Saturday, July 20, 2024

Mass Transit Meltdown… An Opportunity or a Competition


“Talking Transportation”

By Jim Cameron
Author: “Off The Record: Confessions of a Media Consultant


What happens when years of neglect catch up with a commuter railroad?  Look no further than New Jersey, where NJ Transit is in the midst of a predicted meltdown.  This should serve as a warning to Connecticut.

Hardly a day goes by without hearing of train woes in the Garden State, many of them tied to broken down trains or catenary (overhead power wires) being snagged in Penn Station.  Service is abysmal and yet a 15% fare hike is going to effect July 1st.

Adding to the woes, an impending strike by locomotive engineers after four years of arbitration and no contract.

What happened?  About a dozen years of under-investment in the railroad dating back to the term of Governor Chris Christie who famously cancelled plans to build a badly needed new tunnel under the Hudson River.

When Governor Phil Murphy was elected in 2017 he promised to change all that, but in recent years he’s taken money that was to be spent on capital improvements and spent it instead on operations.  That’s a big no-no.

Like Metro-North, NJ Transit has never recovered from Covid with ridership hovering at about 70% of pre-pandemic levels. Fewer riders means less revenue for what was already a money-losing operation.

But the railroad’s woes are now offering potential competition from entrepreneur Joe Colangelo, the 39 year old founder and CEO of Boxcar.

You might remember him as the guy who started a parking app for rail commuters before the pandemic, when ridership was soaring and station parking was scarce.  He still runs that business, managing 1500 parking spaces near stations in four states (including 140 spaces in New Canaan, Greenwich & Darien), all bookable on their app

But Boxcar’s real innovation is running 46 to 56 seat luxury motor coaches from 12 NJ bedroom communities into midtown Manhattan.  They offer guaranteed seats, free Wi-Fi and amazing customer service… at a price.

“Our customers are willing to trade money for time and convenience,” says Colangelo, a Navy veteran who fought in Afghanistan. Members pay $30 a month and get a 33% discount on fares which are 50 – 100% higher than the train fare.

“Half of our customers used to ride the train,” says Colangelo.  But he says many had a bad experience on the subway getting from Penn Station to their offices and won’t go back.  Boxcar offers a one-seat ride with 65 runs a day Tuesday through Thursday and a dozen trips on Fridays.

“About two thirds of our riders say if the bus wasn’t available, they’d drive,” he adds.

Boxcar charters its buses from 14 different companies and each run has a dedicated driver, “giving riders a relationship, like with a doorman”.

Every run is monitored from 5 am to 8 pm and if it’s as little as 2 minutes late, each passenger is given a text update.  If there’s no AC on the bus, your ride is free (something that happened just four times on 1200 runs last year).  They even keep an extra bus on standby should any problems arise.

Boxcar is ready to expand service to meet demand.  “We know where our next 100 buses will come from,” says the boss.  And yes, their operation is already profitable.

Boxcar experimented with bus service from New Canaan and Darien but I-95 traffic made their runs late.  Colangelo expects that, after the November elections, NY Governor Hochul will reverse her opposition to congestion pricing, car traffic will lighten and bus service from Connecticut might be possible.

Competition is a good thing, especially for poorly managed transit systems more beholden to their political funders than their fare-paying passengers.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here.  You can contact Jim at [email protected].”


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