When I read two very different news stories about our trains last week, Charles Dickens came to mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – A Tale of Two Cities
Oh, it’s our winter of our despair, alright, especially for Metro-North when the New York Times last Friday so cogently summarized the commuter line’s near-term future as being “Devastated by Remote Work”, almost verbatim repeating my predictions of one year ago: commuters are not coming back.
Late in 2021 the weekday ridership on Metro-North peaked at about 50% of pre-COVID numbers but has now slid back to about 37%. Sure, you can blame Omicron, but the shift is so much more fundamental: the very nature of work is now different and always will be: there’s no longer a need to go to work to do your work.
Former daily commuters told the New York Times they don’t miss their daily three-hour ride or their $500 monthly tickets. Many have even closed their NYC offices for good and say they are reveling in saving time and money.
The railroad claims it’s “incentivizing” hybrid commuters to come back to the city by offering lower, more flexible fares. But listen to commuters and they say it’s less the cost of the ride than its slow speed (and lack of mask-wearing enforcement) that’s keeping them home; so if they must go into the city a few days a week, they do so by car.
As the New York Times reported, Metro-North’s parent, MTA, took in $346 million from commuters in 2019. In 2021 that was down to $49 million. Pre-COVID the railroad was losing money when trains were standing room only. With ridership cut by two-thirds, what happens when Federal bailout money dries up?
The worst of times, the winter of despair, indeed.
But what then was the love-fest that broke the darkness on Friday afternoon in New Haven’s Union Station? What drew the media to hear Elm City Mayor Elicker, US Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, CDOT Commissioner Guilietti and Governor Lamont who all juggled their calendars to all talk trains? Why, a visit of Amtrak’s new CEO Stephen Gardner, just three days into his new job!
The media event was a rail advocate’s fantasy with all the talk of faster, more frequent service facilitated by huge Federal investments in bridges and track.
The pols were falling and fawning over each other seeing who could promise more. Ironically there was no “news” at this news conference, just a reprise of promises with no improvements yet to point to. But like the cool kids in high school who decided to have a party, some of those less-loved and not as cool were noticeably absent: anyone from Metro-North or the MTA.
While some who wanted to attend (like pro-rail Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro) but couldn’t be there were noted in their absence, not a word was spoken about Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi or acting MTA Chair Janno Lieber… the very people Connecticut pays to run our trains.
Why? Truly, a tale of two railroads in a spring of hope and all-too frigid winter of dark despair.
JIM CAMERON has lived in Darien for over 25 years. He serves on the Darien RTM and is Program Director of Darien TV79. He served 19 years on the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, four as its Chairman. In 2014 he founded a new advocacy group, The Commuter Action Group which speaks on behalf of Metro-North riders. His newspaper column “Talking Transportation” archives can be found at http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/