From bullhorns to apps

You’re running late this morning and only have 30 seconds to catch your train. You nervously check your watch as you quickstep down the pedestrian tunnel and arrive out of breath and sweaty at the Metro North platform. You expect your train to pull up any second, but wind up standing there for another 10 minutes before it arrives. You could have stopped for a cup of coffee, or kissed your spouse goodbye. If only you’d known the train was running late! “Information is power,” says Jim Cameron, chairman of Connecticut’s Commuter Rail Council. “If you tell me that my train is going to be five to 10 minutes late, that’s fine. But don’t leave me standing at the platform, peering down the track, wondering what happened.” Here’s how out-of-date our information systems are at Connecticut train stations: Let’s say my train from New Haven’s Union Station to Grand Central is scheduled to leave at 10:45 a.m., but it’s actually four minutes late. And let’s say I get to the station at 10:46. If I look at Union Station’s Rolodex-style billboard, it’ll say my train’s “departed.” And I’ll sigh and tear my hair out and wait an hour for the next train. In reality, the train hasn’t even gotten to the platform yet! But I can’t see that, because I haven’t gone through the tunnel that takes me to the platform. Of course, Metro-North knows where its trains are in real-time, but not as well as you’d think. The rail agency uses its ancient signal system to track trains, marking their location every time they pass a signal on the tracks. It’s that very system that is often the reason they’re late in the first place. Connecticut has spent billions of dollars on new rail cars, which have GPS technology that should make things better. Still, all this is expensive. Commuters will be getting real-time information about trains at Stamford’s train station soon. Guess how much that will cost. “We’re probably looking at $2 to 3 million to really put the system we want in there,” says Tom Mitchell, director of customer communications for Metro-North. Smartphones could also revolutionize the way commuters get information – if transit agencies cooperate. Most apps only give you train schedules, not real-time information. Only one smartphone app gets real-time information about trains directly from Metro-North right now. It’s called “CooCoo,” and you can download it for free on your Android device or iPhone. 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. Listen to a radio version of this story from WNPR here.