The commuter train has been rolling. Will all these drivers come back?

Transit agencies in the New York City area had to renovate their railroads to adapt to the change of going to the office every day.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, New York City’s commuter rail had a major job: transporting 300,000 crowded passengers to work every morning and sending them home at night.
But the pandemic disrupted the daily ebb and flow, and for the past 17 months, most regular riders have stayed at home. The general shift in working from home has caused the three major commuter railroads serving New York City — the three busiest in the United States — to reinvent themselves.
They changed the way they operate, drastically cut services, lowered fares and offered new types of tickets. But they have not yet figured out how to make up for the stable monthly income caused by the pandemic-if workers do not resume their five-day commute, some of that income may never come back. Hundreds of businesses that rely on commuters to conduct business face the same uncertain outlook.
Robert Puentes, chairman of the Hainaut Transportation Center in Washington, said: “During the pandemic, commuter railroads have really been hit hard.” “Because of this pandemic, it’s hard to overstate the transformation that is taking place.”
The three railroads that provide workers to New York City—the Long Island Railroad, the Metropolitan Northern Railroad, and New Jersey Transportation—are the nation’s worst-hit railroads, as are the systems in the Boston and San Francisco areas. After plummeting more than 90% in the first few months of the pandemic, weekday passenger traffic on all three railroads in the New York area is still less than half of what it was two years ago.
The two systems operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority-LIRR and Metro-North-reduced approximately 325,000 passengers on a typical working day. Before the pandemic, monthly ticket sales, which usually cost more than $400, accounted for about 40% of NJ Transit’s ticket revenue.
At that time, the trains on all three railways were carrying record loads, and passengers usually stood side by side in the aisles and front halls of each car. But after the lockdown, empty seats abound. In the latest fiscal year ending June 30, New Jersey Express’ monthly ticket sales were only $72 million, a decrease of $300 million from two years ago.
The railroad used billions of dollars in emergency federal assistance to offset the sharp loss of revenue. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has received more than $14 billion in funding, and the New Jersey Department of Transportation is expected to receive $5.3 billion.
Nowadays, many people waiting for the train entering the city on suburban platforms have replaced the fierce competition every day with a more flexible schedule. For example, John and Eileen Herrera seldom enter the city-and want to maintain this state.
On a recent morning, Herreras from Lake Ronkonkoma in New York waited for the express train to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan with coffee in hand. Ms. Herrera, 54, said she now only goes to the office three days a week instead of five. She added that the floor of the building where she works is “almost empty”.
Her 56-year-old husband is an architect who designs office interiors. He said that he commutes for three to four days, either to his office or to his work place. “If we can work in the office for three days and work at home for two days, it is a perfect world,” Mr. Herrera said.
However, for dozens of railway stations and nearby businesses in the area, the decrease in commuting traffic poses a threat to their survival.
Moshe Atzbi, 47, said in the months after purchasing Hailey’s Harp & Pub on Metuchen Avenue, New Jersey in October 2019, “Things are going very well.” But within a few weeks of the initial blockade, commuters stopped streaming to the point, the bagel shop across the street closed, and a nearby bakery closed.
He said that the bar survived because of government relief and customer loyalty—plus the ingenuity of the fighters. After transforming the outdoor seats, Mr. Atzbi set up a beer truck and picnic tables in his backyard, calling it Craicyard, and having fun in Irish.
“The business is still in trouble, and we haven’t gotten out of it,” Mr. Azbi said, smoking a cigarette and looking at the empty bagel shop. “We are looking forward to September and expect the situation to improve and return to a more normal state.”
The leaders of the three major railways also predict that commuting will re-emerge after Labor Day. However, with the spread of Delta variants, many large employers have postponed their plans to return to the office until late autumn or even next year.
On all three railways, more passengers returned over the weekend. This trend led Catherine Rinaldi, President of Metro-North, to talk about the role of the system, not only to provide commuting services to and from Central Station for office workers in the suburbs, but also to become a “regional railway.”
She and her colleague Phillip Eng at LIRR said that they believe their system will gradually return to the record of passenger capacity in 2019. But these passengers will be scattered throughout the day, rather than concentrated in the morning and evening peaks, Mr. Ying said.
Janno Lieber, the agency’s acting chairman and chief executive officer, said he expects passenger traffic in September to “significantly increase.” He said Metro-North and LIRR, which had reduced services to meet demand during the pandemic, will operate at 85% of their pre-pandemic capacity by the fall.
LIRR briefly slashed services in early March. But after passengers complained, the railway cancelled additional cuts.
“If the number of people really increases, we will be ready to accommodate, God bless,” Mr. Lieber said.
But the optimism of the railway executive runs counter to the views of the authorities’ own consultant McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company predicts that by the mid-2020s, commuter routes may only reach 80% of the pre-pandemic passenger volume.
Interviews with drivers in recent weeks have shown that more pessimistic predictions may be correct. Few of them take the train back and forth five days a week.
Mr. Lieber said that in order to cater to this new type of commuter, the authorities are considering introducing new tickets to fill the gap between one-way and monthly tickets. “We will study a range of attractive fare structures,” he said.
NJ Transit has built this bridge by providing FlexPass. Introduced in February, it allows up to 20 one-way rides in a month, with a 20% discount on one-way tickets for this route.
“I’m not sure, but it worked well,” said Peter Morin, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer from South Orange, New Jersey, who tried FlexPass in June. “It seems that once, the New Jersey Department of Transportation actually acted together.”
Nevertheless, many passengers returning to the train seem to be cautious about sitting next to strangers for long periods of time, some of whom despise the requirement to wear masks.
In early August, the Connecticut commuter advocates pleaded with Governor Ned Lamont (Ned Lamont) to ask Metro-North to fine passengers who did not wear masks. The data obtained by the Connecticut Commuter Action Group from the railroad show that since the authorities began fines nearly a year ago, it has not issued a subpoena for not wearing a mask.
The continued uncertainty of the future of commuting has put many businesses inside and outside the railway station in trouble.
On a recent Monday morning, at the lower level of Central Station, Zachary Forman was recruiting workers to re-equip Tartinery, a French café and juice bar that has been closed for 15 months. Operations Director Mr. Foreman said that the place close to the train station is the busiest of the company’s six locations, allowing 40 employees to work “always.”
Foreman, 40, said that when he visited Central Station in early July, he was surprised to see how many people passed by. He said: “We think the Grand Central Station will continue to be vacant, with the least traffic, and longer than this.” However, he added, “This is not what it used to be.”
At the LIRR station in Oceanside, the surge in train ridership is critical to Urvish Singh. Mr. Singh, 25, took over a closed coffee shop there and reopened it in April and renamed it Wired Cafe.
“Commuters have always been the backbone of this business,” Mr. Singh said. He said that for a few days during the pandemic, the store “received almost nothing.”
The former owner of the store, 32-year-old Ubaid Bandukra, said that before the pandemic, the store would serve about 125 customers with coffee, bagels and pastries every weekday morning.
Then, when the pandemic triggered a lockdown, Mr. Bandukla shut down Caffeine and fired his employees. Last summer, he reopened Caffeine and remained open until the end of the year, sometimes working alone at the counter. “But in the final analysis, I didn’t make any money,” he said.
Given that there are so many parking spaces available, he agrees with Mr. Singh’s plan to reduce his reliance on commuters and try to attract more local traffic. He said: “In order to build a sustainable business, a profitable business, you can’t focus on commuting with so many people on the train.”


Post time: Sep-17-2021
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