August 13, 2022

BEAUTIFYING YOUR TRAIN STATION

 

Every train journey, whether a cross-country adventure on Amtrak or a mundane daily commute on Metro-North, starts with the same thing: a train station.

Consider Grand Central (Terminal, not Station).

The architecture is so rich, the spaces so varied, that any time spent in this cathedral to transportation is time well spent.  You can have a sit-down meal or grab a beer and a sandwich… pick up a newspaper, or a new iPhone… it’s all there.

GCT is clean (mostly), well patrolled and filled with people, each giving the others a share sense of safety and community.

However, visit any commuter rail station in Connecticut and the vibe is often quite different.

First, is the station waiting room locked or open?  Same with the restrooms. Are the platforms clean and the benches available?  Does the platform have a canopy? 

Grand Central is owned and operated by the MTA.  But in Connecticut, most train stations are owned by CTDOT but managed by the local town.  Got a complaint?  Take it to Town Hall.  I’m sure they’d welcome your input.

Even the smallest things like the d├ęcor of the station and its surroundings can make a positive impression, kicking off your trip with a smile, especially when it comes to flowers.

Our gardens at home are near peak right now, abundant with blooms.  Why too can’t there be such beauty at our train stations?

In England, even tiny train stations compete for the honors of most beautiful plantings.  Garden clubs and civic groups see their local stations for what they are:  a gateway to their town where first impressions count.  The growing season in the UK may be short, but it clearly gives locals a chance to show their pride.

At big city stations in the UK there are flowers too, and surveys show that 70% of riders say their mental health was improved by seeing such displays.

Here in Connecticut, the floral efforts are much more “grass roots”, based largely on a few volunteers and even fewer donations.

I made such a donation this spring to my town’s Beautification Commission specifically earmarked for my local train station, and now the flowers are in full bloom… Rose of Sharon, Anise Hyssop and white Coneflowers, all attracting native bees, butterflies and pollinators.  The beds require regular watering and weeding, a labor of love for the handful of volunteers who tend to their flocks.

Darien’s Beautification Commission Chair Juliet Cain likens the station plantings to a way-station for native insects. “If we do this right, we may increase ridership and pollinator numbers!”


In New Canaan their Beautification League has done extensive plantings and plans a bluestone patio at their train station, which their VP Faith Kerchoff calls the lifeline of her town to the outside world.

“It’s so important to make a good first impression when people come to New Canaan,” she says.  Especially folks thinking of moving up from the gritty city to the leafy ‘burbs.

Gee… I wonder why local real estate agents don’t sponsor station plantings.  Good PR for potential buyers and brand reinforcement for eventual sellers who commute.

How do the plantings around your local train station look?  Send us your pictures (CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com)

August 04, 2022

THE MTA FINALLY TELLS US THE TRUTH

The MTA, parent of Metro-North, did something rare last week:  the told us the unvarnished truth.

Not that the MTA has outright lied to us before.  Well, at least not very often.  But they are the masters of obfuscation and garbled communication.  Consider these gems:

“Wear A Mask”, now part of their daily mantra.  Any commuter can tell you the transit agency doesn’t follow its own rule, doesn’t issue tickets to offenders and even allows its conductors and transit cops to walk around unmasked.

“The train is delayed by operational issues.”   That’s kind of redundant, isn’t it?  It’s delayed because it isn’t operating.  The question is why?

Or my most recent favorite… “ridership on Metro-North hits record levels”.  Technically correct, but actually BS.  Weekday ridership has maxed out at only 63% of pre-COVID levels… a ‘record’ since 2020 but hardly a real record.

All of this seems like the agency is communicating with its customers, but it isn’t.  And we all know it, which just adds to our cynicism.  Sometimes I feel like the Lewis Black of transportation.

But then, this week, something amazing:  they told us the truth.  The MTA admitted it made some big mistakes and is in real financial trouble.  They are running out of money and are heading toward a “fiscal cliff”.

They even admitted what went wrong and, maybe, how maybe to fix it.

Of course it’s all tied to COVID and the resulting huge drop in ridership.  The mistake they made was hiring McKinsey & Co consultants to help them forecast when ridership would return.  When you pay consultants millions of dollars, they usually end up telling you what you want to hear.

McKinsey said that subway and  train ridership would be back to 80 – 90% of pre-COVID levels by 2025.  That obviously is not happening and we all know why.

Sure, there are the new COVID variants slowing the return to the office.  But it’s a complete, systemic change in what we consider work that MTA is in denial about.  People don’t want to commute if they can work from home and they won’t.

I think MTA should demand a refund from McKinsey.

Meantime, it’s Uncle Sam who’s been picking up the deficit tab to the tune of $15 billion given to the MTA.  That money was supposed to see the transit agency through 2025 by which time ridership would be back to normal.  Right?  Wrong.

Subway fares used to account for 51% of operating costs.  Today they cover only 32%.  The agency is burning through Uncle Sam’s $15 billion much too fast.  Hence the fiscal cliff in 2024.

What’s in the abyss when MTA runs out of money and goes off that cliff?  You don’t want to know.  Fare hikes, service cuts, layoffs.  You think Metro-North is bad now?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Falling off that cliff will lead to a death spiral of worsening service, fewer riders, less fare collection, etc. 

What’s the solution?  MTA says it’s congestion pricing, NYC’s plan to toll cars and trucks entering midtown Manhattan.  That plan is inching forward but is far from a done deal.

So kudos to MTA for finally being honest with us about the problems ahead.  I’ll give them points for candor.  But now… can we talk about that mask rule?

July 23, 2022

PARKWAYS ARE NOT FOR TRUCKS

 A faithful reader of this column sent me some disturbing pictures last week.

Joe C was driving on the Merritt Parkway in Norwalk when he saw a FedEx tractor-trailer moving southbound.  His passenger snapped these pictures:

  

This is so wrong… a serious accident waiting to happen.  Trucks are, with few exceptions, not allowed on the Parkway… and with good reason.

 

All of the bridges on the Merritt Parkway, originally built to a minimum standard of eleven feet at the abutments, are too low for big trucks.  In some places the bridges are even lower due to roadbed re-grading and raising. The road just wasn’t designed for anything but passenger cars.



Trucks aren’t the only vehicles banned from the parkways.  So too are RV’s, cars towing trailers, buses and all commercial vehicles. That includes any vehicle with advertising or logos on it, even passenger cars with “Combi” (combination passenger and commercial) plates.

But we know those trucks are there.  We see them all the time.  So why aren’t they getting ticketed?

The CT State Police tell me it’s an issue of priorities.  They have only two troopers patrolling the Merritt Parkway per shift and their hands are full handling speeders, traffic accidents, drug busts etc. 

The problem is, it’s only a $92 ticket for violating the prohibited vehicles warning signs at every entrance.  That’s not much of a deterrent.  A bill to raise that penalty to $500 never made it to a vote in the legislature.

The old “Prohibited” signs at on-ramps were hardly noticeable and were wordy and confusing.  So CDOT has just changed out all the signs to something simpler, more colorful and attention-getting.  Apparently, they’re not helping.  


Even where more sophisticated warning systems employing lasers, blaring horns and flashing lights are in place, bridges still get struck.

Many truckers blame their GPS for directing them onto the parkways, so some insurance companies are offering financial incentives for fleet owners that use “smart GPS” designed for commercial drivers which will warn drivers of over-height vehicles to stay away.  But if you’re using a regular GPS unit or an app like WAZE, you’re out of luck.

When a truck does strike a bridge there are consequences.  In addition to often ripping the roof off the vehicle, the troopers also call in their Truck Squad which can issue thousands of dollars in fines if they find other violations regarding the weight of the vehicle, the driver’s log etc.

Usually, when an over-height truck strikes one of the Merritt’s 40 concrete underpasses, the truck loses.  But any damage to these historic bridges, many of them recently restored, can take months to get repaired. Not to mention the incredible backups and delays from these accidents. 

When the Merritt Parkway opened in 1940, the speed limit was 40 mph and it was designed to carry 18,000 vehicles a day.  These days, outside of the bumper-to-bumper rush hours, the average speed is 73 mph and the parkway handles 90,000 vehicles per day. That’s more than enough without adding dangerous trucks to the mix.

 

 

 

July 15, 2022

WHY ARE OUR TRAINS SO SLOW?

 

Yes, there are new trains on the Waterbury branch… and three new express trains from New Haven, but overall our rail service in Connecticut is still too slow. Why?

Governor Lamont and CDOT Commissioner Guilietti ballyhooed their new train PR last week as if they’d solved the commuting problem.  They have not.

Still,  kudos to Commuter Council Chair and Waterbury branch rider Jim Gildea for his tireless efforts to build up service on that branch line.  Seven new trains have been added to the line, four southbound and three northbound.  But ridership is still miniscule:  just 57,500 a month as of this spring.  And per-passenger subsidies are still way too high:  almost $25 per ride.

That ridership is less than 2000 a day, equivalent to two full rush hour trains on the mainline.  Now that service has expanded, the question is… will more people ride the train?

On the mainline they’ve added three express trains from New Haven to Grand Central, stopping only in Bridgeport and Stamford.  The service is targeted at uber-early morning commuters with trains leaving New Haven starting at 5:09 am and making the run in 99 minutes (1:39).

That’s impressive compared to the 2+ hours required for the rest of the trains on that run.  But most commuters on the mainline are not traveling from New Haven but from busy stations like Fairfield, Darien and Greenwich.  Three new early-morning expresses don’t help them at all.

It was 13 months ago that Governor Lamont made his “Time for CT” promise, pledging to shave 10 minutes off commuting time this year and 25 minutes by 2035.  The promise was for all commuters, not just early AM New Haven express riders.

So why do our trains still run so slow?   Blame the past… and Washington.


You’ll remember the
2013 derailment of a Metro-North train in Fairfield, which injured 65 passengers.  And a few months later a deadly crash of a Hudson line train at Spuyten Duyvil  killed four and injured 61.

That’s when the Feds leapt into action, embedding their Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspectors deep into the Metro-North organization to find out what had happened.


Bottom line:  they blamed the railroad’s culture of emphasizing on-time performance while neglecting safety.  The FRA imposed speed restrictions on all Metro-North trains, especially on bridges and curves… of which there are many. And those speed restrictions are still in effect.

That means that a commute from New Haven to NYC suddenly became 15 – 20 minutes longer than before… but, hopefully, safer.

Also adding to safety was installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) designed to overcome human error.  That system is now fully operational, yet the FRA speed restrictions are still in effect.  Why?

I’ve asked CDOT and Senator Blumenthal to persuade the FRA to give us back our usual speeds on Metro-North, so far to no avail.  So while a few trains, like the New Haven expresses, may be running at better speeds, for most commuters it’s still a slow ride to NYC.

 

July 09, 2022

THE HUDSON RAIL TUNNELS

It should have been done by now.

2018 was the expected completion date of the new railroad tunnels under the Hudson River, first proposed in 2009.  At that time the $9 billion project was the biggest infrastructure project in the country.  Now it may finally happen.

Why do rail tunnels from New York’s Penn Station to New Jersey matter to us here in Connecticut?  Because they are the weakest but most crucial link in the northeast corridor, home to 23% of the US economy.  Imagine trying to get to Philadelphia or Washington without Amtrak running through our state, into those tunnels and to points south.

There are 23 bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan from the north and east.  But between that island and New Jersey there are only six… two of them those rail tunnels built in 1910.  And when super-storm Sandy flooded those tunnels in October 2012 with 3.5 million gallons of salt water, their lifespan was shortened by decades due to corrosion.  They need to be augmented and repaired.

If one of those two rail tunnels were to fail, the entire nation would be in an economic crisis.   We had a taste of that last week when Amtrak closed one of the tunnels for a couple of hours due to a track problem, backing up the morning rush hour as dozens of trains queued up even as others broke down, further clogging the tubes.

New York’s Penn Station was never built to handle the 430,000 daily passengers it  handled each day pre-COVID (vs the 750,000 who enter the much-larger Grand Central Terminal).  Amtrak, NJ Transit and the LIRR then carried twice as many riders at Penn as New York’s three airports combined.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents alone make up 16% of Manhattan’s workforce.  Their rail commuting options are so tight that many must rely on the 7700 daily commuter buses that bring them into the commuters’ nightmare known as The Port Authority bus terminal.

All that could have changed if the 2009 plan to build additional rail tunnels had gone through.  But then, along came Chris Christie, the newly elected Governor of the Garden State who balked at the cost and pulled the plug.

Cynics say that he did so to instead spend money on highways and keep the state’s gasoline tax low for another few years, even after repaying Uncle Sam for $95 million already spent on the rail project.

During the Trump administration the President dutifully avoided even promises to do anything about the tunnels, Ignoring the city where he made his fortune, out of sheer spite.

But now there’s new hope:  an agreement between New Jersey and New York’s governors to share the cost of the first phase, a staggering $14 billion for the local share of the aptly named Gateway project.  Then, it’s hoped, the Feds will chip in the other half.

As the always-prescient 93-year-old Regional Planning Association points out, the tri-state area cannot afford to not build for the future just as those before us did, leaving us an infrastructure now almost a century old and crumbling from neglect.

July 05, 2022

SHE SURVIVED A HIGH SPEED RAILROAD CRASH

When we get on an airplane we buckle up, read the safety card and are given a demonstration on the oxygen masks and emergency exits.  Those things can save lives should something go wrong.

But when we get on a train, either Metro-North or Amtrak, we settle into our seat and zone out.  We assume we’re safe. 

That’s what passengers on an Amtrak train in Missouri thought this past week… until their train’s locomotive hit a dump truck on an unguarded private grade crossing and derailed.  Four passengers were killed and 150 injured, many seriously.

That accident gave Geralyn Ritter a flashback to her near death experience on a far worse, high speed crash on Amtrak in 2015.  Her new book ”Bone by Bone”, recounts her years of surgery and recovery, donating all proceeds to the American Trauma Society.

Ritter, then an executive at Merck,  was heading home from Philly to New Jersey when her train, Amtrak 188, hit a 50-mph-curve at 102 mph and literally came off the tracks.  Ritter was in the first car, which hit the ground with such impact that it was demolished.

Ritter happened to be standing in the aisle when the train hit the curve.

“I noticed the train seemed to be moving faster than usual. For a fleeting moment, I was pleased. Maybe we’ll arrive early,” she thought. Then the speed got more violent.

“I was clutching the (overhead baggage) rail with both hands to keep from falling. Then the train tilted. I braced myself, both arms straining to hold onto the bar above my head. “What the—?” I yelled. I remember the overwhelming force pulling my body. I remember my confusion, trying to make sense of it. The whole train can’t actually be tipping over. In a flash, I realized it was true—we were crashing. The sound of my own scream is the last thing I remember.”


When rescue workers found her, unconscious, she’d been thrown from the train.  Others were crushed inside the cars. Eight were killed and 200 injured, 11 critically.  Ironically the engineer, later charged in the crash, walked away with just a few bumps and bruises.

Amtrak assumed full responsibility and paid $200 million in settlements; an amount capped at the time under law.

Amtrak’s liability came, in part, from its lack of installation of PTC, positive train control, a technology that would have stopped the train from speeding and avoided the crash.

Had it been installed on Metro-North, PTC would have prevented the deadly Spuyten Duyvil derailment in 2013 that killed four and injured 61 when an engineer spaced out and entered that notoriously sharp curve at three times the speed limit.

After years of surgery and therapy, Ritter is recovered now but still in pain.  She told me she wrote “Bone by Bone” to inspire others fighting to recover from traumatic injuries.

She’s back on the road for business, yes even on Amtrak.  Today she’s always aware of her surroundings, looking for emergency exits when taking a seat.  She never sits by a window nor in the front car on a train. 

When Ritter’s Amtrak train passes the scene of her accident near Philadelphia, she says a prayer for her fellow passengers on that night… and gratitude for her survival and for the medical community that made that possible.

June 25, 2022

WELCOME TO CONNECTICUT ???

First impressions count.  


If you’re going on a job interview you dress your best, put on a smile and try to be charming.  The same rule applies to transportation.

Arrive at any airport or train station, and you immediately start forming opinions of your destination.  Is it clean and modern, warm and welcoming?  How does the place make me feel?  Are the locals proud of themselves?

Well, “first impressions” also count when you are driving.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” said the perky young lady behind the Tourism Desk at the first service area in New Jersey when we pulled off Interstate 80 recently when driving from Pennsylvania.  I was just looking for the rest room, but this staffer made we feel welcome, offering me maps and brochures and ready to answer any questions I might have about the Garden State. 

I got the same vibe awhile back arriving in Maryland, driving south on I-95 where a big, mall-sized rest area in the median offered me about a dozen restaurant choices, relatively cheap gas and room to stretch my legs.  On the far side of the building there was parking for about fifty trucks and electric hook-ups so they didn’t need to idle their refrigerator units. 

In Virginia, the Tourist Center looked like a mini-Monticello and the helpful staffers were ready to answer all of our questions about our planned tour of Civil War battlefields.  These local guys were better than TripAdvisor and the AAA Guidebook.

Contrast that with the “first impression” we give tourists arriving on I-95 in Connecticut. 

On crossing the NY state line, they will immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, for no apparent reason, no matter the time of day.  No accidents, just normal conditions on our major interstates.

The large electronic sign flashes “Delays:  Exit 2 -16, next 16 miles” as visitors inch along over the Mianus River Bridge, site of the 1983 collapse of a span that killed three.  

“Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat.  “Not even close,” moans Dad, wondering if they’ll ever get to the Cape.  “I just hate Connecticut traffic,” he moans.  “But Dad, I gotta go,” says Junior.  “I’ve been ‘holding it ever since The Bronx!”


Then, like a mirage on the horizon, Dad sees hope:  not a break in the endless traffic, but the state’s first service area in Darien.  “Hang on Junior, we’re stopping in just a minute.

Not to buy gasoline, of course.  You never want to buy gasoline in Connecticut.  Prices are 30 cents a gallon higher at the service area than on local roads. No, these folks are in the tourist equivalent of “fly-over” mode.  They’re just stopping to “rest” and maybe pick up a map and a snack.

Arriving at the shiny new service area, complete with a Tesla charging station, they are met with such unique culinary options as McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts.   Long gone are the eateries “It’s Sugar”, “Cheese Boy”.  Yummy.

Inside there is a single masked staffer behind plexiglass at the information booth around the corner from a rack of brochures.  But he’s only there Wednesday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.  We ask for a map on Connecticut and all he has is one showing motorcycle tours. 

First impressions do count.  And the first impressions we give visitors to our state aren’t as positive as they should be, are they?

 

 

BEAUTIFYING YOUR TRAIN STATION

  Every train journey, whether a cross-country adventure on Amtrak or a mundane daily commute on Metro-North, starts with the same thing: a ...