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June 17, 2007

"Next Stop Penn Station?"

Will Connecticut rail commuters someday be able to travel directly from Fairfield County to New York City’s Penn Station? Someday… but not anytime soon.

As with many good ideas that seem so obvious, this one also has been studied thoroughly and found to be problematic in a number of respects. But once again, Governor Rell is challenging the Connecticut Department of Transportation to explain why good ideas like this can’t be implemented. Here, Governor, are a few of the reasons:

INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT: As any commuter on Metro-North can tell you, we don’t have enough seats for existing service to Grand Central let alone expansions to new stations. But now the Canadian rail-car manufacturer Bombardier, having lost the bidding war for the new M8 cars to Kawasaki, is lobbying Hartford to fund railcars we never asked for… double-decker cars with push-pull electric locomotives. They’d be perfect for new express service to Penn Station, they claim. Those cars may work in New Jersey, for which they were designed, but were long ago rejected by the Connecticut DOT for good reasons.

Now, I’m all for getting more rail cars. (Full disclosure, I’m a Canadian by birth). But why are we turning to a rail car vendor to tell us what kind of equipment we should run, and where?

ELECTRICITY: Our existing fleet of MU cars cannot take a left turn at New Rochelle and head over the Hells Gate Bridge onto Long Island, then hang a right, in through the tunnels into Penn Station. The cars’ overhead power catenary system operates under a different voltage than Amtrak. And in third rail territory on Long Island, our cars use a different kind of shoe to contact the third-rail power source. The proposed 2009 experimental direct train from Connecticut to Giants Stadium in New Jersey that was announced with such fanfare last week will actually be run with New Jersey transit railroad equipment.

CAPACITY: Even if we had the cars with the right electrical equipment to make it over the Hells Gate Bridge and through the tunnels to Penn Station, there’s no room in the station. For years now, the MTA has stalled our discussions about direct service to Penn Station, claiming there is no capacity… that the station is full-up serving Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and NJ transit. Only if and when the $6.3 billion East Side Access project bringing some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central is completed many years from now, says the MTA, will there be room for any Metro-North trains to access Penn Station.

Once again, Connecticut is being told by the New York MTA what its transportation future will be. And Connecticut still has no say in the matter nor voting seat at the table, either on the MTA or the Metro-North boards. Connecticut may be the MTA’s largest customer, hired by CDOT to operate Metro-North trains in our state, but when it comes to important decisions, like expanding rail service to Penn Station, the MTA is clearly in control.

Years ago Governor Rell acknowledged the inequity in this position, and promised to fight for a seat on the MTA board. One might ask… what happened to that fight? Why, Governor, is a New York agency still in charge of Connecticut’s transportation future?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

June 03, 2007

Saving the Bar Cars

Score one for the commuters! The MTA has backed down on plans to prohibit the sale of alcohol at Grand Central and on the trains, thanks in part to the organized efforts of the CT Rail Commuter Council and a petition drive by bar car fans.

An MTA task force was studying possible prohibition at the urging of an LIRR board member, who was worried that the railroad might be liable for injuries caused by people who were drinking on the train. Board member Mitch Pally started his effort after a young woman died after she fell into the gap between a station platform and the train; the victim was found to have been drinking before the accident.

But it turns out that dozens of people have fallen into such platform gaps when they were stone cold sober, so our suggestion was to fix the gap… not penalize responsible adult commuters who enjoy having a beer on their way home by train. Led by commuter Council Vice Chair Terri Cronin, concerned commuters gathered over 4,000 petition signatures, which were presented along with her testimony before the MTA panel.

To their credit, CDOT officials also testified that even if the MTA plan went forward prohibiting alcohol sales, Connecticut would not enforce it. It's almost a two hour ride from Grand Central to New Haven, and given the crowding, lack of seats, smelly bathrooms and spotty AC, don't commuters deserve (if not need) a drink?

(Full disclosure; I haven't had a drink in over 20 years, but I'll surely fight to defend the right of adults to enjoy such beverages responsibly.)

The panel also heard from MTA police, who said that there have not been reports of unruly drunks on the trains or injuries caused by commuters driving home after time in the bar cars. Bartenders, both at the carts at Grand Central and on the bar cars themselves, are conscientious about sales. Not only do they proof for age, but will only sell one drink at a time.

All of this apparently impressed the MTA panel studying possible prohibition as their initial recommendation to the full MTA is to leave the sale of alcohol alone.

The MTA earned over $700,000 last year from such sales, double that earned on the Long Island Railroad. Not that Connecticut commuters drink twice as much, but we're the ones blessed with the only bar cars on any commuter railroad in the US.

In the mid-1970s, 20 bar cars were built... ten for New York and ten for Connecticut. The New York cars were later converted to coaches to increase seating capacity. But Connecticut's bar cars live on and are almost “the holy grail” of the railroad.

Nine of the original bar cars are left, but eight new bar cars are on order as part of the M8 purchase. But the older cars are really in sad shape, being held together with gaffer's tape, so they’re undergoing rehabilitation, one at a time. The first rehab’ed bar car should be in service this summer.

So, next time you're on the train, join me in a toast to the MTA, CDOT and America's only commuter-rail bar cars! Cheers!
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct