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October 31, 2009

New M8 Rail Cars A Year Late In Delivery

It’s the question I am asked almost every day: “When are the new rail cars coming?” The answer: “Later than we’d thought”.

Yes, the new M8 rail cars, which lawmakers authorized in 2005 and we hoped would be in service late this year, won’t be in service until late 2010… a year later than planned.

We on the CT Rail Commuter Council (a state-appointed watchdog group) have been tracking the progress of the M8’s from engineering design to focus groups on the interiors to initial “crush tests” (which they failed). Every month we ask if there are any delays, and CDOT says “no, we’re right on track”.

Initially the plan was to have a set of prototype “pilot” cars delivered by “late 2008”. (Look it up. It’s still on the CDOT website!) Those cars would then undergo testing for four to six months while production continued on the “revenue” cars, which would be held out of service until the tests were complete. That probably meant we’d be able to ride in the new M8’s by April or May of 2010, about 16 or 17 months later than planned.

But the timeline is now slipping further.

At our September Commuter Council meeting, CDOT Commissioner said that the M8’s manufacturer, Kawasaki, had been having problems with suppliers delivering steel later than planned. And their sub-contractors (who account for 60% of the cars) were also delayed.

Commissioner Marie also said that the planned delivery schedule of ten cars per month was extremely ambitious as railcar makers have a “deplorable record” of keeping their production promises. Marie should know, having worked for Bombardier in years past.

But wait… it gets even worse. By the time the Commuter Council met in October, this time with Metro-North President Howard Permut, the delays had been stretched. Permut said it would be months before even the test cars arrive, meaning the four to six months of testing would delay putting the cars in service until “late 2010”.

And that assumes that everything goes well and no serious problems are found during the testing!

Those tests are crucial as we’re spending $713 million on the first 300 cars. These cars should last 30 years, if they live up to their warranty. That’s why the first prototypes have to be run into the ground until something breaks.
And if some component does fail, Kawasaki will have to go back to retrofit a “fix” onto all the cars in production, both in Kobe Japan and Lincoln Nebraska.

Mind you, there is some good news in all of this mess…

First, Kawasaki is paying millions of dollars in penalties for the delays. And second, the plans for a fare hike to pay for the new cars is also delayed.

We commuters are a patient bunch. We’ve waited a decade beyond when our old fleet should have been retired, and I guess we can wait a few more months.

But what we cannot wait for any longer is candor and honesty from CDOT, an agency whose credibility is in tatters.

The long needed New Haven Railyard facility morphed from a $300 million project in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2008. Governor Rell was incredulous and ordered a $630,000 study of the ballooning costs.

A rework of the plan brought the cost down to $850 million. But just opened bids for Phase One of the project, expected to cost $261 million, came in at $125 million!

It’s a long way from $300 million to $1.3 billion and from $261 million to $125 million. And along the way people start wondering if anyone has a clue about estimating costs.

All we need are honest answers, not excuses. Get the new M8 prototypes, start testing them and please, be honest about any further delays.

October 17, 2009

Leaves vs Loco's: "Slip Sliding Away"

It sounds like a question on a kid’s quiz show: “How do you stop a train?”
A) Hail it like a cab? B) Pull the emergency brake? C) Put wet leaves on the track?

If you chose “C”, you were correct… and you must be a regular commuter on Metro-North.

This is the time of year that tries train engineers’ souls and commuters’ patience. On a single day last fall, 60 rush-hour trains were delayed by “slippery rails” when wet leaves caused trains to “slip-slide” on their usually solid tracks.

You may not realize it, but the flanged wheel of a train contacts the rail only on a surface area the size of a dime. That’s why trains can move so smoothly with minimal power… riding a small, but firm area of friction.

But when the leaves fall and get wet, they are ground into one of the slipperiest substances known to man, a compound called pectin. As the train rolls along, its braking computer senses the slip and tries to apply the disc brakes, which eventually scrape off the gelatinous slime.

But often the brakes are applied so hard that a locked wheel is ground against the track, creating a flat spot on the usually round surface. In years past these flat wheel issues have taken 25% of cars out of service for regrinding. That means not enough cars, which means standees.

Sophisticated train computers don’t like it when they think the train can’t stop so, on the new M7 cars running in Westchester county, the railroad had to reprogram the safety systems to reassure them the train wasn’t out of control and didn’t need emergency braking.

Worse yet, on some lines the slippery leaves can virtually leave the trains unable to move. Case in point, the Danbury branch line which is an almost continual up-hill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”, 397 feet above sea level. On this branch, diesel locomotive-pulled trains often can’t stop on hills at stations like Cannondale, so on some days they skip such stops and make a running start for the steeper climbs.

On an MU (multiple-unit) mainline train, all cars are locomotives, spreading out the traction-power the full length of the train. But on a branch line, a single Genesis locomotive weighing 120+ tons has only eight wheels touching the track, seeking enough traction to pull a fully loaded eight car train. That means eight dime-sized points of friction for a multi-ton load.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as sand dropped from special hoppers on the train just in front of the drive-wheels. The resulting friction gets the train going or helps it stop.

Mind you, this is a problem for railroads worldwide, not just here in the northeast.

Of late, Metro-North has brought in heavier armament… a specially designed car dubbed “Water World” equipped with high pressure hoses that blast the tracks free of the gooey mess.

They’re also experimenting with chemical sprays. And one inventor in the UK is even proposing to zap the goo off the rails with lasers!

So in the fall as we appreciate the gorgeous foliage, remember the words of Paul Simon during your next ride on Metro-North: “Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

October 05, 2009

Are Some Rail Fares Unfairly Too Low?

If you’re a regular commuter on Metro-North, you won’t like this week’s column, but please read on.

A recent editorial in the rabid, rightwing, appropriately-named “Waterbury Republican American” suggested that rail fares in Connecticut are too low, and that this is unfair to taxpayers who don’t ride but are asked to subsidize those who do.

They argued that in-state fares cost less than driving, which is true, especially on the branch lines (New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury) where fares are kept low on purpose.

For example, from Waterbury to Grand Central is 88 miles but costs less than New Haven to GCT which is 72 miles. And on the upscale New Canaan line, traveling from that town to NYC costs no more than going from Stamford to the city… making the eight mile ride from Stamford to New Canaan “free”.

On the main line our fares are based on a distance formula: 18.17 cents per mile, plus an additional $5.45 to go to 125th Street or Grand Central. Why the extra fare to go into Manhattan?

Within Connecticut the lowest one-way fare is $2.25, even to go just two miles. That hardly seems fair.

Or consider monthly fares. They are “commuted” from the regular fares by about a 50% discount of the regular peak fare. But why?

Monthly commuters travel at peak hours and place the greatest strain on the railroad. So why do they get the biggest discount? What other industry gives a price break at its busiest time, even to frequent customers?

You want to see a movie on a Saturday night, you pay top dollar. Travel by air to see your in-laws at Thanksgiving, no discounts there. Even if you are a regular ticket-buyer, higher cost is one way of managing the demand, given a limited supply of seats. So why do Metro-North and CDOT, which jointly set our fares, give such a huge price break to monthly commuters?

Sure, those commuters are the railroad’s bread and butter. And keeping transportation affordable is crucial to making Connecticut a livable jumping-off point for their journeys to work.

But increasingly it’s the “discretionary” rider who’s keeping monthly fares low… the people who go into the city on weekends, even at reduced off-peak fares. By keeping the seats full on trains, the cost of crews and electricity is amortized across the entire week, not just AM and PM rush hours.

On off-peak trains, senior citizens get a 50% discount. Why? If it’s because they’re living on a fixed income, why not discount fares for the unemployed, those on welfare or disability?

(By the way, I was not in favor of Senator Don Williams’ nutty 2007 plan to offer free mass transit to senior citizens at a time when our trains were standing-room only. That would have led to some nasty confrontations between commuters and free-riding blue hairs.)

Now don’t get me wrong: I am all for keeping fares low. What I am suggesting is that we seek equity between in-state and inter-state riders and across all day-parts. And, of course, we want to make sure conductors collect everyone’s tickets, which is still an on-going problem.

Should taxpayers who don’t ride Metro-North subsidize fares for those who do? Absolutely!

Fairfield County represents 20% of the state’s population but pays 42% of the taxes. And I don’t remember any of us complaining when we were asked to subsidize a new convention center in Hartford or football stadium for UConn.

What we need is equity, each of us contributing a fair share for the greater good.
So as the CDOT prepares for public hearings around upcoming fare increases, I hope they keep this in mind. Rather than a flat “X percent” hike across the board, let’s revisit our entire fare structure, branch lines, weekends, seniors and daily commuters. Let’s keep our fares fair.