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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.

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 or . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see


The Jackal said...

Wow, this is such an unknown problem here on the West Coast. With loads like this, is Metro-North even close to turning a profit? Is it even possible for a public transportation agency to turn a profit?

Jim Cameron said...

Passenger loads are 90+% on many rush hour trains... and the fare-box return is 70+%... but we're still not close to turning a profit, nor should we.

Jim Cameron, Vice Chairman & Webmaster

CT Metro-North SLE Rail Commuter Council

"Advocates for better rail services in CT"