April 23, 2014

Talking Transportation: A Report Card for Metro-North

If 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

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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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

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: The Feds ‘Deep Dive’ Into Metro-North

Jim Cameron

It 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 percent 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, eight 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.

Editor’s Note: 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

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

“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 COMMUNICATIONS

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 & 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?

Editor’s Note: 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 Commuter Action Group

Now is the winter of our discontent.   I’ve been riding Metro-North for almost 25 years and I’ve never seen the railroad in such bad shape.

Trains are consistently late without explanation.  Some cars have no heat.  A couple of trains were stranded for more than two hours when wires were pulled down.  And on one recent evening, the entire railroad ground to a halt because some tech pulled the plug on a vital computer at HQ.

Our crumbling rail infrastructure is compounded by inexcusable human errors by the people hired to run our trains.

And now we hear that some of our new M8 cars are also in the shop, ingesting snow that burns out their electronics, just like the older cars they replaced.  That means trains are short of cars and it’s standing room only on many rush hour trains.

What’s a commuter to do?  Why, turn on their smartphone and use the power of the web to complain!

That’s the idea behind The Commuter Action Group, launched in late January, the fruits of my advocacy labors for several months since leaving the Commuter Council.

Our website (www.CommuterActionGroup.org) allows commuters to immediately report problems to Metro-North, giving them needed details about where, when, what car number, etc.  They can even take a picture and send it.

Step two is to copy that complaint and send it to your State Representative, State Senator, Congressman and US Senators.  They represent you and need to know how bad things are on the railroad and how you will hold them accountable for getting things fixed.  We will “remember in November” who helped us and who didn’t.

Step three is to use our Twitter feed (@CTRailCommuters) and Facebook page to discuss what’s wrong, share ideas, ask questions and get answers.  As one rider posted… “it’s like a virtual support group.”

The response from commuters has been amazing and I clearly think lawmakers, both in Connecticut and NY State, are getting the message that their constituents are angry.  But we need more than press conferences and lip service:   legislators need to pressure CDOT to hold Metro-North accountable.

As part of our launch of The Commuter Action Group, we also issued a “Commuter Manifesto”, listing a few simple expectations (not demands) that riders have as Metro-North customers paying the highest rail fares in the US …

Safety … Fast, Accurate and Honest Communications … Responsive Customer Service … Open and Transparent Operations … and Leadership that Listens.  The Commuter Manifesto now hangs in most station waiting rooms as we await a response.

A new President arrives next week at Metro-North, Joe Giulietti.  By all reports he’s smart, respected and a good communicator.  Whatever his skills, they’ll certainly be put to the test in the coming weeks.

We wish him success and pledge our cooperation.  As we wrote in our Commuter Manifesto, “We will listen to you if you will listen to us: we’re in this together”.

jimcameronJim 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: 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.

jimcameronJim 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

Despite 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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Talking Transportation: Down, But Not Out: Cameron Resigns — But Doesn’t Quit

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

After 19 years, I have resigned from the CT Commuter Rail Council.  But I can promise you I am not quitting my advocacy for my fellow commuters or the writing of this column. And I have an even better idea of how commuters can be heard.

The old Commuter Council accomplished many things since its founding in 1985, including the ordering of the new M8 cars.  The Council also fought for Quiet Cars, the Passenger Bill of Rights, expanded parking at rail stations, changes in the expiration date on tickets and ticket refunds when service was cancelled.

On an annual basis I would testify in Hartford for better rail service at affordable fares, and while lawmakers would nod in agreement, little changed.  The tensions between upstate legislators and those from downstate, where rail service is a crucial utility, have always stymied investment in our rails.

And on visiting the capitol I was always struck by the fact that the corridors there are filled with paid lobbyists, arm-twisting on behalf of truckers, for building more highways or opposing tolls. Yet there was nobody there speaking on behalf of commuters, except me.

The thousands of daily riders of Metro-North in Connecticut are hardly a “special interest group” nor can they afford a full-time lobbyist.  But they are taxpayers and voters who can move out of state when conditions make commuting unreliable or unsafe.

Metro-North is facing big problems.  Despite new cars, service is slower than it has been in years and we haven’t even faced winter with its usual cancellations and service outages.  Trains run late, are still over-crowded, and communications with riders is inconsistent and unreliable.

So why did I resign from the Commuter Council now?  Because the railroad and CDOT, which hires Metro-North to run our trains, aren’t listening –  let alone communicating with customers.

Review the old minutes and annual reports from Commuter Council over the past decade and you’ll see that nothing has changed.  The complaints are the same, but the lip-service from Metro-North and CDOT is always a consistent “we’ll get back to you”, though they never do.  Commuter complaints fall into some black hole at MTA headquarters.

If Metro-North were a private, for-profit business there would have been massive changes in management after the debacles of deferred maintenance leading to last May’s derailment / collision and the Con Ed meltdown.  But Metro-North is a monopoly in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation with the CDOT. The little that is communicated to riders lacks candor and transparency.

What we need to do is give greater voice to commuters’ anger.  We need a “Commuters Action Group” that can directly connect commuters with lawmakers, the railroad and the CDOT, showing them the true level of frustration of daily riders.  That’s what I hope to build and if you’re interested in helping, please e-mail me (address below).

We deserve a world-class railroad and together we can still make it happen.

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: Slow Orders for Metro-North

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

No, 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 Nov. 17, 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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Talking Transportation: 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. 25, 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 his own.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

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Talking Transportation: Progress is Painful

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

I am nothing if not an optimist.  After toiling as a rail advocate for almost two decades, nothing surprises me or dissuades me.  A few examples…

This week Metro-North announced a new timetable, one so hastily launched that they won’t even have paper copies available ‘til after Labor Day.  Why the hurry?  Because this summer has been horrendous for on-time service … but with good reason.

Metro-North is justifiably proud of 98+% on-time performance record (give or take their six minute margin of error).  But long postponed and badly needed track work, especially in the Bronx, has screwed up everything since July 1st.  Trains, especially at rush hour, have regularly been 10+ minutes late as two of the four tracks are out of service.

The solution?  A new timetable showing longer (more realistic) running times until the work is done.  Your train won’t run any faster, but you won’t be able to complain about being late, at least on paper.

At first this may seem like a self-serving trick, but, in this case, I think the railroad is right.

The track work is necessary.  If last May’s derailment in Fairfield taught us nothing it certainly showed the need for maintenance.  As I asked one fellow rider grousing about the delays, “What do you want … a fast ride or a safe one?”

The track work and slower running times will be in effect through the fall.  Let’s all be patient and let the railroad finish its work.

A huge plus for commuters is the recent opening of the West Haven station.  After more than a decade and $130 million in expenditures, this gorgeous new station with 12-car-length platforms and 658 parking spaces will finally fill the nine mile service gap between Milford and New Haven stations.

The new station is proof that things can get better thanks to the actions of even one person.  Local businessman Michael Meruciano petitioned for this station starting in 2000 and single-handedly fought for its creation for more than a decade.  He deserves a medal for his perseverance, though every local, state and a few national politicians will likely take credit.

Speaking of which… we are still waiting for more news on the re-formed CT Rail Commuter Council, successor to the 26-year-old CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council (on which I served as Chairman).  Governor Malloy’s proposal to revamp the Council became law this spring and called for the naming of the new Council’s members by Aug. 1.

I’m happy to report that I was the first member appointed (thanks to State Rep and Minority Leader Larry Cafero) and so far five other ‘old’ Council members have also been appointed.

The Commuter Council hasn’t met since last June (when our meeting was boycotted by Metro-North and the CDOT) and we’re anxious to get the new group up and running soon.

Only problem is, Governor Malloy and several other lawmakers have missed the Aug. 1 deadline for appointing new members, leaving us in limbo.  Why the rush to reform the old Commuter Council if they can’t meet their own legislative deadline for appointing members to a new one?

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is a member of the new CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@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 Cameron

Jim Cameron

This 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. Yesterday we all started 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 Rte. 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: Metro-North in Crisis?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

“Is it safe to ride Metro-North?”   I’ve been asked that question by reporters and commuters alike dozens of times in recent weeks.   My answer in a moment, after some background.

Days ago the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its initial report on the cause of the May 17th derailment and subsequent collision of two trains, a report that seemed to fault the railroad, not just our aging tracks.  The federal safety agency says that just two days before the accident, a Metro-North inspection identified a problem at the site of the derailment:  an insulated joint connecting two sections of track that had insufficient ballast (the large gravel supporting the ties).  As trains rolled over the joint, the track moved up and down, straining the joint.

Metro-North admits its track crews found the problem but says that they didn’t think it serious enough to close the track or issue a “slow order”.  The question is, why?  Shouldn’t the railroad always err on the side of safety?  Was the weak spot slated for repairs?  If so, when?

Days later, another tragedy:  a Metro-North track worker was struck by an oncoming train near West Haven.  This accident seems to have been caused by human error:  a rookie in traffic control reportedly cleared signals for the work area, sending the train at full speed into the area workers thought was shut to traffic.  Metro-North President called the accident “the worst … in Metro-North’s history.”

Metro-North worker and managers are not stupid.  They are highly trained and want to run a world class railroad that’s safe and on-time.  But they are only human and are under tremendous pressure, exacerbated by a serious loss of experienced staff.

Since the first of the year, 34 managers have retired including the senior vice president of operations, the senior construction engineer, the chief training officer and assistant director of track projects.  Many engineers, conductors and track workers have also retired, because after 30 years on the job they are eligible to leave with full pension benefits.

“Right now, this is a tinderbox,” Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees (ACRE) told The NY Daily News.

“The loss of thousands of years of experience is something we have all warned about for years,” Bottalico said in a letter to Permut.  “Our employees and managers tell me they see a railroad in dysfunction, a railroad more concerned with budgets and long meetings and (with) no attention to actual management of the operations.”

According to a report in the New York Post, the Federal Transit Administration is so concerned they have twice warned Metro-North’s parent, the MTA, they need to bring in experienced managers for mega-projects like the Second Avenue subway.  Morale is down even among remaining managers, who haven’t seen a pay hike in years.

The railroad knew this was coming.  But has it done enough to promote from within or bring in fresh talent from other railroads.  And who wants to go from being an engineer (earning $175,000) into management and take a pay cut?

Even with new hires, there are problems.  Chris Silvera, the head of the track workers union told Newsday: “We are a very young workforce, a very inexperienced workforce.  We’re used to having people with 15, 16 years of experience doing these jobs.  We’re not able to do that anymore.  When you’ve got all rookies on the team, you have to have leadership.”

So, is it safe to ride Metro-North?  Yes, I think it is … and I do.

Since these two accidents, vigilance has been redoubled.  I’m sure everyone on the railroad is thinking “safety” first and foremost, as they should.

So the next time your train is delayed a few minutes or seems to be running slow, don’t complain.  It’s probably for a good reason … keeping you, your fellow passengers and the folks that work 24 x 7 to run the busiest commuter railroad in the US safe!

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 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: High Speed Rail – Updates

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Jim Cameron

Time for a quick update on the good and not-so good news about high-speed rail around the world:

CHINA:          The high-speed train between Beijing and Shanghai just passed the 100 million passenger ridership mark after less than 2 years of operations.  The sleek trains depart every 15 minutes carrying 1,000+ passengers at 200+ mph, covering the 819 mile distance (comparable to NYC – Atlanta) in 4 hours.

China also recently opened a new 1,400 mile long high speed line from Beijing to Guangzhou (comparable to NYC to Key West FL).  Travel time, 8 hours.  That puts high speed rail just 100 miles from Hong Kong.

U.S.A.:           America’s fastest train, Acela, while a tinker toy compared to true high-speed rail in China and Europe, is becoming a victim of its own success.  Acela has captured over 50% of the NY to DC and NY to Boston market with hourly departures but an average speed of only 75 mph.  Trains are sold out (with 3.4 million passengers a year) and, at least on paper, highly profitable.  But when Amtrak looked at adding an extra car to each train to capitalize on this popularity, they concluded it would be too expensive.

But Amtrak has been experimenting with increasing Acela’s speed from 125 to 160 mph on a few stretches of track in NJ and RI.  Some $450 million in work will be needed but the hope is the faster speeds could be achieved by 2017.  Today Acela accounts for a quarter of all Amtrak revenues nationwide.

FRANCE:      If it worked for the airlines, why not high speed rail?  France’s government run railroad is about to launch a no-frills, discounted subsidiary branded “OuiGo”.  Using rebuilt double-decker TGV equipment, the trains will be super cheap but with few amenities (think Southwest Airlines on rails).  All ticketing will be online.  Extra bags will cost you $8 in advance, $65 if you wait til the last minute.  There are no café or bar cars on the trains.  A seat near an electric outlet is extra.  You have to arrive 30 min before departure, and OuiGo only uses suburban, not downtown, stations (appealing to the car-centric suburbanites near Paris).  But for a little hassle, you can get to Marseille (on the Mediterranean) in three hours for as little as $13.

NETHERLANDS – BELGIUM:     Not all high-speed rail in Europe is a smashing success.  Witness “Frya”, the private rail service between Brussels and The Netherlands (in planning since 2004) that was to cut travel time by one-third using sleek new V250 trains (ironically named “The Albatross”) built in Italy.  While lowest bidder Ansaldo Breda had a great track record building trams and commuter trains, when their V250 finally ran this Winter, ice build-up began ripping plates from beneath the trains.  (See… Metro-North isn’t the only railroad with equipment problems in the Winter!).  The V250 cars were declared unsafe and taken out of service while the lawyers go at it.

Editor’s Note: 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: 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: Malloy Seeks To Kill the Commuter Council

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Shortly 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 confidante, 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 commutersto 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.

Editor’s Note: 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 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 60 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 Grand Central Terminal 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 Department 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 New York 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.

Editor’s Note: 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: Flight Attendants

Jim CameronAny regular reader of this column knows that I hate to fly.  I’ll enjoy an overnight Amtrak sleeper ride to Chicago over a 3-hour flight, anyday (or night).

But when I do have to fly, I really like seeing grey hair in the cockpit.  The older and more experienced the pilots, the better (despite this crazy FAA rule that pilots must retire at age 65, regardless of their health).

The other place I like to see experienced aviators is in the cabin, i.e. the flight attendants.  No longer are “stewardesses” seen as sex objects to entertain business men (remember “I’m Cathy… Fly Me!”?) or mocked in songs as nothing more than “waitresses in the sky”.

In my mind, flight attendants are under-paid, over-worked and unappreciated safety experts.

A few years ago I was in an emergency landing of a Boeing 767.  The flight crew performed perfectly and nobody was hurt.  Since then I listen to every safety briefing and study all my options for egress.

But increasingly, flight attendants (and passengers) are being called upon to protect a flight from other passengers… like the drunk maniac on a recent Icelandair flight who had to be subdued, or the JetBlue pilot who went psychotic and had to be wrestled to the floor.  “Coffee, tea or duct tape, sir?”

Flight attendants earn an average of $35,000 – $40,000 per year.  New hires start at $14,000 and, as a sign of our desperate times, there’s no shortage of applicants.  When American Airlines announced last November they’d be hiring 1,500 new flight attendants they got 20,000 app’s. (Question:  do those jobs automatically come with Food Stamps, or do they have to apply separately?)

Unlike most jobs, flight attendants are paid not when they show up to work, nor when they board a plane, but only when that plane departs from the gate.  The time clock ticks 65 – 90 hours a month, but there is no pay for the average 50 hours a month spent prepping flights, doing paperwork and waiting at airports.

Sure, there’s the glamour of free travel and over-nighting at airport hotels.  But as anyone who travels for work will tell you, that glamour wears thin when you’re constantly on the road.  And that’s when you’re on an expense account.  Flight attendants do this for a living and make about $10 an hour.

Is it any wonder that, being human, flight attendants occasionally snap?  Like the JetBlue male “stew”, Steven Slater, who cursed out his cranky passengers, popped the emergency exit and slid to the ground at JFK.

As I’ve written before, flying is no fun.  It is crowded, expensive, unglamorous and tedious.  And if it feels that way for the occasional passenger like me, God bless the poor flight attendants who have to do it for a living.

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