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March 23, 2009

"The Train Nuts"

Folks in the railroad industry refer to rail fans as “foamers”, because they supposedly foam at the mouth when they see any kind of train. When they move in groups, radio scanners on their belt and cameras at the ready, they seem to be harmless practitioners of an eccentric hobby.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I love trains. But I don’t “spot” them, recording car numbers in a small book. I read rail magazines, but I don’t know the number of axles on an FL9 locomotive or the running time of The Broadway Limited in 1942.

For me, trains are a means to an end… a transportation option, not a hobby.

Not all “rail fans” are transit advocates… a point I learned last weekend when I was asked to speak to the regional meeting of NARP, the National Association of Rail Passengers, about the work of the CT Rail Commuter Council.

NARP is a great organization and I’ve been a member for many years. Their President, Ross Capon, works tirelessly in Washington to promote rail alternatives to roads. But if this meeting was any indication, their 23,000 members don’t all live up to the group’s name.

Picture this hotel ballroom in New London, filled with balding white guys (like me). But there’s nobody of color (aside from the waiters) and the only women are dutiful wives along to support their husbands’ hobby, knitting all through the meeting. And this audience is supposed to represent rail passengers?

Where were the students, the business men, the handicapped… the folks who really take trains?

Capon gave a great speech about the many changes in Washington breathing new life into rail: increased funding for Amtrak, new initiatives to force freight rail lines to expedite passenger trains, even discussions about ten new high-speed rail corridors across the country.

Another NARP officer spoke of the crazy plans by NJ Transit to build new tunnels under the Hudson River which would dead-end at a new underground station for Garden State commuters instead of continuing on to Grand Central.

But when I spoke about Connecticut’s sorry history with commuter rail, the audience just didn’t get it.

Sure, they seemed to appreciate the slide show of the horrors of our aging fleet, broken down stations and over-crowded trains. They listened politely when I told of building grassroots and political support for improved service. And they clearly understood how important the new M8 cars will be. But during the Q&A it was clear I was dealing with a group of foamers, not passenger rail advocates.

“Why not build high-speed rail through Worcester Mass.?” I was asked. “Why should we when Acela already runs to Boston,” I replied.

“Did you know that the New Haven used to run from Waterbury to Boston,” asked another guy, handing me a photocopy of an old timetable. Nice historical touch, I thought, but why does that matter now that half the tracks are gone?

“Why not run double-deck cars from New Haven to Boston,” a third guy asked. “Why not add capacity where we really need it,” I impatiently replied. Foamers!

If NARP is to truly represent rail passengers it must get beyond these rail fans’ fantasies and nostalgia for a bygone era. We’ll never have parlor cars from New Canaan again nor ride the “Twentieth Century Limited”. But we can improve Amtrak and expand Shore Line East to Providence. We can refurbish our aging fleet of cars and keep fares affordable. We can add commuter rail to Hartford and beyond.

Rail advocates must be taken seriously, not seen as eccentric hobbyists. And NARP should do more to really represent all rail passengers, not just “foamers”.

March 09, 2009

Sound Barriers: A Waste of Money?

One and a half million dollars a mile. The cost of building a new lane on I-95? Hardly! That’s more like $20 million. No, “$1.5 million dollars a mile” would be the cost of building new sound barriers on that crowded highway, according to recent testimony by CDOT Commissioner Joseph Marie.

This won’t win me many friends among my neighbors in Darien, but I just don’t see that they should be asking the government to subsidize their peace and quiet. After all, most of them bought houses near the highway benefiting from speedy access to the roadway and should have known full-well that being that close would subject them to noise.

Do you have sympathy for those who buy homes near airport runways, then complain about the jets? Neither do I.

The first sections of what became I-95 were built in Darien in 1954, long before most current residents came to town. Sure, traffic has increased on I-95 over the years. We are well over the planned capacity of this interstate highway. But thinking the solution to highway noise is to create a walled concrete canyon through our coastal communities paid for by others, is just selfish and short-sighted.

I live about 1500 feet from I-95. On a quiet summer’s night I can hear the trucks as they whiz by at 70 mph, especially when they’re “Jake braking” (illegal in many states). And yes, there is a wooden sound barrier between me and the road which helps a bit. I try to think of the noise as like surf at the beach. But when shopping for my current home, I knew that highway noise was the price I would pay for being so near an on-ramp.

Some neighbors in my, and many other towns, want the state or Uncle Sam to build miles and miles of new sound barriers to cushion their karmic calm. But why should the few benefit at the expense of so many?

Can we really argue that someone in Tolland or Torrington should pay for sound barriers in Westport or Greenwich?

Sound-barriers seem to me to be wasted money. They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or solve congestion. Two miles of sound-barriers would buy a new M8 rail car on Metro-North, taking 100 passengers off the road. And sound-barriers are really sound-reflectors, not absorbers, just bouncing the sound off to bother others.
Consider these alternatives:

1) Sound-proof the homes. This has worked well for neighbors of big airports and is probably cheaper than sound-proofing entire neighborhoods. And insulation against noise also insulates against heat loss, saving energy.

2) Explore rubberized asphalt. Reduce the road noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”. Using this new road surface, some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise. Rubberized asphalt also reuses 12 million junked tires each year.

3) Pay for it yourself. Let neighborhood associations affected by road noise create special taxing zones to collect funds to build sound barriers they’ll benefit from, both with reduced noise and resulting increased home valuations.

Stamford / Darien state Senator Andrew McDonald points out a real contradiction in state and federal rules about new sound-barriers: they can only be built at taxpayer expense when the road in question is widened. Is that good public policy… to encourage bigger, wider roads carrying more traffic just to get “free” sound barriers? Clearly, we should be funding mass transit alternatives, not discussing the folly of adding a fourth lane to I-95.

I can think of any number of better places to spend federal dollars to improve mass transit than sound barriers. Can’t you?