October 31, 2010

Trolleys: Riding Back in Time

What was commuting like back in the “good old days”? Well, cheaper, slower and with fewer options. Still, we have nostalgia for our grandparents’ travel methods long before families owned cars. Back then, it was all about trolleys!

It’s been 200 years since trolleys first plied city streets. Initially pulled by horses they were eventually electrified, adding speed and dependability. While we think of streetcars mostly for in-city service, trolleys criss-crossed our state, supplementing the railroads for longer distance travel.

It is true that you could travel all the way from New York to Boston by connecting trolley lines, a nickel a ride. (Click here for a fabulous 1916 timetable showing four routes from NY to Boston complete with descriptions of the towns).

The trolley companies were often owned by power utilities, giving themselves a steady client for their electricity. To generate even more weekend business, trolley lines would often run to amusement parks which they also owned, like Roton Point in Norwalk.

The expansion of the trolley lines had a profound effect on housing, allowing city dwellers to live further than walking distance from their factories. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in Boston as detailed in “Streetcar Suburbs”, a classic sociology text. This was truly the first “Transit Oriented Development”.

But the story of New England’s trolleys is not limited to the history books. Fortunately, we are blessed with two excellent trolley museums just a short drive away.

The Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than one hundred trolley cars in its collection. It still runs excursion trolleys for a short run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford. You can walk thru the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars. There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.

The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US. It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company. You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour the collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.

Both museums also offer you the chance to “drive” a streetcar… under supervision and after a little training. Passengers are not allowed, but your friends can join you if they are brave. If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either museum. But check ahead for hours, especially off-season.

Being born and raised in Toronto, streetcars were always a part of my life. Long before Toronto had a subway or commuter rail service, citizens would go shopping, go to church or an evening at the movies by streetcar. Even today that city of 2.5 million is served by new, Canadian-built streetcars. You can still ride trolleys, both old and new, in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston and Newark NJ. There’s even talk of returning streetcars to Stamford.

When it comes to getting around by means other than the auto, everything old is new again.

CT Trolley Museum

New Orleans trolley on St Charles Ave

PCC Car - CT Trolley Museum

October 03, 2010

A Victory for Commuters

Who says you can’t fight City Hall… or Metro-North?

Back in August I wrote in this column about Metro-North’s latest proposals to gouge commuters. Today I can report they have been soundly defeated.

To close its $800 million budget deficit, the MTA (Metro-North’s parent), has in past months come forward with a series of fare hikes and service cuts, all of them soundly rejected by Governor Rell. Because, although that NY State agency has never heeded our Governor’s requests for a voting seat on its board, Connecticut does have veto power over fare hikes in our state.

I’ve got to hand it to Governor Rell. She’s kept her word since February of 2005 when, in her first budget address, she told the legislature we were long overdue in ordering new rail cars and promised no fare hikes until the cars arrived and went into service. She’s also funneled millions in stimulus funds into fixing up our rail stations.

But this time the MTA was proposing something different… what I called a “stealth” fare hike.

The rail agency proposed cutting the discount on monthly “Mail & Ride” tickets as well as rail tickets bought on the web. They also wanted to reduce the validity of ten-trip tickets from one year to 90 days. And single trip tickets, now valid for six months, would expire in a week.

What were they thinking? Short of having conductors spit at passengers, these changes were almost like yelling “screw you” to their customers?

Once again, the CT Rail Commuter Council had its work to do. First, in publicizing the proposal through the media. Then, in demanding public hearings (though none were originally planned in Connecticut). And finally, in rallying commuters to attend and speak out against these proposals.

For the record, I should note that the Council has, in the past, supported small fare hikes… when they were tied to the cost of living and matched against improvements in service. But these proposals were neither.

The MTA’s budget deficit is of its own creation, not Connecticut’s. So New York taxpayers and commuters should pay for it, not us. Connecticut has never been asked for input on the multi-billion dollar mega-projects undertaken by the MTA, like the $6 billion to build tunnels bringing the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central, so why stick us with the bill?

Isn’t reducing a discount equivalent to a fare increase? You betcha!

And what possible reason could Metro-North offer for shortening the validity of ten-trip tickets? Incredibly, they said it was to deal with the “problem of uncollected tickets.”

Amazing. For about a decade the Commuter Council has been beating on Metro-North about conductors not doing their jobs, leaving tickets uncollected on crowded trains. By its own calculations, Metro-North loses $2 million a year on uncollected tickets. And their solution is to screw customers by selling them ten-trips but letting them only use two or three rides, then declare their ticket invalid?

And the icing on the cake, the final proposal from the MTA? A $15 fee to cash in an unexpired ticket!

The Commuter Council was curious just how much money would be raised if these plans were approved, so we filed a formal written request for that data. The answer: about a half-million dollars a year in Connecticut. That’s nothing… a rounding error… bupkis! An $800 million budget deficit, and all these proposed changes will bring in $500,000?

Governor Rell heard our argument and agreed. She quickly ordered the CDOT to reject the MTA / Metro-North proposal, a directive read aloud at the public hearings in Stamford and New Haven.

Commuters have won… for now.


Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...