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December 28, 2011

Metro-North's "Passenger Pledge"


Never let a crisis go to waste.  With that philosophy, the CT Rail Commuter Council has turned last July’s stranding of a train full of desperate passengers into something which will benefit every rider of Metro-North:  “The Passenger Pledge”.

That incident, on the hottest day of the year, showed several failures on the part of the railroad… poor communications, lack of coordination with first responders and the need for better training of conductors.  While the railroad has taken the first tentative steps to remedy those problems, The Commuter Council wanted to go further.

At the suggestion of State Senator Toni Boucher, in August the Council drafted a “Passenger Bill of Rights” enumerating what passengers should expect in exchange for a ticket.  Some of those “rights” seemed pretty obvious… heat in the winter, AC in the summer, lighting and clean restrooms.  We even dared to suggest that every passenger should get a seat, a concept quickly rejected by the railroad.

CDOT (which hires Metro-North to run our trains) also rejected our call for refunds or credits for weekly and monthly pass holders when service was cancelled and alternative busing was not provided.  Impossible, said the state!  We’ll see.

But over five months of negotiations with Metro-North and CDOT, we did hammer out an important, precedent-setting document, merging our “Bill of Rights” with what Metro-North called a “Passenger Pledge”.

Among the promises from the railroad… timely communications when service is disrupted… moving stranded trains to stations so passengers can get off… maximizing available seating by equipment scheduling and conductor enforcement of one-passenger, one-seat rules…  railroad employees should be courteous and display name badges when on duty… and cars will be kept clean and safe.

These service pledges will be posted at stations and on trains for all to see, quite a concession from a railroad that has never before committed in writing to such standards.
Some on the Commuter Council were disappointed that we didn’t get all that we’d sought, but most felt that a compromise document that was 90% of our ideal is a major victory.  (I wish members of Congress could similarly compromise!)

The “Passenger Pledge” isn’t perfect.  And it doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be slip-ups.  But now we all know what the standards are and if they’re not achieved, we can discuss what the penalties should be.  (You can see the full Pledge on our website:  www.trainweb.org/ct)
So let’s greet 2012 with optimism.  The fares may have gone up and we only have a few more new M8 cars in service.  Winter will probably bring service cuts.   But we finally, for the first time in the 25+ year history of Metro-North, have a written pledge of customer service.

December 17, 2011

Quiet Cars Finally Arrive On Metro-North In Connecticut


More than ten years ago the CT Rail Commuter Council first proposed the idea of Quiet Cars on Metro-North.  They seemed to work just fine on Amtrak, first introduced in 2001 at the request of passengers. And other commuter lines across the US had also adopted the idea, usually to great acclaim.
For the most part, the rules are self-enforced by passengers.  Those whose phones start ringing are quickly reminded they are in the wrong car and they usually move.  There have been exceptions, including a celebrated case last spring on Amtrak when a woman was arrested for yacking for 16 hours on her cell phone and refusing to move from the Quiet Car.
But over the years Metro-North refused even a small trial.  The idea was summarily rejected by management as unworkable.  Conductors didn’t have time to police the “library like” requirements, they said (though they seemed to have no trouble enforcing no smoking, no feet on seats and other rules).  And passengers wouldn’t abide by the rules anyway.
Oh what a difference a half-decade can make.
Last fall the railroad finally decided to rollout a pilot program on a handful of trains on all three lines, the Hudson, Harlem and New Haven.  But the proposed test in Connecticut, involving only Danbury branch trains, was clearly flawed and was, to their credit, rejected by the CDOT.
Much to the railroad’s surprise, the Hudson and Harlem train trials (involving 32 peak trains) were a big success.  A November survey of 4388 riders in both “quiet” and regular cars, showed 90% customer satisfaction.  And 82% of respondents thought the program should be expanded to all AM and PM peak trains.
Best of all, the railroad admits there were “no significant operational issues”.  Wow.  Treat passengers like adults and they’ll act that way… even on the LIRR where another trial is underway.
The railroad promoted the program heavily (the survey showed 90% awareness) and rather than being confrontational with those violating the quiet rules, conductors just handed the offenders discreet cards explaining the program’s rules.
Those that wanted to use cell phones could still do so, either quietly at their seats or by moving to the vestibules for longer calls.  Groups traveling to the city who wanted to talk could also do so without the withering stares of those affected by their chatter.
Best of all, those seeking a little peace (and maybe a nap) could find the quiet car and be assured of, well, quiet.
Now the Quiet Car program is finally coming to Connecticut.  Starting January 9th, 18 AM and PM peak New Haven line trains (designated with a big Q on the timetable) will be testing the concept.  And Metro-North says if the tests go as well here as in New York, the Quiet Car plan could roll out system wide in peak hours on all trains come April 2012!
The railroad was wrong.  The people were right.  This is certainly cause for (quiet) celebration.

December 05, 2011

Winter on Metro-North


It may not officially start until December 21st, but winter is already on the minds of Metro-North and its 125,000 daily commuters.  We all remember what happened last year with bad storms, train breakdowns and a month of reduced service (fewer trains and fewer cars).
Well, though I can’t forecast the weather I can safely predict another tough winter for the railroad and its passengers.
I honestly believe that Metro-North wants to run an all-weather railroad and does all it can to prep our aging fleet of 40-year-old cars.  But the old cars’ poor design probably means that more break-downs are inevitable.
We don’t have enough diesel train sets to come anywhere close to being able to offer full service if the old MU (electric) cars freeze up again.  And we’ve only received 56 of the 405 new M8 cars ordered years ago, so those few train sets will be of little help if our 300+ older cars can’t run.
And the M8’s we do have on hand have yet to be run in nasty winter weather, so fingers-crossed when they’re sent out in their first blizzard.
So what’s Metro-North’s plan for the months ahead?  In a nutshell, lower your expectations and hopefully exceed their few promises.
Rather than try to run in bad weather, Metro-North is warning riders not to expect full service when the snows come.  I think this move is wise, if unfortunate, given the realities of our ancient fleet.
It really makes no sense to run the old MU cars if we all know they may freeze up mid-run, stranding passengers in dangerous conditions.  Though the railroad has done all it can engineering-wise to fix them, the cars were poorly designed and still ingest snow into their electronics bays where it melts, short-circuits the train’s electronics, then refreezes into a giant block of ice.
So expect reduced or potentially cancelled train service if the weather is bad.  Make your plans now to stay with a friend or relative if you’re trapped in the city, or work from home if the morning trains don’t run.
When the forecast looks bad, check for updates on the MTA website, Clever Commute and through local media.  (The CT Rail Commuter Council tweets the latest @CTRailCommuters on Twitter.)
There will probably be better rail service than the railroad is warning, but it will be nowhere close to the full service we enjoy in good weather.  What trains that do run will be packed and will probably be late.
By this time next year we should have a hundred additional shiny new M8 cars, which have been designed to withstand the worst Mother Nature can dish out.  If they live up to expectations, this winter may be the last where we have to worry about winter train service.

November 13, 2011

Travel: There Are Apps For That


Perhaps no industry has done a better job of adopting to consumer tech platforms than the
travel biz. Given the complexity of travel choices and the powerful new handheld devices we all carry, it seems a perfect match. So, here are a few of my favorite apps and sites to make travel a breeze.

CLEVER COMMUTE: This free e-mail and Twitter-based service allows commuters to text each other in real time and describe problems in their train rides on Metro-North. Though some contributors tend to cry “fire”, Clever Commute has on most occasions been faster and more accurate than Metro-North in describing problems on the trains. More info at www.clevercommute.com

TRAIN-TIME: This website and mobile app are Metro-North's attempt to give riders real-time info on individual trains and their delays. But I've found it unreliable, reporting “good service” when trains were obviously delayed. Still, I'll give the railroad points for trying.

HIPMUNK: This website (www.hipmunk.com) and mobile app are brilliant for showing you travel alternatives between any two places. Planning a trip from NYC to Boston? Hipmunk shows not only the air fare ($420 on the shuttles) but train fares ($69 and up). You can search by departure time, length of trip, or my favorite, the “agony” factor.

TRIP ADVISOR: I am a “top contributor” to this site having posted more than 60 reviews over the past eight years. Whenever I'm going to a new city I rely on Trip Advisor posts to scout out unknown hotels, restaurants and tourism sites. You'll save yourself a lot of pain by referring to this site on the web or via mobile app.

FLYTECOMM: There are a lot of flight tracking sites and apps, and they all offer great info about when your flight will really take off and arrive, not just what the airline has been telling you. My favorite game is to use the app in-flight when the airline offers wi-fi, and watch myself flying across the US, dodging bad weather.

SEAT GURU: Finding a cheap air fare is only half the battle. Now you want to pick a decent seat on the plane. Seat Guru shows you seating plans for every aircraft in dozens of airlines fleets, which ones have more legroom or limited reclines.

AMTRAK: One of the things that Amtrak really does right is offer real time train info, fares and schedules on the web and via their apps. Faster, if less 'perky', than their telephone-based “Julie” robot, these sites are invaluable if you're traveling in the Northeast. And now, Amtrak has free wi-fi on almost all of their trains in the region, not just Acela.

KAYAK: Probably the best single website for everything related to travel... flights, car rentals, hotels and even cruises (but no Amtrak or bus info). Unlike Expedia and Travelocity they only show you the info and don't sell tickets. (Full disclosure: Kayak was a consulting client of mine a few years back).

RAIL EUROPE: Another consulting client, but a brilliant website and mobile app if you're zooming through Europe. Plug in departure city, destination and time and you're shown all the rail alternatives and fares. While I used to travel in Europe with a phone-book sized Thomas Cook's Rail Timetable, now I have more info, for free, on my iPad.

What are your favorite websites and mobile app's for travel? Share your thoughts and I'll pass them along in a future column.

© 2011 Cameron Communications Inc.



October 31, 2011

What The Swiss Can Teach Metro-North


Just back from 12 glorious (and outrageously expensive) days in Europe, I have some train tales to tell, and some advice for Americas railroads.

Despite its small size, Switzerland boasts some of the best trains in the world.  Not the fastest (that would be France), but certainly the most dependable. Here are a few things Metro-North could learn from the Swiss railroads.

ON TIME MEANS ON TIME

Metro-North defines "on time" as being within five minutes and 59 seconds of schedule, an industry standard in the US.  When I explained this to a conductor in Switzerland he laughed and asked "How can a train be late and still be on time?"  Exactly.  In this tiny country you can set your watch by the trains coming and going.

TIMETABLES ON STEROIDS

Arrive at a Swiss station to catch a train and you consult a timetable prepared weeks ago, arranged by hour.  Catching the 10:07 to Basel?  That's always on track 12;  on that track you'll see a chart showing every car on that train, which are first class, where the restaurant and Quiet Cars will be and where, exactly, those cars will stop on the platform.  Catch the same train from Grand Central and the track may be different day to day as might be the length of the train.

On the Swiss train you'll be given a list of the stations you'll stop at, which track you will arrive on and the time and track number of all connecting trains.  Arrive at Stamford looking for the New Canaan connection and it's always different... and sometimes a bus.

TREAT THE CUSTOMERS WITH RESPECT

In Europe the on-board announcements (in three languages) always start with " Meine Damen und Herren" (Ladies and gentlemen).  The formality of the culture carries over to the national railroad and customers are respected.  On Metro-North some conductors yell at passengers, call them children and mock them on the PA system.


FREQUENT, CLEAN TRAINS

The heavily traveled corridor along Lake Geneva from Geneva to Lausanne and Montreux is 58 miles long.  That compares to the 82 miles from Grand Central to New Haven.  On our Connecticut line there are three trains an hour at rush hour and just one an hour during the rest of the day.  On the Swiss line there are trains every three to eight minutes, even on weekends.  Some are locals, others expresses and still others long-distance trains just passing thru Switzerland.  But they are all spotless, even the bathrooms.

TAKE THE PLANE TO THE TRAIN

Most major cities in Europe offer high-speed rail from their big airports to downtown and beyond.  At Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport you can hop a 200-mph TGV to anywhere in the country.  Flying out of Geneva or Zurich, you can even check your bag at the train station and pick it up when you land, or vice versa.  Compare that to JFKs AirTrain which will take you to the subway or LIRR, but no farther.

BOOK & TICKET ONLINE

If you want a ticket for Metro-North you can order it on the web and you'll probably have it in a couple of days by mail.  Book a ticket online in Switzerland and you print it on your home computer and hand it to the conductor who scans the QR code on the train, and you're done.

BAR CARS AND MORE

What passes for a meal on a Metro-North bar car (if there is one on your train) is probably a bag of chips and a beer.  On most Swiss trains there's a lounge car serving food and drink or at least a cart that moves between the cars selling everything from fresh brewed coffee and sandwiches to adult beverages.  And they accept credit cards.

SELLING THE SCENERY

Taking a cog railroad thru the Alps is, of course, different than riding Metro-North.  But both pass through some incredible scenery.  On most intercity Swiss trains there is a Panorama dome car, enjoyed even by the locals.  On Metro-North or Shore Line East you're lucky if you can see thru your window, let alone enjoy the beautiful view of the coastline.

AMERICA IS NOT NUMBER ONE

Ever notice that the people who shout "the USA is the greatest country in the world" have often never been outside our borders?  Until he was elected President, George W Bush had never even been to Canada or Mexico!

When it comes to railroads, the US is abysmal.  Amtrak's Acela is a joke compared to high speed rail in the EU and China.  And Metro-North may be the #1 commuter line in the US, but it pales in comparison to any of dozens of regional lines in the EU.

I just wonder Has anyone from Metro-North has ever been to Europe and seen what is possible?

October 21, 2011

What's In A Name: Branding Rail Travel


Don’t be too jealous, but as you read this I’m enjoying a rail adventure in Europe… almost two weeks of riding some of the fastest and best trains in the world… my idea of a real holiday.
As I prepare my itinerary, I’m struck by how well the Europeans “brand” their service.  There is, of course, “Eurostar”, the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel”.  There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria”, a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.

All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela”, Amtrak’s best effort at high speed rail.  As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is… it’s your basement.”

Amtrak still has some named trains though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes:  the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, The Adirondack to Montreal.

The New Haven Railroad used to name its trains:  The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and Senator.  When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”.  But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known as “The Night Crawler”.  It’s long gone.

It may well be that Acela will seem like a slow-poke if a new project takes wing: a maglev train linking New York and DC.  Out of the blue this week I got an online survey from a company testing names for the proposed service.

Among the options I was asked to grade:  “Maglev”, “Quicksilver”, “Aero” and “Magenta”.  Really… magenta?  But clearly these planners know that before they could even propose such a service, it needs an identity.  (PS:  I think this project has zero chance of ever being built, but it’s nice to know someone is thinking bigger and better than Amtrak).

Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur:  Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, NY Central and a dead-end.  South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est. And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.

On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located.  But Westport residents insist on calling their station “Saugatuck”.  And I wish I knew how Green’s Farms got its name.  Coming this fall, “Fairfield Metro” will arrive.

Though it doesn’t name its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars carry  names tied to Connecticut lore:  The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry), The Ella Grasso (named after our former Governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.

And even before Amtrak, America’s railroads similarly named many cars, especially sleepers, parlor cars and diners.  The long-distance, double-deck Superliners carry the names of the states and such historic figures as A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Pullman porters union.
So the next time you’re on some generic, 30+ year old Metro-North car known only by a number, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a car and train with a name like “The Silver Streak” or “The Weary Commuter”.

October 01, 2011

The Malloy 'Tax' On Commuters


If a mugger came up to you on the street and said “I’m going to poke your eyes out!”, but then he only kicked you in the groin, would you think better of him?
That’s what Metro-North commuters are asking themselves now that CDOT has decided on 15.25% fare hike spread over the next three years instead of the 16.4% hike first proposed.
To their credit, CDOT held eight public hearings around the state to gauge commuter response to their plan.  Hundreds turned out, 99% of them saying there was no justification for a fare increase in light of worsening service.  But the CDOT should have been careful what they asked for.  They heard the public, then chose to ignore them.
Mind you, this fare hike is not really coming from the CDOT.  It’s actually a creation of Governor Malloy and his budget team.
At every monthly meeting over the past two years the CT Rail Commuter Council asked CDOT if there were plans for a fare increase.  Each month they said “no”, until this spring.
When the Governor’s concessions package was initially rejected by state employees, Malloy came out with “Plan B”, a painful collection of service cuts and fee increases (including a fare hike) that hit everyone in the state.  That got the state workers to reconsider and eventually they agreed to concessions and avoided layoffs.  But when the unions said yes, “Plan B” didn’t go away, especially the Metro-North fare hike.
So these fare increases are really nothing more than a tax on commuters, a very convenient “captive audience” with few alternatives.  These fare hikes are not to cover the cost of running the railroad but to balance the state budget.
Our fares are already the highest of any commuter railroad in the US.  Now they’ll be even higher.  Even the railroad’s own computer models suggest these higher fares will reduce ridership.
There are plenty of ways for Metro-North to save money without a fare hike, like collecting all the tickets on the trains.  For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has been asking the railroad to get conductors to do their job.  By their own estimates, the railroad acknowledges millions of dollars in lost revenue from uncollected fares.
Instead of collecting all the tickets, the railroad adopted new rules which make tickets expire sooner, leaving many riders with tickets that are now worthless.  Buy a ten-trip ticket and it’s worth zero in six months if you haven’t used it.  Meanwhile, passengers board trains at Stamford every day and get a free ride to Bridgeport because conductors aren’t doing their job. Their free ride is paid for by those with tickets.
Remember:  Metro-North works for the CDOT.  Why the state chooses to look the other way while the railroad abuses passengers in this way is a question best answered by Governor Malloy.
At a time when the state should be doing all it can to create and keep jobs in the state… and keep taxpayers from moving to NY or NJ… it’s astounding that Governor Malloy chooses instead to make the cost of commuting more expensive, not less. 
This fare hike is just another nail in the coffin of Connecticut’s economic growth.