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’ dénouement 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?

 

YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...