Despite fewer commuters, state pushes ahead with Metro-North upgrades
With more people working from home, commuter rail is struggling to bring riders back. So why are tens of billions of dollars going to upgrade the system?
Despite stalled ridership, transportation leaders said the money is a smart investment during a summit in Stamford on Monday.
"EVERY OTHER WEEK"
Nearly four years after COVID struck, most commuters are returning to the office – but not every day.
"I go up there for, you know, every other week," said Phillip Woodie, who lives in New Canaan but works in Boston.
On Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont hosted the heads of Amtrak and Metro-North Railroad to discuss adapting the region's rail network to new work habits. Both agencies said fewer people are commuting, but more people are using trains for everyday travel.
"They might be taking it for education purposes – going to school – going to medical appointments," said Connecticut Department of Transportation commissioner Garrett Eucalitto. "If they're tele-working – maybe they have a four-day work-week and they're going to take, on a Monday or a Friday, go into the city for something discretionary. That's what we're seeing."
The numbers back that up. While Metro-North has only recovered 73% of pre-pandemic sales, Amtrak is booming. CEO Stephen Gardner said the rail line is experiencing 110% of pre-COVID demand.
ADJUSTING TO A NEW NORMAL
To adjust to the new reality, Metro-North is adjusting schedules. In October, Friday service was significantly scaled back, with two rush hour trains removed during the rest of the week. Fares also increased.
Eucalitto called it a "surgical approach."
Longer-term, the agency is looking at more "reverse commute" trains going from New York City into Connecticut, especially after the new Penn Station Access project is completed.
"How do we make commuter rail attractive to people who are not just commuters?" said Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi. "That's been a huge part of our strategy with respect to try and attract people back to the system, post-COVID."
MONEY FROM WASHINGTON
Major improvements are coming, thanks to Congress. The Northeast Corridor received $30 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – money that will replace century-old bridges and speed up travel times.
"I think we're going to be able to take 10, 15 minutes off that commute into New York City," said Lamont. "That commute to New York City is going to go to, not just Grand Central, but also Penn Station."
Passengers think it's a good investment. Woodie said the types of trips are changing, but the need for rail is still there.
"This trip down here wasn't that crowded, but other trips, the trains seem pretty packed," he said. "So I think it depends on what days you're traveling on, and what direction you're coming in."