July 10, 2005

Terror On The Tracks

The news of the recent terror attacks in London should not really come as a surprise. After the Madrid bombings in March of 2004, it was really only a matter of time before terrorism struck again at such a vulnerable target as mass transit.

Our government has proven itself unable to protect the homeland, so seeing State Troopers and police riding Metro-North trains seems like an act of PR, propping up public opinion, rather than acting as any deterrence.

According to the House Transportation Committee, since 9/11 we’ve spent $11 billion improving aviation security, or $9.16 per passenger. In the same time we’ve only spent $115 million on mass transit, or $0.006 per passenger.

Homeland Security has tried some experiments in improving rail safety… scanning checked baggage in Washington DC and creating a security perimeter around the Hagerstown MD rail station. But their craziest experiment of all happened right here in Connecticut.

In July of 2004, a Shore Line East train was outfitted with an extra car carrying bombing sniffing and metal detecting equipment (on loan from manufacturer GE which is obviously eyeing lucrative contracts). Passengers boarding the train at all stations first had to enter the “security car” and as the train moved along, were screened for explosives. That’s right… they got on the train and then were screened. But isn’t the idea to keep the bombs off of the trains, not find them in transit?

What can realistically be done to improve safety on our trains and subways? In my view… not much. There are hundreds of miles of track, scores of stations and thousands of passengers to control. Consider some of the possibilities:

  • ID checks before boarding? For what purpose… and of what deterrence value?

  • Airport style secure zones and screenings? Can you imagine thousands of riders arriving 60 – 90 minutes before departure to cue for screenings twice each day? They’d abandon the trains and be back in their cars in a flash.

  • A cop on every train? Be honest: do you really think a determined suicide bomber would stop at his grizzly task if he saw a cop on the train? And with a ten-car Metro-North train carrying more passengers than a 747, what good is a cop at the front of the train if something happens a quarter-mile behind him in the rear car?

  • Bomb-sniffing dogs on every train? Maybe. But we don’t have anywhere near enough trained canines to handle the hundreds of trains each day on Metro-North.

So what’s a commuter to do? In my view… rely on your own instincts. Be watchful of your surroundings, unattended bags and suspicious behavior. If you see something that doesn’t look right… report it.

Last year, after the Madrid bombings, I was on a Metro-North train headed into the city when a passenger came into my car, spoke softly with the conductor, and sat down. Two other passengers followed him, now speaking in more excited tones. They said there was a dark skinned man in the other car sweating profusely, looking at his watch, reading an Arabic newspaper and playing with something in his briefcase. The conductor radioed ahead and our train was stopped in the Bronx. MTA Police in body armor boarded and took the man off the train.

To my eye he looked like any other commuter. Sweating, perhaps because he’d run for the train. Looking at his watch, because he was late for an appointment. Fumbling with something in his briefcase, maybe to find his Blackberry. Reading a foreign newspaper, to catch up on the news in his native tongue. The gentleman looked Indian, not Arabic, but he offered no resistance when he climbed off the train.

Paranoia? Xenophobia? Or have our enemies really won and left us terrorized?
I’m still riding the train and taking the subways. But I’m not expecting the authorities to prevent the inevitable… further terrorist attacks right here in the US.

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

New Trains On Track

There’s finally good news for Metro-North commuters. New trains are on the way!
In special session, the Connecticut Legislature has approved Governor Rell’s bold initiative to spend over $1 billion on almost 350 new rail cars. But don‘t expect to ride these new cars until 2008 or, more likely, 2009.

Consultants are already drawing up the engineering specs for the proposed M8 twin-car sets, one car powered under the wire (in Connecticut) with its sister-car relying on third rail power (in Westchester and into GCT). Each car will power the other in its respective territory. Mind you, this is just the concept and has yet to be proven on paper or on the tracks.

After the engineering RFP goes out in September, a car-builder will hopefully be approved by fall of 2006, and construction will begin. Mind you, this is a small car order by railroad standards, and a rather sophisticated engineering task, so bids may not be plentiful, or cheap.

While closely following the design of the Bombardier-built M7 cars now running on the Hudson and Harlem branches of Metro-North, the new M8s could be built by French, Japanese or even Korean manufacturers. (There hasn’t been an American rail-car builder since the Budd Company closed decades ago.) By avoiding use of Federal money, and bonding this purchase ourselves, we avoid onerous “buy American” requirements.

According to Metro-North President Peter Cannito, car delivery, in lots of 100, would begin in late 2008. Then there will be necessary testing and break-in before the new cars can enter service.

While this long overdue replenishment of the aging Connecticut fleet is good news, there may still be a bumpy ride ahead until the new cars arrive, especially in the next four winters when the fleet is most challenged by the elements.

New shops are being built in New Haven and the refurbishment of the oldest M2 cars continues (at about four cars a month). That will mean better servicing for our 30+ year old fleet and better reliability from the rehabbed cars.

But the problems of overcrowding will continue. On an average day, 15% of our fleet of 343 cars is shopped for repairs or inspections. And only 75% of all trains have enough cars for a full consist. Despite fare increases, ridership is up 4%. That means standees.

After the disastrous winter of 2003-2004, the legislature came up with a token investment in more equipment. CDOT was able to negotiate a great deal on some used railcars from Virginia Railway Express.., a commuter railroad smart enough to upgrade its fleet before it was ridden into the ground. But the 26 VRE cars we acquired were of little help because we didn’t have enough locomotives to pull them.

Finally, a year later, CDOT has now signed a lease with Amtrak for eight used diesels which it hopes will be put into service by the end of this year.

The Amtrak diesels and VRE passenger cars (still in their original livery, or colors) will run on Shore Line East and the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines. The locomotive-pulled Bombardier cars now running on those lines will be brought down to the mainline to round out the fleet. Don’t expect more trains… just more cars on existing, chronically-short trains.

So, kudos to our elected officials for finally getting our mass transit system back on track. Now, let’s hope for commuters’ patience… and mild winters, until the new cars show up in three or four years.

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


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