Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Commuter Revolt of 1955

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Metro North History Lesson

“Talking Transportation”

By Jim Cameron

Photo From the Marc Frattasio Collection

Gather ‘round and listen to how your grandfather helped lead a commuter revolt against the New Haven Railroad over 65 years ago, way back in 1955.

You see Timmy, folks were commuting by train from Connecticut to their jobs in New York City even back then.

“You mean there was no ‘work from home’, Grandpa?” No Timmy. Back then we worked for a living… five or six days a week!

The railroad was privately owned back then and its President, the now infamous Patrick B. McGinnis, had finally succumbed to pressure and paid $3 million to pave the parking lots at train station. But then he turned around and started charging us $5.50 a month for parking despite promises of no fare increases!

“Not fair, Grandpa!”

Then there was a truckers’ strike and freight shipments by rail soared 40%, further delaying commuter trains. Yes Timmy, the New Haven used to carry a lot of freight, but that was a long, long time ago.

Then came that summer of ‘55. It was hot, really hot. And in most commuter trains there was no air conditioning, just fans. And we used to wear jackets and ties to work in those days and, let me tell you, we were a smelly, sweaty bunch.

That’s when we started to fight back. Some of my fellow passengers were “Mad Men”, those advertising executives you learned about in that TV show awhile back. And to voice their anger at the old, 1920s rail cars, the heat and the delays, they started a PR campaign. There was even a contest offering a $50 prize for the best essay about why commuting on the New Haven was so bad.

“How did mean old Mr. McGinnis react, Grandpa?”

With a commuter survey, Timmy. And he got an earful… but he didn’t offer much sympathy. He basically said that Connecticut riders were spoiled brats. One commuter complained that crowding was so bad he had to stand in the aisle. Turns out he insisted on riding in the front car to make a quick getaway at Grand Central. When the railroad suggested he sit in one of the emptier cars at the rear of the train, the commuter said “move the empty cars to the front of the train!”

And yes, even like today, folks complained about the crowding with the two-and-three seating we still have now. The solution… new rail cars.
Believe it or not, Timmy, the railroad hired industrial designer Marcel Breuer (the guy who designed that famous chair) to work with the company that was building the cars to come up with some ideas, and boy did he design some cool trains: articulated two-car units with two-by-two seating, full air conditioning, men’s and women’s lavatories, aluminum baggage racks and built-in florescent lighting. They were beauties, at least on paper.

“Did you ride in those cars, Grandpa?”
Oh no, Timmy. Those cars never got built. Just another railroad promise to quell a revolt. It works every time, Timmy.

Special thanks to the New Haven Railroad Historical & Technical Association, and author Marc Frattasio for sharing this piece of railroad history (and his photo) in the latest issue of their excellent magazine “Shoreliner”.

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