April 27, 2017

Talking Transportation: Who Should Pay for Sound Barriers?

Sound barriers … great idea, but who should pay for them?

Building and maintaining our highways is expensive.  But here’s a quiz question:  on interstates 95 and 84, what costs a half-million dollars a mile to construct?  The answer:  sound barriers.

Why are we spending that kind of money to enshroud our interstates simply to protect the peace and quiet of its neighbors?  Didn’t they know that living that close to a highway came with the twin costs of increased noise and air pollution along with the benefits of proximity to the highways?

Do you have sympathy for people who live near airports and then complain about the jets?  Neither do I.  But the solution to highway noise is not to create a walled canyon paid for by others.

Sound barriers, in my view, are a waste of precious resources.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or do anything about congestion.  And they’re a magnet for graffiti artists.  Three miles of sound barriers on both sides of an interstate would buy another M8 railcar for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers out of their cars.

Worse yet, sound barriers really just reflect the sound, not absorb it, sending the noise further afield.  But there are alternatives:

1)     Why not sound-proof the homes?  That has worked well for neighbors of big airports and would be a lot cheaper than miles of sound barriers.  Plus, insulation against sound also insulates against energy loss, saving money.

2)    Rubberized asphalt.  Let’s reduce the highway noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using the latest in rubberized asphalt some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise.  And rubberized asphalt, as its name implies, is made from old tires … about 12 million a year that would otherwise be junked.

3)    Pay for it yourself.  Create special taxing zones in noisy neighborhoods and let those home owners pay for their sound barriers.  They’re the ones who are benefiting, so shouldn’t they be the ones who pay?  And that investment will easily be recouped in increased property values.

4)    Penalize the noise makers.  Let’s crack down on truckers who “Jake brake,” downshifting noisily to slow their speed instead of using their real brakes.  And motorcyclists or those cars with busted mufflers, they too should be penalized.

5)    Go electric.  Electric cars are virtually silent.  And there are electronic ways of using noise cancellation technology that, on a large scale, can induce quiet at a lower price than building wooden barricades.

6)    Go absorbent.  Where there is room, erect earthen berms alongside the highway which will absorb the sound.  Or if you are constructing sound barriers, fill them with sound absorbing material, treating the noise like a sponge, not bouncing it off a hard, flat reflective surface.

Our interstates, especially I-95, are carrying far more traffic than they were ever planned to handle.  And there is no sign of it decreasing.  In Fairfield County the rush hour starts about 6 a.m. and runs continuously until 8 p.m. without a break.

If our state’s economy depends on these highways, we will have to live with the karmic cost of a little noise.  But if it’s too much to take, why ask others to pay for its remediation when they are the only ones benefiting from that spending?

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Jim Cameron


About the author:
 Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Why Metro-North’s ‘Quiet Cars’ Aren’t Quiet

What happens when a good idea goes bad?  Consider Metro-North’s ‘Quiet Car’ initiative.

Sixteen years ago a group of regular commuters on Amtrak’s early morning train to DC had an idea:  why not designate one car on the train as a ‘Quiet Car‘, free from cell phone chatter and loud conversations.  The railroad agreed and the experiment proved a great success.

Now all Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor have a ‘Quiet Car’.  They are a major selling point for taking the train … the chance to nap or read in a quiet environment.

But as early as 2006 when I suggested the same idea to Metro-North, it was rejected outright.  Then serving on the CT Rail Commuter Council, I persisted and finally, in 2011 the railroad agreed to a trial with one car on each rush hour train dedicated to what it called a ‘Quiet CALMmute.’

Almost immediately the plan ran into trouble.  Not because it wasn’t wanted but because it wasn’t enforced.

There were no signs designating which were the ‘quiet’ cars and only occasional PA announcements before departure reminding folks who sat there of the quiet, library-like environment that was expected.  Most of all, many conductors refused to enforce the new rules.  But why?

Conductors seem to have no trouble reminding passengers to keep their feet off the seats, put luggage in the overhead racks or refrain from smoking.  But all that the railroad gave conductors to enforce the ‘Quiet Car’ rules were bilingual “Shhh cards” to give to gabby violators.

It seemed left to passengers to remind fellow riders what a ‘Quiet Car’ was for and confrontations resulted.

This spring the railroad surprised even me by announcing an expansion of the program:  every weekday train, peak and off-peak, would now have two ‘Quiet Cars’!  Two ‘Quiet Cars’ on a 10-car train gives everyone a choice.  That sounds great, but still without signage, education or enforcement, the battles continued.

A commuter recently emailed me about an evening train from Grand Central with a group of rowdy drunks in the ‘Quiet Car’.  When commuters asked the offending passengers to chill out or move their seat, the tipsy  group told the complainer, “screw you.”  The quiet-seeking commuters then asked the conductor for help but he simply declared the train was too crowded and the ‘Quiet Car’ was being eliminated on that run.  “Have fun” he told the drunks.  Really?

On Amtrak trains those violating Quiet Car rules have been thrown off the train and arrested.  Even NJ Governor Chris Christie had to move his seat on an Acela once for yabbering with his staff in the wrong car.

Nobody wants these kinds of altercations on Metro-North.  So why initiate and then expand such a passenger amenity as ‘Quiet CALMmute’ without proper education and enforcement?  A few signs and friendly reminders from conductors should make passengers aware that “train time may be your own time” (as the railroad’s old marketing slogan used to say), but it’s also shared time.

Commuters want ‘Quiet Cars.’  The railroad gave them to us, but until they can get their staff to enforce the rules, consistently, they might as well not exist.

If you’re in a ‘Quiet Car’ and the rules are not enforced, report it to Metro-North on their website complaint form.  If we all raise our voices, we can get some peace a quiet.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Jim Cameron


About the author:
 Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: All Tickets Please!

Imagine you’re in a store and you see somebody shoplifting.  You’re embarrassed to say anything or to make a scene, but inside you’re pissed-off.  You pay for your merchandise, so why should that guy get it for free?  And if he’s ripping off the store, doesn’t the merchant actually make you pay more to make up for that loss?

It’s morally wrong and it’s just not fair.

Yet this is what happens every single day on Metro-North when conductors don’t collect all riders’ tickets.

Here’s a typical scene:  your train leaves Grand Central and the conductor makes his way through the train collecting tickets.  Sometimes he leaves a colored seat check, punched to show your destination, but not always. Why?

Your train makes some intermediate stop (New Rochelle, Greenwich or Stamford) to discharge some passengers and take on new ones.  You know who the new riders are, but does the conductor?

So when the conductor comes through again saying “All Stamford tickets, please” and you see that new rider not responding, you know the railroad got ripped off and that cheater just got a free ride.

Now, if the conductor had issued a seat check he’d know who got off, who got on and who owes him a new ticket.  Simple enough, but not for Metro-North which for years has not enforced their use.  Conductors who are too busy or too lazy, don’t use seat checks and we all end up paying more.

Metro-North acknowledges this problem and admits it loses millions of dollars a year to uncollected tickets.  But they’ve crunched the numbers and say that staffing trains with more conductors to be sure all tickets are collected would cost even more.

Hey!  Here’s a concept: make the existing conductors do their jobs instead of hiding out in their little compartments.  From Grand Central to Stamford you’ve got 45 minutes without stops to collect everyone’s ticket, give ‘em a seat check, say “thank you” and still have time for a cat-nap.  And there’s still time to ask people to keep their feet off the seats and to stop yapping in the designated Quiet Cars.

Back in the good ol’ days before the TVM’s (Ticket Vending Machines) came along, conductors collected cash fares to the tune of $50 million a year.  They had a money room at Grand Central that looked like a casino.  Now most fares are bought from the machines or on your smart-phone.  That means conductors should have a lot more time to make sure all tickets are collected.

Conductors on Metro-North make good money.  And they do a very important job keeping passengers safe, operating the doors, answering questions.  They’re the face of the railroad and most passengers give them high marks.

So what can you do if you see someone getting a free ride due to uncollected tickets?  Try this, which always work for me.

When I see a conductor miss a passenger’s ticket, I’ll wait until the conductor comes back and say something like “Excuse me, conductor.  I think you missed collecting that gentleman’s ticket,” and then smile innocently at the conductor and the chagrined would-be thief.

If I see the same conductor always missing ticket collections, day after day, I report it on the Metro-North website complaints page, detailing the incident by name, date, train number, etc.  That allows the railroad to “re-train” the offending staffer.

So if you’re tired of all these fare increases, let’s stop the shoplifters.  Make sure everybody pays for their ride by having conductors collect all tickets.

Please!

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Jim Cameron


About the author:
 Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Don’t Blame Malloy for the Fare Hikes

metro-north-railroad-620x400Sure, it was sleazy of Governor Malloy and the CDOT to release news of a proposed five percent fare hike on Metro-North on a Friday afternoon in July, hoping nobody would notice.  But the more I dig into the proposal, the more I realize the Governor and CDOT are not to blame.

It’s the Connecticut legislature that’s really responsible for this fare hike.

Lawmakers this session left the Governor with a $192 million budget shortfall and every other branch of government has taken budget cuts and layoffs as a result.  Now it’s transportation’s turn to feel the pinch.

Pol’s on both sides of the aisle tell me Malloy could have saved millions by facing down the state employees’ unions and their rich benefits package.  Could’ve, maybe should’ve … but didn’t.

So now we’re looking at a five percent hike in train fares on Metro-North and Shore Line East and a 16 percent boost in bus fares starting in December.  Plus closing ticket windows, reduced maintenance and fuel savings.  And that’s just on the transit side.

Highway work will also be cut, hiring postponed and less salt purchased for the winter.  Service areas will be closed overnight and the volunteers who work in the Visitor Centers will be fired. Welcome to Connecticut!

So when you calculate the impact of all these cuts on your commute, by road or rail, call your State Rep and Senator and ask “why”?

Why are they allowing the Special Transportation Fund to run dry due to the dwindling revenues from the gas tax?

Ask Senate Majority leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) and the usually pro-transportation Senator Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) why they have opposed alternative funding mechanisms like the VMT (Vehicle Miles Tax), calling it “dead on arrival” before it was even explained, let alone studied.

Ask your elected officials what their plan is to pay for our existing transportation network, let alone expand it by the $100 billion Malloy has suggested.  They won’t have an answer.

Why?  Because they are running for re-election this November.  And none of them has the guts to tell you the truth:  we will all have to pay more to drive or commute by rail … as you’ll find out after the election when they approve new taxes.

What can we do in the meantime (aside from holding them accountable during the campaign)?  There have been some public hearings in September on the fare hikes with more to come* … and we should all turn out.

It will be political theater, but cathartic.  Commuters will rant and the folks from CDOT will listen and then do what they proposed.  Aside from cutting train service, a fare hike is about the only option.

And, of course as upstate lawmakers constantly remind us, those of us living on the “gold coast” are all millionaires, and we can afford it, right?

*9 Town Transit will hold a public hearing on its proposed price increases Thursday, Sept. 29, in Old Saybrook Town Hall at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

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

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: America’s Mass Transit Mecca

Portland, Oregon, with Mount Rainier providing a stunning backdrop.

Jim Cameron names Portland, Ore, (with Mount Rainier providing a stunning backdrop) the most mass-transit intensive city in the US.

What’s the most mass-transit intensive city in the US?  By the numbers, New York City.  But for a glimpse of the real future of mass-transit,  the winner is clearly Portland, Oregon!

Portland has only 632,000 residents but 2.3 million in its metro area.  Yet it has, per capita, what I think is the largest, most extensive and best integrated systems of light rail, streetcars and bike lanes in the nation.

LIGHT RAIL: It was 1986 when Portland opened its first light-rail line.  Today the system covers 60 miles (including the airport, 12 miles from downtown).  In 2001 a downtown streetcar system was added.  It proved so successful that Portland now manufactures streetcars for other American cities.

Like the city’s extensive bike-rack equipped bus network, all of Portland’s mass transit operates on the honor system:  you buy tickets before boarding and only show them if a inspector boards, looking for proof of payment.

To encourage ridership, fares are ridiculously cheap.  For $2.50 you can roam the system for 2 ½ hours.  An unlimited day pass is $5 or $26 a month (about the cost of a round-trip to NYC on Metro-North).  “Honored Citizens” (seniors, Medicare or disabled) get a monthly pass for $7.50!

DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT DRIVING: To further encourage use of the ubiquitous mass transit, driving in downtown is difficult and expensive.  The main transit corridors have one lane for streetcars, one lane for bikes and just one lane for cars.  Parking is really expensive, both by meter on the streets and in lots.  And yes, the freeways crawl just like in LA.

TECHNOLOGY: The bus and rail system offers free apps for trip-planning which use GPS to tell you exactly how long you’ll wait for the next trolley, directions by line to your destination and expected travel time.  And yes, you can buy and show your ticket using your smartphone.

BIKES ARE KING:     The city’s unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird”, and the residents work hard to do so.  Outside of Europe or Asia I have never seen so many people on two-wheels traversing a community.

There are so many dedicated bike lanes that when a new bridge was built crossing the Willamette River, the bridge was built for everything except cars and trucks:  a mass transit-only bridge!

When a new Medical Center was planned on a downtown hill, designers realized it would be foolish to waste land on parking, so they built an aerial tram from unused industrial land on the waterfront.  Hospital employees and patients alike take light rail or bike to the base station (where a free 400-space bike-lot is usually full) and are skyward in minutes.

So if you are ever disillusioned by the sorry state of mass-transit in our area, take heart.  The future is now in Portland!

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 25 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

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Talking Transportation: America’s Amazing Interstate Highways

Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, from Federal Highway Administration

Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, from Federal Highway Administration

The 47,000 miles of highways that comprise America’s interstate highway system are nothing short of an engineering marvel, surpassed only by what China has built in the last few years.

We take them for granted, but when they were designed almost 60 years ago these super-highways presented both great opportunity and vast challenges.  The U.S. wasn’t the first with super-highways. Those bragging rights go to the Germans, whose Reichsautobahn saw cars zooming along at 100+ mph in the 1930s.

Most credit President Eisenhower, whose troops rode the Autobahn in WWII, for seeing the military value of an American equivalent, though engineering such a complex across the U.S. was far more difficult.

Of course by 1940 the U.S. already had the Pennsylvania Turnpike and by 1954 the NY State Thruway, but private toll roads were just the beginning.

To build a road expected to last, in 1955 the federal government, AAA and automakers first built a $27 million seven-mile test road near Ottawa, Illinois.  Half was concrete, the other half asphalt.  The 836 separate sections of highway had various subsurfaces and 16 bridges.  For two years Army trucks drove night and day, seeing which road designs would hold up.

Weather and traffic dictated different designs:  in desert areas the highways need be only a foot thick, while in Maine the tough winter and freeze-thaw cycles required that I-95 would be five feet thick.

Construction of the highways required moving 42 billion cubic feet of soil.  To expedite construction of I-40 in California, there was even a plan to use nuclear bombs to vaporize part of the Bristol Mountain range.

As author Dan McNichol writes in his excellent book, “The Roads that Built America,” “VIP seating was even planned for the event.  The (nuclear) bombing was to produce a cloud 12,000 feet high and a radioactive blast 133 times that of Hiroshima.”  Needless to say, the mountains were moved using more conventional explosives.

Outside of Greenbelt, MD, another site tested the design of road signs – white lettering on a black background, white on blue (already adopted by the NY Thruway) or, what proved to be the winning model, white on green.

Just 5,200 of the original 41,000 miles of interstates were to be built in urban areas, but those few miles accounted for almost half of the $425 billion total cost.  By 1992 the system was deemed “completed.”  Bragging rights for the longest of the interstates goes to I-90 running 3,020 miles from Boston to Seattle and our own beloved I-95, which runs 1,920 miles from the Canadian border to Miami.

As anyone who drives on I-95 in Connecticut knows, the interstates have far surpassed their expected traffic load and are in need of billions of repairs.  Little did we know 60 years ago what our automotive future might bring.

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

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Talking Transportation: Why Ferries Aren’t the Answer for Commuting in CT

Bridgeport to Port Jefferson Ferry

Bridgeport to Port Jefferson Ferry

Recently, NYC Mayor DeBlasio announced a $325 million plan to reintroduce ferry boat service to the five boroughs charging the same fare as subways.  The mayor says these boats could carry 4.5 million passengers a year.

So why don’t we have ferries in CT?  There are several reasons:

SPEED:  In open water, fast ferries on the Sound could make 30 knots (35 mph).  But if they must sail up inlets to the downtown areas of Bridgeport, Norwalk or Stamford, that speed is cut to 5 knots, extending travel time.

DOCKING: To keep to their competitive speeds, docks would have to be located close to the Sound.  That’s expensive real estate. And what about parking at those docks… and drive-time on local roads to reach them? Again, more travel time.

FREQUENCY: Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour carrying 800 – 1000 passengers per train. No ferry service anywhere in the country can compete with that frequency of service. Will travelers really be willing to wait an hour or two for the next boat?

COMFORT: In nice weather, a boat ride to work sounds idyllic. But what about in a Nor’easter?  The bumpiest ride on the train pales by comparison.

FARES:  The most optimistic of would-be ferry operators in CT estimate their fares will be at least double those charged on the train.  And people say Metro-North is too expensive?

OPERATING COSTS: Fast ferries are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde.  When the Pequot tribe built high-speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino in Connecticut to lose money, the service proved so expensive to run that the Pequots dry-docked the ferries in New London.

ECONOMICS: The final reason I don’t think ferries make economic sense is that nobody else does either!  Ferry operators (like the near-bankrupt NY Waterways) aren’t stupid. They’ve looked at possible service from coastal Connecticut, crunched the numbers and backed off. In a free market economy, if a buck could be made running ferries, they’d be operating by now. They aren’t operating, and there are lots of reasons why, many of which I’ve listed.

The only place ferries are run successfully is where they’re heavily subsidized (everywhere), have a monopoly (for example, getting to downtown Seattle from an island suburb), don’t duplicate existing transportation routes (like from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson), or offer advantages of speed because they operate on extremely short runs (from Hoboken to midtown).  Our situation here in Connecticut passes none of those tests.

You already know I’m a train nut. (The bumper sticker on my car reads “I’d Rather Be on the Train.”)  And I do love an occasional recreational sail on the Sound.  But it’s unrealistic to think that commutation by ferries is in our future.

 

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

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Big Brother Comes Along for the Ride

“Here in my car, I feel safest of all

I can lock all my doors. It’s the only way to live, in cars.”

Cars” – Gary Numan  1979

You may feel that your car is your last private refuge in this busy world.  But there’s someone along for the ride:  Big Brother.  And you’d be surprised what he knows about you, thanks to modern technology.

Cell Phones:   Your cell phone is constantly transmitting its location, and services like Google Dashboard’s location history can show exactly where you were at any date in time.  Don’t want to be tracked?  Turn off your cellphone.

E-ZPass:   Even when you are nowhere near a toll booth, E-ZPass detectors can monitor your location.   Want to stay anonymous? Keep your E-ZPass wrapped in aluminum foil in your glove box.

Highway Cameras:    The extensive network of traffic cameras on our interstates and parkways is used mostly to monitor accidents.  But State Police can also watch individual vehicles. The cameras are even available to the public online.  But state law specifically forbids using these cameras to write speeding tickets.

License+Plate+ReaderLicense Plate Readers:    This is the newest and most powerful tracking tech, as I saw in a ride-along a few years ago with my local PD.  These cameras mounted on police cars can scan up to 1800 license plates a minute as cars drive by at speed. As the plate number is recognized, it is transmitted to a national crime computer and compared against a list of wanted vehicles and scofflaws.  If it gets a “hit,” a dashboard screen in the cop car flashes a red signal and beeps, detailing the plate number and infraction.  In just one hour driving through my town, we made stops for outstanding warrants, lack of insurance and stolen plates.  (Some towns also use LPRs for parking enforcement in train station parking lots, forgoing the need for hangtags or stickers.)

While this may lead to very efficient law enforcement, LPRs also have a potentially darker side:  the data about plate number, location and time can be stored forever.

Faced with a string of unsolved burglaries, Darien police used their LPR to track every car entering the targeted neighborhood and looked for patterns of out-of-town cars driving through at the time of the burglaries and made an arrest.

But the ACLU is concerned about how long cops can store this data and how it should be used.  They laud the CT State Police policy of only storing data for 90 days.

In the early days of LPRs in 2012 an ACLU staffer filed an FOI request for his car’s plate number and found it had been tracked four times by 10 police departments in a database that had 3 million scan records.

So enjoy your car.  But realize that none of us have any privacy.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Infrastructure – Dangling by a Thread

The recent fire under the Park Avenue viaduct in Harlem, which disrupted commutes of a quarter million Metro-North riders, got me thinking:  our aging, crumbling and vulnerable transportation infrastructure is close to collapse, and the effects of such failure could be catastrophic.   Consider this track-record:

JUNE 1983: Inadequate inspections and repairs cause the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich. Three people were killed and three others injured.   For almost five months, 80,000 daily vehicles had to detour through city streets.

MARCH 2004:  An oil tanker crashes on I-95 in Bridgeport and the ensuing fire is hot enough to melt steel supports on the Howard Avenue overpass.  Traffic was disrupted for a week.

SEPTEMBER 2013:    Con-Ed plans to replace a crucial electric feeder cable for Metro-North in the Bronx.  The railroad decides to forgo the $1 million cost of a temporary back-up cable and the main cable fails, disrupting train service for weeks, both on Metro-North and Amtrak.

JUNE 2014:    Twice in one week the Walk Bridge in South Norwalk (built in 1896) won’t close, cutting all rail service between New York and Boston.  Cost of replacement will be more than $450 million.

MAY 2016:  Illegally stored chemicals and propane tanks at a gardening center under the Park Ave viaduct catch fire.  The flames’ heat melts steel girders, cutting all train service out of GCT and stranding thousands.  Limited train service in the following days leads to subway-like crowding and lengthy delays.

NTSBSpuytenDuyvilDerailment2013

Aftermath of the derailment at Spuyten Devil, NY.

Mind you, this list does not include fatal accidents and disruptions caused by human error, like the Metro-North crash at Spuyten Duyvil that killed four.

Our lives, our jobs and our economy rely on safe, dependable transportation.  But when the roads we drive and the rails we ride are museum pieces or go uninspected and unrepaired, we are dangling by a thread.

WA single fire, whether caused by accident or act of terrorism, can bring down our infrastructure in an instant, cutting us off from work for days and costing our economy billions.

What can be done?  Safety inspections by engineers and fire departments looking to prevent disaster are obvious.  Better enforcement of speed limits and safety are as well.  But prevention of accidents cannot make up for decades of neglect in reinvestment in our roads, rails and bridges.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ annual infrastructure report card gives the U.S. a D+.  They estimate we will need to spend $3.6 trillion to get things back into good shape… less than the cost of the last 15 years of U.S. fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

As the old auto-repair ad used to say, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” But sooner or later, we will have to pay.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

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Talking Transportation: The ‘Lock Box’ is Log-Jammed in Hartford

locked_chestI hope you’ve been following CT-N to watch our dysfunctional legislature in recent weeks as they struggle to fill a $900 million budget gap.  Not only could they not get a new budget together before adjourning (only to be summoned back mid-May for a special session), but the legislative logjam left several important measures in limbo.  Among them, the long debated “lock box” for special transportation funding.

As I wrote weeks ago, none of Governor Malloy’s plans to spend $100 billion to rebuild and expand our transportation systems over the next 30 years can go anywhere without an agreement to safeguard those funds from misappropriation by putting them in an untouchable “lock box”.

Because the legislature couldn’t pass such a bill or even put it on the ballot as a potential constitutional amendment referendum, that puts the entire Malloy plan on hold.  Without a lock box, nobody trusts Hartford with money raised by tolling or taxes, nor should they.

The lock box idea is not new.  In fact, it was Republicans who suggested it years ago.  But when Malloy appropriated the idea as his own, GOP lawmakers saw the Governor’s version as more sieve than safe, and they held up a vote.

Folks, if lawmakers can’t agree on an annual budget, let alone a way to keep transportation funding secure, how can we trust them with $100 billion in new money?

The Connecticut Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) track-record on private-public partnerships for transit-oriented development also gives one pause.  For example, consider the Fairfield Metro train station where a private developer went belly-up, leaving CDOT to finish the job, sort of:  the beautiful new station they built still has no waiting room.

Or consider the ongoing saga of the Stamford rail station garage.  It’s been almost three years since CDOT tapped a private developer to demolish the old garage, replace it with a high-rise office / condo / hotel and build new commuter parking lots within a quarter mile from the station.  In three years, nothing has been done because there is still no signed contract.

Yet, that project is wrapped in such secrecy that nobody understands the delay.  Or why the CDOT is even still negotiating with this laggard “developer of choice.” It couldn’t be because the developer contributed $165,000 to the Malloy campaign that he’s being given so much time, could it?  Nah, that would never happen.

So here we are, fellow Nutmeggers.  Lawmakers deadlocked.  A $900 million budget deficit to fill this year and another $2 billion hole in years ahead.  State workers are being laid-off.  State funding to towns for education is being cut (meaning local taxes rise).  Billionaires are bailing (a third of our taxes are paid by the top 1 percent).  And no prospects for a lock box … let alone more funding for transportation.  Yup, just the same old stuff as ever.

No wonder they call us “the land of steady habits.”

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The Quiet Car Conundrum

quiet-car-newerSixteen years ago a group of regular commuters on Amtrak’s early morning train to DC had a great idea. Why not designate one car on the train as a “Quiet Car,” free from cellphone chatter and loud conversations. The railroad agreed and the experiment proved a great success.

But as early as 2006, when the same idea was suggested to Metro-North, it was rejected outright. Then serving on the Commuter Council, I persisted and finally, in 2011, the railroad agreed to a trial with one car on each rush hour train dedicated to what it called a “Quiet CALMmute.”

Almost immediately the plan ran into trouble. Not because it wasn’t wanted but because it wasn’t enforced.

There were no signs in the cars and only occasional PA announcements before departure reminding folks of the quiet, library-like environment that was expected in the car. Most of all, conductors wouldn’t enforce the new rules.  But why?

Conductors seem to have no trouble reminding passengers to keep their feet off the seats or put luggage in the overhead racks. But all that the railroad expected them to do to enforce the Quiet Car rules was to pass out bilingual “Shhh cards” to gabby violators. It seemed left to passengers to remind fellow riders what a Quiet Car was for, and confrontations resulted.

Then this spring the railroad surprised even me by announcing an expansion of the program: every weekday train, peak and off-peak, would now have two Quiet Cars!  Sounds great, but without signage or education, the battles continued.

One commuter from Fairfield recently e-mailed me with a typical tale: Riding in a Quiet Car he became annoyed when a fellow passenger was yakking on her cellphone.  He tapped her on the shoulder and told her, “We’re in a Quiet Car” and she freaked, telling him to “keep your @&%! hands off of me” and continuing her chatter by telling her caller that “some guy” just tried to tell her to get off her phone and what a fool he was to think this was some kind of quiet car.

Of course there was no conductor around (all tickets having been collected) and lacking any signage in the car to point to, the offended passenger was made to feel like some sort of jerk.

On Amtrak trains, those violating Quiet Car rules have been thrown off the train and arrested. Even Chris Christie had to move his seat on an Acela once for jabbering with his staff in the wrong car.

Nobody wants these kinds of altercations on Metro-North. But why initiate and then expand such a passenger amenity as “Quiet CALMmute” without proper education and enforcement? A few signs and friendly reminders from conductors should make passengers aware that “train time may be your own time” (as the railroad’s marketing slogan says), but it’s also shared time. And I, for one, want a quiet commute.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

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Talking Transportation: Why There’s No Wi-Fi On Metro-North

wifi-train-600x397A few weeks ago a friend was showing me his new Chevy Volt.  Not only does the hybrid-electric car get 42 mpg, it has its own Wi-Fi hotspot.  That’s right.  The car is a Wi-Fi device, so kids in the backseat can watch YouTube.

Days later we were on a road-trip from the Maryland shore when we caught the Lewes – Cape May ferry.  Onboard the vessel they offered passengers free Wi-Fi.

Airlines have offered flyers Wi-Fi for years now. Discount bus lines like Megabus have free Wi-Fi.  Even Connecticut’s new CTfastrak commuter bus system to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi.

But there is no Wi-Fi on Metro-North.  And the railroad says none is planned, even though the new M8 railcars are ready for the needed gear.  And therein lies a story.

Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology.  That’s how the first airline Wi-Fi was offered by companies like Go-Go, though JetBlue and Southwest now rely on proprietary satellite systems, which are much faster (up to 30 mb per second.)

When Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston, they immediately had bandwidth issues.  So many passengers were using their cell phones and tablets, speeds dropped to 0.6 mb per second and the complaints came pouring in.

That’s part of the reason that Metro-North is reluctant to offer Wi-Fi:  if an Acela train carrying 300 passengers can’t handle the online load, how could a 10-car train carrying a thousand commuters?  The railroad has enough complaints as it is.

Metro-North’s experience with on-board communications has left them feeling burned.  Remember years ago when the railroad installed pay-phones on the trains?  Great idea, until a year later when costs came down and everyone had their own cell phone.  Those pay cell phone booths went unused and were eventually removed.

Back in 2006 then-President of MNRR Peter Cannito said Wi-Fi would be built into the new M8 cars, both for passengers and to allow the railcars to “talk” to HQ by beaming diagnostic reports.  The railroad issued an RFP for ideas and got a number of responses, including from Cablevision, with whom they negotiated for many months.  They even initiated on-train testing of Wi-Fi gear on one railcar.

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

Today the railroad sees Wi-Fi as just a convenience.  Smart phones and cell-card configured laptops can access the internet just fine, they say, using cellular technology.  But to their credit the railroad is trying to get cell providers to fill in the coverage gaps, for example, in the tunnels and at GCT.

So don’t look for Wi-Fi anytime soon on America’s biggest and busiest commuter railroad.  It’s not seen as a necessity … except perhaps by its passengers who really have no other transportation option.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Is Uber Really a Bargain?

In the almost two years since Uber rolled into Connecticut, the state’s car/taxi service business has been rocked to its core.  But is Uber competing on the same level as taxis and car service companies?  Of course not, which is why it’s so successful.

I spoke with Uber’s Connecticut Manager Matt Powers and Drivers Unlimited (a Darien car & limo company) owner Randy Klein to try to get an objective comparison of the services.  (Full disclosure:  I have been a customer of both firms.)

While Uber does offer a “black car” (premium) service, my comparisons are with their more popular Uber X service … private cars driven by non-chauffeurs, 7,000 of whom have signed up as drivers in CT, according to Powers.

VEHICLES:  Car services opt for Lincoln Town Cars and SUV’s.  Uber X just requires drivers have a 4-door car, less than 10 years old with a trunk big enough to carry a wheelchair.

MAINTENANCE:  Klein owns and maintains his own fleet, inspecting all cars weekly.  Uber relies on its X drivers to do upkeep.

DRIVER SCREENING:  Klein does his own background checks on top of the DMV screening required for a CDL (commercial drivers license).  Uber says it does “rigorous” screening of drivers, including terrorist watch lists, but requires only a regular driver’s license.  Klein’s firm also does random drug testing of his drivers.

INSURANCE:  Klein has coverage of up to $1.5 million for every driver.  Uber relies on the individual driver’s personal insurance but layers a $1 million policy on top when they are driving Uber customers.

RATINGS:  Uber asks drivers and passengers to rate each other after every trip.  Klein asks passengers to rate drivers but says it’s unfair to allow drivers to rate customers. “We’re in a service business,” he says.

BOOKING:  Klein says most of his reservations are made two to three weeks in advance.  Uber doesn’t do advance bookings, though, in personal experience, I’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a car.

FARES:  Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, an average car service ride from Darien to LaGuardia Airport is anywhere from $130 – $180, one-way.  Uber’s quote for an X car is about $75.

SURGE PRICING:  When demand is highest, Uber adds a surcharge to fare quotes, sometimes doubling the fare.  Klein says his rates are the same 24 x 7.

IF YOU HAVE PROBLEMS:  Klein says his office can be reached anytime by phone, toll-free.  Uber’s website offers a template to file complaints online.

So, is Uber really a bargain?  Let me answer with a hotel analogy.  Sometimes I love staying at the Ritz Carlton with its plush rooms and fabulous service.  Other times, a Motel 6 or LaQuinta is fine, though there’s always the risk of a “surprise”.

I see car services the same way.  With a plush Lincoln SUV and chauffeur you get what you pay for.  But sometimes all you want is to get from home to the airport and an Uber X is just fine … and a lot cheaper!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Cross Country by Amtrak

An Amtrak dining car, from the Amtrak blog

An Amtrak dining car, from the Amtrak blog

A recent business trip took me to Dallas on a crowded, turbulent 3 ½ hour flight from LaGuardia. But the return trip was a real treat:  two days and nights on Amtrak, for free.

Riding a lot of Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor, I’ve built up a ton of Amtrak Guest Rewards points, augmented by their co-branded credit card. So when I checked my calendar and the Amtrak website, I saw an opportunity to enjoy a leisurely ride home in a full bedroom, meals included, gratis.

The long distance trains I rode from Dallas to Chicago (The Texas Eagle) and Chicago to Washington, D.C. (The Capitol Ltd) were all “Superliners”, i.e., double-deck cars with a variety of accommodations, including coaches and sleeping cars.

Each train also had a diner and an observation car, though the sightseeing through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois wasn’t exactly memorable. But the second leg of the trip through the hills and river valleys of Pennsylvania and Maryland was gorgeous. “Fly over” country sure looks different from an elevation of about 20 feet.

My bedroom was equipped with a big couch that folded down into an almost queen-sized bed, surprisingly comfortable for sleeping. The private commode doubled as a shower.

Firing up my radio scanner, pre-set to the railroads’ frequencies, I followed the action as the conductor and engineer received instructions from a dispatcher hundreds of miles away.

The food was good, all cooked to order, and included in my first class fare. Dining was communal, one of the fun parts of train travel:  getting to meet real folks from across the U.S., chatting about their travels, their work – everything except politics.

In Chicago and Washington D.C., where I had time between train connections, I enjoyed Amtrak’s “Metropolitan Lounge” for first class passengers, complete with free Wifi, snacks and priority boarding. I also had time to explore those cities’ beautifully restored train stations jammed with commuters, Amtrak passengers, shops and restaurants.

To their credit, Amtrak does a great job with their money-losing long distance trains. The service is truly First Class, the ride smooth and, for the most part, on time (thanks to a heavily padded timetable).  We had only two small delays… one caused by another Amtrak train colliding with a truck at a grade crossing (no injuries), the other by a boulder on the tracks that needed to be removed.

Because demand is high and the supply of sleepers is low, fares for long distance Amtrak trains are pricey and booked many weeks in advance. Roundtrip airfare from New York to Dallas is as low as $230.  But one-way on Amtrak is $299 in coach and $700+ in a roomette.  Of course with Amtrak it’s like getting two nights of hotel plus meals, but to me it’s well worth it.

So next time you’re planning a long distance trip, turn it into a journey. Take the train!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

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Talking Transportation: The Secrets of Riding Metro-North

logoEach week, dozens of people ride Metro-North for the first time.  This week’s column is to let both new and veteran commuters in on the secrets of a successful rail commute.

PARKING:
You can’t take the train if you can’t get to the station, so invest in your commuting future by getting your name on your town’s (and neighboring towns’) waiting lists for annual parking permits. In four or five years, when your name rises to the top of the list, you’ll thank yourself. Meantime, opt for legal day-parking, find a friend to ride to the station with or try biking.  There are free bike racks at most stations.

PLATFORM POSITIONING:
There’s a science to deciding where on the platform to wait for your train. Many commuters position themselves at the front or rear of the train for a quick get-away when they arrive in Grand Central. Contrarian that I am, I tend toward the center of the train because that’s where there’s a better chance of getting a seat.

FINDING A SEAT:
Believe me, your commute will be a lot better seated than standing.  Seats are in short supply, so here’s the strategy.  As your train pulls in, scan the cars that pass you and see how the passenger load looks. As the doors open, move quickly inside, eye-ball your target seat and get there fast. Put your carry-ons in the overhead rack and sit down.  If you hesitate, you’re toast and will be a standee.
On trains leaving Grand Central, you may be able to get onboard up to 20 minutes before departure. Take a window or aisle seat on the three seat side. The middle seat next to you will be the last to be filled.

STANDEE STRATEGY:
If you didn’t get a seat on boarding, don’t give up. A few people on most trains get off in Stamford, so look for them and position yourself to get their seat before it gets cold. Here’s the secret: intermediate passengers have seat checks with a tear down the middle or a torn corner.  Look for them and just before Stamford, position yourself near their row and, bingo, you’ve got a seat!

TICKETS:
Do not make the mistake of boarding a train without a ticket, or you’ll get hit with up to $6.50 penalty for buying a ticket on the train with cash.  But if you’re thrifty, don’t buy a ticket from a ticket window or ticket machine.  No, the cheapest tickets are only available online at www.mta.info. Go for the ten-trip tickets for an additional discount.

ON-BOARD ETIQUETTE:
Train time is not “your own time,” but shared time. So be considerate of your fellow commuters.  Don’t hog empty seats, use the overhead racks. Keep your feet off the seats. If you must use your cellphone, go to the vestibule.  Be like the Boy Scouts:  anything you carry onto the train (including newspapers, coffee cups, etc.) carry off the train and dispose of properly.

If you’ve got your own “secrets” for a successful commute, send them along and I’ll include them in upcoming columns.  Just e-mail me at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Speed Limits, Safety and Fuel Efficiency

65-mph-speed-limit-signCrawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway.  I wish …

Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely being enforced. Which got me thinking: who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?

Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven?  And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the New York border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?  Why does the eastern half of the state get a break?

Blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT.  This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities (usually local Police Departments, mayors or Boards of Selectmen).

OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits) including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95 in most places.

It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the ban altogether in 1995 (followed by a 21% increase in fatal crashes),  leaving it to each state to decide what’s best.

In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads support 80 mph.  Trust me … having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!

About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary. A minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule, but top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).

Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways.  And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.

American cars are designed for maximum fuel efficiency in the 55 – 60 mph range.  Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8 percent less efficiently.  At 70 mph, the loss is 17 percent.  That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.

But even bigger than the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40 percent of total fuel consumption.  Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25 percent at interstate speeds.  So does carrying junk in your trunk (or passengers!):  a 1 percent penalty for every 100 pounds.

Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: PT Barnum and Metro-North

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and I have in common? No, not just a love of circuses. We are both “rail advocates” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his showmanship and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford broadcast on CT-N (every policy wonk’s favorite channel). The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum Kathleen Maher.

She explained that Barnum was more than a showman. He was also a railroad advocate. (He also went on to be part-owner of a cross-Sound ferryboat service that’s still running today.)

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and, “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Earlier, in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican — later he became Mayor of Bridgeport. As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who had protected their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR! Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters. Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters. Once Vanderbilt had them hooked as passengers for their daily ride into and out of New York City, he jacked up fares by 200 to 400 percent.

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which “The Commodore” had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad. Barnum said his only ally in the fight was then-State Senator Ballard of Darien.

So spirited were they in their lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to his bed some ten days before the end of the session and actually remained there ‘sick’” until the legislature adjourned.” (Sound familiar?)

Fast forward to the present and we could again use Barnum’s help.

Though Connecticut hires Metro-North to run “our” trains on “our” tracks, our contract with that New York state agency gives us little say and no seat on it board. As one lawmaker noted, the Connecticut Department of Transport defends Metro-North much as a kidnap victim fights for its captor (what he called the Stockholm syndrome).

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Transportation News Updates

It’s time to update you on some of the hot topics we’ve discussed in recent weeks:

MALLOY’S TRANSIT LAND GRAB:
Remember the Governor’s stealth proposal for a “Transit Corridor Development Authority,” described by some as “eminent domain on steroids”? Well, the initial idea to allow the state to acquire any land within a half-mile of train stations was modified, then killed in the legislature. I predict it will be back.

BRIDGE WOES:
Just as planning begins to replace Norwalk’s 118-year-old railroad bridge, which opens but doesn’t close, another ancient bridge is suffering the same engineering arthritis. On July 1st the Devon Bridge in Stratford was raised but wouldn’t close, delaying every train that ran across it for days. Estimated replacement cost, $750 million.

STAMFORD GARAGE:
It has been two years since the CDOT tapped Darien developer John McClutchy as their choice to demolish the old rail station garage. (That announcement came 10 days after, just coincidentally, McClutchy’s wife donated $10,000 to the state Democrats.) But a final deal has yet to be signed for reasons unknown, so any work is still many months away. Meanwhile in April of this year the old garage was crumbling so badly that the CDOT closed it for safety inspections. Those inspections were completed, but the garage is still closed, displacing 700+ daily commuters.

THIS IS “SAFETY FIRST”?
On June 29, Metro-North allowed two trains to run toward each other on a single track just south of New Canaan. Fortunately they stopped before a collision and one of the trains backed up and out of the way. When reporters first asked Metro-North what happened, they insisted nothing was wrong. Later, they described the incident as “undesirable train routing”, an amazing euphemism for a near collision.

TAKEN TO COURT IN HANDCUFFS:
Is it reassuring to passengers to see MTA conductors and engineers on a “perp walk” for the news media? Thirteen current and former employees of the MTA were taken to court last week, indicted on charges of cheating on safety exams that were testing their knowledge of signals, speed limits and safe operation of trains. The cheating ring ran for more than two years in a period just before Metro-North was hit with a series of derailments and collisions. Eight different exam cycles were compromised before the MTA’s internal investigators started their probe.

HOW LATE WAS YOUR TRAIN?
When the 11:39 p.m. left Grand Central on the night of July 1, passengers settled in for a nap en route to Stamford and a 12:48 a.m. arrival. But instead of taking one hour, their journey took three. Near Woodlawn, the train entered a section with inoperative third-rail and coasted to a halt. The train sat there for 90 minutes before a rescue train arrived, taking 40 minutes to pull them to a station where passengers got on another train. To their credit, the crew did pass out water to the stranded passengers … never a good sign when you’re on a stranded train.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Is Metro-North Irreplaceable?

What is Connecticut’s relationship with Metro-North? Client – vendor? Shared partnership? Stockholm syndrome? Or is the railroad a “fanged sloth” hanging around our neck?

All of those analogies has been made to the state’s 30+ year relationship with Metro-North, part of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). But given their dismal safety record and deteriorating service in recent years, many have asked, “Is it time to fire Metro-North and find someone else to run our trains?”

I posed that very question almost four years ago and people were shocked, not knowing that such a thing was even possible. Now there are even laws being considered in Hartford to rid us of the railroad.

But even though Metro-North works for us, CDOT’s Commissioner Jim Redeker says they should not … in fact, cannot … be replaced.

Redeker recently testified that Metro-North is uniquely qualified and staffed to run a commuter rail operation of its size and that there are no other potential competitors he’d consider as operator, let alone try to build our own agency from scratch. On this point he’s probably right.

Where he’s wrong is in arguing that replacing Metro-North would mean we wouldn’t be allowed to run “Our trains” into “Their station,” Grand Central Terminal (GCT).

There are plenty of railroads with operating rights on others’ tracks. New Jersey Transit has no trouble getting into Penn Station. Virginia Railway Express runs into downtown DC. Does Commissioner Redeker really think that our Congressional delegation couldn’t force the MTA to give us access to GCT? It wouldn’t be an easy fight, but this is certainly no deal-breaker to replacing Metro-North.

Alternative #3 is to renegotiate our contract with the railroad. This opportunity only presents itself every five years, and 2015 is one of those windows. Maybe we should get them to commit to service standards, as their current contract has no metrics to measure their performance. But again, Commissioner Redeker seems reticent to fight for our state or its commuters.

He reminded lawmakers that the last time Connecticut arbitrated the contract, we were out-smarted and ending up with a worse deal than we’d had before. The MTA’s army of lawyers took us to the cleaners, costing us millions more in payments to Metro-North each year. Apparently the Commissioner thinks we’re not smart enough to negotiate a better deal, so why even try?

So, just to recap … our Commissioner of Transportation says we have no real options, that we have to work with Metro-North, but we’re probably not savvy enough to get any better deal than we have now. So let’s just wave the white flag before the battle begins and keep paying $70+ million a year for lousy train service.

Now there is inspired leadership! Declare defeat and just walk away. Let the “fanged sloth” continue to hang around our necks. We really have no choice. Suck it up because Metro-North, our vendor, is running the show.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com
For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: “Getting to the Airport”

The old Cunard line used to say that “getting there is half the fun.”  But anyone who’s endured the challenges and indignities of air travel know that getting to the airport can sap your strength, if not your wallet.  Consider the alternatives.

A car service is certainly convenient.  But at $110 one way to LaGuardia,  $140 to JFK and $150+ to Newark, getting to the airport can often cost more than your air fare. (Mind you, these are the advertised rates, so I wouldn’t be shy about asking for promotions and discounts when you call to book.  It’s a competitive business.)

But car services aren’t just expensive, they’re also wasteful.  Couldn’t solo travelers share a car with others in a “limo-pool”?  Is one passenger in a Lincoln Town Car an efficient use of limited space on I-95?

How about Connecticut Limousine? Now there’s a misnomer!  Since when is a cramped van a limo?  And try explaining that name on the receipt on your expenses to your company’s accountant.  “Really, boss … it was just a van!”

Being thrifty, on a few occasions I’ve actually rented a car at the airport, driven home and then dropped the car the next day in Stamford.  A day’s car rental is about half the cost of a car service.

Some regular fliers hire neighborhood teens to drive their own car to the airport, drop them off and drive the car home, repeating the process on their return.  That’s less expensive than a car service, but puts double the miles on your car.

My preferred airport transfer is in my own car. Airport parking is $39 a day. Not cheap, but certainly convenient. And nobody complains about my cigar smoking en route to the airport.

Another alternative, believe it or not, is Metro-North. Get off at 125th Street and catch a cab or livery and you’re at LaGuardia in about 15 minutes.  There’s also a new Express Bus, the M60, that whisks you from 125th St to LGA in about 20 minutes.

If you’re heading to Newark, definitely consider Amtrak.  Many Northeast corridor trains stop at Newark Airport where a convenient connection to the airport monorail has you at the terminals in just minutes.  The train sure beats the Cross-Bronx and GWB any day. And fares are as low as $28 one way.

Mind you, New York’s three airports aren’t the only choices. Westchester County’s White Plains airport offers non-stop jet service to many cities on a variety of major carriers including JetBlue.  Hartford’s Bradley Airport offers another alternative, including low-fare carriers like Southwest … if you don’t mind an hour plus drive to get to the airport, north of Hartford.  One faithful reader extols the virtues of New Haven’s Tweed Airport where US Air flies to Philly where you can connect to most anywhere.

Clearly, the trip to and from the airport can start and end a trip on a very sour, and expensive, note.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Transportation: Why a Another Fare Hike Seems Inevitable

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are we will see another fare hike on Metro-North in the coming months.

Not that any elected official would endorse such a plan (at least not before the November elections), but once again Connecticut is not totally in control of its financial destiny when it comes to our trains.

True, fare increases in Connecticut must be initiated by the state regardless of what NY does to its riders, but the financial numbers speak for themselves.

We are tied to NY’s operations by an antiquated contract going back 30 years.  The cost of running “our” trains is born by both CT and NY, and those costs are soaring from $70 million a year to $110 million thanks to remedial track work and expected contract settlements (with four years of retroactive pay hikes).

How will Connecticut make up this $40 million deficit?  There are only three choices:  raise fares, cut service or find that money elsewhere.  The latter two choices are either undesirable or impossible, leaving the prospect (necessity?) of fare increases.

After a year of slower, unreliable and often-disrupted service, it’s hard to explain to commuters they should be paying more… especially in an election year.  So when the rumored necessity of a fare hike was floated last week, Governor Malloy expressed outrage and bewilderment.

But our governor and his Dept of Transportation knew darn well this was coming.  They’re the ones who pushed Metro-North for badly needed track work after derailments and deaths.  Who did they think would pay for that?  And one wonders… does CDOT ever audit Metro-North’s ever-increasing budgets and bills to our state?

Fares in Connecticut are already the highest in the US because our subsidy of those fares is the lowest.  Upstate lawmakers who dominate our legislature loathe the idea of subsidizing fat-cat investment bankers’ trips to their high-paying jobs in New York City.  But they have no trouble taxing their incomes, do they?

Fairfield County residents represent 26% of our state’s population but pay 40% of its taxes.  Legislators made us subsidize Adriaen’s Landing ($770 million) in Hartford and the UConn football stadium ($90+ million), neither of which we are ever likely to use. So why can’t they keep residing in Fairfield County affordable by keeping Metro-North safe, on-time and affordable.

Since 2012 we’ve already had 12% fare hikes, thanks in part to Governor Malloy using rail fares to balance his budget (a move I called that more of a tax on commuters than anything else.)

The good news is that a fare increase in Connecticut requires 90 days notice and public hearings.  And with the November elections just weeks away, no right minded politician will pull that trigger.

Mind you, it was now-GOP nominee Tom Foley who recently told reporters he thought we in Connecticut spend too much subsidizing mass transit, so who knows?  It should be an interesting campaign season and my hope is that Metro-North will be a much debated topic.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 23 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

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“Talking Transportation: Is It Safe To Ride Metro-North?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

It has been seven months since a drowsy engineer drove a speeding Metro-North train off the tracks at Spuyten Duyvil, killing four and injuring 59. Months earlier a derailment and collision near Bridgeport sent 70 to the hospital.

Ever since, the railroad has promised that improving safety is its top priority. So does that mean the railroad is now “safe”?

Aside from taking the word of management, how are we to know? Just because we haven’t had another accident doesn’t mean the railroad is safe. Nobody suspected it was unsafe until those two accidents last year showed us just how dangerous our daily commute had become.

In April this year The Commuter Action Group surveyed 642 commuters and asked them, “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” and 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they “weren’t sure”.

Neither am I, but I ride those trains regularly, hoping for the best. And so far, so good. I take the railroad at its word when it says safety is its top priority, but I have no way of telling it that’s true. As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Waiting on a station platform, how can the average commuter look at the tracks, the overhead wires or signals and know that Metro-North is safe? We can’t even see the engineers because they hide in their control booth behind jerry-rigged cardboard curtains ‘lest riders should watch them at work.

Here’s what we do know. The trains are running slower (on-time performance was only 79% in May). And last week we also learned that an entire class of conductor trainees had been dismissed because they were caught cheating on a safety exam. Good for the MTA for catching and disciplining them. But the worry is whether this kind of cheating has been going on for years. Reassuring?

The only way to be sure that Metro-North is safe is better federal oversight by the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration. That agency still hasn’t issued its final report on the May 2013 derailment… and only fined the railroad $5,000 following a Metro-North trainee’s mistake, which killed one of their own track foremen. As US Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, “The watchdogs were asleep. The FRA has been lax and sluggish.”

That’s why commuters should be reassured that Senator Blumenthal will soon introduce a bill to give the FRA some real teeth: increasing civil penalties for railroad mistakes, strengthening railroad oversight, mandating new safety gear, introduction of a fatigue management plan for personnel, requiring anonymous reporting systems for whistle-blowers, installation of cameras, alerters and redundant safety systems for track workers.

Further, the bill would also require stronger safety standards for crude oil rail-tankers, the “pipelines on wheels” carrying crude oil and petroleum products on US railroads.

The only thing missing? Mandatory transparency. I’d hope that the FRA would be required to explain its oversight and reassure all railroad riders of their safety in a simple, understandable manner. That would make me feel safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Talking Transportation: America’s Interstate Highways

The 47,000 miles of highways that comprise America’s interstate highway system are nothing short of an engineering marvel, surpassed only by what China has built in the last few years.

We take them for granted, but when they were designed almost 60 years ago these super-highways presented both great opportunity and vast challenges. The US wasn’t the first with super-highways. Those bragging rights go to the Germans, whose Reichsautobahn saw cars zooming along at 100+ mph in the 1930’s.

Most credit President Eisenhower, whose troops rode the Autobahn in WWII, for seeing the military value of an American equivalent, though engineering such a complex across the US was far more difficult.

Of course, by 1940 the US already had the Pennsylvania Turnpike and, by 1954, the NY State Thruway, but private toll roads were just the beginning.

To build a road expected to last, in 1955 the federal government, AAA and automakers first built a $27 million seven mile test road near Ottawa, Illinois. Half was concrete, the other half asphalt. The 836 separate sections of highway had various sub-surfaces and 16 bridges. For two years army trucks drove night and day, seeing which road designs would hold up.

Weather and traffic dictated different designs: in desert areas the highways need be only a foot thick, while in Maine the tough winter and freeze-thaw cycles required that I-95 would be five feet thick.

Construction of the highways required moving 42 billion cubic feet of soil. To expedite construction of I-40 in California, there was even a plan to use nuclear bombs to vaporize part of the Bristol Mountain range.

As author Dan McNichol writes in his excellent book, “The Roads that Built America”, “VIP seating was even planned for the event. The (nuclear) bombing was to produce a cloud 12,000 feet high and a radioactive blast 133 times that of Hiroshima.” Needless to say, the mountains were moved using more conventional explosives.

Outside of Greenbelt, Md., another site tested the design of road signs … white lettering on a black background, white on blue (already adopted by the NY Thruway) or, what proved to be the winning model, white on green.

Just 5,200 of the original 41,000 miles of Interstates were to be built in urban areas, but those few miles accounted for almost half of the $425 billion total cost. By 1992 the system was deemed “completed”. Bragging rights for the longest of the interstates goes to I-90 running 3,020 miles from Boston to Seattle and our own beloved I-95, which runs 1,920 miles from the Canadian border to Miami, Fla.

As anyone who drives on I-95 in Connecticut knows, the interstates have far surpassed their expected traffic load and are in need of billions of repairs. Little did we know 60 years ago what our automotive future might bring.

Jim Cameron

Jim CameronJim 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

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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

 

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Talking Transportation: Eight Little Known Facts About Flying

We may never know what happened to that Malaysia Airlines 777, but there’s plenty more we should know about flying, even domestically.  Here are some little-known truths of aviation as shared by pilots and flight attendants:

Lavatory Doors Don’t Really Lock:  They can be opened from the outside by just sliding the “occupied” sign to one side.  This isn’t so attendants can catch “mile high club” wannabies, but so they can be sure the lavs are empty on take-off and landing.  And those ashtrays in the lavs?  Even though smoking has been banned for decades, the FAA still requires them. 

Oxygen Masks Can Save Your Life:  But only if you get them on fast!  In a rapid decompression at 35,000 feet, the oxygen is sucked from your lungs and you have 15 – 30 seconds to get that mask on or die.  And the on-board oxygen is only good for 15 minutes, so expect an express ride down to safer altitudes.

Airlines Are Suffering from a Pilot Shortage:  New regulations for increased rest time and more experience aviators are making it tough for airlines to keep their cockpits filled.  Boeing alone estimates that aviation growth worldwide will create demand for a half-million new pilots.  And just like Metro-North, airlines are now losing their most experienced crews to retirement.

Your Pilot May Be Asleep:  Actually, that’s a good thing during most of the flight, which can be pretty boring as the auto-pilot runs the plane.  And a good nap should make your pilot refreshed for landing.  But the FAA is also proposing to test ‘heavy’ pilots for potential sleep disorders so they don’t nod off at a crucial moment.

Keep Your Seatbelt On:   Otherwise, unexpected turbulence will see you bounce off the luggage racks like a ping-pong ball.  In an incident like that the hysterical screaming is bad enough, so stay belted.

Flight Attendants Aren’t In It for the Glamour: .They don’t get paid when they arrive at the airport or when they greet you boarding the plane.  For most, their pay starts ticking only at take-off.  They travel for a living and have to endure endless abuse for things that are not their fault.  For all that, median salary for flight attendants is about $37,000.  Food stamps they have to apply for separately.

Planes Are Germ Factories: Most older jets recycle cabin air to conserve fuel, so if one passenger sneezes, everyone’s susceptible to a cold.  The air is also dry and the blankets and pillows (if you get them) haven’t been cleaned since the previous use.  The same is true of the headphones they pass out.  And your seatback tray table?  Just imagine whose baby diaper was seated there where you lay out your in-flight snack.  Moral to the story:  BYO sanitizer!

Don’t Drink the Water:      Unless it comes from a bottle, water on planes comes from onboard tanks that are rarely cleaned.  At least when they use it to make coffee it’s heated.  Again, BYO.

Overall, based on passenger miles, flying is the safest form of transportation in the world.  But it’s not without its risks, some of which you can help minimize using common sense.

 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  

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Talking Transportation: The Feds Deep Dive into Metro-North

Jim CameronIt was worse than we’d ever known. Metro-North was almost an accident waiting to happen.

That summarizes the Federal Railway Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” report issued last week, following 60 days of probing into every aspect of the railroad’s operations. All of this comes on the heels of collisions and derailments in the past year that have taken the lives of four commuters and two railroad workers.

The 28-page report confirms that what was wrong at Metro-North was not just old equipment but a failure of management with very misplaced priorities. “On-time performance” was what mattered most, even at the expense of safety.

Among the report’s findings…

• Half of the personnel who dispatch and monitor the trains have less than three years’ experience, are not properly trained and are so tired they make mistakes

• The railroad’s “safety culture” was “poor”. Safety meetings went unattended.

• Fatigue by train engineers, track workers and dispatchers may have affected performance.

• The trains themselves are in good shape, but the tracks are not.

I’ve been following Metro-North for more than 20 years, so much of this is not news to me but just a substantiation of my worst fears. Still, the report makes for interesting reading because it cites many examples as proof-points for these findings:

Metro-North has known for a decade that they were facing a “retirement cliff” with 20% of its employees, those with the most experience, reaching their 30th anniversary of employment to retire on fat pensions. But the railroad was clearly inadequate in hiring and training their replacements.

Fatigue becomes a factor because soon-to-retire veterans grab all the overtime they can in their final year to increase their income and their railroad pensions. They are among the oldest employees and least resilient.

Metro-North’s management wasn’t even enforcing its own rules. The report says employees were “confused” about cell phone use on the job. Any teenager studying for his driver’s license knows not to use a cell phone while driving, but track workers at Metro-North got away with it.

Additional funding for staff and infrastructure are important and must be found. But turning around a culture of lax enforcement and lip-service to safety is going to take more than money.

Only a month on the job, espousing “safety is our top priority” at every turn, the new President of Metro-North, Joseph Giulietti, recently saw the first fatal accident on his watch: a track worker, 8 years on the job, was struck by a train just outside the Park Avenue tunnel. Why?

There are no quick fixes to this mess. It took years of invisible neglect for Metro-North to slide into this abyss, and it will take years to rebuild the railroad and regain riders’ trust.

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

 

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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

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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  

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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

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Transportation: Slow Orders for Metro-North

Jim CameronNo, it’s not your imagination.  Service is getting even worse on Metro-North. And there’s no sign of short-term improvements.

This has been a terrible year for Metro-North and its 120,000 daily riders in Connecticut:  the May derailment / collision, the death of a track worker and the September “meltdown” because of a failed Con Ed feeder.  But the repercussions of these problems still affect us, months later.

Trains are late on a daily basis, even after the railroad adjusted the timetable in August to reflect longer running times.  What used to be a 48 minute ride from Stamford to GCT is now scheduled for 55 to 60 minutes.  But in reality, with delays, it takes more than an hour most days.

Why?  Because of “slow orders”.

After the May derailments, Metro-North brought in some high-tech rail scanning equipment and checked out every inch of track in the system.  Of immediate concern were the below-grade tracks in the Bronx, long subject to flooding.

Concrete ties installed between 1990 and ’96 needed to be replaced due to deterioration.  Ties and fencing were also replaced in a job so large that, at times, three of the four tracks were taken out of service.

Admittedly, it’s hard to run the busiest commuter railroad in the US with 75% of your tracks out of service, but the work was necessary and commuters were asked to be patient.  At last report, the Bronx work was 80% completed.

So that means train schedules will soon return to “normal”?  Sorry, but no.

It turns out that the Bronx is just one of the causes of the current delays, something Metro-North didn’t tell us.

With new timetables coming out on November 17th, some train runs may be improved by a minute (yes, 60 seconds), at best. It seems that all those high-tech track inspections since May turned up many spots where work is needed.  And until that work can be completed, the trains running over those tracks are operating under system-wide “slow orders”, in effect cutting their speeds from 85 or 90 mph to an average of 60 mph.  Don’t believe me?  Fire up your smart phone’s GPS next ride and see for yourself.

The railroad still blames daily delays on the work in the Bronx and wet leaves, but the truth is far worse.  At recent NTSB hearings on the May derailment, Metro-North admitted they are far behind on track maintenance, inspections and repairs in Connecticut but couldn’t explain why.  Until the tracks are fixed, trains won’t be allowed to run at full speed.

One thing they did acknowledge to investigators is that they don’t have the experienced staff to do the needed welding and repair work, having lost so many veteran workers in recent months to retirement.

The slow orders make sense.  Safety should always come first.  But why can’t railroad executives be honest with us about why we are suffering with these delays, how long they will last and what they are doing to minimize the disruption to our daily commutes?  Remember:  winter is coming, adding another layer of misery and delays to our commutes.

Sadly, my mantra from five years ago has proven correct:  Things are going to get a lot worse on Metro-North before they get better.

 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

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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

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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

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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

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Talking Transportation: Cruise Ships: The Devils on The Deep Blue Sea

Jim CameronIn the eight years I’ve been writing this column I’ve never found a reason to write about cruise ships, one of my favorite ways to travel.

Since my Dad took me as a passenger on freighters through the Caribbean when I was a kid right up to our now-annual cruises to the same area, I’ve always loved the high seas.  There’s nothing easier than driving to the pier in New York City, hopping on board and kicking back for a week.

A few years ago my fascination with cruising brought me to a great book, “Devils on the Deep Blue Sea” by Kristoffer Garin which detailed the formative years of the cruise industry, especially the start-up of Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972.  It was a rough start, but today Carnival owns 10 cruise lines (almost half the cruise ships in the world) including Cunard, Holland America, Costa, P&O, Princess and Seabourn.  At one point they even had their own airline ferrying passengers to Miami and San Juan, their biggest embarkation ports.

By segmenting the cruise market, just as hotels do, they offer everything from singles-filled party cruises to upscale trans-Atlantic “crossings” on the Queen Mary 2 (which is where I was while reading Garin’s book in 2006).

But more recently Carnival’s had some very bad PR.  Last year it was crash of the Costa Concordia in Italy (whose Captain abandoned ship).  Then, the February stranding of the 4,000-person Triumph for days in the Gulf of Mexico (without power, food or sanitation) was just the latest in a series of engineering problems.  Last week another ship, Fascination, failed a Center for Disease Control (CDC) health inspection, the fourth of their ships to do so this year alone.

Last week demand for cabins was so low that Carnival was offering cruises for $38 a night per person … less than the cost at Motel 6.   And that price includes all meals (assuming those CDC inspections don’t hurt your appetite).

Admittedly, this is a weak time of year for cruising, but Carnival knows it’s always best to sail with a full ship and make money on the booze and ship excursions.

In my view, the real problem isn’t Carnival or its ships’ safety, but the fact that they pay no taxes … and yet, depend on the US Coast Guard for their numerous rescues.

Micky Arison, son of the founder of Carnival (and owner of the Miami Heat), is the richest man in Florida.  Last year Carnival brought in $15.3 billion in revenues.  But they paid just 0.6% in US, state, local and international taxes last year while socking taxpayers for millions in US Coast Guard expenses for 90 different rescue missions in the last five years.

Senator Jay Rockefeller says Arison is a “cheater… treacherous and wrong” and wrote him asking to do the right thing and pay-up.  Carnival declined the invitation, prompting Rockefeller (the Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee) to call their response “shameful”.

Shameful, perhaps.  But perfectly legal and the result, even Rockefeller admits, of sloppiness by Congress.  So, expect some grandstanding, a few hearings and maybe some face-saving philanthropy by Arison.   But don’t expect many changes in the cruise industry, especially in higher fares that reflect the true cost of being a “devil on the deep blue seas.”

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

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Talking Transportation: TSA – The Toughest Job in Transportation

Jim CameronWho do you think has the toughest job in transportation?  Airline pilots?  Long-haul truck drivers?  Metro-North conductors?    To my thinking, the toughest job is being an airport TSA agent.

Forget the recent furor over revised Transportation Security Administration rules soon to allow small knives in carry-on luggage.  The plastic knives the flight attendants distribute in snack packs in-flight are already sharp enough to slit a throat.  By not worrying about every pen-knife and nail clipper, TSA agents should have more time to concentrate on truly lethal weapons.

A far bigger threat to aviation security is liquid explosives and non-metal knives.  Ceramic knives are undetectable on magnetometers, which is why the TSA brought in those full-body scanners we love so much.

But I think the biggest threat to aviation safety is the public’s anger at the TSA agents who are just doing their job.  After a thorough TSA screening at an airport last month I saw an angry passenger literally curse at the agent.  That passenger wasn’t pulled aside and given a retaliatory body cavity search. To her credit the agent kept her cool and didn’t get into even a verbal fight.  Could you be so thick-skinned?

It’s been 12 years since 9/11.  Have we forgotten what can happen when determined, armed terrorists take over a plane?  The TSA screens 1.8 million passengers a day.  If just one of those fliers got an undetected weapon onto a plane and blew it up, imagine the uproar.

Remember the holy triad of service:  fast, good and cheap.  You can achieve any two of those, but not all three.  Clearly, the top priority is “good” security.  So in this age of sequestration we’re unlikely to see quality compromised for speed.

If you want to fly, put up and shut up:  put up with the long lines while the agents do their jobs properly to keep you safe and keep your mouth shut.

Passenger protests have brought some TSA screening changes which seem arbitrary.  Like the recent rule allowing passengers over age 75 to keep their shoes on.  Terrorists can’t be that old?

And what passes for the rare TSA inspection of Amtrak passengers is more for show than real security. Unless every bag is opened, the rare and random briefcase examination or quick dog-walk through a moving train seems to be just “showing the colors”.

What do all these TSA inspections do, aside from create long lines and frustrated fliers?  They turn up an amazing amount of weapons.  The TSA’s weekly blog makes for fascinating reading.

In one recent week alone the TSA intercepted 32 firearms, 27 of them loaded, and ten stun guns. There were clips of ammo, brass knuckles and (no surprise) sheer stupidity:  a passenger flying out of San Juan told the ticket agent that her bag contained a bomb and she was going to blow up the plane. After an inspection by the TSA, her bag didn’t have a bomb. But as a result of her threat, the ticket counter, checkpoint and terminal were closed for nearly an hour, inconveniencing thousands.

And there were, as the TSA blog put it, “consequences” for the flier.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Transportation: High Speed Rail in Japan

I am just back from two weeks’ travel in Asia where I have seen the past and the future of the world’s best high speed rail.  This week, my thoughts on Japan and next week, China.

It was 1964 when the Japanese introduced the world’s first “bullet train”, the Shinkansen.  Using a dedicated right-of-way (no freight, no slow trains), the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka today carries over 150 million passengers a year at speeds up to 190 mph… not the fastest in the world, but easily the busiest.

Now on its seventh generation of equipment, I rode the Nozumi Express from Tokyo to Kyoto and was amazed at the service.  Like Grand Central Terminal, Tokyo’s main downtown station is a dead-end.  As trains arrive, passengers disembark and uniformed cleaning crews have about ten minutes to clean and freshen the equipment for the next run.

The Nozumi runs from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of 314 miles, equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore.  And it makes that journey in 2 ½ hours with trains every five to ten minutes!  Each 16 car train can carry up to 1300 passengers in first (“Green”) class (two by two seating) or second class (three by two… the Japanese are small).

Compare that to Amtrak with hourly Acela service in six car trainsets holding 300 passengers total.  Acela’s fastest run from Boston to Baltimore is just shy of six hours with an average speed of 90 – 120 mph.

The Japanese trains are so fast there is no need for a diner or bar car.  Instead, passengers can buy an “ekiben” boxed lunch from dozens of stores at the station.  Because all seats are assigned, passengers que up at the exact spot on the platform where their car will stop, awaiting permission to board.  When the cleaning crews finish, the doors open, passengers board and the train departs… always on time, and to the second.

As the conductor collects tickets, he bows to each customer.  Train crew passing through the cars always turn and bow to the passengers before going to the next car.  The ride is so smooth as to not be thought possible.  And arrivals and departures are to the second with average dwell time at intermediate stations no longer than 90 seconds.  And, of course, there is free Wi-Fi during the entire journey.

The first class fare on the Nozumi Express between Tokyo and Osaka is $186.  On Amtrak’s Acela, the Boston to Baltimore ride costs up to $279 for business class, $405 in first class.

Japan’s Shinkansen is the grand-daddy of high speed rail, but still among the best.  Next time I’ll tell you about the newest, and to my thinking, the world’s best high speed rail… in China!  And I’ll recount my 11 minute ride on the world’s only commercial maglev in Shanghai.

 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

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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

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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

 

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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

 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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