Thursday, December 31, 2009

FrontRunner's 'missing' Comet cars

Inspiration born of frustration. That's how this blog is being launched. I'll admit it right up front: The Utah Transit Authority has been frustrating me lately, and I have to vent about it somewhere. (More on that in a moment.)

But while I admit my crankiness, I don't want this to be one of those blogs that does nothing but bag on a target -- or targets. I've been commuting from Davis County to an office building in downtown Salt Lake City via FrontRunner, TRAX and bus since autumn 2008, and I must admit I'm slightly fascinated by the way the system works, and the odd habits of riders and drivers and schedulers. So my aim is to write about more than my complaints, although I do very much like to complain.

So, on to the griping: What finally tipped me into blogging about my experience was UTA's decision to trim FrontRunner passenger cars from three to two -- and without any warning that I ever noticed. (I looked on the UTA Web site after the fact, and there was nothing there in the newsroom.) Two or three weeks ago, on a Monday, if memory serves, I rode FR to Salt Lake, as usual, riding in the Comet car (the long, single-decker passenger car situated just south of the engine as opposed to the double-decker Bombardier cars that have tables). Anyway, that evening, arriving back at Salt Lake's Central Station, the train heading back north had no Comet car in the mix, and only two Bombardiers.

I walked onto the north car just about a minute before it left the station, and was left to stand with about 20 other passengers who didn't have a seat -- all the seats in our car were occupied. I asked the station host who was holding the doors open for late-comers why there was no third car. He replied that since the U. classes were over for the semester, they would need one until January. I asked him, rhetorically, if the standing-room-only didn't disprove that theory. He just let the door close.

After the train left the station, when the reflective vest-wearing host walked through, everyone had to make room for her. Not looking forward to the long ride home standing between the doors and unable even to find a handle to hold onto or a wal to lean against as the train rocked back and forth between Salt Lake and Woods Cross, I asked her why there was no third car. She was polite, but said the decision was made above her pay grade. Then she allowed that she'd moved to Utah from the East Coast, and people standing on trains there was no big deal, it was to be expected. I saw other people besides me roll their eyes at that one.

Too rudely, I'm sure, I told her that's why people live out West instead of in the East: more room. Plus, I said, I'm used to having a seat for my 40-minute ride. If I have to stand from now on, I'll take the slower express bus or maybe even drive -- the latter defeating a chief purpose of public transit: to get people out of single-occupant vehicles at rush hour.

She recommended that is we didn't like it, we should write or call UTA. As we stopped at Woods Cross, Framington and Layton, people got off, a few got on and seats filled back in from those standing. I stood until my stop in Clearfield.

The odd thing has been, some trains have since arrived with three passenger cars, while others continue to have only two. But the timing doesn't make much sense, as far as I can tell. Earlier this week, for example, the southbound train arrived with only two Bombardiers; it was snug, but nobody was standing in my car. But the northbound train -- the ones that are practically empty because so few people ride northbound trains in the morning -- had two Bombardiers and a Comet.

To me, that doesn't make any sense. But I'm probably missing something.

I understand that UTA is trying to save money, and towing one fewer passenger car saves fuel. But how much, in the grand scheme? A UTA manager told me once that the trains burn a gallon of diesel ever 0.9 miles traveled with three Bombardier cars in tow. The Comets, he said, weigh half as much but have slightly fewer seats and no tables for laptops. I'm no mathematician, heaven knows, but isn't there a combination of the Comets and/or Bombardiers that could haul lots of people and still meet the fuel-use targets? Just wondering.

At any rate, I can't wait until next week when three passenger cars becomes the standard again ... I hope.