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.
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.