October 31, 2011

What The Swiss Can Teach Metro-North

Just back from 12 glorious (and outrageously expensive) days in Europe, I have some train tales to tell, and some advice for Americas railroads.

Despite its small size, Switzerland boasts some of the best trains in the world.  Not the fastest (that would be France), but certainly the most dependable. Here are a few things Metro-North could learn from the Swiss railroads.


Metro-North defines "on time" as being within five minutes and 59 seconds of schedule, an industry standard in the US.  When I explained this to a conductor in Switzerland he laughed and asked "How can a train be late and still be on time?"  Exactly.  In this tiny country you can set your watch by the trains coming and going.


Arrive at a Swiss station to catch a train and you consult a timetable prepared weeks ago, arranged by hour.  Catching the 10:07 to Basel?  That's always on track 12;  on that track you'll see a chart showing every car on that train, which are first class, where the restaurant and Quiet Cars will be and where, exactly, those cars will stop on the platform.  Catch the same train from Grand Central and the track may be different day to day as might be the length of the train.

On the Swiss train you'll be given a list of the stations you'll stop at, which track you will arrive on and the time and track number of all connecting trains.  Arrive at Stamford looking for the New Canaan connection and it's always different... and sometimes a bus.


In Europe the on-board announcements (in three languages) always start with " Meine Damen und Herren" (Ladies and gentlemen).  The formality of the culture carries over to the national railroad and customers are respected.  On Metro-North some conductors yell at passengers, call them children and mock them on the PA system.


The heavily traveled corridor along Lake Geneva from Geneva to Lausanne and Montreux is 58 miles long.  That compares to the 82 miles from Grand Central to New Haven.  On our Connecticut line there are three trains an hour at rush hour and just one an hour during the rest of the day.  On the Swiss line there are trains every three to eight minutes, even on weekends.  Some are locals, others expresses and still others long-distance trains just passing thru Switzerland.  But they are all spotless, even the bathrooms.


Most major cities in Europe offer high-speed rail from their big airports to downtown and beyond.  At Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport you can hop a 200-mph TGV to anywhere in the country.  Flying out of Geneva or Zurich, you can even check your bag at the train station and pick it up when you land, or vice versa.  Compare that to JFKs AirTrain which will take you to the subway or LIRR, but no farther.


If you want a ticket for Metro-North you can order it on the web and you'll probably have it in a couple of days by mail.  Book a ticket online in Switzerland and you print it on your home computer and hand it to the conductor who scans the QR code on the train, and you're done.


What passes for a meal on a Metro-North bar car (if there is one on your train) is probably a bag of chips and a beer.  On most Swiss trains there's a lounge car serving food and drink or at least a cart that moves between the cars selling everything from fresh brewed coffee and sandwiches to adult beverages.  And they accept credit cards.


Taking a cog railroad thru the Alps is, of course, different than riding Metro-North.  But both pass through some incredible scenery.  On most intercity Swiss trains there is a Panorama dome car, enjoyed even by the locals.  On Metro-North or Shore Line East you're lucky if you can see thru your window, let alone enjoy the beautiful view of the coastline.


Ever notice that the people who shout "the USA is the greatest country in the world" have often never been outside our borders?  Until he was elected President, George W Bush had never even been to Canada or Mexico!

When it comes to railroads, the US is abysmal.  Amtrak's Acela is a joke compared to high speed rail in the EU and China.  And Metro-North may be the #1 commuter line in the US, but it pales in comparison to any of dozens of regional lines in the EU.

I just wonder Has anyone from Metro-North has ever been to Europe and seen what is possible?

October 21, 2011

What's In A Name: Branding Rail Travel

Don’t be too jealous, but as you read this I’m enjoying a rail adventure in Europe… almost two weeks of riding some of the fastest and best trains in the world… my idea of a real holiday.
As I prepare my itinerary, I’m struck by how well the Europeans “brand” their service.  There is, of course, “Eurostar”, the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel”.  There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria”, a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.

All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela”, Amtrak’s best effort at high speed rail.  As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is… it’s your basement.”

Amtrak still has some named trains though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes:  the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, The Adirondack to Montreal.

The New Haven Railroad used to name its trains:  The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and Senator.  When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”.  But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known as “The Night Crawler”.  It’s long gone.

It may well be that Acela will seem like a slow-poke if a new project takes wing: a maglev train linking New York and DC.  Out of the blue this week I got an online survey from a company testing names for the proposed service.

Among the options I was asked to grade:  “Maglev”, “Quicksilver”, “Aero” and “Magenta”.  Really… magenta?  But clearly these planners know that before they could even propose such a service, it needs an identity.  (PS:  I think this project has zero chance of ever being built, but it’s nice to know someone is thinking bigger and better than Amtrak).

Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur:  Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, NY Central and a dead-end.  South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est. And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.

On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located.  But Westport residents insist on calling their station “Saugatuck”.  And I wish I knew how Green’s Farms got its name.  Coming this fall, “Fairfield Metro” will arrive.

Though it doesn’t name its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars carry  names tied to Connecticut lore:  The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry), The Ella Grasso (named after our former Governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.

And even before Amtrak, America’s railroads similarly named many cars, especially sleepers, parlor cars and diners.  The long-distance, double-deck Superliners carry the names of the states and such historic figures as A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Pullman porters union.
So the next time you’re on some generic, 30+ year old Metro-North car known only by a number, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a car and train with a name like “The Silver Streak” or “The Weary Commuter”.

October 01, 2011

The Malloy 'Tax' On Commuters

If a mugger came up to you on the street and said “I’m going to poke your eyes out!”, but then he only kicked you in the groin, would you think better of him?
That’s what Metro-North commuters are asking themselves now that CDOT has decided on 15.25% fare hike spread over the next three years instead of the 16.4% hike first proposed.
To their credit, CDOT held eight public hearings around the state to gauge commuter response to their plan.  Hundreds turned out, 99% of them saying there was no justification for a fare increase in light of worsening service.  But the CDOT should have been careful what they asked for.  They heard the public, then chose to ignore them.
Mind you, this fare hike is not really coming from the CDOT.  It’s actually a creation of Governor Malloy and his budget team.
At every monthly meeting over the past two years the CT Rail Commuter Council asked CDOT if there were plans for a fare increase.  Each month they said “no”, until this spring.
When the Governor’s concessions package was initially rejected by state employees, Malloy came out with “Plan B”, a painful collection of service cuts and fee increases (including a fare hike) that hit everyone in the state.  That got the state workers to reconsider and eventually they agreed to concessions and avoided layoffs.  But when the unions said yes, “Plan B” didn’t go away, especially the Metro-North fare hike.
So these fare increases are really nothing more than a tax on commuters, a very convenient “captive audience” with few alternatives.  These fare hikes are not to cover the cost of running the railroad but to balance the state budget.
Our fares are already the highest of any commuter railroad in the US.  Now they’ll be even higher.  Even the railroad’s own computer models suggest these higher fares will reduce ridership.
There are plenty of ways for Metro-North to save money without a fare hike, like collecting all the tickets on the trains.  For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has been asking the railroad to get conductors to do their job.  By their own estimates, the railroad acknowledges millions of dollars in lost revenue from uncollected fares.
Instead of collecting all the tickets, the railroad adopted new rules which make tickets expire sooner, leaving many riders with tickets that are now worthless.  Buy a ten-trip ticket and it’s worth zero in six months if you haven’t used it.  Meanwhile, passengers board trains at Stamford every day and get a free ride to Bridgeport because conductors aren’t doing their job. Their free ride is paid for by those with tickets.
Remember:  Metro-North works for the CDOT.  Why the state chooses to look the other way while the railroad abuses passengers in this way is a question best answered by Governor Malloy.
At a time when the state should be doing all it can to create and keep jobs in the state… and keep taxpayers from moving to NY or NJ… it’s astounding that Governor Malloy chooses instead to make the cost of commuting more expensive, not less. 
This fare hike is just another nail in the coffin of Connecticut’s economic growth.


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