Thursday, March 27, 2008

If I Ran the Railroad

I’ve been riding a commuter train into New York City for more than a decade and have had plenty of time to consider the draconian improvements I would make if I had the dictatorial power necessary to change anything on MetroNorth.

First of all, the rolling stock is not just old, it’s huge. The carriages ride about six feet off the ground atop enormous steel wheels and the whole thing is pulled or pushed by a gigantic diesel engine designed for cross-country trips in the 1960s. My commuter train could easily withstand years of service on the trans-Siberian Railway. Stopping and starting that train every few minutes is a groaning, straining, gargantuan waste of energy.

Rather than big, slow, and infrequent trains, the model should be lighter, faster, and more frequent just as they are in parts of Europe.

Second of all, there should be service. My train if filled each morning with some of the highest paid symbol manipulators in the world. For an hour plus we’re a totally captive audience. Surely you could sell us something valuable. How difficult would it be to have a cart with newspapers, high-priced coffee, and freshly baked breakfasty items roll down the aisle in exchange for some disposable income? Inconceivably difficult apparently.

The notion of a captive demographic is totally lost on whomever or whatever runs the railway. The only advertising in the cars is an occasional cardboard poster for some TV show on the WB. Where the hell is Chris Whittle when we need him?

Imagine flat screen TVs in each seat back with free programming interspersed with highly targeted ads. Get Bloomberg to invest in it and a passive seat would become a profit center.

And this leads to the third improvement, intelligence. Instead of buying a paper ticket from a machine or a conductor carrying fists of cash and some antique hole puncher, how about a smart card that you swipe at your seat. Your monthly fare recalculates depending on how many trips you take. Perhaps the fare changes depending in the seat you take; less for the middle, and nothing if you stand.

You could even profile ridership patterns electronically rather than by having teams of slack jawed unionized drones counting passengers by hand as they crowd off the platform.

The smart card could be used for all services aboard the train including coffee in the morning, a stiff drink in the evening, a PPV movie on the way home, parking at the station. And all these transactions could be captured, analyzed, and used to improve service. Make money. Improve service. Totally foreign concepts at the moment.

The fourth, pride and expertise, costs nothing. On two occasions on a recent Amtrak trip to Philadelphia, passengers asked elementary questions which stumped the conductors. The first question was about arrival time. The conductor did not know when the train was scheduled to arrive. I knew and I don’t even work on the train for a living. The other question was about destination. The conductor drove the passenger to aneurysmic panic by claiming that the train did not stop in Stamford. Only after the intervention of other passengers did the conductor correct himself. Jeez, this is your job, man. Get the basics right at least. A little pride in a job well done might make your day more satisfying.

I suspect a Swiss train conductor earning a comparable salary would know a great deal more about railways than his American counterparts – but that’s an entirely another story.

My solution short of armed direct action? Maintain public control of the track and infrastructure and allow any private company to run rolling stock on them for a profit. Frankly, if you can run a profitable railway in the Northeastern Corridor, you just aren’t trying.

Until then, here is some lovely transit pornography from Newlands & Company:



11 comments:

Adron said...

Nice write up. I was just in Newark recently - and well, my thoughts were along the same lines.

I really gotta get to writing some more entries on this topic soon. Overall the transit everywhere just is not valued or monetized properly.

matt said...

How about hot, female train Conductors to "punch your ticket."

ScottyMacDoodle said...

Does anyone really want to be turned into a maximized profit center on the way into work? I would prefer to be left in peace, to awaken slowly as I'm on my way in to be surrounded by wankers yammering away free market capitalism truisms as I smile and nod in agreement. Couldn't I just sit and think/doze in peace without being bombarded? Also: Interesting blog but the dehumanizing rant about unionized workers (guess the proles haven't learned how to manipulate symbols) is outrageously condescending. Perhaps that wasn't his usual line? I bow to no one in my hatred of Amtrak but the workers themselves always seem perfectly...adequate.

adronbhall.com said...

I just want options. Besides that, it would go a good ways toward making transit more self sufficient, economically that is.

I prefer choice, if you want to call it profit based capitalism or whatever - fine.

However, what we have now is - NO CHOICE, and you still probably don't get to sit there quitely.

But deriding one's interest in having choices doesn't do anyone any good just because we like the ideal of better service and increased competence all around. ...and you seem to be content in mediocrity.

Sorry, but I'll take the nice item over the klunker every time.

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