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January 21, 2008

"A Report Card for Metro-North"

True to its legislative mandate, the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council has just issued its annual report to Governor Rell, the legislature and MTA. The full 97 page report is available on our website, but here are the highlights.

The Council gives the railroad high marks for running an on-time system despite our aging and decrepit fleet. In 2007, 97.1% of all trains ran “on-time” (defined as arriving at their destination within five minutes and 59 seconds), a new record.

When things have gone wrong, such as several wires-down episodes, the railroad got things up and running again with admirable speed.

The problem is, such an on-time record makes commuters expect such service, and when things go wrong, they need to understand why. Here is the railroad’s greatest shortcoming.

Communication with passengers on the platforms, on the trains and through the media is spotty at best. While automated PA announcements have improved, passengers stuck on delayed trains can’t rely on train crews for updated information.

In several cases last year, trains were delayed for several hours. Passengers seeking information from on-board crew members not only didn’t receive it, they found conductors hiding from customers in their control-cabs. This is just wrong, and while the railroad says it agrees with the Council, these problems persist.

Metro-North’s new e-mail alert system and website seem the most reliable sources for updates, but in several incidents CDOT confused the situation by sending out conflicting e-mails. By “trying to help” they just messed up communications.

In its work with the railroad, the Council has encountered similar problems. Senior management of Metro-North has, on at least two occasions, responded to the Council’s efforts to improve communications with an attitude of arrogance and denial. We should all be on the same side, not adversaries.

On a positive note, the Council’s efforts did bring about positive change for commuters… halting the plan to dump morning rush-hour riders on unheated, unsheltered platforms all winter for the sake of needed catenary work… replacing an ill-conceived $1 per ticket fare surcharge with a 1% fare hike for each of seven years starting in 2010… persuading MTA not to ban alcohol sales at stations and on bar-cars… convincing the railroad to add more service on the growing Waterbury line… and getting Metro-North to add a special e-mail alert system for branch riders.

Best of all, design and construction moves forward on the new M8 cars, still due to start arriving in August of 2009. These will truly be world-class rail cars, delighting passengers and adding badly needed seats.

But one huge unresolved problem is that of station parking. With new seating capacity coming down the track, the Council remains concerned that nothing is being done to add more parking at stations to encourage ridership.

Sure, a new station is planned in Fairfield with 1,500 parking spaces, but there are already 3,400 commuters on the waiting list for annual permits there. A new garage is planned in Stamford to replace the old one which must be demolished, but the private / public partnership building it remains a mystery and despite numerous requests, the Council can get no information about the design or local traffic flow. Waiting lists for parking permits at most stations run three to four years.

Finally, it’s been 18 months since the Commuter Council launched its “Fix My Station” campaign documenting dozens of stations with safety issues, yet the $6 million allocated by the state to repair these hazards remains unspent. Why?

Commuters in Connecticut deserve better, and the Commuter Council will keep fighting to make sure they get it.

January 07, 2008

Catenary vs Third Rail

The Commuter Council’s recent battles with CDOT and Metro-North to keep winter service from the existing platforms was prompted by the multi-million dollar catenary replacement program… like trying to change the fan-belt on a moving car. But why fix this flawed system instead of converting to third-rail? Here’s the story…

Ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that operates on three modes of power… AC, DC and diesel. On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries. Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third rail power for the rest of the trip into New York. Even diesel trains must convert to third-rail as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels.

And there’s the rub: Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors. That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car. While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, the dual-mode M8 car being designed for Connecticut will cost $3 million each.

So, some folks are asking… “Why not just use one power source? Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.” Simple, hardly. Smart, not! And here’s why.

Ø There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way. All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened. Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired. Cost? Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and unimaginable service disruptions.

Ø Even with third-rail the CDOT, would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak’s trains. That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost. We’re currently spending millions just to upgrade the eighty-year old catenary, so why then replace it?

Ø Third-rail AC power requires substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate. The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.

Ø DC driven third-rail is less efficient. Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world… the TGV, Shinkansen, etc. On third-rail speeds, are limited to 75 miles an hour vs. 90 mph under the wire. That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.

Ø Third-rail ices up in bad weather and can get buried in snow, causing short circuits. Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.

Ø Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.

The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980’s by consultants to CDOT. They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail. This time, it seems, the engineers at CDOT got it right.

So like it or not, we’re stuck with this railroad anomaly. And work must continue on the catenary replacement. But that doesn’t mean Metro-North should send commuters to Siberia for the sake of their on-time performance. Let’s stick with existing platform operations adding the bridge-plates, even if it means trains are a tad late. At least we won’t freeze to death in the name of fixing the wire.

The Truth About Trucks

Two years ago, in my very first “Talking Transportation” column, I tried to dispel the myth that our highway problems are all caused by trucks. “Let’s Blame the Trucks” attacked that common wisdom with facts that didn’t win me many friends. But that’s hardly my goal in these musings.

Hardly a week goes by without some spectacular highway pile-up involving a truck. But check the facts and you’ll find most of those accidents were caused by motor cars, not the trucks drawn into the incidents.

Do trucks drive too fast? Sure, but don’t we all? Next time you’re on I-95 check who’s in the high-speed left lane and you’ll see cars, not trucks.

Should there be better safety inspections of trucks? Absolutely! And Senators Duff and McDonald deserve kudo’s for their long fight at keeping the Greenwich inspection station open more hours. So too do my friends at the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby deserve credit for forcing better reporting on what those inspections turn up in the way of violations and fines ($2 million between July and December 2007).

But for every over-weight truck or over-worked truck driver there are doubtless hundreds of unsafe cars and equally road-weary warriors behind the wheel whose reckless disregard endangers us all.

Truckers drive for a living. They are tested and licensed to far more rigorous standards than anyone else. And because they drive hundreds of miles each day, overall I think they are far better drivers. When’s the last time you saw a trucker juggling a cellphone and a latte like many soccer moms?

And remember… they’re not out there driving their big-rigs up and down the highway just to annoy us. We put those trucks on the road by our voracious consumption patterns. Every product we buy at stores large and small, including the very newspaper you hold in your hand, was delivered by trucks. Want fewer trucks on the road? Just stop buying stuff.

By definition, trucks are high-occupancy vehicles. Compare the energy efficiency of a truck delivering its cargo to you in your “SOV” (single occupancy vehicle), even if it is a hybrid. Only rail offers better fuel efficiency.

Why are trucks jamming our highways at rush hour? Because selfish merchants required them to drive then to meet their delivery timetable. If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow must better at rush hour.

Truckers must use the interstates while passenger cars can chose among many alternate routes. Why is the average distance driven on I-95 in Connecticut just eleven miles? Because most of us drive the ‘pike for local, not interstate trips.

If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways (ie return tolling) we’d see fewer vehicles of all kinds on I-95, and those that were willing to pay for the privilege of motoring there would get real value in a faster ride.

I’m hardly an apologist for the trucking lobby. But neither will I allow us to blame anyone but ourselves for highway safety and congestion. It’s the SOV crowd, not the truckers, who are to blame. Excessive speed and drinking cause most accidents, and the majority of accidents involve cars, not trucks.

Let’s be honest about this mess of our own making and stop trying to blame truckers as our scapegoat. As the great philosopher Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”