As Metro-North returns to charging peak fares at rush hour this week, it’s time to get honest about the unsustainable nature of commuter rail in Connecticut.
Sure, our state’s rail riders already pay some of the highest fares of any commuter line in the US (because the railroad’s subsidy, though high, is the lowest in the country), but those fares don’t come close to covering the actual cost of operations, let alone the cost of capital equipment (new trains, locomotives, stations). Metro-North is losing taxpayers’ money with every trip… lots of it!
Back in the good old’
pre-COVID era, almost half of the railroad’s cash flow came from the sale of
monthly commuter passes. Now the
railroad is offering a further 10% discount on those all-you-can-ride tickets
to try to encourage dwindling sales.
Ever so slowly, commuters are
coming back to their offices in New York, some very reluctantly: not out of health concerns but because they’ve
proven themselves so productive working from home and don’t want to trudge into
the city if they don’t have to.
Avoiding the expense (in time
and money) of a daily commute is now a major negotiating point in hiring. And with 33
million Americans having quit their jobs in the
past year, it’s a seller’s market for talent.
Demanding in-person, in-office appearance five days a week is a non-starter.
Once skilled workers have
tasted the sweet fruit of working from home, bosses will never be able to take
away that benefit. That’s why weekday
ridership on Metro-North is still just 45%. I think it will be many years, if ever, that
ridership is fully restored to the pre-COVID levels.
Yes, some rush hour trains are
getting crowded. To their credit, the
railroad is adding
additional service and speeding up some runs in late March. There will also be new
discounted 20-trip tickets for the occasional rider. But all that still won’t be enough to win
Even when the trains were standing-room-only, the railroad was losing money. Now with ridership down by more than half and fares being further discounted, those losses will compound.
On the heavily-traveled New
Haven mainline every trip (pre-COVID) was
subsidized by taxpayers by $3.25. On the
Danbury and Waterbury branches, the per-trip subsidy was $17 and $24
respectively. And on Shore Line East,
every passenger ticket was subsidized by almost $50.
Now, with just half of its
previous ridership, you can double those subsidy numbers and you’ll see the
true cost of running this commuter railroad.
For now, Uncle Sam is picking
up the tab as part of the Feds’ COVID relief package, which really means that
taxpayers and future generations will pay for this bailout. But these kinds of losses are
unsustainable. Something’s got to give.
Maybe service will be reduced,
especially outside of rush hour. And if so, there may be layoffs of railroad
staff. Or fares will have to increase to
cover the deficit, but that would only further discourage ridership.
Nobody expects a commuter
railroad to operate at a profit. If it
could, the original New Haven Railroad would still be run privately. No, commuter rail is a public service but
needs to find a way to better adjust to the new work-life realities of a