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January 28, 2014

The Commuter Manifesto

Today we start a new venture on behalf of my fellow Metro-North commuters:  The Commuter Action Group

To capture the mood of the moment and explain our expectations as riders of Metro-North, I have written this Commuter Manifesto:

We, the riders of commuter railroads in Connecticut, are tired of deteriorating service, rising fares and indifference and ineptitude from Metro-North.  As customers and taxpayers we deserve better and expect change.  Our expectations are few, and simple:

SAFETY FIRST
              We expect a clean, safe, on-time, seated ride on trains with heat / AC and lights.  Don’t treat us like cattle making us ride on railcars you wouldn’t ride on yourself.

We want to know that you make our safety your top priority.  Make every employee understand that responsibility.  If they do anything that jeopardizes safety, discipline them or fire them.  There is no excuse for stupid mistakes.

FAST, ACCURATE AND HONEST COMMUNICATIONS
              When things go wrong, immediately tell us what’s happened, why and when it will be fixed.  When you make a mistake, admit it.  Stop making apologies; get things fixed and don’t repeat the same errors over and over again

RESPONSIVE CUSTOMER SERVICE
              When we see a problem, give us an easy way to report it to you.  Then get it fixed and follow up with us to tell us it’s been resolved. Our complaints shouldn’t fall into a black hole.

              Train your employees to be courteous and efficient, treating us like valued customers.  When they don’t meet those standards, train them again.  There should be zero tolerance for rude behavior by employees … or commuters.

OPEN & TRANSPARENT OPERATIONS
              Let us know how you make decisions that affect us by opening all of your meetings to the public and media.  Share your goals and self-evaluations and ask our opinions as well.  The way you run the railroad affects our lives and we should have input.

LEADERSHIP THAT LISTENS
              Meet with commuters on a regular basis at times and locations convenient to us.  Hear our complaints and suggestions and answer our questions.  We will listen to you if you will listen to us:  we’re in this together.



January 20, 2014

The George Washington Bridge

We’ve read a lot about the George Washington Bridge in recent weeks.  And the scandal over who ordered closure of approach lanes from Ft. Lee NJ only underscores how crucial this bridge is to the entire region.  All of which got me thinking about the GWB and its history.

The Bridge that never was...
Surprisingly, the George Washington Bridge was not the first bridge design to cross the Hudson River. As early as 1885 there were discussions of building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at about 23rd St.  A later design in the 1920’s foresaw a double deck, 16-lane-wide roadway (with 12 tracks for railroad trains on the lower level) at 57th Street.
But it was in 1927 that work began on the George Washington Bridge much farther uptown at 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge carrying six lanes of traffic opened in 1931 and was widened by two lanes in 1946.
Originally the bridge was going to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise (really!), but it was a campaign by school kids that ended up honoring our first President.
The original designers had planned for the future and in 1961 the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” bridge opened to traffic, increasing total capacity by 75%.
Because we usually approach the bridge from the east or west, it’s hard to appreciate its enormity until you’re right on the structure.  But from any angle it’s a beautiful bridge, showing its bare criss-cross girders and bracing which was originally to have been clad in concrete and granite. 
The GWB is recognized by civil engineers and architects alike as one of the most beautiful in the world.
In its first year of operation the bridge carried five million vehicles.  Last year it carried 102 million.  On opening day the toll was 50 cents each way.  Today the one-way toll for autos (only collected eastbound) ranges from $9 (EZ Pass off-peak) to $13 (cash).  But pedestrians can still walk across for free (when the sidewalk is open).
Those walkways, while affording a wonderful view of the city, also have a dark side as the GWB was scene of a record 18 suicides (and 43 attempts) in 2012.

GWB Bus Terminal
On an average weekday 17,000 bus passengers rely on the GWB’s own bus terminal built atop the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx!) on the Manhattan side.  There they can catch the A train or the Seventh Avenue IRT.  The bus station is undergoing a $180 million renovation.
The bridge itself is a living thing.  It creaks and groans, moves and sways and it needs constant maintenance.  In 2011 the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace the bridge’s 529 vertical suspender wire ropes.  In addition, lanes on the upper level are being closed (at night) to replace steel plates on the road surface.
All of which means more jobs and, eventually, higher tolls.


January 06, 2014

The Top Ten Things About Metro-North

Despite what you may think, I don’t hate Metro-North.  Sure, I am outspoken about its many failings, but always with a goal of making it better.  So, to prove I’m really a fan of the railroad, I’m kicking off the year with my “Top Ten Things about Metro-North”:
West Haven Station
10)  New Stations:   Reflecting expanded demand for rail commutation, CDOT added new stations (and parking) at West Haven and Fairfield Metro in recent years.        
9)  Lost & Found:    Metro-North runs one of the biggest and best Lost & Found operations in the country handling, over 50,000 items a year.
8)  Package Tours:  You might not realize it, but the railroad offers all sorts of package deals for big-city events, combining train tickets, admission and even hotel stays.
7)  The Bar Cars:     Metro-North is the only commuter railroad in the US that still offers patrons a bar car.  There are only a handful of bar cars left, soon to be retired and possibly not replaced, so enjoy ‘em while you still can.
6)  Online Tickets:   You still can’t buy a ticket on the train using a credit card, but you can buy them online (and receive them by mail)… and they’re even cheaper (by 2%) than purchasing them at a ticket machine or Grand Central. 
5)  The TrainTime App:      Forget about those old paper timetables and get yourself the new TrainTime App (for iPhone, iPad and Android).  Not only does it show train times, but track numbers, any delays, fares and station information.  And it’s free!
4)  Expanded Schedule:    The trains may be running slower, but there are more of them than ever before.  Service on weekends has been expanded as ridership has grown and more cars were added to the fleet.
3)  Grand Central Terminal:         There is no more beautiful rail station in the world. And for the next 269 years it will be managed by the MTA, parent of Metro-North.  Their renovation of the station completed in 2007 has turned a station into a destination.  The shops, restaurants and open spaces are the envy of commuters everywhere… especially the poor “Dashing Dans” on the LIRR who arrive in the squalor of Penn Station.
2)  The new M8 Cars:        Years late in their design and delivery, the newest cars in the Metro-North fleet are clean, comfortable and much appreciated.  With power outlets at every seat (and someday even WiFi), the first 300 of the M8 cars on order are proving themselves dependable even in winter weather.  
1)  On Time Performance:           No matter how great the destination, how comfortable the train or how expensive the fare, nothing matters more to commuters than getting to their destination on time.  Until recently, Metro-North had an enviable on-time performance in the upper 90%’s, a number I’m confident they can achieve again.

For each of the items mentioned above Metro-North deserves credit.  Can each be improved?  Sure.  But let’s see the glass as more than half-full and give the folks at the railroad their due. 

I still love Metro-North.  I just want to be able to love it even more.