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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/