Thoughts on winter, and a commuter bill of rights

Shortly after the article in the New York Times featuring this site and my panorama project, I was offered a spot on the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council. Due to time issues, and the fact that me making it to any of their meetings would be extremely difficult, I never took the position. Somehow I think that is a good idea. I have a feeling the Commuter Council wouldn’t like me all that much. Most likely my thoughts regarding the current dilemma of winter service, and the idea of a commuter “Bill of Rights” are a bit different than theirs. The Commuter Councils (New York and Connecticut), and even Senator Schumer are pushing the railroad for a Bill of Rights. The two main incidents cited were the train that got stuck near Green’s Farms on one of the hottest days of the summer, and a train that was “stuck” at Southeast during the October snowstorm. There are a couple of places where my opinion differs from the things that have already been put on the table, thus I feel the need to present them here. If you’d rather not hear a little rant, skip this and come back later in the day – I’ll be posting something pretty for you to look at.

When it comes to these rails I think I have somewhat of a unique perspective: I’m familiar with the history of our rail system and the crap that used to go on. I am close to several people that work for the railroad, and I understand their thoughts on various issues. But most importantly, I am a commuter, and thus am familiar with the daily plight of many transit riders.

History

If you’re a reader of my site, most likely you are familiar with the stories of the Upper Harlem Line. Remember this date: March 20th, 1972. It was the last day that there was passenger service from Dover Plains to Chatham. The Penn Central didn’t really care much about their passengers. Take a guess when they shut down the line? In the middle of the day. So that means if you commuted from Chatham you managed to get to the city in the morning. But there was no way for you to get home. They’d take you up to Dover Plains that evening, but it was on you to figure out how to travel the last 50 miles to your home. How’s that for service?

As a historical aside, after World War Two the railroads weren’t doing so hot. Even the president of the New York Central committed suicide. In order to stay afloat, the New York Central (of which the Hudson and Harlem lines belonged) and the Pennsylvania Railroad merged to become the Penn Central. Not long after, the government forced the bankrupt New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (our New Haven Line) into the merger. After only a few years the Penn Central itself went bankrupt – at that time it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. This is the crumbling foundation on which Metro-North was eventually built. Clearly, not a simple task. If you find any of this interesting, I do suggest you read a book titled “The Wreck of the Penn Central.”

Working on the railroad

If Metro-North pulled the stunt I mentioned above, imagine how irate we commuters would be! The railroad is hardly a perfect entity, however, it is a whole lot better than it was. We now live in an era where technology is developing rapidly, and the railroad has finally begun to embrace it along with other current trends (twitter, facebook). Only two years ago the MTA would send their lawyers after you for using the round subway bullets online. The MTA’s lawyers also deemed Metro-North’s train schedules as their own intellectual property – which meant cease and desist orders were sent to anybody that made a useful transit app. Now Metro-North gladly offers this information to developers, and they even feature third-party transit apps on their site.

In the grand scheme of things, Metro-North has come a long way. They’ve even beaten out the Long Island Rail Road as the busiest commuter system in the country. Sure, there are a lot of things they could do to improve service, but it is getting better. For one thing, communication is improving. We get text alerts for train issues now. And when I say we, I mean commuters. If you’re a conductor, not so much. Here’s a game to play – the next time you’re on the train and you get a text alert saying there are delays, ask your conductor about it. There is a high likelihood that you know more than they do. And people complain that conductors don’t make announcements. Communication is certainly better, but it has a long way it needs to go. If you get anything out of this long rant it is that the railroad needs to work a whole lot on improving communication. Not only with commuters, but with their own staff!

A Commuter’s Life

On the hottest day of the summer, a train got stuck not far from Green’s Farms. I’m not going to go into much detail, as it has been explained by various news media, but the important part is that people were stuck for a while. Supposedly the railroad told the Westport fire department that the train was empty. It was not. And suffice it to say, people were not thrilled to be boiling on a hot day in a tin can. Was Metro-North at fault in this instance? Hell yes. The highlight of the story is poor communication. The infrastructure on the New Haven Line is not spectacular – the train cars are old, and so are the catenaries. The incident would have happened either way, but with better communication it would have been handled far better, and passengers wouldn’t be nearly as bitter.

Here is where my thoughts differ from Schumer and his impetus for a bill of rights. In October we were hit with a freak snow storm, dumping huge amounts of snow on the area. A train to Grand Central (including passengers that had made a connection from Wassaic) got stuck at Southeast station and was there for eleven or more hours. While folks are citing this incident along with the aformentioned Green’s Farms incident, grouping them together is like apples and oranges. The train was stuck at the station. Meaning people could get off the train if they wanted to. And some did – they made snowmen on the platform, and the braver ones attempted to make the one mile uphill climb to the stores in Southeast. If they wanted to, they could have called their loved ones to come pick them up.

Oh wait, remember that part about the snow falling from the sky? Roads were impassable. Cars were stuck on the Taconic and 684 for twelve or more hours – longer than anybody “stuck” on that train. There is this little thing called personal accountability. Days before the storm hit, weather predictions said we could get nearly two feet of snow. The smart people stayed home. The slightly crazier ones stocked up on anything the grocery store had and turned their home into a miniature survival bunker. The even crazier ones disregarded the reports and went out – and got themselves stuck.

What do you want from Metro-North anyway?

Commuters, if you want something, you need to be realistic. What do you want Metro-North to do? I’ve heard utterly insane suggestions that ought to become part of this “Bill of Rights.” Trains should have blankets and water on board in case they get stuck. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should put refrigerators on all the trains to keep that water cold. Supposedly folks involved in the Green’s Farms incident complained that when they were finally given water, it was warm – though I do admit, the veracity of that ever occurring is suspect. Nonetheless, I don’t think any of those demands sound realistic.

Here is an exercise in thinking realistically: Say you are the president of Metro-North for the day. How would you have dealt with the situation in Southeast? Really. Think about it. When the rails no longer became safe to operate on, Metro-North pulled the plug. Nobody could be picked up because the roads were even worse. What is the answer to this problem? What could the railroad have possibly done in a situation like that? Should the MTA keep a secret phalanx of ATVs and snowmobiles? Maybe they should teach the MTAPD’s K-9’s to pull a dog sled? Or maybe Metro-North should have pulled the plug before, knowing that a storm was coming.


A fun idea. Though not realistic.

Oh wait, they said they were going to do that this upcoming winter. And the media complained and mocked them and said that you’d be better off riding in a sleigh (thankfully, I must say Jim Cameron of Connecticut’s commuter council is realistic and understands this point). Suspending service before any trains got stuck seems like the only logical way one could have dealt with the problem in Southeast.

No matter what the railroad decides to do, the fact of the matter is they will never be able to please everyone. And I’m not exactly saying that the Bill of Rights is a bad idea. But if we commuters wish to have a Bill of Rights that addresses some of these issues, our requests need to be well thought out and realistic – not the result of over emotion (though if you were involved in either of those incidents, I understand the reason why you would feel that way). The Commuter Councils’ requests more realistic than Schumer’s, but he’s a politician that probably doesn’t ride the train much, and is busy fighting the good fight against true menaces to our society, like Four Loko.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on winter, and a commuter bill of rights

  1. Woah, you definitely never posted that NY Times article before! That’s awesome! (Belated) Congratulations!

    I agree with you that communication with staff is just as important as communication with passengers. Not everyone has a smartphone with 3G to check email on the go.

    Case in point: On Wednesday I asked a customer service agent on the Orange Line if there were any delays, as I’d noticed lots of people hanging around waiting, and he said yes. I hadn’t even made it to the bottom of the stairs to the platform when an automated announcement informed me that there were significant delays due to a disabled train. Not having the option of catching a later train, I turned around and ran flat-out just over a mile to the Red Line to make my train with three minutes to spare.

    I also appreciate your point about realistic expectations. I was reading a blog post by a fellow commuter on my line, and his idea of a “reasonable list of expectations” include:

    – Conductors and subway motormen handing out cash refunds to riders on delayed trains
    – Being able to get off the train wherever one wants when there’s a delay over 15 minutes, including inside subway tunnels and on railroad right-of-ways, so they can get to another mode of transportation
    – Having every single door open at every stop allowing passengers to get off the train wherever they please, rather than having to walk to a staffed door. For the record, these are manual doors and low-level traps and every other door pair is opened by a conductor or assistant so you only have to walk to the correct end of the car.

    There’s so many things wrong with these, especially the second one, that I don’t know where to start. Sorry, but no. You don’t get to do that.

    1. Yeah, you’re right, I never posted it. A lot of people I know were making a big fuss about it, and I was just trying to forget it. I was slightly embarrassed by it, and was rather depressed at the time. My dog had just died, and I kept thinking I’d give back all the notoriety gained without a doubt if she’d still be alive. Irrational, I know.

      You are also right about those “reasonable expectations.” Hardly reasonable. There are too many people that don’t think before speaking. We had a New Haven Liner who’d frequently post on twitter, went by the username @fuckedcommuter. He’d frequently ask for the RR president’s head on a plate, and even wrote an “open letter” to him. It started as follows: “Dear Howard, Fuck You.” No wonder why the railroad doesn’t want to listen to us! We sound like dopes and ask for impossible things.

  2. Excellent in every way! However, what about telecommuting to Council meetings as an at-large representative? Your voice is critical. You have a breadth and depth of knowledge about the historical underpinnings, the operations, the investigative journalist’s nose and perspective of administrators, workers, politicians, and the experience of a commuter. No mean feat, that!

    Here’s my one question as a long haul and commuter passenger who had this experience and question arise on a long haul with an acutely ill fellow passenger in the remotest part of the Canadian Rockies, natch:

    Does the conductor have access to potable water and an EMT level first aid kit on every train in the event of a multiple passenger injury/illness? If so, what is the extent and make-up of those supplies (e.g., water, AED, emergency OB/delivery kit, space blanket, gauze/scissors, glucometer/glucose, etc). If not, is there capacity to develop kits which go on every train and are under the direct control of the conductor?

    Is there an emergency preparedness director for the line? What is his/her recommendation regarding emergency medical equipment? Who controls the planning and deployment of this equipment? What is the conductors’ role and training in the planning, deployment and control of the equipment?

    The two stranding situations you detailed above are really passenger inconvenience versus medical emergency situations. But it seems that the underlying question should be aimed at extended period onboard passenger medical need versus comfort.

    Oh – one more thing: from your post, it seems as if the line communicates (or not) with local fire/police/first responders instead of the communications coming directly from the conductors/engineers. Is there a mechanism in place for the local first responders, after receiving the initial communication from the line, to verify that directly with the train crew? What about using text/radio/wireless – whatever can be put in place uniformly and with reliable service – to put the key onboard staff in the position to be able to control local communications.

    Great, thought-provoking post!

    Best-

    aek

    1. Thanks for your comment. As far as I am aware, there are no first aid kits on any of the trains. In fact, I was joking with a conductor about people asking for water to be stored on the trains – they replied, “we don’t even have band-aids!”

      When an incident happens that needs outside intervention, it is usually the Rail Traffic Controllers (RTC) that contact fire/police/etc. Conductors report incidents to the RDC, and then are pretty much told what to do. Not all conductors have radios. Although texting could provide a quick way for alerts to be sent to staff, the precedent has been set to ban all electronic devices after incidents like the train crash in Chatsworth a few years ago. The engineer of a commuter train had been texting, went through a signal, and crashed head-on with a freight train. I, personally don’t think it is too bad for a conductor to be using electronic devices, though an engineer is an entirely different story.

      1. Thanks, Emily, for such a thoughtful and detailed response. I posted before I read your comment above and want to express my sympathy for the loss of your dog. I know how much that hurts- it takes tincture of time before comfort comes with happy memories.

        Here is some food for thought about medical emergencies: the Dept of Homeland Security (DHS) has been doling out post 9/11 funding right and left to have first aid supplies in readily accessible places – it might be a potential funding source if approached from an evacuation route and bioterrorism perspective. The local and regional emergency preparedness agencies might be able to serve as partner advisors around medical emergencies.

        The conductors really need to have a significant voice at the table. They should be calling the ball on the type and flavor of communications they need as well as the ability to initiate communications with local ground first responders.

        My thinking is that whatever the acceptable timeframe is for the communities served by Metro North to have emergency medical response for cardiac arrests and obstetric delivery emergencies for their service areas to be applied to having conductors with that essential equipment respond to passengers. The conductors could then announce a plea for medically trained passenger assistance. But having water, an AED and first aid equipment on board would literally save lives in the event of a stranding situation with a medical emergency.

        That equipment isn’t large, heavy or cumbersome – it can be carried in a backpack or messenger bags. It’s not particularly expensive, either, to purchase, maintain and replace.

        /so, here’s my bucket list:

        Conductor controlled communication:
        mechanism, type, access, situational awareness and control – intra and inter line communication about medical emergencies and passenger comfort/safety

        Medical emergency preparedness: who controls and communicates need; equipment type, access and availability

        Procedures for stranding situations: who’s in charge – train conductor or line adminsitration? What is conductor’s role in assuring continuing passenger/crew safety? Can conductor override line admin if judgment about safety compromise is made?

        What is engineer’s role re: communication, travel conditions, medical emergency, other?

        What is line’s emergency preparedness role re: evacuation routes, bioterrorism response, stranding situations, medical emergencies, passenger safety, weather/natural disaster situations?

  3. Nice post. Conductors do enough as it is to have to deal with being an EMT as well. It’s not it the cards without a major pay increase and THAT ‘aint happening. Crap, we can’t get a cop after Ten for a crackhead or a fight.
    Hell, we can’t even get a contract ( A year and a half and counting.)
    Emily, I met you not to long ago on my train so I felt I can respond here. Ask about what happened at Bedford Hills and Mt. Kisco during that storm. That was a 24 hr shift for those boys. They were trapped and even led the passengers to a shelter area and food set up (which was colder than the train and only had folding chairs so every one went back after eating and a coffee). Plus the relief crew had to trek through straight up woods for several hundred yards just to get to the train to get those poor folks (and crew) the heck outta there after the trees were cleared. But, that type of ball busting effort to do the dirty work when a suit wouldn’t even plow their driveway doesn’t make the Post. It’s not good for business.

    As an aside, You should pursue some sort of voice on the CC, We need some sanity around there.

    1. From your response, are you a conductor? The “we cant get a cop after ten…” (and the “my train”) comment made me think this. I could certainly go on a whole other tirade about the MTAPD, but I’ll refrain. But yes, EMT training is probably not going to happen for conductors. Though at minimum, I think conductors are trained in a few things like CPR, correct? I personally know someone that did use CPR on a passenger on his train, and I’m assuming he was trained through work.

      I’m trying to think when we’ve met actually… was it on a train from GCT at around 9pm a few weeks ago? That is the most recent time I can recall that someone’s recognized me on the train.

  4. If tomorrow, or next Sunday I wanted to head south into New York, I just have to get to a Metro North Station. And pretty much between 5AM and 11PM, I will not wait more than 1 hour for a train South of Poughkeepsie, Southeast or New Haven. Chances are it will have working lights, heat or air conditioning in most of the cars and will be darn close to on time.

    If I did that in 1981, I could wait several hours mid day at Croton Falls for a single RDC to take me to White plains. I would leave Grand Central with it’s haze of Diesel fumes about 30 feet off the concourse floor, obscuring the Soleri board. If for some foolish reason I HAD to use the men’s room at the end of the waiting room (now Vanderbilt hall), passing the homeless laying on the benches, newspapers everywhere and the stink. Oh the smell. I would make my way to 4 or 6 former long distance coaches turned into commuter cars, some stainless steel, with the words “NEW YORK CENTRAL” ground out of the letter board, but still visible in the grinders swirl. Others painted a faded two tone dark/light grey, visible holes in the sides of the car or rough patches. Blue window bands on the stainless cars and the “M”, with the word “Central” under that. Inside the cars were swept out, but still dirty, well worn and dark, the batteries that would light the cars long failed. The lights only coming on once the train was moving and the axle generators providing power. The windows dark green, fogged and hazy. In the winter the cars were HOT until moving, the steam heat, set to on. In the summer, the duck in the door and see if the Air Conditioning was working routine at each door. It seemed the only cars with working A/C were the smokers, yes, entire coaches filled with people smoking. The people heading to Croton or White Plains, things were a little better, the M-1’s still somewhat usable, The older electrics, holding up well, but painted that dark green. Working A/C was a crap shoot, with the M-1’s suffering more than the older cars.

    Stepping off that train, a assistant conductor or brakeman, lowering the trap and dropping the box on that narrow strip of blacktop, a few single light bulbs providing the light. You did not stand close to the car, the bottoms covered in human waste, the bathroom, a hole out the floor in the bottom of a hopper (really). Chicken wire holding up the dead batteries on the underside. A wave of the arm out the dutch door, and train creaked foward, 2 FL-9’s struggling to move the little train, some still PC black, some painted in some MTA/Conrail Blue and Yellow that turned white, others the New Haven Paint showing through whatever the last paint job was.

    In 1982 Conrail leased some Amtrak cars, with their wild interiors, but with lights and air conditioning that worked!! Every seat filled and others jammed in there standing, or riding in the lounges of the bathrooms just for some cool air. There was hope on the Harlem by then, new high level platforms being built for the electrification. And New cars, the M-3’s. Ordered just for the upper Harlem. Over on the Hudson, the same wheezy mid day budd cars, but some of the coaches used on peak trains were off the D&H, overhauled by the state and running their last days out on the Hudson line. They would wait another 6 years for the HEP shoreliners, with the best of the stainless cars being used by Metro North.

    The winter was always the same, trains late, hours late, frozen switches, signal failure, frozen steam lines, frozen doors, vestibules full of snow. Conrail more concerned with the freight business.

    Anyone that whines today has no clue how bad it was.

    1. You have written that so wonderfully. Thank you for sharing your experiences, because these are exactly the things that I think of when people complain. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily feel the right to bring them up, as it all occurred before I was even alive, and thus was all heard second-hand.

  5. I think the poor NH would certainly be something you’d remember. There was a time where it was such a proud railroad, but then the money wasn’t there and the infrastructure sort of went to crap. Or so I hear :P

    And thanks to everyone who mentioned my dog. In the eyes of the law, she belonged to my roommate, but I loved her like she was my own. On the very last evening that I moved all my stuff out of my room in Goldens Bridge, I heard the 7pm bomb train approaching GB station, and it made me think of her. We were very close to the station (close enough that you could tell what type of train was passing just by the sound) and she would always howl at it. I always knew the time based on the sound of that train and of her howling. And I don’t know why she never howled at the others, but she was a silly girl.

  6. Was just reading that a few minutes ago myself. Timing is interesting, though probably coincidental.

    I like the praise for the Port Jervis line, though. It is nice that they fixed that up fast, but I always seem to think that MN generously pads their estimates so that if they fix everything earlier, it makes them look good. Same thing with the fares. Announce a 20% increase in fares, and then finally decide upon, say, 10%. Everyone gets so excited that it isn’t the higher number and whine less.

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