Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bad Moon (and fares) Rising

I could be missing it, but I've not seen much press lately on the all-but-approved fare hike for LIRR commuters coming this January. Up to 9.4%! Inflation is currently estimated at around 2% annually for 2010, which makes this proposed fare hike potentially more than FOUR TIMES that of this year's inflation. Let's also keep in mind that we just came off a 2009 fare hike when inflation was...uh...oh that's right, we had deflation in 2009.

I understand that rising costs are not solely attributable to inflation, so what are the other things? There are two major capital projects: east side access and the third track along the main line. Please someone correct me if I'm wrong on this but I read that the current number of trains accessing Penn will remain as-is (about 37 per hr) and 24 new trains will be added to the new east side access. I have a couple of very simple questions? 1) Does this mean I will have more train times to choose from for my commute?, 2) If so, when are they and will every station benefit?, 3) If not, then WTF?!

Unless I see a schedule in 2014 (the current, but most likely, highly overestimated completion date for the project) that shows a few more trains in my morning and evening rush, then why am I footing the bill for the increase? So someone in the Hamptons gets more express trains on Friday and Sunday evenings? As a matter of fact, why do I even have to wait until 2014? You would think that an enormous, multi-billion project would have had that all covered before deciding to proceed. For example, will there be increased ridership, how much and at what stations?

The current costs of the project are estimated to be $6.3B...more than DOUBLE the previous estimate of $3B. What were the project people saying when they discovered this gross underestimate? I'm going to take a guess on this, but I think it went something like this: "Oh crap, we forgot to add the costs of the new tracks! Do you think we really need any?" I'm not a professional estimator, but I think anyone that underestimates that much, and by that magnitude, deserves to get fired. After all, that's your damn job. Its not like they asked the switch worker to do it....or did they. I know my ass would be out the door if I screwed up that badly on my job.

By the way, I just found the east side access project overview on the LIRR website:

Phase 1: raise fares
Phase 2: raise fares again
Phase 3: open new station
Phase 4: profit
Optional Phase 5: build new tracks

I wish my job were that easy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Peak Train to Tornado Alley

Auntie Em! Auntie Em! A tornado struck Brooklyn and Queens and suddenly everyone at the LIRR became stupid!

As you can see, I'm upset, but not because a tornado hit NYC. I can't blame the LIRR for that. What I can blame them for is the complete inability to communicate effectively during crisis situations -- and I use that term with hesitation.

A tornado doesn't come around here often, but I'll bet anyone that trees falling on tracks and flooding happens several times a year. It just so happens that trees and flooding occurred at the same time this past Thursday evening. So what do you announce? "There is no service in either direction from Penn Station to Jamaica." And that was it. Were trains running east from Jamaica? Could I take the subway to Jamaica? Were shuttle buses available anywhere from Jamaica? Who knows! The LIRR certainly didn't. The new electronic signs were telling me to "Have a Nice Day"; completely oblivious to the situation at hand. Oh, thank you so much. A faceless, yet polite sign is wishing me a nice day. Silver lining everyone.

I have an idea. Problems always seemt to come up between Penn and Jamaica. How about an emergency plan to operate a subway shuttle from Penn to Jamaica, or at least more E-Trains? I wish someone would explain to me why that is crazy, but I don't think anyone could. The MTA is in charge of both the subways and the LIRR, and buses, and in this day and age of emergency preparedness, there shoud lbe some coordination plan between the systems. I'm going to keep this entry short, because I didn't get home that late (although I have friends that told me it took 6 hrs for them to get home), and the more I write the angrier I get.

One last thing, why did all the trains have to go the Yard Facility once it was determined that there would be no service? Maybe to make way for the remaining westbound trains? I guess, but who knows. It certainly wasn't explained.

So, as all of you figure out how to deal with extensive damage to your houses....Have a Nice Day!

Monday, August 23, 2010

One switch to rule them all

Some of you may not even be home yet to read this because, as you unfortunately know, the LIRR had a fire at a control tower east of Jamaica. Apparently, the fire knocked out a switch that serviced 10 of the 11 branches of the LIRR. Obviously, this must have been an inferno that engulfed the very core of the LIRR’s nervous system, overwhelming all back-up systems, laying waste to all contingency plans, and keeping an army of heroic staff at bay. Alas, this was not the case, and so it is therefore the focus of a much belated rant.

As the story goes, a power line that supplies the third rail shorted out and caused a fire at a nearby control tower which in turn destroyed a switch that controls 90% of the system for our nation’s largest commuter railroad! What is wrong with that statement? I’m not sure where to begin. Were you surprised to hear that equipment based on pulleys and levers controls such a crucial junction of the LIRR’s system? Could it be that the control tower had no fire alarm, or no nearby staff to fight a fire? Perhaps it was even that, in this day and age, a single point of failure of this magnitude even exists?

If LIRR service announcements are correct, it appears that the fate of the entire LIRR system is held by a single switch. You would think that this control tower would be a virtual Fort Knox of the LIRR and that this switch was one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology in the system. Not the case, and I can understand that – but pulleys and levers? What year are we in that we have vintage equipment as the backbone of our railroad? Was Conjunction Junction in charge of that control tower as well? I’m sure that tower looked like a museum, complete with the latest in smoke signaling technology.

I read in the WSJ online edition that the power line short was likely caused by heavy rains? That’s another major ‘WTF?!’ New York is one of those places that, at times, can experience the harshest weather of every season, including that funny stuff that drips out of the clouds every now and then. What’s that called again? Oh, right, that’s called rain. I guess we never thought that these things should be weather proof. So my vision of this power cable is that of a frayed power cord on your ancient vacuum cleaner. You know, the one with years’ worth of electrical tape wrapped around it. Only this one controls a commuter line carrying over 100,000 people a day. If they only had that tape…

Another line from that article also struck me as odd: “More than 50 extra switch and signal workers were called in to Jamaica…” Let’s break this part down a little. More than 50 – extra – switch and signal workers. So not only are there switch and signal workers that focus on a very specific thing, but there are 50 EXTRA of them. That’s an army of people that work on switches and signals! Let's please have one of them at this control tower, and we can still send out the 49 for coffee and donuts.

What takes the cake in all of this is the comment from LIRR President Helena Williams that, even though the LIRR is replacing 1920’s era equipment, the piece of equipment that actually caught fire was less than 10 years old! Does that mean it’s OK that it happened? Perhaps it’s the equipment’s fault? This is baffling to me, and should be extremely embarrassing to the LIRR. The fact that new equipment was susceptible to such a condition, and that the likely 50-100 year old equipment would still have been working, is ridiculous. Sometimes even new equipment can fail, I get that, but how it fails and how it is backed up sounds like the real failure in all of this. Also, the 100 year old control tower that runs on hamster wheels could have had better monitoring. Perhaps one of the 50 extra switch workers can stop by every now and then to indiscriminately spray WD-40 on everything. That ought to do it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Track 17 - Lemmings on the edge

I recall a particular game commonly found at almost every amusement park; its the one where the coins are perched precipitously on a continuously moving ledge and the goal is to add another coin in the hope that it will knock several others over the ledge for you to collect. How many of you knew that the game was inspired by Track 17? Well, maybe not, but the wacko that designed that track probably also designed obstacle courses.

Track 17 is my least favorite track, not to imply that I enjoy any other track in particular, but arriving at Penn on that track is really a crappy way to start the day. If you get off toward the middle of the train, the platform has a somewhat normal width, but as you walk forward, there's one tiny stairway that is always overflowing with people, because its as wide as a rope ladder. Passengers naturally pass it up and continue moving to the front of the platform, where, slowly but surely, the track quickly begins to narrow to the size of Indian foot path. What makes things worse is the fact that there are large columns in the middle of the platform that force people to the outer ledge, except for the skinny passengers that can turn sideways and squeeze through. So how do you know if you're fat? Dont ask your spouse because you'll never get a straight answer. Try making it past those two columns -- they'll never lie.

Another odd thing about Track 17 is its entrance next to McDonalds. Its like crawling out of a manhole. The other tracks have grand entrances, brass handrails, wide stairways, etc. Track 17's entrance is truly the "servant's entrance" of all the tracks. Even the conductor hates it when the train arrives there, and then they make us feel badly -- "Arriving on Track 17, I hate my life, and I'm ashamed of my passengers." Really, I heard that, and then I ran right into TRACKS to grab a 8AM.

I remember when I first started taking the railroad and thought how odd it was that everyone on my train rushed into McDonalds when their train was called. Couldn't they wait until they got home for dinner? I thought that I really was on the loser train until I realized the terrible truth, and I descended into that BO steambath. All the passengers were tightly packed on the platform, putting their lives at risk in order to make sure they're one of the first to get on. Don't get me wrong, I'm one of those types too. After all, who doesn't think they "win" when they're first on the train.

Track 17 is like the 7 1/2 floor from "Being John Malkovich." Its only a matter of time before we're all spit out of a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. But be warned, that's a step-up fare.

Friday, April 20, 2007

High Water Condition

If there were an award for obscuring simple explanations with stupid, pseudo-technical terminology, then we have a winner. As we all know, NYC was hit with record rainfall this past Monday when a northeaster dumped almost 7.5 inches on us. So what would you guess to be the most fundamental problem people experienced on roads, in tunnels, and in basements? Take a guess. That's right - "flooding". Funny word, isn't it. The LIRR thought so to, so they decided to call it a "high water condition." At this point, I feel obligated to state upfront that this will be more of a rant, but there is a moral to this story so please bear with me for a moment.

I'm not against the word "condition", its just that it should be reserved for instances where an explanation cannot be described by a single word. For example, one could say with a straight face that a fire can cause a smoke condition. You couldn't really say that its smoking or smokey, because that just sounds silly. But when there is an over-abundance of water, where places are inundated or unnaturally submerged, you can state with confidence that there is flooding.

As you can guess, this past storm resulted in flooding at certain locations which in turn caused pretty bad delays on the LIRR. Delays are a widely expected consequence of flooding, and if flooding can cause problems, just imagine what high water conditions can do. Apparently, high water conditions just piss people off. Maybe the LIRR wanted to build it into something bigger. Perhaps "flooding" didn't sound serious enough, and riders would have complained that the delays were unwarranted from just a little flooding. Oddly, I think it had just the opposite effect. Using a ridiculous phrase like that actually toned down the seriousness of the situation. Flooding implies that there is too much water, overflowing, etc. A high water condition implies nothing. So when those words were said over and over again on the PA system, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought -- how high? How much? Do they mean high tide? I bet that the energy used to transmit those wasted words through the air violated some environmental law.

OK LIRR, here's the lesson for today. Simple explanations have a better chance of achieving the desired outcome. So how about this for a very real and powerful statement, "there will be 30-40 minute delays due to flooding at the east river tunnels." I am sure that some of you will say I am making too much of this. But like every other commuter that stormy day, I just wanted to go home, see my family, and tackle that high hunger condition.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Five minutes late.....right on time!

Schedules. Without them, I guess the railroad just wouldn't run. What amazes me about the LIRR's schedules is the precision in which they are established. Perhaps it goes to that level of detail to instill confidence in its riders. People feel good thinking that they can catch the 5:38:32PM train to Ronkonk... Ronkohoma... Ranchomonga... whatever, way out on eastern LI. Unfortunately, what the LIRR has not yet figured out is that you really need to follow the schedules you set.

Let's take the 8:05AM train from Kew Gardens as an example. What impresses me most about that particular train is how consistent and precise it is in its lateness. So much so, that passengers begin sauntering down to the platform at about 8:08AM. Why? Because the train rolls into the station at exactly 8:10AM. You can imagine how upset passengers are when the train, on rare occassions, arrives "early" at 8:05AM. Interestingly, the LIRR has had every chance to correct this issue because it publishes new schedules about every 2 months. You would think the new schedule would just show an 8:10AM train, or maybe an 8:09AM train as a compromise for the lazy commuters. Yet it remains listed as 8:05AM. Perhaps the LIRR just can't make it any faster, so it leaves that train on the schedule as a constant reminder of a goal it just can't achieve. It's almost like the pair of "skinny pants" that we haven't worn in years but still keep hanging front and center in our closet because, one day, we'll fit in them again. Hey, LIRR, get rid of the skinny pants, you're not fooling me!

The NYC subway system has schedules, too. Not many people know that, but even more importantly, not many people care. That is probably the case because there are usually enough trains during rush hours such that a passenger knows that he or she can just get the next one. But have you ever noticed how much less frantic the riders are that take the subway, even on off-peak hours? Sure, you get the occassional wacko who yells "hold the door" even though he is a half of a block away from the station, but the majority of the commuters just calmly wait for the next train. Penn Station, on the other hand, looks like a jailbreak at evening rush hour. I'm sure that most of the people trying to catch a 6PM train are big NFL fans, because I've seen runningbacks with less impressive moves. Someone should tell Eric Mangini to buy monthly passes as part of the NY Jets training. I'll stop on that point, but please stay-tuned for a future discussion on the madness at Penn during rush-hour.

Imagine if we all could arrive at work later than we are scheduled to, but still get paid for the full day. We can just tell our bosses that its close enough. It wouldn't be long before our paychecks start reflecting our lateness.

I suggest to the LIRR that it give a long hard look at its schedule, and just face the facts. I also recommend that it stop trying to come up with schedules down to the millisecond. How about this as an incentive? If a train is 5 minutes late three times a month due to reasons other than an accident or weather, then monthly ticket holders should get something in return - like a coupon for a free Ben & Jerry's or Starbucks coffee. That won't help us passengers get any closer to our skinny pants, but at least the LIRR will get in shape.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

"No service this evening"

This past Thursday night, as I was settling in to the coveted 'next to the door' spot on the 6:39PM train, I heard the announcement all commuters dread. As usual, its timing was perfection. Two minutes prior to that train's departure, a garbled statement was blurted out over the PA system, "There is no service to Forest Hills and Kew Gardens this evening." That was all it said, and with it, I knew that an adventure was about to begin.

As I left the train, I braced myself for the common scene of Crazy White Guy & Old Lady tag-teaming the conductor. I was not disappointed. As the Crazy White Guy railed on about unrelated grievances of years past, the Old Lady demanded why the LIRR didn't tell everyone sooner. Apparently, a recently disabled train prevented all other trains from stopping at the two stations. Eastbound? Westbound? No one knew. But the fact that the conductor could not explain that the LIRR could not have ever predicted to the Old Lady in advance that this was going to happen, made the situation explosive. As Old Lady kept the majority of the crew tied up, Crazy White Guy was at his finest. Perched on his mental soapbox and clearly enraged, he began screaming and spitting while staring at no one in particular. At this point, I decided to jump in.

Using soft yet stern talk of logic and common sense, I temporarily calmed the Crazy White Guy, which gave me just enough time to ask the conductor if we can take a train to Jamaica in order to take another one westbound to KG or FH. The conductor disappeared into her cabin to communicate with the dispatcher, but in doing so, abruptly shut her window to block the noise. Unfortunately, that gave Crazy White Guy a second wind, in which he demanded that she be fired while getting the rest of the commuters riled up. Again, I calmed him using everything short of dangling shiny objects in his eyes. That gave us just enough time for the conductor to come back with good news: another train was adding stops to accomodate KG and FH customers. Whew! The LIRR came through! However, this could have been handled much better.

I do not work for the LIRR, but I can bet that this was not a unique event. One would think that there are procedures in place that all but automate the response to such a situation, including coaching the crew on what to say and how to say it. Thinking from a commuters point of view, particularly one who lives on eastern Long Island, an announcement like that is tantamount to saying "you're screwed, find a hotel." How about saying, "Attention passengers for Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, due to a disabled train, the 6:39 will not be stopping at those stations. Please standby on the main level for further instructions, which will be announced shortly." Announcing that there is "no service" without any possible recourse puts people in panic mode.

I forgot to mention that while all this went down, a fellow commuter asked me what was going on. When I told him that the train was not stopping at FH or KG, he replied with a look that pretty much said, "Suckers". I'm sure that asshole lives off of exit 900 on the LIE and should have been more considerate. You know who you are.

Lessons learned for the LIRR: coach your staff on the 'what, when, and how' to communicate with customers. Most people understand that problems happen, but commuters that are wound up after a long day, with only one way to get home, react very badly to poorly worded announcements.