Last call for bar cars?
Updated 3:58 pm, Monday, January 20, 2014
STAMFORD -- As the state pours more than $1 billion into new rail cars, no money has been put into the tap to replace the 10 bar cars that are facing their last call by year's end.
The state's transportation commissioner has given assurances that bar car service along the Metro-North New Haven Line will continue, but a final design for a bar car compatible with the new fleet of M8 cars has not been completed, and the legislature has not approved any funding for them.
The bar cars on the New Haven Line -- the last in operation on any commuter line in the country -- are also facing competition from the more profitable drink carts on the platforms at Grand Central Terminal and from the need for additional seating as ridership continues to increase.
The fluorescent-lit, orange and wood-paneled cars have a dedicated following that seeks them out on websites and Twitter feeds, but as some of the 1970s-era trains have been retired and others go out for repairs, they are becoming a sort of speakeasy on the rails.
On Wednesday night, Gloria Ormond, a Greens Farms commuter and long-time fan of the bar cars, sat on one of the car's spacious lounge seats chatting with a few familiar friends while a louder more rowdy group of standing passengers milled around the bar and vestibules quaffing beer and mixed drinks.
Ormond said the existence of bar cars is a tradition worth carrying on, and that they provide a long enjoyed sanctuary for a set of commuters who want to be sociable and enjoy a few drinks during their commute home.
"It's a way to unwind after a hard day," Ormond said. "It's a place to relax and a friendly atmosphere."
Fewer cars, fewer runs
So far three of the original 10 cars have been retired, and three of the remaining seven are out of service for repairs, according to the railroad. Many days there is only one bar car in service making just three or four runs -- a huge decrease from the 20 runs a day three years ago, according to the railroad.
"I've noticed that there are many fewer of them," Ormond said.
This week Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said there are plans to launch new bar cars at some undetermined point in the future, but if and when could depend on the cost of retrofitting the M-8 cars.
The DOT signed a $1.1 million contract with Louis T. Klauder & Associates, a Pennsylvania rail engineering firm, to come up with various design options for review, but Redeker said he didn't know when the DOT expects to receive them or make a final call to outfit new train cars as rolling cafes.
Redeker said an initial effort to have the manufacturer of the new M-8 cars, which are costing $2 million to $3 million each, to furnish ready to use bar cars, was scratched because the cost was prohibitive.
All of the existing bar cars will be retired sometime in 2014 with all the older cars, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said Thursday, leaving a gap between the arrival of their replacements no sooner than 2015.
"We are doing a design in order to make an informed decision," Redeker said. "Will it cost millions to retrofit the cars? I have no idea, and we can't make decisions based on hypotheticals."
What about the bartenders?
Redeker said after the bar cars are retired that Metro-North bartenders will operate drink carts.
"They will be staffing additional carts in Grand Central Terminal and nobody will be unemployed," Redeker said.
Jason Genoddie, who represents the 27 Metro-North bartenders represented by Local 2100 of the Transport Union Workers of America said the decisions not to get existing cars back into service or expedite the arrival or retrofitting of new bar cars is questionable.
Genoddie operates the website wheresthebarcar.com, which gives daily updates about which trains will have them.
"It's not economically smart to do," Genoddie said. "The cars will pay for themselves."
Genoddie who has worked as a bartender on Metro-North his entire career said that while the cars might be expensive to outfit, revenue from sales pay back the cost of the initial outlay for the state and the railroad.
"They were designing bar cars three years ago and they still don't have a design," Genoddie said. "We know there is going to be a period where there are no bar cars, and it won't be a positive thing."
A question of design
Genoddie said he was also concerned about about design elements of a future bar car, which rumors have Connecticut favoring, including leaving regularly configured seats on the front and back of the cars with a bar in the middle, rather than more open space.
Genoddie said the majority of bar car users are not interested in rear- or forward-facing seating, and suspects that non-bar car customers would not favor sitting near the bar.
"Nobody wants to sit on the bar car and read their newspaper," Genoddie said. "I think they need to take into account input from Metro North and the public."
In recent months the daily availability or the cars for service has gone up and down day to day, and the bartenders have not been able to get a sense of when they will be eliminated altogether.
In 2013, the declining fleet of bar cars brought in $357,000 in revenue compared to $491,000 the year before, according to Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders. Bar carts that are stationed at the foot of platforms of trains departing Grand Central Terminal earned $6.4 million in 2013, and $6.3 million in 2012.
Because the existing bar cars will be retired sometime this year, investing maintenance money to keep them running is a lower priority than keeping the normal rolling stock maintained, Anders said.
"They are a low priority for investment because shortly they will be scrapped," Anders said.
Connecticut Commuter Rail Council Chairwoman Terri Cronin said that if the state doesn't create M-8 bar cars, groups of current bar car patrons will likely carry their more boisterous behavior into other cars, where they will conflict with riders who want peace and quiet.
"Just like there is a constituency that wants quiet cars, there is a constituency that wants bar cars, but the difference is that a bar car makes money," Cronin said.
Cronin said arguments about the cost of outfitting M-8 cars as bars are overstated and originated when DOT floated a more elaborate configuration that currently exists with more seating and other amenities.
"We don't want fancy, which is the part they may not be getting," Cronin said. "Keep it simple, if it would make it cheaper. We don't even need to have the large bar we have now."
But some commuters say it's time for the bar cars to roll into history.
Matt Hennessey, a New Canaan commuter since 2010 who grew up in New Jersey, said the cars are dirty and serve cheap beer and booze, and most importantly he said, replicates already available options provided by the bar cart's before departure.
"It is just kind of dingy," Hennessey said. "They throw a beer at you and you just stand in the corner and listen to people's overly loud conversations."
Claims of their widespread popularity and charming atmosphere are not substantiated Hennessey said. The idea that the bar cars have a big following is mostly perpetuated by periodic news articles about them, and by a non-representative group of more fanatical users who attempt to foster the impression that the cars are pleasant.
"When most people hear `bar car' they think of something out of the 1940s or 1950s, but really it is kind of seedy," Hennessey said. "There might be a core group of people with really strong feelings about it, I was never impressed by the bar cars."
With many other passengers chatting on cell phones or focused on computer tablets and smartphones, Darien commuter Michael Greve said the bar cars offer a glimpse of a bygone era.
"The Metro North bar cars are a nostalgic reminder of old New York," said Greve, who has been commuter for the past year. "When there's one on my train home I'll always opt to sit in it, because the layout has a much more communal feel."