By Jim Cameron
CAMERON COMMUNICATIONS INC
Author: “Off The Record: Confessions of a Media Consultant“
It was billed as a “Transportation Summit”. But the gathering last week in Stamford was more of a PR event than anything else as Governor Lamont, the leaders of CDOT (Connecticut Department of Transportation), the FRA (Federal Railroad Association), Amtrak, Metro-North and the ever-smiling Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons sounded mostly like cheerleaders for the multi-billion dollar spending to come for our rail system.
Sponsored by the Northeast Corridor Commission, the invitation-only confab attracted about 60 people, most from the business community. Noticeably absent: anyone representing commuters. Needless to say, I was not invited, but neither was the Commuter Council. Fortunately, you can watch the entire hour-long event thanks to CT-N.
When you attract such a prestigious panel, you’d expect more than just a lot of self-congratulations. But after the event, the panelists just hopped back on their trains and headed home… no luncheon discussion or closed-door huddle on the long still-to-do list.
Saddest of all, there was no real news that came out of the event so even the sought-after media coverage was pretty bland.
Oh, Mayor Simmons did ballyhoo the fact that Stamford ridership is back to pre-COVID levels of 28,000 riders a day… but failed to mention that the station’s new $82 million, 930-space parking garage that was supposed to have opened last summer is delayed yet again. When it finally opens demolition of the old garage will take about six months, creating a huge traffic mess around the station.
And, Governor Lamont did say that Metro-North would be running trains to Penn Station in NYC in “three or four years”, an optimistic promise that caught some transportation experts in attendance by surprise.
Metro-North (MNRR) President Catherine Rinaldi said ridership is up to 73% of pre-COVID levels and climbing (especially on Mondays). But just after the Summit the MTA’s own Customer Satisfaction Survey results showed a 5% reduction in MNRR riders’ happiness with (lack of) reliability and seat availability leading the decline.
If they’re trying to attract riders back on trains, why then the recent cuts in service? And why do they refuse to reinstate the Quiet Cars? And where’s the Wi-Fi on trains promised by the state’s $23 million investment?
With all the discussion of faster, more frequent service why was there zero mention of the devastating service cuts on Shore Line East… the New Haven to New London line that saw a $32 million cut in a time of budget surpluses?
And why didn’t the FRA say anything about the “slow orders” on Metro-North that are still in place after ten years, making every trip longer? Does that means they still think the line isn’t safe?
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said his ridership is at 110% of pre-COVID but admitted that he doesn’t have enough seats to meet demand. The new Acela 2.0 trains, dubbed “Avelia”, are years late and plagued with defects.
Gardner note that in Europe they’ve spent one trillion dollars in the last 20 years on their trains, and it shows. Even with the new flood of Infrastructure Bill funding, Amtrak’s only spending $150 billion, what Gardner said is just “a down payment”.
Lack of seats and Amtrak’s dynamic pricing means a walk-up Acela ticket from Stamford to Boston (just 156 miles) can cost $309 while a 244 mile trip from Paris to Lyon on the TGV costs $38. European railroads offer competition with multiple companies competing for riders. Amtrak is our only choice though some have suggested private competitors.
One thing that everyone on the panel made clear: it’s going to be many years before we see the Fed’s billions make for a better train ride. And the necessary construction coming up will disrupt service making for grumpy, delayed riders.
As I’ve said for over 20 years now, “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
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 CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.”