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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/