Commentary on transportation in Connecticut and the Northeast by JIM CAMERON, for 19 years a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council.
Jim is also the founder of a new advocacy effort: www.CommuterActionGroup.org
Disclaimer: his comments are only his own. All contents of this blog are (c) Cameron Communications Inc
year, billions of dollars worth of goods arrive on our shores by sea… oil,
cars, electronics and food.But how
those shipments make their way to our ports is undergoing dramatic change in
two significant areas.
first is the Arctic Ocean, suddenly free of ice many summer months and open to
traffic. Oil from Norway can now reach Japan by sailing “over” Russia rather
than sailing through the Suez canal, a 40% time / cost savings.And goods from China, the world’s largest
shipper, can arrive in Europe cheaper and faster (by up to two weeks) by
sailing the “Arctic Golden Waterway” rather than going through the Panama
Northwest Passage Sea Routes
the Northwest Passage between Alaska and Greenland is not
as accessible as the Russian waters.Canada claims the waters to be their own while the US says they are
course, both Arctic routes depend on global warming and are only passable a few
months each summer.And both passages
are very dangerous.Though the seas may
be free of ice, salt spray hitting the ships’ superstructure freezes instantly
at -20 degrees.If enough ice builds up,
ships can literally capsize from the weight.
to be outdone, the Panama Canal is expanding in a $5.25 billion project
approved seven years ago.When
completed, the wider and deeper channels and locks will handle vessels triple
the size of the already enormous “Panamax” ships of today.
PanaMax Container Ship
does this mean for the US?Plenty!
handle the mega-ships, US ports need to be dredged and widened as well.Almost $46 billion has already been spent for
cranes, higher capacity train lines and deeper channels at ports like
Jacksonville, Baltimore and, yes, even New York.
Port Authority of NY/NJ is about to spend $1 billion to raise the height of the
Bayonne Bridge to accommodate the taller mega-ships.
But environmental challenges may delay the
project ‘til 2016 after the new canal opens.
railroads are also gearing up.While it
used to be cheaper to ship containers to Long Beach CA and then carry them by
rail across the US, the new Panama Canal may see those containers arrive on the
east coast and be carried by train west.American coal may find new markets overseas by being shipped directly to
Atlantic ports for on-loading to ships.
rail service between the Pacific and Atlantic is not limited to the US.The governments of Mexico, Guatemala and
Honduras are looking to build a dry-canal (railroad) between the oceans that may
be cheaper to use than paying the tolls extracted for shipping through the
in Nicaragua, the Sandanista-controlled national assembly has backed a $40
billion plan for a Chinese company to dig a rival to the Panama canal.But there are many who doubt it can be done
or that its length, triple that of Panama, will be economically viable.
of these efforts add up to one thing:as
the ships get bigger, the world gets smaller.
am nothing if not an optimist.After
toiling as a rail advocate for almost two decades, nothing surprises me or dissuades
me.A few examples…
week Metro-North announced a new timetable, one so hastily launched that they
won’t even have paper copies available ‘til after Labor Day.Why the hurry?Because this summer has been horrendous for
on-time service… but with good reason.
is justifiably proud of 98+%
on-time performance record (give or take their 6 minute margin of
error).But long postponed and badly needed track
work, especially in the Bronx, has screwed up everything since July 1st.Trains, especially at rush hour, have regularly
been 10+ minutes late as two of the four tracks are out of service.
solution?A new timetable showing longer
(more realistic) running times until the work is done.Your train won’t run any faster, but you won’t
be able to complain about being late, at least on paper.
first this may seem like a self-serving trick, but in this case I think the
railroad is right.
track work is necessary.If last May’s
derailment in Fairfield taught us nothing it certainly showed the need for
maintenance.As I asked one fellow rider
grousing about the delays, “what do you want… a fast ride or a safe one?”
track work and slower running times will be in effect through the fall.Let’s all be patient and let the railroad
finish its work.
huge plus for commuters is the recent opening of the West
Haven station. After more than a decade and $130 million in expenditures,
this gorgeous new station with 12 car-length platforms and 658 parking spaces
will finally fill the nine-mile service gap between Milford and New Haven
stations. The station will serve 85 trains each weekday, 56 on the weekends.
Artist Rendering: West Haven station
new station is proof that things can get better thanks to the actions of even one
person.Local businessman Michael
Meruciano petitioned for this station starting in 2000 and single-handedly
fought for its creation for more than a decade.He deserves a medal for his perseverance, though every local, state and
a few national politicians will likely take credit.
of which… we are still waiting for more news on the re-formed CT Rail Commuter
Council, successor to the 26-year-old CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council (on
which I served as Chairman).Governor
Malloy’s proposal to revamp the Council became law this spring and called for
the naming of the new Council’s members by August 1st.
happy to report that I was the first member appointed (thanks to State Rep and
Minority Leader Larry Cafero) and so far five other ‘old’ Council members have also
problem is, Governor Malloy and several other lawmakers have missed the August
1st deadline for appointing new members, leaving us in limbo.Why the rush to reform the old Commuter Council
if they can’t meet their own legislative deadline for appointing members to a
been a rough few months for rail safety, with any number of horrific crashes
and derailments causing death and injury around the world.
the NTSB says it’s fast-tracking (no pun intended) its probe into the May
derailment and collision of two M8-equipped trains on Metro-North, we’ll still
have to wait until October for public
rail cars are manufactured to much higher safety standards than European or
Asian trains. The Federal Railroad
Administration sets standards of survivability based on “crash worthiness”
while the foreign systems aim for “crash avoidance”. Of course that means our trains are heavier
and less fuel efficient, especially at high speed. But they’re built with crumple zones, like
Acela is hardly the fastest train in the world, but a former FRA member told me
he thinks it’s the “world’s safest for crash worthiness.” Before Amtrak ordered the bespoke train sets,
they brought over a Swedish tilt-train (the X-2000)
and Germany’s ICE trainset
to demonstrate the potential of high-speed trains between Boston and Washington. I had a chance to ride both, but while they
garnered great PR for Amtrak, neither of the trains (among the best in the
world for the time) met US safety standards, then or now.
new US rail equipment is put through rigorous testing at an FRA facility in
Pueblo Colorado, a giant race track for trains.
Trains are tested for speed, acceleration and braking as well how they
operate in extreme heat and cold. Amtrak
is now testing
new locomotives at the facility prior to their deployment on the Northeast
Amtrak's new "Sprinter" locomotive
a train engineer is on the phone, texting friends or ignoring his professional
duties, there should be technologies that can intercede. After a fatal MetroLink commuter
train crash near LA in 2008, the FRA mandated that all railroads install “Positive
Train Control” by 2016. The system of
signals, sensors and automatic train controls will cost the railroads $22+
billion. A former senior FRA official,
speaking to me on background, said the system is a desirable goal but “completely
unattainable” by the current deadline due to lack of money and technology.
TANKER CARS: Unlike
other freight cars which are owned by the railroads, tanker cars are owned by
the shippers. They often carry propane,
chemicals and fertilizers, some of which can be lethal if spilled (anhydrous ammonia, chlorine). Yet, because the railroads are “common
carriers” they must carry these shippers’ cargoes, even though they have no
control over the safety standards of the tanker cars carrying them. As a former railroad official told me, “if
these chemicals aren’t being carried by rail, they’d be on the highways”, where
accidents are much more common.
and transport by rail is already safe. But
we must have the will and find the ways (money!) to make it even safer.