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December 26, 2016

"Getting There" - Why Metro-North's Quiet Cars Aren't Quiet

What happens when a good idea goes bad?  Consider Metro-North’s “Quiet Car” initiative.
Sixteen years ago a group of regular commuters on Amtrak’s early morning train to DC had an idea:  why not designate one car on the train as a “Quiet Car”, free from cell phone chatter and loud conversations.  The railroad agreed and the experiment proved a great success.  Now all Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor have a Quiet Car.  They are a major selling point for taking the train… the chance to nap or read in a quiet environment.
But as early as 2006 when I suggested the same idea to Metro-North it was rejected outright.  Then serving on the CT Rail Commuter Council, I persisted and finally, in 2011 the railroad agreed to a trial with one car on each rush hour train dedicated to what it called a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Almost immediately the plan ran into trouble.  Not because it wasn’t wanted but because it wasn’t enforced.
There were no signs designating which were the “quiet” cars and only occasional PA announcements before departure reminding folks who sat there of the quiet, library-like environment that was expected.  Most of all, many conductors refused to enforce the new rules.  But why?
Conductors seem to have no trouble reminding passengers to keep their feet off the seats, put luggage in the overhead racks or refrain from smoking.  But all that the railroad gave conductors to enforce the Quiet Car rules were bilingual “Shhh cards” to give to gabby violators.
It seemed left to passengers to remind fellow riders what a Quiet Car was for and confrontations resulted.
This spring the railroad surprised even me by announcing an expansion of the program:  every weekday train, peak and off-peak, would now have two Quiet Cars!  Two Quiet Cars on a ten car train gives everyone a choice.  That sounds great, but still without signage, education or enforcement, the battles continued.

A commuter recently emailed me about an evening train from Grand Central with a group of rowdy drunks in the Quiet Car.  When commuters asked the offending passengers to chill out or move their seat the tipsy  group told the complainer, “screw you”.  The quiet-seeking commuters then asked the conductor for help but he simply declared the train was too crowded and the Quiet Car was being eliminated on that run. “Have fun” he told the drunks. Really?
On Amtrak trains those violating Quiet Car rules have been thrown off the train and arrested.  Even NJ Governor Chris Christie had to move his seat on an Acela once for yabbering with his staff in the wrong car.
Nobody wants these kinds of altercations on Metro-North.  So why initiate and then expand such a passenger amenity as Quiet CALMmute without proper education and enforcement?  A few signs and friendly reminders from conductors should make passengers aware that “train time may be your own time” (as the railroad’s old marketing slogan used to say), but it’s also shared time. 
Commuters want Quiet Cars.  The railroad gave them to us, but until they can get their staff to enforce the rules, consistently, they might as well not exist.

If you’re in a Quiet Car and the rules are not enforced, report it to Metro-North on their website complaint form.  If we all raise our voices, we can get some peace a quiet.
Reprinted with permission from Hearst CT Media

December 18, 2016

"Getting There" - Winter Prep for Transportation

With the arrival of winter, now is the time to be sure you’re ready to stay mobile, whatever Mother Nature may throw at us.  Here are a few tips…

FOR YOUR CAR
1)     Get your car’s battery checked.  If it is weak or the terminals are corroded you won’t be able to start your car, especially in cold conditions.  New batteries are worth the investment, if only for the peace of mind.

2)    Check your tires.  Colder weather means the pressure in your tires will go down so check your car’s manual and re-inflate if necessary.

3)    Got antifreeze?  It should be replaced every two years to a 50-50 mixture with water.

4)    Oil change:  as with your tires, lower temperatures will affect your engine’s “blood”, thickening it as it gets colder.  Your mechanic or oil-change shop will know what’s right for your car.  And forget that old myth of oil changes every 3000 miles:  5000 to 7500 miles between changes is now OK according to experts.

5)    Windshield wipers should be replaced annually, an easy do-it-yourself project at any auto store.  And don’t forget to fill the wiper fluid reservoir with something freeze resistant.

6)    Be a Boy Scout and check your trunk for an inflated spare tire and all the emergency gear you might need:  flares, jumper cables, first aid kit, thermal blanket, etc.

FOR THE TRAIN
Except in the worst blizzard conditions, the train will usually keep running (though sometimes at a reduced frequency). Though dependable, riding Metro-North and Amtrak in the winter is not without its challenges

1)    Never assume it’s “business as usual” and that trains will be running on time in bad weather.  Listen to the radio and consult apps like the MTA’s “TrainTime” and my favorite, “Clever Commute” for updates on service.

2)    Give yourself extra time to get to the station and watch those icy platforms! 

3)    Dress for the bad weather.  If your station’s waiting room isn’t open, call town hall or the police dept.  In sub-zero weather that’s not just an inconvenience, it could be a safety hazard.

4)    If you find a railcar that’s lacking heat, ask the conductor to write it up.  Or use the www.MTA.info website to file a report yourself.

5)    Most of all, give yourself extra travel time.  Don’t stress about delays.  At least you’re not driving on an icy parkway!

IF YOU’RE FLYING
1)    When booking your flight consider your options.  If you can’t find a non-stop, avoid connections in weather-plagued hubs like Chicago or Denver.  Charlotte or Dallas have less chance of being snowed in.

2)    Watch the weather and anticipate delays.  If the airlines know a storm is coming they often waive re-booking fees if you want to fly before the weather hits or have to delay until after the airport re-opens and schedules get back to normal.

3)    If the highways are a mess, try taking the train to the airport.  LaGuardia and Newark are accessible by Metro-North and Amtrak, respectively, but Kennedy airport is a challenge.
Whatever your mode of travel, a little prep time now will help you get through winter unscathed.


Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"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 “CafĂ© 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





"Getting There" - Slow Down In Town

You’ve seen the signs in many neighborhoods… “Drive like your kids lived here” or “Slow down in town”.  They’re probably as effective as bumper stickers that say “Drive now, Text later”, i.e., not very.

In our own neighborhoods we want everyone to chill behind the wheel.  But when we are driving in someone else’s area, it’s pedal to the metal, the kids be damned.  When the major roads are jammed, quicker short-cuts through the back roads seem attractive, often at higher speeds than may be safe.

First of all, why is it that kids are playing in the streets anyway when they have perfectly good lawns and nearby parks?  Do they think they’re living on the Lower East Side, playing stickball?  C’mon parents!  Get your kids off of the streets!

Recognizing that persuasion doesn’t seem to help, traffic engineers are finding newer ways to get folks to stay safe using what’s called “traffic calming”, forcing them to drive slower.  And believe it or not, one of the first US cities to develop a master plan for traffic calming was Hartford.  Stamford isn’t far behind.

You’ve probably seen these calming devices, but cursed their presence that physically forces you to slow down or risk damage to your car’s suspension.

SPEED BUMPS:     You can’t drive around them, so you better slow down driving over them.

SPEED TABLES:    Like speed bumps on steroids, these have a six foot long ramp up onto a ten foot flat table and down another six foot ramp.

ROUNDABOUTS:   The guys at Mythbusters have proven that these traffic circles can move more cars through an intersection than a four-way stop, but they’re confusing enough that you’re going to slow down and keep wondering “Who has the right of way?  (Answer:  the car in the traffic circle).  If it’s me, does that other guy know it?  Will he slow down and let me in?” 

CHICANES:            Usually seen only on private streets in ritzy neighborhoods, these stubby looking sections of gates placed alternately on the right and left hand sides of the street make drivers slow down to zigzag down the street.  Really annoying, but effective.

BULB-OUTS or NECK-DOWNS:  These are when the sidewalk extends into car parking areas at corner crossings.  That way folks who want to cross a street are more visible and already closer to the other side.

CROSSWALKS:      Nothing empowers a pedestrian like stepping up to a crosswalk and stopping all oncoming traffic as they saunter across the road.  This assumes, of course, that the drivers know they must yield and that there is sufficient signage to tell them so.  Otherwise, it’s a messy scene.

But believe it or not, one of the most effective safety devices is also the most common…

SIDEWALKS:          Still, it’s amazing how many suburban towns don’t offer sidewalks, leaving nervous pedestrians walking on the same roadways as cars.  You’d think that would encourage motorists to slow down, but it doesn’t.  Getting the walkers (and joggers) off the road and onto the sidewalks may not stop speeding but it does save lives.

None of these physical solutions to traffic safety is cheap, but they have proven effective in saving us from our own worst instincts to rush to our destination.  So, slow down in town, and in the ‘burbs.  What’s your hurry?

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.