October 25, 2014

Talking Transportation: Five Terrible Ideas for Solving Traffic Congestion

The fall campaign has brought a welcome discussion of the state’s transportation woes, especially getting mass transit back into a state of good repair.  But gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley says he thinks the real issue isn’t the trains and buses but highway congestion.  Yet, he offers no solutions, saying only “we’ll figure it out.”  Really?

Tom, if there were easy answers, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look … this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (spaces on those roads).   I think the solution is in managing the demand.  But Foley says it’s a “supply side” issue.

So here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic that I hope he does not embrace:

  1. DOUBLE-DECK I-95: Seriously, this was once proposed.  Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with “upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing bridges.
  2. ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY: There are two words to explain why this can’t happen:  low bridges.
  3. BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95: Trucks are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.  No trucks, no goods, no shopping.
  4. DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN LANE: This was Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars studying it.  But if you think of that far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane,” you’ll see why this doesn’t make sense.  This plan would also require re-striping traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more dangerous.
  5. WIDENING I-95 TO FOUR LANES: Again, billions in cost and decades of construction.  And if you build it, they will come.  Traffic will expand to fill available space.  Then what, a fifth lane?

I think there are better ideas for managing congestion, some of them already being implemented:

OPERATIONAL LANES:   Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway without blocking the through-lanes.

WIDENING CHOKE-POINTS: For example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.  But this one small construction project, discussed since 2002, has been under construction for four or five years and it’s still not done!

MANAGE DEMAND WITH TOLLS: Tolls are coming, as I’ve predicted before.  And with time-of-day pricing they’ll not only raise badly needed funds but also mitigate demand.  Those who absolutely must drive at peak hours will pay for the privilege and get a faster ride as those who can wait will defer their trip.  We have peak and off-peak fares on Metro-North, so why not on highways.

ADD A ZIPPER LANE: Sure, this may require highway widening, but just one lane that’s reversible depending on demand, a system that’s long been in effect on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

As I say, there are no simple solutions to highway congestion.  So when any candidate says he or she has one, be skeptical.  It’s easy to identify the problems.  But fixing them will always be expensive.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: 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: No Blue Ribbons for Metro-North

The long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.

Their 50 page report confirms much of what we already knew:  that the railroad placed too much emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety … that there were serious repair issues unattended to for months … and that there has been an enormous “brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement after 30 years.

All of those problems could have been prevented if MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast had been doing his job, which he wasn’t.  That is surprising, given his almost 40 years in the industry.  Remember, he was selected as Chairman by Governor Cuomo (just a month before the Bridgeport crash) after successfully turning around the NYC subway system.  And he had also spent years at the LIRR.

But the Blue Ribbon Panel was especially critical of Prendergast for running his three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NY Subways) as silos, not communicating with each other on best practices.  If the NYC subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it.  The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.

But the Panel says the problems were far deeper than just that:

TENSION:

The Panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers, who maintain the tracks and signals, and their colleagues, who run the trains over them.  The track workers aren’t given enough time to do their job.  To paraphrase Lincoln:  “A house (or railroad) divided cannot stand”.

TOOLS:

Compared to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology.  Track inspection reports are still done on paper.  We don’t have state-of-the-art track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems.  Much of the maintenance work is done manually instead of using machines.

TIDINESS:

The panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the tracks to prevent tripping hazards.

TOP-DOWN:

Did they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)”?

TIME:

The Panel suggests MTA re-open union contracts to do track and signal maintenance work overnight when there’s lots of time and fewer trains.  (Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone 50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every night).

TRANSPARENCY:

After years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety.  The Panel also suggests increased “customer engagement” on this topic with town halls, media oppotunities and direct customer communications.

So, kudos to the Panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard work.  Now it’s up to the MTA and Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains on-time and safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: 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: Why a Another Fare Hike Seems Inevitable

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 New York does to its riders, but the financial numbers speak for themselves.

We are tied to New York’s operations by an antiquated contract going back 30 years. The cost of running “our” trains is born by both Connecticut and New York, 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 Department of Transportation (DOT) 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 Connecticut’s DOT 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 percent of our state’s population but pay 40 percent 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 percent 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

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: 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: To Vermont, By Train

The Vermont landscape always draws visitors.

The beautiful Vermont landscape always draws visitors.

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.

From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive, it’s not much better and about $150 each way.  But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.

There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:

THE VERMONTER:

Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT, coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.

It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer, Mass., will be eliminated this fall with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.

The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy.  There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great … and there’s even free wifi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.

Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.

THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:

If you’re heading to Rutland, Vt., this is your train.  Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 p.m. with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton, Vt.  Best strategy here is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.

Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free wifi.

THE ADIRONDACK:

This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close … if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 a.m., you detrain at Port Kent, N.Y., on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:30 p.m., walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.

Same kind of seating, wifi, etc., but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?

Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $55 one way ($47 for seniors and kids are half-price.)

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak … the “green” way to travel.

Jim Cameron

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 only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

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

logoIt 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

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: “Traffic Calming”

You’ve seen the bumper stickers:  “Slow down in town”.  They’re an often futile attempt to encourage speeding motorists to be more respectful of the neighborhoods they are zooming through, especially of the pedestrians.  I wouldn’t exactly call it road rage, but why is it that when we’re behind the wheel, our goal is to get on down the road as fast as traffic will allow, the speed limit be damned?

Of course in our own neighborhoods our interests are reversed.  We curse “those idiots” who speed down our local streets ignoring the signs (“Drive Like Your Kids Lived Here”).

Increasingly, local neighborhoods are serving as short-cuts around clogged arterial streets, spreading out the traffic into our sleepy, bucolic ‘burbs.  But there is a way to enforce the speed limit without radar traps.  It’s what traffic engineers call “traffic calming”.

You might not know that the first US city to develop a master plan for neighborhood traffic calming was Hartford.  And the second city will be Stamford.  Work is also underway in New Canaan and New Haven.  More than just “speed bumps”, engineers have a slew of street re-designs in their repertoire that can force us to reduce our speed.  Among them …

Speed Tables:  Think of these as extended speed bumps with a six-foot-long ramp up, a ten-foot-long flat table and a six-foot-long ramp down.

Roundabouts:  Small traffic circles with landscaping in the center make us slow down as we go around them, eventually taking a right turn to continue our journey.

Chicanes:  These are the stubby, picket-fence-like, mini-roadblocks seen on some private streets, alternating their placement on the right and left sides of the road, forcing drivers to make a zigzag maneuver down the street.  The same effect can be achieved by placing parking spaces alternately on the right and left sides.

Bulb-Outs or Neck-Downs:  These are extensions of the sidewalk into car parking areas at corner crossings.  Again, you gotta slow down.

Sidewalks:  It’s amazing how many of our communities lack these pedestrian amenities, forcing hoofers to compete for space on the asphalt with cars.  Sidewalks get pedestrians out of the traffic and encourage us to walk and leave the car at home.

Crosswalks:  What a concept!  A place where pedestrians have the right-of-way over cars, sometimes even mid-block and without the need for stop signs or red lights.

Roadblocks and Mazes:  These were inspired by anti-crime efforts in drug dealing neighborhoods (“crime calming”), making it hard for drive-through drug buyers to find their way in and out of a neighborhood.  Local residents know how to maneuver the maze, but casual short-cutters won’t try it again.

Of course, all of these traffic calming techniques assume that the major traffic arterials, where the cars belong, can be kept flowing with their own traffic tricks.  Otherwise, we’re just spreading the gridlock into the neighborhoods.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: 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: 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 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: Things Are Getting Better on Metro-North

I know it may be hard to believe, but I think things are getting better on Metro-North.

Last week I finally met Joseph Giulietti, the new President of Metro-North.  I found him to be very smart, quite candid and equipped with a reasonable plan to bring this railroad back to its once-deserved world-class status.

On May 11th a new timetable will become effective, aimed at achieving two goals:  safety and reliability.  The timetable will mean running trains on-time but still allowing for track and catenary work to keep the railroad in a state of good repair.

At a Commuter Forum in Westport, Giulietti was the first to admit that the railroad was in bad shape, that trains are running slower and later, often with standees.  But unlike GM’s Chairman explaining delays in safety recalls and blaming it on “the old GM”, Giulietti is taking ownership of the problems. That’s refreshing.

Yes, trains are not on time (just 76 percent in February), but that’s because after the last May’s Bridgeport derailment the FRA issued speed restrictions on bridges and curves.  The current timetable is, as one commuter put it in our recent survey, “more of a suggestion” than anything else.

So for the past months the railroad has been analyzing the entire timetable, looking at the reasons for every late train and being open to revising everything.  The new timetable will rationalize the current running times, adding 2-4 minutes for trains between New Haven and Stamford, but cutting two to four minutes for runs from Stamford to GCT.

That means that your 7:35 a.m. train to work, usually arriving this winter at 7:40 or 7:45, may be rescheduled to arrive at 7:40 and, probably, will.  This means you can plan your life with reliability and not be wasting time on the platform peering down the track.

The problem of standees on trains will hopefully lessen when people return to a routine commuting cycle and extra railcars will be provided on trains where ridership shows the demand for more seats.

The good news is that with increased reliability, we may also see greater frequency of service … four trains an hour in the a.m. peak instead of three trains every half-hour off-peak.  Yes, the run may take a bit longer, but you’ll have more options, always knowing the scheduled departure and arrival times will be achieved.

But is the railroad safe?  Yes, insist both Giulietti and CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker.  But so too was airline safety / security after 9-11.  And our bridges became safer after the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge 30 years ago.  Even in the “land of steady habits,” we hopefully learn from our mistakes.

We’re now about half-way through Mr. Giulietti’s 100 day plan to get Metro-North back on track.  I, for one, am hopeful he will achieve his goals.  But on day 100, June 11th, I’ll be checking the scorecard and seeing what he’s achieved versus what was promised.

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: 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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