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December 18, 2016

"Getting There" - More Railcars, More Passengers

Riders on Metro-North just got an early holiday gift from the railroad and CDOT:  a bright, shiny new train set… not toy, but real!   We’ve been promised 94 more M8 rail cars!  And just in time…(though they won’t start arriving until 2019).

We’ve been enjoying the new M8 cars since their introduction in 2011 and they have proven highly reliable.  Unlike the old M2 cars, many of which were older than the passengers who rode in them and were prone to breakdowns each winter, the new M8 cars are champions.  They go over 460,000 miles between mechanical breakdowns which is 53% better than the railroad’s own goals for the Kawasaki designed and built cars.

Work on the M8’s started in 2006 with an initial order of 300 cars.  Another 80 cars were optioned in 2011 and 25 more single, unpowered cars were then added to the fleet, bringing us to the 405 cars we have today. (When the newest cars start arriving in three years the last of the old M2 cars will finally be scrapped).

Because of their unique design, operating on three different power systems, the M8 cars were not cheap. The first cars cost $2.326 million but Kawasaki is now commanding $3.83 million for the 60 now on order and $3.71 million for another 34 cars on option.  Part of the price hike is attributed to improved design and addition of the long-awaited PTC (Positive Train Control) and CCTV (closed circuit TV) safety equipment.

The costs will be born 65% / 35% by Connecticut and MTA, respectively.  Our share will probably be paid for through bonding. Ten planned “Café Cars”, to be fabricated from older, original M8 cars, will be 100% paid for by Connecticut.

Why is the railroad going to all of this expense?  Because they became victims of their own success:  ridership has been soaring in recent years.

When the first M8 cars were ordered, Metro-North thought they’d have enough cars to handle ridership until 2020. But we blew through those numbers years early.  That meant more passengers than seats and crowded, often times SRO (standing room only) conditions at rush hour.

Why the surge in ridership?  A stronger economy, which means more jobs in NYC.  Worsening traffic on I95, which means the train is an attractive alternative.  Reliability, even in the winter.  And yes, people really like the new cars with their power plugs at every row, redundant HVAC and pleasing design.

All of those attractions have seemed stronger than the negatives to train-taking:  lower gas prices, higher rail fares and insufficient station parking.   
So the question now is, are we ordering enough new cars to keep up with demand?  Given the three year lag-time between ordering and delivery, will a 499-car fleet be enough if ridership keeps growing as fast, if not faster?

As new cars start arriving in 2019 they’ll first be used to add capacity to existing trains to deal with rush-hour crowding.  As more cars arrive, 24 of our M8’s will be shifted over to Shore Line East service between New London and New Haven.  And maybe, if we’re lucky, by 2020 we’ll have enough cars to actually increase service, adding more trains to the timetable.

If we don’t want to waste billions of dollars on Governor Malloy’s idea to “widen I-95”, let’s instead invest in our railroad and order more cars now.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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