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February 22, 2010

Deaths on the Tracks

A week ago, early on a Tuesday morning, a 63 year old woman walked from her home in Norwalk, approached the Metro-North grade crossing at Commerce Street, lay down on the tracks and was killed by the oncoming train. Service was disrupted for hours.

Months before that a well dressed businessman slipped from a boarding bridge-plate platform and was killed by the approaching train. In his pocket was a pink-slip. Was he a victim or a suicide?

For whatever reason there has been a growing number of deaths along Metro-North tracks and precious little that can be done to stop them.

In Stamford station’s waiting room sits a large display for “Operation Lifesaver”, a national program to educate us of the dangers of walking or driving over railroad tracks. The message isn’t getting through.

On average, one American dies every two hours after being hit by a train. Two thirds of such victims are aged 18 – 34. And half of all car-train collisions occur at crossings with flashing lights or gates.

Fortunately, Connecticut has very few places where cars and trains cross paths. On the mainline, there are none. But on the New Canaan, Waterbury and Danbury branches there are many such crossings. Local neighbors know it because they hear engineers lean on their horns warning motorists, as if the flashing lights and gates were not enough.

In New Canaan, folks complained about the train horns and tried to get them silenced… a move about as stupid as those living near a firehouse complaining about the sirens.

But most recent deaths in Connecticut have not involved impatient motorists driving around gates, but pedestrians on the tracks.

Part of the problem is with recent immigrants in whose homelands walking alongside railroads is an accepted practice. Lacking good roads, track-walking is often the fastest way from point A to point B. There the trains are slow and noisy, affording plenty of time to get out of the way. But on Metro-North, our electric trains operate at 75 – 90 mph and are almost silent. These people never knew what hit them.

In another recent case, two people at a station realized they were on the wrong platform and jumped down to the tracks to get across, rather than use the pedestrian bridge. One of them made it but was unable to lift his girlfriend to safety before she was hit.

Once, waiting for a train in Darien, I saw a teen sit on the platform, his legs dangling over the edge. He figured he had 10 minutes before his train would arrive, little realizing that in just seconds an Amtrak express would come barreling thru at high speed. As the startled engineerleaned on his horn, the kid pulled his legs out of the way with seconds to spare.

My cynical side says this is Darwin in action: that these idiots need to be taken out of the gene pool. But then I think of the other victims in these incidents… not just the person who loses a limb or their life, but the railroad engineer who must watch it happen.

If you want to commit suicide, please do so by yourself and don’t inflict your pain on others. Suicide by rail is messy and not always quick.

Railroad engineers who see a person on the track can do almost nothing to avoid hitting them. A multi-ton train traveling at high speed has such momentum that it requires a mile to come to a full stop. So imagine how the engineer must feel just before the impact of their train on an errant car or pedestrian. Imagine the trauma they experience… the mental anguish for months or years, reliving that crash in their dreams.

We have warning stripes on platforms, flashing lights and gates at crossings for a reason. And yes, New Canaan, engineers sound their horns at such grade-crossings for reasons beyond just annoying you.

As they say in “Operation Lifesaver”, any time is train time. So please… stay off the tracks.

February 07, 2010

High Speed Rail... Really?

There’s been a lot of media hype and political hoopla of late about Connecticut receiving $40 million from the Feds for “high speed rail”. While any money spent on rail is great, let’s take a reality check.

That federal money (combined with $26 million from the state) is merely a small down-payment on an $880 million, five-year plan to bring just commuter rail service to the New Haven – Springfield corridor, a project on the CDOT planning board for more than a decade.. That first money will be spent adding a second track on a 10 mile stretch of existing rail between New Britain and Newington. That’s a good start, but the rest of the project is far from a sure thing. And it sure ain’t “high speed rail”.

Media reports that we’ll soon have 110 mph rail service to our capitol are folly because they assume our cash-strapped state will continue funding the other 90+% of the project.

Sure, commuter rail service along the I-91 corridor will be welcome. And it will undoubtedly have economic and development benefits. But will politicians please stop teasing us with images of bullet-trains and a one-hour, one-seat ride from Hartford to New York (115 miles)?

In recent years any number of would-be office-holders (federal and state) have called on me for briefings on how to fix our transportation mess. I’ve gladly talked with them all, Republican and Democrat, and given them a frank assessment of our situation. But when they start asking… “Why can’t we build a mag-lev down the middle of our interstates?” I start wondering if they’ve been smoking more than cigars.

We can’t adequately fund our existing Metro-North service, and our pols have questions about Disney-style monorails? Let’s look at the facts:

In 2003 Maryland looked at building a mag-lev system 39 miles from Baltimore to Washington and figured it would cost $4.9 billion to build and $53 million a year to operate. You can buy a heckuva lot of conventional rail equipment for that kind of money for such a short run.

Mag-lev may make sense running across the desert from LA to Vegas, but in dense, built up corridors like the Northeast, it’s a fantasy. We’re stuck with the tracks we have with a little straightening and maybe electrification.

What passes for “high speed rail” in the US is a joke by international standards. I love riding Acela, but its purported 150 mph speed is achieved only on a few miles of track in NJ and RI. In Connecticut, Acela maxes out at 90 mph, no faster than Metro-North. And the tilting mechanism on the train (designed to enhance speed) is disabled due to lack of clearance. Over its entire Washington to Boston run, Acela’s average speed just is 72 mph, slower than most cars.

Compare that with Japan’s Shinkansen which runs 185 mph, France’s TGV or the London – Paris Eurostar which do 200 mph. Now that’s high speed rail!

Hey, if we can actually build commuter rail north from New Haven running at 70 mph, I’ll be thrilled. But the project won’t be cheap and I doubt it can happen in this economy. And whatever does get built sure won’t be a bullet-train.