[OPINION] Slow Trains Cost Big Bucks

An alert — and frustrated — “06880” reader writes:

When my wife, daughter and I moved to Westport in the 1980s, the main reasons were the schools, and amenities like Longshore.

But another major reason was that my wife’s commute to the city would work (barely). It was about an hour on Metro-North.

However, as the real estate agent explained to us, houses closer to the city cost more. Her rule of thumb was that for every extra minute of commuting time, homes were $10,000 less expensive. For us, Westport was the “sweet spot.”

Commuting looks pleasant in this image. (Photo copyright Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

It now takes about 20 minutes longer to get to New York City by train than it did back then. That means our house (the same one) is worth $200,000 less than it would if the trains ran on the same schedule.

Westport has about 10,000 homes. If they’re worth $200,000 less on average, that means they’ve lost $2 billion in value due to slower trains.

That $10,000 figure was in 1980s housing dollars. It might be 3 times that much now.

And we were looking at lower-priced houses in Westport, so that $10,000 figure for the lower-priced houses in Westport we were considering was probably twice that for higher-priced houses. So perhaps the real cost of slow Metro-North trains might be 6 times as much: $12 billion.

That’s real money!

The train to New York was quicker in 1949 than 2019.

25 responses to “[OPINION] Slow Trains Cost Big Bucks

  1. Adam Vengrow

    Ohhh you really have to enjoy the silver bullets “Pot Luck” customer entertainment program that has grown tremendously over the last 10 years as well. So when you get to the train, you guess how many minutes it will be late. Between 1 and 7 minutes doesnt really count because that is expected, and MTA policy is trains under 7 minutes late are considered on time. In Japan 1-3 minutes late is a national public apology, and over that people get fired. Back to us, especially in the dead of winter, if you can successfully partake in 3 trains in a row late by over 7 minutes, guess what you win! You win a shiny, new, state of the art, monthly FARE INCREASE!!!

  2. Agreed. The trains are 20 minutes slower each way since 15 years ago. For a commuter, that’s 40 minutes lost time each day, which amounts to roughly half a day of lost work time each week that commuting parents could be spending with their families.
    The train slow down has been caused by failing bridges that the trains must pass over, and we cannot fix the speed of our trains until we fix our bridges. Unfortunately, the federal effort to fix our roads and bridges initiated by our then president was killed in the U.S. Senate in 2011. https://www.centralmaine.com/2011/11/03/senate-gop-blocks-60b-obama-infrastructure-plan/ . The state of CT will have to step in and try to finance this itself before we witness a bridge collapse or further Metro North slowdowns.
    The writer is correct that these train slow downs have a direct effect on Westport’s real estate marketability.
    A lockbox on transportation-generated revenues would be a good start. The toll system that Rhode Island instituted which results in costing far less for in-staters (e.g., 90 cents versus $4 for those out-of-staters for each crossing of the Newport bridge) who buy RI state-issued Easy Passes helped RI finance keeping its roads and bridges in good shape.
    The collapse of the Genoa, Italy bridge caused the loss of 43 lives. “A stitch in time, saves nine!” ~ . Kristan Hamlin

    • William Strittmatter

      This is on the state as much as feds – the CT legislature has been diverting money from transportation infrastructure for decades. They just can’t help themselves. Even a “lockbox” is suspect since money is fungible and there always seem to be creative ways to divert funds.

      Just look at what is going on now with the $10 “state park fee”. It was sold as a way to ensure CTs parks would stop being underfunded. A year later, the legislature is, not surprisingly, diverting some of those revenues away from the parks. Some of the original legislation authors are even rationalizing why the diversion is OK (and even intended). Too bad they didn’t come clean with what they really intended when they put the fee in place.

  3. Arthur Hayes

    Well, it’s a clever thought, but I don’t think it’s terribly accurate. Because *everyone’s* commute time has increased, Westporters’ relative commute times have not. To check your math, see what your house was worth in 1985. I doubt it was worth $200,000 more (even in 1989 dollars) than it is today.

    • Rozanne Gates

      The house price, Mr. Hayes, is not the issue. Please focus on the real issue and the total arrogance of those who think our bridges and roads won’t collapse. They will. The question is – when and where. Will it be one of your family members? Will it be yourself? Will it be me? I was fortunate enough to have lived in The Netherlands for 6 years. You see, European countries care about their people and care and are proud of their trains, their roads, their bridges, their flood control systems, and their overall infrastructure. This country is a backwards country because it refuses to acknowledge that other countries do it way better than we do. It would be amazing if ever we could acknowledge that we have more to learn from European countries than they have to learn from us. We have nothing to teach anybody anymore.

      • William Strittmatter

        You really should focus your ire on the original author of this piece rather than Mr. Hayes. The whole point was some implied loss of value of Westport real estate rather than any of the valid points you raise.

        As to your points, it seems to me that, for various reasons, folks in Europe are more sensitive to the common good and are more willing to endure minor personal suffering in the furtherance thereof. Not so much in the US where infrastructure projects can get held up in court for years due to NIMBYism (often disguised as something else). Even here in good old Westport, the kerfuffle over the water tanks on North Avenue is an excellent case in point.

        Europe does have one advantage over the US in this regard. They largely wiped out the populations of indigenous wildlife decades (centuries?) ago so don’t need to worry about snail darters or other random species in siting projects. And they do put people ahead of other most other considerations. Can you imagine even trying to get the Netherlands’ levees and dikes past DEEP or EPA?

      • Dermot Meuchner

        You are absolutely correct Ms. Gates. America’s hubris will be its downfall and the citizens who believe all is well are in for a world of misery.

    • Gerry Costello

      Finally a voice of reason and common sense! That is not to excuse the gross inefficiency of the MTA! They are the most poorly run and inefficient monopoly in the country. Look on blogs or news sites from Westchester, Rockland and L.I. and you will see the same complaints you see here. Yet they continue to be allowed to run completely unchecked!

  4. Mr. Hayes, You are incorrect in your above assertion that everyone’s commute time has increased, and therefore Westport’s relative commute time has not.
    One of the bridges causing a slow down is the Norwalk bridge. Thus, the commutes of any towns south of Norwalk like Darien or Greenwich would not be affected by the slow down over that particular bridge–the Norwalk bridge — but Westport, Southport and Fairfield would be, and disproportionately so.

    Mr. Vengrow is indeed correct that the Metro North slow down has disproportionately affected Westport’s marketability and real estate prices relative to, say, Darien’s.

  5. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Sure, let’s shove the blame for our decisions on Metro North. And no real estate agent has ever used a little hypothetical hyperbole as a pressure point to close a deal.

  6. Jack Backiel

    In my humble opinion, I-95 in the late 1950s along with boomers getting in to the real estate market, had the greatest effect on Westport real estate! In 1948 you could buy a house on Bauer Place for $3,000. In 1917, you could buy 7 acres on the Post Road for $5,000. (I know because my grandfather did that.) But starting around 1959, the prices skyrocketed for decades!

    • joshua stein

      And now look what is happening…

      Horrible commute times on roads and possibly re-introduction of tolls in CT. Has peak time congestion improved at all in the past couple decades? No, its only getting worse. Now there are folks trying to shove tolling down our throats and not even address a critical issue of how long it takes to get anywhere on CT’s roads during peak times. Or safety (why there are so many accidents in the same stretches of road almost daily). It should not take an hour to go from Fairfield to Stamford. There should not be 1-2 accidents per day on the same problem stretches of road (i.e. between Fairfield and Westport).

      CT is signaling it doesn’t care much about its residents. Tax, tax, tax, drive residents to move out-of-state, businesses to flee, spend, spend, spend, make those that are paying taxes lives suck with having to pay more and more for their commutes and spend more and more time commuting. CT’s future does not look so good…

  7. Brook Porter

    Another issue is the growth of Stamford and Greenwich, and the fact that many trains (such as the old 8:32a from Greens Farms) used to make one stop in Norwalk then run express to Grand Central.

    Now, stops in Darien, Stamford and Greenwich not only slow the trains, but also create a “musical chairs” scenario where you have to stand until those stations, then pounce on the first available seat as others exit at those stops – if you’re lucky.

    May make sense from Metro North’s standpoint to maximize use, but makes for a slow, miserable commute. We should be able to get a seat without having to stand for twenty minutes. And for that, we pay almost $5,000 a year. Wonder if Westport residents can campaign for more true express trains.

  8. Joshua Stein

    Great timing for this post. I was drafting something that I might as well share here.

    The MTA/Metro-North appears to be a disaster of an organization plagued with issues and its only getting worse, not better. From ridiculous overtime/pension schemes, slow and unreliable service, to frequent increasing of fares and commute times. How is it with technology advancement, that the service gets slower, more unreliable, and more expensive? All one needs to do is look back the past decade and see how fares have risen 30%+ and route times have increased 30%+, making commutable towns no longer commutable. Is there a skilled worker shortage? Supply shortage? Financial shortage? Or is the MTA just so messed up that it needs to be gutted/overhauled?

    The MTA should be self-sustaining. It should not need to get funding from outside sources. Purchase of tickets should support the service and future improvements. That is business 101. For example, it’s crazy that someone taking a taxi in NYC is paying towards supporting the MTA’s operation. Even with funding from taxation, the MTA remains dysfunctional. Riders should not allow this continue and press the MTA become a self-sustaining organization that provides reliable, timely service, in a financial conscious and safe manner.

    I recently spent some time in Europe and I was blown away with how good rail service was. It makes the MTA/Metro-North appear to be providing third world level service. In Europe, trains are somehow on-time, fast, safe, clean, and reliable. I will admit I do not know the financial structure or how rail infrastructure is funded in Europe but here is what I observed:
    – Trains were fast and efficient, always on-time, both arriving and departing on schedule (I rode both peak and off-peak)
    – Scheduled stops were displayed on decent sized LCD screens along with real-time status both at stations and on the trains themselves. Connections were also displayed. Somehow the MTA bought brand new M8 railcars with crappy one-line scrolling screens.
    – Gaps were few and far between; trains had mechanical protections that would come out from the trains themselves upon arrival at stations to ‘close the gap’
    – Doors didn’t stay open; one would have to push a button to enter/exit, saving energy (heat/air conditioning)
    – There were handicap buttons at every door that one could push for assistance
    – Seating was arranged in a more comfortable manner, many trains dual-level, some seats even had fold out tables, cup holders, and windows had shades
    – Every car had a map of the train including emergency exits, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, bathrooms, trash, etc
    – HVAC came from under windows, it was silent, unlike the overhead systems on the new M8 cars
    – The trains moved fast unlike the slow crawl of the Metro-North corridor and were much quieter (not the loud screeching/grinding/jerking as heard/felt on the M8 cars)
    – Trains had an open footprint with connections between train cars completely open and seamless, making passage between cars safe, and space used in an efficient manner
    – There were trash receptacles in every car; I never saw any garbage left on the floor or seats
    – There were no conductors (at least from what I witnessed); passage was based on not only trust, but ticket validation using machines at many stops (think about how much conductors cost in pay, benefits, pension, etc)
    – Many trains had WiFi, all stations I transited through had WiFi
    – At subways, I observed safety barriers that would only open once an arriving train was fully stopped so no one could fall or be pushed onto the tracks

    So, what does this all mean? Riders should really open their eyes and see the crap service/product MTA is providing. MTA plays games, making a mockery of their customers. Hopefully most are seeing through their BS of constantly extending commutation timetables to have the appearance of on-time performance. Its laughable, that even with this attempted deception, they still cannot provide an on-time and reliable service. They even try to mask it by impacting reverse commute/off-peak/weekend routes (that they don’t track performance of which is absurd since ridership is significant on those routes). I find it interesting that all the while Amtrak trains have no issue speeding through on the same rails yet the Metro-North trains are slowly puttering along.

  9. Carmine Picarello

    Commuting times were shorter ‘back then’ because there were fewer and shorter stops. The overall population has grown 120% in the 50-some years since the suburbanization of Fairfield County. Plus a larger percentage of the population commute to NYC now than did in the 1950’s so until they double deck the rail system it’s going to take longer. As for home values, how much do we spend on education?

  10. Josh Stein

    Plenty of rail or mass transit services add stops without drastic impact to commute times. As far as I am aware, there aren’t any stops that have been added between Westport and grand Central in the past decade yet commute times has increases 30%+. Also I don’t see how double decker trains magically fix commute times…

  11. Adam Vengrow

    In perfect form! Trains late monday morning yet again with zero heads up or announcement

    • joshua stein

      I would encourage you to log a support ticket on MTA’s website and ask them for a reason for the delay. They should be acknowledging. I too find many delays with zero heads up or announcement. If you get an answer (expect it to take them a few days or week to respond) please do post back here what the delay was.

    • Joshua Stein

      So what did they say was the reason for the delay??

  12. Alex Kuhner

    Oh, the irony of ending a long diatribe based on a “rule of thumb” with the words, “That’s real money!”

    “That’s a lot of theoretical money!”

    I’m sure some level of loss is real and I share the concern, but never confuse this kind of thing for fact. Watch, next election some local politician will have a lawn sign “$12B Lost to Metro North, fight back with Joe!”

  13. John Solder

    Metro North Railroad is a mgmt. disaster. How many years did the new digital platform signs sit at the stations unused? Last week the signs were not updated and showed trains from the previous day! A railroad that cannot manage a clock, or technology, is doomed. They have reduced the number of conductors on the trains, now they are angry if you don’t have your phone app open when they come through, like we’re wasting their time! Don’t get started on bridge replacement. Until Westport agrees to replace the deficient and dangerous river road bridge in Saugatuck, we shouldn’t talk. Bridges are not the sole train speed bottleneck; signals, tracks, wires and technology are. $341/month Wspt GCT!

    • Joshua Stein

      Westport is responsible/the decision maker for replacing the SAGA (Saugatuck) Railroad Bridge????