June 27, 2010

The Bar Car Debate - Your Turn

Much has been written about Metro-North’s fabled bar cars, the only such rolling pubs on a commuter railroad in North America. Reports of their demise are wrong, as CDOT is considering adding bar cars to the next M8 car order.

The CT Rail Commuter Council has been given a preliminary design which CDOT is using to seek bids from Kawasaki, so we thought it wise to seek rider input. We’re running an online survey for another few weeks.

As of this writing almost 450 people have chimed in, many of them adding interesting comments, which I share with you this week.

On the “pro” side…

“They (bar cars) give people a real chance to connect after a long day. We all hope they continue.” “…they’re a nice place to unwind and chit chat with other commuters. It makes the commute a bit easier to swallow”. “I have met some of my best friends on these bar cars, as it is a great social environment as well as an opportunity to network with others.”

But on the “con” side…

“I don't see a need for a bar car. The trains are noisy as it is and adding a bar car only makes the commute more stressful for those many commuters that do not use a bar car.” “We need seats on the NH not bar cars. People get out of these bar cars and into their personal vehicles and become hazards to others on the road.” “I prefer to have more seating. Last night's commute home felt like I was in India. We need more seats not bars.” “The bar car is an incredibly stupid idea. They are inefficient and wasteful. A taxpayer-supported railroad should not be running around with bar cars onboard.”

Many respondents commented on the proposed shorter bar, moving the bathroom to the center of the car and new seating patterns.

“This was obviously designed by someone with limited exposure to the practical / functional aspects of the current setup. I would suggest having the designer ride the bar car a few dozen times at peak hour to better define and frame the task at hand.” “We are saying no to bikes for space reasons and we shouldn't give a benefit for drinkers just because it's fun.”

Others suggested power outlets and space for laptops… fold-down or removable seats… and several felt a drawing isn’t enough: “put a mockup at Grand Central so we can better evaluate and give ideas.”

Another idea… “If possible, raise windows so that a standing person can look out the window at a 90 degree angle. As currently configured, an average sized person who is standing only has a view of the ground.”

A branch-line rider asked… “Have there been any considerations to adding a bar car to the Danbury Line?” Sorry, only when (and if) the line is re-electrified. Until then bar cars will only be used on the main line.

Finally, one wishful respondent summed up the thoughts of many with “free beer please.”

To see the proposed bar car design and add your comments to the online survey, visit the CT Rail Commuter Council’s website at www.trainweb.org/ct

June 13, 2010

Saving Money Going to NYC

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting this summer, everyone can save money when you go into NYC by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK: See if your employer subscribes to this fabulous service, which allows workers to buy up to $230 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars. If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation. A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. But Congress needs to act soon to continue this benefit, so if you’re one of the employees, write your lawmaker!

GO OFF-PEAK: If you can arrive at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 15 – 20%. Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays. Your train will be less crowded, too.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE: Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 - $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once! There are ticket machines at most stations, but the cheapest tickets are those bought online. And go for the ten-trip tickets to save an additional 15%. They can be shared among passengers and are good for a year.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES: Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares. Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours). Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare. But you must have proper ID and you can’t go in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING: Even stations that require parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends. Check with your local town.

CHEAPER STATION PARKING: Don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 6.50 per day M-F, $4.75 on weekends) or Stamford ($8 for 8 hours, M-F). Instead, park at the day-lots in Darien or Noroton Heights for just $3. But be sure to buy a scratch-off ticket in advance.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

AVOID CABS: I have nothing against taxis, but they’re getting mighty expensive: $2.50 when you enter the cab, $0.40 for each minute or one-fifth of a mile. Add on a $1 surcharge from 4 – 8 pm weekdays, $0.50 after 8 pm and a state mandated $0.50 per ride anytime, not to mention a tip… and it all adds up. Instead, take the bus or subway. Or try walking.

USE METROCARDS: Forget about the old subway tokens. These nifty cards can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals: put $8 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 15% bonus. Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus. You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a single day ($8.25), a week ($27), 14 days ($51.50) or a month ($89). There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

CHEAPER TO DRIVE?: Despite being a mass transit advocate, there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers. You probably know how to avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure. But do check out www.bestparking.com to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination. Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the subway from there.

The bottom line is that it ain’t cheap going into “the city”. But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money. Enjoy!

June 04, 2010

Are Ferries In Our Future?

If you believe in ferries, then clap your hands. Sage advice from Peter Pan. But as your applause subsides, let me debunk the popular myth that the solutions to our transportation woes can be found on Long Island Sound. Ferry boats face several challenges:

SPEED: In open water, fast ferries on the Sound could make 30 knots (35 mph). But if they must sail up inlets to the downtown areas of Bridgeport, Norwalk or Stamford, that speed is cut to 5 knots, losing precious travel time.

DOCKING: To keep to competitive speeds, docks would have to be located close to the Sound. That’s expensive real estate. And what about parking at those docks… and travel time on local roads to reach them? Again, more lost travel time.

FREQUENCY: Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour. No ferry service anywhere in the country can compete with that frequency of service. Will travelers really be willing to wait an hour or two for the next boat?

COMFORT: In nice weather, a boat ride to work sounds idyllic. But what about in a blizzard? The bumpiest ride on the train pales by comparison.
FARES: The most optimistic of would-be ferry operators estimate their fares will be at least double those charged on the train. And people say Metro-North is too expensive?

OPERATING COSTS: One of the reasons fares would be so high is that fast ferries are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde. When the Pequot Indians built high speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino in Connecticut to lose money, the service cost so much that the Pequot’s dry-docked the ship in New London.

COMPETITION: When a private operator tried to run ferry service from Glen Cove Long Island to midtown, paralleling a route well served by the LIRR, they shut down after just a few months because they couldn’t compete with the trains. Coastal Connecticut is already well-served by fast, efficient rail service, so why duplicate what already works?

A proposed ferry from Atlantic Highlands NJ stopping in Norwalk enroute to Martha’s Vineyard might be a viable alternative to crush-hour on I-95. But they’re talking about one-way fares of $200 per person. My biggest chuckle about the plan came when a Norwalk city official suggested islanders might use it to visit Norwalk for a vacation. Oh, really?

The final reason I don’t think ferries make economic sense is that nobody else does. Ferry operators (like the near-bankrupt NY Waterways) aren’t stupid. They’ve looked at possible service from coastal Connecticut, crunched the numbers and backed off. In a free market economy, if a buck could be made running ferries, they’d be operating by now. They aren’t, and there are lots of reasons why, many of which I’ve listed.

The only place ferries are running successfully is where they’re heavily subsidized (everywhere), have a monopoly (for example, getting to downtown Seattle from an island suburb), don’t duplicate existing transportation routes (like from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson), or offer advantages of speed because they operate on extremely short runs (from Hoboken to midtown). Our situation here in Connecticut matches none of those tests.

You already know I’m a train nut. (The bumper sticker on my car reads “I’d Rather Be On The Train.”). And I do love an occasional recreational sail on the Sound. But I just think it’s unrealistic to think that commutation by ferries is realistically in our future.

Sorry Tinkerbelle. I’m not clapping.


Last week’s column ( “Why We Love To Hate I-95” ) apparently struck a nerve, generating a lot of comments, some of which I thought I’d share...