Rant & Rail: When's My Next Train?

Oct 15, 2012

As traffic on the highways gets worse, and gas prices rise, more people are shedding their cars. But using alternatives like trains and buses won’t always get you where you need to go. Reporter Neena Satija is kicking off a new series on WNPR and the Connecticut Mirror called “Rant & Rail.” Today, she explores how we find out when the next train is leaving the station.

Imagine getting to the train station 30 seconds before your train is scheduled to leave – and then finding out it’s three minutes late, giving you a chance to buy your morning coffee. Or waking up to find it’s 10 minutes late, so you can lie in bed for just a little longer.

For some commuters around the world, this is a reality. But not here in Connecticut. The vast majority of Metro-North riders still aren’t told if their train is late. Jim Cameron, chairman of Connecticut's Commuter Rail Council, says we need to know that information.

“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.”

Even the billboards at train stations don’t give us real-time information about our trains. In New Haven, for example, if a train is supposed to leave the station at 10:45, the billboard tells me “Departed” at 10:45 – even if it’s actually late and hasn’t gotten to the platform yet.

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. Connecticut has spent billions of dollars on new rail cars, which have GPS technology that should make things better. But all those cars won’t be in service until 2014. And getting that GPS information to commuters is expensive. How expensive?

Ask Tom Mitchell, director of customer communications for Metro-North:

“We’re probably looking at $2-3 million to really put the system we want in there."

That number’s just for signs on the platform at the Stamford train station that will tell you how far away your train is. And the Stamford station is just one of dozens of stations on Metro-North’s New Haven line. So, it’s expensive. But hey, information is power!

Check out ctmirror.org for a list of smartphone apps that’ll tell you when the next train leaves the station, and for other helpful commuter hints.