September 23, 2017

Talking Transportation: Good News — and Bad — for Metro-North

It’s been a rough few years for Metro-North what with derailments, crashes and commuter deaths.  But it finally seems like service and safety are coming back.

The best metric of that is the recent surge in ridership, up 1.7 percent compared to last year.  That works out to more than 3,000 additional riders every day.

Certainly this ridership gain is a sign of more people finding jobs. But with gasoline prices near a record low, there’s a reason these folks are training instead of driving:  they like what they see.

  • The trains are on time.  Yes, running slower than in years past, but what’s a few minutes if it means better safety?  What matters most is that the 7:37 shows up at 7:37, plus a minute or so, and arrives in NY pretty close to on-time.  It’s much more dependable now than last winter.
  • There have been no fare increases (at least in Connecticut), even though our fares are still the highest in the nation.
  • There’s more service too:  at least two trains per hour, even in off-peak.  That means more options.
  • And we have the spiffy new M8 railcars, at last.  Riders seem to like the clean, modern interiors and amenities, such a power plugs at each seat.

So for all of these reasons, a lot more people are taking the train.  Good news, right?  Yeah, but in the long run, not so good news because “supply” is not keeping up with “demand”.

More riders without additional capacity means crowding, and we’re already hearing more reports about that, especially at rush hour when some trains are SRO.  And that’s only going to get worse.

The problem is, we didn’t order enough new M8 cars back in 2005 when we placed our order:  just 300 cars for $762 million.  That worked out to $2.54 million per car.

By the time those cars finally went into service in 2011, CDOT and Metro-North realized they should order more. This time, just single un-powered cars, so trains could run with 7 or 9 cars, not just 6, 8 or 10 using the “married pairs” in the original order.

But by then, Kawasaki whacked us $3.3 million per car … and those newest single cars don’t even have motors.   Were we to try ordering more M8 cars today, who knows the price … or delivery time?

From the legislature’s approval of the M8s in 2005 through design, testing and construction, the first M8s took six years to get into service.  The latest single-car order took 4 years.  So even if we were to call Kawasaki today, we couldn’t get new cars until probably 2020 even if we could find the money.

Meanwhile, the Malloy administration is pushing an almost $10 billion, multi-year plan to widen I-95 and I-84.  By the time it’s done, crowding could be so bad on our trains that getting on a four-lane wide interstate might just be better alternative.  Ironic, no?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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