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July 15, 2018

"Getting There" - Metro-North's Quiet Car Debacle

Train time is your own time” was the old marketing slogan of Metro-North, encouraging commuters to kick back and enjoy the ride while reading, working or taking a snooze.

But in reality, train time is shared time.  They don’t call it “mass transit” for nothing as passengers much share their space with a hundred other commuters on each railcar.  

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.
Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

It was almost 20 years ago that Amtrak first introduced the concept of The Quiet Car, following suggestions of daily commuters riding to DC.  It was such a success that quiet cars were soon added to other Northeast Corridor trains and Acela.

The concept was simple, as conductors reminded passengers on every trip:  maintain a “library like atmosphere”.  That meant no cell phone calls and only quiet, subdued conversation.  You want to yuck it up over a beer, go to the CafĂ© Car.  Got an important phone call… sit in any other coach.

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue… but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

First, they offered the worst car location on the train to their CALMmute:  the last car in-bound and the first car out-bound from GCT.  And there were no signs indicating which car was “quiet”.  Worst of all, conductors all but refused to enforce the quiet rules, leading to altercations between passengers.

Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules:  luggage on the overhead racks, no feet on the seats, no smoking etc.  But asking people to keep down the chatter was apparently too much.  All they would do, at first, was hand “Shhh cards” to offenders.

In 2016 the quiet car program was expanded to two cars per train, peak and off-peak.  But, still no signage (until just recently) and no enforcement.

Now, a major change.  The railroad announced that effective immediately there would be only one quiet car per off-peak train.  And the PR team at MNRR spun the story so well that some local media made it sound like the program was being expanded, not cut in half.  Brilliant.

There was no explanation for the cut in quiet cars though one official told me we have had no reports of quiet car demand exceeding availability in the off-peak”.  In other words, people who ride off-peak just prefer to yap.

That’s an amazing PR “spin” on what is really an admission of failure.  Metro-North never wanted quiet cars and clearly didn’t want to enforce the rules.  The people have literally “spoken” and the Quiet CALMmute won’t be as accessible anymore.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, answerable to nobody, especially its customers.  I’d raise my voice in protest but… I’m in the quiet car.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


July 09, 2018

"Getting There" - The Automotive - Construction Complex

How did Americans develop their love affair with driving?

Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington and the transportation exhibit “America on the Move” will sell you on the commonly held theory that when Henry Ford made cars affordable, Americans loved them and demanded more and more highways.

Of course, that exhibit is sponsored by General Motors, which donated millions to put its name on the collection.

But University of Virginia history Professor Peter Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic:  The Dawn of the Motor Age in American cities” says that’s a myth.  Just as outgoing President Eisenhower warned us of the military industrial complex, Norton says an automotive – construction complex took over our country, paving from coast to coast. 

Sure, Americans like their cars.  But it was a conspiracy of economic interests that turned us into a car culture.  Where cities once enjoyed a network of cheap, fast streetcars, GM, Firestone and the oil companies bought and wiped them out, replacing them with buses and cars.

“This country destroyed and rebuilt its cities in the 20th century to serve automobiles,” says Norton.  And those same interest groups are alive and well today in Connecticut.

Groups like “Move CT Forward” aren’t pro-transportation as much as they are pro jobs… their jobs, in construction.  And they’ve spent a lot of money lobbying in Hartford to keep their members, the unions and contractors, busy.   While I’m happy they’re promoting transportation, their motives are hardly altruistic.

This is nothing new, says Norton.  The original interstate highways built in the 1950’s used Portland Cement because that company lobbied so hard for its product over cheaper asphalt.  And now that rusting rebar and crumbling cement is costing us a fortune.

Another myth from that era was that President Eisenhower built the interstates to move troops quickly for national defense.  That may have been the pitch to Congress, but the real reason for the highways was to evacuate civilians from the big cities in the event of nuclear war.  Lucky we never had to test that idea.

Last August when hurricane Harvey hit Houston… the most urbanized highway city in the country… authorities didn’t even try to evacuate people because they knew more would die on congested roads than in the storm.

Who pays for all this road building?  You do, in the form of income taxes and, yes, gasoline taxes.  But Norton says gas taxes are hardly a fair way to pay for all this.

Why does the motorist driving on a dirt road pay the same gas tax as one driving I-95?  The costs they place on road maintenance, the environment and our stress levels are grossly different, so why isn’t the cost?

“It would be like having Best Buy selling everything by the pound.  People would flock to the electronics (our crowded interstates) instead of the towels,” he notes (though I’m not sure Best Buy even sells towels, but I take his point).

He reminds us that before the interstates, the nation’s first “super highways” like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New Jersey Turnpike were built not as freeways but toll roads, and they still are today.

Driving may seem to be free, but it isn’t.  And until we ask drivers to pay for its real cost there is no incentive to do anything but drive (and pave) more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.