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New York Post

 

Third-World Trains

February 09, 2011

By Nicole Gelinas

PRINTER FRIENDLY

Metro North's latest disaster


Walk into Grand Central Terminal on a weekday afternoon, and you’ll see some of the world’s wealthiest workers girding themselves for a third-world commute.

For the last month on Metro North’s New Haven Line, “it’s been short trains and long waits,” as one commuter told me. Passengers crowd onto platforms in the morning to wait for trains that come late and then squeeze into standing-room cars for a slow ride, facing the same on the way home.

In the afternoon, the MTA can’t predict when late trains are coming and which track they’ll be on, making for uncertainty and anxiety at GCT. Some commuters are tempted to stop paying, because the trains are so packed that conductors can’t pass through to check.

“The extreme winter weather . . . has had a devastating impact,” Metro North President Howard Permut wrote in a handout to riders. Snow and ice have attacked the New Haven line’s cars, leaving 40 percent of them useless.

In the last week, the MTA has cobbled together a realistic schedule, but only by slashing service for the next month. The line carries 67,000 people (twice daily) from southeastern Connecticut and the eastern parts of New York’s Westchester County into Manhattan -- making it the busiest passenger-rail line on the continent.

Why did it get so bad?

Winter weather is killing the cars not because cold and snow are unusual, but because the cars are just too old. Seventy percent of New Haven stock has been rolling for 40 years, 15 years past their lifespan. Age is magnifying original flaws, including brakes and doors prone to freezing.

New Haven riders should’ve gotten new cars and better infrastructure long ago, before a problem became a crisis. (Even New York began replacing its own cars more than a decade ago!)

Infrastructure suffered because Connecticut, which pays the MTA for its share of investment, neglected its duty. As other costs, including education and health care, rose, pols found that the easiest thing to skimp on was the trains. They knew that nobody would complain until a crisis came to a head.

Connecticut didn’t get serious about making the nearly $1 billion investment it needed in new cars until after a tough winter seven years ago, when riders experienced similar problems, if on a smaller scale, and slammed then-Gov. John Rowland for his short-sightedness.

After that, Connecticut made the cars a priority -- but it was too late. After the state ordered the cars, it took half a decade for procurement, bidding, design and construction, plus inevitable delays and glitches on a line that uses two kinds of power technology (overhead and underneath).

The MTA has been testing new cars for a year -- but too late for this winter and maybe next winter, too.

It’s not like Connecticut was poor during the period in question, either. New Haven riders hail from the richest state in the nation, and also the richest towns. In Fairfield County, where the New Haven line runs, median household income is above $80,000. In Greenwich, the first stop in the state, a family with children takes home nearly $300,000.

Taxes, too, are high enough. Connecticut collects more in personal-income-tax dollars than any other state, more than twice the national average, according to the Tax Foundation. Connecticut tops the list, too, for state and local tax burden in dollars. The state’s debt is high, too, ranking fourth in the nation at nearly $8,000 per man, woman, and child. State spending has grown 17 percent faster than inflation in the last decade.

Yet, it could’ve been worse. If the MTA hadn’t spent money rehabilitating some old cars over the years, there might have been no service this winter.

There’s a lesson here.

The 1990s and 2000s were record boom years. If we didn’t put sufficient money into train cars then, when will we? The next few years look tougher -- with the MTA, for one, short billions of dollars for its capital-investment plan, even as it has to keep replacing old assets.

If pols take the easy way out and wait for people to yell, the next time, they could be yelling about something worse than a few months of third-world commuting.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/third_world_trains_Ye7IF53XSFPzfTHTG0T6hI

 

 
 
 

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