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September 18, 2017

"Getting There" - Sleeping on the Bus from LA to SF


We’ve all enjoyed a nap on Metro-North.  The swaying action seems to induce a nodding-off, especially on the way home after a long day in the city.  But it’s sleeping comfortably during long distance travel that seems like the holy grail for travelers.

On overnight flights to Europe we’re envious of those business class folks with their lie-flat seats.  And on Amtrak, even the comfiest reclining coach seat can’t compare with the beds in the sleepers… be it a one-person roomette or a deluxe bedroom.  And of course, on cruise ships, everyone has some sort of a bunk in a stateroom or otherwise.

Now, you can add a new form of transport offering “sleeper” accommodations:  the bus.

Yes, a new California start-up called Cabin is offering nightly bus service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in specially equipped coaches, each offering 24 “cabins” (bunk beds).  The coach leaves each city at 11 pm and arrives at its destination at 7 am the following morning.

Driving time from LA to SF can be as little as six hours, but this “hotel on wheels” looks for the smoothest route, not the fastest, so as to not disturb slumbering passengers.

The “cabins” look small but offer clean linens, duvets, free earplugs, melatonin-infused water and free Wi-Fi.  One six-foot tall reviewer said she had plenty of room to stretch out, though she did have trouble sleeping.  Mind you, all cabins are single occupancy only, so don’t get any ideas.

For the insomniacs, there’s a small passenger lounge and a 24-hour attendant.  All passengers share one lavatory and, unlike Amtrak’s overnight trains, there is no on-board shower.  In the morning, there’s coffee available to wean you off the melatonin water.
Each passenger can bring two pieces of luggage at no additional charge. And you can show up as little as 10 minutes before departure time.  Try doing that at an airport.

The Cabin isn’t the cheapest way between California’s twin cities.  Megabus makes an overnight run (regular coach seating) for $20 one way.  The average airline fare is about $220 while Amtrak’s celebrated “Coast Starlight” makes the daylight run for as little as $64 in coach ($178 in a Roomette).  Cabin’s fare is $115 each way and the bus often books up days in advance.

Clearly, the attraction is one of making best use of your time, not the speed or comfort of the trip.  To the mostly-millennial target audience, sleep is a necessary distraction from work, so if you can multi-task during your overnight hours (sleep and travel), all the better.

Cabin’s backers have secured $3.3 million in underwriting and have their sights on expanding service to other cities like Portland and Las Vegas.  Their real dream is to use self-driving technology and eventually have the Cabins cruise without drivers. (Now that could induce some sleeplessness!)

Alas, I couldn’t find anyone on the east coast copying the Cabin’s service.  New York and Boston are only four hours apart, by bus or Acela.  From the Big Apple to DC is just 3 hours by train and maybe 4 by bus.  Both are just too short for a good night’s sleep.
So, for now, to sample the concept of “sleeper” bus transport, you’ll just have to “Go west”, young man… “Go west!”

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


September 12, 2017

"Getting There" - Dayrips Back Into Railroad History

If you’re looking for family fun as summer wraps up, consider visiting one of Connecticut’s many living museums celebrating our state’s rail heritage.

The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (www.shorelinetrolley.com) was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than one hundred trolley cars in its collection.  It’s on the National Registry and is the oldest continuously operating trolley line in the US, still running excursion trolleys for a three-mile run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford.  You can also walk through the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars.  There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.

The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor (www.ceraonline.org) began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US.  It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company.  You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour their collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.

If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either trolley museum.  But if you’re looking for real trains, you’re also in luck.

The Danbury Railroad Museum (www.danburyrailwaymuseum.org) is walking distance from the Metro-North station in “the Hat City”, making this potentially a full-day, all-rail adventure.  They are open seven days a week and on weekends they offer train rides and, for a premium, you can even ride in the caboose or the engine.  They have a great collection of old rail cars and a well stocked gift shop.

For nostalgia fans, The Essex Steam Train (www.essexsteamtrain.com) offers not only daily rides on a classic steam train, but connecting riverboat rides up to the vicinity of Gillette Castle and back.  In addition to coach seating you can ride on an open-air car or in a plush First Class Coach.  There’s also a great dinner-train, “The Essex Clipper” which offers a 2½ hour, four-course meal and a cash bar.

In downtown South Norwalk you can visit what once was a busy railroad switch tower, now the SoNo Switch Tower Museum (www.westctnrhs.org/towerinfo.htm) .  Admission is free (donations welcome) weekends noon to 5 pm.

Also open only on weekends is the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic (www.cteastrrmuseum.org).  In addition to guided tours, visitors can operate a replica 1850's-style pump car along a section of rail that once was part of the New Haven Railroad's "Air Line".

The Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston (www.rmne.org) offers rail trips on Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays along the scenic Naugatuck River in addition to a large collection of restored engines and passenger cars including a last-of-its-kind 1929 New Haven RR first class “smoker”, complete with leather bucket seats.

All of these museums are run by volunteers who will appreciate your patronage and support.  They love working to preserve our state’s great railroad heritage and will tell you why if you express even the slightest interest in their passion.  Bring your kids and let them see railroading history come alive.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


September 05, 2017

"Getting There" Summers in the Toll Booth

In a matter of days the first part of the new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge will be opened to traffic.  But already demolished is the site of my favorite summer job.

For three of my college years (in the 1960’s) I worked as a summer-time toll collector for the NY State Thruway, both on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and later,  at the New Rochelle toll barrier.  It wasn’t the sexiest of gigs, but the pay was good and I sure learned a lot about people on the road.

Like the elderly couple who came to my booth in Tarrytown asking “which exit is Niagara Falls?”  Consulting my official NY Thruway Map (remember those?) I said, “That’s exit 50, sir.”  Reassured they were heading in the right direction, they then asked “Is that exit on the right or left?”  I responded, “Bear right for 389 miles. You can’t miss it.”

The Woodstock festival happened during one of my summers in the booth.  Of course, nobody expected a half-million kids would show up for the upstate event, especially the folks at the Thruway.  But after the festival was well underway, the Thruway “authorities” realized the mobs would eventually be heading home, clogging the bridge.  Because the music was expected to end late on Sunday, many of us temp-collectors worked overtime into the wee hours of Monday morning.

Of course, the music didn’t end until Monday, meaning that the usual morning rush hour carried as many burned-out hippies as it did business commuters.  I remember one station wagon that pulled in to my lane, caked in mud up to the windows and stuffed with a dozen zonked-out kids.  “Hey man,” said the driver with eyes that struggled to focus. “We don’t have any money” (to pay the then 50 cent toll).  “How about these instead?”  That day, the Tappan Zee toll was an orange and a warm Coke.

Most days, life as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee was a delight, as I was usually assigned the outside lane, also known as “the country club” because of its green vistas and views of the mighty Hudson River.  The job wasn’t very demanding and gave me plenty of time to listen to the radio, my eventual career path.  But then, as fate would have it, I was transferred to the night shift on the New Rochelle toll barrier.

Overnights on the New England Thruway (I-95) were dominated by trucks… hundreds of them.  Most feared by all toll collectors was one vehicle heading to the Hunts Point Market that usually came through about 4 am… “The Chicken Truck”!

This flatbed truck was piled high with open chicken coops stuffed full of terrified live birds on their way to their demise at markets in New York City.  Careening down the highway at top speed, the chicken truck left in its wake a plume of noxious effluent of chicken feathers and bird poop.  So when the truck slowed to a stop to pay its toll, this cloud of gas and seepage would continue into my lane.

As old-timer toll collectors would warn me, when “The Chicken Truck” chooses your lane, close your windows and door.  Wait until the driver is ready with the toll money and open your door only wide enough to accept the cash, then seal yourself in the booth and don’t breathe!

Today, with E-ZPass, “The Chicken Truck” doesn’t even slow down and toll collectors can all breathe easier.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


"Getting There" Trump Nixes Sleep Apnea Testing

Your daily commute just became more dangerous, thanks to President Trump.
 In his zeal to kill off unnecessary Federal regulations, he has ordered cancelation of a plan to require mandatory sleep apnea testing for truck drivers and railroad engineers.

The Federal Railroad Administration, and its sister agency covering truckers, both said they still recommended such testing but would not require it.  Why?  Perhaps it is the Trump administration’s campaign promise to cut two regulations for each new one imposed.

I’m all for “draining the swamp”, but this exercise in cutting red tape is likely to cause deaths.

It wasn’t until December of 2013 that anyone in railroading had given serious thought to sleep apnea.  Because that’s when Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller ran his train into a 30 mph curve at 82 mph at Spuyten Duyvil, sending the cars off the tracks and leaving four passengers dead.

Initially Rockefeller said his brakes had failed.  Then he said he’d been “sort of dazed, mesmerized”, comparing it to highway hypnosis.  When he realized what was happening it was too late.  His emergency brake application, coupled with the momentum of the huge locomotive pushing, not pulling, the train, made derailment inevitable.

Rockefeller was a 15-year veteran of Metro-North, ten years as an engineer.  But he’d also been changing his work shift. On the morning of the accident Rockefeller had left his home at 3:30 am to get to work, having gone to bed at 8:30 pm the night before, after a nine hour work shift.

But not only was he tired, he was also overweight and, as subsequent testing showed, suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea.  Federal investigators said his medical condition meant he was an accident waiting to happen, and criticized Metro-North for not testing its employees.  Shortly after, the FRA proposed mandatory testing and Metro-North complied.

By the way… Rockefeller is now on a $3200 a month lifetime disability pension because of his sleep apnea but is suing Metro-North for $10 million claiming it was responsible for allowing him to speed.

In 2016 there was another railroad crash, this time in Hoboken NJ, when an engineer “spaced out” coming into the station causing a collision that took one life and left 14 injured.  Investigators think the engineer may also have had sleep apnea.

By the way… neither train had Positive Train Control which might have prevented speeding that caused the accident.  That technology is still many months away thanks to foot dragging by the railroads.

Sleep apnea may affect 5-20% of the population, with obesity being a contributing factor.  And in sedentary jobs like truck driving and railroad engineering, obesity is a big problem. 

So why not test for it?  We test airline pilots’ vision and health, including potential sleep apnea.  So should we also test railroad engineers and truck drivers.  Our lives are in their hands and we have a right to know they’re not drunk, blind or falling asleep at the wheel.

An average Metro-North train at rush hour can carry 1000 passengers, the equivalent of two fully-loaded 747’s.  Don’t we have a right to know that the engineer is in good health?  Not according to the Trump administration, which sees such mandatory medical testing an unnecessary burden on business.


Metro-North says its testing has found that 18% of its 320 engineers they tested suffer from sleep apnea.  And, to its credit, the railroad says it will continue testing all crew members, even without the FRA requiring it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Why You Can't Pump Your Own Gas in New Jersey

https://gettingtherect.blogspot.com/2017/08/why-you-cant-pump-your-own-gas-in-nj.html

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media



August 07, 2017

"Getting There" - The Hyperloop is more hype than hope

Imagine traveling from Washington DC to New York City in 29 minutes, not by airplane but in a large underground tube, sucked along at up to 700 mph.  That’s Elon Musk’s vision for Hyperloop.  But to me, it’s more hype than loop.

Elon Musk is, as one commentator put it, “the PT Barnum of technology”.  He’s all PR and publicity, hyperbole and exaggeration.   Case in point, Musk’s recent tweet that he’d been given “verbal approval” to build his super-train in the Northeast.

First off, there is no such thing as “verbal approval” in a project this massive requiring hundreds of permits from dozens of state, federal and local agencies, none of which have been filed.

Musk’s green-lighting of his own project probably came from some Trump administration official who said “Cool idea, Elon”, and Musk was off to the races… and Twitter.

What exactly is a Hyperloop?  Good question, as not even a prototype has been built, let alone tested.  But think of it as a big tube with a vacuum inside, hurtling pods along using linear induction motors at up to 760 mph.  Sounds interesting, at least in concept.

But the devil’s in the details, ie the engineering and testing, which is just getting underway in the Nevada desert.  In one trial a test sled was accelerated from 0 to 110 mph in one second, exerting an astronaut-level 2.5 G force. Buckle up, folks.

I can’t wait for the human testing.  Can you imagine a 29 minute, 700 mph ride through an underground tube.  Even if you’re not claustrophobic, what if something goes wrong?  How do you get out? 

We’ve already had horrendous fires in the 31 mile long Chunnel under the English Channel, let alone a 225 mile underground tube between NYC and DC.  And wouldn’t Hyperloop be a tempting target for terrorists?

Clearly, the Hyperloop is decades away from being feasible, not to mention being put into construction mode.  Yet, Musk insists boring can get underway this year and he asks, in his tweets, for his true believers to lobby lawmakers and regulators for the necessary approvals. (PS:  Musk also owns the company that will build the tunnels).

Some estimate an above-ground Hyperloop would cost $200 million a mile to build (not counting the cost of the land).  But using a tunnel boring machine and going underground, who knows the cost or construction time.  Just for the Feds to rebuild the two Civil War-era rail tunnels (3.6 miles) in Baltimore will cost $4.5 billion.

So where’s the money going to come from?  The Trump administration can’t commit to rebuilding the Hudson River Amtrak tunnels, let alone take a flyer on this pipe-dream.

Elon Musk is estimated to be worth over $17 billion, money he earned by starting PayPal.  But he’s been plowing most of his fortune into projects like Tesla and Space X which, admittedly, have been hugely successful, if expensive.

So don’t write Musk off as some faker or phony.  Just be skeptical of his Trump-like over promising and sketchy details.  I’ll believe Hyperloop when I see it.  But I don’t think I’ll be riding it.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media


"Getting There" - High Speed Rail Runs Over CT

In China you can travel by high-speed rail between Beijing and Shanghai (819 miles) in about four hours, averaging over 200 mph.  Take Amtrak from New York to Boston and the 230 mile journey will take at least 3.5 hours (about 65 mph).

Why the difference?  Because the US is a third-world nation when it comes to railroading.  Our railroads’ tracks (rights-of-way) are old and full of curves compared to China’s modern, straight rail roadbeds.

When then US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood toured China’s best-in-class high speed rail (HSR) system a few years ago he marveled at the accomplishment, but noted (paraphrasing here) “It’s amazing what you can do in a country that only needs three people to make a decision.”

In China, when the government decided to build HSR, they drew a straight line to determine its path.  Anything and anyone in the way was out of luck.

Not so in the United States, witness the Federal Railroad Administration’s plans to build HSR between Washington and Boston.  The initial plan was to straighten track in Connecticut, plowing through historic towns like Old Lyme.  Local opposition and the engagement of the state’s elected officials all but killed the plan.

But the FRA’s recent Record of Decision revising its plans delivered only a partial victory for preservationists in our state.  Sure, Old Lyme was saved, but in southwest Connecticut, the FRA still has plans to re-do our cities’ and towns’ landscapes.

Still buried in the 61-page document is a plan to reroute tracks from New Rochelle to Greens Farms on a new path alongside (on top of?) I-95.  This would mean major disruption for everyone from Greenwich to Norwalk, with massive construction right in the heart of those communities.

The details are few:  just a fuzzy map showing the proposed HSR tracks somewhere near the interstate, avoiding our century-old rail bridges and replacing them with highway style elevated structures.

With Governor Malloy still calling for a widening of I-95, where would these new tracks be placed?  The FRA says it doesn’t know.  But drive that sound-barriered highway corridor and you’ll see there isn’t much room for new tracks or highway lanes, let alone both.

Local officials, residents and commuters should all be concerned.  While the balance of the FRA’s plans in the state call for an upgrade of existing tracks, why the need for this invasive new structure in the already crowded highway corridor?  Why not just rebuild the existing tracks?

Better yet, why not re-visit the idea of the “inland route”, sending trains to Boston north through Westchester before heading east along I-84 through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford?  There’s more open space and a better chance to build straight, truly HSR tracks.

That idea was rejected by the state, fearing loss of rail connectivity for coastal business centers such as Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven, despite Amtrak’s promise to still run Acela service along the coast.

We are not living in China, nor should we allow the FRA to tell us how to live.  Our last hope in opposing this land-grab is the necessary environmental review of the FRA’s plans.
Now would be the time to tell Washington “No”!

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media



July 29, 2017

"Getting There" - The World's Best (and Smallest) Airline

I hate to fly.  It is crowded, uncomfortable, stressful and inhuman.  But having just returned from a wonderful vacation in France, I am rethinking my views thanks to my roundtrip flight on La Compagnie, an all business-class “boutique” airline.

Founded as “Dreamjet” in 2013, this French-owned airline has only two planes and flies twice a day from Newark to Paris.  But their 757’s are unlike any you’ve ever flown, carrying only 74 passengers on planes usually crammed with 200+ coach seats.

As an all business-class operation, each seat on La Compagnie is 26 inches wide with five feet (60”) of legroom.  That compares to a typical coach seat’s 17 inch width and 31 inches of “pitch”.  Even seats in BusinessFirst on United are only 21 inches wide with 55 inches of legroom.


Because the planes are so uncrowded, check-in is a breeze and you can enjoy food and drink in a real lounge before going through priority TSA security lines and onto the plane.  Checked bags are free and there is plenty of overhead space for your carry-ons.

In-flight service is amazing and the food is great: multi-course meals catered by a French chef with plenty of wine to wash it down.  In-flight entertainment (movies, books, music) is provided on flat-tablets, one per seat.  There’s no in-flight Wi-Fi, but power plugs can keep your personal device well charged.

Flying time is the same as other airlines, but on arrival, again no stress as you don’t have to
wait with 200+ fellow travelers for customs or baggage.


This is what flying should be.  And most amazing of all, it’s affordable.

Looking at a typical one-way to Paris in August booking a month in advance, business class on Air France, Delta or United is over $7000.  One the same date, La Compagnie is $1657.  On slower dates, booked in advance, La Compagnie offers roundtrips as low as $1300.

Now, certainly even those fares are higher than flying coach.  Newcomer Norwegian Airlines offers a one way to Paris in coach for $265 while US carriers will get you there starting at $2600.  But you don’t get what you don’t pay for. 

I find over-night flights in coach are unbearable.  You can’t sleep and given the time change you’re a zombie for the first day in Europe.  But on my “Dreamjet” I actually got some shut-eye on my almost-flat sleeper seat.


La Compagnie has succeeded where other all-business competitors like MaxJet, Eos and Silverjet have failed. They’re cautious in not over-expanding.  In fact, they cancelled their London flight after the Brexit vote last year.  But their management may be looking at other European destinations as they modernize their fleet with new Airbus 321neo  jets coming in 2019.

The airline tells me that 55% of their passengers are from the US, 45% from France.  They’ve even added a frequent flyer program after testing an unlimited-flights-for-a-year pass for $35,000, a deal that got fewer than 10 takers.


I don’t go to Europe that often.  But next time I will only fly La Compagnie.  I hope that some of our domestic airlines follow their lead and make flying comfortable again. People will pay for comfort if the product is offered.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 24, 2017

"Getting There": The MTA Management Meltdown

It’s not just the summer heat that’s causing an operational meltdown at the MTA, parent agency of Metro-North and the NYC subways.  It’s the years of neglect, under-funding and misplaced priorities that are taking a toll on our vital transit infrastructure.

And it’s only going to get worse, as the President of Metro-North has chosen to retire, long before his work is done.

Hardly a day goes by without delays on Metro-North caused by “wires down”, signal problems, stuck bridges, poor track conditions or even the occasional  “minor derailment”.  The work crews just can’t keep up with the aging equipment and commuters are justifiably angry about paying high fares for worsening service.

The New York city subway system is in such crisis that NY Governor Cuomo just declared a state of emergency, finding $1 billion in investment and even offering a $1 million “genius prize” to anyone who can come up with a solution to improve service.
Dozens of lawsuits drag on from Metro-North derailments and train crashes going back to 2013, costing the agency (and taxpayers / riders) tens of millions of dollars. 

We still don’t have PTC, positive train control, to prevent such tragedies, despite a deadline extension and infusion of millions of dollars.  How many more lives will be lost before PTC is a reality?

Meanwhile, back here in Connecticut, the CDOT is planning to cut transit funding over the next few years because of reduced spending by Washington.  Instead, they’ll invest in highway mega-projects like the Waterbury mixmaster.

Through all of this our dysfunctional legislature can’t even write a budget, let alone figure out how to fund the Special Transportation Fund which pays for our roads and rails and is expected to run out of money by 2019.  Rational funding plans like tolls and vehicle mile tax have no political traction.

And the icing on the cake?  Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti has announced he is retiring after three years on the job, but long before his mission is complete.   Why is he leaving?   He says it’s because he’s put in his 40 years in the railroad biz and wants to enjoy his life.

Mr. Giulietti may deserve a break after three years of his 24 x 7 labors.  He has done much to improve the railroad and deserve our thanks.  But I can’t imagine a man as smart and well intentioned as him isn’t feeling some guilt at deserting his troops in their hour of need.

Was it the immensity of the job that exhausted Giulietti, or the appointment of his new boss, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, whose primary focus is on fixing the subways?

The folks at Metro-North aren’t stupid, despite what you might think when stuck on some sweltering, delayed train.  They are smart, well intentioned professionals trying to do the best with a bad situation… keeping their aging, under-funded railroad running.

While the MTA spends billions on years-overdue projects like East Side Access (bringing the LIRR into Grand Central), the legacy transit system can barely keep running.

Some of MNRR’s best and brightest came out of retirement to work for Giulietti and must be feeling abandoned.  Finding his replacement won’t be easy and will take many months.

Hang on, fellow commuters.  We are in for a bumpy ride.

Post with permission of Hearst CT Media.


July 17, 2017

"Getting There" - Commuting in the Good Ol' Days

You think that commuting is a modern phenomenon?  Guess again!  “Getting there” (to work) is as old as our state.

As early as 1699 Connecticut had roads that had been laid out on routes we still use today.  But whereas today those roads are lined with trees, by the mid-1700’s most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming. 

In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals.  Every able bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape.  But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians. 

By 1785 there was only one privately owned “pleasure” vehicle in all of Stamford, a two-wheeled chaise owned by the affluent Major John Davenport.

At the end of the 18th century it was clear that we needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built.  The deal was that after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control.  Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal!

One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road.  Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.

Four toll gates were erected:  GreenwichStamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield.  No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills.  Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.

The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls, which got them the nickname “shun-pikes”.

Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY.  And three days a week a local coach to Stamford connected to a steamboat to New York.

The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service.  An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Stamford to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes.  Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.  The one-way fare was 70 cents (that’s about $21 in today’s money) vs today’s fare of $15.25 at rush hour.

In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.

In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived.  The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting with the Norwalk Tramway; the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.

Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride.  There were so many trolley lines in Connecticut that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.  The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.


Fast forward to the present where we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in some cities and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage.  Has “getting there” really changed that much over two hundred years?


Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 10, 2017

"Getting There" P.T. Barnum - Train Advocate

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and The Commuter Action Group have in common?   Both are “rail activists” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his circus and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford.   The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum, Kathy Maher.

She explained that Barnum was more than a showman.  He was also a business man (he once owned the local water company) and railroad advocate.

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Back in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican. (Later he became mayor of Bridgeport.)  As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who’d protect their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR!  Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters.  Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters.  Once Vanderbilt had them as passengers for their daily ride into and out of NYC, he jacked up fares by 200 – 400%.  There’s nothing like a monopoly!

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which Vanderbilt had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad. 

Just as in Barnum’s day, our transportation future seems to be in the hands of powerful forces in New York.  “Our railroad” is run for us by the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), a New York State agency answerable to that state’s Governor, not our own.  Though we are Metro-North’s biggest customer and Connecticut’s rail lines boast almost as many passengers than MTA has in its home state, we have no seat on either the MTA or Metro-North boards.

True, Governor Malloy hasn’t been shy about holding the MTA and Metro-North to task when their neglect caused derailments and service cuts.  But hauling the New Yorkers up to Hartford (they drove) and publicly excoriating them in front of the media didn’t win Malloy any friends.

The one area where Connecticut does maintain control is in setting fares.  New York sets its fares and we set ours.  But in recent years Metro-North fare hikes have become more of a “commuters’ tax” used to plug state budget gaps than spent on improvements in service.

As Barnum once said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 03, 2017

"Getting There" - Trump's Transportation Plan

Though it was lost in all the recent Comey kerfuffle, President Trump has finally released his plans for a trillion dollar infrastructure initiative.  And it’s as disappointing as it is confusing.

There is no doubt the nation needs to spend on repairing its roads and bridges, its airport and railways.  The question is, where to find the money.  And with a Republican dominated Congress which is loathe to spend any new funds, the alternatives to government spending are few.

The answer may come in an acronym… P3, which stands for “Public-Private Partnerships”.  The President proposes leveraging $200 billion in Federal money with $800 from the private sector.

Mind you, this is not outright “privatization” of public resources like toll bridges and highways.  That’s been tried and really backfired.

Consider the City of Chicago’s 2008 selling control of its 36,000 parking meters to an LLC for $1.15 billion in badly needed cash.  The 75 year deal was rushed through in just one day, giving lawmakers little chance to consider its long-term implications.  The city’s own Inspector General later estimated the city under-priced the deal by $1 billion.

Almost immediately the new owners jacked up parking rates, made the parking spaces smaller and reduced the number of handicap spots.  Not only were motorists and citizens outraged, but the reduced availability of parking had a profound effect on business.

Even partnering with private companies on infrastructure deals is fraught with peril as we have seen right here in Connecticut.  Our own DOT got snookered in a P3 to build the Fairfield Metro train station when its developer partner couldn’t get financing.  The CDOT got left holding the bag, paying to finish the station (which still has no waiting room).

Or consider the horrible experience at the Stamford rail station garage where it took the DOT over three years to walk away from a deal they could never close with a developer with financial ties to Governor Malloy’s re-election.

Most government agencies aren’t as smart as private businesses when it comes to analyzing infrastructure for investment.  When government owns the assets they are held for the public’s benefit.  When business comes on board, their only concern is their bottom line.

And even the $200 billion Trump proposes the government will spend will only go to states that can match Federal money with their own.  And we know how little money is left in most state coffers, like our own, to spend on road repairs.

Even Democrats, like Congressman Jim Himes, who were anxious to partner with Trump on infrastructure were disappointed by the President’s plan as it was so short on details.

The one privatization the President did detail was a plan to takeover our nation’s air traffic control system, now costing $10 billion a year.  The concept has worked in Canada and several EU countries and our airways could certainly benefit from a tech upgrade to GPS from old radar-based systems.

But upgrading any of these crucial infrastructures is like changing a fan-belt on a moving car.  At stake are human lives as all of these systems are, as they say, “mission critical”.  There is zero margin of error, especially for our impatient President.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media



"Getting There" Merritt - Queen of the Parkways

Sometimes, not changing is a good thing.  After all, Connecticut is the “land of steady habits”.
Those were my thoughts one day driving through the spring foliage on The Merritt – Queen of the Parkways.  What an amazing road.
A century ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Route 1, the Post Road.  If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey!  So in 1936, two thousand men began work on the state’s largest public works project, the $21 million four-lane parkway starting in Greenwich and running to the Housatonic River in Stratford.  (The adjoining Wilbur Cross Parkway didn’t open until years later when the Sikorsky Bridge across the Housatonic was completed.)
The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it isn’t native, but planted:  22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs.  And then there are the amazing bridges, since 1991 protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architect George Dunkleberger designed 69 bridges in a variety of architectural styles, from Art Moderne to Deco to Rustic.   No two bridges are exactly alike.  In short order the Merritt was being hailed as “The Queen of Parkways”.
The parkway at first had tolls, a dime (later 35 cents) at each of three barriers, not to pay for the parkway’s upkeep but to finance its extension to Hartford via the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named after Wilbur Lucius Cross who was Governor in the 1930’s.  Tolls were dropped in 1988.
The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the Parkway, constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles.  One of the original booths is still preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.  There’s also a nearby museum (just off exit 53) highlighting the parkway’s construction and history.
The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 when downed trees pretty much closed the highway.
Since its design and opening in 1938 the Merritt Parkway has been off-limits to commercial vehicles and trucks.  But as traffic worsens on I-95, debates rage from time to time about allowing trucks on the Merritt and possibly widening the road.  Either move would probably mean demolition of the Parkway’s historic bridges, so don’t expect such expansion anytime soon.
The best watchdog of the Parkway’s preservation is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy which has fought to keep the road’s unique character.  They have a lot of clout.
In 2007 the group won a court battle against CDOT plans for a massive LA-like cloverleaf interchange where the Merritt meets Route 7.  Their latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. Costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, the Conservancy worries that the trees and foliage that would be clear-cut to allow bike and pedestrian users would despoil the eco-system.

So for now, the best and only way to enjoy The Merritt is from your car.  This is one road where bumper-to-bumper traffic can actually give you time to appreciate the incredible natural and man-made beauty.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media