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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

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