February 28, 2005

“Yet Another Fare Hike ?”

The cost of riding Metro-North has gone up again. And while these higher costs, effective March 1st, are described as “fare policy changes” rather than fare hikes, the effect is the same… higher costs for riders.

But didn’t we just have a fare increase a few months ago? You’re right. Fares went up 5.5% on January 1, following a 15% fare hike in July of 2003. And there are probably more fare hikes to come before our new cars arrive in 2008 or so.

What’s most interesting about these latest hikes is the way they were approved. But first, the details on who is affected.

If you have friends or co-workers living in New York City who “reverse commute” out to Connecticut each weekday morning, they’ll now be facing “peak” fares for one-way or ten-trip tickets. Those fare hikes are as much as 57%.

For everybody: if you don’t buy your ticket before you get on the train, you’ll now be hit with a surcharge of up to $5.50, instead of $3. Even if there’s no ticket machine on your platform (heading eastbound from most stations, for example), you must cross to the other side and get a ticket… or pay up. Seniors and the handicapped are exempted.

The idea behind this “surcharge” is to encourage greater use of the expensive new ticket vending machines which are replacing human ticket sellers. Metro-North says on-board conductors shouldn’t be playing banker, but should be running the trains. So having folks get their tickets before boarding will save them time in fare collection.

Maybe so… but a $5.50 penalty, even on a local fare of as low as $2.50? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging people to ride the trains, not penalizing them?

I’ve reviewed internal CDOT reports on this surcharge and they and Metro-North admit that only 10% of the daily on-board ticket buyers will likely be persuaded to change their lazy (evil?) ways. That means the railroad stands to gain $660,000 a year in added revenue from this new “fare policy change”, and that’s why I call this the hidden fare hike.

I love the new ticket machines (hint: tickets are even cheaper bought online). But I hardly see conductors as being over-worked. Most of the ride they’re sitting in their cubicle reading the newspaper.

How often have you been on a train and seen conductors fail to collect all tickets? On over-crowded trains with many standees, this means thousands of dollars in lost revenue per train. According to an MTA audit, $9 million a year is lost in revenue due to uncollected fares. It is especially a problem with out-bound trains where passengers board at Stamford, Norwalk or Bridgeport. Conductors walk the cars asking for “Stamford tickets” and an honest few offer them up. The rest enjoy a “free ride”… on the rest of us.

Metro-North regulations say that conductors should issue seat-checks when fares are collected. That way they know who’s paid and who hasn’t. If you don’t see that being done, or if you see people riding for free, challenge your conductor.

What’s most galling about these new fare hikes is that they were proposed by the MTA and were rubber-stamped by CDOT. Despite two public hearings where 56 people spoke out in unanimous opposition to the MTA / CDOT plan, CDOT Commissioner Korta approved them, with little fanfare, the same week that Governor Rell was announcing that Connecticut needs a seat and a vote on the MTA Board so we can protect the interest of our commuters.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 14, 2005

“Governor Rell’s Promise to Commuters”

There was so much good news for commuters, both rail and road, in Governor Rell’s budget address: new rail cars, promises of more station parking and even improvements to our highways.

But there was also some bad news: a proposed six cents per gallon increase in the gas tax (which we discussed in last week’s column), and a planned $1 per ride surcharge for Metro-North. However, the Governor promised that “(commuters) should not be asked to pay for improvements until they actually see them, sit in them or park in them.”

Her plan is to implement this “surcharge” in 2008 when she said the first fifty of 340 or more new rail cars will be delivered. I’m not really sure that commuters would mind paying a buck more a ride… if they could actually enjoy new cars. But the truth is, there’s no way new cars can be delivered that fast.

Last spring the Legislature scraped together enough money to buy us some time. They told CDOT to add 2000 seats in capacity to the New Haven line by the end of 2004. Today, ten months later, they haven’t even been able to do that after scrounging up hand-me-down rail cars from Virginia and used locomotives from Amtrak. And now the Governor thinks we can add new cars in less than three years?

Here’s what’s involved, and here’s why we’ll never be able to do it in just three years.
First, these proposed new M8 cars must be designed. There isn’t even engineering work underway yet on them. They’re just a concept. The M8’s must be powered using overhead AC power, yet they’re designed after the third-rail powered M7 cars in use in Westchester. As a result, these two car models are apples and oranges.

Next, the new cars would have to be put out to bids. And while the State of Connecticut is mandated to get three independents bids for even paper clips these days, the M8 cars can actually be built by only one company… Bombardier, builder of the M7’s on which the M8’s will be designed. A one-bid contract for a billion dollars?

Then the cars have to be built, hopefully first with a prototype to be thoroughly tested. After full production finally starts, the first new cars will be delivered and enter an extensive assessment and break-in period. Only then can they enter service.

When the MTA ordered the M7 cars now used in Westchester, it took five and a half years from design to delivery. Even CDOT, in its report to Governor Rowland last year, suggested a five or six year delivery cycle for the M8’s. That means, even with Legislative approval tomorrow (and don’t hold your breath for that !), we won’t be seeing new cars until 2010.

C’mon, Governor! You’re the one who preached for honesty and candor with Connecticut’s citizens… “straight talk” as you put it. I’m all for that! But an unrealistic promise of new cars by 2008 doesn’t meet that test.

I want these new cars more than anyone. I’ve been fighting for them on the Commuter Council for almost a decade. But please don’t make us commuters even more cynical by making pledges you can’t keep.

Still, Governor, you did make one promise you can keep: no ticket surcharge on trains until we can “see them or sit in them”, and I’ll hold you to your word. If the cars aren’t here by 2008, there will be no surcharge. Right?

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 09, 2005

“Gas Taxes & Tolls Make Sense”

You’ve got to give her credit. Governor Rell’s first budget didn’t pander to citizens with popular spending initiatives. Instead, it was a much-needed, reality-check slap in the face as she called on lawmakers to raise the gasoline tax to support investment in transportation.

Nobody likes to pay higher taxes… unless we understand where the money’s being spent. That’s why Governor Rowland scored big points in 1997 when he persuaded the Legislature to cut gas taxes by fourteen cents. Everyone hated the gas tax, thinking it just flowed into some black-hole in Hartford. What Rowland didn’t tell us was that cut meant we lost revenue that was to have been spent on highways, bridges and trains. So the tax was cut… but did gasoline prices drop 14 cents? No way.

Many lawmakers, including former Speaker Moira Lyons and now-Lt. Governor Kevin Sullivan now admit that gas tax cut was a big mistake. I’ll give them points for 20/20 hindsight but wish they’d been smarter seven years ago.

Why do we need higher gas taxes? Ask anyone who rides Metro-North. The trains are falling apart, they break down in cold weather and many stations are in dismal shape. Why not ask commuters to pay for those repairs? We did… and hit them with 20% fare hikes over the past two years. Commuters in Connecticut now have the highest fares of any railroad in North America. We cannot ask them to pay more or we risk losing them to their cars. To work, mass transit has to be affordable.

Every resident in this state, even if they never ride commuter rail, will benefit from this proposed gas tax hike. The money those taxes raise will fix up the trains and keep fares down, encouraging (and, with more seats, allowing) greater use of mass transit. That will mean fewer cars on the road.

Ask anyone who’s traveled abroad and they’ll tell you: Gas is too cheap in this country. A few extra pennies in taxes will mean nothing to the average motorist, but they’ll mean plenty to our state’s future.

But, while courageous, the Governor’s budget is not enough. We don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars in bonding-power, we need billions.

How about tolls on I-95 and the Merritt? With an EZ-Pass system you won’t even need to stop. And with time-of-day pricing, just like the trains, we can offer discounts to those who drive outside of rush hour, giving an incentive for those who must drive, to avoid rush hour.

Forget about that myth that the Federal government won’t allow tolls without reimbursement for years of highway spending. It’s not true. And former CDOT Commissioner Emil Frankel, now working for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, has confirmed that.
Tolls were eliminated from I-95 and the Merritt Parkway for the wrong reason… a fiery truck crash at the Greenwich toll barrier. Like the gas tax, they weren’t popular. But they were necessary to the upkeep of the transportation infrastructure.

Now, with a funding source on the horizon, the Legislature can get on with the real task at hand… ordering new rail cars that we needed years ago. Once ordered, we’ll still have to wait five or six years for their delivery. Hang in there fellow-commuters. We’ve got a long way to go.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 08, 2005

“The Myth of the Third Rail”

Metro-North’s mangled and much-maligned service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate. Ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that operates on three modes of power… AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries. Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third rail power for the rest of the trip into New York. Even diesel trains must convert to third-rail as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels.

And there’s the rub: Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors. That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car. While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, the proposed dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut could cost $3.5 million each.

So, some folks are asking… “Why not just use one power source? Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.” Simple, yes. Smart, no. And here’s why.

Ø There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way. All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened. Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired. Cost? Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.

Ø Even with third-rail the CDOT would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak. That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost. We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the eighty-year old catenary, so why then replace it?

Ø Third-rail AC power requires substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate. The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.

Ø DC driven third rail is less efficient. Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world… the TGV, Shinkansen, etc. On third-rail speeds, are limited to 75 miles an hour vs. 90 mph under the wire. That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.

Ø Third rail ices-up in bad weather and can get buried in snow causing short circuits. Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.

Ø Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.

The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980’s by consultants to CDOT. They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail. This time, the engineers at CDOT got it right.

Not satisfied, some of the third-rail fans are now pushing bills through the Legislature to study the replacement scheme yet again. More studies would mean years of delay in ordering already overdue car replacements.

I trust the Legislature will dispense with these nuisance proposals quickly and get on with the task at hand… ordering new cars now. Even if the needed funds are appropriated today and the order placed immediately, new cars won’t be delivered for five or six years. Further studies of third-rail vs. overhead catenary only make us wait longer.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 01, 2005

“Let’s Blame The Trucks !!”

What’s the biggest cause of congestion and delays on I-95? Just ask anyone who drives that route, day or night, and they’ll say… TRUCKS! Unfortunately, those opinions, while popular, are not support by the facts.

Those of you who know me should recognize that I’m no apologist for the trucking industry. I’d love to get trucks off of the highways and onto freight cars on rails. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely in the foreseeable future (the topic for a whole other column). Neither is the token effort of barging a few hundred trucks a day from New York docks to Bridgeport going to make much difference, though I still support that idea as well. Rather than looking for a scapegoat, let’s consider the facts before we blame truckers for the mess we have created.

As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It is all of us, in single occupancy vehicles (s.o.v.’s), that cause the congestion, not trucks. Here are the facts:

Ø Trucks are high occupancy vehicles. They don’t drive up and down the interstates empty. They’re delivering goods that we want to buy. How do you think the big boxes get to “the big box stores”? Every piece of clothing, item of food… yes, even the newsprint you are holding, was delivered by truck. Our insatiable consumption created this demand.

Ø Trucks are only permitted on the interstate highways, while s.o.v’s can use local streets or the parkway. Did you know that the average journey on I-95 is less than ten miles? We local residents use our interstates like cross-town shortcuts and wonder why they’re congested.

Ø Trucks deliver their goods when the merchants tell them. Why are trucks on I-95 at rush hour? Because selfish store owners won’t accept deliveries outside of the 9 am to 5 pm store hours they find convenient. In parts of Manhattan, by law, all truck deliveries must be made at night… and the daytime street traffic flows freely.

Ø Trucks are responsible for most of the accidents. Wrong. Sure, trucks do occasionally jackknife, dump their contents and cause delays… but often those accidents are caused by s.o.v. drivers. CDOT statistics prove that most accidents on I-95 involve cars, not trucks. In general, I think truck drivers are better than automobile drivers. It’s what they do for a living. Unlike s.o.v. drivers, they don’t juggle a cell-phone, toddler and a latte while operating their vehicle.

Ø How about the truck inspection stations? Why aren’t they open more hours? Good question… and best answered by the NIMBY politicians from Greenwich, whose clout has kept those safety stations closed so their tony neighbors won’t complain. Even the trucking industry supports greater safety vigilance, so let’s open those inspection stations 24 x 7… and hit ‘em all with a toll while they’re there, especially those trucks that are just “passing thru” the state, treating Connecticut like “drive over country”.

And while we’re at it, let’s force the industry to design a cleaner diesel engine to save whatever is left of our LA-quality air. Let’s open more parking areas so road-weary truckers don’t have to sleep on the shoulder at night. And sure, let’s pass a law stopping truckers from using “jake brakes” to noisily downshift. I’m all in favor of safer, cleaner and quieter trucks.

But let’s not kid ourselves when it comes to explaining the true cause of our traffic mess. Next time you’re crawling up I-95, look around you. Count the number of s.o.v’s and the number of trucks. Then tell me… who’s really causing the delays? It may be easy to blame it on the trucks… but it’s not true.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct


In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...