Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor for railwayage.com
It has been a grim month in the United States and Canada, and almost everywhere else around the world. There will more grim months to come. But amid the deaths and crushing fear, our freight and passenger railroads, along with much of our transit, have kept going. Not many people need to go anywhere these days, but many of those who do still have a way to get there, even if not as often as they could a mere 30 days ago. Much of the credit for our remaining mobility goes to the employees who keep our passenger railroads and our local transit going.
The managers made hard decisions. The front-line employees—train crews, rapid transit, light rail and streetcar operators and bus drivers—continue doing their best at jobs that, at least for the moment, are risky. For some, the risk is more than merely perceived; it is genuine. Several transit workers have died from the COVID-19 virus, but thousands more stay at their posts, on the trains, at the controls, or behind the wheel. These men and women deserve praise from all of us, motorists and non-motorists, for doing the best they can at a job that has become more difficult than it was, but remains essential, especially for those of us who need the mobility only they can provide.
Before the restrictions took effect in the U.S. and many other countries, I was planning to take some long trips on Amtrak, report on transit developments around the country, continue Gateway – The Series with several more articles, and generally keep an eye out for rail news to report. For now, the Amtrak trips will have to wait, and the Gateway articles will come relatively soon.
The rail news has been painful, learning about it and reporting it. I’ve been a member of the team from Railway Age and its sibling publications that has been reporting recent developments on the freight, passenger rail and transit scenes around the world, with a personal emphasis on Amtrak, VIA Rail and transit in the U.S. and Canada. The story so far: Cuts, cuts and more cuts in service. Even when this article was filed, it was accompanied by more updates reporting more cuts.
Still, it could have been much worse. Not many people need to go anywhere. There are no schools, restaurants, or events. Very few stores remain open, mostly food stores and pharmacies. Some people are still going to their offices, but many others are working remotely from their homes. Instead of commuting on the train, they “commute” from one room to another. Sadly, many of our fellow Americans are out of work, and many have no idea when they will work again. If you live in another country, something similar is happening there, too. Suffice it to say that there are not many places to go, and not many people need transit.
Some of us do, though. About 20% of adult Americans do not have access to an automobile, and the transit with which we are furnished is all we have. Some of us are still considered “essential” employees who must get to our workplaces. Others must take “necessary” trips on transit, including getting to the food store, the drugstore or other places. Yes, that segment of the population is a minority in most places, but it is the segment made up of persons who have no other choice.
It seems, somehow, that many transit managers understood that when they made decisions about service. Many transit providers are running a weekend level of service, often with a few extra trains to give the remaining commuters a “mini-peak” during traditional commuting hours. Rapid transit and light rail lines are running on weekend or Saturday schedules in most places. That seems to be the standard around the Northeast Region, although SEPTA is running its regional rail trains into and out of Philadelphia every two hours, seven days a week (and hourly only on the Airport Line).
In some places, such as the San Francisco Bay area (on BART) and Washington, D.C, transit is shutting down earlier than customary closing times. Other places have slashed transit to skeleton schedules, whether on “legacy” lines with historic roots (New Orleans streetcars) or lines that started running relatively recently (Tri-Rail in South Florida). Some services are gone entirely, at least “for the duration”: Brightline, the private-sector railroad east of Tri-Rail in South Florida; New Mexico Rail Runner; streetcars in El Paso and Little Rock; and all rail service on San Francisco’s MUNI: light rail, streetcars, and even the unique cable cars.
It has not been easy for anyone. Generally, there are so few riders that it is not difficult to observe the recommended practice of “social distancing” on board. On the few trains that I’ve ridden locally on New Jersey Transit (NJT), there were only a few riders in each car, so there was plenty of room to spread out. In many places, barriers have been placed on buses, about three seats back from the front of the bus, to protect the driver. In some instances, though, there were not enough seats available to enable riders to sit six feet or more from each other. NJT has added extra buses on some local routes, when the buses on the regular schedule (actually the Saturday schedule) became crowded. It has happened on trains, too. Yet, there have been reports of crowding on subway trains in New York, London,and other places around the world, due to service reductions.
To make matters worse, transit providers are collecting very little revenue. Ridership is down by about 90% from last year’s levels almost everywhere. There are few places left for most people to go, so most of them do not need to ride; even many long-time commuters are now working at home. Still, transit is a lifeline for those of us who depend on it, and the people who keep it going are performing an exceptionally valuable service, often at significant risk to their own health and maybe their lives. They are doing their jobs, they need and deserve to get paid, but there is very little money coming into the farebox. Many bus systems have adopted a policy of rear-door boarding (except for passengers in wheelchairs or other devices to assist mobility), which precludes on-board fare collection. So, unless fares can be collected off-board, passengers ride the bus for free.
One of the provisions of the recently enacted CARES Act will give $24.9 billion to the nation’s transit providers. They need it. The largest transit providers say they have lost in excess of $1 billion dollars in revenue: $1.25 billion for NJT and $4 billion for New York’s MTA, as reported late in March. They and other transit agencies are slated to be reimbursed, and they need the money. If nothing else, they will need to be ready to ramp-up service when the emergency is over, the restrictions are lifted, and people will be going places again.
Some transit providers continue to fight valiantly to keep a semblance of “regular” weekday service going: the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and New York City Transit’s (NYCT) giant subway system among them. They have been fairly successful so far, but a new danger is lurking. As the disease spreads, transit workers are getting sick from it, so they cannot work. The NYCT B Train in New York under Sixth Avenue and Central Park West is a casualty. Service on that line was suspended because the system would not have had enough healthy employees to run it, along with all the other lines where service is still scheduled. So far, NYCT is still providing service to every station by suspending only those lines that duplicate segments of other lines, or by eliminating express service on a line and continuing to run local service. Time will tell how long NYCT can keep doing that.
Some recent reports have been raising hopes that the spread of the disease may peak soon, followed by a decline in the number of new cases and fatalities. If these hopes are founded, that would help transit to win the race against time to keep service going until enough workers recover that the providers can run the level of service that the returning crowds of riders will demand.
One major transit agency seems to have conceded that race already, though. It is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA or “MUNI”), and the results of that concession have already been implemented. As Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez said in the April 5 edition of the San Francisco Examiner: “COVID-19 has claimed another victim: MUNI.” As we reported previously, MUNI had already become a bus-only system; having suspended its six light rail lines, streetcars on Market Street and the Embarcadero, and the historic cable cars. Of the 89 bus routes that it had previously operated, only 17 are still running, a loss of more than 80%. In his report, Rodriguez quoted MUNI Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin: “We will deliver the worst MUNI service since 1906.” That was the year that an earthquake and the resulting fire destroyed much of the city.
The rest of the story is on the MUNI website, www.sfmta.com, in an article entitled Muni Prepares to Deliver Essential Trips Only by Bonnie Jean von Krogh, posted on April 6. The beginning of the story sounded upbeat, but then came the news that only 17 bus routes would survive. They include buses on Market Street that substitute for the L (Taraval), N (Judah) and T (Third Street) rail lines. The article also contains a map of the remaining bus system, which I found shockingly skeletal, an impression reinforced by the story: “This core network will provide service within one mile of all San Franciscans.” Yes, that is what it said, and one mile is a long way to walk to the nearest bus stop!
The Examiner reported that operators would be paid, and none would be laid off. “We are expecting more than 40% of our operators to be out in the coming week,” MUNI said. “Remaining operators will continue to be on the job doing the heroic work of keeping San Francisco moving during the crisis.” The Examiner story mentioned that “roughly 70 routes” were being suspended, but the MUNI story did not mention that. Even so, San Franciscans know what they are losing. Cutting “roughly 70” bus routes to leave only 17, after all the rail service has already been eliminated, has probably killed about 80% of the former service, or at least 75%. Muni says that “more than 40%” of the operators are out, which means that almost 60% are still on the job and available to drive the buses. With nearly 60% of operators still available, why did MUNI kill 75% or 80% of the service?
MUNI managers believe that they had good reason to eliminate so much of the remaining service, but the sudden demise of so much transit has to come as a great shock to most riders in the city. If there is any city with a higher percentage of the population that rides, and even depends on transit, New York is probably the only one in the nation. If New York City lost so much transit that the new goal was to provide a bus within one mile of every Manhattanite (without subways, since MUNI now has no rail), there would only be two north-south bus routes and five crosstown routes, spaced about 40 blocks apart. Such a scenario is unimaginable to any New Yorker, yet it just happened in San Francisco.
So we can only hope that whatever “disease” killed most of San Francisco’s transit can be contained there. So far, it has not spread to BART, which is a rail provider only. Elsewhere, transit managers and, especially, front-line employees are doing the best they can to continue providing some mobility for the remaining riders.
On April 7, New Jersey Transit held a board meeting by phone. I and several other speakers complimented the agency’s front-line employees and the service they continue to provide. That is only fitting. They deserve every bit of praise and encouragement we can give them.
David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).