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January 25, 2010

PT Barnum - Rail Activist

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and The CT Rail Commuter Council have in common? No, not a love of circuses. Both are “rail activists” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his circus and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford broadcast on CT-N (every policy-wonk’s favorite channel). The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum Kathy Maher.

She explained that Barnum (whose 200th birthday we celebrate this year) was more than a showman. He was also a railroad advocate.

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants as the Brooks Brothers and “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Back in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican. (Later he became mayor of Bridgeport.) As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who’d protect their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR! Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters. Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters. Once Vanderbilt had them as passengers for their daily ride into and out of NYC, he jacked up fares by 200 – 400%.

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which he had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad. Barnum says his only ally in the fight was State Senator Ballard of Darien.

So spirited were they in their lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to his bed some ten days before the end of the session and actually remained there ‘sick’” until the legislature adjourned.”

Fast forward to the present and we could again use Barnum’s help.

The MTA, parent of Metro-North, is again in serious financial problems. Mind you, its current $400 million shortfall is of that agency’s own creation. Yet their proposal to close the budget gap could come at the expense of Connecticut passengers.

Proposed cuts in rail service include two weekday mid-afternoon trains and one late night train.

The CT Rail Commuter Council has cried “foul”. And to her credit, Governor Rell heard that call, directing the CDOT to oppose the train cuts. The Governor notes that New York’s budget problems should bring pain on that state’s riders, not our own. Because Connecticut is not part of Metro-North nor the MTA and has no input on its budget, it is hardly fair to make us pay for their mistakes.

Just as in Barnum’s day, our transportation future seems to be in the hands of powerful forces in New York. But as Barnum did in 1865, Governor Rell is sticking up for what’s right for those of us who call Connecticut their home.

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