June 27, 2020

"Getting There" - What Does On-Time Really Mean?

You’re on a Metro-North train headed for Grand Central, nervously looking at your watch.  “Will we be on time?  Will I be late for the meeting?” you ask yourself as you pass 125th Street, usually just 11 minutes from the final stop.

Then, you hit congestion and the train crawls through the Park Avenue tunnel, stopping and starting.  You’re going to be late, and sure enough your train pulls onto the lower level platform five minutes after the scheduled arrival time.

But technically, your train is not late.  It’s on time.

How?  Why?  What feat of magic does Metro-North use to claim that train isn’t late?  Well, it’s just S.O.P.:  standard operating practice.

If a train arrives within 5 minutes and 59 seconds of its schedule, Metro-North… and most other North American railroads… consider it to be “on time”. 

Given a running time to GCT from CT of anywhere from 57 minutes (from Stamford)  to 2+ hours (from New Haven), a 5:59 margin of error is worth 5 – 10% on an average trip.  Wouldn’t we all like to be given that kind of margin of error in evaluating our work?

But Metro-North looks like a Swiss timepiece for OTP compared to Amtrak. Their standards for “on time” vary with the length of the trip:  up to 250 miles, the railroad gets a 10 min leeway.  But on longer runs, say from Chicago to California, their trains get a 30 minute leeway.

Trust me, land-cruises on trains like the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief are almost never, ever on time, even with a heavily padded schedule.  In June 2019 the Sunset Ltd from LA to New Orleans was on time less than 10% of the time.

It’s not uncommon for long distance to trains to arrive hours, even days, late due to weather, freight traffic or track conditions.  Quite justifiably, Amtrak passes the blame for these delays to the freight railroads over which all trains outside of the Northeast must run.

There have been major court cases about what priority the “host (freight) railroad” must give Amtrak’s trains, and so far the nation’s passenger railroad has come out on the losing end as the freight operators prioritize lucrative cargo over grumbling humans.

But between Washington and Boston, Amtrak owns the tracks (except for the 56 mile Connecticut portion from Greenwich to New Haven) so they’re in much more control of their operations and won’t get stuck behind coal and oil trains.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to real railroading countries like Japan and Switzerland where you can set you watch, be it a Casio or Patek Philippe, by the trains’ arrival and departure.

Years ago I was at a small station in rural Switzerland waiting for a train to Zurich and was chatting, in my pretty-good French, with the platform conductor asking him if the train was going to be on time.  “But of course, monsieur” he said, “to the minute!”

I tried to explain to him about Metro-North and Amtrak’s margin of error and he just looked at me like I was crazy.  “That is not a railroad,” he said.  “This is an on-time railroad,” he proclaimed as my train arrived, to the second!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 19, 2020

"Getting There" - HOW SAFE IS THE TRAIN ?

As New York City businesses reopens it’s expected that one million people will get back to work, some of them from Connecticut.  But how they get to those jobs is the big question.

While I’ve written for weeks that I expect many Nutmeggers will opt first for their personal automobiles, the resulting traffic mess will soon have them reconsidering a return to Metro-North and the city’s subways.

The big issue, of course, is keeping everyone safe by maintaining social distancing and requiring face masks for all riders.

MORE TRAINS & SUBWAYS

Metro-North has already expanded rush hour service by 26% over their scaled-back “essential service” levels.  They’re also keeping 14 train sets strategically placed along the system to quickly add service if crowding occurs.  Railroad President Catherine Rinaldi says the new timetable coming out June 15th will further expand rush hour service.

The MTA’s 6400 subway trains and 4700 buses will be back to full service to minimize crowding.  Transit advocates are encouraging New York City to add more express bus lanes, minimizing travel times (and exposure) for passengers.

Fares are still being collected on all Metro-North trains, but only off-peak fares, even in rush hours.  But you must have a pre-bought ticket or smartphone no app… no cash is accepted.

On New York City buses, all boarding will be by rear doors, so no fares will be collected.

KEEPING IT CLEAN

For many weeks now the commuter trains, subways and buses have been undergoing daily disinfection as workers wipe down all surfaces, handrails and touch points.

The MTA’s new Innovation Officer, Mark Dowd, has also been experimenting with portable UV light systems to blast the virus from subway interiors.  It takes about 15 minutes to disinfect each train with the UV, meaning the entire fleet can be treated in a day.

After the UV treatment all surfaces are treated with a biocide coating which can kill the virus for days or weeks.   Dowd says if the system proves successful it will be brought to Metro-North by July.

Air filters on all trains and buses will be changed more frequently, but they aren’t fine enough to capture tiny airborne viruses.  So ventilation will be a major concern especially as ridership increases.  That’s why face masks are so important.

THE FACE MASK CULTURE

In crowded Japan commuters have worn face masks for over a century, some because they may be ill and, being considerate, don’t want to infect others.  It’s just part of their culture and will probably part of ours, going forward.

On Metro-North face masks have been required for several weeks.  On the city’s subways, 4000 volunteer MTA workers will be handing out face masks to those who don’t have them.  Hand sanitizer dispensers will be available throughout the system.
But even with a mask and sanitizer, keeping a safe six-feet from fellow passengers will be nearly impossible.  That’s why employers are being asked to stagger work hours, avoiding the arrive-by-9 and leave-at-5 crush. 

Will riders come back?  Metro-North President Rinaldi told me “it will take years, if ever” for ridership to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Is it safe to ride Metro-North?  I think so.  Properly masked and gloved, I wouldn’t hesitate to get back on the train.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media



June 16, 2020

"Getting There" - A Passport to the Suburbs

When COVID-19 hit us this spring, more than just our normal rail commuting patterns were disrupted.  One young entrepreneur’s business simply imploded… but now he’s coming back, stronger than before.

Joe Colangelo is founder and CEO of Boxcar, the NJ-based company that bills itself as the “Air B&B of parking,” matching commuters with empty parking spots near train stations in Stamford, Darien, New Canaan and Stratford.  Before COVID-19 his business was red hot.  But by early March he knew it was doomed as people stopped commuting and demand for parking evaporated.

“We’re lucky our business fell 100%,” he told me.  “It forced us to try new things. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I can figure out what people need.”

And what they needed by mid-March was food.  So Boxcar partnered with local produce distributors that were hurting because their restaurant clients were shut down, and developed a contact-less food box drive-thru service.  For $50 you could drive to a local parking lot, pop your trunk and have a big box of fruits, veg, milk and eggs placed in your trunk.

Boxcar is now doing 1000 food boxes a week in six NJ counties and gaining hundreds of new subscribers, building their database.  They’ve recently added fresh oysters from the Hamptons, do-it-yourself pizza kits and even Mother’s Day cupcakes made by a local baker who’d otherwise lost his business.

Now other service industries are asking Boxcar to market their work, like at-your- home car detailing and landscaping.

“They handle their expertise and we do what we do best, the tech and the customer service,” says Colangelo.

His latest family-friendly offering is drive-in movies.  Even before New Jersey’s governor had allowed them, Colangelo used his municipal contacts to develop a plan so when the state said “OK”, he sold out his bookings in one hour.

Boxcar hires the AV company to set up their gear.  The $25 per car is split 50-50 with the movie studio, and up to 200 families get to enjoy a “night out.”  So successful has his plan been that 70 towns in the tri-state area are asking him to bring the drive-in concept to their residents.

During all of this business transition Boxcar hasn’t had a single layoff.  In fact, they’ve added staff, given everyone a raise and are still profitable.

“Expanding beyond commuter parking was always part of my long-term plan,” says the former US Navy officer turned Booz Allen Hamilton consultant.  So in a way, he’s grateful that the pandemic accelerated his plans.

“What I’m looking for is points of friction.  People are leaving the city for the suburbs, but that comes with challenges,” he says.  “That’s what we want to help them solve.  We see Boxcar as a ‘passport to the suburbs’.”

Colangelo still has hope for his commuting clientele.  He’s getting a lot of requests now from Fortune 500 companies seeking van pools for their city-bound employees, not just to avoid mass transit but for safety and contact tracing.

“Our software knows exactly who is on every van every day.  So if anyone gets sick, we can immediately notify everyone they came in contact with.  You can’t do that on mass transit,” says Colangelo.

“I’m desperate for a reason to be bullish on mass transit,” he laments.  “But right now I just don’t see any.”

Nor do I, Joe.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 05, 2020

"Getting There" - Twenty Year Telecommuter

Joe Connolly has been a telecommuter for 20 years.

You probably know him from his award winning business reports on WCBS Newsradio 880 or his Small Business Breakfasts held annually in Stamford.  But you might not realize that Connolly lives not in New York City but in eastern Connecticut.

He’s up and working weekdays by 4:30 am, driving first to pick up a print copy of the Wall Street Journal before heading to his office /  broadcast studio near his home, where he seldom opens the window-blinds.  “I’m here to work,” he says, “not for the view.”

In his broadcast booth he has a big painting of the New York City skyline to keep him connected with his radio audience.  “I look at one window in one building and think about talking to one listener,” he says.  “I may not be in New York, but I’m there mentally.”

Several of Connolly’s news-anchor colleagues at WCBS are also working from home in Connecticut since COVID-19 hit town, including Paul Murnane.

When he joined WCBS Connolly chose not to live in New York, having been there before. (Full disclosure: Connolly and I used to work together decades back at the RKO Radio networks.)  An understanding boss at CBS told him he didn’t need to be in New York to broadcast from there, thanks to technology.

Not wasting time or money with a daily trek to midtown Manhattan, Connolly, like others more recently, says he “can’t believe how much money he’s saving” or how much better use he makes of his time.  Though he’s just a five minute stroll from his home he knows his city listeners may be stuck in traffic, so he tries to commiserate.
But after the financial crash of 2008 he realized he couldn’t play radio hermit full time and started going back into the Big Apple, at least occasionally. “It was a story I couldn’t cover from a distance,” he says.

“The smartest people in the largest numbers are right there,” he says.  And he enjoys the energy and vitality of going to New York a few days a week, even for a change of scenery.  “I don’t need to go to a Caribbean beach,” he jokes.

In the pre-COVID days Connolly found a “commuter share” pied-a-terre on Craigslist, what he describes as “something like a pilot’s crash pad”, not far from CBS headquarters.  Of the three residents, only one is full time.  But when Connolly tells his family he’s going “into the city” for an overnight, he’s usually not home for two or three days.

“One idea leads to another,” he says, going from meeting to business mixer to seminar.  He even relishes dining alone in New York City restaurants where he can eavesdrop on conversations, listening to what news stories are ripe for discussion.
 But now the tables have turned:   Connolly’s eastern Connecticut is recently being invaded by hundreds of New Yorkers flee the city, either for a summer rental or full time.  And he says the locals don’t like it.

“The Old Yankees out here remind me that many folks here live on land granted their ancestors by the King and they’re not crazy about families with kids moving to town to drive up their taxes.”

But Connolly says he’s staying put and looking forward to getting back to his New York “crash pad” when things return to normal.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


BUILDING GREAT (AND REALLY EXPENSIVE) THINGS

Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open.  When it’s fully operation...