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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.

January 11, 2010

Terrorism on the Tracks

The recent hysteria following the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit has reminded us again of our vulnerability to terrorism. Not just in the air, but on our daily commute by train.

We’ve already seen that trains make attractive targets for bombers. After the Madrid bombings in March of 2004 and the London subway attacks in 2005, it is really only a matter of time before terrorism strikes such a vulnerable target as mass transit once again.

Our government has proven itself unable to protect the homeland, so occasionally seeing State Troopers and police riding Metro-North trains seems like an act of PR, propping up public opinion, rather than acting as any deterrence.

According to recent statistics from the House Transportation Committee, since 9/11 we’ve spent $11 billion improving aviation security, or $9.16 per passenger. In the same time we’ve only spent $115 million on mass transit, or $0.006 per passenger.

The TSA has 49,000 screeners working 2000 checkpoints at 450 airports. But have you ever seen a TSA screener at a train station?

On Amtrak, police (often with dogs) “show the colors” with a walk-thru of Acela trains leaving Penn Station. Conductors also ask for passengers IDs on a random basis. This is deterrence?

But the craziest TSA experiment of all happened right here in Connecticut.
In July of 2004, a Shore Line East train was outfitted with an extra car carrying bombing sniffing and metal detecting equipment (on loan from manufacturer GE, which is obviously eyeing lucrative contracts). Passengers boarding the train at all stations first had to enter the “security car” and as the train moved along, were screened for explosives. That’s right… they got on the train and then were screened. But isn’t the idea to keep the bombs off of the trains, not find them in transit?

What can realistically be done to improve safety on our trains and subways? In my view… not much. There are hundreds of miles of track, scores of stations and thousands of passengers to control. Consider some of the possibilities:

• ID checks before boarding? For what purpose… and of what deterrence value?

• Airport-style “secure zones” and screenings at stations? Can you imagine thousands of riders arriving 60 – 90 minutes before departure to queue for pat-downs twice each day? They’d abandon the trains and be back in their cars in a flash.

• A cop on every train? Be honest: do you really think a determined suicide bomber would stop at his grizzly task if he saw a cop on the train? And with a ten-car Metro-North train carrying more passengers than a 747, what good is a cop at the front of the train if something happens a quarter-mile behind him in the rear car.?

• Bomb-sniffing dogs on every train? Maybe. But we don’t have anywhere near enough trained canines to handle the hundreds of trains each day on Metro-North.

So what’s a commuter to do? In my view… rely on your own instincts. Be watchful of your surroundings, unattended bags and suspicious behavior. As they remind us: If you see something that doesn’t look right… say something.

Shortly after the Madrid bombings, I was on a Metro-North train headed into the city when a passenger came into my car, spoke softly with the conductor, and sat down. Two other passengers followed him, now speaking in more excited tones. They said there was a “dark skinned man” in the other car sweating profusely, looking at his watch, reading an Arabic newspaper and playing with something in his briefcase. The conductor radioed ahead and our train was stopped in the Bronx. MTA Police in body armor boarded and took the man off the train.

To my eye he looked like any other commuter. Sweating, perhaps because he’d run for the train. Looking at his watch, maybe because he was late for an appointment. Fumbling with something in his briefcase, trying to find his Blackberry. Reading a foreign newspaper, to catch up on the news in his native tongue. The gentleman looked Indian, not Arabic, but he offered no resistance when he climbed off the train. Inquiries later said he was not a suspect and just released.

Paranoia? Xenophobia? Or have our enemies really won and left us terrorized? I’m still riding the train and taking the subways. But I don’t linger in Grand Central, a perfect target for a suicide bomber.

In all honesty, the debacle over the Detroit jet bombing attempt convinces me that our government can do nothing prevent the inevitable… further terrorist attacks right here in the US.