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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.