April 19, 2014

Talking Transportation: A Report Card for Metro-North

Jim CameronIf Metro-North were a student and commuters its teacher, the railroad’s winter report card would be a D+ and the comment would be “needs to improve”.

As new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti finishes his second month on the job, he’s making the rounds to meet and listen to commuters. But his 100-Day Plan for bringing the railroad back won’t conclude until mid-June, so I thought that now would be a great time to survey riders and get a baseline of their sentiments against which we can measure any gains in the months ahead.

Our unscientific online survey ran for seven days and got 642 responses. Clearly, those who wanted to opine were probably those with gripes, so take the results with a grain of salt.

Asked to give Metro-North a letter grade based on the past months’ performance, the railroad got an average D+.

Asked if service was getting better, 22 percent said yes, 31 percent said it was getting worse and 47 percent said it was “about the same”.

When asked what their biggest complaints were (respondents could list multiple issues), 88 percent said it was late or delayed trains, 60 percent said poor communications when things went wrong, and 59 percent said it was lack of sufficient seating on trains. Another 30% percent complained about the train cars’ heating / cooling system (or lack thereof), while others (18 percent) said there was insufficient station parking and 15 percent said the stations had poor upkeep.

The survey also asked how commuters reported their gripes. Ten percent said they never had complaints, 46 percent said they didn’t complain “because it seemed useless” but 61 percent said they did complain to conductors or to Metro-North. Of those who did complained almost half of respondents (45 percent) said their problem was never fixed.

We also asked who commuters thought was to blame for the railroad’s problems. An overwhelming 90 percent blamed Metro-North management, 48% percent said they were due to the Department of Transportation, 35 percent said it was their state legislature’s fault, 28 percent said it was because of Metro-North employees, 12 percent blamed the Federal government, and 9 percent blamed their fellow commuters.

Our last question was most telling: “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” 56 percent said yes, 15 percent said no and 29% percent said they weren’t sure.

We designed the survey to be brief, taking maybe two minutes to answer. But we also gave space for commuters to comment, and 267 of them did, some at great length. Here’s a sampling of their opinions:

Sorry to be so harsh … It is 2014, pseudo-modern, wealthy society and the most laughable public transportation system in any advanced country and metropolitan area.

This service is really shameful for the amount that we pay. I have not been on a train in the last 6 months that has arrived on time.

When I moved here 10 years ago you could set your watch by MetroNorth. Now the timetable is just a suggestion.

The Danbury Line is the orphaned stepchild of the system.

The lack of self control of “irate” commuters does not help the situation. Makes us look bad.

The full results of the survey and all of the comments are available online via links from our website, www.CommuterActionGroup.org

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

 

Talking Transportation: The Commuter Manifesto

“The Commuter Manifesto”

“Quit your moaning!”  “You’re not a railroad person, what do you know?”  “You don’t like the train, try driving.”

These are the reactions I get, especially from railroad employees, when I have been critical of Metro-North in the last few calamitous months.  They think I’m a “moaner”, though I try just as hard to be positive about the railroad as to criticize its failures.

But it’s not about me.  Mine is not the only voice calling for sweeping changes at the railroad.

So in launching the Commuter Action Group I knew it was important to be specific about riders’ expectations of service… to define a few basics of what Metro-North customers deserve in return for the highest rail fares in the US.

Thus was born, “The Commuter Manifesto” which I ‘nailed’ to the waiting room wall at several train stations:

We, the riders of commuter railroads in Connecticut, are tired of deteriorating service, rising fares and indifference and ineptitude from Metro-North.  As customers and taxpayers we deserve better and expect change.  Our expectations are few, and simple:

Safety First

We expect a clean, safe, on-time, seated ride on trains with heat / AC and lights.  Don’t treat us like cattle making us ride on railcars you wouldn’t ride on yourself.

We want to know that you make our safety your top priority.  Make every employee understand that responsibility.  If they do anything that jeopardizes safety, discipline them or fire them.  There is no excuse for stupid mistakes.

Fast, Accurate and Honest Communication

When things go wrong, immediately tell us what’s happened, why and when it will be fixed.  When you make a mistake, admit it.  Stop making apologies; get things fixed and don’t repeat the same errors over and over again.

Responsive Customer Service

When we see a problem, give us an easy way to report it to you.  Then get it fixed and follow up with us to tell us it’s been resolved. Our complaints shouldn’t fall into a black hole.

Train your employees to be courteous and efficient, treating us like valued customers.  When they don’t meet those standards, train them again.  There should be zero tolerance for rude behavior by employees … or commuters.

Open and Transparent Operations

Let us know how you make decisions that affect us by opening all of your meetings to the public and media.  Share your goals and self-evaluations and ask our opinions as well.  The way you run the railroad affects our lives and we should have input.

Leadership That Listens

Meet with commuters on a regular basis at times and locations convenient to us.  Hear our complaints and suggestions and answer our questions.  We will listen to you if you will listen to us:  we’re in this together.

 That’s it.  A few simple expectations the commuters of Metro-North have of their railroad.

The reaction so far?  Enthusiasm from commuters… back-patting by the pols… but from the CDOT and Metro-North, silence.

Really?  Are we asking for so much?

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

Talking Transportation: The George Washington Bridge

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

We’ve read a lot about the George Washington Bridge (GWB) in recent weeks.  And the scandal over who ordered closure of approach lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., only underscores how crucial this bridge is to the entire region.  All of which got me thinking about the GWB and its history.

Surprisingly, the GWB was not the first bridge design to cross the Hudson River.  As early as 1885, there were discussions of building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at about 23rdSt.  A later design in the 1920’s foresaw a double deck, 16-lane-wide roadway (with 12 tracks for railroad trains on the lower level) at 57th Street.

But it was in 1927 that work began on the GWB much farther uptown at 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge carrying six lanes of traffic opened in 1931 and was widened by two lanes in 1946.

Originally the bridge was going to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise (really!), but it was a campaign by school kids that ended up honoring our first President.

The original designers had planned for the future and, in 1961, the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” bridge opened to traffic, increasing total capacity by 75%.

Because we usually approach the bridge from the east or west, it’s hard to appreciate its enormity until you’re right on the structure.  But from any angle it’s a beautiful bridge, showing its bare criss-cross girders and bracing, which were originally to have been clad in concrete and granite.

The GWB is recognized by civil engineers and architects alike as one of the most beautiful in the world.

In its first year of operation the bridge carried five million vehicles.  Last year it carried 102 million.  On opening day, the toll was 50 cents each way.  Today the one-way toll for autos (only collected eastbound) ranges from $9 (EZ Pass off-peak) to $13 (cash).  But pedestrians can still walk across for free (when the sidewalk is open).

Those walkways, while affording a wonderful view of the city, also have a dark side as the GWB was scene of a record 18 suicides (and 43 attempts) in 2012.

On an average weekday, 17,000 bus passengers rely on the GWB’s own bus terminal built atop the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) on the Manhattan side.  There they can catch the A train or the Seventh Avenue IRT.  The bus station is undergoing a $180 million renovation.

The bridge itself is a living thing.  It creaks and groans, moves and sways and it needs constant maintenance.  In 2011, the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace the bridge’s 529 vertical suspender wire ropes.  In addition, lanes on the upper level are being closed (at night) to replace steel plates on the road surface.

All of which means more jobs and, eventually, higher tolls.

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv  

Talking Transportation: Top Ten Things I Like About Metro-North

Jim CameronDespite what you may think, I don’t hate Metro-North. Sure, I am outspoken about its many failings, but always with a goal of making it better. So, to prove I’m really a fan of the railroad, I’m kicking off the year with my “Top Ten Things I like about Metro-North”:

10) New Stations: Reflecting expanded demand for rail commutation, CDOT added new stations (and parking) at West Haven and Fairfield Metro in recent years.

9) Lost & Found: Metro-North runs one of the biggest and best Lost & Found operations in the country handling, over 50,000 items a year.

8) Package Tours: You might not realize it, but the railroad offers all sorts of package deals for big-city events, combining train tickets, admission and even hotel stays.

7) The Bar Cars: Metro-North is the only commuter railroad in the US that still offers patrons a bar car. There are only a handful of bar cars left, soon to be retired and possibly not replaced, so enjoy ‘em while you still can.

6) Online Tickets: You still can’t buy a ticket on the train using a credit card, but you can buy them online (and receive them by mail)… and they’re even cheaper (by 2%) than purchasing them at a ticket machine or Grand Central.

5) The TrainTime App: Forget about those old paper timetables and get yourself the new TrainTime App (for iPhone, iPad and Android). Not only does it show train times, but track numbers, any delays, fares and station information. And it’s free!

4) Expanded Schedule: The trains may be running slower, but there are more of them than ever before. Service on weekends has been expanded as ridership has grown and more cars were added to the fleet.

3) Grand Central Terminal: There is no more beautiful rail station in the world. And for the next 269 years it will be managed by the MTA, parent of Metro-North. Their renovation of the station completed in 2007 has turned a station into a destination. The shops, restaurants and open spaces are the envy of commuters everywhere… especially the poor “Dashing Dans” on the LIRR who arrive in the squalor of Penn Station.

2) The new M8 Cars: Years late in their design and delivery, the newest cars in the Metro-North fleet are clean, comfortable and much appreciated. With power outlets at every seat (and someday even WiFi), the first 300 of the M8 cars on order are proving themselves dependable even in winter weather.

1) On Time Performance: No matter how great the destination, how comfortable the train or how expensive the fare, nothing matters more to commuters than getting to their destination on time. Until recently, Metro-North had an enviable on-time performance in the upper 90%’s, a number I’m confident they can achieve again.

For each of the items mentioned above Metro-North deserves credit. Can each be improved? Sure. But let’s see the glass as more than half-full and give the folks at the railroad their due.

I still love Metro-North. I just want to be able to love it even more.

About the author: JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years. He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv

Transportatation: Metro-North Meltdown

Jim CameronFirst of all, despite what some commuters may recently be thinking, the folks who manage and operate Metro-North are not stupid.  Inconsiderate and uncommunicative sometimes, but not stupid.

Metro-North managers and employees are railroad professionals, justifiably proud of the 96+% on-time performance they achieve on one of the busiest commuter line in the US.  They want to run a world class railroad.  But they can only achieve as much as the states of NY and Connecticut fund them to do.

In recent years our legislature gave MNRR $1+ billion to buy badly needed new railcars, a very visible manifestation to commuters that the state was investing in the railroad.  But sufficient funding for inspection and repair of the tracks, the catenary and our 100- year-old bridges is still lacking.

New cars are sexy.  Giving them safe tracks to run on and wires to power them, not so sexy.

What happened when Con Ed’s back-up feeder cable failed at 5:30 am on Wednesday Sept 25th was not an act of God, but human error.  The two agencies knew the main power cable was going to be out of service and calculated, very wrongly, that the single back-up cable would be sufficient.

This raises a number of questions:  Did Con Ed monitor that back-up cable for signs it might fail?  Was it wise to save $1 million by not constructing a back-up for the back-up?  Does Homeland Security know or care that the entire Metro-North and Amtrak Northeast Corridor were depending on this calculation? How many other power sub-stations are in similar danger?

The effects of this outage are many:  the inconvenience to 125,000 daily riders, the economic impact on those commuters’ businesses, and longer-term, the economic recovery of our state and nation.

Governor Malloy quickly called this outage just the latest black eye for our state in his efforts to attract businesses to set up shop in the Nutmeg State.  Even if they can tolerate our high taxes, do relocating CEO’s really want to rely on Metro-North to get their employees to and from work or fight the perpetual rush-hour crawl on I-95?

I fear some individual commuters may be reaching the tipping point.  There are plenty of other New York suburbs with good schools and more reliable transportation.  If fed-up Connecticut commuters decide to vote with their feet and move to Westchester or Long Island, they will take their taxes with them.  Remember that Fairfield County pays 40% of all state taxes in Connecticut, so anything that makes our neighborhoods less attractive, hurts the entire state.

And it hurts our house values too.  People live in the towns served by Metro-North because they need to rely on those trains to get to high-paying jobs in NYC.  When that trust is broken, those towns and their houses become less attractive.

If housing values sag, town taxes will have to go up.  The schools will suffer making our towns even less desirable for those leaving the city for the good life in the ‘burbs.

Reliable train service at an affordable price is what makes Fairfield County thrive.  When you begin to doubt the ability of the railroad to keep operating, let alone be on time, it may be time to rethink where you live.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: Public Hearings or Political Theater?

Jim CameronI believe passionately in open, transparent government.  The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing and comment on it before it’s done, usually by way of mandated public hearings.

So I was thrilled to see that the Government Accounting Office has issued a 56 page report sharply critical of the Port Authority of NY-NJ for raising tolls without public input.

In 2011, the Authority jacked up tolls by 50% on bridges and tunnels three days after a single public hearing, held on a weekday during rush hour.  And even at that one hearing, comments were taken without an explanation of the proposal.

It’s as if the Authority went out of its way to avoid criticism, constructive or otherwise.  And for that the GAO rightly criticized them.

We’ve seen this same thing happen many times in Connecticut:

  • The CDOT plans a rail fare increase, baked into its legislative budget, then holds public hearings.  Nothing said at the hearings can affect the decision to boost fares (except possibly to cut train service).
  • The state’s Transportation Strategy Board holds a public hearing on a million dollar study of over a dozen different possible scenarios for tolling on I-95, asking for comments but without ever explaining what the study said.
  • The state chooses to develop land under the Stamford garage in a secret negotiation with developers without ever seeking input from commuters on what’s planned.

The formula is simple, but backwards.  Lawmakers decide what they want to do and then hold a pro forma public hearing to get comments from those who will be affected.  Too often the decision has been made and, for political theater, they just go through the motions of asking for comment.

Here’s a novel idea:  why not hold a public hearing first, asking constituents, commuters and customers what they think?  Explain to them the necessity of a fare hike or development plan and then ask for their reaction.

Decisions by government-run monopolies should be made with input from all the stakeholders, not a handful of bureaucrats.  That’s how you build a consensus in a democracy.

But there is good news.  Recently in my town of Darien the pattern was broken.

A planned parking rate increase at the town’s two train stations, Darien and Noroton Heights, came up for a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen.  A final vote on the plan was on the agenda for the same evening.

But a handful of dismayed commuters who knew no details of the plan (boosting day-parking rates by 66%), turned up at the hearing and protested. They said they had not been warned about the proposal, that commuters had not been told of the public hearing and they had a slew of complaints and concerns about other aspects of the parking lots and stations.

I guess I was the one responsible for that turnout, as I’m the one who posted signs at the station and leafleted cars in the parking lot, something I told the town fathers they could and should have done.

To their credit, and my surprise, the public hearing was continued for another week and the rate-hike pushed back until more commuters could be heard.  Signs were posted at the stations informing commuters of the proposals and the chance to be heard.

The Board of Selectmen was not required to do that, but they did.  And they deserve credit and our thanks for listening first and voting second.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 23 years.  He is a member of the new CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: Saving Money on Metro-North

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting from out of town this summer, everyone can save money when you go into NYC on Metro-North by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK:  See if your employer subscribes to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $245 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation.  A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries.

GO OFF-PEAK: If you can arrive at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and can avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 25%.  Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays.  Your train may be less crowded, too.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE: Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 – $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once!  (Seniors: don’t worry, you’re exempt and can buy on-board anytime without penalty). There are ticket machines at most stations, but the cheapest tickets are those bought online.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Peak or Off-Peak) to save an additional 15%.  They can be shared among passengers and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:           Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you can’t go in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING: Even stations that require parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local town.

CHEAPER STATION PARKING:  Don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 10 per day) or Stamford ($10 for 8 hours, M-F).  Instead, park at the day-lots in Darien or Noroton Heights for just $3.  But be sure to buy a scratch-off ticket in advance.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

METROCARDS:  Forget about the old subway tokens.  These nifty cards can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals:  put $5 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 5% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($30) or a month ($112).  There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

IS IT CHEAPER TO DRIVE?:  Despite being a mass transit advocate, I’m the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You can avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  Check out www.bestparking.com to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination.   Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the # 7 subway from there.

The bottom line is that it isn’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Enjoy!

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Past-Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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Talking Transportation: The July Gas Tax Increase

Jim CameronThis week marks the 30th anniversary of the Mianus River Bridge collapse, which killed three people.  That accident on I-95 in Greenwich was attributed to years of neglected inspections and maintenance, the inevitable result of penny-pinching in Hartford.

Will the recent Metro-North crash (which injured 76 passengers) also be tied to long-postponed repairs?

Last week, the CDOT’s Commissioner testified before US Senator Blumenthal that Connecticut has spent $3.2 billion in the last decade on the New Haven rail line, while Amtrak spent just $64 million.  And all that spending still couldn’t prevent the May 17 derailment.

But Commissioner James Redeker also said there’s another $4.5 billion needed to bring the line into a “state of good repair” in the short term.  That includes work on the catenary and replacement of four movable bridges, some of them 100+ years old.  Layer on top of this $130 million to meet the federal mandate for PTC (Positive Train Control), and you can see the problem.

Where’s the money to come from? 

Well, it will come from you and me.  On July 1st we will all start paying an additional 4 cents per gallon for gasoline, tax money that will go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF), supposedly to be spent on rails and roads.

But remember that it was Governor Malloy who (again) balanced this year’s state budget by raiding $110 million from that STF, something that, as a candidate, he swore he would never do.  Voters will decide if that makes Malloy a hypocrite… or just a pragmatist.  Either way, future Governors won’t be able to do it again as the legislature has voted to put the STF into an untouchable “lock box” starting in 2015, after the next election.

Over the past decade various lawmakers and Governors have stolen a billion dollars from the STF.  So not only are we about $4.5 billion short on needed funds for rail repairs, but the STF has been treated like a petty cash box and drained it at will.

How sad it is when we have to balance our state’s budget by taking money targeted for keeping our rails and highways safe… not to mention starting a state-wide Keno game, basically a “tax” on those ignorant enough to play it (with odds of about 9 million to one of winning the jackpot).

Kudos to Senator Blumenthal for pushing safety as a top priority.  Maybe he can also get Amtrak to start paying its fair share for running trains over our (state-owned and maintained) tracks.

But it’s not just our rails that are in bad shape.  This week the group Transportation for America released its annual report on the deterioration of US highway bridges:  one in nine of those bridges is structurally deficient and in need of repair or replacement.  In Connecticut, that number has grown, not declined, since last year.

Yet, our DOT is still moving forward with a half-billion dollar rebuild of the structurally sound Waterbury “mix-master” where Route 8 crosses I-84.  Why?

So, next time you’re filling your tank with the priciest gasoline in the Northeast, pick-up a Keno ticket.  You might have a better chance of winning there than ever seeing your taxes spent on improving transportation safety.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at jim@mediatrainer.tv  or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: Gov Malloy Seeks To Kill the Commuter Council

Jim CameronShortly after he came to office, I wrote something critical of newly elected Governor Malloy.  Nothing new there.  I’d certainly questioned Republican governors in years past, usually to little response.  But this time the reaction was different.

A Malloy confidant, a senior State Senator from Fairfield County, took me aside and threatened me.  Not physically, but legislatively.  “You know, we could eliminate the Commuter Rail Council if you keep this up,” he said in Machiavellian tones.  “Bring it on,” I said, half-shocked at this political threat.

Well, it took a couple of years (and more criticism), but the threat has come true.  The Governor has submitted a bill (HB 6363) that would wipe out the existing Metro-North Commuter Rail Council and its 15 members.  In its place, a new Council would be appointed and the Governor, not the members of the Council, would choose its Chairman.

Further, the new Commuter Council’s mandate would turn from investigation and advocacy on behalf of fellow commuters to a PR advisor to the CDOT.  While the current Council has the power to request information and is required to receive cooperation from any state or local agency, that power would be eliminated under Malloy’s bill.

The Commuter Council isn’t the only pro-transportation group affected by the bill.  The CT Public Transportation Commission would also be eliminated along with the last vestiges of the Transportation Strategy Board (killed off by Malloy last year), the TIA’s, or “Transportation Investment Areas”.

This obvious power-grab by the Governor has so far gone unchallenged in the legislature, buried in a 66-page Christmas tree of a bill.  If it becomes law, my 15+ years as a member of the Commuter Council (the last four as its Chairman) will be history.

But why is the Metro-North Commuter Council singled out for such harsh treatment?

It’s not that the Commuter Council has been wasting state money.  We operate on a budget of zero dollars, even dipping into our own pockets to pay for design of a logo and pay for postage.  And I don’t think it can be argued that we haven’t been doing our jobs… meeting monthly with Metro-North and the CDOT to address commuter complaints and push for ever better service.

No, I think the real problem is that we’ve done our job too well, calling out CDOT, the legislature and yes, even the Governor, when they did things that we felt screwed commuters.  That’s our mandate.

I guess Governor Malloy didn’t like it when we pointed out that as a gubernatorial candidate he promised to never raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the state’s budget, but then did just that when he took office.  And I guess he wasn’t happy when I noted that his budget took new fare increases from Metro-North riders but didn’t spend the money on trains, in effect making the fare hike a “commuter tax”.

And I’d imagine the Commissioner of the CDOT… the fifth Commissioner in my 15+ years on the Council… would be happy to see the current Council gone, critical as we have been about their Stamford Garage project which we see as selling out the interests of commuters to private developers.

It’s sad that the Governor feels the way to answer legitimate criticism is to eviscerate those who question him.  But I can promise you that his proposed elimination of the Metro-North Commuter Council won’t silence me.  Bring it on, Governor.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Talking Transportation: The Great Train (Ticket) Robbery

Jim CameronIf you had a contract with someone and paid them in advance to do a job, only to find they never provided that service, you should get your money back, right?  Otherwise, by keeping the money and not delivering on the bargain, that person would be committing fraud.

Well, that’s exactly what Metro-North does to weekly and monthly ticket holders when it sells those tickets but cancels train service.  The railroad refuses to give those riders a refund.  That’s wrong.

For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has asked Metro-North (and its boss, CDOT) to rethink that policy, but they have refused.  We even approached Attorney General Jepsen, making a consumerist’s argument, but he wasn’t interested in helping.

Clearly, it’s not Metro-North’s fault when tropical storm Sandy or winter storm Nemo leave the tracks buried.  In some cases they can attempt substitute bus service, in which case refunds shouldn’t be required.

When the Commuter Council last year pushed for a “Passenger Bill of Rights” we asked for refunds when service was out, but the railroad said “impossible”,  though they did allow refunds on one-way tickets, which is not the problem at all.

One-way tickets are good for sixty days.  If the train’s not running, you can use them next week.  But weekly tickets are only good for seven specific days, Saturday through Friday.  If the train doesn’t run, you’re out of luck.

Look at the Waterbury line during storm Nemo.  Train service was halted Friday night and wasn’t resumed until the following Wednesday… four days.  A commuter who’d bought a weekly ticket from Waterbury to GCT paid $125 but lost 4/7ths of the ticket’s value and was denied a refund.

This year we’re pleading our case for fairness to the state legislature with the help of State  Representative Gail Lavielle of Wilton.  At our behest she introduced HB 5127 which would require Metro-North and CDOT to offer credit for unusable tickets when service is cancelled for more than 48 hours.  That credit could be made by extending the validity of a ticket, offering replacement tickets or maybe even a refund.

Fifteen commuters submitted testimony in support of the bill, making a very simple argument:  if the railroad can’t provide train service (or buses), ticket holders should be made whole.

When the airlines cancelled thousands of flights due to the blizzard, they honored passengers’ tickets on later flights.  When Metro-North cancelled trains, they just kept the money.

In his testimony on the bill, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Dept of Transportation said the refund plan wasn’t feasible.  And weekly / monthly commuters already get a discount, so why are they complaining?

And Metro-North, in one of its more arrogant moves of late, thumbed its nose at the Connecticut Legislature saying that as a NY State agency it was immune from Connecticut law.  That, in New York, is what they call chutzpah.

It’s not too late for commuters to support this bill by calling their elected officials.  Because while Metro-North deserves credit for much improved, usually on-time service, it should not be allowed to pick our pockets by selling us tickets when it cannot run trains, for whatever reason, but then keeps our money.  That’s just unfair.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: The Five Biggest Lies About Highway Tolls

Jim CameronLike it or not, get ready to pay tolls on our Interstates and Parkways.  Transportation officials in Hartford say there’s just no other way to raise badly needed money for over-due infrastructure repairs.  Tolls may not be popular, but neither are collapsing bridges.

In the last decade’s debate on highway tolling, here are the five biggest lies that opponents have used to stall the return of highway tolls:

1)    The Federal Government Won’t Let Us:  Also known as “We’ll have to return millions in federal funding”.  Not true, as US DOT officials told us at a SWRPA-sponsored meeting in Westport years ago.  The federal government regularly allows tolls to be used as traffic mitigation and revenue raising tools.

2)    Our Highways Should Be Free:  So should ice cream and donuts.  Nothing is free, including the cost of repairing I-95 and removing snow from the Merritt.  Gasoline taxes come nowhere near to raising the needed revenue. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It should come with a cost.

3)    Tolls Will Slow Traffic:  It’s not 1965 anymore.  Tolling doesn’t require highway-wide barriers with booths and gates.  Just look at the NJ Turnpike or Garden State Parkway, where barrier-free tolls using EZPass allow you to pay at 55 mph.

4)    Tollbooths Cause Accidents:   See #3 above.  This happened once, 29 years ago, in Milford, and was used as an excuse to end tolling in the state.  If toll barriers are unsafe, why don’t fiery truck crashes happen daily at the hundreds of other toll barriers around the US?

5)    Highway Tolls Will Divert Traffic to Local Roads:     This may be true, for about the first week.  If people would rather drive for free on the Boston Post Road than pay 50 cents to save an hour by taking I-95, let ‘em.  Few drivers are that cheap, or stupid.

Trust me, I know about tolls and toll booths. I spent three summers in college working as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge.  Back then the toll was only 50 cents to cross the mighty Hudson, but people still didn’t like paying it.  (Today the toll is $5).

Connecticut pioneered toll roads as early as the late 18th century.  But today our state is facing billions in over-due bridge and highway repairs.  And federal aid for transportation may be cut by a third. So why are we in this current mess?  Who’s to blame?  Us!

We’re the ones that stupidly pushed CT lawmakers to cut the gas tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997.  And we’re the ones making it political suicide for legislators today to say they support tolls, even though they know tolls are inevitable.

Pick your poison:  “free” driving on pothole-filled highways with collapsing bridges… or pay a few bucks for a safe, speedy ride.

I vote for the tolls.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation – Connecticut’s New Railroad

Jim CameronLast week, China opened the world’s longest high speed rail line.  From Beijing the line runs 1,428 miles south to Guangzhou, roughly the distance from New York City to Key West.  At an average speed of 186 mph, the 1000-passenger, 16-car trains will cover the distance in eight hours.  Trains depart every 10 to 12 minutes in each direction.

Though construction of high speed rail only began in 2007, by 2015 China will have a national network of over 11,000 miles of high speed rail lines carrying more than 3 billion passengers annually.

Envious?  Sure.  Why can’t we build something like that in the US?  Lots of reasons.  But consider what we are building.

By 2016, Connecticut will have a new commuter rail line, its first in decades, running 60 miles from New Haven through Hartford and on to Springfield MA.  The $647 million project is fully funded ($388 million in Federal money, $259 million in state bonding) and is on, if not ahead of, schedule.

The double track line will eventually offer trains every half-hour, carrying an estimated 1.7 million passengers a year.  Today, Amtrak diesels chug along the line on a single track offering eight trains a day carrying 380,000 passengers a year. (PS:  It remains to be seen who will run this new state-owned railroad, Amtrak or some other operating agency.)

While most Amtrak passengers are connecting in New Haven to Northeast corridor trains, this new “Knowledge Corridor” line will offer not only seamless cross-platform connections to Acela, Metro-North and Shore Line East, but point-to-point service among its 13 stations.

At three stations there will be connections to CTfastrak (the new $567 million bus rapid transit system opening in 2015).  And at Windsor Locks you’ll be able to hop off the train, onto a shuttle bus and be at Bradley airport in just minutes.  Eventually there may be through trains north to Montreal and east to Boston via the inland route.

There are plans for 200 – 300 parking spaces at most stations.  But the real hope is that TOD (Transit Oriented Development) will work its magic and people will be able to live, commute to work and get back home without a car.

The economic potentials are amazing:  work in downtown Hartford or New Haven but live, shop and eat in Wallingford or Windsor and never have to own a car!  Already the land around the proposed stations is being grabbed up for development.

Another issue for the communities served by the new rail line will be the 32 grade crossings.  More trains will mean more gates dropping across busy roadways and more warning horns being sounded.

One thing the new rail line will not be is “high speed” (125+ mph).  Earlier hype about bullet trains running parallel to I-91 has been replaced with more reasonable expectations:  the new trains will cover the 60 miles between New Haven and Springfield just eight minutes faster than existing Amtrak trains (thanks mostly to raised platforms and less ‘dwell time’ at stations).  But what they lack in speed they will more than make up for in frequency of service.

For more information on Connecticut’s newest rail line, visit their website: http://www.nhhsrail.com

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Talking Transportation: The Gestalt of a Railroad

On a recent Acela ride to Boston I tried to explain to a seat-mate why our high speed train was alternately crawling along at 45 miles per hour in Metro-North territory, then screaming northward at 125 beyond New Haven.  I told him (a visitor from Switzerland used to amazing rail service) that a railroad is a great example of “gestalt”… that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

THE TRAIN:   We focus a lot on the age and capabilities of our rail engines and passenger cars in defining a railroad.  Sure, Acela is the fastest train in North America, running an average 125 mph in many areas between Washington and Boston.  But it is capable of much higher speeds, recently being tested at 165 mph in nighttime runs in New Jersey.  Even Metro-North’s old cars, let alone the new M8’s, can easily cruise at 90 mph.  I say “can” because they are capable of those speeds. But there are too many other components of a railroad that often make such speeds undesirable for comfort or safety.

THE TRACK:    Even Acela has a hard time in Connecticut because of old track and a century old right-of-way.  (Think of running a Lamborghini on a pot-holed local road.)

The track must be strong enough to support heavy trains.  In most places, track is welded for a smooth ride, avoiding the clickety-clack sound as trains ride over the joints.

The track sits on and is attached to a base plate which in turn sits on a tie, or sleeper.  For centuries these ties have been made of treated wood, but increasingly are built with concrete.  The ties sit on a roadbed or ballast, usually crushed stone, which distributes the weight of the train above while still allowing drainage. All of this requires maintenance and regular replacement of worn ties and rail to keep a smooth ride.

This is why even Metro-North’s newest cars bounce and creak as they ride along.  The rough ride isn’t the fault of the train but the roadbed.

And because our “right of way” follows the coastline, our tracks curve and bank as they meander along, causing further slowdowns just for the physics of the run.  The line from NYC to Boston has so many curves that a train makes the equivalent of six complete circles on that route.

THE SIGNALS:        Even the fastest trains in the world running on the newest and smoothest roadbed can’t keep up speed without knowing that the track ahead is clear.  And at 125 to 250 mph (US and world-class definitions of High Speed Rail), that requires a signal system that knows the location of every train within a matter of inches.

Like our century-old right-of-way, the ancient signal system on Metro-North is what’s preventing us from running trains at faster speeds and shorter headways (the time or distance between trains).

All US railroads are also struggling to meet a 2015 Federal mandate of “positive train control”, meaning that a train that runs through a red signal would be automatically stopped.

THE  POWER:    Whether Metro-North or Amtrak, our trains need power which comes in the form of electricity pulled from overhead wire, or catenary, some of which is almost a century old.  The railroad and CDOT are midway through a 30-year, multi-million dollar plan to update all of that wiring while still running a full complement of trains each day.  It’s like trying to change a fan-belt on a moving car.

So the next time you’re riding the train, give thought to the many components that make for a smooth, comfortable, speedy and safe trip.  The whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Talking Transportation: The Bridgeport – Port Jefferson Ferry

Every now and then it’s great to see a transportation system that works really well.  Case in point, the Bridgeport (CT) to Port Jefferson (NY) ferry.

I’ve written in the past about some folks’ crazy idea that ferry boats are the solution to our traffic problems along I-95.  They are not.  But they do prove useful when they take you where the roads and rails can’t, like across Long Island Sound.

The first ferry ran this 18-mile route in 1872.  By 1883 permanent service was offered by a company owned in part by Bridgeport’s PT Barnum (after whom one of the line’s current vessels is named).  In 1980 all-season service began with the line’s largest vessel, “The Grand Republic”.

The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company is 100% owned by Brian McAllister, a fourth generation seaman and tugboat czar who lives on Long Island.  You’ll usually see one of his tugs in Port Jeff’s harbor.

Each of the line’s three ferries is “RO-RO”, for roll-on, roll-off.  At Bridgeport, cars and trucks drive on from the rear and exit in Port Jefferson by driving off thru the raised bow of the vessel.  The ferries can carry between 90 and 110 vehicles and a thousand passengers.

The crossing takes about an hour and a quarter but you can save considerable time, tolls and aggravation by avoiding driving to New York City and crossing the Whitestone or Throgs Neck bridges.

When it began, the ferries carried food grown on Long Island to industrial cities in New England.  Today you’ll still see an occasional truck ferrying seafood, but most of the traffic is tourists and business people.

In season, all three vessels are in operation allowing for almost hourly departures.  If you’re bringing a vehicle a reservation is a good idea, though on most weekday runs you can just drive right up and catch the next boat.

The vehicle unloading and re-loading process is smooth and when passengers leave their cars they can join foot passengers upstairs at the snack bar or cocktail lounge.  In good weather the sundeck affords a wonderful view.  There’s Wi-Fi available on board and cell-phone signals are strong, even in the middle of the Sound.

In Bridgeport, the ferry dock is a two-minute walk from Metro-North.  But in Port Jefferson it’s about a 25-minute walk from the dock to the nearest Long Island Railroad station.  Taxi service is available at both terminals.

Fares aren’t cheap:  $54 for a car and driver, $15 for each additional passenger.  Foot passengers are $18 one-way, $26 for same-day round trip.  Seniors (age 60+) are $13 one-way, $18 for a same-day return.  Kids 12 and under are always free when traveling with an adult.

There was talk a few years ago of offering additional service from New Haven to Port Jeff.  More recently there was discussion of also running to Stamford and from there to NYC using a high speed ferry, but rising fuels costs sunk those plans.

The current ferries are hardly high speed… just 17 mph according to my GPS on a recent crossing.  But they’re a fun way to travel, avoiding the traffic mayhem of New York City when going from Connecticut to Long Island.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

Talking Transportation: Metro-North’s Ticket Rules Are a Rip-off

Metro-North’s “new and improved” fare policy taking effect on September 4th is neither new nor improved.  It continues to be a rip-off of riders.

Until 2010, you could buy a one-way or round-trip ticket and use it anytime within 90 days.  Convenient ten trip tickets were good for a year.  And unused tickets could be refunded anytime for free.

Then, in December of 2010, things changed for the worse:  one-way tickets were only good for 14 days and ten-trips for six months.  Refund any ticket and you’d be hit with a $10 service fee.

Why the change?  Metro-North admitted it wasn’t able to collect all tickets on trains and was losing money.  So rather than staff trains with enough conductors to collect tickets, they thought it wiser to penalize passengers.

How did these faster-expiring tickets hurt?  In many ways:

Some passengers who bought ten trip tickets for occasional trips found they’d expired, leaving them with four or five unused rides costing $10 or more apiece.  Ouch!

That was a mistake you’d only make once, so those passengers then abandoned the 30 – 40% savings of ten-trip tickets and had to buy one-ways.  Ka-ching!

That means many passengers must buy a new ticket before every trip, which means getting to the station early and standing in line.

But while passengers were inconvenienced and lost money under the new rules, Metro-North scored a windfall of millions of dollars in additional revenue… some of it, perhaps, from previously uncollected tickets, but how much more from tickets bought in good faith but unused because they had expired?

And $10 to refund a ticket?  By whose accounting?  The same agent who handles refunds doesn’t charge $10 to sell a ticket, so why charge for a refund?

The Commuter Council representing LIRR riders has a better idea:  tickets sold could not be refunded, but neither would they expire.

This September 4th, responding to “massive complaints” from riders, the rules will change, but only slightly:  one-way and roundtrip tickets will then be good for 60 days, not 14.  But ten trips are still worthless after six months.

To my thinking, tickets should never expire.  If there’s a fare increase, pay the difference between the old fare and the new one.  Otherwise, if you’ve paid for a ticket, you can take the ride. Period.

Conductors should do their jobs, placing seat-checks when tickets are collected so they know when new passengers get aboard and can then collect their tickets.  How often have you seen a conductor walk through a train crying, “Stamford tickets,” as the newly boarded commuters avoid eye contact?

Watching someone board at Stamford who doesn’t pay their fare is like watching someone shoplift.  We all pay for their theft.

The new M8 cars mean more seats and fewer standees.  It’s a rare Friday afternoon train that’s packed so tight a conductor can’t move through to collect tickets.  If you ride a train where fares aren’t collected you should report it.  A well paid Metro-North conductor hiding in their booth from angry passengers instead of collecting their fares is unacceptable.

We already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  These unfair Metro-North ticket rules just make commuting less convenient and more expensive.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

Talking Transportation – Amtrak’s Future in Connecticut

Amtrak, what passes for America’s national railroad, has some big plans for the future.  The problem is finding any consensus, let alone the money, on what those plans should be.

Before we detail their vision for the year 2030, here’s a snapshot of how Amtrak operates today.  Amtrak runs 46 trains a day through Connecticut serving 1.7 million passengers annually.  New Haven, the busiest station in the state, is also the 11th busiest in the nation.

Amtrak’s flagship, Acela, running from Boston to Washington, also stops in Stamford (and once-a-day in New London), while the slower “Northeast Corridor” trains serve Bridgeport, Old Saybrook and Mystic with branch-line trains running from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield.

Amtrak is also hired by the CDOT to run Shore Line East commuter trains between New London and New Haven.

Unlike the rest of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak does not own or control the tracks from the New York state line to New Haven.  Those tracks are owned by the CDOT which pays Metro-North to maintain them and the overhead power (catenary) lines.  Amtrak pays a flat fee (far too low, says CDOT) to run its trains on “our” tracks, plus a little bonus money to the state for prioritizing its schedule over that of the commuter lines.

Connecticut’s section of the Northeast Corridor contains more miles and serves more stations than any other state from D.C. to Massachusetts.  And it includes several 100+ year-old bridges crossing the Thames, Niantic and Connecticut Rivers, crucial to inter-city service.  It’s old and expensive to maintain.

It’s hard to run a true high speed railroad on a century-old right-of-way.  In fact, Acela goes no faster than Metro-North (90 mph) between NY and New Haven and cannot engage its tilting mechanism on the many curves.

So, as Amtrak looks to the future, it’s thinking of building an entirely new line through Connecticut to connect New York City and Boston.  Rather than following the coastline (parallel to I-95) it envisions an inland route (parallel to I-84).

As the last phase of its 2030 – 2040 “Next Gen” high speed rail, 220 mph Amtrak bullet-trains (faster than the current French TGV) would bypass Stamford, New Haven and New London and instead zip through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford.  “Super-Express” service would be non-stop thru Connecticut while “Express” trains would make brief stops in those inland Connecticut cities.  Northeast Corridor service would continue along the coast as either “Shoreline Express” or “Regional” trains.

Needless to say, Governor Malloy and the CDOT are not happy with Amtrak’s plan, especially given Connecticut (and the Feds’) investment in the New Haven to Hartford high(er) speed corridor.  They want the existing coastal corridor to New Haven to be served by the super-Acela service which could then continue north through Hartford to Springfield before heading east to Boston.  Put the trains where the people are, is their argument.

Amtrak thinks the coastal corridor is too old, has too many curves and would be too expensive to operate.  They think it would be cheaper to build a new line from scratch, and they’re probably right.

We are so lucky that, a century ago, a four-track rail line was built along Connecticut’s coast.  It was state-of-the-art for its time and could never be built today.  But for the 21st century, this line is obsolete.  Every serious high speed railroad in the world operates on a new, dedicated right-of-way, not some hand-me-down from the past.

So, good for Amtrak for bold planning for our future.  It’s time for our Governor and CDOT to get on board.  A new, inland high-speed route is the best way to go.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Talking Transportation: Is This Any Way to Run The State?

Usually, I have a lot of respect for our elected officials in Hartford. But what happened in the final hours of the legislative session in recent weeks is just shocking.  You probably didn’t hear about it because there are no reporters left covering the state house for what passes for newspapers and TV news in our state, but that’s another story.

Lawmakers know they aren’t being watched and are, therefore, not accountable.  (I do commend veteran reporter Ken Dixon’s blog for the gory details of what they pulled off.)

Working late into the night, in their final hours in session, our elected officials wheeled and dealed on dozens of bills, painstakingly crafted and considered in recent months.  By 3 am they were voting on bundles of bills they had not read, some introduced at the last minute, acting like bleary-eyed college students pulling an all-nighter.  This is the government we deserve?

Amidst this annual frenzy, the Malloy administration was also trying to plug a $200 million gap in the current budget.  Unwilling to raise taxes any further, they turned to rail commuters and motorists and picked our pockets instead.  But the session had started on a better note.

Thanks to State Rep Kim Fawcett (D-Fairfield), a previously announced 4% rail fare hike to take effect 1/1/13 had gone away during the writing of the new budget.  But at the 11th hour, Malloy’s budget team put it back… not to raise money to fix our trains, but to raise funds to close the deficit.  This was less a fare increase than a tax on commuters.  And it was Governor Malloy’s idea, rubber stamped by the Democratic majority.

But worse yet, lawmakers stole $70 million from the Special Transportation Fund, also to plug that deficit hole.  That takes money raised by gasoline taxes, which was supposed to be used to fix highways and bridges, and uses it to pay for everything but those efforts.

As I have written before, the Special Transportation Fund (STF) is less a “lock box” than a slush-fund, dipped into regularly by Democrats and Republicans looking for money but reticent to raise taxes.

When he was running for office, candidate Dannel Malloy decried such moves.  He said he would call for a constitutional amendment to safeguard the STF from such pilfering.  Not only did he not introduce such an amendment, he did the same as past governors, raiding the STP and making commuters pay for his budgeting mistakes.  In my book, that makes him a hypocrite.

Months earlier, we discovered that this past January’s 4% fare increase wasn’t going to be spent on the trains, but was going into the STF.  When State Rep Gal Lavielle (R – Wilton) tried, along with 20+ lawmakers, to get introduce a bill requiring fare hikes to be spent on mass transit, she couldn’t even get it out of committee.

Commuters:  the fix is in.  Your fares (the highest of any commuter railroad in the US) are going higher.  But the money won’t be spent on improving rail service.  Those millions will just go into the STF slush-fund.  And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

Of course, this is an election year.  So you might ask those running for State Representative and State Senator who want to represent you, why they allow rail fares to be used as yet another tax on commuters.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Talking Transportation: Next Stop Penn Station?

There’s discussion again about bringing some Metro-North trains directly from Connecticut into New York City’s Penn Station.  But will it happen?

As with many good ideas that seem so easy, this one also has been studied thoroughly and found to be problematic in a number of respects.  Governor Rell floated the idea in 2007 but it went nowhere, aside from an experiment by NJ Transit to run trains from New Haven to the Meadowlands.

Here are the reasons that daily commuter service isn’t yet possible:

INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT:  As any commuter on Metro-North can tell you, we don’t have enough seats for existing service to Grand Central let alone expansion to new stations.  It’s standing room only in rush hour and on weekends.

ELECTRICITY:  Our existing fleet of MU cars cannot take a left turn at New Rochelle and head over the Hells Gate Bridge onto Long Island, then hang a right, in through the tunnels into Penn Station.  The old cars’ overhead power catenary system operates under a different voltage than Amtrak.  And in third rail territory on Long Island, even our new M8 cars use a different kind of shoe to contact the third-rail power source.  The 2009 experimental direct train from Connecticut to Giants Stadium in New Jersey was actually run with New Jersey transit railroad equipment which was only available because it was on weekends.

CAPACITY:  Even if we had the cars with the right electrical equipment to make it over the Hells Gate Bridge and through the tunnels to Penn Station, there’s no room in the station… that the station is full-up serving Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and NJ transit.  If and when the $6.3 billion East Side Access project bringing some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central is completed (many years from now), says the MTA, there might be room for Metro-North trains to access Penn Station.

CUT LIRR SERVICE?        Recently the MTA has hinted they might run some Metro-North trains into Penn Station, but it would have to cut Long Island RR service.  You can imagine the push-back that got, pitting one set of commuters against another.  (See more on our Facebook page).

Whatever the decision, it won’t be made by us here in Connecticut.  Once again, Connecticut is being told by the New York MTA what our transportation future will be.  Connecticut still has no say in the matter… not even a voting seat at the table, either on the MTA or the Metro-North boards.

Connecticut may be the MTA’s largest customer, hired by CDOT to operate Metro-North trains in our state, but when it comes to important decisions, like expanding rail service to Penn Station, the MTA is clearly in control.

Years ago Governor Rell acknowledged the inequity in this position, and promised to fight for a seat on the MTA board.  But nothing happened.  Nor has Governor Malloy said anything about this unfairness.

So, just why is a New York agency still in charge of Connecticut’s transportation future?

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation – Congress Tells Commuters…“Drop Dead”

Jim Cameron - Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council

Back in 1975 when New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, then- President Ford declined to offer help and the NY Daily News’ headlinescreamed “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.

Well, last month the US Congress said about the same thing to us users of mass transit.  In their quagmire of inaction, bickering and partisanship, they let expire an important tax benefit to commuters:  whether you drove or took mass transit, you used to be able to spend up to $230 a month in pre-tax dollars to fund your commute.  But by not acting to extend the law, that benefit dropped to $125 a month for riders of mass transit but increased to $240 a month for drivers’ parking expenses.

What?  Commuters who ride the train / bus /subway get screwed but drivers get a benefits hike?  Yes, friends, it’s all true and you have Congress to thank.

This isn’t a red-state / blue-state issue.  I see it as a “gray state” victory, the gray states being those paved with asphalt that have scorned mass transit.  Meanwhile, big city riders of the rails get penalized.

There’s something egalitarian about mass transit… millionaires riding in the same smelly Metro-North cars as blue collar workers.  People of color actually mingling with white folks!  It’s like we’re all in this together, sharing space, giving up our individual liberties (smoking, singing, traveling exactly when we want) for the greater good (less highway congestion, air pollution, saving money).

People in the gray states don’t understand that.  Theirs is a culture of selfishness:  my car, my space, my right to travel where I want and when, to heck with you.  Oh yeah, and the right to have free parking (or at least subsidized, as under this bill).

Connecticut commuters welcomed the New Year with a 5.25% fare hike on Metro-North (with similar fare hikes to come the next two years), thanks to the Malloy administration seeing rail riders as an easy target for “revenue enhancement”.  So losing this federal tax benefit is just adding insult to injury.

The Federal government doesn’t do much in terms of our commuter rail.  They didn’t pay a penny for the new M8 cars.  They don’t set the fares, determine the station parking rules or set the timetable.  All of those are state functions.

Sure, the feds did kick some Tiger III grant money to Stamford for station work, but aside from that, nada.

That’s why Senators Blumenthal and Lieberman are trying to restore this federal tax benefit, the one thing they can do to help us commuters.  They’ve been flooded with angry letters.  Their bill (S-1034) has 10 co-sponsors but so far hasn’t won support from their colleagues who matter, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).  Not a lot of commuter rail in Montana and Utah, eh?

Time will tell if Congress can fix this mess.  I’m not optimistic, despite the best efforts of our Connecticut delegation.

 

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: What’s in a Name?

Don’t be too jealous, but as you read this I’m enjoying a rail adventure in Europe… almost two weeks of riding some of the fastest and best trains in the world… my idea of a real holiday.

As I prepare my itinerary, I’m struck by how well the Europeans “brand” their service.  There is, of course, “Eurostar”, the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel”.  There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria”, a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.

All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela”, Amtrak’s best effort at high speed rail.  As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is… it’s your basement.”

Amtrak still has some named trains though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes:  the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, The Adirondack to Montreal.

The New Haven Railroad used to name its trains:  The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and Senator.  When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”.  But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known as “The Night Crawler”.  It’s long gone.

It may well be that Acela will seem like a slow-poke if a new project takes wing: a maglev train linking New York and DC.  Out of the blue this week I got an online survey from a company testing names for the proposed service.

Among the options I was asked to grade:  “Maglev”, “Quicksilver”, “Aero” and “Magenta”.  Really… magenta?  But clearly these planners know that before they could even propose such a service, it needs an identity.  (PS:  I think this project has zero chance of ever being built, but it’s nice to know someone is thinking bigger and better than Amtrak).

Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur:  Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, NY Central and a dead-end.  South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est. And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.

On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located.  But Westport residents insist on calling their station “Saugatuck”.  And I wish I knew how Green’s Farms got its name.  Coming this fall, “Fairfield Metro” will arrive.

Though it doesn’t name its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars carry  names tied to Connecticut lore:  The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry), The Ella Grasso (named after our former Governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.

And even before Amtrak, America’s railroads similarly named many cars, especially sleepers, parlor cars and diners.  The long-distance, double-deck Superliners carry the names of the states and such historic figures as A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Pullman porters union.

So the next time you’re on some generic, 30+ year old Metro-North car known only by a number, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a car and train with a name like “The Silver Streak” or “The Weary Commuter”.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 20 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: The Malloy ‘Tax’ On Commuters

If a mugger came up to you on the street and said “I’m going to poke your eyes out!”, but then he only kicked you in the groin, would you think better of him?

That’s what Metro-North commuters are asking themselves now that CDOT has decided on 15.25% fare hike spread over the next three years instead of the 16.4% hike first proposed.  Are we supposed to be grateful?

To their credit, CDOT held eight public hearings around the state to gauge commuter response to their plan.  Hundreds turned out, 99% of them saying there was no justification for a fare increase in light of worsening service.  But having asked the public for their views, the CDOT chose to ignore them.

Mind you, this fare hike is not really coming from the CDOT.  It’s actually a creation of Governor Malloy and his budget team.

At every monthly meeting over the past two years the CT Rail Commuter Council asked CDOT if there were plans for a fare increase.  Each month they said “no”, until this spring during the budget process.

When the Governor’s concessions package was initially rejected by state employees, Malloy came out with “Plan B”, a painful collection of service cuts and fee increases (including a fare hike) that hit everyone in the state.  That got the state workers to reconsider and eventually they agreed to concessions and avoided layoffs.  But when the unions said yes, “Plan B” didn’t go away, especially the Metro-North fare hike.

So these fare increases are not to cover the cost of running the railroad but to balance the state budget.  What they amount to is nothing less than a “tax” on commuters, an attractive target with few alternatives.

Our fares are already the highest of any commuter railroad in the US.  Now they’ll be even higher.  Even the railroad’s own computer models suggest these higher fares will reduce ridership.

There are plenty of ways for Metro-North to save money without a fare hike, like collecting all the tickets on the trains.  For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has been asking the railroad to get conductors to do their job.  By their own estimates, the railroad acknowledges millions of dollars in lost revenue from uncollected fares.

Instead of collecting all the tickets, the railroad adopted new rules which make tickets expire sooner, leaving many riders with tickets that are now worthless.  Buy a ten-trip ticket and it’s worth zero in six months if you haven’t used it.  Meanwhile, passengers board trains at Stamford every day and get a free ride to Bridgeport because conductors aren’t doing their job. Their free ride is paid for by those with tickets.

Remember:  Metro-North works for the CDOT.  Why the state chooses to look the other way while the railroad abuses passengers in this way is a question best answered by Governor Malloy, the CDOT’s boss.

At a time when the state should be doing all it can to create and keep jobs in the state… and keep taxpayers from moving to NY or NJ… it’s astounding that Governor Malloy chooses instead to make the cost of commuting more expensive, not less.

This fare hike is just another nail in the coffin of Connecticut’s economic growth.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 20 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

 

Talking Transportation: Who’s In Charge of Our Transportation Future?

Is anyone guiding our state’s transportation future?  One wonders.

Three months into the Malloy administration, we still don’t have a Commissioner at the Department of Transportation.  Yet, the Governor is pushing legislation to eliminate the Transportation Strategy Board just a decade after its creation.

It’s clear that we are far from solving our transportation mess, so it’s disconcerting that no individual or advisory board seems to be in charge.

We’ve had five Commissioners at the DOT since Jodi Rell became Governor, the most recent leaving last July under the cloud of an alleged scandal.  So why the lack of a firm hand on the tiller of this 3,400-employee, $725 million capital budget agency?

Well, first, who would want the job?  The CDOT has careened from scandal to cost-overrun, from investigation to calls for reorganization.  It’s the agency we love to hate.  So it’s no surprise that Governor Malloy’s national search for a new Commissioner has turned up empty so far.

The last Commissioner, Joseph Marie, came to Connecticut after a national search and made tremendous progress at rebuilding morale in the agency.  His candor was refreshing.  His experience on the rail side (having just designed and built Phoenix’s light rail system) was hailed as a turning point in the agency previously dominated by highways veterans.  His deputy Commissioner, Jeff Parker, was similarly well versed and widely respected.

But when Marie was forced to resign amid unproven allegations of sexual improprieties… without so much as formal charges or investigations… Parker took over only to leave last month, impatient at the new Governor’s inability to give him the full title or replace him. 

Why then, with the CDOT in limbo, does Governor Malloy want to eliminate the Transportation Strategy Board?  At least that body had the mandate of taking a longer-term view of a 20-year plan for rail and road, airports and ports.

Created in 2001, the TSB was complemented by regional advisory TIA’s, or Transportation Investment Areas, including “The Coastal Corridor TIA” (on which I have served since its creation).  With input from the TIAs, the TSB issued its first recommendations in 2003 in a comprehensive report prioritizing long overdue investment in transportation, including ordering new rail cars for Metro-North.

There were updates in 2007 and 2011 as the body explored the links between transportation and economic development.

The first TSB Chairman, Oz Griebel, went on to run for Governor.  His successor, businessman Kevin Kelleher, missed many meetings and didn’t seem engaged in the TSB’s ongoing work.  A third Chairman, Bruce Alexander from Yale turned the TSB into a debating club, achieving little.

On one important policy issue, tolls on our highways, the TSB did a terrible job.  Unable to come to any consensus on this crucial traffic mitigation and funding source, they did what everyone previously has done with transportation:  they called for another study.  But the resulting report was so jumbled, offering nine different alternatives, that choosing among them was impossible and political suicide.

It didn’t help that then-governor Rell had rejected any tolling idea even as the million dollar report was being written.  Neither did a series of public hearings held by the TSB around the state when the report was issued.  The agency sought public comment without any explanation of the study or its proposals.

At the hearing in Norwalk only a handful of TSB members were present (with Chairman Kelleher again absent) to listen as 50 uninformed residents spouted the same old objections to tolling.  What a waste.

The tolling issue has not gone away.  Nor have questions about how we will fund mass transit with an ever-dwindling gasoline tax.  We still don’t know if Bradley Airport should be sold or continue to be run by the state… or when we’ll replace the crumbling Stamford rail station garage.  How about delays on the M8 cars due to the Japanese quake?  New highway spending, repair on hundreds of decrepit  bridges, so-called ‘high speed rail’ from New Haven to Springfield, development of our ports, overdue expansion of rail station parking… none of these issues seem closer to being addressed without leadership.

So as the TSB is legislated into oblivion and the Commissioner’s office at the CDOT continues to be occupied by Acting and Interim-titled placeholders, just who is watching over our state’s transportation future?

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 20 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council.  But the opinions expressed here are only his own.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: CDOT Thinks We’re Stupid

The CT Rail Commuter Council’s “Winter Crisis – Commuter Summit” last week was a big success.  Dozens of commuters turned out to share their horror stories about trying to ride Metro-North this winter… no heat, no information, no seats and in many cases, no trains!

Metro-North and the CT Dept of Transportation made the usual excuses and apologies, which placated few… “we’re doing the best we can”… ‘it’s not our fault the trains are so old”… and the classic, “be patient, the new M8 cars are coming.”

All of these are true.  But it was in trying to explain the many delays in the delivery and testing of the new M8 cars that things got heated.

As any reader of this column knows, we’ve been waiting since 2005 for new cars to replace our decrepit fleet.  Designed and built by Kawasaki, the new M8 cars look great.  But they’re 15 months late into service with no real explanation as to why… or when they’ll be ready for passengers.  It was time for answers.

The CT Rail Commuter Council, a creation of the legislature, has neither a budget nor much power.  But the one thing state statutes say is that we may request “and shall receive” any assistance we want from the CDOT in understanding what’s going wrong with Metro-North operations.

So, to get to the bottom of the M8 delays, we requested that CDOT bring to our meeting someone from Kawasaki and from LTK (the consultant that’s been paid $27 million to oversee the M8 testing program).  To our dismay, they refused.  No explanation, just a “no”.

We turned to Governor Malloy’s office for help, but they didn’t even return our phone calls.  So much for the first test of the Governor’s promise of open, transparent government.

Why the cover-up?  What do CDOT and the Governor know about the M8 delays that they wanted to keep the experts away from our questioning?  What are they hiding?

At our meeting on February 16th we submitted a list of 32 specific questions about the M8 program and got few replies.  But among the facts we did learn:

  • The testing program has been underway for a year.
  • The cars are showing not just “software problems” but hardware issues as well.
  • Kawasaki doesn’t get paid until the cars prove they can work.
  • The mandatory 4000-mile test run of the prototype cars has been started and restarted several times as new problems were identified.
  • Metro-North still thinks they can fix the M8 problems and get as many as 80 into service by the end of 2011, two years behind schedule.

When a commuter asked the Interim-Commissioner of the CDOT why he wasn’t speaking specifically about the identified engineering problems with the M8 he was told that “people wouldn’t understand” them.  In other words, because we’re not civil or electrical engineers (though many commuters are!), the CDOT thinks it better to just explain away this $866 million railcar as having “software problems”.

I told the Commissioner that I found his attitude insulting and condescending.  Commuters on Metro-North are not stupid and we don’t need to have things “dumbed down” to be understood.

The CT Rail Commuter Council has done what it can to find the truth about the M8 delays.  We’ve sent our questions along to the Transportation Committee of the state legislature.  Maybe they can get some straight answers.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 20 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: Where are the new M8 cars?

Interior of New M-8 Rail Cars

Almost daily, on train platforms and in town, a commuter stops me to ask, “So, where are the new M8 rail cars?”  I wish I knew!

It has been six years since then-Governor Jodi Rell announced that the state would finally be replacing its broken-down rail fleet… six years!  It’s taken that long for their design, bidding, construction and delivery.  The first car arrived Christmas Eve 2009, already a year late due to builder Kawasaki’s construction problems.

For 13 months those cars have undergone testing. But today we seem no closer to riding the M8s despite promises that they would be in service by now, and the testing process has been cloaked in mystery. (Ironically, there are dozens of videos of the M8s undergoing testing on YouTube, but that’s the closest I’ve been to seeing them running.)
Throughout 2010, we were told that prototype testing was going well.  But by November, we wondered why a date hadn’t been announced for the trains to go into service.  After all, even Governor Rell had been promised that the M8s would run before she left office at the end of December 2010.

So, in November the Commuter Council asked CDOT to bring us someone from Kawasaki to talk about the testing.  They refused.

Then, six weeks ago, there was a glitch:  an electromagnetic pulse from the cars was affecting the signal system.  This was a deal-breaker.  Testing was stopped.

But rather than advise legislators or the Commuter Council about this problem, CDOT and Metro-North gave the bad news “exclusive” to two reporters, who had to pledge they would not speak with any stakeholders with oversight. 
Those are questionable journalistic ethics and hardly “transparent”.  Since when do government agencies get away with spin-control on such bad news?

This past week, the Commuter Council asked CDOT for updates on the testing.  We received the same vague generalities as we’d been given for a year: “The testing is going along as planned.”  But this time, something new and disconcerting was added.

A senior CDOT official told us “We take out the M8s every night and run them, and every night a new issue comes up.”  A new issue?

Yup… every night of testing a new problem is found.  Among them, problems with the auxiliary power system, the automatic train control and the diagnostic computer monitoring.  And until they are all fixed, the final crucial test, 4,000 error-free miles, can’t begin.

And testing of the M8s on Shore Line East, under Amtrak’s power system and signaling, hasn’t even begun.  Until the M8s can run on Shore Line East there will be no equipment to run on the long-promised New Haven to Springfield commuter rail line.

But wait… there’s more.  It seems that Metro-North itself hasn’t been overseeing Kawasaki’s testing of the M8’s, but a consultant.  LTK Assoc. of Pennsylvania has been paid $15 million to monitor the tests.  And this week their contract will be extended seven months for another $12 million.

None of these details were shared with the legislature’s Transportation Committee or Commuter Council, despite our interest in this crucial testing stage.  It came out in a newspaper article.

If Metro-North feels it needs multi-million dollar consultants for another seven months after we’ve already had a year of testing, that sure sounds like they don’t believe the M8s will be in service anytime soon.

Nobody wants to rush these cars onto the tracks, however badly they are needed.  But given the $866 million cost of the project and the six years we’ve already waited, why can’t Metro-North and CDOT be open and honest about what’s going on?

The Commuter Council has been asking the questions but the answers have been curt and condescending.   Perhaps it’s time for the legislature’s Transportation Committee to get to the bottom of this story.  Commuters (and taxpayers) deserve an answer.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 20 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: Thank You Governor Rell

Anyone who follows this column knows I’m bipartisan in my criticism.  Whoever is in power, Democrat or Republican, I’ve got “suggestions” on how they could improve our transportation mess.

Since she came to office in the midst of a scandal, no other politician has been the target of my commentary more often than Governor M. Jodi Rell.  Today, however, I want to give her the credit she’s due for all she’s done on the transportation front.

Watching the Governor ride the first of the new M8 rail cars this week, I was struck by how she had come full circle in only six years.  The irony is it took her entire tenure in office to order, design, build, test and finally deliver these new cars.

In Governor Rell’s first budget address to lawmakers in February 2005 she started to undo years of her predecessors’ neglect of our trains.  She told lawmakers we must order 300 new rail cars, and they did.  Mind you, she told us then the cars would be in service by 2008.  I predicted, accurately it turned out, that 2010 was a better guess.
The Governor said riders should pay a small part of their cost with a modest fare hike, and that too was passed by lawmakers.

But Governor Rell also said that commuters shouldn’t pay more until they were actually riding in the new cars… a promise she kept.  As manufacturing delays by Kawasaki slowed delivery of the M8’s, that planned 1.25% fare hike was deferred.   A politician who keeps a promise.  Imagine that.

More recently, Governor Rell also told the New York MTA, parent of Metro-North, there was no way she was going to raise fares in Connecticut to pay for the budget problems of New York’s own making.  That was a first in the troubled history of Connecticut / New York relations, but again the Governor deserves credit for doing the right thing.
But not every dream came true during the Rell administration. 

Grumblings about a lack of a voting seat on the MTA or Metro-North boards never amounted to more than that… grumbling.

And yes, Governor Rell did change Commissioners in the Dept. of Transportation at a pace that left many people wondering who was in charge:  five Commissioners in six years.  One was a former State Trooper, another had run Bradley airport.  The two most recent of them actually had experience in rail transportation.

Wracked by scandals, Governor Rell was embarrassed on several occasions by her DOT, eventually asking local businessman Michael Critelli to study the agency and issue recommendations for reform.  Of course, few of the group’s suggestions were ever embraced.

Long promised repairs to our dilapidated train stations took four years to happen, thanks mainly to Federal stimulus money.  If this work wasn’t “shovel ready”, nothing was.

We’re still not certain if the much-needed New Haven Rail facility will ever be fully built, as its price yo-yoed from $300 million in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2008.  The Governor’s solution… pay consultants $630,000 for an audit.  Their report found only $11 million in potential cuts.

Still, Governor Rell was a big rail fan, realizing the importance not only of fixing Metro-North, but planning for the future.  Together with fellow lame-duck Senator Chris Dodd, she secured a serious down-payment on high-speed rail between New Haven and Springfield.  Well, maybe not true “high-speed”, but certainly higher speed than Amtrak currently offers.

I’m not sure how Governor-elect Malloy will do on transportation, though he clearly understands the problems from his years as mayor of Stamford.  His dreams for better mass transit will be most tempered by our economic crisis.

But to outgoing Governor Rell all commuters should give a loud “thank you” for all that she accomplished.  She’ll be a hard act to follow.

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

Talking Transportation: It’s All About Housing

Whether by car, by train or on a bike, the reason we must commute is that, most often, we don’t live where we work.  So any discussion of our transportation problems must include an understanding of our housing crisis in this area.
A recent report showed that housing in lower Fairfield County is the most expensive in the nation.  You need an income of $70,000 just to afford a two bedroom apartment in the Stamford – Norwalk corridor.

So, people who come to work here can only afford to live further afield.  Their daily drives / rides contribute to our congestion.  The solution?  More affordable housing!

A recent conference sponsored by Southwest Regional Planning Agency held some startling examples in that poster-boy of affluence, Greenwich.  This 67 square mile city of 61,000 has 5,545 town employees… teachers, cops, firefighters and the like.  However, 67% of those workers don’t live in Greenwich, but commute daily from Danbury, Bridgeport, Westchester and even Long Island.

They spend an average of 103 minutes per day just getting to and from work, paying more than $2,000 a year for gas.  Combined, they add 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, just by their commuting.
In a city where the median home price is $2 million, the average Greenwich city worker makes $65,000.  And because these teachers, civil servants and such have to come so far, they have to be paid more.  The average teacher in Greenwich earns $12,338 a year more than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.  These higher wages cost city taxpayers almost $19 million a year.  But their larger paychecks come at the cost of lost time and expense on the road.

The Greenwich schools spend $10,000 to $15,000 recruiting and training each new teacher.  But after five years of commuting (75% of the 912 teachers don’t live in Greenwich), they burn out, leave and find jobs elsewhere.  Between 1998 and 2007, 581 teachers left Greenwich for reasons other than retirement and 81% of them had less than eight years on the job.

EMS workers in Greenwich have it even worse, averaging 151 minutes (2 ½ hours!) commute time.  Just how fresh and ready for life-saving work do you think you’d be with a commute like that?

Greenwich is not unique.  All of the towns on “the Gold Coast” rely on importing personnel from far afield.  Schools in Darien often announce “snow days” not because its roads are impassable, but because teachers can’t drive through the snows farther north from communities like Danbury where can afford to live.

And what about the people that bag your groceries, clean your home or pump your gas?  Where do you think they live?  Just drive the Boston Post Road some morning and you’ll see them waiting for the bus.

Fairfield County has its own “migrant workers”.  We couldn’t live without them, but apparently we don’t want to live with them.  Just listen to the local debates about adding “affordable housing” in these affluent towns.   Whether because of their nationality or economic status, the expressed aversion to “those people” living in “our” towns is clearly xenophobic if not racist.

So how do we solve our transportation problems?  Well, one solution is clearly related to affordable housing.  Allow folks to live closer to their jobs and they won’t have to be in that car in front of you on I-95 or the Merritt at rush hour.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .

Talking Transportation: A Victory for Commuters

Who says you can’t fight City Hall… or Metro-North?

Back in August I wrote in this column about Metro-North’s latest proposals to gouge commuters.  Today I can report they have been soundly defeated.

To close its $800 million budget deficit, the MTA (Metro-North’s parent), has in past months come forward with a series of fare hikes and service cuts, all of them soundly rejected by Governor Rell.  Because, although that NY State agency has never heeded our Governor’s requests for a voting seat on its board, Connecticut does have veto power over fare hikes in our state.

I’ve got to hand it to Governor Rell.  She’s kept her word since February of 2005 when, in her first budget address, she told the legislature we were long overdue in ordering new rail cars and promised no fare hikes until the cars arrived and went into service.  She’s also funneled millions in stimulus funds into fixing up our rail stations.

But this time the MTA was proposing something different… what I called a “stealth” fare hike.

The rail agency proposed cutting the discount on monthly “Mail & Ride” tickets as well as rail tickets bought on the web.  They also wanted to reduce the validity of ten-trip tickets from one year to 90 days.  And single trip tickets, now valid for six months, would expire in a week.

What were they thinking?  Short of having conductors spit at passengers, these changes were almost like yelling “screw you” to their customers?

Once again, the CT Rail Commuter Council had its work to do.  First, in publicizing the proposal through the media.  Then, in demanding public hearings (though none were originally planned in Connecticut).  And finally, in rallying commuters to attend and speak out against these proposals.

For the record, I should note that the Council has, in the past, supported small fare hikes… when they were tied to the cost of living and matched against improvements in service.  But these proposals were neither.

The MTA’s budget deficit is of its own creation, not Connecticut’s.  So New York taxpayers and commuters should pay for it, not us.  Connecticut has never been asked for input on the multi-billion dollar mega-projects undertaken by the MTA, like the $6 billion to build tunnels bringing the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central, so why stick us with the bill?

Isn’t reducing a discount equivalent to a fare increase?  You betcha!

And what possible reason could Metro-North offer for shortening the validity of ten-trip tickets?  Incredibly, they said it was to deal with the “problem of uncollected tickets.”

Amazing.  For about a decade the Commuter Council has been beating on Metro-North about conductors not doing their jobs, leaving tickets uncollected on crowded trains.  By its own calculations, Metro-North loses $2 million a year on uncollected tickets.  And their solution is to screw customers by selling them ten-trips but letting them only use two or three rides, then declare their ticket invalid?

And the icing on the cake, the final proposal from the MTA?  A $15 fee to cash in an unexpired ticket!

The Commuter Council was curious just how much money would be raised if these plans were approved, so we filed a formal written request for that data.  The answer:  about a half-million dollars a year in Connecticut.  That’s nothing… a rounding error… bupkis!   An $800 million budget deficit, and all these proposed changes will bring in $500,000?

Governor Rell heard our argument and agreed.  She quickly ordered the CDOT to reject the MTA / Metro-North proposal, a directive read aloud at the public hearings in Stamford and New Haven.

Commuters have won… for now.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .

Talking Transportation: Keeping the Ol’ Car Running

My constant harangue against traffic and in favor of trains aside, I do own a car:  a used ’97 Honda Accord with 130,000 miles on it.  It’s a great car (the interior infused with cigar smoke notwithstanding), and I hope to run it into the ground.

Used cars are hot these days.  Prices have climbed 10% in a year as more drivers decide to hold onto their cars longer.  And why not?

We don’t have to be suckers to Detroit’s game of staking our egos on each year’s new model, which immediately loses 20% of its value the day we drive it home.  Used cars can prove perfectly reliable, if you keep them in good shape.

So when I saw a TV infomercial for CarMD, a device that promised a simple way to keep my jalopy going, I was jazzed.  I love car tech and this sounded great!

Rather than popping the $99 for the gizmo myself, I suggested to the Darien Library that they purchase one.  Yes, I am truly blessed to live in a town with a tech-savvy library that offers patrons any number of gizmos on loan… GPS devices, digital cameras and Kill-A-Watt readers.  But now I’m feeling a bit guilty.

Here’s how Car MD is supposed to work.

You take the remote unit, about the size of a fat TV remote, and plug it into your car’s computer output.  There’s the first challenge:  finding that plug.  But the www.carmd.com website has a simple guide by make and model. My plug was behind the ashtray of my ’97 Honda Accord.  In my wife’s ’96 Volvo, it was under the coin holder.

Once you’ve turned on and plugged in the CarMD gizmo, you turn on the ignition but you do NOT start the car.  The handheld device talks to your car’s computer, downloads the information, beeps four times and you’re done.  Well, sort of.

If the handheld device shows a green light (as on my trusty Honda), you’re OK.  Your car’s computer has found no problems.  But if it’s a yellow light, as I saw on the Volvo, the fun begins.

Next you have to copy down your car’s VIN (vehicle identification number).  Good luck reading that, if you can find it.

You then load the CarMD software onto your computer, register online with name and address (no, I did not read their Privacy Policy!) and open the software.  Type in the VIN and the system should identify your car by year, make and model.  You can register three cars per device and they don’t all have to belong to you.

But here’s where I was disappointed.  When I clicked the “check health status” button, the software displayed umpteen TSB’s (Technical Service Bulletins) for the Volvo going back to 1992 (even though the car is a ’96) but to read the full details it’s $1.99 per report or $19.95 a year to read them all.

Worse yet, the software told me nothing about why the yellow light was showing on the handheld device.  A call to CarMD’s Customer Service (friendly and knowledgeable) got to the root of the problem:  the Volvo’s “check engine” light wasn’t on.

In other words, unless your car’s computer has already found a problem and turned on that ominous dashboard display, CarMD isn’t going to tell you much of anything.  But it will ask you for money.

CarMD is nothing but a big thumb drive, no smarter than your car’s computer.

Now, had my check engine light been on, Car MD would, in theory, have told me what’s wrong with the car and given me an estimate of how much it would cost to fix it:  valuable info to arm myself with before heading to the service station.

But until the “check engine” light shows up on your dashboard, save your money.  CarMD isn’t going to do more than frustrate you.  Save your dough… maybe to buy a new used car.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .

Talking Transportation: Why Hartford Hates the Gold Coast

I was watching CT-N the other night (my favorite reality TV channel) as the members of the CPTC (Citizens Public Transportation Commission) were meeting for an incredibly boring discussion the state’s transit woes.  But toward the end of the meeting, my ears perked up as one of the 80+ year old members started on a rant.

“Our next Governor is going to be ‘gold plated,’” he said.  “He’ll come from Fairfield County, the Gold Coast, so heaven help us!”

Not even the lone member of the Commission from Fairfield County dared challenge this crazy assumption that a Governor from the ultra-affluent downstate region would do anything but spend to help Fairfield County while ignoring the rest of the state.

Which got me thinking:  Why does everyone upstate mistrust us, we who live on the Gold Coast?

Years ago, when I used to journey to Hartford for my annual appeal to the legislature’s Transportation Committee to invest in new rail cars for Metro-North, I could feel and hear the resentment.  Then-Committee Chairman, Senator Billy Ciotto ( D – Wethersfield) would excoriated my testimony, once saying “You people on the Gold Coast can buy your own damn trains!”

Even the CT Rail Commuter Council’s long-time member from Guilford (Shore Line East territory), an otherwise learned and reasonable man, says that Fairfield County isn’t the “real Connecticut.”  Oh, really?
Consider the facts:

WE PAY THE TAXES: Forty-plus percent of all the taxes collected in this state come from Fairfield County.  Something like 15% of the state’s total collections come from Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien alone.
Without Fairfield County taxes, upstate residents’ tax rates would soar.

BUT WE DON’T GET THE BENEFITS:      Though we pay most of the taxes, we get almost nothing back in return.  Towns like Darien get back 1 cent for every dollar sent to Hartford.  One cent!  Who’s gold plating the roads in Wethersfield?  We are.

WE’RE NOT ALL MILLIONAIRES: Sure, there are some affluent families living along the Gold Coast?  But our state’s most populous and poorest city, Bridgeport, is here too.   I’d guess there are far more people living in poverty in Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich than in West Hartford or Farmington.

WE’RE THE VICTIMS OF TRANSIT NEGLECT: Who suffers more from traffic congestion than those who drive I-95 through Fairfield County?  And who pays the highest commuter rail fares in the US, but Metro-North riders?  Our rail cars are older than most passengers and our highways show the scars of decades of neglect.

So for those people who live north of the Merritt Parkway (the Mason – Dixon line of state politics), get over yourselves and stop portraying us as free-spending fat cats living not in Connecticut but some annex of New York City.

Connecticut’s next Governor will come from Fairfield County.  And that’s a good thing.  Who knows more about what happens when you don’t invest in your highways and trains?

Maybe the shiny new commuter rail from New Haven to Springfield (which we’ll all be heavily subsidizing) can learn from Metro-North’s mistakes.  Maybe a new Governor can extend Shore Line East from Old Saybrook beyond New London to Mystic, Stonington and even Rhode Island, turning local rail critics into passengers.

To her credit, Brookfield’s Jodi Rell has served our entire state’s interests as Governor, especially in funding improved mass transit state-wide, not just in her own home town.  And I have every confidence that Dan Malloy or Tom Foley will be Governor of all of Connecticut, upstate and down, from the Quiet Corner to, yes, even the Gold Coast.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .

Talking Transportation: The Lessons from Katrina

We were all awe-struck five years ago watching the coverage of the rescue efforts in the Gulf following hurricane Katrina.  But did we learn anything from that tragedy.

Remember:  our annual hurricane season is well underway and storm activity peaks around this time each year.  And we ready for “the big one”?

Consider the following:

1)  Transportation Means Survival: The difference between those who lived and died in New Orleans was based on access to transportation.  When told to evacuate, those with cars did.  Those without couldn’t and were stranded.  The lack of public transportation along the Gulf Coast left the “disadvantaged” as just that… dis-advantaged, and maybe dead.

How would those living along the Connecticut coast be evacuated if a category four hurricane were threatening us?  Join the crawl on I-95?  Take Metro-North?  Or hunker down at a local mall.  How many of our towns have adequate shelter or emergency supplies?

Is Amtrak ready, along with Metro-North, to deploy its fleet to evacuate the hundreds of thousands threatened by a hurricane?  Doubtful.

2)  Our Classless Society Isn’t:   The victims of Katrina weren’t characterized as much by race as by economic class.  Being able to afford to live away from the flood plain and have access to private transportation both cost money.  This isn’t about race:  you don’t have to be Black to be poor.

But after Katrina, then-President Bush’s mother, Barbara, was touring the Katrina refugee camps in Houston.  She commented that, given the squalor of their former New Orleans homes, these victims of Katrina were actually better off than before.  Then she added “it’s kind of scary that they might all want to stay in Texas.”

Where would Connecticut’s refugees flee after an evacuation?  And how long would they be gone pending recovery and rebuilding?   Gold Coasters perhaps could drive their SUV’s up to familiar ski country in New England. But where would the Hispanic, Haitian and Black populations of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport go… and would they also be made to feel like so many dust bowl Oakies when they arrived at refugee camps?

3)  Our Government Is Incompetent: Katrina and 9/11 showed us that our government can’t do a damn thing to protect its citizens.  One might excuse a surprise terrorist attack, but a long anticipated, well-scenarioed hurricane?  Not a chance.

At the time of Katrina, 75 percent of FEMA’s budget was being spent on anti-terrorism efforts, even though acts of nature present the real danger to most Americans. Gobbled up into the Homeland Security Agency, FEMA had lost all clout, competence and most of its budget.  “Brownie” may have been doing a “helluva job”, but would his successor do any better five years on?

Ask any old-timer about the Hurricane of 1938 which devastated New England that September.  It still ranks as the worst natural disaster to ever hit our state.  True, the human toll was compounded because we had no notice of the coming storm.  But even with sufficient time to evacuate, a storm of that size would devastate this state, especially our most expensive homes built along the coast.  Santayana said: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Have we really learned the lessons of Katrina?

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Talking Transportation – The AC-DC Railroad

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, seewww.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

The AC-DC Railroad

A few weekends ago, service on Metro-North and Amtrak was thrown into chaos when two trains ripped down portions of the overhead caternary (power line).  Trains were cancelled, weekend riders stranded. Metro-North’s service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate.  Ours is the only commuter railroad in the U.S. that operates on three modes of power… AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries.  Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the pantographs are lowered and the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third-rail power for the rest of the trip into New York.  Even diesel engines must convert to third-rail, as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels. 

And there’s the rub:  Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors.  That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car.  While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, the dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut will cost considerably more. 

So, some folks are asking… “Why not just use one power source? Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.”  Simple, yes.  Smart, no.  And here’s why. 

  • There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way. All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened. Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired. Cost?  Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.
  • Even with third-rail, the CDOT would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak.  That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost.  We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the 80-year old catenary, so why then replace it with third-rail?
  • Third-rail AC power requires power substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate. The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.
  • DC-powered third rail is less efficient.  Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world… the TGV, Shinkansen, etc.  On third-rail speeds are limited to 75 miles an hour vs. 90 mph under the wire.  That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.
  • Third-rail ices up in bad weather and can get buried in snow, causing short circuits.  Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.
  • Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.

The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980’s by consultants to CDOT.  They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail. This time, the engineers at CDOT got it right. 

Not satisfied, some of the third-rail fans tried pushing bills through the Legislature in 2005 to study the replacement scheme yet again. More studies would have meant years of delay in ordering already overdue car replacements. Fortunately, the Legislature dispensed with these nuisance proposals quickly. 

Doubtless, we’ll have further “wires down” problems in the years to come.  Ironically, Metro-North’s 97% on-time record has made us come to expect stellar service, despite our ancient infrastructure.  But in the long run, service will be faster and even more reliable by sticking with our dual-mode system.