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June 18, 2012

If You See Something...


Ever since 9-11 commuters on Metro-North have been told “If you see something, say something.”

One commuter recently did that, taking a smart-phone video of an engineer reading a newspaper while running his train at high speed, then posting that video on YouTube.
To their credit, management at the railroad reacted quickly, suspending and disciplining the 24 year veteran.  They also reminded every engineer on the railroad that this was inappropriate, dangerous and unacceptable.
How did those train operators and their union react?  With a cover-up, literally.
Since the video was posted, many if not most engineers have been covering their windows withnewspapers and cardboard to prevent anyone from seeing them at work.  They claim this is to reduce glare and reflection of interior lights, but we know better.
In my view, the only glare they want to avoid is the glare of public opinion for potentially being caught not doing their job.
How can commuters “say something” if they can’t see anything?
Metro-North says there is no rule forbidding such a “cover-up”, but they’re conducting a best practices review of other railroads to see how they handle this.  Whatever the results of that research, it will doubtless require union cooperation to take down the papers and reassure passengers about who is running their train and how.
Meantime, don’t worry, says Metro-North, we have inspectors on trains watching for misbehavior.  Oh, really?
Days after this YouTube video, New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit showing that the railroad’s train inspectors were often web surfing rather than conducting on-train inspections.  While they should have been riding trains to see if conductors used seat-checks to prevent fare evasion or make surprise visits to engineers in their cab to see if they were reading, those inspectors were goofing off.
The audit says that the five inspectors and supervisor missed one third of their assignments while pulling down $832,676 a year. Four of the inspectors were paid $170,000 each for work not done.
As Bloomberg Business Week reports: “Investigators also found that an assistant vice president in charge of the unit referred a relative to a worker under her supervision. The relative was then hired, despite receiving a lower rating than two other applicants, and was given an $84,700 salary, about $27,000 more than was posted, auditors found. The employee and the assistant vice president had their paychecks deposited into the same bank account, investigators found.”
Since the allegations came to light, the inspection unit has been disbanded.  So who’s riding the trains, watchdogging the employees?
All this comes on top of other malfeasance uncovered by DiNapoli, including a 30 person Metro-North unit that abused overtime rules to pad their pay by $1 million and future pension payments by $5.5 million.
And last fall, eleven LIRR workers were indicted on charges of taking $1 billion in disability benefits for alleged on the job injuries.  Investigators tracked them only to see them playing golf and living the high life.
Who pays for these scams?  We do, through our fares and taxes.
So when Metro-North says they need more money because of rising costs, maybe we should ask its President, Howard Permut, just who’s running this railroad… managers appointing their relatives to jobs they don’t do… no-show employees abusing OT… or the unions covering up misbehavior at the controls?

June 03, 2012

Mega Projects of a Lifetime


If you’re lucky, you get to see one mammoth construction project in your lifetime.  Like the building of Grand Central, the George Washington Bridge or LaGuardia Airport.
But our generation is lucky enough to see two such mega-works:  The Long Island Railroad’s East Side Access tunnel to Grand Central and the New Britain to Hartford busway, now dubbed CTFastrak.
Recently the CT Rail Commuter Council was given a tour of the East Side Access construction site, bored out of solid granite 180 feet below street level. The size and scale of the project are hard to comprehend, extending from 37th Street in Manhattan all the way north under Grand Central, the existing Park Avenue tunnel and turning east at 63rd Street to go under the East River to Queens where it meets the present LIRR tracks. (For hundreds of photos of the project, click here)

The main station at 42nd Street will feature two football-field length platforms, two tracks wide and two tracks high, feeding banks of escalators that will bring LIRR passengers to their own mini-GCT under Vanderbilt Avenue, just west of Grand Central.
None of this will affect our existing service to GCT (except for the added throngs of riders heading to the Lexington Avenue subway).  But the hidden benefit for Metro-North, especially New Haven line riders, may be direct service to Penn Station.  Only when the LIRR can divert some trains from Penn Station will there be room there for Metro-North.
Meantime, the project is behind schedule and 30% over budget, the biggest problem being the soil in Queens which is too soft for tunneling.  The $8 billion project should be finished in 2018.
Here in Connecticut, ground has finally been broken on the controversial New Britain to Hartford busway, now known as CTfastrak.
This 9.4 mile long bus-only highway will feature 11 stations, carry 16,000 daily passengers and kick-start TOD (transit oriented development) along its route while offering a much faster ride to downtown Hartford than can be found today.
I’ve written before about this project which has been widely criticized.  My rail-fan friends say it should be a light rail system.  But that would cost considerably more than the current $600 million price tag ($460 million of that coming from the Federal government).  The pro-auto lobby says it’s all a boondoggle and that nobody will ever take the buses.  We should all know the answer by 2014 or so when the road is finished and the service begins.  (I think it will prove to be a huge success).
Both projects are way over budget and behind their time line.  But so too were many other mega-projects which were similarly scorned.  Robert Moses was widely attacked for his highway projects in New York City in the middle of the last century.  But without him there would have been no Tri-Borough Bridge, United Nations, Jones Beach or parkways on Long Island.
Some of Moses’ greatest projects were built in economic hard times worse than today.  But generations later, we’re still relying on them to get around.  They may have seemed then like engineering folly, but they turned out to be a solid investment in the future we call “today”.
Big dreams like East Side Access and CTfastrak come with big price tags.  But if we didn’t think big, we’d still be in horse carts stuck in the muddy ruts of the Boston Post Road.  So tell your kids and your grandchildren that in your lifetime you saw not one, but two mega-projects turn from dreams into reality.