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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

June 03, 2018

"Getting There" - Collecting Fares on The Honor System


In mass transit there is no “free ride”.  But there are various ways of making sure everyone pays their fair share.

Take, for example, Connecticut’s innovative bus rapid-transit system CTfastrak which runs between New Britain, Hartford and Storrs.  Unlike with most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.75 for 2 hours’ use) at the bus stations or online.  This reduces the bus’s “dwell time” at each stop as passengers can board through any door. A similar system is running in NYC on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.

But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket?  Ah, there’s the rub.  The “honor system” relies on “Fare Inspectors” making random checks.  Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine.

Though widely used in Europe, only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI light-rail in San Francisco.  In Minneapolis getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing”.

In Los Angeles the Metro had so many problems with free-loaders they finally converted to turnstiles.  Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9 million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.75.

On Metro-North fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem.  If you don’t have a ticket they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course).  Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine. 

Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform.  That meant wasted time for conductors selling tickets and making change and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million dollars in cash each week.  Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75 - $6.50 “Service Charge”… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.

The good news is that on-board purchases can now be made by credit card.

The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets… but loses less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.

Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central then depart Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are often uncollected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.

More often, the conductors just walk through the cars asking for “Stamford tickets”.  The scofflaws avoid eye-contact, are seldom challenged, and ride on for free.

Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store.  You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.

Is it so much to ask that all passengers pay for their ride?  Those of us who do, don’t think so.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media