Last week Planet Money had a great "Deep Read" with economist Nassim Taleb. Taleb's major point is that when you're vulnerable to "black swans" - rare and unpredictable, but high impact events - you need to invest in reserves and redundancy to be able to survive them.
It's an argument that all transportation providers should pay attention to, but railroads in particular are dependent on linear infrastructure. The current mess with the Long Island Railroad's switches in Jamaica show that at least one railroad isn't getting it.
The vast majority of train trips on the LIRR go through Jamaica. That's great for transfers, but it sucks for redundancy. You would think they'd have a backup plan, but apparently the MTA prefers to let the riders - and the taxpayers - bear the full brunt of any black swans that affect Jamaica.
Yup, that's the kind of perverse thinking the public authority structure encourages. If we had a sane system, Helena Williams' head would already be on a pike for giving public property to Bruce Ratner for nothing. Well, if we had a sane system, Williams would probably never have been allowed anywhere near the top post, and maybe we'd have someone competent actually running the railroad.
But now it's time to pull out a game I like to play whenever there's a major, but avoidable outage that affects millions of people: what if the people in power actually gave a shit? In this case, what if they wanted to build redundancy into the Long Island Railroad? What if the government had a giant Keynsian stimulus program, and money were no object?
Ideally, the Central Railroad of Long Island, which ran from Flushing to Floral Park along the route of what's now the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway, would never have been torn up. It could potentially be reconstructed, or a southern bypass created under Rockaway and Linden Boulevards. Even a through connection in Jamaica bypassing the main station there would prevent some events from completely disrupting service.
If we give up on a rail-based solution, then a bus-based one is the next best thing. If I were the LIRR president, on Monday I would have sat down with the heads of Long Island Bus, the MTA Bus Company and New York City Transit to get every available bus running parallel routes.
I would also have gotten on the phone with Long Island Transit, Hampton Jitney, Joel Azumah and any other licensed operators interested in providing temporary service. I would have told them to take anyone who showed them an unused LIRR ticket, and paid them by the mile. If I were the Governor, I would have ordered the State DOT to set up bus-only lanes on the LIE so that those buses wouldn't all be sitting in traffic.
A real powerful response like that would have earned back some of the LIRR's customer loyalty that's been eroded over the years, and made it more likely that Long Island's representatives will support the MTA in the future. Instead - from a Governor who grew up on Long Island - we got lame excuses, finger-pointing and stranded customers.