[Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group and writes a weekly commentary, “Talking Transportation,” for CTMirror.org. He wrote this piece for NewCanaanite.com.]
It’s going to be a rough summer for commuters from New Canaan (and Darien) as they cope with the repercussions of Metro-North’s coming shutdown of all trains on the New Canaan branch from May 30 to Sept. 1. Parking will be tight and travel times lengthened.
TRACK WORK: The Connecticut Department of Transportation says it’s doing major track work on the branch, including replacement of 8,000 ties, 1,600 feet of rail and needed bridge work. Because the New Canaan branch is a one-track railroad, trains cannot operate while the work is being done.
BUSING ALTERNATIVES: In lieu of the trains, Metro-North will run bus service from New Canaan to Stamford but the running time will be 44 minutes at best (compared to 17 minutes by train).
There will be three bus routes: one bus from New Canaan will stop at Talmadge Hill, then run express to Stamford. Another bus will leave New Canaan and stop at all the intermediate stations (Talmadge Hill, Springdale and Glenbrook) before heading to Stamford. And a third bus will run from Springdale and Glenbrook to Stamford. The buses will run 30 minutes earlier than the old train schedule just to make the mainline train connection in Stamford to journey on the GCT.
However, because each bus can carry about 50 passengers and some New Canaan rush hour trains now have 200-plus passengers, this will not be enough.
The Town of New Canaan is considering running a private charter bus from Talmadge Hill to Noroton Heights. Roundtrip fare is reported to be about $10 to $15 with four departures each in AM and PM peak hours, but details are uncertain.
PARKING OPTIONS: Given the limited bus options it’s expected that many New Canaan commuters will drive to Darien or Noroton Heights train stations on the main line. But day-parking is already at near capacity at both stations and Darien officials have declined New Canaan’s requests to set aside special spaces for commuters from the north.
Day-parking ($4 per day, $65 per month) is also allowed in both of Darien stations’ annual permit lots but not until after 9:30 am. The Town does issue tickets for offenders. Parking fees can be paid either on an app or at kiosks at both stations.
At Noroton Heights the day-parking nearest The Depot teen center (on the NY-bound side) is usually full by 7:30 am. But the day-parking lot directly across the tracks, next to the Post 53 EMS building, is almost always the last to be filled all day.
KOONS LOT: Your best chance for parking will be near the Darien train station at the privately-run Koons lot on the NY-bound side, across from Tilley Pond Park. Day parking there is $8 or $120 monthly. Owner Kip Koons tells me he has declined New Canaan’s “request” to set-aside half of his lot for New Canaan commuters, insisting that “it’s always been (our policy that) our spaces are available first-come, first-served.”
The Koons lot can hold 300 cars and has been averaging about 150 – 200 spaces occupied (on the busiest day, Wednesdays). Koons says he was not interested in working with New Canaan or its vendor (Boxcar) to “reserve” spaces for new customers. “We’ve run the business the same way since 1949,” Koons told me.
Koons, a former Selectman in Darien, says he has not raised his parking rates since 2011 and doesn’t intend to now (day-parking in 1951 was ten cents). But one wonders what the free market price might be for a parking space with demand so high and supply so inadequate.
BOXCAR: New Canaan has been working with “commuter concierge” and entrepreneur Joe Colangelo from New Jersey who, pre-pandemic, had an interesting business renting out private day-parking spaces near train stations using his Boxcar app.
Colangelo has been tasked by New Canaan officials with surveying available private parking near Darien’s two stations but tells me “It’s hard to make this happen with such a short time left”. When COVID hit and commuter parking became overly abundant. his Boxcar company pivoted into chartering of “luxury motor coaches” to serve bedroom communities in New Jersey, so it seems likely it may be one of his buses (“luxury motor coaches”) that will be used to shuttle New Canaan riders to the main line.
(Interestingly, Colangelo is experimenting with sleeper seats on one of his New Jersey runs. Previously he tried launching direct bus service from Darien to midtown Manhattan but couldn’t find the ridership as his coach ran slower than the train.)
BUT… ARE THERE ENOUGH SEATS ON THE TRAIN?: Ridership has been coming back quickly on Metro-North with some rush hour trains showing standing room only conditions on the busiest days, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Metro-North has warned New Canaan town hall that existing trains stopping at Darien and Noroton Heights may not have enough seats already and trying to cram on hundreds of New Canaan passengers won’t be possible.
SERVICE REDUCTIONS: Compounding the commuter woes, Metro-North has just told the CT Commuter Rail Council it is planning service reductions on the main line “starting in the fall”. Service would be cut from 309 trains daily to 260 runs, going from the current 100% of pre-COVID service to 86%.
The railroad says it will “probably leave rush hour (schedules) alone” but that off-peak service would go from hourly to every 90 minutes. The reason? Budget cuts.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a resident of Darien but not prone to the rivalry between our neighboring towns. I was asked by New Canaan officials to review their plans and offered my candid assessments. So while I’m a journalist I’ve also been asked to consult (unpaid, as a volunteer) on planning underway. I hope I can do both roles objectively and serve my fellow commuters.
COMMENTARY: I’ve been writing about and advocating for rail commuters statewide for 25+ years, so very little surprises me: I’ve seen this all before. But when one local government official predicted this New Canaan branch shutdown will be a “cluster [expletive]”, I thought “Oh yeah”. They’re right and there’s plenty of blame to go around.
We’ve all known since March that the New Canaan branch would be shut down. Train conductors were sharing rumors with riders months earlier. Everyone has had ample time to plan alternatives. The last minute scramble underway now, days before the trains stop, wasn’t necessary.
Darien town officials gave their New Canaan counterparts full details on the limited parking at its train stations months ago. And Boxcar’s last minute appeals to local Darien merchants to sublet a few parking spaces near the stations will, I predict, come up short.
As for Metro-North and ConnDOT, they have been, true to form, slow to communicate important news their customers need to understand. As for potential over-crowding, that’s what the railroad has actually been hoping, if not praying, for since the pandemic: they want commuters to come back. But commuters expect on-time service and available seats. The railroad has plenty of extra train cars sitting idle, so why not put them to use? There is no reason anyone should have to stand.
As for what individual commuters can do… well, working from home has never looked so good!