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.

 

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...