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February 16, 2019

"Getting There" - Commuting by Ferry

Why can’t we run commuter ferries on Long Island Sound? 

I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked that question.  But as with so many “simple solutions” to our transportation woes, there are logical reasons why ferry boats won’t work.

First off, they are too slow.  Even “fast ferries” can only make about 30 knots (35 mph) in open waters, half the (potential) speed of a train.  And to dock at downtown areas in major cities like New Haven, Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford, they’d have to sail up rivers and inlets with 5 knot speed limits.  That really slows down the ride.

If we put ferry terminals closer to the Sound we’d be eating into the most expensive water-view real estate we have.  And how would you get there?  By car, parking where?  By shuttle bus, taking how long?

We’d need dozens of ferries to compete with Metro-North’s fleet.  At rush hour on the railroad there’s a train every 20 minutes to Grand Central.  There isn’t a ferry service in the US that can offer that frequency.  Would you be willing to wait an hour if you miss the boat?

On a beautiful day a ferry ride to work sounds like fun.  But how about in a winter storm?  You’d be back on the dependable ol’ train in a heartbeat.

Even the few operators who’ve considered launching ferry service in Connecticut say it would come with fares at least twice those of Metro-North.  Aren’t people complaining already about the trains being too expensive?

Fast ferry boats are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde.  Even when the Pequots built high-speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino to lose money, it cost them a fortune.  Those ferries are still dry-docked, too expensive to operate.

When a private ferry operator offered service from Glen Cove, Long Island to midtown, it lasted only a few months.  Same thing when ferry service was offered on the Hudson River from Yonkers.  Why?  Because both routes paralleled existing train service and the ferries couldn’t compete.  Neither would it work here in Connecticut where Metro-North operates.

Mind you, there are places that ferries do work, especially where they go from point A to point B when you can’t do that on land.  Like the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson or New London to Orient Point (LI) cross-Sound ferries.  Or consider Seattle, where ferries connect downtown with island suburbs.

A ferry from Connecticut to LaGuardia Airport might make sense. But in the late 80’s when Pan Am tried to compete with Eastern Airlines in the lucrative air-shuttle market, they introduced the Pan Am Water Shuttle connecting LaGuardia to midtown.  I rode it once, on a bright summer’s day, and it was sweet.  But even funneling passengers to its own planes, Pan Am couldn’t afford the aquatic connection.  And since Amtrak’s Acela came along, who flies the shuttles anyway?

One final reason why I don’t think ferries would work:  nobody else does so either. 

I’m sure that ferry operators in NYC have looked at Connecticut’s gold coast, crunched the numbers and backed away.  It’s a free market, folks.  If ferries made sense (and dollars), they’d be running here by now.  But they aren’t, and probably won’t be, for the common sense reasons I have cited.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 09, 2019

"Getting There" - Why 30-30-30 Doesn't Add Up

How would you like a faster ride on Metro-North?  Who wouldn’t!  How about a 30 min ride from Hartford to New Haven, from New Haven to Stamford or from Stamford to Grand Central?

That’s the vision announced by Governor Lamont in his inaugural address.  It’s known as the 30-30-30 plan and sounds good compared to current running times (52 minutes, 55 minutes and 48 minutes respectively).  But how can such vast improvements be done?  Ask Joe McGee, VP of the Fairfield Business Council who’s been pitching this idea for years.

So confident was McGee of this concept that his Council recently paid $400,000 to Ty Lin Consulting of San Francisco to study it.  And which railroad expert did Ty Lin hire to spearhead the study?  Joseph Giulietti, former President of Metro-North… recently named as Connecticut’s new Commissioner of Transportation.

Though the Ty Lin study has yet to be released, McGee admits that the 30-30-30 idea is more of a goal than a possibility.  Yet, for as little as $75 - $95 million, Ty Lin thinks significant improvements can be made in speeding up service by accelerating Metro-North’s return to a “state of good repair”.

When he was President of Metro-North, Giulietti said it would take five years to get the railroad back in shape after years of neglect.  Today, Metro-North says a more realistic time frame is ten years.

By fixing rail ties and overhead power lines to improve speeds on curves, by restoring the fourth track east of Milford and by adding express trains (at a premium fare), McGee claims service will improve quickly, maybe shaving 24 minutes off of the current 103 minute running time from New Haven to Grand Central. That would make it a 79 minute run, but not 60.

But wait.  If this was Giulietti’s idea as a consultant, why didn’t he make that happen when he was running Metro-North?  Or how will he now, as Commissioner of the CDOT, get his old railroad to adopt Ty Lin’s (his) ideas?  I asked, but he isn’t saying.

What seasoned professionals at CDOT have told me is that the Ty Lin ideas will cost billions of dollars and take a decade. In other words… there’s no quick, cheap fix.

Meantime, Metro-North is planning to add six to ten minutes of running time to all New Haven line trains for the spring timetable to better reflect the reality of current delays due to work.  For 2018 the railroad had only 88% on time performance (OTP).  By extending the train schedule on paper, OTP will go up and riders will have a more dependable, albeit slower, ride.

Lengthening running times, even on paper, “is not acceptable,” says McGee who hopes to release his Ty Lin study in about two weeks, fully expecting huge pushback from the railroad and east-coast consultants beholden to the MTA.

But it’s really the FRA (the Federal Railroad Administration) that’s the biggest block to faster trains.  The slower speeds they required after the 2013 Bridgeport and Spuyten Duyvil derailments won’t be raised until they’re convinced the railroad is safe. 

So let the debate begin:  is 30-30-30 possible or just a fantasy?   Did Giulietti create himself a nightmare in proposing as a consultant what he may not be able to deliver as CDOT Commissioner? 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 03, 2019

"Getting There" - Confessions of a Road Warrior

What idiot said that “getting there is half the fun”?

That’s the thought that went through my mind awhile back when I did a “day trip” to LA:  two door-to-door 10-hour trips just for a three-hour face-to-face meeting with my most important consulting client.

I knew my trip was doomed when I went to pick up my rental car at LAX and there were no cars.  Pleading with the dispatcher that I’d been up since 1 am local time and had a crucial meeting I could not be late for, she said “I can give you a mini-van.”  Fabulous!  If it has an engine and wheels, I’ll take it.  Even in LA where people drive their egos, I abandoned my Ferrari persona for a Chevy minivan.

I should have known there was a problem as it was the only vehicle left on the lot, but a road warrior never gives up.  Throwing open the door to the van I was met with the unmistakable odor of vomit.  The vehicle was clean, mind you.  It just reeked.
So, off I drove, windows down and made my meeting on time!  When I returned the van five hours later it still reeked of vomit, but now with a nice overtone of cigar.

Another time a few years back I’d booked the last evening flight from JFK to LAX.  I helicoptered to the airport, arriving just in time to find that the 6 pm flight was delayed due to incoming equipment.  A promised 8 pm departure never happened, and the delays kept coming in 30 minute intervals until it was clear we were going to be on a red-eye.  Worse yet, after all other flights had left, every bar and restaurant in the terminal closed up.

In its generosity, the airline wheeled out some MRE’s (meals ready to eat) from a back closet and we feasted on stale crackers and government surplus cheese, until one passenger took the initiative and picked up the phone.

A half-hour later (and still hours before departure), a pizza delivery-man arrived with ten pies.  “We’re not paying for those,” screamed the airline supervisor.  “We’re not asking you too,” smiled the passenger, who then sold every slice at about $5 apiece.  PS:  We did eventually take off, arriving at LAX about 3 am.

Then there was the time I arrived late one night at Newark airport from a sad trip to see my dying mother.  I had a crucial meeting in central NJ the next morning, so I’d booked the last hotel room within 30 miles at a run-down Howard Johnson’s.

In the dark airport parking lot, I got off the bus at the wrong stop and in a pouring rain (with no coat or umbrella) was soaked by the time I found my car.  God was telling me something.

Digging thru my suitcase, I found the only dry clothing I could safely use to dry off … a pair of underwear.  I drove to Route 287 and an hour later I found my Ho Jo’s motel, tired and hungry, ready for a meal of those famous fried clams and at little ice cream.  No such luck.  The restaurant was closed as were all other eateries within ten miles.  That night dinner consisted of Pop Tarts with a side order of humble pie.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 27, 2019

"Getting There" - Global Warming vs Mass Transit

What follows is a public apology.  Not to you, dear reader, but to future generations.

“To my grand children:  I’m sorry we left you with this mess.  We should have done more, when we still had time.”

What am I referring to?  Not the national debt.  Not even global terrorism.  No, this apology is about coastal flooding that threatens the Northeast Corridor’s rail lines.

I won’t even get into the debate about what’s causing sea-level rise.  Whether it’s man-made or natural, it is happening and we have not been planning for its inevitable effects.  Sure, when the tides are high and the winds are from the east, we already see a little flooding along the Connecticut coastline.  “Look Dad!  The beach parking lot is under water,” the kids would say.  But the tides and winds then subsided and we’d forget about it.

Aside from pretty beaches and expensive homes, what else is along Connecticut’s coast?  Our railroads:  Metro-North, Shore Line East and Amtrak.  And according to a long hidden report, those tracks, and the trains that run on them, are being threatened by sea level rise.

Just before Christmas, Bloomberg wrote about a three year study“Amtrak NEC Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment,” that was finished in 2017 but never released to the public.  Using an FOI request, they got hold of a redacted (censored) portion of the study, and its findings are frightening.

The Northeast Corridor of Amtrak runs 457 miles from Washington to Boston and carries 12 million passengers a year on 2200 daily trains.  Those tracks not only serve Amtrak’s inter-city trains but also many commuter rail lines, like Metro-North and Shore Line East.  And the rising sea level is already lapping at its edge, where in some areas those tracks are just feet from the ocean. By 2050 the water may be two feet higher.

When it was originally built in the 19th century, the coastline made perfect sense as a location for the railroad tracks:  the coast is where the major cities were and the terrain was flat, perfect for trains.  Sure, there were storms (even hurricanes) that caused short-term flooding, but nothing that was persistent.  Until now.

So what’s to be done?

Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have no plans to raise the tracks.  They’re already facing $40 billion in unfunded projects just to keep the darn trains running.  As for building a “wall” to keep out the sea water, even a temporary version erected before a storm would take 12 to 30 days to assemble and cost $24 million a mile.

Keeping this all in perspective, Amtrak reminds us that the cities they serve along the coast are also in danger of flooding, so what are a few damp railroad tracks when your city-center looks like Venice?

What’s most concerning is that this study was suppressed by Amtrak and the FRA because, as Bloomberg wrote, “The disclosure of that information “could possibly cause public confusion.” 

I’m not confused, are you?  Maybe enraged, but not confused.  I may not be around to see these predictions come to pass, but I do feel some sense of obligation (guilt) to future generations to whom I can offer little more than an apology.

Sorry kids.  We left you with a mess.  We should have done more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 19, 2019

"Getting There" - Why Did Robert Moses Hate Transit?

What baseball fan doesn’t know who Babe Ruth was?  Or “Shoeless Joe Jackson”?  Every part of American history has its heroes and villains.

Yet, it’s frightening how much we forget about the past mistakes we have made in planning for transportation… lessons we should have learned from.  This became clear recently when I was asked to be a guest lecturer to a group of urban planning graduate students at UCONN.

I made reference in the class to Robert Moses and these planners of our future just gave me a blank stare.  “You do know who Robert Moses was, don’t you?” I asked.  They did not.  I was shocked.

No single individual was more powerful or made more decisions affecting the New York City area’s transportation network than the “master builder” Moses.  His grip on power came from holding 12 different job titles though he was never elected to public office.

From the 1930’s to the 1960’s he directed the building of 416 miles of parkways (Long Island’s Northern & Southern State and Westchester’s Taconic, to name a few), many bridges (the Tri-Borough, Throgs Neck, Henry Hudson, Verrazano-Narrows as well as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel) and designed Jones Beach and the NY State Parks system.  He presided over two Worlds Fairs (1939 and 1964) and helped bring the UN’s headquarters to NYC.

But he did nothing for mass transit.  He loved cars and didn’t really care for people who did not own them.

Where others had envisioned expanding the city’s subway lines, he built roads, displacing thousands of residents.  Robert Caro, author of the Pulitzer prize winning biography of Moses, “The Power Broker” even called Moses a racist, because he built motorways for the middle class while discouraging the car-less (blacks) from visiting Jones Beach.

He opposed blacks moving into Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan development on the lower east side for veterans.  City swimming pools in black neighborhoods were kept cold to discourage blacks from using them.

Moses’ dénouement came when he tried to build the elevated, ten-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have connected the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge straight through Greenwich Village and Little Italy, evicting 2000 families and 800+ businesses.  “The Master Builder” called it “slum clearance”, but residents like Jane Jacobs (author of the “Death and Life of Great American Cities”) fought back and the city’s artistic heart was saved.

Robert Moses was not an evil man.  Today, many hail his accomplishments and think we need a benevolent despot to get things done in transportation and urban planning, even if a few people get hurt along the way.  It’s all for the greater good, Moses once said:

"I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without moving people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs."

History will judge Moses… those he helped and those he hurt.  But I think of him, more than the people he displaced, when I drive on the Cross Bronx or any of the city’s bridges.  Love the omelet, forget about the eggs.

But for graduate students at UCONN to be unaware of this man, what he built and how, worries me greatly.  To paraphrase George Santayana:  those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 13, 2019

"Getting There" - Transportation Predictions for 2019

Each year I share my predictions for the coming months… and grade myself on last year’s crystal-ball gazing.

Upon reflection, I was way too pessimistic last year, predicting fare hikes, service cuts and delays in new M8 car orders for Metro-North.  I must have had some bad eggnog when I said that the Special Transportation Fund lockbox would be defeated.  Bah, humbug.  I’ll admit it:  I was wrong.

But I was spot-on in predicting further delays with Positive Train Control, no movement on infrastructure investment by the Trump administration and possible problems for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop schemes.

As for the year ahead…

We have a good sense of where Governor-elect Lamont says he wants to go.  And he’s surrounding his team with some real talent.

A NEW COMMISSIONER AT CDOT:            Lamont’s selection of Joseph Giulietti, former President of Metro-North, as his new Commissioner is a brilliant move.  Nobody else better understands the challenges of fixing our railroads.  Since he left Metro-North he’s been working as a transportation consultant, rounding out his skill set, so he’ll hit the ground running.

Here I expect we’ll have good news and bad.  The good:  the first of 66 additional M8 rail cars ordered years ago will start arriving, adding more seats to crowded trains.  The bad:  service will continue to deteriorate as necessary track work drags on. On time performance will continue a downward spiral. Commuters will be either furious or accepting, but can do little.

It’s clear the public is way ahead of legislators on this issue, so I think the pols will be dragged into a tolling scheme on all Interstates and parkways.  At first these tolls may just be for trucks (as in Rhode Island), but I’m guessing the courts will declare that a violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause.  By then, the toll collection system will be designed, if not being installed, so it will be relatively easy to “toggle it” to collect from cars, as well.
I’d also predict we’ll see a small increase in gasoline taxes to tank up the Special Transportation Fund.  With current fuel prices so low, few will notice or complain.

I’m fairly confident this will never happen, aside from a few “operational lane” enhancements around on and off-ramps.  I’ve written about the folly of solving traffic problems with wider highways for years now, but even if the Lamont administration goes forward with such a plan, the environmentalists will tie him up in the courts for years.

I completely missed this story last year, so shame on me.  Much to everyone’s surprise, the new commuter rail line from New Haven to Hartford (and on to Springfield) has been a huge success, surpassing even CDOT’s expectations of ridership.  Since opening in June, the line has carried over 300,000 riders! Trains have been so crowded that some conductors were kicking off students using GO passes, telling them to wait for “the next train”.  I’m predicting further ridership growth, especially over the winter, and the railroad will have to add more cars in 2019 to handle the crowds.

Much of what happens depends on our new Governor and his relations with the legislature, so stay tuned for a running score on this year’s prognostications.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - A Commuter's Diary

How bad has service got on Metro-North?  Ask Chris Golier, a 40-something family-man from Fairfield who rides the train daily from Southport to Grand Central.

“Commuting is a soul sucking exercise,” he says.  What used to be a 60 minute ride to and from NYC, now takes 75 minutes.  And though slower than in years past, his trains are rarely on time… not the 88% on-time performance claimed by the railroad, but more like 37%.”

How does he know?  He kept a log.

“People take it for granted that the train is going to be late.  Most of us just deal with it or take an earlier train.  But after riding Metro-North for ten years I knew trains were running late, so I kept a record for three months. I used my iPhone to record the exact time my train’s doors opened at Southport and when I got off in GCT.”

Golier’s log covers three months, from July through September 2018.  Though he usually takes the same morning train (scheduled for 7:12 am from Southport), he takes a variety of evening trains home, so his data reflects systemic delays. 

Even taking into account the railroad’s grace period of 5 minutes and 59 seconds in determining if a train is on time, only once in three months did the train meet the published timetable. Just once.

“These are new cars.  They should be quicker,” he says.  “I know the MTA needs to do maintenance, but I pay $391 a month and fares are rising faster than the inflation rate while service keeps getting worse.”

Armed with real, tangible data… not just the usual commuter complaints of “my train is always late”… Golier sent his findings to area politicians.  His local Selectman responded immediately and asked to meet with him.  But his town’s two State Reps and State Senators didn’t even reply, aside from robo-emails acknowledging receipt.

“I tried sending my spreadsheet to Senator Blumenthal but his website wasn’t working.  Senator Murphy gave me a boilerplate reply that wasn’t worth my time reading,” he lamented.

Yes, the elections are over and one wonders if the pols even care.

What he had hoped would get the officials’ attention wasn’t just the train data but its effect on the local tax base.  “Real estate values are going down as commuting time goes up, especially for bedroom communities farther east” (where slower trains mean longer and longer trips).

He also sent his data to Metro-North which responded with an explanation about needed maintenance.  “It’s frustrating because neither MTA nor the politicians have a long-term plan they can articulate which suggests the problem will be solved in the coming years. Commuters are stuck and have no recourse except to move,” which Grolier says he doesn’t want to do.

Who else should commuters turn to in frustration?  Golier admits the conductors, being the face of the railroad, are caught in the middle.  “We know they’re not driving the train, and many of them apologize and admit the railroad isn’t delivering the kind of service they should.”

Golier doesn’t know what his next step will be… or when he will get an answer from the folks he sent to Hartford and Washington to represent him. 

But at least he did the right thing.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 31, 2018

"Getting There" - The Story of GPS

Why is it that men have a reputation for never asking for directions, even when they’re lost?  Is it because they’re macho, or just don’t like maps?  Why do we enjoy the hunt over finding the prize?

Well, that debate has been made moot by technology thanks to the invention of GPS… the Global Positioning System.  You probably have one in your car and on your phone and depend on it exclusively to get where you’re going.

The history of GPS isn’t that old, but it is fascinating.

Back in 1973 the US Department of Defense launched the first of what would become a fleet of 31 satellites circling 12,550 miles above the globe.  Each satellite has a built-in atomic clock, synchronized with the ground station and the other satellites. The satellites constantly transmit data about their time and location, and GPS “receivers” (in your car and smart-phone) pick up the signals from at least four satellites to compute your location.

Initially the GPS system was only for military use.  But after Korean Airlines flight 007 was shot down for straying into Russian airspace, President Reagan issued an order making the system available for civilians.

In 2000 President Clinton enhanced the order, making GPS even more sensitive to your exact location.  Today the most accurate GPS receivers (used on aircraft) can tell you where you are to an accuracy of 3.5 meters.

That’s when commercialization took off, though the first portable GPS receivers weighed 1.5 pounds, could only run on batteries for two hours and cost $3000.

Cellphone manufacturers started offering built-in GPS starting in the late 1990’s and in 2002 the FCC mandated the system be built into cell-towers to be able to triangulate a user calling 911. 

The US military relies on built-in GPS to guide weapons to their targets. But the civilian benefits of this technology range from mapping to disaster relief.  And, of course, self-driving cars.

Another popular commercial application of GPS is “fleet management”.  GPS-equipped cars and trucks can constantly be monitored at the head office so dispatchers can tell who’s on the job and who’s taking an extended break.

Law enforcement also uses GPS.  A commercial device called Stingray can ping any phone and get it to transmit its location.  According to the ACLU, 75 law enforcement agencies in 27 states use Stingray.  But in Connecticut, they first need a warrant.

Not to be outdone, the Russians, EU, India and Japan also have their own GPS systems.  Adding the Russian GLONASS system to our GPS can increase its accuracy to 2 meters. A separate Chinese GPS system, Beidou, will be operational globally by 2020.

But all of this tech is not foolproof.  Homeland Security worries about GPS spoofing and jamming.  Though prohibited by law, a $33 GPS jamming device has been used to interfere with location tracking at such sensitive locations as US airports.

And in an era when killer satellites can blast a GPS bird in outer space, one worries how vulnerable we are in a time of war when zapping just four US GPS satellites could cripple our system.

So as you wend your way over hill and dale to Grandma’s house for the holidays, you might just want to keep an old-school paper map in your glove compartment.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 20, 2018

"Getting There" - The MTA's 'Big Dig'

We all know what happened when Boston decided to bury its downtown elevated interstate highway, known as the Central Artery.  What was intended to be a seven-year, $2.6 billion project ended up as a ten-year, $14.6 billion engineering nightmare.
Well, heads up, fellow commuters and taxpayers!  New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, (parent of Metro-North) has similar designs on our beloved Grand Central.  Nicknamed the “East Side Access” project, the goal is to bring some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central.
The plan would use the lower level of the already built 63rd Street subway tunnel, allowing some LIRR trains from Queens to enter Manhattan and then follow a new, very deep tunnel under existing Metro-North tracks beneath Park Avenue.  Trains would terminate 14 stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains arriving per hour.  Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day (compared with the 115,000 who arrive and depart at GCT from Connecticut)… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, into an underground concourse complex stretching from 43rd to 48th streets beneath Vanderbilt Avenue.
A few years ago I donned boots and a hard hat and surveyed the construction.  It looked like something out of a James Bond movie, it was so massive.
The cost has already ballooned from $3.5 billion to $11 billion in a project rife with corruption.  In 2010 the MTA discovered it was paying 200 workers $1000 a day each with no assigned duties.  This year we found that relatives of high-ranking union officials were being paid $42 an hour (plus $23 in benefits) to deliver coffee to the workers.  Construction analysts say it costs four times as much in New York City to build projects like these compared to Asian and European jobs.
The East Side Access project will give LIRR riders better access to midtown.  But is today’s subway ride connection from Penn Station to GCT really all that bad?  Imagine what we could do with $11 billion to improve commuter rail service in the tri-state region.
More worrying:  what will a more than doubling of passengers in GCT (by adding LIRR to existing Metro-North riders) mean for Connecticut commuters?  Well, if you think the station’s crowded now, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.  GCT would quickly be maxed out for trains and platforms, making much-needed expansion of train service to Connecticut a real problem.
And just imagine the already jam-packed Lexington Avenue subway station with even more riders!
True, diverting some LIRR trains into GCT should free-up “slots” in Penn Station for some Metro-North trains (which would travel there by way of the Hell Gate bridge), but don’t count on it, what with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and LIRR also vying for more access to Penn Station.
If all of this concerns you, don’t get your knickers in a knot.  There’s nothing you can do to stop it.  The money’s already been appropriated and the project should be finished in 2022.
What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle?  Zero… nada… zilch.  New York’s MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval.  Connecticut commuters pay the bills and New York’s MTA calls the tune, building a really “big dig” that benefits Long Island but penalizes us.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - The Twentieth Century Limited

It was possibly the most famous train in American history:  The Twentieth Century Ltd ran between Grand Central Terminal and Chicago for 65 years, offering the finest in accommodations and services.

The first train of this name ran in 1902, making the journey in 20 hours, four hours faster than before.  By 1905 the running time was cut to 18 hours.  So confident was the operator, New York Central RR, of delivering on-time performance, they offered each passenger $1 per hour for any delays.  And that’s when a one-way fare was about $50 for a sleeping section.

The train was like a land cruise, complete with two-car dining car, observation lounge and bar, a valet, barber and even a secretary who could take dictation.  By 1928, its peak year, the Twentieth Century was bringing in $10 million a year, making it the most profitable train in the world.

It was so popular, it didn’t just run one train a night but as many as seven different sections, each outfitted with the same equipment and staff.  By the end of the decade departure was pushed back to 5:30 pm as passengers boarded from a purpose-built red carpet rolled out each evening on the GCT platform.

All of the premium compartments and bedrooms were arranged so they faced the Hudson River so passengers could enjoy the view.  The powerful Hudson class of locomotives could pull the 18-car train at a steady 90 mph.  To save time in refueling, it even took on water for its steam boilers running at speed using a pan and scoop system built in the middle of the tracks, still visible today south of Albany.

Billed as “the water level route”, the NY Central competed well against its arch rival The Pennsylvania RR’s “Broadway Limited”.  Travel times were similar, but the Century promised a smoother ride compared to the Pennsy’s which crossed the Allegheny Mountains.

In 1939 the Century got a major makeover by Henry Dreyfuss, a theatrical designer who had moved into industrial design.  Dreyfuss went on to bring streamlined design to vacuum cleaners, telephones and dozens of household items.  His remake of the Century included everything from car interiors to dinnerware.

Service continued during World War II and by 1948 another redesign saw steam locomotives replaced with diesels.  The NY Central ordered 500 new cars and its flagship train now offered such innovations as fluorescent lighting and an onboard shower. But increased competition by airliners was eating into the train’s profits.

A three hour flight between NY and Chicago required a crew of six.  But a 16 hour train ride on the Century had a crew of 50 and the engineers would change shifts every 100 miles and receive a day’s pay.  This was an expensive train to operate.

By the mid-1950’s the train lost its Mail & Express cars while construction of the NY Thruway, paralleling its route, saw a further loss of passengers and revenue.

On December 2, 1967 the once glorious Century made its last run from Grand Central, only half-full and almost 10 hours late into Chicago.

Today Amtrak offers a similar run, The Lakeshore Ltd, which completes the journey in 19 hours… and is usually late.  It has sleeping cars and coaches, but the dining car no longer serves hot food, only a boxed lunch.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 09, 2018

"Getting There" - The Trucker Shortage

As if crumbling bridges and pot-holed highways weren’t enough to worry about, now America’s transportation network is facing a new crisis:  a shortage of truck drivers.

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks carry more than 70% of all domestic freight, bringing in $719 billion in revenue.  It’s trucks, not trains, that deliver our Amazon purchases and fill the shelves of our favorite big box stores for the holidays. So while we hate to drive behind them on our highways, we love what trucks deliver.

But now, of the existing half-million truck drivers in the US, demographics are taking their toll as more and more retire each year, leaving those jobs unfilled. The ATA estimates the industry needs 51,000 new truck drivers.  And new candidates are not stepping forward.

Why?  Well, the ATA says Gen Z’ers don’t like the lifestyle.  They don’t want to spend long, lonely days or weeks doing long-hauls, eating bad food and sleeping in their rigs.  Even money, like $50,000 signing bonuses, isn’t attracting them.

The average trucker makes $59,000 and drivers for private fleets can make $86,000. But lengthy, expensive training courses present a roadblock to immediate recruitment.  And newly mandated technology tracking drivers’ time on the road is exacerbating the problem.

Drivers are only supposed to drive 11 hours of every 14 hours a day, but many used to fudge their paper log-book records because they got paid by the mile.  Since last December, electronic logging has been the law, so the safety rules are impossible to circumvent.  Of course, nobody wants tired drivers on the road, but in the cause of safety, truckers are losing efficiency.

Where will the industry find new drivers?  Well, women still only represent about 6% of all drivers.  And minorities have seen their numbers increase 12% in the past year.  And the industry is also seeking a reduction in the minimum driving age from 21 to 18.

What’s this all mean to us as consumers?  Higher costs.

Amazon saw a 38% increase in shipping costs in the first quarter, forcing it to raise its (unlimited free-shipping) Amazon Prime membership fee from $99 to $119 a year.  Across the industry spectrum, shipping rates are rising.

But the real solution will probably be self-driving trucks.

That’s why big companies like Waymo (owned by Google), Tesla and Uber, as well as truck-builders like Freightliner and Volvo are investing heavily in the autonomous technology.

Not that we’ll be seeing driverless trucks on Connecticut interstates anytime soon.  There’s probably too much congestion to make them practical.  But there are vast stretches of interstates in “fly over country” out west where self-driving trucks make perfect sense, delivering truckloads of products to automated warehouses where robots will unload them.

Automating trucking may be good for the industry but it certainly doesn’t help with recruitment.  Who wants to sign on for a career knowing full well they may be replaced by a robot?

Sociologist and 13-year trucker Steve Viscelli says the solution is in changing the system:  paying truckers for actual hours on the road (not just mileage), including those times when truckers must waste hours or days waiting for a new load.

Whatever the solution, it’s clear who’ll end up paying:  consumers.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

"Getting There" - Fairer Fares

How much should it cost to ride mass transit?  Are our fares too high?  Would lower fares increase ridership?  If so. why not make the trains free?

As I’ve noted any number of times, fares on Metro-North in Connecticut are among the highest commuter railroad fares in the US.  That’s because our state’s subsidy is the lowest… about 24%, compared to a 50% fare subsidy on the Long Island Railroad. Of course, Hartford’s attitude is that everyone in Fairfield County is a millionaire and can afford to pay more.

Ironically, every time there’s a fare increase, ridership doesn’t go down… it goes up.  Why?  Because the travel alternatives, especially going into NYC, are few and all of them are getting worse.  Metro-North has a captive audience.  Commuters have no choice but to take the train.

Fare subsidies are much higher on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines and Shore Line East where ridership is lighter compared to the mainline.  But service is also less frequent, which might counter those who think lower fares would attract more passengers:  cheap fares and poor service aren’t what we want.

Of course, few passengers on Metro-North actually pay “full fare”.  Off-peak riders get a 25% discount as do members of the military on all trains.  Seniors and the disabled get a 50% price break as do monthly commuters.

While I understand that daily commuters think they deserve a break, they also place the greatest strain on the system over the shortest number of hours, Aside from the frequency of their travel, one could argue that they should be paying a premium, not getting 50% off.
Of course, the fares are the same whether you’re rich or poor, which is why some have started asking for a “fairer fare”, one based on a rider’s ability to pay.

In New York City where subways and buses cost $2.75, there are price breaks for seniors (50%) and even all-you-can-ride monthly passes.  But starting in January 2019 those living below the poverty line (income of $25,000 for a family of four) will qualify for a 50% discount MetroCard.  Some 800,000 residents will potentially be eligible for the plan.  

NYC Mayor De Blasio says the $106 million subsidy would be better carried by rich taxpayers, not the rest.

Similar discounts for the poor have worked well in Seattle and Toronto (where NYC Subway’s new chief Andy Byford came from).  Proponents argue that mobility is an essential right and if you want to get people out of poverty, they’ve got to be able to afford to get to their job.

So… why not free mass transit?

That’s what they’ve just launched in Estonia in an effort to fight traffic and air pollution.  Skeptics says it will help fight neither but will only replace walking with tram rides.

One Connecticut lawmaker once proposed free rides for all Seniors.  But I don’t think the fare is the reason seniors don’t take buses. It’s the service and fears for their safety.

But all such “free” service begs the question of who is really paying for it… the taxpayers.  As with our “free” highways (the ones without tolls), I think it’s much fairer to ask those who use the service to help pay for it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media