It’s been a rough few years for Metro-North, what with derailments, crashes and commuter deaths. But it finally seems like service and safety are coming back.

The best metric of that is the recent surge in ridership, which is up 1.7% compared to last year.  That works out to more than 3,000 additional riders every day.

Certainly this ridership gain is a sign of more people finding jobs. But with gasoline prices near a record low, there’s a reason these folks are taking the train instead of driving: they like what they see.

The trains are on time. Yes, they are running slower than in years past, but what’s a few minutes if it means better safety? What matters most is that the 7:37 shows up at 7:37, plus a minute or so, and arrives in New York pretty close to on-time. It’s much more dependable now than last winter.

There have been no fare increases (at least in Connecticut), even though our fares are still the highest in the nation.

There’s more service too: at least two trains per hour, even in off-peak.  That means more options.

And we have the spiffy new M8 railcars, at last. Riders seem to like the clean, modern interiors and amenities, such a power plugs at each seat.

So for all of these reasons, a lot more people are taking the train. Good news, right? Yes, but in the long run, it’s not such good because the supply is not keeping up with the demand.

More riders without additional capacity means crowding, and we’re already hearing more reports about that, especially at rush hour when some trains are standing room only. And that’s only going to get worse.

The problem is, we didn’t order enough new M8 cars back in 2005 when we placed our order:  just 300 cars for $762 million. That worked out to $2.54 million per car.

By the time those cars finally went into service in 2011, the state Department of Transportation and Metro-North realized they should order more. This time, they are just single un-powered cars, so trains could run with seven or nine cars, not just the six, eight or 10 using the “married pairs” in the original order.

But by then, Kawasaki whacked us $3.3 million per car…and those newest single cars don’t even have motors. Were we to try ordering more M8 cars today, who knows the price…or delivery time.

From the state legislature’s approval of the M8 cars in 2005 through design, testing and construction, the first M8s took six years to get into service. The latest single-car order took four years. So even if we were to call Kawasaki today, we couldn’t get new cars until probably 2020 even if we could find the money.

At the same time, the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is pushing an almost $10 billion, multi-year plan to widen I-95 and I-84.  By the time it’s done, crowding could be so bad on our trains that getting on a four-lane wide interstate might just be better alternative. Ironic, no?

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group and is a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for the Connecticut Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at the Commuter Action Group.

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