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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.