December 30, 2022

BRING BACK THE QUIET CARS

It’s time for Metro-North to bring back the Quiet Cars.

Canceled during the pandemic, the railroad has been dragging its heels in returning this important passenger amenity despite pleas from both passengers and rail advocates alike.

A little history:


The idea of dedicating one railcar on each train to a peaceful, cellphone-free, “library like” atmosphere originated on Amtrak in 2000 when daily commuters from Philadelphia to NYC made the suggestion.  The railroad embraced it and eventually rolled it out to all of their trains.

Best of all, Amtrak conductors enforced the rule, reminding offenders they should either comply or move to another car.  They once even chastised then-NJ Governor Chris Christie for yapping on his cellphone.  And on one overnight train from Oakland to Portland a woman was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct and kicked off the train for talking for 16 hours on her phone!

Quiet car violator de-trained, arrested.

As early as 2006 (while serving on the CT Rail Commuter Council) I asked Metro-North to follow Amtrak’s lead (and that of many other major commuter railroads) and add Quiet Cars to our trains.  They downright refused.

Finally, in 2011, Metro-North relented, offering to experiment with the idea.  Almost immediately it ran into problems… not because passengers didn’t want a little peace and quiet but because Metro-North conductors wouldn’t enforce the rules.


Sure, they made the occasional PA announcement and posted signs.  But when passengers started loud conversations on their phones and got icy stares from their fellow riders, conductors just looked the other way.

That’s strange.  Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules like showing tickets, banning smoking and luggage on the seats.  But in most cases, they did nothing to enforce this one simple rule:  Please keep quiet.

We saw the same thing happen during COVID when the TSA instituted federal rules about wearing face masks onboard:  no enforcement, so little or no compliance. 

Apparently, the conductors didn’t want to be confrontational.  But by looking the other way when they encountered scofflaws, that just lead to passengers confronting each other.  Is that what the railroad wanted?

During the pandemic the Quiet Cars just disappeared.  But now, when the railroad claims to be trying to entice passengers back on trains, they still refuse to return  this simple amenity to make rail riding more tolerable.

The Commuter Council has spoken up on behalf of riders by writing letters.  But CDOT said “talk to the railroad” though the railroad spent four months not even giving the Council the courtesy of a reply.

This time I hope Metro-North does two things:  bring back the Quiet Cars and enforce the rules. 

They used to tell us that “train time is your own time”… time to work, read a book or even take a nap.  But train time is really “shared time” with up to 100 other passengers on each car.  That’s why it’s called mass transit.

I think we’d all enjoy our commute a lot more if we showed consideration for our fellow riders.

December 24, 2022

REMEMBERING ROBERT MOSES

 

With the impending opening of the “new” Grand Central Madison rail station serving the LIRR, an important milestone in the region’s transportation history will be made.  And, in historical perspective, one man’s name comes to mind:  Robert Moses.

 

Awhile back when I gave a guest lecture to a group of urban planning graduate students at UCONN  I made reference in the class to Robert Moses and these planners of our future just gave me a blank stare.  “You do know who Robert Moses was, don’t you?” I asked.  They did not.  I was shocked.

Robert Moses

What kind of education were they receiving that they didn’t know the name of the single individual who so changed the NYC area’s transportation landscape in the last century.  

From the 1930’s to the 1960’s Moses directed the building of 416 miles of parkways (Long Island’s Northern & Southern State and Westchester’s Taconic, to name a few), many bridges (the Tri-Borough, Throgs Neck, Henry Hudson, Verrazano-Narrows as well as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel) and designed Jones Beach and the NY State Parks system.  He orchestrated two Worlds Fairs (1939 and 1964) and helped bring the UN’s headquarters to NYC.

 

Robert Moses’ grip on power came from appointment to 12 different job titles though he was never elected to public office.    Despite all this work he did nothing for mass transit.  He loved cars but didn’t really care for people who did not own them.

 

In locations where others had envisioned expanding the city’s subway lines, he built roads, displacing thousands of residents.  Robert Caro, author of the Pulitzer prize winning biography of Moses, “The Power Broker” even called Moses a racist, because he built motorways for the middle class while discouraging the car-less (people of color) from visiting Jones Beach by making the parkway bridges too low for buses.

Robert Caro

He opposed blacks moving into Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan development on the lower east side for veterans.  City swimming pools in black neighborhoods were kept cold to discourage blacks from using them.

 

Moses’ dĂ©nouement came when he tried to build the elevated, ten-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have connected the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge straight through Greenwich Village and Little Italy, evicting 2000 families and 800+ businesses.  “The Master Builder” called it “slum clearance”, but residents like Jane Jacobs (author of the “Death and Life of Great American Cities”) fought back and the city’s artistic heart was saved.

 

Proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway

Robert Moses was not an evil man but a product of his time.  Today, many hail his accomplishments and think we need a benevolent despot like him to get things done in transportation and urban planning, even if a few people get hurt along the way.  It’s all for the greater good, Moses once said:

 

"I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without moving people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs."

 

History will judge Moses… those he helped and those he hurt.   Love the omelet, forget about the eggs?  But for graduate students at UCONN to be unaware of this man, what he built and how, worries me greatly.  To paraphrase George Santayana:  those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

 

December 16, 2022

The NEW Grand Central

Almost 110 years after it first opened, Grand Central Terminal is getting a new addition:  Grand Central Madison.

First conceived in the 1950’s, this new station was built 14 stories under ground, deep in Manhattan bedrock.  It connects with new tunnels bored beneath Park Avenue

connecting to a double-deck tunnel at 63rd street (built in the 70’s) traveling under the East River and emerging in the Sunnyside rail yards in Queens.

I toured the construction site a decade ago, wading through the mud and muck, in a scene that almost defies description: four huge circular tunnels, two on top of two, emerged from a wall of solid stone into what would become the new station.  It looked like a scene out of a James Bond movie.


The “East Side Access” project ballooned in cost from an initial $3.5 billion to over $11 billion.  It was supposed to be completed by 2010 but… well, you know how these things go.

When it’s up and running (hopefully by the end of the year),  this new 350,000-sq-foot subterranean station will serve 162,000 Long Island Railroad passengers each day carried on 24 trains each hour, 20 hours a day.  Some Long Island commuters will reportedly save 40 minutes commuting time, not on the LIRR but by being closer to their jobs in the Grand Central area, saving the cross-town trek.

Nice, you say.  But what’s in it for Connecticut riders of Metro-North?

Well, more crowding on the already crowded Lexington Avenue subway, for one.  But this new station will also mean some New Haven line trains will be able to terminate, not at Grand Central, but Penn Station.


Penn Station is maxed out for trains… Amtrak, NJ Transit and the LIRR.  But now that many of those LIRR trains will end up at Grand  Central, that leaves room for some Metro-North New Haven line trains to go to the west side.

Connecticut trains heading to NYC either hang a right turn at New Rochelle to go to GCT or can now go straight, just as Amtrak does, continuing over the Hell Gate Bridge into Queens and then under the East River to  Penn Station.

And on that new route they’ll soon service four new train stations in The Bronx within one mile of a half-million transit-starved residents.  Again, nice for them, but what’s in it for us?  I mean, who wants to go to The Bronx?

The better question is… might not those Bronx residents want to look for work in Connecticut?  Yes, indeed they undoubtedly will.  And they’ll get there not by clogging I-95 but by catching a train.

PS:  Remember Governor Lamont and CDOT’s promise to cut Metro-North commuting times to NYC?  This is how they’re going to do it… because New Haven line trains running to Penn Station can actually get there faster than going to Grand Central, not by much, but enough to say “we did it”.

Yes, it’s years late and billions over budget, but this “new” Grand Central and its consequent changes to the region’s commuting patterns will make history.

 

 

December 09, 2022

GETTING READY FOR WINTER

 

Are you ready for winter?  Got your supply of salt and sand, the old snow shovel dusted off, the snow blower gassed up and ready for fun?

Well, the CDOT. our bus companies and commuter railroads are getting ready too.  But there are challenges ahead.

CDOT says it can’t find enough snow plow drivers to ‘man’ its 600 trucks.  But, as you know, they’ve been having recruitment problems for months now, competing against private employers who are paying more.  Right now CDOT needs at least 20 mechanics and 175 plow drivers.  Jobs pay as much as $39 an hour.


By the way… if you’re hired you might get to drive one of CDOT’s newly “named snowplows” like “Scoop Dogg”, "Plowzilla", "Buzz Iceclear", and "Husky McSalty".

But, as with the towns and cities that clear local streets, the plow drivers need your help too.  If you hear that snow is coming, get your car off the streets so the plows can do their thing.

On the bus routes, they’re also prepared.  But because they depend on the streets being cleared, riders are always advised to check bus company websites for updates and plan for possible delays or suspended service.

Bad road conditions are great for Metro-North and Shore Line East as must-get-there commuters opt for the rails.  And, to their credit, the railroad runs in all but blizzard like conditions… even when I-95 has been officially closed.


You can thank the railroad’s newer M8 railcars which have proven far more  reliable than the older cars in the fleet.  It used to be that Metro-North would shut down rather than have its older cars break down mid-trip, stranding passengers between stations like the Donner party (please BYO food and water).

And they always have the old diesel train sets which can run in almost any conditions, if needed.

Of course, getting to and from your home station is up to you.  But what happens if you get to the station and find its waiting room is locked? 

That’s what happened to me recently and, rather than seeing my fellow riders shivering in the cold on the platform waiting for a train, I took action.  An email query to our Police Department found that the waiting room was only scheduled to be open 5 am – 2:30 pm on weekdays and was closed on weekends!  What a great way to encourage ridership.


Mind you, it wasn’t Metro-North’s fault but my Town’s:  they’re responsible for the stations, not CDOT or Metro-North.  So the Police Department kicked my request for longer waiting room hours to the Public Works Department and they deferred to the Town Administrator. 

A direct email to our First Selectman, Monica McNally, brought immediate action and two days later the waiting rooms are now open ‘til 7 pm… on weekends too. Kudos to her!

Yes, friends, you can make commuting better for all if you take time to do more than just complain.

December 05, 2022

A FARE HIKE IS IN OUR FUTURE

 

There’s good news and bad news about mass transit fares.

The good news is that buses in Connecticut will remain free until the end of March 2023 as part of the “gas tax holiday” extension approved this week by the legislature. New Haven and Hartford city governments would like to see the free bus rides be made permanent, arguing that economically challenged residents deserve a break.  Cost to taxpayers:  $2.7 million a month.

But for rail riders (who never enjoyed such a deal), you can expect to see fares increase in the years to come.


CDOT tells the Commuter Rail Council that there are no plans “this year” for a fare hike.  And while Connecticut fares are set by the CDOT, not the MTA, what’s happening in New York City in the months ahead will doubtless be mirrored here.

The MTA, parent of Metro-North, the LIRR, city buses and subways, is facing a “fiscal cliff”.  Federal bailout money to tide the agency over during COVID was expected to last through 2024 but the agency now says those funds will run out before new funding sources (“congestion pricing”) will help fill the gap.  And even if that midtown Manhattan tolling scheme is approved, the proceeds can only be used for capital construction, not operating costs.

Nobody is expecting another federal bailout, especially with a Republican controlled congress.

Subway fares are expected to climb higher than $3 by 2025 and commuter rail fares will doubtless match those 5.5% bumps.


The reason is that ridership is not coming back as quickly as hoped (or forecast by consultant McKinsey)… just as I predicted almost two years ago in this column.

Weekday ridership on Metro-North has flatlined at about 70% of pre-COVID levels. Sure, some employers are telling staffers to “get back into the office”, but not five days a week, and not necessarily in Manhattan as many companies have since opened satellite offices in the ‘burbs.

Even pre-COVID when rush-hour trains were packed, every ride was subsidized… $3.25 on the main line and as much as $50 per passenger per ride on Shore Line East.  With ridership down 30%, do the math and you’ll see that the subsidies are unsustainable.

What will get riders back on the trains? Faster, more frequent service.  And they want to feel safe, especially on the city subways for the final leg of their commute.  But we hear on a daily basis of the safety concerns underground.

The MTA also admits they are losing a half billion dollars a year due to turnstile-jumping fare evaders… a half-billion!  The MTA is now dispatching armed guards to some subway stations.  Just wait ‘til some fare evader gets shot.  That will be a turning point for mass transit.

Uncollected tickets on Metro-North are also a problem though nobody is expecting armed confrontations.

If fares go up, will ridership go down?  And won’t that send mass transit into the feared “death spiral”, a repeating cycle of less revenue and further fare hikes?

 

November 25, 2022

A NEW COMMISSIONER AT CDOT

 

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) is getting a new Commissioner. After four years on the job, Joe Giulietti is retiring.


Giulietti has spent more than 50 years in transportation, starting as a brakeman and conductor on the old Penn Central RR while still a student at Southern CT State University.  He graduated to road foreman and then assistant manager for operating rules before joining the new Metro-North in 1983 as superintendent of transportation.

In 1998 he pulled up stakes and moved to Florida where, for 14 years, he ran the Tri-Rail commuter rail system.  Then Metro-North called him back to become President of the railroad from 2014 to 2017, when he retired after a health scare.

As he likes to tell the story, Giulietti got a cold call in 2018 from newly elected Governor Ned Lamont, beckoning him out of retirement (again) to become CDOT Commissioner, his “job of a lifetime”.

Joe G accomplished a lot in his tenure, delivering projects on-time and on-budget while being constantly pushed by his boss to speed up rail service to fulfill Lamont’s pipedream of “30-30-30” service.  The Commissioner also took one for the team, serving as front-man for Lamont’s unpopular tolls initiative, long since abandoned.

Insiders tell me Giulietti is heading south again to warmer climes, but I’m guessing he may resurface in some consulting role.  He knows too much to just sit on a beach.

The 70-year-old Giulietti’s successor is Garrett Eucalitto, his former Deputy Commissioner, a self-described “policy nerd”, not a railroad or highways guy.  Eucalitto, who’s in his 40’s, may be the perfect guy for the job because the challenge at CDOT has changed.

The task now is finding the money and the talent to execute on long-planned transportation improvements.  While Connecticut is getting $5.38 billion in federal funding, the new Commissioner has to match those funds with state money and compete with other states for $100 billion in additional funding for specific projects.

Eucalitto knows funding like Giulietti knew railroad switches.  The new Commissioner spent time at OPM, the state’s Office of Planning and Management, which controls the budget purse strings.  And he worked for the National Governor’s Association, turning transportation wishes into funding realities.

But finding the money is only half the battle that Eucalitto will face.  He also needs to find talent to execute on the plans.  After years of attrition under the Malloy administration, CDOT still has 700 unfilled jobs.

Eucalitto says the agency is attending jobs fairs and scouring the region for engineers.  The CDOT is even having trouble hiring truck drivers, competing as it must with the private sector.

Eucalitto inherits an agency with a strong direction and good momentum.  The all-important Special Transportation Fund (STF) which subsidizes these projects is coming back from life-support, the current “gas tax holiday” notwithstanding.

Asked if tolls were back on the table as a funding source for the STF, Eucalitto said “No… but…”.  In 20 years when we’re all driving electric vehicles, a tax on petroleum products to pay for transportation will be an odd footnote in history.

November 17, 2022

AMTRAK'S STRUGGLES

This week will be the busiest of the year for Amtrak as hundreds of thousands of Americans depend on the nation’s passenger railroad to get them to and from their Thanksgiving plans.

If you don’t have train reservations by now, good luck.  Every seat on every train will probably be taken, especially in the heavily traveled Northeast corridor and the New Haven to Springfield (and points north) service.  You should anticipate delays and maybe even standing-room-only conditions. (By the way… only folding bicycles are allowed on Amtrak this holiday week.)


The question is why.  Why can’t Amtrak add more cars to its trains to carry the extra loads, earn some badly needed revenue and help people make their holiday journey?  The answer:  bad management.

When COVID hit, Metro-North decided to not lay off engineers and conductors, a costly but prescient decision.  But when ridership returned, they were ready, adding trains and serving passengers.  Capacity wasn’t a problem and won’t be going forward.

Amtrak, on the other hand, contracted quickly despite receiving $3.7 billion from Congress to minimize disruptions.  Long distance trains, which once ran daily, were cut to three times a week.  Trains between Washington and Boston, including the money-making Acela, saw revenue drop 98%.

The railroad’s workforce was cut 20% with 500 veteran employees leaping at buyout offers, taking with them experience and institutional knowledge hard to replace.  That made it even more difficult to maintain Amtrak’s 40+ year-old railcars and 20-year-old locomotives, many of which are still “shopped”.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s management was pocketing $2.3 million in bonuses in 2021 for cost reduction efforts.  Critics are now implying the bosses were slow to restore service to protect their own bonus checks, the riders be damned.

By the time COVID vaccines arrived and ridership demand returned, the damage was done. Long distance Superliner cars, diners and sleeping cars, are still awaiting repairs because Amtrak can’t find skilled workers or even would-be apprentices. The railroad is on a hiring blitz but they can’t compete with private industry.

One insider tells Trains Magazine Amtrak is seeing a 50% cancellation rate even for interviews.  And hiring, then training, an electrician to work on railcars built in the 1980’s is quite different than the skills those wiring-jockeys might use in building a new house.

Staff shortages for on-board personnel mean that CafĂ© Cars may not be in service or sleeping cars can’t be used, despite demand. That means fares will remain high. Like Uber, Amtrak operates on a “surge pricing” model:  the higher the demand, the higher the fares.  At last check, one-way from NY to Boston on the days before and after Thanksgiving was $309… in coach!


Train watchers in the Connecticut River Valley have seen ridership there soar in recent months.  But while CTRail (run by the CDOT) will be adding more trains (no reservations necessary) next week, Amtrak (which runs half of all trains), will not.  They just don’t have the cars.

EV ANXIETY

There’s no doubt that EVs (electric vehicles) are our future.  The question is, are we ready for them?

There are already over 25,000 EVs in Connecticut, almost half of that number in Fairfield County with Westport drivers owning the most.  They’re not cheap to buy ($30,000+ each) but cheaper to operate (for now).

Charging up a Tesla costs about $14 and can take you maybe 300 miles.  But that’s based on current electric rates.  But they’re going up, way up.

Eversource CEO Joe Nolan recently told investors he anticipates a 40% boost in electric rates next year, mostly due to the price of natural gas which is responsible for generating about 50% of our juice.  Nuclear generates another 30% with “renewables” (solar, trash burning, wood and wind) coming in at just 10%, but climbing.

Blame it on the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine, inflation or whatever.  Energy is going to be tighter and more expensive.  And remember:  Eversource only distributes the electricity, it doesn’t generate it, so don’t blame them.

All of this may mean a long, cold winter ahead for residential users who’ll be turning off lights, cranking down the thermostat and piling on the sweaters.  But nobody’s expecting a reduction in driving.  Just look at current traffic despite the high gasoline prices.

One of the big concerns of potential EV buyers is “range anxiety”:  can I get a charge if I’m away from my usual neighborhood?   That’s why Eversource is gearing up to install hundreds of new EV charging stations, both at home and work.

Eversource is offering incentives of up to $1000 to put in a Level 2 (220 volt) charging station in your home (which may cost you $650 - $700).  That charger will give you 12 - 80 miles of range per hour of charging… about four times faster than a standard 120 volt charger.

But that incentive comes with a catch:  the utility can throttle back your charging during hours of peak demand, say 4-6 pm on a hot summer day, to protect the grid.

Offices and retail locations can get $40K per property for Level 2 charger installations or up to $250K for Level 3, DC “Fast Chargers” (DCFC).  Those beasts can give a Tesla an 80% charge in about 40 minutes.  But they use an amazing amount of power… according to one charger company, the equivalent of five residential households for a week for a one hour charge! 


While residential users will pay standard electric rates, commercial chargers at offices, stores and such can make you pay whatever they want.  You’ll probably use an app to find the nearest charger which will show its rates.  Think “Gas Buddy” for EVs.

Who pays for these new EV chargers?  The rate payers (customers), not utility company shareholders.  Blame PURA, our state’s Public Utilities regulator.

The bigger question is … with 13% of all cars in Connecticut expected to be EVs by 2031, will there be enough electricity on the grid to charge all them all, let alone all the electric trucks, buses etc.?

The short answer is yes… given that most charging of EVs is done overnight and with the expectation that we’ll all be conserving electricity at home and work.  So turning off lights will mean there’s juice for your EV.


October 15, 2022

WHAT METRO-NORTH STILL GETS WRONG

Last week I wrote a column that drew a few raised eyebrows.  It was about what Metro-North gets right as a commuter railroad… reliability, improved communications and technology.

If I believe in giving credit where it’s due, I also believe in responsibly pointing out the areas where things can still be improved, such as…

TRAINS STILL TOO SLOW:       After the derailment in Bridgeport in 2013 the Federal Railroad Administration imposed slow orders for all trains on the New Haven mainline.  That has meant a much slower ride, especially for passengers farther to the east.  But since then positive train control (PTC) has been installed on all trains, so safety is all but guaranteed.  So why are trains running so slow?


In 1955 the old New Haven Railroad made the 36 mile sprint from Stamford to Grand Central in 48 minutes.  Today it takes almost an hour… far from Governor Lamont’s idyllic 30 minute dream.

MORE EXPRESS TRAINS:         Outside of rush hour, mainline trains still make too many stops… running local from New Haven to Stamford.  Sure, a handful of early morning express trains were added from New Haven making a few stops but overall the service is too slow.  Why isn’t the railroad running zoned service, making three or four stops and then running express?

THERE ARE TOO MANY BREAKDOWNS:      Hardly a day passes without my Twitter feed exploding about delays on the trains, usually related to mysterious “equipment issues”, a euphemism for a breakdown.  The newish M8 cars have been super reliable over the years.  What’s causing these mysterious “issues”?

MAKE “ON TIME” MEAN SOMETHING:         US railroads define “on time” as being within 5:59 of scheduled arrival time.  That’s a 10% margin of error on a one hour trip, making the railroad’s “on time performance” statistics meaningless.  Let’s make “on time” mean on time.


BRING BACK QUIET CARS:      The pandemic was the excuse the railroad used for halting the Quiet Cars, but that’s passed, right?  Bring back the Quiet Cars and enforce the rules.

KEEP THE FARES FAIR:           We have the highest commuter rail fares in the US but they’re still not covering the cost of operations.  NYC offers discount subway fares to low-income residents so why can’t Metro-North?  On the opposite extreme, fares on the branch lines and Shore Line East are far too low and should be raised, covering more of the operating costs.


ENFORCE THE RULES:   Why is it so hard to ask conductors to enforce the rules for things like the Quiet Car and (when it was in effect) mask wearing?  They have no trouble enforcing the ticket rules, so why not the others?  If conductors are only glorified ticket-takers, why not go to the “honor system”:  every passenger would be required to have a ticket and, if random inspectors find they don’t have one they’d get a $200 fine.  That could cut staffing and safe a lot of money.

Yes, Metro-North provides a good service overall.  But it could always be better.

October 07, 2022

WHAT METRO-NORTH DOES RIGHT

No, I don’t hate Metro-North.  Yes, I do spend a lot of time criticizing them, but only to try to make them better.

The railroad does have a lot of room for improvement… they botched the mask enforcement rules, have been slow to add more service and could really use some improvement in their on-board enforcement of the Quiet Car rules. But just so you know I’m not a complete grouch, let’s give the railroad credit for what they do right.

Overall, especially compared to some other US commuter railroads, Metro-North does a darned good job.

RELIABLE SERVICE:       The railroad deserves a lot of credit for improved service in bad weather.  Before the arrival of the new M8 cars, they’d regularly suspend operations in heavy snow, ‘lest trains get stranded when they broke down.  These days they’re almost a weatherproof railroad, keeping things moving in all but the worst blizzards.


They also kept service running at the start of the pandemic, running trains when most other transportation, offices and government shut down.  As a result, essential workers… nurses, cops, firefighters… could get to work to help others.  And they did that at great personal risk to their employees, seven of whom died of COVID.  Their sacrifice made it safer for others in our darkest hour and we should thank them.

BETTER COMMUNICATIONS:             In my 19 years serving on the CT Rail Commuter Council the biggest single complaint we always voiced was about a lack of communications when service was interrupted.  Trains would run late, or not at all, leaving passengers wondering what was happening.

Today you can get timely emails, texts and social media updates about such delays, their cause and what, if any, alternative service would be offered.  They have full-time people monitoring Twitter, posting updates and answering questions… truly a thankless job when facing a slew of angry riders.

On station platforms the PA announcements and electronic signs also provide timely information.  Commuters can forgive a lot of problems if they’re kept informed.  And now they are.

GRAND CENTRAL;          Grand Central Terminal is truly a magnificent station.  And the railroad’s parent, MTA, has done a lot to make it more than that.  There are restaurants, shops, bars and an iconic Apple store. 

Compare Grand Central to Penn Station and you’ll count yourself lucky to have such amenities which are well kept, clean and constantly being improved. 

In a few months the LIRR’s new station under Vanderbilt Avenue will open for service.  Years late and way, way over budget, it’s an important investment in the region’s transportation future.

TECHNOLOGY:     The railroad’s TrainTime app is a game changer.  You can not only check the timetable, and buy a ticket but also see how crowded your arriving train will be (so you can find a seat). The app gets downloaded 6000 times a day and is used by 90% of all passengers.  And to their credit, it was designed in-house by the MTA’s IT team.

So say what you will, Metro-North does a lot of stuff right.

October 02, 2022

SHORE LINE EAST... FARTHER EAST?

Imagine taking a train… a one-seat ride… all the way from Grand Central Terminal to the sandy shores of Mystic CT.  Or connecting there for a quick run up to the Indian casinos.

Such a thing should be possible and may yet happen… if Shore Line East gets its act together.


Shore Line East is the state-owned commuter line from New Haven to Old Saybrook opened in 1990 in anticipation of heavy traffic delays on I-95 during reconstruction of the Q Bridge.  Initially it was only rush-hour service… west to New Haven in the morning and back east in the evening.

But gradually service expanded with a couple of trains going as far as New London.  Service became two way and extended outside of rush hours.  Even weekend trains were added.

But the service has always operated at a loss, a huge loss compared to the main line of Metro-North.  Initially the per-passenger, per trip subsidy on Shore Line East was over $18.  Pre-COVID it had soared to almost $50.  Why so expensive?

For one, CDOT owns but doesn’t operate the trains.  That’s done under contract by Amtrak, which also owns the tracks east of New Haven.

But most of all, the huge fixed costs of running a railroad are spread over a much too small ridership.  While pre-COVID the main line of Metro-North would carry over three million passengers a month, Shore Line East might have 65,000.

Mind you, there are only 125,000 people living in all seven towns served my Shore Line East… Branford, Guilford, Madison, Clinton, Westbrook, Old Saybrook and New London.  Contrast that with mainline cities like Stamford (population 135,000), Bridgeport (148,000) and New Haven (134,000), the three largest cities in the state.

But which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Did those “big three” cities grow so large because they had great train service… or did they get great train service because they were so big?

Advocates suggest that if more intermediate stations were added on Shore Line East, maybe East Haven, Old Lyme and Niantic, ridership would increase.  But what might help even more is extending Shore Line East as far east as Providence RI. 


That would also mean stops in Mystic, Stonington and Westerly RI, currently “fly over country” for most Amtrak service offering very infrequent stops.  Mystic, in particular, holds great promise as a tourist town just a quick ride from the casinos.

Service today on Shore Line East is still less than pre-COVID and operates on a hodgepodge timetable, hardly attractive to new riders.  But they do have those new (to them) all-electric M8 cars, replacing their slow and dirty old diesels, so some steps are in the right direction.

Kudos have to go to my friends on the CT Commuter Rail Council who have galvanized local residents and politicians pushing for better service.

But something must be done about the operating losses, initially by improving service which would justify raising fares which are much lower than on the mainline.  A railroad cannot operate viably with such losses without proving that it can attract more passengers.

 

FEWER TRAINS & BUSES, HIGHER FARES

How’s this for a double-whammy?  CDOT is proposing a cut in train and bus service while also raising fares… just as I predicted months ago ....