Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner speaking at New Haven's Union Station. Paul Bass / New Haven Independent

When I read two very different news stories about our trains last week, Charles Dickens came to mind:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – A Tale of Two Cities

Oh, it’s our winter of our despair, all right, especially for Metro-North when the New York Times so cogently summarized the commuter line’s near-term future as being “Devastated by Remote Work,” almost verbatim repeating my predictions of one year ago:  commuters are not coming back.

Late in 2021 the weekday ridership on Metro-North peaked at about 50% of pre-COVID numbers but has now slid back to about 37%.  Sure, you can blame Omicron, but the shift is so much more fundamental:  the very nature of work is now different and always will be.

Former daily commuters told the Times they don’t miss their daily three-hour ride or their $500 monthly tickets.  Many have even closed their NYC offices for good and say they are reveling in saving time and money.

The railroad claims it’s “incentivizing” hybrid commuters to come back to the city by offering lower, more flexible fares.  But talk to commuters and they say it’s less the cost of the ride than its slow speed (and lack of mask-wearing enforcement) that’s keeping them home; so if they must go into the city a few days a week, they do so by car.

As the Times reported, Metro-North’s parent, MTA, took in $346 million from commuters in 2019.  In 2021 that was down to $49 million.  Pre-COVID the railroad was losing money when trains were standing room only.  With ridership cut by two-thirds, what happens when federal bailout money dries up?

The worst of times, the winter of despair, indeed.

But what then was the love-fest that broke the darkness on Friday afternoon in New Haven’s Union Station?  What drew the media to hear Mayor Justin Elicker, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, CDOT Commissioner Joseph Guilietti and Gov. Ned Lamont who juggled their calendars to all talk trains?  Why, a visit of Amtrak’s new CEO Stephen Gardner, just three days into his new job!

The media event was a rail advocate’s fantasy with all the talk of faster, more frequent service facilitate by huge federal investments in bridges and track.  The pols were falling and fawning over each other seeing who could promise more.

But like the cool kids in high school who decided to have a party, some of those less- loved and not as cool were noticeably absent:  anyone from Metro-North or the MTA.

While some who wanted to attend (like pro-rail U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro) but couldn’t be there were noted in their absence, not a word was spoken about Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi or acting MTA Chair Janno Lieber… the very people Connecticut pays to run our trains.  Why?

Truly, a tale of two railroads in a spring of hope and all-too frigid winter of dark despair.

Jim Cameron is Founder of the Commuter Action Group, advocates for Connecticut rail riders.  Contact Jim at

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