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November 22, 2008

A WPA Project For Transportation

How can our nation pull itself out of this economic tailspin, create new jobs and actually give something to generations? Why, by repairing and reinvigorating our country’s transportation system. What we need is a new, 1930’s style WPA Project for transportation!

The recent election saw a number of states and cities endorse spending for mass transit, mostly for overdue improvements transportation, but with the side benefit of thousands of jobs.

In California voters approved an almost $10 billion bond package to build high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The full plan will cost $42 billion and employ a half-million workers. Construction of the 220 mph train system could begin in 2011.

In Los Angeles voters also approved a half-cent sales tax hike to fund new roads and rails. Over the next 30 years that should mean $40 billion for transportation alternatives to road-weary commuters.

Contrast those visionary voters’ decisions with the muck and mire of us living here in “the land of steady habits”.

We’re not building a transportation bridge to the future but paying for the collapse of one 20 years ago! Today, 40% of the budget of the CDOT still pays debt service on bonds issued after the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 fell down due to engineering neglect.

Right here in Darien we’re watching CDOT spend over $5 million to replace the Hollow Tree Ridge Road bridge over I-95. So far, the seven month-long project seems to be employing just a handful of workers and more time has been wasted since the bridge was closed to traffic than has been spent in actual construction.

Face it. We need to fix what we have before dreaming of a maglev running down the center of our freeways.

The Merritt Parkway opened in 1938. Interstate I-95 came along twenty years later. Both are in bad shape and jammed with far more traffic than designers had ever imagined.

We all know that new M8 rail cars are on their way for Metro-North. Sadly, they are being built by a Japanese company (Kawasaki) and not in Connecticut (but Nebraska). Imagine if those millions were spent in-state for local labor.
And PS… your grandchildren will still be paying for the M8 cars when they’re of commuting age.

But enough grousing. It’s a new day in America, even if it is cloudy and cold. The Obama – Biden team understands the value of transportation spending and hopefully will turn on the federal spigot.

According to APTA, the American Public Transportation Assoc., an industry group, $1 billion in federal investment creates 35,000 jobs. And APTA says there are 559 “ready to go” transportation projects worth $8 billion.

So let’s go! The way to jump-start our ailing economy is not to send out “stimulus” checks to consumers who we hope will shop for LCD TV’s (made in China) for sale at Circuit City (now bankrupt).

Let’s think big. A super-Acela truly offering high speed rail service. How about finally fixing our air traffic control system so a light rain doesn’t close LaGuardia. And what about those feeder barge test-projects designed to get container cargos off of our highways.

Let’s build roads and rails, airports and shipping terminals. Let’s make jobs and leave something our grandchildren can envy.

November 03, 2008

Leaves and Loco's

It sounds like a question on a kid’s quiz show: “How do you stop a train?”

A) Hail it like a cab? B) Pull the emergency brake? C) Put wet leaves on the track?

If you chose “C”, you were correct… and you must be a regular commuter on Metro-North.

This is the time of year that tries train engineers’ souls and commuters’ patience. One day last week, 60 rush-hour trains were delayed by “slippery rails” when wet leaves caused trains to “slip-slide” on their usually solid tracks.

You may not realize it, but the flanged wheel of a train only contacts the rail in a surface area the size of a dime. That’s why trains can move so smoothly with minimal power… riding a small, but firm area of friction.

But when the leaves fall and later get wet, they are ground into one of the slipperiest substances known to man, a compound called pectin. As the train rolls along, its computer senses the slip and tries to apply the disc brakes which eventually scrape off the goo.

But often the brakes are applied so hard that a locked wheel is ground against the track creating a flat-spot on the usually round surface. In years past these flat wheel issues have taken 25% of cars out of service for regrinding.

Sophisticated train computers don’t like it when they think the train can’t stop, so on the new M7 cars running in Westchester county the railroad had to reprogram the safety systems to reassure them the train wasn’t out of control and didn’t need emergency braking.

Worse yet, on some lines the slippery leaves can virtually leave the trains unable to move. Case in point, the Danbury branch line is almost a continual up-hill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”, 397 feet above sea level. On this branch, diesel locomotive-pulled trains can’t stop on hills at stations like Cannondale, so on some days they skip such stops and make a running start for the steeper climbs.

On an MU (multiple-unit) mainline train, all cars are locomotives, spreading out the traction-power the full length of the train. But on a branch line, a single Genesis locomotive weighing 120+ tons has only eight wheels touching the track, seeking enough traction to pull a fully loaded eight car train.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as sand dropped from special hoppers on the train just in front of the drive-wheels. The resulting friction gets the train going or helps it stop.

This is a problem for railroads worldwide, not just here in the northeast.
Of late, Metro-North has brought in heavier armament… a specially designed car dubbed “Water World” equipped with high pressure hoses that blast the tracks free of the gooey mess.

They’re also experimenting with chemical sprays. And one inventor in the UK is proposing to zap the goo off the rails with lasers!

So in the fall when we appreciate the gorgeous foliage, remember the words of Paul Simon: “Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

Confessions of a Road Warrior

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

That’s the thought that went through my mind last week 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 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 van 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 on TWA. I rushed 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, TWA 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 TWA 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. And off I drove to Route 287. 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.