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February 21, 2017

"Getting There": What Metro-North Can Learn from Amtrak


Enjoying a speedy (148 mph) ride to Boston last week on Acela, I started thinking about the differences between Amtrak and Metro-North.  Both are railroads, but each has a different mission.  Still, there are a few things Metro-North could learn from its national counterpart.

QUIET CARS:         Amtrak invented the concept in 2000 and it’s been a big success.  The cars are well marked and the “library-like atmosphere” rules are explained and enforced, both by conductors and passengers.  But on Metro-North, the QuietCalmute concept didn’t happen until 2011.  The cars are not marked and the rules are seldom enforced.

WI-FI:           Here again, Amtrak was an early adopter offering free Wi-Fi in 2010.  The response was so great that the “tubes” were quickly clogged, forcing a major tech upgrade.  Today on any Northeast Corridor train (not just Acela) the Wi-Fi is fast and dependable, allowing passengers to be productive all through their journey.  Metro-North says it has no plans for Wi-Fi.

FIRST CLASS:        For those that want it, first class seating is available on Amtrak complete with at-seat dining options.  The upgrade from coach isn’t cheap, but highly popular and the cars are usually full.  When the New Haven RR ran our trains, there were private parlor cars on some commuter runs.  Given the demographics on MNRR, I’m pretty sure a premium seating option would be quite popular. But none is planned.

DYNAMIC PRICING:         Book an advance seat on Amtrak and you’ll find three different ticket prices, the cheapest akin to airlines’ no-show / no-refund pricing, and others with higher fares giving you more flexibility.  Because Metro-North doesn’t book seats, they only offer peak and off-peak fares.  You can walk up and grab a ride anytime on Metro-North.  But on Amtrak you usually must have a reservation and be pre-ticketed.

REFUNDS:      Once I was on an over-booked Acela with literally no empty seats.  After arrival I contacted Amtrak and was given a full refund for being a standee for 3+ hours.  On Metro-North your ticket only gets you a ride, not a guarantee of seating.

REWARDS:     Amtrak has a great Amtrak Guest Rewards program where your loyalty gets you points toward upgrades and free tickets.  Last year I went from Chicago to LA (in a private bedroom, meals included) for free, just using points I’d earned riding Acela.  There’s also a co-branded credit card where everyday purchases earn you these perks.  On Metro-North, no points, perks or rewards.

NEW CARS:    To its credit, Amtrak has already ordered the next generation of its popular “high speed” Acela trains long before the current rolling stock has worn out.  On Metro-North the railroad and CDOT waited until 2005 to order the new M8 cars to replace older cars that were 25+ years into their 20-year life expectancy and were being held together with gaffers tape.

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE:        If your train is running late on Amtrak, they’ll text or e-mail you, just like the airlines.  On Metro-North, they only Tweet or e-mail if several trains are affected.  On Metro-North trains are considered “on time” if they’re up to six minutes late, so the railroad’s 90+% on time record is dubious.  Still, it’s better than Amtrak where even Acela, the pride of their fleet, is on-time only 74% of the time (even including a 10 minute leeway).

Apples and oranges?  Sure.  These two railroads are quite different.  But Metro-North has a monopoly while Amtrak must compete with everything from discount buses to the airlines.  Maybe that’s why Amtrak is better?

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


February 17, 2017

"Getting There" - Testifying in Hartford

Don’t look now, but our legislature is back in action considering dozens of bills affecting transportation.  Everything from tolls to train fares, from airports to Uber could be up for grabs in this session.

But how is a citizen supposed to voice their views, let alone follow these machinations from afar?  Aside from my journo-hero Ken Dixon (Hearst’s excellent reporter in Hartford), and websites like CT Newsjunkie, CT Mirror and The Capitol Report, there’s not much left of the “fifth estate” to keep us informed.  Of course, you can watch CT-N, the state’s answer to C-Span, for the blow-by-blow… assuming you have the time.

Some bills, like State Rep Gail Lavielle’s (R - Wilton) HB773 deserve our support.  That bill would require a vote of the legislature to approve any proposed fare increase on Metro-North. But offering your support (or disapproval) of any of these bills isn’t easy.

Sure, you can submit testimony by e-mail.  There are 36 members of the Transportation Committee, each juggling hundreds of bills coming before this and the many other committees on which they serve.  Will your e-mailed comments make a difference or just be seen as spam?

Forget about lawmakers coming to you for a public hearing.  You must go to them.  I can't remember the last time our elected officials held a hearing downstate, can you?

For decades I traveled to Hartford to testify on various bills in my capacity as a member of the Metro-North Commuter Rail Council, as a commuter and just as a taxpayer.  But not anymore.  It’s a waste of time.

You have to give up an entire day to go to Hartford, arriving early in the morning to sign up on the testimony list (or enter a lottery for a slot). 

Knowing where you are on the testimony list, you then settle into the hearing room waiting your three minutes of time.  With almost 50 bills up for consideration at a single hearing and scores of people who wish to testify, you’d better be patient.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring 50 copies of your written testimony to give to the Clerk.
The first hour of the hearing is usually given over to the Commissioner of the CDOT who explains why his agency opposes most of the bills up for consideration.  Then, elected officials get to speak… their time being far more precious than any citizen who’s given up a day to watch this sausage-making.

Even with three dozen members of the Committee, you’ll be lucky to see more than a handful in attendance as they must flit from hearing room to hearing room, trying to juggle their calendar conflicts. 

What you will see are the lobbyists, designated by a special colored badge.  They’re well known to lawmakers and you’ll see them making sure their clients’ views are known on pending bills.   Media come and go as well, occasionally grabbing folks for a sound-bite after they’ve spoken.

Your turn to speak may come early or late in the evening.  You’ll read your remarks and hope there are follow-up questions before the egg-timer goes “ding” and you’re sent home.
It’s all political theater and you (like me) may come away quite cynical about the process.  The real power lies with the Committee Chairs and your favorite bill may never make it out of that body for consideration, let alone a full vote.


As demonstrators love to chant, “This is what democracy looks like”.  And this part of it ain’t pretty.

Reposted with permission of CT Hearst Media

February 06, 2017

"Getting There": Solving the Rail Station Parking Mess

If we want to get cars off of the highways, we need to turn drivers into rail commuters.  But even the most motivated would-be rail rider faces an immediate problem:  the lack of rail station parking.

Many stations have wait lists for annual permits of more than five or six years.  And the permits themselves can cost as much as $1100 a year!  Even day-parking is expensive and hard to find.

Keep in mind that most station parking is owned by the CDOT but leased to the towns and cities to administer.  It’s those municipalities that set the rates and handle the wait lists.  But there’s the rub:  every town’s rules are different.

In Darien (where I’m lucky enough to live),  just to keep your name on the wait list costs $10 a year. But the prize is a $400 a year permit.   Most towns “grandfather” existing permit holders, meaning that once you have a permit you can renew it.

Because many permit holders hoard their permits, using them only rarely, towns sell twice as many permits as there are parking spaces.  That makes the permits really just a “license to hunt”, i.e. if you find a space you can park there, but there’s no guarantee there will be room.  That makes sense.

A beach permit doesn’t promise you 15 sq feet of sand, just access to the beach.  As with parking it’s first come, first served.

What it comes down to is a classic case of supply and demand.  The demand for parking spaces is high but the supply limited.  Because CDOT isn’t adding more parking capacity at stations, towns are left to manage the demand.

And I have a great new suggestion on how to do that:  a Dutch auction.

Parking spaces would start selling online on a certain date and time with the first permit going to the highest bidder.  The second space would go to the second highest bidder, and so on.  There would be no preference given to existing permit holders nor by town of residency (all state-owned lots are open to anyone).

Using an auction where all bidding is transparent would be like selling an antique on EBay.  The permit should go to the person who wants it most and is willing to pay.

Is it fair that somebody can keep a permit they don’t use just because they’ve had it for years?  Shouldn’t that parking space go to the person who needs it the most, the daily commuter?  The days of “hoarding” would be over if we let the marketplace decide the value of the space, not bureaucrats.

If an annual parking permit is $400, I’m sure there’s somebody who’d pay $600 or $700 to be sure they got one. After the greatest demand is met, the average prices would be much less, maybe even less than $400. 

And, by the way, towns shouldn’t be profiting from parking permits.  That money is supposed to be spent on security, snow-plowing and station improvements.

Of course, the best solution to the parking mess is to have supply meet demand.  We need to build more parking lots at all of our train stations.  That will get folks out of their cars and onto the trains, benefiting everyone.


"Getting There": The End of Jumbo Jets

Hard to believe, but it was 45 years ago that the first 747 carried passengers when KLM debuted its commercial service.  Since then, the iconic jumbo jet has carried millions in relative comfort and safety.  But now, its days are numbered.

Last summer Boeing said it was possible that it would end production of the 747 (with the possible exception of a pair of replacements for Air Force One, if the Trump White House doesn’t kill the plan). Even the much larger A-380, a double-deck Airbus, may have seen its sales peak.

Airbus spent $25 billion to develop the world’s largest passenger plane, but only 319 have been ordered (compared to more than 1500 747’s).  And of that number, 125 have yet to be delivered, 60 of those destined for Emirates Airline.  In 2015, the A-380 (which can carry over 850 passengers) saw just three new orders.

Why are the jumbo jets losing favor?  It’s a matter of simple economics:  they’re too expensive to operate compared with newer planes like the smaller 787 and A-350. 

It takes a very busy travel corridor to fill an 800-seat airplane.  And flying one jumbo instead of two smaller planes means fewer departure time options for passengers.  The A-380 makes sense for hub-and-spoke airlines like Emirates which routes all its flights through Dubai for connections.  But rival airlines can fly direct, city to city, up to 8000 miles non-stop using the smaller jets.

Sure, the 787 doesn’t offer the First Class suites ($21,000 one way) that you’ll find on an A-380 (each with its own min-bar, gourmet meals, lie-flat bed and a shower spa).  But those amenities are out of reach to all but the plutocrats.  And even Arab oil sheiks are pinching pennies these days.
But even as the major airlines are shrinking their planes to save on fuel, one airline is doing the opposite. Virgin Atlantic is thinking of bringing back the supersonic transport, or SST.

Tentatively named “Boom”, the new craft would carry 45-50 passengers at mach 2.2, faster than the old Concorde which was retired in 2003.  And the smaller craft would be capable of longer distances:  5000 miles vs. the Concorde’s 4500).  That means that New York to London (3441 miles) would take just 3.5 hours compared to 7 hours on a jumbo jet.

But the extended range of Boom would also make it possible to fly Seattle to Tokyo (4763 miles), something Concorde could never achieve without stopping for fuel.  And given a new design, Boom would operate cost efficiently at sub-sonic speeds over land to avoid the sonic boom.  The Concorde burned about a ton of fuel per passenger crossing the Atlantic.  Just taxiing from the terminal at Heathrow for take-off, the old Concorde burned more fuel than an A-320 flying from London to Paris.

They’re still crunching the numbers on the Boom, but with roundtrip first class fares JFK to London now standing at $8000, the Branson team at Virgin think they could offer the same trip for $5000!  A small prototype of the Boom is being built to test the concept.


So enjoy the jumbo jets while you can.  Their days may be numbered and your aviation future may be smaller… but much faster.  If you’re like 99% of all fliers who sit in “the back of the bus”, you may not miss the jumbos a whole lot.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media