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August 27, 2012

Metro-North’s Ticket Rules Are a Rip-off


Metro-North’s “new and improved” fare policy taking effect on September 4th is neither new nor improved.  It continues to be a rip-off of riders.
Until 2010, you could buy a one-way or round-trip ticket and use it anytime within 90 days.  Convenient ten trip tickets were good for a year.  And unused tickets could be refunded anytime for free.
Then, in December of 2010, things changed for the worse:  one-way tickets were only good for 14 days and ten-trips for six months.  Refund any ticket and you’d be hit with a $10 service fee.
Why the change?  Metro-North admitted it wasn’t able to collect all tickets on trains and was losing money.  So rather than staff trains with enough conductors to collect tickets, they thought it wiser to penalize passengers.
How did these faster-expiring tickets hurt?  In many ways:
Some passengers who bought ten trip tickets for occasional trips found they’d expired, leaving them with four or five unused rides costing $10 or more apiece.  Ouch!
That was a mistake you’d only make once, so those passengers then abandoned the 30 – 40% savings of ten-trip tickets and had to buy one-ways.  Ka-ching!
That means many passengers must buy a new ticket before every trip, which means getting to the station early and standing in line. 
But while passengers were inconvenienced and lost money under the new rules, Metro-North scored a windfall of millions of dollars in additional revenue… some of it, perhaps, from previously uncollected tickets, but how much more from tickets bought in good faith but unused because they had expired?
And $10 to refund a ticket?  By whose accounting?  The same agent who handles refunds doesn’t charge $10 to sell a ticket, so why charge for a refund?
The Commuter Council representing LIRR riders has a better idea:  tickets sold could not be refunded, but neither would they expire.
This September 4th, responding to “massive complaints” from riders, the rules will change, but only slightly:  one-way and roundtrip tickets will then be good for 60 days, not 14.  But ten trips are still worthless after six months.
To my thinking, tickets should never expire.  If there’s a fare increase, pay the difference between the old fare and the new one.  Otherwise, if you’ve paid for a ticket, you can take the ride. Period.
Conductors should do their jobs, placing seat-checks when tickets are collected so they know when new passengers get aboard and can then collect their tickets.  How often have you seen a conductor walk through a train crying, “Stamford tickets,” as the newly boarded commuters avoid eye contact?
Watching someone board at Stamford who doesn’t pay their fare is like watching someone shoplift.  We all pay for their theft.
The new M8 cars mean more seats and fewer standees.  It’s a rare Friday afternoon train that’s packed so tight a conductor can’t move through to collect tickets.  If you ride a train where fares aren’t collected you should report it.  A well paid Metro-North conductor hiding in their booth from angry passengers instead of collecting their fares is unacceptable.
We already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  These unfair Metro-North ticket rules just make commuting less convenient and more expensive.

August 13, 2012

Amtrak's Future in Connecticut


Amtrak, what passes for America’s national railroad, has some big plans for the future.  The problem is finding any consensus, let alone the money, on what those plans should be.
Before we detail their vision for the year 2030, here’s a snapshot of how Amtrak operates today.  Amtrak runs 46 trains a day through Connecticut serving 1.7 million passengers annually.  New Haven, the busiest station in the state, is also the 11th busiest in the nation.
Amtrak’s flagship, Acela, running from Boston to Washington, also stops in Stamford (and once-a-day in New London), while the slower “Northeast Corridor” trains serve Bridgeport, Old Saybrook and Mystic with branch-line trains running from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield.
Amtrak is also hired by the CDOT to run Shore Line East commuter trains between New London and New Haven.
Unlike the rest of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak does not own or control the tracks from the New York state line to New Haven.  Those tracks are owned by the CDOT which pays Metro-North to maintain them and the overhead power (catenary) lines.  Amtrak pays a flat fee (far too low, says CDOT) to run its trains on “our” tracks, plus a little bonus money to the state for prioritizing its schedule over that of the commuter lines.
Connecticut’s section of the Northeast Corridor contains more miles and serves more stations than any other state from D.C. to Massachusetts.  And it includes several 100+ year-old bridges crossing the Thames, Niantic and Connecticut Rivers, crucial to inter-city service.  It’s old and expensive to maintain.
It’s hard to run a true high speed railroad on a century-old right-of-way.  In fact, Acela goes no faster than Metro-North (90 mph) between NY and New Haven and cannot engage its tilting mechanism on the many curves.
So, as Amtrak looks to the future, it’s thinking of building an entirely new line through Connecticut to connect New York City and Boston.  Rather than following the coastline (parallel to I-95) it envisions an inland route (parallel to I-84).
As the last phase of its 2030 – 2040 “Next Gen” high speed rail, 220 mph Amtrak bullet-trains (faster than the current French TGV) would bypass Stamford, New Haven and New London and instead zip through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford.  “Super-Express” service would be non-stop thru Connecticut while “Express” trains would make brief stops in those inland Connecticut cities.  Northeast Corridor service would continue along the coast as either “Shoreline Express” or “Regional” trains.
Needless to say, Governor Malloy and the CDOT are not happy with Amtrak’s plan, especially given Connecticut (and the Feds’) investment in the New Haven to Hartford high(er) speed corridor.  They want the existing coastal corridor to New Haven to be served by the super-Acela service which could then continue north through Hartford to Springfield before heading east to Boston.  Put the trains where the people are, is their argument.
Amtrak thinks the coastal corridor is too old, has too many curves and would be too expensive to operate.  They think it would be cheaper to build a new line from scratch, and they’re probably right.
We are so lucky that, a century ago, a four-track rail line was built along Connecticut’s coast.  It was state-of-the-art for its time and could never be built today.  But for the 21st century, this line is obsolete.  Every serious high speed railroad in the world operates on a new, dedicated right-of-way, not some hand-me-down from the past.
So, good for Amtrak for bold planning for our future.  It’s time for our Governor and CDOT to get on board.  A new, inland high-speed route is the best way to go.