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December 09, 2018

"Getting There" - The Trucker Shortage


As if crumbling bridges and pot-holed highways weren’t enough to worry about, now America’s transportation network is facing a new crisis:  a shortage of truck drivers.

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks carry more than 70% of all domestic freight, bringing in $719 billion in revenue.  It’s trucks, not trains, that deliver our Amazon purchases and fill the shelves of our favorite big box stores for the holidays. So while we hate to drive behind them on our highways, we love what trucks deliver.

But now, of the existing half-million truck drivers in the US, demographics are taking their toll as more and more retire each year, leaving those jobs unfilled. The ATA estimates the industry needs 51,000 new truck drivers.  And new candidates are not stepping forward.

Why?  Well, the ATA says Gen Z’ers don’t like the lifestyle.  They don’t want to spend long, lonely days or weeks doing long-hauls, eating bad food and sleeping in their rigs.  Even money, like $50,000 signing bonuses, isn’t attracting them.

The average trucker makes $59,000 and drivers for private fleets can make $86,000. But lengthy, expensive training courses present a roadblock to immediate recruitment.  And newly mandated technology tracking drivers’ time on the road is exacerbating the problem.

Drivers are only supposed to drive 11 hours of every 14 hours a day, but many used to fudge their paper log-book records because they got paid by the mile.  Since last December, electronic logging has been the law, so the safety rules are impossible to circumvent.  Of course, nobody wants tired drivers on the road, but in the cause of safety, truckers are losing efficiency.

Where will the industry find new drivers?  Well, women still only represent about 6% of all drivers.  And minorities have seen their numbers increase 12% in the past year.  And the industry is also seeking a reduction in the minimum driving age from 21 to 18.

What’s this all mean to us as consumers?  Higher costs.

Amazon saw a 38% increase in shipping costs in the first quarter, forcing it to raise its (unlimited free-shipping) Amazon Prime membership fee from $99 to $119 a year.  Across the industry spectrum, shipping rates are rising.

But the real solution will probably be self-driving trucks.

That’s why big companies like Waymo (owned by Google), Tesla and Uber, as well as truck-builders like Freightliner and Volvo are investing heavily in the autonomous technology.

Not that we’ll be seeing driverless trucks on Connecticut interstates anytime soon.  There’s probably too much congestion to make them practical.  But there are vast stretches of interstates in “fly over country” out west where self-driving trucks make perfect sense, delivering truckloads of products to automated warehouses where robots will unload them.

Automating trucking may be good for the industry but it certainly doesn’t help with recruitment.  Who wants to sign on for a career knowing full well they may be replaced by a robot?

Sociologist and 13-year trucker Steve Viscelli says the solution is in changing the system:  paying truckers for actual hours on the road (not just mileage), including those times when truckers must waste hours or days waiting for a new load.

Whatever the solution, it’s clear who’ll end up paying:  consumers.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


"Getting There" - Fairer Fares

How much should it cost to ride mass transit?  Are our fares too high?  Would lower fares increase ridership?  If so. why not make the trains free?

As I’ve noted any number of times, fares on Metro-North in Connecticut are among the highest commuter railroad fares in the US.  That’s because our state’s subsidy is the lowest… about 24%, compared to a 50% fare subsidy on the Long Island Railroad. Of course, Hartford’s attitude is that everyone in Fairfield County is a millionaire and can afford to pay more.

Ironically, every time there’s a fare increase, ridership doesn’t go down… it goes up.  Why?  Because the travel alternatives, especially going into NYC, are few and all of them are getting worse.  Metro-North has a captive audience.  Commuters have no choice but to take the train.

Fare subsidies are much higher on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines and Shore Line East where ridership is lighter compared to the mainline.  But service is also less frequent, which might counter those who think lower fares would attract more passengers:  cheap fares and poor service aren’t what we want.

Of course, few passengers on Metro-North actually pay “full fare”.  Off-peak riders get a 25% discount as do members of the military on all trains.  Seniors and the disabled get a 50% price break as do monthly commuters.

While I understand that daily commuters think they deserve a break, they also place the greatest strain on the system over the shortest number of hours, Aside from the frequency of their travel, one could argue that they should be paying a premium, not getting 50% off.
Of course, the fares are the same whether you’re rich or poor, which is why some have started asking for a “fairer fare”, one based on a rider’s ability to pay.

In New York City where subways and buses cost $2.75, there are price breaks for seniors (50%) and even all-you-can-ride monthly passes.  But starting in January 2019 those living below the poverty line (income of $25,000 for a family of four) will qualify for a 50% discount MetroCard.  Some 800,000 residents will potentially be eligible for the plan.  

NYC Mayor De Blasio says the $106 million subsidy would be better carried by rich taxpayers, not the rest.

Similar discounts for the poor have worked well in Seattle and Toronto (where NYC Subway’s new chief Andy Byford came from).  Proponents argue that mobility is an essential right and if you want to get people out of poverty, they’ve got to be able to afford to get to their job.

So… why not free mass transit?

That’s what they’ve just launched in Estonia in an effort to fight traffic and air pollution.  Skeptics says it will help fight neither but will only replace walking with tram rides.

One Connecticut lawmaker once proposed free rides for all Seniors.  But I don’t think the fare is the reason seniors don’t take buses. It’s the service and fears for their safety.

But all such “free” service begs the question of who is really paying for it… the taxpayers.  As with our “free” highways (the ones without tolls), I think it’s much fairer to ask those who use the service to help pay for it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


December 03, 2018

"Getting There" - Commuting by Aerial Tram

How’d you like to commute above the traffic by aerial cableway?  Thousands do it daily in cities around the world and more places are looking at this technology as a solution.

Most Americans’ experience with aerial cableways would probably be at DisneyWorld or at ski resorts:  small, enclosed cabins carried up and over the terrain, attached to moving cables.  But here we’re talking about much bigger transit systems.

Maybe you’ve ridden on the Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York City.  Opened in 1976 to connect the island’s residents to the upper East Side, it once carried 5500 passengers daily, though ridership has dropped since a new subway station opened.  It was the first such system in the country and was not without its problems, breaking down for weeks at a time.

In Portland OR an aerial tram carries 10,000 passengers each day up a steep hill to the Oregon Health & Science University campus.  Being such a transit-friendly city, the tram connects with trolleys and light rail at a base station next to a 250-space bicycle parking lot.

But both these systems are limited, only offering what’s known as point-to-point service with no stops in between.

In Latin America you’ll find aerial trams on steroids.  Like the La Paz Bolivia Teleferico which covers 19 miles with 27 stations on three separate lines. On opening day the first line carried 41,000 passengers in 10-person gondolas.

And in Medellin Columbia, the MetroCable Medellin has cut commuting times from an hour to just 10 minutes, whisking 40,000 passengers at 10 miles an hour up and down a 1300 foot incline.  The Medellin system now offers six miles of cable connecting nine stations on three lines.

Both of the South American systems use their trams to overcome serious terrain challenges.  But would this tech find application in flatter areas?

The folks in Williamsburg Brooklyn think so.  They are facing 18 months of no subway service to Manhattan starting in April 2019 when the L train is shut down for repairs.  That’s going to leave 100,000 residents scrambling for buses across an already crowded bridge to 14th St. in Manhattan. 

That’s why they’re pushing for what they call The East River Skyway offering a 10 minute ride to Delancey Street from two stations in Brooklyn. One concept calls for 38-person gondolas departing every 30 – 40 seconds, adding up to 5000 passengers an hour.   Estimated construction cost:  $75 - $100 million, probably with private money.

Aerial tramways have serious cost advantages over street-based or subway systems.  All you’re really building are towers to carry the cable, so estimates are $50 - $60 million per mile and construction time of just 12-18 months.

Operating costs are also lower as the system uses much less energy, creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  And real estate folks like the system both for its novelty and potential TOD (transit oriented development) possibilities near the stations.

The downsides?  You’d have to obtain air rights along the path.  And the system would be far more susceptible to weather than a ground-based system.  High winds and thunder-storms would force closure of the system, stranding passengers.

As our roads and rails reach gridlock, it may well be that to go up and over the delays will prove to be an interesting solution in years to come.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


November 18, 2018

"Getting There" - An Open Letter to the Governor-Elect

Well, you did it.  Congratulations on your election.  And my condolences.  The easy part of politics is over:  getting elected.  Now comes the hard part:  being Governor.

I hope you and your transition team are already working on that budget that’s due in three months.  There’s a lot of red ink ($4 billion) that needs to be mopped up.  And don’t forget those $80 billion in unfunded pensions.  But I’m sure you’ve got the solutions, right?    That’s what you promised voters, anyhow.  So have at it.

But as you are cutting and slashing, may I be so bold as to make a few suggestions on the transportation front?  Your campaign assured us you’d fix our roads and rails, so I’m sure you have your ideas.  But let’s see if these are of any help.

1)    KEEP YOUR COMMISSIONER:   Jim Redeker has been CDOT Commissioner since 2011 and nobody knows better what’s working and what isn’t.  He’s clearly the smartest guy in the room and you need his experience and talents.  Let’s not lose him to another state.

2)    FIX THE TRAINS FIRST:  You can’t keep high wage earners (and tax payers) living in Connecticut if Metro-North continues its downward slide.  Getting trains back up to speed and on-time is crucial to the state’s economy.

3)    THEN IMPROVE BUS SERVICE:          I hope you realize that the CTFastrak bus rapid-transit system is hugely important and not the “waste of money” your opponent claimed.  Not everyone in this state owns a car.  For the 15 million riders of that busway since it opened, those buses mean being able to get to their jobs.  That is what we want, right… people working?

4)    RIDE MASS TRANSIT:     You campaigned at train and bus stations, now why not get onboard?  Set an example by taking the train from Greenwich to Hartford and riding the bus with your constituents.  See the conditions first hand.

5)    GET GOING WITH TOLLS:         We both know they’re inevitable, despite your opponents’ “tolls are a tax” lie during the campaign.  Let’s stop losing revenue to out-of-staters and truckers and make them pay for driving on our roads.  Start with tolling trucks, though I doubt that’s legal.

6)    HONOR THE LOCKBOX:            Voters have spoken loudly!  The Special Transportation Fund is now padlocked.  Don’t you dare think about picking that lock or letting the Legislature touch those funds for anything but transportation.

7)    PLEASE BE HONEST:      You and your opponents glossed over the tough issues in the campaign, making vague, general comments about improving our lives.  You got the job, so now don’t give us any BS.  Tell us about the hard choices to come.  Embrace the FOI act.  Be open and transparent… and honest.  We’re adults.  We can take it.

8)    DON’T ABUSE THE MAJORITY:     Once again the Democrats are in full control in Hartford.  That’s a lot of power in a few hands and your party’s record on “reaching across the aisle” isn’t great.  Our problems can only be solved with bi-partisan cooperation, so please set the best example.

That’s enough for now.  Get some rest, maybe even a vacation, and we’ll talk again in the coming months.

Best wishes,
Jim Cameron
“The Train Guy”

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 11, 2018

"Getting There" - The Lockbox Question

Perfection is the enemy of good, said Voltaire.  Life is a series of compromises and waiting for “perfect” is like standing still.  You’ll never get anywhere.

So it is this election season.

The convention and primary season has delivered us a short list of flawed candidates pandering platitudes of perfection to a weary, cynical electorate.  It’s enough to make you decide to not vote, lest you encourage and enable this behavior.

But forget about the gubernatorial choices.  It’s your State Representative and State Senator that will be crafting the laws, so pay them heed.  Those are the races that really count, so in the waning days of the campaign, go to the debates, read the candidates’ platforms, study the issues and editorials.

Ask for specifics, not generalities.  If they say they want to improve train service, ask how and paid for with what.  The devil’s in the details and I, for one, am tired of vague generalities that get people elected and then see them do nothing. 

And don’t forget to turn over your ballot.  That’s where the single most important thing you can do to fix transportation will be found:  the Lockbox Referendum question.

It will be labeled as “Question One”, a proposed amendment to the state constitution.  And if you read it, you’ll see no mention of the word “lockbox”.  But that’s what it is about:  putting money for transportation in a special place where it can only be spent on that intended purpose… transportation.

Until now the state’s Special Transportation Fund has been a sieve, raided by Democrats and Republicans alike, to balance the state’s budget.  This measure would help stop that.

To make it onto the November ballot, Question One was approved on a bipartisan basis by two legislative sessions.  By making it a constitutional amendment instead of a law, it will be harder to circumvent, but not impossible.

This Lockbox question is not perfect.  It has loopholes.  But if it passes, doom on any lawmaker or Governor who tries to avoid voters’ clear intent:  to keep money for transportation spent on just that.

The “Vote Yes on Question One” coalition has wide support, especially from commuters who are tired of seeing our state’s bridges crumble and near-constant delays on standing-room-only trains.  Even if you don’t ride our trains or buses, you should care about this issue.  It’s your tax dollars (gasoline taxes especially) that have been misspent to the tune of $500 million in the past decade.

But suddenly, Republicans are wavering in their support of this Lockbox, though they initially proposed it.  They say it’s not good enough, that it should be tighter and have stronger constraints both on funding and spending.

I might agree.  But the November ballot question is what it is.  It cannot be changed until the next legislative session.  If anyone thinks the lockbox should be stronger, make it so… but only after this version is made law.

Question One’s proposal is not perfect.  But to reject is to maintain the status quo, leaving transportation funding subject to misappropriation as in decades past.  That’s why I’m voting yes on Question One.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 27, 2018

"Getting There" - Gridlock on Transportation in the Governor's Race

Have you been following the campaign for Governor?  I have, and I’m deeply disappointed.  Almost none of them is talking about transportation.

How can we create jobs, stop people from moving out of state, encourage entrepreneurs or do anything to save our economy when we are in a literal and political gridlock?  How much time do you waste in bumper to bumper traffic getting to or from work?  How many delays have you had on Metro-North, where on-time performance is at a new low?

Why isn’t this an issue?

Sure, they pay it lip-service.  Ned Lamont talks about tolls on trucks… quite a switch from his earlier support of state-wide car tolling.  I guess the polls beat out tolls when he saw how unpopular tolls were.  But using trucks as a funding scapegoat? Sure, why not?  Everybody hates trucks.

On the rails, Lamont promises Wi-Fi on Metro-North, but no mention of increased parking, more railcars for overcrowding or keeping fares down.  Gee, he didn’t even promise a return of the bar cars.  You missed that one, Ned.

As for Bob Stefanowksi, he’s clearly in the “tolls are a tax” camp.  But it’s so much easier to know what he’s against than what he’s for.  He’s been eluding the media except for a couple of debates and has subjected himself to little campaign scrutiny, aside from fund raising.  Ask him about any topic and he’ll remind you that a) Dan Malloy is the cause of all our problems, and b) he has the solutions, though he never explains what they are.  He pivots from question to sound-bite like a whirling top.

Just who are these guys?

Lamont served as a Selectman in Greenwich but Stefanowski has never held elected office.  In fact, Stefanowski wasn’t even a legal resident of Connecticut for eight years of the last 10 years and didn’t bother to vote for 17 years. How can he say he cares about running Connecticut without participating in the process? 

Lamont’s greatest political credential is running, over and over again, for everything from the US Senate to Governor.  Hey, at least he tried.

What Lamont and Stefanowski have in common is that they are multi-millionaire business men who have plowed much of their fortunes into funding their campaigns. They’re quick to remind you they are businessmen, not politicians.

And therein lies the problem.

Running a state government is not like running a business.  You may be Governor, but you’re not the CEO of a state.  You have to work with a legislature, not a Board of Directors (whose members you probably hand-picked).  Haven’t we learned by the example of the Trump administration’s chaos that it’s folly to assume a businessman can govern?

But there’s another serious candidate we must not forget, though he too is just another businessman with no election track record.

Oz Griebel is running as the no-party candidate and this guy does have transportation experience.  He was the first Chairman of the Transportation Strategy Board in 2001, and you’ve got him to thank for the new cars on Metro-North.  Sadly, many of the TSB’s ideas were never implemented before Gov Malloy shut it down, but of the “three-businessmen-of-the-apocalypse” who want to be Governor, Griebel is hands-down the best on transportation.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


October 22, 2018

"Getting There" - The High Speed Ferry to Nova Scotia

There is perhaps no more beautiful part of the East Coast than the Canadian Maritimes… the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The problem is that getting there is a hassle… either an expensive flight with a change of planes or a two-day drive.  That is, unless you take “The Cat”, the high speed car and passenger ferry which runs daily from Portland ME to Yarmouth NS.

But catch it soon, because it will soon moving farther away.

“The Cat” is a 1646 ton, high-speed catamaran owned by the US Navy but leased to Bay Ferries, the Canadian operator of the vessel (staffed with a US crew).  Launched in 2007, it used to run between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Maui.

The 349 foot long vessel can cross the Gulf of Maine’s 213 mile span in about five and a half hours at a top speed of 35 knots (40 mph), carrying 866 passengers and 282 cars.  She sails each morning from Nova Scotia at 8:30 am, arriving in Portland about 1 pm.  The return voyage leaves at 2:30 pm, arriving in Yarmouth 9’ish.  En route passengers can enjoy two bars, free movies, comfy first-class airline seating and a variety of food and shopping.


Ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia has run since 1970, but the older vessels required an overnight crossing, allowing passengers to enjoy cabins (if they weren’t spending the night gambling in the on-board casino).  Locals in Maine still wax nostalgic about the “Scotia Prince”, the last slow speed ferry to make the overnight crossing.

But the current fast-ferry has found a new clientele, drawing customers from Boston, Providence and as far away as NYC.  Their market research says passengers are upper income with 75% of them coming from the US.

“The Cat” isn’t cheap.  A car with two passengers costs over $400 one way in peak season, though discounts are available for seniors and at off-peak times.  Nova Scotia residents get a $100 discount, given that the province subsidizes Bay Ferries to the tune of $7.5 million US per year.

The province is probably getting its money’s worth as Bay Ferries says its average customer spends 11 days driving through the Maritimes, staying in hotels and enjoying the great seafood.  With the exchange rate giving the US dollar a 30% premium, that can still add up to a lot of lobster.

But now Bay Ferries is threatening to pull out of Portland and depart instead from Bar Harbor ME, another three hours’ drive up the coast.  The company says it would cut the crossing time to three hours and save 40% on its fuel.

“The Cat” used to run on weekdays from Bar Harbor and weekends from Portland, but the company prefers one embarkation point and a less confusing schedule.  And they say they’re not worried about losing customers, noting that 3.5 million people visit Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor each year.

Locals in Bar Harbor were initially less enthusiastic about the ferry as the small town already sees as many as three cruise ships each day.  It looks like St Thomas VI, but with pine trees, it’s so crowded.

But days after the last sailing of “The Cat” for this season from Portland, Bar Harbor inked a deal with Bay Ferries to start service from their town in June 2019.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


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.