Save Cornwells Heights
Thursday, December 8, 2005
Five-Minute Schedule Change At Cornwells Heights!!
If you show up at the last minute to catch the 7:43 a.m. train to New York, you just might miss it starting on Monday, December 12th. That's because the train will be arriving at 7:38 from that date onward. The schedule change is not reflected yet on the printed schedules. Though the arrival times at Newark and New York are unchanged, this modification to the schedule appears to reflect a better strategy for assuring the train gets on the "fast track" to New York, and avoids getting stuck behind the local trains. Even though the total scheduled time for getting to New York City increases from 60 to 65 minutes, the odds of actually staying on schedule should be improved.
Current Amtrak Schedule Information
It's been nearly six weeks now since the start of the new Cornwells Heights trains and schedules, and it seems to be working out well. The schedule put into effect on October 31st, with the small modification mentioned above, is still in effect. The current Cornwells Heights Amtrak schedule is available by clicking here. Information on SEPTA/Amtrak connections at Trenton is available by clicking here.
We are now exactly 59 to 65 scheduled minutes from the heart of Manhattan! Not even New Jersey Transit's fastest express trains out of Trenton make it there faster!
Amtrak's New Visibility at Cornwells Heights
Have you noticed the presence of the new "AMTRAK" service information signs at the Cornwells Heights station? Or the Amtrak schedules now available in the racks at the station house on the southbound platform? On September 15th, Amtrak's then-president, David Gunn, and three of his associates pledged to fix the absence of signage and schedules at Cornwells Heights. So... when no signs or schedules showed up after two and a half months, I put them up myself, with the OK of the station manager. I now filch schedules at New York's Penn Station to keep Cornwells Heights supplied.
Amtrak just seems to have a hard time getting its head around the idea that it really does run a station stop at Cornwells Heights.
Name Change Inquiries Begun
One of the reasons the Cornwells Heights Amtrak stop is so under-utilized is that its name doesn't correspond to a town or mailing address that shows up on modern maps. Say the name to a prospective rider, and the usual response is either "Where's that?" or “Corn what?” Historically speaking, Cornwells Heights was the name of the small town that grew up near the station, but in a major consolidation of postal addresses in 1979, the location got swept into the larger "Bensalem" postal district. Even using the Internet now, it is difficult to figure out where the station at Cornwells Heights really is.
The Bucks County Transportation Management Association has begun inquiries with SEPTA regarding the possibility of changing the name of the station so that it includes the name "Bensalem" to better indicate where the station actually resides. After all, you can't ride the train if you can't find it.
Fighting the February Fare Increase
Amtrak has announced that in February it will increase the cost of a monthly pass from Cornwells Heights to New York City to $870/month from the current $719/month, which in turn was a mid-October increase from $555. All told, if Amtrak actually does implement the February increase, job commuters will find themselves paying 80% more for their tickets than they did two years ago, and nearly 60% more than they did just two months ago. The 60% fare hike alone is equivalent in its effect to a $6,000 salary cut for typical commuters who pay their own way on the trains. It's equivalent to a $7,500 cut for the Philadelphia commuters, and $9,000 for those coming from Wilmington, Delaware.
In explaining the fare hike, Amtrak used the excuse that the price of diesel fuel had gone up 40% in one year. Commuters, however, get pulled to work by electric trains, not diesels. And furthermore, since diesel fuel costs and electric power costs when both lumped together represent only 6% of Amtrak's budget, that 40% fuel increase adds not
more than 2% to the cost of running the railroad. It is unclear why Amtrak decided to suddenly attempt to get rid of its commuting riders and boldly prevaricate (i.e. pretty much lie) about its true rationale.
I'm trying to take the case for stopping the February increase back to Washington, having already sent a lot of the supporting arguments to pro-Amtrak members of the House and Senate. Monthly pass ridership appears to be down by about 20% at Cornwells Heights already. Many of the remaining riders are still using stockpiled passes bought at pre-increase prices. When those run out within a year, I would not be surprised to see commuting ridership down by half, with many people hurt or severely inconvenienced by much slower (but more affordable) commuting options.
I'm currently interested in collecting e-mails with personal anecdotes about how the huge fare increase is changing people’s commuting habits, job situation, disposable income, lifestyle, place of residence, etc. The very first Delaware-based commuter I spoke with simply said she'll soon move out of Delaware to get an affordable commute to her job. Others I've spoken with have mentioned quitting or changing jobs or even taking early retirement. Still others spend an extra 90 minutes or more a day using the SEPTA/NJTransit route to and from work. Some drive to Trenton.
I'm interested in hearing from anyone who uses an Amtrak monthly pass, not just Cornwells Heights commuters. Personal stories make for much better political and media leverage, and it's just possible Amtrak could reconsider, delay, and maybe even cancel the second half of its planned fare hike. Even if they do that, commuters will still be paying 50% more than they were paying two years ago, and that seems like more than enough of an accommodation for Amtrak's most loyal riders to have to make.
If you would like to add some ammunition to the arsenal, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the week before Christmas, I expect to open up the website www.understandingamtrak.com for access on the Web. The original intent I had in mind when I first purchased the site was to use it to put out some generally pro-Amtrak thoughts and information that are not necessarily voiced or easy to find elsewhere on the Internet. That is still a primary intent, but so, too, is my intent to put pressure on Amtrak to back off the February fare increase. In a hopefully good-natured way, I will be needling and perhaps even embarrassing Amtrak over its own behavior in a forum that they would probably rather not see themselves exposed in as the bad guys. If they want less embarrassment and a purer degree of support, I'm sure they can figure out what they can do to get it.
Just between you, me, and Santa, if Amtrak actually chose to reinstitute competitive commuting rates about 25% above slower competing commuting alternatives and somewhat below their current levels, that would make a great stocking stuffer this year!
Have you heard of DVARP?
In trying to better understand the mechanics, the economics, and the politics of rail transportation, I have attended the last two monthly meetings of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, held at 1 p.m. on Saturdays in central Philadelphia. It’s a small, all-volunteer organization, and its monthly meetings have a typical attendance on the order of a dozen people or slightly more, but those people know a lot about trains. They play the watchdog on various governmental transit organizations and frequently show up at public meetings and conferences on public rail matters. Though they typically spend more time discussing SEPTA (because it’s all over the Delaware Valley) than Amtrak, they are interested in all rail-related issues, including Amtrak and Philadelphia-to-New-York commuting. They have come out in opposition to the sudden steepness of Amtrak’s current fare increase, arguing, as just about any reasonable person would, that it’s not fair to commuters to jack up prices by 60% to unaffordable levels virtually overnight without warning.
The monthly meetings are referred to as “board meetings,” but curious, non-voting, walk-in attendees are welcome.
An introductory membership, costing $10 for a year, gets you put on their monthly newsletter mailing list. The newsletter is exceptionally well written and edited, and it makes for interesting reading if you are at all interested in how rail transit works in the Philadelphia area. There are usually at least one or two articles relating to Amtrak each month (recently, anyhow). I would encourage anyone who has an interest in following Amtrak issues, and rail issues generally, to try out a membership. Even if you don’t read the newsletter, just having new subscriptions flow in from the Amtrak sector of influence can only help spur the organization’s further interest in Amtrak issue advocacy.
Check out www.dvarp.org.
Back in August and September, when I was doing the original research for keeping Cornwells Heights on Amtrak’s schedule, there was a fair amount of unused parking space in Trenton’s two 7-story parking garages, and monthly parking passes for commuters were being sold for $90. In October, though, new construction began on a parking garage at Hamilton Station, just north of Trenton, displacing hundreds of formerly available parking spaces there for a long time to come. As a result, Hamilton’s overflow has migrated to Trenton and come close to filling up their garages now. In consequence, the issuance of new monthly parking passes has been put on hold at Trenton.
At Cornwells Heights, we actually have faster trains to New York, free parking, free parking lot shuttle buses, and 800 empty parking spaces that we can’t even give away on a daily basis. The only real obstacle to getting a major influx of new commuting riders from New Jersey’s overflow is the high price Amtrak has decided to suddenly place on commuters’ monthly passes. (See above about fighting the February fare increase.)
The daytime parking lot guard who patrols PennDOT’s two huge park-and-ride lots at Cornwells Heights from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays is being discontinued. PennDOT is reportedly replacing the guard with monitored video camera surveillance. Fortunately, there have been few incidents of crime or vandalism at Cornwells Heights, even with cars left in the lots overnight without a guard present. Highway patrol cars will still stop and visit from time to time.
It is often forgotten that the Cornwells Heights park-and-ride actually has two giant PennDOT parking lots. Lot 1 comes relatively close to being filled on a daily basis, and even many commuters using the lot may, as a result, think that Cornwells Heights is almost out of parking space. It’s not. There is another lot, Lot 2, with a parking capacity of 656, and it sits empty every day.
A parking lot study I performed on a typical workday last month indicated that about 45% of the Cornwells Heights parking capacity is still unused.
If you’re riding an Amtrak train this month, have a look at the November/December complimentary Amtrak “arrive” magazine in the seat pocket in front of you. On page 4, there is a promo bragging about the $145 million that just got spent improving Pennsylvania’s Keystone service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Half of that money came straight from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The article even brags about the improvement it will bring to “through-service to New York.”
Pennsylvania pays big money to send 9 trains every day from Harrisburg to New York City through the Cornwells Heights station, and we’re the only station in Pennsylvania where Pennsylvania is not telling Amtrak to make at least half a dozen stops a day in each direction. In fact, since Cornwells Heights is not on the Keystone Corridor west of Philadelphia, PennDOT has rather incredibly written to me to say, “We are therefore not in a position to influence Amtrak regarding its operational decisions on that [the Northeast] Corridor.” [The actual letter that states this is available here.]
If Amtrak had to do without the Keystone trains taking over traffic from the now-lost Clocker service between Philadelphia and New York, they would be in considerable operational difficulty. It’s unclear why a state that is tossing at least $72 million plus operational subsidies into the Harrisburg line thinks it lacks “influence” in its own state with Amtrak.
I’ve met with State Representative Gene DiGirolamo and State Senator Tommy Tomlinson’s office about trying to get PennDOT and the legislature in Harrisburg to go to bat for the best NYC commuting station in its own state. To be sure, stopping trains on the Northeast Corridor is significantly more difficult and logistically expensive than doing so on the Keystone line. Nevertheless, we should expect better service from Amtrak’s Keystone trains and better support from an apparently indifferent PennDOT than we are currently receiving.
If you feel steamed enough to write to your reps, Bensalem’s State Representative is and Bensalem’s State Senator is . If you live elsewhere, you can easily check to find and correspond with your own district’s representatives.
That’s all for now. Have a great holiday season.