Friday, August 31, 2012

In praise of Metro-North Railroad

Written by 

Railway Age Publisher Jonathan Chalon and I were in the field Aug. 29 visiting a short line railroad in New England, a pleasant and informative experience in itself that we'll report on in the near future. But I got the two-fer that day: I met Jonathan in New Canaan, Conn., courtesy of Metro-North Railroad, one of the best regional passenger railroads in North America.

Notice I didn't use the limiting term "commuter" railroad—a label Metro-North itself dropped from its name quite some time ago. And with good reason: The current ridership champion attained its rank by going after all kinds of discretionary riders—"reverse" commuters, weekend day-trippers, families, intermediate O/D riders—and not just on its heavy main lines, either, but throughout its system. North America has "commuter" railroads; Metro-North has gone on to a higher level, and done it with skill and even some daring.

Metro-North President Howard Permut has repeatedly said that approach is no accident, whether in published interviews or in conversation with me and Editor-In-Chief Bill Vantuono. It's also something top staff hold dear. It shows in the service.

Indeed, the toughest part of my early morning trip was getting to Metro-North itself, though it really wasn't all that arduous: New Jersey Transit Bus #126 picked me up for the short jaunt to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Manhattan's West Side, and while I could have taken another (MTA) bus across town, or more likely opted for a No. 7 or Times Square Shuttle subway to Grand Central Terminal, the late August day was a gorgeous one, literally not a cloud in the sky, so I walked.

I reached GCT in plenty of time to board the 7:24 a.m. M-8 consist bound for New Canaan, on the New Canaan Branch, a "one-seat ride" opposite the peak flow with an endpoint that's hardly among Metro-North's top 10 ridership generators. Metro-North knows—and so many of us should remember—that it's not just about endpoints, and I saw that insight over and over.

Folks boarded at GCT that got off at one of two stops in the Bronx. At those two stops, others boarded for a trip to New Rochelle, or Stamford, Conn., both on the New Haven Line. Lots of WiFi users, some iPad carriers, even some reading newspapers. A mother with two children, one in a stroller. And it kept getting better: At Stamford, a major business hub, perhaps 60% of the riders departed, but more impressive to me was how many remained—and even the few more that boarded for points on the short, off-the-main-line New Canaan Branch.

Remember, all this churn, all this turnover—all this revenue?—is all counter-rush, going away from the meat-and-potatoes "commuter rail" market. Moreover, the service, while pretty much a local, was not a throwaway "mop-up" train; it skipped a stop here and there, and moved with punctuality throughout.

Realizing I might blog about this trip, I began searching earnestly for things to complain about, flaws and shortcomings. And I found one, sort of: The electronic destination signs in my car kept flashing "Stamford" for much of the trip, potentially giving a first-time rider (like me, at least for this route) just enough pause to wonder if I'd boarded the wrong train.

But even here, any glitch was overridden, first by repeated announcements from the conductor that this train, indeed, was ultimately bound for New Canaan. At Stamford, the destination sign suddenly updated itself, flashing "New Canaan" belatedly but reassuringly.

The train was on the money, arriving at 8:39 a.m. in the leafy Connecticut suburbs, with Jonathan waiting—and hardly surprised by the on-time performance, I noted.

The return trip? OK, I "found fault" in the tired Budd M2s protecting this journey, clearly past their prime and not quite up to M-8 comfort; Metro-North has yet to retire them all. And the equipment showed up eight minutes late in ending its "outbound" revenue run on the one-track New Canaan branch, leading me to expect a delayed turnaround and a late departure—I've experienced that all too often. But that didn't happen; my 5:16 p.m. departure was on time, as was my arrival back at Grand Central, along with a similar turnover of people (perhaps fewer business folk) headed for Stamford, or the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, or Midtown Manhattan for the evening.

I've always insisted words matter, and the words chosen to define a given thing can enable it—or cripple it. "Commuter rail" is such a common phrase that we stop thinking about what it means, for better and for worse. For that reason, even here at Railway Age we still include it so as not to confuse everyone. But the subsection under our website "Passenger" tab deliberately reads "Commuter/Regional," a nod to the growing likelihood that in the foreseeable future, more Americans can look forward to riding on a train at 2:30 p.m., or on a Sunday morning en route to a special event—not just inbound to work in the morning, outbound to home at night.

Count me as lucky to have those kind of options in the here and now. And, at least in the Western Hemisphere, few offer those options better than Metro-North.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.