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October 13, 2018

"Getting There" - Pilot Shortage Looming

International aviation is about to face a crisis:  a shortage of pilots.

Domestically we are already seeing regional carriers (which represent 42% of all passengers) having to cancel flights and eliminate service to smaller cities.  And in Australia the biggest carrier, Qantas, is pulling old 747’s out of mothballs because it doesn’t have enough qualified pilots for its 737’s, the most dominate (and much more fuel efficient) aircraft in its fleet.

Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, had to cancel thousands of flight last November because of inadequate staffing.  And Japanese airlines are so desperate for pilots they are raising the mandatory retirement age to 67.  In China’s booming aviation market airlines are luring experienced captains with salaries starting at $500,000 including signing bonuses.

That’s attracting US pilots who are also offered free business-class flights home to America every three weeks to see their families.

Stateside the number of active commercial aviators dropped by 30,000 from 2008 to 2016 just as US airlines started enjoying a resurgence.  In Canada they estimate that 1000 of that small country’s pilots are now flying for overseas airlines, which offer better pay.

Even the US military is feeling the pain with the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps suffering a 25% reduction in fighter pilot staffing.  It costs $3 - $11 million to train a single fighter pilot.  So where are they going?  To the commercial airlines, especially overseas.

Boeing tells us the international aviation market will need 637,000 more pilots in the next 20 years as air traffic doubles.  But where will these pilots be found?

Aside from the military, it’s been small domestic airlines that have been the traditional training ground for big US airlines.  But after a series of crashes, the FAA changed the rules in 2010 to require pilots to have 1500 hours of flight time before they can step up to the big time.  Now the US DOT is thinking of reducing that minimum.

Just a few years ago, regional carriers paid their pilots as little as $20,000 a year.  The hours were long and the rewards few.  The popular joke among small airline pilots was: 

What’s the difference between a pilot and a pizza?  A pizza can feed a family of four.

Today the starting pay at the regionals is closer to $50,000.  Still, those recruits need extensive, expensive training that costs triple what it used to cost in the 1990’s.  Graduates of the aviation colleges are starting their careers with up to $300,000 in student loans to pay off.

Now even flight instructors are in short supply.  So too are DFE’s, designated flight examiners, who conduct mandatory “check rides” for pilot applicants who now must schedule those “driving tests” up to six months in advance.

The use of simulators instead of actual in-air flight time may help trainees, though some suggest would-be pilots should start as early as high school in programs such as the US Air Force’s Junior ROTC.

Bottom line:  until more pilots are properly trained, certified and paid a competitive wage the pilot shortage will mean we will continue to see cuts in regular service, especially to smaller airports.  “Getting There”, if it’s not a big city, will be inconvenient and expensive, if at all possible.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


October 06, 2018

"Getting There" - The SoNo Switchtower

Do you ever wonder how trains move on a busy line like the New Haven division of Metro-North?  How they switch from track to track, make their scheduled stops and try to stay on schedule?

Today, it’s all controlled by computer-assisted dispatchers working near Grand Central Terminal, handling 700 trains per day.  But until the 1980’s, the dispatchers were decentralized, working in one-man “towers” all along the line.

Each tower handled a section of track, manually throwing massive switches to send trains on their appointed routes following a master schedule.  Manned 24 / 7,  a tower in Woodlawn would hand off trains to a tower in Mt Vernon, then to New Rochelle, Rye, Greenwich, Cos Cob, Stamford and South Norwalk.



Bob Hughes worked in the SoNo Switch Tower for eight years, dispatching hundreds of passenger and freight trains coming up and down the mainline, many continuing onto the Danbury branch.  Built in the 1880’s, the tower featured a 68 lever “Armstrong” machine, so named because it was all manual and required strong arms to move the manual switches using hundreds of yards of connected piping.

For his work Hughes was paid $2.65 an hour with a two cent per hour bump for operating the circuit panel for the 11,000 volt overhead catenary.

The tower also was equipped with a “model board”, showing the exact location of each train.  As a train passed the neighboring tower (Stamford or Bridgeport), the dispatcher would call Bob on a speaker phone to alert him to the train entering his territory.

A call like “BG-1 next on 1” would warn Bob to watch his model board and prepare for that train’s arrival and possible switching to another track.  As it passed, Bob would note the locomotive number and time on a master train log, later sent to headquarters in New Haven, and then warn the next tower down the line what was coming their way.

Bob was also in communications with the nearby Walk Bridge tender who could open and close the bridge on demand as barges and sailboats requested. “In those days the bridge opened and closed without problem,” says Hughes.  “Of course, it was 50 years younger then.”

In addition to the busy passenger trains on the then-New Haven & Hartford RR, as many as eight freight trains per day would pass his tower.  “We tried not to slow up the freights to avoid brakes locking and similar problems,” he says.

It wasn’t until Penn Central took over the New Haven in 1969 that the trains got radios to communicate with the towers.  Before then, engineers who were stopped at a red signal would clamber down from their cab and use a track-side telephone to inquire about why they were being held up.  Hughes says the calls were “strictly business, no horsing around”.

In 1984 the SoNo Switch Tower was decommissioned along with most of its sister towers as switching was computerized and controlled out of GCT.  But the tower still lives on today as a museum.

Operated by the Western CT Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, the museum is open 12 noon to 5 pm on weekends through October when you’ll often find Hughes demonstrating the old switching gear to appreciative onlookers.

For more information:  http://thetracksidephotographer.com/2018/04/26/best-job-in-the-world/ 


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

October 01, 2018

"Getting There" - China's Transportation Strategy

Quiz question #1:  What country has the largest interstate highway system in the world?  Hint:  It’s not the United States.

Quiz question #2:  What country has the most miles of high-speed rail?  Hint:  It’s not France or Japan.

The answer to both questions is… China!

China’s superhighways, most of them built since 1984, now cover almost twice as many miles as the US interstates.  And on the rail side, China’s 15,000 miles of high speed rail represents nearly two-thirds of all such rail in the world. 

China’s fast trains travel up to 217 mph, linking Beijing to Shanghai (the distance of NY to Chicago) in a five-hour run.  Trains carrying 1000 passengers each depart at 10 to 15 minute intervals.  Compare that to Amtrak’s Acela, once an hour, carrying 300 passengers at an average of 70 mph.

Sure, China is big.  Though measured in square miles, the US is slightly larger.  But with a population of 1.34 billion, China is huge compared to the US’s 325 million residents.  That means China has a lot more people to move, and they’re investing accordingly.

China spends over $300 billion annually on transportation.  Compare that to the US Dept of Transportation’s $80 billion annual spending on highways, rail and air transport.  No wonder we feel like we’re living in a third world country with crumbling roads and obsolete railroads.
But more importantly, China is also investing abroad.  Chinese money is being invested in 68 countries to build highways, ports and railroads to take its exports to market on what it sees as a 21st century Silk Road.

The country’s “Belt & Road Initiative” has pledged $8 trillion in projects for under-developed countries’ projects where it will be able to conduct trade.  These destinations account for 70 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of its GNP, and 75 percent of its energy reserves.

There is already a rail link from China to Europe with daily trains carrying electronics and manufactured goods to Europe.  After unloading, those trains return to China filled with food.  A trip that can take a month by sea now links 35 Chinese cities with a like number of European cities in just 15 days by rail.

On the high seas China is also expanding its reach, building a modern fleet of vessels and investing heavily in port operations in Europe and South America. Containers filled with cell-phones sail out from Chinese ports and much needed oil sails back.  And where Chinese merchant vessels go, so too will its Navy.  While the US fancies itself as policeman to the world, there’s no way we can keep up. 

The US merchant marine has only 175 American-owned vessels flying the US flag while 800 others are registered abroad.  The Chinese government-owned COSCO shipping conglomerate owns 1114 vessels, the fourth largest fleet in the world.  And that’s just one company.

President Trump seems headed to an all-out trade war with China, matching them tariff for tariff and Tweeting regularly about how “unfair” the Beijing government has been to us.

Meanwhile, Washington can’t even pass a domestic infrastructure spending bill to patch up our decrepit roads and rails.  To my thinking, we’re not only getting outspent by China, but clearly out-smarted.  Transportation is about trade and China is clearly planning for the future while we wallow in the past.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.



September 24, 2018

"Getting There" - What Does 'On Time" Mean?

Last spring, Japanese railroad officials apologized for a huge mistake:  one of their trains left a station 25 seconds early!  This was the second time such an egregious error had been made and I imagine that the offenders were severely disciplined.

Meanwhile back on Metro-North’s New Haven line, the railroad’s latest OTP (on time performance) statistics stand at about 82%... a new low.

To make matters worse, what the Japanese railroads and MNRR consider “on time” are two different things.  “On time” in Japan means the 7:12 am train departs at 7:12, not 7:11 (as in this horrendous incident which prompted the apology) nor at 7:13.  “On time” means ON TIME.

Metro-North, however, defines a train is being on time if it arrives or departs within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time.  So the train due in Grand Central at 8:45 am is still “on time” in its record keeping if it pulls in just before 8:51 am.

On a train run averaging an hour from Connecticut to GCT, that’s about a 10% margin of error, so their 82% “on time” record could really be much, much lower.  What the exact “on time” stats are, they will not say.

But Metro-North is not alone in such squishy record keeping.  Most commuter railroads in the US also observe this 5:59 standard.  And on Amtrak, it’s even worse.  On a short run (less than 250 miles), a train is on time if its 10 minutes late.  Long distance trains (over 550 miles) are given a 31 minute leeway.

When trains are late, there is usually a good reason.  For Metro-North it could be switch problems, overhead power lines (catenaries), track conditions and, of course, weather.  And when one train is late, delays can cascade, just like a fender-bender on I-95 can create a huge back-up.

But all of this is OK with me.  I’d rather be safe than on-time.

We used to be able to always count on MNRR to be on time and would schedule our travel accordingly, assuming no delays.  And yes, the trains were on time something like 98% of all runs.  But they were also unsafe and we didn’t know it.

So if my train now is 5 or 10 minutes late, that’s OK.  Because I took an earlier train just to be safe, I can handle the delay and still keep to my personal schedule.

Over the years I’ve found that when service on MNRR is messed up, there’s usually a valid explanation.  While commuters’ Tweets are quick to assume it’s stupidity or incompetence on the part of the railroad, it usually isn’t.  It’s aging equipment or things beyond their control.

The men and women who work at Metro-North may not be rocket scientists, but I honestly believe most of them are trying their best.

While OTP on the railroad has been slipping, there is one area where we have seen a huge improvement:  communications.

A small army of railroad people now work 24/7 to Tweet and e-mail every problem on every line.  And they update the information, keeping us posted on delays.  That’s valuable information riders can use to make decisions, find alternatives and alert colleagues they may be late.

Let’s give the railroad credit for doing this much right. 


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


September 23, 2018

"Getting There" - The Critelli Commission +10

In the “land of steady habits”, we don’t fix problems, we study them… over and over again.
It’s been ten years since then-Governor Rell’s “blue ribbon” Critelli Commission report studying the reform of the Department of Transportation.  You’ll remember that the study came after a construction scandal on I-84.  And while much of the report addresses the dysfunction of the CDOT, I was pleased that the Commission’s chairman, then-Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, also picked up on some suggestions for improving rail service.  Among the key recommendations were:
  • Expand parking at all rail stations, but leaving the towns to price and administer the issuance of permits.  
  • Revisit the Metro-North contract for the operation of our trains with an eye toward greater parity between the railroad and CDOT.  
  • Focus on the maintenance and repair of our railroad bridges, 206 of the 325 of which were rated as being in less than satisfactory condition. 
  • Better coordinate bus and rail schedules to offer riders of both an inter-modal transit experience.  
  • Evaluate an independent Transportation Authority (like the MTA or NJ Transit) which could serve the interests of mass transit apart from the highway interests which dominate our current CDOT.  (Connecticut is one of only two states in the union that runs mass transit out of its DOT).
  • Speed up construction of commuter rail on the New Haven to Springfield corridor.  
  • Expand service on the Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East branch lines.  
  • Do something to offer a rail freight alternative in Connecticut. 
But, beyond rail, the Critelli Commission also suggested some ideas to make CDOT more “user friendly”, following the lead of other states.
  • Have a website where consumers can actually find information.  For example, when construction projects are scheduled and, if they are running late, why and when they’ll be completed.   
  • Offer a 511 dial-in service for all traffic and transit updates.  Using such a service a traveler could ask “If I leave Stamford right now, how long would it take under current conditions to get to New Haven?”, and be told travel time by road and rail.  
  • Finally, the Critelli Commission deserves commendation for embracing an often forgotten transportation alternative… pedestrians and bikers. 

Anyone who uses transportation in Connecticut realizes how few of the Commission’s recommendations were ever adopted.  So I asked Mr. Critelli, now retired, if he had any regrets given all the work he put into the report.  He wrote:

"I do not regret the work because we achieved change, particularly in better ConnDOT communications and process improvement and in being a catalyst for the service area upgrades on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.”

“My regret:  The State did not take the opportunity to update its talent recruitment and management practices.  ConnDOT has an even greater gap between the talent it needs in a fast-changing and very different transportation environment and the talent it can recruit for its existing jobs and compensation levels.” 

As always, Critelli is being gracious.  A year of his life was donated to this effort and so little was achieved, even now a decade later. 

Doubtless some candidate this fall will suggest yet another study of transportation before anything gets done to really fix it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 08, 2018

"Getting There" - Secrets Hacks of Grand Central Terminal


There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  As the destination of over 55,000 daily rail commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place where many of us spend a fair amount of time. 
I’ve been riding in and out of Grand Central for over 50 years.  So to help you maneuver the station’s labyrinth of tunnels, ramps and stairs, here are some of the “secrets” of Grand Central that I find most useful.
Underground Access:      Sure, you can enter Grand Central from street level, but in bad weather you can find your way there underground from blocks away.  The north-end access
entrances at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th Street and the Helmsley Building walk-ways are dandy, though not all open on weekends.  But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt, from inside the Chrysler Building, the Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street or via the subway’s shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street, just west of Park?
Fastest Way from / to the Lower Level:           If your train dumps you on the lower level, forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level, especially with luggage.  Walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. 
It’ll take you to the upper level or, better yet, to within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below).  Getting to the lower level platforms from street level is just as easy.  On the upper level look for the elevators and take them down to “P” (Platform) level avoid two flights of stairs.
Washrooms with No Wait:         The new washrooms at the west end of the lower level have helped a lot, but still there’s often a line.  Take the nearby escalators up one level, turn around, and on your left is the Stationmaster’s 
Office complete with a small waiting room and lav’s… but for women only!  Or, go right and just before the ramp up to 42nd St. and Vanderbilt, look on your left for the sign for the Oyster Bar.  Go down the steps into the bar and you’ll find ornate bathrooms known only to a few.
Best Place To Get A Cab:          Forget about the long line at the taxi stand on 42nd St east of Vanderbilt.  Instead, go out the west end of the Main Concourse, up the stairs and out onto Vanderbilt Avenue.  Cross the street and wait at the corner of 43rd.  Taxis flow through here, dropping off passengers every few seconds. If you’re heading west you’ll avoid the traffic on 42nd Street too.
Where to Have a Smoke:            Want to enjoy a cigar before your train?  Forget about lighting up anywhere inside the station. Instead, go to the Hyatt Hotel just east on 42nd St. From street level go up two levels by escalator to their taxi stand and you’ll find yourself on the raised Park Avenue as it wraps around GCT.

These are a few of my favorite “hacks” of Grand Central.  Drop me an e-mail with yours and I’ll include them in a future column.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 01, 2018

"Getting There" - World's Longest (and Shortest) Flights


I hate to fly, but I have to sometimes.  Sure, I can tolerate a trans-con to California in Business or First Class.  And with my wife we once flew to Japan on a surprisingly tolerable 10 hour flight that just felt like a really long day.

But now the big international carriers have newer jets capable of much longer distances non-stop, and the race is on for the bragging rights of “the world’s longest flight”.

In the early days of jet aircraft an El Al 707 going (5677 miles) non-stop from JFK to Tel Aviv in nine and a half hours was quite a feat.  But in the mid-1970’s when Boeing introduced the 747-SP, a stubby version of the famous jumbo, Pan Am was making it all the way from JFK to Tokyo (6772 miles) non-stop.

In 2001 both Continental and United were flying from NYC to Hong Kong (8065 miles) in 16 hours thanks to new polar routes opened up by Russia.  But in 2004 Singapore Airlines began non-stop service from Newark to its home port (about 10,000 miles) in just over 18 hours.

Mind you, these are regularly flown, passenger-carrying commercial flights.  On demonstration flights the distances and hours aloft are much higher.

When Boeing delivered a brand new, but empty, 777-200ER (Extended Range) from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur, the flight traveled 12,455 miles non-stop.  Of course, the plane wasn’t carrying passengers, allowing more weight for fuel.

Starting this fall, a new aircraft will offer even greater range:  the Airbus 350-900ULR (ultra long range).  These plans are 25% more fuel efficient than the 777’s but don’t offer coach seating, only Business and Premium Economy.  More seats would mean more weight, the enemy of being able to add fuel for these mega-distances.

They also have higher ceilings, maintain better humidity and keep cabin pressures higher and noise levels lower, reducing jetlag.

The 19 hour flight for 161 passengers will be expensive:  Premium Economy is $1649 with Business going for twice that.   In its next generation of ULR aircraft Airbus is looking at installing bunk-beds “downstairs” where cargo would normally be carried.  No idea what pricing for that would be.

What’s the limit for non-stop flying?  Experts say about 21 hours.  That’s enough time to fly between any two spots on the globe.

On the supersonic front, Boom, Aerion and Spike are working on prototypes for smaller jets that could carry a dozen up to 55 passengers at speeds ranging from mach 1.5 to 2.2 for distances up to 6200 miles, almost the distance of NY to Tokyo.  By comparison, the Concorde carried 120 passengers a maximum of 3900 miles at mach 2.02.

Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have invested $10 million and pre-ordered 20 of Boom’s XB-1 aircraft.  The manufacturer estimates JFK to London flight time of just over three hours at a fare of about $2500 one way.

So much for the future and growing present of ever longer non-stops.  For you trivia fans:  what’s the shortest non-stop commercial jet flight?  It’s from Aruba to the Venezuelan city of Punto Fijo, a 50-mile, 8-minute flight that costs $235 one-way.

Post with permission of Hearst CT Media


August 25, 2018

"Getting There" - The Danbury Railway Museum

Looking for a summer day-trip to find some fun which teaching your kids about transportation?  Just hop a Metro-North train (or drive, if you must) to Danbury to visit the Danbury Railway Museum.

I usually find railway museums a bit depressing as they tend to be dusty monuments to the past.  But not this one.  Not only do they have a beautifully curated collection of memorabilia, but they are still a working railroad!

Housed in a beautifully restored 1903 railroad station (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), the museum was opened in the 1990’s after the building was abandoned by CDOT in favor of a newer Metro-North station a few hundred yards away serving the Danbury branch line.

At its peak the station saw 125 trains a day.  Today it serves about a dozen Metro-North trains to South Norwalk and GCT, all of them push-pull diesel consists.  Fun fact:  did you know that the Danbury line was once electrified, just like the main line?

Danbury is also served by the old Maybrook / Beacon Line running west to the city of the same name on the Hudson River.  Today the line is still used occasionally by Metro-North to transfer locomotives to its Croton-Harmon yards for servicing.

Danbury’s major industry, hat making, drew thousands of migrant workers and is celebrated by a Metro-North passenger car emblazoned with the name “The Danbury Hatter” you might see on the branch.

Inside the delightfully air conditioned station the museum offers a great orientation video showing the mighty New Haven & Hartford RR at its peak, carrying both passengers and freight.  There are also several model train layouts (in five different scales) that kids can operate at the push of a button.  You’ll also find a wonderful collection of railroad flatware and china from the New Haven’s glory days of posh dining cars.

In a tip o’ the conductor’s hat to more recent railroadiana, the museum has acquired parts of the old Solari departure board from New Haven, though it has yet to be returned to full functionality.  Still, it’s nice someone preserved it.

But the highlight of the museum’s collection will be found outside in its rail yard. There you’ll find more than 70 railcars and locomotives which you can tour (in the summertime) on a half hour train ride.  Tickets are $3 for a ride in a coach or the caboose. For $10 you can even ride in the diesel engine’s cab.

The train ride around the yard takes 20 minutes and shows you the museum’s 14 locomotives, 12 passenger cars and 26 freight cars.  The highlight of the ride is a visit to one of the last working turntables in New England.  Built in 1911, the 95-foot turntable would allow all but the largest in the New Haven’s locomotive fleet to enter one of nine stalls in an engine house, since demolished.

The museum also hosts kids’ birthday parties allowing hands-on inspection of the truly largest “boys’ toys” ever built.  Adults can also join the fun as the museum is run by dedicated volunteers.

Connecticut is lucky to have a number of great railroad and trolley museums, but this is my favorite… and the only one accessible by taking a train to get there.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


July 15, 2018

"Getting There" - Metro-North's Quiet Car Debacle

Train time is your own time” was the old marketing slogan of Metro-North, encouraging commuters to kick back and enjoy the ride while reading, working or taking a snooze.

But in reality, train time is shared time.  They don’t call it “mass transit” for nothing as passengers much share their space with a hundred other commuters on each railcar.  

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.
Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

It was almost 20 years ago that Amtrak first introduced the concept of The Quiet Car, following suggestions of daily commuters riding to DC.  It was such a success that quiet cars were soon added to other Northeast Corridor trains and Acela.

The concept was simple, as conductors reminded passengers on every trip:  maintain a “library like atmosphere”.  That meant no cell phone calls and only quiet, subdued conversation.  You want to yuck it up over a beer, go to the CafĂ© Car.  Got an important phone call… sit in any other coach.

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue… but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

First, they offered the worst car location on the train to their CALMmute:  the last car in-bound and the first car out-bound from GCT.  And there were no signs indicating which car was “quiet”.  Worst of all, conductors all but refused to enforce the quiet rules, leading to altercations between passengers.

Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules:  luggage on the overhead racks, no feet on the seats, no smoking etc.  But asking people to keep down the chatter was apparently too much.  All they would do, at first, was hand “Shhh cards” to offenders.

In 2016 the quiet car program was expanded to two cars per train, peak and off-peak.  But, still no signage (until just recently) and no enforcement.

Now, a major change.  The railroad announced that effective immediately there would be only one quiet car per off-peak train.  And the PR team at MNRR spun the story so well that some local media made it sound like the program was being expanded, not cut in half.  Brilliant.

There was no explanation for the cut in quiet cars though one official told me we have had no reports of quiet car demand exceeding availability in the off-peak”.  In other words, people who ride off-peak just prefer to yap.

That’s an amazing PR “spin” on what is really an admission of failure.  Metro-North never wanted quiet cars and clearly didn’t want to enforce the rules.  The people have literally “spoken” and the Quiet CALMmute won’t be as accessible anymore.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, answerable to nobody, especially its customers.  I’d raise my voice in protest but… I’m in the quiet car.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


July 09, 2018

"Getting There" - The Automotive - Construction Complex

How did Americans develop their love affair with driving?

Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington and the transportation exhibit “America on the Move” will sell you on the commonly held theory that when Henry Ford made cars affordable, Americans loved them and demanded more and more highways.

Of course, that exhibit is sponsored by General Motors, which donated millions to put its name on the collection.

But University of Virginia history Professor Peter Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic:  The Dawn of the Motor Age in American cities” says that’s a myth.  Just as outgoing President Eisenhower warned us of the military industrial complex, Norton says an automotive – construction complex took over our country, paving from coast to coast. 

Sure, Americans like their cars.  But it was a conspiracy of economic interests that turned us into a car culture.  Where cities once enjoyed a network of cheap, fast streetcars, GM, Firestone and the oil companies bought and wiped them out, replacing them with buses and cars.

“This country destroyed and rebuilt its cities in the 20th century to serve automobiles,” says Norton.  And those same interest groups are alive and well today in Connecticut.

Groups like “Move CT Forward” aren’t pro-transportation as much as they are pro jobs… their jobs, in construction.  And they’ve spent a lot of money lobbying in Hartford to keep their members, the unions and contractors, busy.   While I’m happy they’re promoting transportation, their motives are hardly altruistic.

This is nothing new, says Norton.  The original interstate highways built in the 1950’s used Portland Cement because that company lobbied so hard for its product over cheaper asphalt.  And now that rusting rebar and crumbling cement is costing us a fortune.

Another myth from that era was that President Eisenhower built the interstates to move troops quickly for national defense.  That may have been the pitch to Congress, but the real reason for the highways was to evacuate civilians from the big cities in the event of nuclear war.  Lucky we never had to test that idea.

Last August when hurricane Harvey hit Houston… the most urbanized highway city in the country… authorities didn’t even try to evacuate people because they knew more would die on congested roads than in the storm.

Who pays for all this road building?  You do, in the form of income taxes and, yes, gasoline taxes.  But Norton says gas taxes are hardly a fair way to pay for all this.

Why does the motorist driving on a dirt road pay the same gas tax as one driving I-95?  The costs they place on road maintenance, the environment and our stress levels are grossly different, so why isn’t the cost?

“It would be like having Best Buy selling everything by the pound.  People would flock to the electronics (our crowded interstates) instead of the towels,” he notes (though I’m not sure Best Buy even sells towels, but I take his point).

He reminds us that before the interstates, the nation’s first “super highways” like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New Jersey Turnpike were built not as freeways but toll roads, and they still are today.

Driving may seem to be free, but it isn’t.  And until we ask drivers to pay for its real cost there is no incentive to do anything but drive (and pave) more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

June 25, 2018

"Getting There" - Welcome to Connecticut

First impressions count.  Arrive at any airport or train station, and you immediately start forming opinions of your destination.  Is it clean and modern, warm and welcoming?  How does the place make me feel?  Are the locals proud of themselves?

Well, the same “first impressions” rule is true when you are driving.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” said the perky young lady behind the Tourism Desk at the first service area in New Jersey when we pulled off Interstate 80 recently driving from Pennsylvania. I was just looking for the rest room, but this gal made we feel welcome, offering me maps and brochures and ready to answer any questions I might have about the Garden State. 

I got the same vibe arriving in Maryland, driving south on I-95 where a big, mall-sized rest area in the median offered me about a dozen restaurant choices, relatively cheap gas and room to stretch my legs.  On the far side of the building there was parking for about fifty trucks and electric hook-ups so they didn’t need to idle their refrigerator units. 

In Virginia, the Tourist Center looked like a mini-Monticello and the helpful staffers were ready to answer all of our questions about our planned tour of Civil War battlefields.  These local guys were better than TripAdvisor and the AAA Guidebook.

Contrast that with the “first impression” we give tourists arriving on I-95 in Connecticut. 
On crossing the NY state line, they will immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, for no apparent reason, no matter the time of day.  No accidents, just normal conditions on our major interstate.

The large electronic sign flashes “Delays:  Exit 2 -16, next 16 miles” as visitors inch along over the Mianus River Bridge, site of the 1983 collapse of a span that killed three.  But there’s no plaque or historical marker noting the tragedy.  In fact, the bridge has been renamed after State Senator Michael J Morano, as if a name change would erase what happened.

“Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat.  “Not even close,” moans Dad, wondering if they’ll ever get to The Cape.  “I just hate this traffic,” he moans.  “But Dad, I gotta go,” says Junior.  “I’ve been ‘holding it’ ever since The Cross Bronx!”

Then, like a mirage on the horizon, Dad sees hope:  not a break in the endless traffic, but the state’s first Service Area in Darien.  “Hang on Junior, we’re stopping in just a minute.”
Not to buy gasoline, of course.  You never want to buy gasoline in Connecticut.  No, these folks are in the tourist equivalent of “fly-over” mode.  They’re just stopping to “rest” and maybe pick up a map and a snack.


Arriving at the shiny new Service Area, complete with solar collectors and a Tesla charging station, they are met with such culinary options as “It’s Sugar”, “Chipotle” (hold the e coli, please) and the recently closed “Cheese Boy”.  Yummy.

But inside there is no perky tourism guide, just a few brochures strewn about. No, we don’t have the funding to guide the tourists.   Imagine the business the state’s $8 billion tourism industry loses because we can’t staff a simple information desk at a Service Area where thousand stop each day.

First impressions do count.  And the first impressions we give visitors to our state aren’t really positive, are they?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 11, 2018

"Getting There" - Amtrak vs the Freight Railroads


We are all familiar with Amtrak’s local operations in the Northeast… the sleek Acela zooming along to Boston at up to 145 mph and the slower “traditional” trains making the local stops along the CT coast.

But Amtrak is a national railroad and its long distance trains to points west face some challenges our speedy service in the east does not:  delays that can run into many hours, not just a few minutes.

The problem is that Amtrak owns and operates the trains, but not the tracks they ride on.
From Washington to Boston, the Northeast Corridor is all owned, maintained, dispatched and operated by Amtrak.  The one small exception is here in Connecticut, from Greenwich to New Haven, where the track is owned by the state but run, under contract, by Metro-North.

But in the rest of the country, Amtrak operates on what it euphemistically calls “host railroads”, all of them freight operators.  Think Norfolk Southern, CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (owned by Warren Buffet) and the Canadian railroads, CN and CP.  Those railroads charge Amtrak for riding over its tracks and don’t always give the passenger trains priority over their more profitable freight traffic.

In 1979 Amtrak was ready to take Southern Pacific to court with evidence that The Sunset Limited running between Houston and New Orleans was regularly “sidetracked” in favor of freight runs.  Though there was no trial, the courts ordered SP to give Amtrak trains first dibs to improve on-time performance.

The railroads said “no way”, arguing that federal agencies had no right to tell them how to run their railroads.  And the freight operators won, twice, with courts slapping the wrists of both the Federal Railroad Authority and the Surface Transportation Board.

Environmental and advocacy groups appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that it was in the national interest to have an efficient, reliable, on-time national passenger railroad.  But the high court declined to hear the case.

Today Amtrak uses both a carrot and a stick to deal with its freight railroad “hosts”, offering financial incentives to keep its trains on time and public shaming if they don’t.  On the Amtrak website the best (Canadian Pacific) and worst (Norfolk Southern & Canadian National)  freight railroads are graded from A to F.

On long distance passenger runs, Amtrak trains like The Texas Eagle (Chicago to LA) now run up to five hours late, requiring Amtrak to bring in substitute buses and accommodate passengers who miss their connections.

Freight railroads say they have their own problems without being burdened by Amtrak.  In a booming economy, the freight operators can barely keep up with customer demand on a track network saturated with mile-long oil trains (“pipelines on wheels”) and double-stack container trains moving east from California.

But all of these Amtrak complaints may be moot as the days of long-distance trains seem numbered.  While fast trains like Acela can actually turn a small profit, multi-day “land cruises” on celebrated trains like the California Zephyr and The Empire Builder just hemorrhage money.  Their days are limited, so ride them while you can.

We’ll always have Acela, but the glory days of long-distance rail travel in the US are nearing an end, probably to the delight of the freight operators.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media