February 26, 2022

EVEN WITH HIGHER FARES IS COMMUTER RAIL SUSTAINABLE?

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 back riders.

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 post-COVID America.

February 19, 2022

FROM PULLMAN PORTER TO SUPREME COURT JUSTICE

As we celebrate Black History month, let’s remember that the path to civil rights began long before the march to Selma.  It happened on city buses in 1955 in Montgomery Alabama and for decades before that on railroads across America.

 

In the history of American transportation, there is one crucial intersection between railroads and civil rights:  the formation in 1925 of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters by A. Phillip Randolph.  This was the first predominantly African-American labor union in the US.


PULLMAN CARS

It was in 1859 that George Pullman launched the first deluxe railroad sleeping cars bearing his name.  They were an instant hit, offering middle and upper-class passengers the comforts of home.

All of the Pullman Car conductors were white but the porters who tended to the passengers were black.  Many of them were former slaves as Pullman theorized, they would be used to the subservient roles of lugging baggage, making up the sleeping berths and serving the white passengers’ every whim.

After they retired for the night, passengers could place their shoes in a small compartment accessible from the corridor where the porters would retrieve and shine them while passengers slept.

LONG HOURS, LOW PAY

 Pullman’s porters had to be on call 20 hours a day, serving passengers and tending to boardings at intermediate stations

Porters worked 400 hours per month with their time off being uncompensated.  They had to pay for their own uniforms, meals and shoe shine kits.  Between runs, even away from home, they paid for their own lodging. The hours they spent before and after each trip preparing and cleaning the car were also unpaid.

In 1926 the average porter earned $72 a month in wages and averaged $58 a month in tips.  In contrast, Pullman’s white conductors (who had a union) earned $150 for a 240 hour month, plus benefits and a pension.

Still, Pullman’s black porters made a good income compared to other black workers, allowing many to enter the middle class in railroad hub cities like Chicago and St Louis.

As one historian put it, a Pullman porter had the best job in his community and the worst job on the train.  There was no room for promotion.  Passengers often referred to Pullman porters by demeaning names like “boy”, or “George”, applying the first name of the Pullman cars’ owner.


UNIONIZATION

In 1925 A. Phillip Randolph started organizing The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters under the rallying cry “Fight or be slaves”.  It took a decade of court battles and the threat of a national strike before the union was recognized in 1937, giving porters a big wage hike and a 240 hour per month work schedule.

Randolph and others in the Brotherhood went on to become leaders of the civil rights movement.  One porter, Edgar D. Nixon, helped organize the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955.  While Nixon was working on the rails, he had a young minister assist in that battle… Martin Luther King Jr.

Among other famous Pullman porters were future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, activist Malcolm X and photographer Gordon Parks.

By the 1950’s train service was in decline and in 1959 Pullman closed up its sleeping car business.  Some porters went on to work with the legacy railroads and a few were still around when Amtrak took over.

In 1995 a museum dedicated to Randolph and his work for the Pullman porters was opened in Chicago in one of the original row houses George Pullman constructed as worker housing at his plant.  The museum is now collecting the names and histories of past porters and their descendants to celebrate Randolph’s contribution to black history 

 

February 12, 2022

TRANSPORTATION TIDBITS

This week, updates on a few interesting developments in transportation:

PEAK FARES:        On March 1st Metro-North will again start charging peak fares during rush hours.  But the railroad will also offer new discounts:  10% off a monthly pass and discounted 20-trip tickets.  On the subways and buses they’ll give passengers free rides for the week after they pay 12 one-way fares via the new  OMNY scanners.  They’re calling it “fare capping”, giving frequent riders free rides after paying $33.

ADDED SERVICE?:          The railroad says it’s evaluating adding more service, speeding up express trains etc.  But no plans have been announced.  Bottom line:  rush hour passengers will pay more but get no faster nor more frequent trains.

RIDERSHIP FLAT:           Many NYC businesses have finally called their employees back to the office at least a few days each week.  Station parking lots are filling up again, but weekday ridership is still only about 40 – 45% of pre-pandemic numbers, far below the railroad’s consultants’ expectations thanks to Omicron.


CATHERINE RINALDI:
     With this past week’s surprise retirement of LIRR President Philip Eng, Metro-North’s CEO Catherine Rinaldi has been named interim-President of the Long Island Railroad.  Rinaldi’s career started on the LIRR and she is widely respected in the industry, if now spread a bit thin.

FREE TRANSIT:     We should closely watch Boston’s experiment with free bus fares on its three most heavily traveled routes.  Something like 100,000 daily riders will see faster service as they can now board by all doors, speeding up dwell time at stops.  The experiment furthers Boston Mayor Michele Wu’s dreams of free transit city-wide and is being paid for with $8 million in COVID relief money from DC.  (NYC already offers 50% discount on MetroCards for low income residents.)

CRUMBLING CONCRETE:         Darien’s train station saw 200 feet of the NY-bound

platform closed for safety reasons this week when inspections found the decades-old concrete structure was crumbling.  The station was already planned for a $34 million platform replacement program, apparently not implemented in time to avoid this situation.

WI-FI ON METRO-NORTH:         You can “surf” on planes, many buses and even Amtrak.  But you can’t find Wi-Fi on Metro-North as the railroad seems uninterested in investing in the tech, and probably with good reason

But now Governor Lamont is offering to invest $30 million in onboard Wi-Fi, just as 5G cellphone technology is being rolled out, possibly making Wi-Fi obsolete.  No response yet from the railroad on the Governor’s plan.

LAMONT’S BUDGET:       Given that it’s an election year and the state is enjoying a record surplus, the Governor kicked off the short legislative session with a number of big spending ideas.  Backed by $1 billion in federal infrastructure spending for the state, Lamont has doubled-down on expanding service on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines.  And yes, he’s still pretending it’s feasible to cut 30 minutes running time each way between New Haven and NYC.

IS COVID DONE?:            Masks are coming off (but not yet on transit, per the Feds) and

things seem to be reopening.  Still, Connecticut is averaging about 19 deaths a week from COVID.  Half of those hospitalized with COVID are vaccinated break-thru cases.  So is COVID done or are we just done with it?

February 04, 2022

LIFE AS A LONG HAUL TRUCKER

 

Why do most motorists hate truck drivers?  Is it because their big rigs are so intimidating?  Or do we think they’re all red-neck cowboys, living the life on the range and we’re secretly jealous?

 

I respect truckers and think, for the most part, they are much better drivers than the rest of us.  They have stiffer licensing requirements, better safety monitoring and much more experience behind the wheel.  And unlike most of us driving solo in our cars, they are driving truly “high occupancy (cargo) vehicles”… 22 tons when fully loaded.

 

For an inside look at the unglamorous life of a trucker, I can highly recommend the recent national best-seller “Long Haul” by Greenwich native Finn Murphy who’s been driving since he was 18 for the Joyce Moving Company.

 

Murphy is what truckers call a “bed-bugger” because he specializes in high-end corporate relocations.  He’s at the top of the trucker food chain, both in income and prestige, far ahead of car haulers (nicknamed “parking lot attendants”), animal haulers (“chicken chokers”) and even hazmat haulers (“suicide jockeys”).

 

While Murphy says a lot of long haul truckers do the job because they can’t find any other work, his career choice was an educated decision as he left Colby College before graduation, realizing he could easily make $100,000 packing, moving and unpacking executives’ prized possessions without his BA.

 

Almost 9 million Americans have moved since the start of COVID and from this author’s perspective they all have too much stuff.  They covet their capitalist consumption of furniture and junk (what movers call chowder).  And it ain’t cheap to move it, averaging about $20,000 for a long distance relocation.   But as he sees it, he’s more in the “lifestyle transition” business than simply hauling and is sensitive to clients’ emotional state.

 

Murphy’s African American boss nicknamed him “The Great White Mover” as, at age 62, he’s one of the last few white drivers.  Most of the industry is now handled by people of color, especially the local crews that do the packing and unpacking. 

 

When self-driving trucks hit the road, thousands of minority drivers are going to be out of luck.  Robots already do most of the loading and unloading of trucked merchandise bound for big-box stores.

 

As an independent operator, Murphy incurs all of his expenses.  His tractor (the detachable engine part of the truck) costs $125,000.  That’s not counting the $3500 he pays to register it or $10,000 to insure it.  A new tire (his rig has 18) costs $400 at a truck stop and maybe double that if he’s stranded on some interstate.

 

The average rig isn’t just a tractor hauling an empty trailer.  Even before loading, that trailer has hundreds of pads (each of which must be neatly folded), plywood planks, dollies, tools, ramps and hundreds of rubber straps for tying things down.  Loading his truck is like solving a giant Tetris 3D puzzle.

 

Murphy’s driving hours are regulated and carefully logged, then checked at every state truck inspection station.  But he thinks nothing of driving 700 miles per day, usually parking at a truck stop and sleeping in his on-board bunkbed equipped with a high-end stereo and 600-count Egyptian cotton sheets.

 

On the road he listens to audio books and NPR, which is probably how he learned to write so well (the book is not ghost written).  Finn Murphy isn’t the brawniest of movers, but he’s easily among the smartest and most articulate.  Even if you have no aspirations of life on the open road, this well-written book may give you a new appreciation of truckers and may even change your stereotypes.

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...