January 27, 2023

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 operational it’s expected to serve 160,000 daily Long Island RR riders.  And by freeing up space at Penn Station (once dominated by LIRR), some Metro-North trains will be able to terminate there instead of at GCT.

As a friend from an engineering consultancy put it in social media:  “This new station proves we CAN build great things (in the US).”  Yeah… a decade late and 400% over budget.

I hate always to be the cynic, but if we don’t understand our mistakes we’ll keep repeating (and over-paying for) them.

The New York Times did an investigation in 2017 showing that the construction cost for Grand Central Madison and its new tunnels was seven times the average of such projects elsewhere in the world.  Why?

Feather-bedding for one: 200 of the 900 construction workers digging the huge tunnels were being paid $1000 a day but effectively doing nothing.  This was discovered in 2010 and the excess workers were laid off, but the incident was not reported to the public which is paying for the project.

Right now the MTA is facing a fiscal cliff:  it doesn’t have enough money to keep the region’s mass transit running without a fare increase.  But they’re still burning through $51 billion on capital projects like this one:  new ADA access at subway stations, new signal systems, important stuff but never cheap.

During the pandemic the MTA paid McKinsey consultants millions to predict when transit ridership would return (thereby reducing their operating deficits).  The consultants told them what they wanted to hear, that commuters would soon be back in droves!  Wrong.

Subway ridership is now only 65% of pre-COVID numbers, buses about 62% and Metro-North only 68%.  On the subways the perception (and reality) of crazies and criminals is discouraging riders further… while actually encouraging fare beaters.  The MTA says it loses a half billion dollars a year in uncollected fares!

Those are facts.  So too is the reality, finally, of a brand new train station in New York City!  But will it deliver on the promises that were made to justify its expense?

The MTA (parent of the LIRR and Metro-North) says the new Grand Central Madison will save “40 minutes commuting time” for Long Island riders heading to the east side of Manhattan.  Maybe.


Just emerging from the new station, 15 stories below street level, takes almost 12 minutes riding one of the four ginormous 182 foot long escalators.  I have a pool going as to how quickly one of them breaks down. (Email me if you want in.)

Metro-North can’t keep a single story escalator from the lower to upper level of GCT working… or the escalators constantly broken down connecting to Madison and Park Avenues, let alone these monsters. 

But next time you’re in Grand Central, go take a look… while the new station is still sparkling, bright and in full working order.  After all, you paid for it.

January 21, 2023

TRANSPORTATION OBFUSCATION

 Why do the folks who run our commuter railroads act like their customers are stupid?  Though desperate for ridership to return (to fight huge post-COVID deficits), they ignore legitimate commuter feedback and do everything they can to hide their failures.

Case in point: the Commuter Rail Council, the independent watchdog group created by the CT legislature almost 40 years ago, on which I served for 19 years.  During the Malloy administration we were getting a bit too vocal in our complaints, so a senior Democrat warned me (and another Council member) to cool it or “your little Commuter Council will be written out of existence”.

Sure enough, they tried, slipping a bill into the hopper to eliminate our group and its criticism.  To his credit, State Senator Tony Hwang saved the day, rewriting the Council’s mandate, though in a much watered-down version.

Senator Hwang hosted members of the Commuter Council at the Capitol this week for an update on what riders are thinking, and Hwang’s colleagues on the Transportation Committee got an earful.

Jim Gildea - Chairman Commuter Council
Jim Gildea - Commuter Council

The Council’s usually affable Chairman Jim Gildea said the CT Dept of Transportation is, once again, unresponsive to simple requests.  Since April the Council has asked for data on on-time performance by station, when Shore Line East service would be fully restored, ridership numbers on the much-touted 99 minute express trains from New Haven to GCT and, yes, the status of Quiet Cars.

But the agency didn’t reply for months.  Why?  Because they’re obviously hiding their failures behind a veil of bureaucracy.  “We’ll have to get back to you,” seems their constant refrain.

Governor Lamont promised 60 minute train service from New Haven to GCT and the best CDOT could offer up were three very-limited-stop runs on weekdays, two of them departing before 6 am. The fastest train still takes 99 minutes to make the journey. But is anyone riding those trains?  CDOT knows but is embarrassed to tell us.

By the way, Chairman Gildea also asked the Transportation Committee for a small budget as he has to pay out of his own pocket for a website, email feed and Zoom account.  That’s right, though the CDOT is awash with money, the Commuter Council doesn’t get a dime to do its important advocacy work.

As for the possible return of the Quiet Cars, after five requests the Commuter Council finally got an answer: “No”.  Metro-North blames “operational issues” but wouldn’t explain what that means.

That phrase “operational issues” is widely used by the railroad in explaining train delays and cancellations, the latest in their growing dictionary of euphemisms to obscure the truth.

Just look at Metro-North’s Twitter feed and notice how often they avoid telling us what’s really happening, using words like “mechanical issues” instead of telling us a train broke down.  Why can’t they be honest with us?  Because they can’t own up to their poor performance, let alone correct it.

Incoming CDOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalito can change all that, if he wants to.  It’s time to be honest with commuters.  We can handle the truth.

January 12, 2023

RAIL COMPETITION FOR AMTRAK?

Last week I wrote about the amazing success of high speed rail in Europe based on cheaper fares and more frequent service than anything you’ll find on Amtrak, even on the Northeast Corridor.

Another reason for their success is competition:  the state-run railroad (SNCF) now competes against an Italian railroad even on its most popular domestic TGV routes.  That’s led to a doubling of ridership and fares dropping by 17%.

Many ask:  why can’t Amtrak get some competition?

Sure, they compete against the air shuttles (faster, but more expensive), buses (much cheaper and slower) and, of course, cars (also slower).  But why does the would-be rail rider have only one choice of railroad… Amtrak?

Well, under Federal law Amtrak has the sole right to carry rail passengers interstate (not counting the commuter railroads), but that could change.  Maybe it’s time for a private company to offer an additional, alternative high-speed rail service.

Enter:  AmeriStarRail LLC.

Though they would not disclose who their backers are, AmeriStar claims to have $5.5 billion ready to spend on its own fleet of 160 mph high-speed trains built by the same company Amtrak is using for the next generation of Acela train sets.

Amtrak's next-gen Acela... "Avelia"

But unlike Amtrak’s Avelia Liberty trains which will have nine cars (just for business and first class) AmeriStar’s will have 12 cars and offer coach seating too.  That should mean lower fares and faster service than Amtrak’s 50+ year old Amfleet trains, the only coach class trains between Boston and DC.

AmeriStar’s proposed offerings sound too good to be true: adults will be able to bring two kids under the age of 18 for free.  There’ll be free Wi-Fi and compartment seating like on European trains.  Food service can be ordered and it will be brought to your seat.

And AmeriStar won’t just run between Boston, NYC and DC.  They’ll also compete on routes like Springfield MA to Harrisburg PA (via CT and NYC) and offer hourly non-stops from New Haven to Penn Station taking just 99 minutes. Between DC and NYC AmeriStar trains would run every 30 minutes at speeds up to 160 mph.

Proposed routes

AmeriStar plans for its trains to also run north from NYC to Albany and continue from Boston up to Bangor Maine.  South of Washington they’ll run as far as Richmond VA.  And some trains will even serve Long Island all the way to Ronkonkoma.

Is all of this possible?  Maybe. Rail experts, talking off the record, were skeptical.

They’re not sure there are enough “slots” to add more trains on the NE Corridor (which, by the way, is owned and run by Amtrak).  The commuter railroads who’d see new competition won’t be enthusiastic (or cooperative), they said.

When I asked Metro-North for their thoughts they said they “declined to comment” and suggested I speak to Amtrak.  But, despite numerous attempts, Amtrak never responded.  Neither did officials at CDOT.  I wonder why.

But the pro-rider Rail Passengers Association said “AmeriStar makes a good point… high speed trains should be affordable to all Americans” and right now they’re not.

While I too am skeptical of AmeriStar’s plans, I do think it’s high time to discuss some alternatives to Amtrak’s over-priced, under-delivery of promises paid for with taxpayer dollars.  Maybe a little competition will be good for us all.

January 09, 2023

LESSONS FROM EUROPEAN RAILROADS

 

How can we persuade more people to take the train?  Well, maybe we should take a cue from our friends in Europe, especially the French.

We know, of course, about the famous French TGV, or Train à Grande Vitesse. Since 1981 these sleek trains have carried over 100 million passengers a year at speeds averaging almost 200 mph from Paris to all corners of the nation.  Passengers can travel in either first or second class (Coach) and enjoy on-board meals and beverages along with free Wi-Fi.


Building on that success, in 2013 the French railroad SNCF added another option:  a cheaper, all coach-seating service called OuiGo.  But unlike Amtrak’s slower (non-Acela) trains, the OuiGo trains also run at high speed on the same tracks as the TGV.

A regular TGV trip almost 244 miles from Paris to Lyon would cost $75, but on the OuiGo it only costs $32.  Compare that to Amtrak’s Acela from Washington to NYC (only 225 miles) which costs $120 in Business Class (there is no “coach” on Acela) or $62 on a slower Northeast Corridor train.


Why does Amtrak charge so much more?  Because they have a rail monopoly.

The French OuiGo trains are usually double-deckers and luggage costs extra.  There is no Wi-Fi and no food service onboard.  But the OuiGo service has proven immensely popular with only half of initial riders saying they opted for the cheaper ride instead of the full-service and more expensive TGVs.

In other words, the railroad had grown its market share of travelers, attracting new passengers who might have driven or taken a bus.  A quarter of those surveyed said if it wasn’t for OuiGo they wouldn’t have taken the trip at all.

But now the Europeans have added a new enhancement:  competition.

On that popular Paris to Lyon run (where TGV got started) and the Paris to Milan journey, it’s not just the French TGV that’s on offer.  The Italian high-speed Trenitalia is also running.  Now passengers have even more choices.


The Italian railroad offers Coach fares matching OuiGo’s, First Class tickets comparable to the TGV and an Executive Class ticket with waiter-served a la carte meals in a car with only ten seats.  There’s also a private meeting room available with a flat-screen TV.

What has competition meant on this line?

Well, lower fares, for one.  Fares have dropped as much as 17% as service increased.  And best of all, the total number of tickets sold has more than doubled:  more trains, more choices, lower fares, more train riders… and fewer cars on the road.

Train service is so good in France that the EU has approved plans to ban short distance flights in France on busy routes well-served by high-speed rail.  It’s all part of the French taking their climate initiatives seriously.

Imagine Washington to NY air shuttles being legislated out of existence.  Imagine Amtrak offering cheaper, but still high-speed, options maybe even including competition.

That’s what we’ll discuss in next week’s column.

 

TRAVEL GOES ELECTRIC

Enjoying the heatwave this summer?  The electric utilities sure are.  And just wait ‘til you get your next bill.   They’ve been warning us...