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September 24, 2012

Good News About Metro-North



So often this column is a screed of complaints about Metro-North.  This time, the good news, because I really think in the last year we have turned the corner in everyone’s goals and hopes for making Metro-North service better.
MORE SEATS:       The latest monthly reports reviewed by the CT Rail Commuter Council show that 99% of all trains have enough cars.  That’s a major improvement compared to a few years ago when “consist compliance” was in the 85% range (i.e. 15% of all trains didn’t have enough cars for the passenger load they usually carried).   Why the improvement?  The new M8 cars.
NEW CARS:           The new M8 cars continue to arrive at the rate of about ten new cars a month, an aggressive delivery schedule few thought Kawasaki could ever achieve.  On average, each car is going 139,000 miles before it has a problem.  That’s an MDBF (mean distance between failure) twice as good as the M4 and M6 cars.  So far 128 new M8’s are in service, meaning you have about a 30% chance of riding in a new-car train at rush hour and a 50% chance on weekends.
RIDERSHIP:           Despite the economy, ridership continues to climb about 5% annually.  The biggest increase?  Weekend day trippers.
ON TIME:               This has always been a justifiable point of pride with Metro-North, as 97% of the trains arrive “on time” (within 6 minutes of the timetable).
NEW SIGNALS:      The signalization system being installed on the Danbury branch continues apace with one of the first sections to be activated within a month.  When it’s completed this will mean more trains, in both directions, on this one-track railroad.
NEW SERVICE:      With the new October timetable there will be added service on weekends… eight more trains on Saturdays and 20 more trains on Sundays.
MORE STOPS:       Thanks to years of persuasion by The CT Rail Commuter Council to the CDOT, that new timetable will also eliminate the old “skip stops” at less used stations like Rowayton, East Norwalk, Greens Farms and Southport.  Now, instead of trains every two hours, those stations… in fact, all stations… will have train service every hour.  The brief added time for these stops will hardly be noticed but will offer vastly improved service to hundreds of daily riders.
QUIET CARS:         It took about a decade of lobbying by the CT Rail Commuter Council, but since Metro-North initiated the “Quiet CALMute” cars a few months ago, they’ve been a big success.
BETTER COMMUNICATIONS:    By cell phone, e-mail, PA system and ‘seat-drops’, the railroad is doing a much better job of communicating with its passengers on the rare occasions when things go wrong.
THE PASSENGER PLEDGE:      Though not quite the “Passenger Bill of Rights” that the CT Rail Commuter Council had crafted, this first-time-ever written pledge to passengers about the kind of service they deserve and can expect was a major step by Metro-North.
But wait, there’s more!   There are further enhancements being considered by the railroad:
WI-FI:           Testing continues, but we could be seeing on-train Wi-Fi accessibility in a matter of months, not years.
SMARTPHONE TICKETS: Yes, you’ll soon be able to buy a ticket on your phone, show it to the conductor, and never have to handle paper.
So, for those of you who think that all I do is moan and complain, re-read everything above and let’s both give credit where it is due.  Good job Metro-North!

September 10, 2012

The Bridgeport - Port Jefferson Ferry



Every now and then it’s great to see a transportation system that works really well.  Case in point, the Bridgeport (CT) to Port Jefferson (NY) ferry.
I’ve written in the past about some folks’ crazy idea that ferry boats are the solution to our traffic problems along I-95.  They are not.  But they do prove useful when they take you where the roads and rails can’t, like across Long Island Sound.
The first ferry ran this 18-mile route in 1872.  By 1883 permanent service was offered by a company owned in part by Bridgeport’s PT Barnum (after whom one of the line’s current vessels is named).  In 1980 all-season service began with the line’s largest vessel, “The Grand Republic”.
The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company is 100% owned by Brian McAllister, a fourth generation seaman and tugboat czar who lives on Long Island.  You’ll usually see one of his tugs in Port Jeff’s harbor.
Each of the line’s three ferries is “RO-RO”, for roll-on, roll-off.  At Bridgeport, cars and trucks drive on from the rear and exit in Port Jefferson by driving off thru the raised bow of the vessel.  The ferries can carry between 90 and 110 vehicles and a thousand passengers.
The crossing takes about an hour and a quarter but you can save considerable time, tolls and aggravation by avoiding driving to New York City and crossing the Whitestone or Throgs Neck bridges.
When it began, the ferries carried food grown on Long Island to industrial cities in New England.  Today you’ll still see an occasional truck ferrying seafood, but most of the traffic is tourists and business people.
In season, all three vessels are in operation allowing for almost hourly departures.  If you’re bringing a vehicle a reservation is a good idea, though on most weekday runs you can just drive right up and catch the next boat.
The vehicle unloading and re-loading process is smooth and when passengers leave their cars they can join foot passengers upstairs at the snack bar or cocktail lounge.  In good weather the sundeck affords a wonderful view.  There’s Wi-Fi available onboard and cell-phone signals are strong, even in the middle of the Sound.
In Bridgeport, the ferry dock is a two-minute walk from Metro-North.  But in Port Jefferson it’s about a 25-minute walk from the dock to the nearest Long Island Railroad station.  Taxi service is available at both terminals.
Fares aren’t cheap:  $54 for a car and driver, $15 for each additional passenger.  Foot passengers are $18 one-way, $26 for same-day roundtrip.  Seniors (age 60+) are $13 one-way, $18 for a same-day return.  Kids 12 and under are always free when traveling with an adult.
There was talk a few years ago of offering additional service from New Haven to Port Jeff.  More recently there was discussion of also running to Stamford and from there to NYC using a high speed ferry, but rising fuels costs sunk those plans.
The current ferries are hardly high speed… just 17 mph according to my GPS on a recent crossing.  But they’re a fun way to travel, avoiding the traffic mayhem of New York City when going from Connecticut to Long Island.