October 30, 2021

SAVING MONEY ON METRO-NORTH

Are you paying too much to ride Metro-North?  Maybe.

As we slowly return to semi-regular commuting by commuter rail in Connecticut, ridership on Metro-North is about half of pre-COVID levels.

But however often you’re taking the train these days, here are some money saving tips. 

First tip:  always buy your ticket before boarding the train.  Conductors can charge you a hefty on-board surcharge up to $6.50 (but not for seniors) if you don’t have a ticket.  That’s a rookie mistake you’ll only make once.


If you buy your ticket on the
eTix app, be sure to activate your ticket before boarding the train, not when the conductor comes to collect your fare. 

OFF-PEAK only fares remain in effect on all trains, even at rush hour, through the end of this year.  Yet the railroad is still selling peak tickets, both on its eTix app and its ticket machines. Why?

The railroad says it’s had trouble reprogramming their 20-year-old ticket machines and app so they’ve been relying on a PR campaign to alert travelers not to buy peak tickets.  I think they’d hoped to get back to peak fares long ago but now realize that’s not going to happen.

If you know you’re going to be riding regularly, buy a TEN-TRIP OFF-PEAK and you’ll save 15%.  Mind you, these ten-trips are only good for six months but they can be shared, say, with your family.

There are also TEN-TRIP OFF-PEAK tickets for seniors, Medicare recipients and the disabled.  All fares for those passengers are already discounted 50%, a substantial savings.

Chances are good that Metro-North may start selling 20 or 30-trip tickets in the new year, reflecting the new reality that workers may not be commuting full time but still want a discount.

Active duty members of the military can also get a 25% fare break.  And students using the train to commute can also get a discount if they file the paperwork.  Students attending most Connecticut colleges and universities can also take advantage of U-Pass giving them free rides on buses and trains, but only within the state.

If you’re going between intermediate stations, say from Bridgeport to Stamford, there are also discounted fares, especially cheap if you’re only traveling within Connecticut.

If you’re really back to full-time commuting, a MONTHLY TICKET is your best bet… a 48% discount on the regular fares.  Monthly pass sales used to represent almost half of all ticket income (pre-COVID) but they’re only back to about 17% of previous levels.  One nice bonus for monthly ticket holders:  through November 21st you can bring up to four other passengers with you on weekends for only $1 each.

Need a refund for your unused ticket?  That will cost you $10 and must be requested within 60 days of purchase.

You should also check to see if your employer offers TransitChek where you can buy up to $270 worth of train tickets using pre-tax dollars, a substantial discount depending on your tax bracket.

Station parking can be expensive but is free at most stations on nights and weekends.  Check with your town to be sure.

Whatever your train riding pattern, do your homework and you’ll save yourself some money.  And, oh yes… don’t forget to wear a mask!

October 25, 2021

Door to Door Train Service

Imagine this:  using an app to book a car, a train ride and another car to your destination in one step.  Such a service has just been announced by the innovative Brightline rail service in south Florida.

It’s the “last mile” that’s always been a challenge for would-be rail riders.  Assuming you can get to your “home” train station (maybe if you’ve waited 5+ years for a parking permit), when you get off the train in an unknown town, how do you get to your final destination?

Visit the smallest town in Europe and on arrival at the train station there will be a map to help you orient yourself.  In Connecticut, no such thing.

Is there a bus?  Do I have to order an Uber or take a taxi?  And exactly where is my destination in relation to the station?

I used to scratch my head watching business people from NYC arrive on Metro-North at Stamford for business meetings and wait for a taxi to take them a quarter mile to UBS or Purdue Pharma, both within easy walking distance of the station.  Were there a local map in the station to consult they’d have saved the cab ride, a few bucks and get some exercise.

If you’re headed to Grand Central there are plenty of maps, buses, subways, Citibikes and such.  But if you’re heading to downtown Greenwich, Stamford or Bridgeport, good luck.  That’s why people drive.  The train is too much of a hassle.


And that’s why Metro-North and CDOT could learn a lot from Florida’s Brightline, the sassy for-profit private railroad coming back into service after a COVID pause.  Brightline runs from Miami to West Palm Beach and soon on to Orlando and maybe even Tampa.  Their hourly trains are sparkling clean and their fares super cheap.   Imagine that:  a commuter railroad running along I-95 trying to lure passengers off the crowded highway.  Sound familiar?

Here’s how the new Brightline system works:

If you’re anywhere along their line, you fire up their app and book your train ticket.  Then you can add transportation to the train station… a fleet of “Teslas, shuttles and electric golf carts that will pick you up where you are and take you to the train station, then take you to your final destination,” Brightline’s President tells a local Florida newspaper.

This is brilliant… offering seamless transportation, door-to-door.  Brightline is thinking like the customer, not just a railroad.

In Connecticut ride sharing services like Uber told me awhile back that something like 30% of all their business is short trips to and from local train stations.

Some progressive towns like Norwalk and Westport offer on-demand micro-transit options like Wheels2U, but they’re not tied into the train schedule:  helpful but not seamless.

I hope that Brightline’s tech partner IoMob, which pioneered this service in Europe, can get Metro-North’s attention and bring this service to Connecticut.  The railroad has to see itself as part of a transportation network and make train riding as easy as it is safe and convenient.


October 16, 2021

CARS vs PEOPLE

A friend of mine got hit be a car last week, walking on Norton Avenue.  He’s OK, but could have been killed.

 

Speeding on our roads is linked to over 38,000 deaths each year in the US.  That’s almost 730 deaths a week… 100 a day.

 

If a hundred people die in a plane crash, we go nuts.  (Never mind that COVID deaths average about 1400 per day).  But if they die on our roads we see it as the cost of doing business.  As one blogger put it… “it’s high time to stop sacrificing safety on the altar of speed”.

 

Just listen to I-95 or the Merritt Parkway at night.  They sound like a raceway.

 

Too many of those 38,000 deaths are pedestrians or bicyclists.  And tens of thousands of those fatalities are caused by distracted driving, drink or drugs or fatigue. 

 

Federal statistics show if you’re hit by a vehicle going 20 mph you have a 90% chance of surviving.  But if the car or truck is going at 40 miles an hour your survival chances are just 10%.  Speed kills.  So why are we all driving so fast?

 

Because we have so far to travel and want to save time getting there.  In Connecticut, our homes and our work are far apart because we can’t afford (or don’t chose) to live closer to our jobs.  And either because we don’t want to (or chose not to), we don’t take mass transit, preferring the cocoon of our cars.

 

Sure, seat belts in cars save lives… if you wear them.  And air bags and other tech in cars are helping us avoid many accidents. But the death toll keeps climbing, especially where cars occupy the same driving space as bikes and pedestrians.

 

Consider New York City.

 

In 1990 there were 700 traffic deaths in NYC.  But by 2018 that number had dropped to 202, thanks to “Vision Zero”, Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious, billion dollar plan to reduce road deaths to zero by 2024.  But more bike lanes, sidewalks and a 25 mph city-wide speed limit have, of late, made little difference.  This year saw an uptick in deaths, most of them involving bicyclists driving on city streets that lack bike lanes. And on average one pedestrian dies in NYC every three days.

 

Advocates blame increased speeding and lack of enforcement.

 

In Connecticut we have nowhere near the same density of urban traffic fighting for space with folks on two feet or two wheels, but neither do we have sidewalks in many towns.  Or bike lanes.  But we do have speeders, scofflaws and insufficient enforcement.

 

When it’s not crawling bumper-to-bumper, try driving 55 mph on the Merritt, I-95 or I-84 and see what happens.  As a CT State Trooper once told me as we cruised along at about 75 mph with the flow of traffic, “I look for the driver likely to cause an accident” by weaving or not signaling lane changes.  Even those enforcing our laws admit they don’t or can’t keep up with motorists’ need for speed.

 

Even when the cops do look for speeders, legal radar detectors and laser-jammers help violators avoid getting caught.  Attempts to install red-light cameras in Connecticut have always failed due to a combination of Big Brother paranoia and fears of the safety tech being turned into an unending revenue spigot for Towns and cities.

 

Weather conditions of course exacerbate the problem, especially with those driving the tanks we call SUVs who think they are immune to the laws of physics.

 

Bottom line:  can’t we all just chill out a bit and think of the safety of others if not ourselves?

 


October 09, 2021

VERMONT BY TRAIN

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.

From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas roundtrip.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much faster and will set you back about $250.

But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.

There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:

THE VERMONTER:          Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT (right next to Burlington), coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.

It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer MA has been eliminated with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.

The newly refurbished Amfleet seats in coach are comfy. There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great… and there’s even free WiFi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.  And the views of fall foliage can’t be beat.

And remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.

THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:            If you’re heading to Rutland VT on the western side of the state, this is your train. Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 8 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.  There’s even a bus connection to Killington.

For Connecticut residents, the best strategy is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.  And maybe from there to Montreal.

It offers the same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free WiFi.

THE ADIRONDACK:         This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it used to get you close… if you didn’t mind a ferry boat ride.  It’s not running again (yet) due to COVID, but there are hopes for its return before the new year.

It offered the same kind of seating, WiFi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Alas, no poutine on the AmMenu.  And until a few years ago they even ran a special dome car several days a week for the gorgeous scenery north of Albany.

 Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $69 one-way and kids are half-price.  

 

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can

be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak… the “green” way to travel.


October 05, 2021

Five Worst Ideas for Fixing Traffic

Have you noticed how terrible our traffic is lately?

Not just in comparison to the empty roads and blue skies during the pandemic lockdown, but even compared to pre-COVID times.

The rush hour on I-95 starts earlier and runs later, pretty much all day long.  The increased volume is due in large part to the return to the office but by car, not mass transit (where ridership is still only 50% of the good old days).

If there were easy answers to this congestion, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look… this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (space on those roads).   

But here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic I’ve heard suggested over the years:

1)    DOUBLE-DECK I-95:        Seriously, this was once proposed by the Stamford Chamber of Commerce.  Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with “upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing overpasses?

2)    ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY:       There are two words to explain why this can’t happen:  low bridges.

3)    BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95:          Trucks are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.  No trucks, no goods, no shopping.

4)    DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN LANE: This was then-Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars studying it.  But if you think of that far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane” you’ll see why this doesn’t make sense.  This plan would also require re-striping existing traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more dangerous.

5)    WIDENING I-95:       Again, billions in cost and decades of construction.  And if you build it, they will come.  Traffic will expand to fill available space.  Then what, a fifth lane?

I think there are better ideas for managing traffic congestion, some of them already being implemented:

OPERATIONAL LANES:     Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway without blocking the through-lanes.

WIDENING CHOKE-POINTS:      For example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.  But this $42 million construction project, discussed since 2002, took almost five years to get built.

ADD A ZIPPER LANE:      Sure, this may require highway widening, but just one lane that’s reversible depending on demand, a system used effectively on the Tappan Zee Bridge before it was rebuilt.    

CHANGE COMMUTING HOURS:       Does everyone really need to work 9 am – 5 pm?  How about starting earlier or later and spreading out the traffic?  Your employer should understand and you’ll be happier and more productive.

As I say, there are no simple solutions to highway congestion.   It’s easy to identify the problems.  But fixing them will always be expensive.

 

WHY IS THERE STILL NO WI-FI ON METRO-NORTH?

  Airplanes have Wi-Fi.   Even Connecticut’s   CTfastrak commuter bus system  from New Britain to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi. ...