RAILING ABOUT FAILING

It’s tepidly—tepidly—encouraging that Metro North representatives have been willing to show up in public forums this week before hordes of embittered Connecticut commuters to “listen” to what its ridership has to “say.”

Tepid, because the effort’s entirely pro forma, since anyone with a cellphone and Twitter (do people at Metro North know about these technologies?) could have been “listening” to the simmering (now boiling) ridership anger from the past seven months over train service that veers between routinely dysfunctional and downright dangerous.

So I’m not sure what facing the torches and pitchforks solves (well said, conductor Bobby), other than offering local officials a media-moment to commiserate, and commuters a train-free forum to rage.

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But for me, the commute already provides more than enough daily blood pressure elevation. And while little has changed or improved despite all the anger (I had one day of normal, non-delayed, un-packed travel last week, and by Tuesday, it was back to abnormal), I’m starting to feel that rail-rage isn’t entirely productive or healthy.

Until I become eligible for the corporate helicopter that doesn’t exist, or the guys at DARPA perfect and commercialize teleportation, I’ll be riding Metro North, jammed into a seat right next to you. (No, I won’t be beaming.) The simple, monopolistic reality for anyone who has to rely on Metro North to travel to their place of employment is this:

It’s riderhood vs livelihood, friends. And in an economy like this one, little red riderhood wins.

(Unless, of course, you plan on protesting by selling your house, yanking your kids out of school, and moving somwhere into the arms of NJ Transit or the LIRR. Good luck with that.)

Like many other commuters, I’ve taken to Twitter to apply some real-time pressure to whomever is “listening” at Metro North.  Jim Cameron of the Commuter Action Council says it helps, and I hope it does. At least it feels momentarily satisfying, and it’s something to do while I sit and stew.

When the train is late, I tweet.

I tweet, even when it’s late in my favor.

I tweet when the car is leaking onto my pants…

I tweet when cockroaches clamber from the cracks in the floor panels to share my Track 6 sushi-selection from Masato in GCT.

Finally (and frequently), I tweet when it’s standing room only (FWIW, this example was nothing compared to the trains last week).

Whenever any of this happens, I let @CTRailCommuters and @MetroNorth know via Twitter. And my blood pressure drops a millimeter or two of mercury.

But this week, with a few (blessed) days off the rails, I’ve tried to dial back my own vitriol by thinking about why Metro North yields such a level of rage in me and others, and by offering a few realistic, actionable ways the railroad might start to cool it.

First, why does Metro North make the average commuter’s head want to explode? In a nutshell, it’s the stark contrast in culture between the railroad’s ridership and its providership. 

Many of Metro North’s riders works for publicly- or privately-held businesses in New York City that are conspicuously and unapologetically performance-oriented (present company included). We are held accountable for delivering, developing, growing, improving, innovating, and excelling. This goes as much for interns and administrative folks as it does for mid- and senior-level people. We work all day (and often into the night) in competitive cultures with an underlying reality: if we don’t perform, there’s someone else hankering for a chance to do the same.

This is what’s on our minds while we speed-dial people at the office from a delayed train, apologizing (again) that we’ll be late for an important 9 am meeting (again).

What’s more, most of our work-cultures are customer- or client-centric. In order to survive, we have to understand what our customers want or need, and figure out how to deliver it. What can we do better than our competitors to win the hearts and minds of our customers?  What satisfies them and brings them value? How can we serve them better?

My friend Spencer made this point to Metro North officials at the Pequot Library on Tuesday. “If [Metro North] was a restaurant, nobody would eat here, and if it was an airline, nobody would fly,” he said. “The real problem is that there is no responsibility being taken, and there won’t be any change until that happens.”

True that, Spence.

I think we all understand that no one’s going to put up a second set of tracks to compete for ridership any time soon. And maybe the chatter about “replacing” Metro North makes sense. But with a new President of Metro North (welcome, Joseph Giulietti) comes a fresh opportunity to assert real cultural change.

Seize it, Mr. Giulietti. Culture starts at the top.

And while you’re wrangling the culture, I’d like to offer you and anyone else who’s willing to listen a few actionable ideas. Actionable because as much as we can rail against under-performing M8 cars, renovation-delinquent catenary wires, and dissolvable track ties, I have a sinking feeling that the infrastructure stuff isn’t going to be fixed in a hurry.

But there are several things Metro North can wake up and start doing tomorrow morning to mitigate commuter frustration, and help blow off some real steam:

1) USE THE DIGITAL STATION SIGNS ALREADY!

Even if they were originally installed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (as I’ve been told), I’d be willing to bet that even hearing-impaired passengers (along with everyone else) would like timely visual updates on the status of their trains.

And how about showing the time, not the date, a time-honored tradition at train stations worldwide? Displaying the date at a train station is about as useful as showing altitude or windspeed. If the system does in fact allow Metro North to push notifications to stations (and it does—that’s why you installed it), then start using it to communicate. Maybe you can consult with your colleagues at the MTA to see how the NYC subway manages to do this so effectively.

One more thing: until Metro North gets back to even middling service, do yourself a favor and stop with this. It makes people wince.

2) OFFER SPOT REFUNDS FOR GENUINELY DISASTROUS SERVICE

When Con Ed blew a gasket (or whatever the hell they blew back in the fall) and trains were cancelled outright, Metro North did the right thing and offered refunds to monthly ticket holders. But Metro North has had some doozies of its own in the past several months—multiple-hour delays with commuters trapped in sub-freezing temperatures, and a system-wide shutdown thanks to a clever computer system update smack-dab in the middle of rush hour.

We know you’re always starved for revenues, and don’t like to give anything away. But when you blow it, acknowledge it, and offer prompt spot refunds or credits to affected commuters. You’d be surprised how far this would go.

Here’s a simple way to do this: equip conductors with a special “punch” they can use on monthly ticketholder’s cards (and other tickets) to indicate a promissory credit, and have them use it on trains immediately during—or right after—a major disruption. Commuters could then receive the credit by turning in their specially-punched ticket at the end of the month, and apply the credit when buying a new ticket or pass. This would allow real time acknowledgement and make-good with commuters, when genuine service disasters arise.

If you really want to be bold, make that hand punch say: We’re Sorry. Here’s a Ride Credit. I even found a vendor online who could make the custom punch and die for you: the BV Tool Co. It’s a longish message, so you’ll need a longish specialty punch: 

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3) JOIN THE 21ST CENTURY AND ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS ON TRAINS

Cash only? In 2014? I can pay for my morning coffee at a tiny start-up coffee shop with this.

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What reason or excuse could there possibly be to not accept credit cards? If you’re worried about the fees, build them into the on-board ticket price. Just the simple act of enabling credit card use would telegraph progress, and an orientation towards your customers.

4) FIX THE SUBPAR TRAINTIME APP

I was happily using a free, “unofficial” smartphone app called onTime for years to check my train schedule, usually from one of three subways that I get to ride as part of my bonus-commute. A few weeks go, I learned about Metro North’s “official” FREE TrainTime App (since you’re promoting it proudly). So I gave it a try.

But TrainTime requires an internet connection to display schedule information. None of it is stored on the app itself. So when you’re in a hot panic on the Times Square Shuttle desperately wondering when your next train leaves Grand Central, you get to stare at a blank screen with a blinking “searching for signal” WiFi icon, but no train info. Ingenious.

In contrast, the onTime app stores schedule information for your most-used stations, for access anywhere. Why not Metro North’s? Did anyone bother to user-test it?

What’s even more frustrating is that when Metro North pushes notifications to users via the TrainTime app, you share important things like Service Updates (aka “it’s snowing, and you won’t be seeing a train anytime soon”) filled with links. Except they aren’t live links—just text. You have to highlight, cut and paste these “links” into a browser on your iPhone just to see whatever the hell Metro North is trying to share.

Which is hard to do when you’re standing on an arctic train platform, being pelted by sleet.

https://twitter.com/jsprince/status/433943595335548928

This is easily fixable. How about getting on it next week? And while we’re on technology…

5) HIRE SOMEONE TO UPDATE METRO NORTH’S WEBSITE

Okay. I get that it’s technically not your website. It’s the MTA’s. And I know that government-run web projects (see: Obamacare) are often fraught with politics and problems. But in 2014, having a transportation web portal like this for what is ostensibly The Greatest City On Earth is a shanda, dudes.

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For comparison, check out the website and user experience for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.  

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Maybe it’s because they run through (and serve) Silicon Valley. Maybe it’s because they have a department of web professionals dedicated to web projects. Maybe it’s because someone at BART understands and cares about the concept of user experience. Whatever the case, their site is clear, simple, intuitive, and communicative.

Metro North’s isn’t. It looks like a Soviet-era inventory of plane parts.

All it takes to change this is some ambition, effort, and design. Metro North could make accessing its most commonly-used information pleasant and attractive, without so much as lifting a rail tie. This would be one less buzzkill in what has become a very buzzkilly experience. How about jumping on it next week?

6)  FINALLY, SOME FRIENDLY ADVICE ON PA ANNOUNCEMENTS

Once again, Metro North can learn a thing or two from its siblings at the NYC subway. Their PA announcements used to be unintelligible, or downright painful. Someone decided to fix that, and now their announcements are generally brief, clear, and useful. 

The automated announcements on the new M8 cars are an improvement, although initiating the full “Your next station stop will be Grand Central Terminal” message the instant a train enters the tunnel at 97th street feels a little premature. Kinda like you’re trying to convince us that arrival is imminent (which it isn’t). Sort of like your odd six minutes late is on timeaccounting.

But I guess it’s an improvement over this:

Mr. Giulietti, I don’t hate Metro North. In fact, up until the last year or two, I’d go so far as to say I enjoyed commuting, and the predictable, private time on your trains (great for reading, writing, working, and thinking).

Several years ago, your trains even inspired me to write and publish a children’s book.

I_saw_an_ant

In it, an innocent little ant is about to get crushed by an oncoming train. But the story’s hero—Switchman Jack—cares enough to drop what he’s doing, rush to his post, and do all he can to try to save that ant. 

Where’s our Switchman Jack?

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