December 22, 2013

Symbiosis or Stockholm Syndrome

Connecticut has a very strange relationship with Metro-North.  Some see it as one of mutual interest.  Others describe it as an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, where a kidnap victim fights to defend its captor.
After the bankruptcies of the Penn-Central Railroad and Conrail, Connecticut’s Dept of Transportation was anxious to find anyone to run commuter rail service to NYC.  The operating agreement creating Metro-North combined Connecticut-owned tracks and rail-cars with NY State operated lines in a bi-state shotgun wedding.
Connecticut subsidizes 66% of the railroad’s operating deficit in our state and Metro-North subsidizes 34%.  But Connecticut also subsidizes 34% of the operating shortfall for riders in NY while Metro-North picks up 66% of that cost.  That’s symbiosis.
Today, 30 years later, the state of Connecticut is Metro-North’s biggest customer, representing more revenue and passengers than New York’s Hudson or Harlem lines.  But make no mistake:  Metro-North is just a vendor to the state.

The contract with Metro-North has self-renewed for the past 30 years, and CDOT has never considered alternatives.  The last time the contract went to arbitration, Connecticut was so out-gunned by NY lawyers it came out of the deal with less money, not more.  We got smacked down and have never had the guts to stand back up.
The operating agreement, now as thick as a Manhattan phone book (remember those?), is seriously lacking:
  • It gives Connecticut no seat on the Metro-North or MTA board of directors.
  • It includes no performance standards or penalties for non-compliance.
  • It is so cumbersome and arcane that it’s virtually impossible to get out of.
  • All of which leaves Connecticut with zero leverage.
As one lawmaker described it, Metro-North is like the old Lilly Tomlin character, Ernestine, the phone operator.  When customers would complain, she would say…’ too bad, we don’t care… we don’t have to, we’re the phone company!” 
Clearly, that’s how Metro-North has treated its customers, including CDOT, over the years.  They just don’t care, because they don’t have to.
And they also don’t care about how badly they have mis-managed our railroad:
  • A recent report showed that eight Metro-North foremen falsified time sheets from April thru August this year, claiming to be repairing bridges when they were actually goofing off driving to Pennsylvania to buy fireworks and cheap cigarettes.
  • Metro-North dissolved its undercover inspection team in 2012 after an audit found similar malfeasance.  Neither the unions nor management could stop the fraud.
  • In a four year period, Metro-North suspended 129 and fired 4 employees for serious safety violations.  During the same period, the Long Island Railroad (sister railroad to Metro-North) suspended 884 and fired 12 for similar infractions.
As the NY Post reported recently:  “The approach to discipline at Metro-North revolves around a lengthy adjudication process — first, there’s a hearing; then a review of the hearing transcript; a ruling from a hearing officer follows; then the accused can appeal to the railroad’s vice president of labor relations. If that doesn’t work, an appeal can be filed with the state Labor Department.”

When you start paying higher fares in January, ask yourself:  How can this go on?  Who is running this railroad?  And why is CDOT not outraged enough to even consider alternative operators?

December 11, 2013

Derailment Kills Four... But Who's To Blame?

It could have been you or me that died in that derailment in the Bronx December 1st.  Instead, it was Jim Lovell, Donna Smith, James Ferrari and Kisook Ahn who lost their lives riding that train.

It will be months before the NTSB finishes its investigation of what happened and why, but it is clear that it could have been prevented.  But why wasn’t it?

None of us yet has the answers, but there are plenty of questions:

·       Why did engineer William Rockefeller first claim that the train’s brakes had failed only later to claim he had “zoned out”?  Which of those explanations was a lie and which an excuse?

·       Why did the engineer’s union go to the press to plead his case, only to be kicked out of the NTSB’s investigation for breaking the rules?  Is this a PR case study or a forensic investigation?

·       Why did his train’s controls lack an alerter system that would have warned him that he was going 80 mph approaching a 30 mph curve?

·       Why was Metro-North President Howard Permut noticeably absent at the crash scene and subsequent NTSB press conferences for five days after the deadly crash?  Isn’t he responsible for this railroad? [Correcton:  see Comment #3 below this posting]

·       Why didn’t Mr. Permut and MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast attend the wakes and funerals of those who died on their railroad?  How do they keep their jobs when employee morale is as low as passenger confidence?

·       Why does Metro-North have such a dismal record of disciplining engineers who violate its rules, suspending only 49 and firing one in a four year period while the LIRR suspended 884 and fired 12 over the same period?

·       Why did Metro-North drag its feet for five years after a federal order to install Positive Train Control while other commuter railroads met the mandate?

·       Why did the FRA wait until there had been three derailments, a track foreman’s death and the Con Ed meltdown to admonish Metro-North in writing for its dismal safety record? 

Since that Sunday morning high-speed derailment, I have been on an emotional rollercoaster from depression and grief to anger and disbelief.  Nobody seems to be accepting responsibility for what happened and yet everybody is to blame.

Engineer Rockefeller, with an otherwise spotless record, made a deadly mistake that will haunt him the rest of his life.  His union argues it was a medical condition, so he’s not criminally negligent so he may never stand trial.

Metro-North management argues that speed alerters are not required on older trains, though they certainly seem necessary and will probably be retrofitted. 

With PR chutzpah, Metro-North says the last five months of disasters don’t blemish 30+ years of safe operations… that they are anomalies.  Really?  The voyage of the Titanic was so smooth until they hit that iceberg.

Does anyone really believe all these calamities are just bad timing? Am I the only one who sees a pattern that worsens with each passing month?

After the July 2011 stranding of a train near Westport (on the hottest day of the year) when passengers felt so abandoned by Metro-North they called 911 to be rescued by fire fighters, I asked a simple question:  Is it time to fire Metro-North?

Until now, two years later, nobody has taken that question seriously.  Why?

As I wrote in my last column explaining my recent resignation from the CT Commuter Rail Council, “Metro-North and the Connecticut DOT are in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation”.

Who’s to blame for the death of those four commuters? 

Everybody who has failed to change that situation.

November 25, 2013

Cameron Resigns But Doesn't Quit

After 19 years, I have resigned from the CT Commuter Rail Council.  But I can promise you I am not quitting my advocacy for my fellow commuters or the writing of this column. And I have an even better idea of how commuters can be heard.

The old Commuter Council accomplished many things since its founding in 1985, including the ordering of the new M8 cars.  The Council also fought for Quiet Cars, the Passenger Bill of Rights, expanded parking at rail stations, changes in the expiration date on tickets and ticket refunds when service was cancelled.

On an annual basis I would testify in Hartford for better rail service at affordable fares, and while lawmakers would nod in agreement, little changed.  The tensions between upstate legislators and those from downstate, where rail service is a crucial utility, have always stymied investment in our rails.

And on visiting the capitol I was always struck by the fact that the corridors there are filled with paid lobbyists, arm-twisting on behalf of truckers, for building more highways or opposing tolls. Yet there was nobody there speaking on behalf of commuters, except me.

The thousands of daily riders of Metro-North in Connecticut are hardly a “special interest group” nor can they afford a full-time lobbyist.  But they are taxpayers and voters who can move out of state when conditions make commuting unreliable or unsafe.

Metro-North is facing big problems.  Despite new cars, service is slower than it has been in years and we haven’t even faced winter with its usual cancellations and service outages.  Trains run late, are still over-crowded, and communications with riders is inconsistent and unreliable. 

So why did I resign from the Commuter Council now?  Because the railroad and CDOT, which hires Metro-North to run our trains, aren’t listening -  let alone communicating with customers.

Review the old minutes and annual reports from Commuter Council over the past decade and you’ll see that nothing has changed.  The complaints are the same, but the lip-service from Metro-North and CDOT is always a consistent “we’ll get back to you”, though they never do.  Commuter complaints fall into some black hole at MTA headquarters. 

If Metro-North were a private, for-profit business there would have been massive changes in management after the debacles of deferred maintenance leading to last May’s derailment / collision and the Con Ed meltdown.  But Metro-North is a monopoly in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation with the CDOT. The little that is communicated to riders lacks candor and transparency.

What we need to do is give greater voice to commuters’ anger.  We need a “Commuter Action Group” that can directly connect commuters with lawmakers, the railroad and the CDOT, showing them the true level of frustration of daily riders.  That’s what I hope to build and if you’re interested in helping, please e-mail me (Jim@MediaTrainer.TV) and add your Comments below.

We deserve a world-class railroad and together we can still make it happen.

November 08, 2013

"Slow Orders" for Metro-North

No, it’s not your imagination.  Service is getting even worse on Metro-North. And there’s no sign of short-term improvements.
This has been a terrible year for Metro-North and its 120,000 daily riders in Connecticut:  the May derailment / collision, the death of a track worker and the September “meltdown” because of a failed Con Ed feeder.  But the repercussions of these problems still affect us, months later.
Trains are late on a daily basis, even after the railroad adjusted the timetable in August to reflect longer running times.  What used to be a 48 minute ride from Stamford to GCT is now scheduled for 55 to 60 minutes.  But in reality, with delays, it takes more than an hour most days.
Why?  Because of “slow orders”.
After the May derailments, Metro-North brought in some high-tech rail scanning equipment and checked out every inch of track in the system.  Of immediate concern were the below-grade tracks in the Bronx, long subject to flooding.
Concrete ties installed between 1990 and ’96 needed to be replaced due to deterioration.  Ties and fencing were also replaced in a job so large that, at times, three of the four tracks were taken out of service.
Admittedly, it’s hard to run the busiest commuter railroad in the US with 75% of your tracks out of service, but the work was necessary and commuters were asked to be patient.  At last report, the Bronx work was 80% completed.
So that means train schedules will soon return to “normal”?  Sorry, but no.
It turns out that the Bronx is just one of the causes of the current delays, something Metro-North didn’t tell us.
With new timetables coming out on November 17th, some train runs may be improved by a minute (yes, 60 seconds), at best. It seems that all those high-tech track inspections since May turned up many spots where work is needed.  And until that work can be completed, the trains running over those tracks are operating under system-wide “slow orders”, in effect cutting their speeds from 85 or 90 mph to an average of 60 mph.  Don’t believe me?  Fire up your smart phone’s GPS next ride and see for yourself.
The railroad still blames daily delays on the work in the Bronx and wet leaves, but the truth is far worse.  At recent NTSB hearings on the May derailment, Metro-North admitted they are far behind on track maintenance, inspections and repairs in Connecticut but couldn’t explain why.  Until the tracks are fixed, trains won’t be allowed to run at full speed.
One thing they did acknowledge to investigators is that they don’t have the experienced staff to do the needed welding and repair work, having lost so many veteran workers in recent months to retirement.
The slow orders make sense.  Safety should always come first.  But why can’t railroad executives be honest with us about why we are suffering with these delays, how long they will last and what they are doing to minimize the disruption to our daily commutes?  Remember:  winter is coming, adding another layer of misery and delays to our commutes.

Sadly, my mantra from five years ago has proven correct:  Things are going to get a lot worse on Metro-North before they get better.

October 12, 2013

Ferry Boats Aren't the Answer

During the recent Metro-North meltdown, at least one coastal community (Darien) thought about using ferry boats to get commuters to NYC.  Interesting idea in a crisis, but let me debunk the popular myth that the solution 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, adding to travel time.
DOCKING:    To keep to their 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 travel time.

FREQUENCY:         Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour carrying 800 – 1000 passengers per train.  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 Nor’easter?  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 proved so expensive that the Pequot’s dry-docked the ferries in New London.
COMPETITION:      When private operators ran ferry service from Glen Cove Long Island and from Yonkers to midtown NY, paralleling routes well served by the LIRR and Metro-North, they shut down after just a few months because they couldn’t compete with the trains.  Coastal Connecticut already has (usually) fast, efficient rail service, so why duplicate what already works?
ECONOMICS:         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 operating, 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 in our future. 


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...