ban booze on all their trains. Here’s the story.

Last summer a young lady riding the Long Island Railroad was killed when she slipped into a gap between the platform and her train. She was, allegedly, drunk. Rather than fix the problem (the gap), the railroad is blaming the passenger. This just doesn’t make sense.

We don’t know if the young lady bought her booze on the train, at Penn Station or at a corner deli in Manhattan. We don’t know if her inebriation caused her to fall, as there have been plenty of other such accidents involving stone cold sober commuters.

I’m no lawyer, but I don’t see how the railroad can be held responsible for the passenger’s behavior, though it should certainly be liable for the unsafe conditions at the station.

The answer is not prohibition. Banning the sales of booze on railroad property won’t sober up determined commuters who wants to enjoy a beer on their way home. It will just make them more creative, hiding their brew in a brown bag. Is this really how the railroad wants to treat its customers, as criminals? What’s next… breathalyzers?

Every time the Commuter Council floats the idea of cellphone-free “Quiet Cars”, the Metro-North brass says “no way”, claiming it doesn’t want to turn conductors into cops. And now they’re suggesting conductors police the consumption of beverages on the train?

Already we’re getting reports that GCT cart sales and bar-car tenders are limiting customers to the purchase of two drinks… an “old rule”, we are told, but one that veteran commuters tell me they’ve never heard of.

In full disclosure let me acknowledge that I don‘t drink. I gave it up 20+ years ago. I am no fan of the bar cars as I think they’re wasting space for convivial stand-up drinking when what we really need is more seats for the standees. (Metro-North only has ten bar-cars in its fleet of 343, so what’s the big deal?)

But while I’m no bar-fly, I’ll argue strongly that commuters should have the right to drink if they do so responsibly. Last I checked there hasn’t been a problem with rowdy drunks enroute. Nor has there been a spate of auto accidents when Dashing Dan’s stagger off the train and into their cars.

During the season of Christmas parties it’s up to all of us to behave… and keep an eye out for our fellow travelers. Would Metro-North rather send revelers back to their auto’s for their drive home from the city?

Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, which hires Metro-North to run our trains, has already announced that any attempts at prohibition by MTA won’t hold sway in the Nutmeg State, so drink up boys. Here’s a toast to the railroad that’s living in the past.

Prohibition didn’t work in the 1920’s and it won’t work today.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

December 03, 2006

"Old Cars, New Cars"

New rail cars are on their way, slowly, for Metro-North commuters in Connecticut. If all keeps to plan, the ribbon cutting ceremony for the first car will be three years from now. But, delivered at a slow but steady rate, it will be 2010 or 2011 before you’ll probably ride in a shiny new M8 car with any consistency… and pay a buck more per ride for the privilege.

But now there’s discussion of ordering more M8 cars by diverting money from the “CSR Program” that’s rehabilitating the oldest cars in the fleet. That’s a terrible idea, and here’s why.

Remember the winter of 2003 when the lethal combination of granular snow and weeks of sub-freezing temperatures pretty much ground the railroad to a halt? Sure you remember! One third of all trains were cancelled, and the few that did run were packed like the IRT at rush hour.

That was the fiasco that convinced the legislature that “Hartford, we have a problem” and wheels started turning to order new rail cars. But given the slug-like pace of design and bidding, even lawmakers who never commute knew we needed a stop-gap to keep the trains rolling ‘til the new cars arrived. Thus was born the “CSR” or Critical Systems Replacement program.

The oldest 250 cars in our aging fleet, the M2’s dating from 1970, were to be gutted and rebuilt. Out with the old, snow-vulnerable motors and exposed electronics, and in with the new. Mind you, none of this work would change the car interiors, except for new windows. So chances are you never knew if you were riding in an original or CSR’ed car.

The plan was to process four cars per month until all 250 cars would be finished in five years. Well, here we are four years later and only 28 cars have been completely rebuilt while another 112 cars have had a partial job done. The CSR program has recently slipped from doing two cars a month to one.

Mind you, the cars that have been “CSR’ed” are much more reliable, running double the miles before breaking down compared with the older, un-rehab’ed cars. And most importantly, the CSR cars run much better in bad weather, especially snow. That reliability is crucial if we’re to avoid another “melt-down” like the winter of ’03.

That’s why the suggestion that the CSR program could be curtailed and its funding moved into ordering additional new M8 cars just doesn’t make sense. We need those old cars fixed, now.

If you live in a house with a leak in the roof, you fix it first before considering possibly installing skylights in a few years.

The new M8 cars are still being finalized in design. No prototype has been built, let alone tested. What if there’s a problem that delays delivery of the new M8’s? What do we do then to keep the railroad running?

Even when the new M8’s do arrive, we don’t want to take one new car and junk an old one. The hope is to expand the fleet, to offer more trains with more cars at more times. That means keeping part of our existing fleet and modernizing it to get more years of life out of our investment.

The CSR program is essential, not only to keep our decrepit railroad running ‘til the new M8 cars arrive, but to expand our fleet and offer more service for decades to come. If we want to expand our M8 car order, let’s go to the legislature and tap some of the state’s $486 million budget surplus, not cut corners on an already delayed, essential rehabilitation program that we know is working.
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

November 17, 2006

Tickets Please !

The Beatles were wrong when they sang, “she’s got a ticket to ride… and she don’t care.” Passengers on Metro-North do care when they’ve paid for their ticket, but they see others getting a free ride.

Uncollected tickets are second only to the stinky bathrooms in generating complaints to the Metro-North Commuter Council. And despite years of pressure from the Council, the problem persists.

Here’s the typical scenario: you’re on a train from Grand Central heading home in the evening. The train stops at Stamford (or Greenwich or New Rochelle) to discharge passengers while other intermediate commuters come on board, filling the previously occupied seats.

As the train proceeds, the conductor walks through the train asking for “Stamford tickets!” and a few honest souls proffer their passes. But having seen the new passengers who got on and where they sat, you realize the conductor didn’t collect all the newcomers’ fares. Why?

Because the conductor, working several cars on a train carrying more than a thousand passengers, isn’t sure whose ticket he collected leaving New York City and whose ticket needs to be collected having boarded at Stamford. That is, unless he issued seat checks.

Those stubby, colorful seat checks are punched by the conductor when tickets are collected, indicating the number of passengers in that row of seats and their final destination. At least they’re supposed to be punched.

Sometimes, perhaps because a conductor is rushed or lazy, no seat checks are punched and then new passengers get a free ride. Free for them, but hardly free for the rest of us who’ve paid for our tickets.

Before the introduction of the Ticket Vending Machines in 2002, most fares were collected onboard trains by conductors to the tune of $50 million a year, cash. Now, the cash collections are minimal, thanks in part to an on-board “service charge” (penalty) of up to $5.50 for boarding without a ticket. (And that’s on top of the cost of the ticket!)

Conductors on Metro-North make good money. And they do a very important job, opening doors, answering questions, directing passengers in an emergency. For the most part, they get high marks from commuters for their work. But being human, sometimes they cut corners, don’t do seat checks and lose the railroad a ton of money that we end up paying.

People who get a “free ride” on Metro-North are the transit equivalent of shoplifters. If you saw someone stealing from a store, wouldn’t you say something?

If I see a conductor miss a ticket, either because the conductor didn’t notice the new passenger or, more likely, the deadbeat passenger didn’t offer a ticket, I’ll say something to the conductor like “I think you missed this gentleman’s ticket…” and then smile at the conductor and the chagrined thief.

For repeat offenders, you can report the conductor on the MTA’s website (linked from the Commuter Council’s homepage) detailing the incident by train number, date, time and car location.

Metro-North assures the Commuter Council they’ll act swiftly on malfeasance. After one recent complaint, undercover inspectors were dispatched within days to ride the train and observe the conductors. When appropriate, disciplinary action is taken.

We’re about to spend over a billion dollars on new rail cars. And we’re always trying to postpone the next, albeit inevitable, fare increase. All of that money comes from us, as taxpayers and commuters. If we’re paying our fare share, shouldn’t we make sure others do as well?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Traffic Calming

You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Slow down in town”. They’re an often futile attempt to encourage speeding motorists to be more respectful of the neighborhoods they zooming through, especially of the pedestrians. I wouldn’t exactly call it road rage, but why is it that when we’re behind the wheel our goal is to get on down the road as fast as traffic will allow, the speed limit be damned?

Of course in our own neighborhoods our interests are reversed. We curse “those idiots” who speed down our local streets ignoring the signs (and bumper stickers).

Increasingly, local neighborhoods are serving as short-cuts around clogged arterial streets, spreading out the traffic into our sleepy, bucolic ‘burbs. But there is a way to enforce the speed limit without radar traps. It’s what traffic engineers call “traffic calming”.

You might not know that the first US city to develop a master plan for neighborhood traffic calming was Hartford. And the second city will be Stamford. Already focus groups are underway seeking stakeholder input. And next spring there will be community workshops seeking neighbors’ input. It’s all part of a $1.1 million project lead by Hartford-based Urban Engineers. (For more info on this project, check the website www.stamfordtrafficcalming.com)

More than just “speed bumps”, engineers have a slew of street re-designs in their repertoire that can force us to reduce our speed. Among them…

SPEED TABLES: Think of these as extended speed bumps with a six foot long ramp up, a ten foot long flat table and a six foot long ramp down.

ROUNDABOUTS: Small traffic circles with landscaping in the center make us slow down as we go around, eventually taking a right turn to continue our journey.

CHICANES: These are the stubby picket-fence-like mini-roadblocks seen on some private streets, alternating their placement on the right and left sides of the road, forcing drivers to make a zigzag maneuver down the street. The same effect can be achieved by placing parking spaces alternately on the right and left sides.

BULB-OUTS or NECK-DOWNS: These are extensions of the sidewalk into car parking areas at corner crossings. Again, you gotta slow down.

SIDEWALKS: It’s amazing how many of our communities lack these pedestrian amenities, forcing hoofers to compete for space on the asphalt with cars. Sidewalks get pedestrians out of the traffic and encourage us to walk and leave the car at home.

CROSSWALKS: What a concept! A place where pedestrians have the right of way over cars, sometimes even mid-block and without the need for stop signs or red lights.

ROADBLOCKS and MAZES: These were inspired by anti-crime efforts in drug dealing neighborhoods (“crime calming”), making it hard for drive-thru drug buyers to find their way in and out of a neighborhood. Local residents know how to maneuver the maze, but casual short-cutters won’t try it again.

Of course, all of these traffic calming techniques assume that the major traffic arterials, where the cars belong, can be kept flowing with their own traffic tricks. Otherwise, we’re just spreading the gridlock into the neighborhoods.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

October 22, 2006

Tear Down the Stamford Garage???

Since its construction in the 1980s, the parking garage at the Stamford train station has been embroiled in controversy. Now comes word from the CDOT that it will probably have to be torn down and rebuilt, displacing the 800 or so cars that park there each day, possibly for years.

I don’t want to get into playing “the blame game” as to how we got into this mess, but rather, talk about some solutions, both long and short-term.

CDOT tells us that most parking garages only have a 40 year “life expectancy”, even with good maintenance. It seems that the old Stamford garage was not maintained and is falling victim to salt corrosion in its inner steel supports. This deterioration was known six years ago when CDOT took over control of the garage from the city of Stamford. Even when the new garage opened three years ago, CDOT considered closing the old garage for repairs, one floor at a time or structure-wide. But the pressures to add more parking over-weighed the call for maintenance and the new garage opened, adding to a total of 1900 spaces.

This Spring, CDOT consultants looked at two options… rehabilitation or demolition and replacement. A fix-in-place scenario was estimated to take nine years and cost $35 million. But a new garage could be built for $30 million, though no time estimate was given for this scenario. The engineers assure us the old garage is safe and will not suffer any “catastrophic failure”, though bits and pieces may start crumbling on cars.

Of course, CDOT has no money for either scenario. And even if demolition and a new-build is the option that’s chosen, $2 million in short term repairs will be needed to keep the old garage operable until it is torn down.

But this sad tale does have a silver lining: a new garage could be built bigger and taller than the old garage, adding badly needed additional spaces just as the planned Transit Way feeding cars to the station will open. Some mistakes made in the design of the newer garage, opened in 2003, could be learned from and not repeated.

Meantime, 800+ daily parkers at the Stamford station will be displaced… but to where? City of Stamford officials tell me they’re willing to help. The new garage near the Target store has 500 spaces and shuttles could be run from there. The Bell Street Garage, which has many spaces taken by local car dealers, could be opened up if those new cars were kicked out.

Clearly, towns like Darien, Norwalk and New Canaan will also be affected as displaced motorists seek parking at their train stations. Now’s the time for commuters in those towns to lock in a place on their town’s waiting list for permits at their stations.

CDOT is promising public hearings on this mess while fast-tracking design plans for a new garage, with plans due by the end of the year. But with massive construction underway in downtown Stamford for the new RBS headquarters right next to Swiss Bank, the prospect of a demolition and construction of a new station garage, doubtless lasting several years, will have a profound effect on area commuters and businesses.

I hope all of our elected officials get on with it… find the money, coordinate short-term parking solutions and expedite the needed work.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Airline Secrets

Ever wonder if the airlines are telling you the truth about air travel? Well, recently “The Economist” answered those concerns with an article dispelling many of the myths we hear over the cabin PA, and I’ve added a few more.

SEATING: Ever wonder why seats face forward in the plane? Is it because we like to watch what’s going on in first class? Actually, research shows that rear-facing seats are much safer in the event of an emergency. Just ask the military which fits seats on transport planes facing the rear.

SEATBELTS: We’re asked to keep them fastened whenever we’re seated in the event of “bumpy air”. The better term to use would be “clear air turbulence” when, unexpectedly, the plane plummets hundreds of feet sending everything… including untethered passengers, food service carts and laptops… hurling upward. Better give that belt an extra tug.

LIFE JACKETS: Yes, we know they’re under the seat. But they claim they’re only for use in a “water landing”. Mind you, never in the history of aviation has a wide-body plane successfully “landed” on the water. So don’t sweat the life jacket or the detachable slides which supposedly double as rafts. Bring a snorkel.

EVACUATIONS: To be certified by the FAA, aircraft must prove they can be completely evacuated in 90 seconds. The aircraft manufacturers cheat a bit in passing this test, using employee families and friends in trials where everyone knows what will happen and have an obvious interest in getting the plane OK’ed. You know how long it takes to board an aircraft. Can you imagine 900 people racing for the exits on the new double-decked A-380 and getting off the craft in a minute and a half? Next time they do the pre-flight check, pay attention. Know where the emergency exits are. You may need to get off that plane fast!

CELLPHONES: Turn ‘em all off. Blackberries, too. We’re told they interfere with aircraft navigation and communication. Seems logical, until you hear that several European carriers are soon to offer in-flight cellphone use… for a fee. The truth is, cellphones don’t interfere with aircraft as much as the ground network.

IN-FLIGHT SNACKS: Though meals are a rarity these days on anything but long-haul flights, beverages and snacks are still available. Not for nutrition, mind you, but mostly for amusement. And the airlines actually push the booze to keep passengers somewhat sedated. Cynics even suggest that airlines turn down the cabin air-quality a notch or two to make passengers drowsy and keep them in their seats, out of the way of flight crews.

SAFETY: Yes, your checked luggage is screened before being loaded. But 99% of the cargo being carried in the plane’s belly is not. Now a terrorist can’t travel with a bomb, but they can ship one instead.

LIQUIDS: Last summer’s terror scare left millions of us dehydrated as we were forced to leave our water bottles landside. Now, those rules are being relaxed a bit. We can buy beverages after clearing security (“Wow… water for only $1.89!”). But the real explosives… perfumes and duty-free booze… are still allowed on.

OVERBOOKING: We all know that most flights are over-sold as the airlines hope to fill flights, despite no-shows. And we’ve all seen the bidding war if an over-full flight seeks “volunteers” to take a later plane and free tickets. But in Europe the rules are different. If passengers can’t board due to over-booking or flight delays, they’re entitled to compensation of between $300 and $750, depending on the length of the flight.
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

September 26, 2006

Amtrak's Winner: ACELA

Tired of the hassles of air travel… the weather delays, TSA examinations that rival visiting a proctologist, and the cramped coach seating with legroom only for midgets? Well, try the train… if you can get a seat.

In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s flagship train, Acela, is a delight for daytrips to Boston or DC. But I’m not alone in being a big Acela fan, as I found out recently. Arriving at NY’s Penn Station at 3 pm one weekday afternoon. I figured I’d have no problem getting a seat on the 4 pm Acela to Baltimore. Wrong! It was sold out and so was the 5 pm train. First class was available for an additional $82, but I opted for a slightly slower but much cheaper “conventional” Acela Regional train equipped with the older Amfleet coaches. (Mind you, I did treat myself to “Business Class” for an extra $ 30, offering more legroom and all the free Diet Pepsi I could drink.)

Amtrak tells me that ridership is up 7% this year on Acela and climbing steadily since the latest airline terrorist scare in mid-August. Trains are selling out hours, if not days, in advance… not just rush hour departures, but mid-day as well. And why not? Riding Acela (which I’m doing as I write this column) is a delight. It’s fast, comfortable, on-time (90% of the time, come rain or snow) and its quiet, especially in the popular Quiet Car®. But it’s not cheap, nor should it be.

Amtrak is following the airlines’ lead in adopting yield management, offering big discounts for reservations in advance (for example, Stamford to Boston on Acela purchased two weeks in advance, just $ 78). But if you need a ticket for tomorrow’s early Acela to Washington, it’s $ 193. It’s all a matter of supply and demand, and demand is way, way up.

The problem is, the supply of seats is static. Amtrak has only 20 Acela train sets and, hobbled by a GOP-appointed Board of Directors with a death-wish for the railroad it runs, there seems little hope of ordering more trains. Acela is becoming a victim of its own success.

Currently, Acela makes 14 runs a day between NYC and DC, but just 8 trips each weekday between NY and Boston. And not all of those trains make a stop in Stamford. Squeezed into the CDOT-owned and Metro-North operated tracks at rush hour, Acela can’t earn a stop in “the city that works”.

A big plus is Amtrak’s Guest Rewards® program styled after the airlines frequent flyer programs. You earn points based on distance traveled and the cost of your ticket. At the program’s “silver” and “gold” levels, “Select” and “Select Plus”, you get free first-class upgrades and free visits to the ClubAcela lounges found in many cities, a great place to wait for your train while enjoying free snacks and wireless internet connections. Amtrak also has its own affinity MasterCard which can really rack up the points.

In a future column I’ll write about the joys (and sorrows) of long-distance travel on Amtrak, but right now I’m off to the Acela CafĂ© Car for a soda before an early arrival in Washington. Ah, Acela!

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

September 11, 2006

"9/11 + 5: Terror and Travel"

Wow. Time sure flies when you’re terrified. Can you believe it’s been half a decade since the terrorist attacks of 9/11? I can’t. But hardly a day passes without me thinking of that day and what happened because, like so many other Americans, I’m waiting for “act two”… the next attack.

Let me be blunt: I think we are no safer today than we were on 9/11, especially when it comes to travel. Here are the facts:

AIR TRAVEL: While passengers and their luggage endure endless searches… while we can no longer carry a bottle of water or a cigarette lighter on a commercial flight, thousands of daily flights carry tons of cargo in their bellies that goes unchecked. Even the TSA’s passenger screening misses dangerous objects in secret tests. Flying is still far from safe.

TRAINS: Amtrak and Metro-North are easy targets due to their lax security. While MTA Police conduct random bag checks in the NYC subway, Connecticut’s State Police has publicly announced that none will be done in our state, preferring instead to conduct “behavioral profiling” of passengers. But the CT State Troopers are so understaffed that the only time you’ll see them on the trains is when there’s a terrorist alert, and that’s mostly for PR value. Lacking personnel, Metro-North asks passengers to play cop with its “If you see something, say something” self-help approach to security.

If you make it to Grand Central, you’re still not safe. I no longer stroll thru the station, marveling at its glories, but move quickly to the street. What better target for a suicide bomber than a crowded waiting room at rush hour?

SHIPPING: See those trucks on I-95 carrying cargo shipping containers? Do you know what’s inside? Well neither does the driver or US Customs. Only a handful of the thousands of containers that arrive on ships at Port Elizabeth NJ each day are scanned or inspected. And the truck inspection station in Greenwich still remains closed more hours than it is opened. Feel safe?

CRUISE SHIPS: Yes, they scan your bags when you board. But they’re looking for smuggled bottles of wine that eat into ship-board profits more than anything else. Did you know that a cruise ship was attacked by pirates off the coast of Africa last year? Or that Al Qaeda actually has a fleet of merchant vessels sailing who knows where? If a suicide bomber could rip a hole in the USS Cole, why not the Queen Mary 2?

BUSSES: No bag inspections. No metal detectors. And the favorite target of terrorists in Israel.

PRIVATE CARS: I hate to admit it, but this is about the safest way to travel. Not the fastest or most economical, but maybe the safest.
So does all this mean I’m no longer riding Metro-North, that I’m driving to LA or forgoing the pleasures of a winter cruise in the Caribbean? Not hardly. I still use mass transit, but I’m still scared. Our government couldn’t prevent 9/11, even though they’d been warned it was coming. And I doubt they’ll prevent “act two”. So we all just play the long-shot odds that “it” won’t happen to us.

Since 9/11 we have spent $135 billion fighting in Iraq. That’s $177 million a day… $7.5 million in an hour (an average rush-hour commute). Be honest… has any of that spending made you feel safer here at home?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

August 28, 2006

"Crunch Time for Metro-North"

Fresh and rested from their summer vacations, commuters are in for a rude surprise when they board Metro-North trains this week: no seats, more over-crowding and problems with the AC.

Yes, better times are ahead. The new contract for the M8 cars has been signed and bonding money has been approved, but it won’t be until 2009 that even a prototype for the new cars is delivered for testing. So figure on 2010 before we commuters will actually ride in one.

Meantime, ridership on Metro-North continues to climb. It’s up 5% this year with no sign of it leveling off anytime soon. And those additional passengers are scrambling for seats on a dwindling number of rail cars. July saw only eight trains out of ten with enough cars, down from nine trains out of ten last summer.

Air conditioning has been spotty at best. At the Commuter Council meeting the other night, CDOT told us that 90+% of all trains have AC. However, Council members riding home after the meeting found there wasn’t a single car on their eight car train that had AC. So much for statistics.

As bad as service has been in some past winters, the summers are proving an increasing problem for the railroad. Ask why and you’ll hear logical explanations… the aging fleet, sagging overhead catenary (electric) wires in the summer heat, inadequate service facilities. Again, plans are underway to fix all of those situations, but it’ll take time. And we’re talking years, not months.

As for now, what’s a commuter to do? How can you cope with crowding on your favorite train or on cars without AC? A few suggestions from veteran riders:

1) ALTER YOUR SCHEDULE: You might find that by taking an earlier or later train there’s less crowding. A lot depends on where the train starts, so check the timetable to see if you’re among the first passengers to board, or the last, when it’s probably crowded.

2) TAKE TWO TRAINS, NOT ONE: If you board a train that’s full, see if you can switch to another train enroute. Often by stepping off a jammed train at Stamford and catching a new train which starts there, you can have your pick of seats and get into Grand Central only ten minutes later.

3) IF YOU MUST STAND, CHOSE WISELY: The best place for standees is the bar car where there’s room to spread out. The vestibule (door-way) on regular cars often has a little room for sitting, albeit on the floor. But by all means, try to not stand in the aisles. If you’re lucky, the train will be so crowded the conductor won’t even try to collect tickets.

4) IF YOU’RE IN A “HOT CAR”, REPORT IT: Odds are you’ll enjoy one of Metro-North’s “Sauna Cars” before the winter, but don’t assume “they” are working on the problem. The railroad counts on commuters (and crews) to report “hot cars”, so do your part. Make note of the car number (found at the rear and outside of each car), the train number (found in the timetable), date and time of the incident, and report it to 1-800-RAIL-HOT. That will start the repair wheels turning.

As I say, things will get better in the coming years, but we’ve got some rough track ahead on Metro-North. Together, we’ll make it through.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. You can reach him at cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

August 15, 2006

"Fix My Station, Please!"

If we’re ever to encourage commuters to get out of their cars and onto the train, we first have to give them a parking space and a station they feel safe commuting from. I’ve recently written about the railroad station parking mess, so let’s talk now about the stations.

Is it too much to ask for a safe, well-lit shelter to call home while waiting for Metro-North? Probably not, but for the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation (which owns the stations and leases them to the towns), it’s a goal seldom achieved. For example…

After millions of dollars in renovations, the Darien station was fitted with indoor light fixtures, installed outdoors on the platform. The lights fill with rainwater and short out the electrical system, plunging the station into darkness. Despite years of appeals by town officials for repairs, it took Governor Rell to step in and order the CDOT to “fix it!”

Days later there were fresh complaints about the Stamford station’s parking garage and again the Governor micro-managed the matter, this time ordering CDOT to inspect all of the stations and get on with needed repairs.

But why another inspection when CDOT just paid $1.6 million to Urbitran, a consulting firm, for a three-year study and engineering analysis of all the stations? Those reports, dozens of pages thick for each station, were never acted upon. Why will things be any different this time?

The Commuter Council offered Governor Rell our help in inspecting the stations. After all, we ride from them every day and know what’s in disrepair. But the Governor’s people said “no thanks”.

So, we jumped into the matter anyhow, launching the “Fix My Station Photo Campaign”. We’re asking commuters to send us digital pictures of needed repairs at their stations. We’ll post them on the Commuter Council’s website (www.trainweb.org/ct) for all to see and, in a few weeks, will send a print-out to the Governor and CDOT.

Our hope is to jump-start the inspections by alerting CDOT staffers to some obvious priorities. But we’re also benchmarking the current situation so we can go back in six weeks, six months or a year from now and judge the progress, if any.

The response by commuters has been tremendous. Within days we’d received dozens of snapshots of broken stairs, rusted girders and peeling paint. In some places there were exposed electrical wires, in others, safety violations.

There’s still time to contribute your photos. Just send them to FixMyStation@camcomm.com and include your name and a description of where each photo was taken.
Governor Rell says this time things will get fixed. Time (and these photos) will tell.
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. He is 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/

July 24, 2006

"Online On The Train"

Imagine this: you settle into the comfortable seat in your new M8-equipped Metro-North express to Grand Central. But rather than read your paper, you fire up your laptop and log onto your company’s computer network. You are online, productive and “on the clock”, as you zoom at 90 miles an hour to your job in the city. Far fetched? Not really.

On many commuter railroads around the world, such Internet access is already happening… not just as a passenger amenity, but as a draw to attract more passengers.

The July issue of “Governing” magazine describes how Albuquerque is building wi-fi into its new commuter rail network, based on the overwhelming success of the offering on its bus routes. Closer to home, the “Hampton Jitney” (a bus) offers wireless connectivity on its run from Manhattan to Long Island.

Even the ferry boats that ply the waters off of Seattle offer passengers the chance to log-on during their passage to the mainland. In California’s Riverside County, the wiring of just three buses in its CommuterLink service saw a surge in ridership. Of the new riders, 43% were using the Internet service compared to 23% of the previous passengers.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, one study suggested that offering wireless Internet access on the region’s commuter trains could boost ridership by 60%.

Not that Metro-North needs to do anything to attract more passengers. But it would be nice if it gave us the chance to be more productive during our commute.

Key to the concept’s success, says the California study, is getting employers to recognize that an employee who’s logged-on is already on the job and should, effectively, be paid while commuting.

But isn’t that what many of us do already… work while we commute? Whether it’s going over papers, writing e-mails on a laptop or (heaven forbid!) talking on our cellphone with clients, aren’t we already working?

So if all this online access is good enough for the rest of the commuting world, why don’t we have it in Connecticut? Good question.

The answer is: it’s coming. Metro-North President Peter Cannito is a big believer in wi-fi and has made sure that our new rail cars will have it embedded in their electronics. The new M8 cars will also be able to “talk” with MTA headquarters, updating them on train diagnostics. And space is being set aside in each of the new cars for similar electronics to allow our laptops to access the ‘net.

The cost of the service and who’ll be the vendor have yet to be determined. Metro-North is a bit gun-shy about adopting the “latest and greatest” technology, only to see it get leap-frogged in a few months. Remember the idea of pay-cellphone booths on the trains?

Right now the railroad has bigger issues to contend with… like trying to keep enough of our old cars running, hopefully with AC in the summer, to handle increasing ridership. But mark my words… it won’t be too many years before you’ll be online, on the train.

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is 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

June 18, 2006

"The Metro-North Commuter Council"

Some people do much than just complain about their commute. They change it, by serving on the Metro-North Commuter Council.

In recent days I have been elected Chairman of the Council, a group on which I have served for 12 years, eleven of them as Vice Chairman. I thought this might be a good time to look back at the Council’s work and discuss some of my goals for its future.

The Council was established by the Connecticut legislature 20+ years ago and was given the job of being the eyes, ears and voice for the 120,000 daily riders on Metro-North (and Shore Line East) in the state. Our nine members are all commuters, appointed by various lawmakers to this volunteer job.

The Council meets monthly with senior executives of Metro-North, Connecticut Department of Transportation and other agencies to discuss all aspects of train operations. We also hold annual “Meet the Commuter Day” events at stations, bringing these agencies to meet their commuter constituents. Our next such event will be during morning rush hour on Wednesday June 28 at the Greenwich station.

Among the Council’s accomplishments to date: Persuading Metro-North to add more early morning trains… Increasing through trains from New Canaan to Grand Central… Postponing planned fare hikes…Fighting bus substitution for trains on the branch lines… Fixing up dilapidated rail stations and getting additional parking… and getting lawmakers to finally order new rail cars.

Though we have no authority to require the rail agencies to act, we are empowered to obtain from them any information we request. Often, those requests have unearthed what we thought were misplaced priorities and, using the power of the media to expose these, we have brought about needed change.

As Chairman I see our job as being advocates, not complainers. We are agents of change. And though we are collegial with the railroad folks, we are hardly quislings. In fact, there are times when we have asked the railroad why a condition is so bad, found they had perfectly reasonable answers, and then shared those facts with our fellow commuters. The growing problem of over-crowding on the trains is a case in point (see my last column “SRO on Metro-North” for example).

We also carry our advocacy for improved commuter rail to Washington, New York and Hartford, testifying before the lawmakers and meeting with the governor’s staff. We speak to community groups, attend meetings of similarly focused organizations and, yes, even write letters to the editor and columns such as this.

The past few years have been the darkest for commuter rail, but our best times are soon to come. The funding is finally there for long over-due investment in new equipment and expanded rail service is coming. But believe me when I pledge that the Commuter Rail Council will watchdog all of these improvements as diligently as we fought for them in years past.

Meantime, we need your help… not your money but your support. We have no budget but operate in the virtual world of the web and e-mail. I encourage you to visit our website ( www.trainweb.org/ct ), read our annual report, join our e-mail alert list for updates on our work on your behalf, and most importantly, consider seeking appointment to the Council as members.

We’re all commuters and together we can influence our collective future.

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. He is 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

June 16, 2006

"Quiet Cars Revisted"

One of the (few) joys of train travel is, as Metro-North used to say in its marketing, “train time is your own time”. You can read, nap or work on your laptop… unless the inconsiderate passengers around you are yapping on their cell phones.

Years ago, Amtrak offered passengers an alternative: “The Quiet Car” ®… a car which, as conductors remind passengers, offers a “library like atmosphere” free of loud conversations, especially on cell-phones. For several years the Commuter Council has been asking Metro-North for a similar offering, but has been refused.

Now I have nothing against cell-phones. I have one and use it often, but always in a way that tries not to intrude on other passengers’ kharmic “space”. I’m not proposing that cell-phone users be segregated in their own car, as we used to do with smokers. Instead, I’m suggesting a quiet car, free of such annoyances.

Metro-North says it doesn’t want to get involved by making its conductors have to enforce social regulations. But they have no trouble reminding us to keep our feet off the seats or to put our bags in the overhead racks, so how hard would it be to enforce a little silence and civility?
Let’s face it. We’re all basically selfish. In our cars we can turn up the radio, smoke a cigar, belch and carry-on as we wish. But when we have to share our transportation space with others, these behaviors aren’t appropriate.

You can only push commuters so far. Trains are so crowded there aren’t enough seats for all ticketed passengers. Then you make them all put up with some noisy blowhard who insists on yapping the entire trip in a voice loud enough to be heard several rows away?

One commuter tells me she witnessed the following example of “cell rage”: A passenger asked a cell caller to “keep it down”. He didn’t. He asked the conductor to instruct the passenger to be considerate. The conductor wouldn’t. So, this distraught vigilante grabbed the cellphone and threw it against a wall, smashing it to pieces. A quiet car would avoid such violence.
Amtrak says its “Quiet Cars” ® have been a marketing success, so much so they have trademarked the name. The service has attracted new passengers and brought much-needed revenue.

Metro-North, apparently feeling it owns the market of commuters, doesn’t try to compete by attracting passengers. It has more than it can handle. Instead it has undertaken a PR campaign asking passengers to be considerate and keep their calls brief and in a low volume.
Admittedly, this has helped. I see sometimes passengers get out of their seats and move to the vestibule for longer calls. Others cup their hands around the mouthpiece and speak in subdued tones. Blackberries and similar text messaging equipment have also reduced the drone. This is a good start.

But if Amtrak can enforce a separate car for those seeking a quiet journey, why can’t Metro-North. The Commuter Council has found other commuter lines that have been successful, so why not Metro-North.

We’ll keep pushing the idea. Meantime, in the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just try to get along?”
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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/

May 22, 2006

"SRO On Metro-North"

On Broadway, SRO (Standing Room Only) is a good thing. On Metro-North, it’s not. While Broadway hasn’t had boffo box-office of late, mass transit has, and it’s affecting all riders.

With higher gas prices, rail ridership is up. But the number of available seats on the trains is not. That leads to over-crowding and on many trains, especially in rush hour, standees. The Commuter Council has received an increasing number of complaints about this issue and I’ve endured a few rides to Grand Central myself, standing the whole way in the vestibule along with other angry passengers.

Crowding is so bad that conductors are encouraging standees to switch trains in Stamford to catch “locals” with more seats but later arrivals.

Why is this happening? Why can’t they just add extra cars to crowded trains? Why are trains regularly “short” of their needed number of cars? The answers are simple, but discouraging.
Metro-North President Peter Cannito reminded the Commuter Council last week that as far back as 2002 he was warning of a car shortage. I reminded him that the Council made that call even earlier. The problem is, both our pleas fell on deaf ears in Hartford. The Rowland Administration said it supported the trains but constantly vetoed CDOT’s requests for investment in the fleet, and the legislature blindly followed along.

When Governor Jody Rell came to office, the tide turned and we’re now designing new rail cars, the M8’s, but they won’t be on the rails until 2009.

Meantime, our aging fleet is falling apart. Cars that were expected to last 25 years are now pushing 30. On a good day, 15% of the fleet is shopped for inspection or repairs. Our inadequate shops run 24 x 7 trying to keep up.

The New Haven line has only an 80% “consist compliance” meaning only four trains out of five have enough cars for their regular passenger load. Granted, that’s improved from a dismal 65% last spring, thanks to a mild winter, but in rush hour… where the greatest load is placed on the system… “consist compliance” is much lower.

New, earlier trains into GCT are being blamed by some for shorter trains later in the morning. But, like water seeking its own level, commuters will have to find the “best” train for them based on available seats and their need for a reasonable arrival time in NYC.

Last week Governor Rell toured the plant where the used Virginia rail cars we acquired in 2005 are being re-worked. She said the same thing then that she said over a year ago: “Let’s put them into service.” But that political photo-op didn’t explain why CDOT let those cars sit, gathering dust, for a full year when they are so desperately needed. As it is, the 33 VRE cars won’t be in service until 2007.

Meantime, ridership will continue to climb and the lack of seats will, undoubtedly, worsen. As I’ve been warning you for several years… conditions on Metro-North are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.

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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

May 07, 2006

"Solving the RR Station Parking Mess"

Before we can get cars off the roads by persuading drivers to become passengers on the trains, we first have to give them a place to park their cars at the train stations. As all commuters know, station parking is a nightmare.

Many stations have a four or five year wait for annual permits, which can cost up to $600, and day-parking is expensive, if you can find it.

As I’ve explained before, parking at most rail stations is owned by the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation, but administered by the local towns. That’s why we’ve ended up with a crazy quilt of rules and pricing.

Take Rowayton for example. Every year annual permits are handed out on a first-come, first served basis one hectic Saturday morning in May. Nobody is “grandfathered-in”. Everyone literally waits in line, often all night, every year. This may seem fair, especially to newcomers, but it’s hardly an efficient way to manage a scarce resource.

I have a better idea: an auction. Spaces would start selling online on a certain date and time with the first permit going to the highest bidder in a 24 hour period. The second permit would go to the next highest bidder, etc. There’d be no preference to those who already have permits nor by town of residency. The scarce supply of spaces would moderate the demand by price.

As it is, most towns oversell their available spaces. In Westport they sell twice as many permits as there are spaces. Why? Because the permits are too cheap and there’s never a time when everybody who has one tries to park on the same day.

People hoard their annual permits, renewing them even if they don’t use them regularly.
True confession: I have an annual parking permit in Darien that costs me $288. Having waited four years to get it, I’m not likely to give it up, even though I use it only one or two days a week.

Is that fair to the daily commuter who needs that space but hasn’t risen to the top of the waiting list because guys like me won’t let go? Probably not. But unless my town raises parking permit prices and squeezes my greed out of the equation, I’ll keep hanging onto my permit. An auction would change that. My space would go to the highest bidder, not the weasel like me who thinks he “paid his dues” by waiting on some list for a few years and deserves tenure.

I’m all for keeping parking “affordable”. The problem is, it’s too affordable. We should let the marketplace define the price of affordability, and that’s what an auction would do most efficiently.

Of course, the other solution is to add more parking spaces. When CDOT tried adding a few spaces in Rowayton a few years back, they were pilloried. When they came to Darien and proposed more parking at Noroton Heights, they were booed out of town.

I guess the NIMBYs won because they’ve never had to wait in line all night for a parking permit.
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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

April 26, 2006

Why We Need Higher Gasoline Prices

President Bush was right. America is addicted to oil. So why are all us junkies complaining that our oily “fix” is too expensive? We chose our addiction, and either we pay up or go to rehab.
I’m so tired of watching news stories about drivers moaning about the price of fuel as they fill their SUV’s. You want to drive a tank? Pay for it!

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$ 5 per gallon, in Europe it’s US$ 6 per gallon. Admittedly, much of those prices is additional taxes (used to subsidize cheaper mass transit), but the result of those prices and taxes 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, then drive to the supermarket in pollution machines.

Face it. Americans have been spoiled for years with cheap gas prices. 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 few higher-mileage hybrid cars that are available 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 to purchase.

Instead, 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 have the nerve to complain about gas prices going up a few pennies at the pump?

Do you really believe we’ve sacrificed thousands of American lives in Kuwait, Afghanistan 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, the Chinese demand becomes greater and drilling gets more precarious (as in Alaska’s ANWR), the only solution is to let gas prices move higher to encourage conservation. That should mean smaller cars, better use of fuel-efficient mass transit and, yes, less driving.

I’m neither a tree-hugger nor a Communist. I’m just trying to be realistic. Because I know that, in the long run, our grandchildren will curse us if the legacy we leave them is a gasoline-based transportation system we should have weaned ourselves from years ago.

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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

April 09, 2006

The Plan to Widen I-95

Among the wackiest solutions to our never-ending traffic problems on I-95 was the one floated by then-Commissioner of Public Safety (the CT State Police), Art Spada. He suggested double-decking the highway. Although Spada is gone, his idea lives on. The Stamford Chamber of Commerce keeps talking up the plan as did a state lawmaker in the current session.

Just imagine: a ten-year construction project costing billions of dollars… huge fly-over bridges… construction tie-ups… pollution… and on day one when it opened, traffic would swell to fill the new lanes and we’d be back to square one. We complain enough that I-95 always seems under construction, but this “double-decking” idea is patently absurd.

The answer isn’t double-decking or, that other non-starter idea offered by Governor Rowland, allowing traffic to drive in the break-down (emergency rescue) lane.

Ask any engineer and they’ll tell you that I-95 is an out-of-date disaster. Nearing it’s 50th anniversary, the ramps are too short and the lanes too narrow, especially around the bottle-necks we know so well… northbound coming into Stamford and approaching Exits 13 and 14 in Norwalk.

So, if we’re not going to double-deck it, why not at least widen I-95? Well, that’s not going to happen for any number of reasons… not enough land, it’s too expensive, and environmental opposition will drag it out in the courts for years.

Several years ago, a fourth lane southbound was added from Exit 10 (Darien) to Exit 8 (Stamford). The construction took over three years and it cost almost $50 million, or about $15 million a mile. And did all that asphalt do anything to improve driving times? Not really.

But our friends at CDOT are trying again. They have plans to add a pseudo fourth lane from Greenwich to Westport. But rather than calling it a “widening” of the highway, these new lanes are being given a new euphemism, “operational lanes.”

Running from each on-ramp to the next off-ramp, these new lanes would allow vehicles to enter the highway, build up speed and merge without the Indy-500 style acceleration required with our short on-ramps of today. Exiting traffic would have a chance to move right long before the Exit, allowing through-traffic to pass on the left.

Some of this might help, especially around the Stamford and Norwalk bottlenecks that back up traffic for miles. The first project in this “operational lane” scheme is set for Darien and will be in the less-than one mile stretch between Exits 10 and 11. The cost will be $3.5 million. (A public hearing will be held on the plan on Thursday April 20th, 7 pm at Darien Town Hall.)

I never expect to see I-95 finished in my lifetime. I just wish we’d stop pouring money into concrete and steel and invest it instead in better mass transit. That’s the way to improve traffic… get cars off the roads by putting passengers on the trains.

But as I testified recently before a legislative hearing in Hartford: “This building is crawling with lobbyists for highway construction interests, but who’s here speaking for the interests of commuters and mass transit?”

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 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

March 26, 2006

The MTA's "Big Dig"

We all know what happened when Boston decided to bury its downtown elevated interstate highway, known as the central artery. What was intended to be a seven year, $2.5 billion project became a ten year, $14.6 billion engineering nightmare.

Well, heads up fellow commuters and taxpayers! The MTA has similar designs on our beloved Grand Central. Nicknamed the “East Side Access” project, the goal is to bring the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central.

The plan would see use of the lower level of the 63rd Street subway tunnel, allowing some LIRR trains from Queens to enter Manhattan and then follow a new, very deep tunnel under existing Metro-North tracks beneath Park Avenue. Trains would terminate fourteen stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains per hour. Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, to the west side of GCT, with an underground concourse complex stretching from 43rd to 48th streets.

Estimated cost for the project… $8 billion… about the same as rebuilding the entire World Trade Center complex. Actual cost, factoring in inevitable delays, cost over-runs and typical under-estimation by politically sensitive designers… who knows, maybe double that? And for what gain?

The only reason for the East Side Access project is to give LIRR riders better access to midtown. Is the subway ride from Penn Station to GCT really all that bad? Imagine what we could do with $8 billion to improve commuter rail service in the tri-state region.

What would an almost doubling of passengers in GCT (by adding LIRR to existing Metro-North riders) mean for Connecticut commuters? Well, if you think the station’s crowded now, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. And just imagine the already jam-packed Lexington Avenue subway station with even more riders!

The currently under-utilized GCT would quickly be maxed out for trains and platforms, making much-needed expansion of service to Connecticut a real problem.

True, diverting some LIRR trains into GCT might free-up “slots” in Penn Station for Metro-North trains (which would travel there by way of the Hell Gate bridge), but don’t count on it, what with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and LIRR also vying for more trains in Penn Station.
And speaking of NJ Transit, their plans for a new tunnel under the Hudson River also dream of extending trackage from Penn Station north to Grand Central as well, adding to the fray. But that’s another story.

If all of this concerns you, don’t get your knickers in a knot. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. The money’s already been appropriated and the project should be finished in 2012.
What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle? Zero… nada… zilch. The MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval. Though Connecticut Dept. of Transportation is Metro-North’s biggest customer, we still have no seat, no vote and no say on the MTA Board.

For more info on the East Side Access project, see http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/capconstr/esas/index.html

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 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

March 08, 2006

"Highway Service Areas"

Most of us don’t think twice about the decrepit service areas on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway. Their nasty fast food and over-priced gas are best avoided by knowing locals. But a major study is underway by CDOT to rehabilitate these service and rest areas, and they want your views.

I recently attended a focus group which examined the shortcomings of the 31 facilities, most of them in southwest Connecticut. The complaints I heard echo commuters’ gripes about Metro-North: facilities are too old, the bathrooms are dirty and there’s not enough parking.

And what kind of first impression of our fair state do these 1950’s eyesores (built to double as bomb-shelters) give to tourists, now the fastest growing sector of the state’s economy? Even the NY Thruway seems more inviting.

And what about the truckers who ply our interstates and need to take a break? A 2001 CDOT study showed there are 1,200 truckers who must park roadside at night, even on I-95, because there’s no place else … and do so with the complicity of the State Police.

What’s the impact of these service areas on the towns that “host” them?

Darien, which hosts the two busiest rest areas in the Northeast (and the most profitable McDonald’s franchise in the US!) on I-95, and two smaller service areas on the Merritt Parkway, is a case in point.

Police say the Darien I-95 service areas are the town’s crime hot-spots. When the volunteer EMS unit “Post 53” answers a nighttime call at the service areas, they must have a police escort. Neighbors report prostitution and drug needles along the small fence surrounding the rest area… not to mention the environmental impact of run-off into neighboring streams or the air pollution from idling trucks’ refrigeration units (again made possible because State troopers look the other way).

There’s gotta be a better way. And a few ideas that came out of this CDOT sponsored study might give us all some hope.

Like the idea to use I-95 air rights to build a mall-style service area above the highway with parking on either side. Newly designed service areas would have better food, trained greeters to guide tourists to the local sights, maybe even WiFi access, weather and traffic information. Some even suggested farmers markets and solar-powered plug-ins for parked trucks. Or on the Merritt, where service areas are in the National Register of Historic Places and cannot be changed, how about picnic tables and dog-walks?

There will be public meetings on all these plans in the coming months. But you can review what’s being discussed and chime in with your ideas now at www.ctrestareas.org . While CDOT admits it only has funding for the study and may never implement its suggestions, maybe we should err on the side of optimism and give them a few ideas.
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 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

February 26, 2006

"The Secrets of Grand Central"

There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. As the destination of over 50,000 daily commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place we spend a fair amount of time. But rather than rush to or from your train, next time you’re in GCT, look around and enjoy some of its hidden secrets.

Based on 40+ years of commuting experience, here are some of the nooks and crannies within the station that I find most fascinating… and useful.

Underground Access: Sure, you can enter Grand Central from street level, but in bad weather you can find your way underground from blocks away. The new north-end access afforded at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th Street and the Helmsley Building walk-ways are dandy. But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt, or via the shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street, just west of Park?

Fastest Way from the Lower Level: If your train dumps you on the lower level, forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level. Walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. It’ll take you to the upper level or, better yet, to within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below).

Best View of the Main Concourse: Ever notice the elevated glass walkways at the east and west ends of the station? They’re accessible (though public access is discouraged). Just go to the entrance to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse on the mezzanine and take the elevator up two or three floors. When you get off, go left and through the non-descript door on your left. Walk out and you’ll have a panoramic view of the station from almost roof-level.

Washrooms with No Wait: The new washrooms at the west end of the lower level have helped a lot, but still there’s often a line. Take the nearby escalator up one level, turn around, and on your left is the Stationmaster’s Office complete with a waiting room and lav’s. Or, go right and just before the ramp up to 42nd St. and Vanderbilt, look on your left for the sign for the Oyster Bar. Go down the steps into the bar and you’ll find ornate bathrooms known only to a few.

Best Place To Get A Cab: Forget about the long line at the taxi stand on 42nd St east of Vanderbilt. Instead, go out the west end of the Main Concourse, up the stairs and out onto Vanderbilt Avenue. Cross the street and wait at the corner of 43rd. Taxis flow through here, leaving off passengers every few seconds. Heading west you’ll avoid the traffic on 42nd Street.

These are a few of my favorite “secrets” of Grand Central. Drop me an e-mail with yours and I’ll include them in a future column.
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 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

February 14, 2006

Transportation Spending and CT Jobs

Oh happy day! Hartford finally seems ready to spend billions, investing in our transportation system and the state’s economic future.

Last year, Governor Rell pushed the legislature to long overdue action, allocating $1.3 billion for new rail cars on Metro-North. This year she wants to spend another $600 million on mass transit in the I-91 corridor, including commuter rail from New Haven to Springfield and a busway from New Britain to Hartford.

Not to be outdone, the Democrats are going the Governor one better. House Speaker Jim Amann says its time the state spent $6.2 billion to fund all of the recommendations of the Transportation Strategy Board.

That’s amazingly good news. But where were our lawmakers when the TSB issued its recommendations three years ago? Why have the Democrats finally embraced this issue, which they ignored for decades? Answer… because unlike her predecessor, John Rowland, who said the TSB plan was d.o.a., Governor Rell embraced it and started moving it toward implementation. Thank heavens for party politics in an election year!

But both the Governor and the legislature are missing an important opportunity right now to improve another issue facing our state… jobs and the economy.
We are about to spend $1 billion on new rail cars for Metro-North, but as it stands, none of that money will benefit our state’s economy.

The Metro-North Commuter Council has reviewed the specifications for the new M8 cars as drawn up by the consulting firm LTK (under a no-bid contract to Metro-North). While the specs look great from an engineering viewpoint, it is clear they were drawn up with little involvement or influence from Connecticut DOT, as they favor Metro-North and New York state, not us.

The M8 project will mean jobs… for New York State, but not Connecticut. Though our taxpayers will pay two-thirds of the cost of the new cars, no provision has been made in the contract to see a dime of those funds earmarked for Connecticut.
The three qualified bidders on the M8 project… Bombardier, Kawasaki and Siemens… all have plants in NY State, but not in Connecticut. But shouldn’t Connecticut firms like United Technologies get a piece of the action, and support local jobs in the process?

The minority and women-owned business “set asides” in the M8 contract will total $50 million apiece. But read the spec’s drawn up for Metro-North, and you’ll only see mention of that spending in New York state, not Connecticut.

Metro-North is a vendor to CDOT. They’re hired to run “our” trains and are paid well for doing so. They do that job well. But we are turning over to our vendor the responsibility for the design and construction of a billion dollars worth of rail cars that we’re paying two-thirds of the cost for.

How could CDOT miss the chance to see our taxpayers’ money be spent for jobs and construction in our state? That’s a good question… and one which I hope those in legislative oversight will ask of CDOT staff.

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 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

January 28, 2006

Fire On The Train


It was a typical Thursday, mid-afternoon, when Metro-North train #1540 pulled out of Grand Central on time at 3:34 pm, heading for New Haven. But this train’s journey on January 26th was to be anything but normal.

As recounted by an eye-witness, here is what happened.

Snaking its way through the underground yards, the train moved toward the Park Avenue tunnel when passengers in the fourth car of the eight car train started smelling smoke. Though they didn’t know it, a traction motor on the 1994-built M6 car, one of the newest in our aging fleet, had caught fire.

There were no flames, but there surely was smoke, not only in the fourth car but the three others that followed it. As that smoke grew thicker, being pumped into the cars by the ventilation system, passengers started coughing… and looking for help.

Because there is no intercom system on our trains, one of the passengers reached up to the ceiling and pushed the conductor buzzer system used to communicate with the motorman driving the train. A voice came over the PA system and, rather than explaining the smoke condition and what was being done to get help, told them to “lay off of the buzzer!”.

By now the train had stopped, still underground. A conductor moved forward, looking to trip the circuit-breakers for the burning motor and to shut off the HVAC fans still pumping acrid smoke into the cars. When that was finally accomplished, passengers were told to “move forward” to the unaffected cars. The train continued north through the tunnels to 125th Street.

Finally arriving at the above-ground station eight minutes later, the doors opened and the train was evacuated. Another train was dispatched from GCT to pick up the stranded passengers and they continued on their journey. There were no injuries but lots of rattled nerves.

This is at least the third such fire on Metro-North New Haven line trains in recent years. None got much publicity. Were it not for an eye-witness to this fire (who was also equipped with a cell-phone camera) who contacted the Commuter Council, this incident might never have gained attention. (Metro-North initially told me they had no reports of a fire… but there had been a “smoke condition”. Well, where there’s smoke…)

It will be at least two to three more years before our new M8 cars are in service, so what do I say to commuters who ask: Is it safe to ride Metro-North existing fleet of 30+ year old cars? What if this smoky fire had been a terrorist attack? Was “lay off the buzzer” the best the railroad could say to panicked passengers in a smoke-filled car? Will there be more such incidents, and if so, how can we handle them better?

The Commuter Council will be following up on this case with the authorities, and I’ll let you know what we find.



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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

January 19, 2006

"Free Parking Isn't Free"

Our obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but its eating up our real estate and sending land costs upward. Because, once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking”.

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detroit in a conspiracy to deliver on that dream. Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 kinds of businesses which should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking. Quoting from the ITE “bible”, convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns in residence. Hello? The residents aren’t going anywhere! Why do they need parking? Couldn’t the convents find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels. Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather that the majority of nights when occupancy is 50% or less? Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up the Post Rd and see for yourself. Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60% of their land to parking and only 40% to buildings. Imagine what that does to the costs of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined. A Buffalo City Council member commented a few years ago: “There will be lots of places to park. There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revlitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking… they’re the ones that provided the least. The vitality of towns and cities requires people… walking the streets, going into shops and interacting… not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his new book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:
Both San Francisco and LA opened new concert halls in recent years. The one in LA included a $10 million, six story parking garage for 2,100 cars. In San Francisco there was no parking built… saving the developers millions. After each concert, the LA crowd heads for their cars and drives away. But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores. Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are Connecticut towns slaves to antiquated zoning mentalities that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs? Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers to rethink what it is that we need in our cities and towns. We have become mindless slaves to car-obsessed planners for whom no vista is better than miles of open asphalt, be it highways or parking spaces.

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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

January 08, 2006

The Lessons of California

While we all love to mock what passes for traffic in California, the Golden State is making progress in improving its transportation mess and may even give us a few ideas. Consider the following, which I recently observed on a trip west:

1) Commuter Rail & Amtrak: The trains are full, schedules are frequent and ridership is still climbing. Clean, modern, low-cost commuter trains in the LA area are so popular the operating agency is scouring the country looking for used rail cars to add to their fleet. Maybe they’d like some of our used Virginia cars, still sitting idle on a siding in New Haven?

2) Trolleys: You can now get from Long Beach to Pasadena by trolley, not to mention the subway from downtown to Hollywood. The trains are fast and gaining in ridership. In San Diego, the trolley now has three lines, including the popular run to the Mexico border. Cars crossing back into the US wait up to two hours to clear Customs while pedestrians cross in ten minutes.

3) Freeways: Yes, they’re crowded, but they’re well signed and drivers obey the traffic rules. Best of all, there are few trucks in rush hour as they are offered incentives to move their goods at night.

4) Electric Cars: No longer are big muscle cars or exotic foreign sports cars the prestige ride. Now, its electric cars. Not only is the gas mileage better but they get priority parking spaces and can travel in car pool lanes with only one passenger.

5) Traffic Information: In the San Francisco Bay area, you can dial 511 on any cellphone and get instant traffic information. Tell the automated system your starting point, destination and desired route and you’ll get the latest information on travel times and any delays. Connecticut lawmakers have been calling for a similar system here for years, to no avail.

6) Reversible Lanes: San Diego has had reversible rush-hour lanes on some freeways for more than a decade… in-bound in the AM, outbound in the PM. We have nothing similar in Connecticut.

7) Toll Roads: Not all freeways are free. Some of the most heavily traveled roads in LA are private toll-roads, by-passing the free interstates. Fares are collected electronically without stopping and can be changed, depending on demand. While “value pricing” is already in effect in New Jersey and on the George Washington Bridge, we in Connecticut don’t yet have the political will to embrace this solution to our highway mess.

8) Air Quality: Despite the immense number of cars on the roads, stiff environmental regulations, in place for many years, California has significantly reduced air pollution. Many days the air is cleaner in LA than along I-95 in Stamford.

All is not perfect in the Golden State. And their 12 lane freeways are not a solution I’d suggest we consider. But next time you joke about “LA style traffic”, think twice. Pretty soon they’ll be joking about us!

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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/