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November 11, 2018

"Getting There" - The Lockbox Question

Perfection is the enemy of good, said Voltaire.  Life is a series of compromises and waiting for “perfect” is like standing still.  You’ll never get anywhere.

So it is this election season.

The convention and primary season has delivered us a short list of flawed candidates pandering platitudes of perfection to a weary, cynical electorate.  It’s enough to make you decide to not vote, lest you encourage and enable this behavior.

But forget about the gubernatorial choices.  It’s your State Representative and State Senator that will be crafting the laws, so pay them heed.  Those are the races that really count, so in the waning days of the campaign, go to the debates, read the candidates’ platforms, study the issues and editorials.

Ask for specifics, not generalities.  If they say they want to improve train service, ask how and paid for with what.  The devil’s in the details and I, for one, am tired of vague generalities that get people elected and then see them do nothing. 

And don’t forget to turn over your ballot.  That’s where the single most important thing you can do to fix transportation will be found:  the Lockbox Referendum question.

It will be labeled as “Question One”, a proposed amendment to the state constitution.  And if you read it, you’ll see no mention of the word “lockbox”.  But that’s what it is about:  putting money for transportation in a special place where it can only be spent on that intended purpose… transportation.

Until now the state’s Special Transportation Fund has been a sieve, raided by Democrats and Republicans alike, to balance the state’s budget.  This measure would help stop that.

To make it onto the November ballot, Question One was approved on a bipartisan basis by two legislative sessions.  By making it a constitutional amendment instead of a law, it will be harder to circumvent, but not impossible.

This Lockbox question is not perfect.  It has loopholes.  But if it passes, doom on any lawmaker or Governor who tries to avoid voters’ clear intent:  to keep money for transportation spent on just that.

The “Vote Yes on Question One” coalition has wide support, especially from commuters who are tired of seeing our state’s bridges crumble and near-constant delays on standing-room-only trains.  Even if you don’t ride our trains or buses, you should care about this issue.  It’s your tax dollars (gasoline taxes especially) that have been misspent to the tune of $500 million in the past decade.

But suddenly, Republicans are wavering in their support of this Lockbox, though they initially proposed it.  They say it’s not good enough, that it should be tighter and have stronger constraints both on funding and spending.

I might agree.  But the November ballot question is what it is.  It cannot be changed until the next legislative session.  If anyone thinks the lockbox should be stronger, make it so… but only after this version is made law.

Question One’s proposal is not perfect.  But to reject is to maintain the status quo, leaving transportation funding subject to misappropriation as in decades past.  That’s why I’m voting yes on Question One.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 27, 2018

"Getting There" - Gridlock on Transportation in the Governor's Race

Have you been following the campaign for Governor?  I have, and I’m deeply disappointed.  Almost none of them is talking about transportation.

How can we create jobs, stop people from moving out of state, encourage entrepreneurs or do anything to save our economy when we are in a literal and political gridlock?  How much time do you waste in bumper to bumper traffic getting to or from work?  How many delays have you had on Metro-North, where on-time performance is at a new low?

Why isn’t this an issue?

Sure, they pay it lip-service.  Ned Lamont talks about tolls on trucks… quite a switch from his earlier support of state-wide car tolling.  I guess the polls beat out tolls when he saw how unpopular tolls were.  But using trucks as a funding scapegoat? Sure, why not?  Everybody hates trucks.

On the rails, Lamont promises Wi-Fi on Metro-North, but no mention of increased parking, more railcars for overcrowding or keeping fares down.  Gee, he didn’t even promise a return of the bar cars.  You missed that one, Ned.

As for Bob Stefanowksi, he’s clearly in the “tolls are a tax” camp.  But it’s so much easier to know what he’s against than what he’s for.  He’s been eluding the media except for a couple of debates and has subjected himself to little campaign scrutiny, aside from fund raising.  Ask him about any topic and he’ll remind you that a) Dan Malloy is the cause of all our problems, and b) he has the solutions, though he never explains what they are.  He pivots from question to sound-bite like a whirling top.

Just who are these guys?

Lamont served as a Selectman in Greenwich but Stefanowski has never held elected office.  In fact, Stefanowski wasn’t even a legal resident of Connecticut for eight years of the last 10 years and didn’t bother to vote for 17 years. How can he say he cares about running Connecticut without participating in the process? 

Lamont’s greatest political credential is running, over and over again, for everything from the US Senate to Governor.  Hey, at least he tried.

What Lamont and Stefanowski have in common is that they are multi-millionaire business men who have plowed much of their fortunes into funding their campaigns. They’re quick to remind you they are businessmen, not politicians.

And therein lies the problem.

Running a state government is not like running a business.  You may be Governor, but you’re not the CEO of a state.  You have to work with a legislature, not a Board of Directors (whose members you probably hand-picked).  Haven’t we learned by the example of the Trump administration’s chaos that it’s folly to assume a businessman can govern?

But there’s another serious candidate we must not forget, though he too is just another businessman with no election track record.

Oz Griebel is running as the no-party candidate and this guy does have transportation experience.  He was the first Chairman of the Transportation Strategy Board in 2001, and you’ve got him to thank for the new cars on Metro-North.  Sadly, many of the TSB’s ideas were never implemented before Gov Malloy shut it down, but of the “three-businessmen-of-the-apocalypse” who want to be Governor, Griebel is hands-down the best on transportation.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


October 22, 2018

"Getting There" - The High Speed Ferry to Nova Scotia

There is perhaps no more beautiful part of the East Coast than the Canadian Maritimes… the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The problem is that getting there is a hassle… either an expensive flight with a change of planes or a two-day drive.  That is, unless you take “The Cat”, the high speed car and passenger ferry which runs daily from Portland ME to Yarmouth NS.

But catch it soon, because it will soon moving farther away.

“The Cat” is a 1646 ton, high-speed catamaran owned by the US Navy but leased to Bay Ferries, the Canadian operator of the vessel (staffed with a US crew).  Launched in 2007, it used to run between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Maui.

The 349 foot long vessel can cross the Gulf of Maine’s 213 mile span in about five and a half hours at a top speed of 35 knots (40 mph), carrying 866 passengers and 282 cars.  She sails each morning from Nova Scotia at 8:30 am, arriving in Portland about 1 pm.  The return voyage leaves at 2:30 pm, arriving in Yarmouth 9’ish.  En route passengers can enjoy two bars, free movies, comfy first-class airline seating and a variety of food and shopping.


Ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia has run since 1970, but the older vessels required an overnight crossing, allowing passengers to enjoy cabins (if they weren’t spending the night gambling in the on-board casino).  Locals in Maine still wax nostalgic about the “Scotia Prince”, the last slow speed ferry to make the overnight crossing.

But the current fast-ferry has found a new clientele, drawing customers from Boston, Providence and as far away as NYC.  Their market research says passengers are upper income with 75% of them coming from the US.

“The Cat” isn’t cheap.  A car with two passengers costs over $400 one way in peak season, though discounts are available for seniors and at off-peak times.  Nova Scotia residents get a $100 discount, given that the province subsidizes Bay Ferries to the tune of $7.5 million US per year.

The province is probably getting its money’s worth as Bay Ferries says its average customer spends 11 days driving through the Maritimes, staying in hotels and enjoying the great seafood.  With the exchange rate giving the US dollar a 30% premium, that can still add up to a lot of lobster.

But now Bay Ferries is threatening to pull out of Portland and depart instead from Bar Harbor ME, another three hours’ drive up the coast.  The company says it would cut the crossing time to three hours and save 40% on its fuel.

“The Cat” used to run on weekdays from Bar Harbor and weekends from Portland, but the company prefers one embarkation point and a less confusing schedule.  And they say they’re not worried about losing customers, noting that 3.5 million people visit Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor each year.

Locals in Bar Harbor were initially less enthusiastic about the ferry as the small town already sees as many as three cruise ships each day.  It looks like St Thomas VI, but with pine trees, it’s so crowded.

But days after the last sailing of “The Cat” for this season from Portland, Bar Harbor inked a deal with Bay Ferries to start service from their town in June 2019.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


October 13, 2018

"Getting There" - Pilot Shortage Looming

International aviation is about to face a crisis:  a shortage of pilots.

Domestically we are already seeing regional carriers (which represent 42% of all passengers) having to cancel flights and eliminate service to smaller cities.  And in Australia the biggest carrier, Qantas, is pulling old 747’s out of mothballs because it doesn’t have enough qualified pilots for its 737’s, the most dominate (and much more fuel efficient) aircraft in its fleet.

Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, had to cancel thousands of flight last November because of inadequate staffing.  And Japanese airlines are so desperate for pilots they are raising the mandatory retirement age to 67.  In China’s booming aviation market airlines are luring experienced captains with salaries starting at $500,000 including signing bonuses.

That’s attracting US pilots who are also offered free business-class flights home to America every three weeks to see their families.

Stateside the number of active commercial aviators dropped by 30,000 from 2008 to 2016 just as US airlines started enjoying a resurgence.  In Canada they estimate that 1000 of that small country’s pilots are now flying for overseas airlines, which offer better pay.

Even the US military is feeling the pain with the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps suffering a 25% reduction in fighter pilot staffing.  It costs $3 - $11 million to train a single fighter pilot.  So where are they going?  To the commercial airlines, especially overseas.

Boeing tells us the international aviation market will need 637,000 more pilots in the next 20 years as air traffic doubles.  But where will these pilots be found?

Aside from the military, it’s been small domestic airlines that have been the traditional training ground for big US airlines.  But after a series of crashes, the FAA changed the rules in 2010 to require pilots to have 1500 hours of flight time before they can step up to the big time.  Now the US DOT is thinking of reducing that minimum.

Just a few years ago, regional carriers paid their pilots as little as $20,000 a year.  The hours were long and the rewards few.  The popular joke among small airline pilots was: 

What’s the difference between a pilot and a pizza?  A pizza can feed a family of four.

Today the starting pay at the regionals is closer to $50,000.  Still, those recruits need extensive, expensive training that costs triple what it used to cost in the 1990’s.  Graduates of the aviation colleges are starting their careers with up to $300,000 in student loans to pay off.

Now even flight instructors are in short supply.  So too are DFE’s, designated flight examiners, who conduct mandatory “check rides” for pilot applicants who now must schedule those “driving tests” up to six months in advance.

The use of simulators instead of actual in-air flight time may help trainees, though some suggest would-be pilots should start as early as high school in programs such as the US Air Force’s Junior ROTC.

Bottom line:  until more pilots are properly trained, certified and paid a competitive wage the pilot shortage will mean we will continue to see cuts in regular service, especially to smaller airports.  “Getting There”, if it’s not a big city, will be inconvenient and expensive, if at all possible.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


October 06, 2018

"Getting There" - The SoNo Switchtower

Do you ever wonder how trains move on a busy line like the New Haven division of Metro-North?  How they switch from track to track, make their scheduled stops and try to stay on schedule?

Today, it’s all controlled by computer-assisted dispatchers working near Grand Central Terminal, handling 700 trains per day.  But until the 1980’s, the dispatchers were decentralized, working in one-man “towers” all along the line.

Each tower handled a section of track, manually throwing massive switches to send trains on their appointed routes following a master schedule.  Manned 24 / 7,  a tower in Woodlawn would hand off trains to a tower in Mt Vernon, then to New Rochelle, Rye, Greenwich, Cos Cob, Stamford and South Norwalk.



Bob Hughes worked in the SoNo Switch Tower for eight years, dispatching hundreds of passenger and freight trains coming up and down the mainline, many continuing onto the Danbury branch.  Built in the 1880’s, the tower featured a 68 lever “Armstrong” machine, so named because it was all manual and required strong arms to move the manual switches using hundreds of yards of connected piping.

For his work Hughes was paid $2.65 an hour with a two cent per hour bump for operating the circuit panel for the 11,000 volt overhead catenary.

The tower also was equipped with a “model board”, showing the exact location of each train.  As a train passed the neighboring tower (Stamford or Bridgeport), the dispatcher would call Bob on a speaker phone to alert him to the train entering his territory.

A call like “BG-1 next on 1” would warn Bob to watch his model board and prepare for that train’s arrival and possible switching to another track.  As it passed, Bob would note the locomotive number and time on a master train log, later sent to headquarters in New Haven, and then warn the next tower down the line what was coming their way.

Bob was also in communications with the nearby Walk Bridge tender who could open and close the bridge on demand as barges and sailboats requested. “In those days the bridge opened and closed without problem,” says Hughes.  “Of course, it was 50 years younger then.”

In addition to the busy passenger trains on the then-New Haven & Hartford RR, as many as eight freight trains per day would pass his tower.  “We tried not to slow up the freights to avoid brakes locking and similar problems,” he says.

It wasn’t until Penn Central took over the New Haven in 1969 that the trains got radios to communicate with the towers.  Before then, engineers who were stopped at a red signal would clamber down from their cab and use a track-side telephone to inquire about why they were being held up.  Hughes says the calls were “strictly business, no horsing around”.

In 1984 the SoNo Switch Tower was decommissioned along with most of its sister towers as switching was computerized and controlled out of GCT.  But the tower still lives on today as a museum.

Operated by the Western CT Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, the museum is open 12 noon to 5 pm on weekends through October when you’ll often find Hughes demonstrating the old switching gear to appreciative onlookers.

For more information:  http://thetracksidephotographer.com/2018/04/26/best-job-in-the-world/ 


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

October 01, 2018

"Getting There" - China's Transportation Strategy

Quiz question #1:  What country has the largest interstate highway system in the world?  Hint:  It’s not the United States.

Quiz question #2:  What country has the most miles of high-speed rail?  Hint:  It’s not France or Japan.

The answer to both questions is… China!

China’s superhighways, most of them built since 1984, now cover almost twice as many miles as the US interstates.  And on the rail side, China’s 15,000 miles of high speed rail represents nearly two-thirds of all such rail in the world. 

China’s fast trains travel up to 217 mph, linking Beijing to Shanghai (the distance of NY to Chicago) in a five-hour run.  Trains carrying 1000 passengers each depart at 10 to 15 minute intervals.  Compare that to Amtrak’s Acela, once an hour, carrying 300 passengers at an average of 70 mph.

Sure, China is big.  Though measured in square miles, the US is slightly larger.  But with a population of 1.34 billion, China is huge compared to the US’s 325 million residents.  That means China has a lot more people to move, and they’re investing accordingly.

China spends over $300 billion annually on transportation.  Compare that to the US Dept of Transportation’s $80 billion annual spending on highways, rail and air transport.  No wonder we feel like we’re living in a third world country with crumbling roads and obsolete railroads.
But more importantly, China is also investing abroad.  Chinese money is being invested in 68 countries to build highways, ports and railroads to take its exports to market on what it sees as a 21st century Silk Road.

The country’s “Belt & Road Initiative” has pledged $8 trillion in projects for under-developed countries’ projects where it will be able to conduct trade.  These destinations account for 70 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of its GNP, and 75 percent of its energy reserves.

There is already a rail link from China to Europe with daily trains carrying electronics and manufactured goods to Europe.  After unloading, those trains return to China filled with food.  A trip that can take a month by sea now links 35 Chinese cities with a like number of European cities in just 15 days by rail.

On the high seas China is also expanding its reach, building a modern fleet of vessels and investing heavily in port operations in Europe and South America. Containers filled with cell-phones sail out from Chinese ports and much needed oil sails back.  And where Chinese merchant vessels go, so too will its Navy.  While the US fancies itself as policeman to the world, there’s no way we can keep up. 

The US merchant marine has only 175 American-owned vessels flying the US flag while 800 others are registered abroad.  The Chinese government-owned COSCO shipping conglomerate owns 1114 vessels, the fourth largest fleet in the world.  And that’s just one company.

President Trump seems headed to an all-out trade war with China, matching them tariff for tariff and Tweeting regularly about how “unfair” the Beijing government has been to us.

Meanwhile, Washington can’t even pass a domestic infrastructure spending bill to patch up our decrepit roads and rails.  To my thinking, we’re not only getting outspent by China, but clearly out-smarted.  Transportation is about trade and China is clearly planning for the future while we wallow in the past.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.



September 24, 2018

"Getting There" - What Does 'On Time" Mean?

Last spring, Japanese railroad officials apologized for a huge mistake:  one of their trains left a station 25 seconds early!  This was the second time such an egregious error had been made and I imagine that the offenders were severely disciplined.

Meanwhile back on Metro-North’s New Haven line, the railroad’s latest OTP (on time performance) statistics stand at about 82%... a new low.

To make matters worse, what the Japanese railroads and MNRR consider “on time” are two different things.  “On time” in Japan means the 7:12 am train departs at 7:12, not 7:11 (as in this horrendous incident which prompted the apology) nor at 7:13.  “On time” means ON TIME.

Metro-North, however, defines a train is being on time if it arrives or departs within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time.  So the train due in Grand Central at 8:45 am is still “on time” in its record keeping if it pulls in just before 8:51 am.

On a train run averaging an hour from Connecticut to GCT, that’s about a 10% margin of error, so their 82% “on time” record could really be much, much lower.  What the exact “on time” stats are, they will not say.

But Metro-North is not alone in such squishy record keeping.  Most commuter railroads in the US also observe this 5:59 standard.  And on Amtrak, it’s even worse.  On a short run (less than 250 miles), a train is on time if its 10 minutes late.  Long distance trains (over 550 miles) are given a 31 minute leeway.

When trains are late, there is usually a good reason.  For Metro-North it could be switch problems, overhead power lines (catenaries), track conditions and, of course, weather.  And when one train is late, delays can cascade, just like a fender-bender on I-95 can create a huge back-up.

But all of this is OK with me.  I’d rather be safe than on-time.

We used to be able to always count on MNRR to be on time and would schedule our travel accordingly, assuming no delays.  And yes, the trains were on time something like 98% of all runs.  But they were also unsafe and we didn’t know it.

So if my train now is 5 or 10 minutes late, that’s OK.  Because I took an earlier train just to be safe, I can handle the delay and still keep to my personal schedule.

Over the years I’ve found that when service on MNRR is messed up, there’s usually a valid explanation.  While commuters’ Tweets are quick to assume it’s stupidity or incompetence on the part of the railroad, it usually isn’t.  It’s aging equipment or things beyond their control.

The men and women who work at Metro-North may not be rocket scientists, but I honestly believe most of them are trying their best.

While OTP on the railroad has been slipping, there is one area where we have seen a huge improvement:  communications.

A small army of railroad people now work 24/7 to Tweet and e-mail every problem on every line.  And they update the information, keeping us posted on delays.  That’s valuable information riders can use to make decisions, find alternatives and alert colleagues they may be late.

Let’s give the railroad credit for doing this much right. 


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


September 23, 2018

"Getting There" - The Critelli Commission +10

In the “land of steady habits”, we don’t fix problems, we study them… over and over again.
It’s been ten years since then-Governor Rell’s “blue ribbon” Critelli Commission report studying the reform of the Department of Transportation.  You’ll remember that the study came after a construction scandal on I-84.  And while much of the report addresses the dysfunction of the CDOT, I was pleased that the Commission’s chairman, then-Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, also picked up on some suggestions for improving rail service.  Among the key recommendations were:
  • Expand parking at all rail stations, but leaving the towns to price and administer the issuance of permits.  
  • Revisit the Metro-North contract for the operation of our trains with an eye toward greater parity between the railroad and CDOT.  
  • Focus on the maintenance and repair of our railroad bridges, 206 of the 325 of which were rated as being in less than satisfactory condition. 
  • Better coordinate bus and rail schedules to offer riders of both an inter-modal transit experience.  
  • Evaluate an independent Transportation Authority (like the MTA or NJ Transit) which could serve the interests of mass transit apart from the highway interests which dominate our current CDOT.  (Connecticut is one of only two states in the union that runs mass transit out of its DOT).
  • Speed up construction of commuter rail on the New Haven to Springfield corridor.  
  • Expand service on the Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East branch lines.  
  • Do something to offer a rail freight alternative in Connecticut. 
But, beyond rail, the Critelli Commission also suggested some ideas to make CDOT more “user friendly”, following the lead of other states.
  • Have a website where consumers can actually find information.  For example, when construction projects are scheduled and, if they are running late, why and when they’ll be completed.   
  • Offer a 511 dial-in service for all traffic and transit updates.  Using such a service a traveler could ask “If I leave Stamford right now, how long would it take under current conditions to get to New Haven?”, and be told travel time by road and rail.  
  • Finally, the Critelli Commission deserves commendation for embracing an often forgotten transportation alternative… pedestrians and bikers. 

Anyone who uses transportation in Connecticut realizes how few of the Commission’s recommendations were ever adopted.  So I asked Mr. Critelli, now retired, if he had any regrets given all the work he put into the report.  He wrote:

"I do not regret the work because we achieved change, particularly in better ConnDOT communications and process improvement and in being a catalyst for the service area upgrades on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.”

“My regret:  The State did not take the opportunity to update its talent recruitment and management practices.  ConnDOT has an even greater gap between the talent it needs in a fast-changing and very different transportation environment and the talent it can recruit for its existing jobs and compensation levels.” 

As always, Critelli is being gracious.  A year of his life was donated to this effort and so little was achieved, even now a decade later. 

Doubtless some candidate this fall will suggest yet another study of transportation before anything gets done to really fix it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 08, 2018

"Getting There" - Secrets Hacks of Grand Central Terminal


There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  As the destination of over 55,000 daily rail commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place where many of us spend a fair amount of time. 
I’ve been riding in and out of Grand Central for over 50 years.  So to help you maneuver the station’s labyrinth of tunnels, ramps and stairs, here are some of the “secrets” of Grand Central that I find most useful.
Underground Access:      Sure, you can enter Grand Central from street level, but in bad weather you can find your way there underground from blocks away.  The north-end access
entrances at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th Street and the Helmsley Building walk-ways are dandy, though not all open on weekends.  But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt, from inside the Chrysler Building, the Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street or via the subway’s shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street, just west of Park?
Fastest Way from / to the Lower Level:           If your train dumps you on the lower level, forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level, especially with luggage.  Walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. 
It’ll take you to the upper level or, better yet, to within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below).  Getting to the lower level platforms from street level is just as easy.  On the upper level look for the elevators and take them down to “P” (Platform) level avoid two flights of stairs.
Washrooms with No Wait:         The new washrooms at the west end of the lower level have helped a lot, but still there’s often a line.  Take the nearby escalators up one level, turn around, and on your left is the Stationmaster’s 
Office complete with a small waiting room and lav’s… but for women only!  Or, go right and just before the ramp up to 42nd St. and Vanderbilt, look on your left for the sign for the Oyster Bar.  Go down the steps into the bar and you’ll find ornate bathrooms known only to a few.
Best Place To Get A Cab:          Forget about the long line at the taxi stand on 42nd St east of Vanderbilt.  Instead, go out the west end of the Main Concourse, up the stairs and out onto Vanderbilt Avenue.  Cross the street and wait at the corner of 43rd.  Taxis flow through here, dropping off passengers every few seconds. If you’re heading west you’ll avoid the traffic on 42nd Street too.
Where to Have a Smoke:            Want to enjoy a cigar before your train?  Forget about lighting up anywhere inside the station. Instead, go to the Hyatt Hotel just east on 42nd St. From street level go up two levels by escalator to their taxi stand and you’ll find yourself on the raised Park Avenue as it wraps around GCT.

These are a few of my favorite “hacks” of Grand Central.  Drop me an e-mail with yours and I’ll include them in a future column.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 01, 2018

"Getting There" - World's Longest (and Shortest) Flights


I hate to fly, but I have to sometimes.  Sure, I can tolerate a trans-con to California in Business or First Class.  And with my wife we once flew to Japan on a surprisingly tolerable 10 hour flight that just felt like a really long day.

But now the big international carriers have newer jets capable of much longer distances non-stop, and the race is on for the bragging rights of “the world’s longest flight”.

In the early days of jet aircraft an El Al 707 going (5677 miles) non-stop from JFK to Tel Aviv in nine and a half hours was quite a feat.  But in the mid-1970’s when Boeing introduced the 747-SP, a stubby version of the famous jumbo, Pan Am was making it all the way from JFK to Tokyo (6772 miles) non-stop.

In 2001 both Continental and United were flying from NYC to Hong Kong (8065 miles) in 16 hours thanks to new polar routes opened up by Russia.  But in 2004 Singapore Airlines began non-stop service from Newark to its home port (about 10,000 miles) in just over 18 hours.

Mind you, these are regularly flown, passenger-carrying commercial flights.  On demonstration flights the distances and hours aloft are much higher.

When Boeing delivered a brand new, but empty, 777-200ER (Extended Range) from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur, the flight traveled 12,455 miles non-stop.  Of course, the plane wasn’t carrying passengers, allowing more weight for fuel.

Starting this fall, a new aircraft will offer even greater range:  the Airbus 350-900ULR (ultra long range).  These plans are 25% more fuel efficient than the 777’s but don’t offer coach seating, only Business and Premium Economy.  More seats would mean more weight, the enemy of being able to add fuel for these mega-distances.

They also have higher ceilings, maintain better humidity and keep cabin pressures higher and noise levels lower, reducing jetlag.

The 19 hour flight for 161 passengers will be expensive:  Premium Economy is $1649 with Business going for twice that.   In its next generation of ULR aircraft Airbus is looking at installing bunk-beds “downstairs” where cargo would normally be carried.  No idea what pricing for that would be.

What’s the limit for non-stop flying?  Experts say about 21 hours.  That’s enough time to fly between any two spots on the globe.

On the supersonic front, Boom, Aerion and Spike are working on prototypes for smaller jets that could carry a dozen up to 55 passengers at speeds ranging from mach 1.5 to 2.2 for distances up to 6200 miles, almost the distance of NY to Tokyo.  By comparison, the Concorde carried 120 passengers a maximum of 3900 miles at mach 2.02.

Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have invested $10 million and pre-ordered 20 of Boom’s XB-1 aircraft.  The manufacturer estimates JFK to London flight time of just over three hours at a fare of about $2500 one way.

So much for the future and growing present of ever longer non-stops.  For you trivia fans:  what’s the shortest non-stop commercial jet flight?  It’s from Aruba to the Venezuelan city of Punto Fijo, a 50-mile, 8-minute flight that costs $235 one-way.

Post with permission of Hearst CT Media


August 25, 2018

"Getting There" - The Danbury Railway Museum

Looking for a summer day-trip to find some fun which teaching your kids about transportation?  Just hop a Metro-North train (or drive, if you must) to Danbury to visit the Danbury Railway Museum.

I usually find railway museums a bit depressing as they tend to be dusty monuments to the past.  But not this one.  Not only do they have a beautifully curated collection of memorabilia, but they are still a working railroad!

Housed in a beautifully restored 1903 railroad station (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), the museum was opened in the 1990’s after the building was abandoned by CDOT in favor of a newer Metro-North station a few hundred yards away serving the Danbury branch line.

At its peak the station saw 125 trains a day.  Today it serves about a dozen Metro-North trains to South Norwalk and GCT, all of them push-pull diesel consists.  Fun fact:  did you know that the Danbury line was once electrified, just like the main line?

Danbury is also served by the old Maybrook / Beacon Line running west to the city of the same name on the Hudson River.  Today the line is still used occasionally by Metro-North to transfer locomotives to its Croton-Harmon yards for servicing.

Danbury’s major industry, hat making, drew thousands of migrant workers and is celebrated by a Metro-North passenger car emblazoned with the name “The Danbury Hatter” you might see on the branch.

Inside the delightfully air conditioned station the museum offers a great orientation video showing the mighty New Haven & Hartford RR at its peak, carrying both passengers and freight.  There are also several model train layouts (in five different scales) that kids can operate at the push of a button.  You’ll also find a wonderful collection of railroad flatware and china from the New Haven’s glory days of posh dining cars.

In a tip o’ the conductor’s hat to more recent railroadiana, the museum has acquired parts of the old Solari departure board from New Haven, though it has yet to be returned to full functionality.  Still, it’s nice someone preserved it.

But the highlight of the museum’s collection will be found outside in its rail yard. There you’ll find more than 70 railcars and locomotives which you can tour (in the summertime) on a half hour train ride.  Tickets are $3 for a ride in a coach or the caboose. For $10 you can even ride in the diesel engine’s cab.

The train ride around the yard takes 20 minutes and shows you the museum’s 14 locomotives, 12 passenger cars and 26 freight cars.  The highlight of the ride is a visit to one of the last working turntables in New England.  Built in 1911, the 95-foot turntable would allow all but the largest in the New Haven’s locomotive fleet to enter one of nine stalls in an engine house, since demolished.

The museum also hosts kids’ birthday parties allowing hands-on inspection of the truly largest “boys’ toys” ever built.  Adults can also join the fun as the museum is run by dedicated volunteers.

Connecticut is lucky to have a number of great railroad and trolley museums, but this is my favorite… and the only one accessible by taking a train to get there.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


July 15, 2018

"Getting There" - Metro-North's Quiet Car Debacle

Train time is your own time” was the old marketing slogan of Metro-North, encouraging commuters to kick back and enjoy the ride while reading, working or taking a snooze.

But in reality, train time is shared time.  They don’t call it “mass transit” for nothing as passengers much share their space with a hundred other commuters on each railcar.  

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.
Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

It was almost 20 years ago that Amtrak first introduced the concept of The Quiet Car, following suggestions of daily commuters riding to DC.  It was such a success that quiet cars were soon added to other Northeast Corridor trains and Acela.

The concept was simple, as conductors reminded passengers on every trip:  maintain a “library like atmosphere”.  That meant no cell phone calls and only quiet, subdued conversation.  You want to yuck it up over a beer, go to the CafĂ© Car.  Got an important phone call… sit in any other coach.

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue… but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

First, they offered the worst car location on the train to their CALMmute:  the last car in-bound and the first car out-bound from GCT.  And there were no signs indicating which car was “quiet”.  Worst of all, conductors all but refused to enforce the quiet rules, leading to altercations between passengers.

Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules:  luggage on the overhead racks, no feet on the seats, no smoking etc.  But asking people to keep down the chatter was apparently too much.  All they would do, at first, was hand “Shhh cards” to offenders.

In 2016 the quiet car program was expanded to two cars per train, peak and off-peak.  But, still no signage (until just recently) and no enforcement.

Now, a major change.  The railroad announced that effective immediately there would be only one quiet car per off-peak train.  And the PR team at MNRR spun the story so well that some local media made it sound like the program was being expanded, not cut in half.  Brilliant.

There was no explanation for the cut in quiet cars though one official told me we have had no reports of quiet car demand exceeding availability in the off-peak”.  In other words, people who ride off-peak just prefer to yap.

That’s an amazing PR “spin” on what is really an admission of failure.  Metro-North never wanted quiet cars and clearly didn’t want to enforce the rules.  The people have literally “spoken” and the Quiet CALMmute won’t be as accessible anymore.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, answerable to nobody, especially its customers.  I’d raise my voice in protest but… I’m in the quiet car.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media