From bullhorns to apps

Freedom. It’s what Americans love about their cars. You can hop into and out of your car whenever you want; there’s no schedule to follow, no driver to wait for.

And that’s a major hurdle for the increasing numbers of drivers who are switching to public transit. The first challenge: How do I figure out when my next train is?

Way back when, railroads used bullhorns to tell riders when the next train was coming. Today, we’ve got laptops and phones, or those brochures that give you train schedules in their tiny print. But the vast majority of Metro-North riders still aren’t told if their train is late.

That’s what riders need, says Connecticut Commuter Rail Council Chairman Jim Cameron.

“If you tell me that my train is going to be five to 10 minutes late, that’s fine,” Cameron says. “Don’t leave me standing at the platform, peering down the track, wondering what happened to my train.”

The smartphone has helped revolutionize the way commuters get information – but not all transit agencies are cooperative. Several years ago, Greenwich web developer Chris Schoenfeld created a mobile application for phones called StationStops, that shared train schedules with users. At first, Metro-North told him he was stealing intellectual property. Then, officials told him some of his information might be wrong, and they didn’t want to be liable. Schoenfeld’s response: Maybe it is wrong some of the time, but his app has been downloaded by thousands of users.

“This is the way the internet works. Nothing works perfectly,” Schoenfeld says. “If you go onto Google Images, once in a while, you’re going to get a picture of a naked guy.That’s a much bigger offense than, ‘hey, my train’s two minutes late instead of ten.”

Now, app developers are waiting for Metro-North to start releasing real-time information about its trains to everyone. With new GPS technology on M8 rail cars, that could happen soon. But there’s still a long way to go. Commuters can’t even get real-time information about their trains at most rail stations.

Stamford Transportation Center is due for an overhaul, and when it’s finished, commuters will get up-to-date information right at the platform. But that won’t be cheap.

Tom Mitchell is director of customer communications for Metro-North. “We’re probably looking at $2 (million) to $3 million to really put the system we want in there.”

Just the new platform signs themselves, Mitchell says, would cost between $6,000 and $10,000 each. But hey, information is power!

Do you use an app on your smartphone to find out when your next train is? Let us know in the comments. Tomorrow, we’ll list out some of our favorites.