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January 31, 2015

Trains' Name Game



When a recent fast-moving winter storm coming our way was referred to as a “Clipper”, it got me thinking of the old names that used to be given to specific trains, like The Yankee Clipper.  Of course, that name originally derived from the fast sailing ships, but trains have personalities too!
The Europeans do a great job “branding” their trains.  There is, of course, “Eurostar”, the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel”.  There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria”, a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.
All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela”, Amtrak’s best effort at high speed rail.  As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is… it’s your basement.”
Amtrak still has some named trains though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes:  the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, The Adirondack to Montreal.
The old New Haven Railroad used to name its trains:  The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and Senator.  When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”.  But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known to staff and passengers as “The Night Crawler”.  It’s long gone.
Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur:  Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, NY Central and a dead-end.  South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est. And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.

On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located.  But Westport residents still insist on calling their station “Saugatuck” in honor of the adjacent river. And Green’s Farms memorializes John Green’s nearby 1699 farm.  But why is the Harlem line station “Southeast” actually far north of NY near I-84?
Though it no longer names its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars carry names tied to Connecticut lore:  The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry),
 The Ella Grasso (named after our former Governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.
Even before Amtrak, America’s railroads similarly named many cars, especially sleepers, parlor cars and diners.  Today’s long-distance, double-deck Superliners carry the names of the states and such historic figures as A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Pullman porters union.
So the next time you’re on some generic Metro-North train known only by a number, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a train with a name like “The Silver Streak” or “The Weary Commuter”.

January 18, 2015

Malloy's Plan to Widen I-95



Be careful what you wish for.  After years of pleading, we finally have Governor Malloy’s full attention on the problems of transportation.  But his recently announced plan for the state sound like he’s been reading from the book of Moses… Robert Moses, the NYC planner who never met a highway he didn’t like. 
Governor Malloy has announced that he wants to widen our interstate highways. All of them, everywhere!  “Look at New Jersey,” he said recently. “They were smart enough to build parallel highways to existing highways,” evoking images of the six-lane wide New Jersey Turnpike where cars and trucks run in their own lanes.

Great, perhaps, for the swamps of Secaucus, but Governor Malloy says he wants to replicate that on all of I-95 from Rhode Island to New York, adding lanes that would eat into some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
Imagine the decades of construction and the billions of dollars in cost.  The exit 14 widening on I-95 in Norwalk alone cost $41 million and it’s still not done.
And once built, would adding an extra lane or two really solve congestion or would it just encourage more traffic?  Wouldn’t a six lane I-95 actually potentially reduce ridership on Metro-North?  Sorry Governor, super-sizing I-95 is not the answer.
Widening our highways is not viable environmentally or economically.  It’s a non-starter that will see years of lawsuits while a better long-range solution sits right in front of us.
What we need to do is better utilize Metro-North, the railroad line that parallels I-95 for its entire length.  We need to turn it into a suburban “subway” line.
If we increased train service from twice-an-hour off-peak to trains running every 10 to 15 minutes, you wouldn’t need to worry about a timetable.  Just show up and catch the next train.
Why not take the billions you could waste on highway widening and instead add more trains and build more parking at the stations, giving riders better access to the truly rapid-transit? We have already invested billions into Metro-North, so why not finish the job?
Instead we are going to hear the Governor’s grandiose dreams of paving the state as the construction companies and unions see dollar signs in their eyes.  The projected costs will be staggering.  Many will love the ideas, but nobody will like the few painful alternatives to pay for them.
There will be the inevitable debate about tolls and where they should be placed… at our borders or state-wide. Some will suggest we raise the gas tax.  Maybe even offer privatized toll roads (or “Lexus lanes”).
Those are the wrong discussions.  Instead of widening I-95 we should be widening use of an existing resource… our rails.  Let’s build the Fairfield County Subway.