Here we go again . . .

July 8, 2016

This recent Times Union story shows the persistence of unrealistic, grandiose thinking in relation to our local Amtrak station. The proposal to study spending $20 – $30 million, and who knows how much time, building an aerial tramway to transport a few hundred people a day across the Hudson, in all likelihood at significant public expense, is another example of the thinking that got us the present bloated, cavernous station that leaks money and water, and whose large outdoor clocks never tell the same time. Here’s something to try first, if there’s really a need for an alternative to the existing taxicab service most railroad passengers use (there is):

Realign the two bus routes that serve the station so they both stop at the same place on East St. for trips in each direction. Coordinate bus schedules with train schedules. Have a covered walkway from the station exit to the bus stop. Sell one way or round trip bus passes at the railroad ticket windows or at nearby kiosks. Have “Amtrak connect” schedules printed up that show when busses leave the station for popular downtown destinations and when they return, with a large map on the back showing the locations of bus stops and downtown landmarks.

If the above does not work, thousands, not tens of millions, will have been wasted. Then you can say “I told you so,” and try the gondola.


Where shall it be?

November 7, 2013

Now that a casino is coming to the Capital District, where shall it be located?  The present favorite appears to be the Saratoga racino, but I wouldn’t put it there if it were up to me.  Here are the siting criteria I’d employ:

1.  It should be as close as possible to major population centers of the area, but not too close, and located a little bit out of the way, so that people don’t usually pass it on their way to and from work, shopping and other regular errands. It should have plenty of on-site parking.  Look to the Casino de Montreal for an appropriate location in an urban area.

2.  It should be accessible by public transit, both to limit its environmental and traffic generating impact, and so that the service jobs it provides will be accessible to the urban residents who need them and who may not own their own cars.

3.  It should be located in an area with as much existing infrastructure as possible, and it should not be built in an undeveloped area where it will gobble up open space.

4. It should be located in an area where it is wanted by the local population and where it will not adversely impact existing local business.

I propose the Port of Rensselaer, which meets all the above criteria.  Rensselaer County, unlike Saratoga and Albany counties, voted for Proposal 1, indicating it would welcome a casino.  Rensselaer is centrally located, near Amtrak and Megabus, and is served by CDTA.  It can use the increased property tax revenues a casino would bring, and the Port location would impact few local residents and businesses,  Its central location and existing road structure would minimize the traffic and environmental impacts caused by travel to the casino.  Shuttles between the rail station and the casino could help make it an attractive destination for gamblers from the New York City area, and existing CDTA routes could be slightly modified to make casino jobs accessible to Albany, Troy and Rensselaer residents who rely on public transit.  If the City or County owns a parcel in the port area that could be developed and placed back on the tax rolls, so much the better.

The existing racino in Saratoga does have the basic infrastructure in place and, as an existing gambling venue, is less likely to attract local opposition, especially given the area’s historical acceptance of all sorts of gambling.  However, taking the path of least resistance would forgo a tremendous opportunity to provide jobs where the people who need them most, and where potential customers from the largest population center in the State, could actually get to them, to give a struggling city a chance to get back on its feet, and to minimize the environmental impact of a venue to which many people will travel by automobile.


Railroad parking

January 24, 2013

The CDTA has announced it is considering raising parking rates (to match those at the airport and Empire Plaza) to provide additional funds for station maintenance.  Public comments were invited.  Here’s mine:

I just read in the Times Union that CDTA is seeking to raise parking rates to generate more revenue to keep the white elephant patched up. In other words, you are asking the public to pay more for the poor design, construction and oversight of this facility. Maybe you should instead start thinking about how to seal off some of its vast unrented spaces to save on heat and other costs before giving your patrons another excuse – as if Amtrak’s high prices and third world service aren’t reason enough – to forgo using public transportation and therefore the rail station and the few businesses inside.

The regular users of the station I know all wax nostalgiacally over the good old days of free parking (the only semi-valid reason for having our rail station anywhere but downtown Albany) and wish the present boondoggle had never been foisted upon them.

Although it probably is too late for anyone to stop this “gift” to our city from hemorraghing cash, maybe CDTA should think about getting out of the station management business and redirect all its efforts to its main mission of providing frequent and reliable bus service, a task that easily could employ all your energy and resources.

Thank you for considering public comments on this issue.


Amtrak/subway update

December 3, 2011

Yesterday, I took a round trip to NYC on Amtrak. The good news is that both trains I took were on time, and that the new, free on-train wi-fi worked extremely well. The bad news is that the trip cost $97.00 (the trip down on the 6:10 am from Rensselaer was $40.00, which seems to be pretty standard for off-peak; the trip back on the 7:15 pm from Penn was $57.00 – thank you dynamic yield pricing). My other complaint is that the train (as well as the waiting area in Penn Station) were about 90 degrees, which I’ve experienced almost every time I’ve taken a train during heating season.

In New York, I rode the E train from Penn Station to Lexington Ave. and 53rd St. The cars were brand new, with neat electronic signs showing the time, next stop, etc. Gone were the old, crackling, incomprehensible announcements like “Borty decnd tweet, Brt Autorty, toity-toid Penn Stn nxt.” Instead, there were crystal-clear recorded announcements. And the cars seems very clean and graffiti-free. Nice job, New York City Transit Authority.


Greyhound/Trailways beats Megabus and Amtrak

March 24, 2011

Today, for the second time in a few weeks, I had to travel to New York City for the day without much advance notice. In both cases, the “traditional” Greyhound/Trailways bus came in at $35.00 for a non-refundable round-trip ticket, less than what Megabus would have charged (and, needless to say, a lot less than Amtrak would have charged). In each case, though I booked through the Greyhound web site, I wound up on Trailways buses. Each was clean, professionally driven, and had 110 volt outlets for laptops, cell phones, etc. I’m not sure if they had wi-fi. If you’re on a budget and need to travel without much advance notice, it’s not a bad way to go.


Amtrak sucks

March 11, 2011

Although I like trains, and I try to support all types of public transport when I can, I have had more than my share of troubles — primarily late trains — with Amtrak.  On a different note, last January, I purchased, on the Amtrak web site, a few days before my travel date, a round-trip ticket to NYC to attend an event.  I was charged the regular $76 round-trip fare.

I rode on the train with a friend who was attending the same event.  He advised me that he had purchased his ticket around the same time at the ticket window, and he was offered a fare about $15 less than what I paid, without having to satisfy any special condition, as a result of some promotion.

I wrote to Amtrak on January 26, recounting the above, adding:  “If you wish to encourage use of your web site for the purchase of tickets, patrons using the web site should be offered the lowest available fare for their trip. When booking my trip, I did not notice any information about the availability of a lower fare, and I certainly was not offered it. If the promotional fare my friend received should have been made available to me, I would appreciate a refund in the amount of the discount he received.”

On January 31, I received a reply, the gist of which is as follows:  “We apologize that is has taken longer than we expected for us to reply to your email inquiry.  We have forwarded your e-mail to Amtrak’s Customer Relations Department. They will contact you as soon as possible in the order that your email is received.  The department is experiencing an extremely higher than normal volume, due predominantly to weather related issues and personnel staffing.  Please allow between four to six weeks for a response.”

True to their word, I received a further response, but no satisfaction, on March 3.  Here’s the gist of it:  “As information, our records show that you did pay the lowest normally-discounted fare for your trip.  We cannot be sure as to which of the deals your associate took advantage of.  We also do not offer refunds after travel has been completed; therefore we must respectfully deny your request.  For future reference, you may want to look at the ‘Advertised Specials’ section under the ‘Deals’ tab on Amtrak.com for a list of current specials.  Please be aware that there are limited seats available for each of these deals and varied terms and conditions.”

What kind of customer service business takes a week to acknowledge receipt of an e-mail without giving a substantive response?  Is an immediate automated reply too much to ask expect if the delayed reply is not going to offer any information that an automated reply wouldn’t?

Further, what kind of business wants to discourage people from making web purchases instead of in-person purchases?  Most travel web sites I’ve seen offer a “lowest rate guarantee.”  Amtrak, on the other hand, says to me, in essence, it’s your responsibility to look all over our web site for discount announcements (for the record, I’m almost certain that I  did, and didn’t see any) and if you miss one – or if we forget to put it up – tough noogies.

This attitude is consistent with another experience I had several years ago, ironically while trying to get to NYC to attend the same annual event.  When I arrived at the station, I saw that the train I was to take was delayed several hours, and there was no way I could get to NYC before the event would be over.  I went to the ticket window and requested a refund.  The clerk advised me to save the ticket for use another time, as 15% was withheld from cash refunds.  I asked where on the ticket it said that; he couldn’t show me, but said that’s the policy, and suggested I write “to Washington” if I wasn’t happy.  I wasn’t happy, so I did write to Washington.  I was given a full refund, as “an accommodation” to me.  I noticed that now Amtrak tickets state that refunds may be subject to a penalty.  You can thank me for that.

I understand that Amtrak is under-funded, but I still think it could do a little better in the customer relations department.  It’s not a big bargain (the bus fare is less than half the train fare) or a luxurious travel experience (rolling stock is old, often uncomfortably hot or cold, and often without food service), and it often does not run on schedule.  Showing a little more consideration for the customer would make these shortcomings a lot less irritating.


Getting to NYC

June 18, 2010

 There are many ways to get from Albany to New York City.  Among those I’ve tried are driving, taking the train, taking the Greyhound bus, and driving to Poughkeepsie and getting the train there.  Which of these works best depends on many factors – when you’re going, your travel budget, your destination within the city, etc.

 Today, I  had to go from Rensselaer to New York City on business, and decided to take the Amtrak train down and Megabus, a low-cost carrier that offers several routes around the country, back. Buses, though not as romantic as trains, are much less costly to operate, use existing highway infrastructure, and can change route in response to delaying conditions. On the down side, they share that infrastructure with a lot of traffic, which can subject them to delays. Trains enjoy the use of a more limited-access infrastructure, but, unless given priority over other traffic, such as freight, still can be subject to delays. Here’s a thumbnail summary of my two trips:

Amtrak:

  • Indoor waiting area in case of inclement weather.
  • On-time departure.
  • 120v electrical outlets
  • No wireless internet
  • Wide, fairly comfortable seats; airplane-style fold-down tray table; car a bit stuffy and antiseptic-smelling
  • No food/beverage service
  • One-way trip cost: $37.00; advance reservation required; refund request may trigger penalty
  • Two hours, thirty-five minutes scheduled travel time; actual arrival 10 minutes early, though in the past I’ve been on many trains that have been very late.
  •  
    The biggest “little thing” Amtrak could do to add value would be to install free wireless internet access, which is now standard on many other public conveyances.
    I don’t know the top speed of the present trains, but it is obvious that most of the trip is run at considerably lower speeds. Before committing to a huge expenditure for state-of-the-art, high-speed trains, perhaps the State should examine the relative costs and benefits of improvements to the existing track – eliminating grade crossings, easing curves, negotiating priority for passenger trains over freight, etc. A reduction in trip time of 45 minutes would substantially undercut the competition (automobile and bus) in travel time.

    Megabus:

  • Waiting area on W. 31st St. outside Penn Station – efficient boarding process, but outdoors in inclement weather
  • Bus clean, not odorous and A/C works well. 120V outlet and free wifi (wifi stopped working midway through trip)
  • Bus left on time, but hit lots of traffic going to Lincoln Tunnel
  • Seats comfortable, reclining, but smaller than train and no tables; working on my netbook would have been difficult if the seat next to mine had been occupied
  • Scheduled trip time 2-3/4 hrs; actual arrival about 15 min late
  • Fare $10.50, including reservation fee; reservation required; change may incur penalty; no refunds
  • Conclusions – I found the train more comfortable and the scenery better, but Megabus is a good value for the price. If you reserve far enough in advance, you can go one way for $1.50, and even the higher fares substantially undercut Amtrak. In fact, it cost me less to take the Megabus from NYC to Albany than it would have to take Metro North from NYC to Poughkeepsie (off-peak), from which I’d still have a lengthy drive with tolls and parking at the station to pay for.


    CDTA Fare hike . . .

    October 12, 2008
    Rensselaer Rail Station

    Rensselaer Rail Station

    Unlike in larger cities, where public transit usage crosses more demographic lines, public transit use in Albany appears to me (yes, I am a regular rider) the domain primarily of those of relatively modest means (though the recent rises in gas prices are making transit more attractive those with higher incomes).  For this reason, in addition to the usual reasons public transit ridership should be encouraged — conservation of energy, reduction of traffic congestion, decrease in demand for downtown land to be used for parking facilities — CDTA’s recent announcement that it would be seeking a 50% increase in the single-ride fare is distressing.  Distressing, yes, but in this enviornment of rising costs for everything, especially fuel, necessary?

    Rochester, an upstate area comparable to Albany, recently lowered its fare. True, it reduced service, but service reductions also are part of CDTA’s plan.

    Even if you believe CDTA’s most recent budget request, which posits enough revenue from the Rensselaer Rail Station to cover its expenses, you have to wonder whether a more appropriately-scaled station, costing far less than the $53 million spent on the white elephant that was built, wouldn’t have left tens of millions available for maintaining the transit fare, maintaining free parking at the rail station (parking fees account for the vast bulk of station revenues) or both.

    I hope CDTA will re-focus itself on its core mission of providing transit services.  I see potential for increasing ridership by improving bus service between the rail station and downtown (now totally confusing because the different routes stop at different places and avoid actually entering the station property), as well as the airport and downtown (now inadequately served by the Central Avenue line and the meandering and painfully slow Shuttle-Fly).  Every day, hundreds of people enter the Albany area without cars from these two locations.  A large number of these are heading downtown for the day, without a lot of luggage, and could be transit customers if the service were frequent and reliable.  Increased patronage on such routes would generate revenue that could support more frequent service, which would benefit the local residents who ride those routes.