April 27, 2019

"Getting There" - New Timetable, Slower Trains

Rail commuters on Metro-North got a Spring Surprise recently:  a new timetable with slower running times.  Rush hour trains now leave earlier and arrive later than before, adding anywhere from one to ten minutes to published running times, depending on the length of the trip.

But hey!  What happened to that 30-30-30 plan for faster trains?  Why are the trains running slower, not faster?  In a word:  repairs.

There is so much track work to be done this summer there’s no way that Metro-North can maintain its old schedule. In fact, the on-time performance stats from last summer’s construction hit a record low, sometimes hitting just 82%.  Put another way… the new Spring timetable more accurately reflects the speed of service the railroad can actually deliver, not the service it would like to deliver.

So instead of trains running late, they’ll be on time and the schedule will be more reliable, if slower.

All of this timetable adjusting has been in the works since last fall, though the railroad clearly could have done a better job explaining the whys and hows of the changes.  Big projects like the Atlantic Street bridge replacement in Stamford and the Walk Bridge project in Norwalk are taking one, and in some cases, two tracks out of service.

Necessary “undercutting”, removing years of accumulated rock ballast under rail ties, can take out a track for weeks at a time.  And all four running tracks will eventually need that undercutting work.

That leaves the railroad trying to run a four-track service with a 25 – 50% reduction in resources.  And that, as their computer simulations have shown, means slower service. And all of this assumes nothing else goes wrong.

If there’s an unexpected broken rail, a signal problem or power issue, the railroad will jump on repairs immediately -  causing other delays on top of the planned work.  In other words, it’s going to be a long summer, folks.

And this is just the beginning.  One industry insider tells me these mega-repair projects will continue for about five years, meaning these slower running times will be the new normal.

And the farther east you live on the New Haven line, the greater the impact of the slower trains.  Take Bridgeport, for example.

The current best running time from Bridgeport to Grand Central is one hour and 22 minutes.  Under the new timetable it will be one hour and 29 minutes.  But in 1963 the old New Haven RR could make the run in one hour and 14 minutes.

Why?  Because the original New Haven RR was well maintained.  Today the railroad is 56 years older and not aging well.  The signal system is well past its life expectancy (and can handle speeds no faster than 70 mph).  The overhead power lines (catenary) still dates from the times of Woodrow Wilson in some areas.  And the tracks, as we know are prone to cracking and expansion in the summer heat.

Safety should always be the top priority.  Remember the Bridgeport derailment and Spuyten Duyvil crash?  So if your trains take a few more minutes to get you to work, be grateful:  at least you got there safely.  I’d always prefer to arrive alive, wouldn’t you?

Things will get better.  Maybe not 30-30-30, but better… eventually.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 21, 2019

"Getting There" - Your Turn to Share The Heat

 As I hope you can tell, I love writing this column.  As New York Times columnist Thom Friedman once said, a commentator should be both in the heating business and the lighting business… getting people fired up while providing factual support for his arguments.

Well, the “heat” runs both ways, as the comments I receive each week constantly remind me. For reasons best known to my bosses at Hearst, anonymous comments are allowed to be posted on the website version of my column.    Here are a few recent love notes from your fellow readers:

When I wrote recently about the power failures on Metro-North, cantchangestupid  wrote  “I sure hope a thorough investigation gets done on why those transformers failed. I see sabotage as the democratic conclusion.”  Gee.  And I thought I was cynical.

Or how about this gem from StaggerLee:  “Am I the only one who thinks Jim Cameron is a Useful Id-yot put out there to enable the spendthrift DemocRATs doing their best to drive the state's economy into the ground?”  You’re not alone StaggerLee.  Your colorfully named (yet anonymous) friends say that a lot, though it is not true.

On the recently approved “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund, NotMyProblem opined:  “The current Gov already figured out how to get around the lockbox by simply diverting funds before they made it into the lockbox.”  That’s true, as I pointed out in a recent column.

On Twitter rpm4Liberty noted that Metro-North fares, though the highest of any commuter railroad in the US, don’t cover the operating costs but require a state subsidy.  He noted: “my truck starts every morning when I want it to, and I don’t need roads.”  Wow… a flying truck?

And Grizzly Beer Bear adds: “So is it wrong (to ask) the people who use this 18th century form of transportation to pay for it?  For that money you could BUY A CAR and not steal money from people who will NEVER use the rail service.”  Obviously Mr Bear enjoys driving in bumper to bumper traffic and wants to add to it by pricing rail riders off trains and back into their cars. 

For April Fools’ Day I tweeted a picture of a railroad dome car, soon to be added to Metro-North service, noting that the ride may not be fast but it sure would be scenic.  A few followers thought the news was true, but one guy who got the joke commented “When the train derails from lack of PTC you're already halfway outside!”

Much of the email I get is commuters just asking for help:  where to complain about late trains, how to report uncollected tickets on a crowded train or asking about the lack of station parking.  I’m always glad to direct people where to get answers.

Having been at this commuter advocacy mission for awhile, I occasionally even get a note of thanks.  Christian N recently emailed me that his commute never seems to improve, adding “I am losing all hope. But thanks for your advocacy.  You deserve to go to heaven.”
That final train ride, I answered, would probably be on a local train, running late, but oh so scenic.

Keep your letters and Tweets coming my way:  CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com and @CTRailcommuters.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 14, 2019

"Getting There" - Tolls Are In Trouble

Governor Lamont’s tolling plan is in trouble.  I knew it lwhen I got a call from Dan Malloy.

The former Governor and I know each other going back to his days as Mayor of Stamford, but he’s only called me once before (many years ago when he sought my endorsement in his run for a second term as Governor).

This time he was calling about my recent column about the Transportation Strategy Board, the panel that 18 years ago was tasked with prioritizing our state’s transportation needs and how to pay for them.

It wasn’t my fawning over then-TSB Chairman Oz Griebel that prompted Malloy’s recent call, but instead my characterization of the “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund as having, to quote one wag, “more back doors than a hot-sheets motel on the Berlin Turnpike”.  The Wag’s words, not mine.

“That comment was not helpful, Jim” said Malloy.  “We’re just trying to get this tolls idea across the finish line and your comments aren’t helping.”

That’s when I knew that the tolls plan is in real trouble. (Why is he calling me, of all people?)  Not that there weren’t earlier warning signs that trouble was brewing.

The first was Governor Lamont’s somersaults on tolling from being in favor, then promising trucks-only tolling and finally settling (again) on tolling all vehicles.  Voters felt betrayed.

Then Lamont pulled millions in car sales taxes from the STF, potentially bankrupting the transportation fund by 2022.

Those moves gave grassroots No-Tolls groups new-found fertile soil, picketing and tapping into the media’s love of controversy by offering up great photo ops.

Sure, the Republicans helped fan the flames with their so-called “information sessions” in local communities, providing a forum to attack Lamont and tolls while resurrecting their “Prioritize Progress” bonding plan, asking our grandkids to pay for the roads and rails we use today.

Then there were the “no tolls votes” in local communities, non-binding of course, but a clear indication of local sentiment.  Even Stamford’s Board of Reps voted against tolls.  Polling by Sacred Heart University, though perhaps poorly worded, showed 59% of respondents were against tolling.

But wait.  Where are the pro-toll voices?

Well a coalition of Hartford lobbyists did try to organize an expensive campaign to support Lamont’s tolling vision, seeking money from construction companies and consultants who’d make a lot of money if tolls were approved.  But a reporter somehow got hold of their pitch book, detailing the campaign, and it now seems dead in the water.  Talk about “not helpful”.

Now, Governor Lamont is on a Magical Misery Tour, holding press events at every crumbling bridge, viaduct and train platform in the state.  Against those backdrops he pitches the need for billions in funding achievable only, he says, through tolling.

In the last couple of months Metro-North has had two major power meltdowns as circuit breakers, transformers and sub-stations have failed, slowing trains and disrupting service.  Commuters take such crises in stride knowing full well they’re riding in shiny new railcars on a century-old railroad crumbling beneath them.

But people upstate could care less.  It’s not their problem, so why should they pay tolls or support mass transit?

Cynicism abounds that toll revenues would really be spent on transportation and not get diverted.  Nobody trusts Hartford.

Tolls, my friends, are in trouble.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 08, 2019

"Getting There" - Boxcar: A new app for commuter parking

How can you get people to commute by train if they can’t get to the train station?

Oh, those two-wheeled, buff millennials would have us believe we should all bike our way from home to the train.  But not all of us are that athletic or inclined to take our lives in our hands wheeling through traffic and bad weather. 

No, the real solution (at least for now) is car-parking.  But with a parking permit wait list of up to seven years in many communities, shouldn’t towns be thinking of building new expensive, decked parking lots?  Maybe.  But not until they’ve made sure they’re maximizing use of all existing parking opportunities.

That’s where Boxcar comes in.  Yes, when it comes to rail station parking, there’s an app for that.

Boxcar bills itself as an “Air B&B for parking”.  It matches would-be parkers with private landowners who have available parking spaces near train stations.

Launched in Cranford NJ in 2017, Boxcar is the brainchild of 34-year-old Joe Colangelo who grew up in that town.  Cranford’s a typical commuter town about an hour by train from NYC.  And like most such towns, it’s always had about a three-year waiting list for station parking permits.  After graduating from UC Berkeley and serving in the Navy in Afghanistan, Colangelo returned to Cranford and found, decades later, it still had a three-year waiting list.

But he also noticed a lot of empty parking spots at nearby churches and funeral homes.  Why couldn’t they be used by commuters, earning the landowners some money and the commuters new access to mass transit.  Thus, his app was born.

Boxcar’s app allows a user to see where available parking is, reserve it up to 14 days in advance and pay for it all online.  Spaces average about $6 a day with 75% of that  going to the landowner and 25% to Boxcar.  The closer the parking space is to the station, the higher the rate.

Boxcar’s first parking space was Joe’s own driveway.  Today the app is in use in 25 New Jersey towns and is making inroads in Connecticut.  They’ve been operating in New Canaan since 2018 and have just launched a pilot program in Darien.  After just two years in operation, Joe’s four-employee company is already profitable.

Colangelo says “there’s a high cost to free parking”, especially when towns (or the CDOT) are considering major capital investments in new parking structures.  Colangelo says in 10 or 20 years, parking lots will be empty and we’ll all be shuttling around in autonomous vehicles.  “Boxcar is a bridge to the future,” he says.

Boxcar is also finding applications in a different kind of “time sharing”… office space.  With so many people working from home or on the road, there’s no reason to go into NYC “to the office”.  But sometimes you do need a desk and a place to meet clients.  So Boxcar can find you both.

“The average commuter only makes 3.5 trips into the city each week,” says Colangelo.  But working with nearby co-working spaces and law offices, that virtual worker can easily snare a desk or meeting room for a few hours. 

With big cities like Stamford enjoying a 28% office vacancy rate, imagine the possibilities.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


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