Forum Better train service is in reach
Governor Lamont’s 30-30-30 plan represents a long-needed concrete goal for a functional New Haven Line. Despite recent claims that the plan is an aspirational, long-term vision, the travel time cuts called for are mostly attainable in a few years, and all using the right-of-way the state already has. To work, the 30-30-30 plan needs to supplant “state of good repair” programs that have no accountability mechanisms. From operations to maintenance to capital construction, the governor and legislature must force the state Department of Transportation and its contractor Metro-North to adopt global best practices.
Today, New York-Connecticut trains — local and express — do not travel nearly at the speeds that are possible on the existing line. For example, even though trains leaving New Haven Union Station reach track maintained for 70 mph just half a mile west of the platforms, they aren’t allowed that speed for another mile. A recent report in the Hartford Courant suggests that eliminating speed restrictions could cut 24 minutes off the roughly two-hour run time of a New Haven-Grand Central outer-zone local. Transit analyst Alon Levy estimates a more extensive slate including better track maintenance, acceleration and braking rates that reflect trains’ rated performance, increased bank on curves, and movable bridge replacements would deliver the 30-30-30 promise. All of Levy’s prescribed changes would allow a train to make every stop New Haven to Stamford and reach Grand Central in 1:23. A super-express would take just over an hour. The railroad would be able to run more service with its existing cars and personnel while implementing simpler stopping patterns. Enabling trains to make more stops would spread the passenger load out more evenly over different trains and stations and simplify intrastate trips.
A key DOT talking point — that ongoing maintenance is a unique constraint requiring constant service slowdowns and additional resources — does not stand up to scrutiny. In 2017, Metro-North spent around $300,000 per route mile on maintaining its infrastructure. Italy, the Netherlands, the U.K. and France spent an average of around $200,000 per mile for the same while furnishing more frequent service all day with less daytime disruption than seen here, but Metro-North’s current maintenance productivity lags badly. Out of around 500,000 ties and 300 miles of rail on the whole New Haven Line, plans are to replace just 7,500 ties and 6 miles of rail this entire year, which a modern track renewal train should replace over a few overnight windows. The 24 miles of surfacing planned for this year should also require just a few overnight sessions.
Moreover, today’s capital construction productivity will never permit Connecticut to have a functional rail line. Overpass replacements that could be knocked out in a few nighttime, or at worst weekend, outages have been dragging along for years. Moreover, DOT projects to spend $1.5 billion replacing the half-mile Devon drawbridge over the Housatonic River, even though it replaced the parallel, similarly sized, I-95 bridge for less than one-third that. Any European country would build a 60-foot-high fixed bridge for a low-hundreds-of-millions of dollars figure.
Finally, to free up revenue, Metro-North must curb excess on-board staff. In contrast to New York-area regional trains, whose multiple conductors help fuel some of the highest fares in the world, their global counterparts need an engineer and perhaps one conductor. Their passengers scan or stamp tickets before boarding and retain the validated fare media, good for a set time limit, for the whole ride. Random inspections and steep penalties enforce payment, requiring far fewer personnel. Patrick O’Hara, who writes the blog The LIRR Today, estimates that LIRR stands to save over $200 million a year by adopting this system. Metro-North, a similar operation, stands to save about the same, a greater good than preserving several hundred needless conductor jobs. Eliminating positions would undoubtedly sting employees, but retraining them for other jobs in the rail company or transitioning them out of the organization may soften the blow and has ample precedent.
While it is clear that Connecticut and the nation have put too little money into infrastructure, the state does not deserve more resources absent deep reform to control costs. Governor Lamont and the Legislature must fulfill their promise of a cost-efficient, transparent government and get to the bottom of DOT’s wasteful ways. Connecticut travelers deserve better than the state’s outdated practices.
Robert Hale lives in New Haven.