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October 27, 2017

"Getting There" - The Myth of the Third Rail

Hardly a season goes by without service on Metro-North being disrupted by a “wires down” accident.  That’s when the overhead catenary that powers our trains breaks or is ripped from its poles, cutting electricity and service and ruining the commute for thousands.
But why do we rely on such fragile wires, some of them installed 100 years ago?  Isn’t there a better way of powering our trains?  Probably not.
Consider this:  ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that relies on three modes of power:  AC, DC and diesel.
Trains leaving Grand Central first operate on 750 DC current picked up from the third-rail, just like NYC’s subways.  Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the trains raise their pantographs (those triangular shaped contraptions atop the cars) and convert to 12,500 volt AC current picked up from the catenary, hence the phrase “operating under the wire”.
On the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines there is no electricity, so those trains must be powered by diesel.  But even those diesels must operate on third-rail power in the Park Avenue tunnels for environmental and safety reasons.
That’s a lot of technology for one railroad to administer, and a lot of electronics.  That is why the M8 cars that operate on AC and DC require separate power processing, adding to their cost.  The third-rail only M7 cars that run on the Hudson and Harlem lines cost about $2 million each.  But our newer and more complicated M8’s cost about $2.75 million apiece.
So a lot of people ask me… “Why not just use one power source by converting the entire line to third rail?”  As with so many other seemingly simple solutions there are several good reasons why it wouldn’t work.
Mind you, the idea was studied by CDOT in the 1980s and rejected.  And here’s why:
1)     There’s not enough room to add a third rail along most of the four-track system.  You’d have to move the tracks, widen the right-of-way and expand a lot of the bridges and tunnels it uses.  Imagine the cost.
2)    Even if we did convert to third-rail, we’d still have to maintain the overhead catenary system for Amtrak whose locomotives get their power under the wire.
3)    A third-rail power system needs more real estate:  power substations every few miles, adding to construction and cost.
4)    Third-rail DC power is nowhere near as efficient as overhead wire AC power.  That means slower acceleration in third-rail territory and speed limits of about 75 mph vs 90 mph under the wire.  Remember… the fastest trains in the world (like the TGV and Shinkansen) operate under the wire, though theirs is not as aged and brittle as ours.
5)    Third-rail is dangerous to track workers and trespassers.  Overhead wires, much less so.
6)    Third-rail can ice up and get buried in blizzards, causing short-circuits.  We’ve had some amazing winter weather in Connecticut, but nothing that piled snow high enough to touch the overhead wires.
I’ll admit that weather does cause problems for the catenary.  In extreme heat it can expand and sag and in bitter cold it can become brittle and snap.  Both conditions require our trains to operate (even) more slowly, but they still get you where you’re going.
So what’s the solution to our “wires down” problems?  Accelerated replacement of old wire, better maintenance of pantographs and a little common sense… and not conversion to third-rail.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media


October 14, 2017

"Getting There" - The Long Haul Trucker

Why do most motorists hate truck drivers?  Is it because their big rigs are so intimidating?  Or do we think they’re all red-neck cowboys, living the life on the range and we’re secretly jealous?

I respect truckers and think, for the most part, they are much better drivers than the rest of us.  They have stiffer licensing requirements, better safety monitoring and much more experience behind the wheel.  And unlike most of us driving solo in our cars, they are driving truly “high occupancy (cargo) vehicles”… 22 tons when fully loaded.

For an inside look at the unglamorous life of a trucker, I can highly recommend the new book “Long Haul” by Greenwich native Finn Murphy who’s been driving since he was 18 for the Joyce Moving Company.

Murphy is what truckers call a “bedbugger” because he specializes in high-end corporate relocations.  He’s at the top of the trucker food chain, both in income and prestige, far ahead of car haulers (parking lot attendants), animal haulers (chicken chokers) and even hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys).

While Murphy says a lot of long haul truckers do the job because they can’t find any other work, his career choice was an educated decision as his left Colby College before graduation, realizing he could easily make $100,000 packing, moving and unpacking executives’ possessions without a BA.

Forty million Americans move each year and from this author’s perspective they all have too much stuff.  They covet their capitalist consumption of furniture and junk (what movers call chowder).  And it ain’t cheap to move it, averaging about $20,000 for a long distance relocation.   But as he sees it, he’s more in the “lifestyle transition” business than simply hauling and is sensitive to clients’ emotional state.

Murphy’s African American boss nicknamed him “The Great White Mover” as, at age 59, he’s one of the last few white drivers.  Most of the industry is now handled by people of color, especially the local crews that do the packing and unpacking.  When self-driving trucks hit the road, thousands of minority drivers are going to be out of luck.  Robots already do most of the loading and unloading of trucked merchandise bound for big-box stores.
As an independent operator, Murphy incurs all of the expenses.  His tractor (the detachable engine part of the truck) costs $125,000.  That’s not counting the $3500 he pays to register it or $10,000 to insure it.  A new tire (his rig has 18) costs $400 at a truck stop and maybe double that if he’s stranded on some interstate.

The average rig isn’t just a tractor hauling an empty trailer.  Even before loading, that trailer has hundreds of pads (each of which must be neatly folded), plywood planks, dollies, tools, ramps and hundreds of rubber straps for tying things down.  Loading his truck is like solving a giant Tretris 3D puzzle.

Murphy’s driving hours are regulated and carefully logged, then checked at every inspection station.  But he thinks nothing of driving 700 miles per day, usually parking at a truck stop and sleeping in his on-board bunk equipped with a high-end stereo and 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets.

On the road he listens to audio books and NPR, which is probably how he learned to write so well (the book is not ghost written).  Finn Murphy isn’t the brawniest of movers, but he’s easily among the smartest and most articulate.  Even if you have no aspirations of life on the open road, you’ll enjoy this articulate author’s prose.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media