May 27, 2022

SHORE LINE EAST

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past week about Shore Line East finally adding M8 cars to its service.  While this is good news, the railroad’s future is not bright.

When started in May of 1990, Shore Line East trains from Old Saybrook to New Haven began as an alternative to I-95 and pending construction of the new Q Bridge in New Haven.  Initially the service was one way… westbound in the morning rush hour and back east in the afternoon.

By 1996 the trains had captured about 8% of commuter traffic.  But losses were so high ($18.75 per-passenger-per-trip) that newly elected Gov. John Rowland suggested replacing the trains with buses.


Rowland’s plan was thwarted and followed by a small fare increase.  A few trains were extended to New London.  In 2001 two trains were extended to run as far as Stamford.  But all of the equipment was still diesel push-pull. 

Because the tracks east of New Haven are owned by Amtrak, the national railroad pushed back and cut New London service to protect its limited bridge openings to instead serve its long distance trains.  In 2007 service was expanded to weekends. 

As Amtrak completed its electrification of its line from New Haven to Boston, the hope was to run electric-powered M8 cars on the line, replacing the diesels.  The M8s began running on the mainline (New Haven to Grand Central) in 2011 but Amtrak was slow to approve their use east of New Haven.


Now that the M8s are finally running, the diesel equipment will be gone.  Trains will run a bit faster (thanks to improved acceleration) and certainly quieter and cleaner.  But the problem is there are so few passengers.

According to a $2 million consultant report in 2021, ridership is still down over 70% from already low pre-pandemic levels (compared to about a 40% drop on Metro-North).  Given the high fixed costs of running the line, that’s boosted the per-passenger-per-trip subsidy to $55.28 (compared to $3.85 on the MNRR main line).

Fares on Shore Line East have always been kept low to try to attract riders.  But that means those fares cover only 5% of operating costs (compared to 69% on MNRR mainline).  Who pays the difference?  We do, in our gasoline taxes which go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF).


But with the gasoline tax taking a pre-election holiday, that’s pushing the STF ever-closer to insolvency.  This is clearly unsustainable.

Even with gasoline prices recently soaring to $5+ a gallon (and expected to be as high as $6+ by August), ridership is lagging.  There’s plenty of parking at Shore Line East’s new stations but commuters still apparently prefer to drive, despite back-ups on I-95.

Maybe extending service east to Mystic and even Rhode Island might help.  Or renewed enforcement of masking rules (still in effect on MNRR but not SLE) especially if COVID cases rise.

Clearly, something has got to change.  Let’s hope the new M8s will make a difference… but I’m not optimistic.

May 12, 2022

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.   Commuter railroads across the US offer Wi-Fi, including Boston's MBTA. Wi-Fi is everywhere… but not on Metro-North.  So the Connecticut legislature has just budgeted $23 million to install 5G technology on the railroad’s M8 cars.  Are they too late?  Is it even needed?

 

Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology, not satellites (like in planes).  In 2010 Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston and they immediately had bandwidth issues.  So many passengers were using their cell phones and tablets, speeds dropped to 0.6 mb per second and the complaints came pouring in.

That’s part of the reason that Metro-North has always been reluctant to offer Wi-Fi:  if an Acela train carrying 300 passengers can’t handle the online load, how could a ten-car train carrying a thousand commuters?  The railroad has enough complaints as it is just trying to run the trains, right?

Metro-North’s experience with on-board communications has left them feeling burned.  Veteran commuters will remember many years ago when the railroad installed cellular pay-phones on the trains.  Great idea, until a year later when cellphone costs came down and everyone had their own cell phone in their purse or pocket.  Those pay cell phone booths went unused and were eventually removed.

 

Back in 2006 then-President of MNRR Peter Cannito said Wi-Fi would be built into the new M8 cars, both for passengers and to allow the railcars to “talk” to HQ by beaming-in diagnostic reports.   The railroad issued an RFP for ideas and got a number of responses, including from Cablevision, with whom they negotiated for many months.  They even initiated on-train testing of Wi-Fi gear on one railcar. Today if you check your phone’s settings, you’ll often see a mysterious Wi-Fi network signal following your route… but one you’ll never be able to access.

Back then Metro-North insisted any Wi-Fi would have to cost the railroad nothing: that all the expense and tech risk would be borne by Cablevision or its customers.  And that’s where the negotiations deadlocked.

In 2019 Governor Lamont promised improved trackside cell coverage “within a year” in a deal with AT&T.  But their coverage maps, as well as those for Verizon and T-Mobile, still show some gaps, especially in their long promised, super-fast 5G service.

The railroad still sees Wi-Fi as just a convenience, not a necessity.  Smart phones and cell-card configured laptops can access the internet just fine, they say, using cellular technology.  If there’s a cell signal along your route, you can get online without getting caught in Metro-North’s puny Wi-Fi.  Forty-three percent of Americans have unlimited data plans, so who needs Wi-Fi?  But commuters still complain about dead-spots, a problem Wi-Fi won’t fix.

 

Still, it is an election year and the state’s coffers are flush with cash, so why not throw $23 million into a soon-to-be-obsolete technology?  So watch for a signal, maybe even 5G, coming to your cellphone on a future commute… subsidized by Connecticut taxpayers.

READERS RESPOND RE: PEDESTRIAN DEATHS

Last week’s column on the increase in pedestrian deaths brought us a lot of comments.  Here are a few for you to consider:   I have alw...